The modernity of Panama City with its skyscrapers, malls, fast-moving vehicles constantly switching lanes, incessant building construction and a metro rail, faded fast….thankfully…. about half an hour into our journey to Darien, where Maryknoll Sisters serve in ministry. The scenery became parcels of farms, grazing lands bordered with live fencing which were in bloom with delicate pink flowers; and trees, trees, trees which seemed to become taller and more colossal as we neared Darien.
Did you know that you receive ten times more oxygen if you stand under a tree? Despite the detours we had to take because of road and bridge constructions (this being a stretch of the Pan-American Highway), it was an enjoyable trip as my companions took turns commenting on points of interest.
It was a wonderful opportunity to experience Darien, the “land bridge” between Central and South America, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. The population of the town of Santa Fe, where our Sisters Jocelyn “Joji” Fenix and Melinda Roper live, reflects this diversity—the Afro-Panamanians, descendants of the Africans who escaped forced labor conditions during the colonial era fleeing into the remote jungles of Darien and forming free communities, the “mestizos,” small-scale farmer and rancher settlers from other parts of Panama, the indigenous Kuna Yala, Embera and Wounan—and the primary landscape, the rainforest.
The day after we arrived, Melinda planned a trip to Mortí, a Kuna community in the rainforest. The features of the landscape markedly changed as we entered the comarca indigena or reserved land marked for indigenous communities. The journey to Mortí was an experience of entering green cathedrals, of feeling the great force of water as we crossed the Chucunaque River, of being in a natural sauna from the humidity of the forest, and having the relief of a gentle fine rain as our vehicle did the uphill climb to Mortí.
It seems like the whole village showed up as our pickup truck entered the one road that went through the village. Our group seemed to have been the entertainment for the day. I was identified as “China,” until I responded “Soy Filipina” to the boy calling me China. From then on, I was called Filipina and the rest in the car, “Latinas!” including Melinda and Auristela, a work colleague who herself is Kuna.
It was also an experience of disquiet from seeing roads rutted by the heavy logging trucks carrying huge tree trunks. Was one of them a relative of mine from some past time? I felt deep concern upon learning that the logging company had taken over the traditional village of the Kuna and transferred them to the one we visited, where the houses made of wooden boards are cramped in a very small piece of land. An interesting feature on quite a number of the houses is the unmistakable satellite dishes for TV! Who is not touched by modernity? The experience was awesome. Everything and everyone we meet, albeit only for a brief moment, are beings, diverse and one, woven in the web of life.
Melinda and Joji live at the pastoral center in the town of Santa Fe. One week each month, Sister Laura Guledew comes from Las Mañanitas in Panama City and joins them in community and ministry. My time with Melinda, Laura and their friend Connie from their sister-parish in Albany, NY, was an experience of the practice of community shared, engaging in life’s dimensions of richness and poverty.
I shared some of my heartening remembrances of Santa Fe: the attention to dawn’s light as part of our morning praise; having avocados from the tree outside the dining room for breakfast; setting up the trellis for the cucumber vines and planning for transplanting the tomato seedlings; the quiet walk down to the river; my delight in recognizing many of the plants in the herb garden; sharing noon meals with Center staff; meeting the orphaned goat at the farm; trying to know which is which in the menagerie of household pets; watching an artisan at work as he fixed the thatched roofing of the ranchitos; sharing food and prayers and joyful greetings with the community of Rió Roman during the feast of St. Joseph, their patron saint; visiting an amiable elderly couple by the river and appreciating their sharing with us some medicinal leaves and herbs from their garden.
I was saddened by the denuded hills and development of forest monoculture (teak plantations) that will lower the levels of biodiversity of natural forests, and hearing about farmers pressured to sell their land to be converted into these foreign-owned plantations. I resonated with the human interest stories shared among staff and neighbors about the joys and struggles in relationships, in creating community, in deepening faith.
On my last day in Panama, we gathered in La Boca for prayer and to share where each one is at this time. Sisters Fran Horan and Esperanza Principio are in the process of closing their house. Fran will be returning to our New York center accompanied by Esperanza for her final incorporation to Maryknoll.
Sister Mary Ann Duffy will be joining the region in April, and Laura will be renewing her temporary vows to Maryknoll in August. We ended the meeting with delicious Panamanian fare at Mi Ranchitos, an open-air restaurant at the Amador Causeway, with a beautiful view of the ocean and the skyline of the city of Panama.
– Sister Rebecca Macugay, MM