Chicago, Illinois, United States
Nightfall, Isla Palenque
Photograph by Mike Corey
It is a curious country, Panama, one-third protected wilderness and nearly 60% forested, best known for its canal, a colossal feat of human engineering. Having acquired a second hand experience of the country by editing a blog dedicated to travel in Central America, I availed myself of the opportunity to explore its true heart; and accordingly journeyed to the isthmus on official business to assist in the opening of a new Panama resort on Isla Palenque, a 400-acre jungle island in the Pacific Gulf of Chiriquí.
Aboard Copa Airlines and staring into the seat-back in front of me, I mused on where and how I might seek out the heart of this country. I reflected that as with individuals, the hearts of nations exist beyond geography. They cannot be mapped or charted; they are places for our most deeply-held values, for without such values neither a heart nor a nation can function.
My first glimmer of understanding of Panama’s wild heart came peeping out of a pitch-black night. My colleagues and I had landed in Panama City only a few hours prior; now, halfway through our cross-country road trip from the capital to the western province of Chiriquí, we stopped at a gas station in a rural town in Veraguas.
Its light barely pierced the darkness, but it was enough to see that the entire community was out and about and mingling by the glow of a few streetlamps. High-school youths cruised around on bicycles; mothers bought shaved ices to share with little ones balanced on their hips; couples sat together on the backs of pickup trucks, talking and gazing out into the night. The only thing dispelling the tranquility of this scene was a bilayered cacophony of competing sounds: the bright peals of church bells emanating from somewhere in the vicinity, and the tweeting of innumerable black birds the size of robins perched along a telephone wire overhead.
As I observed the activities of the townspeople, it occurred to me that their volume deferred to the birds, and their light was limited to the space they presently occupied. Dwarfed by the now-inscrutable shapes of the surrounding mountains and jungle, the locals gathered to share the modest illumination available to them.
“Como se llaman esos pájaros?” I asked a pair of men sitting side-by-side in a truckbed at the station.
“Changos,” one replied. I left with the name of the black birds and my first insight into the values held by the people living in the heart of Panama’s undeveloped interior.
The following day, humbled by my attempts to converse in Spanish with native speakers, and not yet at home on this mysterious island, I finished my dinner at base camp and meandered in the direction of the staff housing without much haste or sense of purpose. A cloud moved, permitting a moonbeam to reach the forest floor; in its light I spotted a bullfrog at rest under the lip of an employee apartment. My approach elicited a sonorous croak, followed by the giggles of my co-workers Milagros and Carlos from the balcony above. I smiled towards their indistinct figures, backlit by the moon, faces faintly visible by the light of a lantern on the wall.
Once again, I was struck by the balance between man-made stimuli and those occurring in nature, as with the changos and the gathering at the gas station. Our camp hummed at the level of the surrounding jungle such that any late-stirring monkeys were noticeable to us, and we to them.
A growing, comforting sense of familiarity ushered me to my room and a peaceful first night’s sleep on Isla Palenque.
“We’re hosting an indigenous biologist for the next two days,” my boss said between sips of coffee the following morning. “He speaks only Spanish, but all our guides are bilingual. I want them to practice narrating their hikes in English. Can you be ready at 9 to go with them and hike the routes for a couple of our island tours?”
Heart of Panama, Isla Palenque
Photograph by Mike Corey
The Kuna biologist, Rutilio Paredes, turned out to be a slight, soft-spoken man – still, his flutelike Spanish grew easier to understand with every specimen he described over the next six hours of our hiking expedition. We tread gently through the island’s various ecosystems, passing from secondary tropical forest into primary forest and onward into mangrove mazes, through dry-season lagoons littered in fallen leaves and out to rock-lined beaches that would appear around the jungle bend like a mirage, before proving real.
Never in my life have all my senses been so fervently engaged for such a stretch of time. I strained to hear Rutilio’s words, mostly murmurs of “Malvaceae” and “Fabaceae” indicating the family name of the species before us, and sniffed, nibbled, and inhaled at his command. His brown palm proffered a bark sample and our four heads (mine and the tour guides’) bent over it in sequence. We came up in agreement that it smelled of Christmas, of cinnamon and pine. At another location we collectively partook in a peach-colored tree fruit containing fleshy seeds that yielded little actual sustenance, but much sweetness.
Around midday Rutilio halted us along an incline and ventured off the trail, returning moments later with a thin branch in hand. He held it out for our inspection, his finger tracing the path of a minuscule green tendril curled around the end of the stick.
“Un behuco,” he said. One of the guides translated this as “tiny vine.” Rutilio directed this next at me (either because I was the only female or the only North American present) with a roguish grin:
“In Panama, it is believed that these vines can be used to cast a love spell that will ensnare someone’s heart forever. You must collect a number of different types of these vines and burn them together, then take the ashes and blow them onto the face of the person you love while they are sleeping. There are incantations you must say and you must wait a month for the charm to take effect, but if you do it correctly you will entwine your lives forever, just as these little vines do not let go once they curl around.”
I might have laughed off this bit of Panamanian folklore (perhaps more appropriately characterized as witchcraft) but for the way in which Rutilio had related it: with sincerity. For hours we had been filling our notepads with Rutilio’s extensive knowledge of species, naturally-occurring compounds, their medical uses and practical applications – all things we could (and did) confirm by consulting scientific databases in the wake of our expedition. Yet Rutilio’s formal, empirical understanding of jungle ecosystems did not negate the validity of the mystical for him; he had related the magic of tiny vines with as much conviction as he had warned us of tree resins that cause dermatitis or invited us to sample wild cane plants proven to cure liver problems. With a now-familiar pang of recognition, I realized that reverence for the wilderness in Panama is not borne of ignorance, but of something far more fundamental, based in the values and vulnerabilities that have shaped Panamanian history since long before the Canal.
Of course it had eluded me until this moment. To know the heart of Panama, I had to enter the heart of its wilderness – and I had to cast off the veils of the English language and Western determinism that so effectively obfuscate the secrets and sacred truths of my own heart, while immersing in a place where nature is the author of belief and a source of continual wonder.
RACHEL KOWALCZYK, Managing Editor of Amble Resorts’ blog, The Ambler, writes, edits, and travels with a goal of supporting environmentally- and culturally-sensitive tourism in Panama and beyond. When not at her desk in Amble’s corporate headquarters in Chicago or blending work and life on Isla Palenque, Rachel is most likely reading, walking somewhere, or attending a live show.