Friday, July 15, 2011

A Guide to Bocas del Toro by 2 gringos visiting in the off-season

I really want to write this post for all of you out there considering visiting Panama. I recently took a break from fieldwork for the summer when PB came to visit me for a week. We wanted to do something nice and fun, and I wanted to get the heck out of Gamboa for a little bit, so we planned a 3 day trip to Bocas del Toro. Now, all of the guide websites and tourist information on Panama say that Bocas del Toro has beautiful beaches, a friendly-touristy atmosphere, and is a great place to relax and dance (or drink) the night away. Considering I am from one of the Spring Break capitals of Florida and spent much of my childhood on the beach, this sounded not only appealing but welcoming, and as I said, I was soooo ready for a break. Turns out, Bocas was a huge let down. Here's what definitely didn't go right during our supposed 'vacation':

1) For the love of gawd, BRING YOUR PASSPORT. Apparently no matter where you travel within a foreign country, you are supposed to have your passport on you at all times (even if you're not technically leaving the country). NO WHERE on the web does it say this, nor did any of the 5-10 well-traveled people that we told we were going to Bocas. So imagine my surprise when we were woken up at 2am (we took the overnight bus there from Albrook) by a man loudly calling "Passaportes, passaportes", and immigration stepping onto the bus. Lucky for us, I had my Smithsonian ID and Panamanian drivers licence, and we both had our Texas DLs with us. I was somehow able to talk us out of being detained til morning, and I'd like to think it was a combination of stupid white girl attitude/forlorn look/well-endowedness that got us out of that mess. This was the first, but definitely not the last time someone asked us for a passport. We managed to scrape by in Bocas without them, but 3 separate times we were asked in the airport, trying to fly back. 3 TIMES. Twice before we left Bocas, and immediately after we got off the plane. I mean, seriously, who the hell would try to sneak INTO Panama??? I was somehow able to talk us out of being in trouble each time, but oh. my. lord. we will bring our passports next time, I swear.

NOTE: PB later looked it up online, and apparently the bus company doesn't warn you of this because they charge a huge fare to take a bus back to Panama City once detained (and presumably cleared) by immigration. This country kinda sucks.

2) Don't go to Bocas in the off season. Especially in the middle of the week. The way our vacation was timed, we took the bus out Sunday night and spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on the islands. Now, since it was July 4th weekend, I figured it would be packed with American tourists who were having some R&R in the middle of the summer. Imagine my surprise when we get to Bocas and see locals. And ONLY locals. Occasionally, we saw some backpackers, but they were mostly Spanish or Latin American (a few European) - almost no Americans. Well, so much for there being a plethora of English speakers around. No one spoke any English; thankfully I speak enough Spanish to get by.

3) Make sure to actually call and talk to the tour guides. I really, really wanted to go snorkeling, so I did a lot of research beforehand about what tours were available and who were the best vendors to go through. Turns out the most recommended vendor had sold his shop at the end of the season, and there was a new guy running it who only did dive tours. Drat. He did recommend another shop, who recommended another shop, and so on until we were about 5 shops in and discovering that no one offered snorkeling trips in the off season (again, DON'T go in the middle of the week if you can avoid it!). We signed up for a trip finally, only to find out the morning of that it was cancelled because we were the ONLY people who signed up. The man who ran the shop (which shall remain nameless) gave us our money back, and we went down the street to a hotel whose sign claimed they offered snorkel tours. The woman at the front desk was nice enough to set us up on a last minute tour that was leaving around 10am instead of 9:30 (as our original tour was planned), and we did get to snorkel, but since we had no idea where we were going and signed up last minute, we still aren't quite sure where we went. It would have been nice to have a tour guide who spoke English as well as Spanish, but honestly, we should have just taken our friends' advice and hired a local water taxi driver to take us snorkeling. Next time, we bring our own gear, and go the officionado route.

There were a couple of good things that came about on this trip, one being that both of us learned that PB loves to snorkel (it was his first time!). We have since decided that he will get his Open Water Dive certification too (I got mine last year), and we'll do a diving/snorkeling themed cruise for our honeymoon. Swoon!

