Part Two: Back in the Jungle
This was my second trip to Panama but it was so markedly different from the first in every aspect that I’m beginning to replace negative feelings and emotions about it with positive ones. Where my first trip was dark and unkind, frightening and unforgiving, this one was healing and rewarding. This was my opportunity to change some of my thoughts and feelings on a second-world country and turn an exotic vacation into a therapeutic session and personal growth. Being granted the opportunity to see the jungle again from a cable car, and the safety of a boat, I’ve been able to calm the sense of dread and anxiety that seems to boil up in my gut when I think of the darkness that dwells in that little strip between the Americas.
We stayed near Panama City in a resort – a far cry different than the lesser accommodations provided by the military endeavor of my first trip. The company for which I work rewards their employees for meeting expectations in a most profound way. Appropriately, epic. They spare no expense. Part of this President’s Club vacation package included some spending cash. Because apparently our paychecks just don’t cut it. No, seriously, they didn’t want us to have to spend cash out of pocket for the vacation, but wanted us to be able to take some tours and enjoy some of the local nightlife. With the generous allowance, Two-Step and I decided we’d take a tour to see the rain forest. Some of our friends did the canopy tour and zip-lining, but we opted out of that because Step is afraid of heights. Please don’t ask her about it or try to confirm this in any way. Just accept it and move on.
But the rain forest tour… Now that’s different. Plus you get to see a lot more of the flora and fauna. And the only heights you run into are when your gondola stops suddenly, lurching forward and then swinging wildly on the cable, suspended a hundred and fifty feet above the jungle floor, turning ghost-white everyone in the car who’s afraid of heights. Well, I wasn’t able to look around and see how many people ghosted. I was too busy clinging madly to the bar in front of me and praying that God would spare me from certain doom. Of course, the ninety-foot tower you have to climb to look out on the forest was a cinch. I mean, it’s large and strong and wide and sturdy and dear God why do there have to be so many heights?
It was gorgeous though. One could see for miles in every direction. It’s hard to represent and convey the sheer beauty of the rain forest simply through pictures. Even the best photograph looks like a bunch of greenness against a green background of greenery. The minute details, the subtle nuances – the ominous quills of the deadly black palm, the soul-chilling shriek of the howler monkeys, the chirrup of the insects, the glistening of a wet leaf on a hundred-foot corotu – they all get lost in a flat, two-dimensional photograph. Thus it’s hard to generate any sort of real imagery of word when trying to bring someone else into your memory. It truly is something you just have to experience for yourself.
It was a very quiet ascent up the mountain in the gondola, swinging gently in the breeze. The motors for the great wheel that drives the cable are all down at the base of the machine, so you hear nothing but the sounds of the forest around you. Seeing this forest some seventeen years after my first time, from an aerial view, was an entirely different experience. And words can not properly express the peace one can achieve in just a quiet moment in one of these cable cars. Here, it was much needed healing time for me. Even with the ever-present thought that the cable could snap and we could all plummet, kicking and screaming to the jungle floor, to be eaten by a crocodile (not an alligator – Rey told us Panama doesn’t have alligators). As we descended back to the base station in the cable car, faintly we heard the beating of tribal drums…
The second leg of this journey into the heart of Panamanian Forestry was aboard a small boat, where we snaked off the Chagris River into the tributaries. We were in the back roads of the jungle here, way off the beaten path and miles and miles away from anything even remotely civilized. The closest thing to civilization was the Embera Indian tribe, and we weren’t that close. (And they aren’t that civilized.) But more on them later.
Our tour guide took us onto this small boat – you know the kind, with a bench running down the length of each side and that’s it – and ferried us out into the wilderness. I’ve never understood the design of these boats, as they seem to be the chief vehicle for water tourism, yet the benches face inward – away from anything you’d want to see. Unless, of course, there were a lot of really pretty tourists on the boat with you. But all that is moot because we were not even able to open our eyes. You see, as we waited on shore for our boat driver to show, the rain began slipping in at a nice leisurely rate – merely sprinkling our faces like a mister at a theme park. It was very pleasant at first. Then gradually it became annoying as the mist turned to drops that ran down your face like sweat. And finally began to soak through our shirts and pants, to the point where it finally looked as though we had been tossed from a frigate at deep sea. And then we got on the boat.
They handed us little plastic ponchos which we donned to no avail, and sent us out to face the alligators – sorry, the crocodiles, with nothing but expensive cameras and a will to not die. Literally, the entire trip out to the lost fingers of this busy river we faced a torrential downpour that blew in from the front side of the boat and tortured our faces. I didn’t have a waterproof camera, so my Nikon sat silently in its all-weather bag – which was handy, but not conducive to photography. We only had to sit patiently and try to keep the rain out of our eyes as the captain gunned the motor for nearly an hour. But arrive we did, and though soaked through to the bone with chilling rainwater, it was very much worth it.
