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Pulitzer Center Update June 18, 2012

Panama: The Trek to Nueva Lucha


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A battle is being waged in the rainforests of Panama – between those who want to keep their way of...

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Kevin and Mellissa at the drop-off point before the trek into the jungle. Image by Lynn Burgess. Panama, 2012.

"Uh-oh," our translator whispered to me.

"What now?" I asked. It was 9:30 Saturday morning. We'd been waiting at the boat launch for more than half an hour, in anticipation of the first leg of our journey to the indigenous Ngobe village of Nueva Lucha. Kevin, our translator, raised his eyebrows and leaned over to me conspiratorially. "I've just overheard these men talking." He motioned over to a group standing in the shade, under the cement canopy of the waiting area.

"What?" I was already hot, sweaty and impatient.

"Our boat captain was apparently seen drinking late into the night. We may not be going anywhere anytime soon."

"It's just a rumor," I hoped aloud. "How would they know? And who are these people anyway?"

"Small town," he replied knowingly.

After two hours, we decided to cut bait and try again the next day after making arrangements with two other boat captains to meet us at a second launch—closer to our lodge—at 8:00 a.m. Sunday. We would use the rest of this day to drive three hours out to the larger mining protests in the Comarca. We couldn't afford to waste any time with the tight schedule we were on.


In hindsight, this trip may have been ill-fated from the beginning. And because we had no idea what to expect, it was probably the thing we dreaded the most on the entire shoot. We'd been warned about snakes and mud; we had already been subjected to the heat and humidity, so we feared the worst. We were told it would be a three-hour trip up the Coclesito River to the Caribbean coast, another two hours on a faster, more sea-worthy boat along the coast, and then an hour and a half hike to the village. We each took a backpack with a sleeping bag, mosquito net, a change or clothes or two, headlamps, bug spray, and several military MREs, or meals ready to eat. We had camera gear, tapes, and a battery charger packed in case we could find a generator to plug into. There was no power at all where we were headed.

Sunday morning dawned early and with promise. It was a bright sunny day, with just a few clouds in the sky. Once again, we loaded our backpacks in the car and drove to the boat launch. This time, two long motorized canoes were waiting for us. One would hold all our gear and backpacks, and we would climb into the other. We put a microphone on Martin Rodriguez, the Ngobe Indian cacique (chief) who would be our guide on the trek to his home village.

It was a gorgeous ride leaving Coclesito—our motorized canoe cut cleanly into the swirling waters of the river as we headed upstream with the current. The drooping canopies of banyan trees lined our route and would suddenly open into green pastures, complete with grazing cows and white egrets. Children playing in the river stopped to wave at us. A blue wooden house built on stilts appeared around a bend.

Then suddenly, the skies above us darkened and droplets of rain started to fall. Slowly at first, until it became a steady downpour. Paul, the ever-prepared cameraman, pulled out his rain poncho, which covered him and the camera. My lightweight waterproof running jacket proved no match for the water that was now pouring down from the sky. We were soaked by the time we reached the Caribbean.
Soaked and in a hurry. It was past noon and we still had a two-hour ride along what was looking to be a very rough seacoast. I looked out into the sea as we loaded our gear into the bigger boat and wondered briefly whether it would be better to wait until the waters calmed. But our captain was anxious to get going, and after covering our bags with a tarp, he set off, slowly at first, toward the mouth of the river, and then – BAM! The skiff had caught the edge of a huge wave and came down hard as it rolled under the boat. I was briefly airborne, and quickly put my hand on my baseball cap to keep it from flying off.

For two hours, we rolled headwind into the choppy waters. At least the rain had let up a bit by the time we turned back into the coast about an hour and a half later. The captain cut the engine and slowed to an easy glide down the river that would eventually take us to our drop-off point. The water here was murkier than the Coclesito, and I imagined there might be crocodiles lurking underneath.

He eventually pulled into a small beach landing: we finally arrived. After unloading our gear, Martin Rodriguez left to find people—porters—to help us carry our bags on the trek. He had arranged for locals from his village to meet our boat, but we'd left a day later than originally planned and I wasn't sure he'd be able to get word back to the Nueva Lucha given the lack of communications. My heart sank a bit when no one was at the landing to meet us, but I hoped Martin would be able to round up a few helpers and be back shortly. We used the time to do a short interview with our boat captain about the proposed mine development.

Martin came back about an hour later, with one young man, Santiago, who was even smaller than he.

"There might be two more coming," Kevin translated.

"So we wait?"

"I guess so, for awhile."

We waited. And waited. And waited. But no one else came. Finally, we decided we'd just have to carry everything ourselves. Martin and Santiago each took a bag and we started our trek into the jungle.

