Walking the back streets can seem a little daunting. I know, I do it all the time. You find yourself in places that are a little uncomfortable, out of your comfort zone. In fact, it is a culture shock.
Usually, when people travel they go to tourist spots and focus on carefully pre-planned stuff to do. For example, on the main island of Bocas Del Toro, you walk down the strip, go to a nice restaurant, and buy a ticket to a boat tour that will take you to a nice beach. Thats fine, and you should do it because it is part of the experience.
But to get a little deeper into the culture, all you have to do is walk a few streets back into the neighborhood and you will see a different world. Yes, it is dirty, yes, it may not smell very good. But if you stop looking at the poor conditions and look at the people, your perspective will start to change.
You will see grandmothers sitting on porches watching the world go by. And if you smile and wave, they will wave back in a friendly way. You will see kids making games out empty plastic bottles and fishing line. Stop and watch for a minute. try to figure out the rules of the game and how to win. It puts you in a completely different frame of mind. All of a sudden you really “see” them. they notice you and all you have to do is smile. No need to even speak the language. People may look nervous about your presence at first, after all, you are in their “territory” But a smile seems to override any negative feelings. Soon you will find yourself forgetting about your own fears and getting out of your own head for a minute to actually connect with happy kids playing in the street. And that is when you realize, poverty is not what you think it is.
People are relaxed. They are living full lives. They have a lot of family and friends around. They take time to pat each other on the back and chat for a while. They don’t rush. They are not in a hurry.
It’s very refreshing.
Along the back streets you will see the places the locals shop. The grocery stores are small and dingy looking and they don’t have the selection of the ones on the main drag. But they do have the simple necessities for living and they are MUCH cheaper than the ones the tourists see. Stop and buy a bottle of water or candy bar. It gives you a moment to connect with the seller. They may look at you funny when you first walk in because you look different. But, again, just smile. If you know a few Spanish words, use them, even if you think you sound foolish (which you probably do) They are happy you are trying to communicate and it will immediately open doors for a better connection.
Take a look around the store while you are in there. take note of what is on the shelves. That gives you clues about what people live on in that area. Chances are you will find big bags of rice and lots of cans of tuna and sardines. You will find canned powdered milk and rotten looking bananas (that are actually perfectly ripe and very sweet) You will also find cleaning supplies, lots of bleach. In spite of the dirty living conditions, every kids goes to school in sparkling clean school uniforms.
You will also find candles with pictures of saints on them and incense marked with things like “prosperity, wealth and success”. This shows you the people are into alters in their homes. They take their mix of Catholicism and old religion very seriously. See how much you are learning?
Leave the grocery store and head further down the street and you will see barber shops for the men and beauty salons (very small and dingy) for the women. Stop for a minute to see whats going on inside and you will find guys having fancy designs shaved into their very short hair and women getting their nails painted in every color and design you can imagine. Again, these people are not as poor as you think they are. Personal grooming is extremely important to them. As you leave the shop, look in the street and see how people ar dressed. You will find fancy handbags and nice sneakers, high heels and jewelry. This is all part of learning to connect. In order to understand a people, you need to slow down and pay attention to the details.
Keep walking and you are bound to find some place to eat. Most likely it will be extremely small, like 2 tables and 8 chairs. It will probably be dark inside (that keeps it cool) and any menu will either be written on the wall somewhere or inside you server’s head.
If you are brave enough, stop and have something to eat. This is one of the BEST ways to experience another culture. My secret to not getting sick is to stop places that seem busy. No one wants to get sick and the locals know the best places to eat.
If you have no idea what to order and are very adventurous, just ask the server to bring you whatever they think is best. You may find yourself with a bowl of soup sitting before you that has bones of some unknown animal in it and huge chunks of root vegetable. Don’t worry, most of the food is either beef or chicken. It may look funny, but it is bound to taste good.
Walking the back streets may take a little bit of courage and I would not suggest it at night or in big cities. But small towns are full of people just like you and me. And in all honesty, you will never really see the people if you don’t go to where they live. All you will see is people trying to make a buck in a tourist town and that is not a very fair sampling of who really lives there.