Travel Essay: The waves tossed our narrow canoe up like a little kid being thrown by her father in a swimming pool. The heat of the sun painted our forearms sizzling red, but the waves cooled us off as they tossed themselves into our canoe to sit with us. I thought the cloudy water was against us (I had mistaken its roughness for malice instead of rowdiness), but I could not have been more wrong. This water ride was the gateway into an unforgettable moment: the canyon opened up, and everything the Darién region had to offer was in shades of blue. This is a muddy ocean in Panamá, full of seething waves that clap like laughter, hiding under hills dotted with constellations of pink, purple, and yellow. Deep green that sparkles and sulks and slips down into the murky water. The jungle kisses the shoreline and smirks.
In the openness of the jungle meeting the water, we saw everything: ridges that rippled with color, fishermen pulling stunning silver fish out of the water, eagles that looked down on us and chuckled. When the motorized canoe reached the black sand beach, my group of teenage girls knew we were in for a treat.
Riding in the back of a pickup truck, we spiraled up the island, past the citrus trees that bore luminous fruits, past the vines that French-braided themselves into modern art, and finally into a harbor of little painted houses, and one large house painted white. The main house had a grand porch with full view of the golden glimmer of the silty ocean, and it was lined with woven hammocks. It was a lot of luxury for the Darién.
The Darién is actually one of the most dangerous, untamed places in the world. The Pan-American highway, which stretches from the northern tip of Alaska to the southern tip of Patagonia, is famous for its uninterrupted unification of the Americas. Little known is the brief intermission of the “uninterrupted” highway; the gap in the continuity. The Pan-American highway is actually cut off for 100 miles by the impassibly dense and dangerous stretch of jungle that is the Darién (Karsten).
Many experienced hikers ominously call a trek into the Darién a “one-way trip.” On our first night in the Darién, we knew animals were omnipresent immediately: The night was not quiet; instead, the air was alive with the sounds of nocturnal insects, birds, and nameless animals that made sounds undefined. A spider the size of a knuckle in one of our cabins sent my group from Nashville’s all-girls school, Harpeth Hall, sprawling out, holding onto each other with fear. Beyond the spider, there were scorpions, boa constrictors, jaguars, poisonous frogs wearing yellow and royal purple, fire ants in armies, fer-de-lance snakes, bot flies, which lay eggs under humans’ skin, mud-caked, intelligent wild pigs, and dinosaur-like crocodiles to avoid (Karsten).
Additionally, our home country, the U.S., had created a danger for everyone who steps foot in the Darién. During the Cold War, American troops launched bombs into the jungle to practice and prepare for the “real thing.” Most of the bombs detonated, and the forest regrew, but some bombs did not. Now, active bombs lie idle on the forest floor, cloaked in ivy, waiting for someone to trip over them and cause a massive explosion. A month before our trip, three kids were playing baseball in the Darién with a large metal “pelota,” which means ball in Spanish. When one child threw the “pelota” to his friend, the bat cracked on the metal, and the bomb detonated. The three children were incinerated instantly.
However, the main source of danger on this trip was the human and drug traffickers who are known to capture or kill anyone who wanders into or lives within the Darién. This jungle is on the border of Colombia, so Colombian drugs flow through secret channels in the Darién. The native tribes living in the Darien are caught in the crosshairs. Though their main threats used to be natural, now, the drug traffickers pose an even larger threat.
We were too remote to get help quickly. Our guides explained how helicopter evacuations wouldn’t work in the dense rainforest. How machines failed trying to build a road. How the Darién swallowed the machines whole, and now they look like rusty pedestals for foliage, if you can get close enough to see the rust through the layers of leaves. But it didn’t even need to be stated like that. The remoteness was as clear as every star in the sky, every unique hum of every species of insect, every varying smell of the tropical flowers that bloomed and smiled at us.
If hikers do not take the heed of folklore and biological fact, the government in Panamá has put in regulations and paperwork that prevents reckless travelers from entering and tainting the Darién with western culture. Everyone was stunned that we were granted access to this truly impenetrable forest. At the gates to the Darién, which are lined by armed military officials, my group’s white van pulled up blaring “3005” by the Jonas Brothers. The extremely girly and childish song was like oil to water in this environment: clearly, we did not belong. The guards found it so funny that thisgroup of girls was entering the Darién that they asked if we all could come out to take a picture with them. More than anything, that scared us. It was one thing to be seriously venturing somewhere risky, but to be comicallyout of place? That was reason for second-guessing.
We all started rapid-fire interrogating Japhy, one guide who is Nepalese, after the picture with the guards. We wanted to know just howwe got into this place. Japhy tried to explain, but we couldn’t figure out what he was trying to tell us. Finally, he told us that he had taken Malia Obama to Bogotá, Colombia, and that everything would be fine. Suddenly, we were all calm again. It was as if he had put cucumber slices on our teenage eyes, and we were now content to journey into one of the most dangerous places on earth, no more questions asked. Barack and Michelle trusted this man? Well then, we could too.
