The sun had just crept over the horizon when the buzz of Rutilio Milton’s faded blue lancha sounded out over the water. It was barely 6 in the morning but the day was already shaping up to be a hot one. The water lapped up against the twisted roots of the mangrove as crabs of all sizes scuttled from place to place. His boat creaked to a stop against the wooden dock at Bahía Honda.
“Ñan toro,” he announced himself in the dialect of the Ngöbe.”
“Ñan toro,” we replied.
There are certain times in life when you have to take a step back and ask yourself, what exactly led me to where I am? If I could go back in time 3, maybe 4 years and explain my current situation, would I believe me? Could I picture myself standing on the edge of an old dock, waiting on a Ngöbe elder to take me out into the mangrove to teach me about his people?
Our group boarded Rutilio’s boat and he led us off into the bay. He explained that we needed to find sardines to use as bait. As he navigated the clear blue water, he told us to keep our eyes out for pelicans. “They can smell the sardines,” he said. The boat suddenly veered left, taking us into the direction of the rising sun.
Soon, a small island of mangrove came into sight. He cut his engine, handed me an old splintered oar, telling told me to get us close to the trees. I struggled to steer the boat, fully loaded with 7 people, but eventually got us in position. From the front of the boat, Milton cast a ragged old net over the water. As he pulled it on board, three or four tiny fish fell out on the hull.
Disappointed with the small catch, Rutilio explained that the sardines were already hiding from the sunlight deep in the mangrove. “We might not have much luck today,” he conceded, staring intently toward the shadowed roots.
Just then, his ears perked up and he let out a long, muted call. Within a moment, the same call sounded from across the mangrove. I peered through the mangrove and saw a small cayuca floating toward us. The traditional Ngöbe boat is made from a single piece of wood, found deep in the jungle. Over the period of a week, the small boat is meticulously carved from the trunk of a fallen tree. It’s pilot was Nelson, the father of one of the children in our kindergarten class at Bahía Honda. After he and Rutilio exchanged words in their native tongue, Nelson graciously produced a rusted bowl full of sardines. Our fishing lesson was back on.
“Ja toida,” we went our separate ways.
We made our way to the deeper water, our guide on point, Eli, our gap year volunteer and newly appointed boat captain, steering. Rutilio used the color of the water to navigate – to my eyes, it was all the same, to his, it was like reading a map. His hand eventually shot up, signaling Eli to cut the engine. The anchor broke through the water and Rutilio got to work preparing the line.
The water was perfectly flat – no wind to speak of. The sun, shining off the water like a mirror, made it difficult to look out over the tangled mangrove. The boat rocked gently as Rutilio demonstrated how to bait the hook. “You have to stick it right through the eyes,” he explained, “That way the bait won’t slip off.” His line was wrapped around an old mossy chunk of balsa wood worn from years of use.
With a spool of 0.6mm line, a small weight and a baited hook, I cast out. Straining for the first few moments, I tried to distinguish between the slight motion of the boat and the potential bite of a fish. Minutes passed with no success. I pulled my line up only to find an empty hook, the sardine gone. Determined to catch my first fish, however, I cast out once more.
Within a few moments of throwing out my line, the boat jolted as Rutilio pulled his own up from the water. Without saying a word, he smiled, holding up a small red snapper. Just then, I felt activity on my own line. I immediately yanked the line up and felt something struggling on the other end. I did my best to pull the line up quickly and, within moments, held a fish of my own.
With luck on our side, we pulled up an additional eighteen fish, all red snappers. Eventually, Rutilio decided that twenty fish would do so we packed up and made out way back to Bahía Honda. We spent the rest of the day preparing a traditional Ngöbe dish. Using a base of handmade coconut milk, we cooked the fish along side a number of vegetables and herbs Rutilio collected from his farm and the jungle surrounding the community.
For me, it is experiences like these that make travelling worth it. I have come to live by the motto that you cannot truly experience land divorced from the people who call it home. You cannot understand a place without understanding, at least to some degree, the lives of its people. Like navigating through the mangroves, I would be lost if it weren’t for people like Rutilio. I have come to make sense Bocas del Toro through the time I have shared with the Ngöbe. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
GIVE & SURF INTERN,