Published: October 20th 2010October 20th 2010
(Day 929 on the road)
My final ten days in Central America after over five months of travelling across the region have also been my wildest and weirdest by far. They left me with beautiful memories that I will never forget in my life, and it was an incredible experience. I am talking about a visit to the wild stretch of jungle in eastern Panama that is the Darién Gap
With Tino gone and me once again being on my own, I was pondering what to do. There were numerous options, as always, but in the end I decided to head down into the infamous Darién province, where the Pan-American (the Inter-Americana) highway suddenly stops without as much as a warning near the town of Yaviza, only to resume some 150km further south in Colombia. The region is notorious for drug trafficking, Colombian guerrillas and frequent kidnapping, but as with many troubled regions in this world the danger widely depends on which parts one actually goes to. I had asked around in the hostel in Panama City I was staying at if somebody wanted to join me, but had only received strange looks and explanations that they were heading for
the beach. Ha! Incidentally, I am also the very first person on travelblog.org to ever write a blog-entry about the Darién. I take that to be a great honour, considering that at this point in time there are about 175.000 registered bloggers on the site that have written a total of almost 500.000 blogs from all corners of this planet.
The part of the huge Darién Gap I visited is considered safe at the moment, although the numerous military checkpoints during the long journey down from Panama city and huge billboards offering 300.000 US$ rewards for known criminals spoke a somewhat different language. At all of the checkpoints I had to register and log my intentions with soldiers that were a lot less smart than their slick uniforms would have made you believe; at one time the guy took my country of origin down as Indonesia because he had seen an Indonesian visa somewhere in the very middle of my passport, although I had told him I was German and the passport certainly said as much on its very first page. On another occasion I was asked how old I was, I told the female soldier, and then she
asked me which of the three dates in my passport was my date of birth - the issue date (2009), the expiry date (2019), or the third one (197x). Nice one. It didn't instill a lot of confidence in me, and I hoped that their physical and operational search-and-rescue skills were more honed than their intellectual ones.
Anyway, after a long day of travelling I finally arrived in the capital of the Darién Province, La Palma. This "capital" is essentially a dusty one-street village that can only be reached by boat from a place ca;l;ed Puerto Kimball near Metati on the Pan-American. It is however the commercial and governmental centre of the region, and correspondingly saw a fair amount of bustle and hustle, with countless villagers from tiny river settlements constantly arriving and leaving in their boats on some business or the other.
I settled in one of the two hotels in town, and was actually surprised how nice it was. Built by the British-American foundation
, an NGO that works to reduce poverty in Darien, it was a sturdy stilted wooden structure built right over the water, with fantastic views from the balcony and simple but appealing rooms
with almost mosquito-proof window nets. From the hammock on the blissfully quiet balcony I could spot dolphins in the water and pelicans in the air. Only the AIDS-brochure on the desk in my room seemed a little out of place. In addition, the government was providing free wireless Internet for the whole town ("Internet para todos" - Internet for all), which was more than appreciated and totally unexpected in this utterly remote place of the country, which complemented the amenities of the hotel very nicely. I can also safely say that I ate in every single restaurant in town (there were two), with the one at the far end of the street right of the boat ramp being slightly better value for money.
Over the course of the next two days I was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a boat that would take me further into the heart of the Darién, without having to charter a boat at a cost of about 100 US$ for the journey. I had set my sight on an indigenous Embera village called Mogue, far up the river of the same name. Whilst there were certainly boats coming and going all the time, none was
going where I wanted to. It was a little frustrating to say the least. On day three, by which time virtually everybody knew that there was a foreigner in town looking for a boat to Mogue, a guy took pity on me and told me to come with him to a village called Punta Alegre, an hour or so away by boat, from where it should be easier to catch a boat to Mogue.
So off I went. Punta Alegre was not mentioned in my guidebook, which meant that I was really off the beaten path now, perfect! I should add that none of the soldiers where I registered my intentions with had ever heard of Mogue, which I took as a very good sign. Punta Alegre was nothing more than maybe a hundred houses situated along a polluted sandy stretch of coast. I soon found out that there was indeed somebody leaving to Mogue in the late afternoon, and that I was welcome to come along. Finally!
