Sean Preci’s winning surf team set out for the coral reef breaks and sandbars of Panama’s Bocos del Toro archipelago, but even the sunniest trip has its shadow side, it’s Inferno, as Dante cast it… “Midway along the journey”, our surfers found themselves drawn to such a place “where the straightforward pathway had been lost:” The bat cave of Bocos. Luke R., class of ’17, not completely with a straight face, has asked me to tell about this place and so here is an accounting, in three cantos.
1. “It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
There was a dull, rhythmic flutter and I could not discern if this was sound or feeling. The ceiling fan came into subconsciousness and I lay still, resisting wakefulness, as a throbbing in my right knee actuated a vision of a slick, dark rock face. The close-up pans out into the wide angle. The Caribbean. The jungle. The day before.
Rutilio Milton, an indigenous Ngöbe, is steering our panga along the mangroves along Bastiementos Island, making our way to the river mouth, and the mangroves are getting thicker, the transition to the wild. We pass a tiny dock and out front a father and son hold the corners of a tablecloth, sliding an edge into the water and pulling up on both ends, then sliding out sardines into an aluminum pot. Soon we approach a tiny brown clearing, and a dark bird with tail dipped in yellow flies over and perches, making a loony call from another world. Rutilio calls it an Oropendola. Our boat draws into the mouth of the winding cabrada, the stream, and is swallowed. The canopy thickens overhead and presently there are echoey sounds and heavy air. The panga slows, all the students’ eyes circling, adjusting to the darkening. Juan Diego (Class of ’17) is saying, “My friends tell me private school is sheltered and I try to explain things like this, and they can never understand.” Two white-faced monkeys hang above us in a tree like emperors of the branches.
I don’t know where to begin in responding to Juan Diego. “Do your friends spend their school days fenced in with another thousand students?” I ask. “Does their school focus more on rank than on human values?”
In Southern California, our tribe is 200 students and teachers combined. For this trip, we have formed a sub-tribe of 11, and it seems like every day we head farther into the wild than we imagined we would, until ultimately reaching the bat cave.
Just two days ago, we had boarded the bus for LAX at 4:30 PM, were making our way through security by 10:00 PM and before 11:00 were at 30,000 feet, hugging the coast, bound for Panama City Airport, jammed into the economy seats, where if you lean your head down it hits the seat in front of you. Seven hours later we dragged our bodies through customs, crumpled, red-eyed, and boarded taxis in the equatorial heat to the old airfield on the other side of town. By 4:30 PM, 24 hours in, we dropped down onto a small, grassy airfield with students playing soccer on one end: Bocas del Toro, mouth of the bull, a former Chiquita Banana employee outpost now decayed and touristic.
I have made many blunders as a teacher: talked right through the curiosity of my students, and forgotten about shepherding values like the courage and passions just waiting to find wings. Real teaching is much simpler and much more difficult than the curriculum delivery method school districts normally expect. We will see about all this, this week. By 5:30, a panga had dropped us at a dock where we were quartered above a turquoise bay rimmed in deep greens.
Now, the next morning, we are travelling to the bat cave and Rutilio is pointing out jungle sites in a voice you could easily listen to for a long time or fall asleep to. He is to be our curator of the unknown. Dark miracles need illuminating. Down here, this was once called curandissimo.
2. “We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.” – Conrad
At school, we keep animals and gardens, but none like these deep in the rainforest. Rutilio is squat and sturdy in his black wellington boots, with skin the color of a cigar and dark eyes, no conceivable age, crew cut under a ball cap, and a deep wrinkle in the back of his neck. We wind deeper and deeper in until he cuts the engine and pulls out his carved oar to continue the navigation. We move softly to the caws and peeps above in the canopy. A local man in a thin dugout kayak slips past us on his way home.
Now several clicks deeper in, Mitchell and Luke begin deliberating on the “Heart of Darkness,” from senior English class. This setting gives them access to a kind of intelligence not generally valuable in schools, a sense of mythic and undisciplined literary connections. The jungle is dark and the bird sounds make punctuation marks. A caiman, five feet long, is calm in the muddy bank. He senses us and slides backwards under some roots.
Rutilio has a stroke for each type of current or maneuver. His laurelwood paddle would be art if it were on my wall, the shaft worn satin smooth where it has leveraged off the gunnels for some years. I think I would want to buy this paddle if it would not introduce a mercenary element into the ecosystem of our day, and I berate myself for this impulse. At last, he gives his paddle a flourish and the stern of the boat sidles up to a small dock—we are near the end of the navigable river, the jungle is choking the river. We step up unsteadily onto the dock, then debark onto a meadow, the home of an indigenous Bahia Honda Ngöbe extended tribal family. The tribe is a touch point, a synapse where wild and ancient meet lives like our own, often for the worse.
Eight years ago the corporation came from America to build a marina across these native lands, and at first they disregarded Rutilio and the Ngöbe and their ways, and probably laughed at them, though Rutilio was never mad. Much had happened since then, not all good. The corporation bought up the land and fenced off the properties so that the Ngobe children could no longer walk the trails to school. Now the families and sometimes even small children paddle to school in their dugouts. When lucky, they can motor their children all the way out of here every day, outside the river mouth, to be picked up by the water taxi provided by the Give & Surf Foundation and taken to school. But gas is even more expensive than teachers.
