Journey to Panama

map of panama.jpgPeter Gray Smith is a senior at the George Washington University double majoring in International Affairs (Honors) and Geography with a minor in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  He is a cadet in Georgetown University’s Army ROTC program. During his final semester, Peter is interning for National Geographic Education Programs and the District of Columbia Geographic Alliance.

Adam Mack is a senior at the George Washington University majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in Conflict and Security.  He is a midshipman in GWU’s Navy ROTC program.  Shortly after graduation, Adam will be attending flight school in Pensacola, Florida.

The two friends spent their senior year spring break traveling through the jungles of Darién province in eastern Panama. There are four installments to this blog.  In each we tell of our travels, the people, and the geography.   This blog is more than a chance for us to write of our explorations. It hopefully inspires you to take a chance at your next opportunity and do something most others fear to do.

pete 1.JPGPOST 1 Getting to Darién was no easy feat, but with the help of nice people and an adequate understanding of the language, Adam and Peter made their journey deep into the jungle.

Our journey into the heart of Darién began at 3 AM at the Albrook Bus Terminal in Panama City. Completely disoriented, we received help from a security guard carrying a .357 Magnum.  To say the least, it was an intriguing first experience with Panamanian security forces. He put us on a rickety bus filled with darienitas (Darién natives) returning home after a weekend in the city.

pete 2.JPGThe passengers seemed not to mind the early morning hours. The loud accordion-driven music inspired a boisterous atmosphere that made the seven-hour trip to Metetí seem like a short outing.

Do not let the dots on the map fool you: Towns like Metití have no more than a taxi stand, gas station, and a small, relatively concentrated neighborhood of about five houses.  From the stand, we took a collective cab with nine other passengers to Puerto Quimba. Again, we were deceived by the size of the map dot. There was a dusty parking lot, a boat launch, and a rudimentary police checkpoint. When we registered with the police, we were given a sobering dose of reality. Behind the desk hung a poster of the most-wanted Colombian rebels that were known to lawlessly roam the jungles. Though we would never encounter these rebels, the imminent threat would linger in our thoughts for the remainder of the trip.

From Puerto Quimba, we rode our first of many botes (boats) into La Palma, the provincial capital of Darién. La Palma is a fishing town, the inhabitants of which have a profound curiosity for foreigners. Even the few machete-wielding seamen were gracious hosts.

pete 6.JPGAnxious to get our hands dirty, we decided to tag along with a local
fisherman for the day. The skipper, Chavelo, and his son, José, took us
around the point to a shore abutted by a mangrove forest. This was our
first memorable experience with the majestic physical geography that
characterizes Darién. Lush, dense, bright green canopy covered all the
land we could see, even the islands in the middle of the inlet.

The fishing was much different from what we had expected. Chavelo, one
of La Palma’s expert fishermen, taught us how to fish using a spool of
line and a cast net. Chavelo’s first cast landed a fish they call a
bulí.  José picked up the fish, turned it on its back, and squeezed its
fins together as if attempting to suffocate it. The fish took a
wretched gulp and expanded to the spherical size of a large grapefruit.
Thumbnail image for pete 3.JPGThe bulí was a blowfish!

a mischievous grin, José tossed it over his left shoulder like a
crumpled burger wrapper. “Muy venenoso,” he remarked (very poisonous).
At a tender 17, Jose’s voice was already hoarse. A young
Panamanian-version Captain Ahab, José was a vivid glimpse of what made
a traditional darienita. His callused hands and scarred limbs were
testament to his lifestyle.
pete 5.JPGOn his first cast, Adam pulled up
an 18-inch catfish. Chavelo fearlessly grabbed the flopping fish and,
with a smile, meticulously snapped each poisonous spine from every fin.
The smile rapidly evolved into a frown when he noticed the fish had
swallowed the hook. Chavelo shook his head in disappointment, as if to
scold the fish.  He motioned for José to pass the rusty machete. With a
few powerful chops at the fish’s gills, he turned the fish into
somewhat of a Pez dispenser. Wrist-deep in fish blood and some sort of
bile-like orange goo, he handed the hook to Jose to be re-baited.  He
wiped his hands on his shirt, nodded to us with a smile and gasped,

pete 4.JPGA few unsuccessful casts later, we returned to La Palma
and bid farewell to our salty captain and first mate. Once on shore we
searched for a place to stay.  A local family guided us to a pension
that took travelers and fishermen from the area.  Hostaledad de Pablo y
María is owned by a self-proclaimed hombre de las montañas (mountain
man) named Pablo, and María is his wife. Although the accommodations
were more than expected, and the operations were efficient, Pablo was
not your typical hotelier. He had an appearance more that of a gritty
mercenary; someone that could make Rambo quiver in his boots. He
insisted upon carrying both a multipurpose knife and a sheathed 18″
machete on his belt at all times. Interestingly, his intimidating
presence was not a source of fear for us. Coupled with his warm
personality and wry sense of humor, his militant appearance gave off an
unmatched air of professionalism that provided welcomed security for a
couple of Darién rookies.

2 thoughts on “Journey to Panama

  1. Pete,
    You and Adam are so brave – what an amazing experience! Gives one a huge sense of gratitude for peace, prosperity and opportunities in the US but, like you, my travels to undeveloped nations teach me that there is beauty in simplicity and the unencumbered natives are often much happier than anyone I know.
    Your brothers and nephew Shelby are so proud of you.

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