LESSONS I HAVE LEARNED: PANAMA EDITION

  • Respect for water and hot water especially. We couldn’t drink the water in Bastimentos which really helped make us aware of how much water we use (waste), how many things we use it for, and how valuable it really is.
  • It's important to go socialize. We have met many people in Basti who were warm, welcoming, and helpful. However it wouldn’t have happened had we not put our selves out there. It's awkward and sometimes scary at first- you’re in a place where you don’t speak the language and don’t know the customs, but it is always worth it in the end!
  • I should have just gotten an unlocked phone and changed out sim cards. It sounds complicated but nothing can be more complicated or annoying than dealing with Sprint on a monthly basis. Yes they have a cheap plan for world travelers but half the time the 3G doesn’t work and the cost of service is different every month.
  • How to cook. In Costa Rica our grocery options were pretty slim since there was only one market in town. We ate the same 3 things all month and were sufficiently tired of rice, pasta, and Rotisserie chicken by the time we got to Bastimentos. On Basti there are 3 markets and we had 2 full kitchens at our disposal. By this time our tummies were getting a bit homesick so we tried things we had never made before just to remind us of home. Recipes did us no good; we didn’t have access to many of the ingredients let alone measuring cups. I literally laughed out loud when trying to find what you season burgers with because the first instruction was to start with 80% lean beef. Who knows what kind of beef I had? There’s only one option and they sling it over the counter to me in a plastic bag. Thank goodness my parents gave me a good basic knowledge of how to cook because I would have been so lost. I guess we managed pretty well though because we both came off that island heavier than we were when we arrived.

Confession: I didn't prepare this yummy dish but I did learn how to make it as they were cooking!

  • Proper planning and budgeting. We could only use cash on the island and while this is somewhat annoying it taught us some good lessons. There wasn't an ATM on the island so we would have to travel 10 minutes by boat to get to the nearest ATM. This alone convinced us to plan out how much money we needed because we didn’t want to go to that island every week. The boat to the island costs money so it was important to watch how much we spent when we got low on cash to ensure we could actually get to the ATM. The first night we arrived Vince and I had less cash than we thought and we ended up only having enough money to get rice for dinner just so we could make it to the island in the morning.
  • How to be comfortable in my skin. The bathrooms barely have toilet seats (some don’t!) let alone mirrors, and there have been no full body mirrors anywhere I’ve been in the last 2 months. When there aren’t any full-length mirrors it makes it painless to say, “Well it is what it is! This is as good as it’s going to get!” I have one in my room at home and I can’t help but stare into it every time I walk by and judge myself. It also makes it easier that no one on the island wears makeup- or a bra for that matter. Everyone just looks normal; everyone looks like themselves.
 Candid photo Vince took of me. I immediately wanted to delete it because my stomach is hanging out, but look how happy I was! I didn't care how I looked in this moment. I cared about squishing my toes in the warm sand and feeling the salt water breeze in my hair. I kept this photo as a reminder (to myself and anyone else who needs it) that you don't need to be skinny in order to be completely blissful. 

Candid photo Vince took of me. I immediately wanted to delete it because my stomach is hanging out, but look how happy I was! I didn't care how I looked in this moment. I cared about squishing my toes in the warm sand and feeling the salt water breeze in my hair. I kept this photo as a reminder (to myself and anyone else who needs it) that you don't need to be skinny in order to be completely blissful. 

