DON’T GO THERE YOU WILL DIE.
THEY WILL KILL YOU. WHY DO
YOU WANT TO GO THERE?
— Panamanian taxi driver about the Darien
This wasn’t the first person who told us this, but my wife Jenna and I were set on heading to the Darien. In mid 2008 we decided to take a step into the uncertain. Sometimes described as entering the heart of darkness, the Rio Sambu is a little known and explored region of the Darien jungles of southwestern Panama, a pristine serpentine stretching from the Golfo de San Miguel to nearly the Colombian border. Surrounded by fear and misconception, this region of Panama is living in relative obscurity to the outside world. Stories of FARC guerrilla kidnappings and hostile indigenous Embera indian inhabitants abound in Panama City, “gente no vas” I was told —people don’t go.
At the end of the day, we must go forward with hope and not backward by fear. —Jesse Jackson
The small plane bounced down the wet overgrown runway of the town of Sambu, chickens scattered and sleeping dogs awoke and trotted off to one side, I was reminded of the taxi drivers warning. A few days later after settling in and exploring the local forests and lagoons, we headed upstream towards the Embera villages along the Rio Sambu and its tributaries. Surrounded by yet to be fully documented mountain ranges and a variety of ecosystems from primary jungle to elfin and cloud forests, the Darien conceals a range of creatures from jaguar and fer-de-lance to harpy eagles and the great potoo. Encased in a motorized piragua, we pushed its slim profile several hours through the swollen current, enveloped in a veil of hundred foot tall trees with snakelike roots reaching across the jungle floor. The dense undergrowth obscured the unknown, a maze so thick that one could become completely disoriented venturing only a handful of yards into its jaws.
The Embera, whose origin is thought to be the Choco Indians of Columbia, inhabit this lush ancient labyrinth of rivers, mangroves, and thorny plants scattered with 5,000 year old petroglyph sites and pre-Colombian ceramic and lithic fragments. Government involvement and missionaries have changed the traditional culture in many ways, but the Embera still remain a traditional people —again I was reminded of the taxi drivers warning.
Misconceptions and ignorance often fuel our self confidence. Fear versus reality keeps us from seeing what is real, and our apprehensions and the voices of others cloud and deter us from exploration and growth. For all of the mystery and cautions voiced upon us about this venture, something inside us both doubted the warnings, saw beyond the uneasiness of others, sought reality rather than running from others’ fears.
The truth is that this is a land of ever-changing beauty with a native culture that opens its arms to all visitors with childlike delight and curiosity, a warm people who survive in a difficult environment with a simple joy of life. At each village we were greeted at the riverside with welcoming smiles, open arms, and inquisitiveness, but it was the children who struck us the most. Here a few miles past the middle of nowhere we saw the true nature of the Embera people, no judgement, no preconception of intent, just a hospitality and glee to share their culture. The children swarmed around us, curious and playful —in my experience children are the same all over the world. The adults and children sang and danced for us sharing their culture and village. They were the true essence of being alive.
I know that many things have changed on the Sambu since, but I hope not too much. Our journey into the unknown (for us) was a reminder of how reality can be clouded by fear, that venturing into the unknown is just the journey of life.