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Sunday, August 4, 2013

From Gringo Serial Killer to Mahjong Players: Expats Stranded in Paradise, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Boating, waterfront lifestyle lured Judy to Bocas
Story, photos by
Carola C. Reuben
Security may stop me from boarding a plane with the chunk of heavy metal in my carry-on suitcase, I was fretting as I entered the airport in Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA.
I was taking a boat part to my friend in Panama who needed it to get her boat fixed. She depends on her boat whenever she leaves home, whether to see another human or to buy groceries.

My luggage cleared security, after all. However, relief did not last. Soon I met a Panamanian couple who warned me about the American serial killer who used to lurk where I was heading.

Beware of the Gringo Serial Killer

Ten cuidado con el Loco Bill ( Beware of Wild Bill ),” Kira and Dino Tejada exclaimed in unison. Panamanians say that whenever someone mentions a trip to Bocas del Toro, they laughed. The couple was returning to Panama City after a Bahamas cruise.   
As it turns out, though, the, gringo mass murderer, William D. Holbert, is no longer a threat. He has been jailed in Panama since July 30, 2010.
He confessed to killing five US expatriates in Bocas; he was also a suspect in the murder of two Panamanians. With the help of his wife, Laura M. Reese, he befriended the expats, killed them, then stole their money and properties.
I landed in Wild Bill’s killing fields two flights later.

Outside the tiny airport in Isla Colon, the most developed island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, I looked for my friend, Judy Chisholm. 

Mario led me out of touristy Isla Colon

 Instead, Dan Evers, a US native
and veterinarian, appeared in the steamy heat to tell me Judy’s substitute boat had also broken down. So, she had arranged for Mario the boat mechanic to give me a ride to her house.
Later Mario arrived to deliver me from the tourist-packed island, infested with motels and bars, where taxi rides are 60 cents for locals, $2 for gringos (photo above.)

We sped away on the Chriqui Lagoon in a small power boat.

Stranded on a Wild Green Island
About 20 minutes later Judy’s house appeared, a solitary square of white on top of water, rising on stilts in front of a green horizon (photo, top of story.) 
Behind the house there were no roads, just mangrove jungle; in front, only water. We were marooned there until a boat could be repaired.
Meanwhile we were connected to a wider world via internet, TV from a satellite dish, two cell phones, and in case of emergency, a horn, loud enough to be heard if boaters are passing by.
Also, there were appliances that worked with electricity from a solar system. However, Judy said, “this is a rainy day, not a day to use the vacuum cleaner, washing machine or microwave.”
I was visiting the end of June to escape the tedium of trying to sell or rent out my property in Boca Raton, FL, USA.
Judy used to live in Boca Raton. She left three plus years ago, drawn by a waterfront lifestyle and lower cost of living. 
Now her new house is up for sale. “The simplest things are so complicated. It finally got to me,” she said.

The next morning Judy exclaimed, "We can get out !"

Mario the mechanic had delivered a repaired boat, but then we could not leave because of the pouring rain.
Meanwhile to keep the boat from filling up with water, Judy ran into the rain every two hours to switch the boat’s water pump on and off.      
The rain finally stopped by late afternoon, but the weather had discouraged some expats from attending a weekly mahjong gathering.
On the now tranquil water, Ngobe and Bugle Indian children paddled by in dugout canoes, wearing elementary school uniforms (photo below.)

They are among the inhabitants of three sparsely populated islands in Judy’s San Cristobal neighborhood. Unlike the foreign residents, the Indians live in shacks without electricity. 
* * * 
The next day the weather was tranquil enough for an excursion to buy supplies.
The closest place to shop is touristy Isla Colon, but it is also the most expensive. So, Judy chose to drive the boat 30 to 40 minutes to Almirante on the mainland, then ride inland another 40 minutes in a public van to a big town, Changuinola (population 18,000).
Both towns are still at the center of banana empires.   

From Banana Pioneers to Expat Adventurers

In the 1890s foreign banana barons started buying huge tracts of land in Bocas del Toro province, according to “Outline of History of the Province of Bocas del Toro, Panama” by Clyde S. Stephens.  
Today Chiquita Brands International warehouses still stand on the waterfront in Almirante (photo below), and the dark-skinned descendents of banana workers sit at a table on a dock, playing cards and drinking beer. Their ancestors were imported from Caribbean islands, starting in the early 1900s.

We returned from the banana capital with a boatload of supplies, including imported Pringles potato chips, Betty Crocker’s brownie fudge mix, and food for Judy’s sick old cat, young cat, and dog. 
A big tomato fell into the water as we unloaded the boat. Judy twisted her body under the dock and plunged her arm into the water to retrieve it. “I am not giving it up,” she declared, considering the long shopping trip.  

Days rolled by as we savored the salty wind in Judy’s home. She played solitaire on the computer and took calls from potential home buyers on I went swimming in water shoes to avoid contact with the sea urchins.   

Finally, it was social Sunday at Rana Azul. Twice a week the restaurant opens in an Austrian couple’s yard; some Sundays as many as 40 neighborhood expats arrive on their boats.
That day a man who put his “whole life on sale” on Ebay was among the expats nibbling on pizza or weiner schnitzel.
In 2008 Ian Usher auctioned off his “life,” including a house in a suburb of Perth, Australia, all its contents, a car, and an introduction to friends.
He became “homeless,” traveled, and wrote a book, “A Life Sold.” He self-published it and sold only 2000 copies, but then Walt Disney bought the rights to the story. So, he decided to buy his own island.       
Now the challenge of living in a watery wilderness is over, and Ian, 50, is about to sell his house and travel again, he recounted.
Other expats who embraced the challenge range in age from their 20s to 70s.

Belgians Lazare Roels and fiancee are caretakers of property with room rentals

However, to US expat Linda Peimann, the adjustment was easy. For one thing, she and her husband continue to live among Americans, and she enjoys the weather, she said. 
Some expats make a living from providing services for foreigners. For example, Ken Chester installs solar panels and plumbing.
Others make a living from tourists who seek a trip on the wild side. For instance, a family from France and Martinique is building bungalows to rent out on their muddy, remote hilltop
with an expansive water view. At the end of a day’s work, they set a tablet in their wilderness. They linger over appetizers and wine, lasagna seasoned just so, salad, spiced baked apple, and icy banana-cream.
Chez Bernard: A table set in the wilderness

Meanwhile at Rana Azul, the buzz was about the recent burglaries at expat homes in the neighborhood. The police stationed in touristy Isla Colon do not come out to the remote islands, Judy explained.
Even Wild Bill was not caught in Bocas del Toro, but on the lam in Costa Rica. In fact for three years Wild Bill lived in an expat paradise isolated enough to get away with murder.
Copyright, Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter


  1. Certainly a lifestyle for adventurers. Well-written and balanced in that it revealed the beauty, inconvenience and risk.

  2. fascinating but it does not sound like too much of a paradise.

  3. Carola, curiosity and Google led me to your blog post when I was trying to locate my old friend, Judy. I met Judy in the months before she first embarked for Panama. I'll take credit for encouraging her to make the move, but, I must admit, I regret that we had somehow lost touch. If you are still in contact with her, would you tell her that Earle of Vero Beach inquired about her and invite her to check in when she gets a chance. BTW, I enjoyed reading your post. Well done!