Discovering the history and culture of Panama Day 7

Published: June 10th 2019
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After an equally delicious breakfast at the Holiday Inn’s Ship View Cafe, we left Clayton for the Chagres River (the native name for crocodile) to see the Embera Indians. Along the way we passed the US Embassy and some very expensive homes. A school for wealthy Chinese residents was very impressive. Abdiel said the Chinese run most of the convenience stores in Panama and have made quite a bit of money. The Chinese were smart opening their shops during traditional siestas when other stores were closed. Chinese men were brought to Panama to work on the railroad for the canal. After the canal was built some went to California to work on the railroads, but others stayed in Panama to open their now thriving businesses.

As we were leaving the city, Abdiel pointed out the egg shaped Bahai Temple perched noticeably high on top of a hill. This religion is all-inclusive and was located on that site because of the spiritual energy found there. In complete contrast, we passed a high class Panamanian “push button" so-called because when you drive in for your tryst you push a button and a door closes behind you making you, your car, and your paramour disappear. You pay by the hour after you disappear. Prostitution is both legal and regulated in Panama, so are trysts.

We passed the push button then stopped near a roadside fruit and vegetable market where one of the classic Panamanian Red Devil buses was parked. We were hoping to get a ride but the Red Devil driver drove away before we could get off our bus to board the Red Devil. Abdiel says they are always in a hurry. It is too bad that we did not have a ride on the authentic old school bus with its brightly painted mural designs. True it was not air-conditioned and true it would not have been comfortable, in fact I imagine it would have been similar to my ride on a “chicken bus” in Guatemala, but it would have been an opportunity to experience a part of the culture of Panama that was quickly being absorbed into modernity.

It took awhile for our (modern) bus to navigate the crowded, thickly trafficked streets and leave the city behind but eventually we arrived at the Chagres National Park where, after a quick stop for maps and banos followed by a short tree-lined drive to the river, we were soon to board dugout canoes that would be navigated down the Chagres River inside the national park to the Embera Drua Village. I had worried how my back would fare on a 45 minute ride sitting on a wooden plank. I was offered an extra life preserver to sit on but since no one else took one I decided to rough it. I ended up surviving. Unfortunately, Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) again omitted the important location of this village inside Chagres National Park. For purposes of proper immunizations I could never pinpoint the location for the CDC to determine what, if any, immunizations were necessary. That information would have been very helpful.

Chagres National Park was established in 1984 between the provinces of Panama and Colon. The park encompasses over 131,000 acres (these numbers vary greatly depending on your source, mine came from the park itself), getting its name from the Chagres River which runs through the park. Forty percent of the water needed to operate the Panama Canal comes from the Chagres National Park. In addition the municipal and industrial water as well as the electricity comes from the Chagres River Watershed. Clearly the protection of this national park and its resources is critical to the operation not only of the Panama Canal but the people who live and work in this region.

Eco tourism has become very important to the Chagres National Park. The Chagres River and Alajuela Lake are the main attractions but I was surprised to learn about the historic Camino Real that runs through the dense jungle in the park. The long traveled Camino Real was used by the Spanish Conquerors to transport gold from Peru and other South American countries, in fact almost all the gold from South America crossed this Camino Real on its way to Europe. So, history

The park boasts tapirs, jaguars, black-handed spider monkeys, and howler monkeys and white tailed deer among the long list of animals that call the park their home. Birders can find a plethora of species including the toucan, harpy eagle, violet-capped hummingbird and the elusive strip-cheeked woodpecker. Sad to say we saw none of these species here but we were there for a short time and not at a time of day conducive to seeing these birds and animals. I was glad we did not run into a crocodile (they roam the Chagres River where we were invited to swim) but was lucky, however, to see and hear the Montezuma Oropendola!

All twenty one of us were broken into small groups that would fit two people seated side by side on hard wooden planks in eight-person dugout canoes. The long, narrow canoes were outfitted with a small outboard motor and were expertly guided down the rocky and sometimes swift Chagres River. Aguinaldo was our handsome and kind bow poke man keeping us clear of the rocks through the rapids in the river. We had put in at a wide lake-like portion of the river but soon, as the river began to narrow, Aguinaldo began calling directional changes as we navigated the often rushing and turbulent waters. As we traveled we watched several canoes loaded with passengers that were forcing their human cargo to disembark into the river so their crew could pull the boat over the rocks. Happily Aguinaldo was much more experienced and we had a safe and lovely forty minute journey to his village down river.

I watched several other canoes loaded with people traveling in our direction and I became worried that this visit was going to be too touristy but I soon realized that many of the people in the other canoes looked to be Panamanians who were stopping on a Sunday afternoon at little beaches that were peppered along the river’s edge. As we approached Aguinaldo’s village we began to see more straw hut villages tucked into the hillsides indicating a close knit series of the Embera community. In fact I later found out the Embera Drua tribe is located at the furthest end of the river making them the least visited and most traditional tribe.

The Embera tribe originated from the Darien region in Panama. These people have lived in this area for centuries, long before the Spanish came to this region. It is unknown whether their ancestors migrated from elsewhere (there are rumors of Brazil or Polynesia) but no one knows for sure. At this time about 30,000 Embera Indians still live in the Darien region. The government of Panama recognizes the seven unique Indigenous tribes who live here and have been given a Comarca (similar to a reservation in North America) but these people were never forced from their home territories and were never forced into boarding schools or punished for maintaining their language and culture. Because they were allowed this independence their language, culture, traditions and lifestyle are still intact.

