Bastimentos Part 2: So Long, Paradise

A near constant debate during life on the road is “Where To Go” as well as “How Long To Stay.” Each country offers a nearly endless amount of potential places to go, but getting from one stop to the next is not always easy and almost never fast. Having the ability to travel for several months at a time is far different than going one or two places for five to ten days, where most the trip is planned before the first flight leaves the airport. Having months means I have a lot of options on where to go, and then, how long to stay in each place. A few days here or there is almost inconsequential in the grand scheme of the entire trip. I can very easily stay two or three, or seven, days longer at a variety of stops without really changing the overall adventure too drastically. 

As I was nearing the end of this particular excursion (about two weeks left), I had that same debate: where to go, and how long to stay. One of my least favorite parts of the travel life is actually moving from Point A to Point B. It usually involves a complex series of busses, taxis, boats, more busses, and lots of hours on the road. Then, that next place is an unknown, so I may or may not even like Point B. It is rare that I really dislike any place along my travels (it isn’t too hard to have fun with a beach, beautiful weather, cheap food and nice locals), but there is a chance I won’t love it for a variety of reasons both big and small. 

I had about ten more days in Panama, so I basically had one week somewhere before going to Panama City for a few nights, and then flying to LAX. After spending a week in Bastimentos, the question was whether I wanted to venture to another place in Panama (like the beach town of Santa Catalina) or stay in Bastimentos for another week. My first week in Bastimentos was spectacular, by far one of my favorite places I have ever visited in my life. So, I thought, why the hell would I leave? If I love it here, at best another stop would be just as good. At worst, I would have wished I stayed in Bocas. There is also an airport on Isla Colon (the one by the softball field) that has one hour flights several times a day directly to Panama City. Taking one of those would mean I wouldn’t need to survive a twelve hour marathon bus trip across the majority of the country. And, I found a place that shows the freaking NCAA Tourney live so I can watch the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games right here on the island. It really wasn’t much of a serious debate in the end: I was going to happily stay in Bastimentos for another week. No need to pack up and navigate a series of busses, don’t have to worry about booking new accommodations, or find new places to eat. 

If I was going to stay another week, I also wanted to save a few bucks, so I moved from Bubba’s hotel right next door to Jaguar’s hotel. I lost AC (a major plus in this hot weather), but also saved $20 a night at 50% of the per night cost: $20 instead of $40 per night. An extra $20 a day covers all of my food and beer, with plenty leftover. The owner of my new hotel goes by Jaguar, a nickname he gave himself during his years as a police officer at the beginning of his work career. He is a very interesting guy who teaches at the local school here on the island every morning, then comes by his El Jaguar hotel for most of the day to hang out and watch over the place. I asked him if I could come by his classroom to take a photo of his class, and he graciously said yes. It was an incredible experience going to the local school, which has three classrooms and really not much else. Jaguar introduced me to the three classes, and I said hi in Spanish and then English. My Spanish is poor to quite poor, so I wasn’t able to communicate too much, and I am not sure how much of my English they understood. After that, I went outside and some of the kids came up and said hi to me. I asked if they wanted a photo, and they gave me a resounding “yes!” From there, it was an hour photo session, with them wanting more and more photos. Eventually, I followed them to the “play area,” which is just an covered section with a large flat cement ground. Then, I took some video with my phone of them running around. I would take video, then they would all crowd around to watch the video I just took, before asking for “Una mas!” Seeing the local kids in their environment was truly amazing, and I felt like I got to know them just a little better by going to their school and taking some photos. It was definitely a day I won’t soon, or ever, forget. 

Jaguar also plays the piano and sings, so, one day when it was just him and me at the hotel, he brought his electronic keyboard to play some tunes. He played me some original Jaguar songs like ‘I Love Bastimentos,’ before improvising one of my favorite songs of all time: California Boy, written about me. It was the first time someone had written a song about me, which was a pretty incredible moment. A local from a tiny Panamanian island with 600 residents sitting on a dock overlooking the water singing a custom made song about me. 

The chorus was: California Boy, In Old Bank Town, He feels so good, He feels so fine… 

Then it included lines about me enjoying the island paradise, and smiling to the young German girls. A funny, amazing, and unique moment shared with me and a longtime local of Bastimentos. Not something I will ever forget. Keep an eye out on ‘California Boy’ shooting up the island pop charts. 

Getting to know Jaguar has been a really fun part of my trip. He is a really funny guy and a huge fan of the New York Yankees, sporting a variety of hats and shirts, and is always wearing his Yankees watch, given to him by a Red Sox fan. One of his Yankee shirts sports the name ‘El Jaguar’ on the back with the number 42, the same as one of the best Yankees, and baseball, players ever, who also happens to be Panamanian: Mariano Rivera. Jaguar let me know about the local language they speak, called Guary-Guary. It is a form of Creole that is spoken in the Bocas del Toro region, which sounds like a combination of Jamaican and English with some other words thrown in. I don’t even think it is a language that is written down; it is learned in the households, passed down verbally from one generation to the next. I find it really interesting that there is a local language, spoken for many generations, that only exists in a small corner of the world, on a series of Caribbean islands. 

