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.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hey, very cool story. I'm hoping to learn about your project sometime in the near future.

Incidentally, I have your shorts.