I knew a lot of pirates living in Bocas del Toro. Shady expats hiding in the islands of this sprawling archipelago in Panama. We met pedophiles and serial killers and ran into endless run-of-the-mill money-for-property scams. And yet, I spent one of the best days of my life chasing black-spotted poison dart frogs around these islands with my 4-year-old daughter, Lila.
Not that you need a reason to catch frogs, but we did it for Sally, our neighbor, who was there researching the tiny creatures. This particular type of dart frog is found only in Bocas. They’ve evolved differently living there, and over generations, they can no longer mate with frogs from outside the islands.
One night before dinner, we sat with our neighbors watching the Caribbean Sea. I’ve never been much of a drinker, but in Bocas, it’s what we did. Boxes of wine. Seco Herrerano mixed with whatever we had in the fridge. That night, we poured a glass and chatted while waiting for a curry to finish cooking on the stove.
“We’re going to find frogs tomorrow. Wanna come?” Sally asked.
“Of course.” We took another sip and decided what time to meet on the dock in the morning.
That’s how you plan in Bocas. Easy. Other things are more complicated.
In many ways, the frogs evolved like the expats. They were different, detached from outside rules.
An old man floated past with a Panamanian teen in his boat. Tony, who lived in the house behind ours with his Uzbek wife, curled one lip in disgust. “There he is again with another little girl.”
John, an old, salty surfer, pushed away from the table, deeply offended. “Don’t talk about my friend like that,” he slurred. As a practice, John drank himself a bottle deep before sunset, and dinnertime found him ranting about his wife, who had left him when he was in prison for smuggling marijuana. I never quite knew which of his stories were true.
“You’re just mad because you can’t afford your own girl,” jabbed Tony. John either didn’t hear or pretended not to, and more Seco blurred the edges of what’s considered socially acceptable dinner conversation.
A fine rain was falling when we met the next day to catch a boat to Bastimentos, one of the biggest islands of the Bocas chain. During rainy season, the tides swell large enough that you can bring a boat directly to the beach, near the frogs. We were in the wrong season, so we docked on the other side of the island, then trekked through the jungle.
We passed through Red Frog Beach condos, an investment community for retirees. Imagine, living on these sparkling beaches with nothing but the sound of waves. It’s a dream come true. Too bad that no one who bought a house in Red Frog Beach ever got a chance to live there. The project fell apart, leaving decaying drywall in place of what should have been hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of dream homes. It was like walking into Survivor — indeed, years earlier, the show had been filmed on Panamanian beaches. We hacked through the foliage, watching out for snakes dressed as vines, and, finally, we found our frogs.
You have to learn how to spot them. They’re barely the size of your fingertip, and in spite of their bright coloring — not just red, but green, yellow, blue, orange and white — they’re hard to spot in the moss-colored landscape. Like a Magic Eye painting, you squint and relax your eyes until frogs come into view.
There’s a technique to catching them too. First, slowly sneak up on them sideways. The moment they see your shadow, they’re gone. When you’re close enough, in one fluid arc, leap and grab. Move too slowly, and they’re gone. Even after you catch them, they wriggle free from between your fingers before you realize what’s happening.
I learned later that these frogs are reputed to be so poisonous, merely touching them can kill you. We didn’t die, so I guess it was fine.
“Hold your hands like this, Mama,” Lila instructed. She showed me how to seal the edges of my palms and quickly, quickly, pop the frogs in a bag before they escaped.
We didn’t register the rain and cold until hours later, when the wind hit us on our boat ride home. Sally took our catch back to her lab to mate the frogs, measure them and determine how they had changed from other frogs.
In many ways, the frogs evolved like the expats. They were different, detached from outside rules. After sufficient time apart, they changed enough that they were no longer compatible with their counterparts in other places. While that’s fine for frogs, it’s ugly for humans, who become selfish and desperate. They steal and lie. They think it’s normal to bed girls young enough to be their granddaughters. The final straw was learning a friend had been murdered by a serial killer. That’s who hides in these islands.
We had many other beautiful days in Bocas. It is, after all, paradise. When you’re hungry, grab a fish. When you’re thirsty, crack open a coconut. None of that was enough to overcome the ugliness of the place. When our six-month ticket to Panama ended, we left.
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This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.