The boys aggressively pushing forward to help carry backpacks at the terminal in Almirante put me a little on edge. They don’t ask if you’d like help; they ask where you are going as they reach into the back of the shuttle to take your bag.
Often it works, and when someone answers “Bocas del Toro,” the boys shoulder the bags and carry them to the water taxi.
Of course, they expect to be rewarded, which often leads to fumbling with bags and wallets or stammering from people who did not understand the boys were not part of the shuttle or terminal operation.
“No, gracias,” I said, when asked.
“Is this your bag?” the boy persisted, reaching toward my backpack.
I reached past him and grabbed the handle, so now I had my daypack on my shoulders and my backpack in my hand.
“I’ve got this,” I said to him in a tone that made it clear I intended to carry my own bag. This earned me a glare that lasted a couple of seconds before he picked on the next person in line.
Maybe it was the boys at the terminal, or maybe it was the grittiness of Bocas del Toro that made me check in to the first hotel I came to, even though the room rate was almost three times what I had been paying. Or maybe it was just the rain. It had rained since we crossed over the mountains of Panama from the Pacific to the Caribbean.
Whatever it was, I did not feel like wandering the streets with backpack and daypack looking for a place to stay. A tall man in a peach colored polo was walking in the same direction. I asked him if he knew of a good hotel.
“The Hotel Limbo,” he said, pointing about ten feet behind me. I went in and secured a room just to have one, at $90.
It could have been the blood sugar blues, too. I had eaten nothing but a muffin when I got on the bus four or five hours before in Boquete. The prices were too high at the restaurant that was part of my hotel, I wandered a couple of doors down and bought the $5 special of chicken, beans and rice.
There was a young woman reading a book in French. She was staying in a hostel for about $20. An engineer, she worked as a management consultant, but learned about empowerment, and the desire of people to do a good job and be recognized, from her stint as an electrical engineer for G.E.
“The consulting business attracts the kind of people who are motivated by advancement, money, status, and subvert their immediate gratification for these goals. Consequently they don’t do a great job of motivating middle management or lower level employees.
“We are great at systems. We suck at implementation,” she said.
Teaching the CEO is “delicate.” They are almost always very strong personalities. “If we are selling other services to their company, such as systems redesign, we have to be careful telling a CEO, who is frequently the source of the problems or the corporate ‘culture,’ that his leadership or motivational skills need to improve.”
It was fun sharing philosophies with Madeleine, but she was headed out of Bocas and I was headed in. We said goodbye and I wandered the loop that wrapped the peninsula. I came upon a brightly colored building with a long hallway of polished wood and a breeze blowing through. I walked down to the front desk where a young man sat before a ledger.
“No, I have no space today or tomorrow, but yes, the next day. But if you can come in tomorrow, I may have someone cancel. Please, come in now and have a coffee. No charge,” he said, in a thick accent I thought I recognized.
This felt so much better than the somewhat surly service I had at my hotel, where I got short changed $1 after paying $2 plus tax for a coke. I came in, sat down and had coffee and looked out over the water at sailboats swaying in the water. My day was getting better.
I had Madras chicken and listened to music at a restaurant on the main street over the water. Two girls, one just like one of my daughters, even dressed the same and with a similar haircut, were holding hands. The duo playing music was great, even though competing in volume with a drunk American and his drunk wife who were hustling another American considering building a home in Bocas.
The husband and wife alternated putting the pressure on.
“I am on the job every day!” said the wife. “24 / 7! I do all of the accounting, and the books are always current! I do all the books of all the projects, each and every day!”
“Once those guys feel that they have earned the amount of money you’ve paid them, they stop work until you give them more. It doesn’t matter what’s written in a contract,” said her husband. “We know what’s what.”
The husband kept getting up and talking to the two musicians, even while they were playing, putting his hand on their shoulders, asserting some sort of camaraderie, musicianhood, maybe, maybe he played once in a while when he wasn’t building houses or drinking red wine.
“I’m not an alcoholic,” he said at one point, loudly to make sure it was understood. He said he drank every day, but only one or two in the morning so he could deal with the pain of his hip or back, but that was it, until evening. His wife said “I’m an alcoholic. I love my wine,” but then laughed and talked about her self control and said, again, that she did all the books of all the projects, each and every day.
The Friday night street was a scene below my window. It went to well after midnight. Crowds walking talking, having fun. Bocas on the Caribbean was very different than Boquete in the mountains. The next morning, Bocas was slow to wake up, the street quiet until well after 7:30.
