Life in the Darien

El Salto, Panama
January 14, 2014

Justin, the Peace Corp volunteer sited at the village of El Salto, offered to take me there and I of course jumped at the chance. The trick however, was getting there. As the crow flies, it is not that far; there are other sites that are much more remote. But there is no public transport to El Salto not even a road.

The pot-holed road that ends in Meteti, continues as a dirt track some distance to Yaviza IMG_9551and there it ends. A smaller, roughly bull-dozed track leads off into the jungle for some six to eight kms. The trees, vines and creepers lean in on either side, scraping against the sides and roof of the battered pickup that we were in. Justin, four children of varying ages, a pair of kittens in a carrying case myself and my backpack and the driver are squashed inside. The buzz and drone of insects is deafening in the early morning chill and the forest reverberates to the distant sound of howler monkeys. Through the mist-laden air I glimpse the end of the track and the river meandering through the jungle. The colour of café au lait, it flows at the bottom of a steep mud bank. We clamber down, sliding occasionally and reach the dugout fitted with a motor.

Huge gunny sacks of plantains lie on the bank, to be hauled to Meteti to be sold there or sent on to other parts of Panama. Returning to the village, the dugout is piled with sacks of rice, some bags and boxes and some plastic pipes. We climb in along with some men, women and a few children. Figuring it to be the most stable position, I squat on the floor and stand up hurriedly, accompanied by gales of laughter. There are holes in the boat and I perch my now soggy bottom on the rim like the some of the others. The real experts deign not to sit at all but stand, balancing with the dip and sway as we move.

IMG_9607The motor licks in and we make a wide turn heading upriver. It is dry season and the water level is low. On either side the steep mud banks rise several meters before giving way to vegetation. There are villages on both banks but the forest is so dense, it is impossible to see through the foliage. There are other dugouts on the river. They have just paddles and often there are only children in them. They fish for river shrimp or just out for larks. Sometimes they just fall over backwards into the river and splash around with glee, their shouts answered by cooing and trilling of birds.

The barely twenty minutes ride has us puttering to a small mud bank and as someone hops out to make fast the boat, we scramble out slipping and sliding. I of course jump out and sink up to my ankles in oozing mud. The loud sucking noise as I pull my feet free sets the children off into a giggling fit. I am the one-person circus come to town.

Hauling our bundles we stagger up the bank and I get a sense of a large village set around a large open space, used as a basketball court or for football as the mood demands. There is a concrete walk with houses lining it around the square. All the houses are on stilts – it floods here in the rainy season. A couple of cantinas stand at one end, equipped with speakers the size of industrial refrigerators, belting out Latin pop at top volume. Children run around barefoot chasing mangy dogs and an occasional chicken. Some of the children ride bicycles – Christmas gifts from the government, Justin tells me. Elections are close at hand, he adds. Justin is greeted with yells and shouts by some of the children as we walk up to a small shop to meet the head of the women’s group.

Anja is thirty eight and has bright laughing eyes. Her four children hang around inspecting me as we are introduced and she tells us that I am to stay with Pastor Felix. It was his pickup that had brought us from Meteti to the river and he had issued an invitation for me to stay with him in the newly built church.

Pastor Felix has been here for four years now. The village did not until a year or so ago. One of the old men decided the drinking and violence of the men in the village had gone on long enough. In his words, he prayed to God and sought inspiration. He appealed for a pastor and donated a large part of his property and it is on this land that the church now stands. Felix designed the building and it is built entirely of donated materials and labour.


Not yet completed, the church building is large rectangular structure, built on stilts like all the others. But it is by far, the grandest building in this pueblo. It boasts a corrugated tin roof (which makes it insanely hot) rather than the thatched palm roofs of the houses (that are much better suited to this climate). The ground floor is given over to water storage tanks and a system of pumps that pump water to the floor above. Wooden stairs lead upstairs to a single large room that is the church. Two rows of wooden chairs face the small pulpit and a piano (that was donated but nobody knows how to play). Behind the wooden chairs are two more rows of once-white-now-gray plastic chairs. The walls boast no paintings or figures of Jesus or any other saints. But strangely, over the first row are two pictures – a meteor or a shooting star and a picture of the moon in a bed of stars. I wonder what they signify. The remaining quarter of the building has been made into two rooms plus a small kitchen area and a bathroom. The bathroom is swanky by pueblo standards and lo and behold – the plumbing works! The wooden planks that form the floor extend out to create a narrow balcony that runs around the outside.

