I'm back in England now and have a week left to go of my 14 day quarantine. It's been a long time since my last blog post as my laptop had to be repaired and was gone for 6 weeks. We were out of lockdown by then thankfully, but it did make travel plans very difficult. I was waiting for US flights to open to non-US citizens so that I could use my return tickets but ended up having to book a humanitarian flight via Amsterdam.
However, I found out just a few days later that I would have been able to use my original returns! Very frustrating, however the journey back went very smoothly without any problems. I had to get a special travel document from the British Embassy to be allowed to travel across the regions of Panama to the city for the flight and arrange a boat to take me to the mainland, since normal passenger services are not running at the moment. I stayed for a few days at a hotel in Panama City in case a Covid 19 test was required as with some European flights, but this was not necessary to enter Holland. The city is still in lockdown with men and women allowed out at specific hours on alternate days, as it had been for the whole country many weeks ago.
There were few passengers at the airport with few flights leaving the country and on the flight each passenger was separated by an empty seat to maintain social distancing. I brought only hand luggage to allow for quick transfers which worked well. Quite a few passengers wore full body coverings as well as a mask and a face shield which made for a rather surreal journey. Only masks were actually required by the airlines though, and I was relieved to find that food and drink was served as normal.
After a week of rain the sun is finally out, and I've been getting ready to start painting again. So as not to put my family at risk, I'm quarantined in the studio above the garage and sleeping in my converted van just as I do when working at festivals. I've been missing the islands and the tropical temperatures but hopefully the good weather will hold out for a while now!
On Monday the lockdown ended, so we are now able to go out in the daytime between 5am and 7pm every day. Beaches are still off limits for swimming, but it's amazing to have more freedom at last. I've been making the most of it, taking some forest walks and going into town to get art materials. Many shops are now open, in Bocas including department stores.
Being able to get out of the house during the day has been amazing in the hot weather, thankfully some thunderstorms have topped up the water tanks too. There was a fantastic lightning show across the bay a few nights ago. A party vibe has been in the air all day, since it's the first Sunday people have all been allowed to be out at once.
I've been working on a wooden sign made of nispero, or 'iron wood' as it is often referred to here. It's a challenge to work with as it is extremely hard, but this is also one of it's good points. Although it takes a lot of time to sand, the beautiful grain is a orangey-red in colour. After planing and sanding, I have used a soldering iron to burn the design into the wood, a technique called pyrography. After the varnish dries I will add some colourful tints, then add a final coat of laquer. The piece is for some friends at Old Bank Tea Garden and Coffeehouse, which will also be a live music/spoken word performance venue.
Just as we came out of lockdown a few cases of coronavirus were found in Bocas Town. One of the barillos has been quarantined for 2 weeks and those who are ill are to be housed in rooms at the old hospital. Numbers are quite low at the moment, and none have yet been found in Isla Bastimentos. It's been an uncertain time, as we are not sure if lockdown will return or if it will continue to be lifted under these circumstances.
The lockdown hours are still in place but little by little the rules are relaxing. Surfing is now permitted so hopefully before too long we'll also be able to swim and snorkel. I can see why the process is slow here, if the beaches of Bocas were to suddenly open this could trigger a rush to the area from other parts of the country spreading the virus to the islands from the cities, just as has happened with beaches in England. People would post their beach photos on social media and some would certainly be tempted to find a way to reach the archipelago, which is still thankfully without any cases of the dreaded Covid 19.
When I took my trip to town to buy veggies last week, there were certainly a few more shops open, but no hardware stores, though I hear some opened yesterday. It'll be great to buy the materials I need to paint and make some necessary repairs to the house. I'm planning to take a trip over there tomorrow.
My friend Michelle dropped off a big bag of chaya leaves from her garden, a plant which tastes very much like spinach and is full of iron. It's the first time I've tried it, it needs to be simmered for 15-20 minutes and chopped before you can eat it but it's so worthwhile, it's been ages since I had spinach and it's going into almost everything I eat!
Many nutritious fruit and veg, such as plantain, banana, coconut and papaya grow well here as well as medicinal herbs. One that I have used is bitter melon or Sorosi, a yellow flowering climbing plant , which can be used to bring down fever and cure many ailments. It grows plentifully here and quite often the vines grow into my house. Noni is also common here, an unusual tasting fruit which boosts the immune system as well as soursop or guanabana which is packed with vitamin C and antioxidants. It's juice and tea made from it's leaves is delicious.
I've been making ginger beer during quarantine, which I tried to make before but have not had the time to really concentrate and work out how to make it fizzy. The process starts with fermenting the ginger and sugar over 5 days to create the starter, though it is possible to skip this step and use instant yeast. The next step is to mix some of the starter with more sugar and ginger in an airtight container. In this climate it takes only 2 days. After that it needs to go into the fridge in a very airtight container to keep it carbonated. It's non-alcoholic but makes a great mixer for rum, to make a Jamaican Mule or a Dark n Stormy.
