There’s a man known in Casco Antiguo simply as Bocas. His look is non-threatening like that of a dove and he knows, or at least pretends to know, everything important about the old quarter.
The first time he approached me was several years back, when I was walking, with a few visiting friends, from my car to a restaurant called Las Bovedas. He looked at me and immediately invented the fact that we had met before. He smiled and held out his hand the way you might with an old college buddy. “Hey amigo, I think I see you in Mystik yesterday night!”
I started to doubt him because in addition to never going to Mystik, I could pretty much guarantee Bocas hadn’t ever been there either, much less the night before. When I told him this, he shrugged it off as if to say, oh well, it was worth a shot.
Bocas didn’t stop there though. He walked with me and my friends down the paseo with an umbrella in hand talking about various historical landmarks. He definitely had his shtick down, citing various spots where soldiers were tortured and other corners where Capitan Morgan stopped for a sip of rum. He actually appeared, in some regards, to be semi-encyclopedic. A modern day Casco-savant.
As I came to befriend Bocas, I learned that he spent some time in the United States studying, of all places, at Johns Hopkins University. Bocas had lived on 38th street and Charles for some time scrutinizing over electrical engineering with the best and brightest students of the time, after which he returned to Panama to escort tourists the narrow passageways and cobblestone streets of Casco Antiguo.
The funniest part about Bocas though, is that when he doesn’t know the answer to a question, he’ll make it up. I’m pretty sure this is the first thing they teach you NOT to do in tour guide school, but that’s just further evidence that Bocas has never been there. I find this creativity to be far more exciting and entertaining than his bread-and-butter historical accounts, and over the years, I have learned to exploit this side of Bocas. I have learned how to induce his falsehoods so well, that it’s almost become something of a show.
“Oh hey Bocas” I’ll say, as he pops out from behind a park bench or appears out of the underbrush. “Can you explain to my friends just how exactly the Spanish colonials used that little hole over there to hide their candy?”
“Oh yes Matt I can explain that” he’ll say, with all the confidence and authority of a school teacher. “What them did was, them take all they favorite candy…” at which point I’d interrupt and ask for clarification. “What kind of candy exactly are we talking here?”
“Well, all kinds. You know the Starburst, the M&Ms, the Snickers bars, yeah? So they take they candies and put them hiding for so no one finds them. This hole they put them in, right here, this hole.” He’d point to the equivalent of a drain cavity on the side of the road, probably plowed by the wheel of a large garbage truck.
My friends would stand in awe, not so much amazed by the history of Casco Viejo, nor by the encyclopedic knowledge of Bocas, but rather shocked by the amount of candy that one can fit into small hiding spaces.
Another time, I stood at night with several new visitors overlooking the old Club Union and the sparkling Panama City skyline. Bocas appeared from out of nowhere. “Hey! I pretty sure I see you guys at Buzz last night, right?”
I had been pointing out at Punta Pacifica, showing my friends where, in relation to other large buildings, the famed Trump Tower was supposed to erect, but then Bocas chimed in. “Yep, I think it go right there next to the nice building with lights.”
Sort of egging him on, I raised the following question: “Does anyone know where the Batman Tower is supposed to be? Or the Snoopy Club? Where’s the Snoopy Club supposed to be built?”
“Oh yes” he ran with it. “I think that Batman one and the Snooky one is right over here.” He pointed at El Chorillo, the last place in the world you could imagine a new tower being built, much less one called Batman or Snooky. “They is going to be very nice projects definitely, the Batman and the Snooky.”
Bocas offers tourists to the area not only helpful insight, but some of the wittiest improvisation you’ll hear in our time. He has a way of speaking of far-fetched facts as though they are right under your nose, and it is this expertise that always has me coming back for more.