Day 4 |
Oct 24, 2011

 Punta Alegra, Panama

By Claire Allum, Anthropologist

Co-ordinates: 08° 19’ 17” N 78° 14’ 58”W
Weather: sunny, hot and humid
Air Temperature: 27 C / 81 F

I believe the Silver Explorer has visited the Emberá people on the Mogue River in the Darién Province of Panama each year since 2009. Every journey has been an adventure and each visit—with the exception of this one—has had challenges resulting in timing changes, dragging Zodiacs across shallows, and being stranded on land until the tidal waters were deep enough for us to motor back to the ship. This year, none of this happened, and we had an equally exciting expedition adventure, but on schedule and with only a little bit of Zodiac pulling, done by our intrepid Expedition Leader, Shoshanah Jacobs. She, along with the Hotel staff, is to be congratulated for a perfectly executed, fantastic but difficult expedition.

We were lucky with the tides and stand-by for me was at 9:00 am. Nine guests and I clambered from the Silver Explorer into a brightly coloured dugout canoe, called Missionario IV, around 10:00 am. In the distance we could see the mainland. Bands of grey hills stretched across the horizon. I was on my way to the Comarca (territory) of the Emberá-Waounan.

As we entered the delta of the Mogue river, white ibises took to the sky from the shores of the twisted mangrove forest. I asked Magno, our driver, if he would drive slowly up the river and point out wildlife.

We saw a lot of birds including osprey, blue and tiger herons, kingfishers and the beautifully coloured pink spoonbills. A highlight for me was glimpsing two raccoons scooting through the mangrove roots and scampering along the shore. They seemed to want to keep us in sight as we motored along beside them.

As we traveled inland it was interesting to see changes in the plant life from mangrove forest to rainforest. Tall rainforest trees were studded with termite houses; thin mud tunnels snaking dozens of meters up tree trunks to bulbous homes. Orchids and bromeliads clung to the tallest trees; the best place to get sunlight. After about an hour we started to see the telltale plantain leaves from Emberá fields.

Drumming heralded our arrival at the Emberá village. Women dressed in brightly coloured wrap-around skirts (uhua), bead necklaces, jagua tattooing, and flower headdresses helped me out of the canoe and up a gentle mud slope. The drumming Emberá men wore a long, equally colourful loincloth (anelia).

I walked to the village down a wide cement pathway. Money to build the pathway had been given to the Emberá by a development organization to help their ethno-tourism industry. The cool shade under the rainforest canopy was welcoming after the heat of the sun in the canoe.

The village is a scattered group of houses surrounding a large communal house. The houses are built on stilts with thatched roofs and only a few sidewalls. Children and adults watched us and yelled greetings as we made our way into their village. A communal house festooned with bright uhua cloth made it clear where the Emberá wanted to meet with us.

I watched our Staff Captain present a gift of school supplies donated by guests to a village representative and in return receive a gift of basketware. Then our guide John gave us a talk and demonstration of how the beautiful Emberá baskets are made. This was followed by a music and dance demonstration.

Throughout the visit everyone was free to wander around the village to see how the Emberá lived and to watch demonstrations of their traditional lifestyle, such as maize processing, the production of sugar cane juice and body painting.

I got a jagua tattoo drawn on my right arm. At first the design looked very faint and I was convinced I had washed the paint on the under side of my arm off. But as I write this the pigment has become a deep blue-black and I realize I will be living with it for the next two weeks. Our Expedition Staff Assistant, Tim, had his entire chest, back and arms painted. Unfortunately, we can’t get him to take his shirt off on stage to see what he looks like.

I also bought an Emberá mask. It is made from chunga fiber and dyed using plant dies such as jagua (Genipa Americana) for blue-black, tumeric for gold and cocobolo wood for dark black. It is in the shape of a cat and I may wear it for Halloween. It will certainly be put up on my wall back in Canada.

I made the journey back to the ship in another dugout canoe and this time we travelled quickly and against the wind. Ocean spray soaked us all, but it felt wonderfully refreshing after the hot day.

Back onboard I showered quickly and then went up to The Theatre for a briefing on Coiba Island, which we visit tomorrow. I then gave a talk on what it was like to live with a tropical forest people, the Chachi, in the rainforest of Ecuador. The Chachi are neighbours of the Southern Emberá and share a similar forest lifestyle.

The whole day had brought back wonderful memories for me. The modern Emberá did a wonderful job demonstrating their cultural traditions to us.