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Bocas Del Toro

My trip to Bocas started, the way many of my good stories do, with something hitting me in the face: the woman in the aisle seat next to me stood up to get a book out of the overhead when we hit a patch of turbulence?her well-aimed Poland Springs bottle squirted me in the cheek. The waterfire didn't distract me though?my attention fixed out the window, looking down at the ocean: indigo greens and cobalt blues surrounding the islands that would be my home for the next few days. Bocas Del Toro.I checked into Hotel Bahia, which is really quite a funny little place.

Above all the history that surrounds it, as the converted headquarters of The United Fruit Company, it has these loveable little quirks. For beginners, everything in my room is opposite: you push the light switch down to turn on the lights, you turn the cold water nozzle in the shower for warm water, and the you pull the toilet handle upwards to flush?to such an extent that it's almost practical joke-ish.The owner Tito was a grateful host and like a proud general showing off his war scars, Tito gave me the full, and I mean full, hotel history.

The hotel slowly transformed from a deserted government address to a fully-functioning tourism hotspot over the course of the past 30 years and today, Tito is deservedly proud to tell you how it all went down.I ate breakfast at Shelly's BBQ, where the atmosphere couldn't be any further its western sounding namesake. It sits off the main drag in Bocas and the only reason I stumbled upon it was because I was lost.

Crammed into a ping pong table-sized space sat four wobbly tables accompanied by several rotting wooden stools. The menu was etched in Spanish chicken scratch on the wall and asked no more than $2 for an item. Stacks of soon-to-be recycled beer bottles rested in the corner and sand covered the floor. I ordered the first thing on the menu, suspiciously called "sandwich". What arrived was great: a toasty brown flour tortilla over-stuffed with a beef and a bright and crunchy cucumber salsa.

The breakfast of champions.I'm keenly becoming accustomed to this stuff. Places where you help yourself to beers at the bar. Places where it's ok to wander in shirt-less.

And places where the only attitude is the mutt (photo) or rooster searching hungrily for scraps. Places where no one looks at you funny for sitting alone or walking in with sandy or muddy feet. I've grown to really love it?the stiff bouncer and tightly-wound maitre'd, now becoming distant, almost alien things to me.

Dress codes and table manners, contentedly just a thing of my past.For lunch I decided to go in search of the famed "sushi sandwich": a meal that, according to all my co-workers, I "had to have" while in Bocas. I asked a young delivery boy in the lobby of my hotel where to find an Asian-fusion restaurant called Limongrass?and he directed me enthusiastically.

I walked down the main street and loved what I saw?this hilarious blend of Caribbean, hippie and Latin cultures. Crunchy people with dreadlocks and Birkenstocks, squinty-eyed tourists with fanny packs, and hard-at-work locals with giant sacks of yucca root on their backs?totally microcosmic. Following the instructions, I opened the door to the restaurant only to hear a sharp and seemingly aggressive voice from the back squeal out "We're closed." "How could you be closed on a Thursday afternoon?" I asked the faceless voice. "We just are! Alright?" Limongrass was closed on Thursdays.

And their employees were obnoxious. How odd. I began to debate my next move, as the same delivery fellow from my hotel lobby passed by on his rusty beach cruiser. "It's closed on Thursdays" I told him. "How could they be closed on Thursdays?" "They just are!" I witted back.Suddenly, the young delivery boy was my only hope.

Limongrass was my only recommendation in Bocas and I wanted a memorable meal! In desperation, I asked him where he ate lunch, figuring that had to be the next best thing. If I wasn't going to have my sushi sandwich I was going to find some real Panamanian food. I didn't want the timbales and napoleons, the au jus' or the pom frite's.

I had this sudden, almost possessed, urge for down-home Panama food. I wanted the real stuff and granted, Bocas wasn't the best place to find it?but dammit I'd try. The delivery boy, Silvio, told me where he ate lunch?a rustic little buffet on the main drag. I offered to buy him lunch and he obliged.

He said he had to go to the bank and he'd meet me out front in 10 minutes. Eating like the locals---Oh right!.I waited innocently at the bar, clearly not belonged. I tried to look busy, scanning through my cell phone directory and drawing empty martian scribbles in my notebook.

I asked for a beer with ice, trying to blend in, since that's what everyone else was drinking. Then in due time, I ordered a second, then a third. I began to think Silvio had abandoned me?told the gullible gringo to wait at some small restaurant while he biked off as fast and as far away from me as possible. But finally, who comes rolling up on his four-speed, but the all-knowing Silvio.

It was time for lunch. We ordered whole fish and ate the succulent, smoky flesh with our fingers, sipping on chichas of watermelon and tangerine juice. The habanero sauce on the table was named Devils Inferno: mind-bogglingly hot. Lunch for the two of us cost about $4 though I would gladly have paid more. A boat sit out on the dock so i snapped a pic.

After an ill-deserved yet well-needed 2 hour rest, I was somehow hungry again. Bocas has an impressive gauntlet of ethnic restaurants, gourmet cafes, and local joints. You've got this crunchy demographic: backpackers who'd be happy eating bananas and water all day?and then you have the fancier people who wouldn't accept an overcooked bead of risotto. After asking a few people where they recommend I eat, I wandered into a pier directly across the street from my hotel. It was, what looked like, an old run-down fishery or docking station with war scars and that familiar peeling Caribbean-turquoise paint. I had a seat at the bar and started chatting with the bartender?Cathy, a short, rather squatty girl?who recommended I order the Pargo filets since they had just been loaded off the boat.

Her recommendation was great?two nice sized fish filets that, in a seriously delicious way, tasted like the ocean. While you're dining on the water's edge its hard to complain about anything. Slow service suddenly becomes distracted by amazing sunsets. Mediocre food is oddly considered acceptable.

And high prices are somehow justified. The Reef is the poster child for this phenomenon and I was loving it.I was tired from a day's?cough cough?hard work and research, so I hit the hay sack. Laying in bed, I ran through the three good meals I had under my belt. I was looking forward to the culinary cosmos I would uncover in the days to come. I passed out watching the movie Legally Blonde?really a funny movie.

I'd never seen it before but it was pretty darn funny. Ah. Man. Pretty funny.

.Matt Landau is a self-proclaimed "international man of mystery".

For short, friends just call him "Mystery". You can read all of his bizare international adventures at http://www.thepanamareport.com.

By: Matt Landau



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