Walking in the streets may look a bit scary. I know, I do it all the time. Find yourself in places that are a little uncomfortable outside of your comfort zone. In fact, it's a cultural shock.
Usually, when people travel, they go to tourist sites and focus on carefully planned things. For example, on the main island of Bocas del Toro, you go down the tape, go to a nice restaurant and buy a ticket to take a boat that will take you to a beautiful beach. That's fine, and you should do it because it's part of the experience.
But in order to get a little into the culture, all you have to do is walk some streets back to the neighborhood and see the other world. Yes, it's dirty, yes, it may not smell very well. But if you stop looking at bad conditions and looking at people, your perspective will begin to change.
You will see the grandmothers sitting on the porches and watching the world go through. And if you laugh and wave, they will wave in a friendly way. You will see how children make games in empty plastic bottles and a fishing line. Stop and watch a minute. Try to understand the rules of the game and how to win. It puts you in a totally different frame of mind. Suddenly you really "see" them. They notice you and everything you need to do is a smile. You do not need to speak a language. The first people can look nervous about your presence, after all, you are in their "territory." But it seems that the smile outweighs any negative feelings. You'll soon find yourself forgetting your own fears and getting out of your head for a minute to get in touch with happy kids playing on the street. And that's when you realize that poverty is not what you think it is.
People are relaxed. They live a full life. They have many family and friends. It takes time to tap into one another's back and talk for a while. They do not rush. They're not in a hurry.
It's very refreshing.
On the back streets you will see places where the shops are buying. Food stores are small and unclear and have no choice of those on the main tract. But they have simple things to live and are much cheaper than those seen by tourists. Stop and buy a bottle of water or candy. It gives you a moment to get in touch with the seller. Perhaps it will look funny when you enter for the first time because you look different. But again, just a smile. If you know a few Spanish words, use them, even if you think you sound stupid (which you probably do). They are happy to try to communicate and immediately open the door for a better connection.
Look around the store while you're there. notice what's on the shelves. It gives you clues about what people live in that area. Chances are you will find large sacks of rice and lots of tuna and sardine cans. You will find preserved milk powder and banana rotten (which are actually perfectly mature and very sweet). You will also find cleaners, lots of bleach. Despite dirty living conditions, every child goes to school in clean school uniforms.
You will also find candles with pictures of saints on them and incense marked with things like "prosperity, wealth and success". This shows that people are changing in their homes. They take very seriously their mix of Catholicism and old religion. See how much you learn?
Leave the store and go down the street and see hairdressers for men and beauty salons (very small and dirty) for women. Stop for a moment to see what's going on inside and find guys with fantastic designs shaved in their very short hair, and women get nails painted in any color and design that you can imagine. Again, these people are not as poor as you think they are. For them, personal care is of great importance. When you get out of the shop, take a look at the street and see how people are dressing. You will find decorative bags and beautiful sneakers, high heels and jewelry. This is all part of the learning connection. To understand people, you need to slow down and pay attention to the details.
Continue to walk and you will definitely find some place to eat. It will most likely be extremely small, like 2 tables and 8 chairs. It will probably be dark inside (which keeps it cool) and any menu will be written on the wall somewhere or in the head of your server.
If you are brave enough, stop and have something to eat. This is one of the BEST ways to experience another culture. My secret is not to get sick is to stop places that look busy. No one wants to get sick, and the locals know the best places to eat.
If you have no idea what to order and who are very adventurous, just ask the server to bring you everything they think is best. You can find yourself with a bowl of soup that stands in front of you and has the bones of an unknown animal in it and a huge piece of vegetables. Do not worry, most foods are either beef or chicken. It may look ridiculous, but it is sure to be a good taste.
Walking in the back streets can take some courage and I would not suggest it at night or in big cities. But small cities are full of people like you and me. Frankly, you will never see people if you do not go where they live. All you will see are people trying to make money in a tourist town and this is not a fair sample who really lives there.