With a whole day to kill I spent the day simply wandering around, and soon found out that there were more children than adults in the village. At first, only
two followed me around, soon it was ten, later on I had followers numbering around 20, with two children at each hand and two more holding on to the edge of my shirt from behind. The white foreigner was the biggest attraction in the village. Although, strangely enough, there were actually two other Germans here that had arrived on some sort of organised and expensive trip set up by an entrepreneurial local with a friend in Panama City doing the advertisement. Punta Alegre itself however was a dump really, with literally every inch of the beach littered with rubbish, and the corresponding vultures everywhere. A peace corp volunteer had arrived a week earlier for a two year posting in the village to teach the villagers environmental awareness; I felt very sorry for her.
By five o'clock, the people going to Mogue decided it was finally time to leave. It was three of us, the captain, his friend, and an elderly woman. I didn't know what to expect, but I was sure it was going to be amazing. Nightfall was around the corner, and within thirty minutes of setting off it was getting dark, and another thirty minutes later it
was pitch-black on the river under the thick canopy of the jungle. I found out that our captain had never been to Mogue before and had no map. Neither did he have a clue where we were going. There were countless rivers and streams branching of to all sides, and with only a tiny torch to illuminate the way I was starting to get a little worried. We had just gone up the wrong side-arm for over thirty minutes before the captain decided to turn around and head back to the main river.
Predictably, it had also started raining by now, just as it does nearly every day here for the past three months or so, as we are in the middle of the rainy season. Soon, all four of us were wet to the bone. And lost. The captain tried a different side-arm, and this time he assured us that he was positive we were heading in the right direction. I was hoping he was right. Soon thereafter however, the river was becoming too shallow to continue; I now understood why we hadn't left earlier - the captain had waited for high tide so he could navigate the
upper parts of the river system. But the water wasn't high enough, and soon all of us except the woman were out in the river, pulling and pushing the boat upstream across rocks, logs and sandy stretches.
It is hard to put in words, but it was pitch black, a fairly wide river, the noises of the jungle all around us, no houses to be seen anywhere, it was raining heavily, lights and thunder were crashing down at regular intervals, and we were wading through the water and pulling and pushing the boat through the very heart of the wild Darién province. It was a sublime experience, one that I will never forget.
This went on for an hour or so - pushing and pulling, using the engine for a few minutes when the water level was high enough, then pushing again. Our progress was painstakingly slow, and I had by then accepted the fact that we were hopelessly lost and would most likely spend an uncomfortable night in the boat, when we saw the lights of a sole house in the distance. We were all extremely relieved, and without any discussion our captain went to see the
owner and asked if we could spend the night. We could, and soon we were all sitting around the open fire-place that was situated in one corner of the "house", warming up and drying our clothes.
The only woman in our party, the mother of the captain and aged 70 as I found out, took charge of the food-preparation immediately, and soon we all had steaming bowls of fresh fish (Congo as I was told) and plantain in our hands, accompanied by a sweat corn soup prepared by our hosts. During the evening I also understood that the group I was hitching a ride with were on some sort of religious mission that included the expulsion of the Spiritus Diablo in some person in Mogue, the spirit of the Devil. I didn't quite catch if the woman they were bringing to Mogue was possessed by the spirit or if she was the one supposed to be doing the expulsion, but I guess these are just details.
The house we had arrived at was a traditional Darién house as had come to understand, a wooden structure build on stilts maybe two metres off the ground, to keep ground pests
out and protect the people from flooding rivers. A wooden beam that had some steps carved into it served as a ladder, and there were no walls of any sort. It was essentially only a raised wooden platform covered by a thatched roof. In one corner was a fire place and the food storage, another corner served as a storage for all the worldly goods the family possessed (it wasn't much), the rest was the living and sleeping area.
Interestingly, two men returning home after us didn't find it the least bit strange at all that four people, one of them a foreigner, sat in their house in the middle of nowhere around their fire eating dinner. They just greeted us in a friendly manner, then went about their own business. Later on I gathered that, not surprisingly, I was the only foreigner that had ever stepped into their home.
The night was rather uncomfortable for my spoiled body: The people didn't sleep in beds (they simply didn't have any), but just curled up on the hard wooden floor wherever they felt like it. They didn't have mattresses of any sort either. As a polite act, I was
given a thin sheet to put underneath me, but that didn't help much. I didn't sleep well or much, but just being there, sleeping in this home, and listening to the sounds of the jungle around me was enough.
