Monday, June 28, 2010

Tuamotu Atoll Survival Part 1

Part 1 of my segment on Pacific Island Survival in the Tuamotu Archipelago

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Marquesas Islands

The soaring heights of Nuku Hiva

After a 3,000 mile voyage across the worlds largest ocean, we arrived in The Marquesas. Called Henua Enata, or Land of Men, these islands are a bastion of Polynesia culture. They were never subjected to blackbirding (a practice of abducting indigenous people, then taking them to Australia or South America), and some of the most spectacular stone sculptures and sites can be seen in these islands. Tattooing is also alive and well, and is considered to be one of the most intact and refined of all the Polynesian islands.

There are several types of stone construction in the islands. The names often have the type of place included in the name, which makes it easier to identify what the sites use was. Tohua are large rectangular spaces used for dances and ceremonies. Me'ae are temples, and can range from expansive complexes, to platforms that are hard to distinguish from houses. Paepae are house platforms, and are easily the most prolific. They can be found in towns or up in the hills.
These constructions and sculptures are not considered ancient, but are old. They were made somewhere between 1600s-1700s. The larger sites really do stand as a testiment to the ingenuity and skill of the indigenous inhabitants, as well as a healthy population prior to contact.

Cultural Artforms:

Authentic Tiki at Pa'eke Me'ae
One of the most easily identied aspects of Polynesia culture is the iconic Tiki. Old tiki are often found on or around me'ae, but more modern renditions seem to be far more prevelent. Old Tiki are considered tapu, or sacred, and are generally treated with respect.

Modern tiki at Taiohae

These modern renditions of tiki in the Marquesas are prolific, sometimes even being places on historic sites. Tourists often take these to be authentic, as there is no plaques or signs stating otherwise. Most however were made for the Marquesas Festival in the late 1980's, actually borrowing inspiration from tattoo, wood sculptures, and existing artifacts, to produce a modern idea of a tiki.

With an abundance of available surfaces to inscribe symbols and figures, the Marqueseans left petroglyphs all over the archipelago. On our visit we did not visit many of the more prominent petroglyph sites, but we did find this one curious figure near a river in Fatu Hiva.
There have been studies done on the correlation of petroglyphs to tattoos, which share many designs.

Tattoo ("Patau'i Te Tiki")-
Derived from the Tahitian word "tatau", tattooing is currenty undergoing a renaissance. The people of the Marquesas are actively reviving this art form, which is considered to be the most refined and intact out of all of French Polynesia.
It was not uncommon for Marquesean men to be entirely tattooed, and over 400 different styles of design have been identified in the Marquesas. Traditional materials and tools for producing tattoos were the use of candle nut soot for ink, and sharp combs that were struck with a finely decorated mallet to puncture the skin. The small combs used have extremely fine needle-like points, and are often only an inch or so in size.
Men are most often seen tattooed, with their legs and arms heavily decorated with traditional designs.

Notes on tattooing in French Polynesia(courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme):
Society Islands: " and women wore tattoos on their shoulders, arms and legs but never on the face. Their buttocks uniformly blue, were enhAnced from the lower back to the hips by several rows of designs....More stylized designs based on human, vegetal, or animal shapes were also used."

Austral Islands:
"...marked their differenece by the use of hand-width tattooed bands below the armpits. In Tuamotu, tattooing was widespread in the west, and much less practiced in the east. The men of Rangiroa could be tattooed from head to toe with irregular designs such as curved lines, concentric circles, or with checkerboard designs."

Gambier Archipelago:
" was compulsory. The archipelago's special mark was circle tattooed under the armpits of teenagers."

Basalt adzes-
The primary source for lithics in these volcanic islands is basalt, and the Marqueseans were masters at knapping and grinding the stone into finely made adze blades. Though useful as a woodworking tool, perhaps to build the impressive oceangoing catamarans for example, they may have also used them as a weapon like the natives of Mangaia, another Polynesian island west of the Marquesas.
These deeply grooved stones, a common sight around the islands, were used as building material for the church in Taiohae, but their original purpose was to shape and sharpen the adze blades. They are often associated with the deep, pecked holes also found on large stones or around stone platforms.

