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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