West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Summer Update 2010

Although I've been to Panama twice now (if you count the fly-by-night, no-passport-stamp, diverted-aircraft visit in 2007), I had never been to Bocas del Toro. Situated relatively close to the Costa Rican border on the Caribbean coast, Bocas is a favorite visa run location. It's an archipelago of small islands off the low mangrove-swampy coast, accessible only by sea. Alex and I caught a 6 am bus from San José to the border town of Sixaola, stood in the steamy heat outside the dilapidated cinderblock building that houses the Costa Rican customs office, and crossed the hair-raisingly decrepit bridge over the Río Sixaola on foot (word to the wise: don't look at the I-beams visible through the six-inch gaps in the planks. Just don't.) On the Panama side, we waited outside the equally dilapidated Panamanian customs and immigration building, then caught a colectivo taxi to the port town of Almirante and a water taxi (a launch that held maybe 20 people, packed in like sardines on the vinyl-seated cushions) to Isla Colón. About 4 pm (Panama time being an hour later than Costa Rican time), we found ourselves on the water taxi dock at Bocas del Toro. We shouldered our bags and began to walk to the hostel we'd reserved, at the far end of town.

My first impression of Bocas was the damp heat, a sticky, breathless kind of heat that seemed to slow time. My second impression was of flatness and emptiness. The island must be barely above sea level, the ground so damp that water rises up and pools in the spaces under buildings—most of them raised up on stilts for the inevitable floods—and so flat that the water in the ditches has nowhere to go. The broad boulevard down from the docks looks wide enough to be an airline runway, and the few knots of people along the sides of this space designed for overflow crowds made it look even wider. There was so little traffic—only the occasional yellow-painted taxi inching along, looking for a pickup—that people walked down the middle of the enormous paved road. Brightly colored signs on all the buildings advertised food, drinks, lodging, and souvenirs, attempting to trap the few tourists that came along. Commercial real estate was jammed together along the waterfront, even built out over the water on docks and pontoons. New construction, including a giant four-story hotel, loomed everywhere. As we walked back toward the hostel, we began to see the places that hadn't fared so well. Vines draped the abandoned buildings, and rats and giant fiddler crabs scuttled in the garbage that had collected among the crumbling concrete joists.

Alex had been to Bocas four years ago—we knew it was four years, because she remembered watching the World Cup finals there the last time. Of all the restaurants and souvenir places, there were hardly any that she recognized. "There must be huge turnover," she remarked as we walked past another boarded-up building that she remembered as a good restaurant. Through conversations with locals and restaurant owners, we established that it was the middle of low season for tourism in Bocas. Most of the money gets made in the four months from November to February, and the rest of the year it's a matter of staying afloat. Alex was sure that there had been a lot more tourists in July four years ago: the boom-and-bust cycles that inevitably follow a tourism-based economy might be catching up with Bocas. Still, a crazy kind of optimism persists. The workmen finishing spot-welds on the metal structure for a high-rise luxury apartment building at the edge of town (32 units, each one upwards of $90,000) were certain that enough buyers would be found. The restaurant owners admitted that things had been slow lately, but they were sure that it would pick up again before too long. Perhaps the craziest sign of optimism I saw was a 5 x 10 meter lot near the waterfront, with knee-high grass and a half-built, already-crumbling, roofless cinderblock shack, with a sign that said "FOR RENT." Only in Bocas.

