The Solar Power Expert Blog

Reflections at Bocus del Toro

by Chris - February 28th, 2012.
Filed under: Personal. Tagged as: , , .

This article covers some of the philosophical epiphanies and adventures I had while traveling in the Bocus del Toro archipelago of Panama.

“It’s going to be hot!”, I whined. “You’ll acclimate”, my wife said. Sure. I live in the Pacific Northwest for a reason. I like the cold. I start to sweat profusely above 75 degrees. I get grumpy, frustrated, and short tempered in temperatures above 80.

But despite my reservations (pun), I ended up having a great time with my family. My family, who lives in Portland, rendezvoused with us in Florida. From there we flew to Costa Rica and took a van to the border of Panama. A quick taxi ride to the coast and another water taxi finally got us to the Isla de Colon (Island of Colon) in the archipelago of islands named Bocus del Toro (Mouth of the Bull).

Bummer Bikes at Bocus

Our first night on the island, we went to a small restaurant named Carolina’s. The food was excellent. When we looked at the drink menu, there was a drink called the ‘Shit Bike Drink’. The description said “Did you rent a shit bike? Drown your trouble in this cocktail of blue curacao….” I forget the rest. We all had a good laugh about the description of the drink.

The next morning through, my brother tried to ride a bike (that had come with the house we rented) to town. He returned hot and sweaty, with a tale of how the chain had fallen off three times. The last time, it has wedged in so tight that he couldn’t dislodge it by hand and had to push the bike home. We all laughed and said he needed to get one of those shit bike drinks.

The joke was on me the next day however. My wife and I went in to town to rent bicycles for the week of our stay. In my pre-rental inspection I had failed to notice that the seat was broken on the bike. On the way home, it clamped down on my inner thigh, leaving a nasty bruise and taking some skin off. Damn! I need one of those shit bike drinks too!

Towing one quad with another

Towing one four wheeler with another

Due to the high cost of gas and importing of heavy equipment, there are not many cars, scooters, or motor cycles on the island. Most people ride bicycles or walk. A few days into our trip though, my family decided to rent three four-wheel ATVs and a 2-wheel moped scooter. The eight of us happily rode around the island and drove to one of the best snorkeling spots – starfish beach, near Bocus del Drago.

After that excursion, we rode them to the other side of the island. Within an hour, the chain had broke on one of the ATVs. Luckily my father had bought a length of rope. At the time, he said “This is our $3 insurance policy”. Thanks Dad! We tied the faulty motorcycle to another one and towed it for the rest of the journey.

We stopped for lunch at Bluff Beach. When we tried to start another of the motor cycles, it backfired and refused to start after that. We toed it with the last remaining ATVs and tried to jump start it. It started but it refused to run unless the engine was running at high RPMs. We were pretty sure the back-firing had messed up the timing of the engine. This meant the only way to get it back to down would be to drive it at near full throttle.

After a little discussion, it was decided that my brothers would ride the ATV with bad timing back to town. After pull starting it, my father would return to tow their wives back on the ATV with the broken chain. My wife and I would ride back on the scooter.

We watched as my brothers fired up the engine, released the tow rope, and set off down the rode at breakneck speed. As they flew down the sandy road back to town, they passed a couple retired expats. One of them shouted “Slow down please!” to which my brother yelled back “We caaaaaan’t!” as they left them in a cloud of sand and dust.

My wife and I laughed all the way home about the fate of my brother’s bikes. We congratulated ourselves on picking the scooter. Our laughter turned to mirth a few minutes later when our back tire blew out. I pushed the scooter the remaining half mile to the rental house.

That night we all we all decided that we deserved a round of shit bike drinks. We made the short walk to Carolina’s. Just as we raised our glasses for a cheers, the electricity went out. The proprietor quickly informed us that they could not serve us dinner as they had to serve the hotel guests first. As we walked home in the dark, hungry, we decided that none us really liked the taste of blue curacao anyways.

On Money, Wealth, Happiness, and Contentment

Visiting Bocus gave me another perspective on poverty. The people here are so poor and the cost of living is so high. Electricity is nearly 30 cents per kilowatt hour and gasoline is nearly $5.50 per gallon. At the same time however, coconuts, passion fruit, and breadfruit grow in huge numbers and can be picked from the trees on the side of the road at all times of the year. The need to heat your home is unheard of. A dugout canoe, some fishing line, and a hook appear to be all that the locals need to catch more fish than they can eat. It rains nearly ever night so fresh water is never lacking.

Many locals live very impoverished lives and work incredibly hard to afford basic necessities. Minimum wage here is $1.50 per hour. At the same time however, these same people live lives so rich and full that it should make any cubical slave green with envy.

My last trip to Eagle Harbor inspired me to contemplate the nature and contrast between money, wealth, happiness, and contentment. I tried to keep these ideas at the forefront of my mind during the trip. I sincerely believe that one of the great tests of manhood (or womanhood) are to define these concepts for yourself; because it is these definitions that shape our adult lives.

Local boy of Isla de Bastimentos

A local boy posing at Red Frog beach on Bastimentos Island.

The standard by which I judge all other things in my life is by happiness and contentment. You can be happy without being content. You can also be content without being happy. But if you have both, you’re at a pretty good place in life. Viewing your wealth and money making endeavors through the ‘lens’ of happiness and contentment is a good way to approach life, in my opinion.

Sometimes I think that one of the great challenges of my generation is to define benchmarks by which a society can be measured – in terms of happiness and contentment. The last three generations have increasingly rejected the notion that material wealth brings happiness. Only recently have I heard quiet whispers that perhaps economic growth is not the best way to define success. From my experience, Objectivism, provides a wealth of insight into this problem. While large holes existed in Ayn Rand’s original philosophy, the basic tenants and ‘spirit’ of that school of thought is a big step in the right direction.

Why I Don’t Like Vacations

I’ve never liked traveling or exotic vacations. For one thing, they seem like a huge waste of money. I can’t help but think about how the money could be spent on an asset (like restoring my boat) instead of being consumed with nothing to show for it but a few fond memories and photographs. Don’t get me wrong – those are nice. I’d just prefer something more tangible and lasting.

Another reason I don’t like vacations is that they serve to show me all the luxurious things in life that I can’t have. I go to an exotic place where I could never live to spend more money than I make. The whole concept is unsustainable. I have always craved a lifestyle. A never-ending vacation. In many ways, my life has been a race to retirement – that mythical state where you are supposed to be financially independent and all the hours of your day are your own.

Writing is a good analogy for how I think life should be lived. If everyday is the same routine, then nothing interesting happens and nothing is worth writing about. If everyday is filled with adventure, then there is no time to write and reflect on life. A balance between new and old, adventure and productivity must be struck. Like a pendulum, if we swing too far to one side, we feel an increasing urge to compensate.

Family at isla de bastimentos

Family enjoying a beer at Isla de Bastimentos

We all crave adventure because we live lives of such high productivity. We push ourselves until productivity turns to drudgery. To compensate, we feel we must go on expensive adventures, squandering the hard earned money that our productive endeavors brought us. In the end, it all balances out. But the wide swings between adventure and productivity create suffering. American culture focuses on only one side of the pendulum (productivity) and is almost completely ignorant of the other (the legitimate need for adventure in our lives).

A letter from Chris McCandles to his friend Ron, in Into the Wild sums up my understanding of the human need for adventure the best:

I’d like to repeat the advice I gave you before, in that I think you really should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.

The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, Ron, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty. And so, Ron, in short, get out of Salton City and hit the Road.

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