2012-2013 Chapter 1: Approaching the Foreboding Darien
I persistently inquired as I marched ever-northward through Colombia 'How can I reach Panama by foot?' (Spoiler Alert: I failed to insert the word 'legally' when I asked, thinking it implied. Because of this omission, I take responsibility for every element henceforth that led me on the inadvertent deviation from the path of righteousness.) More than half the people said there's no way because there's no land, just seas of grass and swamps. The other almost half said it's possible by land after crossing the big river by boat. I continued walking and asking and was directed by many to a jungle town called Riosucio ('dirty river') on the big river.
Leaving the main dirt 'highway' a week after Santa Fe, I walked three more days down an ever-shrinking track to Riosucio and its armada of motorized long boats and dugout canoes in a town of elevated boardwalks and houses on stilts. No cars or trucks, just a handful of rusted jeeps and motorbikes enter by the track I walked in on, in the occasional company of heavily burdened packhorses. I found it interesting that the few towns I stopped over during the walk were heard long before being seen with blaring salsa music the main feature of everyday life, well into the very wee hours. Everyone I spoke with on the path to Riosucio told me the same as they swung their hips to the music - cross the river by canoe and there are villages, both Afrocolombiano and indigeno, where I would find the paths to Panama. In Riosucio, thriving with perhaps 2,000 inhabitants at the rivers, I found some missionary nuns and a Filipino missionary priest. I explained my pilgrim effort. At the simple question - Can you help me find the land route to Panama? the priest dispatched a youth to inquire at the bulkhead for the morning boat traffic and all was arranged without my involvement. Easy peasy. It's hot, humid and very buggy in the jungle.
In Riosucio, there are small and slight indigenous and tall and beefy Afrocolombianos. 'Are there many American or European adventure-tourists passing through?' I asked several people. 'No, never,' I was told. Hmmmm. I sought the police, explained my route and asked for an exit stamp in my passport thinking this would be the last point I'd be able to do so. 'Not here,' they said, 'at the military checkpoint downriver.'
In the morning, in a long motoized canoe piled high with plantains and mangos, I rode with two indigeno boatmen to a place amusingly named 'Puenta America' with a parcel of fried corncakes, juiceboxes, cookies and mangos from the nuns. I enjoyed the boat ride along the wide and bustling river as if it were a jungle tour. Disembarking upon arrival, I was to wait until the next canoe left to go up a tributary there. The friendly, strong men offered me a glass of juice from fruit I didn't recognize and happily chatted during my wait, with endless questions, many of which were quite intrusive. I had a bit of anxiety about the whole thing. Neither the priest nor his young coordinator filled in many details of my itinerary and I felt particularly vulnerable now, quite isolated. They insisted on giving me a mosquito net to take with me along with a few cans of spam, tossing in a few packs of sandwich cookies for the trail.
-- Sure there's a foot path to Panama, it's very confusing in the jungle, you'll need a guide.
-- I haven't got money for a guide, but if trails exist, show me the path to start down. I'm sure I'll do fine.
The flat-bottom canoe with a 15-horsepower motor readied and two shirtless boatmen, cartons of groceries, and three drums of kerosine, were already in the boat as I climbed on. At the end of the row of elevated houses, the military checkpoint encouraged me greatly. As we slowed for the obligatory inspection, I shouted to the soldiers
-- I'm American. I wish to reach Panama by land. May I have an exit stamp in my passport, please?
--Not here. Pass.
The response led me to believe that there'd be another checkpoint somewhere on the journey ahead where I could get a stamp. Hmmmm.
A squadron of brightly colored dragonflies and butterflies escored the long canoe up the much smaller river through the flooded swamp of mangrove trees (or some relative), palms, bananas, mangos, and the absoluetely enormous bongo trees. Birds of many colors, species, and songs filled the canopy. I was disappointed not to see any monkeys, but I kept a steady watch. I was enthralled by the new perspective of pilgrimage by canoe... enraptured enough not to allow myself any preoccupation by the short detour to retrieve a small burlap-wrapped package stashed in a hollow tree trunk marked by a cluster of floating coconuts moored in the confluence of yet another tributary. Without being native to the region, it would not be possible to navigate the confusion of the submerged forest. The black water of the river made it seem more like a wet footpath. After several hours, many times evacuting the canoe to pull it through the shallows, we reached the stream-side Afrocolombiano community of Bijou, populated with perhaps 50 families in the center of cultivated high ground of plantains, palms, and mangos.
