Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Stupid gringo tricks

Incarnacion Espinosa (left), his son (right) and a friend, about to head out into the finca to work. When I asked Incarnacion his name, I wrote it down and showed him to see if I had spelled it correctly. He didn't even look. I then realized he can't read. (I love the humility his posture expresses.)

Last night in my tent, soon after going to bed, I woke myself with my own snoring. I heard the others laugh, and talk about the Americano.

This morning, I told my host that I hoped I wasn't any louder than the cows (who are pretty noisy in their own right) during the night.

Incarnacion brought out a plate of food and some sweet coffee. A slab of pan fried pork luncheon meat and a pile of fried platanos, bananas. I couldn't quite tolerate the bananas. This was a new taste to me. Frying them converts some of the sweetness to a starch flavor, much like a cross between banana and potato (banato?) A little too strange for me. But I forced down half the portion, realizing it might be my only meal today.

Prepared everything again for rescue. "It won't happen until I'm ready." Sure enough, soon after I heard the unmistakable sound of a reo, its diesel engine laboring towards Yaviza. I stood in the road as the old "deuce and a half" Army truck made its slow approach. I could see it's name, "Pura Vida" stenciled on the front windows. When they drew up alongside and stopped, I climbed up to the cab and said "yo necessito un poco ayuda." (I need a little help.)

The driver agreed to take me and the bike down the road to Yaviza, but we needed help getting the motorcycle aboard. A young boy who came to watch, knew where to find some farm hands and rushed off to get them. Over the two days I was stranded here, virtually all the locals were aware of my situation and seemed interested in helping me on my way.

Soon, about eight workers gathered as the truck backed up to the bike. We lifted it about five feet to the open truck bed, and I clambered aboard to push it forward and get it strapped down. The workers just quietly slipped back into the tall grasses. Then we rolled on ahead a couple hundred yards to pick up all the gear. What a relief to be moving again, even if it wasn't under "my own" power! The truck was empty, except for the bike and I, and a couple other passengers. But we stopped along the way to collect other riders. They all stood in the bed.

I sat atop the bike, applying brakes and gripping the side rail, kind of like a bronco rider in the holding pen. The truck was lurching and heaving so much that, even strapped down, the bike was trying to tip over its side stand, and occasionally jumping up off the bed. I didn't see a whole lot of the scenery, as I was focused on keeping the bike in place, but the mysterious mountains that form the Panama-Colombia frontier were up ahead in the distance.

The truck plowed along at never more than ten miles an hour, but it went through everything. I am just amazed at what these old work horses (and their drivers) can handle! I had been told that the road was better ahead, but it became abundantly clear that, had I tried to go further on my own, I would have died in the process! I couldn't believe the road conditions.

We passed "La Finca de Mano de Dios" (The Plantation of the Hand of God), but what I saw was rather discouraging: jungle cleared away to permit grazing cattle, raising crops and planting orchards, the low hills already showing terraces from the cattle compressing the soil. This is not improving upon God's creation.

Downtown Yaviza, Darien, Panama. I rode in on the reo "Pura Vida". For $20, the owner of the truck agreed to pull me and my bike out of the mud in Churupaquete and take me about five miles, to the end of the Pan American Highway in Yaviza. I gave him $30. He would be back-hauling bananas later in the day.

It took about two hours to travel the less than ten miles to Yaviza. The road did smooth out, and dry up the final two or three miles into town. Rolling in, past the school with its uniformed children streaming out into the village, past the cemetery with several people standing around a huge pile of fresh soil, we came to a stop alongside a river bank lined with small banana boats.

I don't quite know how it happens, but when its time to unload the bike, there is a crowd of able-bodied men gathered around to assist. They ask nothing for their help. In a now common practice, I piled all my gear next to the road and parked the bike next to the heap.

Dropped off in the center of Yaviza, it was impossible to hide. A new BMW was really out of place here! Across the street, a Chinese-owned grocery provided a refuge for part of the day. Remarkably organized and well-run, and offering a wide selection of goods, from fresh chicken and pastries, to clothes and TVs, the three women managing the store were tough enough to handle any situation.

Within minutes, two Federal Police approached me and asked to see my passport. They directed me into the shade in front of a Chinese-owned general store doing a brisk business across the street. (The sun was intense here!) As one officer took down my information, I looked around the store, delighting in the selection of foods and beverages.

Three Chinese women run the store, and their speech alternated between Chinese and Spanish. I heard men comment in Spanish about the crazy language the women speak. The store was impressively organized and clearly well-run and thriving. I enjoyed making a purchase and sitting in a chair out front, watching the activity of this bustling little provincial hub.

After a soda, I left the store and walked down the street. A man on bicycle stopped me and lifted up a plastic-covered badge showing he's an immigration officer. He asked me to come with him to his office. The police stopped him and said they got my information. He argued with them a bit and prevailed. Now it was my turn.

