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.

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