Monday, July 9, 2018

Panama Trip - Day 2: Honor Among Thieves. Sorta (But No, Not Really)

In late May, 2017 I embarked on a trip of a lifetime to Central America. Specifically, I visited Panama's steamy rainforest province of Bocas del Toro, a place I had never heard of before, but of which I had read many encouraging accounts.

But first, if you wish to read up on what has transpired before, click on the link below:

Day 1: Here There Be Balboas!

And now for the continuation . . .

DAY 2: Honor Among Thieves. Sorta (But No, Not Really).

After taking another leisurely stroll around the Old Town in Panama City where I was staying, it was time to pack up my things from the day before and commence the second leg of my trip; to fly west northwest into the tropical jungles of Bocas del Toro!

Flea market abutting the sea wall in Casco Viejo.

I bid farewell to the hotel staff and Ubered my way over to the local airport for domestic flights (Albrook) -- which is separate from the international airport (Tocumen), and located almost on the opposite side of the city. For some reason, my cabbie didn't even know where this airport was, and so it took a little longer (and a few frantic exchanges in broken Spanglish) than it should have to reach the place.

But once there, I was greeted with one of the smallest airports I've ever been to. Not as puny as the landing strip on North Eleuthera island in the Bahamas when I stayed there a few years back -- but still pretty tiny. And laid back! There was hardly any security, and people were just walking in and out of the terminal from the street with no luggage or anything. There wasn't even a terminal, to be honest. Just a waiting room and an announcement over the PA system alerting you (in Spanish) when a plane was arriving on the tarmac. Basically, it felt more like a train station than an airport.

When the plane that would take me to Bocas did arrive, though, I noticed a ton of American and European tourists were suddenly joining me. It seemed like they came out of nowhere! This reveal actually helped to put me at ease, because in that moment I knew for sure that I was on the right flight. I don't think white people travel from Panama City to anywhere else in the country *except* to Bocas del Toro. I may be wrong, but probably not.

As you would expect, the plane was one of those small commuter type deals and we were all crammed tight in there. Luckily, the flight from Panama City to Bocas Town is just under one hour long, so it was hardly that big of an ordeal. And anyway, I just couldn't wait to get there!

Unfortunately, I had no idea of what would be in store for me once I reached this tropical province. A near catastrophe totally of my own making, but which almost ended up ruining my trip before it really even got started!

I'll get to that soon enough.

So I landed in Bocas Town on Isla Colón, which is the capital of Bocas del Toro province and is just one of the many islands which make up the area. Here I and a bunch of other travelers contracted a taxi driver from a line of drivers waiting just outside of the customs and departure gate. We were all hurried onto a van, and then hustled off toward the heart of the town. Now Bocas Town is like most small island villages all over the Caribbean, except slightly more developed due to the influx of wealthy tourist who flock here during the high season in winter. I was not here during the high season, but actually the start of the summer rainy season. And yet, still, I was surprised by how many other tourists like me were here during this time.

The majority of travelers seemed like young, surfer/stoner types. Meh, not my crowd. But I also noticed a few solo travelers like myself, who seemed to be in Bocas to soak in the scenery and just relax. Yeah -- definitely my style!

It turns out that my hotel was the first on the list of dropoffs for the van, and when we got there the driver hopped out and immediately grabbed one of my suitcases and carried it across the street toward said establishment. Alarmed, I quickly grabbed my smaller suitcase and shoulder bag and hurried after him. I was determined not to let him out of my sight! See, I had had a bag stolen by an airport transfer driver once before .... a long time ago in Montego Bay. And to this day I was always paranoid about these seemingly "helpful" drivers and their assistants no matter which foreign country I traveled to.

Unfortunately for me, while indeed I was on point in keeping my luggage together and never out of my sight .... in my rush to catch up with the driver, I stupidly forgot my backpack in the van! One of the tourists in that van tried to warn me, but she was German and her English was heavily accented. I thought she was trying to warn me about my smaller suitcase, but I assured her that I had it and commenced to grab it while rushing out of the vehicle. Stupid me!

