BootsnAll Travel Network

Mountain Journey: Part One, Walking In the Dark

My homestay family in Soloy has extended family in the local mountain pueblo of Cerro Limon, and they invited me to accompany them on the long trip there for the weekend of Semana Santa. In part, I was going because it was going to be an opportunity to see what life was like in the mountains for the Ngobe; but also, I was going to see if the community would be open to future volunteer projects with Medo, the organization I am volunteering with here.

We left on Thursday morning-I should say night, because it was pitch black-and returned four days later. What follows is a day by day account of what happened to me along the way. This journey will be in four parts on the blog.

I woke up this morning exhausted. Catalina came into my room, telling me it was time to leave-it was 3 am. I hadn´t slept well at all from the noise of the neighbors, and dragged my self out of bed, and out into the kitchen.

The whole family was already up and quite energetic, ready to go on a journey of several hours into the mountains to visit the family compound in the small town of Cerro Limon.

There was no breakfast-the Ngobe like to just get up and go-no thoughts for provisions or water for the long walk ahead. Everyone just grabbed a small chakra-net bag-with one change of clothes and we were off.

I had packed the night before. I am not sure I packed well at all for this trip-I brought a small backpack with a change of skirt, shirt,hat,a pair of socks, fleece, sunscreen,my flashlight, and bug repellent. I also brought a small medical kit and a journal. other than that-just a small bag of almonds and 6 liters of water. The family provided me with a somewhat skinny horse to carry my items (I brought two apples for the horse as well.)

I had been nervous about this trip all week. I was worried that I would walk too slow, that my family would be irritated with how long the journey would take with me panting and lagging behind..but mostly, I was worried about walking in the dark.

The Ngobe walk at all times of the day-even when it is extremely hot-great distances. it is not uncommon for me to see women and small children, entire families in fact, who have walked down out of the mountains into Soloy, having walked more than 10 to 15 hours. I did not want to walk in the heat of the day, so, we were going to walk when it was cool-when it was pretty much completely dark.

It was so dark, I could see nothing. Additionally, for some reason my trusty flashlight suddenly died, and I could see nothing. The road itself was difficult, a steep uphill climb, followed by suddenly riverting to being steep and downhill. It was alternatively rocky and powdery. Some parts were so powdery, that I had to walk almost sideways to get a good footing. I thought I was doing pretty good, until we came to the river.

There was a river running thru the trail. Actually, the river was the trail! For the next part of the walk, we all walked thru the river-with no light whatsoever, except the light of the moon. I almost fell several times, as I was not wearing shoes that were good for river-walking. I was wearing my hiking boots, which proceeded to fill up entirely with water.

But I did not complain, as everyone else was wearing cheap slippery flip flops or broken rubber galoshes. When we finally made it to the other side, I breathed a sigh of relief, and sat on a rock-well, I think it was a rock-to drain my boots and wring my socks out. Then it was back to the trail.

The Ngobe in the deeper parts of the Comarca don´t have roads. They have what are basically horse trails-but by looking at them, they are the worst ¨horse trails¨I have ever seen. There of course is no trail upkeep, so in certain parts it´s very rocky, or completely pulverized.

People generally don´t ride the horses too much either up or down these trails. The horses are not strong enough to carry adults-usually, they are used as pack animals, or for children. Occassionally I saw a man on a plumper, more fit horse, but it was rare.

I thought the river and the uphill/downhill hiking was the worst of it, but then we got to the ¨bridge¨. I use this word loosely, as it doesn´t exactly describe what I was supposed to cross. At some point, yes, it had been a bridge-no doubt built by the Panamian government and then never maintained-but what I saw was a collection of rusty metal, sort of loosely tied together.

It was an old suspension bridge, and huge parts of it had rusted out. There were no handrails, there were no sides. The part I had to walk on had enormous parts missing, and actually, to get across, you literally had to balance yourself on one weak piece of metal piping that someone had tried to repair the bridge with. The bridge was crossing quite a large river, and if you fell off of it, you would surely break your neck.