I surveyed the stream as I waded to the landing where women were washing clothes, dishes, and small children. Gleeful naked boys were swiinging from vines into the deeper water on the far side. Adolescent girls were washing eachother's hair a bit upriver. A pair of outhouses were constructed on platforms over the water down river from the village. I could do little more than smile and greet as everyone I passed stopped their activity to point and stare at the unusual stranger, not only because of my backpack, but because of the color of my skin. I hardly need to add that the community of Bijou lacks a Tourist Information Office. I asked where I might find a village leader and was directed amid toothy laugher to a willing spokesman. Few of the men wore shirts in the heat.
--How can I find the footpath to Panama?
Lots of laughter made me feel my vulnerability again. A few gunshots fired in the thick forest nearby.
--Animals. (I was told by a woman with a reassuring eyes-shut nod.)
--A guide will leave in the morning. You must pay him $500 US.
--Well, that doesn't work for me, I carry no money. Just show me the path, I'll be fine.
--You'll get lost. Everybody needs a guide.
I persisted calmly and smiled, a bit fearful that they might rifle through my backpack if I pushed it much further. What else could I do? There's no money for a guide in my possession. After animated discussion among the erstwhile group of elders, the spokesman presented their conclusion. Because I'm a pilgrim with a mission of peace, they would take me along without a fee with the next grop that would hire a guide. As it turned out there was a group of six from the Dominican Republic in the village where were set to leave in the morning. The inhabitatints of Bijou had spoken.
I didn't much loike the plan, savoring my solitude and experienced pace, but so be it. Later, the spokesman (whose name I never got) told me that there were three main paths from Bijou to the border marker. He had no idea of the distance excep to say a man could do it in one long day but everyone else would need two. There are many indigenous villages on higher ground and easily found in the center of cultivated groves of plantains and mangos. The indigenous would alwaays help, so if I get lost on the Colombian side, advice could be found. I'd have preferred to start out alone, especially after the plans changed the next morning and word came that the guide postponed the departure by a day so the village men could have a meeting. To them, another day means nothing; to me, it's an advance toward the rainy season in Central America. The Afro-indigena wife of the spokesman invited me to share meals with her and her two small children who cherished the boasting right. When the time came, she set me out with a bag of flavorful rice and fried spam for the journey. I gave her one of the many sets of rosary beads people have given me. She was very happy and honored to be my hostess.
I was directed to one of the uninhabited wooden shacks on stilts to sleep in, and barren of furniture, I was glad at least to have the mosquito netting. I didn't see any hammocks in the village at all, and most of the doors were open or absent revealing beds or mattresses on the floors. As I was nesting with only the dim light from the opening of the assigned shack, I was surprised to find a young Somali man lying in his own netting in a corner.
--a sala'am alayuh kum (I offered a greeting.)
-- wah alayuh kum a sala'am
His few words of English were enough to learn that he and another Somalian heading for Ohio entered the jungle the previous week but they got twisted around on the Panama side, so returned on the path they were guided on. He had gotten bad blisters on his feet from having no socks to wear in the tall rubber boots provided by the guide for the crossing. They had become badly infected. While he lay recovering, his companion made another attempt, presumably making it to Panama. The Somalian, Ali, needed to ewait another five days, so said the Doctor-without-Borders who passes through some days before. He wasn't happy, but what could he do? Couldn't walk around, doesn't speak Spanish, not even a sleeping pad to lie on. Unhappy. I left him with a vocabulary list of basic words in English and Spanish, but I wondered if he could read the Roman alphabet. I've completely forgotten the Arabic alphabet to try for a phonetic spelling. I felt compassion for Ali. Is it worth the risk, I inquired. Of course! Even if he's deported back to Somalia, he's been living with hope for his two-month journey and hope with fear is better than fear alone. Go with Allah, I told him
Just after sunset, a villager came to the shack and entered with a glance over his shoulder.
--Your the pilgrim going to Panama? he said in a low voice.
--Yes. I confirmed, unsure of where this conversation would lead. (I'm tiresomely approached with marriage proposals so my hopeful husbands-to-be can get to America.)
Instead, he shared details of he trail to he border monument and then more descriptions of the Panama side.
--Finally, you'll come to a big river you have to cross twice, then there's a wide path to a military cammp where they'll stamp your passport. Vaya con Dios.
He slinked out of the shack into the night.
I left my cushy fleece pants behind as a sleeping mat for Ali since I needed to make room in my pack for the mosquito net (surprisingly weighty) and the extra food. Adventure comes at a price.