Speaking of Cahuita and Costa Rica ...
From Cahuita, we drift south along Costa Rica's Pacific coast. The road sweeps past vast stands of banana trees, and every single tree is encased in blue plastic. Tens of thousands of blue-condommed banana trees. What a country.
Anyway, the drifting brings us to the Sixaola river, the border with Panama. Understand that this is not exactly Wagah, barbed wire and choreographed border ranger hostility. Here, Zuzana -- travelling buddy -- and I pile into a tiny canoe and a phlegmatic old man paddles us across the swift river, across the border. Done. The only excitement comes as the boat tips one way, nearly tossing us out, then the other, nearly tossing us out. We yelp. Old man chomps on his cigarette, never says a word.
So as I step onto Panamanian soil, I feel like Columbus and Vasco must have: weak at the knees, slightly nauseous, and very anxious to check out the shop in front of me.
That's right. For the benefit of Costa Ricans in this desolate southern corner of the country willing to brave the Sixaola crossing to buy cheaper in Panama, there's a mini supermarket right here. There are fans and TVs and a sale today on underwear (this last, I needed to check). All in this spot surrounded by forest, hills and the gushing river, with no sizable settlement, nor even a building, anywhere in sight either in Panama or Costa Rica. "No roads continue to the rest of Panama from here", says my dog-eared guidebook.
Surreal? Not a patch on the owner: a Spanish-speaking Palestinian from Jordan, PLO button on his breast. Making money to send home to the cause. "There are guys like me doing this all over the world," he tells us. Seeing my Indian face, he breaks into a wide grin. There on the banks of the Sixaola, he bellows: "Arafat zindabad!"
But why the interest in underwear, you want to know? Hold the sniggers: that goes back to Puerto Jimenez, some days earlier.
We get to Jimenez, a town on the edge of the Corcovado National Park, after a long, shimmying ride in the back of a tiny pickup. That red contraption is the once-a-day, and only, transport from the two-hut hamlet of Carate. We had reached Carate itself via a day-long hike along the beach, under a sun like an inferno.
So by the time we hit Jimenez, we are hot and grimy and exhausted. But cheerful. Because we had passed through Jimenez on our way into Corcovado as well, and been charmed by its tiny-town friendliness. It was the kind of place where a woman on the street noticed us searching for a place to stay and offered us a basic but clean room in her home, three dollars a night. Where a tame parrot hung out in a tree and whistled at passing girls -- only girls -- but hid in the leaves if you tried to locate him.
Nice to be back.
So we locate the woman, get the same room again, bathe and wash some underwear. Then Zu and I set off for the Carolina restaurant, already our favourite Jimenez spot. The pretty young waitress there recognizes us right away and brings us tall, cool glasses of the stuff she knows we like so: jugo de tamarindo (tamarind juice).
A long, leisurely dinner, and we are ready to sleep. We don't want to make it too late a night. Not just because we are tired. At dawn, a dinky plane will arrive to fly us over the Golfo Dulce ("Sweet Gulf", oh yeah) to the town of Golfito.
It's starting to turn light when my alarm goes off. We stumble groggily out to the clothesline to collect our stuff. These years later, I still shiver at the memory of what we see there, that cool Jimenez morning.
All of Zu's underwear -- every last fluttering piece -- is slashed.
It is a tiny plane, a shaky one. But as we climb away from Jimenez just minutes later, the plane has nothing to do with the shaking that's on inside us.
And that's why, some days later, Zu browses the underwear section of a store in a lush stretch of Panama forest.