Part Two: Recovering from Blindness
I was ready to go at dawn. Fishermen were already trolling close by, and the sounds of livestock wailing and townsfolk awakening drifted from Mamitupu. Goat yelled at me from his hammock as I packed my Kayak; â€œAre you not going to cook breakfast here?â€�
â€œNO,â€�I growled, grumpy and wanting to eat. â€œOnce we reach Mamitupu, Iâ€™ll cook. I donâ€™t want a repeat of yesterday morning.â€�
“Are you madâ€¦? Do you realize how miserable itâ€™ll be, the whole village swarming around our stoveâ€¦â€�Yelled back Goat from his Hammock. â€œYou know, it took that police unit till noon to get off their ass and inspect our scene.â€�
Goat had a point of sorts but I decided to ignore him rather than argue further.
The inevitable Kuna greeting party was there to meet us on the shores of Mamitupu. It consisted mostly of women in their gowns of intricate geometric patterns (called Mola) cradling, without rest, their small children. A man, presumably the most fluent Spanish speaker at hand, stepped through the crowd to decipher our needs.
Goat carefully related the terms of our predicament including how we had spent much of last night searching the nearby bay for our friends.
“Ah, so it must have been you guys who were scaring the hell out of all the boatmen.â€� our helper said with a grin. “Everyoneâ€™s afraid of the eye robbersâ€¦ Have you heard about this?â€�
â€œWe have heard.â€� I answered, “and we are terrified.â€�
â€œWeâ€™ll call up the Panamanian Army.â€� Continued our helper. â€œTheyâ€™re stationed in Aligandi and will be able to send a boat out to search for your friends. Itâ€™s easy.â€�
Unfortunately the public pay phone of Mamitupu would not be operational for another two hours. Some attempt was made to special request a pre-business hour transaction from the phone operator, but the phone turned out to be broken anyways.
â€œItâ€™s ok.â€� assured our Spanish speaking helper. â€œIâ€™ve got my friend coming; heâ€™ll drive you out to Achutupu. It will only take ten minutes, and youâ€™ll have a direct line to the Military.â€�
â€œMotor boats? Military patrols?â€� These measures sounded like last resorts, but then I couldnâ€™t really envision anything else that would bring about a resolution to our problem. It seemed that Goat and I had been conducting a fairly thorough search and rescue operation, yet without any results. It was probably time to bring in a third party.
â€œMy friendâ€¦â€�went on our helper. â€œHe wants five dollars to cover the cost of your transport.â€�
â€œWhat do we need with a boat, we have our own boats.â€� I said to Goat. Then turning to our helper: â€œThanks, but weâ€™ll paddle ourselves over.â€�
The essence of our strategy seemed to be: â€œletâ€™s not hesitate to throw ourselves at the mercy of the sea. J.J. and Jacob have to be out there somewhere. We could still find them. We could probably even find them without the luxury of being fed. And yet, dissatisfied by the absence of breakfast, my stomach was up in arms over the morning workout. Arriving in Achutupu completely famished, I quickly snuck away to a restaurant leaving Goat to deal with finding a phone. Breakfast was hot dog and corn cake and I had a to-go bag made for Goat.
We spent an hour and a half placing calls between Aligandi and Ustupu. After twelve attempts all we received was one busy signal after another. Some local man insisted on dialing in our calling card codes for us, otherwise we wouldâ€™ve given up much earlier.
We were sitting on a bench across from a Kuna woman with a thick gold nose ring, an extravagant Mola blouse, and incredibly tight Wini -threaded beads wrapped around the lower leg that convey a Mola design. Sitting next to her was a military officer from Panama City, in camo-fatigues.
â€œThey mustâ€™ve gotten in front of us somehow, cause no one around these parts has seen them.â€� said Goat finally. â€œThereâ€™s a military post in Ustupu, I think we should just go there and wait for them.â€�
â€œAnd not backtrack all the way to Aligandi.â€� I tried to sound sincere. â€œWeâ€™re so close man. And you know the whole town would be just ecstatic to see us.â€�
Landing in Ustupu was by far the most tranquil town entrance we had ever made. No massive crowds gathering to stare and giggle, I felt like I could actually breathe. A short man of incredible energy (Unfortunately, none of us ever learned his name) instantly befriended Goat. He approached us out of concern that we had not asked permission to dock our boats.
