Saturday, November 17, 2012

central america journal, part two

Day 10: Panamanian pandemonium at the border. We left Puerto Viejo in the mellowness of the off-season, drove through drooping, stagnant banana towns – fincas owned by Chiquita Co. – and arrived smack in the onslaught of heat, hustlers and traffic that is the Costa Rica/Panama border over the Rio Sixiola. The border itself was out of another era: an old railroad bridge with rough-hewn boards nailed haphazardly over the trestles, workers carrying racks of bananas and old women with children shuffling across. But on the Panamanian side there was chaos, presided over by men intent on hustling groups of heat-dazed backpackers into their elaborate money-making schemes. Jesse and I find ourselves caught in the flow, swept into a room to “pay” for our luggage and squeezed into a packed van without A/C. We careen through a squalid city and over a mountain pass to a dock in the river town of Almirante, where we are transferred onto a boat and motored past stands of mangroves out to sea and, finally, to the islands of Bocas del Toro, where the in-your-face entrepreneurism doesn't stop but at least the beer and food are significantly cheaper than in Costa Rica.

Day 11: We escape to the outer islands of Bocas, and our days are spent reading, snorkeling, boogie boarding and exploring. Time slides by like skin on oiled skin, the hours melting into each other, a swirl of ocean and sun and one jaw-dropping view after another. And then we meet Polo.

To find Polo, fly first to Costa Rica, grow disillusioned, head south to the comparatively lawless Panama, cross the Rio Sixiola, take a boat to Bocas Town, and then find a water taxi to the beautiful, pristine stretch of sand called Red Frog Beach – where camping is allowed, and where the Palmar Tent Lodge will also give you a thatched-roof shower, solar power and delicious communal meals right on the beach. After a day or so of acting like a beach bum, go for a walk. Go past the bar where tourists from Bocas Town come and past a construction zone where million-dollar condos are springing up. Follow the shoreline, cutting into the jungle when it becomes too rocky. When you think you've walked far enough, walk farther. And then, when it seems like you've reached an absolutely empty stretch of white sand beach and turquoise water, you'll find Polo.

Polo is 68 years old and has been living mostly alone on this stretch of beach for 50 years. He speaks three languages – Guari-Guari, the indigenous dialect, Spanish and English – but none are fully intelligible and all are punctuated by a near-constant stream of expletives. “Fock,” he says, slapping you rather hard on the arm, “I've focking been here for 50 years. I'm the roughest focking guy! The roughest focking guy you ever meet!” He holds out his weathered palm as proof, squints into the sun.

Polo lives under a tall thatched roof riddled with gaping holes. His bed is a filthy mattress in the corner. There is a propane stove where he cooks the fish he catches with his spear gun and sells to whomever wanders by. Empty gas jugs and trash litter the sand.

Locals from Bocas come by boat and bring Polo coolers of beer, and take his homemade coconut oil back to town to sell, while Polo sits on a bucket, shouts expletives and tells stories, scaring some people away and entrancing others. While we are there, we meet an Israeli man who met Polo while traveling here 20 years prior and stayed for years, learning to spearfish and live off the land with no electricity, no entertainment and little contact with the outside world. The man returned to Israel, married and had a son, and has now brought his family back to this island to meet Polo. He cooks Jesse and I plates of breadfruit, red snapper fried in coconut oil and heaps of rice, and it is perhaps the best meal I eat in Central America. We pay $5 for all you can eat plus a beer. The food tastes exactly like what I ate when I lived in the Marshall Islands, and is made even better by the fact that I eat it with my hands, in my bikini, feet in the sand, and am told afterward to wash my own plate in the ocean and throw the bones under the palms for the crabs to eat.

Day 13: Sunday in Panama, feeling Hemingway-esque on the back deck/dock of the Hotel Brisas. Everything is draped with a veil of humidity and the slow, forgotten air of what Pico Ayer calls “tropical classical.” Bocas in the off-season is a town of potted palms and old-fashioned furniture and mahogany bars built with grandiose notions, a place where you feel there should be literary ex-pats smoking cigars and drinking rum. But they aren't here. Instead the d├ęcor has become faded, dusty; half-crumbling but clean nonetheless in hope of attracting backpackers and sailors on the prowl for cheap drinks and beds where you can hear the waves lapping at a dock. Here at the back of the Hotel Brisas, a girl in a floral dress sketches at a table, Jesse and I sit reading and writing on a bench piled with pillows and a white-haired man with a paunch and a ponytail sings King of the Road while strumming a guitar. Several sailboats are anchored in our view, with pelicans landing on their masts, and a man in a dugout canoe poles his boat between million-dollar yachts looking for fish.

Day 15: Crossed the border back into Costa Rica and drove to the town of Manzanillo, then hiked 8K through the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge to Punta Mona, where an 80-hectare experiment in low-impact, off-grid living and permaculture design welcomes guests to sleep under a thatched roof that brings ocean breeze, moonlight and the sounds of the jungle into your bed. It is one of our last nights here, and we are spending it the way we've come to like it: candlelight, mosquitos and the sound of water. 

Day 18: In the air en route to Atlanta, Jesse gets up to use the bathroom. Across the aisle sits a Swiss gentleman in a suit with a clean-shaven face and a wedding band and neatly clipped nails typing on a laptop. Then Jesse comes back to his seat, endearing in his one clean shirt, wrinkled khakis and hole-ridden Converse All-Stars, a month's beard sworling on his jawline, blue eyes bright in his tanned face, and I notice that at some point over the last month I have fallen in love with him.

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