Palm Leaf Roof

The cold dense jungle rain is melting into a fine mist as the sun begins to pierce through the blanket of clouds over head. The moist air begins to heat and expand into a thick blanket of standing vapor. I follow the sound of a swinging machete to find my companion twelve feet up standing in the heart of a large palm tree. We are harvesting panca, a broad jungle leaf used to make all natural house roofs.

I watch him nimbly move about up in the head of the tree expertly avoiding the large thorns and ant piles. With a metallic swing, a thud, and a loud crack comes the 20 foot palm frond falling to the jungle floor. Through the clouds of buzzing mosquitoes I move to collect the downed fronds and cut them to length. Three arm lengths long measured by the length of the machete.


As a small group we work deep into the green jungle through the late morning in search of the panca tree and its precious fronds. The sun passes directly over head now and the clouds have fully broken to show a rich blue sky leaking through the tree canopy 40 feet above. The standing water vapor begins to heat and expand and each breath is thick and wet.

After several hours cutting fronds we have 250…enough to cover a small house of 12 by 12 feet. With hunger gnawing at our bellies we take a short break to eat a humble lunch of white rice and watered down coffee.


Now that the fronds are cut and stacked on the jungle floor, we’ll have to haul them back to the river’s edge where we left the boat. My companions stack 16 fronds and lay them over their backs to haul. I can manage only 10 without danger of slipping. In the rain forest, a 500 meter walk feels like 5 miles. My heart is pounding in my chest when I get to the boat and throw down the fronds in exhaustion. Just 10 more trips to go.


When all the fronds are accounted for we recount to make sure we cut enough. Returning for a few missing fronds is the ultimate punishment for lack of attention to detail. Sure enough, 250. We load the long wooden boat. Stacking fronds 10 at a time in opposite directions in order to balance the boat and count easily.


We climb in on top and get comfortable as one companion pull starts the 15 horsepower motor. I’m completely drenched with sweat and water and muddy from the face down but couldn’t care less. We just finished some of the toughest labor of the land and we did it for my house.


My own house in the community.

So I can live as the Ngabe do.  

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