After catching up with the driver in the lobby of the quaint waterfront hotel where I would be staying overnight, I made sure that both my suitcase and my shoulder bag were accounted for, thanked him for getting me there safely, and then tipped him, too! The driver beamed, and then ran across the street, got in his van and drove off to who knows where.

And, yep -- my backpack was still in that van!

Unfortunately, the lobby receptionist was distracting me by demanding that I pay for my room up front. Which to me was odd, and clearly required addressing. Needless to say, after around 15 minutes of back and forth and ironing all the misunderstandings out, I totally fucking forgot anything about the number of bags I should have had. The hotel had upgraded me to a balcony view of the bay out back, and I was all too eager to get into my room and settle everything away before going on a little exploratory tour of the town.

View of the bay and water taxis from my room's terrace.

It was only after I had been in my room for a full 30 mins, halfway unpacked for the night, that it dawned on me that my backpack was missing. The backpack with my travel itinerary paperwork, my brand new iPad, and most disturbingly -- $1,200 in cash!!!

If you could have only seen all the blood rush from my head and extremities! I completely freaked out!!! After checking everywhere in the room -- double checking, and then TRIPLE checking -- I finally headed downstairs to the lobby in the vain hopes that I had somehow left it there by the sitting area.

Nope! And the receptionist looked at me all funny and weird when I asked if she had seen the bag.

"Negatron, Megatron!" she said.

Or, well, something to that effect. How the hell would I know? By this point the world had gone monochrome around me, and there was a loud ringing in my ears. My heart was triple-timing it in my chest! What the hell had happened?

It was at this time that a memory of me leaving the bag on an empty seat next to mine in the van came to me. Frantically, I asked the receptionist if she knew who that cab driver was? She was a local woman of mostly indigenous Panamanian ancestry who spoke fairly ok English, but not fluently. The owner of the hotel came out at this time -- an elderly and genteel American lady who looked as if she'd been through a fair share of troubles as proprietor of the place. After being apprised of the situation, she gave me a stern motherly look of disappointment at my obvious lapse in common sense, and then instructed the receptionist to start making a series of phone calls -- starting with a personal contact she had at the nearby airport. Perhaps the taxi driver had gone back to pick up more passengers, and might still be there. But when than turned up no response, it seemed as if nothing else could be done.

Still, the receptionist went above and beyond duty, and continued making phone calls. She had a plan to call up various friends and family members who lived on the island in the hopes that someone would know the man.

In the meantime, the owner took pity on me and offered to make me a drink from the hotel's restaurant bar, which was normally closed for the day on Mondays. She kept insisting that I could order any drink at all, but my mind was so frazzled at that point that I could not think of anything. Seriously -- that's how you know the depths of my despair, when I can't even take advantage of a free drink in proper fashion. When my weak suggestion of a simple lemonade was met with scorn by this white-haired, tough ol' dame, I finally went off familiarity and asked for a rum and coke. I remember vaguely thinking that something made with rum would be locally appropriate considering where I was.

And damn -- she made a really good drink for me, I must say! And while I drank, she talked. She told me about a similar travel mishap she had herself recently endured while attending a destination wedding in South Africa. She assured me that, even when you've had a lifetime of travel experience under your belt as she had, that mistakes could still be made. Particularly if you let your guard down.

She then asked me why I was carrying so much cash in the first place. And I told her it was because of the lodge I was scheduled to be staying at for the rest of the week. The reason for my being in Bocas del Toro to begin with, actually. It was a cacao farm, totally off the grid, located on another island that was a 45-min water taxi ride away across the bay. This was the place that had drawn me to this corner of the world, but it did not take credit cards. Only cash. And the entire week long stay was going to cost me, a solo traveler, $800 total.

Not wanting to trust the local banks or ATM machines to give me that much cash, I explained to this woman, I had withdrawn the cash back in New York City just two days before my departure. I had taken extra cash just for walking around spending money while I was in Bocas. And now, I was going to have to somehow, some way figure out how to get the cash out of the local ATMs after all -- precisely what I had sought to avoid!

Oy vey!!!

Not to mention that I had already lost $1,200, and my bank account was not without limits. Ugh! This was just turning into a never ending nightmare for me.

But alas, I was saved after all by the sweet angel sent from heaven above who manning the front desk. It turns out someone in her family *did* know the cab driver, and that he had been notified about the bag in his vehicle and was at this very moment on his way back to the hotel to return it to me.

HOLY SHIT? Are you serious? I thought. I had figured my bag was a goner!

Lo and behold the driver did return 30 minutes later, and he had my bag with him. I was so overjoyed I almost wanted to kiss the dude! In retrospect, it's very good that I did not. Although I am kicking myself for giving him a huge tip of $40 U.S. cash for his trouble. See, while I had done a cursory check of the bag to make sure that my electronics and travel paperwork were all in place, I did not check on the cash, which were secured away in more secretive pockets, because I thought it would be insulting to this local man's integrity to do so right in front of him.

So I thanked him instead, thanked the receptionist even more profusely, and thanked the proprietor, too, then quickly retreated back up stairs to my room. I hastily rummaged through the bag, confirming yet again that everything was there .... albeit, strangely not in the proper order of logic in which I normally pack my things. In fact, it quickly became clear that my entire pack had been upended at some point when it was out of my possession, the contents rifled through, and then carefully repacked again. And while everything was there, I found out too late that $800 of the $1,200 in cash was missing!

The HELL?!!!

See, while I had all that cash in the same bag, I had actually separated the $800 from the $400 and stored them in different secret pockets within that bag. Somehow the thieves had discovered the former, but not the latter. Or maybe they had found the whole stash, but decided not to be too greedy and leave me something at least.

I quickly returned to the lobby and found the owner still there chatting with her employee. When I relayed to her the good and bad news, she frowned but warned me that I would get no help from the local police if I reported it. She told me that it would be my word against the cab driver's, and I knew that she was right. Although Bocas Town was tiny compared to New York City, it was still large enough that accusations by foreign tourists did not carry much weight. Especially accusations with no proof.

Argggh! Why did that damn lodge have to be so antiquated??? I would normally never carry that much cash on me in any 3rd world country. Hell, not even in most 1st world locations!

No, it turns out that I had no choice but to make a trip to the bank after all. I walked on foot the half mile to the only bank in town, but of course it was closed. So I had to use the ATM machine around back, and that was only dispensing $500 per account per day. I was going to have to get the remaining $300 the following morning and before I departed to my next and final destination .... to the land that time (and credit card machines) apparently forgot!

But first, I decided that there was nothing to be done for it but to enjoy Bocas Town for the rest of the day and night. It gave the impression -- what with all the tourist trap bars, boutique shops, and eating establishments -- of being quite the party town when the sun set. So I went back to my room, cranked up the AC to near max in order to combat the beastly humidity, then took a shower and changed into my evening out clothes. I figured I'd try to forget how I was just robbed and simply pretend it never happened. I was here to enjoy myself, dammit. And enjoy I would!

I ended up dining at a family-run Italian restaurant near the far end of town, and at some point a nice local girl handed me a flyer for a party that was going on at a nearby watering hole. Ok, it was a bar. Fine. The music was very loud in there, though; the people were getting drunk and dancing, and so I joined them. Well, just the first part at least.

I ended up not staying long. I think I bowed out after the third drink and a bit of secretive people watching. Then I walked the 5 blocks along the main street back to my hotel and called it a night. The boat from the lodge across the bay was coming to pick me up at 4pm the next day from the dock behind the hotel, so that meant I could still get some sight-seeing in--and perhaps even a little beach time--on the main island before I left.

Looks like I had a long day ahead of me!

Continue on to Day 3 ---> (click)


  1. Ugh! I know the feeling of realizing you've left something valuable behind. I once left a camera on a transfer bus and spent the next week fruitlessly chasing up for news. This was Austria, and they are so organized I felt sure they'd track it down. Well, as it happens they did in the end, but only after we got back home and had bought a new camera :(

    1. I would die if that happened with my camera. It's actually funny that it was my bag carrying money and my iPad that I lost, and not my bag with all my camera equipment. LOL! Goes to show where my priorities are, and for that I'm actually proud of myself. :)


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