All travelling between the islands, and most going back and forth between villages and houses, around the Bocas archipelago is carried out by boat. Dugouts, hardly visible above the waterline, holding a single Indian, a cluster of children or a whole family are paddled skilfully and silently along the edges of mangroves or across open bays where they glide with hardly an inch of freeboard alongside occasional pods of dolphins, rays and leaping fish.
Its’ true there are numerous motor launches as well, driven at breakneck speed – the thrill of the throbbing outboard, lifted bow and skimming speed – but these are basic and not intrusive.
The islands have a varied and different ethnic mix. Small villages of the indigenous Ngobe-Bugle Indians survive and thrive. They are physically small and stocky, with attractive, wide, high cheek-boned faces, glossy black hair and glowing honey-chocolate skin. Though wonderfully relaxed and laid back they are nevertheless capable or extraordinary stamina and strength using just a machete and their bodies to fell, carry and work colossal lumps of timber, raise buildings and paddle canoes.
The women still practice certain rituals: when a girl first begins to menstruate she is kept naked for five days, surrounded by a screen, and taken down to the creek to be washed every few hours, day and night, by the sexually mature women of the village. During her incarceration she is expected to learn how to make ‘chacara’ – woven and crochet bags – and to strip, pound and roll the leaf fibres from the wild pineapple plant to create the long, tough threads used to make the chacara. During this time she produces five small white bags, depicting her purity, later she can dye and decorate her chacara portraying the various stages of her childbearing life. Both men and women use these bags, in all kinds of sizes, to carry or transport everything from seeds to coconuts, yucca root and wood.
Traditional foods are the yucca, or what we think of as yam or cassava, chayote, plantain, fresh fish, fruits and a delicious bread, called Johnny Cakes, made out of coconut milk. Unfortunately I have only glimpsed the surface of the medicinal uses made from a huge diversity of plants and roots. It’s fascinating…I want to know more!
In total contrast, Bastimentos village is Afro-Caribbean through and through. Arriving on the jetty a myriad of colourful waterside bars and restaurants welcome you. Along its one haphazard ‘street’ houses, shacks, small ramshackle hotels and eateries crowd and jostle for space in chaotic colour and confusion. Bob Marley blares out from every direction. Rastas saunter, tall, loosed limbed (sporting dreadlocks surfers at home would trade their best boards for) along the path. Gaggles of nubile girls giggle and peek from behind their hands. The music is turned up a notch and a shrieking confusion of children run in excited terror up the path – behind is the local witch doctor, dressed to scare, huge and larger than life in black and white zig-zag stripes, welding a long lashing whip and tail, bells strapped to his legs and on his head an outsized, terrorizing demon mask. His two equally frightening red demon assistants clear the way for him trying to catch the scaddadling children and barking dogs with their whips. Carnival is around the corner and the witch doctor is heightening the anticipation. A mesmerizing, electrifying, yet vaguely disturbing experience!