Pecked holes

The Sites:
Arguably the most impressive of Marquesean sites are the Me'ae and Tohua. During our time in the islands, we found the most unique and impressive in the Island of Nuku Hiva, considered to be the first island to be settled in the archipelago.

Pa'eke Me'ae, Taipivai
The valley of Taipivai's claim to fame is that in the 1840's, the would-be writer of the famed book "Moby Dick", jumped ship with a shipmate Toby Green, and was subsequently taken in by the Taipi tribe of the valley. He eventually went on to write a now out of print book called "Typee", which chronicals his time there.
Though the Marqueseans, indeed if not all of Polynesia, had a healthy reputation of cannibalism, the Taipi were said to have been particularly cannibalistic. Of course, Melville never was eaten by his hosts, and neither was his shipmate, so it's hard to say if their intent in helping him was out of friendliness or if they had a different fate in mind, one possibly including the impressive me'ae site of Pa'eke.
Boasting 11 tiki, this site is perched atop a bluff that is accessed by an unmarked path that actually starts in someones front yard! On the way up, you will notice the ever present paepae, house platforms.
During it's heyday, the site must have been even more impressive. One unusual aspect of it is the seemingly haphazard placement of tiki around the platforms.

Anahao Bay, Nuku Hiva

After our stay in Taipivai, it was time to move to the secluded and well sheltered bay of Anaho. From here we hiked over the pass and into Hatiheu valley, where two more sites waited.
In much of the Marquesas, each valley is home to an individual tribe, and the valley of Hatiheu belonged to the Api Papua people. These people build an impressive tohua in the highland, dedicated to the goddess Tevanaua'e. Here they would have primarilly held dances and ceremonies.

Hikoku'a Tohua:
If it weren't for the sign, this site could have easily been missed.
It's about as big as Pa'eke, but it is edged with low platforms for many people to sit and observe the ceremonies. There is only a couple tiki associated with this site, one of the goddess herself, which is unique because the tiki also forms part of the wall.

Modern Tiki

A number of modern tiki, noticably more detailed than their historic counterparts, were added in 1989 for the Marquesas Islands Festival.

Uniface tool made of basalt

Archeological material is very common in these islands. Some stores even have large collections of locally found tools on display, and the museums (when they're open), have impressive collections of bone, stone, shell, and wood artifacts.

Te I'ipoka Me'ae

The final, and most stunning, site of the day, is the expansive Te I'ipoka Me'ae. The size and reputation of this site is hard to convey in mere words and pictures. It has many me'ae and paepae platorms, a large petroglyph gallerey nearby, and a tohua that dwarfs the Hikokua site.
However, size is not the main draw to this site. Te I'ipoka is a documented sacrificial site. Not only were many people sacrificed and eaten here, but it also played host to one of the last human sacrifices of the 19th century. It is said that a member of the Ha'apa'a tribe was lured to the site, under false pretenses, where he met his fate.

The pit is roughly 7-8 feet deep

As a physical testiment to the cannibalistic rituals practiced here, two massive pits, one situated directly under a sacred Banyan tree, were built into a huge platorms, for the purpose of holding the victims before being brought out for sacrifice.

The Great Banyan of Te I'ipoka Me'ae

Pits are not uncommon at me'ae or tohua, but the Te I'ipoka Me'ae pit is by far the largest we have seen in the islands.

Efforts have been made to restore and preserve this site, and a traditional structure has been rebuilt atop one of the platforms.

A note on cannibalism in the Marquesas, through talking to locals, I was informed that it was not a widely practiced act amoungst the general populations of the islands. The Marquesean societies operated under a caste system, with only the upper echeleon of the community (priests, priestesses, chiefs, prominent warriors, etc) permitted to eat sacrificial victims, and even then it was only the thighs. Cannibalism was practiced or ritualistic reasons, as opposed to a means of sustenance.

