Day 32: Embera Drua

Trip Start Sep 02, 2007
Trip End Dec 25, 2007

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Sunday, October 7, 2007

Today's program was actually really similar to the shore excursion that I had signed up for but had to drop when I added the AFP. I was really excited because I had actually considered not adding the AFP on the sole basis of missing this excursion and then did it anyway. Good thing too. Anyway it was a trip to Embra Drua ("Village of the People"), a community of indigenous Embera people that they have opened to tourism. Alexis, our guide, told us a lot about them on the way. Tourism is essentially their only source of income, he said, and in this way they can live in and with a modernizing world and still live in their own culture and traditions.

When we arrived at the river, there were canoes and more guides waiting for us. It was hard not to stare, as the Embera guides were dressed very traditionally (and hardly at all) and they stood out from the gathering crowd at the riverbank. We were given life jackets and helped into them (note that the guy helping us with the life jackets was really cute) and next thing you know we're lined up in the canoes. Bonnie had told us visiting Embera Drua was like walking into a National Geographic, and when we shoved off and headed upriver, I felt like it was just that. Besides the fact in National Geographic you
can pretend the element of the outsider isn't actually there and the pictures just found their way into your magazine; when you're in the scene it's a lot harder to see it without yourself in it and I remember wondering what the place was really like when visitors weren't there.

It was a beautiful ride up the river, birds everywhere and waterfalls coming out of the bank at every turn. This was my first taste of the rainforest and I wished we could just keep riding right up the river all morning. I don't know whether everyone else was enamored by the scenery as I was; some of the people in my group seemed pretty distracted by other things. I didn't even want to talk. We sang Part of Your World at least once, and the Spice Girls of course, and some other songs that I didn't know the words to. I wondered what other kinds of crazy things people did in the canoes on their way in to visit these people's homes and what the Embera men driving the canoe really were thinking about all of us.

The canoe drivers knew every rock in that river, when to pull up the motor and pole and when they could crank the speed up a little. It was amazing to watch them reading the river, as someone who has tried to do that herself, and the way the poleman in the front signaled the driver in back. I imagined them doing this without the motors, with only poles, the canoe full of kids and supplies and food. It was like walking into National Geographic.

We turned the last bend in the river and drum beats and the notes of a flute floated over the sounds of water. It looked as if the entire community had turned out to meet us, at least the entire segment of the community that was responsible for the tourism. There were children everywhere, and one little girl, with a crown of red hibiscus in her hair, when I held up my camera and asked if I could take her picture, posed coyly for each of us as we walked by. She reminded me forcefully of Brooke at her age, finding her way into every picture and striking a pose each time the opportunity arose. Each member of the community in turn came to shake our hands, and we found ourselves in a bit of a procession, meeting our hosts formally but not personally. The situation was difficult and awkward for me because of our position - we weren't really guests, and not really tourists either, or didn't like to think so. Even the most well-intentioned student is a tourist in situations like ours. We were led to the community gathering place, or what I realize now might be a space built for our purposes, and assembled as one of the women presented the traditional costumes, jewelry, and crafts of both the women and men. She passed around woven bowls, carvings of wood and vegetable ivory (a palm nut that hardens like rock and looks like ivory when it falls from the tree), earrings, and various materials used to make each of these things. Alexis translated everything, of course, but I wondered how much of the information was being lost in the translation.

They explained the process of making the jagua dye and the physical and traditional attributes of it. Apparently when applied constantly for a period of time, it becomes a natural and permanent insect repellant, as well as protection from the sun. The geometric designs most of the young people were wearing signified that that person is single, and when they get married they will begin painting their body completely solid with the paint. The men were doing tattoos on each other, pulling reeds out of the thatched roofs and shaping them just right to draw with. All of us got painted with the dye, and when I told the one doing mine to surprise me, expecting more of the same geometric designs, he drew a flower, explaining that it was the jagua plant itself. I was the only one with an actual drawing, and I was really excited about having something beautiful like that. (for the record today is the 19th and it's still there!)

