With my limited Spanish I couldn't understand what the official at the Panamanian aduana (customs) was saying to me.
Only later did Darren say that he, too, could not understand the man. This was because the official was drunk. It was only once I realized this that his question made sense.
He kept asking it over and over, and finally I answered. Him: "Are the red people of New Mexico taller or shorter than us?" Me: "I'm sorry, but they are taller, but the red people of Panama are more handsome". This seemed to satisfy him, but there was one last technicality: before he would issue my importation papers, we had to chug a beer together. He insisted on this, and I'm not one to flout the local regulations, so the whole office downed one together.
He then insisted on me having another but I told him that, riding a moto, it's not such a good idea, so he stuffed a cold one in my pocket. Darren, waiting in the sun, wondered what took so long. I told him there had been a lot of hoops to jump through. This was after having to put our bikes through a pointless fumigation, not quite killing any germs but certainly getting enough nasty chemicals on us, so he understood. Darren: "They didn't make you drink any beer, did they?" I didn't answer.
We made our way to Bocas del Toro, a beautiful, gringo-y island, and we rented ATVs because we had never done that before. The all-terrain vehicles were pretty capable until they met their match at a fallen tree that we didn't feel like lifting the ATVs over. Then we turned around on the narrow trail, nearly backing my ATV into a web with filled with enormous, strange-looking spiders. This was great because it gave me an opportunity to practice not freaking out and then, failing at that, to continue functioning anyway. Darren has photos of the spiders but I'm not putting them here because I don't like photos of spiders.
On the way to Bocas del Toro, we met a Peace Corps volunteer who recommended a remote village that was trying to develop its tourism base. She said they had good rafting, and never having rafted before, we decided to give it a go. Getting there involved getting really, actually lost for the first time on our trip, costing us precious daylight hours, and by the time we got to the village, crossing a waterfall in the road on the way, it was getting dark. A guy on a bicycle said he was our host, so we followed him around, first going up a slippery, wet clay mud hill. I was tired and it was rough going, the fully-loaded bike kicking up mud and skittering beneath me, but we made it and I consoled myself knowing that I wouldn't have to go back down until the next day — going back down is always hairier since stopping is harder. Of course, I then found out we went the wrong way and now, darker outside, I had to go back down. Anticipating washing out the front end or losing control and just bombing down the hill, I got to the top, looked down, and had an epiphany. I needed to go slow and I needed to use engine braking, slowing only with the rear wheel, but I would be going too fast even for first gear to slow me. So I turned the engine off, put the bike in first gear, and slipped the clutch. Moving off the edge, I could feel the bike get down into the ruts, the rear wheel slipping and the bike moving sideways. I let up a bit on the clutch and the bike started going faster but became more stable. As we went faster I fought the urge to hit the front brake, which would put me face-first into the mud. I couldn't see much and had to go by feel, choosing between going slow enough and staying stable, but finally the bottom approached, that welcome flat asphalt, and I knew my trick had worked. I had survived my first test in Soloy.
That night we were quite hungry, having rode all day and having skipped lunch, but both the comidors (small, simple eateries) were closed, so we bought tienda (convenience store) food from a shop powered by a partly-dismantled Isuzu Trooper. Dinner in our ramshackle room consisted of mass-produced rolls, slices of American "cheese" that tasted like petroleum-byproduct, and limón-flavored mayo. We ate by headlamp and roshambo'd for the last piece of cheese. I won and immediately regretted eating it. I then slept in my bivy sack, hot and sweaty but safely-sealed against creepy-crawlies. Darren laughed at me until the next day.
We then got down into the hardcore business of rafting a river that most people don't bother with. Our guide was competent and trustworthy and this, our first rafting outing, would be good preparation for future outings.
We then had to wait two hours in torrential rain for our ride. The tourism infrastructure isn't quite there, but with each new customer they get better and they really, really appreciate your business.
We looked forward to sleeping elsewhere that night but a tree blocked our path out so it would be one more night in Soloy with a little chicken soup and rice for dinner. Back in the hut we discovered the rain had drawn a half-dozen scorpions into our room but after a cursory look we put off a full de-scorpioning until the next day.
The next morning, some local kids played with us while we inspected all our stuff for hidden scorpions. Remember from Nicaragua that the scorpions love the nooks of our moto gear.
We left for Panama City, and once safely back in civilization we took pleasure in such small things as making purchases and eating things of our choosing. Also I slept outside of a bivy sack, which was great! Though we had to share a dorm room with some Israeli girls who decided to block our lockers with their bed. It seemed strange to me that Israelis would just take over our space without asking. I mean, I know they felt entitled to it, but we were there first. Oh well.