I recently took a long overdue and much needed vacation. Over the years I have taken time off from work, but always in the form of a staycation. You see, I have become quite the homebody, often preferring to tuck away in the comfort and security of my home of 20-plus years rather than exploring the world. Much of my choice to enjoy a staycation over a real vacation has often been financially motivated–as a single mother it often was simply not in the budget to travel outside my state. Another factor is simple energy. Working full time (plus!) at a very demanding job, then coming home at night to be mother and father didn’t leave much else in the way of gumption to dream about traveling, much less actually doing it. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change anything about the last 19 years, but now that my son is grown, I find that my time and energy is freed to focus on how I would like to finish this journey called life.
So, recently I took that leap and, with a dear friend of mine (who also was long overdue for a vacation!) we traveled to Bocas del Toro, Panama. Bocas is an archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama, near the border with Costa Rica. Odd and really off the grid choice for my first vacation in a long time? Definitely. When I told people where I was going, I was often met with blank stares and that “Oh..” you say when you really don’t know what to say. After all, I wasn’t taking it safe; I was going to travel through the rainforests of Costa Rica on my way to a place that most people have never heard of. What was I thinking?
As the day neared to depart on this adventure, I admit that I was nervous. I was a novice traveller, journeying with a fellow novice traveller to Central America on a trip that we had planned completely on our own. We flew into San Jose’, Costa Rica, and boarded a shuttle for the six hour drive to Puerto Viejo where we stayed the night in the middle of a jungle (bats, geckos, howler monkeys and all!) before heading to the Panamanian border the next morning.
I can honestly say that from the moment we landed in Costa Rica, I was completely at ease. Traveling to a not-so-touristy destination is exactly what I needed. We and our four fellow shuttle mates formed a unique bond on the 6 hour trip across Costa Rica to Puerto Viejo. Sharing laughs and a common experience with complete strangers was, in a way, comforting. Crossing the border into Panama via the Sixaola Bridge (on foot), we were assisted by Luis, who helped us navigate customs on both sides of the border.
Upon arriving at our final destination on Isla Caranero (after a 30 minute water taxi ride from Almirante to Bocas Town), we were met at our over-the-water Inn by the caretaker, who spoke little English. I fell in love with the Inn’s resident dog (who ended up greeting me with a smile and happy tail wags every morning when I went downstairs for coffee). Our rooms were simple, yet comfortable. Once settled, I knew that this was the best decision I had made in a long time.
Bocas del Toro is not fancy, and admittedly not for everyone. It is rustic and some would say, primitive. There are places that are poverty stricken, with people living in shacks on stilts, and children running around with no shoes. But it was insanely beautiful, simple and genuine. Sitting in a restaurant, or walking down the street, you don’t see people fixated on their phones. People don’t rush. You can sit in a restaurant for hours after you finish your meal without fear of being shoo’d away. Sitting and talking replace watching TV. People are friendly and actually smile and say hello (or hola!) as they pass by. The goal of each day is to live life at a pace such that it can be enjoyed and savored.
Of the many things that this trip taught me is that I want to travel. I want to see and experience places outside of my cocoon. There are so many cultures and ways of living that can only enrich and bring meaning to life. At its’ core, our journey is not about how much money we make, or what titles or things we acquire. It is about experiencing what this world has to offer, its’ people, its’ cultures, its’ community.
As our vacation ended and we were on the water taxi back to Almirante, tears filled my eyes. A piece of my heart was staying in Bocas, and as the taxi motored across the water, I was already longing to return. I will be back, perhaps to stay, to this place where I truly felt like myself, like the person I was born to be.