Post 1: PayaNo knowing what's around the next bend; experiencing each step forward as the gateway to a new adventure; being open and eager.... this is what it is to be a pilgrim.
'Hola,' I said to the outpost soldier, heavily armed in his camoflage active-duty uniform, his face and hands painted to match, 'I'm happy to be in Panama. I'm American. I'd like to speak with your commandant, please.' (All of the dialog was in Spanish, of course.) He pointed to the larger tent of the encampment with the tip of his weapon with indifference. The capitán was neither friendly nor gruff but demanded my passport in a single word. I guided his fruitless search through my many pages filled with stamps and markings in many languages. I explained that I'm a pilgrim on foot to Mexico and for this reason I entered Panama as I did. I explained that despite my effort, there is no exit stamp from Colombia within it. I added the detail that the Catholic priest, pólice, and the military in Colombia helped me find this route through the Darien and that I was anxious to get an entry stamp as soon as possible.
'Search the backpack,' he ordered two soldiers. 'Where's the money,' a soldier asked, 'the valuables?' I explained that being a pilgrim, I have none and rely on people's kindness to help me reach my destination. Anything of value would be a temptation to steal, it wouldn't be just. 'No money,' he shouted to the capitan. 'Pity,' the capitan said. 'Pity,' the soldier repeated to me, 'the more money you have, the faster the process goes.' Huh?! was that a suggestion for a bribe? (I still lack experience with border point bribary - see the blog from my third pilgrimage when I crossed from Ukraine to Moldova without a transit visa, provisioned with purpose-stashed chocolate bars by some concerned Salesian nuns, but as it happened, the guards shared their chocolate with me, dissolving the need for a bribe.) In the jungle on the Panama side of the Darien, I felt my vulnerability again, this time without six Dominican witnesses. My sudden and thorough disappearance into the thick would be easily and permenantly achieved and eliminate some paperwork for the capitán. With my things strewn around the mess tent, the capitán told me with indifference and without returning my passport that I could bath in the river if I wished. 'What's the situation?, I asked wanting to control my expectations, 'What's the process from here? What can I expect to happen?' He walked away.
I oganized my few but important possessions, hanging my blanket and other wet things from the bottom of the pack on the clothesline above the smokey cookfire and went for my bath in the muddy wáter. Gleeful naked boys were swinging from vines into the depths of the riverbend. Women washed their clothes and dishes a little downstream. One soldier was shaving his youthful whiskers and another was waist-deep washing his shorts, still anothe swimming laps against the current. Thus began the military half of my detainment - neither charged and arrested for a crime nor at liberty to leave sight of an armed soldier. Photos taken, again please, you blinked.
The Domincans showed up on cue three hours later as I was being questioned by the capitán in our only other discourse.
--Do they have money? he asked.
--I don't know. I honestly reported
--Where are the Cubans?
--I haven't heard anything about Cubans.
--I know nothing.
--A Somalian, maybe, he's injured.
--Yeah, we know about him.
The soldiers readied seven cots under the corrugated metal roof of an open pavilion. I took the initiative to string up my mosquito net which only drew more complaints from the divas, otherwise hard at work shamelessly flirting with the soldiers for soap, toilet paper, and other luxuries their Gucci-knockoffs filled with clothes and shoes, cosmetics, hairbrushes, and accessories, but lacking in heavier fundamentals. The soldiers complied, standing tall and puffing out their chests. We were all given dinner - rice and lentils with boiled plantains - but the Dominicans pleaded with the soldiers to be permitted to make their own dinner if the boys would procure some other ingredients. This began a long-standing condition of my getting additional portions allowing me to pack on some long lost reserve for the rest of the walk. We watched baseball on television powered by a noisy gasoine generator. The national series was beginning, Bocas de Toro agains Chiriqui, the underdogs. I casually asked the capitain during a commercial what the process is, how long until I could have my passport back and continue on foot to Mexico. He just stared at me until the game resumed. How tiresome, passive aggression is.
