Sunday, July 11, 2010

Day 215: Bocas Models/Bartenders/Headcases

Day 215 was our first full day in Bocas del Toro, so waking up in Panama paradise to see our glorious digs for the next four days was something I'd never done before.

When we arrived at our hotel La Coralina the night before, we loved it immediately. The owner, Stacey, was out of town, but the two girls running the place in her absence, Erica and El, were super friendly and we all liked each other right away. We drank a few "Welcome to Bocas," drinks with them and enjoyed a tasty dinner, feeling less like we were patrons and they were bartenders, more like we were all friends hanging out at someone's house. Someone's super awesome treehouse with a bar. We went to bed early and slept good, so excited about this amazing hotel.

Not until waking up at La Coralina on Day 215 did we truly understand how awesome this place was, however. I felt like I was living out my childhood fantasy of living in the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse. Only better because this treehouse had booze.

La Coralina is an extremely laid back place, in every sense of the word. In the morning, Erica explained to us that the staff sets up a juice and coffee bar for guests to help themselves. She told us breakfast was included in the price of our stay, and anything else, lunches, dinners, drinks could all be put on a tab that we could either pay at the end of each day, or pay at the end before we left.

"And," she said, "It's cash only."

I wasn't terribly surprised that an island town only does business in cash, but I rarely carry any (a fact that completely stresses my dad out despite it never affecting him). We shouldn't worry if we didn't have cash on us, Erica said, because the town has an ATM. Just one.

I love Bocas.

I will likely say this often over the next few days, but you all need to go to La Coralina NOW. You should've been there yesterday. The place is amazing. Unless you're lame, in which case, don't go. You're not welcome there.

After breakfast, which was no lame hotel continental breakfast but instead full of choices like fruit pancakes, egg burritos and omelettes, we walked down the hill to the water in front of our hotel.

I hesitate to say "beach," because while it was technically the beach, the shore was less the sandy beach that I am used to, more like coral reef. We dropped our towels and shoes and took a left to walk down the beach. While walking and talking with Maribeth, I looked to the right and ran head-first smack into a low hanging tree.

Truly, I'm surprised that I didn't get knocked down like cartoon characters do when they make such moves. The whole scene was very Gilligan’s Island meets Tom and Jerry. Thankfully Maribeth and I were the only ones on the beach.

After hanging out by the water for a while, we decided to use a couple of the bikes at La Coralina to ride into town. Riding bikes was a great way to see the area and a great way to get some exercise. More of a workout for Maribeth than for me, as the chain on her bike was nearly completely rusted out. If I have any negative things to say about La Coralina it’s that they only had two bikes available that worked, and they desperately needed to be fixed.

When we got into town, we pedaled around to try and find a place to eat. Erica and El didn't have many nice things to say about most of the restaurants downtown, but told us to look for a little shack of a place that serves the most authentic Panamanian food for very little money.

We were unsuccessful finding the place that they were telling us about, and instead walked our bikes into a cool place right on the water that was more or less like a floating dock with a bar in the middle of it. There were several tables, but no signs of anyone eating. We looked around, and enjoyed the view of the bay when a guy came out from the back. We asked him if they served food and he went into some explanation of how sometimes they do, but no one was there that day and they had just painted some tables. The conversation was confusing, and ended with us leaving, still in search of food.

After a near melt down, and I mean that both figuratively and literally (it was so blazing hot), we ended up finding the place El was telling us about and she was right, the shack was excellent. Chicken, rice, and beans served up by an older Panamanian woman for $5. Can’t beat it.

After lunch, we decided to rent kayaks and paddle around the bay. Maribeth and I had both kayaked before, but it had been a while, so I was a little shaky at first. But like riding a bike, we got right back on without too many mishaps.

We were paddling nowhere in particular when Maribeth, who as I've said before did all of the research for this trip, pointed out the Aqua Lounge Bar and Hostel across the bay. She told me she had looked into us possibly staying there, to which I scoffed.

"A hostel?," I said, "What are you, a sophomore in college?"

I don’t necessarily consider myself high-maintenance, but now that I’m 29, being “adventurous” no longer means paying $10 a night at a hostel and sharing a bathroom with college kids. I think some people would accuse me of being a snob in this regard. If so, then I’m guilty as charged.