As the captain killed the motor, the sounds of the forest started to come to life. The rain began to subside, and the smoke cleared as we crept around the inside of a tiny island covered in wild flora and woods. The trees and foliage of the undergrowth hangs out over the water forming sort of a lower canopy all around the mesas, creating the effect that there are too many trees on the island, and the outer ring is either being pushed off or trying to escape the overpopulation. Jungle this dense is not typical around most of the tourist spots. But despite its spooky dangerous aura, it’s also incredibly serene and wonderfully gorgeous. The echo of the boat’s motor, now an hour in our ears finally faded to obscurity in foggy, rain-filled memory, and the smell of fuel sneaked away on the light breeze as we looked up into the trees, and found ourselves in the presence of a white-faced Capuchin monkey.
Cameras clicked and breaths went sharply in as people realized this was our first contact with other life on the tour. And look, there’s another one. And then there were three or four. Up in the tops of the trees, as high up as the branches would support them! Minding their own business, just out for a quick mid-morning snack on palm leaf and berries. You see these monkeys at the zoo or at exhibitions. But seeing them in their own natural habitat from the wet seat of a plastic boat is another story. It’s exhilarating. And it’s also not guaranteed to happen. I think the rain really helped us out. For around the next bend, we came to a place where the branches of a fresh-fallen tree hung way out into the water, and we came face to face with an entire family of howler monkeys.
The wonderful luck had turned in our favor. Papa Murphy had bowed out and let us win one for once. We glided up to within six or seven feet of these branches, and the monkeys paid us no mind at all. In fact, some of them continued to swing to branches even yet closer and at one point, we actually thought one would drop down onto the canopy of the boat. I know my red-haired wife would gladly have stuffed the baby one into her bag to take it home. This family was probably six strong, and they were all over this tree. We got so close to them you could hear them breathing.
I got several shots worthy of a yellow-bordered magazine, and we had quite a time oohing and ahhing over the monkeys as they climbed around eating twigs and leaves. Until a crocodile bounded up out of the water and snapped its huge powerful jaws shut around the midsection of the smallest one, sending blood and shrieks into the air for one fleeting second before the monkey was underwater – its howls still ringing in our ears. Well, that didn’t happen. One of the men on the boat kept saying he thought it would though. In some ways I’m glad it didn’t happen. In other ways, I’m also glad it didn’t, because I’m not too friendly with the crocs.
We did come upon a crocodile though, bathing in the – well, just the dim, dreary, rainy glow of the day. All we could see were her eyes and part of the back of her head and a few ridges on her back. And she didn’t move, even though the driver kept pushing the boat closer and closer. The crocodile was on my side, parallel with the boat, facing the back of it. And the guy behind me kept standing up and saying cutesy things like, “Here, crocky! Come get on the boat!” I almost pushed him over. Better him than me, I say. We were a little close for comfort. It in fact reminded me of the tenseness I felt in my back and shoulders when we were on the gondola swinging in the air. It was extremely uncomfortable being that close to the water, that close to a twelve-foot crocodile that could easily have severed me in half. But I got a few good pictures.
Some of the folks were a little put off by the rain, but I thought it really added to the experience. Though it wasn’t actually raining while we were in the forest, it sort of set the mood for what we were to see. And the guide said it might have helped bring the monkeys out. Even at the zoo, I’ve never seen this many monkeys – nor been this close to them. It was a truly majestic experience. Some of the most dangerous things in the world are the most beautiful when viewed from afar. Or from the safety of a rickety boat. Well, I wasn’t entirely safe on that boat, but there were plenty of people I either didn’t know, or at least didn’t like – so I could have sacrificed enough of them to save myself, were it to come to that.
Leaving the forest, we stopped by a roadside souvenir shop where we see the art of the indigenous peoples of the jungle. The Embera Indians I mentioned earlier. And from there to a butterfly garden, a snaketarium and an orchid farm. I haven’t much to say about these latter bits, as they didn’t seem to have much to do with the rain forest tour, but it made the red-haired wife and all the other ladies happy. And it wasn’t yawn-inspiring. I saw a lot of beautiful butterflies. And snakes, and orchids, of course.
But the other side of Panama is where we’re headed. And that’s the side I’ve not seen. I’ve now seen the jungle from its dark floor, hundreds of feet below the top of the canopy where it’s humid and loud with crickets, frogs, birds and monkeys… To the top, from the gondolas, safely above the jungle floor. Well, they say it’s safe. I’ve seen it from the water’s edge, where, once again, they say it’s safe, as we stare down a large crocodile. But I’ve not seen the city. And the city, though different from what we’re used to, is magical and mysterious in its own way. I’ve a lot to say about my experiences in Panama City. And many more beautiful pictures to share. Please come back tomorrow for the continuing saga.