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Standing at the base of the Chagres, I see some Embera tribal women washing clothes in the river. Something agitates a nearby tree and a flock of 100 gorgeous yellow Tanagers suddenly takes off across the water. Two young kids play around in a little waterfall: one jumps off a rock into the water. I don’t have a tour guide to explain anything to me. And although no one’s really doing anything of interest, it’s interesting to me as an outsider. It’s interesting because everyone acts like they’re living unwatched. That and I have zero idea what might happen next.
This was probably one of the most breathtaking moments of my life and I can’t remember or not, but I might have actually cried.
Take the exact same course of events and let’s say they were staged. Or maybe not staged, but purposely there for entertainment. The women, for example, were doing an anthropology expo on how to traditionally wash clothes or the birds realized it was feeding time at the zoo or the boy jumping in the waterfall was a trained entertainer. If any (or all) of these things were true, I would lose interest immediately. When it comes to new places, I don’t like to experience things that were designed explicitly for me to experience. But por que?
I’m not speaking from personal experience, but one of the underrated benefits of amnesia is that you get to constantly discover new things, even if they are the same old things you’ve done all your life. Sure, this sounds more depressing or frustrating than anything else. Trying to figure out how to work a microwave, for example. But amnesia does have its upsides. Suppose someone invented a pill that allowed you to rewatch a famous movie or reread a favorite book with zero prior knowledge. You’d get the exact same virgin shockfactor every time. That would be awesome!
In one of the least bad Adam Sandler movies, he meets Drew Barrymore at a Hawaiian café and thinks he’s found the girl of his dreams until he realizes she has short-term memory loss. She can’t remember him the next day! This should be sad: a broken love story. But, as we find out by the end of the movie, it actually turns out to be wonderful. They literally fall in love every day, over and over and over again. And each time it happens, it’s equally thrilling.
When I’m in scenarios like the one in Chagres, anything can happen and I love it. A jaguar could come dashing through the waterfall. The birds might decide to divebomb a school of fish in the river. The Embera women might attempt to wrestle an alligator. These are crazy things. I know. But it’s the same with Darien and Coiba and lots of other still-relatively-untouched places in Panama: they are fascinating places for tourists precisely because they’re not tourist places. Most tourists like to know what they're getting themselves into. But if you’re like me, you actually enjoy not knowing things.
I have explored these kinds of places in Panama a lot, and rarely does anything with the absurdity of a jaguar cameo or a crocodile attack actually happen. Every once in a while, I’ll catch an animal battle or some bizarre and unexpected tribal ritual. But I would not promote these destinations under the label “fascinating things happen here all the time.”
My point is that not knowing what’s gonna happen unlimits the potential and correspondingly, the thrill. I like places like the Chagres because even though usual stuff is happening, there’s always the possibility of happening something unusual.
When I was in Costa Rica once, I was snorkeling and saw a dolphin up close. He was with his family somewhere in the distance (some of my friends thought they were sharks) and he swam past me, dove way down deep, then came up again before bolting off into the sea. This was probably one of the most breathtaking moments of my life and I can’t remember or not, but I might have actually cried. But the most interesting thing is that if you had offered me the opportunity to go swim with dolphins at some commercially dedicated place, I would say “No” and laugh in your face. So here’s the obvious question: how can two identical acts elicit such radically different opinions?
I think the answer might have something to do with psychology or development or maybe both. It obviously has to do with the context, but what’s to say my dolphin wasn’t in some aquarium training program with the trainer off in the distance? Maybe the important thing is that I believed it was unplanned? I really have no idea. The only thing I am sure of, is that countries like Panama are enigmatic and that is undoubtedly their most addictive trait.
Hearing that some Panamanian ladies are washing clothes by the river, some birds are flying out of a tree, and some kids are playing in a little pool of water is not interesting: especially if you don’t know the women or the birds or the kids. But allow me to watch these things unfold at the base of the Chagres, alone and by myself, and I’m mesmerized. I wouldn’t be wondering about the history of the Embera tribe or the mating habits of Tanagers. I’m just seeing something I cannot control and something I do not understand.
No one really prefers packaged experiences over randomly occurring natural ones. But of course, with the advent of tour guides and hotels and tourism as a whole, unexpected experiences in Panama will fade over time. It’s already happening actually.
Go on a Gamboa Rainforest tour to Monkey Island and I guarantee a slew of capuchins will swing down from the trees and board your boat. This is an incredible experience. But it’s also predictable, like a ride. And the more and more times people go to Monkey Island, the less natural Monkey Island will become. Which seems kind of unfair, doesn’t it? That the mere act of embracing something authentic, intrinsically makes not so.
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