Visiting Embera Indians of Panama

“The new Embera tribe leader is chosen every 4 years. The members of the tribe form lines behind their favorite candidates. The candidate with the biggest line will be the next tribe leader.”

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We sit inside a huge, round village building, built on thick trunks of trees and with the roof made of dried palm leaves. Our guide translates us the presentation of the substitute tribal leader (the actual leader was in Panama City having discussions with the government).

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The guy, maybe in his thirties, wears a beaded skirt-like cover around his waist and a beaded, tribal sash. Our group members are encouraged to ask questions. Members of our tour group ask about the tribal relations, the education, the connection with the modern world. The man explains us his family relations. He has a wife and a couple of kids and he is deeply happy the tribals are free to choose their own partners. Their children get a basic education at the village school. Among other things, they’ll learn English, Spanish and their own Embera language, that has no written form. There are various villages around the area, this particular village has less than 90 members.

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Emberas could move outside their communities and modern world is not that far away, but the traditional lifestyle and preserving their heritage has a great power. Some basic items are these days bought from outside the village (mosquito nets, gas for the boats, fabric for traditional loin clothes and such), but mostly the lifestyle relies on tradition. These tribals seemed relaxed, happy and proud of their unique lifestyle within the nature, inside the jungle, by the Chagres river. And as we enjoyed a tasty, traditional lunch of green, fried plantains and fried, white fish of the Chagres river, we witnessed girls of different ages performing traditional dance and singing, with and without the male members of the tribe. Old, traditional songs and dances that each child learns and is taught to perform. Songs that tell about ancient times, life, love, longing.

We were explained how the natural fibers are harvested and dyed with natural colors. The Emberas use turmeric, teak leaves and other plants to get dyes. The fibers are used in beautiful, traditional handicrafts like baskets, masks and accessories. These days, the handicraft skills are more important than ever as Emberas no longer can hunt in the forest or have farm animals other than chicken. Living inside the Chagres National Park, by the Chagres river means that the tribes have had to come up with new ways of supporting their communities.

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And this is where tourism plays a crucial role. Us as foreign visitors paid for our excursion, part of the money coming for the tribe, and here, within the tribe we could contribute even more by buying some beautiful, hand made artifacts and everyday items to take home and as souvenirs to friends and family.

The Embera Tribe excursion is truly a unique, authentic experience. We were taken to and from the village by wooden, carved boats. These people, living in the rainforests,  open their villages to visitors to educate, spread the wisdom, share the knowledge and also raise the awareness of the need to preserve indigenous life everywhere. They also show how we people, despite of our origins, are more similar than we are different.

When you think of sustainable travel, this experience still seems to fall into this category. The villagers actually live here, these villages are not built just for visitation purposes. So far, the balance between business and natural living has been nurtured. Kids are running around with the dogs, asking visitors to join them with their games, communal kitchen hut cooks food for the villagers and visitors on open fire.

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Houses, with palm husk roofs, are built on poles to prevent flooding entering the living areas and keep out the wild life (the biodiversity is breath taking). Some villagers relax in their huts, waiving to us wandering around. New building material is laid out in the sun to dry before used. The modern conveniences, like a sit down toilets and a shower, have been originally built for the visitors. We don’t know if the locals use them or not.

We leave energized and thankful. As our boatman takes us back to where our bus picks us up we gaze the jungle, the river, the sky. It was just an afternoon with the Embera Indian tribe, but we felt we were invited into something special in this universe.

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