The packs were heavy and the trail was hard. It wasn't actually even much of a trail—just a crude path that the Ngobe had likely carved out with their own feet and machetes. It was muddy and slippery and steep in some places. We were truly in the depths of the jungle.

I was the first to fall. We were traversing a ledge of sorts, a narrow one at that, with a cliff to the right side. I caught my foot on a slippery root and toppled over, backpack and all. And I couldn't get up. My backpack was too heavy. Alex, our driver, who was behind me, took my hand and hauled me back to my feet, pack and all. As we continued, the trail got more dense and difficult. It seemed the dark black slippery tree roots had been laid on purpose to act as leg-hole traps. The mud we were warned about was actually knee-deep in places, the quicksand-like viscosity fighting us for our boots. Rocks of all sizes littered the path, lying in wait for someone to dislodge one—along with an ankle at the same time.

Sweat was pouring off my baseball cap like rain into a gutter. The heat and humidity added to the weight of the packs we carried. And then we reached a 12-foot high wall of mud and tree roots. Martin and Santiago scampered up effortlessly.

"Are you kidding me?" I swore out loud. It was obviously no joke. Lynn went before me, and I followed, digging my muddy boots into the places she did, grabbing onto the same roots with my hands.

Finally, we came to a small clearing—an area sometimes used by the Ngobe as a boat launch—and Martin stopped to tell Kevin something in Spanish.

"He says we will never make it to the village before dark," our translator announced as he positioned himself on the rotting floor of a raised thatched hut, built on stilts above the ankle-deep brown mud.


"He says at the rate we are going, it will be another four hours before we get there." Kevin was now lying on his back, rubbing his ample stomach. "Martin says we should stay here tonight, and he will send word for more helpers. They can meet us here tomorrow morning."

The idea of spending the night in the middle of the jungle seemed like a bad one on so many different levels that we couldn't even begin to process in our exhaustion. But it didn't seem like we had any other options. Soon, Martin left to send word and we started hanging up our mosquito nets. Alex found a fresh water spring and built a fire. Someone had left a cauldron on the ground, and we boiled some water for the next day. We climbed down the riverbank and washed our faces in the cool waters of the stream.

It would be a long and sleepless night.


About five Ngobe had gathered around the hut as the sun came up. We set off again shortly after 7:30 a.m., energized by a jolt of instant coffee. It was easier with the big packs off our shoulders. Our small, agile carriers didn't seem to be half as weighed down as we had been the previous day. They scampered ahead of us quickly.

Still, the trail (or lack thereof) seemed laden with hazards. I fell again, landing hard on a rock after having tripped over a fallen tree. We forded two rivers on foot; the second was almost waist-high on my 5-foot 3-inches. Our waterproof rubber boots filled with water, making the rest of the trek just that much more uncomfortable. I heard Lynn cry out behind me, but I couldn't see her and I didn't have the energy to go back. I knew Martin was with her, so I soldiered forward, following Paul. We struggled to keep up with our Ngobe porters, who were nimbly running up 12-foot hills with our packs. I tried to follow in their exact footprints, but it proved impossible. I was dehydrated and we were running out of bottled water.

At least three times we had to stop and wait because Kevin had fallen behind. The first stop was along a river, and I knelt down and scooped a handful of the cool water to wash my face. I was about to scoop some more into my mouth, but Martin stopped me.

"No!" he said. It might have been the only English word he knew. He was telling me not to drink the water. He dispatched one of the porters who soon came back with our plastic jug, now re-filled. Martin motioned for me to drink it.

Lynn was still concerned, and she pulled out her water purification kit, mixing the two solutions and then pouring it into the jug. We each refilled our smaller bottles and continued on, hoping with every step that Nueva Lucha was just around the next corner.

Kevin kept having to stop. He was in no shape for this kind of physical trial, so we finally told him we had to go ahead with Martin. We would meet him in Nueva Lucha. It was approaching noon, and we had a lot of shooting to do before we lost the light around 6:30 in the evening. Kevin agreed, waving us to go ahead.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity pushing, fighting our way through the jungle's mud swamps, steep inclines, slippery trenches, and knotted trees, we saw signs of life. Two thatched huts appeared beyond a small hill, a mirage-like vision in the hot sun.

"Nueva Lucha?" I asked.

"Nueva Lucha!" Santiago said, smiling. He'd been with us since the day before, and was now carrying the backpack that held the camera.

We were exhausted, dehydrated, dripping with sweat, and in pain from sore muscles and open blisters, but we had finally arrived. The first television crew ever to come to this remote village in the middle of the jungle.

All we wanted was a cold drink and some rest. But our real work had just begun.





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