The collective worth of the Dominicans is unknown to me, but two days later, on a Sunday morning, and with 50USD from the Dominican coffers, a motorized flatbottomed canoe of two indigenous villagers tooled into the bathing area of the military camp and we were told to gather our things and board - but first, sign a document with many words I didn't know stating no mistreatment by the military neither physically nor psychologically occurred at the encampment of Paya. I was reluctant to sign, not only because I didn't know every word, but also that the situation of withholding my passport and not sharing with me the process for getting it back, could be interpretted as psychological mistreatment. Should I have a lawyer?
-- 'Where's my passport?'
-- 'In a package now with one of the boatmen.' (What kind of protocol is this?!)
-- 'No. I won't sign,' emboldened by the Dominican witnesses.
--'Then you can't leave.'
-- 'Then I'll stay until I understand the process.' (Were they familiar with O. Henry's 'Ransom of Little Red Chief', by chance? An often-read bedtime story of my early youth. I might take them to the point where they'd pay to get rid of me.)
--'The others signed.'
-- 'The others are in Panama without the required visa; I don't need a special visa, only a stamp in my passport. Please tell me where I can get one and I'll be on my way.' I wanted another divorce from the Dominicans.
-- 'Get in the canoe.'
-- 'Could you please stamp my pilgrim credencial that I passed two nights here?'
--'Sure, now go.'
We all bailed the leaking inflow as we traveled downstream with the strong current for several hours, escorted by colorful dragonflies and butterflies beneath a caopy of oversized trees full of squawking and plentiful birds, the wedge of sky increasing as the river flows fuller westward into the heart of Panama. (Make the most of the continued jungle tour.)
Post 2: Boca de CupeWe arrived at the roadless town of Boca de Cupe, similar in size and appearance to Riosucio in Colombia. The military camp is a bit bigger and slightly more civilized then Paya, being incrementally closer to a road. Still, more photos, another dispersive rummage through the contents of the luggage, another cot under the metal roof of an open pavilion. Beans and rice on the menu. GIven the isolation of the village and the fact that we were without our passports, we were given the liberty to walk around the village as long as we checked in and out. The bathing area of the river was upstream of the houses but downstream of another village. It's the only toilet for all. Unappealing to me.
The divas flirted with the soldiers and washed their many many clothes and each other's hair in the river. I went right to the church, though found it locked and without a priest. Gone to Panama, a neighbor said, staring in awe at my eyes. Children and others came in small shy groups to fnd out why a white person has come to their jungle home. ('Mama, look at the eyes!') The diversion was welcomed and I passed the time happily feeling like a pilgrim again.
Later, I asked the new capitan what the process was - when and how can I get a stamp in my passport and be on my way. He laughed. Everything I asked was returned with laughter. 'What's the joke?' I asked frustrated. 'Oh, no joke, it's just my way. I laugh a lot.' He didn't answer any of my questions. 'Am I a prisoner or a guest?' 'You're not a prisoner,' he laughed. 'Then return my passport, please, and let me continue.' He laughed and walked away.
I returned to the church and found a delightful and energetic young Costa Rican missionary nun - a Salesian sister. Cherishing the opportunity to converse intelligently, we spoke for hours. She stepped right up to help. But what could she do? 'I'll speak to the capitan on your behalf,' she offered, 'and try to find out what the situation is and if you could come with me when I return to the convent early in the morning.' Unfortunately, the capitan was not to be disturbed until morning. It was already 9:30 at night., and being bitten by one insect or another, was told to go to the health center for a medical check-up. I didn't want one. They were insistant, saying I couldn't get my passport back without the medical sign-off. This sounded too whacky for me. 'No' I said with all politeness. 'I'm American and wish to speak with the US Embassy before I sign anything or submit to a medical.' I now felt I had some ground to stand on being in an almost-proper town and not in the deepest part of the jungle. They were sweeter than gruff, but very insistant. 'The doctor is available only right now (Sunday 9:30 pm) and we wouldn't want you to miss your opportunity to leave tomorrow because the little form isn't signed by him. It's easy. Height, weight, pulserate, questionaire about general health and then an interview with the doctor who will listen to your heart and lungs, no more.' What could I do? I thought, beathen down by the whole confusing affair. Maybe I was getting closer to having my passport returned. What's going on? Really? One of the soldiers offered his opinion that I would be taken by the military to the first town with a road and then given my passport so I could get to an immigration point, but that the jungle was too dangerous on foot without a road. I submitted to the medical and got the required signoff, though not given a copy of the many scribblings the doctor wrote. Bocas del Toro took the lead in the series.