â€œThat yard youâ€™ve got your boats on is owned by this lady.â€� the man said. â€œSheâ€™d rather that you didnâ€™t continue using her space. But Iâ€™ve got a yard, and Iâ€™d be happy to provide a space for you till you find your friends.â€�
Just as the man had finished introducing himself, another man came running over with incredible news.
â€œYour friends have arrived.â€� He shouted, â€œTheyâ€™ve just pulled up on the other side of the island.â€� Our new benefactor was polite enough not to press the urgency of moving our boats and accompanied us over to where our friends were rumored to be waiting.
We walked a trail snaking through the town, over long bamboo bridges spanning canals. It took us by the school, where Kuna Children in white collared shirts and navy blue trousers sung what appeared to be the national anthem.
â€œWeâ€™re getting jerked aroundâ€¦â€� I told Goat. â€œThereâ€™s no reason they would stop out here in the boondocks.â€�
Sure enough, every person we asked knew nothing about any Gringos in Kayaks. We returned to move our boats over to the house of our benefactor. A dozen or so Cayucos were parked in the back yard of the manâ€™s house. It seemed he ran a kind of garage service for all the neighborhood boatmen. The manâ€™s wife presented us with huge sticks of Sugar cane and obliged us to sit down and be entertained by the antics of the neighborhood children. They tried to implicate me in their favorite game, a version of Made-you-look without the hitting. Each time they caught you looking in the direction of their pointed finger they’d scream out: “Atras!”
“Gringo, come quick, a dog’s been thrown off a boat and is trying to swim back to shore.”
‘Ha, you think you can really get me to fall for that one.’ I thought. But the image tugged at the corner of my eye, a dog really was struggling to swim away from a dugout filled with rambunctious teenage kids enjoying a rousing game of Sink or Swim.
Older people as well were familiar with the pleasures of playing Atras! That afternoon, we were approached on three separate occasions by people claiming that our friends had arrived -conveniently on another side of town. Goat and I would follow the leader, ask the appropriate questions, and find out that actually it was us they had seen some hour and a half ago.
We informed some soldiers at the Panamanian military post of our friendâ€™s absence, but all they really offered were consolatory words.
“Yeah the swell can be very rough out there.” the higher ranking soldier began. “Let’s look at a map… ah do you have yours by chance…. ah bueno… all right where did you lose them?”
“We lost sight of them somewhere between Mamitupu and Ustupu.” explained Goat, “But we were really far away from the coast, so itâ€™s possible that they could have passed right by here undetected by us.”
“Yeah, the swell gets rough between here and that Mosquito Point. And not that you should worry about it, but there are sharks in these waters. I’m just saying… you boys are on those tiny boats out there, I don’t see why you wouldn’t be eaten.”
We lounged about the rest of the day underneath the incredible palm thatch roof, which had been constructed entirely by our benefactor.
“I had to trek out into the hills above the coastline to gather all the materials for this roof.” He explained. “It used to be that house building was a communal effort, everyone helping everyone else. Not so, anymore. You spend two or three years sweating over the process yourself and then all your neighbors send their children to invade your new home.” He smiled at the dozen or so kids rough-housing beneath his roof.
“You’ve hiked these hills often then… have you been through much of the Darien region?” I asked.
“When I first started as a missionary I spent a few years teaching in villages in the Darien.” It turned out that the man was a missionary with the “New Tribes Mission” -an evangelical Christian group that recruits disciples in the most remote indigenous areas on the planet. “In, let me see, 1993 I believe, I was working among some North Americans in a town called Pocuro. There were three men there with their families, and one day, they got taken by the Guerrillas.” Incredibly enough he was referring to that highly publicized event when Dave Mankins, Mark Rich, and Rick Tenenoff were kidnapped by the FARC. The New Tribes Mission couldn’t pay the five-million dollar ransom demanded by the FARC and all three men ended up dead.
As our host went on impressing us with his eventful life, who should have walked through the door but two lost souls risen from the dead.
“Good God, I guess the sharks thought you gringo boys too touch to chew.” I greeted J. and Jacob.
“Why’ve you guys been staying here the whole day? We’ve been out at Mosquito point waiting for you guys to show up.” Started J.
“Well, we had no idea that you’d be out there.” said Goat.
