There was a time that I didn’t know Bocas Del Toro, only in my dreams. Or pieced together broken images based on other traveller’s experiences. All throughout Central America, Bocas was always on my mind. A unique experience, surfing in the Caribbean, allegedly Kelly Slater’s favorite wave. We hadn’t spent any time on the Atlantic coast yet, so it would be our first venture into the historic no man’s land of the Caribbean. A place where the waters are calm and the days are lazy. A place where you can disappear or hide out if need be. A place where palm trees rule the landscape and the blue horizon will play tricks on your mind, leaving you in a blissful drunken stupor. A place where pirates were born, lived, and retired. A place where anything goes. A place different from anywhere you’ve ever been. A lawless land, where you depend on the strength of your body and mind. And relationships. Golden sand, turquoise water, lush green jungle, cut off from the mainland by the wild and fervent currents of the captivating Caribbean sea.
Way out on the fringes of the Archipelago lies Bocas Del Toro. Legend has it that Captain Cook took shelter in the bay to careen his boat in order to clean the bottom, hence the name of small neighboring island, Careneros. After an hour long ferry ride through the shallow mangrove filled back bays, we arrived to the main Island of Colon, Bocas Del Toro. Driving off the ferry one immediately feels the difference from the mainland. You are now disconnected and your world has just shrunk down to Island size. The earth could be flat, there could be monkeys on the moon, here anything is believable. The people have changed now too, what was more Spanish influence is now more African and indigenous influence. Not to mention a solid Chinese presence. Jamaica is not far off, nor is Colombia, or Costa Rica. Panama is already one of the most culturally diverse countries as people came from all over the world at the turn of the century to help build the canal and change their fortunes and destinies. These people are the descendants of ambitious and forward thinkers, great travelers and big dreamers. Also slaves, slave drivers, and people forced to be involved some way or another be it economic, religious, or political. However, generations pass and the cards fall where they lay.
We make it through town, and wind up on the road to Bluff, which winds along the coast. Pavement turns to dirt, dirt into sand. the single lane track is practically in the water as there is a low rock revetment running along the shore, the only thing protecting you from the surging whitewater. We make it as far as Paki Point, where we found our friends, Jennica and Malwina. There was a swell running, and after driving through town in the midday heat, then seeing hollow waves breaking over shallow reef, I was amped to get in the water. We reacquainted with our friends, the last of the Baja tribe, and were introduced to a new crew of righteous and respectable fellows. I paddled out and scored some waves, overjoyed to finally make my dreams come true of surfing in the Caribbean.
Its hard to make plans on the road, situations change, the unknown factor is more relevant than ever. We had in mind to stay in Bocas for a week, then drive to Santa Catalina. Then somehow put Ingrid on a bus to the airport in Panama City for a pending flight in order to meet her friends in Ecuador. One of many plans that didn’t happen. We ended up staying in Bocas, as there is a small airport, and from there, put her on a flight to Panama City. After 2 years on the road, there’s no denying Ingrid and I were starting to get to each other. Cramped in the van, rainy season through Costa Rica, the more stuff you collect the less personal space you have. We’d had our moments since crossing the Mexican border and however few and far between, they start to add up and quickly play into the relationship.
Drinking does not help, and as you drive through the Americas you realize that without strict regulation, drinking is a main theme. Another thing that can be draining is people constantly referring to our lifestyle as a vacation. It’s easily mistaken as were driving through resort towns, exotic destinations, and paradisaical landscapes, but make no mistake. Sleeping in the van on the streets of Cabo San Lucas or driving the length of the Transpeninsular highway of Baja is more of a stress than a vacation. The shoulder is a steep drop off into the desert, and 18 wheelers fly by at regular. Most people vacationing in Cabo are staying in 5 star hotels and giant high risers. All inclusive, everything taken care of, just bring your wallet and sunglasses. We live in what I refer to as a shell, moving at what some people might consider a snail’s pace. We carry everything with us, its a constant convenience and burden. We’ve spent weeks sleeping in mechanic shops. Have you ever slept at your mechanics shop? Stop calling it a vacation. It’s a lifestyle choice. Is it worth it? I don’t know. We’ll see in the end. Is there an end? I don’t know, what do you consider an end? will the earth stop spinning? do the ants stop working? no they take breaks. That’s the trick. Any long term traveler will tell you the key to not burning yourself out is to take a long break once in a while. Get an apartment. Relax. Watch movies. Chill out. Read. Eat. Sleep. Do laundry. Take a hot shower. Call home. Call your friends. Get a temporary job. Figure out what you want to do with your life.