"Why do you need me? I'm not crossing any frontier? I've already been through Panamanian immigration!" I figured he was some petty bureaucrat looking to fleece a tourist of a few bucks in "administrative charges".

He said it was his job.

"I don't want to leave my motorcycle and things there."

It will be safe, he said, pointing to an acquaintance who nodded that he would watch my stuff. I continued to protest as he walked me down the street and around the corner. He ignored me, occasionally hailing women at houses we past. "Hola, mi amoré!"

("This guy is a scumbag," I thought.)

We walked several blocks in the heat. I calmed down, figuring it was useless to protest. I asked where his office is, and he said it's near the police station. That was actually reassuring. I was surprised to find the streets of Yaviza fairly clean and some of the shacks along them, well-cared for. Concrete slab paths are laid down the middle of some streets. Still, the smell of raw sewage was very prominent. It appeared that much of it flowed directly into streams.

The men I see in Darien province, even those in their 60s and 70s, are so lean and muscular from this difficult existence. I see women nicely dressed in colorful outfits, their hair up in rollers. Their must be some festivities tonight.

We were allowed entry into the police compound and walked past the "sergeant-at-arms'" desk to a small office. My petty official friend sat me down, but then had to go find a form to fill out.

"This is my problem," he said (that of registering visitor's).

"So you have to fill this out for any visitors, even if they're not crossing the frontier?"


The form required such information as height and weight, mother and father's names, contacts, etc. He attended to it with the utmost professionalism. Came the moment of the much-anticipated fee for his service, and he told me I was free to go. I couldn't believe it!

At the end of the Pan American Highway in Yaviza, Darien, Panama

Suddenly the town seemed a bit kinder, gentler. I returned to the general store, which appeared to be one center of communications for the town. Here, I was able to ask about boats down the river. They are available, but it's dangerous they said. And they only go as far as La Palma. From there, I would have to find another boat to take me to Colombia via a series of fishing villages down the Pacific Coast.

But connecting inland down there is a problem. I wanted to get to cities such as Cartegena and Bogota. The Caribbean side is where I wanted to be. Given my experience in the mud, it as clear I would need a boat connection to take me ALL the way. I couldn't plan on riding unimproved roads in this region.

I was advised these trucks that make runs up the Pan American Highway are my best bet. I tracked down the driver of "Pura Vida", which was now being loaded with bananas for the back-haul. I told him I was interested in catching a ride back. He said his truck will be full with bananas, but he'll take care of other arrangements. So, feeling some comfort that I was in competent hands, I relaxed and soaked up some of the ambiance.

Took out my camera to capture a bit of the scene here. Started to take a photo of "Pura Vida" being loaded, but one quite vocal joker in the back of the truck waved me off, yelling "$100!". But he wouldn't let me go, either. It was clear he wanted the photo taken, and he was going to get something out of it. We settled on $1. Afterward, I told him he broke my camera.

Bananas are painstakingly hand-stacked aboard "Pura Vida". The clown in orange was very proud that he was able to extract a dollar from me for the privilege of taking his photo. His first price was $100, but we negotiated.

I couldn't leave without some photos, but these people had little tolerance for my imposing.

The gringo with the camera was the subject of some contempt, and the brunt of many jokes here in Yaviza, but as the day progressed, people seemed to warm up and grow more comfortable with my presence.

Trying to ascertain whether internet services were available, I followed leads to the public school, then the Roman Catholic school, the library and finally, the education office. Though there are some computers in town, there is no internet service. So, I decided to try telephoning relatives to let them know my whereabouts.

I haven't used phone cards before, but it was time to learn. At the general store, I purchased a $5 international calling card. The woman running the register, who speaks a small amount of English, in addition to Spanish and Chinese (Mandarin?), assisted me with instructions on how to use it. I traipsed off to a payphone I had seen near the church. As I stepped into the booth, a man on his porch across the street whistled, then wagged his finger at me. It doesn't work. Found another booth but this one contained a young man apparently engaged in an amorous conversation. "This could go on for some time..."

I found a third booth and waited my turn to use the phone. Finally, trying the card, the PIN code was not recognized. Back to the store, my friend the cashier tried to connect on her phone. Since I had been gone a while, she thought maybe I had used up the minutes and was now bringing it back to claim it didn't work.

Then she realized she sold me the wrong card. With the correct type, I set off again and waited my turn for the phone. It was all in fun. I figured this is just part of the experience. "This is my life at this moment." Now things were working, but when it came time to enter the number I was calling, I didn't know the Country Code for the U.S.!

