Central America / Creative Writing

Loco Locals and Pickled Expats – Life in the Tropics

Here’s a short excerpt of a stream-of consciousness piece that was written shortly after I’d moved to a sweltering, isolated, jungle-covered island in Central America, and was trying to capture how I felt.

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Aerial view of Bocas del Toro, Panama. Central America, Caribbean

What paradise looks like from above?

… At Camp Gringo, the main concerns seem to be running out of booze, running out of insect repellent, and running out of other people´s wives to sleep with. The air conditioning pumps out a constant stream of lucidity, the only thing that allows you to think straight in this cauldron of heat and humidity and chomping insects. The expats dull these moments of clarity with rum and tobacco, and the fuzz of late night bars. Even the sea provides little respite in the warmest moments, after just two days of sunshine the water is like a bathtub, and the anticipated relief as toes hit saltwater does not come. Swimming in eighty degree water leaves you feeling like you´re sweating – is that possible? The colour, the deep greens and pearly turquoises of the flat Caribbean sea are more of a relief than the temperature. A relief from seeing tiny ants – real or imaginary? – crawling in  and out of my laptop, skirting round the fruit bowl, erupting from the bin and scampering round my dinner plate.  A relief too from the real itching, the imagined itching, the itching of old bites, of new stings, of creeping chitras, of caked sand and dried salt and sweat and sunblock and citronella, the greasy sensation of all these substances reacting and repelling and irritating in equal measures. The clammy hair and tickle of a tied bikini on your neck, salt on shaved legs and spindly starfish spines in soles.

The Caribbean waters off Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Starfish in the warm waters of the Caribbean

My skin, ever reluctant to turn brown, has turned the yellow of compromise. I glow. I shine. The heat dulls my hunger, and the kitchen humidity makes food preparation hellish; the ceiling fan blows out the stove´s flames so salads are in and everything else is out. The bin ferments and – despite dousings of bleach and boiling water – houses flies and worms and even a sickly white gecko live in its warm, putrid darkness. There is a jungle outside, why do all these creatures choose to live here?

Dusk brings the promise of cool air, of the ocean breeze. It also brings chitras, tiny black grains that pepper my ankles and calves, leaving red welts many times bigger than themselves. Is that a bug? Is it dust? Is it dirt? Is it sand? I scratch them into my skin, I flick and rub and obsess.

Cayuco ride on Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Navigating one of the island’s rivers in a cayuco

In town, across the twinkling waters, the bugs are fewer, replaced by leech-like men: loco locals and pickled expats, attracted to light eyes and freckles and exposed skin like moths round a candle. “Hermosa” they say “Que bella!” They give you a hibiscus, a blessing, a kiss on the back of your hand. They call you an elf, an angel, and ask after your boyfriend, and their bloodshot eyes are mournful and lost and lonely.

But you´re a gringo and you´re too pissed to care, you´re sweating it out on the dancefloor with the other gringos, you´re stripping off your sweaty rags and diving into the ocean. You hang out with your gringo mates and complain about all the travellers, how they ruined this place, how they´re just everywhere, how they´re so drunk and noisy and disrespectful. Then you go and puke into the sea.

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4 thoughts on “Loco Locals and Pickled Expats – Life in the Tropics

  1. So few bloggers can actually WRITE, and stream-of-consciousness is their excuse to throw structure and editing out the window. Your piece was great, though.

    • Thanks Gilson, I’m pleased you enjoyed it. I find the best writing happens when the words just tumble spontaneously onto the page, though it’s pretty hard to plan those flashes of inspiration!

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