Thirty-five in Panama

Our volunteering stint is done. Bittersweet to leave the finca, after a good month of getting to know a few people, a few hundred chickens, and quite a few plants, animals and insects (I keep updating my flora & fauna post, if you are curious). But, after a lovely goodbye dinner at the local Israeli restaurant, it is over. And then, the next morning, after finding and killing one last scorpion (inside the mosquito netting!)… Mike dropped us off with all our luggage at the border town of Sixaola, Costa Rica.

We walked across the rickety river bridge teeming with uniformed schoolchildren, banana plantation workers, and people carrying electronics and oscillating fans into Costa Rica from the other side, where such things are cheaper. Juveniles hung out halfway across, laughing and scoffing and draping their bodies precariously over the edge. We waited in the Panamanian immigrations and customs lines in the scorching sun, to get the precious passport stamps and aduana stickers. I think I foiled an agent trying to get extra money; I smiled and innocently insisted that yes, I needed my twenty back. (He said he had change, but then said he didn’t, and meanwhile the bill had disappeared into his desk.) Cartoonishly pleasant naiveté works well sometimes.

Then we entered Panamá, where we were welcomed by a throng of aggressive shuttle drivers. They are giant, loud guys who seem to be having a bad day. They are personally offended if you don’t want their ride, and they want to know why, and to persuade you otherwise. Three of them were fighting over us at one point, even as we stridently insisted we were waiting for the big yellow public bus. We finally caved when one wildly gesticulating fellow showed us his van full of other dazed gringos. OK, so if he drives us into the jungle to labor on a cocaine farm, at least we’ll have company.

This is why some people travel in private, air conditioned vehicles –  or fly – from fancy hotel to fancy hotel. Our life choices preclude that, and I don’t really want such isolation and mollycoddling anyway. It’s all a cultural experience, right?

After being accosted in the port town of Almirante by six muchachos who, in hopes of a tip, “helped” carry our luggage the ten feet from the van to the boat whether we wanted it or not (a clear indication that there are not enough good jobs around)… things got better. No matter that the water taxi to Isla Colon, the main island of Bocas del Toro, sputtered out for a few minutes, overheated, in the middle of the bay. It was breezy and beautiful. Sea spray and speed. We dropped our bags at a grungy hostel, then walked the tranquil island perimeter. There are no roads on Isla Careneno, just a sandy path that weaves through residents’ yards. Their homes, churches, and pulperías are on stilts over the water, with rainwater cachement barrels under the tin roofs. You hear everything that goes on. The people seemed happy and intimately connected, though they did not have much material wealth. Young children ran along the paths squealing; the village collectively minds them. Then, as the sun set and the other islands across the sea let up for the night, we had a slow, delicious dinner at the Cosmic Crab.

Upon returning, we discovered that our tiny, windowless, concrete hostel room had heated to over 90 degrees. We lay in bed with the fan (more noise than action) trained on us, no covers, no clothes, motionless… drenched in sweat. We made it through the night by wheedling the bartender into letting us swap rooms. He explained that the water below absorbs the sun’s heat and emits it through the night. “By seven am, it’ll be cool,” he said.

But by seven am, over fluffy pancakes (included in the price of the hostel, but DIY), we’d resolved to enjoy modern luxuries that day. We had a convenient excuse to do so: it was my birthday. So we left the hostel with great pleasure, and found a kind man named Muhammed who rented us a lovely condo. Complete with AC, thick walls through which you cannot hear your neighbors, and a general seal between the house and the outdoors preventing lizard poop, bugs, and scorpions from coexisting with us. I know, I love the blurring of boundaries, nature and culture… but once a month it’s nice to have some hard lines!

So we lived it up in that condo. No Hunter S. Thompson shenanigans… our pleasures were more along the lines of: “Hey J., there’s a hot water faucet in the bathroom sink!!” After showering, we dropped onto the sofa cushions and relished the unbelievable sensation of not sweating. Our skins weren’t immediately oily. We hung out all our clothing to breathe and dehumidify. We put liters of water in the fridge. We played with the remote.

Then we found the gourmet grocery. We ate veggie sandwiches and potato salad. We took a water taxi to Isla Bastimento. We hiked over the crest to the other side, Wizard Beach, a high tide, surf crashing beauty that we had all to ourselves. We hiked back to the top and stopped at an organic chocolate farm for chilled vegan truffles and icy passionfruit juice. We taxied home as thunder rumbled on the horizon.

(J. loves the taxis here, both land and water. Few island people own a car, so the land cabs pick folks up along the way, piecemeal, like little buses, and the passengers chat as the driver noodles in and out of neighborhoods. Nobody asks about fares. The schoolgirl just pokes two coins into the taxista’s palm on her way out.)

The evening consisted of Indian curries, a balcony view of the full moon as the Jews of the island lit their Rosh Hashanah tent made of woven palm fronds, a slice of tres leches cake along the lively, night-bright streets of Bocas Town… and a full night’s sleep in a cool, dry room. It was a wonderful birthday.

Although I am having a bit of an existential crisis about being 35. Not the usual suspects: little wrinkles, the biological clock, being closer to death, or to forty. It’s just that 35 seems approximately the halfway point of life; we are not promised anything, maybe more, maybe fewer years. And here I am, still with all these character defects and bad habits. Like old friends who grew up to be no good. Familiar and entrenched. Overdramatic teenage relics that I don’t wear well. I could use more age-appropriate attributes. But I could also use some sleep, and three days in the same place. (Which is on the docket. We are now in a humble hostel in the high, beautiful mountain country of central Costa Rica for a change of scenery and, we hope, lots of hiking.) Travel is a struggle sometimes, even vacationing. The highlights do not come without challenges. Hot and tired, endlessly in motion, translating all day, in my case, or not understanding all day, in J.’s. Why? Why do all this? Ask me after a nap and a good plate of rice and beans… and I’ll tell you then, that again, it’s getting better.

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