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A foot in TWO WORLDS

Ancient people embrace modern life

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Giggling, two young boys in red loincloths swim in the river, their dark hair and brown skin slick with water. They scramble onto the bow of a paragua — dugout canoe — as we idle to the shore in a motorized version of the same thing.

On land stand a dozen or so men in beaded skirts, their smooth chests criss-crossed with narrow bands of more beads. Women and young girls in brilliant parumas, or sarongs, and orange hibiscus in their hair, smile shyly in the late-morning sun. A strain of flute sounds emanates from a chorus of primitive instruments made of bamboo, joined by percussion, tapped out on tortoiseshell drums as we step out of the canoes.

We've travelled about an hour along the Chagres River, passing docile crocodiles and dragonflies skimming the water. This river, enclosed in the rainforest of Chagres National Park in central Panama, is a major source for the Panama Canal and provides the drinking water for Panamanians.

We've travelled through the morning humidity to visit the Embera -- one of seven indigenous tribes in Panama -- to learn how they live, eat, raise and educate their children. We've stepped into a world of thatched-hut roofs, and we're not more than an hour away from the steel and glass skyscrapers and condos in the cosmopolitan capital of Panama City.

I feel a bit voyeuristic and hesitant to take photos, though we're encouraged to do so, and are told the Embera love being photographed and looking at the digital images.

The Embera have lived in Panama for centuries. In 1950, they were forced to flee the south when the Colombian drug trade came too close for comfort, and they've been living in the Chagres ever since.

Although Christopher Columbus discovered them in the 1500s, it's just been little more than a decade that they've welcomed tourists. The government made the region in which they live a 129,000-hectare national park in 1986. That meant they could no longer freely hunt deer and pigs and they had to seek permission to cut down trees for their huts and dugout canoes. Now, they fish and grow rice, yucca and plantain.

Over a decade, they were given the choice to stay and adapt to the burgeoning eco-holiday trend as Panama expanded its tourism base beyond the Panama Canal, or move south to Darien province, close to the Colombia border and maintain a more traditional way of life. Many of the elders in the community decided to leave. That's why this community of 20 families consists of young parents, teens and toddlers.

Each time a tour group comes to visit the six communities around the park, they earn money -- not much, compared to North American standards, but enough to live in Panama, where the average income is $400-$500 a month. They also sell their crafts: colourfully woven baskets, jewelry, masks and carvings.

They have become used to tourists, and it has benefited them, our guide Lenys Ortiz tells us as we sit in a communal hut. As he translates, we learn the children go to grades 1 through 6 here and are taught by government-sanctioned teachers. They're encouraged to go on to high school and university and marry within Embera communities.

The Embera have a foot in two different worlds.

So we're not surprised to learn they use cellphones and computers to conduct business or for emergencies. They have flush toilets (for the tourists, we're told) and a group of teens displays very modern ennui, as they hang around and gawk at today's visitors.

But the modern images stop there. A one-room school houses a jumble of children and a rooster runs around their feet as they're trying to study. Metres away in the kitchen hut, several bare-breasted women hunch over an open fire with babies and toddlers crawling around, frying Embera-style fish and chips, freshly caught tilapia and plantain chips.

Our after-lunch entertainment is a tribal orchestra, providing the beat to the all-female dancers who do a circle dance, an homage to vultures and jaguars.

We're invited to join in, dancing hand to hand, switching partners to the unfamiliar beat. At first, I feel awkward and self-conscious, taking the hand of a young man to sway to the music.

It dawns on me that maybe that's how the Embera might have felt the first few times they greeted tourists.

I decide to embrace the beat of the drums, just as the Embera embraced their new world, not that long ago.


* Nolitours is offering packages to Panama from Calgary and Edmonton beginning Dec. 21 and running until mid-May. Accommodations range from beach resorts, hotels in Panama City and rainforest lodges. Check for details. Several major airlines also fly to Panama City from Calgary through cities in the U.S.

* Several companies provide tours to visit the Embera and Kuna communities. We went with Decameron Explorer, which provides the tour from Decameron Beach Resort. The Decameron tour ( also includes an hour-long hike to a waterfall in the rainforest. Cost of the trip is around $80 for the day.

* For individual travellers, arrangements can also be made to spend a day or a night or two with the Embera. Details at and

-- Canwest News Service



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2010 E1

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