The landowner greets Rutilio in tribal Ngöbede language. This is no longer his land, though. He is a native, and because he is native, like all over the Americas, ownership of his land has been seized. Here the federal government has created a national park. The government allows them land, but not enough land to rotate crops, so the old family chocolate plantation now lies permanently fallow. There are cheaper ways to make chocolate. Now this landowner’s work is to collect $3 a head for tourists like us to pass through. We gather in a large terrace he has thatched himself, and there is a small TV on the ceiling, and a small radio dish on the roof. He stands before us, thanks us for our visit, talks of Ngöbe culture, and asks who wants to buy a Pepsi. We move along a soft path through a green meadow and a chicken roams about but slowly, tied to a wellington boot with a string. A handmade sack of loose netting encloses eight tiny chicks rolling all around, peeping. We step over.
We reach the edge of the clearing, and pick up a small, muddy trail that winds through mossy, fallen trees; rocks, ferns. The decay turns back to jungle with tall, ficus-like trees filtering mid-day light. Up above in the canopy, Rutilio spots a 3-toed sloth eating something and then, with a wide half-grin, points to a fuzzy silver centipede that will give you the fever if it touches your skin. Now we are staring at the sloth, watching him move a little. We had hoped to do this.
After a mile or so we reach a dark bluff, thickly overgrown, and we stoop around some dark rocks into the mouth of a cavern. The Nivida Bat Cave. Rutilio passes out construction hardhats and headlamps, and with his broad, insecure smile asks us only to remain quiet as we follow him. We drop a few steps down the rocks and into the enveloping cave. People like to say how he discovered this cave and began giving tours after the corporation came, and I know California students might have no way to even recognize activism and guile so unassuming, the guile of a dying culture. I want them to deduce this in their own time as they learn more of Rutilio, and I will listen for it.
The jungle drains all light except a green tinge, but here in this cave, all is in shades of gray, and the air is radiant and wonderfully cool. Two gray-black bats bank at us and we plod deeper in single file as the pathway narrows. Now the headlamps form chaotic light strips until Emerson lights on a hideous, black creature on the wall that he quickly identifies as a scorpion spider, then all lamps are on it, and our voices are making a clamor that will continue pretty much for the rest of the hike. Rutilio presses on. Soon the pathway is covered in several inches of water and, barefoot, we keep marching and, with some descent, the water grows deeper and we are wading now, maybe unsteadily but not wanting to brace on the cave walls, which could be coated with something poisonous or inhabited by anything in our dark imaginings. The water is slick and cool to the flesh, filled with darkness and whatever that entails.
Our voices bounce around like the beams of our headlamps and the bats must be disoriented by us. They are wheeling at us then banking quickly. Much later we will equate this all with nightmare but now we are just wide-eyed as the path becomes more erratic and we scramble up and down slick rock ledges made into weird and shapely formations by mineral deposits deeper into the cave. We lower ourselves into a waist-high pool. We call this: Pool 1.
Across this pool is a small ledge we swim to, one at a time, to stand on. From this small ledge in the blackness we can behold a sheer 8-foot rock face. I think, “How can we go on?” but already Kasey, Colin, Mitchell and the others have practically jumped up it as though it were a bunk bed, and moved on with Rutilio in the lead. Now it is my turn and, facing this slick cliff, I decide to hang back and “help people” scale it rather than risk going up it myself. Mariana, reserved, junior class, would surely need my help. But she does not my help at all, as she gives a grin that is between subtle and sly and goes sliding up the face as naturally as swimming. I must now climb this and somehow appear to manage it as though it were natural to me. I am their teacher. Besides, Amanda and Luke are behind me and they look like they want to press on.
So I find a foothold and lift myself and grab onto a knob up above. None of us know if it is a stalagmite or a stalactite, but another one makes another foothold, and then my hand grasps the edge at the top, and soon I am flopping over onto the top and facing the next part of the route, which is a cleft, less than a meter wide at the top. There is no clear way to pass through this cleft, as the top has not enough ledge to walk on and the bottom is far below. I lift and buttress myself up with my arms like a circus performer, understanding that if I can’t hold myself up, or if my arm or shoulder muscles falter, my body will simply jam down into the bottom of the crevice like a wedge, but I see a protrusion, something Luke calls a “stalag-thing,” and, risking it all, lean forward and grasp it, then swivel sideways and thrust myself through the crevice, brushing my right knee into the rock face so that it will throb later on, but reaching a ledge at the far side.
Beneath the ledge is a large pool, and I sit on the ledge, beholding the pool, when a bat aimed at my eye banks over my head and I say to Mariana just one word: “echolocation,” and nod.
We are running on sound and feeling, intelligences that are normally marginal in the realm of secondary school and so-called college preparation. The sensation of being somewhere far under the earth’s surface is acute and bizarre as we each dive into the pool of fresh, cool black water, Pool 2, and swim to the other side. I lean back on the rock treading water and say to the students, grinning in mock exasperation, “This is not happening, understand? This is not happening,” and I reach my arm out to the rock face to rest, but there is nothing graspable, the most undervalued metaphor in all of education, by far.