Not all Marquesean sites are dedcated to gods, goddesses, and eating your tribal enemies, however. An interesting site we came across in the island of Ua Pou (pronounced oo-ah poe), was the agricultural settlement of Tetahana. This area was used up until the 1980's to cultivate taro and breadfruit. They used an ingenious system of terraced fields along the two converging streams, and were able to dam the streams and divert the flow into these terraces to irrigate their crops.

Sources and recommended reading:
Exploring The Marquesas by Joe Russel-Cruising guide to the Marquesas
Moon Handbook: South Pacific- very useful travel guide to the South Pacifc
Te Patu Tiki: Le Tatouage aux Iles Marquises- a superb French book on Marquesean tattoo
Typee by Herman Melville

Thanks to Tahiti Tourisme for their informative pamphlets!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Taboga Island, Panama

There are few places in the world where the history of a place is so apparent. Taboga is one of these places. It's the oldest continualy inhabited cities in the Americas, and has the oldest church in this hemisphere. The beaches of Taboga are packed with glass from Spanish occupation, wrecks are common, cannonballs have been found, and if you have dive equipment you can fine many intact bottles from all periods of Tabogas history.
The city of Taboga was well positioned as a base for Francisco Pizarro, from which he plundered both Las Perlas and Peru. Later, the city served as an ideal place for pirates to raid the rich Spanish treasure ships.
For me, the real treasure of Taboga is before Pizarros arrival, when Taboga was called "Haboga", and where the city now stands, there stood a well established native settlement.
Even before leaving the outskirts of the city, you will note that the soil is absolutely packed with all kinds of shell. A closer look will reveal that mixed in with the shells, are fragments of pottery. We were able to find middens of shell, pottery, and stone tools. From the fragments found, it appears that they decorated their pottery simply with red pigment aroud the rim and simple etching. One piece was found that had markings made with a shell in a simple repeating pattern. All the pieces are tempered with sand or crushed quartz, and some are up to an inch thick.
The stone tools are basic, with no sign of pressure flaking. Most appear to be flakes struck from a core, used, then discarded. Interestingly, they are all of types of stone that I have not seen anywhere on the island, and range from a deep black/blue to almost bright yellow.
I found no glass or earthenware mixed with the shells and pottery.

Taboga is an excelent place to hike. We spent some time exploring some of it's then dry creeks as well and found a species of animal we had not seen before.

These green and black frogs are Dart-Poison Frogs, and we were told they are a type that is endemic to Taboga, though we are not certain. They live in colonies so if you see one there are usually many more around.
Of course every paradise has it's hidden dangers, and Taboga plays host to tarantulas, scorpions, and snakes.

Return to the Pearl Islands

After our ordeal at sea, and with Bristol Rose repaired and fully functioning, we took a week to return to the Las Perlas Achipelago to relax and enjoy the last of Panama before we attempted the passage to the Galapagos for the second time.
After returning to Panama City, I happened upon a book written by Robert Vergnes that details several interesting sites of historic significance in the islands, relating to both native and Spanish occupation.

We visited serveral islands we had not stopped at the first time though, and one of them was the well known island of Contadora. This is a very well built up island, and according to Vergnes, pottery fragments were found during the constructions of the buildings you will find there. On the northern end of the island you can also find a face etched into the cliffs, made by the native people before the Spanish arrive. We weren't able to visit this pre-columbian site however.

The island of Chapera to the south of Contadora was said to have an old colonial Spanish well, so we made a point to anchor off it's southern shore and use the dinghy to locate the well using the directions given by Vergnes.
This is Vergnes' first landmark, which is more noticable at low tide. It stands near a beach, which we landed at and located a dry creek bed that would lead us to a path. This path snaked it's way through some of the most beuatiful terrain in the Perlas, until it opened to a clearing with many Royal Palms.
In the middle, with beams of sunlight shining through the canopy, stood this well. It is 17 feet deep, and 12 feet wide at the top. There was signs around it that someone had made attempts to rebuild it, and it had a partial outer wall that is not present in pictures taken by Vergnes in 1980.

