«

»

Feb 06

Quiet Villages, Loud Machine Guns

Dug out canoe with Outboard motor in Jaque

Dug out canoe with Outboard motor in Jaque

Jaque

After pulling away from the good ship Victoria our lancha whipped us towards land.  We bounced across the surf and over a sandbar before entering a small natural breakwater.  We had arrive in Jaque.

Now that we were here, the next stage of our journey to Buenaventura, Colombia would be to hire a lancha across the border to Jurado, and then onwards to Bahia Solano.   This would be the most expensive leg

Fish in Jaque

Fish in Jaque

of the trip because of the small number of people making the trip and the high cost of fuel.  It is also expensive because the locals have you by the balls and you have little negotiating power.  Fortunately, there are two “captains” in Jaque who are permitted to take people across the border and so the initial price of $200 for a person and a bike was quickly bargained down to $107.  Not counting the few locals just going to Jurado, there were 11 of us going to Solano.  (Apart from Ally, Glenn, Neils and I, we were joined by 3 Mexican hippies and four Colombians)  Collectively the 11 of us decided to stay the night in Jaque as after our long, uncomfortable trip on Victoria C nobody was in the mood to hop straight back into a boat.

Poster telling people to stop trafficking drugs in Jaque

Poster telling people to stop trafficking drugs in Jaque

Jaque was exactly as advertised: a remote fishing village in the heart of the Darien.  It has a beautiful black sand beaches, dozens of dugout canoes, fisherman, and fish.  The general atmosphere to the village is laid-back and peaceful and it only takes about 10 minutes to check out the entire village.  It is in the heart of the Darien though, so there was also a large military post and posters urging people to give up drug trafficking and/or to denounce fighting for the guerrillas.  There were even a couple wild-west style WANTED posters for a couple bad guys with rewards offered for information that would lead to their arrest.  Interestingly, despite still being in Panama, the reward amounts were given in Colombia pesos and ranged from $75,000 to $1,000,000 ($40 to $550 USD).

In the lancha to Jurado

In the lancha to Jurado

Crossing into South America

The next morning we got up in the dark and walked back down to the beach to get our passports returned to us and our bags sniffed and searched before beginning the process of squeezing 3 bicycles, all our luggage, and 16 people into a small boat.

Our Captain for the day was named Walter, a local from Jaque in his early 40s who had a bit of a cool surfer look dressed in board-shorts and a hoodie.  I liked this man instantly and trusted him despite the fact that he had initially tried to rip us off for our passage.  You could tell that he took his job and his responsibility seriously.  His young beautiful mulata wife was his first mate and they’d take turns driving us to Bahia Solano.

We finally shoved off at about 8am.  One of the local boys started signing and he was soon accompanied by some boat-hull percussion as well as the sound of beers being cracked open.  We were off.

P1040741

Landing at Jurado, Colombia

About an hour later – after a few mid-ocean pee breaks for the beer drinkers – Walter caught my eye and pointed to a nondescript part of the coast that jutted out slightly.  “Alli, LA FRONTERA” he yelled over the sound of the engines.  It was the border of Panama and Colombia – completely un-noteworthy in real life but a place where mankind had drawn a clear, thick black line on a map separating the two countries from one another.  As we passed the point, we crossed into Colombia, and I smiled with myself to think that Tony and I had officially made it to South America and to the 9th country of our trip.  For me personally there was another reason to celebrate as it was my first time in South America – meaning that I had now “set foot” in six continents and only Antarctica remained.  I turned around in my seat and shouted at the colombian girls “Welcome back to the motherland!” to which one of them joked “It’s amazing! Suddenly the coast looks so much more beautiful now that we are in Colombia, no?!”

Jurado

Jurado

A Bad day for Captain Walter

Soon after crossing the border we arrived in Jurado, a small village that is essentially an island with the coast on one side and a river that splits around it.  We crashed through the surf, wound our way through the river, and arrived at the town’s dock which sits under the shadow of a large hill.  At the top of the hill is a military fortification with sandbags and mounted machine guns.  We all hopped out – the men among us peeing in a discreet corner – and trickled through the town to an unsigned building that was immigration.  The casually dressed immigration lady waved the first of us (me and the three colombian girls) into her office and began the process of stamping us into the country when Walter timidly stepped into the room and asked very, very politely if he could ask a quick question.  When the lady nodded he asked “What would happen if someone had lost their passport?”

Children playing at the quiet dock in Jurado  photo credit: Ali Burke

Children playing at the quiet dock in Jurado photo credit: Ali Burke

Shit, I thought as I listened to the rest of the conversation, Neils still hasn’t found his passport.

I couldn’t believe it.  Somehow, in-between Jacque and Jurado, Neils had lost his passport.  I had been sitting next to him on the boat when he first noticed he couldn’t find it, but I had assumed that once we got off the boat he would be able to have good look through his bag and it would turn up.  If he was now telling officials that it was lost, it must really be lost.

Neils was in a very awkward position.  Normally losing a passport whilst traveling is more an inconvenience than anything else; you simply go to the nearest consular service of your country, report it missing, and they give you a new one.  Neils though, was in an immigration limbo at one of the most isolated border crossings in the world, there wasn’t exactly “consular services” nearby.  He had already been checked out of Panama, and was physically in Colombia, but he had not yet been checked into Colombia.  He was neither here nor there. Without a valid passport he could not be allowed into Colombia, but by the same logic he could not return to Panama either. However, because the border official in Jaque had already seen Neils with his travel document and the Colombian official hadn’t, it seemed likely that Neils would have to go back to Jaque, and then Panama City, in order to get himself a new passport.

