I wish I’d been paying attention to the somewhat obvious fact that “Carnival” is about flesh – as in carnivorous and meaty. I would have gone to one sooner. And I guess it makes sense to celebrate flesh while in the mouth of the bull, that is Bocas del Toro, Panama. I am sure a lot of vegetarians were dancing all night at Carnaval as well, but for the energy demanded, I’m thinking that a diet with some animal protein probably goes well with, and energizes the body appropriately for, a big party that translates as “A celebration of the flesh.” Certainly heat, skin & healthy spirits contribute to a great fiesta of the flesh.

We went to the islands on the weekend of February 12, knowing it was going to be Carnaval there. You either stay far away from the craziness, or embrace the moment. So after our five days of relax in Bastimento (see last post), we moved to the large town of Bocas on Isla Colon where the celebration was taking place. When we got to the area, we were told that Tabou Combo, a band originally from Haiti that has been playing great soca music for forty years, was headlining the festivities.

Roberto has been listening to them for as many years. He knows their music well, and sings and dances to it with his large Caribbean soul. The fact that they, along with The Beachers, a soca band from Bocas that he also loves, would be playing while we were there, was a huge treat for him. We went and got our tickets days before the concert, and after visiting several hotels in Bocas, were able to book an inexpensive hotel room for the Monday night of Carnaval, though the town was already booked up.

Something I discovered on our first trip into Bocas, and continued to enjoy each day we were in the town, were some great Bloody Mary’s at a small seafront restaurant called Sabor Caribeno or Caribbean Flavor, to the west of the main boat dock. The woman there makes the drink with a lot of Panamanian pepper in it and slushes it up with ice. It doesn’t taste like any Bloody Mary I’ve had before, and I’ve had a few, but was excellent in its own right. Super spicy and frosty at the same time – mmmmmmmm – on their patio floating over the waters of the Caribbean, watching the boats coming and going, it was splendor on the sea. We also ate an excellent meal there – a whole fish with coconut sauce that was divine as well as a warm seafood salad. All highly recommended.

Carnaval itself took place over several days but we caught the last two days and nights. The evenings began with the drummers gathering on the street, calling in the people to join them and wind and grind our way together down to the big outdoor stage. Monday’s main event was the big concert with The Beachers and Tabou Combo. There were some other local entertainers as well. We started dancing at about 8 p.m. and kept dancing until we collapsed in our beds at 4:30 a.m.

Like Roberto, I love soca music, but I wasn’t familiar with these bands although I know some of their songs. He, on the other hand, was thrilled to see not only the bands, but special guests who joined them. One of these was Gene Chambers, the Frankie Vallee of Panama. He now lives in Costa Rica but returned to his homeland to sing with The Beachers who he used to play with. This man is 62 years old but looked, moved and sounded like a 40-year-old. I’m not necessarily a fan of high-voiced men singing, but I loved watching him, and was amazed at the falsetto voice that came out of him. I kept looking for the woman singing on the stage, constantly being reminded that it was this handsome man.

We were in the middle of a crowd that kept growing in size and enthusiasm as the night went on. There was a group of wild women beside us who knew all the songs, danced with gusto, kept drinking like sailors, and were truly entertaining to watch. We made our way up through the crowd closer to the stage as the night went on…although there was a lot of boozing going on, and people were obviously getting drunk, we didn’t see any aggression in two nights of fiesta, the only exception being a gringo with a bloody face outside a bar as we walked back to our hotel just before dawn.

The other special guest who joined both The Beachers and then Tabou Combo, was Alfredito Payne, another Panamanian vocalist who has been singing soca for years. He used to sing with Tabou and was back to join them. Tabou Combo is a mix of generations of musicians  – some who have been doing this since the beginning including a couple of the original singers, other younger talented musicians joining to carry on making their music. They are originally from Haiti but are now based in Miami. They started their show asking for a moment of silence to honor their Haitian countryfolk who are suffering from the massive earthquake there, but after that moment of solemn respect, they got down to the business of making us jump. And they perform – they excite the crowd and dance on the stage and welcome the crazy women who jump up on stage to join them and shout out and wave flags and laugh and keep on singing and drumming and moving along with the crowd.

