Sunday, October 24, 2010

A day with the Embera Indians

Today we visited an Embera Indian village north of Panama City. It was a fascinating experience providing an opportunity to learn first-hand about their culture and how they live. To reach the village, we traveled by road for about an hour out of Panama City towards Colon, and then about 30 minutes by dugout canoe down a river and across a lake. The village has no road access.

The Embera are one of eight indigenous groups that live in different parts of Panama. Sometimes the Embera and Wounaan (which have similar cultures but speak different languages) are referred to as Chocoe Indians, so that’s why there are references to there being seven indigenous groups, rather than eight. The village we visited comprised 16 families, most of whom were relocated from the Darien Gap about 15 years ago (due to raids on their villages by FARC guerrillas from Colombia).

It was a wonderful day. We were welcomed by one of the village chiefs, and it looked like the whole village came out to meet us.
Later the village medicine man showed us around, and then they cooked us a lunch of fresh fish and fried plantains.

It was so peaceful (the visitors comprised just four people – me, my wife, an American film maker and a guide/interpreter) and so far removed from the reality of modern day living, that when it came time to leave in the afternoon, we really didn't want to go.

This teenage girl looked so sad the whole time we were there (but I took quite a few photographs of her as she was very photogenic). I guess she was about 13 or 14 and maybe suffering ‘puberty blues’. In the Embera culture, girls get married soon after puberty. Most are married between 14 and 17. They will marry only other Embera or Wounaan. It is rare for them to leave their villages to live in the ‘outside world’. It’s hard to know whether they are better off living the simple lifestyle that their culture provides, or whether they should be given the opportunity to join the modern world. That’s a question that can be debated for hours.

This little girl was another that I photographed quite a lot during the day as she had a cheeky smile and was happy to be photographed.
These children (they looked to be between 4 and 7 years old) were paddling a large dugout canoe across the lake to feed some monkeys living on a island in the lake. They were doing it without any adult supervision. Parents in western countries would probably freak out at kids so young doing something like that, but I guess in the Embera culture this is how kids have fun.

The medicine man told us about some of the many medicinal plants that they grow in the village. Illnesses are treated almost entirely with herbal remedies. All of the villagers looked very healthy, so I guess his remedies must be effective.

He also told us that he is alive because of this tree. He said his mother drank a tea made from the leaves when she was 60 years old – way past menopause – after which she gave birth to him.

If you'd like to see more of the photos that I took at the Embera Indian village, please follow this link:

Friday, October 08, 2010

The fascinating Uros islands

After settling into the Intiqa Hotel after our arrival from Copacabana, we strolled down the street and had a nice lunch at an Italian restaurant that the hotel had recommended in the town square. The lunch was excellent – probably the best food we had eaten for about 10 days – and there was an interesting array of shops along the street between our hotel and the town square. Puno looked to be a much more interesting town than it appeared from what I had read on the Internet, so we were somewhat disappointed that we had planned the itinerary to spend less than 24 hours here. On the way back to the hotel I bought a knitted Alpaca wool sweater from an old woman on the street. It was less than US$20 and a good fit for me.

In the afternoon we took a boat with a guide out onto Lake Titicaca to visit the famous Uros Islands – a group of about 40 floating islands in the northern section of the lake.

The islands are made of totora reeds. The roots of the reeds are used to construct the base of the islands – several metres thick – and cut reeds are used for the surface which is soft and spongy to walk on. The islands are anchored to the lake bottom by ropes tied to sticks.

The Uros are descendants of pre-Inca people and they still live a traditional lifestyle – although these days they have modern technology such as solar panels and motor boats (the traditional reed boats with the puma heads that you see in some of these photographs are now used just for giving rides to tourists).

Between three and 10 families live on each island. Children go to school on the mainland by boat. Tourism provides additional income for the Uros, but it is a challenge for them maintaining a traditional lifestyle in the face of rising tourist numbers.

It was a most interesting afternoon. We had hired a private boat so there was just the four of us and our guide, so the visit was more intimate (I don't think I would have enjoyed it so much joining an organised tour). There were five families living on the island that we visited and they took us around a few of the other islands in one of the reed boats.

If you'd like to see more of the photos that I took on the Uros islands, please follow this link: