BOCAS DEL TORO BACKWATERS
Stacy told Jack and me that Erwin is the sole gringo guide who has gained the trust of the natives. We are eager to interact with them. Erwin complies.
We trace the banks of an island as Erwin scans the shore for a hidden entrance into the mangroves. He finds it, and we enter a narrow, twisting channel, the tree branches forming a tunnel over our heads. The effect is pleasantly eerie. Several tight turns and low-hanging boughs later we arrive on the natives’ shore.
We stay in the boat and watch as Erwin navigates the village. He approaches a young man, they talk, and money is exchanged. He returns to the boat: everything is arranged. We will follow the native guide beyond the huts to the clan gathering.
“It might be a little muddy,” challenges Erwin, looking my way. Is he flirting with me?
“I’m not afraid of a little mud,” I reply with what I hope to be a dash of insouciance.
The knee-high grass turns damp, then slippery, then yielding. Erwin and the guide hop nimbly across the ground’s surface, but Jack and I simply sink. Quicksand?
I persevere. Fuck it, you’re in Bocas. Fuck it, you’re in Bocas. Fuck it, you’re in Bocas.
It’s sucking me in alive! The Earth swallows my foot, my calf, finally stopping at my knee. Mustering my strength, I free my leg from the muck with a belch, my sandals still stuck deep in the mire. No choice: I roll-up my sleeve, close my eyes, dig into the slime, grope and pull — like birthing a calf.
Slogging through knee-deep mud, my sandals slipping forwards, backwards, and around my foot proves difficult. After twenty minutes, I ask Erwin how much further, trying not to sound whiney. He asks the guide. Twenty minutes, the guide tells him. We’re forced to turn back or we’ll never make our flight.
We trudge back to our boat: Erwin and the native guide look like they walked straight out of a Tide commercial, but Jack and I are covered in muck and sweat.
A young Indian girl emerges from her hut and chases us down the hill, yelling (in Spanish), “Look at all the mud on those people!!”
Best (new) line of the trip!
Jack and I have a little time to kill until our flight, so the three of us dock at a waterside bar: we want nothing more than to hang with locals and hear their stories, and no one tells them better than Erwin. He transfixes us with his tales: defenestrating prostitutes in Africa (apparently they will kill you if you don’t), reversing voodoo curses, guiding naked snorkelers, etcetera, etcetera. We are having a blast and hate to part company with him.
BOCAS DEL TORO AIRPORT
I wear my mud-plastered clothing with pride at the airport. I’ve earned it. I’ve survived quiksand. Two girls of elementary school age (whose mother is the TSA agent) point at me, laughing openly. Could be the mud, could be this farmer’s tan that I acquired during our catamaran trip. I’m a mess.