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  • Joanna

Thanks, Paola…

Updated: Dec 10, 2021

My relationship with Paola, from Tao Travel, began in a quite positive manner. She seemed amiable and undeniably competent at her job.

A few weeks ago, she had sent me a WhatsApp message, letting me know that the boat I had originally booked for my San Blas Islands 2-day sailing tour, was out of commission… and she was hoping to transfer me to another boat. She described this new vessel as much larger, much more desirable… and much, much more expensive. But… always a but… because of my job inconvenience, they were going to honour my original (and already extravagant) payment.

Sounded like a win-win to me.


Our transaction was lovely. I thanked her for her kindness. She, in turn, thanked me for my understanding and my ‘cool vibe.‘


Our relationship deteriorated from there.

My cool vibe diminished rapidly.

As my sailing tour was set to be 2 days & 2 nights, I expressed a little bit of interest in perhaps spending some more time in the San Blas Islands. After all, I was in Panama for a couple weeks. A few days in an idyllic island paradise seemed appropriate… and well deserved.


Well… what an incredible coincidence… because Paola booked cabinas for a few of the islands there!


Score… ?

… a little foreshadowing here… no.


After leaving Costa Rica, and the excessive amount of driving and sightseeing I had done, I was desperate for some downtime. I wanted a real vacation. Whiling the day away, working on my tan, enjoying pink sandy beaches and turquoise waters seemed like a perfect idea to me, so I asked Paola to send me some information on the different island accommodations available.


She did… but only after I pestered her for a few days… and with such disregard, I felt like a real bother. She just kept sending me the invoice, which was enough to fully frighten me away. The information she sent regarding the bungalows were mere screen shots- and only provided costing, the name of the island, check out time, and whether or not there were private or shared bathroom facilities. Nothing else… like amenities, day tours provided, restaurant menus… reviews… nothing.


… and I did ask, but I was always met with, “it’s beautiful.”


Sometimes it’s beautiful doesn’t exactly cut the mustard when you’re handing over large sums of money to someone. I was desperate for the selling features, but no matter how hard I tried, I never received them. It was like pulling teeth. I did try to do my own island research, but each Google search came up fruitless.

Finally I decided to bite the very overpriced bullet… and book. I told her to chose two islands that I definitely would not be visiting during my sailing trip…


Easy enough request, I think.


She chose one night at Isla Perro Chico (Little Dog Island) in a cabana with a private bathroom and then two nights at Isla Wailidup in a cabana situated over the ocean… with a shared bathroom.

In total, the three nights (on land) totalled an approximate cost of $1000 Canadian… but meals were included. I kept reminding myself it was a once in a lifetime opportunity… right?

For the two weeks leading up to my San Blas departure, I asked Paola, on multiple occasions, to send me my itinerary. I like to know what I’m heading into… to a certain degree. I’m not really a fan of being blindsided or kept in the dark... about anything. Although she continuously assured me, she was working on it… it never arrived.


I was doing a mere FIVE days. Two on a sailboat… and three on land. Pretty convoluted itinerary to send to someone???... but what do I know?


Finally… with only two days left to spare, and other travel plans lingering on the back burner, due to her incompetence and sluggishness, I begged her to tell me what time I would be returning to the city on the 29th. I was trying to book a flight to Bocas del Toro for later on that day. She wrote back and assured me I would be back in Panama City by 12:30pm.

Perfect. Flight booked! Panama City to Bocas ~ 5:30pm.


The next day… and might I add, the day BEFORE my departure, I received my itinerary… FINALLY… informing me I would return to the city at 7:30pm.


Seriously? What the actual f—k?


This woman…


After a slight meltdown on my part, we worked it out… though every excuse she had, every text she sent me and every apathetic apology, only proved to piss me off more…


But enough about Paola… for now…

I was picked up the next morning at 5:15 AM…in a very cramped and crowded, all-terrain vehicle. There were 7 of us squished in… with luggage. It took approximately 3 hours to get to the port. We made one stop along the way, at the “Food Mart”… and I immediateky ordered a coffee, in a desperate attempt to kick start my vigor.


One of the other passengers sat down next to me, while I was sipping on my morning ammunition, and it was only due to a few things she happened to mention that managed to open my eyes to exactly where I was going and exactly what kind of primitive conditions I was journeying into.


~ No wifi.

~ No cell coverage at all.

~ No credit cards.

~ No charge accounts.

~ No ATM’s.

~ No stores.… which translated to no booze, no water and no snacks.


