“Dude, Where Did You Get that Monkey Stick?”

“So…which direction do you wanna go?”  I ask Colin as I dig around the french fry bag hoping for the last few that might have fallen out of the red cardboard container.  We are sitting outside McDonalds in David, Panama, parked close enough to get their free wi-fi.  Which also means we are close enough to smell whatever they are pumping out of that place.  It overwhelms the air and drifts in through the truck vents taunting our senses, and at some point during our internet search one of us will say, “Who’s going in to get the fries?”  We both agree, McDonalds has some sort of potion that makes anyone who comes close start to crave those golden greasy sticks.  This doesn’t answer the question of why we also end up ordering two ice cream cones to go with the fries.  So, no, McDonalds wi-fi is not exactly free.

Outside of Volcan, Panama

Colin grabs the fry bag and takes another look, but I have already found and eaten the last two fries.  “Well, we can go to the end or turn around now?”  We look at the map that is split down the seam, as Colin traces our route with his finger I am holding the two pieces together.   As this debate over timing and pace goes on in the truck with our windows down, we hear someone asking about our Lightforce lights that sit in a row on our front bumper and look like they could light up an entire street at night… they can.  Roger introduces himself while resting his arm on the driver’s side door while we tell him the reasons we love those lights. (Such as waking up in the middle of the night on a secluded beach on the Osa Pensinusa and realizing the tide is coming in fast and perhaps we misjudged how close to the shore we set up camp.  At 1am we find ourselves packing up and trying to navigate back through the jungle.  A flip of the switch and all 5 lights power on and send a wide tunnel of bright light through a path that a few seconds before was completely black). We tell him our dilemma about driving to the end of the road in Panama or turning around to head back north towards home.  “It’s not a question in my mind,” he says and shifts to talk to us using both hands,  “You have to see the Panama canal.”  Roger is from the U.S. but moved to Panama to take advantage of the cheaper cost of living and the sunsets along the southern coast.  He and his wife built a house and so far, “other than bribing a cop every now and again,” they love it.  He came to Panama to work on the canal  and is still awestruck by that narrow trench of water, the locks built just wide enough for a freighter to pass, an achievement that took more than 75,000 workers to build and over 10 years to complete.  Colin looks over at me with a slight shrug, “I guess we are going south.”  Roger gives us his card and suggests that on our return trip, if we are looking for a place to park and plug in, to give him a call.  He wishes us all the best and we do the same for him.  He walks away and we pull out of McDonalds heading south towards the Panama Canal and then the last stop in the Darien Province, which is the furthest destination the road reaches in Central America.  After that, it’s dense wild jungle for miles.

Darien Province

Taking Advice from Strangers

Talking to Roger sent us on our final path through Panama heading south towards the canal, but before that conversation we had already been traveling through the country for a few weeks.  Our biggest struggle was trying to find camping.  A struggle in one sense, but in another we were introduced to Panama by way of not knowing where to go or what to look for.  We just went.  The only thing we knew about Panama before we crossed the border was the canal, after that it was an expectation we could not create – we had nothing to base it on.  We found ourselves in places that were not in travel books and in a few cases, not on the map.

Bocas Del Toro, Panama

Shot from Ferry on our way to Bocas Del Toro

Where Does the Road Lead?

We really did not do our homework before venturing into the Darien.  A few quick minutes on Google, we emailed a couple of tour groups to see if we could arrange anything.  And found out it requires a special guide and more advance notice and along with the risks to Sprite’s health all equated to not exploring beyond where we could drive.   But we still wanted to see what the end of the Pan-American highway was all about – the last stop on a road that winds almost continuously from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina with one break at the Darien Gap.  Our curiosity got the better of us as we continued towards Yaviza, the last town on the Central American portion of the Pan-American Highway.

Sprite learns she is not always the boss!

