It wasn’t until the third day we took a self-directed bicycle tour where, for two dollars an hour, we explored the main areas of the island town: the Square, downtown, and a serendipitous city-wide festival we revisited later that night. We did this all of this on dirt roads with minimal road signs.
The bicycle rental shop was close to my hotel and wasn’t really a shop at all. There was no store front, only a propped up three foot sign and seven or eight vintage looking bikes. The family business renting them out were hanging out in the shade of the underbelly of a house. I’m sure the very site of a 6′ 4” gringo with a shaved head on a small bicycle elicited a hardy Caribbean chuckle (think Red Stripe commercial) from even the most tourist-jaded islander. Then you’ll never guess what we saw.
After paying a full United States dollar, equivalent to one Balboa in Bocas, we pumped our bicycles through a barrage of carnival-like exhibits combined with a bit of flea market flair. Food, folks, and fun. We eventually made it to the end of the festival road and ran across Caribbean restaurants, horse back riding stables, and hotels off the beaten path, including the Smithsonian Institute for research, mentioned in Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek Panama adventure. This book was the topic of many conversations. I didn’t realize until I was reminded that Panama is one of the places he mentions for starting travelers looking to get the most lifestyle for the dollar.
Let’s Pretend We’re a Gang
One of the most disturbing images at the festival and while on the trip involved three children ages 5 – 9 walking in gang fashion toting toy guns (armas del juguete) that looked quite realistic. I remember sometime in the mid 80s when the United States (or some authoritative toy czar) stopped allowing toy makers to manufacture realistic looking toy firearms. Neon orange and green eventually replaced black and silver for dart guns and air pistols. My parents never bought my brother and I toy guns when I under the age of 12 when my father bought my brother and I BB guns. Now I know why. This was a disturbing scene that could have been taken from the movie, City of God, or the real life version.
A Celebration of Life
Near the end of our one hour bike tour, a funeral procession with a marching band, black Ford pickup, and at least 150 people filled the street. They were playing old gospel songs. The coffin was small and white sitting in the back of the truck bed. Who we initially thought was a small child ended up being a 102 year-old lady, the oldest island resident. This explained the relatively large funeral attendance. After waiting for the procession to pass, we turned our bicycles in and went back to the hotel to rest.