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One day in Bocas del Toro an indigenous man dropped by with a parrot to sell me. I knew I wasn't going to be here long enough to buy pets, but I had owned a parrot when I lived in South America as a kid, and I always wanted another. I figured that when I left Bocas I would let him go, like I did my macaw in Cochabamba.
As long as he was there, I decided to ask him about the indigenous culture. Not necessarily how they lived now, but what their history and traditions were.
“What island are you from?”
He told me he was not from an island, he was from a place called Punto Valiente. It was the end of the mainland that formed the western land side of the archipelago.
“When did your people arrive there?‟
I got the look. The look that says "I don‟t get you‟ that is omnipresent with the indigenous here.
“I mean, did your people come from somewhere else, migrate here?”
“No, señor, we have always been here.”
All of a sudden I was aware that I was either in the Garden of Eden or a land where people had no oral traditions. I was not going to get a story about a magic turtle that brought forth human habitation, or something equally as entertaining, so I dropped that line of inquiry.
“What foods do you cultivate?‟ I asked.
“Oh, we grow bananas, and coconuts.”
Not much effort in that I thought. Hell, you have to dodge falling coconuts around here, and bananas grow wild or with very little cultivating needed. That is unless you are growing for export, which of course is a major industry in this banana republic.
“You must eat more than coconuts and bananas. What is a normal meal in your village?”
“Rice and beans, and for a special occasion we kill a chicken. Sometimes we gather turtle eggs or kill a turtle.”
I was not in the mood to get judgmental, so I let that pass.
“So do you cultivate rice?”
“No we buy it from the chinos. They keep raising the price, so life gets tough and we have to do things like capture parrots so you gringos will buy them. With what you paid me for the parrot, I can buy enough rice for my family for two weeks.”
After he told me about a few root crops they grow and eat, which sounded like a native version of sweet potatoes. He talked about the many varieties of fish the consumed. I decided to change the subject. I wanted to know about any mythologies they might have.
I could not quite phrase the question clearly, so he said “You mean like the red submarine?”
“What do you mean?”
“Every year or so, a red submarine surfaces off of Punto Valiente. People dressed in red, even with red hoods, come off the submarine and capture some of our children. They only take the very young. They take them back to the submarine and we never see them again. It is quite sad, but we cannot stop them. We do not know where they come from or where they take our children. We report it to the government and they think we are crazy.”
I filed that one away under I for Implausible. I did not know I was going to have to open an M file for mind-blowing.
He went on. “There is also a ten foot tall Cyclopes that lives in the jungle. He used to come out more often. Our grandfathers often found him stealing food and would chase him away. Now, with as many people as there are in the village he is seldom sighted. He does not like people with two eyes. Sometimes he captures someone, and we never see that person again either.”
“A Cyclopes? A ten foot tall person with only one eye? What happened to his other eye?”
“No no. He only has one eye, in the middle of his forehead. It spins around and changes colors like a toy that children look into and twist.”
OK, now the Cyclopes had a kaleidoscope eye. This was getting rich.
“Are you sure these people just don‟t die in boating accidents?”
“Oh no. We are very safe in our Cayucos. We have been using them forever; we know what we are doing. Also, we stay away from the black hole.”
OK mind, open a B file for bullshit please. “Black hole?”
“Oh yes. About 200 yards directly off the point there is a black hole in the ocean. Boats that pass over it get sucked in. Not only our cayucos when we are dumb enough to go near it, but also bigger boats. The hole also sucks in airplanes.”
“C‟mon, you cannot be serious.”
“Why not, you gringos have your Bermuda Triangle. You believe that don‟t you? Why don‟t you believe me?”
“Have any gringos ever seen any of these things?”
“Yes, oh yes. Charlie Smith. He shot his cannon at the red submarine, and he chased the Cyclopes man back into the jungle when he tried to steal food from him.”
This story only deserves an R file for remarkable.
“Who is Charlie Smith, and how did he have a cannon?"
“Charlie Smith was one of three Unites States army soldiers that were assigned here during the Second World War. The army dropped them off at Punto Valiente with a lot of concrete, a big cannon, and some big bullets for the cannon. They were told to build a fort on the top of the point so they could protect the Panama Canal. They built this big concrete structure. Very fancy. Our grandfathers helped them and were amazed at how they mounted the gun so it could shoot in any direction. When it was complete, they test fired it and all the birds on the point flew away. They did not come back for a week. When the red submarine appeared, they were sure it was Japanese or German so they fired on it. That was the only year we did not lose any children.”
“They were there for the entire war, were they?”
“Even after. The army forgot they were there. It wasn‟t until early 1946 that their families contacted the army and wanted to know what happened to them. Then a boat came and took them away, but not their children.”
“Of course, you don‟t think three healthy young men would not have children with our beautiful women do you? In fact they had so many that there is now a small village of blonde haired blue eyed indigenous we call the poor gringos. One of the soldiers did not want to leave, that was Charlie Smith. He was very upset that he had to leave his harem behind. The women all cried when they put him in handcuffs and led him to the boat.”