We also got to spend a couple of hours on a nice "private" beach; mostly because we were too tired of walking to find the real beach (which happened to be about 5 km from where the guy said it was.... sheesh). It was our own tropical paradise, and not a bad place to spend our anniversary.... you know, apart from all of the other bull crap. Next year, we go somewhere touristy. Like Key West. :)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Delays, Delays

So, I'm a horrible blogger because I started this blog, fully committed myself to posting at least every other day, and look what happened.... I haven't posted in at least a week. Argh. But alas, I've realized something now that I'm in grad school... priorities shift, other things come up, and sometimes you have to break promises or commitments because they simply aren't doable anymore. :/

But now I'm back, and stronger than ever! I'm headin' to Austin this weekend (after two+ weeks of crazy school nightmare HELL), and PB and I are driving to Houston on Saturday to finally get my ring sized and the setting tightened (the diamond turns a tiny bit in the setting - EEEK!). Not like this has stopped me from wearing it. I just have a nasty habit of glancing at it every five seconds to make sure it's still in place. I normally take it off when I'm washing dishes, showering, or working in the lab (heaven forbid anything chink my purrrty ring!). I left it down in the lab last week on accident because I was in a rush, and I nearly had a heart attack when I realized it wasn't on my finger. I'm glad this weekend is finally here - it will be nice to have a little sense of security again. :)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Longest. Week. EVA.

Wow, is it Saturday already? Thanks be to jeebus! This week was exhausting for everyone I know in my department, including ME! My advisor has a huge grant proposal due this upcoming Monday, so she's been stressin' and working round the clock. We have a fairly major science conference/symposium this next weekend, so all the grad students are prepping posters or lectures for that. I taught ALL WEEK, which was nerve racking on Monday (my first time lecturing to a senior class of 86 students), slightly better on Wednesday (now that they understand me, let's get this thing rolling!), and exhausting on Friday (OMG-I-haven't-slept-is-it-over-yet!?!). But now it's Saturday, I'm back in the ATX, and I made it through in one piece. My advisor even had the great idea to have the students write mini-evaluations of me, so I could change/improve for the next set of lecture (OMG I agreed to do this again what was I thinking?!). I haven't gone through them all, but they are very sweet and encouraging, and overall amazingly supportive. It made me love my students even more!

OK, back to wedding planning stuff. This is what I do for fun in my spare time now. We picked colors this morning, and now I'm working on the invites/envelope and design ideas. Yay!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Toys! Toys! Toys!

I was so worried that I wasn't going to have anything to write today, and then I have a marvelous conversation with PB about wedding themes that I just had to share! We were originally aiming towards a build-your-own-lego thing centerpiece, kind of like this:

We thought that it would be cute and fun since we both loved legos as kids, and it would give guests something to do while they were waiting for food. I am really into paper flowers rights now, and I wanted to incorporate those into the centerpieces too. Tonight while we were on the phone, PB suggested that we could somehow use his old Star Trek and Magic playing cards too, if we wanted..... which gave me a brilliant idea! Each table could be themed around a different childhood toy that we love(d)! We quickly came up with a list, which is really representative of the full spectrum of what childhood was like in the late 80s and early 90s:

Here are our tables, whose favorite toy, and inspiration for the centerpiece:

1. Barbies (me) - I'm thinking vases full of bright pink shoes!
2. Legos (both) - The build-your-own option, or maybe some lego flowers
3. Playing cards (PB) - we'll use his old game cards to build an intricate house or other structure for the table
4. Computers (both) - we'll incorporate an old shoebox mac (my first computer!) and random PC parts for him
5. Video Games  (both) - There will be Mario, Final Fantasy, and Starcraft galore XD
6. Dinosaurs (both, but mostly PB) - Land before time movie and puppets (yes, I have them all!)
7. Trains (both, but mostly PB) - My favorite book, Freight Train, plus all of PB's models from childhood
8. Fairytales (me!!!!!) - I loved Disney movies as a kid, but we thought this might be a little too cliche, so I decided to go with the fairytale theme instead. Rapunzel, Twelve Dancing Princesses, and the Frog Prince (pre-Disney) to name a few of my favorites.