I am given a tour of the village by some of the children. The number of my self-appointed guides ebb and flow as they run off to play with friends and others join in. This is a large village with a population of about six hundred. There are plenty of other buildings – some made of concrete and get flooded in the wet season but most are built in the traditional wayIMG_9570 of wood, bamboo and thatch. There is a school building as well but this is holiday time and it sits locked and abandoned. Well not quite abandoned – a long black snake slithers over the veranda and under a door, no doubt disturbed by the tramp of our feet. As in the settlement of Wahira, some of the buildings are made of clapboard, rectangular in shape, but most of the others are round with a conical roof. Hammocks hang in the balconies that run around the perimeter of each building and chickens scratch in the dirt below.

Justin has made a lot of friends in this village and we are bade to sit awhile and chat. One of the women sees me admiring her tattoos and offers to give us some. One of the children is sent to fetch the artist of the village and she comes with her pot of jaguar juice and bundle of bamboo strips as we sit. And the painting begins. Straight lines and dots form patterns, her strokes smooth and sure. I try my hand at it as well but my designs run to swirls and turns. A couple of young girls eagerly sit in front of me admitting to my amateurish efforts.


In a Village called Wahira

Meteti, Panama
January 11, 2014

I had met a local woman in Meteti called Alva. As we chatted, I asked her about the indigenous peoples of this area and she told me of a couple of settlements of the Embera and the Wounaan. I wanted to visit them and Alva decided to play tourist and join me.

The local bus trundled along the same road and we went past the same Senafront checkposts. But since we were not headed to or from Panama City, the soldiers paid us no heed. The scrutiny of papers seems largely on whim and undeterred, we got off at the village of Arimae. IMG_9482

The village consisted of a cluster of scattered huts. Some were clapboard buildings – small shops selling snacks, cans of soda, candy, instant noodles, soap, onions, salt, eggs, toothpaste and cigarettes. Others were more traditional round buildings. Some were ten meters or so in diameter, and others even larger. We wandered around and were invited by a trio of children to the tiny settlement of Wahira.


Set at the edge of the forest, just off the road, this is a tiny settlement of five huts and life here seems more attuned to the forest than that in the village of Arimae. All the huts here are more basic and rudimentary in structure.

Raised on stilts, some have stairs but many have a log with notches cut into the log. These are the same log ladders I have seen in Borneo leading up to the upper storey of the long houses. Going up a ladder, we enter a house, beckoned by a pair of children, cousins to the ones who had brought us here. The upper floor is planked, with one area for kitchen use and the remainder open for sleeping and living. In the living area there are hammocks hung from the rafters and piles of bedding and clothing sit in one corner. There are no cupboards or boxes. Nor are there any tables or chairs or any other furniture here. The side walls do not go all the way to the roof but are only waist high. The walls are made of rough cut planks, not all the same size or shape, nor fitted to each other.

The section we enter first as we climb up is the kitchen. There is an area for the wood fire, lined with a piece of metal. A hook hangs from the rafter directly above, for the kettle to hang from over the fire. For the most part though, they balance the pot or kettle on a trio of logs with a fire of kindling below it. A rough table made of planks runs along one side of the kitchen. At the far end is a multi-branched log hung upside down – the perfect receptacle for the few cups that hang off it. Machetes are tucked into the thatched roof and are used for everything from cutting down sugarcane in the fields to slicing open fruit to cleaving open a coconut. Children as young as seven or eight seem as adept as adults in using a machete. Like the walls, there are gaps in the plank floor. They are handy, these gaps on the floor – food that is cut or chopped leave pieces that are simply swept through the gaps onto the dirt floor of the ground level underneath. How convenient! I would have expected chickens to be kept in underneath but they are kept in an enclosure for safety from wild animals. The roof is thatched, rising in a conical shape with overlapping rows of thatch tied with what looks like bamboo but is a river palm cut into strips. The very apex of the roof is crowned with a plastic bucket – the kind that paint is sold in, or in this case, motor oil.

The constant whine of buzz saws come from the distance. The men of the village are out in the surrounding forest cutting down trees and there are only the women left in the village along with the children. In these parts, tradition still holds sway especially in terms of clothing. The older women still go topless although the younger ones sport T shirts now. Although at festivals, they too go topless, draped with a multitude of bead necklaces. Around their waist they wrap a brightly coloured piece of cloth called a paruma, ending at just above their knees with the edges tucked into the waist. The children mostly go about naked or at most wear a pair of underwear. The men though seem to dress in T shirts and pants, sometimes long shorts. Both men and women wear elaborate tattoos. But unlike the permanent tattoos found in other tribes around the world, these are temporary, lasting a couple of weeks. A fruit called jagua found in the forest, is grated and then boiled down. A dark inky blue when ready, it is this that is applied to the skin. It is painted on with bamboo strips acting as paintbrushes rather than pierced into the skin. When I asked for the purpose, I was told it wards off insects and is beneficial to the skin and health. We had not known it before but we were in the hut of the curandero, the local medicine woman.

