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December 2, 1998
There are two ways to reach Jacqué, a fishing village on the eastern Pacific coast of Panama. Flying is one way, but everyone here has gone through a period in their life in which they decided that it would be best to stop flying for a little while. Perhaps it's the wreckage scattered around some of the runways; perhaps it's a flight in which the pilot got lost; or perhaps it's a flight in which you had to sit next to a rooster that is only slightly less frantic than you. In any case, if you're going to Jacqué and you don't want to fly, your only alternative is the sea.
Last July I went to Jacqué with Cesar Best, a veteran of the Panamanian civil service who has survived two plane crashes. Going by boat on our trip was for him a necessity, because along the way he needed to check on a government outpost with no airstrip. For me it was a chance to see, up close, one of the most spectacular and unapproachable coastlines in Central America.
Our boat was what the locals call a panga -- a flat-bottomed skiff with a steering wheel attached by cables to an outboard motor. Pangas move smartly on a smooth river, and are preferred for their speed, but put them in rough water and you get a ride that is as explosive as the name -- PANGA! We were headed to a part of the seaboard where the chop is notorious, where a boat in trouble would have few places to land, and where the water becomes deep so quickly that waves do not have time to crest. This is one of the least visited parts of Central America, and the reason is obvious enough: the coast is like a seawall. To get out of the water almost anywhere you would need to move fast, scale a rocky cliff, and do so without being engulfed by the swells.
Jacqué, one of the few towns on the coast, sits along the mouth of the Rio Jacqué, which is fed by an encircling mountain range, the Serranìa de Jungurudó. Here there is shallow water, a beach, and the relative protection of a sandbar. To get to the safety of the river you must spot its opening and make a beeline over the surf; otherwise you risk drowning in whitewater between the bar and the beach. It is a three-part process: find the river, surf the bar, make it to the mouth without getting swamped.
Cesar Best is reasonably tall, but standing in the panga outside the sandbar he could not see over the breakers. Nor could Justo, our pilot, who is even taller than Best. Justo suggested that we consult a fisherman who was bobbing nearby in a dugout canoe. We pulled alongside, and Best called out, "How did you get past the bar? We can't see the river."
The fisherman looked at the panga and decided that his day was over. He already had dinner sitting by his feet, a hefty jack mackerel caught with a handline.
"I'll show you the way," he said, "if you bring me with you."
Moments later I had a dugout canoe resting on my lap. The fisherman was sitting next to Justo, guiding him through the waves. "Go faster, that one's catching up on us," he shouted. "Not so fast -- you'll dump us nose-forward." As we hit the whitewater the engine screamed and the overburdened panga sank a bit -- it was foam rather than liquid we were riding on. But the fisherman knew where he was going, found the river, and showed us the way in. Then he unloaded his canoe and quietly paddled away.
We were not spending the night in Jacqué. Best, who is a regional director of the environmental ministry, had business in Panama City the next morning. Still, I thought Justo was kidding, or rushing us a little, when he said, "We'd better not wait too long to get back out there. Those conditions were nice. It'll get ugly this afternoon."
Best did his business in town, inspecting an empty warehouse that the government wanted to rent. When it was time to leave I asked Justo if getting out of Jacqué was easier than getting in. "Oh, easier," he said -- but when we got back in the panga I noticed that he was taking off his shoes. So was Best. They were both putting on the life preservers that we had previously used as cushions.
Once again there was someone to help us get through the breakers: a fisherman, but this time without a canoe. Justo let him have the steering wheel. "It's all in the timing," he said to me. "The fishermen do this every day. It's no big deal. You can swim, right?"
"Timing" meant looking at three or more waves, each at a different point in the cycle of cresting, crashing, and re-forming, then choosing the right moment to confront them all, head on. It was a bit like crossing a busy highway: wait for an opening, but don't hesitate once you've started.
The fisherman brought us out to the sandbar. He whipped the boat around like a race-car driver, getting a feel for its engine, then pointed the bow directly at the waves and yanked the throttle back. The first swell was the smallest: it launched the panga two feet above the water. The next was just seconds away from rolling over; I had time in mid-air to hear the engine scream. The third had already crested, and as we hit it I thought, Swim away from the propeller, swim away from the propeller.
And then we were out. Cesar Best was yelling and punching the air. Justo put his shoes back on and gave the fisherman a five-dollar bill, saying, "Thank you. Where would you like to be dropped off?"
The fisherman had two choices: he could take his chances in the surf, or scale the cliffs outside the sandbar.
"The rocks," he said.
As we edged closer, with Justo back behind the wheel, the fisherman put the money in his pocket and climbed to the bow. We watched him dive in and disappear beneath the hump of a retreating swell. The following wave deposited him upright on the vertical face of the cliff. He was holding on with his fingers, and clawing his way higher.
When the next blow came, he was out of reach.
Ben Ryder Howe is at work on a book about eastern Panama.
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