Friday, September 24, 2010

Darien Gap IV: The Devil's Mathematician

The port secretary called us to the launch one by one. Our packs were weighed in turn and the boys competed for the right to toss the double bagged bundles into the rectangular bow. Passengers loaded back to front, the smoothest ride went to those in the in the rows closest to the engine, each row forward experienced more amplitude as the hull rode up and down over the waves. As one of the last names on the manifest, I found myself on the front bench of passengers just behind the luggage pile.

The short and wiry captain in an oil stained yankees cap stood at the stern and tilled the twin outboard engines as he guided us through the choppy waters of the inlet. The front of the narrow launch elevated with each wavelet and slammed down hard on a surface that felt like concrete. Each jolt was a punch to the tailbone that coursed up my spine and rattled my clenched teeth. There was nothing on the wooden bench to cushion the blows.

The first stretch out of Turbo had been protected by the curvature of the gulf. The horizon undulated in the open sea ahead of us, where the winter winds had blown for months without interruption. As the gulf widened into the Caribbean, the snaking horizon foreshortened, then vanished, as the chop gave way to five, six, eight foot waves that broke over the starboard bow, trebling the merciless pounding. I closed my eyes to shield them from the stinging spray and found myself drifting back, way past the usual daydream fare--women I could have had, women it all went wrong with, the sweet moments that made all the frustrations worthwhile--back to a safe place, the source of my earliest daydreams.

While my second grade classmates experienced their dinosaur phase, I prefered the nearer enchantments of classical mythology. Not all the metaphors were digestible then, sex was still a fuzzy concept and death too far off to cast a convincing shadow on a nine year old. Hades I got all wrong. I imagined the River Styx a calm stream of odorless blood, the passage across smooth as the contrails of wandering shades. Closer now to the death horizon I can see its snaking tumult, and I know the ferry to the underworld was not an environ of wistful reflection, but a prelude to the punishments waiting on the other side.

Hades stayed up late with the devil's mathematician devising infinite combinations of prime numbers for the wave lengths beneath the hull; there was no anticipating when the elongated craft would end a string of smaller impacts over the tops of the whitecaps and plummet towards the depths. Then earthly laws suspended, in time marked only by the mortal migration of stomach to larynx, as our flesh slipped away from their grip. We paid for the moment’s freedom, both Hades and gravity are jealous gods. They reached up for us hapless escapees at the time they thrusted the launches skyward, so that the five foot drop doubled on impact. The only reprieve from this ceaseless and irregular pounding came when the swells rose high enough to obscure the horizon and the boat was forced to crawl up one slope of water and skitter down the next.

The Czech couple next to me had forgotten their temporal squabbles, their faces blanched of argument and color. The woman seated between me and her partner had braced herself on each of our knees. She cried and begged for respite from the lashing. She lurched forward with a wimper gargled by mush and bile and then collapsed into the saltwater that stirred her upturned breakfast on the hull. After minutes that seemed like hours the captain idled the launch. The boat reeled backwards in the driving surf as he cleared a space for her on the gentler aft bench.

I was worried about my back, a source of pain even in the smoothest of times on days I neglected rigorous stretching and exercise. I remembered my uncle who graduated from the pounding of jet skis to cortisone shots and disc surgery. I did everything I could to energise my core, to distribute the impact of the blows through my muscles. Bump bump bump bump SLAM! I pictured Ana Cabana, DVD pilates instructor, clinically perky tits and saccharin smile, and tried to direct the shockwaves through my stomach and my thighs. Bump bump SLAM! Sometimes, before there was time to recollect from the last blow, the hull came down like a hammer fall on the tail bone. The hundred bucks I might have saved by not taking the sailboat through the San Blas was not going to cover disc surgery.

Bump bump bump bump bump bump bump bump,WHOOSH! My legs, tensed to absorb the next blow, misfired just as the hull was dropping away. The involuntary recoil sprung me from the plank as the launch fell into the eight foot trough. The next turquoise wall yielded to a sharp azure sky as the horizon titled back and left me unsure if I’d land on wood or water.

