While entertaining the notion of getting on a bridge over the Panama Canal to take photos, the police drove by eyeing me suspiciously.  Their expressions encouraged me to look elsewhere.  Further down was a gated entrance to an overgrown patch of land with some abandoned houses. 

     I lifted the heavy chain and guided my bike into the old road, covered with jungle vines and grass, put the bike into a lower gear and pedaled up a steep grade.  As I wound around a bend, I began to feel that eerie sensation that I was not alone. 

     I soon came upon one of the abandoned houses and felt dozens of eyes watching me from the bushes.  I could see movement all around me as if the plants were a bit more terrestrial than I would like.  Something was definitely out there, watching me.

     “Hola� I yelled out, cupping my hands over my mouth to carry the message.

“Buenas Tarrrrddddeeess.� I called out.

      Nothing.

   “Buenos Tardes.�  I called out again, looking around for any sign of el dueno de la casa, y nada. I jumped at the sound of two animals crashing  through the foliage just a stone’s throw away.

      Then out of the house and from the bushes, the eyes that had been following me ran out in front.

       “Meeeoowww.� They cried.  A chorus of hungry cats.  At first I thought it was just a dozen, but as I got closer to the house, they multiplied, coming down off the roof, from the rafters, emerging from tiny crevices and holes.  It was.. well sort of creepy.

     “Hola??  Alguien aqui??� I called out.  Again, nothing.

     I wandered around the house; puddles of cat piss saturated the air.  And all around me were their watchful eyes and their lean bodies scurrying around.

      Since the road apparently ended at this house, I decided to head back to the main road, in search of another access point to take some photos.   Just as I turned the corner to see the gate, a man was ducking under the chain, with a machete in his hand.

    He looked up at me and said in his accented English, “I saw thee chain was moved. And me heard tha dog.�

    I paused momentarily, unsure what impression he had of me wandering across his property [squat].  He walked up closer to me, held up his machete, and then he smiled, a great big friendly smile.

     “I was just looking for a place to take pictures of the canal y yo no puede entrar en la otra Puente.� I replied in some mixed up Spanish/English.

    “Come byoi.  I weel show ya tha way. Come. Come.�

    And I followed him up to his house, where his throngs of cats greeted him like a king, expecting their dinner.

      He took me down a flight of stairs that had been merging with the jungle, until parts of it were impossible to differentiate between what humans created and the environment took over.  He wildly chopped at the plants along the way with his machete, stopping to tell me about some of the plants, “Is good for you when you foot is swell and you take the leaf and mix it with saltwater and put your foot in.�

    He grabbed another plant and handed it’s leaves to me, “this for when you have gasses, or for when the woman have menstruation… the woman make tea with that…when you have belly aches.�

     As he macheteed his way through the jungle he’d share small anecdotes about his life.

      “They call me el hermitanio.  Me alone boy.  Live here 49 years, most me life.

      Got me dog when he was about one month grown.  He I have for ‘bout 3 months now.  He just a baby.

      I from Bocas del Toro. But me grew up here most me life.�

     Just as we got down to the water he said to me, “that is container ship coming� and pointed out to the massive vessel floating towards the Pacific Ocean.  Making a miraculous journey across the landmass of the Americas.

     “You know Boa?� he asks me.

     “Yah.� I reply to keep the conversation going.

     “One of them big snakes, the constrictors.  I just eat them.   Sometimes they want to wrap up my cats.  And I catch them. I eat them. …It’s something to eat.�

     He pokes around at the ground a bit, and unearths a round metal shell, that looks almost like a cannonball, “You see what is that?� he asked me.       

   “That is thee soldier thing of the war.�

    “Ehh cannonball?� I suggest.

    “No, es un� and he put his hand over his head, motioning me to help out with the word.

    “Helmet.�  I say.

    “Yes. That was those days.�

    We continued the walk into some pits where iron scrappers dig up old iron piles from the canal’s construction to sell for 6 cents a pound.

    “I no waste my time wid dat.�  He told me.  Sometimes they come aroun’ and I catch them an hol’ them unteel the police they come around. But they don’t come unless they called.�  

     “They is all ladrones [thieves], they steal me stuff and I don’t like them.  That is why I glad we have thee dog.�  He paused briefly, and looked over at me, “They is out in the bush right now watching we.� And about 5 minutes later we came across a large pit with iron scraps piled around and a bag of melting ice hanging from a tree. But there was nobody in sight.

      We reached a viewpoint of the Miraflores Locks, where the tourists go to get a closer look at the canal, “That is for millionaires only, first time [at first] the poor people could go.  Now is ten dollars.�

      He told me about the French Channel, where the French came, “and too much rum they drink.�  Apparently, the French made an ineffective section of the canal that only harbors alligators and crocodiles. 

      We hiked up towards the train tracks and his dog ran up ahead and started eating something.  He heard the train coming and was frightened that his dog would get hit.  He ran up to get the food away from the dog and saw that it was cow tongue.

     “It’s those santeros, es brujeria (witchcraft).  They dress white. Thursday nights they come by here.

    Sometimes they put the goat in the crossroads.  I don’t like that shit because I has to pass by here each night.  I don’t want them putting spells around here.  No way.�

     We walked back up to the house, and he started talking about [one of] his favorite cats that had died recently.  She was swathed in a dingy towel sitting next to his bed, starting to smell. “Oh my beautiful cat, something happen to her and she die. Something hit her, or maybe something sting her, I don’t know. She my oldest she is.“

      Each cat he came across was introduced to us, and he’d pick up the cats by the scruff of their neck and nuzzle his nose against theirs, cooing.  He would offer little vignettes of their character, “This one, oh man, she TEREEBAL, a scrapper she is.  Always fightin’ wid de others.  And this one, she Claudia.  She tereebal tambien. When it rain, she come into me bed and no let go.   I has to pull her from the sheets and she rips the sheets she does.�

     As we left him behind he was still saying his greetings to his ‘children’ as he called them, picking off the garrapatas and wiping out gunk in their eyes, happily holding them against his neck.  El hermitanio, they call him.  He lives alone. 

 

Click here for Quicktime Version of the El Hermitanio Video