This put Walter into an awkward position of his own because as our captain he was responsible for us and had a duty to get us checked into Colombia and take us onto Bahia Solano about 3 hours away.  There was a weekly cargo boat that would be leaving Solano that day around 1 or 2 pm for Buenaventura and three of his passengers wanted to be on it.  So, he had to get us moving, but at the same time he was the only one allowed to take Neils back to Jaque so he had to either make his 10 other passengers wait for 3-4 hours and miss their boat while he shuttled Neils back to Panama, or he had to get the Colombian officials to let Neils stay in Jurado for a couple of days while he took the rest of us onwards.

While all this discussion was going on, I asked Neils if I could look through his bag myself, and when he agreed, I turned it inside-out on the floor of the immigration building.  Pocket by pocket, item by item, I carefully went through everything; still no passport.  One of the Colombian girls asked me if Neils had searched the boat yet.  I replied that I assumed that he had, but there would be nothing to lose by going to have another look, so she, Glenn and I walked back to the boat to have a gander.

When we got to the landing, I waded out to the boat and went straight to where Neils and I had been sitting and sure enough – right where Neils’ feet had been – there was a small, black, waterproof money belt with a Canadian passport inside.  I didn’t even have to climb into the boat to get it.

Walter’s day gets even worse

Landing at Jurado, note the Military fortification at the top of the hill.

Landing at Jurado, note the Military fortification at the top of the hill.

Ten minutes later we were all loaded up back into the boat and ready to roll as Walter was keen to get going as quickly as possible so that we wouldn’t miss the boat in Bahia Solano.  He shoved us off and went back to start the two outboard engines.  The first started with a single pull, but the other one wouldn’t start.  After playing with it for 15 minutes while we drifted in the middle of the river, he finally pulled us back to shore and got out his tools and with the help of a local went to work on it.  He seemed stressed out – despite the fact that all of his passengers were calmly and patiently waiting for him to do what he had to do.

*THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK!*

The quiet morning was suddenly interrupted by the loud report of a mounted machine gun.

*THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK!*

A second volley followed on the echoes of the first.

P1040742Honestly, I thought nothing of it.  The military were up there at the top of their hill, doing their thing with their guns and it had nothing to do with us.  Still though, I had never heard a large mounted machine gun fired before and it was far more loud than I would have ever expected it to be.   Even at about 300 m distance I could almost feel the reverberation of the discharge in my bones.  It was a startling enough sound to make the Colombian city girls duck for cover despite the fact that their cover was the petrol tank.

Then things got decidedly uncomfortable.

*THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK!*

As the third volley ripped out, suddenly everyone starting swearing and yelling in colorful cocktail of Mexican, Panamanian, Juradan, and Colombian slang.  “The fuckers are hitting the water right next to us!”  Walter’s wife shouted, pointing at the ripples no more than 5 m behind us.  Walter started yelling angrily, the guy from Jurado that had been helping with the engine was yelling angrily, the Colombian guy on our boat who was probably on his 6th or 7th beer of the day stood up next to me and started swearing at them, holding out his arms wide as if to say “bring it on bitches!” and meanwhile all the villagers crowded on the nearby dock – including our immigration lady – just stood there and watched, some of them even laughing at us.

*THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK!*

What had before been an unnerving sound, was now downright frightening.  There is a big difference between hearing a gun being fired and hearing a gun being fired at you.  I instinctually winched and scrunched away from the drunk colombian standing beside me and silently prayed to myself, please don’t shoot him, please don’t shoot him, please don’t shoot him. 

Though frightening, no one was freaking out.  We really had no real idea what was actually happening.  My mind began to race on its own to work out the exits.  If, with the next volley, that Colombian man’s chest suddenly exploded in puffs of life-vest and blood, I would want to get away quickly.  A second later though, my mind realised the futility of the situation.  This was not Hollywood.  If they actually started firing at us with that powerful gun there would be no ducking for cover, no rolling out of the boat and diving under the water, no using the dead man as a shield.  No, if they started firing at us, that gun would rip this entire boat apart and leave us all dead in seconds.  It was as simple as that.  So I sat there with everyone else, feeling extremely exposed, and waited for the next rounds of gunshots, a wait that made each second seem interminable.

Meanwhile, Walter had already given up on fixing the motor “under fire” and he quickly put his tools away and hopped back on board to start up the working outboard to drove us a kilometer down the river – and away from the guns – to another dock at the other side of the village.  Once there he got the motor fixed in about 20 minutes and we raced off to Bahia Solano, still hoping to catch that boat.

We got there just in time.  The cargo boat was already on it’s way out of the bay but Walter set a course to intercept it.  Pulling up alongside the big boat Walter yelled at the other Captain to stop, which he did.  The two colombian girls – the only ones with enough pesos on them – climbed on board while Walter dug out their bags from the mountain of luggage and bicycles at the front of the lancha and passed them up to them.  We waved a quick goodbye before pulling away to continue the rest of the way into Bahia Solano.  Walter’s wife drove, while he himself stayed sitting up on the bow with all the luggage.  They shared a knowing look with each other before both their faces split into two relieved smiles.

Walter’s day had turned out alright after all.

—-

It’s still unclear what was happening with the gunshots that day.  There were several theories.  One theory is that the military wanted Walter to move his boat away from the dock and fired warning shots to send that message.  Another theory is that they were just bored and f*cking with us.

dug out canoe in Jaque

dug out canoe in Jaque

Leaving Jaque early in the morning

Leaving Jaque early in the morning

Dug out canoe in Jaque

Dug out canoe in Jaque

Dug out canoe in Jaque

Dug out canoe in Jaque

Fish in Jaque being readied for transport ot Panama City

Fish in Jaque being readied for transport ot Panama City

Arriving in Jaque

Arriving in Jaque

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>