Nowhere in the world does it rain so much. Nowhere does humidity seep as deeply and incessantly into flesh and bones as in El Chocó.
In most of this region on the Colombian Pacific Coast just south of the jungle-hidden border with Panamá, there are no roads, and mud is ubiquitous and treacherous. Machitas, knee-high boots, don’t follow feet without explicit command from toes and heel and calf. Umbrellas aren’t needed; the scorching sun will evaporate layer after layer of raindrops with reliable promptness.
Wet isn’t cold here.
Cupíca is a small coastal village of Afro-Colombians and indigenous people on the fringe of the jungle in El Chocó. Its 150 fishermen eke out a meager existence. They do their artisanal fishing with big hooks, in rudimentary, rickety boats that keep them close to the coast and to their wives every night. They know that cobrar hembra, taking care of your wife every night, is imperative. Nights on the ocean are shunned, although they would bring in bigger catches. One fishes to live, not the other way around. No schedules exist.
Gloria Romero, from Bogotá, worked here on and off to improve the lot of the fishermen and their families. Her mission was a humanitarian one. She was a young, vivacious woman who knew the villagers well; they liked and appreciated her for her willingness to spend time and energy with them in this godforsaken outpost.
Nine in the evening was a strange time for Gloria to walk the twenty minutes from the village to the beach alone. The rain had stopped. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt; she carried no bag. She had taken off her boots a couple of minutes earlier when she had made it through the worst mud patches and reached the long wooden walkway built over swamps and creeks by USAID. The structure would carry her to within shouting distance of the beach. The woodwork suffered from the incessant, oppressive heat and humidity. It groaned. Gloria was a lightweight at just 110 pounds barefoot on her tiny, five-foot-two frame, but this evening her steps were unusually forceful and hurried.
It was pitch-dark.
She had been careful to escape the notice of nosy villagers and the soldiers who normally should have seen her leaving the village. Gloria knew the military was stationed on the beach, under palm trees, tents, and plastic sheets. The soldiers’ rule was to accompany any visitor who ventured in or out of the center of the village, anytime and certainly after dark. Remnants of terrorist gangs were still roaming the area, and drug smuggling had not been eradicated. The village of Cupíca was engulfed by almost complete darkness. There hadn’t been any electricity in four months, and the only real generator belonged to the priest, who used it for his nightly Mass and shut it off at eight p.m. So it was no surprise that the tiny figure of Gloria had escaped the watchful eyes of the soldiers on night duty in the village. She knew well that, at this hour, many of them were flirting with Cupíca girls fond of young men in uniforms.
The distant, lugubrious cry of an animal in pain didn’t scare Gloria. But she moved quickly, watching for snakes. The wooden pathway would lead her to the south end of the airstrip, which ran parallel and close to the beach and had been built by Pablo Escobar, the drug king from Medellín, for his illicit activities. Raindrops fell from wet tree branches hanging low over the walkway and caressed Gloria’s forehead and cheeks. Her raven hair curled up from her shoulders. Her ever quicker and longer steps elicited heavier groans from the structure. The rhythmic, monotonous complaints in high tones could be heard far away, but night birds facilitated her escape with their loud serenades to prospective mates. She anxiously looked back from time to time.
Once she got off the wooden walkway and close to the beach, Gloria was doubly attentive. She skillfully avoided the areas near the beach that lay close to where the military had its base camp. She knew many of the young conscripts and a couple of their superiors, and they knew her. She reached the beach and then felt the warm waves gently rubbing her feet, soothingly and rhythmically. She was alone. She waited. She sighed and lay down in the sand, lest she be noticed under the weak moon that had just come out.
Nobody knows I’m here. She smiled softly toward the stars. The secret she shielded was safe here.
Written by Jan Smolders
Edited by Eva Calia
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