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Day 8 - October 13, 2009 - Darien Jungle, Panama

By Claire Allum, Archaeologist, Anthropologist

Co-ordinates: 08°19’3”N, 078°14’9”W
Weather: Warm and humid with bright blue sky

It was a long Zodiac drive from the ship to the mouth of the river, but the sea was calm in the grey, early morning light. There was a collective silence aboard my Zodiac as it had been an early morning start. I had only managed one cup of coffee and a hastily swallowed breakfast.

Mist patches floated above the mangrove forest as we began our slow journey up the river. Birds called from inside the tangled mass of mangrove roots, and camera shutters clicked as egrets, disturbed by our presence, gracefully took to the air. The sun rose higher, the day warmed and the river narrowed. The Zodiacs lined up behind each other as they motored gently through the muddy water.

Now I could see deep into the mangrove forest. I saw sandpipers, woodpeckers, herons and a hawk. Mangrove air roots protruded from the riverside mud. Bromeliads and orchids festooned dead branches and sat in tree elbows.

The depth of the river worried Jarda, the driver, and me. We were in its intertidal zone. During our last visit to the Emberá village, we had climbed out of our Zodiac and pulled it over mud slicks and rocky stone banks. It became a competition to see which Zodiacs could make it through the shallows without getting stuck. Everything was used, paddles, boat hooks and ship umbrellas, to push upriver and fend off logs and sandbanks. Our Zodiac was lucky, only a bit of paddling got us to the first Emberá house. As we pulled up to the bright orange mud embankment, we could hear drumming in the distance.

Small Emberá children grabbed my hands at the top of the bank to lead me to their village, a collection of large round houses on stilts, with no walls and roofed with thatch. We were led straight to a ground-level, cement-walled, corrugated-roof schoolhouse, where, a Panamanian guide, “Panama Pete,” told us a little bit about the Emberá community. After that we congregated at the large village communal house.

The Emberá women wore brightly coloured wrap-around cotton skirts and bead necklaces and the men loincloths. Both sexes were decorated in dark jagua juice body paint. There were demonstrations of sugar-cane pressing, maize grinding and body painting. I saw the village headman comparing his body art with our Captain Peter Stahlberg’s tattoos. Children scampered around, enjoying the festive occasion.

The headman presented the Captain with a beautiful crocodile mask. In return the Captain gave the headman a plaque from the Prince Albert II and a selection of basketballs and soccer balls, donated by guests from the previous cruise. Dancing, singing, a taste of Emberá foods—plantain chips, river shrimp, steamed rice and ginger tea—filled out the afternoon.

I met a Woanaan woman visiting from a neighbouring village three hours walk away. Woanaan material culture is identical to that of the Emberá. So much so, anthropologists have, in the past, lumped them together with the Emberá. But their language is quite different, with only a 30% overlap in words, and, as the woman earnestly told me, their dances are different.

At the end of our visit, the women set out tables and mats and laid out their baskets, masks and jewelry, and the men’s tagua and rosewood carvings, to sell. I have never seen such finely woven baskets. Apparently the finest will hold water. My favourites were those with the up and down weave and geometric designs, especially the black and white ones.

Everyone was smiling by the time we left for our Zodiacs. Once again children led me back. Those that didn’t lead, tagged along to wave us on our way. I discovered later they had been given the day off school to see us. I had also noticed an Emberá man taking pictures of us as we wandered around his village. No doubt he is showing his friends and relatives pictures of the strange, exotic people from the cruise ship that visited. I hope he enjoyed our visit as much as I did mine.

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