2012-2013 Chapter 2 Crossing the Darien

Into the Colombian Darien

After the day's delay, I stood with the five Dominican fashion divas, one young Dominican dandy at beck-and-call of the primadiva, and the militant guide armed with a rust old shotgun slung over his shoulder with a polka-dotted ribbon and a machete in a richly embroidered scabbard at his waist.  We headed immediately into the thick on a footpath overgrown with thorny briars that scraped my bare legs.  I had hoped to break out ahead of the talkative whiny deadweights burdened with their over-stuffed Gucci knockoff handbags as soon as I felt the trail was self-evident.

We passed through two indiginous plantain-growing communities of thatch-roofed stilt-houses and were ferried across a deeper river in a leaky dugout guided by a boy using pointeed carved paddles.  Blocking out the screechy and incessant voices of the divas, who were hardly enjoying out little outing, I admired again the colorful butterflies and dragonflies that surrounded the canoe.  I searched again the canopy for the elusive monkeys in their habitat, thought I had seen some kept on leashes as pets of children in the villages.  Very small, these monkeys.  I slapped at fat mosquitos and other insects like I was desparately calling the runner to steal third and head for home.  The ineperienced and reluctant Dominicans could muster no more than two kilometers an hour and rested frequetsnly only to be a snack for the insects.

I could see that we were basically going up a small river by crossing the tight meander belts at the narrow point and then climbing over the knobs to shorten the distance.  Up one steep muddy bank, over a thickly vegetated knob then down another steep muddy bank to cross the knee- to thigh-deep rushing muddy water of the river.  This was repeated a dozen or more times.  As inclined as I was to seek my solitude ahead of the group, without knowing the key piece of information - where does the path diverge from the narrowing river - the path would easily become unnavigable, even foolhearty.  Guiding people to Panama was an economic foundation of the Bijou denziens, quite clearly bettering the price of plantains; they were motivated to ensure the path was obscure.

I saw that placing myself between the front half and the back half of the diva parade, led to fewer reststops, since Ii could let the gap grow.  The front folks became more the food of the insects.  The pouring rain of the dark afternoon thunderstorm not only slowed the pace even more and made the whole bizarre situation look like the backdrop for a Vietnam War movie.  Like any movie, it was over in less than two hours and the steam rising as the filtered sun returned increased the temperature to the realm of Hades.  I began to leap-frog ahead, despite the shouting objections of the rude guide, in order to endure the torment of the new hatches of mosquitos in the stream where I could splash the water over myself, soaked as I was.  The dandy among them, attached to the youngest, bustiest, and bossiest, became the packmule of the group to prevent the two-day trudge become three days.

At a poorly chosen muddy swale, the guide made a camp for the eight of us on the narrow trail by whacking off enormous plantain leaves to serve as groundcloth.  He whacked three arm-thick trees with surprising ease for a frame and covered our makeshift shelfter with a holey plastic tarp from his backpack.  We strung up mosquito netting as well as possible to complete the interior decor.  He cleverly scavenged larger fallen branches and trimmed them down with his razor-sharp machete to reveal the dry core and lit a fire.  Elevating a pot on a tripod of wet wood, he boiled some rice and added a few cans on tuna for the evening meal for the paying customers, discussing loudly and often that I was his charity case.  He offered me the leftovers but I had already tucked into the spiced and flavorful cold rice and spam my village friend had given me, not only to distance myself from the group, but also to lighten my load.

Plantain leaves, though as big as blankets and adequately waterproof make for an uncomfortable sleeping surface because of the thickness of the steely veins.  Every time a monkey howled, the guide told the over-dramatic divas that it was a tiger, but, be assured, he would guard them faithfully through the night.  I ruined his fun after about the sixth time instilling terror to put an end to the shrill and trembling it was designed to produce.  The guide slept at one end of the shelter and I took the other, assuring them that I'd be as happy to sacrifice myself to the attacking monkey-tigers as they would be happy to be rid of me.  No one slept much. It rained heavily.  The divas used the trail ahead as their toilet unwilling to hang their ample bare bottoms over anything but the clearing of the narrow trail.  So much for wilderness courtesy.  No 'Leave No Trace' practices were honored.

I was about done with the constant complaints of the group and the guide prone to earn his fee by constantly building baseless fears.  As the last tiny meander loop was crossed in just a handful of steps, though swollen over its banks, and as the trail went to increasingly higher drier ground, it became increasingly more defined.  I was confident enough to move on ahead and not look back.  My decision prompted an unexpected arguement with the guide, who was always barking at me disrespectfully.  I was done with it and ignored him.  He fired his gun into the air, as if I'd be afraid of him, but when I turned around a bit put off by his now-dangerous impertinence - the rookie! - he revealed is true color quickly and suddenly became polite.  He asked nicely in a soft voice if I would please wait for the group.
--We're close to the border and if there are any FARC guerillas, this is where they'd be.  Since I'm the only one with a gun, they're going to shoot me.  Please, I've got a family.
  --Then why fire the gun to tell them that we're here and we're armed?
--Oh, yeah, uh....
  --Are you prepared to shoot an unarmed American pilgrim in the back in front of six witnesses?
  --buh-bye then, you don't have to concern yourself with me any more.
--But you don't know the trail.  There are three trails.
  --yes, I know and they join from Colombia at the border marker and then only one trail leads to Panama from there.  Nice knowing you.
I continued on the path as they all stared at me, but an instant of hesitation and they filed in behind me.  I was surprised both that they wanted to follow me and that they could keep up.  And quietly, too.  We were at the border in twenty minutes.

As the kiddies carved their initials into the moss-covered concrete oblisk, I said my final goodbye over my shoulder and headed alone down the single clear footpath on the Panama side, a little bothered about the ramifications tht I might experience lacking the formality of an exit stamp from Colombia in my passport.  Time would tell.

Out of the Panamanian Darien

Blissfully, I walked for four hours totally alone in the Panamanian side of the Darien, divorced from the talkative Domincans.  Birds, really big turtles, tiny little frogs, colorful snakes, but none particularly big or scary looking, noises in the canopy, but no monkeys to be seen.  As the Bijou night visitor told me, I saw more signs of cultivated plantains and came to a big river.  Swollen and swift.  I searched for an hour up and down for a place to cross, with little success in finding shallow wáter.  The swift wáter was up to my pack pretty fast.  I had to use my hiking poles for stability in the current, so couldn't hold my pack over myy head.  Pity, everything would get wet after all my effort to keep it dry.

I crossed successfully, with a bit of trouble traversed the cultivated yet overgrown knob and crossed the swift river again, again more than waist deep.  After a kilometer or so, some village children ran waving to greet me.  I smiled and greet the Panamanians with relief and joy - I crossed the Darien on foot.  'Take me to the commandant,' I instructed the kids, clammoring to hold my hands, 'I need a stamp in my passport.'

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