The landing was both soft and dry as I came crashing down into the lap of the Swiss woman behind me. She screamed and I imagined her held at machete point on the dark streets of Turbo. I could not tell if the sloshing in the side of my head was ocean or eardrum liquefied by her piercing shriek. She thrust an elbow into my back and I tumbled from her lap into the pool of puke-water sweeping back and forth along the hull.

The Swiss soon got her revenge. A few dozen or hundred slams later I felt a chunky warmth splashing the back of my neck. The bilious gruel crusted on my shirt at the only angle my body wasn’t drenched by the stinging spray. Another hour of pulverizing blows and I gave in, I went loose and let the impacts throttle my spine with each drop. Acquiescence did not slow the time down, the seconds dripped the way months pass in the safety of home.

The craft turned landward and surfed atop the rolling waves to a thatched village that appeared on the bright yellow sands fronting emerald green jungle. It had been well over the two hours I had heard advertised for the trip. A wave of low grumbles splashed with pathetic whimpers spread from the back benches forward. This was not our dock. We were only at Acandi, the half way point between Turbo and Capurgana. The height of the waves and the strong winds and current had doubled our projected voyage time.

A single couple got up to disembark and I could feel the rest of the gringos thinking the same thing: Acandi, good enough, let’s get the fuck off this boat. I could feel every bone and every joint, I couldn’t take two hours of more pounding, not one more jolt. I didn’t have an extra day for Acandi. I had to be at the border tomorrow, and once I put my feet on land, there was no way I’d be getting back on a boat anytime soon.

I thought about Johanna’s ride through the swamps and rivers of the Choco, of her possible journey up the gut of the Darien, a trip that for the day at least couldn’t have possibly been as unpleasant as this white-capped roller coaster on the gringo trail. Where and when would she imagine she had taken the launch up the Caribbean with the other tourists? I pictured her on a forced night march led by the lucky militants who hoped to turn her captivity into ransom, jungle thorns shredding her clothes and ripping chunks out of bird bone thighs. The better story, but even hers had been done before. I had taken the right boat, no way in hell I’d be backtracking to Turbo to find out.

All things must pass I reminded myself over and over as the violence of the slamming hull stretched out the hours. Sometime just after noon, the sun almost directly overhead, we again turned landward and took aim for bright blue waters protected by breakers at the edge of the bay.

With two feet on the pier I did my best to forget all the promises I made to the gods I no longer believed in. For a moment I basked in the glow of safe passage and savored the illusion of land tilting beneath my feet. Though sunburn blistered my arms and I was sure I had done permanent damage to my lower back, the pain seemed too far away to negate the relief that came with knowing I was just a few miles, land miles, from the border. I might have kissed the sand beyond the pier had the soldiers who had gathered to look through our gear not fingered me for inspection. As they cut through the garbage bags containing my luggage, I was amazed to find the sea spray had penetrated both layers of plastic and soaked my polyester backpack.

I walked off the dock alongside the Czech couple whose bags had also been inspected for drugs. In another context we might have sought to team up and negotiate for a better deal on a room, or at least gone out for a beer. We had seen close up the minutiae of each other’s humiliations, the cries and curses and bodily protests of the morning’s passage. It would take some time before I could sit down and look either of them in the eye. It would take some time before I could sit down at all. Better to forget.

With the Colombian holidays over, I had my pick of guest houses. I settled on a place run by a friendly couple from Medellin. They were eager to accommodate, only three of their their twelve rooms were occupied. I could see their disappointment when I told them I only had a night to spend. I explained how tomorrow was the last day of my visa, and they urged me to get my exit stamps before the customs agent shut the immigration office until Monday.