Our rule about not being on the road after dark was being threatened as we drove through the rain, on the two lane CA-1 (Pan-Ameican highway) south of Panama City.  Towns were getting smaller and spaced further apart. Homes went from one-level block construction to two-level huts with thatched roofs and open sides. Another few miles and we spotted a sign with a school symbol and the name of a town with an arrow pointing off the main road.  Colin had the idea of checking it out and seeing if maybe we could get permission to camp near the school.  Just for the night and be gone in the morning.  The dirt road was now thick mud, the rain still coming down as we continued crawling towards the school.  A few adults were huddled together under the overhang of the town’s one tienda.  We stopped so Colin could jump out and ask about parking for the night.  Through the rain streaks running down the passenger window, I could see a group of kids taking advantage of the weather and playing soccer… more like soccer was just an excuse to slide in the mud and tackle each other.  They were soaked, mud covered and having a blast.  Still in the truck, I look away from the kids and try to see if Colin is making any progress.  He looks blurry through the window, but I can see he’s talking to the group at the tienda and then a young guy walks up to him.  Now they are talking and hand signals are going and the young guy is pointing to something on the other side of the store.  Colin nods and runs back to the truck. Shaking the rain off his coat and hair, he tells me about Jonathan, the guy he was talking to.  Jonathan is the only one who speaks English so when the group could not understand why Colin was asking to camp near the soccer field, they started to shout through the downpour for Jonathan.  Jonathan’s uncle lives near the store and said we could park in front of his house.  When we pull up towards the house, the uncle walks out of his front door and waves us over to a wooden bench built under the porch roof, which shields us from the rain.  Over slow and short sentences,we learn he is the pastor of the village. Where our understanding falls short, the pastor does his best to use hand gestures in order to fill in the blanks.  As the rain dissipates, he stands up and invites us to follow him.  We walk along the road we came in on.  He points to a couple houses and other churches, waves to kids passing by, and stops briefly to explain something about the mountain sitting as a backdrop of the village.  We don’t fully understand everything he is saying due to our language barrier, but we are pretty sure he said something about Jaguars and don’t go there.

Huts along the Pan-Am near Yaviza, End of the Road

{Side note:  Later we discuss the importance of language.  We spent hours upon hours planning for this trip.  The Spanish lessons fell through the cracks along with the stash of extra strength Frontline for Sprite – who picked up several ticks as a result.  No one can expect to learn every language, but for us, we planned to spend a year mostly in Spanish speaking countries.  Our biggest reason for traveling south was to learn about the people who live on the other side of the line.  How do you learn when you can’t speak?  This is also a testament to the people who stood listening to our stuttering words, waiting patiently for us to try and piece together a point.  They were so encouraged by our effort that they tried with their best ability to understand, to suggest words, to draw pictures in the dirt. Which leads to our next lesson:  Try.  Make an effort.  Body language goes so much further than you might think and small phrases in their language go miles past that.}

When we return to the pastor’s house Jonathan is waiting.  His dark hair cut short around the sides and grown longer on the top, which he combs through with his fingers.  A wide smile.  He starts to show us to a room in his uncle’s house where we can sleep.  We thank him but try to explain that we sleep in our camper.  They give us a confused look as they both stare at this “thing” sitting in the bed of our truck.  Colin explains that it pops-up and we live and sleep inside.  A tour is scheduled for the morning.  With that, Jonathan leads us to a patch of trees and plants behind his house.  He explains each plant and every tree.  They all have a purpose – some to eat, others for medicine and a few to make handicrafts.  There is a cage hanging from one of the branches with a squirrel inside.  He tells us that the squirrel is their pet.  They open the cage during the day so the squirrel can rome around, but he always returns at night.  Meanwhile, in another tree near the squirrel two green parrots sit watching us.  I wonder if the parrots realize they are lucky to have traded with the squirrel.

At this point we have no idea who these people are or the village we have invited ourselves in to.  We notice the men are wearing jeans and button down shirts, the boys prefer soccer jerseys and shorts, but the women seem to wear bright floral printed skirts down to the knee with a plain solid color t-shirt or tank top.  All the women and even the girls wear this outfit.  We are invited into the grandmother’s home.  A two -level home, built with wide boards and huge square cutouts for windows.  The windows have no glass or screens.  The floor is dirt and we sit along a wooden table and get introduced to Jonathan’s aunt and other uncle, their 2 year old son and his grandfather and grandmother, who all live under the same roof.  The 2 year old with full cheeks waddles from his mother and falls into her arms and then he’s off to grandma and again receives a big hug.  He walks from person to person, getting a hug and a laugh.  All questions are directed toward Jonathan who translates back and forth.  They want to know how we found them.  Where are we from?  Do we have kids?  They are curious about Sprite and where she sleeps.  And does she “go poop inside?”  We try to explain that Sprite is trained to go outside.  They laugh that the dog is better trained than the 2-year old who poops where he wants.