  • Humility. We live a different life in the states than they do here. It does not mean we are better. They are good at certain things and we are good at certain things, but it does not make one better than the other. The superior attitude of Americans has become more and more apparent to me as we continue traveling. We need to work on humbling ourselves as a whole and as individuals as well!
  • Finally, I have learned to live right in the moment because there are so many things that you just cannot capture with a camera. I have learned to appreciate what my eyes see and what my heart feels. No matter how hard I try it isn't possible to fully communicate all of the sights, smells, and sounds of this place. I cant show you the things I felt as I sat on the dock staring into the unbelievable stars with a bonfire cracking to my left and the love of my life holding me in his arms. I wish you could hear the sounds I hear as I lazily swing in a hammock- the booming laughter of Jaguar, the clink of beer bottles in the center of a group of friends, the excited yelps of the girls leaping into the water from their yacht, the pads of small children’s feet hitting the deck as they run. There are jumping fish that come around every few days and hop out of the water for just a split second- and just as quickly as they came, they are gone. Sometimes you can’t even turn your head fast enough to see them, you just hear the strange noise of hundreds of fish bellies slapping the water. When I saw the bioluminescent plankton the water was too murky to capture the majesty from above, and the GoPro doesn’t do well in low light. I have only my memories of their gorgeous glow enveloping me in the dead of night. It does a person good to not live behind a phone or a camera. It is hard for me to do that because as a photographer I am prone to snap away, becoming obsessed with getting the perfect shot- and I miss the moment. I have finally learned how to be present in life and how wonderful it feels to have enjoyed every second of it. 

10 THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT BOCAS

For this edition of 10 things you might not know, I am covering just the area of Panama that I stayed in. I really was on only one island for the vast majority of the time that I spent in Panama so I felt that I didn’t have the proper qualifications to talk about the country as a whole. In Costa Rica I was able to travel to many parts of the country, here I have been to only the islands in Bocas and will go to Panama City (which is a different world) for 4 days, so we we’ll focus more on what I know.

Many things are similar here to Costa Rica- you cannot flush the toilet paper, the non-existence of addresses, and the power outages, among other things. However there are some individualities that are very prominent of this culture.

1.  The people of Bastimentos are one of the last Afro-Caribbean cultures in the world. They are a boisterous community full of color in every sense of the word. The mother tongue of most of the people is Guari-Guari, which is often refereed to as a dialect of English, when in fact it is it’s own language. It can be described as Creole English with a bit of Spanish thrown in. Guari-Guari is more seen as a custom and tradition among those who share it. It’s rules are not imposed by a grammar book or by a teacher, there is no proper way to write or spell a sound, and characteristics of the language change over time- as they do in most languages that are mainly oral. Most of the community also speaks Spanish and English in addition to Guari-Guari. This culture has zero shame and it’s so refreshing. If a heavy set women walked into a bar with a torn up t-shirt that’s tied up like a crop top, no bra, no shoes, and her hair being held up in a scarf, in the US, she would most certainly be stared at- best case scenario. Here when women walk into the bar looking like that they're going to shake what their momma gave them and dance into the night without a care in the world. The sense of community here is strong. Here they greet each other by hugging and saying "love",  "respect", or " ya ya Rasta" which is more or less a greeting meaning "peace". They say goodbye using "bless" and call everyone- even someone they don't know on the street, "my friend". Can you imagine what a difference it might make in our culture if we greeted each other with words like "love, respect, and peace" instead of "what's up bro?" and called everyone "my friend" instead of considering them strangers? I could write a whole post on just the people of this culture because both Vince and I love them so much. We have no doubt that we will be back again. 

Alda (our cleaning lady) and her granddaughter 

Dylan and Devon, Vince's little buddies

Photo from Vince of a boy he found playing on the street

2.     17 different countries have filmed their version of Survivor on this island including the US version, which has been here 4 times as well as some nearby islands. The French version made history here as the season where the most people had to be evacuated.

Zapatilla Island, where several Survivor seasons have been filmed

3.  Clean is a relative term. I was talking to an anthropologist (whom taught me a lot about this the island) and she explained that they are simply not educated about proper trash disposal, hygiene standards, and how fragile their incredible ecosystem here is. Claudia, the anthropologist who lives between here and the US, says they are trying to educate the citizens more on this topic by giving public seminars. At the hostel here we try do our part and daily dive down to pick the trash out of the ocean by our dock, but it has to be a community effort. That being said, there are plants and animals that live in our bay that can only survive in pristine conditions so somehow it mustn’t be as bad as I think it is. 