Other ideas also include books, crafts, and bicycles (though they might be trickier to do). I'm not sure how many tables we'll need, but I think this looks like a good start. The best part is, both of our parents are hoarders of our childhood stuff, so most of the raw material for these centerpieces is laying around our parents' houses! El Cheapo to the rescue!

I don't know how we're going to put these together to make them look classy, but right now I don't care - the wedding is almost 2 years away, and I'm just excited to have a theme!! :)

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Uber Monday... the one after Spring Break

Normally, I don't hate Mondays. I look forward to starting the work week off on a good foot, because I usually try to "tidy up" on Friday afternoons. Whether it be projects, papers, grading, or research stuff, I try to leave everything in a good place, so that when I come back to it on Monday, it's ready and waiting for me to dive in! This Monday, however, did not go so well as planned. In fact, it was downright crummy. I didn't get to go check on my toads, I flubbed a bit during my first lecture, and I had to dash across campus to a meeting that was apparently pushed back (we got the email while I was in class, 20 minutes beforehand). *Le Sigh*. I hate Mondays.

Hopefully, tomorrow should go better. I gave my Texas BFF and Labmate my super awful head cold, so she spent the day looking like she should be in bed. :( Sorry LB!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sniffling and Sneezing @ SXSW

Ugh!! I hate being sick!! I recently went to visit my momma in Chicago, and she caught a cold a little bit before I got there. "Don't worry," She said, "I'm almost over it, I doubt I'm contagious." Two days later as I was getting on the plane back home, I was sniffling. The day after that, I was coughing. Now, it's 5 days later, and I'm full blown sick. What's even worse, I got PB sick too. He's all stuff and congested, plus has a sunburn from some "planning retreat" he had at work on Thursday (a.k.a let's drive around the big boss's ranch and see the safari-animals-turned-rugs, shoot guns, and stare at land). Hehe, he looks like a big red tomato, especially his neck! So yeah, we're sitting on the couch on the last day of SXSW, eating through tissues and browsing the internets like ya do. Well, at least we made it out this morning for errands, haircuts and sushi. Still a successful day if you ask me!

My good friend and her BF and staying with us this week so they can participate in the music madness that is 6th St, and she just txted me and asked if I have a sore throat. I told her that's how it begins.... uh-oh. Looks like our whole department will have it by next week. Thanks mom, for passing on the Chicago cold of DOOM!!!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mobile blogging test

I'm trying to set up mobile blogging for my iPhone, so I can easily
post those great candid life pictures.

For example:

Why Texas?

Before picking up my little life in Florida and trekking all the way over to Texas to return to my backpack-toting, sneaker-wearing days, I led a very different life. I worked as a public event coordinator for a museum back in the FL, and got constantly teased about my attempts at being "business casual" (I'm sorry, but I thought shopping at Gap and Ann Taylor automatically gave me style, no?). Sensible heels were a semi-weekly part of my wardrobe, and I owned not one, not two, but three suit-jackety-thingies (yeah, I still don't know what they are). I worked 50+ hour weeks with no benefits (yay OPS state employment), and was a generally unhappy person.

Enter the grad school decision. I subscribe to a wonderful listserv called ECOLOG-L, which sounds like some sort of programming language. It's actually a great forum for biological scientists, ecologists, and conservationists to post about job vacancies, opinions on field equipment, and even general policies about current topics. One night, I was randomly browsing through the 15+ emails a day that I get from ECOLOG, and I happened to see a grad school opportunity. The posting offered a website link to a lab, and details about how to apply. I clicked the link, and I'll say this - I knew from the homepage that I belonged in this lab. My now-advisor, then potential-advisor is wonderful; she's charismatic, enthusiastic, current, and into everything. She has a great style and writing voice, which is seriously awesome, considering she's only been speaking English for about 10 years! I love her to pieces, and I sent her an email that night with my letter of intent and CV. Within weeks we scheduled a phone interview and I applied to the school. Six months later I packed my life into a u-haul trailer (which, towed by my Mitsubishi Lancer, was a very interesting journey), traded in my business slacks for faded jeans and zip off pants, and headed west. Well, south first (pre-grad school field season in Panama), then west to TEXAS.