At the first opportunity, I asked for the capitan but by the time he agreeed to talk with the nun, even open to letting me transfer into her 'care' if she could assume responsibility that I'd get to the immigration point in the town at the beginning of the road called Yaviza (where, in fact, there is no immigration point), she was gone. 'What's the process?' I asked the capitan. He just laughed to my absolute frustration. 'I'm an American, I wish to speak with the US Embassy.' He laughed and walked away. The divas flirted with anyone they could and washed their clothes and each other's hair in the river.
In the evening, I returned to the church plaza where I spoke with more children and timid aduls about my piilgrimage. A second Salesian missionary nun, a Nicaraguan, arrived by canoe and listened sympathetically to my tale of woe with the same level of disgust as the first. She offered to speak to the capitan, but again it was too late in the wevening and she was leaving early in the morning further to the interior. She was particularly disturbed that I wasn't permitted to contat the Embassy. She was scheduled to return the following evening and the morning after that would be happy to let me go with her to the immigration point. The series was tied up.
We were awakened early and told to ready ourselves for transport to Yaviza. I packed and went quickly in search of the nun, explaining that we were going to Yaviza. She was suspicious and wrote down her cellphone number and that of the Bishop of Meteti nearby Yaviza. She told me she'd let him know to expect me that evening. At the camp, I was coerced to sign a document stating that there was no physical, mental, or psychological mistreatment, threatened again with my passport being further withheld if I didn't cooperate. I added 'under duress' in English next to my signature. I out and out refused to e fingerprinted and again insisted that I be given my right to contact the US Embassy. Laughter.
We were whisked into a bigger flatbottom motorboat, all assigned with fervant bailing duties. I enjoyed the boatride as another rather pleasant jungle tour, all things considered, with butterflies and dragonflies escorting the boat, even as I bailed.
Passing through the Yaviza miitary post, we were again photographed and searched - this time both luggage and person - given lunch of beans and rice and told to wait. No passport returned, no liberty, treatment much more like a prisoner rather than a guest. Hours later, wer were squeezed into king cab pickups and driven on the rutted Pan-American Highway to another military post at Meteti. Photographed and searched, we were told to sit and wait. The divas had a whole new group of young men to flirt with and were easily distracted.
Post 3: MetetiI asked for the capitan and got a polite lieutenant. I explained my growing tale of foggy woe and wondered on what basis I wasn't allowed to speak with the US Embassy. He only speculated it was because I hadn't been charged with a crime so I had no right to ask. If I had a phone I could call anyone I wanted. 'Could I borrow your phone, please.' 'No, I'm not authorized to let anyone use the phone.' When would I get my passport back? 'I don't know. I don't know why you're here. My orders are to keep seven foreiners at this camp. Until the order comes to do something else, I must keep you here. Have some beans and rice, some plantains.' There's no water to wash, no river to wash in. 'May I go to the church around the corner?' 'No' Bocas del Toro took the lead again.
In the morning, I spoke again with the lieutenant, who thought surely he'd have an order to release me to the local immigration office to get my stamp, so I was packed and ready to go all day, denied of liberty to walk around the town, or anywhere except from the guardhouse to the latrine. There was little to do except sit by the door. The divas watched cartoons in the tiny mess tent and flirted with the soldiers. The series was tied up a 2 games apiece, I'd become a marginally interest Chiriqui fan with the enlisted officers on the guardhouse television.
