Monday, April 30, 2012

Embera Puru, Panama -- A Step Back into Paradise

     Our last day in Panama was spent at an Embera Indian village called Embera Puru. Read to learn who the Embera are and how they live just a short distance from modern Panama City.
     First in this tale, I need to explain who the Embera are. My lack of knowledge about these people is probably pretty universal, but these indigenous slightly nomadic tribes do not deserve this ignorance. It is a paradox that this tribe that we all know so little about is one of the oldest surviving cultural tribes in Latin America. The Embera were present in South America in what is now Colombia when the Spaniards first came there in the 1500s. The Spanish created the first settlement in South America in the Choco-Uraba area in northwestern Colombia. This area still today contains the Murindo rain forest, the last tract of undisturbed rain forest in northern South America, sometimes called the lungs of the world. The Spanish settlement no doubt ran up against the indigenous people in this area, the Embera, but the rain forest here was too much for the Spaniards and this settlement failed. However, one young member of this settlement, Francisco Pizarro moved on to Peru and with fresh troops eventually conquered the Inca. The Maya in Guatemala, and the Aztec in Mexico fell to the European conquerors as well, and their culture was irrevocably altered. Only the Embera remain true to their original simple subsistence living and survived. However, they continue to be threatened by modern cultures and wars. In more modern times, Columbia has been embroiled in a three way civil war for 50 years: the weak and ineffectual government, the leftist guerrilla rebels, and now various paramilitary forces are fighting each other. These violent battles encroach on the Embera lands and through no fault of their own, the Embera bands have become embroiled in the conflicts, interpreted as taking sides, and many have been killed. In some cases,separate bands of these peoples have been caught on opposing sides and ended up fighting each other. Embera villagers had also moved north into the Darien jungle in what is now Panama. But life was probably not easy there either. They had similar problems more recently when some of the bands in the Darien jungle were accused by the Americans of cooperating with Noriega. And still more recently when the Colombian strife spilled across the border into remote areas of the Darien jungle of Panama. After having visited these people, I believe that their simplicity and lack of ability in dealing with modern conflicts has more often than not led them to be embroiled. Yet they have survived.
      Because of these difficulties in their homeland, one band of Embera decided about 50 years ago to move much further north and seek better living conditions. That band includes the village that we visited, Embera Puru, which took up residence along the Chagres River in central Panama, just north of the Panama Canal zone. They were there when the government of Panama made the area, the Chagres National Park in 1985. But the band was "grandfathered" in and were allowed to stay there, as long as they abided by the rules of the National Park and ceased to cut down trees and ceased harvesting some of the rain forest flora for their needs. This required them to change from natural fiber skirts to purchased scarves for the women's skirts, and loin clothes for the men. Though this band of Embera are closer to "western" civilization than any of the bands in Colombia, they have managed to preserve their native culture quite well. They are surviving in a niche of Panama, by adding to their subsistence living with tourism, allowing Western visitors to their village, and producing and selling handicrafts that attract the visitors.
     Embera Puru is one of a few Embera villages in this area. All have moved here over decades from their homeland in Colombia, or from the Darien jungle in neighboring Panama. This particular Embera village has a strong connection to tourism. Ann Gordon de Barrignon runs the small tourism company that hired Archie our guide, and planned our touring in Panama. Ann is originally from Seattle, WA but while working on a documentary film in Embera Puru, she met Otneil a member of this village. They married and both now work in tourism. Since Ann's in laws live in Embera Puru, she brings visiting groups to the village frequently.
The red star marks the site of the Embera village, in Chagres National Park
     The last day in Panama we took a trip to this Embera Indian village. We traveled by car about 1 1/2 hour from Panama City, to Puerto el Corotu, basically a muddy river bank used as a dock and a small building selling water and snacks. There we boarded our piragua (dugout canoe) with our two Embera Indian guides, then another 1 1/2 hour in the dugout canoe with a Yamaha engine on the rear end, across Lake Alajuela (called Lake Madden by the US, an artificial lake created by damming the Chagres River, and serving as a reservoir for the Panama Canal) and up tributaries that got smaller and smaller and more shallow as we progressed. It was the end of the dry season in March, so several areas of the final tributary of the Chagres River we traversed were too shallow to allow the engine to function. At first, the two Embera young men manning our boat, poled us through. Now both my husband and I are not little people, and our guide, Archie, is also not a small person, so at times even the poles didn't work. Several times the two young men had to jump out of the canoe into knee deep water and literally drag it across the gravel bottom until we reached a depth that the engine would again work. At one point, even Archie jumped out to help. I was really beginning to wonder if we wouldn't have to get out and wade to our destination.
Puerto El Corotu, on Lake Alajuela (Madden Lake)

Looking back up the hill from the edge of Lake Alajuela

Our ride!
The Embera Puru band welcoming us at the village.
       Finally we reached the village called Embera Puru. These sweet simple people live in thatched roofed huts elevated on stilts to protect against animals and snakes. Most of these houses have no walls, but many times the women's scarves used as skirts are hanging on lines around the periphery of the home and they provide a semblance of a wall. The Embera fish, raise maize and harvest plantains for food and do wood carving, basketry, mask making, and beading handicrafts which they sell to the tourists that visit their village.
Some of the houses facing the central square of the village.

