The first place you come to when you take a boat north is Drake (Drah-kay, after Sir Francis Drah-kay, the explorer, the conqueror, the pirate, depending on how you look at it). Four hundred and a bit years on, Drake is, essentially, a cluster of funky cabins, a few venerable ecolodges, and a bar which is sometimes open. Wade ashore, and hoof it up the hill, and you will find two pulperias, or stores, facing each other across the dusty lane, selling the same stuff, although one is good, and one is not so good. You will probably find what you are looking for, as long as what you are looking for sits on the tinned tomato paste – local cigarettes – tuna – onions spectrum.
My preference is for steamy Sierpe, further north, and some distance inland up a slow green river full of crocodiles. It’s an hour and a half there, and an hour and a half back by boat, plus time for loading and off-loading, and buying music off the back of a truck and captain-to-captain catch-ups, but I’ve done that trip for a papaya. Sometimes it’s just nice to get out.
Today I’m off to get me some soy sauce, and to hang out at Las Vegas, ‘Pearl of the Osa’. Vegas is a sort of holding camp for tourists fresh off buses and waiting for boats, and damp and fusty off boats, waiting for buses. Around the tables there’s a lot of urgent negotiation regarding tents, guides, and boats. It has something of the atmosphere I imagine hotels in East Africa must have had when they were full of 19th century explorers and planters, planning expeditions into the interior – although of course, few people here will get speared or mauled by lions, and most will be back in a couple of days, rather than a couple of years (although you wouldn’t think it to look at their backpacks). The ideal thing is to sit on the balcony and watch crocodiles and water lilies drift by. It’s a great place. Until not so very long ago, you could buy rum with gold dust. My friend and the owner, Don Jorge, go way, way back, and have done each other some favours, and the service is always good.
The boats take clients in and out of Sierpe most days, and so I trot along the beach at 6.45am to cadge a ride. Some days I read all the way. I pride myself on being able to do that whatever the size of the waves, even though I’m sure that being engrossed in a book as we pass whales, dolphins and rare seabirds, must look pretty peculiar, especially if the book is a bad one. But today, the world here is so, so beautiful, with the gold sea mist rolling up the shore, four blue layers of distant mountains, and our boat trailing champagne froth across water as still as a lake, that I don’t read, I just gape and marvel, and feel like clapping. Well done! Well done!
I get two hours in Sierpe and need to move fast, which makes me about the only thing there that does. The temperature must be about 40 degrees. I’ve been trying to get a zip fixed in a dress for several weeks now, but Olga, the local seamstress who is looking into the matter, is a slippery fish. Sometimes her house (official address: two houses left of the giant mango tree – which is actually a jocote tree) is locked up, with just a dog loafing outside. Today, though, when I rattle the gate there is movement from within. There has finally been progress – the old zip is out. Unfortunately there are no new zips available. Instead, she suggests, maybe I could have a skirt? So I buy a skirt. It just seems easier. She gives me a well-thumbed underwear and jewellery catalogue to drop off with Lorena, who runs the hotel’s Sierpe office. Next, the farmacia. It’s closed, but there are four deoderants, all identical, spaced out along a shelf in the barn style store that is El Fenix. I grew up with this style of no-choice shopping in Uganda, and to be honest, I prefer it. If I’m going to agonise over decisions, I’d rather they were slightly more critical. I get my soy sauce and two avocados at Super el Combo, grab a drink at Vegas, (internet not working), say hello to Pinky the one-eyed captain, and Don Jorge, take a look at the Colombian drug boat the policeman has impounded (actually it’s been there for a while, but it’s still good to examine every so often), flick through Lorena’s new acquisitions of literary fiction and wonder whether I will ever be sufficiently desperate to read The Kite Runner again but in Spanish, and return across the seas. It’s been a big day out.
Walking back home, swinging my purchases, I see Carmen on the steps of the caretaker’s house. This is most wonderful. Not only do I like Carmen, the house has now been made beautiful in a way that I can never muster the energy to attempt. All smells of fresh laundry and flowers, the floors are gleaming, and palm leaves, ginger and massive heliconia have been lovingly arranged in tall jars. A human touch. Oh, it’s very nice; most uplifting.