Thursday, January 17, 2013


Our next excursion in Panama was reccomended to us by Collette's brother Dennis and his wife Kay who had visited the country a few years ago. They had visited a national park where the Embera, one of Panama's native peoples, live in a manner representative of their pre-colonial past.

Our tour would stop at a local supermarket so we could buy a tribute for the Indians (that's the word they use, you don't like it, may I suggest a warm receptacle into which you may insert your over educated politically correct supercilious attitude) in the form of dry goods, primarily rice and beans. Not really a payment (that was provided by the tour company) but more in lines like bringing a gift of tobacco when you visit the home of a North American Native.

Kay suggested that we also bring special gifts for the kids, like toys or candy. She told Collette that she (Kay) had bought such gifts at the dollar store, so Collette ravished a local dollar store here and we lugged the goodies all the way to Panama .. what Kay had meant, it turns out, was to visit the dollar store beside the supermarket in Panama.

Oh well, Canadian dollar store merchandise is special .. yeh right.

Our journey to the Indian village of Parara Puru began on the banks of the Charges River that eventually spills into Lake Gatun which we had visited the day before on our transit of the Canal

Our mode of transportation on the river were long wooden dugout style canoes, yes they had outboard motors but they were pretty traditional canoes, I think the plank seating though was installed for the sake of us tourists

Before we went to the village, our Indian guides took us down a twisting narrow tributary of the Charges River. Thick rainforest climbed on either side of us and we often just skimmed under twisted overhead branches. On our way we encountered some indigenous wildlife .. in the form or some local teenagers finding a solution to the heat

On our way to the village our boatmen took us down a particularly narrow channel with high rock cliffs on either side. We could hear the waterfall before we saw it but getting to it was not easy. From the dugouts we made our way up a narrow slippery rock path that was a bit challenging for me gimpy foot but the end product was worthwhile.

While some of our fellow tourists played in the falls, Collette and I did what we do best, take video and shoot photo's

After hanging around the falls for a while it was off to the village. The story of Panama's native peoples is nothing new or unique in Central American or pretty much anywhere in the world. They've had their lands appropriated, their language and culture curtailed, generally disenfranchised. With no excuses made, a big problem here is that Panama has served a lot of masters in its history, from the Columbians to the French to the Americans to dictators like Noriega. It really has been less than 20 years that the country has been an independent democratic nation free to carve its own destiny. Part of that is trying to give back their native peoples some sense of self; to that end, they've been brought back to their lands that are now on a national park. I suppose it's an uneasy and imperfect situation: In order to maintain and promote their cultural identity, they have to do so in front of us tourists

The situation is a compromise, living in the park gives them the freedom to promote their traditional lifestyle, both to themselves and to tourists. We learned about some of these traditional ways,  how they used local plants for dyes and how they used coins as part of their ceremonial outfits, much like Canadian Native fancy dancers incorporate metal bells for their own attire.

We were able to wander around the village and observe some of this traditional life. The women prepared lunch for us, fried tilapia and plantain chips that was one of the best meals we would eat in Panama. The food was cooked over coals and the women displayed a really effective technique; they had four huge logs the points of which were pushed together and smoldering, as the logs broke off into coals and hot ash they would push the logs together, keeping the head going and allowing them to have a bed of very hot, and consistently hot, coals on which to cook.

While we waited for the Indians to gather for a performance of music and dance, Collette decided it was time to dispense her presents. Originally we were told not to give out candy, the native community is fairly isolated and getting kids to the dentist is a chore. We were also told by the chief that he was not happy with the idea of giving them toys; he did not want the children to get in the habit of begging. We respected that but Collette worked her magic and the chief relented: And Hurricane Collette was loosed. This a natural phenomenon that occurs when my girl comes into contact with a mass of children; language barriers crumbled and soon Collette was surrounded by a storm of children as she handed out the candy.

At first the older kids were hanging back and being all cool but then she broke out the toys; toy airplanes and those little parachute guys got everyone involved, including some moms who appeared to be teenagers themselves. Collette had some Superballs and began firing them off the hard earth and nothing but chaos ensued. You can check it out in the video.

I'm surprised that Collette did not create an international incident. Like Costa Rica, Panama does not have an official army. But she seemed to create a Panamanian air force.

Now it was time for the performance. The women came out first, dancing around the longhouse in a long circle, chanting and clapping their hands to keep the beat. At certain points they would come together in a tighter circle and seemed to do a "trade off" kind of song where each woman took turns leading the chant. We both fell in love with this little girl who clearly was still learning the moves, swinging her arms wide, crouched over, but she lacked in grace she made up for in enthusiasm.

After the first dance, the men came out but they did not dance, instead they played their instruments, a series of drums and a wooden flute. The women continued to dance and also pulled out some of the tourists from the audience

Before we left the village we decided to do a little shopping. The Embera had laid out several tables with a large variety of handicrafts. One of the things that Collette wanted to buy was a wooden flute. They ranged in design and in price. She selected one that sold for 15 dollars then the Chief came over and whispered in to the vendor's ear; he selected another flute, much more expensive and let her have it at the original price. I think this was the Chief's way of saying Thank you for the joyful encounter she had had with the children.

The Embera had not only given us one of our best meals of our holiday but one of our more memorable excursions. And several others informed me that thanks to Collette, an encounter that none of them would soon forget.

Here's the video

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