Panama way or free diving with the Ngobe-Bugle

It is funny I am writing this article sitting on the floor of the St Louis, MI airport. Of all places, it is hard to put myself into context while all eyes are turned to the monitors watching "CNN WAR ON IRAQ". I am already missing the Panama way of life!

I was there for almost 9 months straight except for a quick trip to Boston in December. I ended up in Panama working on a construction project that was to become a base of operations for a non profit organization protecting the coral reef.

The Coral reef in Bocas del Toro just off the Caribbean side of Panama boasts some of the most unique hard and soft corals in the Caribbean. I dove on some amazing Elkhorn coral colonies, a wide variety of sponges and a whole lot of garden corals. Eagle and stingrays are common in the bay, I had the chance to have close underwater encounters.

Everyday I had a break from the construction site, I jumped in the water. The place we built is on stilt right on the ocean looking over Zapatillas Bay, part of the national marine reserve of Bastimentos. For the quick history Christopher Columbus "discovered" these islands and named this one Bastimentos for the abundance of food they found on it ("bastimentos" translates to "food" in English).

Luxurious jungle along with red and yellow mangroves, give birth to the most unique ecosystem on earth: the living coral reef. The bay is so vast, and so incredibly quiet it felt at times like I was alone on earth! When the seas are flat, the water is so clear that looking right down from the house you can see the strategically still barracuda waiting for a snapper to make the mistake of coming too close. Busy Indians (Ngobe-Bugle) go by all morning fishing mainly for lobster as the demand for these little critters is ever growing in the nearby "downtown" restaurants on the main island of Colon and many go for exportation.

Sometimes while swimming under their "Cayuco" (the local canoe carved from a tree trunk especially unstable for the Frenchy I am) they would make signs to call me to the surface. The Indians had a hard time to understand first what was the purpose of these ridiculously long "aletas" and second how I could maneuver without crashing into the dense coral underwater with such long blades. They clearly had never seen anything quite like it, I became the new attraction. The lobster divers thought that since I was probably a wealthy man (I had a motor boat, a definite sign of wealth in the bay), that I could provide a pair to each one of them so they could go track down the bigger bugs in the deeper water.

These guys have excellent breath hold, but some dangerous practices. My friend Ernesto told me that each year many of them drown. After investigating on the matter, I realized that they were freediving all day with a lot of repetitive dives pushing the limits to get the lobster that is becoming harder and harder to find in the bay. I tried to explain to them a bit about physiology, about not overexerting themselves and once and for all to stop hyperventilating like mad men each time they went down! I was exaggerating my breathing to make my point across since my Spanish betrayed me at times. Going "mas tranquilo" I said as my head was probably turning bright red, they laughed and kept on hyperventilating. The Ngobe, dive most of the time in pairs, with one in the cayuco keeping an eye on the boat traffic.

Dario who spent some 23 years living and fishing the bay, told me "the major threat is that a lot of them are going too heavy on the ‘guajo’" the local rum I never even dared sample! He later explained to me: "el guajo pone el humbre fuerte sabes" (the guajo makes a man strong you know). The Ngobe-Bugle divers are definitely a counter culture to freediving , some of them laughed when they saw me doing some pranayama breathing exercises before getting in the water. I am sure they were thinking I should drop that Eastern stuff and take a shot of guajo to meet with the mermaids! I understood that it is the way they had been diving for so long what could "el Frances" do to change the Way? Well each time I had a chance I explained to them that alcohol was not really something you would want in your system when you dive all day every day. Of course not all of them were drinking, I do not want to establish a stereotype here.

Overall the Ngobe are good divers. They can go deep down and stay there using a beat up old school Aqualung mask, and fins that I am not sure I would come back from a dive with . They most of the time brought back a couple of small lobsters, certainly not the legal size if they were in the U.S. But there is a market for it and the divers need money . A few days before I left I found a lobster tail on my kitchen table. I later realized that one of the guys had left it for me. Maybe they were thanking me for the lectures by "el Frances", or maybe not… giving is also the way of the Ngobe-bugle.

"One must be poor to know the luxury of giving." -George Eliot (1819 – 1880)