Good roads leave no traces in the memory – smooth, seamless, without jarring bumps or sudden twists, they are the silent asphalt arteries that carry us from one place to another as we go about our daily lives, never calling attention to themselves. Not so with bad roads. A bad road, like a bad marriage, feels endless, terminal, and impossible to escape, even years later.
I have seen many bad roads around the world. Some in Central America are scary bad. In a competition for ‘the worst road in the in world’, there would be entries from Russia, Bolivia and African countries. Maybe some would be worse than this road, but I would need to see them to say for sure.
The trip started out innocently enough. Someone emailed me from the US asking whether I knew of any large parcels of land available for reforestation. I didn’t, but I liked the idea of brokering a reforestation project, so I asked my biologist friend, Steve, to nose around the central provinces, where land was cheap, and see what he could find. Soon enough, he called to say that there was excellent potential for large reforestation projects in Veraguas and Los Santos provinces. Tens of thousands of hectares were available at low prices, and the environment ministry in Veraguas was eager to work with us.
Steve gathered together a group of people who could help with all aspects of reforestation, from locating the right property, to drafting environmental plans, to arranging for crews to plant seedlings. He also met a lawyer in Veraguas, Ruben, who turned out to be well connected locally and seemed to know every available property. In no time, Ruben had lined up half a dozen large farms for us to inspect. We chose the most beautiful—but also the most remote – to visit first. The photos Rubin sent us showed enormous old- growth trees, a river at the bottom of a deep valley, and large stretches of cattle pasture, perfect for replanting.
Steve and I drove to Santiago on a Monday afternoon, stayed overnight, and left early the next morning to inspect the farm. Along the way, we joined up with Ruben and Milagros, a friend of Steve’s from the environment ministry, and headed off in a pair of four-wheel drive trucks. We expected the drive to take about two hours, but that was not how it worked out. The first leg of the trip went smoothly, as we cruised along newly paved roads from Santiago to Chitre, then to Macaracas in Los Santos province, the closest town to the farm we were visiting.
Los Santos has a reputation as the most European of Panama’s many provinces, and that indeed appears true. The people are lighter skinned, many having a distinctly Spanish or northern Italian look, in contrast with the mestizo appearance of most other Panamanians. Macaracas is a clean, well-maintained and attractive town, where happy-looking dogs and children promenade down the main street. Everyone in Macaracas seems fat, happy and healthy. If Panama had a Lake Wobegone, Macaracas would be it – a place where all pets are well-fed, all husbands sober and hardworking, all wives faithful. Macaracas is that kind of town -- or looks to be.
Anyone who has traveled in remote regions of the half-civilized world is familiar with a certain kind of back-country road. At first, it seems fine and inspires confidence, until you notice the slow deterioration that gradually transforms it from a respectable dirt road into a narrow, rutted, rock-strewn cow path; and then—in the final, terminal stage of decline -- into a sad pair of tire tracks in the mud. This was one of those roads.
From a distance, as we left Macaracas, the road snaked along the crest of a series of hills going westward. Some were gentle, with softly-rounded crowns. Others were steep, razor-back affairs with a narrow ribbon of road running along a ridge. My sense of impending doom increased as we crossed a narrow ridge at the top of one razor-back hill. The road was only a foot or two wider than the truck in some spots, and on either side there was a vertiginous drop of several hundred feet to the valley floor below. To make matters worse, it began to rain, turning the road bed into a strip of slippery red clay – a source of joy to potters, but not to drivers. The margin of error was shrinking with every drop of rain on the increasingly slick roadbed. I drove cautiously across the narrow hill-tops, hoping that our tires had enough grip to keep us from sliding off the edge.
With rain now falling steadily, the road deteriorated into an obstacle course of mud, rock and clay. The ride had been bumpy for most of the past two hours, before the rain started, but at least the front tires had gone where the steering wheel told them to go. Now, even with four wheel drive, the rain washed away our traction. All we could do was slide around helplessly on the wet clay. The steep hills had been navigable when dry; now they were mud-covered toboggan runs.
As we neared our destination, Ruben’s truck got stuck in a deep gully carved into the road-bed by months of rains. We were close to the farm we had come to see, so we left the vehicles and walked the rest of the way. It was still raining slightly, and visibility was limited, but I could see the farm was remarkably beautiful—a mixture of virgin forest, river valley and cattle pasture. There were few traces of human civilization, other than small workers’ shacks scattered here and there in the distance.
After taking a few photos, we decided to head back to Santiago. It was now two in the afternoon and we had been travelling since seven in the morning. Ruben got his truck unstuck without too much trouble, and we started back. Before long, the reality of our situation dawned on us. There was no way we were going to get our trucks up the mud-slicked hills. I made a feeble, timid effort to drive up the first one, but after fifty or sixty meters the truck slalomed right back to the bottom. This wasn’t going to work. An even bigger worry was that if we slid off the road in the wrong place, we would end up entombed in a mangled, metal sarcophagus on the valley floor far below.
