Speaking French in Panama By Heide Island

Editors Note:   The author is an avid traveler and adventurer. This piece is the second story in a series about her travel adventures during a two-week visit to Panama.


“¡Reduce la velocidad!” Scott screams to our driver, imploring him to slow down.  But our driver is wearing earplugs and listening to an iPod. The eight of us in the back of the old tour van grip the weathered vinyl seatbacks like hostages on a runaway roller coaster. The springs in my seat have seen better days. Each bump and cavernous hole in the road sends me aloft. It’s 6:30 in the morning. None of us has had our coffee and it’s far too early for an injection of adrenaline. I’m bleary eyed and bloated after last night’s dinner.  The modest, tin roof and cinderblock restaurant, Big Daddy’s was recommended and just down the street from our lodging, The Boquete Garden Inn. Despite the image “Big Daddy” conjures, the owner, a Greek transplant, grilled a delicate, fresh lobster, one after the other, followed by bottle after bottle of red wine.  Big Daddy’s is where Paleo dieters go to die. We pass buses, cars, and mopeds with no regard for oncoming traffic, my stomach gurgles. The lobster threatens an encore.  I lean my head on Tom’s shoulder.

“I drink too much.”

“We all drink too much,” Tom says back to me.

Rod pulls a handful of what looks like Pez candy from his pocket,

“Here I forgot to give these to everyone this morning.”  He dispenses a cocktail of vitamin tablets to each of us.  The driver swerves back into his lane, unfazed as the van fishtails. I shuttle Rod’s supplements from his hand into mine, cupping them like delicate butterflies.

“What am I taking?” my voice is all smoke and gravel like Yul Brynner circa 1980.

“Just a little acid,” Rod rasps, “It’ll take the edge off,” he grins. I inspect the vitamins. “I’m joking, its N-Acetyl-Cysteine and an aspirin. They’re like curing pills,” Rod balks. 

I peer at him, “I haven’t had a thing to eat.  Will this make my stomach sour?”

“Oh just take it take it Blondie and quit whining,” Noah says smiling and shoves a bottle of water into my hand. 

Tom, my trusting husband, takes the water and merrily pops the whole handful of pills into his mouth.  His gulp deflates the plastic water bottle with a swig. I can’t feel any worse, even if it was acid. I too toss them back.

The van feels misplaced against the tropical jungle of Boquete. This mountainous village in the Chiriquí highlands borders Costa Rica along the western side of Panama. The Spanish translation of Boquete is “gap” or “opening.” The Volcán Barú, at 3,467 meters, the highest point in Panama, is a twenty-minute drive to the summit. Here, the clouds live within the lush foliage of the Boquete jungle. They are below us, around us, circling the car, skirting the breeze, and suspended, like drying sheets along a clothesline. Boquete’s shops, markets and cabañas perch above the banks of the Caldera River. There are a surprising number of restaurants and cafes and although clearly a tourist and ex-patriot refuge, Boquete does not feel commercial. The ma and pop bed and breakfasts and intimate, private villas for rent are charming rather than kitschy. 


An hour and a half later, we arrive at a small Panamanian port along the Chiriqui coast, Boca Chica. A huddle of fifteen pelicans perch on the blue, sun stained canopy of a water taxi. The heavily jungled banks in the background make the birds look prehistoric, more pterodactyl than seabird. Since Boca Chica, a port town, opens to the Gulfo de Chiriqui, its name translates to “small mouth.” But the Spanish word, “chica,” has two meanings and I mistranslate the context to “mouthy girl.”  Noah decides that’s an appropriate nickname for me.  “Mouthy girl” replaces his established nickname for me, “Blondie” for the rest of the trip. It’s not a poor fit. I scan the forest for movement, a swinging vine, or the dusting of leaves. My Panama guidebook devotes two pages to the howler monkeys indigenous to this area. I prick up my ears for the sound of snapping branches. The jungle is alive with chirps, croaks, whirs and a resonant, high frequency hum that almost sounds mechanical, but nothing that would indicate a howler monkey. Jim, our tour guide, bounds out of one of the cleated water taxis. 

“Hey guys!”

“…and mouthy girl,” Noah whispers in my ear.

“Are you Tom?” Jim asks thrusting out his hand and adding a little fist bump at the end. Tom tries to accommodate Jim’s added handshake flourish, with an awkward bat at the air. This area of Panama is known for ecotourism.  Jim, in a Patagonia cap, cargo shorts, and a loose fitting floral print shirt, falls within that ilk.

“We ready to snorkel today?” he asks clapping his hands together. It is the same pushed gusto I would use if I were talking to my dogs, “Are we ready for a walk?! Who’s ready for a walk?!”

