Staying Above Water in Isla Bastimentos

“Well, everything is fixable,” said Luisa from behind the counter. 

Nothing in particular needed fixing, but I was late to a surfing lesson because of a complicated hostel check-out, and so had to find a water taxi over to Isla Bastimentos last minute with no plans for the day. There were so many non-problems that even I was perplexed at my own frazzled demeanor.

“Is there space for me tonight?” I asked, knowing that with Panama's rainy season fast approaching there would be.

“We have a six bed dorm, with a/c. We are having a small problem with water at the moment, however."

“I’m sure it’s fine,” I said, anxious to put my bags down somewhere. 

“It hasn’t rained in a while, so there’s no water on the entire island.”

“No water?”

“It did rain last night, so we’ll have water tonight from 5pm-6pm. Until then, if you have to flush a toilet or anything let me know.”

Luisa brought me to my room, a cozy space with quilted sheets, and formally introduced one of my roommates whose name I immediately forgot. That girl invited me out to a nearby beach and I casually agreed to go. As they were loading into the boat, however, I realized I still felt too frazzled to really enjoy myself. 

“I think I’ll stay behind actually.”

“As you wish!” said my roommate, using the phrase non-ironically in her second language.

“I’ll see you later for chimichurri tonight, yes?"

“See you then,” she said as she boarded the small motorboat with the rest of the group.

Our hostel was extremely welcoming, with the reservation desk, lounge area, long dining tables, lounge chairs and hammocks all situated on the back deck. The streaked wood extended out over the warm green-blue water, long enough so that speed-boats could pull up without issue, board a large group, and zoom away once more. In fact, there was so much traffic in and out of the deck that the “front door” that was closer to land (but still needed a bridge) was locked, and you needed a key to get out or in if you wanted to go by foot.

I chose the hammock closest to the edge of the dock and took a deep breath. It was always after traveling with a group that I became agitated. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy traveling alone, but readjusting back into a fully informed traveller always took its toll on my stress levels. Every so often it was nice to sit back and go to a restaurant one backpacker had heard was good, or to not be the one to keep track of the time, or to have someone else ask for directions. My latest group—a mix of Australians, Englishmen, and Brazilians—was disbanded in Cartagena, Colombia. While the rest were anxious to either head east along the coast or south to Medellin, I already had plans to get to Bocas del Toro in northern Panama. A taxi, plane, taxi, plane, taxi, overnight bus, and boat later I had made finally made it. I had been so concentrated on getting here, however, that now I realized I didn’t exactly know what to do with myself, and it seemed there was no one else to suggest what to do with the time.

It turned out I was wrong, and Luisa was quite the optimist. “You can paddle board, snorkel, swim, go to a beach…you’re in the Caribbean!” Luisa concluded when from my hammock I asked what there was to do. I may have messed up the surfing lessons, but I had never paddle boarded before. Eyeing the water, where I could see straight down to seaweed swaying on the sandy bottom, I asked if someone could help me get the board and paddle down from the ceiling rafters.

A Spanish man who was volunteering at the hostel helped tilt it down towards the deck until I could hold it above my head. I noticed the back of his arm missing a fair bit of skin, raw and pink, with bug bites lining his legs.

“You just got here to Bocas?” I asked.

“Yup, I started here about a week ago. I’m hoping to stay through the winter.”

“Good idea.”

“I’m Miguel, by the way.”

“Thanks for your help Miguel."

My knee was only just healing from my fall in Ecuador, my bug bites from Taganga finally changing into scabs, and the bruise on my arm changing to a faded grey instead of the bright purple and green it had been only a few days ago (after failing to climb a palm tree). Some of the most seasoned backpackers could tell where each other had been simply by the signs on each other’s body, down to new tattoos or blisters on the feet. “Been to the beach at Playa Blanca?” we ask each other with amusement. Or, “I assume you tried hiking Huayhuash?” In a poetic way, each injury becomes a stamp in the passport of life—scars became stories and scratches became shared experiences. All of it becomes symbols of a life being lived.

