Friday, November 27, 2009

Panama - a Trip to Embera Puru -Part I

My daughter Lynne and I traveled in a small van this morning for 40 minutes in the traffic and dirt and noise of this city of about 800,000.
As we left Panama City behind, the roads became less congested but in worse condition, with lots of potholes capable of swallowing half a tire at a single gulp. The high-rise buildings disappeared, replaced by cinder-block one-room tin-roofed houses with trash in the yards to decorate the rusting old cars. If it hadn't been for the bananas and mango trees, I might have thought I was in West Virginia!
The farther we got from the city, the narrower the road became, now muddy and rutted, spanning small streams in deep worn creek beds with crumbling cement bridges that any cautious person would hesitate to walk across. The paving was far behind us as we lurched up clay-slick hills, back tires spinning just a bit faster than we were moving forward. The jungle crowded down to the edge of the road.

Eventually the van stopped when it couldn't go any farther without going into Lake Alajuela. There was a huge wooden dugout canoe waiting for us, captained by an Embera man wearing a bright blue loincloth and nothing else except his tattoos from neck to knees.

Ten of us climbed in the boat to sit two abreast, and the canoe backed out onto Lake Alajuela. Swinging around we headed down the miles-long lake at full throttle, the bow throwing up a standing wave higher than the gunwhales. The water was kept out of the canoe (mostly) only by a narrow splash rail. A steady flow of water dribbled over the edges and squirted under pressure from the small cracks near the bow, running down the 35 foot length of the canoe between our feet. It's the rainy season in Panama, and we skimmed along the coffee-with-cream colored muddy water, skirting around floating plants, sticks, and logs. In the dry season the water level is 30 feet lower, and the trip would involve navigating a small stream instead of a lake.
About 40 minutes into the ride the canoe tilted toward the right as we made a sharp turn and slowed to enter a narrow side channel. Negotiating twists and turns past low hanging branches, and ducking under those we couldn't avoid, a few minutes at idle speed brought us to a lovely waterfall that tumbled down over a ragged basalt scarp. We clambered over the sides into shin deep water and waded the remaining hundred feet or so to the pool at the base of the falls.

It took no additional encouragement for me to plunge into the cool water and swim over for an impromptu shower under the cascade. Refreshed and soggy, we clambered back into the canoe and it backed out the way we had come. A man standing in the bow used a pole to wedge the long canoe first to the left and then the right as a means of steering.
A short run later we left the lake itself and entered the Chagres River. Another fifteen minutes of a tributary brought us to Em-bear-AH PUru, the Embera Village home of about 150 people who continue to live off the land as they always have. They welcome the occasional small group visits arranged by the American wife of one of the Embera men.

The throaty roar of the outboard motor alerted the people of the village to our arrival long before we actually got there, and there was a group of eight men on the river bank above the landing, drumming and playing a bamboo flute to welcome us. It appeared that the entire population of the village had come down to the water's edge to meet us, the men wearing loincloths that hung to knees in front and covered much less behind. The women wore brightly colored pieces of cloth that reached from waist to just above the knees, and nothing else.

Men, women, and children all wore purply-black elaborate tattoos with intricate geometrical designs on shoulders, backs, breasts, stomachs, buttocks, and thighs. We soon found out that the tattoos are not permanent, lasting only a week to ten days before they wear away or wash off. They are renewed frequently, both because the designs are pleasing, and because the chemicals in the plants used to draw the designs serve as a very effective bug repellent.
Click here for Part II

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