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The Serpent and the RainBow-The Jaguar - 2

The first days were among the worst, for we had to traverse the vast swamps east of Rio Atrato, and with the river in flood this meant walking for kilometers at a time in water to our chests . Once across the Atrato, however, conditions improved, and without much difficulty we moved from one Choco or Kuna Indian village to the next, soliciting new guides and obtaining provisions as we went along. Our serious problems began when we reached the small town of Yavisa, a miserable hovel that masqueraded as the capital of Darien Province, but is in fact nothing more than a catch basin for all the misfits exiled from each of the flanking nations.

In those days the Guardia Civil of Pan ama had explict instructions to harass foreigners, and we were the only gringos the Yavisa post was likely to see for some time. We came expected. Already at a border post two days west of the frontier an unctuous guard had stolen our only compass; now at the head quarters we were accused of smuggling marijuana, an accusation which, however absurd, gave them the excuse to confiscate our gear. 

Sebastian became violent and did his best to prove his maximum that if one yells loudly enough in English, any " foreigner" will understand. This they did not find amusing. Things went from bad to worse when the sergeant, decided to rummage through our gear, discovered Sebastian's money. The mood of the commandant changed immediately, and with a smile like an open lariat he suggested that we enjoy the town and return to speak with him in the evening.

We had been walking for two weeks and had hoped to rest in Yavisa for a few days, but our plan changed with a warning we received that afternoon. After leaving the guardhouse I paddled upriver to an Australian mission post we had heard of, hoping to borrow a compass and perhaps some charts, for the next section of forest was uninhabited. One of the missionaries met me at the dock and acted as if he knew me well. The, soberly, he explained that according to some of the Kuna at the mission, agents of the commandant in tended to intercept our party in the forest and kill us for our money.

The missionary, who had lived in the region for some years, took the rumor seriously and urged us to leave as soon as possible. I returned immediately to the jail, discreetly retrieved a few critical items, and then, abondoning the rest of our gear, told the commandant that we had decided to spend a few days at the mission before continuing upriver. Instead, equipped with two rifles borrowed from the mission, and accompanied by three Kuna guides, we left Yavisa the next day before dawn, downriver.

Our problems began immediately. On the chance that we were being followed, the Kuna led us first up a stone creek bed and then, entering the forest, they deliberately described the most circuitous route possible. Sebastian stumbled, badly twisting an ankle. That first night out we discovered what it meant to sleep on the forest floor at the height of the rainy season. In a vain attempt to keep warm, the three Kuna and I huddled together, taking turns in the middle, Nobody slept. By the end of the second day I had begun to suspect that our riverine Kuna were less familiar with the forest hinterland, and after three days I realized that they were completely disoriented.

Our destination was a construction camp at Santa Fe, which in those years marked the eastern limit of the right-of-way of the Pan American Highway. A passage that should have taken two days at most stretched on to seven.When one is lost it is not the absolute number of days that is important, it is the vast uncertainty that consumes every moment. With the rifles we had food, but it never seemed enough, and with the rains each afternoon and night we found little rest. Yet we still had to walk long hours each day through the rain forest, and when one is stripped of all that protects one from nature, the rain forest is an awesome place.
  • Sebastian's injury had not improved, and though he walked courageously he nevertheless slowed our progress. The heat and incessant life seemed to close in, exquisitely beautiful creatures became a plague, and even the shadows of the vegetation, the infinite forms, shapes and textures, became threatening. In the damp evenings, sitting awake for long hours while the torrential rains turned the earth to mud, I began to feel like a crystal of sugar on the tongue of a beast, impatiently awaiting dissolution.
  • The worst moment came on the morning of the seventh day. An hour from our previous night's camp, we stumbled upon the first person we had seen since leaving Yavisa, a solitary and slightly mad woodsman who had carved a clearing from the forest and began to plant a garden. When we asked the direction of Santa Fe, he looked surprised and, unable to supress his laughter, he pointed to a barley discernable trail. At a fast pace, he told us, there was a chance that we would arrive in another two weeks. His news was so devastating that it was simply impossible to acknowledge.
  • We had no food left, were physically and mentally exhausted, and had only enough ammunition left to hunt for two or three days. Yet we had no choice but to continue, and without a word passing between us we began to walk, myself in front with one of the rifles, then Sebastian, followed by the three Kuna.
Reference:The Serpent and the Rainbow: Wade Davis

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