Thanks for the heads up, Paola…

Cash only… and although I’d been under the impression everything was all-inclusive, it was not.

$50 each way for the vehicle transportation.

$15 each way for the water taxi transportation.

$20 entrance to the marine park.

$2 for entrance to the port.


On top of this, I owed the sailing charter another $360…


I needed a minimum of $512US in addition to the outrageous prices I had already dished out.

God forbid I wanted to buy a beer or some local art from the Kuna people.

Out of the budget!!

It was all adding up quickly and, of course, I found myself at the mercy of an ATM that would only dispense cash in increments of $100. No more.


I held up the line… and the transport vehicle… as I hurried through each of my debit cards, trying to accumulate the necessary funds, as fast as I could.


… again… information that might have come in handy days ago… Paola…

The trip across the country, over the mountains and back to the Caribbean coast was astonishingly. We drove through the jungle on a rollercoaster road, filled with the usual potholes, missing asphalt, sharp turns and steep hills. A slew of water taxis were waiting for us when we arrived and it was the height of unorganized chaos, with all these chubby, little men running around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to assign us all to the proper vessels. None of us had a clue where we were going, what we were doing or where we were supposed to go.

We were completely at the mercy of the yelling and pointing.

From where I was sitting, the weather did not look good, at all… In fact, off in the distance, it appeared a horrendous storm was brewing and moving in quickly.

I was assured the weather in the San Blas Island was almost always perfect. Storms were temporary…


The San Blas Islands are a medley of 365 islands, lying off the north coast, east of the Panama Canal. There are a UNESCO world heritage site, Panama’s first marine park and home to the indigenous Kuna people.

If anyone reading this does not believe in global warming or the world‘s current state of climate change, they need to visit the San Blas Islands sooner, rather than later.

These incredible islands are disappearing at an alarming rate… and within the next 10 years, there will probably be no more San Blas. A simple walk around any of the beaches will confirm sea levels rising. Shoreline corrosion is evident and palm trees are being inundated and dropping dead, into the sea. Homes have been abandoned and islands deserted due to compromised fresh water source.


It‘s very sad.

Jorge, my sailing boat captain, was there to meet me at the port of a small island. This tiny Isla had nothing but a local restaurant, a lean-to shelter, an outhouse and a couple hammocks hanging from palm trees over the beach.

We had a beer on the balcony… and then made our way over to the boat, The Dike, to meet the family onboard - wife, Deicey (pronounced Daisy) and their 6 year old son, Liam. I placed Jorge around 50+ with his grey hair, rough sea abraded facial features and talk of his 24 year old son in España. Deicey’s age was harder to pinpoint. After telling me she only worked for 2 years as a waitress, before meeting Jorge, and calculating Liam’s age into the equation… I figured she was 26. On the final day, I heard her reveal to another passenger, she was 27.

They were kind… hospitable and very eager to ensure I felt welcome and comfortable. They spoke little to no English, which can be both a blessing and a curse at times. Brilliant for conversational practice. Hell when words escape you… or communication crumbles.

The boat, having been originally described to me as much larger, could hardly be described as large… at all… especially with 3 adults and a child on board. It was a little close for comfort and I congratulated myself on having only booked 2 days. The private cabanas were starting to look more and more desirable. Everything was awkward and congested, and I couldn’t help but wonder what my original boat had looked like.


My cabin was a little more than half the size of a single bed mattress, and I had no other choice than to share my mini bunk with my monstrous pack.

I had not been onboard more than 15 minutes, when along came Lisa. Looking more like a Tina Turner top fan, and less like an impoverished Kuna señora, Lisa was travelling to each vessel, selling her traditional, hand-embroidered tapestries. Admittedly, it was a little sudden, considering I had not even had a moment to adjust to my new surroundings. Lisa climbed right onboard The Dike, made herself at home, and started pulling out all of her Mola textile art merchandise for sale.

I was captive.

Out of kindness and pure politeness, I sat there, as she presented each quilted piece of material… oohing and aahing… and smiling enthusiastically the entire time. It was an awkward position to be put in… considering I knew the current state of available cash in my wallet. When she began to list off the prices… which fell into the $30+ per square category… I knew this was beyond my current financial capabilities.

I was honest about my cash situation and momentary lack of attainable funds. I liked the traditional art… but I did not need a square piece of quilted fabric that badly. I apologized for taking up so much of her time, agreed to buy one… and reluctantly chose my favourite of the bunch.

