November 2, 2009

Bocas del Torro

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When you travel there is always a story to tell.
Sitting in a steamy, rather overfull bus somewhere on a road in Panama (I usually travel by public transport in Latin America), I speculated if I would make it to my final destination on time that day. There had been a little rockslide and it had taken some time to clear the road before we had been able to move on.

I was headed for a small island between Bocas del Torro and Bastimentos, and still had to make my way from Almirante, through the Chiquita plantations to the island of Colon by way of water-taxi and then on to the island. The prospect of staying in an eight room Caribbean guest house on a remote island with white sandy beaches was exciting to me and I was also ready to stay in one place for a week.

Only one of the rooms was to be mine of course, and there were no glass panes in the windows but hurricane shutters. The island had no electricity but there was more than adequate compensation: the sound of waves running up the beach, fresh fish for dinner, a mosquito net to sleep under and a lantern to read my book by in the evening.

When I finally reached the jetty from which I was to take a boat for the island, darkness had already fallen and I was told that no one would be willing to take me there now because of the risk hitting the coral reef.

When in despair, show it! The man in the tatty grass hat who approached me said he would take me for $50.00 (the usual going price is $5.00) and I accepted without thinking twice because the sirens of the island were calling me...rather loudly.

The moment I nodded, things started happening. The little crowd of onlookers suddenly became part of a flurry of activity and I realized I had just bought dinner for them all. My bags were lowered over the flimsy wooden quay into a well of darkness and an animated discussion in Creole flared up.

For the time being, it seemed no one was in the least interested in me so I peered over the edge of the planks to see where my belongings had gone. My eyes widened as I saw the really small vessel swaying to-and-fro in the  iridescent, oil slicked water. It was definitely a considerable way down from where I was standing which made it look even smaller.

The realization that I would have to lower myself that far down to get to the  boat, which was also in perpetual motion, was so daunting that I think fear dulled my brain, and the next thing I knew was, I had dropped myself from a standing position, with a great big thud, to sitting flat on my rear. I looked up at the astounded faces above me while the rickety jetty shuddered. Without giving a thought to any splinters that might end up in my behind, I scooted forward and before I knew it, had plopped myself into the boat.  I can't say how I plopped into that boat, but no other word covers the action that got me there. It was a totally brainless maneuver. No one was more amazed than I, that I had, granted very unelegantly and in a very unconventional way, ended up in the boat.

I rewarded the round whites of the eyes gazing down at me in puzzlement from the dark above with a broad encouraging grin and precariously settled myself down in the middle of the boat. I was ready to go. I did hear a soft "She be a strange one" in that delicious english they speak in the Caribbean.

As we left the harbor of Bocas, under the dark sky without a moon, I relaxed a little but chugging out to sea it slowly dawned on me that I was soon going to be in an enormous expanse of water bound for a practically unhibited island with broad shouldered men who would have no trouble tipping me overboard or worse. I brooded about this as one of men lay flat on his stomach at the front of the boat with a torch and yelled instructions to the other at the engine where to steer, so that we wouldn't hit the coral reef. They seemed busy enough though, to forget about me being in the boat.
Still, I could hear my mother's voice ringing in my ears: always be careful Elza. Well, I hadn't listened to her this time, had I?

Our progress was slow. Very slow. Not a light to be seen, even as we neared an even darker mass than the surrouding blackness, which was indicated to me that this might just be the island. Not a light anywhere. Inside my head it was even darker as I scolded myself for having being so impetous and impatient.

We went back and forth along the shoreline of the island to find where I should be dropped off and finally, we saw a faint glow and then a long jetty loomed up. It was too soon for me to be relieved though. Had I just faced a downward drop from a jetty, I was now looking at having to climb my way up to a jetty that towered above me as the boat rolled beneath my feet. Despair was becoming a familiar little companion on this trip.

From above there came a hand, a rather small hand which belonged to a very small man from my perspective as I stood in the rolling boat, and looked up at the dreaded height of the jetty. The swell of the waves raised and lowered me while I knew I was never going to get up there and contemplated my alternatives, when the hand from above grabbed mine, and strong hands were placed on my behind and before I knew it I was unceremoniously heaved onto the wooden jetty above me. Delivered like a sack of beans.

As I mustered all my dignity, I put on my hat, picked up my little rucksack and strode, on very wobbly legs, over the jetty towards the faint light under a tree.

As I emerged from the dark, I passed the other guests as they sat at their evening meal and I managed a calm and friendly, "Good evening", pretending I was returning from an evening stroll on the beach, while being very aware of their amazed faces as their eyes followed me, their mouths agape. "She be a strange one", each must have thought in their own way, as I disappeared into the darkness again.

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