We stayed awhile, chatted and lazed the day away. And they told us about their family. Contrary to accounts in books, the tribes of Embera and Wounaan are not nearly as separate as literature claims. And more than one family is Embera-Wounaan, as is this one. Their features are the same, their dress identical as is their food and way of life. It is only the language that is distinctly different. So how do you communicate, I asked. In Spanish, came the surprising reply. As I am with you, she said with a smile.

To the Dreaded Darien

Panama City
January 8, 2014

I have been wandering around Panama for a couple of weeks but the one place that draws me more than any other is the Darien. I want to see the tribes that live there. From all accounts it is home to not only to the tribes but to that segment of society that deems itself above laws. The drug runners that cut through the (in) famous Darien Gap to and from Columbia are a law unto themselves and make this area highly avoidable for most. It is rarely visited and hence more untouched than others. And therein lies my attraction to the Darien. Nobody else I have met seems inclined to go but I simply have to. Manana, I tell myself as I pack my backpack.

January 9, 2014
By the time I made it to the Albrook bus terminal and bought a ticket, it was past 11 o’clock. There are buses for other parts of Panama coming and going but the group of passengers coalescing in this part of the pavement started small and stayed that way. Finally the bus arrived signaled by a sudden awakening among the somnolent group and a push toward the bus, dragging assorted bundles and bags. I followed as well.

This is not one of the big buses that are routinely headed to other parts of Panama but a minivan instead. But it is swank – spiffy blue curtains at the windows, good air IMG_9447conditioning and of course the music system turned on full blast. It looks new; new enough that the seats have covers that have not yet been reduced to shreds and tinted windows and the curtains have yet to acquire the multi-coloured stains and blobs that are ubiquitous – the ones that one tries not to think about or to lean against. The AC blasts through the vents and “mastermix” pours through the speakers. A mix of Latin and rap songs, it has the gangly youth masquerading as the conductor jigging to it. From time to time he would flash a smile at the rest of the passengers, broadly displaying the lack of one tooth and the blackened bases of others.

On the van, in seats across the aisle from me is an Embera family – parents and three children. We smiled, greeted each other and they proceeded to pore over my Lonely Planet guide book, exclaiming over the photos. The woman spoke no Spanish beyond “si” and “no” and the man preferred to gaze ahead with a non-committal stare. The children eyed me with interest and poked each other, whispering comments but were too shy to interact. The other passengers were mostly Latinos going all the way to Meteti or to stops enroute. On the way out of Panama City, the bus crawled, trawling for passengers making it easy for hawkers to hop on and off. They sold oranges or tomatoes or plantain chips in clear plastic bags. The bags were tied to one long string which swung out in an arc as the vendors swung this way and that, trying to entice potential customers. One man got on, stood at the front of the bus facing the passengers. His was a long-drawn spiel exhorting the benefits of the contents of little brown bottles that he had strung around his neck. Many listened attentively. But the one who got on praising Jesus in a gravelly voice whilw rattling a tin can was ignored for the most part and his monologue, liberally sprinkled with church and god was drowned out by the babble of conversation.

The scenery outside started with run-down buildings at the outskirts of town to rolling countryside. That soon gave way to large cleared areas with a few scrawny cattle here and there and but mostly fenced areas with saplings. The tree trunks leaned drunkenly, barbed wire playing join-the-dots from one to another. The houses were almost all clapboard, occasionally with a car out front and a hammock on the front porch. Sometimes children played around on bicycles and a few dogs chased each other in the dirt yards. But every so often I saw an adobe-style sprawling villa. Red tiled roofs spread out beyond the wall, over the porch and a long drive led up past manicured lawns. High walls and tall gates proclaimed the importance – at least the perceived self-importance – of the owner. Fancy cars stood in the drive.