I peeled off my jeans before the bathroom mirror. My ass had been replaced by two large welts, bright red where the flesh was stripped bare. Short of rubbing alcohol, I sterilized the wounds with a shot of aguardiente from the bar, and put on my dryest pair of boxers. Still well before nightfall, I passed out face down on the bed.
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Friday, September 17, 2010

Darien Gap III: The Launch not Taken

The receptionist recommended I be on the docks as soon as they opened at 5:30 to ensure a place on the launch. The water taxis out of Turbo all had a single daily departure around 7:00 AM. I got to the dock at 5:30, but the office was closed and I had another look around the main intersection of town. I found a vendor selling shots of sugary coffee and sat with the locals watching the roosters yield their ground at the last possible second to passing motorbikes.

I got back to the dock at fifteen to six and found myself twenty spots back in a queue that had quietly formed in front of the office door. It was an almost even mix of Colombians and gringos, the first I had seen since leaving Casa Carlos.

I felt the vanity rising up again as I waited in the purple gray of the pre-dawn hour. I couldn’t help but feel a little crestfallen that in the filth and fecal breath of backwater Turbo, Colombia, I was just one of a dozen foreigners taking the less traveled route to Central America. Why else would a person with other options visit this hole of a town if not to feel he was something more than an ordinary tourist?

The couple in front of me were locked in a bitter quarrel over who packed the bug spray next to the tin of sardines, or whatever it was they were going back in forth about in Czech or Polish as the young man rearranged the contents of his pack. At least the language barrier allowed me to imagine they were fighting about something exotic like the poisoning of canned fish products.

When I approached the counter there were two passenger logs, one for Capurgana, my destination, the other for Unguia, an inland town reached by water across the Gulf of Uraba and through the rivers and swamplands of the Choco. Unguia was just a name in my head. A smoldering village at the end of the earth that evoked respect and foreboding, a Colombian Mai Lai I’d visit only with the aid of books.

Unguia was the last settlement before the Darien Gap, or, depending on one’s direction, the first Colombian village reached along the old footpath through the Darien, a trail now contested by guerrilla soldiers and their rivals in the drug trade. Robert Young Pelton was one of the last men to cross the Darien back in 2002. The author who penned the series the World’s Most Dangerous Places, the journalist who discovered John Walker Lindh in a truckload of Talibani prisoners, was fortunate to survive the trip in one piece. Pelton and his associates were kidnapped a few days into the Panamanian side of the Gap and were marched south by the AUC to be held captive on the outskirts of Unguia. Upon release the paramilitaries stated they had been protecting the journalist and his entourage. Given the catalogue of potential dangers on the way, it was not an outlandish claim.

The most direct route north has only gotten worse in the intervening years. This is why Donaldo mapped an alternate route for me, first along the coast, and then east over the mountains and down to the rivers flowing back towards the Pan American north of Yaviza. By the message boards I keep tabs on, there were still people out there who sought advice for the traditional route despite the known dangers.

As expected, the gringo names filled the Capurgana side of the ledger. As I logged in for the trip I glanced at the Unguia column, and noticed that the third signature bore a Teutonic script and surname. Who was this Johanna Klein?

Tourists do not travel to Unguia, a village without hotel or restaurant, whose single refrigerator is fed by diesel generator. Perhaps Frau Klein was an aid worker, or maybe a biologist set to rendevous with an expedition in search of more undescribed frogs and fish that have recently made news in the region. I imagined the scientists who hired a boat to Unguia did not do so without some kind of escort. Perhaps she was going just because it was the Darien Gap, a notch on the belt of the truly insane adventure travelers. She could have contacted the FARC and the AUC, and on some unlikely pretense, negotiated safe passage. Maybe I could tag along. A German planning an adventure so far afield would at least have excellent maps.

I had to find the reason this single woman was venturing to the edge of the most lawless region of the hemisphere on her own. If so, I had less than a half hour to get her story before the launches loaded and set off in different directions across the bay.

From the office I stepped onto the dock where I was swarmed by a half dozen kids selling heavy-duty garbage bags in exchange for a few coins. The other passengers were busy double bagging their belongings inside the plastic to keep them safe from the spray and the waves breaking over the bow. I bought a bag each from competing vendors and packing tape from a third and the four of us did our best to make my possessions waterproof.

