It’s midnight and I’m hanging in a hammock in a bamboo-floor hut somewhere in the Panamanian rainforest. Birds and bats flutter against the thatch roof, but my attention is on the beam six feet above my head. In the hammock next to mine, my 10-year-old daughter is chanting, “God is with me. God is with me,” trying to suppress her rising panic. I flick on my flashlight, shine it above, and two beady eyes stare back.
If you’re going to spend the night in the jungle, we’ve learned, you’d better be prepared to bunk with cockroaches. We discovered this hours earlier in the Embera Puru’ village, two hours north of Panama City, where our family of four had come for our cultural immersion experience.
Sitting Indian style on the floor of our hut, my husband, two daughters and I were enjoying the complete National Geographic experience. Mocha-skinned, bare-breasted women prepared our dinner over a simple three-log fire without the modern conveniences of electricity, plumbing, or gas. A palm leaf, folded origami style, served as the bowl, our hands the utensils. Licking fish morsels off her fingers, my younger daughter, Riley, commented that no meal created in our custom kitchen had ever tasted this good. Her older sister, Delaney, readily agreed. Their father had the good sense to reserve comment.
As we recounted the events of the day—hiking in the jungle with a medicine man, watching stick ball played with a giant bamboo bat, and playing catch with a lizard—a colossal cockroach emerged from his daytime hiding place. He darted straight toward the remnants of our rainforest feast. My husband quickly grabbed the nearest flip-flop and pounded it, showering my arm with roach juice. Unfortunately, this roach was not flying solo and the armies began advancing. The squeals of one mom and two girls filled the hut. Only our stomping interrupted our squealing as we attempted to exterminate pests that can live without their heads for an entire week. Humored by our cockroach repulsion, the Emberan women came to our aid by crushing the insects with their bare feet and kicking them aside.
As dusk faded into night, it became apparent that we would be sharing our sleeping quarters with more companions than had paid for the trip. So, we all opted to sleep in hammocks strung above the floor rather than mats on the floor. This minor change of plans meant forgoing the mosquito nets and taking our chances with malaria. We all agreed it was worth the risk. Malaria has an incubation period of one to three weeks, yet direct contact with a cockroach would result in sudden death by heart attack, I was sure.
Once our brightly striped hammocks were hanging neatly in a row under the open-air palapa, we undertook one final task. We followed the faint glow of our cheap flashlight down a dirt path to the potty– a rustic outhouse sporting a toilet seat mounted on a concrete pedestal. Shining the flashlight into the stall, we witnessed grande cucarachas running laps around the toilet seat. Our shrieks resonated throughout the village and not another drop of liquid touched our lips until the following morning. Understandably, my daughter refused to either sit on the seat or squat in the dirt by the outhouse. Our solution was for me to hold her suspended mid-air as she went number one. As for me, it no longer mattered because I had wet my pants.
Back in the hut, we hunkered into our hammocks for the night. Although it was still warm out, I zipped up my rain breaker and covered myself with a towel to prevent any possible roach-to-skin contact. Shortly after that, my daughter and I had our come-to-Jesus moment, Panamanian style. With a roach hovering on a beam directly over us, she began whispering Bible verses. Fortunately for me, I had an emergency medication stash that I keep on hand for really turbulent flights. I decided this qualified as a different, but equally legitimate, form of “turbulent.” I swallowed the tiny pill (without water of course). Then, armed with a flashlight and a flip-flop, Delaney and I continued our war on an enemy that can live without food for a month. This was going to be a long night.
Beginning at 3 a.m., and continuing until daybreak, our guide’s rhythmic snoring was supplemented by the raucous crowing of competing roosters. We all awoke, except the guide who continued his slumber. My husband whispered in the darkness, “What time is it?” I told him and barely heard his subtle groan as he readjusted, trying to find a comfortable position in the nylon hammock. Each hour that passed introduced a new layer to the cacophony—dogs barking at the darkness; critters stirring in the jungle—until dawn finally broke.
Snuggled in the hammock next to mine, Delaney slowly opened her eyes. With a mixture of pride and relief, she said, “Mom, we made it.” “Yes we did,” I replied, equally relieved. “You know what, Mom? I got really close to God last night.”
“So did I,” I confessed.
Author’s Note: Despite the nocturnal drama, our stay with the Embera Indians was the highlight of our week in Panama. Most visitors opt for the roach-free day trip. However, for the most memorable experience, pack a can of Raid and stay the night.
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