I guess I don't make it sound very appealing. There was one thing I loved in Bocas, though: the hardware stores. There must have been seven or eight of them, and we went into every one. Alex was looking for router bits and various pieces of construction hardware that are cheaper here, and I was just looking. Doing double-takes, sometimes. One of my favorite places was a hole in the wall where everything, literally everything, was piled in stacks and glass cases arranged into a maze so narrow I had to turn sideways to get past: stuffed animals, old tires, snorkels, kitchen implements, auto parts, glues and solvents, Chinese bowls, inflatable rafts, drill bits, cooking pots, fluffy comforters far too hot for this part of the world, cell phones, ramen noodles, dog collars, action figures. A fan in the corner stirred the soupy air. Nearby, down on the waterfront, was this store's polar opposite, a retail space as ostentatiously minimalist as a New York boutique, air-conditioned to a degree that made me wish for one of the comforters from next door. A glass counter ran all the way around the inside, and behind it was a very bored woman guarding the inventory, which was placed on inaccessible shelves along the wall. We peered over the counter to even see what was on offer: extension cords, off-brand soaps, jars of maraschino cherries. We didn't buy anything there. In the other stores around town, I did buy a few kitchen things I've been looking for—whisk, rubber spatula, metal veggie steamer, stainless steel pot—and a coffee mill. It's cast iron and very durable, but it must weigh ten kilos. It looks like the old grain mill my grandfather had, and I think it's even made by the same company. The saleswoman assured me that this mill will grind grain, too. If I ever find wheat berries in Costa Rica, I'll make really good bread. If I don't, at least I'll have freshly ground coffee.

Another thing I liked about Bocas was the gourmet food store, where we stocked up on olive oil, curry paste, pine nuts (when my basil gets big, I can make real pesto!), and assorted other things that are pricy or hard to find in Costa Rica. I also liked the used book store. By the time we were done, though, my bag was seriously heavy.

One night we went out to the most popular bar in Bocas, an overpriced night spot called El Barco Hundido (the Sunken Boat) that features a series of docks out behind the dance floor encircling the wreck of something—not a barco, I would guess from the vaguely pickup-truck-like lines of it—lit by floodlights and surrounded by a few nervous flitting shoals of fish. "More fish show up when people start puking in the water," Alex shouted to me over the pounding music.

The bar filled up slowly. Alex and I waited out on the docks away from the speakers so we could hold a conversation. We talked about traveling—Alex in Australia, New Zealand, and southeast Asia, me in Peru and Ecuador and along the Appalachian Trail. We talked about life dreams. I think she's a lot closer to figuring hers out. We watched the hopeful fish swim up when we leaned over the water, and we laughed. When the crowd in the bar began to spill over onto the dance floor, we went closer to see if we could find anyone to dance with. Nobody was interested in dancing, probably because of our formidable height—I'm tall enough that most men in the room were about boob height on me, and she's fractionally taller—but we did get a few local guys to talk once they were well into their second bottle of rum. When we finally convinced them to dance, the music switched from meregue (danceable) to reggaetón (danceable only if one is drunker than we were at the time). Supposedly there was a band coming on later, but we stayed until 2 am and there was no sign of them.

After the requisite three days in Bocas, we lugged our bags back across the sketchy bridge at Sixaola, just in time to catch the 8 am bus to El Cruce and another one into Puerto Viejo. I spent a couple of days at La Selva, giving a plant identification workshop for this year's group of REU students, and working with a friend who wants to improve his plant ID skills. We are collaborating on a web site for tropical plant identification; you can check it out here.

The rest of the summer has been busy but uneventful. I'm working on four different manuscripts, and I was inundated with six reviews as well. Job searching continues apace, with no leads yet. If you know of a small liberal arts college looking for a plant ecologist, please let me know! In early August I'll be heading to the US for a few weeks to visit family and do another book tour with Lucy, supporting the release of the second volume of our Appalachian Trail saga. Tour dates are posted on the Stackpole Books website; click on "What's New." Unfortunately there's no way to link directly to the schedule. Here's hoping that all my readers are enjoying summer as well!


At 12:25 PM, Anonymous Jonathan said...

Hey, Susan,
Really enjoyed seeing you and Lucy in Damascus. I'd hoped to be able too talk with y'all some more, but didn't want to presume after y'all made noises about being ready to crash. If you're interested, I'd love to continue the conversation electronically (a lot less than I'd love to carry it on face-to-face, but it'd be like that man said about his wife, 'better than nothing'). Hope your tour finishes up well, and that your travels are safe and bring you to where you want to be. My e-mail, should you wish to 'chat' is jrrob1@verizon.net. Peace. JRR

At 7:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Susan, I'm Pat Zackular of Naples Maine. I've followed your blog since Billy T and Jacob T of Harrison spoke of you. (Always liked your politics.) I'm Jacob's nanny and he told me "she's a scientist" this opened up some nice talks. I have some pic's on Facebook of them, from the past few years.



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