Vagabond Dreams Outtakes #16—And I Was Just a Stranger There


Vagabond Dreams Outtakes are “deleted scenes” from my book. Think of them as a “Special Features” disc of outtakes and curios. This incident took place in Panama’s Darien Gap…


Banana trees and low bushy plants lined the dirt path that led beyond the village’s last tambo. Jungle pathways were never entirely clear, no matter how recently someone had used them. The forest reclaimed everything with a creeping growth that was almost visible. Keeping those vital roadways open meant that each person who passed must absent-mindedly cut back the encroaching growth. The constant ringing of these slashing blows became the music of our march.

Beyond the outskirts of the village we picked our way across a churned-up clear cut of decaying logs, tangled branches, and muddy hummocks, a place where the ochre and black topsoil of the jungle had been laid bare with simple tools. Green brush smouldered in small piles, releasing slow, reluctant wisps of acrid smoke that hung in the thick moist air. This was El Coco’s larder.


embera6.jpgA solitary man worked the far side of the clearing, painstakingly, by hand. The dull ching of his machete as it cut through thin branches and the heavy thunk as it bit into stumps echoed off the broad leafed plants that hemmed us in.

Beyond the clearing we were completely swallowed up by the green-tinted light of undersea. The machete’s efforts were silenced as suddenly as though a heavy curtain had fallen. The forest deadened all sound, absorbing even the soft puffs of our breath.

At first the Embera tried to shepherd me around danger. They guarded me nervously, as one would a toddler taking first steps. But I soon caught them whispering about how silently I contorted around the foliage rather than crashing through the undergrowth and moving it around me.

embera7.jpgThey hadn’t expected it, but I was more at home in the jungle than I was in the village. I’d grown up in the woods, camping with my friend Rob Wilson in lean-tos we build with a hatchet and twine. Studying the forest’s silence, blending in with the sights and smells that surrounded me, seeking understanding rather than domination. It was a way of looking at things, a way of moving that we held in common, and it brought us closer together.

Massive outsized trees with wide buttressed roots propped up the canopy, lending the forest the aura of an enormous outdoor cathedral. Vines, mosses and epiphytes hung down in tangled green confusion, living off the larger trees in a symbiotic Gordian knot, as the weak always do upon the strong. It would have been impossible to extract one component without damaging all the rest.

As the shock of that first glance wore off, I began to notice the details: the intricate veins on a leaf’s broad canvas; a flower that lent a pastel flicker to the deep sea of green; twigs that looked like insects, and insects that mimicked twigs. Monkeys and squirrels leaped and swung through the mid-ranges, while smaller birds flitted from branch to branch. At our feet, highways of leafcutter ants crisscrossed the muddy path and vanished into the undergrowth, nearly invisible one way but signaling their presence with bobbing green-flags in the other.

Whenever the screech of a birdcall pierced the silence, Chung froze and turned his face to the source of the sound. He touched me on the shoulder and extended a slow arm, then whispered a name close to my ear. I squinted to pull the hazy outlines of a shape from a background of shades of green, but sometimes it was so far away that I couldn’t even make out the faintest blotch.

In the jungle, everything was wet. The thin soil was forever leaching water that the trees squeezed from the moist air, or the rain deposited in frequent downpours. This runoff collected in hollows, carving miniature canyons that threaded their way to the Jacque and eventually to the ocean. The vegetation was thicker at the edges of streams; it arched over the water in a tightly woven canopy, and damp leaves leached to our flesh like wet paper when we passed.

We forded small rivers, knee-deep, 8 or 10 feet across. Sometimes we crossed slippery log bridges with arms outstretched, and other times we waded through limpid pools, their cool waters flooding my boots and wicking up the legs of my pants.


Once a trail met ours, and Ricardo pointed down it and named a hidden village several days away on foot. These were the trade routes of the jungle, connecting fragile habitations, allowing them to share the simple goods they grew and wove to make life easier, or just to pass the time.

It was a necessary network, but after walking for so long in silence, with only the dim light of the forest all around us, the thought of other humans felt sinister somehow. In nature I could be reasonably sure of what I was dealing with. I found the human world of opaque motives much more difficult to navigate.



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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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