Journey to Panama: Part IV

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A sound night’s sleep revived us and gave us the energy to start out the day as English teachers. We met Marco outside the school at 7:00am and he assigned us each a class to teach. The children anxiously jumped at the opportunity to learn from native speakers.  By the end of the hour, the students had mastered the “good mornings,” “thank yous,” and “goodbyes.” Throughout the rest of our stay in Sambú, the students would greet us in English on the street just as they had in the classroom, “gut easevenings!”

After class, we ran back to the guesthouse and gathered equipment for our trek with Juan Loco. Bows, arrows, and fishing poles made of caña blanca, a plant that resembles bamboo, were our tools. With our arms full, we carefully walked down the muddy riverbank to the canoe. Though the mud from the banks of the Sambú devoured our boots, Juan Loco’s swollen bare feet kept him aloft on the clay. His 70-year-old wife, Otelia, joined us on the trek as well, and her pace was just as quick.

31970021.JPG31970010.JPGThe Sambú, although a freshwater river, has tremendously large tides. 
This is caused by the ebb and flow of the Pacific Ocean that pulls and
pushes brackish waters in the bay and delta. Sambú is far enough
downriver to feel the dramatic effects. To illustrate, behind Juan
Loco’s house, the vertical mud riverbanks rise about eight feet. 
During high tide, the water rolls up to the edge of his porch.  During
low tide, you have to use a log to shimmy down to the water’s edge.

31970009.JPGWe loaded the piragua and launched. Juan Loco and Otelia paddled us
around the meandering river, naming every species of bird we saw. We
were often brought very close to the birds, where we were expected to
take a shot with our bows and arrows. However, the birds were lucky
that day, as our arrows consistently missed by yards. Realizing we made
lousy hunters, Juan asked Otelia to use the cast net we had brought in
order to catch freshwater prawns to use as bait. Alas, our fishing
skills were concomitantly awful. We just kept Otelia’s prawns and ate
them for dinner.

31970003.JPGAfter a few hours of fishing and hunting without yield, Juan Loco
paddled the piragua into a small tributary. The four of us got out of
the canoe and, once again, we sunk into the mud nearly up to our knees.
Juan and Otelia seemed to be magically weightless. After a few minutes
of trudging through the mud, Juan Loco found us some tierra firma and
we were finally able to walk without sinking. A look of adventurous
zeal flashed across his face as he unsheathed his machete and pointed
toward a thick mangle of jungle where we could go exploring. He slashed
his way through the brush and raised his blade to point to a tree
ridden with red berries…”café,” he said with a grin. He picked a
handful off the low branches, popped them in his mouth, and motioned
that we do the same. We had found a wild-growing coffee tree!

Muddy and sweaty, we paddled back to the village. After we unloaded the
boat, Juan Loco encouraged us to go to the part of town where the
indigenous Emberá lived.
31970006.JPGWe had read earlier that it was tradition for the Emberá to paint
blue-colored temporary tattoos using the juice from the jagua fruit. We
found a woman named Maritza who was known throughout the village as a
painter of these intricate designs. She extracted the black juice into
a bowl and instructed us to take off our shirts. She explained that,
because she believed we were strong and large (or at least larger than
most of the Emberá), she wanted to paint us as honorary Emberá
warriors.  An “X” shaped design across the torso represented the
strength of a bear.  The crisscross patterns within the four arms of
the “X” represented the stealth of a venomous snake. According to
belief, the design is used mostly to intimidate and confuse the enemy.
Though it was simply staining fruit juice, the tattoos gave us a
feeling of belonging and strength.
31970023.JPGFreshly painted, and once again exhausted, we began to make our slow
saunter back to the guesthouse. With the sunset over the Sambú River,
it all sank in. We were no longer just your average travelers. Sambú
had made us hunters, fishermen, jungle adventurers, and warriors. In
just that short time, Sambú had changed us… and it was definitely for
the better. A few more days of similar adventures brought us to the end
of our trip and to the old airstrip.  We will never forget Sambú and
the gracious people that accommodated us.

31970004.JPGGoing to Panamá was an adventure of a lifetime.  Our mission was to “get as dirty as possible in terrain as rough as possible.”  The jungles of Darién offer physical and cultural landscapes that we never knew existed.  We had never seen forest so dense.  It was reminiscent of the stories we have heard from our grandfathers’ generation of terrain on islands of the South Pacific.  The jungle not only afforded us the opportunity to explore a terrain we had never seen, it opened our eyes to the wonders of the world.  It is home to some of the most dangerous animals, unpredictable people, and unforgiving terrain in the world.  That there was much more we could have seen in that respect only lends to our curiosity.  How is that the world could offer more adventure than what we experienced?   To that, we can only wonder.   We can only keep exploring, studying, and wondering.  The world, in all its marvel, forces people like us to do these things, to spend our lives devoted to trying to understand its mystery.

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