The Darién Gap | Carlos Fonseca | Granta

The Darién Gap

Carlos Fonseca

Translated by Jessica Sequeira

Midway through the nineteenth century, as the rivers filled with evangelists and explorers in anticipation of the rubber fever soon to come, the voices of dozens of false millennialist prophets began to be heard through the Amazon rainforest. Visions of the end, speeches of redemption and repentance that would not have been out of place in the mouth of a European swindler, but that in this case were spoken in Indigenous languages. Of those that Juan Gómez has heard, the story of Awacaipu is the most memorable. A former assistant to the naturalist Robert Schomburgk, whose intrepid British team forged its way over those tumultuous rivers just a few years before, Awacaipu had managed by the 1840s to congregate hundreds of Amerindians. The name he gave to his settlement, located in a clearing between two rivers, was Beckeranta: ‘land of the whites’. As a talisman of his divine power, he distributed pages from the Times of London to loyal members of the flock, pages that his former boss had used to wrap exotic flowers, but that now illustrated a millenarian promise: his devotees would someday have white skin, marry European women, and carry pistols rather than bows. In exchange, the false prophet asked for only one thing: those who wanted all of this first had to die. On the night of the full moon, they would drink and dance beyond the limits of their reason, after which they would have to end their lives by their own hands. The next day they would be reborn on Mount Roraima, transformed into white souls, their skin as pale as the moon.

Even though he is a historian, Gómez sometimes feels that history bores him. He gets tired of events threaded one after another like the beads of an old rosary, proposing causes and effects where initially there existed only the furor of the present. Maybe for that reason, leaving his coffee to one side to again confront the image staring at him from the pages of the newspaper, which shows hundreds of migrants crossing the Darién Gap, he thinks of Awacaipu’s Beckeranta and tells himself that it is prophecy, delirium and senselessness that interest him, not history itself. The echoes that history produces against its will. He looks at the newspaper and thinks of the migrants making their way through the tangled jungle of the Darién, and he remembers how his father, during the nights of a now distant childhood, told him stories of those lands, and the way they seemed to inhabit another world. His old man spent his entire life working for the ships that crossed the Panama Canal. The canal is only a few hours away from the Darién, but when he spoke of the territory, it was as if it were a magical world that would take months to reach.

This is how Gómez grew up, hearing tales of a supposedly impenetrable jungle so dense that not even the ants could cross it. More than once, at the end of a story, he asked his father to take him one day, only to hear him laugh as he explained that it was impossible, since the highways did not stretch that far. Later, at school, his geography teachers backed up this claim: the Darién Gap is the only point where the Pan-American Highway that runs across South America all the way to North America is interrupted. ‘That is the reason we are Panamanians and not Colombians,’ they would add with a hint of mischief, gesturing toward the map to emphasize the proximity of Panama to the United States, a sarcastic movement that seemed to suggest that they were closer to the gods.

Looking at the images of the migrants, who seemed to be crossing that gap so easily now, Gómez thought of his father. He had reached an age when he could look with tenderness at the older man’s errors. Not as flaws, but as relics of an earlier age. His old man was no longer there to look with him at the thousands of people launching themselves across that territory every month, rucksack in hand and child on their back, no longer there to call it a recreation of the feat that for his father bore a single name: Richard Oglesby Marsh.

Maybe that is the reason that Gómez has been dedicating his afternoons to rewriting, in secret and in the form of a novel, the story of Marsh, a story he first heard in the hoarse voice of his father. In his father’s telling, Marsh’s crossing seemed otherworldly, blameless and mythical, more of a dream than a reality. It was a fairy tale that as a young boy had made him think of the books of Julio Verne.

