Saturday, April 1, 2017

From La Chunga, Down the Sambu to Puerto Quimba

The planks of the boardwalk through the manglares (mangorves) look solid enough. But DJ warned us about their tendency to flip, sending unlucky hikers plunging through the gap and into the mud below. "Step on the cracks," he said. "Don't worry about your mother's back." My headlamp beam dances over the walkway and I gauge my stride to hit the joints as often as possible. Each time I don't I brace for the flip. So far, so good. I see Dayna up ahead. The young people are better at this. I am the slow poke.

It's 2:00 a.m. Our boat, "La Gringa," is scheduled to pass the dock on the Rio Sambu in an hour. We should make it fine. I see Dayna go down ahead of me. She has slipped and is nursing some splinters that went into her big toe. She's a wilderness first aid instructor, so is not squeamish about pulling the wood out from beneath her toenails.

After what seems a long walk, we arrive at the floating pier on the Sambu. We take off the pack and look up to see the stars and get away from the bugs of the dense woods. A US AID sign tells us that this site is an eco-tourism project for the Embera tribe.

We lounge on the packs, split a bag of cashews, tell stories, and wait for the boat. Soon enough we hear a motor far up the river. I feel like we are listening to the rails to find out when a train will arrive. After about fifteen minutes we see the searchlight of the boat come around the bend in the river. A man stands on the bow scanning for logs. If the boat hits one, the hull could crack, the propeller could shear, and we would all be stuck, stranded, or sunk. There is nothing up or down river for many miles. This is wild jungle.

When the lancha ties up to the dock we throw in the packs and settle in for the long trip down river to the Pacific estuary and then on to La Palma and Puerto Quimba. I lie on the packs and watch the stars spin as round the curves in the river. They turn like a disc on an axis. A crescent moon sets behind the wall of trees lining the banks. We slow for debris and floating trunks between the high drone of the big outboards.

As we enter the salt water, bio-luminescence lights the spray from the bow. Drops sparkle like fireworks. I see rocks, islands, and a primitive lighthouse. The pilot slows the boat when we pass through narrow straits between the outcrops. An osprey carries a fish toward the shore. Fishing boats troll parallel to the shoreline.

Sean has to pee, so stands and lets it fly over the side of the lancha into the glowing foam of the wake. Propeller wash dances in light. Waves grind against the hull as we make our way toward La Palma and then upriver to Puerto Quimba.

The eastern sky lightens as we pass La Palma, the capital of the Darien. The city squats on the river, lights still on. It is a ramshackle mix of blues, reds, orange, yellow, and rust. The bright lanchas wait at the main pier.

We have to go through immigration at the Puerto Quimba pier. Sean has an urgent need for a bathroom. In spite of this being the main port for travel to a provincial capital, there is no bathroom. He squats behind a building. I pee at the edge of the parking lot.

Once the soldiers release our passports, we load up for the hour bus ride to Meteti. From there we catch the big bus to Panama City, a five hour trip, and re-entry into developed world of speed and complexity.

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