Cloudy skies this afternoon after a few really hot and humid days, feeling like thunderstorms may be approaching, which will be a relief, as well as some showers to top up my rain catch hopefully. It's now day 52 of lockdown here in Panama and while some measures have been relaxed, we are still confined to our houses most of the time.
A few of the restrictions have begun to lift, such as the 'dry law' or alcohol ban which has been in place since late March. We were all pleased to hear that, though the region's mayors overturned the ruling and it was briefly re-instated! Local stores now seemed to have decided to make up their own minds whether to sell it or not. From tomorrow, we are also allowed to exercise during our shopping hours, though as beaches are still closed, swimming is banned.
My 'time slot' to go out is between 5.30pm and 7.30pm on women's days, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This makes a trip across to Bocas Town rather difficult as at the moment, boats do not run after 6pm. If I need to get across to town for anything, I have to pay a boat to wait for me, or risk being stranded there. There are a few tiny shops here in Bastimentos where I buy most of my food, though the choice of fresh produce is rather limited.
I had an unusual visitor to my house one evening which gave me a shock. It was a female elephant beetle, according to my friend John who is an Entomologist. As you can see, the beetle is almost the same size as my hand, and when it flew towards my face it sounded like a helicopter. They tend to bounce around noisily inside a house crashing off the walls, so I caught her in a large bowl and released her onto the balcony.
In the last few days, I've been keeping busy doing some website work, adding a new page for my decorating services. Though my festival work in England is cancelled this summer, I'm grateful to still have some exterior house painting work scheduled.
On Friday an extension was announced to Panama's international travel ban. There will be no flights leaving or coming to the country until 22nd June, apart from repatriation flights, though this may be extended again, as it has before. I've decided to wait for commercial flights to restart and I can re-schedule my return tickets before I risk travel, and the possibility of getting stuck somewhere I would not choose to be. For sure, the islands of Bocas del Toro are the safest place for now.
There's a festive atmosphere this Sunday in town, with lots of people playing loud music from this morning onwards. Some of my neighbours have sound systems louder than the bar across the street. Sunday is the traditional party day here and it seems increasingly like we are on the road back to some kind of normality, though most would agree here, it'll likely be some time before the tourists return.
Hi everyone, this is my first blog post in this new part of my website. I'm currently in Isla Bastimentos in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro in Panama. I was due to return to England on 28th April via San Francisco, but with the international travel ban due to Covid-19 extended, it may be not until June or July that I am able to return to England. It's day 49 of quarantine here and we have thankfully had no cases of the virus on the islands, though there have been about 25 on the mainland of the province.
Panama responded fast to the outbreak thankfully, however the lockdown is serious here. For several weeks people have only been allowed out of their houses 2-3 times a week to shop for essentials at times specified by ID or passport number. Beaches are closed and it's not been possible to get out and paint, but life has not been too tough here. I have had the fantastic view of sea, and there have not been any shortages of food or water.
This area is Panama's largest tourist destination after Panama City, the economy depends on it, so I wonder how life here will change in the future. I'm hoping the uncrowded beaches of Bocas del Toro will be an attractive option for the tourists when the borders eventually re-open and businesses will be able to re-open. Tourism here is mid -range and mainly backpackers rather than high end or package style holidays. I hope they'll still be able to afford to get here once the restrictions lift and bring some financial relief to the area.
Isla Bastimentos has no roads, it is reached by water taxi from the nearest large town, Bocas town, on Isla Colon. These days few boats go back and forth, the sea between here and the neighbouring island Solarte is unusually quiet. Large pods of dolphins have been spotted nearby recently, so I keep one eye out on the bay as I work on my designs, in case I'm lucky enough to spot some enjoying the calm waters. I live in the middle of Old Bank, a lively town, but with the bars closed, it's frequently silent, which is at times a blessing and others rather eerie
I have been taking the time to recharge after a frantically busy start to the festival season, starting with Costa Rica's Envision Festival in January just after decorating a music venue here in Bocas. Starting the build there in January, I looked forward to a full season of painting at festivals both here in Central America and in England. Coronavirus was barely in our radar until it hit here when I was enroute to Tribal Gathering during it's last week of it's several days long schedule. At it's remote beach location there had not been any cases. After a few days there, it became clear that the country was poised to go into complete lockdown and I was lucky enough to make it back to Isla Bastimentos just before that happened, socially distancing myself at home for several weeks just in case of anything picked up on the way back.
We've been in lockdown over 6 weeks now, and I'm so grateful that the islands have not seen the casualties of most other parts of the world. Separated by sea, I hope that this continues to be the case. Hardware stores are due to open soon, so at least some maintenance work can continue and people can keep busy until the restrictions relax. It's hard to socially isolate when it's clear that there is no sickness here, but I guess it's easier to put restrictions in place than relax them. I'm looking forward to the moment I can shop for vegetables in a supermarket without rushing back for a boat home before curfew. And also for the hardware stores to re-open so I can buy paint! Still, these do seem to be small worries in comparison to those unable to visit sick relatives, working in hospitals or stuck in city apartments. Until my next post, take care and stay well!