Saturday, April 19, 2008

Cordillera Crossing

We did it- We hiked across Panama´s Cordillera!
So here is just a quick view of what we encountered:

0.1 People! While Jess, Alberto, and I encountered many travelling Ngabe folk, some cultural changes were visible as we progressed closer and closer to the Caribbean coast. Our familiar Nole-Duima region of the Comarca isn't wildly different from the "interior" - little girls in nagwas and chakaras exploding with "pena" easily represented my own neighbors.

0.2 Lots of students were going to and from their schools, lots of kids were travelling between the communities - valley by valley, lots of goods - pounds of rice and alimentos were carried up and down each loma on strong shoulders.

1. View from the drop-off point at the entrada to Hacha. This was a $20 per person trip since we were the only passengers who wanted to go all the way up there (literally the end of the road as you drive up from San Felix). This is a view roughly south looking out toward Cerro Petante (sp.) with the Pacific Ocean further away in the background. Since we are starting so high up, our trip will ¨all be downhill from here.¨ By stepping out of the truck, we are crossing The Divide and continuing North to our destination located on the Río Cricrimola.

2. ¨We,¨ who´s ¨we¨? It was me, Jessica Mehl (in the pink nagwa), and our guide (bodyguard with the straw hat) Alberto. Here we are talking to a person waiting to see if he can take the same car downhill, back toward San Felix. I believe he considered us crazy since we explained that we will walk all the way to Canquintú, in the Province of Bocas Del Toro. The truck driver is far in the background, probably shaking off the dust of the road while we get set to hike.

3. We would hike 2.5 days north along small trails passing tiny villages like these. We actually bumped into 2 volunteers along the way. This was encouraging! They had a lot of good things to say about the trip. They were hiking South while we hiked North. I think I prefer the hike we chose, it meant a lot more downhill hiking and ending up at the Caribbean Sea instead of the Pacific side. To end in a whole different part of Panamá and yet still remain in the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle was a very rewarding experience! We would be able to see cultural changes along the way as we walked from the heart of the Comarca toward the fringe where idioms, houses, clothing, foodstuffs, and the entire environment is different from our Distrito Nole Duima.

4. Some fun surprises along the way! While sticking then sliding through orange mud, we would sometimes come to friendly changes in the trail. Despite how much rain fell during the trip, I still think we were lucky. We were never caught in any downpours (although at night we could hear a few passing by). There was a constant mist except with a few outbursts of sunshine. Sometimes our nagwas dried a bit around the hems, but for the most part we were dripping wet during the hike.

5. As we hiked and dropped in elevation, the houses began to change style, many were very large, still made of penca but round. This was the center of ¨town¨ in Kremonte, this is the next significant pueblo after Tolothe. The rain was already on it´s way, rising up from the valley. Alberto told us that the palms used for the roofs here are really the best. It´s hard to find ¨penca¨like that on our side of the mountains. Not only is it tougher, it has wider leaves and can provide a better roof than what we encounter (or, in my case, what I live in).

6. Some exhilarating surprises along the way! We had to cross Quebrada Negra where it joined the Río Cricrimola. Pretty deep in some places! Alberto tested it out for us and after helping me across, he also led the way for Jessica. After getting soaked and almost swimming part of the distance across this river, I never dried off until I got to David 2 days later. The waterproof socks didn´t matter after that point, but at least the first day was spent with partly comfortable toes.

7. During our last day on foot, we were climbing fewer and fewer hills but crossing and recrossing the Cricri more times than I could count. We encountered numerous bridges, zip-lines, and boggy crossings. I began looking forward to them, the extra height allowed interesting views.

8. The Río Cricrimola toward the end: We finished our journey in Canquintú, where we stayed overnight and then took a skiff back to Chiriqui Grande. Here I looked out at the last of the high cerros in the South and realized I could also see beautiful rounded river cobbles as well as white cows in the distance. Such an unobstructed view was rare, this is a clearcut located just 1 hour South of Canquintú. A final photographing spot we reached before returning to civilization.

9. The final journey to reach Chiriqui Grande was by boat. A long skiff, holding roughly 20 people left from Canquintú at 5:30am. Our trio was a little unlucky that we were travelling on a Saturday, the boat was filled by very eager teachers who were taking their weekend "afuera del campo" and had practically leapt into the skiff as it bobbed and spun away from the shore. As soon as I sat down on the wooden bench and felt the swaying, I felt giddy and suddenly exhilarated. In that moment, it seemed that the trip had closure: we had successfully crossed the Cordillera on foot and we would float to the sea. For roughly 3 hours, the skiff would motor down the Río Cricrimola, enter the Caribbean Sea, and make port at Chiriqui Grande - and I wouldn't have to lift a foot to get there. I was also moved by nostalgia... I really missed boats!

This trip was no vacation. I feel like some part of my Peace Corps experience was just given tremendous satisfaction. Not only did we get a cross-section view of the Comarca, we just completed the longest, most ambitious ¨pasear¨ I will ever do while living here as a PCV. With our gregarious navigator and icebreaker/sometimes interpreter, Alberto, we hiked, visited, chatted, accepted snacks, and exchanged greetings with every friendly soul we encountered. Also, I also achieved a record: I succeeded in wearing my blue nagwa for 3 complete days - ¡Que reto!

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