I find myself on another bus, back in the state of being in transit. This time, I am on a treasure hunt to find an indigenous civilization… A village of Embera Wounaan people in the Darien region of Panama. I literally awoke in the middle of the night a few weeks ago while I was in Puerto Viejo, knowing exactly what I must do. I was in a state of such clarity, and in that moment I realized that I needed to find the indigenous people I had come down to central/ south America to originally seek. Anyway, at this point, on the bus, all I had was a vague indication that they were located somewhere in Playa Muerto, Panama, and that a teaching opportunity might be available, if I made the effort to find them, and ask in person. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got to Panama city, how I was going to initiate this search. But the stones of this path seemed to materialize before me as I walked forward… I felt like I was being guided by angels, and the rest, was history.
A Panamanian on the bus named Tomás was the first angel. He was just returning home from a 6-month long solitary journey himself…his, to the states. But he sympathized with me and my need, as such a traveler, for help navigating the unfamiliar territory and language. I told him what I vaguely needed to do, and he gave me the names of the places I needed to go, and told me how to get there. He marked up my map, helped me stock my backpack with food for my journey, and he bid me farewell like all the others, by leaving his number and insisting I call if I needed anything else. From there I picked up a payphone and called a friend of a friend… I tried my best to describe who I was in Spanish and the help I needed… He cut me off in English saying, “You need somewhere to stay? Come on over! Sleep in my spare bed, use my kitchen, use my washing machine, use my shower, need a spare set of keys!? I have some extra! Need a spare cell phone while you’re here? I got one of those too!” I was flabbergasted. I had gone from one extreme to the other. Whereas at Patty’s I was scrutinized while performing any mundane task, here I was given free-reign of anything I needed. I was so grateful.
Roberto’s apartment was beauuuutiful. Over the course of the next couple days, I came to understand his laid back demeanor and generosity… he had been hosting couch surfers for years. “One way to taste flavors and meet people from around the world when you don’t have the time to travel yourself.” That day I made my way down to the Mercado de Mariscos (Fish Market) where I heard word that I could perhaps find a fisherman that would be willing to take me aboard and bring me to Playa Muerto. As luck would have it, that’s just what happened. From the moment I got there and told someone my story, the jumbled spanish words traveled from one mouth to another until finally finding the ears of the fisherman I was looking for: Santiago (Angel #2: Here’s my phone number gringa, call me if you have any trouble finding me tomorrow”). I gave him 25 bucks, and was booked to leave with him the following day on what would be a 14-hour boat ride to the Darien.
The following day I arrived at the port… others waiting to board boats carried with them boxes of puppies and chickens. Honestly, I just watched a leather-skinned old man stuff his rooster’s head back into it’s cardboard box. Sitting on the boat: There is a woman cleaning out bugs from another man’s ear on the bench next to me. The woman on my other side has a kind of Queen Latifah commanding presence. She has already interrogated me about my travel to the Darien, (somehow, in a most nonjudgmental way), “Alone? But where is your family? Aren’t you afraid?” She would, later that night, kick one of the crew members out of his bunk bed so I could have somewhere to sleep . For no further cost, the cook has made rice and chicken for everybody on board… people suck the flesh off the bones and throw the Styrofoam plates overboard. “Just throw it overboard!” They insist as they watch me meekly stuff mine into my backpack… Panama has a huge problem with litter. A boy about my age has taken a crowbar and is breaking the pad lock to one of the bunk rooms so he can have somewhere to sleep… the captain looks back at him from the steering wheel and just smiles. Everyone has such a poker face, I can never tell what they are thinking. They are definitely less emotive than Americans. They don’t always look at each other when they talk. They invade each other’s personal space without asking permission or apologizing. I can’t tell who is friends with each other from before and who has just met- they are all so personal with each other. They also seem to sometimes just ignore each other if they don’t feel like listening… Courtesy does not take precedent… I think I like it.
In the wee hours of the morning (4:30am to be exact) Queen Latifah shakes me awake, “Estamos llegando a Playa Muerto.” We wait pensively bobbing up and down and rocking back in fourth in the foggy, cool, black air for the next hour until the sun peaks its weary head up from the horizon and we can start to make out our surroundings. There are sleeping bodies on the floor all around my legs. I hear a little lancha (speedboat) approaching from afar, “Pasajeros!” The speedboat driver insists when he arrives… and in a matter of moments, me along with the only two other passengers continuing on to Playa Muerto are boarded onto the lancha and speeding off towards the beach in the distance. Indians clothed only from the waist down dot the shore with children running along the water’s edge, arms outstretch to wave hello.