The next morning, I was the last one to rise, just after six o'clock, with the men just about to leave to work on their plantation. They were growing mainly rice to sell in the city, for a price of 50 US cents for a pound, as they told me. They refused any kind of payment for their hospitality, and my companions and I were soon off towards Mogue. The river was too low to navigate, so we left the boat behind and continued on foot, reaching Mogue fairly soon. Mogue was a small indigenous village of 62 houses inhabited by the proud Embera people
, who speak mainly Choco, and Spanish only as their second language. It was like stepping into a different world.
Numerous of the women were walking around topless and barefoot, covered with nothing more than colourful skirts. The men dressed more westerly, but many of them were painted in various patterns from the juice of
the local jagua fruit. I was fascinated by it, and before long they offered to paint me as well. How could I possibly refuse such an opportunity? Before I knew it, a child had grated the fruit, and then her mother used a fine cloth to press the juice into a saucepan, which she then slowly heated over the fire. She then applied the warm juice to my back, my front and my arms all the way down to my wrist, using a tool that looked like a dried root of some sort.
Before long, my whole upper body was covered with a mix of a delicate pattern and a few completely dark areas. It didn't seem very strong however and I was a little disappointed at first, but when I woke the next morning, I was blue as a smurf. Awesome! The told me it would last three days, but I suspect they took the mickey - it is now already five days after I received the painting, and the colour hasn't worn off one bit. I think it will stay for at least two weeks, maybe longer. Luckily I refused when they asked if I wanted my
face painted as well.
Other than that, there wasn't a whole lot to do. A villager offered to take me into a long excursion into the jungle to search for the harpy eagle, but when he discovered that I only had sandals and no proper shoes, he said that it was too dangerous because of numerous poisonous snakes. What a shame. There were two other tiny settlements further up the river, La India and Buenito something (I didn't quite catch the name), but nobody was going up there, and so I just spent my time wandering around and observing the live of the the people, the people that managed to survive in one of the most hostile environments imaginable, living completely off their land. I had the feeling that they would have immense problem living in any different environment, same as I would not be able to survive here in their world. It was a strange feeling.
However, Mogue has transformed considerably in the last few years. An NGO has recently installed solar panels, so now the village has light in the evenings (and blasting music during the day, which, strangely, always features a shrill bagpipe and an
insanely fast beat). Some time earlier, a cruise-ship had docked in the area and brought over one hundred tourists to the village in 14 boats. Back in Panama city a few days later, I had a look at some Flickr images that another traveller had taken just two years ago, and was surprised that literally every women in the village was topless then, and all the men wore only loin clothes, from young children all the way to the elders . These days, only a few women still dress that way, and every single man has swapped his loin cloths for a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. I wonder what the next two years will bring for the Embera tribe; the pace of change seems incredibly fast. I wish I could have visited earlier, but am certainly happy I didn't visit any later.
The next day, it was unfortunately time for me to head back to La Palma and then onwards to Panama City the next day. My time in Panama was soon coming to an end. No boat was going back to Punta Alegre or La Palma, but after a few hours a man entered his tiny
dugout canoe, heading for Punta Alegre to buy a new machete (a seven hour round trip for him as he didn't have an engine and was paddling the whole way, as opposed to two hours by motorised boat). Many a man in the village warned me about using this unstable boat for the journey, but I was running out of time and didn't really have much of a choice. They gave me a life vest, and we soon set off. I went well, and along the way we even spotted three (!) Harpy Eagles
, the national bird of panama, and the largest and fiercest raptor found in the whole of the Americas, and one of the largest in the world. Unfortunately I had my camera stowed away in a waterproof bag, so I wasn't able to take any pictures of this very rare and endangered animal.
After that, the journey back to Panama City went fairly smooth, and I had one final day there before it was time to leave Central America and fly over to Florida. Walking around with my Embera "tattoo" in the capital it is safe to say that I attracted more than a fair share
of stares. But there is no denying that I do indeed look pretty wild at the moment: I have just had my head shaved at the hairdresser, my t-shirt is torn pretty badly in parts, and then there is this dark-blue body painting reaching all the way to my wrists. I do make for a somewhat menacing appearance I would imagine. And whilst I wouldn't want to miss this experience for the world, I am still happy that it will wear off in a few weeks. For now, I have to remember to wear my long-sleeve shirt at the US immigration tomorrow, my last and final stop on my travels. I have the feeling that looking like a leading member of the Hells Angels would not impress the ever-so-friendly US immigration officers too much.
Next stop: Southern Florida (USA). Also have a look at my pictures at http://pictures.beiske.com.