Saturday, November 28, 2009

Panama - a Trip to Embera Puru -Part II

On our arrival in Embera Puru we were escorted by most of the village up from the river bank and into the meeting house, a large rectangular open sided building with palm thatching.
The chief and his wife greeted us in Embera, and the shaman translated into Spanish. Anne Gordon de Barrigon our tour guide is married to Otniel, a member of this tribe. She translated the Spanish into English for us as our hosts described life in the village.
This group had lived in the Choco region. About 35 years ago they fled the abuses and bad treatment they were enduring, and came north, through Darien, which includes the southernmost part of Panama and adjacent lands in Colombia, searching for a better place to live. They found it in the rainforest off a branch of the Chagres River, a spot with a high bank above flood level, relatively easy access to more populated areas down stream, plenty of fish, and good hunting in the forest. They were already living there when the government of Panama formed the 500 square mile Chagres National Park in 1985 to protect the watershed that is so essential to the continued operation of the Panama Canal. Water is vital to the function of the canal locks since each boat that crosses the locks needs around 52 million nonrecoverable gallons of fresh water. The Chagres River is dammed downstream from Embera Puru, creating a large reservoir lake that feeds water in Lake Gatun, which in turn functions as a big section of the canal, and provides water for the operation of the locks. The Embera were grandfathered in and allowed to stay on their land, living pretty much as they always have, hunting and fishing, growing a few rainforest crops and harvesting a wide variety of medicinal plants from the surrounding jungle for their own health needs.

Their homes are built up off the ground about ten feet to keep things dry in a very wet, rainy region and to reduce the risk of snakebite from fer-de-lance, coral snake, and the central american bushmaster, all of whom are very venomous. Access to each house is via a log with steps chopped into it, leaned up against the elevated floor. The springy, resilient floors of the houses are made from the thick flattened bark of a local tree. Under the house is reserved for storage and hanging things to dry.

The cooking is done above. Each house has a rectangle of small logs near one edge of the floor. Into this has been placed multiple layers of banana leaves, covered with six to eight inches of dirt, providing a place to build a cooking fire on a wooden floor. We were served a delicious lunch of patacones (twice fried green bananas smushed into delicious little crisp yellow patties, and fresh river bass caught that morning. We rinsed our greasy fingers in a bowl of water with crushed basil leaves in it. Refreshing! We finished off the meal with slices of fresh, sweet pineapple and papaya.
We had some time to wander the village wherever we wished. Some of us went back to the meeting house to look at beautiful carvings, lovely decorated baskets woven so tightly that they will hold water, and other handicrafts. I bought a wooden flute like the one I had heard played by the welcoming committee as we first were arriving.

Another option that Lynne and I both took advantage of was to be decorated with an Emerba-style tattoo. Every member of the village does this. A dye is made from the fruit of the jagua tree. Held in a small coconut shell cup, the purple-grey liquid is applied carefully to the skin with a small forked stick of bamboo, making a double line. The designs are first outlined, and then the tattoo artist uses fingers and hands to fill in solid the space between the designs by applying more of the juice. Lynne chose an open design that looked like a necklace of leaves around her neck, and I opted for the full design on chest, arms, and back down as far as my waist. Since I was wearing long pants instead of a loincloth, I decided to stop there. In addition to being dramatic in design decoration the tattoos also serve as an excellent insect repellent, even though the dye has no particular odor to humans. It is also used for its antiseptic, antibiotic, bactericidal and fungicidal properties, and provides an amazingly effective screen against sunburn. At first the tattoos were very light, but they continued to darken for a couple of days until they turned black. The designs last only about ten days or two weeks at the most before fading away, and as they disappear the Embera renew them with different designs. At least that's what we were TOLD; it remains to be seen how long they last on pale North American skin!

We took a half hour walk with the village shaman up hills and down hills on a forest trail, clay slick in places, stopping often as he pointed out various plants that are used for a wide variety of treatments that include, headache, indigestion, fever, snakebite, the improvement of birth contractions, erectile disfunction, and antibiotics.

On our return to the village a number of the men and women had assembled in the meeting house, and they invited us in to be entertained with some music and dancing. The men drummed and played flute as the women sang and danced. First was a bird song and second was a jaguar dance. All the women lined up, oldest in front, youngest in the back, and they moved in a line around the room, bent forward and slapping bare feet on the smooth clay dirt floor in a syncopated rhythm as they sang. These two performances were followed by some more music they called a rumba, and we all were invited to participate. Great fun!

All too soon it was time to leave, and those of us not staying in the village overnight made our way back down to the edge of the river to get back in the big dugout for the long trip back downriver and across the lake to the waiting van. The men of the village gathered again on the high riverbank, playing the flute and drums to say goodbye, and the music faded as we headed downstream.


  1. interesting. I am amazed by the tattoo. Wish I could have one!

  2. We were at this tribe the week after you. We arrived on a carnival cruise ship and Anne met us 2 couples and took us to the village. Nelson was our "translater" along with Anne. Wonderful time, great people. We took 3 backpacks full of toys and educational items for the village. Anne was also nice enough at the end to take us to the gatun locks for a quick view.
    thanks to Anne, Nelson and the village folks for one of the top memory trips of my life. Ed and Barbara- Suwanee, ga. and Pam and Phil from Tampa.