Dolphins reguarly come to visit us

4.  Meat is not sold nice and neat how it is in the US. First off, it sits out in non-refrigerated containers for people to pick from. There is only one store on the island that does keep all of their chicken in a deep freeze and that is where we buy all of our items unless it is clear that the meat hasn’t been sitting for very long. There is no such thing as boneless, skinless, chicken breast. You have 2 choices- chicken quarters or whole chicken breast.

5.  You don’t buy the milk refrigerated, and the expiration dates are like 6 months away. We didn’t drink milk in Costa Rica because it tasted weird; here we haven’t drunk milk because it simply creeps us out.

A crappy phone panoramic of our favorite market here

This is the largest (and best!) market on the island.

6.  The water for the island is all dependent on rainfall.  Everything that comes through the pipes comes from rain storage tanks around the island that are filled by gutters on the buildings leading into the tank. When there is a heavy rain everyone stands outside with their gallon containers to collect the fresh rainwater because it is drinkable. The water coming out of the tap you do not want to drink. If there is no rain there is no water- which can prove to be a problem.

Phone photo of the boys collecting the water

7.  Showers do not have a drain where all the water goes; there is just a hole in the floor where it all drains into the ocean. The same thing happens with all the sinks. We had a hard time deciding what to do with milk and juices that were left in the hostel. We knew if we put it down the drain it would go directly to the ocean, which is nasty, but if we didn’t it would sit in the trash and smell awful.

8.  You can pay anyone $1 to do just about anything around here. Don’t feel like taking your trash to the dock? Need someone to spray your house for termites? Dropped something in the ocean and don’t want to get wet? Walk outside and you’ll find someone on the street who will do it for you.

9.  You cannot go into town without a shirt on. It is actually against the law and you can get a hefty fine. If you go into almost any beach town in America you will see people eating, shopping, and walking around in their bathing suits. It seems quite odd coming from that and even Costa Rica where they did the same thing. Since we are on an island and guys especially never have their shirts on we constantly have to catch tourists right before they walk out.

10. Only cash is accepted on all of the islands. The Panamanian Balboa AND the US dollar are both official currencies of Panama, and have been since 1903. Balboas are only coins, they do not have paper currency, so you see US dollars being circulated everywhere. Their coins are even made to have the same shape and design as our penny, nickel, dime and quarter. They also have coins for a half dollar, one dollar, and denominations up to $500, but I have yet to see any coins larger than $1.

I hope you now know at least a few more things about Bastimentos than you did before. It is a wonderful place full of life and my favorite culture I have come across thus far. I will miss the rowdy, bold, loud, funny, and incredibly warm people of Bastimentos very much! Stay tuned for 2 more posts from Panama before we move on to Peru!

BASTIMENTOS, PANAMA

Bastimentos is in the Bocas Del Toro Archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama, just a couple hours away from the Costa Rican border.

I guess that’s a good place to start my update- at the border. We came across in a shuttle with a company that helped us cross. It is quite literally just a bridge you walk across. There is no grand entrance; it was pretty anticlimactic if you ask me. If we didn’t have help I would have never known where to go because when we arrived no one was policing the area or organizing the people crossing.

On the shuttle we were told we had to have a ticket to our HOME country, NOT just proof of onward travel in order to enter Panama. I had never heard of this rule, and I double-checked on the embassy website and it mentioned nothing of this. However, I knew that the immigration laws are currently changing in Panama so I listened to the guy on the shuttle and proceeded to try and buy 2 $800 tickets to the US (then cancel them). The problem was I had no Internet. So here I am, an hour away from the border, freaking out that we won’t be let in because we don’t have the proper documents. Vincent is all nonchalant of course, saying "What are they gonna do Hannah, not let us in?" UM, YES! So I would say WE panicked but it was more just ME panicking for our hour-long ride, and then the time came when we had to cross. We were never able to buy our tickets so we just went and hoped for the best.

