What can I say about Bocas del Toro, Panama? Well, without sounding too over-the-top I suppose I’ll just casually say, HOLY BEAUTIFUL MOST GORGEOUS PERFECT PLACE.
Sure, it is a bit of tourist town, but that didn’t detract from it’s charm and natural beauty one bit. It’s a place where the beer is healthier than the water, the warm sea is clear enough to spot seastars and schools of fish from afar, the litter is primarily empty coconuts, and the locals are adorable dogs who are always willing to walk you safely home. Plus, you travel by water-taxi to the most gorgeous beaches and the bars sit on the Caribbean Sea meaning that when you get too toasty from dancing, you walk ten feet to the dock and dip your toes in the water to cool down, without ever setting your drink down.
THE JOURNEY TO PARADISE
As always, the journey there turned out to be a bit of a struggle, but I honestly don’t think I am capable of having a normal transportation experience if I tried. When I bought my bus ticket to Panama, there was only standing space left, so I took it. Mind you, it is a 5 hour ride from San Jose. Or so they say…
Apparently one other man got a “standing” ticket like myself, and he was instructed to sit on the stairs. For me, the driver pointed at the fold-down co-pilot seat, the one that you see as you walk up the steps to load the bus. I obediently pulled the seat down movie-theater style and hoisted myself up, awkwardly sitting with my feet dangling 3 feet above the floor and my knees a foot from the front window. “Buckle up!” the bus driver says, and buckle up I did.
Seeing as I was right in front with an unobstructed view, you may think I had a spectacular ride filled with lovely scenery (which to be fair, I did), but that view was also in direct sunlight. Meaning absolutely zero shade. And no open window. For 7 hours. Let’s just say that I have some wonderful new tanlines. Occasionally the driver pitied me and opened the bus door to my right, and while this was very kind of him it had me literally on the edge of my seat, feeling like I’d fall out of the bus at any moment.
“Five hours” turns to six, and six turned to eight. After a hiccup at the border, a banana crossing or two (literally bananas on an assemby line that crosses the road), a water taxi ride, and twelve hours later… I made it to paradise!
I opted to join a day tour to the remote beach of Isla Zapatillas, which is an absolutely perfect slice of paradise. The tour included transportation, snorkeling, a stop to Sloth Island, and a visit to Hollywood to see the superstars, aka starfish (Total Adventures, Inc., $35). I also tried snorkeling for the first time (crazy, I know) and concluded that I am much better as a land-based creature, though I loved seeing all the little creatures swimming about!
A SHORT TANGENT ON PEOPLING
In my small amount of travel experience, I’ve quickly learned that you meet a shocking number of people while on the road. It is neat to encounter new people each day from all over the world, but it can also be exhausting to participate in identical coversations over and over again where we lightly converse about each other’s life in the most basic and mundane ways before saying goodbye, never to see each other again. “I’m originally from x, I’ve been in y for [insert amount of time here], and I’m heading to z next! How about you?” Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Being part of an international volunteer program only exacerbates this since I see new faces each week and am constantly meeting new people. Now I know this may come off as slightly anti-social of me (or slightly more than “slightly”), so perhaps now is a good time to clarify that I am by no means incapable of human interaction and am typically quite bubbly and energetic. However, truth be told, I often find myself more at peace when spending time with books and cuddling cats than people. But we all have our strengths, right?
That being said, I have met an incomprehensible number of amazing individuals since arriving in Costa Rica; I have had the opportunity to hear about their personal experiences as well as learn where they are from and where they see themselves in the future. I’m happy to meet so many people, but when traveling, it seems to be a fairly abrubt cycle; get to know a person, wave if you run into them again, ask how their weekend was, share a little laugh, add each other on Facebook, then part ways because it’s time for one of you to jet off to the next place. Only to never see each other again.
These are not shallow encounters per se, especially considering that we all mean well and in order to get to know somehow, you usually start with the basic questions, yet it often feels like a redundant and achingly conventional exchange that is merely expected and not particularly enjoyed. Then, before you know it, the people you had met are gone and a new wave rolls in, as is the case with volunteering. I don’t want to come off as pessimistic because I have the amazing chance to connect with a wide variety people, but if I’m going to be honest (and I tend to be to a fault), I often don’t have time to really get to know these people, so it unfortunately becomes more of a “hi, bye” relationship. Yet every now and then you get lucky and meet absolutely fantastic individuals that you really click with. This weekend I had luck on my side.
So there I am sitting in a cafe in beautiful Bocas del Toro and I am just about to order breakfast when two people ask if I want to sit with them. Now, if you gathered anything about me from the last paragraph you know that my automatic response is something along the lines of: “Oh, that’s so nice, but I’m going to read and then take off, but thank you so much!” Spoiler alert: That did not happen. Instead, I surprised myself and said, “sure!” and moved on over to their table. It turned out to be the best decision I made as I ended up meeting two incredible people with a passion for travel, a wicked sense of humor and whose company was genuine and their kindness contagious. We ended up spending the weekend together drinking Panama cervezas, exploring the beaches, sharing bottles of wine, hitting the town, and enjoying some seriously good Caribbean grub (shout out to that fish filet with mango and garlic sauce,). We liked the same music and talked about the best concerts we’ve been too and I put on some tunes while we laid on the beach and swam. We found out we watched the same shows and swapped Game of Thrones theories with over-the-top enthusiasm (I know, geeky, right? But I have no shame – pun intended for all my fellow GoTer’s, teehee).
We also mentioned what we were reading, shared our favorite books and even swapped suggestions. I realized I was really in heaven when they used the same stupid movie quotes that I use on a daily basis. Honestly, whoever quotes Elf more than twice a day is automatically my best friend. I guess what I’m saying is that I was lucky to be with the most genuine company and loved how natural and easy it was to share the weekend with them. If you guys are reading this, then consider this a friendly reminder of how awesome you are and I’ll see you in SLC and FLL soon!
When all’s said and done, I have been transported far out of my comfort zone, tried new things, met incredible people and am learning more about myself than I expected – what I like, what I don’t, and how to incorporate these realizations into my future. What’s crazy is that it’s only been a month, so I can only imagine the shenanigans and growing opportunities I’ll face as time goes on!