Big Little Trip: A Mother and Daughter Travel Adventure

Part 5 – Being Brave in Panama

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Lisa has spent almost a decade juggling her career as a television producer with single motherhood, she is now taking a year out to go backpacking around Latin America with her nine-year-old daughter, Lily. You can read more of her posts here, and this post was written by Lily


 “You are so brave” she said, “it takes some guts to do what you are doing”.  I felt a lump in my throat and blinked back a couple of tears. I thanked the woman for her kind words, she was a stranger, a Canadian woman, who had struck up a conversation with me on a boat trip to the Zapatilla Islands in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama. I’d had other similar conversations over the six months that I’d been away and many people, usually women, had offered up their support and admiration for my adventure.  I’d had plenty of the other type of reaction as well – or rather non-reaction – the raised eyebrow or the pinched smile as I’d told people of my travelling exploits with my daughter.  Their silence spoke volumes so it always meant a huge amount for a cheerleader to make themselves known.

– Cayos Zapatillas – 2 – 

Lily and I clambered off the boat and spent the rest of the day on the uninhabited island of Zapatilla 2 with several other boatloads of daytrippers.  As I was sunbathing and swimming in the perfect waters of the Caribbean, I thought about what the woman had said to me.  Was I brave?  I didn’t feel very brave, I was sure I wasn’t brave and sunning myself in the beautiful Bocas del Toro Islands didn’t seem like a particularly brave thing to do – I was just trying to put myself back together after a really tough year – perhaps it was an unusual way to go about it but I was certain it wasn’t courageous.

Travelling solo as a woman is always seen as a gutsy I suppose, but why more so than travelling solo as a man? I thought back to my first backpacking adventure when, as a naïve eighteen-year-old, I had spent a month Greek Island hopping with four girlfriends from school.  We took dodgy fishing boats over rough seas and sometimes slept on the beach when we couldn’t find accommodation.  We were spirited, adventurous and young – unfortunately, that also made us targets and we were assaulted and harassed everywhere we went.  Despite being grabbed, groped and worse by taxi drivers, by tourists, in nightclubs, in parks and on the beach, we remained polite and upbeat never once thinking to report any of the crimes visited upon us.

I don’t think any of us thought it was particularly remarkable at the time, just part and parcel of the experience of being a young woman.  I shudder to think of it now and am amazed by our resilience in the face of such treatment – it certainly wouldn’t have been the experience of an equivalent group of young, male backpackers.  That baptism of fire didn’t put me off travelling though, rather it set in motion a train of escapades to far-flung corners of the world – of which this journey with Lily is just the latest.

Paradise found

I didn’t know much about Panama when we arrived – I’d stumbled across the Bocas del Toro region in my search for workaway placements and was compelled to visit the area with its archipelago of islands, cays and islets.  It didn’t disappoint, the Bocas del Toro islands are both stunning and fascinating – a heady mix of Ngäbe-Buglé and Caribbean culture with a layer of hedonistic tourism sprinkled on top.  I’d booked a guesthouse on an island called Bastimentos which could only be reached by water taxi – it was tiny and densely forested with no roads or cars and I was immediately seduced by the romance of only being able to travel from place to place by boat.

– Travelling by boat taxi and Los Secretos Guesthouse on Bastimentos Island and view from Los Secretos Guesthouse –

The French owners of our island retreat, Dorothée and Xavier, were amazing hosts and threw a dinner party every night for their pick ‘n mix of international guests – no mean feat made more impressive by the fact that they had a four-month old baby in tow. Xavier made delicious French food – he treated us to steaks and occasional lobsters which tasted incredible after a couple of months of eating nothing much more than rice and beans. He also taught Lily and I how to paddle board on the calm Caribbean waters around the island and we spent happy hours bobbing around on the board spotting starfish on the seabed and watching stingrays flit past.

The rest of our time was spent jumping on and off taxi boats to neighbouring islands – discovering chocolate farms, seafood restaurants and incredible places to swim.  We shopped the zig zag patterned textiles handmade by the Ngäbe Buglé women and were taken on a nature walk by local man, William, to search for the tiny but vibrant Red Frog that the area is famous for.  Lily and I had found a little corner of paradise for sure, it was totally blissful and I could have happily stayed there for months.

– Lily leaning to paddle board, and tiny red frogs –

A darker side

At our guesthouse there was a fellow workawayer, Adrianna, who was helping Dorothée and Xavier with the momentus task of keeping everything running smoothly.  Adrianna is Polish – she is young, blonde and beautiful so would have every reason to be fearful as a solo female traveller however, having been on the road for nearly two years, she seemed to have nothing but confidence in her nomadic lifestyle.  Following her stint at the guesthouse, Adrianna was going to volunteer on a yacht sailing between Colombia and The Bahamas with a couple that she’d never met before.  “You’re so brave” I found myself saying to her as she told me of her plans – and I really thought she was.  She seemed to be much more of a natural adventurer than me and I certainly I didn’t think I’d have the courage to sail a small boat over a wild ocean with complete strangers.

