21.02.2013 - 21.02.2013 36 °C
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.