We all pile into the skiff and Jim launches into the safety homily, the importance of wearing our personal floatation devices at all times and not to stand in the boat while underway. Our destination is Isla Bolanos, an island cove, known for its snorkeling and sandy beaches.


Isla Bolanos is postcard perfect.

White, sand beach?


Azure ocean with cerulean shallows? 


The beach is people-free. Diet tourism. Jim runs the skiff onto the sand and we begin a procession of snorkel gear, coolers, and beach towels up the shoreline to the high water mark. I settle into the shade with my beach towel, as an inflatable boat skids up the beach and four loud, French-speaking tourists hop out, pull the bow further up the sandy beach and give us a nod. Their guide wearily slides off the stern and begins unloading their new U.S. Divers snorkel gear. Their sunburned skin stretched over lean muscle suggests the four Frenchmen have been on vacation for at least a week. Their immodest Speedos, further out their nationality.  I cannot help myself. It’s impossible not to stare, all of their reproductive potential overtly on display. 

“Hello mermen,” Brad says to me with a nod in the direction of our new company.  I laugh, picking up a hermit crab that has wandered into the shadow of my leg. There are armies of them covering the beach. 

“Ah the French.” I say, “pretty.”

We watch as they don their masks and duck walk in their fins, face-forward down the beach. Their snorkels and Speedo strings dangle from temples and waists as they descend into the water. It is a good idea, it’s hot and the hermit crabs are starting to migrate en mass to hide in my shade.

“You want to get in?” I turn around and look up at Tom. He has our masks and fins in his arms. He smiles and nudges my leg with his foot. We have been married for seventeen years but as he stands there without his shirt and in his trunks, it reminds me of our first year of marriage. We lived in Maui and too broke to do much of anything else, we spent our weekends gurgling underwater, sightseeing within the waves.


I spit in my mask, wiping it around the glass so it doesn't fog. Tom does the same. I survey the water. The slight breeze irons the surf smooth, but a patch of dark water off the west point of the beach suggests a rip current and deeper water. 

I tuck my head beneath the wet soft swells, and the chatter and conversation up the beach disappears. The wheeze of sand through the water column drowns all other noise except the thrashing kicks of the French snorkelers ahead of us. The water is choked with grit, an aquatic fog. Not at all the tourmaline aquaria, it appeared to be above water. White coral skeletons litter the ocean floor. They lie buried in muck, now bare of the photosynthetic algae that once supported the reef. Their broken bodies look like brittle bones cast in shallow graves of sand. This explains the lack of fish. I don’t even see a parrotfish, a species I have come to expect with tropical waters everywhere. Tom dives down to inspect a rock wall. His mask right next to a crevice, he scans up and down in an effort to find an eel, sea worms, or a Spanish dancer nudibranch. Only one or two damselfish pick at the accumulated algae along a ghostly outcropping of what was once reef. A guppy-sized cleaner wrasse picks at unseen debris on a yellow tang. The cleaner’s violet blue body with a long, striped ribbon of black darts around the tang. The tang wriggles its tail to maintain its position against the current. We’ve drifted into about 50 feet of water and the current pushes me further from Tom. I take a deep breath and push my head underwater, two big kicks and I’m below the surface diving toward the rock wall.  I scissor my legs a couple more times, plug my nose and blow into my sinus to equalize the pressure in my ears.  I’m still a good 30 feet from the bottom, but I can see the blue soft coral from here. Their bulbous, funnel-shaped bodies and tiny tentacles feather in the current like leaves in a breeze. My chest tightens, as fingers of heat spread within my lungs. I need air. I tear myself from the rock wall and push up the water column, each kick lightens the sensation of weight on my body, until I breach the surface sucking in a huge breath of air. I scan for Tom.  He is nowhere. But I am about a half mile from shore, and moving.


A hand grabs my thigh—hard. I gasp and water fills my snorkel and mask. I spin around to face one of the Frenchmen. He tugs at my left fin and points in front of me to the outer edge of the cove, where fierce surf batters a worn rock crag. A wave crashes into my face, mouthfuls of water cough from my lungs. The French guy and I fight the tidal surge. How did I get here? I look for Tom between bobs. Over the sound of ocean, the surf, and the splash of my limbs, I hear the frenetic lub-dub of my heart. I’m afraid. The French guy still beside me puffs bursts of air from a wheezing mouth. We turn, tethered together, fighting to push away from the current. But I realize we’re swimming into it. This is not good. We’ll never make it back this way.  One of the first things you learn in water rescue is to suspend the panic instinct that tells you to swim directly toward the shore, against the current. The way back is perpendicular. A series of slow parallel turns, traversing the shore, it is the ultimate test of self-discipline, choosing the long approach when the shortest distance is right in front of you. I need to explain this to the Frenchman.  I try to remember my high school French. I took three years. Think. Surely, some of Monsieur Lowell’s tutelage can be revived from latent neural pathways.

