January 11, 2014
I had met a local woman in Meteti called Alva. As we chatted, I asked her about the indigenous peoples of this area and she told me of a couple of settlements of the Embera and the Wounaan. I wanted to visit them and Alva decided to play tourist and join me.
The local bus trundled along the same road and we went past the same Senafront checkposts. But since we were not headed to or from Panama City, the soldiers paid us no heed. The scrutiny of papers seems largely on whim and undeterred, we got off at the village of Arimae.
The village consisted of a cluster of scattered huts. Some were clapboard buildings – small shops selling snacks, cans of soda, candy, instant noodles, soap, onions, salt, eggs, toothpaste and cigarettes. Others were more traditional round buildings. Some were ten meters or so in diameter, and others even larger. We wandered around and were invited by a trio of children to the tiny settlement of Wahira.
Set at the edge of the forest, just off the road, this is a tiny settlement of five huts and life here seems more attuned to the forest than that in the village of Arimae. All the huts here are more basic and rudimentary in structure.
Raised on stilts, some have stairs but many have a log with notches cut into the log. These are the same log ladders I have seen in Borneo leading up to the upper storey of the long houses. Going up a ladder, we enter a house, beckoned by a pair of children, cousins to the ones who had brought us here. The upper floor is planked, with one area for kitchen use and the remainder open for sleeping and living. In the living area there are hammocks hung from the rafters and piles of bedding and clothing sit in one corner. There are no cupboards or boxes. Nor are there any tables or chairs or any other furniture here. The side walls do not go all the way to the roof but are only waist high. The walls are made of rough cut planks, not all the same size or shape, nor fitted to each other.
The section we enter first as we climb up is the kitchen. There is an area for the wood fire, lined with a piece of metal. A hook hangs from the rafter directly above, for the kettle to hang from over the fire. For the most part though, they balance the pot or kettle on a trio of logs with a fire of kindling below it. A rough table made of planks runs along one side of the kitchen. At the far end is a multi-branched log hung upside down – the perfect receptacle for the few cups that hang off it. Machetes are tucked into the thatched roof and are used for everything from cutting down sugarcane in the fields to slicing open fruit to cleaving open a coconut. Children as young as seven or eight seem as adept as adults in using a machete. Like the walls, there are gaps in the plank floor. They are handy, these gaps on the floor – food that is cut or chopped leave pieces that are simply swept through the gaps onto the dirt floor of the ground level underneath. How convenient! I would have expected chickens to be kept in underneath but they are kept in an enclosure for safety from wild animals. The roof is thatched, rising in a conical shape with overlapping rows of thatch tied with what looks like bamboo but is a river palm cut into strips. The very apex of the roof is crowned with a plastic bucket – the kind that paint is sold in, or in this case, motor oil.
The constant whine of buzz saws come from the distance. The men of the village are out in the surrounding forest cutting down trees and there are only the women left in the village along with the children. In these parts, tradition still holds sway especially in terms of clothing. The older women still go topless although the younger ones sport T shirts now. Although at festivals, they too go topless, draped with a multitude of bead necklaces. Around their waist they wrap a brightly coloured piece of cloth called a paruma, ending at just above their knees with the edges tucked into the waist. The children mostly go about naked or at most wear a pair of underwear. The men though seem to dress in T shirts and pants, sometimes long shorts. Both men and women wear elaborate tattoos. But unlike the permanent tattoos found in other tribes around the world, these are temporary, lasting a couple of weeks. A fruit called jagua found in the forest, is grated and then boiled down. A dark inky blue when ready, it is this that is applied to the skin. It is painted on with bamboo strips acting as paintbrushes rather than pierced into the skin. When I asked for the purpose, I was told it wards off insects and is beneficial to the skin and health. We had not known it before but we were in the hut of the curandero, the local medicine woman.
We stayed awhile, chatted and lazed the day away. And they told us about their family. Contrary to accounts in books, the tribes of Embera and Wounaan are not nearly as separate as literature claims. And more than one family is Embera-Wounaan, as is this one. Their features are the same, their dress identical as is their food and way of life. It is only the language that is distinctly different. So how do you communicate, I asked. In Spanish, came the surprising reply. As I am with you, she said with a smile.