IMG_9449Within an hour or so, the road has dwindled from a four lane to two lane and finally to a small road. The open spaces too had disappeared and the jungle leaned down to meet the road on either side. The people who now boarded, had become more colourful and their assorted bundles, boxes and packages more intriguing. Huge sacks of plantains, assorted machinery and the occasional basket of squawking chickens all made their way to the roof. The sidekick who divided his time between preening in the side mirror and jigging to the music blasting from the speakers, scrambled up to the roof with an agility that would put many a monkey to shame. He tied down the boxes and sacks keeping up a running commentary on his opinion of the contents. At one point someone pointed to the window. There were trails of a yellowish liquid dripping down the pane. Someone’s bottle or can had broken open. A stop was called for and the sidekick scrambled up top. It was oil he called down. This set off an old man whose can it was. He gave the sidekick and the driver a tongue-lashing that had both muttering excuses and cringing. A couple of others tried to calm him down and got a bout of tongue-lashing in their turn.

A Senafront post with armed militia and a checkpost was the entry into the Darien province and thereafter the checkpoints were frequent. One or more armed guards would get on the bus, poke and prod at assorted bundles and check identity cards. As the only foreigner on board, my passport was checked and then pages of a ledger was riffled over and over. They could not quite categorize me. Had I been there for business, they could understand it. They were familiar with the Peace Corp, but I wasn’t that either. I was a tourist but I had no guide. Nor was I with a travel agency. Worse, when asked where I was staying, I said I had no idea yet. I would have to get to town to decide. Confusion reigned. The bus passengers were getting restive and finally after about fifteen minutes of searching they waved me through after having taken down all the details. It was much too hot to invest further effort. It was the same scenario with some variation at all the checkpoints. By the third checkpoint, the driver and his sidekick had got it all down to an art. They called out to the guards that I was no doubt one of those harmless locos and they could let me go.

After six or so hours we arrived in Meteti, the last but one town in Panama. Another couple of hours and the pitted and holed road ends. The remaining one hundred and fifty kilometers to the Colombian border is the infamous Darien Gap – the only part of the Pan-American highway stretching from Alaska to Chile that remains incomplete. A combination of the FARC, the drug traffickers that routinely use paths through the jungle and the sheer inaccessibility is what keeps this stretch from completion.

Meteti, Panama
January 10, 2014

There is supposedly a hospedaje in Meteti but I did not have to look for it. The bus had stopped in front of a house yesterday. A woman was throwing feed to the chickens and nodded in answer to my question. She had a room to rent. And so I stayed. A huge metal gate with double padlocks led to the dirt yard. But the gate did not need to be unlocked. On either side of the gate were wide open spaces – the walls had not been yet been built.

This is a falling-down clapboard house with squawking chickens in the dirt yard, a couple of dogs who dozed most of the time and a puppy who liked to chew on whatever it could reach. Rickety stairs led to the room I was given with shutters that did not shut and tablecloth-sized cobwebs that billowed gently in every corner. Mosquitoes, ants, spiders and other assorted insects reign supreme here. “Check for snakes and spiders” I was told, before donning any shoes or clothes.

IMG_9478The bathroom was an outhouse and plumbing had yet to arrive in Meteti. Buckets and drums had to be filled from the pipe in the yard and dragged inside the bath. The water supply was sporadic and when word trickled through town that there was water, there was a concerted rush home to fill as many containers as they could find. It was the sort of house that may, with a flight of imagination be called ‘charmingly rustic’.

Meteti was a tiny pueblo just a decade ago and still wears the air of a frontier town. But progress is proclaimed with boldness in the shape of warehouse-like supermarkets. They seem to carry everything from bottled water to nails to machine parts and piping to canned food and mops and brooms. Jostling between machinery stores and supermarkets are shack-like catinas and drinking holes.

There is one road that stretches through the town and on either side are some humble houses, a school, and some small shops. The school playground has chicken wire surrounding it. The large gaps in it are widened even more by the children, adults and the odd animal pushing through it. In front of some of the houses a grill is fired up. Locals set out a plastic table and some chairs and entice potential customers with appetizing smells of grilled chicken. The open door behind shows the living room with a television set blaring at ear-splitting volume.

Sitting myself down at one such table, I ordered some food and struck up a conversation. This is the sort of town a newcomer may not know the locals, but the locals have an updated dossier on any newcomer within five minutes of arrival. I was no exception. The only other foreigners here are the Peace Corp volunteers and clearly so was I, whether I knew it or not. I was apparently a particularly clueless one – I had no host family and no names or letters of introduction. I did not even know which village to go to!

“No hay problema”, said Juan, briskly fanning the grill. Some of the volunteers in town live in a house up the street, he said and I was sure to meet them.