Crossing continents: the modern day journey of pirates, pioneers and passers-by

“Be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods” – Unknown

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By JM

“Shit!” I said in a voice louder than usual. We had lost our kayak. In our attempt to connect with a real Caribbean castaway, we had tied a bad knot. In the time I had found a place to put down my beer, stand up and scan a fraction of the water, Corey had jumped onto the cluttered roof of his sailboat and climbed to the top of its 16 foot mast for a better view. He didn’t see it either. 

“The current must’a caught it”, he said looking down at me as I tried to find my footing on the deck shaken up by the waves of a passing yacht. “Happened to me once. Cuna guy found it and I traded him a beer to get it back. Don’t worry, they’ll find it.”

I shook my head. 

Corey was the epitome of a modern day Robinson Crusoe. A blond 25 year old carpenter, he had left Iowa, traveled to Puerto Rico and paid 10,000 dollars for a small sailboat and a week of  sailing lessons before setting off into open water.  

Generally keeping to himself, he had lived on his boat on and off over the past two years floating throughout the Caribbean, spearfishing and trading with the local indigenous Cuna tribe who paddled to anchored boats and sold fruit, vegetables and the occasional lobster from their wooden dugout canoes. 

Far from the cornfields of home, Cory had found peace in the nook of water wrapped above one of the wildest and most dangerous places on earth. 

He spilt a fresh watermelon on his lap with a machete and shared it with Tiffany and I to lessen the blow of the lost kayak.

The number of the islands in the San Blas archipelago at the very southern edge of the Carribean depends on who you ask. Ranging between 350-380 islands from the size of a living room to a small air strip, only 49 are inhabited, most of those sparsely. Each however is the emoji-level representation of a tropical paradise. Empty white beaches, unbroken crystal blue water, palm trees, coral, hammocks, and beach shacks fill the lens of countless I-Phones and capture the gazes of wanderers every year. 

The islands are governed by the Cuna whose mainland territory also stretches into the jungle draped across the border of Panama and Colombia. Having worked a deal with the Panamanian government after rebelling in the mid-1920’s, the tribe autonomously oversee the islands and inhabit the dense wilderness as they have for centuries.

In the San Blas, they survive on a mix of income sources ranging from selling day access to their beaches, boat rentals, traditional cloth art and fresh coconuts to charging a dollar for conversations and to take pictures with them. On the mainland they farm and use their knowledge of the hostile geography to make ends meet.    

Importantly, they have found a way to stay at a friendly arms length from the full range of passers by through their territory.

Directly south of our charted course and in the middle of Cuna mainland territory was the Darien Gap. It was what we were all avoiding and why there were no buses between Panama and Colombia. Building on 500 years of failed colonial attempts, missionary journeys, continental crossings and infrastructure projects the 60 mile stretch of land is the only break in the otherwise continuous 19,000 mile Pan-American Highway running from the southern tip of Chile to Fairbanks, Alaska. 

A haven for the lawless and a waypoint for the hopeless, this black hole of the Western Hemisphere has only been mastered by the dugout canoes of the Cuna and the blow guns of another tribe, the Embera-Wounaan. 

Most recently, however, the Darien Gap has attracted growing numbers of refugees and migrants from across Latin America, Africa and Asia. Having been called the “The graveyard of migrants” those setting out to navigate the wilderness northward from the Colombian border have been willing to brave the dangers of the jungle that governments have not. 

They enter for a range of reasons – poverty, misery, discrimination, religious persecution, effects of climate change, political conflicts, war and extremist violence. What they face, however, on the journey through the world’s most dangerous jungle can often be as bad or worse than what they left behind. 

Many are often accomplished professionals. Just as many are not. Computer engineers from India and doctors from Cuba are able to pay up to 30,000 dollars to make the total journey. They join laborers from Sierra Leone and carpenters from Iran who somehow scrape together years of morsels from personal and family savings to get to this point. Each however arrives at the edge of the jungle to meet their guides, or “coyotes”, often with nothing but a bottle of dirty water and hope.

“What they face, however, on the journey through the world’s most dangerous jungle can often be as bad or worse than what they left behind.”