A few gringos sat in pairs along the dock. A larger group huddled around a kiosk, hanging on the words of a Swiss couple who took turns telling their tale of being robbed last evening by a machete armed teenager. None of their faces matched my mental image of the woman who signed across the column from the rest of us foreigners.

There was one gringa sitting by herself near the end of the dock. This wisp of a woman, spectral in the pre-dawn light, sat erect and motionless while staring out across the muddy water to the mangroves on the other side of the channel. There was no good way to approach her since she was centered at the dock’s end and there wasn’t proper space for a stranger between her and either of the end posts. The best I could do was sit with my back to one of the piles and try a conversation from over my shoulder. My double-sacked backpack slid from my fingers and thumped onto the planks. The noise did not break her trance.

“Buenos Dias.” It was all I could get out on my second intrusion on her sunrise meditation.

After a short moment she craned her neck and I got a full look at her face. I took a breath so as not to shudder. Though she looked anorexic from behind, wraithlike in profile, I still wasn’t prepared for glassy grey eyes, sunk deep into charcoal sockets flecked with sickly greens and blues, and blanched lips indistinguishable from her translucent skin. With so little flesh covering her bones and only a the few centimeters of plaque yellow hair atop her head, it did not take imagination to see how the hollows of her skull might look as a future anthropology specimen, homo sapiens sapiens, on display behind a glass case in a natural science museum.

“Buenos Dias.” she replied.

For a second time in as many seconds I had to take control of my breathing so as not to shiver. Her voice was as thin as her bird bone fingers, there was no room for sound to develop body within the confines of her angular frame.

“Where are you headed?”


Her answer revealed little. Choco was the department on the frontier with Panama, an area that included both the towns along the coast to Capurgana and the region surrounding Unguia. Surely death had many errands in that part of the world. Her vagueness confirmed my suspicion that she was headed further into the interior.

“Interesting. You work for an NGO?”


Just as the conversation had its first momentum, she shut me off with a sharp look. Or maybe it was just how her face had focused while delivering the syllabic response. The pointed nose and protruding cheekbones, the severe cut of jaw over a steep ridge of collar bone, the accusatory shoulder blade--she had much sharpness to offer.

I turned my head back down the dock and watched the Swiss man pantomime last night’s assailant. After a few minutes I shifted back towards Johanna, hoping she might offer her story. She was ready for the jungle, her legs swallowed up in the boots now dangling over the edge of the pier. I asked her about them, her answer was polite and efficient and left no space for a follow up. At twenty to seven, I tried another tack.

“There can’t be many foreigners who pass through Unguia. Did you have to speak with the DAS official? They must keep count on travelers so close to the border.”

“No. Excuse me. I’m going to check on the launch,” she said.

And so I lost the thread. Most people love to talk about themselves, the lazy fact I relied on to get their stories. This woman did not want to reveal herself, and I had neither the time nor the angle to draw her out.

I admired the strength hidden in her stringy limbs as she sprung up with the pack-in-trash-bag that was several the diameter of her torso. She walked twenty feet back along the dock where the first boat was tied, a long, open craft with a squared off bow and twin outboard engines.

Why was this mysterious German (Swiss, Austrian?) headed to the border of one of the most dangerous and lawless stretches on the planet? I would not get any more details so I was left to imagine the motivations behind Frau Klein’s voyage. She was taking the land route to Panama along the old trails through the Darien, to see the teeming rain forest and cloud kissed mountains, a land that would always be without roads. She welcomed the dangers, drug runners and guerrillas, mosquitoes weren’t quick enough at this point to do her harm, over a last dreary winter in Berlin. She had nothing to lose. The doctors gave her six months, that was back in August. She laughed when they advised a last ditch treatment regime that would have sentenced her to spending her last days in the hospital fighting the inevitable. Now every day that she could rise above the pain was a delicious gift.

