After spending two weeks in Bocas del Toro, I’m slowly beginning to establish a routine.
I have four hours of Spanish classes every weekday. These are tough at times, but I’m slowly making progress. As classes are taught solely in Spanish, it forces my brain to constantly engage or risk losing track of the conversation entirely.
My desire to understand more of what is said feeds an impatience for my brain to retain more vocabulary and grammar rules. Not least in order to avoid doing the wrong homework, as has already happened once. While I hadn’t expected the imperfect subjunctive to be easy, the classes have also highlighted some glaring gaps in my understanding of the language. The relatively basic use of imperatives and relative pronouns for a start.
The class sizes at Habla Ya are limited to four people, ensuring everyone has the opportunity to speak during class. Predictably, the students from continental Europe all appear to pick up Spanish far more effortlessly than I do. In contrast, I feel like a swan manically paddling underwater, failing to maintain its poise while it tries to avoid drowning.
But this is what I expected. If it wasn’t this difficult, I wouldn’t be so envious of those who can speak a second language.
Bocas del Toro itself is amazing. I use the term ‘paradise’ advisedly, but the deserted beaches and turquoise water befit any definition of the word. Several of the islands are close enough to swim to, but it’s strictly forbidden to do so due to the weight of boat traffic. If the beaches weren’t a big enough draw in themselves, the islands also have countless cool waterfront bars where you can jump off the deck, straight into the sea. Mamallena and Selina are two of my favourites.
On my first full day in Bocas I hired a bike for $6 and cycled to Bluff Beach. It was a true fixie and didn’t have a brake on either handlebar. Initially I thought this said more about the low cost of the bike, but practically every bike here is the same. It sums up the relaxed atmosphere of the island well. Why would you ever be going fast enough to need brakes?
Bluff Beach is a beautiful long stretch of sand where you can walk along the shoreline for miles without seeing a soul. Towards the end of the beach, I ditched the bike and walked along the Jungle Highway, under the watchful eye of howler monkeys, to reach exposed beaches that felt like the end of the Earth.
The following day I took a $1 water taxi to the nearest island. I was the first to arrive at the clear blue water of Black Rock Beach. When other people began to arrive, I took my cue to explore the headland and its impressive views of the islands of Bastimentos and Solarte. Having built up an appetite, I ate at the locally renowned Bibi’s for lunch, jumping off the deck for another dip afterwards.
Last weekend I ventured further afield to the uninhabited island of Zapatilla, passing dolphins and mangrove islands on the way there. Zapatilla is just as you would imagine: extremely remote and stunningly beautiful with its perfect picture postcard mix of palm trees, white sand and azure sea. Before landing on the island, I saw a stingray while snorkelling on the reef. On foot, I spent 40 minutes circumventing the island, marvelling at the sense of isolation.
I’ll briefly mention two other events from my first two weeks here. The first was feeling the tremors of a 6.8 magnitude earthquake which struck almost 200km away in Costa Rica. I was sitting on the wooden deck of a bar at the time and put the sudden shaking and fleeting sense of seasickness down to a rogue wave. It didn’t make sense, but it seemed a more logical explanation than an earthquake.
The second notable event was the festival marking 114 years since the province of Bocas del Toro was founded. Hundreds of children in marching bands dressed in formal outfits and performed along the town’s main street.
I have no doubt that Bocas will continue to throw up surprises as I find a balance between studying, working, exploring and relaxing.