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.

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