THE PUERTO LADA ADVENTURE
I am a Bible toting Christian and proud of it. Plus I can confirm that strange things happen when you are in tune with the Lord. For example, one day in 1991 I was selling at an Officers' Wives Club Bazaar in Amador Panama Canal Zone. When it was time to pack up and go count the money a friendly woman interrupted my packing and introduced herself as the Chaplain's wife. She said she had been watching me at several sales events and thought I could help her. She asked me to come to her Quarters (house) at 3:00 PM the next day. "Yes Madam", was about all I could think of to say. She gave me the house number at Fort Clayton.
The next day I showed up and the Chaplain's wife invited me in. She introduced me to another woman named Jeanie Cook. Jeanie and her husband are missionaries who are still working in the Darien rainforest. After pleasant conversation we went downstairs to the storeroom filled with baskets; good ones, bad ones, big and small. I was impressed. Then the purpose of the invitation was revealed.
Jeanie was running a cooperative with the Wounaan and Embera basket artists to help them sell their masterpieces. She would accept each artists baskets and give the woman a small cocobolo block of wood with a number carved in it. Jeanie then brought the baskets into town and the Chaplain's wife and the church women would buy some and sell others. The money was put in an envelope with the number that corresponded to the block of wood identifying the artist. Then Jeanie would take the envelopes to the villages and distribute the loot.
The success of their efforts had outgrown their ability to keep up with it. So that is why they had their eye on me. Could I help out? Well, a funny feeling came over me and I heard myself saying sure, why not? They said they would call me. About a month went by and then I got the call. After much prayer they had decided I was the right person. I was flattered.
Jeanie invited me to spend a week in the Darien at their home. About a week later she and her husband Denis picked me up. They had a four-wheel drive vehicle plus a trailer. Off we went....on an eight hour drive over one of the worst roads I have ever seen. Dirt all the way. Thank God it was dry season. It was dark when we arrived wherever it was we were. Denis used a flashlight to get into the house and light a couple of kerosene lanterns.
I was shown to a room with a cot. It is a good thing I forgot my hairdryer because there was no electricity. After a couple of hot diet cokes we all went to bed.
The next day started with a good breakfast off a gas cooker. Not bad. Then their son Chad showed up. I wondered where he came from but didn't ask. After some early morning chatter and a second cup of coffee Chad said, "come on, I'll show you around and we will distribute some money." Chad was sixteen. He hands me a backpack and cranks a motorcycle. "Get on in back of me", he says. I'm wishing we had a mule. So off we go to a village named Puerto Lada. It is across rivers, bridges, no bridges and up hills that I have to climb because the motorcycle refused to haul two uphill. We are in the sticks. During a break I asked Chad how much money is in the backpack. "Oh, perhaps $7000." I remember mumbling something about us being crazy and going to get robbed. Everyone in the neighborhood knows what the Cook's do so I figure it is only a matter of minutes before we meet our maker. Chad says, "don't worry, we are doing the work of the Lord". I hoped the Lord heard him.
As we approached Puerto Lada we came up on a jeep that had slipped off a wood plank bridge. Its right rear wheel was hanging precariously off the bridge and these two fellows were milling about sharply wondering what they would do. They were doctors headed to Puerto Lada to give vaccinations. We told them to wait, we would get help. We went on to the village where we were met by the madding crowd. They knew why we were there so they were glad to see us. Chad knew everyone so after greetings he explained the predicament back at the bridge. Folks, I have never seen anything like it!! The whole village took off up the path. I mean about 100 people. Men, women, children and dogs. Fortunately someone had the presence of mind to bring a rope. After serious debate in their own language the rope was thrown over a tree limb and attached to the right rear of the jeep. Then twenty or more men hauled away until the wheel could be swung back on the bridge. A big roar of approval went up and everyone started running back to the village.
We all met in the Big House or Community Center. It is really a giant thatched-roof Bohio. Chad called out the number and the woman came forth and presented her block of wood. I handed her the envelope. Nobody was happier than me to see that backpack empty.
Now recall that strange feeling that came over me as I uttered "sure, why not". Well, I know where that strange feeling came from now. More than twenty years have passed and I'm still involved up to my neck in baskets and the other art of Panama.
Stay tuned because I will share more adventures from the Darien.