Background on my Bocas Del Toro Trip
I’ve tried several times to write about my Scuba Diving classes in Bocas Del Toro. To be honest, the reason I haven’t shared it yet is because even now, about six months later, it still pisses me off a bit. But it’s a story worth telling and I want to delete the notes from my phone.
Before going to Bocas Del Toro, I met a pretty cool chick named Maria (a totally different Maria from the rest of this story) who had lived in Bocas Del Toro for several years. She gave me some great advice on who to see and what to do. Her #1 recommendation was to go meet Dave at the bookstore. Sounded simple enough.
So, my first night in Bocas Del Toro, I went to meet dave at the bookstore. Dave is one of those guys that the moment you introduce yourself he acts like you’re an old friend. We polished off a couple bottles of rum. Or maybe I did that alone, not really sure. Next thing I know we’re off to another bar and he’s introducing me to everyone in town. That’s when I met Tony.
From what I can recall, Tony and I got along famously for about half an hour before he told me he has a Scuba Diving shop: Starfleet Scuba. I don’t know if he owned it or managed it or what. But they had a sale going on for classes. I explained my schedule to him, which included a 3 day conference in the middle of my stay. He told me it would be no problem to start the classroom stuff in the morning and finish my classes after the conference. I asked him what time I should be there and he said the earlier the better. Looking at my watch, I realized it was already almost 4 AM. There was no way I was going to make it before 10.
“Ten is fine,” he said. I went to bed.
Day One of Scuba Diving Lessons
Things were off to a great start. I showed up bright eyed and bushy tailed at 10:00. Kevin, my new instructor was waiting for me with a Germain girl who was also starting classes on that day. Kevin sat us in front of a TV and popped in the DVD that was the classroom portion. At around noon he came in and told us to take 30 minutes for lunch after this one, which we did.
It was about 1:00 pm when she and I returned from our lunch break. We sat in the classroom shooting the breeze. At around 2:00, Kevin popped in and said “I thought you guys were going to take a lunch break.” I scratched my head and the Germain girl explained to him that we’d been back for an hour now. He popped in another DVD and when he got around to saying, “let’s suit up and start our shallow water stuff,” I had to leave for the evening welcome to the conference. All-in-all, I was happy with how accommodating everyone was.
Scuba Diving Day Two
I had stopped in and told Kevin that I would be back to finish a day later than originally planned. I had met some great people and wanted to spend a day getting to know them outside of the conference. He said it was no problem but I would be working with the other instructor when I came back. I assume he had a day off or something. My new instructor was this absolutely gorgeous Colombian girl named Maria-Claire or Clara or something like that. She was a touch on the thick side, but resonated natural beauty. I was even happier at this point.
The first day with her she was fun and happy and really a great instructor. She took me out for my shallow water dives and explained everything thoroughly. Towards the end of the day a storm moved in and the water started to chill. While we were diving she began shivering and it was obvious she was freezing her ass off, but kept insisting she was fine until she just couldn’t take it anymore. When we finally got out for a little bit, she planned on getting into a warmer suit and returning but the storm really started kicking up and she decided to call it a day. Even though this was likely to cause my classes to require an extra day, I thought it was a good call.
Scuba Diving Day Three
I arrived at 8:00 AM and we immediately suited up. I checked my equipment as she’d showed me the day before and waited for instructions. Before she returned from changing, people started just throwing stuff in the boat. Suits, spare tanks, everything. Maria came back out and we loaded the boat on one end while the rest of the group who were not students loaded the other end.
When we arrived at our destination everyone started hopping around and shuffling gear around. An irritating task in such a small boat and it seemed to me that if everyone had just put their gear where they were going to sit instead of just throwing it in the boat we could have saved half an hour. It was at this point Maria started to panic.
For a host of reasons, mainly because their english was better than my spanish, I had chosen not to speak any spanish while taking this course. Everyone automatically assumed I had no idea what was going on when Maria started to freak out about leaving some of her equipment at the school.
She finally came up to me with an embarrassed look and said, “Jason, you are going to hate me.” I couldn’t help but think of how humiliated I would have been if, as an instructor in the Army, I had shown up to the training site without the appropriate tools. I felt sorry for her and continued to play ignorant. I told her “I won’t be angry, but I might laugh.” Besides, what could be better than being stranded with this beauty on a boat in the middle of nowhere?
