up and over

March 29th, 2018 § 5 comments

There is traveling and then there is pilgrimage. I just wanted to write something down in this moment before the whole feeling escapes me. It is a combination of physical exertion, mental openness, and receiving coincidence after coincidence.

The night before last, my husband and I were sitting on the edge of a termite-infested bench in the tropical highlands at the frontier between the comarca Guna Yala and the valley of Mamoní. Surrounded by our wet socks, bandanas, and muddy boots, the sounds of howler monkeys and every type of frog, bird and insect singing, we spoke to each other quietly, and had the type of conversation that you have when the everyday scales of resentment, irritation, bookkeeping etc. have fallen away. To get into that mindset, we went on and up-and-over pilgrimage.


Our new machete.

Since we have been anchored near the mouth of Rio Mandinga, we have started making trips up on tierra firme, knowing the pueblos there and slowly building relationships as we went. It is an area that has a past of thwarted exploitation by extranjeros, first by the early banana industry, a company that preceded the now-global giant Dole. Then came the tourism-minded gringos of the mid 20th century: the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Today, in this region there are no more bananeros, and no more foreign-built hotels. The two local airstrips no longer have set service, a sharp contrast to past times when there were regular commercial flights to Porvenir and US Army use at Mandinga. Its an area subject to countless schemes and incursions, which have been held at bay by the iterative and adaptable Guna congreso.


Congreso house for the Mandi Yala pueblo.

Way back when, this route was considered the first choice for what would ultimately become the Panama Canal, but the Gunas, back when they were Cunas, had scuttled that plan post haste.So when we went out by foot, up the river and over the continental divide and down the “other side”, we did so step-by-step, requesting permiso for every leg of the journey. The trail became not just a series of steps, but a continuum of relationships.


Coconut water to-go.


Critters and communities along the path.

In my mind I was having a running conversation with my family and friends, which happens out on the boat as well. I even sent a mental thank you note to my high school cross country coach, for instilling in us the mantra of mental toughness. He smoked his pipe as we ran through the woods, shouting after us, “running is 99% mental toughness!”


Leaf litter.

Today I have work projects that need my full attention, I have laundry to fold, and all these workaday things – like applying aspercreme to my tender knees – have a a renewed purpose and shine. Maybe its just endorphins, but it feels like everything fits.

Tonight I meet up with my “first friend” in Panama, Mara – the one who taught me how to make ceviche on a sailboat. We are going to take her mom out for the start of Holy Week processions. This morning she told me she was surprised I was interested in going, because “gringas are usually Lutheran, no?”. Denominations aside, I am just glad to be in the fold, and to keep moving forward.


One of many rivers and creeks to cross.

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