We went up to the window, they asked us some questions and asked for our flight documents, we handed them our ticket to Lima with no issues, then they sent us to the next place. We had to fill out the customs paper but no one ever checked our luggage and there was never any security to go through.  Our troubles came when we had to pay our entry fee. They only accept US dollars, not Costa Rican currency or credit/debit cards, and we were told to have exact change. No one told us this until we got ON the shuttle however…. But it honestly wouldn’t have made any difference if we knew ahead of time because the ATMs in Costa Rica only gave out their currency, not US dollars. I dug into my emergency cash and pulled out the only US money we had- a $20 bill and again, hoped for the best. We noticed that the couple in front of us gave her a $20 with no issue so we thought it may be ok… However, after 5 minutes of me trying to speak flustered Spanish to her and her refusing to even take the whole $20 and not give us ANY change she just shrugged her shoulders and gave us the bill back. We walked away obviously looking defeated and worried because some guy came up and asked if we needed change. I said yes and he ran away with our $20 bill. I thought we had been taken advantage of until I saw him run down the street to the market. He soon came back with some smaller bills for us! He wanted a tip after that but I was happy to give him money. Honestly, after all of that, I was just happy to be in the country. Vince and I got in the shuttle (the last ones of course) we looked at each other, sweat pouring down our faces, sighed a deep breath of relief, smiled to each other and said, “We’ll we made it”.

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Bocas Town is on the main island and where most people stay when they visit. It is a big party town and has been pretty much taken over by tourists. We go grocery shopping there and see more hotels than homes. We live on an island 10 minutes away by boat called Bastimentos. It is a place unlike any other. The Caribbean vibe here is contagious. The Reggae and Latin beats never stop and are played loudly over each other. Life is slow and easy in Bastimentos. Here your feet are your car, the women sit outside and talk while the kids run up and down the street or fish off the dock with just the line in their hands. The older ones tote around their young siblings on their hip or in a small stroller. Sometimes they come swimming off our dock in their undies using a block of Styrofoam as their flotation device. I often see children barely old enough to talk bringing their quarters to the market counter for a snack. The men gather in “The Hole” playing dominoes or watching futbol and drinking at all hours of the day. When things get exciting I can often hear the riffraff all the way down the street. I kept wondering if they ever go to work since it seems people are always outside. We’ve discovered they mostly drive boats, sell things out of their house (we buy coconut oil and hot sauce from the lady next door and it's great!) or offer a service like sewing or doing hair. We have formed some relationships with local boat drivers and regulars that come into our bar. People are starting to recognize us now and talk to us whenever we walk around town.

This is Old Bank Bay as seen from our dock

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 Cristo- our favorite boat driver

Cristo- our favorite boat driver

Vince is seriously thriving in this community. I love watching him go out of his way to talk to everyone and make friends. He runs off on his own just to walk down the street and see what’s happening. He plays futbol with the locals and has handshakes with the kids. He loves being in a place where he isn’t a minority and is sometimes mistaken as a local.  

A picture Vince took on the street while talking to some kids

The work we do here is pretty easy, although it was overwhelming at first because we had almost no guidance. We are working at a hostel doing everything from cleaning to checking people in, from running the bar, to renting kayaks and selling tours. The boss leaves it up to us for most of the day since he is a local schoolteacher and is at the schoolhouse during the day. You can imagine how stressful it was for us to figure out all of the booking websites and how to answer guests’ questions when we had still just arrived ourselves. We are finally getting the hang of things and have had time to work on some of our own projects around the hostel. 

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Jaguar (the owner and boss) is laid back, funny, and probably all around the sweetest man I've ever met. He has a patient and kind soul and checks up on us to be sure we are enjoying our time here often- which we are! I have gotten to go snorkeling and swim with jelly fish, I get to see jumping fish and barracuda off the dock every once in a while. I witness the most beautiful night sky where I am convinced the stars shine brighter than anywhere else in the world. I love being able to look down 10 feet into the glass clear water and see all the way to the bottom. It is amazing to jump in the water and see bioluminescent plankton when our power goes out. I often ask myself how I will be able to go back to my normal life after living this lifestyle. It surely has its challenges, but the things I have witnessed in this short 2 months has taken my breath away and drawn me to tears. The beauty of this earth and the people on it continually amaze me.

Until next time, friends. Peace, Love, and Adventure On!