I was lucky. while Ingrid was away, my personal space doubled and I was able to think for myself temporarily. I capitalized on the extra time and space and put my efforts into booking gigs, playing music at the various bars and restaurants. Live music is popular in Bocas, and it was the off season. Typically the best time to go any where in Central America. The local business owners were kind to my endeavors and in no time I was booked through the following weeks. I imagine they were happy to see a fresh face, and keep a sense of variety in the slow season, as there are fewer musicians around to break up the sound. What I bring besides my own equipment, is a fresh take on some old classics and obscure songs from renowned artists. Not a lot of people do what I do. The improvisational style of blues and lead guitar is a dying art, being replaced with structured and spelled out solos crammed into 8 bars. I bring back a feeling of spontaneity and living in the moment that you don’t feel as much lately from your average solo act. Working with a loop pedal, instead of building a loop, I’ll record a simple rhythm and chord progression, then sing and improvise over it. Less is more. These days, more than ever.
After so much time living in the van, even surfing was losing it’s luster. Bouncing down the road, checking the waves, parking, getting smashed by the waves and sun, being constantly exposed to the elements takes it’s toll. The driving as well. The road to bluff is a perfect embarrassment, like most roads in Central America. You could blame the rain, but that’s not why. There are multiple reasons. Don’t get me started. I was happy to practice my set, play my gigs and chill Island style. It was nice to have some friends while Ingrid was away. The Wrecking Crew(personal moniker), whom we met through our Baja friends took me in and were very supportive showing up at my gigs and cheering me on. They even introduced us to the owners of Azul Paradise, whom they were filming for. Which not only landed us a safe and strategic parking space on Colon, but also landed me a gig on the island of Bastimentos, at Azul Paradise. So much fun, such good times, such good people. It was my favorite gig.
One gig leads to another and long story short, I was even privileged enough to play at Red Frog Bungalows. Thinking back now, the people of Bocas were really good to me. Entertainment is a business, the people involved know how much work it is and respect the efforts involved. Especially when your trying to offer a high quality product and service in a place like Bocas Del Toro. The location is perfect, but it’s out in the middle of nowhere, Panama. Think jungle. Monkeys, sloths, crocodiles. Not to mention huge expanses of open water, with patches of shallow reef. Impressive to say the least. At most, a great learning and fulfilling experience that will last a lifetime. Mostly in splotches of tropical colors, mixed with warm and friendly vibes.
Looking back, I’m humbled by how well we were received, and how lucky we were to make new friends and meet up with old friends in a location as stellar as Bocas Del Toro. It was really fun free camping with our friends Matt and Amy at Paunch, we got up early and scored epic surf sessions two days in a row, hardly anyone out. It was so good to see Rafa and Malea again, we spent quality time with them catching up after a long hiatus. They came with us to Red Frog, even helped me carry my equipment through the jungle trail for which I was supremely grateful. John and Mandi showed up, our tightest travel friends, came to one of my shows and chilled like they were VIP, made me feel the same. Also the Wrecking Crew, came to multiple shows, fully supportive. Those guys are hard workers and a really bright and friendly bunch. I was proud to have met them and honored to get to hang out and learn from their expertise, thanks to Jennica and Malwina. They even brought Marty and Erin, the owners of Azul Paradise, who are some of the coolest people we’ve met along the way.
Also Catherine from El Ultimo Refugio, the first one to take a chance on me and hook me up with follow up gigs. Luckily, we connected on a mutual appreciation for some old country classics. The best stage in Bocas is at Refugio, also the best bartender, Lucho. Which reminds me that we met our saving grace Ramon, a boat mechanic, through Catherine. Long story short we had a break down in Bocas, which was another reason we stayed so long. A disintegrated brake piston allowed us to hobble around Bocas, but kept us from driving out. We ordered the parts from the states and Ramon helped us get the old pistons out and put the new ones back in, right there in the street. Such a solid a dependable guy, with a really good attitude and spirit. We’re forever grateful.
Special thanks to Bocas Del Toro, it really is like you would picture a Caribbean Island paradise, just like in the the books. It’s hard not the think of Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Defoe, or Tom Hanks. Especially when you’ve purposefully marooned yourself on the Zapatillas Islands, snorkeling out in coral reefs, taking in the oceanic scenes. The steady breathing of the waves, the pulse of the seaweed drifting back and forth with the currents, swimming hard in place underwater, then suddenly bursting forward with great speed as the whole ocean seemingly pulls back then propels you towards the beach with a surging wave. Schools of purple fish curiously swimming around you, the sudden drop in depth as you instinctively reach the edge of the abyss and your limits.
I always think of The Black Stallion, Alec and Black being my two favorite captives on a deserted Island. The scene when Black stamps the cobra to death as Alec helplessly looks on, saving his life. We didn’t see any snakes, but we saw a lot of palm trees and deserted beaches. And starfish. And sloths. Thanks to Panamanians, a cool and laid-back people, very tolerant and patient, as well as friendly and hospitable. Panama was one of my favorite countries, Bocas had a lot to do with that. My take on the name is that it represents the reef passes where the waves break into the protected back bays. Bocas Del Toro translates to Mouth of the Bull. To me the bull is the Carribean sea, and the mouth is the space between the islands where the sea bulls its way toward the mainland. Some say it’s the shape of the islands from overhead looks like the Mouth of the Bull. I have yet to verify that. Until then, I’ll believe my own story.