Bocas del Toro was my final trip here in Costa Rica. The next bus I’ll take (besides the one that takes me back after the internet café today, will take me to San José and eventually to the airport.
(I cannot even express how excited I am to fly again. But I won’t get into that now.)
Ems and I met up on the bus. It’d taken her from San José and picked me up in Guapiles en route to Panamá. And at the lunch stop, eating traditional and delicious almuerzo en hojas (lunch in leaves) that my host mom had made us, savoring the layers of tortillas, spiced mashed potatoes and eggs that had absorbed the flavor of the banana leaves, we agreed that it was shaping up to be an amazing weekend.
Her harrowing tale of her journey, which began waiting in a bar at 2am for a 3am bus was filled with wonderful signs that promised a beautiful weekend as had my much less harrowing tale. (Mine only started at 5:30 and included a nice taxi driver who’d dropped me off at the bus stop on the side of the highway and the ceviche preacher, a guy who sells ceviche (fish soup) at the bus stop and gives away religious pamphlets.
And of course the fact that we’d both made it onto the direct bus was a great sign.
After a good five hours of sleeping, we crossed the Panamanian border and hopped into a taxi with about 12 other people from the bus to the ferry to the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Being the smallest (which in this part of the world, is quite a surprise) or perhaps the blondest (not so much of a surprise), I sat on a pillow in between the driver’s seat and the passenger seat. During the hour long drive, the driver started out in stony silence, and ended up flirting in that horribly awkward old man way that was unfortunately less benign than old man flirting usually is.
Ems only laughed at me when I told her about it.
Finally on the main island, we found our hostel fresh with a big common room hung with hammocks and painted tangerine and lime green and littered with travelers.
There was a nice flat screen TV mounted on the wall that often showed re-runs of the Big Bang Theory and Friends and I’ll admit that it made me happy.
Also, it reminded me why I like hostel people so much. We scrounged dinner in the grocery store and made friends over a jenkey tuna salad, a bottle of coke and a bottle of rum. Then trooped out, sadly sans my partner in crime who, after being up for almost 24 hours, needed sleep.
Apparently the nightlife scene in Bocas takes place in hostels. We went to the big one, the famous one that’s famous for its nightlife and I was slightly jealous. It was grungy, to be sure, but you could tell that it was just plain awesome. In fact, a couple of hours into it, I met one of the receptionists that is not only transferring to Berkeley this semester, but is learning how to surf and climb, AND likes good music AND hates bad music (as judged by me).
I’ll admit to being a little apprehensive about returning to Bezerkeley. I mean, I’ve been gone for a year, why wouldn’t I be anxious? So it was lovely to meet someone in the same position.
Soon I was too tired and walked home, even though it was raining. When I got back, there was a group of hostellers sitting up on the top porch listening to music, and the sweet sounds of Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World" came drifting down. And it certainly was.
And if I thought that first night was awesome, I had no idea what was in store for the first full day.
I could build this whole thing up, explaining the morning, the early intensity of the sun and the curious lack of butterflies that accompanied the whole thing, but I’d rather not. I’d rather just jump into it.
You know when you build something up to yourself and then worry that it’ll let you down? I’ve been wanting to surf for 9 years.
I looked into surf camp in 7th grade, in high school I jealously eyed those few who sometimes showed up with surfboards strapped to the tops of their cars and almost skipped school one day to drive down to Mavericks. My first year of college, I was determined that new beginnings was the perfect place to start things that I’d been wanting to do forever, like surfing and playing guitar. I even subscribed to a sear of Surf Magazine. By the time I got to Ireland, I was frustrated with the fact that I still had barely touched a surfboard and joined the surf club. Yea, like that was going to happen… not only was it cold as anything, but the exchange rate was killer and I couldn’t afford the cover for the trips. So when I got to Costa Rica I became obsessed with surf photography… those who can’t do, right?
So you can imagine the build up that I’ve created.
It was more glorious than I could have possibly imagined. And not just the fact that I, for once, stopped obsessing about the perfect, symbolic grand entrance and just did it.
I thought that paddling out would kill me, but apparently those push ups that I’ve been doing have been paying off.
I spent what felt like five hours trying, figuring out and convincing myself that I wouldn’t hit the coral or the rocks.
See Bocas is pretty much a strictly-expert surfing spot, but there is one beach that is good for beginners, except for the fact that it’s pretty far out and you have to watch out for coral and rocks if you get too close in. It’s safe, but I had to have someone who looked like she knew what she was doing reassure me of this fact.
The only thing that forced me back in after that first attempt was the guilt of hogging the boards we were sharing with two guys from the hostel.
And when I got back in, elated that I’d finally, FINALLY made that first step, I assumed that I wouldn’t be back out that day.