The boys who had been selling the garbage bags scrambled to help load the front of the launch to Unguia. In the chaos of flying garbage bags and a heated argument between the captain and the port secretary, the other passengers took great care with the foreign guest. She was offered a back bench, the smoothest ride on the boat. Two men approached her side as she stepped down into the craft. She twisted away to elude her would-be assistants, and her elbows seemed to pass right through their waiting arms. Once seated, she stared straight ahead back at the dock. Locals filled up the the remaining spaces on the launch, and with a yogi’s posture, Johanna rose a full head higher than the brown and black bodies around her.

It was too late to change my ticket and wedge into the crowded, river bound craft. I lacked the supplies, the time, even the desire for such a trip.

This time I would take the road more traveled, a launch across the open sea to the last sliver of Colombian coast before the border. Capurgana was a destination in its own right, for the last few years the sleepy fishing village had been free of guerrilla incursions and was now on the cusp of a tourist boom. This of course would soon nullify the town’s chief attraction, the elusive travelers’ grail of undiscovered paradise.

Then I could always push further, pursue the footsteps of this will o’ the wisp, or simply imagine her, hoping one day to come across her story and compare it to the specter in my mind.
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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Darien Gap II: On the Frontier of Bananastan

In the morning I boarded a truck for Turbo, Colombia’s most northwestern Caribbean port, from where I would have the choice of catching a boat to the coastal villages that straddle the Panamanian border or a launch up the rivers and swamps to the southern edge of the Darien. I was lucky, or perhaps it was a deliberate courtesy to the foreigner that landed me a seat in the air conditioned cabin. Several passengers had to endure the bumpy ride on a back bench fitted across the truck bed. The day burned hot over the interior lowland, no amount of sunscreen would have protected me from scorching under the afternoon sun.

A few hours past Monteria the blacktop ended and the ranching plains gave way to the wax-leafed monotony of banana fields. This marked a frontier of sorts, the historic lip of American dominance over the Carribbean Rim, where for much of 20th century national sovereignty yielded to the extensive acreage of the United Fruit Company, and to the lurking presence of the US Marine Corps on the seas beyond. It is an old, much repeated story, with regional variations, all the way up the Mosquito Coast to the Banana Republics of Central America, where all roads drained to the sea.

The story of rapacious tycoons who worked with the State Department to puppeteer obsequious local governments has been reduced to a cultural meme, as filtered through the anti-imperialist lens casting soft focus on all American involvement in the Caribbean since the Monroe Doctrine. On the micro level, parsing the facts reveals more nuance than polemics care to recount. On the macro scale, the larger forces shaping the hemisphere push perfidious governments and sinister corporations into auxilary roles. "Blame it on the invisible hand!" somehow does not satisfy. Not on the Colombian coast. This was the wrong jurisdiction to launch the post revisionist rebuttal.

Cienaga, further down the edge of Bananastan on the coastal plain near Santa Marta, was the site of the Banana Massacre, where in 1928 United Fruit was at least tacitly involved in the decision to send soldiers in to break a workers’ strike. The Colombian army set up machine gun nests on the buildings surrounding the town square and opened fire upon the Sunday crowd who had assembled to hear an address by the governor. Reports wildly disagree on the devastation wrought by the rain of bullets. The Colombian military initially claimed responsibility for 47 victims.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes some 3,000 slaughtered in a fictionalized account where the magical bleeds from the realism and the horror of mangled bodies and broken bones is compounded by the snuffing of collective memory. The resurrected consciousness of the events has come to embrace something closer to Gabo’s account. Colombian historians now place the number of victims in the slaughter at over 2,000.

United Fruit was officially renamed after its longstanding Chiquita mascot in 1990, but the Latinized rebranding of the colossal fruit grower became tarnished with the revelations of Chiquita’s seven figure payouts to the AUC in exchange for protection of corporate executives. The US government fined Chiquita 25 million dollars last year as a penalty for bankrolling the terrorist outfit.

Chiquita containers were stacked along the road that upgraded to concrete for the last stretch into town. Turbo unfolded, chaotic and dirty, corrugated roofs and smoking trash piles compacted between the mono-culture of banana fields and mangrove lined channels.

