Saturday, March 28, 2009



The Adventures of Lynn Downey: Day Two

Lynn Downey sends us the following report from Panama. She has written it for the media, employees of Levi Strauss & Co., and this blog.


"Trains, Boats and Trails: Day 2"

After Levi got off the railroad about midway across the isthmus (as described in Day One), he joined his fellow passengers on a ride down the Chagres River. The Chagres was the lifeblood of historic Panama, for everyone from the indigenous Cueva people to the gold rushers of the 1840s and 1850s.



Until the Panama Railroad began running in 1851, Americans traveling to California via the isthmus had to take a multi-day river journey in small canoes. They stopped for the night at hotels which were sometimes nothing more than bug-infested canvas shacks, and during the day they sweltered in the sun or got soaked by drenching tropical rainstorms. After that was endured there was still a long walk or mule ride ahead of them. But surprisingly, many letters and diaries of isthmus travelers expressed wonder at the beauty of the river voyage and not its horrors.

Joseph Gregory, who published Gregory’s Guide for California Travellers via the Isthmus of Panama in 1850, said of his trip on the Chagres, "I received the greatest pleasure and never beheld more magnificent scenery, or luxuriant vegetation, than I witnessed while upon this river." Hubert H. Bancroft wrote of his 1852 river voyage: “Palm trees of various descriptions line the banks, and gorgeous water lilies dip their fragrant heads as the boat passes over them. Every shower of rain is like the sprinkling of perfume on the vegetation.”

On Day Two of my Panama adventure, I also got to experience the beauty of the Chagres. Early in the morning my guide Hernán and I drove into Chagres National Park outside of Panama City. There, we got into 15-foot long dugout canoes, made by the Embera people, who use them to take tourists up the river to their villages. The boats are long and narrow, with wooden slats for seats. There’s a man at each end; the one in the front has a very long pole, and the one at the back is in charge of something that would have made Levi’s trip a lot easier: an outboard motor.



Levi traveled in a flat-bottomed canoe called a "bungo," rather than the long dugout, maneuvered by native people who used long poles to push the boat along the riverbed. In February, when Levi crossed the isthmus, it was the dry season, so the river was sometimes quite low, making the transit into a crawl. It’s still the dry season in March, and we hit a few shallow spots ourselves, scraping the rocks and almost coming to a stop. When that happened the man in the front of the boat signaled to his partner in the back to cut the motor and he dug his pole into the river bottom, pushing our canoe along until we were free. It took about a half hour to get to the Embera Drua village, which we toured, and then we returned to the starting point the same way.

I thought a lot about Levi as we alternately zoomed or inched through the water. Although I was on a different part of the Chagres than Levi was, Hernán assured me that the scenery would have been the same, a wondrous green landscape which varied in color from emerald to palest jade. We saw fish of varying sizes in the clear water, and overhead flew egrets, herons and Amazon kingfishers. I could have stayed on that river all day.

Next on the agenda was a viewing of Hernán’s personal collection of historic maps of Panama. He is the son of Amado Araúz, a legendary explorer and cartographer, and Reina Torres de Araúz, Panama’s most revered anthropologist, and comes by his love of history naturally. A former diplomat, he is a naturalist and a historian, and was the perfect guide for my trip. He’s currently writing a book about maps of Panama which were published between the 16th and 19th centuries, and has been visiting archives and libraries all over the world.

Our final stop was the National Library of Panama, where the librarian, Nitzia Barrantes, let me view original issues of the Panama Herald. This was an English-language newspaper published for Americans and others making the trip across the isthmus to get to California. It had ads for hotels, bars, restaurants, and the latest news from the United States and Europe. It also – most importantly – advertised when the next steamers were headed to San Francisco.



As I wrote in my first article, Levi was able to travel by railroad about twenty-three miles inland before transferring himself and his baggage to boats on the Chagres River. From Barbacoas, where he got off the train, his boat went upriver to the town of Gorgona, a trip which probably took about four hours. He likely spent the night in Gorgona, to rest up for the final leg of his journey; or I should say, the final four legs of his journey. Details in the final installment.


By Lynn Downey

Text by Lynn Downey
Photos by Lynn Downey

Lynn Downey Website

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