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Panama - A Trip to the Embera Village (Feb 21)

sunny 36 °C
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Thursday, February 21.

This morning we will be going to an Embera village. The Embera are a group of indigenous people who have lived in the area since long before the Spanish came to Panama. They maintain their identity, their language and have their own government, independent of that of Panama. We set out with our guide, Augusto, and drove north for about an hour and a half. We arrived at a large lake and were told that we would get to the village by canoe. Before we boarded the canoe, it was interesting to speak with some of the men who were dressed traditionally, and sporting intricate tattoos made by using 'jagua.' Jagua is a seed that produced a navy blue dye. Some had their entire bodies dyed, and others had intricate designs on their faces, chests and arms. Most of them spoke Spanish and Embera. These people live in small villages of 5 to 20 houses along the banks of the rivers throughout the Chagrass River watersheds in the Darien Province of Panama.
Talking to some of the local fellows

Talking to some of the local fellows


The dug out canoes, piraguas, are long and thin, with about a dozen short bench-seats. One man rides at the end, operating an engine, and another rides at the front using a pole used to help steering and to determine when the water is too shallow. We rode upstream for about 20 minutes, past 2 villages, and continued to a bank where we disembarked. Here Augusto went to visit some friends in this area, and we continued with a young man leading us through a winding path over streams, through dense bush and along the banks of a small river. We saw beautiful blue butterflies, and my nephew, Aidan, spotted dozens of tiny frogs, no bigger than a dime! After some time, we arrived at an impressive waterfalls with a clean, clear swimming hole below. As the temperature was in the mid 30s, there was no hesitation about stripping down to a swimsuit and going for a luxurious swim and an energetic shower in the rumbling waterfalls. We spent 30 or 40 minutes enjoying ourselves in the water before deciding to head back to the village. We retraced our steps until we reached the canoe, and then we went downstream to the Embera village.
Piragua (sounds Spanish to me)

Piragua (sounds Spanish to me)


Follow the dragonfly!

Follow the dragonfly!


Other small groups had preceded us.

Other small groups had preceded us.


Some people don't like tiny walkways!

Some people don't like tiny walkways!


A spry traveller hops across the the 'bridge.' .....Eldon hamming it up!

A spry traveller hops across the the 'bridge.' .....Eldon hamming it up!


Weaving through the dense bush.

Weaving through the dense bush.


Our guide, Pima.

Our guide, Pima.


Aidan found many tiny frogs, thankfully, not the poisonous type of frog!

Aidan found many tiny frogs, thankfully, not the poisonous type of frog!


Nearly there!

Nearly there!

And out of nowhere, the waterfalls on the Chagra River.

And out of nowhere, the waterfalls on the Chagra River.

A cool dip.  I enjoyed this swim - after all, the air temperature reached 36 degrees.

A cool dip. I enjoyed this swim - after all, the air temperature reached 36 degrees.


Standing under the falls!

Standing under the falls!

My two sisters were heading into the water, too.

My two sisters were heading into the water, too.


We all took the plunge-Yvonne, Susan and Jude.

We all took the plunge-Yvonne, Susan and Jude.


"Now, Aidan, I'm warning you - DON'T DIVE IN!" says Jude.     ...What would his cousin, Eliot, have done?

"Now, Aidan, I'm warning you - DON'T DIVE IN!" says Jude. ...What would his cousin, Eliot, have done?


As we approached the village, we saw a family in a canoe fishing. We paddled over to see if they were having success. There were several fish in a bucket in the boat, an then- there was one more on a line. Our guide bought fish... American dollars changed hands!

We came to the banks of the village, and were delighted to find that there were several women and many kids greeting us. Wreaths of hibiscus were placed on our heads; men were given leis and led to the main thatch roofed community hut. Here Augusto showed up with a cooler of cold beer and soft drinks. We took a seat in the community hut and some of the native men started playing instruments: bamboo flutes, drums and churuca ( a gourd with ridges cut in it - a stick pulled over it creates interesting sounds). The women did a traditional dance for us. Following that, several children took our hands and encouraged everyone to get up and join in the dancing. The atmosphere was very relaxed - there seemed to be no schedule - just enjoy yourselves, play with the kids and look at some of the handwork set on 20 tables (for the 20 families of the village.) We could smell wonderful aromas of fruit and of fish cooking. We were presented with Charcoal broiled fish and plantains, in a large leaf skewered with an hibiscus flower. We ate, wandered around, asked questions while practicing rusty Spanish, and just took in the sights. The traditional body painting was offered. Well, it all washes off later. I seized the chance to have a tattoo that would not be permanent. In the end, everyone had an arm or a chest done. I figured that the traditional painting on the cheeks would be fine too. I may have missed the salient fact that it takes about 15 days for the jagua ink to fade. (You'll see!)
We were greeted as we got out of the canoes.

