July 1, 2010
A really amazing and unique experience in Panama is visiting an Embera Village. There are many options for getting to them and most hotels can arrange it for you. Note that you need a guide, you can not go on your own. Getting to the villages is an amazing journey in and of itself. From Panama City we took a two hour bus ride and then boarded a canoe on the Chagres River, which is the river that leads into the Panama Canal. Your guide will arrange for dug out canoes to pick you up at a spot along the river where you will be taken on another two hour trip, but this time in the canoe along the river with beautiful sites to see.
On the river ride look out for beautiful birds and turtles in the water and the occasional donkey or mule on the river banks.
The villages are protected in a national park and can only be reached by the canoe. Try to do your research and make sure you don’t go to one that is being visited by a huge tour group. I went with the tour group that I was on, which consisted of 9 people and I would have much rather been there alone or with a small group for a more meaningful experience. I don’t speak much Spanish, and the Embera’s actually speak a dialect of Spanish so we were not able to have long conversations without the translator, but I found that with simple gestures and a smile I was able to communicate just fine, especially with the children. The Embera Indians are a very old culture, dressing the same as they did 500 years ago. They are struggling with some of the same issues that the Kuna Yala Indians are- trying to connect ancient traditions with modern living. The village we visited had under 100 people living there in about 20 thatched dwellings and one large thatched covering for meetings and shelter when it rains (which it does a lot). They sleep mostly in hammocks strung up inside the huts. The village had just gotten their first generator and the village chief’s hut had just gotten the village’s very first light bulb. While every hut may not have electricity, every hut has a giant stick in the middle of it to scare bats away at night. It must be a strange culture shock for them to leave for school. The older kids go to boarding school in Panama City and some are even heading off to colleges in the states.
They are very gifted craft, musical instrument and jewelery makers, traditions that have been passed on through the generations. The men wear only a red loin cloth and then women wear a sarong on their bottom halves and elaborate jewelry and nothing else. They cover their bodies in tattoos made from the Jagua nut. They are similar to henna tattoos in the application. The Embera’s use the Jagua nut for many things, it can be prepared in many ways and has amazing abilities. The tattoo that they apply to their bodies repels mosquitoes (it actually does they are naked and un-bitten while I was covered head to toe and left looking like I had the chicken pox). It also can be used as shampoo/conditioner and keeps their hair silky and a beautiful dark brown. We were given a demonstration of how they prepare the nut for tattooing, but how to prepare the nut for its most astonishing ability is kept a secret.
The Jagua nut’s other use is its application to newborn babies to all of their bodies except their scalps and eyebrows, which stops the growth of hair follicles. This means they have absolutely no body or facial hair- both men and women. I told them it needs to be marketed in America! Imagine never shaving or waxing again, unfortunately it only works on infants. I made friends with two little girls at the village who showed me around and introduced me to their family. I introduced them to my dad who was with me and they were amazed by his beard and kept trying to pull it out, not believing it was growing from his face.
The girls were adorable and showed me around the village, introducing me to their pet kinkajou that had been injured in the rain forest and nursed back to health and then adopted by the village. They also showed me the villages dogs, chickens, ducks and parrots. They didn’t have to show me the rooster I discovered him all on my own at 4am when the sun came up and he started crowing. I suggest ear plugs for a good nights sleep if you stay overnight in the village!
It is an amazing experience when done right that I highly recommend. Remember that you are a guest in the village and act appropriately and culturally sensitive. Remember that these are people just like you and do not treat them like an exhibit in a natural history museum as many tours in remote villages tend to do. Find common bonds and have an amazing cultural exchange you will never forget.
The chief’s daughter sitting in my lap compares her bare feet to my father’s feet in expensive walking shoes and mosquito repelling socks and pants. The best kind of travel opens your mind to new experiences and allows you to connect in even the smallest way with different cultures.