I watch the rain. Tiny drops fall from the sky. Each drop as insignificant as a single grain of sand collected here on the river bank. One minuscule drop may not change one’s actions, environment, but many can move mountains, literally. Together, they possess an unimaginable strength.
For the next three and a half days, we will follow a small stream from its headwaters nearly a mile high to the mouth that feeds the Caribbean. For thousands of years, united drops of water have patiently carved its route from the chilly Quebrada Hacha to the warm seas. As we walk, drop by drop, the rain slowly soaks through our clothes. If we’re not wet from the rain, we’re soaked from the numerous river crossings. Right now, the rain, constant, but not staggering, was just two weeks ago an unstoppable force. Steep slopes on all sides show signs of landslides, simply too much water weighing down the soil and gravity winning.
Rain and landslides are natural processes. However, they are a threat when people make residence where these forces of nature frequently occur. The Ngäbes, a traditionally nomadic people of western Panama, have been forced to settle here in the mountain valleys and along the waterways of the water soaked Caribbean slope. Circular houses, made of sticks and cylindrical thatched roofs, are clustered along the streams and rivers forming small villages far from civilization.
Weekly, a truckload of supplies is dropped off at the end of the road. Sugar, rice, salt, among other things, have already made the three hour trek along a dirt and gravel path from the nearest highway, but the journey has just begun. Men, women, and children must do the rest of the work. Although Ngäbes, on average smaller in stature, may not seem adept to transport this quantity of cargo, they show up in throngs to carry the supplies. All capable do what they can. Using chacaras, a woven bag with a large strap, they haul the supplies through mud, across rivers, up hills, and down boulders. The path is there, but it’s not a trail. Horses can’t make this trek. With the strap of the chacara around the forehead and the cargo against the back, they lean forward and trudge toward their destination.
As we hike, we are accompanied by the locals, each one weighed down with merchandise for their tiny, local tiendas. A woman carries a chacara full of ground coffee and on top of the coffee sits a young baby. With the woman, a boy, about 13 or 14 years old, carries over one hundred pounds of rice. I tell him it’s my turn and we trade cargo, my pack for his chacara. I try lifting it. I raise the rice a few feet off the ground and say, “Que va. No way.” We trade back immediately. I couldn’t imagine carrying such weight for a few minutes on flat ground nevertheless hours or days through mud and mountains.
We arrive to a small village several hours from the end of the road. Here a kid sitting in the rain says to me, “El río crecío mucho. The river grew a lot.” It’s evident that the waters rose dangerously close to the base of nearby houses. I look behind me and a landslide has filled the school with mud and destroyed its structure. The destruction is even more unmistakable as we continue our journey. We look for a way to cross the river, but the bridge has been carried away. Hand in hand, we ford the river. Today it’s able to be crossed, but after an aguacero or heavy rain, the swollen, bridgeless river would be an impassible impediment.
We pass through small communities strung along the river like beads on a string. Every couple of hours a cluster of houses and a school appears and shortly thereafter disappears behind us. Each school is made of cement blocks and a zinc roof. I’m convinced the materials were delivered by helicopter, but after asking the locals they respond, “Al hombro. On the shoulder.” Once again, the Ngäbes’ strength is demonstrated by their ability to work together, carrying cement, zinc sheets, desks, etc. for the betterment of the community.
Finally, the terrain has flattened and the river has widened. We have walked three days from one transport to the next. Early on the fourth day, we take a boat ride down the Río Cricamola and enter the Caribbean. The picturesque skies of the Caribbean are hidden behind clouds and rain. Waves spill over the gunwales, forcing us to take it slow and easy to port. We arrive, albeit cold and wet.
Rain teaches us that alone one is often weak, but joined together in a common task, the whole possess an unimaginable strength. The Ngäbes have learned from the rain.