We purchased this carved snake from this artist. It was not inexpensive. 
Circular woven plates, other basketry.
The plate I purchased and its creator.
Wood carving.

    For lunch, the village women served us a lunch of deep fried tilapia, deep fried plantain and pineapple served in a banana leaf envelope, all lovingly prepared in their cooking house.
The cooking house for visitors. Also has hammocks for overnight guests.

Inside the cooking house, deep frying tilapia, cutting up pineapple.

Banana leaves dishes in which our lunch was served.

     The chief of the village told us a little of the people's history, and demonstrated some of the handicrafts and how they are done.
The chief.
A young woman shows us how she makes the circular woven plates. These
are so tightly woven that they hold liquids.

     After lunch the whole village danced and made music for us showing us how they would celebrate a village occasion such as a new birth or a new house raising. Several dances occurred while the band played. The women chant and sing while they dance. The last dance included everyone from the village, young and old. Then the children each went to our tourist group and grabbed some one's hand and brought them into the dance as well. Following is a video of one of the women's dances.

      Panama requires all youngsters to attend school through 6th grade and they are required to wear a uniform. There is a one room school up the hill from the main village, and there is a teacher that lives in the village. We happened to catch the children as they came down the hilly trail from school. I spoke briefly with them in Spanish and asked them if they liked school. All behaved just as children everywhere, and answered a kind of neutral "Si." After the photo below was taken, all these children ran off and up the stairs of their home. (You can see the log with stairs cut into it behind the children.) Thirty seconds later they all came back down from their individual homes with the traditional dress, a loincloth for the boys, and a scarf around the waist of the girls. They couldn't get out of their school clothes quick enough. Interestingly Archie our guide told us that on one occasion they took several of the children back the way we had come and drove them to a nearby city to see a movie. He reported that they were so frightened that they could not watch the movie. It was too loud and they had to take them out of the theatre, bus them back to Puerto el Corotu and take them in the piragua back home. They could not tolerate the extreme cultural shock of this visit.

The children after school
The preschool children. These children usually run naked. They may have
been dressed for our eyes while we were visiting.
     There is a Peace Corps volunteer in her second year in the village. She has enabled the village to build latrines, one flush toilet, a small water purification plant, and has gotten a generator for the village to operate a few small lights. The village fishes for river bass and tilapia, raises chickens, grows maize, and plantain trees to harvest. They make their own corn meal. The Peace corps volunteer helped the people construct a clay oven on the ground for use of the whole village, tried to show the women how to use it with rice flour,  but that has not attracted the women. No one is using it now, and it has become kind of waste receptacle for the whole village. Each home has its own cook fire up on the raised wooden floor. They place tree leaves on the wood, make a layer of about 4-6 inches of sand on top of the leaves, held in place by wood or rocks. On top of this sand they place the fire. They deep fry much of their food in a large pot held on a sturdy tripod of sticks over the fire.  For the most part, the economy is socialistic. Whatever is earned by tourism, sale of handicrafts and agricultural products, is in turn utilized by the whole village to purchase some fresh fruits to serve visitors, the scarves used as clothing, tools, and the motors used on the piragua.
    Interestingly while we were visiting the village, a young girl was heard screaming away in a house up the hill in the village. This went on for sometime, stopped and then started again. A young UK boy who had been a guest in the village overnight with his mother and two siblings told us that this girl has been doing this for about a month. No one knows what is wrong; she just becomes panicked and starts crying out. She lives with her grandparents who try to console her to no avail. Since this was continuing during our visit, I asked Archie, our guide, if he thought I should offer to go as a physician and take a look at the girl. Archie asked one of the main women in the craft house. In answer to our questions, she said the child hears voices, and sees people who aren't there, and is being coaxed into the forest. Her grandparents are restraining her when this happens and that seems to be why she screams. It sounded like this could be schizophrenia. The young woman in our discussion, pictured below, said they had sent for the shaman to treat the girl. Of course, the villagers think she is being possessed by an evil spirit. I tried to explain that this was likely a mental illness and that there were medications that could help her get rid of these hallucinations and to live a more normal life. But I really don't know how likely access to a medical doctor is, given what happened when they took the small group of children and tried to take them to a movie. And I doubt that any psychiatrist would show up in the village. It is a shame that this girl is suffering so.
A village lady, Archie our guide, and I are discussing the poor child who is screaming.
     When we were ready to leave, we went and thanked the village chief, the cooks, the handicraft people from whom we had purchased some quite expensive pieces, especially the wood carving and Ann Gordon who was still present in the village. As I started down the river bank toward our piragua, a young woman came forward and offered me a crown made of woven grasses and fresh hibiscus blooms. I thanked them and went to return it as I got into the boat. But several women said "No, it is for you." in Spanish. I don't know whether I was singled out for this gift because of my interest in the screaming youngster or whether it was because we spent quite a bit on the crafts. At any rate, it was quite an experience visiting this primitive village and seeing the simple and loving nature of this indigenous people.

    Below is a website to a blog by an American who has retired to Panama, and who particularly enjoys visiting the Embera. He is speaking of a different Embera village, I believe, deeper in the jungle but the culture and the sense of the primitive paradise would be similar, I am sure.

Here is Ann Gordon taking another group on a tour of Embera Puru.

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