Central America | Panama – Muna hike
The first day of May had been long anticipated by volunteers in this area- we had planned for months to have a movie night at the Colombian cabanas at Las Lajas! The owners had a big white screen and often showed 80s music videos on it with a projector at night. They told us we were welcome to bring DVDs. So we planned May first as Movie Night on the Beach! It was very disappointing when the only DVD we could get ahold of was of the American Pie genre, and we all hated it. Oh well.
The next day I got a free ride to David with staff of my organization for a special lunch. Apparently there was a safety conference for all Latin American posts of my organization, and we talked with officials over a fabulous free lunch about how safe we felt in Panama (very). The official we spoke with was an American woman who was stationed in Fiji. We spent most of the time asking about Fiji and trying to get jobs there.
May 3rd I got up early to visit some sites who were requesting volunteers this year in the district of Muna. They are in the same area, so I thought I would hike to one, spend the night, hike to the next, then return home to San Felix. So I took a bus to Tole, a town much like San Felix, but slightly higher in elevation, so cooler. And somehow, the concrete block houses look classier. Better paint jobs, and lawn decorations. Someone pointed out that people here are very involved with cattle, a yeye profession. Tole has a cruce on the Interamerican highway, like San Felix, where buses drop you off and you catch a taxi or mini-bus to the piquera. And like San Felix, its piquera is where you catch chivas going up to remote indigenous communities in the mountains above. However, while the San Felix piquera is the hub to several destinations, the Tole chivas only take you 30 minutes up to the unremarkable town of Cerro Sombrero, also called Alto Caballero. Its one of those transient towns that was so recently remote, but new buildings have been constructed rapidly, including big health posts and schools, and has the vibe of a rough old western town.
I hopped out of the chiva, and looked for Victorinos store, where I was to meet my guide to Tijeras, the first community I wanted to visit. Tijeras had an American volunteer 2 years ago, Tony, and he was actually back visiting from the states. It was through him the town got ahold of me, requesting a new volunteer and he set up my guide. At Victorinos store, a big Ngabe woman was watching a black and white TV. My guide, Terecin, found me immeadiately. I guess I stood out. He even had a horse for me! I was sure I could hike 2 hours, but he wasnt so sure. But I dont often have a chance to go on a horseback ride, so I accepted. Terecin led us on a car- road out of town, and within a few minutes we turned onto a foot path that steeply descended seemingly forever until we finally reached a river. The wire footbridge had a sign cautioning that it could not hold horses, so I crossed it on foot, while Terecin gallantly continued descending with the horse to the river. As this was the end of the dry season, the river was low, and my guides soon picked me up again and we were on our way up to Tijeras. The scenery of rolling green hills was amazing as it unfolded as we climbed up. About an hour later, we arrived in Tijeras. Like many towns in the Comarca, all the women wore colorful nakwas, and stared at me, and the views were beautiful. We rode up to the school, where I met Tony, helping a teacher with class. I was offered some rice and lentils, which I gladly accepted.
After the class, Tony showed me around- this town was unique in that there were a few Latino (non-Ngabe) families living there. They offered me coffee and fried pork. Another woman showed her storage bin full of grain. She said Tony helped learn to store food, and now she had food for the hungry months between July and August. These months are often spoken of with scorn, less like a month and more like a negative adjective, because its when stored food supplies get low, and its not yet time to harvest other crops. But this woman proudly said, Aqui no hay Julio! (Here, theres no July!).
I also was introduced to some of Tonys good Ngabe friends, Fluviana and her brother Cayentano, who Tony told me is quite the drunk, but a good guy. Fluviana was a very warm and caring woman, working with children in a special after school program designed to teach creativity. She gave me rice and tuna (I provided the cans of tuna). During dinner, we started to hash out the details of my hike by the light of the kerosene lamp. I would like to go to Bajo Cerro Name, I said. Cayentano had offered to guide me there the next day, but now he seemed confused about its whereabouts. I showed him the maps and attendance sheets I had from meetings we had there last year. He called over some other men, and soon they were fascinated with the lists and maps, they knew the names of these places, and names of these people (well, everyones last name is either Rodriguez or Montezuma) but no one was quite sure exactly where Bajo Cerro Name was. I was very apprehensive, and tempted to try to back out, when Cayentano confidently declared he could find it, we would leave at 7am. End of discussion. I slept on an extra bed of Fluvianas, no mattress or mat.
Much to my surprise, we actually left at 7am, Cayentano saying it was a long way to go. Great, what had I gotten myself into? It really must be far if we were actually leaving on time! We started down a footpath towards the river I crossed yesterday, but this time much higher upstream. Cayentano was cheerful and in tour-guide mode: he chatted the whole time about the names of hills, and pointed out scissor-tailed birds. Thats where our community got its name, he told me. Tijeras means scissors. Cayento and I reached the river, about knee-deep, and took off our shoes and socks, and rolled up our pants. A man on the other side, about 50 yards away, had just done the same. The men met in the middle, shoes in one hand, shaking hands with the other, sunlight reflecting off the river. The men were cousins, of course. But this one also didnt know where Bajo Cerro Name was. On the other side, we put on shoes and continued up the hill. It took about a half hour to reach the top, to Alto Saldana, where Cayentano found a family he knew. A very cute couple was living in a house made of corrugated tin. The woman stirred a big pot of coffee, offering me some. Her name was Florina Abrego. I asked the mans name, and he said Mario Rodriguez, and Florina chimed in de Abrego! and laughed. She was joking that he had taken her last name. They were delightful to talk to, but after a while, we moved on, soon finding a car-road, which we followed for another hour, all the way to Cerro Name. We must be getting close now! We had coffee again at a home with two women who also showed me shirts they made. Unfortunately, they didnt have any there ready to sell. Someone had recently taken the finished shirts out of the community to sell. We continued, until Cayentano found another family he knew- but hadnt seen for 20 years! He stayed on his side of the river, they stayed on theirs. But they were all very happy to see each other. The women had long black braids as thick as my forearm. After they chatted a bit, he said his goodbyes, perhaps for another 20 years, and we continued on our search for Bajo Cerro Name. It was now afternoon. Then we passed a woman who looked about 200 years old. She was incredibly wrinkled, about 5 foot tall, couldnt have weighed more than 80 pounds, and had long white hair. She didnt speak Spanish. She and Cayentano conversed in Ngabere, and although it seemed to take a lot of energy, she kept looking at me and laughing. I smiled and threw out some Ngabe phrases, which was just hilarious to her. As much discomfort as laughter seemed to be causing her, I was afraid I was going to kill her. But she told us how to get to our destination! We parted ways and she ambled on. And soon we arrived at Bajo Cerro Name!
Since I had been there a few times last year (but I had arrived from a different direction, that why I needed a guide this day) I just needed to confirm they still wanted a volunteer, and set up the next meeting. Then Cayentano and I started back to Cerro Sombrero, looking nervously at the darkening sky. He predicted we had another hour to hike. Would we make it before the rain? Once at Cerro Sombrero, would I catch the last chiva to Tole, and if so, could I still catch the last bus to San Felix? Even tho we had been walking for hours, Cayentano and I got our second wind, and sped towards Cerro Sombrero. As we went, more and more houses appeared on the side of the road, and they were cement block houses, not tin and sticks, a sign we were entering civilization again. It started to sprinkle, but we did in fact make it to town before the downpour! I was back where I started the day before, having literally traveling by foot in a big circle. I thanked Cayentano and he headed back to Tijeras, another couple hours away, while I was in fact able to catch public transport all the way home.