It's a Rough Life Here in Bocas del Toro
Three years ago, I came to Panama as part of a training program and, for some inexplicable reason, I felt at home immediately in a way I never quite felt at home in Washington, D.C. I grew tired of being the "only one" or the "first one". I was tired of being outstanding and standing out. I was tired of a life of working rather than living. So, when I packed my bags two weeks ago and moved to Panama, I was both anxious and excited.
I picked Bocas Del Toro because it was on the beach and far enough from the city that "chilling out" was a way of life- that's really all the thought that went into my decision. I'd worked out an arrangement with Habla Ya language school to help them with their marketing and social media in exchange for free language classes (follow us on Instagram: @HablaYa and on Facebook here). I arrived in Bocas on the first flight that morning, marveling at how green Panama was from the window of the plane. I'd never seen so many stretches of untouched jungle before. The town center was little more than a strip centered by a park with hostels, restaurants, and various stores scattered around it. One of the things I enjoy the most about Bocas is that I can maintain my freedom of mobility- I can walk around almost anywhere with little concern for security.
No one ever seems to be in a hurry in Bocas. The people are neither rich nor poor- even dilapidated old homes sport fresh coats of brightly colored paint. Children play- actually play- in the street rather than have their eyes glued to phones or tablets. In the middle of the day, people go to the beach or surf as businesses go on siestas. Men on the street make halfhearted attempts to get tourists to join guided tours before going to chat in the shade. Tourists spill out from hostels and hotels in the late mornings, hungry and hungover. And the women seemingly feed them all, clean, and keep the town humming at it's normal pace. Wafting sounds of Zouk, Reggae, Reggaeton, Salsa, and Haitian Kompa music create the soundtrack for every day and night here.
Somehow, I blend in and stand out all at once in a town of approximately 8,000 people. Bocas is a mix of indigenous people largely from the Ngöbi Buglé people, those they refer to as Latinos (mestizos), the Guari-Guari speaking descendants of Jamaicans and others who came here in the early twentieth century to work on banana plantations, and travelers and surfers who simply never made it to their next destination. The locals can tell I am foreign even before I speak ( some have told me it's because of my natural hair being in Senegalese Twists rather than "laid and slayed" like the local women), yet have never made me feel like an outsider. Rather, the people of Bocas enjoy engaging in the "where are you from" conversation as much as D.C. enjoys the "what do you do" convo. Given that the guys here are what my classmate referred to as "Peter Pan boys" ( forever young and forever gorgeous), I rarely mind stopping to chat...
Two weeks ago, I would have been too timid to even engage in a conversation in Spanish with a native speaker, but I've learned more in two weeks at Habla Ya than I did in over a year of Spanish classes twice a week in D.C. My first week of Habla Ya consisted of 2 hours a day of private tutoring with Ricardo. Like most of the teachers at Habla Ya, Ricardo spoke no English, which meant that I had to be extremely attentive. These classes were refreshers to go over the basics and grammatical rules of Spanish. Ricardo was unwaveringly patient as I reached back into the recesses of my memory to remember verb conjugations, the use of possessive adjectives, and lamented the 2 versions of “to be” in Spanish: estar and ser. Spoiler alert: Learning them is just as painful the second time around. The next week, I joined a class with other students at my level (Level: "I've studied Spanish but I can only speak in the present tense") for 4 hours of Spanish a day starting at 8 a.m. This time, my teacher is Beni. Now, two weeks in, I open my mouth and am still stunned when a coherent sentence comes out in Spanish! Heck, sometimes I'm downright excited and want to tap someone on the shoulder and say, "Did you hear that?!" I still have a lot of learning to do, however. I still get the Haitian Creole "yo" (which means they) mixed up with the Spanish "yo" (meaning I) , but I'm making substanital progress.
The only downside was that, during my first week in Bocas, I stayed in the Tungara Hostel while Habla Ya finalized my living arrangements. For a 21 year old who intends to drink and party all night, Tungara, in the heart of town, perfect. Rather than Spanish, that first week, I found myself speaking French with the Swiss backpackers, English with the Germans, and Arabic with the Israelis while trying to find a quiet place to study that wasn't already claimed by smokers. Needless to say, when I moved into the staff apartment outside of town with 3 other people employed by Tungara (owned and operated by the same people that own Habla Ya), it was like moving to Beverly Hills- even if there is no hot water.
Finally settling in has allowed me to start a routine: Eating out in Bocas can become expensive so I purchased groceries to make my meals. I study on the beach in the afternoons after class, struggle my way through Junot Diaz's "Así es Como la Pierdes" (This is How You Lose Her) in the hammock, and occasionally splurge for grilled fish, plantains, and rice for $7 at my favorite local spot. I found a sweet lady around my age to be my language exchange partner. I rent a bike for $5 a day when I need to, but I am trying to find one to buy since bicycles are the primary means of transportation in the Bocas heat. Of course, on the weekends I hop on the local bus for $2.50 and then a water taxi to make my way to Starfish Beach. Yup, it's a rough life here in Bocas.
Be sure to check out my Top 5 Apps for Learning Spanish in Huffington Post!