Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Two Wives of Don Justino

            The two wives of Don Justino are joined together by love of a good man and separated by a wide arc of the Pacific Ocean.
            One lives in Panama and one lives in Colombia and Don Justino whose work takes him between the two countries in a small open boat can enjoy the company of one woman and when the time comes for whatever reason go back to sea and return home—to his wife.
            Justino Ortiz Londono is 85 years old, a former schoolteacher from Nuqui who is the “best known” figure along the border between Choco Department in northwest Colombia and Darien Province, the farthest southernmost part of Panama, where Central and South America meet. There's no road just Justino.
Locals on the Colombian side call him “El Profe,” a term of endearment since he taught so many of the people here although he’s long retired from the schoolhouse. About once a week now he operates a “shuttle”—a fiberglass launch with a 40-horsepower outboard engine—carrying a handful of passengers between Choco’s main port and the first Panamanian town, Jaque: the beginning and ending respectively depending on what direction you’re going of a stretch of the most wild real estate in the world, the Darien Gap. If you want to see the region in terms of its famous commercial role, which is unfair, because there's much more here including awesome nature, but is still kind of accurate—think cocaine going north and guns and cash coming south.
People here are amazed by Justino’s stamina both in the cama and at sea. A decade ago the locals were already saying that he was too old to continue his taxi service, six or eight hours on the open Pacific that can be a challenge even to a younger man. Times have changed in such a way however to make the importance of Profe’s work even more critical to the community than his teaching. You get what you pay for with Justino, safety. He travels with an assistant because it’s the prudent thing to do, and he's a prudent man, on a recent voyage to Panama the mate stayed at the bow on the lookout for stray logs that seem to be found frequently on this stretch of coast, floating evidence of illegal timber activity that like illegal mining is stripping Choco's natural resources. Oh well. Our captain insists that the real physical danger is not the weather nor the sea itself, not drug traffickers or ocean-going guerillas. The real danger is seasonal and comes in April and ends in September: humpback season when whale moms and their calves are a frequent sight.
“They like to sun themselves just below the surface,” Justino says. He’s been “tapped” before by a whale mother who didn’t know he was passing, but never turned over.
The human population of Bahia Solano is not seasonal: it’s growing continuously. A Choco-based immigration official recently estimated that there are now 10,000 people in town, a doubling in just a few years: a list of illegal foreigners arrested passing through the area was recently printed in the newspaper and included east Indians and Chinese. A fisherman who was born in Bahia Solano but has lived the last 20 years in Buenaventura just returned with his children saying the big southern port has become unlivable due to “delicuencia,” the polite term for that potent mix of guerrillas, traffickers and ordinary dockside thugs who plague down Buenaventura the coast.Bahia's own growing pains are also clear. Two husbands were arrested for killing their wives earlier this year, women have to take to the streets to protest small-town machismo and violence, still it’s not like Buenaventura where bombs go off and the Marines patrol in speedboats along the docks. A laundry opened two years ago in Bahia Solano, that is how progress is measured here, there’s now a dive center/hotel operated by a Medellin expatriate and a network of small stores. A gentleman from Kentucky opened a backpacker hostel on the nearby beach El Valle, near Utria, the national park. 
Don Justino charges $125 or $150 for his speedboat ride from Panama to Colombia or vice-versa, a hefty sum for a few hours trip at a price he describes as necessary for "fuel costs." On the Panamanian side there are also expectations of a further increase in demand for Justino's services. The government in Panama City appears to have ignored Darien with the exception of the National Police barracks, re-engineered recently from bunks for 40 officers to bunks for 140 in Jaque, a few meters from where Justino's speedboat arrives and leaves. 
The only constant in this changing world is Don Justino himself. He looks back on a teaching career that began when he was 19 and continued when he moved to Bahia Solano more than four decades ago. He retired a decade later—he believes, he can’t really remember—after teaching all the subjects in the local schools including English “even though,” he smiles, “I don’t speak the language.” A small trim man he has a quick smile riding his bicycle around town and a slightly more severe manner at sea, like a school teacher, yeah, when he's at the rudder. As with all small boat captains his constant fear on the water is the right balance of weight to avoid any risk of capsizing. And of course those whale moms.
Don Justino declines to discuss his personal life—although everyone else does—except to say that he finds big-city women like those from Medellin and Cali “no confiables,” undependable, while the local women especially the Afro-Colombianas know how to treat a man right. He’s not retiring the second time anytime soon:
            “The sea gives me life.” 

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