Day 9 (March 12):
The End of the Road:
Yaviza. A small port community that rests at the end of the Pan-American Highway. The chiva from Metetí struggles to traverse the crater laden road that abruptly transforms from paved highway, to broken concrete, to jagged gravel just outside of the town. “Yaviza: Tierra de Gente Trabajadora y Alegre (Yaviza: Land of Hardworking and Happy People)” is printed on a plastic banner which hangs on the fence of the bus terminal/maritime authority. It’s a reminder to all of the heart and soul of the community: hard work and happiness. You can’t argue with that.
The community is vastly different than any of the other that I’ve visited while traveling the Pan-American Highway. Weathered wood plank houses balance on stilts. Their abundance indicate that flooding is to be expected, but it’s ok because they’re well prepared. When walking by you catch glimpses of families going about their days. They walk barefoot on the dusty wooden floors…their muddy feet a symbol of the hard work of the humid days in a port community.
The Rio Chucunaque cuts through the center of Yaviza. The main bank holds the larger half of the community; where the banana boats and river ferries begin their daily work. Here, the Pan-American Highway narrows to a single lane sidewalk that provides walkways for foot traffic and the occasional delivery truck. The other side of the river is occupied by a cluster of wooden homes and a one story, cement block hospital. “There’s an Indian community on that side”, I’m told by many. Most of the Embara in this area live on that side. The Embara women distinguish themselves from the others by wearing brightly colored, floral print wraps around their torsos. The colors are so bright that they match the various birds and flowers that beautifully decorate the town. The two sides of Yaviza are connected by a steel suspension bridge that was built in December of 2011. When people cross you can hear the steel plates banging against each other as the bridge sways from side to side. To walk the bridge takes a learned type of navigation. The swaying will make you feel like you will spill into the river, but if you walk gently your smooth movements will put your body in sync with the shifting bridge. This bridge is a kind of machine that sifts outsiders from locals; the former gripping the handrail for added balance. Prior to the bridge, the only connection between the two banks were the river ferries that navigate the two halves of the community. While the bridge has reduced the need for the ferries, they are still the preferred choice for those carrying loaded bags and children from one side to the other. You can get lost in watching them operate. Prodding the river floor with their long wooden poles. Pushing their canoes far enough away from the bank until they can drop their motors into the muddy waters. The ferry operators show off their familiarity with their canoes’ bobbing motion as they hop from plank to plank directing their passengers into their seats.
There is something different about everyday life at the end of the Pan-American Highway. Absent are the constant flows of people moving from one city to the next. Gone are the barrage of vendors selling tchotchkes and discounted clothing. Yaviza isn’t designed to cater to travelers. Without the highway there are few passersby. I think that you can learn a lot about a town by observing what is being sold on the streets. Here, its asados (barbecue), beer, and vehicle/boat equipment; a respectable combination of attributes that pay respect to that banner that hangs in the entrance: “…Gente Trabajadora y Alegre (Hardworking and Happy People)”.
Upon entering Yaviza I am stopped by a SENAFRONT (Servicio National de Fronteras/National Border Patrol) officer who respectfully, but sternly, informs me that I must check in at the office of the alcaldesa (the mayor). Once there, I must introduce myself and to give her my information. He asks me a list of preliminary questions: “Why are you here? How long do you plan on staying? Where are you from? How did you get here?” “It is so that we can keep track of everyone”, he explains straightforwardly, “…and it is for your security.” At first his presence is intimidating, but as I chat with him I start to feel comforted; as if he is looking out for me. This performance of ‘introducing oneself to the mayor’ is an indicator of the lack of outsiders that they receive here in Yaviza. The community has a long, difficult history with drug smuggling and they are weary of any unknowns that might bruise their healing reputation.
Image courtesy of PanamaAmerica.org
The alcaldesa is quick to recognize me and extends her hand in greeting. “Hi, my name is Nadine González. I am the alcaldesa of the District of Pinogana in Yaviza. That’s everywhere from Metetí to the Colombia border.” Nadine González is a pleasant, stylishly dressed woman who speaks a comforting amount of English. “SENAFRONT used to really harass travelers about coming to Yaviza and send them away. But, now we are more accepting of visitors. We want them to see our town and to feel safe. We should embrace visitors, no? SENAFRONT is the national border patrol, but here in Yaviza they serve as our local police force. They always monitor the community.” I chat with her for a few minutes and explain that I would like to document everyday life at the end of the highway. “Please, feel free to walk around and take photos”, she assures me. “I will let SENAFRONT know that you are here and they will keep an eye on you to make sure that you stay safe.”
Everyday life at the end of the Pan-American Highway feels different. The opportunities for work for those living within the community do not revolve around endless droves of passersby. The absence of a highway system is a significant reason for this variance. I spend a couple of days in Yaviza and everyone is quick to make me feel welcomed into their community. Before catching the midday chiva back towards Metetí, I make my rounds through to town to let them know that I am leaving and to say “thank you”. My last stop is with the SENAFRONT officer who patrols the bus station/maritime authority. I shake his hand and tell him “Thank you everything. You have a great town.” He responds with a large smile and while pointing at his eyes he says “You’re welcome. I told you that we would watch you and take good care of you” (I will never truly know the extent of this statement). Stepping onto the chiva I take on last glance at that banner that hangs against the fence. “Yaviza: Tierra de Gente Trabajadora y Alegre (Yaviza: Land of Hardworking and Happy People)”. This motto could not be more fitting.