It’s not every day you get stuck in a canoe up a swollen river in a rainstorm.
I was in the capable hands of a woman called Anne Gordon de Barrigon, an animal trainer whose life changed when she met a Panamanian man named Otniel on the set of a film she was working on. That film, End of the Spear, featured as part of its cast members of Otniel’s village, Embera Puru. Anne and Otniel fell in love and she gave up her comfortable life to become his wife. Running tours to the village out of Panama City, she’d persuaded me to sign up for a day’s excursion into the rainforest.
A dugout canoe had taken a small band of adventurers from a makeshift dock up the San Juan de Pequini River. Already on board as we squelched through the mud to join him was Anselmo, the village medicine man. Setting off in bright sunshine, the mood was upbeat, yesterday’s thunderstorms a distant memory. It was rainy season, but even in rainy season you get a day off from the downpours every now and again. We motored through reed strewn channels, watching ‘policia’ birds, named for their black and yellow plumage, dart about. The water which had been clear downstream started to muddy, and soon it was carrying a significant load of fallen branches and other storm garbage. Large logs created rapids out of the usually calm water and it swirled like boiling soup. In our small craft, hitting one of these logs could be disastrous; I had no wish to be dumped into the terracotta waters and was relieved when Anselmo steered the canoe to the river’s edge.
“We’re just going to wait a little for the water to subside.” Anne’s voice was soothing. “Anselmo will tell us when it’s safe to proceed, so in the meantime, we have some drinks and snacks in the cooler so let’s eat.” Roped to a tree in the shallows, we were quite safe, but it was more than a little disconcerting not to know when we would be able to cast off and continue on our journey. It was far from certain we’d be able to continue at all. The food was good, however, and other than the annoyance of a thousand midges pricking my ankles it was a pleasant couple of hours.
Eventually the waters receded enough for Anselmo to be satisfied we could make safe progress and before long we reached the village. The water level was still way higher than normal, so the usual mud landing stage was still completely submerged. Clambering up a slippery mud bank was inelegant to say the least. Half the village had turned out to greet us. The men wore loin cloths and the women brightly coloured cotton skirts. All were topless.
They smiled and laughed as we made our introductions and then led us towards a thatched hut. Two women were cooking lunch, fried plantain and spiced chicken. It smelt delicious and I was pleased to learn that we would share it later, wrapped in a banana leaf. In the clearing, children played with a ball, racing around on the slippery mud barefoot and grinning as they skidded into one another. Anyone and everyone kept an eye out for their safety; childcare was a communal responsibility.
We were waved over to another thatched building, larger this time, and open sided. This was the village meeting place, large enough for everyone to gather. The village chief spoke to us, explaining how his village had migrated from the Darien region to the south of the country before moving here to the Chagres National Park. But life had changed; government policy making it impossible for them to have sole occupancy of the area and forcing them to diversify to survive. He told us our visits helped to support the village and that he was grateful to Anne for ensuring that all the profits from the tours were shared communally. Everyone, it seemed, would share equally.
The chief asked us to browse for a while amongst the crafts on display; from baskets woven so tightly they were watertight, cocobolo carvings, tagua nuts carved intricately into rainforest creatures. I chose a woven mask in the form of a bird, dyed using natural colourings found in the forest. Its price reflected the month it had taken to make.
After we’d eaten, the villagers performed for us. All the women paraded in a circle, stamping their feet to a hypnotic rhythm which was impossible to ignore. Noticing the foot tapping, we were encouraged to get up and join in, which we did enthusiastically, if somewhat less skillfully than the Embera people. The men had different roles, some playing musical instruments, others dancing. Teenage boys good-naturedly teased the young girls, who in turn blushed furiously. I could have been at a school disco back home.
The patter of raindrops signalled that it was time to leave. Every one of us understood why Anne had been drawn to stay.