AF TERWORD Leaving Panama. BY LUCIUS LOMAX 11here was no regularly scheduled passenger service by sea from Panama, but a check of the small boats operating out of the Atlantic end of the Canal led to a smuggler who promised to take me to Colombia for a fare of one hundred dollars. His cargo, he said was clothes, whisky and cigarettes. Returning, he did not say, he would be carrying cocaine Really it didn’t matter. Legal or illegal contraband or not two days on the open sea in a small boat, and a night landing on a smuggler’s beach, was below my comfort level. My decision not to accompany him started me on a two-week stay in the capital, drinking coffee and eating ice cream, mostly just waiting, looking for a boat. Panama was a mess. It was a year, a little more, after the U.S. invasion, and people still walked around as if they had been in a mugging. The capital had once had the reputation as the Paris of Latin America but any similarity to Paris was dead now and buried. In the cafs nobody knew anything about travel along the coast. The people with money talked about going to Miami not Bogota, but if they needed to go to Colombia they planned to fly and they only wondered why everyone else didn’t fly too. If you said, for example, “Only tourists fly,” the Panamanians asked what was wrong with being a tourist. They wanted to go on a tour the more suitcases, the better. Desperation and boredom, one on top of the other, and a shortage of cash, made worse every afternoon when it was time to pay the ten dollars for my room, led me finally to the tourist bureau of a big empty hotel, in the extended parking lot that was suburban Panama City. Talking to tourist information officers is a bad habit, certainly: whatever they tell you is usually expensive or boring, or wrong. But sometimes there’s no choice. The woman working behind the desk was very nice. She spoke Spanish and English and didn’t seem to care which, and she also didn’t seem to care about American hegemony or the oppression of Third World peoples, which was even nicer. “Are you,” she only wanted to know, “amusing yourself in sunny Panama?” She remembered an irregular passenger trade to Jaque, down south, where she thought you could get a motorboat to the first town on the Colombian side of the border. She wasn’t sure. There were no more visitors in Panama and it wasn’t the kind of thing tourists asked anyway. She thought a little more and told me to go to the muelle fiscal, a small dock near the main market in the old town a few blocks, as it turned out, from my hotel. The old city, which the Spanish had built and English pirates had destroyed, and which the Spanish and Americans had rebuilt, was dirty, the streets littered with trash and political leaflets that no one had read. The dock was just a pier sticking out into the Pacific, a few tarp-covered boats parked like taxis rocking in the nearby sea. This was the point of departure for small traders going up and down the coast. The gates to the pier were locked but there was a chalkboard hanging on a post, showing a departure south on Wednesday. The security guard on duty looked me up and down and nodded his head and confirmed that this was the way to Colombia. The next day the chalkboard had been erased and a new time, Friday evening at seven, had been written in. The dock office was open and yes, the man behind the desk said, there’s a boat down the coast Friday. Yes, he told me, from there you can get to Colombia. The trip south takes a day and costs twelve dollars, he said. Friday night at seven o’clock, cargo was still being loaded. The boat was a thirtyor forty-year-old seagoing mule, about the length of two railroad freight cars and twice as wide. She’d probably been built for exactly the kind of work she was doing, a weekly trip delivering a few tons of goods to the small towns between the capital and the border. The captain took my twelve dollars and sent me forward. There were already a dozen passengers on board and no room for anyone: the ship’s hold was reserved for more important cargo than people. At eleven the boat slid out into the harbor, rain falling gently, the lights of the city fading behind. In the morning we docked at a small port. No time to leave the boat and look around. Crew appeared from nowhere and unloaded cargo and then the crew disappeared and we were at sea again, lighter and faster, moving between the coast and a string of fat green islands. We came around a point and there was a narrow beach backed by a cliff and two Indians waiting on the sand beside a small boat. We drifted as the Indians came alongside to take off supplies they worked and left without ever saying a word. That was the last delay. We started again moving down the coast, morning fading into afternoon, and afternoon just fading away. Night was the best. At night on calm water you understood why sailors didn’t come home from the sea. A rain started, light and steady, and then the crew reappeared and stood around me, drops of water sliding down high black foreheads and rolling off the tips of long black noses. They slapped me on the back and pushed and pulled me toward the galley, where the cook gave me a plate of chicken and rice. The remaining passengers were already there. Mouths full, bellies full, everybody laughing and playing together like dolphins: there were no Panamanians, no Colombians, no gringos, no fear. The cook gave me his “bed” on a wooden bench behind the kitchen and in the dark every few minutes a rat tiptoed across my feet. At dawn the engines were killed. The sudden silence woke me up, just like an alarm clock. We were in Jaque. The light still was not good. The rain had 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 14, 1998
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