I checked out of my hotel and wandered over to Hotel Rega, where the manager I’d met the day before told me that he still didn’t have a room. I asked if I could leave my bag behind the reception desk while waiting to see if he’d have a cancellation.
“Of course,” he said. “And have coffee. No charge! You are already a guest!”
I sat at a table and drank coffee, got into a conversation with the manager, Avi, and his girlfriend, Valerie. Valerie looked and sounded like she was raised in a suburb of Seattle, but she was Costa Rican by birth, from a successful family with farms in Costa Rica and Panama. She had gotten her undergrad degree in the U.S., her degree in environmental science in Costa Rica, which was wonderful for the diversity of students.
Valerie had written a proposal to do a study on elephants in Africa that had been accepted, and she had gone. The experience changed her, others had told her she needed to write a book. She told me she couldn’t imagine the immensity of writing a book. I showed her how to break it down into manageable parts.
We discussed the concept: “What if a young woman goes to Africa to learn about animals, discovers the animal within her self then learns to let go?”
“Valerie, that’s an incredibly strong concept,” I said. “What happened while you were there?”
“There was a monkey living in my bathroom! I discovered I only had 9 weeks to do the project instead of many months. I fell in love, my old boyfriend showed up in Nairobi and it was ugly.”
“Valerie, you have a book.”
“But I don’t want it to be about me, I want it to be about the wonderful women I met, about Africa!”
“Get over that. By writing about you, you’ll give people a reason to read about the other. It’s all about story,” I tell her. We diagrammed her book based just on what we had discussed. She seemed surprised and grateful it could be doable.
Avi talked about an inability to concentrate, until he decided to do research. He learned at a workshop how to focus on the triangle of his upper lip, and said that when he wore glasses, even those without lenses, his ability to concentrate improved, though was often limited to 45 minutes. He talked of numbers from the Jewish tradition, three, five, seven, eight.
There was something very magical about the number eight, he said, and told a story of riding a bicycle very slowly in a figure eight pattern, returning to center, turning left and right, returning to center. I wondered if there might be a left-brain, right brain connection.
Valerie said something about my going with them to dinner. I said I needed to find a hotel. Avi paused, said something to Valerie, she said something to him, and Avi turned to me.
“You are staying here tonight,” Avi said. “I am going to stay with Valerie, you will stay in my room.”
“You have the best room in the hotel!” Valerie said.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Just say yes,” said Avi.
“Will you two be my guests for dinner, then?” I asked. They agreed.
“Avi, baby, I have to go to work,” said Valerie, getting up from the table.
“Why, what do you have to do?” said Avi, in his thick Israeli accent.
“I have to open the booth, I want to talk to …” someone whose name I could not understand.
“Let’s go for a swim first,” said Avi, holding on to every moment he could spend with her. He was sitting in a chair, she stood beside him, her arm was across his shoulder, his arm completely encircled her tiny waist. Neither wanted to let go.
“I will put my feet in the water,” she said, and they walked to the end of the restaurant which ended at a dock on the bay, not wanting to be apart, not wanting to not be touching.
After Valerie went to work, Avi said they had only been “together,’ for a short time. He loved her, he said, but he wasn’t going to be in Bocas much longer. He didn’t know if he needed to be with someone who spoke Hebrew as their native language, he wanted to travel, he just didn’t know.
The fish at dinner was excellent, a full filet breaded and served with plantains prepared and served like French fries, with the unique hot sauce that’s on every table here called Bocas Hot Sauce, a pale yellow I was at first reluctant to use but quite hot and rich and good. The family that owns the restaurant is Colombian, the one waitress harried as she attempted to get everyone served before closing.
There was supposed to be music but it was more of a disco and empty, soafter Avi went back to do the books at the hotel, Valerie and I went looking for a band or something. We sat in a bar where older Expats were the musicians, god they’re playing the Doors, I said, and badly.
She told me that she and Avi fought about the future, had broken up about it and then gotten back together several times. Biology kept pushing them together, pragmatics kept driving them apart.
“I finally decided just to accept this for what it is, for as long as it is,” she said. “I love him. I know he loves me. But he can’t commit, and he’s leaving. I may go down to southern Costa Rica and work on environmental concerns for a Canadian mining company that could just ruin a pristine environment.”
But there were tradeoffs, even to doing good.
“The people will sell their land, spend all the money in five years and will never be able to purchase it back again. I just don’t know if I can be part of that,” she said.
