The Prompt: “The earth has music for those who listen.” [George Santayana]
Imagine, for a moment, that nature was silent – as it is on photographs, and even nature films, with a reassuring voiceover. Being soundless, it also becomes two-dimensional, flat, and emotionless; just overdressed landscape.
I can miss seeing the world’s landmarks; the towers, triangles and pyramids one travels to take a photograph of, when one could merely ‘see’ on a photograph without the travel part. but the experience of the Darien Gap, between Panama and Columbia, cannot be taken from me.
I slid down long slopes from river to river, sliding on the red mud, my eye roving for further Velcro imitation plants that had left reminders in various parts. With a sudden splash another river arrived. I waded across the evenly flowing current before clambering up the bank on the other side.
The undergrowth thinned out and took on a more organised look. Familiar banana leaves gave way to shoots of corn as I walked into the centre of a settlement. A couple of the resident Kuna Indians were present and I shook their hands, welcoming a cup of plantain juice.
The village was quiet. It was hot and close. Most of the inhabitants were working in the shaded crops and plantations scattered around the edge of the huts. A few young women, naturally sensual in wraps slung loosely around their bodies, walked up from the river, their hair still wet. Some of them sat down nearby and began gently prodding me with questions.
“And how old are you?” asked one in broken Spanish, leaning forward, her white mola around her hips giving way slightly.
“I have twenty nine years,” I replied.
“Where is your wife?” she continued.
“I’m not married.”
“Why not, you have problems with your…?” she made a quick gesture with her arm and started to giggle, placing her fingers across her mouth. The giggles spread in ripples around the half circle of women sitting facing me.
I was saved from an appropriate answer by a sudden blast of rock music, and my shock brought another round of laughter. Turning to where the tinned sound was coming from, I watched a small child walk out of a reeded grass hut onto the neatly swept earth. He was carrying a stereoplayer across his shoulders, which was blaring out a recognisable tune.
It was an abrupt mix of civilisations, of two societies, and it was a much better melange than the one I had seen from my hotel room some days before, where from my window I could see a hill covered with the wood, cardboard and corrugated iron of the shanty towns, the flavias, dark, absent of any signs of basic amenities like electricity. The only things shining were a large flashing neon Coca Cola sign, propped up in the very middle of the hillside, and its reflection on my newly/polished boots. The Indian shoe/shine boy had been serious and dedicated, with brow furrowed in concentration as he rubbed and polished with gusto. And when he had finished, he had stared at me with a delicate mixture of anxiety and pride.
One day, perhaps, the boy would leave the mess of a city, on a long bus ride to a banana boat, onto a dugout canoe, and through this green, green forest to the village. Then he too could smile like these Indians did, as they shared their sharp humour with me.
Here in the jungle, real priorities were glaringly apparent, and the boy-s education in matters of health and happiness would have been next to none. Instead his future was the streets and long hours of backache for a few pennies.
The young village child strolled past me, the familiar song still beating from his stereo box. He sipped his plantain juice. It was late afternoon, formal tea/time maybe in some areas of the world; traffic jam time in many others. In the jungle the sun had settled onto the horizon, where it slowly lost a balancing act, throwing a few defiant rays through the trees before sinking out of sight, to light up other parts of the earth, where smog would diffuse it into a hazy, grey, symbolic presence.
I picked up my rucksack and went down to the wide river that flowed around the village like a curled lock of hair. At the riverbank I watched a few women bathing, in a scene I would have painted had I been an artist. I dropped my rucksack and pulled my wet shirt over my head before taking boots and socks off, and walking down the short bank into the river. Then, on impulse, I flipped my thumbs into my shorts and pulled them off. The water was cool and fresh, and when I surged up for air I suddenly noticed her sitting on the opposite bank, wearing a brightly patterned mola in unguarded sensuality around her body. Under the trees the sun and shade played a further intricate pattern on her, and she smiled one of those effortless smiles, that one receives in jungle settlements in the Panama rainforest.
“Ola,” I said. She dipped her head and continued washing her feet in the river. I turned and swam against the current, surging up for air in pleasure. She was still there when I glanced, sitting now with her arms over her knees, watching quizzically, her black hair over her shoulders. I stood in the water lapping my chest and felt a stirring when our eyes met.
I stayed in the village for two days. Two days longer than I planned, lamely promising to somehow to ‘catch the others up’. On the last day she smiled at me and I followed her down to the river and slowly unwrapped her mola, sinking down into the sand with her, while she wrapped her legs around me as we lay half in the flowing water. Later that night I watched as she dropped fresh flower petals from newly opened flowers into the river, petals that would float downstream into other rivers, to eventually dissolve at the sprawling city far downstream, and the jungle still held the scent of the flowers in the thick air when I held her to me to say goodbye and she strewed the new flower seeds around us. But the aroma of those exotic fresh flowers never quite softened the thorns of guilt I still feel.
pitter patter pitter patter
rain on large shiny green leaves
music of the jungle
without the rain
there is no aroma of flowers
or sting of insects