The Darien Gap is the most dangerous place on the planet. The border between Colombia and Panama is a thousand square mile area of impassable jungle and swampland, ruled by narcotraffickers, gangsters, wild animals and infectious diseases. There is more chance of getting kidnapped or killed than traversing it safely. So, a new industry has appeared. Sailboats offer a more tranquil way of passing from South to Central America, via the tropical San Blas Islands. This is how I became a passenger on Wild Card, a boat manned by Captain Charlie.
He slurped straight from a bottle of rum as we bounced over crashing waves. After 36 hours of harsh sailing, he flicked back his long, dark locks, readied his pockmarked face and dropped anchor. We were in the land of the Kuna people. I looked around; hundreds of unspoilt mounds of white sand and palm trees protruded from turquoise waters. We had arrived in Cayos Limones, or Lemon Keys, or paradise. It forms part of the 365 San Blas Islands that lie 12 miles off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Captain Charlie threw me a snorkel and told me to explore. “There are some sunken ships over there,” he said with a flick of his arm, rum bottle still resting by his side.
I dived in the direction that Charlie had pointed. A long, silvery barracuda whished past. I continued towards the bubbly rock of a coral reef. A tuna swerved in front of me, scattering schools of smaller fish. The reason soon became clear: a reef shark burst into view, chasing the tuna through a maze of marine life. I tried to keep up but couldn’t, possibly because I’m not a fish. As I headed towards the shipwreck, I felt a ripple overhead. I came up for air. A battered canoe had narrowly missed me. Three Kuna tribesmen, tanned of skin, were wearing sheepish grins.
“Sorry. I didn’t see you,” said the taller man, offering a bow in apology. He invited me aboard the boat and introduced himself as the Sahila, or Chief, of Cayos Limones. I clambered up and he insisted I return to the mainland to share lunch with his family. I glanced towards my boat, Captain Charlie was spreadeagled on the deck. I said yes.
On the island, we ate an emperor’s lunch of lobster, grilled plantain and coconut. Indigenous women, decorated in gold nose rings, beaded red leg bands and bowl haircuts, were sewing traditional mola dresses. They sung gentle lullabies as they formed intricate patterns in blue and orange. They were blissfully unaware of politics, mortgages and traffic jams, and it showed.
Chief looked at the sky and sighed. “I am afraid you have come at bad time.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Tonight is no moon.”
“Blood moon,” he nodded. “The dragon comes to try and eat the moon.” I nodded, trying not to show my amusement. But, I thought then, it’s no stranger than believing that a virgin gave birth to Jesus or humans should work for fifty hours a week to buy products they don’t need. I looked around; does a better picture of paradise exist?
“They are preparing now. This is their night.” The Chief pointed inside a conical bamboo hut. Inside, two albino men were carving something out of wood. The Kuna have a very high incidence rate of albinism, a phenomenon that neither scientists nor anthropologists have been able to explain.
“We have shaman coming also,” continued Chief. “But they will defend the moon,” he pointed at the albinos again.
Half an hour later, a dugout canoe arrived on the sand and a shaman in tattered rags stepped ashore. The sun came down as the shaman set up. I watched him form a circle using palm fronds and tree stumps as the sky turned from blue to orange to black in the background. He stood in the middle while Chief and the other islanders sat around the edge. They beckoned me to join. The shaman burnt an incense-like substance, it smelled like hippies and freedom. He started chanting in a language I didn’t understand, then dancing in a style I couldn’t comprehend. When he came back to earth, he passed round a jug of liquid. “Drink this,” he said. “It is chicha. The breast milk of the great mother.” It tasted more like crude rum to me.
“Now, we must go inside. It is only safe for the albinos tonight,” said Chief. The shaman raised an eyebrow, then gestured at me.
“He is white man too, he can join them.” Chief shrugged. The albinos emerged from the bamboo hut, holding the spoils of their days work: two bow and arrows. I asked Chief what the hell was happening.
“They will shoot arrows at the dragon, to protect the moon. You want to join them?”
I paused for thought. “Yes.” An easy decision. “Yes I do.”
The two albinos and I walked down to the shallows of the sea. They stood a metre ahead of me, took aim and fired towards the moon, emitting a howling sound as they did so. I howled too, tentatively at first, then with real gusto. They fired again, the arrows arced towards the dim, red moon then fell into the ocean. One of them passed me his bow and arrow. We still hadn’t spoken to each other, just howled. I stared at the moon, placed the arrow against the cord that connected the two ends of wood and pulled hard. My arm wasn’t straight and I let go at an angle, the arrow veered off to the right, grazing the arm of one of the albinos. My jaw dropped. I raised both hands in apology. The bow dropped to the water too. I felt forced to reorder my opinion. I think the Darien Gap is the second most dangerous place on the planet, after Cayos Limones when I’m brandishing a bow and arrow.