Saturday, September 10, 2016

Into the Jungle with Tarzan

After arriving in Panama City (see my last blog entry) Lee and I spent a few days with a young missionary couple. "Joe" was a pilot and would be flying the plane that we had brought down from the states. He had not flown this type of aircraft before so we spent a few days checking him out on it. Then we decided that it would be best if we and Joe traveled up the Pookarue River to the newly created landing strip where the plane and pilot would be based. 

This was a wonderful adventure.

First we had to fly to a village at the mouth of the river. There we were joined by a young missionary name Johnny. He was wearing only shorts. No shirt, no shoes, just shorts. Period. All he needed was a knife in a scabbard on his belt and he would have looked exactly like Tarzan - and that is what I called him. He lived at the village where we were headed and had come downriver to meet us.

The river was the only means of reaching the Indian village deep in the Panamanian jungle. The river current was about five mile an a hour. It was not the muddy stream I expected, although it wasn’t completely clear either.

We traveled in a large dugout boat made of a single log about twenty-five feet long. It was powered by a modern outboard motorboat engine of some twenty-five or thirty horsepower. Going upstream against the river current we could make about ten or twelve mph. The boat was heavily loaded with supplies for the missionaries who live with the Indians some fifty miles upriver as the crow flies. Of course the river doesn’t travel as the crow does, but weaves and winds through the jungle. We spent the better part of the day getting to the village.

The engine was handled by an Indian native named Santiago who spoke only Spanish, but Tarzan also spoke fluent Spanish and could interpret for us. The weather was hot and muggy and we encountered several showers which soaked us. We didn’t mind because it cooled us a bit.

About mid-morning after two or three hours of traveling Tarzan said, "How would you fellows like a cold coke?" We all agreed that would be nice, not thinking for a minute that it was a possibility. 

We began to smell a very bad odor. Rounding a bend in the river, there was an Indian village of about two dozen dwellings. The huts were made of bamboo and were built on a bamboo platform about four feet off the ground. The roofs were of thatch. Most of them had no walls. The village had no sewer system. One relieved one’s self by going to the edge of the platform and doing your business. Consequently with the frequent rains the entire area was covered in a fine ooze of human excrement. 

Tarzan didn’t seem to mind, pulled the boat up, and tied it to a stump. Then he went paddy-footing barefoot into the village. We followed, holding our noses.

He took us to a bamboo structure with outside walls. Inside there was a ancient Coca Cola icebox full of ice cold Cokes. It was cooled by a propane refrigerated unit. I could hardly believe my eyes. But it was sure 'nuff good ole Coke. We often found this theme in South America - the mix of ancient and modern.

In late afternoon we arrived at the village of our destination. This was where Tarzan and his beautiful wife lived. There was also another missionary family living here as well. The missionary man was the very opposite of Tarzan. The Indians had tagged him “El Raton” which translates “The Mouse.” This seemed to fit him so that is what we called him.

As soon as the sun went down the entire population went to the beach of the river and bathed, which seemed like a reasonable thing to do except for the fact that everyone - men, women, and kids - stripped off all their clothes and went to the water buck-naked. Everyone except us bashful Norte Americanos. No one seemed to be self-conscious. Tarzan explained that it was their custom and they thought we were odd because we didn’t join them.

We spent the night with the Tarzan family sleeping in hammocks.

Next day we went out and inspected the landing strip. It was obvious that the people had put in many days of back-breaking labor to clear a strip in the jungle long enough to land a plane on. Some of the trees were huge and they had to be grubbed out, roots and all. 

Anyway we pilots pronounced it adequate and we went back to Panama City so Joe and Lee could take the plane into the new strip. They said it was a bit bumpy yet, but would soon be smoothed out and covered with grass. 

The little village would soon be connected to the rest of the world by something other than a dugout canoe. Now if anyone became seriously hurt or ill, in a short time they could be in a modern hospital under a doctor’s care. For this, the missionaries and the Indian were very thankful.

We considered our mission completed and soon were on our way home via commercial airlines. And so ended that adventure.

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