“Êtes-vous d’accord?” Are you okay? I say pointing at the Frenchman’s mask. A snot sheen glosses his upper lip and his red-rimmed eyes are wet from seawater.

“Vous…uh…fine?” I try again. Oh, why hadn’t I applied myself more in French class? He puffs hard and clings to me in the waves. I try to keep us both afloat in the current while I clear the seawater from my mask. His clumsy snorkel hangs askew beside his cheek and pushes against my shoulder.

“Très fatigué,” he whispers.

I put his hand on my shoulder and say, “Allez avec moi,” realizing too late I just said, “go with me” instead of “come with me.” It doesn’t matter. I stop to re-align his mask and snorkel. He has pushed them down onto his neck, where they twist and quaver in the water. But he’s done with his mask and snorkel, the two pieces of equipment that led him astray, away from the safety of the beach. He’s not willing to play drowning victim either.  I try to get him to float on his back, but this doesn’t work.  I point to the beach and make a zigzag pattern with my hands. 

“We must swim this way,” I say.  He nods but begins to swim directly into the current again.  I hear the voice of my childhood swim instructor, 

“Drowning victims may grab onto you, push you under, or in their panic further endanger your life.”  I wonder if this is one of those times. I traverse the two of us toward the shoreline through the waves. Each time he tries to break for the beach, I tighten my grip and jerk him through the surf across the current like an obstinate dog on a leash.

“No!” I shout, “This way!”  Tom’s blue mask and black snorkel periscope at the surface about twenty feet in front of us. I raise my arm to him. He sees me.  He’s a much stronger swimmer and kicks over to us in a couple seconds.

“Are you okay? I’ve been looking for you for twenty minutes.  Who is this?” he says, nodding to the French guy who’s limp in the water and just barely attending to Tom. 

“We…” I pant “…were pushed into the riptide….and…” 

“Honey go back to shore,” he says, “The current is strong over here.” Then he takes the arm of the French guy and barely winded, he gives the castaway, who is now ashen and cold, a shoulder squeeze. He looks into his eyes and pointing to himself and then to the shore, Tom makes a swimming motion with his hands.

Surface sunbeams scatter in the water. It creates a shimmering skirt of light beneath my legs, obscuring the bottom.  Although glittering particles of sand catch the light and dance into the fanning skirt of sunshine, I get an uneasy feeling. The same one I feel when hiking in the mountains and I stumble upon a clearing with no way to see within the trees.  There is a strange sense of being watched without knowing if there is a watcher.  I take a deep breath, letting it out slowly as I otter over onto my back. I take off my mask and snorkel and set them both onto my chest.  Buoyant on a blanket of seawater, I float back to the beach rocking back and forth, back and forth.  The water licks the anxiety from my muscles and lulls the angry lub-dub in my head back to a silent echo in my ears. I kick from the knees and the water carries me to the hard, damp incline of the beach.  I sit up to see Scott, Noah, and Ron up the shore in the shade. They’re talking with Jim, a sandwich and cup of guava juice in each hand.  Josh and Brad are sleeping in hammocks tied between two palm trees.  In the somnolent afternoon, sun the hermit crabs angle the beach, back and forth, back and forth. Tom and the French guy have just removed their fins and masks. The French guy drags himself up the shore.  His companions slump like yard darts in the sand with sweating bottles of Belgium beer.  The castaway staggers toward them, not even casting a “merci,” over his shoulder to Tom. Perhaps he will send a fruit basket later. I remove my fins, toss them onto the beach, and dunk the back of my head completely in the water, smoothing the riotous mermaid hair back into a long, slick plait.  Tom grabs my hand and rips me from the water. Each step is heavy, my arms and legs can’t seem to keep up.  My head points toward the beach like a dowsing rod for the shade. “Did you guys have a good time? How was the water?” Josh asks. I grab two bottles of water and look over at Josh. He’s suspended, womblike in a hammock, eyes closed, his left arm tucked under his head. The right hand curls under his chin as he continues to doze. In his orange sherbet Bermuda shorts and dark blond hair, he reminds me of the lounging woman in the Frederic Lord Leighton painting Flaming June.

“Tiring” I say. 
“Good for you,” he mumbles, “You probably burned off last night’s dinner.”

I drop beside him, edging the border of his shade.  I take a swig of water.  Tom lies down in the sun, legs and arms spread like a sandy snow angel. The hermit crabs, terrestrial versions of cleaner wrasse, lug their clumsy bodies through the pooled motes of seawater around my body. They needle onto my toes, picking away the drying salt crystals from my skin.