MITCHINSON, Martin




Author Tags: Travel

Martin’s Mitchinson’s plan was to stay in the Darien Gap for three weeks.

Sailing from Canada, he was going to pay his respects to the dangerous patch of rainforest called the Darien Gap that interrupts the Pan American Highway, forcing all overland travellers between the two continents to take a ferry between Panama and Colombia.

By venturing inland on a river as far he could in his 36-foot-ketch Ishmael, he hoped to possibly 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 wasn’t smooth sailing. Wary of pirates and thieves, Mitchinson sold his boat, then parted company with his long-time partner, Kathy, then took up residence with a native family and spent eighteen months travelling alone by foot or by dugout canoe.

“I want to hide in the rainforest and sort through the confusion,” he wrote. “I want to lose myself in a world of strangers and live with no one who needs me, or cares for me, or counts on me for love…. I have no history and no companion, and no one is waiting for me at home.”

The end result is one of the most courageous, memorable and candid travels books ever published from British Columbia, The Darien Gap: Travels in the Rainforest of Panama (Harbour $26.95), shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Non-Fiction Award in 2009.

Intermittently, for twenty years, Michinson—who now lives north of Powell River with a new partner—had thought about driving to the Darien Gap from Canada, 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 of experience as a prudent sailor, Mitchinson never fully believed the guidebooks’ warnings that the Darien Gap was the closest equivalent in the Americas to an on-land Bermuda Triangle—a road-less wrist of mostly lawless jungle inhabited by three native tribes, narco-traffickers, vampire bats, guerrillas and boa-constrictors.

“I don’t know what I would have done if I’d arrived by car,” he writes. “I don’t think I fully believed the guidebook’s warning that the road stopped short of Colombia. 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 18-month survival test, Mitchinson did retrace the path of Balboa from the Caribbean to the Pacific, 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, near the outset. “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.

Martin Mitchinson is not one of these VISA-card-protected wannabes, spending a few weeks or months somewhere exotic, posing as a hero, writing creative non-fiction. He’s just interested in telling the truth.

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BOTFLIES & YOU: A LITTLE ADVICE FROM MARTIN MITCHINSON FOR ANYONE TRAVELLING IN THE DARIEN GAP

The painful lumps on their legs and arms that the men called gusanos del monte—mountain worms—were larva-stage botflies.

A mature botfly is a large, stocky, hairy insect that resembles a bumblebee with orange legs, brown wings and a metallic abdomen. It grows to a half-inch or longer in length and lives a very short life. Once it pupates, it never feeds again. Its only aim is to propagate, which is accomplishes by capturing another insect, such as a mosquito, and holding its wings while attaching fifteen to thirty eggs onto the abdomen of the insect.

If the mosquito lands on you to feed, it acts as a vector. The warmth of your body stimulates the eggs to hatch, and the first stage larvae emerge from the eggs and burrow through your skin at the bite, or at a hair follicle or a wound. The burrowing lasts five to sixty minutes, but usually you won’t notice a thing.

As it grows, the larva faces headfirst into your body with two oral hooks pointing into the meat to tear at tissues while it feeds. The curved spines along the side of the body anchor it to your flesh, and a small breathing spiracle from the posterior end protrudes through a pinhole in your skin.

If you find a botfly larva growing under your skin, you can deal with it in three ways.

You can smother it by spreading petroleum jelly over the breathing hole. Then place a large circular patch of tape over that, and seal it with superglue. In the morning you’ll still have to put pressure all around the lump and squeeze the body out through the hole. Remember to keep your head back because sometimes the larvae will shoot five or six feet in the air.

Alternatively you can restrict the breathing by placing a thick slab of meat over the hole and hope that the larva will be lured to crawl through your skin and into the fresh steak.

And finally, the simplest option is to just leave it alone and watch it develop. From a tiny egg, the larva will grow and feed on your tissue. After six weeks, a fully developed maggot will squirm free of your body and drop voluntarily to the forest floor.

by Alan Twigg

Photo by Laura Sawchuk

[BCBW 2008] "Travel"