Jonathan points over to his grandmother who has gentle eyes and long wavy brown hair.  He says Grandma doesn’t know much Spanish because her first language is Embera.  They are all Embera, but only the older generation knows the language fluently.  The grandmother explains that they used to live in the Darien, deep in the jungle, but moved just outside because life was easier.  Then the government decided to build a dam which flooded several Embera Villages.  They were displaced to the spot they live now.  Colin asks her if they like living here or wish they had their original home back.  Everyone looks around at each other as if to see what the others think.  They all start nodding yes.  They like this place.  Someone calls out from the window for Jonathan.  He asks us if we want to see his house and meet his parents.  Like shadows we follow Jonathan and do as he does.

Notice the “Monkey Stick” with Jonathan’s dad

A few feet across the muddy yard sits another home built in a similar style as the grandparent’s.  The windows are open but they have shutters to close.  The floor is smooth cement.  There is a neat row of muddy shoes along the outside stoop.  We remove our shoes and add them to the line up.  Inside we shake hands with Jonathan’s dad and his mom.  His cousin is also there and looks about the same age as Jonathan, same dark hair, same style.  They also want to know how we found them.  Our conversation weaves around topics that flow easily  (with the help of Jonathan).  The Embera culture has changed in a lot of ways.  The younger generation is not interested in learning the language or the traditions.  Religion has also morphed.  As we venture on to the topic of religion and Jesus, grandma comes in through the back door.  Jonathan asks her in Embera what she believes.  She grabs a wooden cane that was resting along the wall and gently closes her eyes.  She makes a low whistling sound like wind in the trees and moves the cane up and down her arm.  Jonathan looks over at us to explain, “the Embera way is Wishes.” Jonathan and his parents don’t believe in Wishes, they believe in Jesus.  Missionaries introduced them to the ideas of Christianity, but it wasn’t until Jonathan’s dad was bitten by a fer-de-lance snake and became really sick that they began to pray to Jesus.  The dad rolls up his pant leg to expose jagged scars that cover his skin.  He was saved.  And Jesus trumped the Wishes.  Mom comes out from the kitchen with bowls of food and cups of tea.  Fried fish with plantains.  Between bites of fish, voices continue to fill the room with interesting questions from each person and move through Jonathan for translation.  Every year they hold traditional dances where the men cover their bodies in a dark ink dye which stains the skin for days.  Jonathan disappears into his room and comes out with a small bottle of ink to show us.  Jonathan is learning the Embera language and very interested in the dances and old way of life.  “It’s very important to me,” he says with a proud smile and continues to describe what he has learned from his grandparents. We talk about their work, their family, their handicrafts.  Mom pulls out her beautiful tightly woven baskets and bracelets, and two masks.  The dad goes to get his work.  The wooden cane that grandma was wishing on has been carved out with simple tools.  A snake curls up the body of the stick.  The top has a monkey’s head and on the side a gecko – the animals symbolize the movement through life. Grandma leaves and comes back with her baskets.  The missionaries have helped them market and sell their handicrafts in order to make money.   We buy one basket from mom and one from grandma.  Colin looks over the cane with the monkey head carved on top and Jonathan’s dad begins to talk about his hobby.  It takes him a long time to make the canes using simple tools, to shape them, to smooth them out with a cloth, but he enjoys woodworking.  He built this house were we sit.  “These are really nice and unique,” Colin says to the dad and then suggests, “You should sell these!”  Jonathan responds that he does sell them but with the lack of good tools it takes dad a long time to make and the one Colin is holding is far from finished.  Colin sees this cane as perfect, “To me it looks great the way it is.”  Jonathan hesitates and asks if Colin is interested in buying it.  “Maybe…but I’m not sure I can afford it.”  I already know Colin is in love with this cane and this story and these people.  They circle together to come up with a price and Jonathan tosses it out to Colin saying they feel a fair price for an unfinished cane is $20.00  There is no need to negotiate.  Colin pulls out the money and gives it to the dad, who stops and squeezes Colin’s hand with a tight grip, looks him straight in the eye and whispers, “Thank you.”  Colin is more thrilled than the dad will ever know.  They are both very happy.  At some point I notice its after 10pm and the dad has leaned back against the wall and fallen asleep.  Jonathan taps him and he jolts back to life.  We all laugh at this and decide its time for us to go back to our camper.  We are shaking hands and saying good night.

Some of the Embera Family we met!

