My journey to these rainforests, to this village, and to this house had begun some months earlier while pulling trash out of the Santa Fe River with friend Michael Smith. He told me that he had been asked to host a fund-raising event on behalf of Native Future Inc., an organization dedicated to protecting cultures and conserving threatened lands. He was also being offered the opportunity to sell in his gallery baskets made by people of the Wounaan (pronounced “Wouu-non” with the accent on the second syllable) Tribe, a very small, very remote, and very threatened group indigenous to eastern Panama and the Darien Rainforest. Michael had been a dealer in antique baskets for many years, and he had never seen baskets as fine as these. I agreed.
The fund raiser went well; several members of the Wounaan Tribe came to the gallery for the event and it was the very first time for many folks to hear the Wounaan and to see the phenomenal quality of their work. I became enthralled and after many hours on the phone was able to arrange the journey to Rio Hondo with Clive Kincaid, the founder of Native Future and the current supplier of baskets to Michael.
Yesterday we left the pleasant and very affordable little Hotel California in Panama City at 5:00 a.m. We drove down the crowded Pan American Highway several hours through the town of Chepo to a small private port and boat ramp on the Bayano River. Still in the dark, but with the right tide, we put a daypack each into a fiberglass boat with an outboard motor and begin the six hour journey down stream, along the coast, past several coastal Wounaan villages, and back up another river to the village of Maje. As the river widens from a hundred feet to a mile or more the sun arrives. The wind from the boat’s speed offsets the humidity, but as we travel from the green fresh river to the blue salt water we encounter an ocean chop that is extraordinarily violent. We charge forward several miles offshore; even at this distance the sea is afloat with jungle debris of leaves and logs. White Pelicans present their low soaring and arching dive dance while the boat slams brutally onto each new wave. The outboard fumes and the spilled gasoline don’t help, and when we finally get off the boat we are all nauseous. I have large bruises on my forearms from the gunnels, I’ve chipped one tooth, and I’ll find it painful to sit down for the next two days. We catch our breath heading up the calmer river water during the last miles of the journey.