About an hour later I was out there, giving it my all. The phrase that convinced me back out was “It’ll all be worth it if you catch a wave” and it totally was. It’s an amazing feeling that’s as close as I think I’ll ever get to flying. I’ve had something similar once before, I was sitting up on my knees in the bow of the boat up on the lake at the cabin and it was really early in the morning. The water was pure glass and I was looking down into the perfect reflection of the trees that lined the shore racing past and I got a weightless feeling like I was flying. That’s how catching a wave felt, except faster and more exhilarating with clear blue water and white spray crowding my peripheral vision.
Although I caught a few on my knees, I did get to stand up at one point which was… thrilling, to say the least.
Let me tell you, it was every bit as worth the sunburn that stretched across my back and the back of my legs. Two weeks later it’s finally finished peeling. And even when it was burning, and even when it was peeling, I’d check out the damage in the mirror, and just feel proud.
I could have gone home that night and been perfectly happy with the weekend, but it wasn’t even half way done.
That night we went to this hostel/bar called Aqua that has a pool. And by “pool” I mean “a hole cut in the dock that it sat on and a jerry-rigged diving board.” I had a long conversation with an Irish kid who’d just spent four weeks in Haiti working with kids under the protection of the local ruling gang. (After which I felt pathetic describing my days weeding, so I emphasized the machete and the size of the bugs). By the end of the night we were all swimming (and by “we” I’m pretty sure I mean “a bunch of tourists”). My sandals and shirt got stolen, likely by some drunken chick who thought they were hers.
And at the end of the night, the sky would light up with dry lightning even though there were stars peaking through the clouds.
The next day rained.
And we got up late. And got out late. And then couldn’t figure out what to do. My ultimate plan had been to take surfing pictures all day and explore some beaches but there were, apparently, no waves and it just wasn’t a beach day.
So around 2 in the afternoon, Ems and I found ourselves on one of the other islands in the middle of an indigenous village.
It was one of those experiences that is valuable but I hadn’t expected or even really wanted. In the grey light of the rainy day, the whole village looked poorer than it maybe was, something that neither of us really expected. Bocas seems like such a touristy area that we were mildly shocked to find ourselves in a place so… colorless, where kids ran around in their underwear and clothes were hanging in vain on clotheslines and bony dogs skittered away.
The village has a newly formed tourism organization that has organized a forest walk on which they explain the medicinal plants and they have an artesian craft store. If you call ahead, they can prepare a traditional meal and do a traditional dance performance. And so it was wonderful to support a grassroots, community based push to take advantage of the archepelago’s booming tourism industry that also will help boost them out of the poverty and government neglect in which they live.
I feel like I reflect on this surprise with more negativity than my activist heart should, but I think it was just a jarring way to spend a vacation, especially since it was a vacation away from a community that also has a grassroots, community based development association, though albeit is much less poor and neglected. So I apologize for that.
As the sun was setting, we were sitting in Dolphin Bay with our fingers crossed. And although it’d just rained earlier that day, which they generally don’t like, we saw quite a few pairs of dolphins weaving up and down.
I took a nap when we got back to the hostel, to be refreshed when we went out that night. I woke up to Ems shouting that there was a group leaving for another hostel right NOW because our hostel was closing it’s common room for the night.
And I was gross. See, I’d napped instead of showering. It was cold and rainy and taking a cold shower was the last thing I’d wanted to do. So, still half asleep, I did my best to make myself less gross: changed the clothes, brushed my teeth and put on deodorant at the same time, and was simultaneously putting my hair in pigtails and screwing the bottle on my bottle of coke with a kick.
We stopped first at Hostel Calypso. After a while, part of the group, including Ems continued on, but I was too deep into my conversation with the Austrian girl, the German girl and her crazy jungle man boyfriend from Ohio and the two Kiwis. Because the night was nice and the music was amazing. I can’t remember what the conversation was about, but I do know that the iPod could have been my own. The Austrian girl, who’d just spent two weeks in Mal País and so loved it like I do, and I looked through the Kiwis’ iPod and took turns exclaiming about how much we loved this band and that band.
I mean, they had an extensive collection of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I know maybe two people who even know about BRMC and they’re a Bay Area band! And the Pogues! And the girl from Austria loves both as well?!? God I love travelers.
So we spent all night listening to good songs that gave me that warm nostalgia. Tom Petty, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin.
Oh and get this. As soon as we’d started in with Janis, me announcing, as I always do, that she was the one what taught me to sing, the speakers ran out of batteries and had to be charged for 20 minutes. So someone turns to me and says “can you sing Mercedez Benz?” Well of course I can! After two renditions of that classic, with everyone joining the last verse, and some assorted chatter, the speakers were juiced up and we continued on with our night of music and conversation. The younger Kiwi came up to me and with baleful, slightly unfocused eyes informed me that I had the best singing voice he’d ever heard. I smiled, but had to fight the urge to pat him on the arm sympathetically. Poor boy was drunk.
Soon I got to wishing that Ems hadn't a bounced. She loves good music and she's got a fantastic voice. I started looking for a good gap in the conversation where I could slip away to drag her back. Then all of a sudden, like she'd read my mind, here comes Ems!
It was a beautiful night, and a beautiful end to a good weekend.