(Katie here) Now that Tom has given you a thorough tour of the canal, I’ll fill you in on my adventures from that day. After sailing the 267 miles from Cartagena, we arrived at the Panama Canal in the VERY early hours of the morning (canal pilot on board at 5:30 a.m.). As we approached the first lock, we were greeted with POURING rain making it difficult to be on any of the decks to take decent photos. I commend Tom for his photographic endeavors. Fortunately, by the time of our scheduled departure for our shore excursion, the rain had slacked off.
Around mid-day, we boarded the ship’s transport vessels as shown below to tender ashore.
Our group of about 30 boarded a tour bus, and our first thrill was crossing the brand new larger Panama Canal. This large tanker is probably one that would have been too big to fit through the old canal.
After crossing the canal, we headed east to our destination. With a bus ride of over an hour and a half, our tour guide had plenty of time to fill us in on some history. The Embera are an indigenous peoples of Colombia and the Panama rain forests. The Embera people, who now number around 30,000, are now spread out throughout Panama, including the major urban areas. The government of Panama has also set up two “reservations” for those Embera who have been displaced from their ancestral homes. The village we visited, however, is not part of any reservation but is one of the few remaining areas where the Embera have lived for generations. The lifestyle there is rather typical of the lifestyle they have lived for millennia with a few exceptions. If I am remembering correctly, the village we visited has approximately 125 residents, and there are five villages (with a total population of about 1,000) on the shores of this lake which was formed when the river was dammed in the mid 70’s. According to our guide, when the area was made into a National Park, the Embera living along the shores of the rivers and lakes were allowed to remain in the area but had to comply with new laws which prohibited the cutting of trees or any hunting. The Embera questioned how they were to live without being able to cut down trees for their homes or hunt to feed their families. The Panama government in turn said they would assist the Embera by helping to set up a tourist industry whereby the Embera could host visits to their villages and sell their hand-crafted wares to earn currency to help house and feed their families. The skeptic in me sees this as a trade-off of being able to stay on their land as long as they agreed to sing and dance for the nice white folks. But with that said, let me introduce you to what I saw as a gentle and beautiful people.
Arriving on the shores of the lake, we were met by several men from the village and their dug-out canoes which were equipped with outboard motors.
We arrived at the village to be greeted by several of the villagers including this Mom and her tot. The women wear skirts but their tops are not covered. The men wear loincloths. You will also see tattoos on their bodies. These are not permanent but are applied from the juice of a local plant and last about ten to twelve days. The dye is not only decorative but also acts as both a sunscreen and an insect repellent.
As we climbed the hill to the village, we were entertained by musicians playing various percussion instruments and a flute made from a local bamboo-type reed.
Entering their main meeting house, we were fed a “snack” of ham and cheese sandwich, and were welcomed to the village by the elected head of tourism for the village. He explained much about their culture and current village life, speaking Spanish as our tour guide translated to English. Villagers are bi-linguistic speaking the native Embera dialect and Spanish which is the language used in the village school. Each village has a democratically-elected village leader who represents them at a regional tribal council. Education is mandatory through age 16. Younger children are educated in their village; older children are transported to a school outside the village. Many go on to attend college. In fact, the daughter of the local tribal leader was graduating from University around the time we visited.
Following his talk, we were fed a typical Embera meal of fried fish from the local lake (probably tilapia) and fried plantain chips all wrapped and served in a palm leaf.
We had been told the villagers welcome having their pictures taken, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching this little girl who was fascinated looking at her own image on the camera display.
The village was actually hosting two groups on this day. This was the second meeting house, located on an elevated platform as were most of the other buildings. Presumably, this is where the village could meet during heavy rains when the main meeting house might be flooded out.
Each family has its own home which is on stilts, often with dogs or chickens housed underneath.
A view of the village:
There was a young girl in our group who brought along a bag filled with candy and sponge-rubber balls for the village children. The candy lady and her followers:
Several of the boys enjoying playing with the spongy balls. I was rather fascinated by the little guy in the orange loin cloth. His tattoo looks like a tee shirt and shorts.
I don’t know if this was the laundry room, but I believe the colorful cloths drying here are the skirts of the village women and girls.
Following our village tour, we reconvened in the main meeting house and were entertained with a dance by the village women and girls
Who were joined by the men for a second dance
For a third dance, the villagers reached out to each of the visitors inviting them to join in the dance. Delightedly, I was invited by a very handsome young man! But I was also disappointed to see this little girl sitting off by herself and not participating. Looking at that face, I had to wonder if she was a child with Down Syndrome.
Finally, we were invited to view and purchase items crafted by the villagers. Items were primarily wood carvings and baskets and other crafts woven from palm leaves. Each family has its own table set up with a family member present to assist customers. I was in absolute awe at some of the artistry
Just prior to our departure, the villagers all gathered for a group photo in the village square
Our group then re-boarded the canoes and set out for the ride back. Just in case you’re wondering, I looked carefully; and I believe they really were hand-fashioned dugouts. One of the other canoes as seen from ours:
As can be seen, the rain which had plagued us during the morning was surrounding us throughout the day; but we were very fortunate in avoiding it including on our ride back to the bus.