Back to the store. They couldn't help me either, but I was told to go down the street and ask for Laeticia. She could help. About a block away, I asked a group of men. One of them said he'd take me to Laeticia. We walked around the corner and down the block to another small store. He introduced me. On the wall of her store was a chart of Country Codes. U.S. was number 1. ("Duh.") Outside her store was another payphone. My guide stood by while I tried to call.

When used correctly, the card proved amazingly simple! Called brother Jeff in Vermont. Answering machine. Left a message. That cost about three cents! Called brother Drew in Seattle. Answering machine. Left a message. Four cents more. Called daughter Jessica. Voice mail. Left a message. Three international calls for less than a dime. Incredible!

The man who led me here stood nearby the whole time, so it became clear he might appreciate something for his effort. I asked if he would like a soda, and he nodded. We drank a bottle of "pop" together and talked. He said his father passed away just nine days before. "Lo siento", I'm sorry, I told him.

Back to my home base at the general store. Other riders were gathering, hoping to catch a ride, as the trucks were nearly full with produce destined for the markets. The gringo with the BMW quickly became known around the area. Again, it seemed people were genuinely interested in helping me out (of here.) I saw the immigration official a couple more times and greeted him in passing. ("I take back my 'scumbag' thought.")

A funeral procession came down the street and passed the store. The majority of participants were black. The atmosphere was more festive than solemn. Hundreds gathered just up the road in the cemetery. I walked over to watch from a distance. People crowded around the open grave, kids climbing the mound of soil for a better perspective. The sound of nails being pounded into the wood coffin was sobering; it's so final. (I don't want to be put underground!) The hammering went on for quite a while.

After only four hours or so in Yaviza, I was told it would be wise to catch one of the outward bound camions today, as it could be days or weeks before another opportunity arose.

I was curious if there might indeed be a way of going on to Colombia, without having to return to Panama City and Colon. Several people I talked with said the motor launches capable of handling me, my bike and gear travel only as far as La Palma, and from there I would have to catch another boat to Colombia. But this would deliver me to the Pacific Coast, and then only to an isolated fishing village without highway connections to the interior. And the term "muy peligroso" (very dangerous) kept arising.

So, I made it known that I wanted a ride on one of the trucks. The driver of "Pura Vida" made some arrangements. A Hyundai was the only truck available, and its sole purpose today would be to deliver me back up the highway about twelve miles. (Only too late did I find out it lacked dual-wheel drive.)

Returned to the store and started to think about food. That breakfast was not enough. I was eying the raw hot dogs, baloney and individually-wrapped American cheese in the cooler when I was called out by a stranger, who indicated they're ready to load the motorcycle! A well-worn, somewhat dilapidated Hyundai truck was standing by. I was introduced to "José", my "chauffeur". My big-mouthed friend from the $1 photo session was back, pulling together a team to load the bike. (I passed him earlier, proudly telling friends how he forced the Americano to pay for his photo. I stood by until he turned and saw me listening in.)

We worked together in the back of the truck strapping the bike in (much better this time.) I handed him $10 for the help. As soon as he stepped off the truck, he was besieged by others demanding their cut. He pulled out a wad of ones and distributed them.

I was really enjoying being in such a strange world. This is one of the things I was after on this journey. Being out of my comfort zone somewhat, but not totally.

Finally, at 3:30, José and I were on our way. I realized his only purpose was to get me up the road 15 miles to Canglón, beyond the impassable section. I was hiring a private transport. When I asked "how much", he said he didn't know. ("Oops. Oh, the hell with it. I just want to get back on my bike again!") "Pura Vida" would be following close behind and assist, should we need it. I was feeling pretty good as we crawled along at 5 to 10 mph.

Relaxing in my seat, I noticed my legs itching. A closer look revealed a serious rash on both calves and ankles. ("Great. I'm being eaten alive.") As we started to reach mud, I wondered how José was going to manage. The truck didn't have a lot of traction, but was stronger than I expected, and José was quite capable at maneuvering it through the ruts. He said he makes the trip many times. I asked how long it will take. "Two hours," his reply.

Still, I couldn't imagine how this truck, with the relatively small wheels and low clearance could get through some of the stuff I had seen in the past couple days.

We finally reached some ruts he knew he couldn't cross without "Pura Vida". We stopped and waited. When the reo arrived, as planned, we were chained to the rear and it dragged us through. I envisioned that was going to be how we would drive for the next couple hours.

This is Darien!

We came up on a broad expanse of mud with a pick-up truck already stuck and vehicles waiting to cross in both directions. A lot of people standing around discussing the situation. A bulldozer was on its way to help out. Over the course of an hour, the Caterpillar extracted the truck, then had to extract "Pura Vida" when it leaned over and sank into the muck above its right wheels.

Fully-laden "Pura Vida" awaits help.