So, am I brave?  Yes, I’ve decided I am, but no more so than any woman getting up and facing life, on any given day in any country of the world.

It was the second year that Adrianna had volunteered at our guesthouse and when I mentioned to her that Lily and I were planning to visit ‘Red Frog Beach’ – just a short water taxi ride from our guesthouse – she told me that a young American woman had been murdered close to the beach in broad daylight exactly twelve months previously. I was shocked, I have spent a large part of my career in television making documentaries and dramas about real crime, but I hadn’t imagined that I’d stumble across such an atrocity in such a beautiful place.

– Adrianna –

The journalist in me could help researching the facts of the case – Catherine Johannet was a 23-year-old American woman and solo female traveller who was killed in broad daylight as she walked a trail between Red Frog beach and Wizard Beach on the other side Bastimentos.  She was strangled with her pink beach sarong and her body was discovered in a wooded area three days after she was reported missing by her guesthouse.  She was a seasoned traveller, had visited six continents and had even worked as a teacher in Vietnam.  Her family described her as kind, spirited and beautiful – they had flown to Panama from the USA to identify her body. Horrific.

I knew this type of extreme, violent crime was rare and could happen anywhere in the world, I didn’t want it to overshadow my impression of Panama but as I made my way to Red Frog beach with Lily the following day, I couldn’t help but think of Catherine and everything her family must have gone through.

– Lily and Adrianna paddle boarding –

The beach was of course stunning but the presence of four armed police just casually hanging out in the beach bar amongst the bikini clad tourists was, to me, quite a startling sight. It meant of course that Panama takes the safety of its visitors very seriously, but it was also a reminder of the darker side of life.  I would usually have taken some time to explore the trails around the beach, but despite the police presence, knew that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable walking them with Lily after what I’d found out so opted just to stay on the beach for the day.

I thought again about whether I was brave.  I definitely travelled with a degree of caution and tried to avoid taking risks, but there was nothing to suggest that Catherine Johannet had taken any risks either. She had simply been a woman, taking a walk on her own, during daylight hours at a popular tourist spot.  All women can be made to feel vulnerable simply for being women – so travelling solo as a woman is certainly an act of defiance in a world where you can be targeted on the basis of your gender.

So, am I brave?  Yes, I’ve decided I am, but no more so than any woman getting up and facing life, on any given day in any country of the world.  Being a woman requires fortitude and resilience and I worry for my daughter as she approaches her teenage years as I’m sure she won’t escape everything the world is capable of throwing at girls and women. I know for certain that I am going to have to teach her one thing as she makes her own way as a woman in the world – that she too is going to need to be brave.

 – Lily – 


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  • Wow, a powerful read Lisa.
    Brave you are.
    Seeing all your beautiful pictures and reading about your adventures is such a treat, but your words are sobering about the vulnerability of tourists, particularly women in certain parts of the world…did you enjoy visiting Red frog Beach, or was you trip blighted by the knowledge of Catherine’s death?
    Thanks for sharing your journey with us all – can’t wait for part 6.
    Love to you both and safe travels!

    • Thanks Camilla – I couldn’t quite relax on Red Frog beach because it was such a horrible and recent crime. Someone was charged for her murder though, so I wasn’t frightened just depressed that this kind of thing happens around the world. I would certainly recommend Bocas del Toro as a destination – it’s beautiful and we were treated with nothing but kindness and respect when we were there xx

  • I’ve been keenly waiting your Bocas instalment and you took me right back with your fabulous writing.

    Thanks for addressing the more sinister undertones of independent female travel in such an eloquent way. The murder happened whilst I was there and certainly shook the community quite strongly as I’m sure you can imagine.

    Lily is looks fierce and independent in that last picture. She must get it from her mama!

    • Ah, thanks Emma and thanks for all of your Bocas tips. It must have been horrible to be there when the murder happened – I can’t imagine how it rocked such a tight knit community. Very sad indeed. Yes, Lily’s latest is that she wants to get into martial arts which I’ll absolutely be encouraging when we get back! Lisa xx

  • I am so in awe of what you’re doing Lisa – it took such a lot of courage to step off your London life and into an adventure and then to keep on adventuring for months and months… So wonderful to keep up with you and Lily through your gorgeous photos and now the blog. xxx

    • Thank you Heather! I can’t quite believe I’ve done it all. Feeling a little bit tired of being on the road now – but we’ve just arrived in Guatemala and its absolutely beautiful. Looking forward to seeing you and catching up with everything when we get back in July xx

  • Absolutely loving your posts and yes you are brave. Feeling slightly in awe and what an amazing adventure for you both.

    • Aw, thanks Kate – I’m feeling slightly exhausted by it all now but so pleased I took the leap and on the homewards stretch xx

  • Powerful stuff, Lisa. You’re going to be returning home renovated and recharged. And Lily will never forget her experiences on the road.

    • I hope so! Feeling pretty exhausted now – but it is month nine so to be expected I suppose! I’m going to need a holiday after all of this xx

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