On Isla Saboga, on the western shore, is a very large fish trap made from good sized stones. We found it at high tide, but you can see part of an inner wall in this photo. The outer wall is much larger, and can easily be seen on Google Earth.

During our explorations of these islands, we also found some very old shell midden piles, as well as pre-columbian pottery fragments in some places.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Gerber Mini Fast Draw Pocketknife

I first became aquinted with this knife when a student brought one to a camp I was working at, and was imediately impressed with its quality and easy of handling. It's not a large or intricite knife, and I suppose that's what appeals to me. It's compact, well made, opens quickly and easily with one hand, and stays shut when you want it to. For young campers, it's size makes it easy to handle as well.
I recently found one for sale in an outdoors store in Panama City, and decided that the $35 price tag was worth it (I'm aware I could have bought one cheaper from other places, but it was an impulse purchase at the time).

Only 3 inches when closed, it's an excelent every day pocket knife. It weighs 1.9 Ounces, so it won't weigh down in your pocket or on your belt. The clip holds very well and I've never been concerned about it working loose and being lost. The blade is 2.1 Inches, and I've found it perfectly suited for fine carving of Tagua nuts, opening boxes, carving knotches in fireboards, and I'd venture to say it wouldn't do too bad at butchering. The quality of the steal is of course very good, as Gerber is well known for their use of superior materials and fine workmanship, and this knife is no exception. I found it easy to sharpen, and it holds an edge very well.
The lock system works very well, which did surprise me. I've traditonaly been a fixed blade user, so I approached the small plastic lock button with a skeptical eye. I'm pleased to say it works as well as the day I bought it.
I live in a very caustic environment on the boat, and many of our knives on board will eventually exhibit signs of rust of corrosion. This knife is holding up very well however, most likely oweing to the quality of the steel. I've also made sure to oil the action with T-9 oil to make sure it's kept in perfect working order.
Another aspect of this knife that appeals to me, is its overall appearance. It's simple and elegant. It serves a function, and looks professional doing it. It conveys it's purpose as a serious tool, while remaining subtle.

Overall, I'm very pleased with this knife. You can find this knife for sale in a number of places online, or outdoors stores. The Gerber product number is 22-01526. This style also comes as a partialy serated blade.

Photographs credited to Trish Budd

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Panama Canal Transit

This is a severely delayed post, but still worth a post no matter how late it arrives. I've found that my experiences worth posting about in Panama occur so often that I have to pick and choose what to write about!

Our transit of the Panama Canal began on January 27th, 2010. The first step in the process is to receive your adviser, a canal official who boards your vessel near Colon. It's an impressive and rapid boarding, as they bring the adviser out on a work boat, which comes just close enough for the adviser to jump onto your boat and they immediatly leave. Our adviser was a man of few words, who had done over 400 canal transits and was himself a tug captain.
We approached the first lock chamber after sundown. Approaching the immense chamber at night in your small yacht is a humbling experience. It's akin to entering a cathedral.

Entering the first chamber of Gatun Lock

The water that fills the chamber enters through holes in the floor of the chamber, so when they fill the lock the water suddenly boils as hundreds of gallons of water flood the lock.

Gatun Locks enormous riveted doors

After making it through 3 chambers, we arrived at Gatun Lake. We were guided to a large fiberglass mooring ball where we would be moored for the night. Gatun Lake is teeming with life, from Howler Monkeys and sloths to Harpy Eagles and Crocodiles. Fishing is not permitted in this lake.

