My father and I crammed into the small fast ferry at sunrise in Necoclí, not knowing what to expect. The boat was labeled in large, colorful font (“Inversiones Turísticas Martín Carrasco”) and carried travelers and locals alike. Two men attempted to embark with oddly-shaped mesh bags as well as what seemed like purses—items which, upon looking more closely, I realized were stuffed with dozens of live chickens, their scrawny legs tied together and their wings clipped to their torsos. After a bit of haggling and a few bills passed from one hand to another, they were let on and squeezed into their spots.
The ride was bumpy, but it didn’t really affect us as we were packed so tightly into our seats. Nor did we have a choice in the journey; Martín Carrasco (whoever he was) seemed to own everything: the only ferry, the hostel, and all of the taxis on either side of the Gulf of Urabá. The ferry moved so fast that when we finally arrived, our hair looked like it was running away from our foreheads.
Not long after we left Necoclí, several gigantic jungle-clad mountains appeared towering far in the distance. This was the Darién Gap, a roadless expanse spanning 99 miles across the Panamá-Colombia border. As we neared the Gap’s coast, we were treated to deep, endless tracts of green along the mountainsides and in the emerald Caribbean waters. The vast swathes of jungle were only occasionally broken up by small fishing villages that dotted the coastline, villages that seemed to be pushed to the edge of the continent by something much more alive. Acandí, San Francisco, Playa Soledad…
We got off at Capurganá, the last stop on the ferry, where locals swarmed along the tiny dock to offer us snorkeling expeditions, fresh seafood, and other opportunities. But that wasn’t what we were looking for. Guía, guía, I repeated to them. My father and I didn’t speak the language, but we knew that word: guide. We were looking for a rainforest guide.
Hastily we were led past small shops and restaurants and ice-cream stands to a man who called himself Mino (I say man, but he wasn’t much older than me, perhaps 20–25 years old). He had black skin, just like me and my father, but he was different from us—he was Afro-Colombian and spoke only Spanish. He was sitting in a plastic chair in front of an open-air café drinking a grapefruit soda from a glass bottle, which he put down slowly to look up at us when we clumsily attempted to introduce ourselves in his language.
Mino told us the trip would take less than a day, and we were to leave tomorrow morning before dawn. My father handed him a large wad of Colombian pesos. Mino nodded. He asked no more questions and so neither did we.
He took us down a dusty dirt path out of the town, and the small shops and ice-cream stands quickly vanished, replaced by wooden shacks with metal roofs, an abandoned attempt at an airport runway, and the local garbage dump, where dozens of women were rummaging for scraps to feed to their skinny, smiling children. We arrived along the banks of a clear, shallow stream, where we met with the others who would join us on our hike. So far, there was only one other family, a young couple with naked young children who were frolicking in the fresh water. Some 10 more hikers would later arrive over the course of the evening. The young couple looked tired from a long day of traveling, and they had started a fire, so we joined them to set up camp.
The next morning, when we rose at the first hint of light, I was enveloped by the pure mystery of the jungle. The canopy was throbbing with sound—thousands of birds screaming their morning songs while monkeys howled over them in the trees—but we couldn’t see anything because of a dim, unsettling mist that lay around us. We waded upstream until we passed the last property and suddenly we were faced with a clean-cut wall of green, the deepest green I have ever seen. My father looked at me with awe in his eyes. The trail was much overgrown, but it was there, and so we set off into the rainforest.
Mino led the pack with a machete, hacking away at anything in front of him. Two other men followed behind us on horse back, avoiding contact with anyone. In fact, no one in the group spoke for a number of hours. The sun rose in the sky but the jungle, entirely unaffected, remained a damp, dark-black green.
I broke the silence to the young mother, who was carrying her child. I asked her, in broken English, where she was from. Bangladesh, she replied. I thought about how far away we were from Bangladesh, and I shuddered. We didn’t continue the conversation.
From time to time I turned back to check on my father. He had sweated through his cotton t-shirt hours ago, and in the humid air it was weighing him down. Soon enough, he took it off and left it hanging on a nearby tree. He trudged on, bare-chested and vulnerable to the eye-watering, buzzing hoards of mosquitoes.
As afternoon turned to evening, the trip showed no signs of ending. My father and I had already run out of water and food, having only packed enough for the day’s walk. I felt a pit in my stomach as Mino stopped in a tiny clearing and lay down a tarp for himself to sleep on, and the pit grew larger throughout the night as I slept on the wet, itchy jungle floor.
The next evening, Mino finally spoke when he pointed out the skull. It was placed at the trunk of a tree, enveloped by its roots and smiling mockingly. It was marked with fading red and blue paint: Bienvenidos a Panamá.
Through the Bangladeshi husband’s tired translation, I learned that we were behind schedule, that we still had a day’s walk ahead of us. Flies stuck to the child’s head as he slept, limp in his father’s sagging arms. Another man silently suffered as he examined the black, rotting flesh of his trench foot. The torrential rains began at midnight, creating a pool across the impermeable tarp. I kicked myself for drinking water from a stream earlier in the day, out of desperation, and I hated myself for convincing my shirtless and battered father to do the same. My stomach began to lurch.
And so we slept in the rain, nestled against the border of the Americas. Soon enough we would be in Yaviza, at the start of the road north. Then we’d only have 2,858 miles to go.
In August of 2016, I spent 3.5 weeks traveling throughout Colombia, researching the different environmental regions of the country and how they impact people and communities. Undoubtedly the most powerful experience I had was in the Darién Gap, on the border of Colombia and Panamá, in the towns of Capurganá and Sapzurro. Capurganá is becoming a transit point for migrants from all over the world—namely Asia and Africa—on their land journey towards the United States. Over the course of a week, I learned about the details of this crisis; migrants are told their journey will take a few hours, but it lasts several days, during which time smugglers do not have access to food, water, or medicine. Many migrants do not make it to the other side of the Darién, falling prey to the dangerous mysteries of the untamed jungle. I watched the migrants arrive in tightly-packed skiffs, and I watched as children (less than 4 years old) frolicked in the Caribbean waters, not knowing in the least what was about to come.
I would like to thank the Department of Spanish and Portuguese for funding my research, as well as my professor, Joyce Carol Oates, for her feedback while I wrote this piece.
Received: December 20, 2016
Revised: February 24, 2017
Accepted: March 20, 2017
Published: April 10, 2017