She couldn’t bring herself to explain the situation to me so she went back to the other divers and begged one of them to let her use their mask and fins. One of them finally agreed and she came back with the fakest smile I’ve ever seen. When we got in the water, the mask fit fine but those fins looked like they were going to fall off every time she kicked.
Diving went fine after that. She looked so at peace and natural in the water. She would get so excited to show off the colorful fish and reefs. To be honest, I didn’t find anything down there as nice to look at as she was.
Despite the rest of the day going fine, she seemed to be awfully pissy by the end of it. At one point she tried to change my tank out for me and when I explained that I’d like to do it myself she snapped and stomped off saying “fine, do it yourself.”
When it came time to clean my gear at the end of the day, I patiently waited for everyone else to finish with the hoses. Then I systematically started cleaning my own gear, moving it from the dirty pile to the clean pile(which reminds me that I have a load of laundry to do). About half-way through, I turned around to see some guy running off with my clean stuff. I don’t know where he was taking it, but it sure wasn’t going in my basket. When the guy came back I gave him a look like I would punch him in the face if he touched my stuff again. He got the hint and left.
Day Four: The Last Straw
I had forced myself to show up for the final day. No point in wasting the $200 spent on the class. Besides, I figured now that I knew what to expect I could keep myself organized by cutting off stupid at the pass. I arrived about half an hour early ready to duke it out with Maria. She showed up about 15 minutes later with a smile and a pleasant “hello.” I was completely disarmed and expecting a great day.
She went into the building and came back out with a wrist compass. She gave a brief explanation of how a compass worked and went back inside. After about 15 minutes of waiting for her to return I poked my head in the classroom and saw her meeting with Kevin. When she finally returned she was back in bitch mode.
She started barking orders like a Drill Instructor and treating me like I had no idea what a compass was for. “Go there, now there, now come back. Why didn’t you rotate the compass thing (a bezel ring).” I thought about just playing along but decided I was here to learn, not to just follow orders.
One of the things I had spent significant time doing and instructing in the Army was land navigation. Of course I expected under-water navigation to be different, but I wanted to understand the differences and not just do them. So I asked why I would want to change the bezel ring. In most cases in the Army, adjusting your bezel ring once it’s set is an amateur’s move. In hindsight, I can think of several answers I would have accepted as reasonable, but I didn’t get any of those…
What I got was “fine, do whatever you want!” while she stormed off back into the classroom. She quickly returned and said “We’re leaving in 20 minutes. Go get your gear on!”
I went into the gear room only to find that all of my gear had been put back on the shelves and racks. I had had enough. One of the girls who had been watching, a friend of Maria’s from what I can tell, offered to help me go through the racks to re-outfit me. A process that would take about thirty minutes. I thanked her for her offer and walked out. I looked for Maria to return the watch to her but only found Kevin. I gave him the watch, shook his hand, and realized that I was so pissed off that I was shaking. He was visibly upset by my anger and tried to ask what had happened. I shook it off, said thanks, and left.
I spent the day Geocaching instead.
Later that night Tony’s band was playing at a bar. Kevin and Maria were there as well and I got the impression that Tony knew nothing of the situation, so I let it be. I offered the proverbial olive branch, in the form of a drink to Maria, to which she rolled her eyes and walked away. I spent the rest of the night bar-hopping with Kevin.
It’s really tough to say I would or would not recommend this place. Everybody was very accommodating and even Maria seemed like a great instructor when she wasn’t in ass-hole mode. The people in Bocas Del Toro I shared this story with responded in one of two ways:
“Wow, that’s surprising. They’re the best in town.” or
“Doesn’t surprise me one bit. They suck.”
The bottom line is they really need to work out some organizational problems, and figure out what Maria’s problem is. Give her a mandatory 3 day weekend each month if that’s what the problem was.
Of course, I didn’t think much of Bocas Del Toro to begin with so my real recommendation is to find someplace else to go altogether.
I ended up returning to David, Panama, and finding a Colombian hooker that looked a lot like her to take my frustrations out on 🙂