Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Embera Way of Life

We joined a tour to visit a small Embera village on the banks of the Chagres River in Panama.  But while the young man talked about the traditions and crafts of his people, I found myself drifting in and out.  The children behind me were laughing and playing; the colorful fabrics swaying in the the wind.  The plants were bountiful and lush.  Hummingbirds were everywhere.  I was simply too distracted to pay attention.  A few, rather embarrassing questions were asked and the young man paused.  I recognized that look.  One of my sons has that look.   He always answers, however, with grudging respect no matter how stupid my question may be.   I perked up.

"We are not forced to stay here," he said.  "Some of us don't.  Some of us go to college.   To America.  We become doctors and lawyers.  We marry outside.  Some of us come back.  Some of us don't."  He went on to say that living in this village is a choice.  He was 24 years old.  He had lived and worked in Panama City, but left because of poor wages, noise, traffic and pollution.  He was now married and had a beautiful baby.

It made me think of a story my travel buddy likes to tell.  A Wall Street type goes down to Baja on a fishing expedition.  He meets a local fisherman and begins to chat.  "So how do you spend your day?" he asks.

"Well, I get up early and go fishing.  Around noon I return and sell my fish.  Then I go have a siesta with my wife.  And then I go drink beer with my buddies."

"Man, that's not very ambitious," the Wall Street guy said.  "You should buy a second boat.  Eventually an entire fleet.  Have dozens of men working under you.  Start a corporation."

"Then what?"

"Then some day you'll have enough money to retire.  You can take a siesta every day with your wife and go drinking with your buds."
After a music and dance demonstration, we had an opportunity to buy crafts.  Each family had their own table.  My travel buddy bought a basket and I bought a hummingbird necklace.  This is their sole source of income. They are weavers and sculptors, fishermen and farmers.  I found it interesting that someone had come in and built a house with four walls, windows and doors, but it remained empty.  The Embera live in homes with thatched roofs and no walls.  They follow a strict code, a code that has been passed down from generation to generation for centuries.  A shaman takes care of health issues.  They have their own form of government.  Although there were smiles all around and the atmosphere seemed joyous and peaceful, I know that they have worries and anxieties like us all.  And yet  . . . here I am, dreaming of the day my travel buddy and I can retire and move down to Baja.   Fish in the morning, sleep in the afternoon and then drink margaritas while watching the sky burst into flame like the fabric of an Embera skirt swaying in the wind.
 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Balboa and the South Sea

Vasco Nunez de Balboa is credited for being the first European to "discover" the Pacific Ocean.  During my stay in Panama, I marveled at how glassy calm this ocean was.  Living in California where the Pacific is turbulent, freezing cold, and filled with kelp and scary creatures like Great White Sharks, I could never understand why on earth the Spaniards called this ocean pacifico.  Until now.

"This is not the Pacific Ocean I know," I kept remarking.  This was the first time in my life where I swam out sans wetsuit in this ocean and actually stayed in the water for an entire hour without turning blue.  I simply could not get over it.
The first thing I did upon my return home was to go to the library and check out the Life and Letters of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, an excellent biography by Charles Anderson.  The above statue of Balboa has a prominent place in Panama City.  Balboas are everywhere.  Avenues.  Coins.  Beer!  So just who was this man and why is he so honored down here?

As always, the short, romantic version you get as a tourist is a far cry from the horrors of reality.  I urge anyone who is planning a trip to Central America, to read this book.  Anderson goes into great detail about Balboa's excursions across the isthmus and the help he received from the local natives.  There were times when he resorted to torture to acquire information and gold, but unlike the conquistadors who followed, his strategy was to offer his hand in genuine friendship first.  He gained the trust of both soldiers and natives by doing so.

There are many illustrations and paintings of Balboa wading into the ocean in full armor on that day in 1513 and declaring all he could see for Spain:  "Long live the high and mighty monarchs, Don Fernando and Dona Juana, sovereigns of Castile and Leon and of Aragon, in whose name and for the royal crown of Castile I take and seize, real and corporal, actual possession of these seas and lands, and coasts and ports and islands of the South . . ."

Balboa was both admired and vilified.  In the end, his enemies won.  Lies were sent back to King Ferdinand and in 1519, Balboa was beheaded for treason--falsely accused of plotting to sail to Peru and set up a dictatorship.  Pedrarias Davila tried to take credit himself for discovering the Pacific Ocean.  Pedarias tried to erase all proof that Balboa even existed.  He removed his name from all documents, but the men who served under Balboa would not let their leader's name be lost.

Balboa named this new ocean the South Sea.  It was actually Ferdinand Magellan who sailed around the tip of South America seven years later who changed the name to the Pacific.  But history gives Balboa the credit  for its actual discovery, and he is considered a great man in Panama.  He envisioned the building of a canal and its great potential for commerce.  That it actually happened 400 hundred years later makes me realize how much a visionary he truly was.
  


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Boat to Monkey Island

Monkey Island is located in Gatun Lake and is easily accessible from the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.  Of course, the monkeys were a blast to see, but the ride itself across the Panama Canal and into this vast lake, was also a thrill.  Gatun Lake is the second largest man made lake in the world.  (Lake Mead is Number One.)  Damming the Chagres River to form this lake was part of the over all strategy for ease of transit across the isthmus.  This reservoir of water is vital to the operation of the canal locks at both ends of the lake.  This is the water that pours in and out of the chambers to lift or lower the ships.

We saw three species of monkeys.  The mischievous White-faced Capuchin and the Geoffrey's Tamarin had learned to come down to the boats for food--not exactly the same as seeing these creatures in the wild, but better than seeing them in a zoo.  The larger howler monkeys stayed in the trees.  We heard them long before we spotted them.

  Our boat ride was over far too soon.  I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing.  I got an A-Plus in Tourism that day, but felt oddly dissatisfied.  The naturalist in me felt cheated.  Am I getting jaded?  I have seen monkeys swinging from tree to tree in the jungles of Malaysia.  I had an entire group of capuchins follow me through a rain forest in Costa Rica.  But as we once again entered the beautiful green waters of the Chagres River, I was able to shake off my disappointment.  The magic was not in the wildlife that day, but in the water.  I stared down at my reflection.  I have just crossed the Panama Canal.  How amazing is that?

Relief flooded over me.  I am not jaded.  I hope I never will be.
Geoffrey Tamarin

White-faced Capuchin
Howler Monkeys

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shopping for Molas


I've been carrying my new mola tote with me every day since returning from Panama.  It took me awhile to find the perfect bag, but the bright yellow grabbed my attention immediately.  I liked the woman I bought it from, too.  She was not pushy.  An aura of calm surrounded her.  I handed her a twenty dollar bill and she nodded.  We didn't exchange a single word.  I wanted to hug her!  I had been poked, prodded and pushed around by over-aggressive vendors all morning long.  I was hot and tired and anxious, thinking that I would go home empty-handed.  And regret it.
These colorful blocks of embroidery, called "molas", are made by the Kuna women from the San Blas Islands of Panama.  They use them as decorative panels in the front and back of their blouses.  Worn with a wrapped skirt, a red and yellow headscarf and arm and leg beads, the entire costume has come to symbolize their culture.  

I bought my bag from a Kuna Indian marketplace in Panama City.  The women take turns operating the stalls, going back and forth to the islands every two weeks.  It is a cooperative market that benefits the entire community.  I watched them hand stitch the pieces of cotton together, admiring their patience and their artistry.

It's going to be a souvenir I will treasure forever.  


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