I am not, generally speaking, a superstitious man, but I found myself looking for signs from the gods as to whether this was my day to die – chicken entrails on the road, that sort of thing. Death would have been inconvenient just then. My financial affairs were a mess. I had put off making a new will. Who would take care of Billie and our fourteen dogs and two cats? The gods, however,were not sending any portents of doom my way – no ravens circling overhead, no cackling crows, sure signs, the ancient Romans believed, of ill-fortune ahead. There had, in fact, been a good omen earlier in the day. Driving along the road outside of Macaracas, we saw a flock of Amazon green parrots and a Toucan flying overhead. Wild parrots are a common sight in Panama, but Toucans are rare in the wild, so rare that even Milagros, a field biologist with the environment ministry, had never seen one before. I was beginning to feel confident that the gods were on our side, or at least not averse to our little road trip.
The locals were more ambivalent. A few had gathered around to amuse themselves at our idiocy. (Didn’t the crazy gringos know trucks get stuck in the mud at this time of the year? Why didn’t they bring chains for the tires? Why didn’t they use horses instead?) Ignoring our obvious stupidity, the local men gathered around our trucks were confident that if we waited two or three hours for the sun to dry out the road, we would be able to get back to Macaracas before dark. It was a plan, and we didn’t have any others, so we decided to give it a try.
While we waited, Steve and I walked up the hill to see if we could find a cell phone signal and call our wives. At the top, we met Rafael, a campesino who had lived and worked in the area for thirty years. He was forty-four, rail thin, graying and the only man I ever met in Panama who wore his hair in a ponytail. We hiked with Rafael to the top of a taller hill where he showed us a spot that had a weak signal. The vista was jaw-dropping – row after row of mountains, suffused with late afternoon sun, covered with lawyers of mist, stretching mile after mile, until they came to an end at the edge of the Pacific ocean.
Rafael invited us back to his home for lunch -- a wooden shed, perhaps twelve feet by twenty, with a dirt floor, rusting steel roof and no electricity or plumbing. Here Rafael lived there with his wife, ten children, two daughters- in-law, and six grandchildren, twenty people in all. I did not see inside the sleeping quarters, but there was no furniture in the rest of the shack, save for a couple of hand-made wooden benches on which everyone ate their meals.
Rafael worked for a local rancher. I had no idea how much the rancher paid him, but it was surely no more than a few hundred dollars a month, probably less, and with that small sum he fed and cared for his family of twenty. His wife was a short, handsome woman, still attractive after bearing ten children. The youngsters were shy, good looking, clean and apparently healthy. The teenagers rode their horses to the high-school in Macaracas ten miles away, while younger ones walked four miles to the nearest primary school. Despite the primitive living conditions, Rafael’s wife was quick to make us coffee and a meal of rice and smoked beef over an open fire.
When we finished eating, we went back to the bottom of the hill where our trucks were waiting. I had been skeptical when the local men told us the road would dry out in a few hours. I was still not convinced when they now told us we should give it a try. It was easy for them to say. We were the ones who would be mangled and entombed in metal boxes when our trucks slid off the road and tumbled hundreds of feet down the hill. They would be left standing at a safe distance, shaking their heads sadly at how things had gone so terribly wrong for the poor gringos, perhaps saying a quiet prayer for our departed souls.
Still, there was the Toucan. Everyone said our best chance of getting up the hill would be to drive as fast as possible, maximizing momentum. I understood the theory, and it made sense, except that it also increased our chances off sliding off the road and crashing to our doom below. There comes a point, however, when careful calculations of risk do not mean much when you are tired, wet, covered with mud, and want nothing more than a shower and clean sheets. This is the kind of situation in which people do stupid things. They are too tired to care, which is why they take the risk, and why it sometimes ends badly.
I put the truck in gear and raced as fast as possible up the hill. When we reached the top of the hill and were still alive, I was a bit surprised. We seemed to be over the worst now. And for a while, there were no problems, except that my truck began making strange gurgling noises, rattling loudly and shrieking with pain like a wounded animal. A stone must have become stuck somewhere in the brake system, causing the high-pitched screams, which continued for a while and then stopped.
Twice we passed local people looking for rides to Macaracas and picked them up. The first was a farmer and his ten year old son; the second, a woman with her young daughter. The truck was now packed with six people, front and back. The next challenge came when we began sliding down a long, muddy hill with a concrete bridge and river at the bottom. Despite the mud, everything seemed fine – until the brakes failed. I pumped the pedal several times, only to find dead air. This was not good. Six of us hurtling down a mud-covered hill, at the bottom of which was a river and concrete bridge – with no brakes. I tried the emergency brake, but I knew it wasn’t going to work. I had taken the truck to several mechanics in an effort to fix it. They had all told me they would get it working, but none did. Our luck held, though, and I managed to steer the truck safely across the bridge
Driving without brakes is never a good idea. Still, there are times when you have no choice. I put the transmission in the lowest gear, hoping that would save us from crashing into hard objects at high speeds. Thus hobbled, we drove for the next half hour until we limped into Macaracas, somewhat the worse for wear, but with all bodies accounted for and undamaged.
A few weeks later I heard that Raphael was in a hospital recovering from an accident. The truck he had been riding in slid off the road and down the side of a hill. He was battered and bruised, yet still alive.