Exploring the Comarca

As college students studying abroad in Panama, we visited the community of Quebrada Guabo in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. It was in Guabo that we experienced the generosity of the Ngäbe people and felt compelled to find a way to give back, leading to the creation of Few for Change. Although the Comarca is a semi-autonomous region of Panama, the community of Guabo is a short 15 minute drive from the Interamerican highway and is influenced by its proximity to the rest of Panama. Some of our scholarship students are from Guabo, however many more are from the central mountain communities in the Comarca, much farther from paved roads and urban amenities.

During last year's scholarship award ceremony, the "Entrega," in February of 2014, FFC volunteer Ramon Pineda invited us to visit his village of Ratón up in the mountains to learn about the other communities where our students come from. This February, Brooks, Katie and I (Ari) took advantage of this generous offer, and arranged to visit Ratón before the scholarship ceremony in Guabo.

Map showing the location of Panama City relative to San Felix, Quebrada Guabo, and Ratón.

At 5:00 a.m. we boarded a bus for a seven-hour journey from Panama City to San Felix. San Felix is a town in the province of Chiriquí located on the Interamerican highway, connecting the interior of the Comarca with the rest of Panama. After getting dropped off on the side of the highway, we found a taxi to take us to the center of San Felix. Within one minute of emerging from the taxi, we were greeted by Ramon coming towards us across the parking lot. He explained that there was now a pickup truck (chiva) making trips twice a day between Ratón and San Felix, and we were just in time to catch the 2pm trip up into the mountains. Katie and I were given the privilege of sitting in the front of the truck, while Brooks and Ramon climbed in back with as many as 20 others, plus luggage, chickens, etc.

Waiting for the chiva to Ratón to depart.

We took off into the mountains, making stops every so often to let people off and on, and rolling up our window anytime we saw a group of children; the children were celebrating Carnaval by throwing buckets of water at any passing car.

During Carnaval, you're never safe from children throwing water!!!

After an hour or so, the pavement fell away and our driver proved his worth, navigating drop-off cliffs, absurdly steep inclines, and serious rocks. We bumped along, amazed at the view of the mountains and walls of ferns for about another hour, passing by isolated homesteads and people walking along the mountain roads. We eventually stopped and our driver told us we had reached our stop. Katie and I jumped out of the front to find Brooks and Ramon climbing out of the back, getting ready for the hike to Ramon’s house. We took off on the trail but were soon passed by a young girl carrying a sack much heavier than our own bags, putting us all to shame. After passing by the primary school of Ratón, we emerged into a clearing with two houses and a cooking hut.

Ramon's house in Ratón.

We were immediately struck by the incredible views from Ramon's house: mountains in all directions, with a clear view all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Towards the Atlantic Ocean, the bright sun shone in contrast to the rolling fog that fell over the coastal ridgeline. Ramon’s daughters (all named Denia) and his wife were waiting for us. They served us hot coffee and Ramon took us on a tour of their garden and homestead. In our bedroom, we discovered a whiteboard and the Ratón office of Few for Change, where Ramon keeps track of which students have turned in their report cards.

We spent most of the evening chatting in the cooking hut with Ramon, his wife and daughters, and his son Ramoncito (Ramon Jr.), who had come back from playing soccer. Conversation ranged from Barack Obama, politics in the United States, the story of how Ramon and his wife met, the struggles that families in rural communities face, and their hope to bring tourism to the area. In the thatch-roofed hut, Ramon showed us a documentary on his laptop that had been published by the Smithsonian and then translated into Spanish. It showed a group of foreign researchers arriving to the Comarca by horse in the 1930s, visiting to watch a Ngäbe gathering that involved traditional ceremonies and games. When we stepped out of the cooking hut into the night, we were blown away by the Milky Way Galaxy overhead, and the brightness of the stars and planets. We tried to explain to Ramon how we can’t see the stars in many parts of the US now due to light pollution, but from where we stood, that was hard to imagine.

Breakfast in the cooking hut.

The next morning we awoke to the comforting sound of roosters. Ramon’s family fed us a delicious breakfast of chicken and corn tortillas, and we spent the morning exploring the village with Ramon before our planned 10:00 a.m. pickup truck trip down from the mountains. We made good use of our time, interviewing Ramon about his childhood, his incredible persistence to get an education, and his vision for Unidos por la Comarca (keep an eye out for a blog post about Unidos por la Comarca). Around 10:30 a.m., Ramoncito asked us, “Do you dare hike down from the mountains?” We laughed, used to what we affectionately think of as "Panamanian time." However, around 11:00 a.m. Ramon suggested that we better start walking, in hopes of meeting the truck on the road.

We packed up our bags, said goodbye to Ramon’s family and started walking. We walked out of the village, following the path along the side of the mountains. It was an incredible journey through the fern-covered mountainsides with panoramic views of the Comarca. Every so often Ramon would point out a distant homestead belonging to the family of one of our scholarship students.

Incredible views during our hike through the mountains.

Mile after mile we hiked through the mountains, following the route that many of our students take to reach their schools. We passed by our student Diomedes’ family on our hike and waved to them, confirming their attendance the following day at the scholarship ceremony.

Isolated homestead in the mountains.

After three hot and sweaty hours of hiking, we reached the paved road and encountered another Ngäbe family waiting for transport. We were very grateful when we saw a van coming along the road, knowing that we would make it down to Guabo in time to prepare for the scholarship ceremony the following day.

Meeting up with the paved road and transportation back to Guabo.

At the end of our journey, we were struck by the fact that what seemed to us to be a long and challenging hike is the daily reality for our students and their families. Our trip to Ratón gave us an incredible glimpse into the communities that many of our students come from, and the sacrifices they have made to continue their education. The experience invigorated our commitment to assist these students in their dreams to finish their education and give back to their communities.