This is when Deicey stepped in… and offered to return some of the money I had paid them, so I could buy more from Lisa… if I agreed to wire them the money when I returned to the mainland. This was getting weird. It was all too bizarre and awkward for me to handle.


No.

I didn’t mean to be rude… but no. The last thing I needed was the hassle of wiring money. I had enough problems in my life trying to withdraw funds… let alone send it across the country for a few pieces of colourful, hand-sewn fabric. No.


My refusal didn’t deter anyone and Lisa agreed to drop the price to $20 each, on the condition I bought two.


Everyone was staring at me. I had nowhere to go. The pressure was as heavy as my ludicrous sense of obligation.


Fine.


I grudgingly handed over $40 and took two pieces of material. I had not even been in the San Blas Islands for 1 hour and I had already rid myself of all possible spending money. All for the sake of two potential pillow covers.

Shit.


I was even less elated when we arrived at a small, yet inhabitated island, and the elderly couple there were selling equally creative Mola art for $10 each.


Having just had my computer and camera stolen, I was hardly in the mood to be mistaken as a rich tourist and swindled.

And that’s exactly what I was… swindled.


This is one of the difficulties of travelling - putting your naive faith into people you fully believe should have your best interest at heart. I know better. Everyone in the tourism industry is out for themselves and everyone works off commission.

In the defence of Jorge and Deicey, they had no intention of originally taking me to that particular island. That was not one of their scheduled stops. But… when I first arrived, I told them the names of the islands I would be staying at after the sailing trip… and they just happened to be the exact same ones they were planning on visiting with me. Everything had to change,

thanks again, Paola…


The one thing I had requested when attempting to book accommodation, was to ensure I would be at different islands than those being visited during my sailing venture. Guess she didn’t understand that part… or just didn’t care.


The latter… more than likely.


After a quick swim and a walk around the two adjoining islands, we went back to the boat for a red snapper & rice lunch. It was during our little seafood feast, they told me a Chilean woman and her 8 year old son would be joining ship the following day.

Excuse me?

More people?

MORE people?

Inconceivable.


For a ship that had been initially describe to me as being quite large, it was definitely not large enough for four adults and two rambunctious young children.


I have to say it again… thanks for all the information, Paola…

What was presented to me… and what I had paid for… as an all-inclusive sailing charter, quickly turned into a full-on nightmare. Two days of discovering the most beautiful and undiscovered islands in the Caribbean Sea transformed into;


~ Horrendous weather.

~ Noisy and unruly children running from bow to stern, tossing their toys about and playing video games at full volume.

~ A chain smoker with a permanent seat, allowing all her cigarette smoke to waft into my insignificant cabin.


Due to the severity of the tropical storms that continued to plague these picturesque islands, we were unable to sail very much, and ended up remaining in one location for almost the entire duration of my time on board.


I was utterly at the mercy of too many people, children and their excessive noise, billowing second-hand smoke and the overwhelming & foul odour of motor exhaust. If I wanted to escape at all, I had to retire to the confines of my tiny cabin and just lie there, wishing my headache and my sea-swaying schooner stint away.


Stuck.

Many of my photos were taken in the momentary lapses of decent weather… though they were fleeting.


I spent more time on the original island than any other. Jorge enjoyed going there for a beer, and if I had any inclination of leaving the vessel, that was my only opportunity.


Four times.


I should’ve just booked here… would have saved myself a boatload of money… literally.


Karen, the Chilean woman, was absolutely enamoured with her own perceived attractiveness, and fancied herself somewhat of a glamorous Instagram model. If she wasn‘t smoking, she was enthralled in the process of achieving the perfect selfie. Believe me… there were thousands of attempts and positions. It was nauseating to watch. At one point, I even offered to take a photo for her… and OF her, of course. When I had finished and went to return the phone, she rapidly instructed me to take more. She obviously wasn’t done and I suddenly was thrown into the role of her own personal photographer… because she “likes a lot of photos of herself.”


Her camera roll proved this.

Yes… Jorge and Deicey were lovely people.

Yes… we ate fresh red snapper, lobster and octopus.

Yes… I saw a manta ray, a turtle and a starfish.

Yes… I was on a boat.

Yes… I was in the San Blas Islands.

Yes… when the rain stopped, everything was idyllic.


BUT… I was not allowed to poo.


Their toilet was broken so it wasn’t recommended. Try telling THAT to your body after copious amounts of beer, seafood, coffee and beans…


Now the pressure was really on…


Thanks, Paola…


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