Celebrating their 10th anniversary as owners of Cocomo on the Sea, Bob and Doug begin the night sitting on their dock, reminiscing about the day they made the decision to invest in the bed and breakfast.
It was after an earthquake, a tropical storm, and witnessing the aftermath of a double homicide, all within the first 24 hours of Bob’s arrival that Doug looked at his future business partner and asked him “So, what do you think?” Without hesitation the response was “I love it. It’s the Wild West. I love it.”
They had just sat down to breakfast in what is now The Casbah restaurant and ordered orange juice and omelets from a cute blonde American girl named Tennille. Then they saw their waitress leave, get on her bike and return with orange juice and eggs, ready to cook their order. I suppose you could say Bocas ran very efficiently in those days.
Bob and Doug were old friends from Cincinnati, Ohio (USA). Together they had trekked through Nepal, Costa Rica, and Cuba. They would sit on barstools back home and ask each other “So, where are we going next?” This time it was the Caribbean. This time it was Bocas del Toro.
Doug had read about Bocas in some travel magazines. He went down a few days ahead of Bob and instructed his friend to meet him at noon at Chow Kai. “What in the world is a “Chow Kai?” thought Bob. Nonetheless, he met Doug at Chow Kai, which he would discover was a hardware store and one of the older buildings in Bocas Town. When the Cocomo boys first arrived in 2002 it was a town center of sorts. “Everything was around Chow Kai,” remembers Bob. They met up, had lunch at the Buena Vista and then Bob went on his way to check his e-mail in a cyber café (nowadays the Natural Mystic restaurant).
The cyber café owner was a man from Argentina who is more famous in Bocas for selling late night chicken sandwiches out of a van and being very particular about the way people ordered them (imagine the “Soup Nazi” from the Seinfeld series). Bob chuckles as he recalls that in order to get to the computers you had to step over a bunch of large dogs that were sprawled out across the floor. Anyway, he stepped over 3 or 4 dogs, sat down at the computer and was checking his e-mail when the dogs’ ears started to perk up. His new canine friends all got up and left and then suddenly the people started frantically screaming about a “terremoto”. They immediately followed the dogs’ example and ran into the street. Bob would learn that terremoto was Spanish for “earthquake” and that he had just experienced one. It was not a serious ‘quake but it would not be the final natural disaster on his first day in Bocas.
Later on that evening, the guys were enjoying a meal at The Ultimo Refugio when a storm came through. Heavy waves began crashing over the back dock into the restaurant and the electricity went out. Everyone huddled together in the middle of the restaurant to stay dry. It was yet another moment of panic. The storm soon passed, and Bob and Doug decided to explore the nightlife Bocas had to offer.
“Really the only thing to do in those days at night was to hang out at the Loop, play pool and watch the kid come by walking his model airplane,” Bob recollects. The Loop was owned by German sailorman, Marcel. The bar was incidentally named by a Panamanian kid who could not spell the English word “pool”. He painted the word backwards on the sign and the name stuck. “No, it wasn’t just The Loop,” Doug chimes in, “Back then we used to hang out at Stefan and Olga’s place (El Pecado restaurant) and the Wreck Deck (presently El Barco Hundido),”
The following day they were on their way to the fateful breakfast at Tennille’s spot where they would agree to invest in an “eco lodge or something”. As they walked down Calle Tercera (main street) they passed a chalk outline of two bodies in the middle of the street. Apparently, a couple of brothers had violated a young lady and were later dragged out of the El Encanto bar and stabbed to death the night before in the middle of the street by the girl’s father and brother. Nothing like capital justice in the wild, wild west, but that wasn’t about to stop Bob and Doug from achieving their dream. They were ready to get out of the US and do something different, and despite the crazy things that had happened thus far, they were already in love with the place.
So here they are 10 years later and most of these places and faces are still around (with exception to the Argentine chicken sandwich/cyber café man). Some places have different names and new purposes. The people are a decade older but still smiling. Bob will admit the town is a great deal more developed, but despite that, he thinks “Not much has really changed, except that there weren’t many young people that came here before. It was surfing that changed that. When people discovered you could surf here, more young people started to come.” At least one other thing as changed. The kid walking the model airplane at night, well, he can even sometimes make it fly now, but that’s a story for another day.