Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Emberá Puru Roll Out the Red Carpet
I would compare my  recent visit to the Emberá Puru village in Panama to a National Geographic travelogue. Our guide for the trip, Anne Gordon de Barrigón, was far from being an ordinary chaperon.  She had intimate knowledge of this indigenous group of people and village. Anne is an American woman who married an Emberá man after completing a movie production involving the tribe. She treats each excursion with the same care as going home with a good friend.
Our tour began long before we arrived at the banks of the Chagres River where we would be ushered into long, shallow dug-out canoes and motored up the river to the village. We left the bustle of the City within 15 minutes of boarding the comfortable Coaster bus.

The ribbon-like road cut through the verdant jungle along the Panama Canal’s Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks. We edged past housing communities built during the Canal era. Every mile of the trip we were enlightened on points of interest. Arriving at the boats, we had already received an in-depth Panamanian history lesson.
The 45-minute trip upriver unleashed a world of amazement as we spied exotic birds and other river life. The journey in the canoes was smooth and the views of the countryside were spectacular. The depth of the river varied from being deep and wide to narrow and shallow, causing members in our party to get out of the boats to push. The arms of the jungle enfolded themselves around us as we negotiated the final bend leading to the Emberá village.
Villagers exuding tenderness and an excitement not often found in today’s hardened world greeted us. In their sincere way they rolled out the red carpet for us. Barefooted men, women and children dressed in traditional multicolored cloths participated in the welcoming ritual. Rhythmical tribal music assisted our scramble up the steep, unevenly spaced steps to the village. We mingled in the spacious, rectangle-shaped main hut as a young villager provided skillful insight into the culture, art, music and dance of Emberá life. A scrumptious lunch of fresh fish, patacones, (cut and fried plantains) and fruit was prepared in cooking pots over an open flame and served in banana leaf bowls. When we had eaten our fill the village shaman led us on a hike through the surrounding jungle to point out medicinal plants, available for any ailment. “Temporary” tattoos were drawn on us, made from a natural dye from the Jagua fruit. The Emberá use this dye as part of their glamorizing. The village shaman uses the same fruit in his ceremony to paint animal designs to invoke the powers of the displayed animal in his healing rituals. The village’s 22 simple huts are built high off the ground to deter the entrance of wild animals and flood waters. Their huts do not have doors or walls, signifying an open and honest society.  We were drawn into dancing with the women and children, received crowns of red hibiscus flowers and received physical and spiritual food that made us wish we could remain longer.
The Emberá Puru village is a part of a larger group of Indians who originate from the Choco region in Colombia. The tribe as a whole adheres to the rules of their established government. Emberá, their native language, and Spanish are spoken. Their villages maintain schools where healthy children receive a full education. The children show a normal curiosity about the small gifts brought by tourists. Most of the Emberá people remain in their villages and loyal to their heritage. They live a communal existence, with farming and fishing being their main sources of provision.
Standing on the banks of the Rio San Juan de Pequeni, a tributary to the Chagres, we were only a few hours away from the thriving, contemporary society of Panama City. We might as well have been a world away. I was delighted to witness a culture unspoiled by the tarnishing of our modern world. I look forward to my next visit and to learning more about the seductive and simple life of these indigenous people of Panama.
For more information on the Emberá Puru Village visit