We all agreed that he was a good captain. Though opinion was mixed on whether we would want him overseeing our investments or providing relationship advice, Fabian put on a good sailing trip. We would sail south into the San Blas Islands, soak in the sun and warm water for four days. We would then sail 200 miles around the small stretch of land connecting North and South America to the pristine colonial town of Cartagena, Colombia. If everything went smoothly, it would be a week-long dream vacation.  

The passengers were diverse. A female blackbelt taekwondo champion from Austria who liked motorcycles, a gentle young Belgian lawyer couple, a quiet backpacker from Kansas City, a handful of beer-loving Germans, a Swiss nurse and a burly 50-something Spaniard.

On the first day, rain-soaked and drowsy from late nights and early mornings, we circled around the back of the boat for the instructions while one of the crew members served us coffee, toast and fresh pineapple.  

“Use two hands to walk around the boat, no getting on the deck in the dark while at open sea, don’t get too drunk and absolutely no drugs…period” he said.  It had clearly been a problem in the past.

“Otherwise, welcome to paradise!” he continued. We all smiled. I gave Tiff a small kiss on the cheek. The six days crossing from Panama to Colombia would be the start or continuation of everyone’s various forms of vacation heading South.

It would also be the social media envy-sparker of the year. For friends and family stuck in dreary winter office buildings and backed up traffic lanes in North America and Europe, we would be where everyone wished they were.

For the crossing of land connecting the two continents, the coyotes charge between 500-1,000 dollars to take the migrants through the territory in small groups. However, it was common for coyotes to abandon the migrants leaving them to the mercy of a range of dangers that lay ahead. 

Robbers, drug smuggling paramilitary groups, swelling rivers, dense forests, deadly snakes, disease carrying mosquitoes and the world’s most poisonous frog mix with extreme heat, high altitudes and heavy rain to provide a starting point of expectations for the 6-10 day jungle trek.

If they did make it they would be greeted by increasingly tighter immigration policies in Panama. As they continued north, six additional border crossings, 2,500 miles of land, vicious drug cartels and a frigid political welcome on the southern border of the US would await.

On the fourth day of island hopping, we pulled anchor and set sail at dusk. Forty hours of open-sea from Panama towards Colombia lay ahead. After a sunset dinner on the boat, most went to their cabin early to avoid sea sickness from the open seas. 

Tiffany and I stayed up. Cruising south down the Panamanian coastline, we looked from the right hand, starboard side of the boat. The few lights from small towns we had seen on previous evenings faded as we sailed further south. Small cooking fires from the Cuna remained barely visible. The uniform moonless sky merged with a rugged black coast. Darkness fell.

We passed one another that evening. The central Asian engineers and Sierra Leonean laborers trudging up steep mountain sides in the dark. The Western European flight attendants, nurses and lawyers lay in their beds being lulled to sleep by waves. Forty miles of water stood between us with the similarities as striking as the differences. 

Cost of voyage, time of trip, size of groups, need for guide, professional training of travellers, age and proximity of geography while travelling: strangely equal. 

Level of trip cost relative to wealth, countries of origin, time of overall voyage, level of safety, enjoyability, direction of travel, ease and purpose of trip: starkly different.

This duality is one that is woven into the genetics of our society. The contrast of the water and land routes between continents represents a confluence of the local and the global en extremis. The richest and the poorest, the safest and the most threatened glancing briefly and unknowingly at one another before continuing on their way. Travellers both, belonging neither.

“Forty miles of water stood between us with the similarities as striking as the differences.”

Reluctant observers, the Cuna walk a universal, centuries-old tightrope of indigenous people. How to interact with the world’s interest in their territorial, material and cultural wealth while maintaining their prosperity, security and traditions. An interaction that is as inevitable as it is complex.

“I wonder sometimes what they think about us.” Cory said looking out towards the island where a Cuna family was preparing a fire. 

“Everybody out here I think is looking for something, seems like they’re the only ones that have it figured out.” he continued glancing back over his shoulder. The sputter of a small Cuna outboard drawing closer. Kayak in tow.

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