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Embera village along the Chagres River, Panama

Day 4 of our trip to Panama was the closest to my heart. In 2013, I had first read about trips to the Embera villages and it was an experience I felt would add value. Especially for our children.

The Embera people a part of the indigenous groups living in Panama, from times immemorial. The tribe calls the very dense and remote Darien region their home, an area where even the Pan American Highway stops and continues on by foot or by canoe. The seven unique indigenous tribes live within their original borders, on lands recognized by the Panamanian government. Left largely untouched by the government until 1975, the tribes have been able to maintain their customs and traditions, the language and skills unique to them.

A large portion of the Darien, outside of the indigenous tribal homelands, is now considered a national park, which means they cannot hunt and do subsistence farming like they once used to. This change forced many of them to consider moving closer to cities, with access to schools and medical care yet far enough to maintain their original way of life within the national park. The tribes live as large family groups in one settlement along riverbanks. The village we visited was one where the tribe had relocated along the Chagres river, within an hour’s drive of Panama City.

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View from an Embera Village

In an effort to balance the indigenous way of life in their relocated homes and support themselves, many tribes have taken up tourism. They allow people from all over the world to visit them and their homes. They showcase their talents by offering the foods they cook, sharing stories from their lives, displaying and selling the jewelry and other handicrafts they make. They offer a glimpse of their culture with dance and music and visitors are welcome to try out their tattoos, an all out cultural experience. The visitor gets a peek into a very different way of life, centuries old wisdom and experience melded into a way of life, that is part and parcel of the land.

Raphael picked us up around 8 am for the hour’s drive to Chagres National Park. On the way, we stopped to pick up fresh fruits including pineapples, bananas and cantaloupe. Once at the visitor center, we stopped to browse the information displayed and use the toilet facilities. We didn’t see any other toilets along the way.

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Chagres National Park entrance

Once at Lake Alajuela, we were met by two members from our tribal village Tusipono. They had us carry our backpacks with our swim clothes, sunscreen etc and some water. The rest, we left in the car. The dugout canoes we traveled in were narrow and sleek and could accommodate the four of us, our guide and the two men, one who steered the long pole to direct us while the other manned the motor.

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Dug out canoes waiting to transport us
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Inside of the canoe, simple and sleek

The first stop was to a small waterfall, Raphael said. (I think he was trying to make up for the one we missed the previous day). And then to the actual village tour. The ride to the waterfall area took about 15 to 20 mins through beautiful lush forests on either side of the water, a nice gentle breeze and a balmy sun, to boot. The only sounds were from our motor running, birds chirping and our quiet conversations.

After guiding us to a riverbank, the men helped us climb out and walked us through a narrow trail to the waterfall. We had to remove our shoes here since we had to wade through streams. The ground was rocky and I wished many times that we had thought to bring our  water shoes. Would have been perfect for this little adventure!

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Our trail to the waterfall

The waterfall was pretty and in a secluded location affording just enough cover to quickly change into swim clothes. We were the only ones there and enjoyed the cool water for almost half an hour or so before reluctantly leaving the spot.

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Our little waterfall, cool and refreshing

By the time we reached our canoe, the riverbank was flooded with other tour groups. I was glad we had left early that morning, and enjoyed that little private time before the falls were besieged.

This time, our guides led us to their home along the Chagres River, where a couple of the village members waited to greet us. We were then led inside by the medicine man through an entrance hall of sorts and then to a thatched hut on stilts with open walls. The leader welcomed us there and gave information on their community which Raphael translated for us and another couple of visitors. He was covered in tattoos which they use to decorate their bodies and wash off over time. He talked about how they built their houses, how the women dyed the fibers of plants with various colors and made clothes and handicrafts. Meanwhile, one of the village women was busy frying plantains and fried fish over an open wood fire.

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Woof fire to fry plantains
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Our Embera hostess portioning fried plantains into banana leaf cones
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Embera leader during his speech,  Raphael in the foreground translating

The group then served us the fresh fruits (now cut) that we brought, the plantains and fried fish. We, of course,  didn’t eat the fish but the fried plantain was very, very tasty. I really wanted to have seconds but there wasn’t any more left! Raphael told us that the fish they offered was delicious as well. What I equally enjoyed me was the taste and flavors bursting through from the fruits. Missy JJ who typically avoids pineapples, just couldn’t get enough of them that morning. There’s something to be said for living life the old way. It brings a sense of tranquility to the heart. I envied the simplicity of their lives and the communal spirit that enveloped and cocooned the place.

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Delicious fried plantains

The Embera live in houses with thatched roofs raised about 8 feet off the ground. All parts of the house are built using the trees and vines around them. There are no walls to the house other than the roof and floor. A sloped log with notches act as steps to climb up to the house. The black pigment obtained from the genip tree is used for the tattoos that they decorate themselves with. Bead work as well as weaving dyed plant fiber form an integral part of their clothing, handicrafts and jewelry.

After the sumptuous meal, we were escorted to the communal hall, and treated to dance and music. The women sported colorful ornaments and brightly colored short wraparound skirts. The men were bare-chested with a few sporting necklaces and tattoos and all wore beaded short skirt-like waist cloths and a loincloth. No one wore shoes. The men sported bowl cuts and the women had dark flowing hair left open.

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Embera women dance

The music was provided by the men with homemade drums, gourds turned into maracas and a flute. We joined in the dancing when they asked us to, reveling in the spirit of oneness at that moment. We weren’t strangers thrown together for an hour or two, but rather human beings, all living through the harshness of everyday life and struggling to stay afloat. And for those few moments in time, we were all bound together by music that some of us didn’t understand but experienced intimately in our hearts and souls. By the physical act of dancing that brought laughter to our lips and happiness to our hearts.

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The Embera music troupe

Soon after, we examined their handicrafts and jewelry with delight, indulging in our wish to possess a piece of this moment and savor it for years to come. The children were eager to try the tattoos, made of natural pigments. Several young boys vied with one another to be our tattoo artist. Finally we chose two and they tattooed our wrists and arms.

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A temporary Embera souvenir

By then, we were towards the end of our visit. As we left the village and headed towards the sparkling sun, the waters and our canoe, I felt honored and happy to have visited these beautiful people and their homes. It’s an experience we aren’t likely to forget any time soon.

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Another view from an Embera Village