So, here I am. Enjoying the first "Spring Break" I've had in 4 years. If I was still in FL, I'd be scrambling around after camp kids right now..... spring and summer are not fun times when 70% of your job involves camp administration. Instead, I am furiously reading all the WeddingBees I can get to in one day - as soon as I found that site, I knew I needed to be one of them! Ahh! But, more on that later - we're a year and a half away from our wedding, and I have a lot to do in the meantime.

Oh, I also need to make a statement here. In my last (and first) post, I referred to the man in my life as my fiancee... which is true, although I think I'd like to give him a nickname for blogging purposes. Since his name only has 3 letters, I thought long and hard about how to come up with a shorter nickname for him (the 3 letter name is actually a nickname, he got screwed somehow and ended up with a girl's name, but more on that later too....). So for writing purposes my man will be known as PB (Pappa Bear). PB can sleep like nobody I've ever met. I regularly have to wake him up from four or five hour naps on the weekends if I actually want to go out and do something (like eat dinner). When I wake him up, he stretches out really big and yawns really long and loud, just like a bear waking up in the springtime. Hence, the nickname was born. :)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I've been considering starting a blog for a while now; and yes, I realize that I did start a blog while I was in Panama last year doing field work, and while that doesconstitute me starting a blog, I feel differently about this one. The goal of Adventures in Toading was to share with my family and close friends what exactly it is that I do, as a behavioral ecologist. But as we all know (or the 3 people that read my blog know), I hastily grew weary of updating people on my goal-less project, and dropped the blog right in the middle. Though it was great experience, and there are epic plans to evolve it into something else (to be announced in a later entry), my toading blog will not return. But I digress....

This blog, this blog is for me. It is my outlet, to share with the masses about my crazy life and the things that make it worth living. Why should you care? I'll tell you why; because I'm simultaneously living a dream and a nightmare, and I'm level-headed enough to make it work.

The dream: last year, I met the love of my life (details on that later). Yesterday, we got engaged. I am so incredibly lucky to find another level-headed, over-ambitious, crazy fool such as myself, that I couldn't even fathom how I ever lived without him (that was the last of the mushy, I promise). Also, I am working on a graduate degree with a wonderful cohort of students (mostly girls), and an amazing advisor who is exactly who I need as a mentor at this time in my life. I love my department and my program, and I pour myself into my work.

The nightmare: My fiancee (woah, first time I've typed THAT!) lives six hours away in Austin, TX. Our entire relationship has been long distance, we've never lived in the same city except for a few days before I left for Panama (more on that later, too). It's a struggle, especially with the craziness going on with gas prices right now, but we do the best we can to make do. Also, grad school is hard. Like, seriously, capital H-A-R-D, hard. I work all day and all night, I write about things that don't even make sense to me, and I get my pride and self-worth ripped out and trampled on at least weekly.

So yeah, that's my life. With a few other interesting tidbits thrown in; I have a few great girlfriends whom are now scattered all over the states, I function on a mildly strange diet (no milk or yellow cheese, no piggy meat, no starch after 3) for both health and weight-loss reasons. I have also recently decided that I am IN LOVE with Austin, Texas, and will do everything in my power to stay there for ever and ever and ever.

As someone who is closer to 30 than I am to 20 (and fairly recently so), I can honestly say that I have learned many of those "life lessons" that we're supposed to get through in our 20s, and I'm ready to keep trekking up that hill towards the rest of it; the marriage, the house, the kids and all the rest. So if my life sounds even minimally interesting so far, then keep reading.... so far, it's been one heck of a ride, and I can only imagine that it gets more interesting as it goes!