My "chauffeur", José in the Yankees hat. I was a bit perturbed to learn his truck is a camion senso, not all-wheel drive.

My home for twenty hours.

Nothing to do but wait your turn to get pulled through the muck.

If you own or operate a piece of equipment like a Caterpillar, you're a very powerful person.

Next, it was our turn to hook up to the Cat. In the mean time, both José and I watched in disbelief as "Pura Vida" continued on up the road and slowly disappeared over a hill. They were abandoning us!

It's our turn.

We were dragged for a couple hundred yards, then the Cat returned to help others. By now, José was swearing and muttering to himself. He had not anticipated the difficulty, and certainly not having his safety line removed. And this whole mess was MY fault! We were able to climb up and over the hill, but then came to another bog. He stopped and looked down the road, then said we can't go any further.

You need all-wheel drive for this stuff, he explained, and his truck is not. We need a reo, he said.

"When will one come?"

He had no idea. I was incensed that knowing this road, he thought he could get through with single-axle drive. He was angry with me and said something to the effect that it wasn't his idea for the reo to dump us. (There may have been a few expletives thrown in.)

I watched the light fade, and thought "I'm in no better situation tonight than I was in the past two. It's even worse! I'm hungry and there's no tienda this time! I sat sullenly. We didn't talk. One of the crew from "Pura Vida" was also left behind to mind the towing chain. He cheerily walked alongside in the mud as we struggled to this point. Now he and José talked, totally ignoring my presence, and even talking about me. José offered him a cinnamon roll from the pack of a dozen he had brought. No offer to me. We were each other's nightmare.

I finally got out of the cab and stood in the mud. With nightfall, it became clear there may be no help coming. José stopped a group from a nearby farm, returning aboard their old Ford tractor. He asked if they would tow us across this next stretch of mud. El Hefe was quite short with José. $100 and it would be tomorrow morning, since he has no lights. José laughed him off. "Loco!" he muttered as they left.

José crawled into the cab and slept. The other fellow disappeared. I stood outside and fumed. "It's useless to get angry," I thought. I considered breaking out my camping gear and cooking up some Thai noodles. I woke José and asked if would like something to eat. He wasn't interested. He said he's going to sleep there in the cab, and that there's a hammock in the back of the truck that I could use.

Facing reality, I set about getting as comfortable as I could. Strung the hammock across the covered truck bed. It was stifling inside, and the mosquitoes were now active. "Welcome to hell." Remembered that I had a few things for sustenance: some cashews, electrolyte powders, the noodles. "I guess I'm not going to die out here."

Whenever there was the sound of a vehicle out on the road, I would jump out of the hammock to investigate. The emotions rise and fall with these sounds. Late in the night, I heard a "reo" coming and excitedly woke José.

This was a truck I had seen pass by late on previous nights. He had one good headlight and in the shadows, I could barely make out people crowded into the back. Was he smuggling illegals? When he pulled alongside, José approached him, while I kept back. I didn't want this to be about the gringo. They knew each other.

José made a pretty compelling plea. The young man driving the truck (and sporting a big "Rolex"-type watch) was impatient. He was clearly telling José the road's too bad. He can't help out. It would jeopardize his own mission. Finally, José resigned. That was it. We were doomed to stay until tomorrow, possibly even longer. All the big trucks had left Yaviza today, hauling their loads to market.

I was feeling this is indeed a "stupid gringo trick". An American with a bunch of money has this hair-brained idea he wants to go visit Darien. Now it takes an army to get him out of his mess.

A hellish night, the rash driving me crazy, the heat and mosquitoes just contributing to the misery. All my clothing was dirty and sour (or still soaking wet.) I lay in the hammock, but certainly couldn't sleep. Occasionally, I would turn on a flashlight to record (usually negative) thoughts, but it was going to be a very long night (it was still early!)


11:00 p.m.: My body moving constantly, unhappy with the constraint of this polypropylene hammock, but also unhappy with the alternatives. José is also miserable up in the cab. I can tell by the constant shifting and rocking of the truck. ("This sucks!")

But another voice that has been with me all along says, "it is what it is. Just accept it. This is the journey." I tend to listen to this one more.

Out there in the dark, I hear many frogs. They have the strangest call, like a Doppler-shifting cat's meow.

The "forced-downtime" provided an opportunity to examine why I'm here. As Drew asked, "what are you looking for?" It's a good question. I guess I am following an old dream, before it's too late. There have been few dreams in my life. It seemed important to attend to those that I have. Far too often, have I only been a participant in others' (often greed-filled) dreams. That's what you get if you don't realize your own purpose. The recent years at Mondavi Winery only emphasized this lesson.

1 comment:

Drew Kampion said...

A Hollywood woman told me today that there was a movie a few years back called "The Darien Gap" ... heard of it?