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Boas, Bugs, Guerillas, & a Broken Heart: Martin Mitchinson

September 22nd, 2012

The Darien Gap in Panama is the closest equivalent to an on-land Bermuda Triangle in the Americas. Martin Mitchinson thought he would stay there for just three weeks. But literature happens.

By venturing inland on a river in his 36-footketch Ishmael, Mitchinson hoped to write a short article for a sailing magazine—then pull up anchor and cross the Pacific Ocean.

But, like Gilligan’s three-hour cruise, it didn’t turn out to be smooth sailing.

Mitchinson, an experienced traveller, was soon enthralled by the Darien Gap’s road-less and almost lawless jungle inhabited by three native tribes, narco-traffickers, vampire bats, guerrillas and boa constrictors.Wary of pirates and thieves, Mitchinson happily sold his boat, then unhappily parted company with his long-time partner, Kathy, taking refuge with a native family.He spent a total of eighteen months travelling by foot or by dugout canoe, mostly alone, getting his geographic and emotional bearings– cut off from his past.

The end result is one of the most courageous, memorable and candid travel books ever published from British Columbia, The Darien Gap: Travels in the Rainforest of Panama (Harbour 2008).

Mitchinson—who now lives north of Powell River with a new partner—had thought about driving to the Darien Gap from Canada for twenty years. With surfboards atop his Volkswagen beetle, he was variously stymied by car breakdowns, a stolen wallet and one detour to join a Honduran circus.

Despite decades as a prudent sailor, Mitchinson never fully believed the guidebooks’ warnings that the Darien Gap interrupts the Pan American Highway, forcing anyone with a vehicle to transport it via a container ship to Colombia.

“I don’t think I fully believed the guidebooks’ warning that the road stopped short of Colombia,” he writes. “It must be a misprint, I thought. This is an old book, and the last few miles are probably built by now.”

At the end of his Darien Gap survival test, Mitchinson retraced the path of Balboa from the Caribbean to the Pacific, not without great duress and danger, but The Darien Gap is most remarkable as a psychic adventure.

The self-effacing bravado with which Mitchinson recounts getting lost and found within himself, gaining confidence as a writer along the perilous way, illuminates an interior journey that is no less riveting than his tales of illness, danger, estrangement and despair.

“I won’t write at all,” he vows, “I’ll just listen and learn. I’ll work with my hands and back, and I’ll come away knowing something that will stay with me…. I am aware how little I have to offer. I travel wanting to see and listen and learn. But what good is that to my hosts?”

Lower Panama’s mangrove-ridden forests are rife with ants, crocodiles, FARC guerrillas, strange bugs and nasty local police. Stomach parasites and dysentery come with the territory, too. And bouts of self-loathing. “I am so f—ing tired of being afraid,” he writes, sweating and soaked inside his nylon tent. This is National Geographic boot camp without the boots and without the camp.

Ninety-six percent of Panama’s indigenous people live below the poverty line, so Mitchinson, as a westerner, is automatically a target for either kidnapping or charity. Mild-mannered to a fault, and prone to generosity by nature, he spends more than a year trying to gain compensation for an outboard engine that he has supplied to a friend. At times the reader is appalled that he doesn’t seem to know how to get angry— until we realize it must have been Mitchinson’s abnormally adaptive and non-aggressive manner that preserved his skin.

Mitchinson’s harrowing asceticism is mixed with smatterings of Panamanian history throughout. Of the intrepid and naïve explorers who plunged across the isthmus of Panama in previous centuries, we learn those who accepted native guides usually survived; those who stubbornly insisted their valiant resolve and strength would suffice were far more likely to perish.

Either way, the adventurer is guaranteed to discover transformation.

“If we listen to our friends and advisers,” he writes, making a New Year’s entry in his journal, “we’ll never get out the door. We won’t hitchhike, or travel alone or sail single-handed. We’ll start a family of our own and shoulder an enormous debt to buy a house. It will be obvious how ridiculous it is to paddle upriver in a dugout canoe with only a basket of food, a machete and a mosquito net for sleeping.”

This is one of the best B.C. books of the year, even if you don’t get to hear about it anywhere else. The writing is frequently sublime. And the blend of confession, travelogue, history and original subject matter resonates with integrity, not ambition.

Mitchinson is not a VISA-card-carrying wannabe, posing as a hero. He’s just interested in telling the truth.

Essay Date: 2008

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