I had an inkling that actually getting onto the paddle-board was about to result in another injury. Once I got my weight centered onto it I could see that it would be fairly easy to maintain balance, but at the moment I was on the wooden deck whose edges, I just now was noticing, had not been sanded down. “Just swing your weight over the board,” Luisa was saying. This required a leap of faith that I wasn’t quite ready for, so instead I squatted over the board using my arms for support. Miguel grabbed my arm above the elbow, so from there it was easy to stand up. I had become quite the operation. Once I found my center weight Luisa handed me the paddle, slowly situated the front of the board out to sea, and pushed. “Don’t worry about the boats’ waves,” she shouted after me, “If they come too close just lower to your knees.”

Once away from all hard surfaces I could see there was nothing more to worry about. The board was entirely reliable, wide and strong, and incredibly buoyant. I was standing on water! From above I could see schools of fish swimming in and out of rocks, the occasional sea plant, and an assortment of shells that had been pushed together by the currents. A large black bird startled me by diving into the water. In the same movement it flew away with something scaly and red in its mouth. One less fish. 

Ahead I could see a shaded inlet just past where the houses of the town ended, so I decided to head there. With few waves and no current it was easy to gain an impressive speed. I adjusted my hand to the top of the paddle in order to get the most downward power, and left my knees slightly bent for the best stability. The strange pop and crackle of water from under the board made me feel larger than I was—I became a sailing vessel, a capitån in charge of setting coarse for the unexplored, palm-tree shaded grove ahead.

The last house of the island’s main drag was constructed from an assortment of rotten wood, situated into the shape of a box. I thought it was on a flat piece of unusually open land, until I realized it was mostly marsh. Two little boys were playing with a piece of string as a approached. I realized that my little adventure had let me to their backyard—the place they climbed and imagined, but also where most of the local trash got caught. Amidst the jungle flora I started to identify the bright flashes of artificial color as beer cans, laundry detergent bottles, and yellowed bags. The two boys had been able to make all of it part of their playground, but I wondered if this was why these beautiful islands had not yet become a world-wide destination and why the boys still lived in a house like this. I felt like I was intruding already, but to see the real problems of every day life on the island seemed almost like a betrayal. I didn’t belong here. With the two boys now watching me evenly, I reversed my paddling and backed away. My initial reaction upon seeing a soda can float by had been to pick it out of the water, but I now realized how silly—how foreign—that would have been. I wondered what the ever-positive Luisa would say about all this. Maybe not everything was fixable.

Just outside the inlet the trash cleared up and the island regained its overgrown charm. Some high-end ocean cabanas claimed a large part of the sea up ahead with a series of buoys, so I had to take the long way around them. There was no trash in this part of the ocean. 

I was back to slowly following the coast, and it was about to make a sharp turn to the left. A small piece of land sat on its own there, attached by a palm tree that had bent over from the main island. I passed under it by ducking slightly and now in the shade, sat on the board and used a low branch to anchor myself. More birds, large and black with wings that looked like boomerangs, were diving in and out of the sea from up to twenty feet high. With that kind of speed, and the visibility of the water so clear, it was easy to target a fish even a few feet below the water. The fish didn’t stand a chance unless they moved to murkier waters. Past the birds, the colorful hotels of Isla Bastimentos looked so peaceful and happy—clumped together on the side of a Caribbean island they looked completely free of drought issues, money issues, or loneliness. Past them, further inland were less hotels, and more colorless shacks. As one moved further away from the water they faded in both color and size. But now, they were hidden from my perspective on the water. You needed a bird’s eye view to see them. 

It was time for the captain to set her boat back out to sea. With a push off the tree I jettisoned myself through the remaining branches and out to the open water. Soon, boats were whizzing by on either side. I welcomed the waves as a challenge to my whole crew, if the crew were my legs and arms. “Here we go!” I thought, and my hips shifted weight into the oncoming wave as my arms turned the board to face it head on. With these thoughts of control and coordination I managed to gracefully pull back up to the dock of my hostel. 

“You’re a natural,” smiled Miguel as he ran to greet me.

I smiled back, happy to lounge about the deck and read my book for the rest of the day, plan-less and companionless at the water's edge.