Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Adventures of Lynn Downey: Guns, Germs, and Machetes

In the latest installment of Lynn Downey's adventuring in Panama we get to see the Indiana Jones side of her job complete with monkeys and machetes. Read on.

She has written the below for the media, employees of Levi Strauss & Co., and this blog.

"Trains, Boats and Trails: The Final Day"

When we last left Levi Strauss (and me) in Panama, he had taken the railroad partway across the isthmus, and floated for a few hours on the Chagres River. His next stop was probably the town of Gorgona and an uncomfortable trip on the only transport available for the final part of his trip: a mule.

There were two trailheads to get to Panama City from the interior: via Gorgona or Venta de Cruces. The decision on which trail to take depended on the weather. In the dry season (January to April) the Gorgona Trail was quicker, since you didn't have to stay on the river another few hours to get to Cruces. Because he arrived on the isthmus in February, it's likely Levi traveled from Gorgona, probably spending the night in town.

The next morning he had a choice: either walk to Panama City or ride a mule. I expect (and hope) that Levi could afford to rent a mule for this last part of the trip. Firms such as Hurtado y Hermanos kept stables full of the sturdy animals on hand for travelers, and once on his way it probably took him an entire day to get to the Pacific, where he caught a steamship for San Francisco.

When Gatun Lake was created by the construction of the Panama Canal, Gorgona and its trail were inundated. But the ruins of Venta de Cruces and its road still survive. My goal for this historical vacation was to experience every aspect of Levi's journey, so on the final day Hernán and I got into an Ancon Expeditions boat and zoomed across the lake to the beachhead of the Cruces Trail.

The trail is well-maintained, and the river rocks used by slaves to pave the road for the Spanish in the 16th century still littered the ground. We walked about a quarter mile to the ruins of the church of Venta Cruces, and Hernán showed me where the altar and side entrances used to be. We trekked a bit further and the road suddenly narrowed to only about twelve inches across. It reminded me of Hubert H. Bancroft's 1852 trip on the Gorgona trail: "Often we passed through ravines which had been washed out by the rain, and so narrow at the bottom that on entering at either end persons must shout in order to notify others wishing to come from the opposite direction."

As we got back into the boat I asked Hernán where the village of Gorgona used to be. We putted to another part of the lake near a tree-covered peninsula jutting into a small bay. "Most of it is underneath us," he said. Then he and the boatman Jacobo suddenly had a rapid conversation in Spanish. Hernán pointed to the nearby finger of land and said, "Jacobo has friends who've seen some old structures in there."

Well, of course we had to check that out, so Jacobo drove the boat deep into a narrow tributary, where the trees grew tall and forbidding, right down to the water line. We found a small spit of land and beached the boat, jumping off the bow and splashing into ankle-high water. Both men had machetes, and before leaving the boat Hernán slipped a 10mm pistol into his pocket.

I followed them at a cautious distance as they hacked away at the thick foliage. We walked uphill, grabbing at branches and exposed roots for balance, and I kept getting entwined in sharp vines that wouldn’t yield to a machete. The men were out of my sight for awhile, and then I heard an excited yell. I climbed faster and came upon Hernán pointing to a thirty-inch square rock and stone pillar, covered with dead leaves. There were at least six more in the same area and looked like the foundations of buildings or perhaps a bridge.

Had we found the last remains of the village of Gorgona?

The three of us wandered awestruck around the site for a long time. We couldn't get close to some of the pillars because the jungle growth was too thick, but that didn't lessen our excitement. I then noticed that I had a cut on the back of my ankle and a very bloody cut on my right index finger, which was drawing some interested insect life. But neither seemed serious, so we kept on exploring, and soon found a tiny brick arch set over what looked like a dry creekbed. Was it part of a sewer tunnel? A walkway over a rushing stream? We chatted about what we'd found as we walked back to the boat, and Hernan said he would talk to his cartographer/historian father about the site. Jacobo treated and bandaged my finger, I slapped some hand sanitizer on my ankle and we set off.

We sped across the lake for a a few minutes and the boat pulled up to another small island, where huge trees dipped over the water. Hernán and Jacobo pulled out bags of peanuts and cut-up bananas and started whistling. Within seconds the trees came alive with a family of white-faced Capuchin monkeys, who stood on the branches with their paws stretched out waiting for us to throw them some food. When that didn’t happen fast enough they leapt onto the boat, crawling along the edge or climbing onto the awning, running toward Jacobo for bananas, and also taking peanuts from my hands.

Lunch on yet another island, at a table under a thatched overhang, was next on the agenda (though Hernan had to shoo away a large flock of black vultures first). We ended the day at the Miraflores Locks visitor’s center on the Panama Canal, and I went back to the hotel to pack for my journey home.

I traveled to Panama to understand what it must have been like for Levi to make this tropical passage. I went to the same places he did, but I had to use my imagination to grasp what the experience itself was like. I spent my evenings in comfortable, clean hotels, ate delicious meals and rode from place to place in air-conditioned vans or on breezy speedboats, with insect repellant and sunscreen at my disposal. Levi was at the mercy of heat, bugs, bad water and food, and real personal danger, and I could never recreate that.

But being able to put my feet on the ground that he walked, to see the scenery and wildlife that he encountered, even just to smell the same scented air, has been the thrill of a lifetime.

By Lynn Downey

Text by Lynn Downey
Photos by Lynn Downey

Lynn Downey Website


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