3. “They trespassed upon my thoughts.” – Conrad
One by one, we slide up and over the rock saddle into the last and largest pool, Pool 3. The students grin and flop about treading water noisily deep below the equatorial earth, bats wheeling, and I hear someone saying to me,” I think your hand is on a leech.” The separation between metaphor and real has gone away, a relief.
Except Emerson looks alive like a kid dissecting a worm and discovering a diamond inside the guts. He and Kasey scramble up a very steep rock face on rumors of a pool 4, but everyone else is done and we all urge them to dive back down and begin our descent.
It has taken decades to get here. My own days as a public school teacher were not too bad, and I cared for my students. I broke the sameness with them by caring just marginally about the Regents exams, and by avoiding administrative and union norms that separated me from my students, but I lost sometimes and that is a connection with the past that comes back just for an instant here, treading in the black water, I’m not sure why—Eddie from junior class history blew my clutch. Roger dropped out in his senior year, so strong was the lure for driving across to California in a van, and I failed to talk him out of it. The innocent Dara was drawn into darkness and I could only watch her disappear. All these early failures, now dark victories against the press of sameness, of institutionalization, of cowardice. Failures of fencing, physical and metaphorical, around all of it, and after a while I left, too, four years after Roger did. This is the story I would want Juan Diego’s friends to understand, but I doubt I can ever convey it. Where could I begin?
We begin moving out through the network of cave formations, retracing our way in, to where at last there is sunlight. Now, we pace back across the muddy path. We board the panga, and Rutilio begins his rhythmic paddle downstream. Luke scans the jungle river scene with new eyes and says, “This is like a video game.”
“Luke, the video game is like this, get your order right,” I reply. Juan Diego joins in a debate about artificial intelligence.
At dinner later, my position will again be: “This did not happen.”
“I like Rubio’s discussion of The Inferno better than The Inferno, itself,” someone segues.
“Each pool of the underground river was like a section he told us about,” another says. John Rubio in senior English has an almost Lt. Kurtz following, in a good way.
“Check out ’Descent of Alette,’” says another. “Trippy and dark. Spirits and people riding on subways, endlessly.”
“Rage Against the Machine, man, you know that song, ‘Wake Up?’”
Student songs and literature rage against fear and jar us all out of our media-tranced complaisance. These words are fun and intelligent, but they are cheap approximations in a word-obsessed world. In a bat cave, sensation means as much as word and we can recall whole learning.
The last morning. Surfing on coral reefs is forbidden fruit. When you ride the wave far in, the lure of that one last cutback can be too strong so you ride further in then you should and finish the wave over maybe two feet of coral, and you cannot even stand up and gather your board. If set waves are coming at you, you know they could dash you into the coral and draw blood almost anywhere on your body.
“When I’m over the coral,” Juan Diego said on that last morning, “I just starfish flat on the water and wait for the lull and try to swim out of it, around the breakers.” Lt. Col. Kilgore explained this in “Apocalypse Now,” but bigger: “You can either surf or you can fight.” I do not know if this ethic can be directly taught, but I hope to have a school where it is studied. I know this requires a suspension of analysis, an aikido move channeling fear into flow, and it is not a situation you can control like a lesson plan. So with Rutilio, who had placed himself in harm’s way when the corporation wanted to build the marina across indigenous lands—his extended Ngöbe family and friends lined up their pangas and dug-out canoes outside the marina so workers could not get in and out and work could not proceed. They starfished, while in Panama City the volunteer lawyers filed suit for an environmental impact report. And then Rutilio had gone deep into the caves and, drawing upon the marginalized intelligences of sound and feeling, found his way out, and the ecotours were born.
Now, crafts people have taken for granted for generations are changing categories from crude and primitive to artisanal. The corporation’s marina plans are stalled, and they have removed plans for the golf course, etc. But there is still much bad blood. And now a blonde American college girl with a backpack wandering the jungle pathways around the marina beach has been murdered. No one knows what to make of this.
Today there are many reasons beyond the merely picturesque to follow Rutilio through the bat caves and to try Ngöbe-led ecotours, though the next generation may never know what those reasons are. Rutilio’s name will never be in a history book.
There is a state of relaxed alertness, a condition for optimal learning that I learned about from Geoffrey and Renata Caine, who used a stand-up bass player to orchestrate their workshops, as far back as 1991, when I was founding The Grauer School. The pursuit of this state can lure you into extreme situations, where much essential learning is found, and experienced, though not well understood. To me, the best English language name for this state is courage. We can access this state if we can reach situations where two completely opposite states of mind coexist as one, such as the nightmarish comedy we might find deep in a bat cave. This state takes time to reach, is rarely exercised or even sought in schools, and is a kind of education that has surely never occurred to Juan Diego’s friends.
Later on, warm and dry, the throbbing in my knee is gone as though it were never there. We gather around some matrons at an inn on stilts in the mangroves of Bahia Honda, population 206 (est.), and they show us how to knead the dough for coconut milk bread until it’s “suavicita.”
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