Since another day passed with neither action nor explanation, I pleaded with the lieutenant to call the Bishop. He complied without hesitation, but the Bishop wasn't in, gone to Panama City. Call the nun, please. He called and passed the phone to me after introducing himself. 'How are you?!' the nun was sympathetic. I explained my growing saga of the information vacuum I was in. 'Please help, somehow.' I wanted to separate from the Dominicans where had a completely different situation; I wasn't sure where I was, but I felt caught in their vortex.' The lieutenant said that if the church would sign for me, I could await my orders for release at the parish house. But no one answered the phone. I wrote a note for the local missionary nuns - Cristo Rey sisters, not Salesians - and a soldier delivered it as a favor to me, but the house was closed and dark, he reported. Missionaries are often away from their base. I was discouraged a bit. Bocas went up in the series yet again. For the first time I noticed among the many scribblings on the wall of the unlit back room of the guardhouse being used as our dormatory: 'Tanks good for everitink I haf tooday'.
'Be ready first thing in the morning to meet immigration officials.' Ready. Packed and ready to go I waited by the door. Around 10, three men arrived. I was hopeful that finally,on the sixth day of detention, a ray of hope and reason would shine on my darkness and I could geton with my pilgrimage. 'Fill out this form'. Details of how, when and were I'd entered the country,basic identification details. The divas struggled with everything, and flirted shamelessly with the officials for help with 'complexion', and all three stepped up to fill in 'dark-skinned.' They took photos, fingerprints, and insisted on signatures saying there was no mistreatment physically, mentally, or psychologically. I was too worn down to object. And too hopeful. Without taking the time for personal discussions, the agents gathered the forms to leave. Nearly throwing myself at the feet of the chief among them, I pleaded for some information. What is the process?! Why am I being denied my right to contact the US Embassy. 'You're American?' he asked flipping through the form. 'Yes, I'm a pilgrim,' I quickly explained how I came to enter through the Darien. 'Who won't let you contact the Embassy?' 'Your soldiers.' 'They're not my soldiers,' he laughed and walked away. 'What's the nextsetp?' I asked his back. 'You'll be taken to Panama City for processing,' he replied without interest. Chiriqui tied up the series.
In the morning, I apologized politely in advance to the sergeant of the guardhouse, 'Please understand, I have to be persistent: I'm American and wish to speak with the Embassy, please.' I said this in a quiet voice every half hour urging him to record my requests in his log. He didn't make the written documentation as I'd hoped, but listened with compassion. They were all wondering why I was being denied this. In early afternoon, the guardhouse phone rang. It was for me, my new best friend from the US Embassy. He listened to my frustrated tale of woe, for the first time told in English. Was it my persistence with the sergeant that got me through to him? No, he had gotten an unusual email from a Monsignor, the Bishop of Meteti, who said he'd spoken with a very persistent Salesian missionary nun. My spirits lifted. Please help me understand the process. What is my fate for having walked through the Darien? Am I being punished? Do I have any rights? There's no wash water, neither for my body no my clothes. I'm packed and ready to go every day as instructed but pass the days sitting by the door. Help if you can. Thanks for listening. He assured me he'd contact the immigration office and get back to me.
'Tomorrow, early, you'll be moved to Panama City,' the guards told us later in the day. Be ready. Have some beans and rice. Some plantains. Chiriqui won the series.
Midday on my eighth day in Panama, a van came to take us to Panama City. Before boarding, I asked the lieutenant to sign my pilgrim credencial. He was happy to. Fifteen Sri Lanken men detained at another building in Meteti, the Dominicans, and I were driven through what would have been about a week's walk through cultivated plantain plantations for me. While I was partly encouraged for the forward movement of tehis action, I was discouraged a bit, being Friday and I'd have to be detained the whole weekend until the possibility of an interview. Oh, the agony.
Back to Chapter 2
Continue with Chapter 4