The gravel road we travel down ends. In the Comarca Ngabe-Buglé, the few 4x4 accessible carreteras just do. This indiginous semi-autonomous region in western Panamá has a different means of transportation: on foot or by horse. It is an area webbed with a matrix of footpaths carved out from years of use. Today we will be taking these trails to a hill off in the distance. Although we walk there just to see what is on the other side, the people we meet on the journey humble me. They live simply, something that is lost in today's modernity.
We walk. The green grass, dominating the scene, rustles in the refreshing breeze. The rest of the picture is painted by the blue sky. The sun is fierce, but helps to dry the colorado soils that were plagued by heavy runs just a week before. Perhaps a once tree-filled land, it's now an open savanna, save the trees bordering the streams and rivers. In the openness I feel free. Free of compass. Free of map. Free of guide. Although we are unfamiliar with the terrain, we look to a distant peak and say, "let's go there."
As we amble down the caminito or little path, a man walking down the same trail passes us. I ask him where he is going and he replies, "Voy lejos. I'm going far." Although far is a relative term, many people live six, nine, twelve hours from the nearest road with vehicle access. He continues to walk ahead. He carries nothing more than a seemingly empty little, black backpack. With the sudden realization of all my cargo, I feel less free. I think of Socrates' quote, "How many things I can do without."
After hours of walking, our path disappears into a river. We search the opposite bank and a rocky footpath ascends from the water's edge into the trees. Crossing the waterway, we lift our gear over our heads. The water comes up to my waist. The current, although not overwhelming, is swift enough to steal our cargo should one of us fall and drop it. We continue on a short ways to a nearby house. The family welcomes us to sit down for a cup of coffee. Although I dislike the taste of coffee, I slowly sip it, recognizing it as a humble gift and invitation to chat. As we converse, I ask them about their crops. To my untrained eye, the soil looks like clay and unforgiving to subsistence farming. They proudly talk about their yucca and guandú plots. Yucca, a starchy root, is a staple food and necessary source of carbohydrates and vitamin B. Guandú, a bean from a tree, is a tasty source of protein. Supplemented by oranges, plantains, and an occasional chicken their diet is simple, only covering some of the basic dietary needs. We thank them for the coffee and they send us on our way with a dozen oranges.
In order to make it to our intended camping site before nightfall, that hill off in the distance, we must continue hiking. Trodding on, my mind begins to envy the inhabitants of this vast countryside. They live free of the social pressures found in the cities, where family and food never seem to be enough and simplicity is lost in the honk of taxis or the multitude of cell phones a youth keeps at his disposal.
Today, in the Comarca Ngabe-Buglé, I see the other end of the spectrum. The people seem content despite the daily obstacles they face. However, the simple life doesn't mean the easy life. The man with the empty little, black backpack walks hours upon hours just to get from the nearest road to his house. His backpack wouldn't be empty if he had a second pair of town-worthy clothes or lunch to eat in route. The coffee-sipping family has their trials as well. The niños cross dangerous rivers and walk hours to get to their school lessons that are taught in Spanish, their second language. The men of the family pride themselves with their yucca and guandú plot; they don't mention that guandú is seasonal and yucca takes 9 months to grow in decent soil. When these staples aren't available, it makes it that much tougher to get a well balanced meal. I don't envy what these people have nor their daily hurdles, but that they are grateful for what they do have.
The friends I made today have taught me a valuable lesson: embrace simplicity and live gratefully.