The Embera Indian Village outside of Panama City is not a historical recreation. It’s not Panama’s answer to Jamestown or Plymouth Colony. There is no modern visitor center or actors dressed in traditional garb and refusing to break character for eight bucks an hour. Despite the fact that there are tours, and the Embera people are friendly, hospitable, and happy to share their traditions and culture with outsiders, the Embera Indian Village is a real village, and a real home to the Embera people that live there. It’s easy to say that these kinds of villages are somehow out of time, or that they’re relics of the past. There’s no electricity and running water and topless men and women wearing beautiful skirts and loin clothes live there communally. But in spite of this, the Embera don’t live in the past, and they aren’t living fossils of a pre-agricultural era. Within their village, people are being born all the time and new stories are being created and told.
My journey to the Embera Indian Village only took an hour or so, but by the time I got to the village after starting at the luxurious Westin Playa Bonita Hotel, I felt like I had traveled a continent away. I left my air conditioned room, had some delicious breakfast overlooking the ocean and a few different pools, and got in a car that took me to the Chagres River. From there we journeyed down the river led by Gamboa Tours in a long Embera canoe outfitted with an on board motor.
We cruised down the river, heading deeper into Chagres National Park, home of 30K acres of rainforest and the Embera Indian Village. When our guide cut the motor, I could hear beards squawking, monkeys shrieking, and the omnipresent junble hum of insects. Before our visit with the Embera Indians we took a look into their natural habitat.
The Embera people are semi-nomadic, and this particular group moved away from the Darien Gap, the large section of (mostly) uninhabited jungle between Panama and Colombia, some forty years ago in response to guerrilla activity in the region. When we pull up to the river bank next to the village we are welcomed by a greeting party of some fifteen Embera playing flutes and drums. Their nearly naked bodies are painted in the dark paint they make from the sap of the Genip Tree. Some are not wearing it at all and others are covered up to their mouths in painted designs.
The tour group gathers in the village and we are given a tour. The Embera buildings are all on stilts as precautions against flooding. The roofs are made of palm fronds, and inside there is only one room where a family lives together. There is a large hut at the village center which is used for celebrations and ceremonies. It is here we gathered and received a demonstration of Embera botanical knowledge which they use to treat their sick.
Then the Artisans entered and displayed their works. The Embera women wear jewelry that they make themselves, but the really spectacular stuff is the baskets they make from the “chuga” or black palm tree. The traditional baskets are incredibly intricate and some of the weaving is done with hair-thin pieces of chuga.
We are served lunch, which is fish and fried plantains wrapped in banana leafs. The banana leaves seal in the moisture, and the result is delicious. While we eat, the traditional dances begin, and it seems nearly the whole village is involved.
There is drumming and flutes blasting the surprisingly danceable music, and the dancers, children and adults, move in a circular procession around the center of the hut, breaking into many different dance moves and styles, all in unison, over the course of the performance. Eventually, the dancers break away from the center of the hut and invite all the members of the tour to dance. The girl I danced with was nice enough not to critique my dance skills when I got out on the floor and did my best to dance along.
The Embera people are trying to hold onto their traditions and their culture, and they just might do it. They seem to understand that fighting the forces of modernization might not work, that the best way to preserve what you have is not to fight to keep it to yourself, but to share it. This is what the Embera are doing now, and it seems to be working. They are happy and smiling, and although they speak into their native Embera language, they speak Spanish, and I even heard a few experimenting with English. The Embera people are happily living their life on their own terms, but they aren’t secluded. And maybe that’s what will make sure they aren’t a piece of history, but part of the future.