Bocas Town, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro.
Ten years ago, Bocas Town was still a pretty quiet place. Surfers had discovered it and made it a popular destination to ride waves, but the current tourist boom hadn’t really happened yet. The bulk of the visitors were surfers, and the waves rarely disappointed those who came to ride.
Today, Bocas Town is packed full of tourists most of the year, with the largest number showing up for holidays, such as New Year’s Eve. My original plan was to be here to ring in 2013. That went out the window once I heard that the every island in the archipelago would be packed full of revelers, to the point that people would be doubled up in dorm beds for more than the obvious reasons.
Four days later, the situation hasn’t changed too much. Rooms are scarce, and the few people who have left town are being quickly replaced by the next wave of pleasure seekers. We’re getting squeezed out of our current digs and I’m looking to have a new spot for us to crash by the end of the day, though coming by it is tricky, and will likely involve a lot of door knocking.
But that’s all secondary to getting out on the water. We came here for two reasons: to see our friend Halley and to go surfing. It’s something I’ve wanted to learn how to do for years, and Bocas is a great place to start working my way over the learning curve. After a big breakfast, we rolled up to the Mono Loco Surf School at ten a.m. to begin our first of three days of lessons.
The instructor, Juan, is a former resident of Baranquilla, Columbia who immigrated to Panama several years ago. He spent the first hour going over wave theory, how to read swells in forecasts, surfing etiquette, and all the things that you might not know about if you started learning to surf on your own. After an hour of class, we loaded into a barca (the small boats that ply their trade between the islands of Bocas) and made our way out to the surf spot. Most people arrive in these spots by boat. They make arrangements for the driver to pick them up at a certain time, then hit the water until their boat comes back. We made our arrangements, then went over the side, climbed onto our boards, and started paddling.
Perhaps the most important element of surfing is balance. That much seems obvious. What no one tells you is that your balance is going to be tested the entire time you are on the board, including when you are attempting to sit on the board and listen to the instructor talk and instead become the world’s worst mechanical bull rider—tipping off to the side and holding on the rail while the board goes sideways, then righting yourself and pitching over the other way.
And attempting to paddle is even worse. You lie down on your stomach and start stroking with your arms and you just feel yourself tilting at a progressively more awkward angle until you’re finally in the drink. Then you climb on again, paddle another five feet, and go over again. It’s normal beginner behavior and incredibly frustrating because you haven’t even come close to attempting to go out for a wave yet.
And then Juan goes, “Okay! Who’s ready?” And I put my hand up because I’m such a surfing expert that I can’t sit on my board for five seconds without looking like a Flying Wallenda. Juan leads me out to where the waves are breaking, tells me to point my board into the wave, and shouts “Go! Go! Go! Paddle! Paddle!” And I paddle like mad and the wave rolls under the board and picks me up and I slide my back foot up, bring my front foot forward while shooting down the face of the wave and the ground disappears. The board shoots off to the side and kicks up, the leash yanking my ankle as I go over backwards into the sea.
The wave finishes breaking over me and I come up laughing, because the ride is over, and because I don’t really understand yet that 95 percent of surfing is two things: paddling and waiting. You wait for a wave, and when a wave comes, you wait for your turn, because you’re not the only one out there and you are NOT a local and stealing waves from locals is punishable by death in numerous countries. And then you get your chance and you paddle into the wave and then the ride ends and you feel great. Ride’s over, right?
Oh hell no, Sparky, because now it’s time to paddle.
Typing this is a challenge, because I can barely lift my arms. Once the ride (successful or unsuccessful) has run its course, you then have to paddle back into the lineup. This is all upper body strength. You balance yourself on your board and paddle with your arms. First out of the path of the waves, then along the edge of the waves so you are out of everybody’s waves, and then, finally, into the lineup so you can catch another one. And meanwhile, you have to keep paddling because the currents will move you out of position and the next thing you know a wave is breaking on top of your head, which is generally a bad thing.
We were in the water for over two hours and I caught four waves, nearly getting to my feet and staying there each time, but never quite sticking the landing. By the end of the fourth wave I was so exhausted that Juan had to paddle over to me so could grab his board while he paddled both of us out of the path of the waves. It was about the least manly I could have possibly looked, but I was entirely too tired to care.
It’s now afternoon in Bocas del Toro, and the islands are pretty quiet. Things will pick up again in a few hours when its party time, though there is a tangible feeling that the New Year’s excitement is finally winding down. Maybe it’s just the cloud cover. I’ll write a bit more about the islands themselves tomorrow, provided I can still use my arms. I’d say that’s about fifty-fifty at this point.