“It was me, a girl from Germany and a guy from Japan,” Bocas tells me as we sit overlooking the Pacific Ocean. “The US Embassy awarded us three full scholarships to Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. We were the three winners out of more than 3,000 applicants. 3,000 applicants to 200 applicants. 200 applicants to 100. 100 to 50. Hold on…do you have a pen?”
Luis Delgado Bonilla is the third crackhead I have interviewed in Casco Viejo. He tells me he was born on October 3rd, 1964. When I ask how old that makes him, he accurately says 46. Luis looks 46, but on this particular Sunday morning, he is sweating profusely. His eyes frequently roll to the back of his head and his thoughts drift in and out of coherence, not entirely out of sync with the waves lapping up against the walls of the antiguo Club Union. It’s obvious immediately that Luis is somewhere in between incredibly drunk and nauseatingly hung over. When I hand him the pen he asked for, he places it in his pocket and continues reflecting.
I have been talking to Luis (who goes by the name Bocas because he was born just off the Bocas del Toro coastline) for roughly 10 minutes. He is explaining how he downgraded from studying engineering in the USA to parking cars in Casco Viejo for a living. This is a story that involves drugs, alcohol and can best be summed up (as Bocas puts it) “something of a tragic comedy.” His English is not impeccable but it is probably better than 80% of Panamanians. He asks politely if we can move the interview inside and so we go to my apartment off Plaza Bolivar. Bocas is undoubtedly the dirtiest and smelliest person to ever sit at my dining room table. It’s 9AM and when I offer him a drink, he opts for sauvignon blanc.
“I met Doctor Richard and his wife when they were walking in Punta Paitilla. I set up an appointment to talk to them about tours to Bocas del Toro. They’re quite a lovely couple Doctor Richard and his wife.” This is how Bocas speaks. His stories often have no beginning nor ending. His thoughts are incredibly clear and precise and eloquent yet they have absolutely zero development. They are like the lyrics to a amateur rap album. He uses words like “appointment” and “lovely” and often stops mid-way through to change the subject entirely. “Doctor Richard now owns a little hotel in Casco Viejo called…it’s called…”
I am aware that Richard’s hotel is called Casa Sucre, but at this point I seriously think Bocas has fallen asleep at my dining room table. I call his name and he sits up suddenly and reverts into a story about the torture techniques in the dungeons of Las Bovedas on Plaza Francia. These historic sound bites are almost like recordings he keeps stowed away. They are his default conversation pieces with anyone who speaks English. They are historically accurate and moderately gripping. “Prisoners would be chained up against the wall and when the tide came in, the water level would rise to their neck. But would this kill them? No. This would usher in the rats and ants, which would bite the prisoners to death.”
When I ask Bocas for something that no one knows about him, he says, “I speak English.” When I ask Bocas his favorite book, he chuckles and reveals that it’s a really good, almost insanely good question that he doesn’t know the answer to. When I ask Bocas if he’s ever been bitten by a rat, he says no, but he does “get nibbled by ants all the time.” Nibbled!!!
Bocas is by far the smartest squatter I know. I call him a squatter but I’m not even really sure where he lives or if he pays any rent. He is the type of guy who, if you cleaned him up, could legitimately be a valuable guest at any dinner party. But right now, he’s sitting on my dining room floor with his legs up over a chair, half asleep, trying to explain how Carlos Finlay and Mr. Gorgas invented a mosquito vaccine that essentially paved the way for modern day Panama and the Canal. I know this story so it’s easy for me to tell that Bocas is tired, very tired, and that he’s begun to make some of it up. For example, to the best of my knowledge, The Color Purple was not filmed on a set in Ancon.
If I had to describe Bocas’s personality in one word, I would probably go with something semi-obvious: Bocas is unpredictable. The worst two things I could say about him are that a) when he’s drunk he tries to pick me up by my ankles (but to his credit, the moment I say stop, he does) and b) he really smells: beyond that, Bocas is an affable fellow who is extroverted and not totally fucked up. Several days before this interview, Bocas caught me walking into the local chino and asked courteously if I could “invite him for a beer.” When I said I didn’t have any extra cash, he said, “well in this case, let me invite you for one.” This anti-logic is what I love about Bocas. He is like the mutant squatter: excessively polite and exceedingly unpredictable. He also stole my friend Blayne’s car, stripped and sold all of its parts, and was found driving it in Altos del Golf, high on crack. Did I mention he studied at Hopkins?
Besides being unpredictable, Bocas is also agreeable. He loves to affirm things. You could finish Bocas’s sentence with anything and he’d most likely smile or give a thumbs up and say, “yep” or “alright!” His favorite two books are “Ormantino” and “Corriour Team Boom.” I have looked both these up extensively and could find no such books on Amazon (which is synonymous with those books don’t exist). When he was leaving my apartment, Bocas stopped abruptly as if he had forgotten something. He turned to me and said, “hey, have you ever seen The Tailor Of Panama?” When I said I had just recently seen it, he smiled and said, “Great! Alright, Seeya.”
I suppose what differentiates Bocas from the rest of the street people (and in reality, from most people in general) is that you can never really tell what his true motive is. He’s just as interested in your dollar as he is your conversation and he just as interested in sharing history as he is talking about his friends. After our interview, I gave Bocas a $5 bill and thanked him for sharing his stories with me. In response, he said “I could not possibly accept such a gift.” I literally had to stick the money in his pocket in order for him to take it. This would not have been so unusual, had it not been compounded by the fact that just several hours later, Bocas came over and asked quietly whether I had any spare change for a cold Coke.