The interview with Meredith Cornett who wrote, “Heart if Palms: My Peace Corps Years in Tranquilla,” brings to my mind my own experiences with the forests of  eastern Panama, which is mainly the Darien forest that separates Panama from Colombia and the mainland of South America, while on my first diplomatic assignment.   The forest is reputedly the most dense and impenetrable on earth and indeed it acts as a barrier to biological interchange between the North and South American continents.  In many respects it resembles the “Green Mansions” of Hudson’s classic novel.

In spite of is formidable presence there is life in the Darien and in fact I had two very intimate experiences there.  First, I went with my then maid on a 40 foot wooden coastal supply boat to her original home in the Darien.  Our route into the “Heat of Darkness” was the Tuira River to her home town of Divisa which is now the end of the Inter-American Highway coming from the north.   The highway resumes in Colombia and extends to the tip of South America (I once met an American motorcyclist who drove his cycle from the West Coast of the USA to that tip and back).  The “missing link” of this ambitious effort to develop commerce between the Americas is the Darien or more precisely named the “Darien Gap.”   The “Gap” is less than 100 miles but it has not yet been crossed by road.

The banks of the Tuira are peopled mainly by descendants of black slaves brought to Panama by the Spanish colonials beginning at the start of the 16th Century.  Panama makes a distinction between these blacks and those who are the descendants of the West Indians brought to build the Panama Canal some 400 years later.  The former are called “Negros Coloniales,” whose native tongue is Spanish, and the latter “Negros Antillanos,” whose native language is English.

I sent a couple of days in Divisa swatting mosquitoes and looking for cool drinks.  I recall one morning going to bathe in a small stream flowing into the Tuira.  As I started to bathe around the corner came a dugout canoe poled by a young lad of maybe 12 years and four passengers which appeared to be his mother and siblings.  Not at all surprised by my white body standing in the stream they glided on silently to the next bend.  The Darien is life at its most basic level.

I flew back to Panama City from one of the Darien’s few air strips.  The sight from the air is ominous, dense forest extends in all directions and one knows that it he goes down there no one will find him, except the people who inhabit this “Jade Sea” as one Spanish writer described it.  And they will probably find him too late to be of any assistance.

My other experience with the Darien and its inhabitants came from my efforts to help an American who had invested in the Darien, or at least its coast, which has the well known San  Blas Islands.  I say well known since these islands are the home of the Cuna Indians whose colorful “molas” are known throughout the world.  The “mola” is a square of applique cloth with the various layers cut to form intricate patterns of color from the various layers of cloth.  They were invented by Christian missionaries to cover the Cuna ladies’ gaily painted bare breasts.  The colorful square is sewn with plain cloth to make a blouse.

My American friend had built a small lodge with palm roofed open sided houses on stilts in the Caribbean Sea off the beach of one island.  He was doing fairly well until his lodge was threatened by a potential “war” between the Cuna and the Choco people.  The Cunas lived on the islands and would go in dugout canoes to the mainland, some 300 yards or so away, to fetch fresh water.  In doing so they staked out claims on the mainland to protect their water supplies.  The Choco considered all the mainland to be theirs and objected to the Cuna intrusions.

On the other side the Cunas had an issue with the Chocos.  The Cuna men were heavily recruited to work on the Panama Canal thus leaving their womenfolk unprotected on the islands.  The Chocos would periodically raid the islands and take the Cuna women off to their forest homes.

What developed was a potential war between these two cultures living very close to nature.  While the Cunas lived in villages on the islands, the Chocos lived isolated in the Darien forest.  Each Choco home consisted of one house with one family living apart from other families, very distinct from most such cultures.  The lonely home blended well with the intensely isolated feel of the “most impenetrable forest in the world.”

I got word of the pending war from my American friend.  I quickly called on my Panamanian government contacts and urged them to stop the potential violence, albeit on a small scale since the warring parties had only old rifles, bows and arrows and knives with which to fight.  The government in turn quickly sent a small force to control the situation but too late to save my friend’s lodge which was burned to the ground.  So much for supporting American investment abroad.  But I did stop the war and like to think of this as my first “peace mission.”

Yes, there is life in the Darien in spite of its “Green Mansions.”