Getting to the Emberá tribe involved another boat ride and a long hike. Once we arrived in Cémaco, we were greeted first by the crowds of curious children peeping at us from behind partially open doors. They giggled at our sweat and sunburns: we were the group of “Chicas Gringas.” Gringa isn’t the kindest Spanish term for a white person, but it can be used affectionately and is absolutely not analogous to the n-word. After we introduced ourselves to the kids while they giggled harder, the Chief and his son, Clifford, came to greet us. They wore loin cloths, and their bodies were covered in tattoos made from berry juice. Next, the women came to greet us. They wore parumas, and many of them were bare-breasted.
In Cémaco, the most sexual part of a woman is her thighs, which contrasts American’s conceptions of the sexuality of boobs. For some of us, this was what made us realize that we were absolutely transported into a different world. For others, it was seeing boys become men by carving out massive wooden canoes. For me, it was seeing the way that they welcomed us. It was thorough, polite, and necessary. Everything that they introduced us to was a hidden instruction about how life was lived, felt, viewed. Houses on stilts protected sleeping people from floods. Stories about berries helped children remember which would kill them and which could cure them. Games with pelotas were analogies for religion, power, and marriage. It all had subtext, and the subtext sang operas about the uniqueness of this world from ours.
Soon, we were all sitting, and the kind women of the village were giving us our own tattoos on our arms and jaws. They spoke Spanish and Wounaan, which is an indigenous language that is dying out. Clifford explained that they were trying to teach the children Wounaan, but that it wasn’t sticking. It made me unexplainably sad. This was the first sign that the village was experiencing the culturally erosive forces consequent of mainstream media’s unstoppable presence and represented by visitors from the outside world—like us.
After dinner, the translators and leaders of the tribe talked, and I was invited to try to practice my Spanish. In a stilted house, roofed by large, tropical leaves, we talked about how worried they are for the youth. Mainstream culture comes in through boat, through shipped clothing, through toys, through the television at the bar that the tribe visits occasionally. They cannot cut off the unwanted influence just like they can’t cut off the tide in the rainy season. Now, there was a suicide problem in the village, and it was hurting the teenagers specifically. I immediately thought of my community in Nashville. We struggled with the same things and the same deaths. Could they be for the same reasons?
Alongside the problem of suicide, the drug traffickers were beginning to threaten the Wounaan-Emberá tribes by demanding money. Clifford explained that money isn’t used during trade among the people of the Darién, though, so the tribe needed a source of western-style revenue. Japhy and I made eye contact after Clifford explained this. It was suddenly so clear how we got there, how we fit into the puzzle. We offered the protection money, and they provided us with a rare experience of a special place. But, the cost of our presence was more than just a full day of meals. We were a huge reason why the younger children in Cémaco were diverging from the culture of their families. We were the embodiment of the western invasion.
I didn’t sleep that night. I was upset, but I didn’t sleep mostly because a dog in heat was howling just underneath me. Zoie, who slept next to me in the house, rolled over and announced that had decided that she was going to shoot the dog. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. In the middle of the Darién, it must have been one of the most stereotypical American things I had ever heard.
I did not want to leave Cémaco. I didn’t want to leave the amazing people, the culture, and the atmosphere of this tribe battling nature and mainstream culture. The pride in their tattoos, their language, and their cultural clothing was as breathtaking as the beauty of the place. I looked backwards instead of forward on the canoe when we left. My mind was anchored into the black, sticky sand.
Idealistically, we were there to help preserve the tribe’s safety by giving them money to help deal with the drug traders. However, we probably brought our own little ideological diseases with us. Some of us didn’t like getting dirty; we were not dressed the same; we did not like the yucca that they served (it tastes like a potato that has celery strings inside it). But, most of all, we brought those clumsy, intrusive American attitudes that are so repugnant in most places of the world. I hope that we didn’t bring too much mainstream culture into Cémaco. I hope we didn’t pollute the water more. I hope our footprint wasn’t forgotten, but I hope it was easy to sweep away. But, just like the bombs hidden in well-wishing greenery, I know that our presence can never truly be removed.
BIO: Marimac McRae has been an Executive Editor for Polyphony H.S. and is an editor for The Stonefence Review, a literary magazine based at her current college, Dartmouth. Her writing is in ADDitude, The Round, The Blue Marble Review, Teen Ink, and in the RunSmart blog of Olympian runner, Malindi Elmore.
Karsten, Matthew. “Inside The Notorious Darien Gap.” Expert Vagabond, Expert Vagabond, 18 Nov. 2017, expertvagabond.com/darien-gap-photos/.
The rest of my information came from my two guides from Where There Be Dragons, Annelies and Japhy, from Clifford the Chief’s son, and from my two teachers from Harpeth Hall who accompanied us, Dr. Gary Schott and Elizabeth Allen.