Dredging out the Canal

Impressive terrain inside the Canal

Centennial Bridge

The tropical shoreline of Miraflores Lake

Approaching The Bridge of the Americas

The Pacific and Panama City Skyline

The transit is many things to sailors. A transition, a big step toward the world of the Pacific. The gateway to a whole new coastline for many, and perhaps the hundreds of islands of the Pacific itself. Just crossing the Pacific itself is a huge move forward, as many find themselves unable to make that move out of the Caribbean and onto even bigger adventures. For us this is one step closer to our homeland.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Vegetable Ivory

Everywhere you go in Panama, you can find art produced by the Kuna,
Embera, and Wounaan. Molas and intricitely woven baskets and masks are the most
common, and sell for hundreds in Panama City. Another art form the
Embera and Wounaan produce, are Tagua nut carvings. They are usually
of animals and are decorated with very fine India inks.

Embera-Wounaan masks

The Tagua nut is native to this region and grows in a pod on the Tagua
Palm. It also goes by other names such as Ivory Palm, Elephant Plant,
or vegetable Ivory. The reason for this is the mature nut has the
same colour and consistency of Ivory. It can also be sustainably
gathered, so it can be used as a substitute for tusk ivory. In some
varieties of Ivory Palm, the young seeds are edible, before they
mature and harden.

Ever since arriving in Panama and seeing the Tagua carvings at
Tusipono, we've been looking for raw seeds to carve ourselves. Most
vendors have one to show, but not to sell. Finding a tree we could
collect from was also proving impossible. We eventually happened upon
a store in Casco Viejo that sold raw Tagua seeds for about .50US cents

Tagua in its shell on left, de-shelled on the right

We noticed some have holes from borers, so to avoid any blemishes to
the nut we picked out ones with intact husks. The husk is very
brittle and easy to remove.
The first thing I noticed was just how heavy the Tagua is, about the
weight of a large glass marble, and how difficult it can be to carve.
It's extremely hard to take off large shavings so you must take your
time and use a small, sharp knife. So far my small folding Gerber
knife is working perfectly.

Photography credited to Trish Budd

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Survival Las Perlas video

Here is my Las Perlas survival video. A lot of fun to film and edit, hope you enjoy it.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Passage to the Galapagos Islands

From Isla San Jose we sailed towards the Galapagos Islands. With
fresh provisions of fresh fruit and fish, we were well equiped to
handle the 6-8 day passage. We had not been able to download the Grib
files, but reports from other yachts making the same passage indicated
a calm and uneventfull passage. We were even expecting to be becalmed
for portions of the voyage.
An exciting catch outside the Perlas was a juvenile Yellowfin tuna,
our first ever. We made some excelent nori rolls (both cooked and raw
tuna rolls).

During our first watch of the passage, several butterflies, of a type
we had seen hundreds of during our time in Las Perlas, appeared on our
boat while being almost 60 miles from shore. This seemed unusual for
being so far out. My watch ended at 9 pm, and I settled in for the
night, trying to get some rest before my next watch at 6 am.
I was awoken sometime around 10:30 pm, to the boat heeling (rolling
sharply to it's side) violently, as though we had gone off course and
broadside to the wind. Cabinets and anything that wasn't held down
fell to the floor, cluttering the narrow quarters below deck. All our
charts and books spilled from the navigation table into the galley.
The wind had suddenly spiked to 30 knots and we were caught with a
light wind spineker sail up. We rolled so much that water began to
rush in through a starboard seacock, giving the appearance that we
were taking on water. As I held one of the overhead handrails, I was
unable to get both feet on the floor as I struggled to keep from being
thrown to one side of the boat. We had to get the huge light wind
sail down before water made it's way over our sides.
To get such a sail down, we had to turn on the engine and point the
boat into the wind. In winds this strong we would need all available
hands to haul it down.
As the situation progressed rapidly, I heard a sickening sound from
the engine, almost indescribeable, but the obvious sound of something
going very wrong. What we soon realized was the sound came from a
line, recently uncleated, wrapping around our spinning propeller, and
jamming our rudder. In the blink of an eye we were disabled, dead in
the water.
As we stowed our sail, drifting aimlessly in the rough seas, we began
to take stock of our situation. Over 60 miles from land and 300 miles from a proper port, drifting on a 2 knot current out into the Pacific.
Rolling in the heavy waves, we drifted further and further from help,
stretching our ability to make radio contact with Panama or any vessel
capable of helping us. Our eyes wearily scanning the horizon for
lights and continuing to hail anyone who could hear by issueing a
Pan-pan, one step below a full on mayday. Until the answer to our
prayers came over the radio, Captain Graham of S/V Eowyn, an ever
vigilante English captain with years of experience on the worlds
oceans, and a superb radio voice. He ordered his boat to heave to in
open water to keep in radio contact, and served throughout the ordeal
as our faithful lifeline to the rest of the world. Without his help,
I am certain we would have drifted for days.
Word finally arrived that through Eowyns efforts, he had notified
Emergency Coordination Center in the UK, US Coast Guard, Servicio
Maritime de Panama, and the World Cruising Club, all of whome worked
tirelessly to send aid in the form of a patrol boat called Ligia
Elena. All told we drifted from 10:30 on the 13th of February until
8:00 am on the 15th.