Problem: I have no sense of balance. I, in fact, may be famous for falling down when saying hello to someone passing me by in the street. I can rarely move-walk-run-and do something else well at the same time. I did not think I could cross that bridge.

However, once again, when confronted with no other choice it is amazing how the mind can adapt and lie to you and tell you that yes, you can do it. You have an amazing sense of balance, remember?

So I started walking across the bridge, very slowly. I was freaking out, trying not to look down at the river below, trying to feel my way thru walking one foot after the other, when..

I fell.

I fell particially thru the metal grating of the old was so rotten that it had suddenly given way.

I was left particially hanging in the middle of the bridge, my legs dangling, and my torso stuck in the hole I had fallen thru. It was dark, and the river was below me.

No one could help me, it was too dangerous. I had to slowly pull myself out, and then stand up. It was not easy, and yet it was easy..I mean, that I have become much more physically stronger since living here. I had the upper body strength to do it, which surprised me.

I gingerly took another step onto a different metal slat. This one seemed more secure. I kept my balance until I made it almost to the other side, and then I asked one of Catalina´s brothers to help me to the other side.

When I got off that bridge, I experienced a strange combination of anxiety and elation. I was shaking, but I was so happy that I had gotten across. I sat for a few minutes to rest, ate a handful of almonds, and was ready to keep going.

The whole experience of crossing the bridge made me realize even more what the Ngobe have to deal with every day. Their living conditions are so substandard, and their suffering and difficulties are so everyday.

We kept walking..and walking..and walking and walking. My fears of being too slow were not realized-I was actually faster, and in better shape than most of the people I was traveling with. I was in awe of my body and how strong it has become. Whose body is this, anyway? Certainly not the mine!

After a few more hours, I began to feel my limits. Or rather, my body began to experience alot of pain. My legs, in particular, were alternating between pain and a sort of numbness.

Additionally, this was my first major difficult walk in-well, maybe in my whole life! I was worried about my right ankle, which felt tight and a bit swollen.( I have had many ankle problems since having part of my lymphatic system removed during a hysterectomy and ovarian cancer operation a few years ago-and I also broke my ankles in the past). As we walked along-or rather, panted along, I worried alot about being able to do the Camino de Santiago in May. Maybe I would not be able to do it.

We finally got close enough to the family compound to be able to see it in the distance. The view was spectacular-well worth the hike. It was-there are no words for it really-but it was so green, so blue, such a richly and intensely colored landscape. It was inspiring. We sat at a neighbor´s house on a plank bench, surrounded by loads of chickens and ducks, as scruffy children came and stared at the first person with blue eyes they had ever seen. Catalina bought some chicha de maiz, and drank two big cupfuls, and we all stared off into space at the breathtaking landscape.

Ngobe consider mildly fermented-and, well, sometimes-extremely fermented-chicha de maiz an energy giving substance. People drink it to revive themselves on long journeys. Catalina filled up a large plastic bolttle of chicha to drink as she walked, and she was quite cheerful and rosy cheeked on the rest of the hike.

We kept going for another hour and a half, and finally arrived at the family compound.

There was no big greeting for me, as everyone already had met me in the past months when they had stopped in at Catalina´s house. Everyone was very excited and smiling, though-I was the first visitor they had ever had from the outside.

I was shown to my room-a plank and board affair with a Ngobe style bed(a few tree branches with a few planks resting on the top), and two shuttered windows. I fell on to the bed and fell fast asleep.

I awoke to the sound of laughter, and opened my eyes to at least nine or ten little children standing my the bed and staring at me. One of their many hens had had baby chicks that morning and they had placed them all on my bed. One got caught in my hair, and their was much hilarity in me trying to get it out.

I walked out into the hot sun and found a bench to sit on under a mango tree. Catalina´s mother brought over a half of a dried gourd (they use they as bowls and cups), full of hot coffee. Soon another one was brought over, this one filled with sort of reddish beans mixed with white rice, and topped with a tiny bit of fish. It seemed to be the head of a fish, or part of the head of a fish. I slyly gave it to a skinny dog when no one was looking.