We hear pounding in the morning and take a peek through the camper screen to see an entire group of guys gathering materials and stacking sacks of concrete-mix on the grass.  The pastor mentioned that they were all gathering to build a new church.  The old church stands behind them with wide boards and a leaky roof.  We can’t figure out why they don’t fix the old one but decide not to ask.  Jonathan’s aunt and mom have come over to check out our home.  They boost themselves inside and I, without using many words, show them around.  I start to pull out the bed and jump on top and say “dormir.” I open the cabinets and grab the pots and pans.  I open the spice cubby and the drawer that stores the silverware, plasticware and utensils.   I turn on the fan that’s installed in the ceiling and flick on the lights.  At every move I make they look at me once they understand and say with their mouths open while nodding, “ahh hah.” The aunt runs her fingers over the counter and cabinets and then asks Jonathan’s mom something.  I think they are trying to figure out what the laminate is made of.  It looks like the grain of real wood, but is very far from it.  The three of us are sitting on the camper couch when Colin pops his head in and they wave and say “adios!”  More people come over and start to dip their heads inside to see what we are doing.  Soon the guys are hollering that they need to start building the church. But first we need to take a picture.

Coin & Pastor at old church

The pastor comes over to get a picture with Colin and then he shakes his hand and heads over to work on the church.  The grandma embraces us with hugs.  She holds our hands and says something in Embera.  I can tell by her soft glance and the way her words are slowly coming off her tongue she is giving us well wishes.  Jonathan’s dad comes over and wants to talk to Colin.  He wants a picture with Colin and the monkey stick.  He gives Colin another handshake squeezing both hands holding them for a few moments.  We try to tell Jonathan how much we appreciate all his translating, showing us around, and allowing us to stay. We came there hoping for a place to park and we leave with new friends and Colin’s prized monkey stick.

We talk a lot about happiness.  Where can you find it?  The answers to that come in a million forms, a million ways, a million reasons.  There is a village, south towards the Darien jungle, off a muddy road not listed on a map.  There is a family who did not know our names, had never seen our faces.  Opened their doors, fed us dinner, asked us about our lives.  They wanted nothing in return. They are not searching for more, because everything they need and want is around them.

River along the Darien in Yaviza

What Happens at the End?

We travel the last piece of the Pan-American highway by dodging pot holes and vibrating over washboard.  A military stand blocks the road and an officer comes over to the driver’s side window.  The military requires every person going into the Darien province to sign in.  We have to include our names, passport information and how long we expect to be in this area and why we are here.  The military is doing their best to regulate this area, block the drug runners that sneak through, but it is a losing battle.  Once we get the thumbs up we move past the orange cones and head towards Yaviza.  A road shoots through the middle of town.  It’s barely as wide as our truck.  Along each side there are bars and loud music and people stumbling, drunk, to the beat.  People shout and dogs run along between bar stools hoping to lick up a few crumbs.  We learn later that we happen to arrive on the weekend of the cock fights – each year it’s a huge festival with parties from the morning until night fall.  We make it past the row of bars and around a few parked cars until the road stops in front of a bridge.  We get out and walk over the bridge and stop when we are in the middle.  A swift brown river runs below us.  A few wooden canoes move under the bridge and we watch them head down river.  This is the bridge that connects the last town to the Darien jungle.  From this point it is dense and wild and nearly impossible to access.  You step in alone and you’re on your own.  For all the miles we traveled to get here, it’s the first time we feel unsafe.  From the bridge we take a shot of our truck sitting at the very end of the road – the Pan-American Highway, the last stop in Central America.  It’s not a beautiful town or an interesting spot, just a place where the pavement ends.  As we turn around to head north, we realize how much truth there is to this old saying:  “Life is a journey, not a destination.” (By Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Colin purchase’s his first mola!! From Kuna woman.

Discussing life?

Traffic because of protesting taxi cab drivers – yay!

Connecting the last stop to the unknown!

Last Stop!

Taxi …Yaviza Style!

Yaviza, End of the Road

More Bocas Del Toro


Beach off the coast of Bocas Del Toro

8 Comments on ““Dude, Where Did You Get that Monkey Stick?”

  1. Carrie this is amazing and I’ve been reading your posts all along but I think this one is the very best!!!!!! can’t wait to get more news

    love you guys,


  2. Kelly said it! This one is especially wonderful. Your connection with the people and the surroundings comes through beautifully. I really have enjoyed all of your writings but this one is special. Keep ’em coming.

  3. Carrie and Colin, What an amazing “end of the road” story. A beautiful ending with “salt of the earth” people who are content with their lives. A powerful message for us all!!!


    Mom and Dad/Barb and Kip

  4. Wonderful description of the important things in life. What an experience!

    Marlene Walker (friend of Pam and Kerry)

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