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Published: August 17th 2019
These Embera women greeted us when we entered their village.
I subscribe to the theory that says adventure can be found anywhere. I like the idea of choosing travel destinations by throwing darts at a map. I don't have darts, but a few months ago I saw the headline of a Trip Advisor
article that listed Panama City as one of five underrated cities in Latin America. I didn't bother reading the article. I just bought a ticket, then called Jennifer in Texas and asked if she wanted to meet me there.
"It won't involve mosquitos and camping in a jungle, will it?" she asked.
"No," I lied.
I found Anne on the Internet. A former Seattle zookeeper turned Hollywood animal trainer, she once wrangled jaguars for a film called End of the Spear
, a true story about missionaries who tried to evangelize a remote tribe of Indians and ended up on the ends of their spears. During the filming she ended up marrying an extra from the Embera tribe, one of eight indigenous groups living in the jungles of Panama. Now she leads small groups of tourists to her husband's village on the banks of a tributary of the Chagres River.
Panama is mostly jungle. Anne
One of the Embera hunters gives me a demo of his blowgun technique.
explained that preserving the jungle was necessary to attract the rain which ultimately fills the locks of the canal, Panama's biggest money-maker next to money laundering. (One ship uses about 100K cubic meters to transit the canal.) I didn't ask why rain preferred to fall on jungles rather than cities. From Panama City we drove for hours through dark green tunnels of tangled vines and broad leaves vying to reclaim the road. Eyes hiding in the trees watched us pass. Cat-like creatures scurried across the road. We struggled to breathe the heavy damp air.
Anne arranged to have a four-wheel-drive truck meet us at the point where the paved road turned into steep hills of rutted mud. Several punishing miles later we arrived at the bank of a river where two naked men with a canoe made from a hollowed-out log were waiting for us. They took us an hour up-river where we put in at a sandy bank. A line of bare-breasted women with red flowers in their hair welcomed us. A flute accompanied by a drum played a catchy tune. The welcoming party moved to a communal structure where the villagers danced and sashayed in circles around
They eat the bark from a particular type of tree that is said to contain a compound similar to cannabis. I guess that would explain a lot.
us. On some imperceptible cue the direction of the circle would suddenly change. A woman covered with tattoos and carrying a baby in her arms grabbed my hand and pulled me into the circle.
The Embera live in wall-less huts perched on stilts. Palm leaf roofs cover floors made from strong springy tree bark. Entry to the hut is by a simple ladder, which, if turned on its side, indicates that the "door" is "locked". In addition to walls and doors, Barcaloungers and La-Z-Boys are also absent. Seats are simple logs arranged around the perimeter of the room. At one end of the room a cooking fire burns in a sandbox.
The concept of a village is fairly new to the Embera culture, so the huts are spread out. Identical-looking dogs, mangy chickens, and naked children run freely between the huts. Water is provided by a system of cisterns and PVC pipes set up years ago by some well-meaning Peace Corps volunteer. There is no electricity, and the toilet situation is best left to the imagination.
To cool off Jennifer and I swam in the river with the village children. During our swim the sky
These boys spent hours playing "Drop the water bottle on the white lady's stomach"
opened up and we were pelted with rain, After our swim/shower we sat down to a dinner of tilapia and plantains served in bowls made from leaves.
At dinner Anne translated for us. (The Embera have their own language, but some also speak Spanish.) Nearly everything comes from the jungle—food, clothing, dyes, medicine, and building materials. Tourism has made it possible for the Embera to buy outboard motors for their dugouts and a few other luxuries. There are no doctors. The shaman casts out malicious spirits. The midwife delivers babies and the botanico collects and administers medicines. The village is visited every year by a government health worker. Everyone looks pretty healthy.
After dinner Jennifer and I got "tattoos". The tattoos were carefully painted on us by the village tattoo artist using a stick dipped in a black dye made from some type of nut. We were told that our tattoos would eventually fade away. "In a week? A month? A year?" we asked. The tattoo artist looked puzzled. Anne explained that the Embera don't measure time. There's day and night, dry season and wet season, and that's about all they need.
Around 7:30 darkness
The villagers did their circle dance for us.
fell. Jennifer and I retired to our hut. I elected to sleep in a hammock. Jennifer elected to sleep on a mat on the floor. Both of us were unhappy with our choices. We listened to the sounds of the village going to sleep. In one hut a baby was crying, to no avail. It will be ignored by the parents. In another hut someone practiced the flute. Eventually everyone went to sleep and we could hear the noises of the jungle—frogs, owls, chirping geckos, a howler monkey, distant thunder, and rushing water. Lightening bugs hovered over the river.
