Saturday, December 20, 2014

Darien Part 3: The Hike to La Chunga

There's a trail in there... somewhere.

As I mentioned in my last post, boat travel can be a huge hassle for people in the Darien.  Since gasoline to power the boats is expensive and the general population doesn’t travel very frequently, boats generally leave only a few times per week for their normal destinations.  Since we wanted to go from Taimati to Puerto Indio on Tuesday- a route that’s neither normal nor on Taimati’s Saturday boat day, we had to find an alternate option.

With the help of volunteers who had done the same trip in the past, we planned to hike from Taimati to Cemaco to La Chunga, where we would then spend the night and take one of their cheaper, almost daily boats to Puerto Indio.  It sounded simple enough in theory, but when you realize that the “trail” is an incredibly muddy, non-marked path through solid jungle and we were unable to notify the people in La Chunga that we would be arriving and needing food and a place to stay, things get a little more complicated. 

Even though Austin and I were the only ones planning on making the whole trip to Puerto Indio, Matt came along to learn the trail, and the three of us decided it was for the best to hire a local guide.  Out in the jungles of the Darien, you really don’t want to be getting lost. 

Having known the hike was inevitable, I tried to pack as light as I could, but was still pretty weighed down with bastante clothes, seminar supplies, food, and camping/sleeping stuff.  The guys were super sweet in offering to carry my (way too large) pack for me, but my pride got the best of me and I was determined to carry my own stuff…. An hour into the hike with mud seeping into my nearly knee high boots and a rainstorm clearly approaching, I finally relented.  And oh!  How much more fun jungle hikes are when you don’t have a huge pack!

Despite being free of my extra weight, I still managed to fall multiple times.  At one point, the hill was so slick with mud that I fell into a push-up position and was attempting to literally claw my way up.  As any good Peace Corps volunteer, we were still able to laugh at our soaking wet, sweaty, mud covered selves and take a moment to ponder how cool what we were doing actually was- We got to hike through the jungles of the Darien gap with the help of an indigenous Wounan guide.  Pretty awesome, right? 

When we finally arrived in La Chunga nearly three hours later, we began the task of searching for a place to stay and people to feed us.  Since one of our friends had been the volunteer in that village, we were able to make quick connections and before long had house keys on hand and dinner scheduled with a local family. 

Before we could settle in for the night, we of course had to have the obligatory river swim/bathing time with local kids, which is always a blast.  Bathing fully clothed is another one of those uniquely Peace Corps skills that I’m thankful to have acquired during my first few months in site J

Eager to fit in with the locals, I quickly changed into the Paruma I bought in Panama City.  Parumas are beautifully patterned wrap skirts that are unique to the indigenous people of the Darien.  New designs come out every month and many of the women have quite the collection of parumas.  Being the newbie I was, I just couldn’t figure out why mine didn’t seem to wrap like theirs- instead of laying flat, it awkwardly opened when I sat down.  Since I don’t have any pena (shyness) about talking to strangers anymore, I asked a few women for their help and was quickly informed of my mistake- the cheaper paruma that I thought I was getting a deal on was, in fact, cheaper because it was cut for a little girl, not for an adult.  Ever the saleswoman, my new friend Miriam easily convinced me to buy a new, better fitting paruma from her stock. 

Now that I was better dressed, we headed to dinner with the neighbors.  Beforehand we had bought groceries to both cover the cost of our meals and to say thank you for their generosity.  They must have been happy with our gifts, because they eagerly showed us to a table set with food and candles- it was so cute! 

One of my favorite aspects of Peace Corps is the opportunity it has given me to get to know new people from other cultures.  Especially in a second (or third!) language, it’s not always easy to walk up to a complete stranger and strike up a conversation, but with patience, a smile, and an attitude of compassion and cultural curiosity, it’s amazing the people you can meet and stories you can hear.  

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