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Story by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tales


© 2011 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved


Some social icebreakers are universal; a smile, children, a friendly dogÖ and music. Live music bridges language and cultural gaps anywhere in the world. This is especially apparent when the performer has arrived aboard a sailboat. Cruisers are often either a curiosity to locals in developing countries or, if itís a popular destination, then just another yachtie. But play them a tune, sing them a song, and attitudes relax; blank stares are replaced by smiles. You're transformed into a fellow human being, a welcome guest, and a grassroots diplomat.

Iím a rock band refugee who long ago traded the stage for the deck of a sailboat. I can still play and sing, but my repertoire these days is a lot more laid back, an acoustic mix that naturally includes plenty of islands songs. Over the years Iíve entertained people - just for the fun of it - in many a foreign port, and been entertained in return. It adds another dimension to the visit, a special connection. My recent arrival in Bocas del Toro on the northwest coast of Panama was an especially happy example of this.

"Bocas" is a friendly, easygoing yet lively community sprawled across an archipelago of small islands. The cultural hub, Bocas Town where I was clearing in, has the weathered wood feel of a frontier town, with a broad main street used more by pedestrians and fat-tired bicycles than automobiles. Still, itís a pretty good place to re-provision, with well-stocked, family-owned grocery and hardware stores, one-man vegetable stands, two excellent bakeries and a beer warehouse. What more could a cruiser ask?

In the midst of it all a city park provides an informal social center for the locals, a cheerful blend of small-town Panamanians, Chinese immigrants, multi-national cruising sailors, gringo surfers, stoic Ngobe Indians, bilingual West Indians, 20-something backpackers, aging Anglo expats and some backwater characters straight out of a Jimmy Buffet ballad. (In fact, Jimmy himself shows up here from time to time.) Just walking around was fun, but then I stumbled into something even better.

It was a back porch jam session, a couple of oldtimers on a bench playing guitars and singing traditional songs behind a waterfront shed. It turned out to be a water taxi depot, and a dozen locals, mostly panga drivers, were hanging around listening and chatting. One fellow dozed in a corner. I leaned against a post for a while toe-tapping to the Latino rhythms. Someone gestured to an empty chair, smiling and nodding at me, so I sat. The music flowed.

A young man pulled out a small accordion and joined in; another added percussion by slapping on a barrel. Voices joined in on choruses or just laughed and hooted when the lyrics turned bawdy.


Then somebody handed me a guitar and I started playing along. They finished the song and, having noticed that I knew a few chords, invited me to play something for them. Sure, why not? I cut loose with the old Belafonte standard, Matilda, followed by an upbeat sailing song of my own, and finished with the perennial calypso favorite, Zombie Jamboree, the men encouraging me all the while with cold Balboa beers, occasional harmonies and crisp Latino guitar riffs. Water taxi skippers on the adjacent dock, who probably didnít understand a word of what I was singing, tapped their feet to the rhythms and smiled a lot. Aye, a good time was had by all!


By the time I tore myself away and headed back to my boat Iíd made a whole slew of new friends and I thought, ďWhat a sweet welcome to a new landfall!Ē This, after all, is part of what I cruise for, the connection I so appreciate. Next time I visit the water taxi shack Iíll bring my own guitar and a couple of six-packs of Balboa for the boys in the band.

~ End ~

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