At dinner we had learned about an Embera village further up the river that has never been contacted. If anyone approaches their village, we were told, the inhabitants scatter into the jungle. Occasionally, late at night, some of the villagers have seen parties of long-haired hunters carrying blowguns and wearing tree bark loincloths trying to quietly slip by in their canoes. My paranoia was triggered each time a barking dog set off a chain reaction of more barking dogs. Is it the lost tribe trying to sneak by? What if it's a raiding party? I'd heard stories about explorers getting
Eating plantains and tilapia from a leaf bowl.
captured during raids and turned into slaves... or dinner. I don't think I would be a good slave. I could consult on their software projects, but wouldn't be much use doing any heavy lifting. On the other hand, my rich American diet might mean that I could be turned into a delicious stew. The next day Anne would assure me that the Embera are far too disorganized to pull off a raid.
At 3:45 AM the roosters mistakenly began to crow the day. After a few minutes they went back to sleep. Around 5:00 AM they began crowing in earnest, and the village woke up. After a breakfast of eggs and plantains, Jennifer and I retired to our hammocks where we were invaded by two curious boys. For hours they played with our water bottles, tried on our hats and sunglasses, and nibbled on my packet of dried mangoes. Like all children, they were suitably impressed with the fart app I keep on my iPhone for just such occasions.
Later in the afternoon we reversed course—back down the river, back through the green tunnel-- and popped out in Panama City with its traffic jams, giant electronic billboards, and
PC is a 500-year-old metropolis of 2M people. This is just one little part of its skyline.
hundreds of bold skyscrapers. I can't imagine what the Embera must think when they see this.
Transiting the Canal
Travel addicts are often lovers of Geography—cultural and physical. When I finally got around to studying a map of Panama I was surprised. I knew it connected the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic via the canal, and I knew that it connected North and South America via the Pan-American Highway (CA-1, which crosses over the canal by the Centennial Bridge). What I didn't realize is that most of South America lies to the east of Maine in terms of longitude. Among Central American countries, Panama shoulders the greatest burden of reaching eastward to Colombia. In other words, North America lies to the west of Panama, and South America is to the east. The Pacific Ocean is to the south while the Atlantic is to the north!
Traversing the Pan-American Highway from Prudhoe Bay to Tierra del Fuego is on many bucket lists. I added it to mine when I was a student and heard a friend's tale about hitchhiking from Berkeley to the southern tip of Chile in the back of an onion truck. But there's a problem
Panama's West-to-East orientation
my friend neglected to mention; the highway ends in eastern Panama 60 miles short of where it picks up again in Colombia. Efforts have been made to close the Darien Gap, as it is called, but concerns about disrupting the environment and the uncontacted Embera tribes as well as providing a new route for drug smugglers have pushed proposals to the back burner. So I modified my bucket list. Instead of traversing Panama from west to east, I would traverse it from south to north via the canal. Fortunately, there are many boats that offer tourists this opportunity.
The 1914 canal (a new canal suitable for supertankers was opened in 2016) takes a ship entering from the Pacific through two sets of locks that raise it 81 feet, where it can sail across Gatun Lake. On the other side of the lake a third lock lowers the ship to sea level and it sails off into the Atlantic. The entire transit takes about 8 to 10 hours compared to the 2 – 3 weeks required to go around Cape Horn. The cost depends on the tonnage; the average is $150K but can go as high as $1M, which is
Not much room between us and the chamber wall.
still about a tenth the cost of going around the cape.
Our tour boat would follow a cargo ship named Sea Treasure through the canal. Before each lock tugboats would scurry from one side of Sea Treasure to the other, lining it up to the entrance with surgical precision. Inside the lock clearance on either side of the ship was less than a foot! Mechanical "mules" the size of locomotives and mounted on tracks on either side of the chamber held the Sea Treasure in place with metal cables to prevent it from banging against the chamber walls. Once it was in position our tiny ship and several others crowded into the chamber behind it. I can now understand why some people are phobic about ship hulls. Imagine being wedged into a narrow concrete canyon with a giant ship. Sea Treasure's hull was a black sheer steel cliff that bobbed and loomed over us, close enough to touch. I could almost feel its tonnage. Then the massive gates of the lock slowly closed behind us. With a final bang of the gate the chamber began to fill with water from pipes below. It took about 20 minutes before we
Gate of no-return
The gates of Miraflores lock closing behind us.
were high enough to enter the next chamber and start the process again.
As part of the canal project, the mighty Chagres River was dammed to create Gatun Lake. Beyond the dam we followed the Chagres to where it empties into the Atlantic. In the pounding rain Jennifer and I stood among the ruins of an old Spanish fort surrounded by jungle and overlooking the mouth of the Chagres and the Carribean Sea beyond. The fort was meant to prevent pirates like Morgan and Drake from sailing up the river to invade Panama City, but to no avail as the broken walls and scattered cannons testified. What motivated soldiers and pirates to sail across an ocean in flimsy wooden ships to make war against each other in a hostile jungle? Was it just the hope of treasure, or was it more? A call to adventure? A desire for an unordinary life?
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