The truth is that Marsh never imagined he would end up a revolutionary in the Darién. How could he have imagined it? He didn’t know there were people there. He thought the jungle was virgin territory. Later, he would be called a traitor for siding with us, the Kuna, instead of the Panamanian state. But that was later. In the beginning, Marsh arrived with a simple mission, one that had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with money: he came looking for fertile land where rubber could be planted, financed by none other than Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. Their factories needed rubber, simple as that. Marsh had previous experience visiting plantations in Ceylon and Malaya, so Ford asked him to explore new lands. The Darién at that time did not even appear on maps, though we had always been there, navigating its swollen rivers and jungle. Marsh had the luck, or perhaps it was a curse, to arrive and see the few of us among the tribe with fair skins. ‘White Indians’ he called us.

Marsh did not find what he was looking for. The jungle in the Darién is resistant to crops. Our land is incorruptible, our rivers furious. Marsh found no arable land, but he did find a myth – a fantasy, a chimera. White Indians. Sometimes one can move the world this way, chasing dreams. The rumor of our existence spread through the jungle and beyond, and sometimes we laughed at the fascination we exerted. But it was only later, when I came to know Marsh better, that I understood how deep the enchantment truly went.

For me it was different. This was how I was born. Ever since they watched me enter this life, the tribe called me Chepu, which for us Kuna people means ‘white’. They separated me from the others and forbade me from marrying. They put me in a shack with those who were like me. For me, whiteness was damnation. But for Marsh it meant purity and elegance.

There were evenings in Washington when he would become nostalgic and reminisce about his adventures in the Darién. I laughed when I heard him tell his gathered associates, always with passion, the story of how he came to discover our existence. He would light a Havana cigar and say that instead of rubber, he’d found something far more valuable: thousands of white Indians, never before described by science. A lost tribe of Europeans.

Now that he is no longer here, I sometimes sit down with the book he wrote about us: White Indians of the Darién. He published it in 1934, more than a decade after the events it describes. I settle into the rocking chair and pursue his fascination like someone stalking a delirium not his own, watch him mounted in the canoe with his team of Black guides and explorers, heading up the Chucunaque until he reaches the village of Yaviza. For Marsh, it was all strange: he had been sure that the Darién was a virgin land, innocent of the sins of history, but wherever he looked there were ruins. Vestiges of an old Scottish colony, abandoned huts of a German radio station, works of the Sinclair Oil Company, debris produced by the United Fruit Company. He had traveled to the Darién trying to escape history, and all he found was its rubble.

In Yaviza he saw a handful of dilapidated bamboo cabins. Muddy land crowded with flies and Black babies, dogs and trash. Marsh detested anyone who was not white, it must be said, for all it pains me to do so. Maybe it was for that reason he looked away, toward a clearing that extended into the jungle. This is when he witnessed the scene that would change his life. In the clearing, he glimpsed the silhouettes of three white Indigenous women, all of them adolescents. Long, blonde hair falling in perfect cascades over semi-naked bodies. Scandinavian bodies, as he describes them in the book. White bodies that disappeared into the jungle, giving way to the obsession that Marsh would pursue for years to come. He knew that we existed, that we were not just a myth. And if today I am here in Washington, it is because Marsh knew that nobody would believe him if he didn’t put a white Indian like me in front of his compatriots, an Indian as pale as those girls he saw vanish into the tropical forest, a sight that left him with the sensation he was losing hold of the threads of a dream. It was a twisted dream, that became clear to us rather quickly. His dream turned us into souvenirs brought from afar, objects of science rather than men.

Carlos Fonseca

Carlos Fonseca is the author of the novels Colonel LágrimasNatural History and Austral, all translated into English by Megan McDowell. He teaches at Trinity College, Cambridge University. Photograph © Gabriel Piovanetti-Ferrer

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Translated by Jessica Sequeira

Jessica Sequeira is a writer, literary translator and the editor of Firmament. Her books include Other ParadisesGolden Jackal | Chacal DoradoA Furious Oyster and Rhombus and Oval. Her translation of The Eighth Wonder by Vlady Kocianchich is forthcoming.

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