Being here for two weeks has also allowed me to get to know some of the other locals a bit better as well; more than just a passing ‘hello’ at least. The local people here in Bastimentos have been extremely friendly and nice, most greeting me with a “Hello, Buddy. How are you, Buddy,” pretty much anytime they see me. Since it is an island with a population under 700, at least for the main ‘town’ of Old Bank Town, I see a lot of the same people over and over. They seem to live a pretty simple, and happy, island life, since there isn’t exactly a huge amount of options to do everyday besides enjoy life and appreciate this small Caribbean paradise. An extended stay has been a really enjoyable way to get to know the locals more than just at a surface level, and see how these friendly, warm people live their lives generation after generation. 

The extra week here in Bastimentos provided some other bonuses as well. I got to know Emy, an fun and friendly Argentinian guy who runs Bubba’s (the hotel where I stayed for my first week here), his wife, and two super cute kids. Emy took me on a super fun solo tube ride in front of the hotel, which was about ten minutes of arm deadening, laugh educing great times. He also invited me on a daytime adventure to a property he is hoping to purchase and expand into a jungle hotel. Right now, the property is quite literally untouched jungle land, so we stomped around in some extreme mud, sometimes swallowing up our legs almost to the knee. A group of us explored the several acre property, with Emy pointing out where he would like to put a series of treehouses for the guests, as well as the large dock over the water for a hangout/ restaurant/ bar area. I was really appreciative to be invited along for an interesting and unique day trip to what someday may be an entirely new jungle treehouse hotel. Bubba’s Two, maybe opening in 2017.  Emy’s two kids, Luka, 6, and Mia, 3, are super friendly and cute, and have taken advantage of my offers to swim with them, in which once in the water they never want to get out. Lots of “one more, one more,” followed up by me saying “Ok, ONE more” many times. 

Another amazing trip with Emy and his boat was to see some bioluminescent plankton late at night. We departed the dock around 10:30 pm and rode in the boat on incredibly flat and calm water until there was a spot that Emy felt was right to swim around in. The water was so calm, it honestly felt more like a lake than the Caribbean ocean. Once into the water, the light show from the glowing plankton was a surreal and unforgettable experience. It seemed like I was swimming with stars that had fallen from the sky; anytime I moved my arms or kicked my legs, there would be glowing plankton falling off of them. Another comparison would be from the glowing creature scene in Avatar, the sky (in that case) filled with slowly falling glowing alien things. This time, the glowing things were underwater, but the experience was really unforgettable: swimming around in the open ocean, in crazy warm water, with glowing plankton all around. Not something I see everyday back home in the States. Or ever. 

Staying in one location also provides me with some additional perspective on the variety of travelers roaming around, especially in this particular part of the world. I lived at Bubba’s for a week, followed up by a week at El Jaguar, so I have seen dozens of people come and go during my time in Bastimentos. There have been plenty of couples, a rare solo traveler like myself (really not that many), and larger groups of several people. A nice Irish couple is staying at El Jaguar for a month, part of their eight month travel adventure. A lot of European girls come to Central America, and especially Bocas del Toro; I met pairs of girls from Germany, Finland, Sweden, Holland and other European locales. There are way less groups of guys traveling through here, and even less solo dudes like me. Seeing a wide variety of groups come and go also make me appreciate traveling by myself. Solo travel is not ideal for everyone, but it works great for me. I am my own free agent every day, able to do anything and everything that I want to do. I don’t have to wait for someone else to be hungry, or go on day trips only when other people want to go. Each day provides its’ own adventure, and I am my own boss, which works perfectly for me. 

The one thing that I won’t miss about Bastimentos are the goddamn, good for nothing mosquitos. And here, I think they are invisible, because I never actually see any mossies, but definitely feel their bites. My feet, ankles, and legs have gotten destroyed by mossie bites, and I don’t remember once actually seeing a mosquito. Just like in every country, the damn mosquitos love me and my tasty blood, and my skin, in return, hates the mosquito anti-coagulants. There won’t be one second that I miss having my feet constantly covered in annoying, itchy mosquito bites. Especially from invisible bugs. 

Tonight is my last night in Bastimentos, bringing a wonderful and magical two weeks to an end. Without a doubt, this tiny Caribbean island has been one my favorite places I have ever been in the world. There are a handful of places I have been that instantly come to mind when I think about places I want to go back to. A few places in Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam, Rio all jump to the top. And now, Bastimentos, is right near or at the top of that list. It is a true island paradise with super friendly locals, who speak their own language, cheap and tasty food, crystal clear tropical water, and a million memories that will forever bring a smile to my face. The other day, I was standing out on the dock with nothing between me and a beautiful expanse of ocean, listening to music, and I was overwhelmed by a sense of happiness. By feelings of pure satisfaction. A year and a half ago, I was in a medical hell of chemotherapy and surgeries and tests and a bald head. Now, my dreams have once again become a reality. I have been able to spend two amazing weeks in one of the best places I have ever visited in the world, which is so incredibly far away from those times not long ago I wanted to be anywhere but in the Stanford Cancer center. I can promise I will never forget my time in Bastimentos, and truly want to come back again someday in the not too distant future. 

Tomorrow I head to Panama City for my last four nights of this adventure. Then, back to the United States of America. I am both really excited to get back home, yet know I will be missing the life and lifestyle of my days in Central America. While one adventure is nearly at its’ end, it now feels like this is just a middle chapter of a long and winding travel journey, as opposed to the end of a book.