I ate my meal, and looked aroung the compound. Catalina´s brothers and father joined me, and as I ate, I asked them alot of questions about their finca.

They did not know how large their finca was-Ngobe do not use a measuring system-but I thought it was at least 40 hectares, which is quite large by Ngobe standards. They were able to grow all of their food-well, almost all-using swidden agriculture on this land. They grew the usual crops, such as yucca,maiz, taro, rice, pineapples, and so on. They also grew a large variety of beans-many of which are unknown outside of the Comarca-which they sometimes sell. They had two types of coffee and cacao beans as well.

They also had two larger projects going, which they hoped would provide them with income. One was a huge part of land, that they had entirely devoted to the growing of sugarcane, which they hoped to turn into cash profit by buying a handpress to make cakes of cane sugar to sell(these cakes are one the main ingredients for chicha de maiz, a mainstay of the culture.) The other project was a large dugout fish hatchery, which they hoped to fill with fish the coming year.

In order to make their finca work, they worked in a group-a large, extended family group. The hamlet of houses housed the entire family except for Catalina, who worked and lived in town.

The head of the finca was Catalina´s father, who looked like he was 80 years old, but was much younger. He was married to Catalina´s mother-who at 50, l9ooked to be at least 75-who was the woman in charge of the hamlet. There were numerous children from two marriages-he had had two wives in the past: one, Catalina´s mother; and the other, Catalina´s mother´s sister. This polygamous union had been formed as part of an intercambio-an exchange of two women for two other women in another family. This type of polygamy was very common in the past-and is still practiced in by some of the Ngobe today.

The marriage with the sister did not work out(apparently, this is quite common as well), and the sister moved to another collection of houses in the compound nearby. Her children, however, all lived with their father and his other wife, their aunt.

The father and his second wife had 3 children. The children of the second wife had a total of 8 children, and 17 grandchildren.

The father and his first wife had 9 children, and 26 grandchildren.

All of these people lived at the finca, in addition to second cousins, and so on.

Keeping track of who was who was tiring..I was exhausted from the heat and the long walk in the morning, so I decided to go to bed. I wanted to rest my ankle and aching legs as well.

Going to bed proved easier said than done.

The room itself was adequate, but the moment I shut the wooden shuttered windows, I heard noises. I had borrowed a flashlight, and turning it on, realized I was hearing the sound of..cockroaches. Enormous, reddish colored, flying cockroaches. I tried to configure myself in the place on the bed least suited to them getting into my hair at night.

Secondly, the bed was simply a couple of wooden planks propped up off the ground-not that comfortable. Kind of like climbing onto your kitchen table and deciding to take a nap on it. If you want to imagine what it´s like here, try using your kitchen table as a bed for a night. That will give you a sense of it.

Third, the Ngobe have a very interesting tradtion. They stay up late, and they love to talk at night. Late, late into the night. Sometimes the talking gets quite heated-almost, one could say, argumentative. Ngobe are not afraid to express themselves strongly with one another, particularly when the drinking of some chicha is involved.

I finally fell asleep at about 2 am-it was finally quiet. The cockroaches had stopped scurrying, the babies weren´t crying, the men had all gone to bed, the dogs weren´t barking..when I was awakened at the the very bright and early hour of 4 am.

What woke me was the blasting radio of Catalina´s brother, who was evangelical, and apparently(I learned this later) like to begin every single day with blasting evangelical music and fervent loud prayers to God. Unfortunately, his humble plank wooden house was only 10 feet from my room-so I gave up trying to sleep, and instead decided to listen to his sermon.

I peered out thru an open slat in my room out into the darkness at his little house, where the door was open. I could see him, sitting by candlelight, surounded by his wife and numerous children, two ducks, 3 chickens, a puppy, and four doves (new additions to his menagerie, tied to a post so they would not fly away). He was not reading from anything but instead, sort of staring at the wall and grandly gesturing as he practically shouted out praises for about two hours.

Exhausted, I got up, got dressed, and went out to meet the day.



One response to “Mountain Journey: Part One, Walking In the Dark”

  1. Mimi Newes says:

    I have figured out to use the word impossible with the utmost caution.

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