I had been cautioned by many Colombians to steer clear of Turbo, a town with a reputation as a shipment center for drugs and illicit arms in the veil of bananas. There were only a couple of paved roads through Turbo; the truck dropped me off at their intersection a block from from the docks with the passenger launch services. On the landward side off the channel were the lodging choices, a sagging two story building of sun bleached wood under peeling paint and a three story story concrete box bare save for the tangle of wires running from a single satellite dish.

I picked the latter establishment, as it looked the better bet to sell rooms by the night and was one lot further removed from the shit smell of shoreline garbage and the festering scum crusting the shipping canal. The Afro-Colombian receptionist gave me a slow once-over as she asked me for my passport. She warned me to be back in the hotel before nightfall.

With only a backpack in tow, I bought things as I needed them, and gave away what I no longer needed when articles became dead weight on my back. Starting tomorrow I would need jungle boots and a machete, items I did not want to wait to risk bartering for in tiny Capurgana. Turbo did not look any more promising at first, the storefronts lining the packed earth streets were little more organized than stalls the last afternoon of a picked over flea market. A scan down the mishmash collections of junk revealed nothing with obvious uses in the jungle.

With the afternoon draining away and the warning of the receptionist clear in my mind, I stumbled upon an old man in front of a hovel built of plastic-lined crates and shipping pallets. He sat by a collection of knives arranged by size on a blanket, the last three were full-on machetes. I picked up the newest looking blade, and realized how ridiculous I would look with a knife I did not know how to use hanging from my waist, that I had a hard enough time slicing vegetables without a cutting board, that jungle foliage was likely to put up more of a fight than the carrots and onions of my stir fries, and that anywhere I needed a giant blade for walking I’d best have a local guide to do the cutting for me.

My hesitation made a good bargaining tactic, the price of the blade fell steadily as I imagined myself hacking into my shin while still within sight of the last beachside hotel. I thanked the man and laid the knife on the blanket. Despite the missed sale, he was kind enough to direct me to the street where I might find jungle boots.

This second alley stall was on the way back to the port road. The assortment of shoes, mostly in pairs, piled on the ground with a few set on low benches, looked like they had been salvaged from a Target-bound Chinese container thrown from its ship about a decade ago and left to fester in the mangrove swamps of the surrounding bay. The boots were set apart from the motley discount collection, lined on the back wall of the store. All the pairs were rubber, which meant they were probably FARC cast offs. One of the few sure fire ways to distinguish ideology in the jungle was by the material of the militant’s foot wear. The leftists settled for the cheaper material, though the flimsy insoles at least had the requisite holes for water to drain should I find myself fighting the muck in the Darien swamplands.

The rail thin shopkeep with caramel skin and wiry curls let me try on the largest pair along the wall. I could not even hook my foot into the boot, they were at least a couple sizes too small. I wouldn’t find a bigger pair in town, she insisted.

She gave me a couple of plastic bags and told me to put them over my socks and then try to slide my feet past the heel. Maybe it would have worked once, but the thought of walking for miles on clubs of severely constricted swollen flesh, the possibility that I’d have to cut myself free of the damned things at the end of trail, did not seem worth the protection. I at least enjoyed the idea that my feet were two sizes larger than the ex-guerrillas of the Choco, a fact that was not going to help me should I encounter a patrol of their more dedicated comrades while wearing slip-on walking shoes.

Without good boots I would have to approach the border along the Caribbean, but I hadn’t put too much thought into my alternatives once in Panama. Did I really want to be the sort of braggart who treks through the jungle begging for completely avoidable dangers, just to say I’d been there? If so, I’d be the braggart doing it in Eccos, a versatile shoe for globe trotting assholes.

Zero-for-two on my Dr. Jones provisioning expedition, I found my way back to the concrete road and the dock-side businesses. A red sun sank into the bay as I returned to the hotel. I asked the receptionist if there was a place to get dinner by the water. She shook her head, her look telegraphed exasperation and consternation--we had been over this before, how long was a gringo going to last here who could not figure out Turbo was not a place to wander around at night? She picked up the phone and took my order for a pizza to my room.
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