“Ah… but its like, we saw you last night heading toward the Island. I mean, you were so far out to sea that maybe you didn’t see us, but we were probably about twenty minutes behind you. I saw you stop for a minute and then start to head back toward the coast line, so I thought, great, they’ve finally realized what a crazy out of the way course they’ve been taking. You guys literally passed right in front of me. I mean I was probably just outside of shouting distance. I couldn’t figure out why you kept continuing on to the coast, except that maybe something went wrong and you had to pull over. I figured you’d definitely run into Jacob, who was just a little ways behind me.”
“Wow, that’s pretty shocking.” I said. “Cause I was looking around… I mean for the most part I was actively searching for you guys, and seriously, I really didn’t see either of you.”
Jacob, who’d stayed quiet up till then, spoke, “See that right there is hard for me to believe. I saw you guys and I was further away from you than J. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind that it was a matter of you not seeing us.”
“Yeah, I couldn’t see you either.” said Goat, “I was looking hard as well.”
“Goat, how the hell did you get so far out to sea.” went on J. “I mean, we overshot Mosquito Point ourselves and had to work back a bit towards the coast and we were no where near as far out to sea as you were.”
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Goat replied. “Sean said as much yesterday. It just looked right to me at the time.”
“Alright, it’s hard for me to talk to you guys right now.” Jacob mumbled. “J. and I haven’t really eaten today. Let’s go get some lunch.”
On our way to the eatery, we passed by that most helpful of soldiers.
“Ah, the Gringo’s have been reunited. Boys, your friends here were in tears the entire time. ‘The sharks ate them they cried, over and over.” He made a big show of acting out our displays of grief, knuckles rubbing eye lids.
When he passed, J. wiped his brow.
“Damn, I thought that guy was going to hand us the bill for that rescue plane that flew out.”
“A rescue plane searched for you guys?”
“Yeah, didn’t you have one sent?”
“Well I guess the Panamanian Tax payers get to handle that one.” said J. “That plane flew right over our heads and didn’t see us at all. Just kept on searching.”
After we had all eaten our fill we went over again the events of the previous night. It seemed that Goat and I, due to our position of looking into the sun, just didn’t have the same depth of perception available to Jacob and J.
“I guess that’s something good to know about sea travel.” said Jacob a little wearily. “Jeez, we just didn’t communicate at the beginning of the day what we’re heading for… make it clear to everyone where or when we should meet up.”
It was difficult to feel satisfied by any of the attempts to explain the last nights’ separation. If something serious had happened out in the ocean, if someone had capsized out at sea, nobody would have been in a strategic position to help.
“So,” I turned to J. “Did Mosquito Island live up to its name?”
In response, J. rolled his eyes into the back of his head. “You see my lower neck, right?”
“Of course, I was just wondering how far that rash extended.”
Both J. and Jacob pulled up their shirts to reveal, literally, a thousand tiny red bites.
“Dude, I’ve never seen anything like this place.” said J. “A cloud of jejenes rushed right into my hammock as I was getting in. You can’t kill them. And you know, this entire morning, while I was sitting out on the point waiting for you guys to show up, all these Fishermen were calling out to me: ‘How you like that Island… lot of jejenes huh.’ They were laughing at me…laughing as I suffered.”
“Yeah.” I laughed. â€œI canâ€™t believe you guys camped on that god-forsaken island.”
“What I can’t believe is you guys paddling all the way back to Mamitupu last night. That’s burl. You guys would nearly be to Puerto Obaldia had you just kept going straight.”
“It might have been hard… but damn, I didn’t get bitten by a single mosquito last night. Our camp spot was as near to paradise as youâ€™re going to get in Comarca Land.
J. Thought a second and said. “You’re right. A camp spot without mosquitoes might have been worth the extra effort.”
We spent the night at the place of our Missionary friend. He cooked us up an amazing Octopus stew, and played a few songs for us on his guitar for entertainment. In the morning we headed out for Mosquito Point Once again. For the first fifteen minutes we stayed in a tight formation. Then Goat started his weird swooping pattern.
“What the hell’s he doing?” Shouted Jacob. “He’s drifting way out to the left again.”
“Yeah, heâ€™s way out there already.â€� I said. â€œAt least we talked about stopping at that point.”
“Uh…. yeah… I guess he’ll get to the point before any of us despite his convoluted routeâ€� Said J. â€œNo use really worrying till heâ€™s plain out of sight.â€