Rural life in the Darien region is not easy. Schools, supplies, medicine, and doctors are 6-10 hours away. For this reason many of the Embera tribes migrated from Darien to the Chagre National Park where they would have better access to things we take for granted as well as a possibility to develop a culture of tourism that would provide income for their daily needs. Panama has been very supportive encouraging these people in this way of life. Given this opportunity these lovely and happy people are maintaining pride in their culture and the opportunity to maintain their heritage.

After over half an hour our canoes rounded a densely foliated bend along the river and we pulled up along the surprisingly wide, sandy shore of the Embera Drua Village where members of the community came down to the beach to greet us and welcome us with their music. Once out of our canoes and assembled on the beach, our group began to climb the steps up the bank to their grass hut village overlooking the river.

We were invited into a large grass-roofed open “community room” where as we sat on wooden benches as we learned about the culture and history of these people. We were shown examples of their skills in dying materials for their basket making, the types of wood used in carving and the beads and other materials used for their jewelry and crafts. We were told the Wagana Palm tree is used to build the Embera village structures. The tree is cut exactly three days after the full moon in order to be a termite preventative.

The men and women of the village were dressed in their traditional outfits that, we were told, they always wear in their village and only dress in modern clothes when they leave to go to the city for supplies. The women’s traditional skirts were once bark but now are brightly colored cloth complemented by colorful beaded halters or bra like tops to cover their breasts. Their long dark hair also serves as modesty for some but before westerners entered the picture many women were simply topless. Men wore beautifully woven beaded “modesty” skirts barely covering their essentials and some had beaded “necklaces” draped across their chests. Many of the men and women were tattooed with henna on much of their bodies and faces.

The women of the tribe surprised us by coming to each of us ladies placing a beautiful woven headpiece stuffed with hibiscus flowers on our heads. Once adorned, these handsome men and women performed a traditional circle dance with flutes and drums to keep the rhythm. With generous smiles we were all invited to join them in their ceremonial dance.

When the dance was over, a buffet lunch of fresh fruit and fried local fish in banana leaves was served on a long table with plenty of available bottled water. We grabbed our lunch and ate in the cool shade of the community room.

After lunch we were given the opportunity to shop in the shade of their long grass hut where every family had their colorful works arrayed on the long tables. We all were pleasantly surprised with the quality of workmanship on display and were eager to bring some of their work home with us while supporting the tribe. The sales of these beautiful handicrafts and artworks goes a long way to support the tribe’s life in the village but these baskets and other handicrafts take many hours, even days and weeks to complete. The sales of their efforts therefore are important to the tribe but I don’t think they ever receive their due for the long hours spent on these handicrafts, not to mention the value for the creation of their own art often equalling pennies per hour for their efforts. While we were told we could bargain, I felt it was not right given the amount of time, talent and labor spent for these beautiful pieces.

I thought Aguinaldo’s family’s artwork and handiworks to be of the best quality and so purchased a woven basket made of naturally hand dyed palm fibers with the design of a red hibiscus in the center and a classic Embera design around the edge. I also bought a beautifully carved frog from a Wagana or Tagua Palm nut that had been painted green with red detail. These palm nuts look like ivory but are a renewable resource. After shopping I photographed Aguinaldo and his lovely wife Lisnet, also a talented handicrafter, and son Gael (baby Genesis was sleeping).

Thankfully we had time to lounge around absorbing the life of these people through conversation or exploration. Some of our group got henna tattoos, some stayed to visit the empty concrete school house (empty because this was their vacation and many of the children were away visiting relatives).
I went for a walk in the densely treed jungle to see what birds were there. I missed the tattoos but I was very lucky to come across a dark brown Montezuma oropendola perched high in the trees. I had heard their wonderful call but it was his bright yellow tail that gave him away. With patience I was successful in capturing his image as he stoically sat and watched. After my jungle walk I came back into the sunshine and was able to photograph the unique elongated oropendola nests hanging from some branches of the palm trees, but the owners of the nests remained hidden in the darkened jungle foliage.

I highly recommend a visit to meet these lovely people. It will provide an opportunity to see a people whose heritage is kept alive through their passion and love of their unique culture.

When we returned to the Holiday Inn from our day-long excursion to the park we changed for dinner and one person in our party generously offered to celebrate the evening with a sunset champagne toast overlooking the Panama Canal. We all walked up to the empty seventh floor “lounge” where we had a great view but were frustrated because the dirty glass doors to the balcony that overlooked the canal were locked and the management would not open them. Did they think we would do a group jump?

After our celebratory toast and the sun had set we walked next door to La Taberna Restaurante where a Paella dinner had been ordered for us all to share. We had a nice green salad and conversed while seated at a long table. I was a little disappointed in the Paella, that is to say, I have had better. Those of us who had trouble talking across the long and noisy table watched the Super Bowl on a large screen TV during dinner.

No dessert was served at our dinner so Roberto came to the rescue with his bus, driving us in search of gelato. After several false attempts we ended up at the Albrook Mall, the largest mall in Central America, for gelato on a stick at Paleta House. I had a pistachio “gelato” but it was nothing like true Italian gelato. Once you’ve had the best, you can’t go back. Again, without a good map I was confused about our location. When Roberto drove us around I realized we were in a suburb of Panama City. I had thought we were a long way away from there. I am geographically challenged without a map!

Additional photos below
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Loading the dugout canoesLoading the dugout canoes
Loading the dugout canoes

Dave is seated near the bow.

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