Currently she is in Bocas to help create a program that will protect turtles nesting along the Caribbean shore. Valerie is trying to keep poachers from taking turtle eggs, killing turtles for meat, or guiding illegal tours at night to the beaches where turtles lay their eggs and shining giant spotlights on the process, driving the turtles back to the ocean, those eggs forever lost.
“The job here with the turtles is over in a few months, but I could stay on.”
Valerie is smart, honest, real, very aware of her passion but not controlled by it. “For the longest time, he wouldn’t kiss me,” she said. Looking at her, I wondered how he could avoid it. We considered for a moment how much of his ambivalence was caused by being raised on a kibbutz.
Avi told her once that he may settle down someday “when some woman makes me.”
“That’s so much the wrong reason,” she says. “He needs to want to settle down, or it won’t work.”
“Men especially are not very good at deciding between less bad options,” I say, “but that’s what life often presents.” I said something about studies showing we value what we might lose at twice the value of what we gain, even if it’s the same thing.
I give her an example of a woman who has to choose between a career and raising children. Whichever option she does not choose doubles in emotional value as she contemplates its loss, so she vacillates, stuck in a vibration between the choices as each loss doubles or halves in value in turn.
“Avi may be pinned between losing you or losing what he has envisioned.”
“I don’t know that I can stay in Bocas after Avi leaves,” she says. “He doesn’t know what he wants or what he’s going to do. That was the source of most of our fights. I finally just decided to enjoy him while he was here,” Valerie said.
There are so few people she can talk to, here, so many of the people are expats from the U.S. like those in this bar who sing 60s and 70s and 80s Rock & Roll into microphones at the bar, bellies distended from booze or bodies shriveled skinny and brown, like untreated leather left too long in the sun.
It’s surprising how many rivers flow out of the mountains of Panama. Unlike Costa Rica, where the water was as green as the vegetation that came right to river’s edge, maybe the result of chemicals used to grow African Palms for oil that goes into everything on the shelves of Costco, on this side of Panama the cascades and meanders are remarkably clear.
Air, when it moves at all, is a caress rather than a cooling. Somehow the water and humidity and sun of the Caribbean promote a languid approach. Knowing that railings can be painted tomorrow but will continue to rust, termites poisoned tomorrow will again find soft wood at the side of the stairs, garbage might be collected but the mayor took the money to buy a castle in Spain, causes a sense of futility.
The fever of a small cold picked up a couple of days before made it hard to tell if I was woozy from sun reflecting off the water and getting under the brim of my hat, or if humidity was causing the extra sweat as I paddled the kayak against the slight wind and current. I didn’t find the boat I was told was supposed to sink in a couple of days.
Or I found two of them, I wasn’t sure. Each listed to port, each was built of steel, judging from rust-red streaks down their neglected hulls. Several ports (windows) were lacking glass in one boat, a window in the transom to the aft cabin glistened with cracks radiating out from an impact point in the thick glass. I heard it had been stolen, raided at least twice by thieves, and everyone knew it was about to go under but no one was in charge of it here in Bocas.
I paddled to the marina to see the perfect boat with a “For sale cheap only to Erik” sign hanging over the expansive, shaded cockpit. It must have been out for the day. The heat was even more intense; any breeze that wafted over open water was trapped here, still, among the mangroves. From the bar, I heard the high, loud laughter of a woman who had Bloody Mary’s for breakfast, marked by that note of hysteria from recognition of self-induced chaos. Maybe I should blame the fever for what I heard, rather than what she thinks she meant.
Valerie tells Avi to invite me on a final test run for two new guides she is training to do tours of the turtle nesting beach. I shouldn’t go, the fever makes it hard to walk ten minutes and we will be gone four hours, but it’s an opportunity I can’t turn down. We don’t see turtles, we see a nest, we get back at midnight and I stagger up to Avi’s room and flop back into the guest bed in the corner where I’d spent a good portion of the day.
The next day, in the stairwell of the hotel Avi told me he has been ready to be a father for years. Valerie wants to settle down with him, sees him as clearly as only a woman can see a man. Even what he sees as his own weaknesses, she perceives as his childlike beauty and charm, his warmth.
But Avi is ambivalent. “I don’t know that I don’t need to be with someone who speaks my language (Hebrew)).
As someone often incapacitated by double negatives, I wonder if this is a form of dementia that strikes when grappling with life decisions.