And the crowd keeps up with them. The spirit kept rising and it wasn’t the free flowing and cheap Smirnoff deals that was responsible– it was the energy and joy coming off the stage that kept us all fired up. I guess we must have danced for about seven hours, but it flew by. Needless to say, we collapsed into bed but the truth be known, we probably could have danced for several more hours if the band had kept going.

To recuperate the next day, we took a boat ride two minutes over to the little Isla Careneros. This was apparently where Columbus had a shipyard for his boats – they would be hauled up and put on their side to be repaired. It had some pleasant little beaches where we soaked up some restorative solar energy and these beautiful trees – I’m not sure if they are a type of mangrove tree (couldn’t find any information about them) but  it was an eerie yet magical part of the little island.

On all of the Bocas islands, the colors, the details, and the woodwork was gorgeous. Not because of money, but because of effort, skill, and years of loving care. Amidst the older buildings, constructed when wood was super available and cheap, are newer structures that I’m sure cost much more to construct and bring in influences that come with the foreigners now living there. In general, there was a pride of place throughout Bocas, simple homes with attention to detail and love of joyful color.

Life by the sea has its own magic. Bocas has a great mix of the old and new, natural and manmade beauty, indigenous and foreign.

Tuesday night, the actual day of Carnaval, began with the attack of the diablos. The story behind this remained a mystery to us, but was a tradition that people love. Young men and boys were dressed up in black and red quite ornate costumes as devils, monsters and mythical creatures, and took to the street with whips and sticks. The crowd gathered around them and brave, crazy or inebriated other young men, as well as kids, went running into the melee to grab the sticks off the diablos.

Some of these characters were truly frightening and though at first we thought that the whips only sounded harsh, we soon saw the scars and blood on the legs of the boys who had been fighting with the diablos, trying to take the sticks away from them. We think that the diablos stood for the slave masters and the boys who went after them represented slaves trying to escape and take away their power, standing up for their rights, bravely fighting for their own justice. That was our interpretation, but I don’t know that that is what was happening.

I do know that lovely Roberto seemed to have a strong resemblance to the diablos – between his long dreads and the color of his clothing that evening, he fit right in. I have to say that although I’ve known him for over sixteen years, having spent lots of time around him in his hometown of Cahuita – where everyone knows him – as well as in Puerto Viejo, San Jose and Monteverde, I’ve never seen people react to him like they did in Bocas. People were constantly yelling “Cool, rasta, respect man” and others would come up asking for a photo with him. It was like being with a celebrity and it was impossible to be anonymous while by his side! Everywhere we went in that week on the islands, people were super friendly and very animated in their approach.

Men, women and children must have spent a lot of hours having their hair done for this big week of festivities. We saw so many extreme braids, joined by flashy ornaments, multi-colored dyes and boys had a bleached hair thing going on and shaved designs on their heads. It all just added to the spectacle.

When the daylight faded, the diablos went away and then the local drumming bands and their dancers started getting ready for the big finale, the parade of drums, shakers, whistles and bodies leading the dancing crowds down the street for the final night of fiesta. The next generation of kids were already showing their genetic ability to shake and move their batty.

As I wrote about in the last blog, we had watched the community of Bastimento preparing for this during the previous week. Now we joined with them and the other four bands from other communities, jumping and chanting and swaying and rumbaing our way down the main avenue. The Bastimento drummers and dancers were definitely the best – and they had a song that people sang along with – part of which said that they were proud Panamanians and loved their soca, but “Rockeros – NO!” went their song. Then the Beachers came on the stage again for another couple hours of great soca music. The party carried on, but once the live bands stopped, we went home, our legs tired, our feet hurting, exhausted but with big smiles on our faces.

Bocas del Toro welcomed us with drums, smiles,bright colors, tradition, laughter, warmth and rhythm – si dios quiere, we will be back there next year. We’ll go back and see Francis and Louie in Bastimento, eat the delicious food at Roots Restaurant, drink Bloody Mary’s at Sabor Caribeno in Bocas, and join in with the music, that, no doubt, will still be shaking the place. Then we’ll collapse in the hammocks and watch the boats go by.