A Parrot, Spice and the National Guard in Bocas del Toro, Panamá
I first walked across the border from Costa Rica to Panama in Sixaola with (my now ex) wife. We had some money in our pockets, were vegetarians and vegetarian chefs and wanted to open – you guessed it – a veggie restaurant. It was a risky venture and we were one of the first in Panama and definitely the first in the Bocas province and islands.
So I found 2 shacks connected by an outhouse over the water on Carenero (facing Isla Colon). I signed a 2-year rental contract and hired some local carpenters. Within 3 months, I had a house, complete with kitchen and a covered, over-the-water terrace for the restaurant. We named it 'Spice'. We were in business and our cuisine focused on Mexican fare using tofu and gluten we made ourselves – a lot of work, I can admit. (We did later add lobster and seafood to attract more local business.)
During the construction, I acquired our best marketing tool. It was a green parrot that I named “Queso” (cheese in Spanish) because she couldn't get enough of the stuff. Since I don't believe in maiming animals, I didn't clip her wings. (If she wants to stay, great. If not, so be it...) So once Spice was open, she would hang out in a tree beside the restaurant, in her perch-house in the bedroom or just walk around – waiting for a cheese handout. As a result, she could mooch by ground or air!
After a few months in business, we got a boost from the US National Guard. Back then the States built a temporary camp in Changuinola. The Guardspersons came in 2 week deployments to build or repair schools, roads, water systems – whatever was necessary. Great initiative!
We had a boat and boatman to ferry the hungry to and from Carenero to Bocas Town. One day I was out back and heard the boat pull up. The wife and staff were busy so I went out to meet the guests. Enter Spike and Mike – Master Sargents Air and Ground respectively. I would happily learn later that they would be the only permanent people stationed in Changuinola throughout the military operation.
We introduced ourselves and I took their taco order. Out trotted bowlegged Queso (clack, clack, clack). How she knew tacos were in the works, who knows? I asked the Sargents if they wanted a beer or mixed drink. Spike replied that no one was allowed to drink alcohol during the mission. Just for fun, I asked what they would order if they could tie one on. In response to their request to my recommendation, I said, “Rum & Coke, of course. You are in the Caribbean and don't you ever listen to Jimmy Buffet?” Got a Yes and a laugh.
I went to the kitchen and with the order and thought, “Why not?” These men are working hard in a hot climate and deserve some relief. I took 2 bottles of cold Coke and poured out half of each. Guess what I replaced it with?
When delivered, the Sargents immediately noticed that the Coke was a little clear but didn't say a word. Ground to a long pull and started to cough. Air looked me straight in the eye and downed his in one long gulp. They asked for 2 more.
When I came back with their food and 3 more Cokes (I was thirsty too.), Spike was sitting there comfortably and Queso was happily sitting on top of his head! It was hilarious. (This became a tradition that the locals watched for. Whenever Spike came in, he would stand up in the boat so all could see – he was 6' 2”. Eventually the parrot would even fly out to meet him. And guess where she always landed?)
That afternoon started a tradition that kept our restaurant open for a year. The Sargents made a rule that anyone who wanted to dine off base had to come to Spice. Period. Somehow news of the special Cokes out back leaked out too.
This led to me meeting a lot of very nice and dedicated people over the year. Two occasions stand out in my mind. The most fun was a group of Hawaiians. Their commander came out one day and asked if they could have a Luau. My house connected to the beach in back so I said, “Come on.” Next day, 12 of them showed up in native costume complete with their with drums and ukuleles. Everyone had special drinks and a great time. We even made the local news – good for business. The most rewarding occasion was when of the local 3-year old children went too far out in the bay and got caught in a small riptide. She was going under fast. By shear coincidence, there was a group of 5 medics relaxing on the deck. They saw what was happening, dove in immediately, checked the child out and took her to her mother.
Eventually the soldiers left, my ex and I split up, I gave Queso to my cook, got rid of the restaurant and moved to Panama City to manage a newspaper. I will never forget the good times at Spice with my military friends and Queso though. I hope they are all doing well.