We went for a walk up into the rainforest to see the "garden" - the plants the community used for healing and natural medicine. Everything from a headache to preventing insect bites to a natural aphrodisiac. No joke. There was a little tree frog up there too; not the brightly colored kind but one that looked just like a leaf. He was on the ground too; I was really afraid he was going to get stepped on. We got back just in time for lunch - I'm sure they planned that - climbed the ladder back into the gathering space just in front of a man carrying a huge tray of plates. Lunch was fish of some kind that they probably caught out of the Chagres river, and those plantain things again. Did I explain those? They're like a piece of banana (except not banana, plantains are slightly different) squashed down and then fried. And really really good. There was also fresh watermelon and pineapple; the watermelon was no good but the pineapple was amazing. Pretty much the most amazing thing I've ever eaten actually.

After that we had some time to wander around their craft market; I made a point to shop at many different tables as each family had a separate table with their own crafts. I bought a lot of things from them and spent a lot of money, but I would much rather spend it here from the people who actually made the things I was buying. They had made such beautiful things, it was a good thing I hadn't brought all of my money with me or I might not have had any left. I talked to a lot of the artists, which actually surprised me because I had been told that perhaps the chiefs would be able to speak a little Spanish but that everyone else spoke their native language. It turned out that everyone spoke Spanish and many of them had a little English as well. One of the men asked my name and thought I said Wendy, then when I corrected him he had a very hard time saying my name because of the hard 'R' right at the beginning. I told him Wendy was fine, that I like Wendy. And I do. Then he said he had a friend named Wendy. I said something along the lines of "Oh that's cool" before I realized he was talking about me.

Alexis had to tear us away from the craft market for the music and dancing. We sat along the side of the dirt courtyard and watched their dances. The "band" was playing again, and all of the men were gathered around them playing on bamboo reeds. After a few minutes I realized these were the reeds they'd been wearing around their necks all day; how cool to have your instrument with you all the time. They only made one tone and a very simple sound, but they played them in unison at just the right moments in the song. The women danced some ceremonial dances, and then the men came out and danced too and I got to dance with two of them. It was great fun and afterwards we gave them one of our little "squishy ships" and Gabriel gave yet another thank-you speech. Afterward someone said they thought the Emberas would have gotten a kick out of our goodbye song but I was pretty glad we hadn't attempted that.

We had a little time still left before we had to go back so some people went swimming in the Chagres. Since I didn't have a suit, I didn't, even though I had brought extra clothes for this kind of situation. The village was actually quite a walk away and uphill, and I didn't want to make the group and the drivers wait while I walked all the way back up there to change so I just kicked water at everybody else while they swam. It was a beautiful river and not cold at all; while they were swimming I had a chance to take some more pictures of the kids playing in the water and jumping off the rocks on the bank. And the cute canoe drivers. Small sidenote for a big priority. :D

The ride back was much shorter than the ride up because we were going with the current, but I got substantially more wet this time than the last. When we got back to the take-out, Eric was waiting for us. I was disappointed that he couldn't have come. We said goodbye to our Embera guides, except one, who was riding part of the way with us, and piled back into the van. It was strange to see him, after all that, in shorts and a T-shirt and crocs. We learned a lot from him though, off the record now that he was in the bus with us and on his way to town. He told us about their dress, how they usually wear similar things but not the all-out regalia that they were wearing when we were there. Actually they usually wear less clothing. A specific group of people is assigned to the tourism business, and most of their village and most of their population actually lives and stays somewhere else. They have a few young people studying at the university in Panama City, and sometimes people leave the community for various reasons, including one man who married an American.

We drove home and did some of our debriefing on the bus, then met once we got back to the ship to finish it up. Elizabeth leads a really thorough debriefing and we were actually out of there fairly quickly and in time for dinner. I had the shore excursion the next morning so I went to bed really early. Really really early.
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randiandersen on

Re: lotsa words.
whoa! good thing i was sitting down. that's incredible! i think there is definitely a book in the future for this one. yay!

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