We were greeted as we got out of the canoes.


Hide and Seek?

Hide and Seek?

playing shy?

playing shy?

.....may be.

.....may be.

Not so shy after all.

Not so shy after all.

An ice cold Balboa? said Augusto. Balboa is also the currency, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar, and used less often than the 'buck.'

An ice cold Balboa? said Augusto. Balboa is also the currency, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar, and used less often than the 'buck.'


Embera women and a traditional welcoming dance

Embera women and a traditional welcoming dance

A young Embera girl partakes in the welcoming dance.

A young Embera girl partakes in the welcoming dance.


There is no saying "No" to the communal dancing!

There is no saying "No" to the communal dancing!


.....so we all join in the dancing.

.....so we all join in the dancing.


Yvonne looks quite regal in her crown of hibiscus!

Yvonne looks quite regal in her crown of hibiscus!

Me and Jude eating fish and plantains in banana leaves.

Me and Jude eating fish and plantains in banana leaves.

Traditional (temporary) tattoos look good on the face.

Traditional (temporary) tattoos look good on the face.

Aidan goes for the chest tattoo.

Aidan goes for the chest tattoo.

Eldon has the traditional biceps tattoo.

Eldon has the traditional biceps tattoo.

His tattoo artist works carefully.

His tattoo artist works carefully.


We were brought to another large hut, where we were told the recent history of the Embera. Chagres national park was established in 1984 and includes this area where the Embera had lived hunting and growing in this area since before the time Columbus visited. About 15 years ago a law enacted that prevented hunting or growing within the area of the national park. At this time, tourism became a way for these people to exist continuing a somewhat traditional lifestyle. Fishing and gathering was supplemented with earnings from eco-tourism. Crafts such as carving, basket making and jewellery making provide income that pays for items such as the motors that power their piragues.
IMG_0304.jpg captian=The arduous process of obtaining plant dyed natural fibres used for some of the handicrafts are explained to us.Baskets are made of local canes wrapped with grasses, dyed with plant dyes.

Baskets are made of local canes wrapped with grasses, dyed with plant dyes.

We looked around the village, which consisted of many thatch roofed houses.

We looked around the village, which consisted of many thatch roofed houses.


Houses are built on posts set in the ground, and have thatched roof made from palm fronds. The joinery is with bejuco vines. There are no walls. Hanging from the supporting posts and beams are hammocks, baskets, pots, bows and arrows, mosquito nets.

Houses are built on posts set in the ground, and have thatched roof made from palm fronds. The joinery is with bejuco vines. There are no walls. Hanging from the supporting posts and beams are hammocks, baskets, pots, bows and arrows, mosquito nets.


The kitchen is on the raised floor in every house. These two kids are sitting by the cooking fire - hardwood logs where our fish was cooked directly in the embers. The smoke from the fire permeates the thatch and discourages mosquitoes.

The kitchen is on the raised floor in every house. These two kids are sitting by the cooking fire - hardwood logs where our fish was cooked directly in the embers. The smoke from the fire permeates the thatch and discourages mosquitoes.

The ladder to the house is a notched log. It is turned notch side down at night to prevent animals creeping up to the raised floor of the dwelling.

The ladder to the house is a notched log. It is turned notch side down at night to prevent animals creeping up to the raised floor of the dwelling.


We looked around the village at our leisure, then came back to the communal hut. The handicrafts on the 20 tables help to support the 20 families and we had a close look. There were the skillfully made straw and grass baskets, masks made in a similar way, and jewellery made from seeds and from coins that were beaten flat and then cut out and shaped. We admired these and spent a few dollars.
Earrings from local seeds and from coins, beaten and cut out.

Earrings from local seeds and from coins, beaten and cut out.


The time came to say our goodbyes. We wandered back down to the canoes, accompanied by some of the children. The water looked inviting and several children went for a dip while we stepped into our canoe.
Another beautiful child.

Another beautiful child.

We left this village as we found it: young girls walking on the banks of the water.

We left this village as we found it: young girls walking on the banks of the water.

Swimming and playing on the banks of the Chagres River.

Swimming and playing on the banks of the Chagres River.

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The canoe brought us downstream until we arrived back at our starting point. A wonderful experience behind us, we climbed back into our van and Augusto took the wheel for our 90 minute drive back home.
We climb out of the canoe, bringing great memories of the day.

We climb out of the canoe, bringing great memories of the day.


The canoe leaves us on the bank and heads back to the Embera village

The canoe leaves us on the bank and heads back to the Embera village

Posted by Sue McNicholas 19:16 Archived in Panama

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