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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