Bottom line, I'm super happy that La Coralina is where we ended up staying. But there was a bar at the hostel, and I told Maribeth I was completely down with having a drink there. So we paddled over to the Aqua Lounge, tied up our kayaks and walked into the bar.

We both noticed immediately the bartender, who was American and extremely good looking. We had been at the beach all day, biking and now kayaking, so to say I wasn’t looking my best was probably an understatement. This, I think, made me hyper-aware of how attractive the bartender was.

Maribeth and I started chatting with cute bartender, who was nice enough, but definitely not overly friendly. He almost seemed annoyed, or like he was too cool to talk to us. We were the only ones at the bar, though, so he had no choice. We told him where we were from, and what we did for a living. He told us that he’d been in Panama for close to ten years after working as a model.

Of all the things that are difficult to bring up in conversation, I would imagine telling someone that you are, or once were, a model would be high on the list. This guy seemed to have no problem with it, however. And I, not knowing what else to say and well aware that this guy was hoping for a reaction from us, played right into his hands.

“Oh,” I said, “You were a model? That’s cool.”

My mild interest opened up the flood gates and Maribeth and I endured the story of his modeling career from his discovery in Miami at age 19 to him moving to Milan and New York, with a brief stint in Germany. For a good 30 minutes, we heard about how he got to skip to the front of the line during casting calls, the unfairness of the business and how the economy has affected models' ability to get work.

Though this was the last conversation I expected to have while drinking beers at a bar in Panama, admittedly, hearing about his exciting life as a male model was interesting. At first. But as time ticked by, and he kept talking, even after getting interrupted by customers looking for drinks, I kept thinking to myself, “Model or not, this guy talks about himself a lot.”

His need to talk about himself so much certainly made me feel less intimidated by his good looks, though. And when another American sat at the bar next to us, I was happy to hear about him applying for Panamanian citizenship that day and practically begged him to tell us about it so just so I could hear about something else.

We finished our drinks and our conversation with former model turned Panamanian bartender who urged us to come back the following night (Saturday) when the hostel/lounge had a weekly party. We said we’d try, and then paddled back to our bikes.

After biking back to La Coralina, we assumed our position at the bar drinking $3 rum punches and grabbing a bite to eat for dinner. There was a lot of discussion about whether or not we were going to go out. Truthfully, I could’ve stayed there all night and hung out at our hotel with Erica and El.

I mean, Maribeth shared with me that she thinks her cat is really a tiger and the two of them have conversations about everything from love to money, and I knew I wasn’t going to be getting that conversation anywhere else. But still, it felt wrong to be in Bocas and to not experience the nightlife.

We asked El and Erica to give us a suggestion on where to go, so they told the cab driver exactly where to take us.

Maribeth and I were shocked when the cab driver pulled up in front of same waterfront restaurant we’d tried to eat at earlier that day. The place we once found completely deserted was now absolutely packed full of people.

After a long time of standing at the bar by ourselves, Maribeth and I did end up meeting some new friends. Unlike Panama City, Bocas is full of tourists from all over the world, so we held our own little meeting of the United Nations where we were standing. Nearly every conversation started with us telling them where we were from, they’d ask how old we were, we’d tell them and they’d respond a variety of ways.



“No way!”

Apparently we look really young for our age? Or maybe most 30-year olds these guys know don’t travel to Panama and hang out in seedy beach bars?

I’ve been traveling with friends for more than ten years now, so all of this felt very natural to me. Based on the reactions of most of the people we met, our age, our singleness and the fact that we were traveling together may not be as normal to everyone else. Most of them seemed to find us quite shocking.

We met quite a few Canadians and Americans who live full time in Costa Rica, but were “forced” to come to Panama to get their passport stamped. Tough life, I thought.

We denied opportunities to make out with several of our new friends right there in the bar, though the awkward offers came all night. While flattered that once again, we seemed to be a hit among the gentlemen in Panama, I couldn't help but wonder why such offers are never presented to me in the United States. And, under the circumstances, should I then just move to Panama?

Regardless, we enjoyed our night out on the town. I think . . .no, I know we definitely enjoyed it too much.

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