Aspects of nature, geography, and wildlife distinguish one country from another: the Mediterranean coastline of Greece, the volcanic rock of Iceland, the rainforests of Panama… On the other hand, countries are distinguished from one another by how much (or how little) human development has occurred there. How advanced the economy is, how much technology has made its way into a developing nation.
And then there are the native people who give a place its flavor. They show us how to truly live in these distant lands we travel to. Connecting with local peoples is paramount to a true immersion travel experience.
We took an inside look at the Embera tribe, a group native to the Colombian border who moved north to gain access to Panama City. A self-sustaining society, the Embera hunt and gather most of their food; they build their own homes; they send their children to nearby schools. The Embera embrace travelers and share their communities with tourists, providing fresh insights into different modes of living and a level of connection with the environment that many other cultures don’t come close to achieving.
Accompanied by Rene Guardiola, we drove an hour northeast to Chagres, one of seven natural parks surrounding the Grand Canal Region. Driving halfway off the road to avoid monumental potholes, oncoming semi-trucks, and perilous combinations of the two, we survived the first part of our adventure and arrived at a point along the Chagres River. There we met Nataniel, our first contact with the Embera. Bare-chested with a beaded skirt and bright fabric wrapped around his waist, he led us into a motorized canoe.
We cruised past lush trees ringing with birdsong that wafted out to our canoe. Kingfisher birds coasted over the water, and crocodiles slithered past, making us fear less for ourselves than for the Kingfishers. We parked a few miles upstream and set off on a short hike, crossing low points in the river to journey through open wilderness. We arrived at a waterfall where the fresh water begged for us to take a swim. We did just that, sensing tiny fish swimming at our feet as we waded toward the rocks. We perched at the foot of the falls to feel the spray of the crashing water, and found that the water was deep enough to jump in from nearby cliffs. And so we did just that. Time doesn’t matter here in the shadow of an endlessly-flowing waterfall.
Eventually we made our way back to the canoe, then Nataniel took us to his village, Tusipono. The beating of woven drums and the percussive clink of turtle shell instruments sounded our arrival. The tribe sat us down to perform several traditional dances, calling us to join in at the end. A woman took my hand and I got thrown right into it; I was just glad to not step on anyone’s feet.
We ventured into a handmade canopy created using palm trees, bark, and fronds. The Embera cut these materials after a full moon, believing this will keep termites and other insects away. Here we entered an authentic Embera kitchen: three large pieces of wood arranged around a small open flame. We sat down around the fire to eat our lunch of roasted plantains and tilapia caught from the river that morning, all wrapped in a folded banana leaf. Living off the land tastes great.
The village of Tusipono consists of a number of similar canopies lining the small clearing the people made for themselves. This tranquil community takes very kindly to visitors, so much so that some travelers are permitted to spend the night among the tribespeople. We marveled at their craftwork on the way out, from the intricate palm weaving to the figurines sculpted from aged Tawa nuts.
Skyscrapers. Cars. Processed food. Heck, Facebook. It means nothing here. They sent us off with a warm adieu, along with the comforting wisdom that the roots of luxury lie close to the simplest things in life.
Images by Luke Hansen.