Patrol Boat Ligia Elena

My family and myself forever have a debt of gratitude to these people
who worked all the way until we set foot on dry land to assure our
safety of ourselves and our boat, Bristol Rose.
My thanks go out to the Panamanians who offered us shelter upon our
arrival on land. I will omit their names in this post to preserve
their much deserved privacy, but they know our appreciation and
gratitude is likewise extended to them.
Survival situations can appear in a heartbeat, and being on the open
ocean, even in a modern boat, does not exempt you from this reality.
Something someone asked me was if we paniced. I am proud to say we
didn't, which is fortunate. Keeping a level head, and above all hope,
helped us make the decisions and deal with the siuations at hand.
Hoplessness can be just as much a killer as the elements, and can
consume your whole reality. No matter how bad things get, keeping
hope is paramount in walking out of a survival situation.

Something we didn't expect, was as soon as we arrived on land, we were
informed that we had made the local (and global) news. Word had
spread of a distressed, American flagged vessel off Panama, and we had
found our way into a half dozen articles and press releases, one being
as far as India. Even though we felt so alone in the Pacific, it
turns out people we had never met were watching for our safe return.
We even received emails from other countries offering assistance,
should we find ourselves in their waters.

We managed to make basic repairs and are now safely in Panama City to make the boat ready to go to sea again.

UPDATE: Later we found through a Panamanian news source that Ligia Elena was attacked by speedboats a few days after they towed us to safety. One of their crew was shot in the leg, but thankfully survived.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Las Perlas

Las Perlas islands are a stark contrast to the busy life of Panama
City. Tropical dry forrests skirted by rocky shores, and only
sparsely populated by small fishing villages, you can really get a
sense of being alone on a deserted island here.

One of Isla Bayonettas protected leeward beaches

These islands were once the domain of an indigenous tribe of skilled
pearl divers under the rule of "King Toe". This all tragically
changed in 1515 when Gaspar de Morales and Francisco Pizarro arrived
in the islands and conquered the people. It appears that the
indigenous population did not survive this encounter.
The islands on the other hand, seem to have been left alone, with only
a hand full being inhabited. Small plots are cultivated by locals, as
well as subsistance fishing at the villages.
Pearls are still illusive here, but gorgeous shells and sea beans are
abundant. Brightly coloured scallops, cockles, and cowries can be
found on many of the beaches, especially the western side of Isla
Bayoneta (if you don't mind some surf and the brutal equatorial sun
bearing done on you).
We found far more sea beans on this beach than we have in Kuna Yala
and all the Caribean islands combined. They come in three distinct
forms, with a wide range of sizes, shapes, and colours. You'd
struggle to find two exactly the same. On Bristol Rose, we polish
these sea beans while underway.

The real draw to these islands for me, has been it's past use as the
location for the filming of Survivor: Panama. Ever since I began
practicing primitive skills, I have inevitably been approached by
friends and family suggesting I should go on Survivor. This is
probably the closest I'll ever get, and it's an opportunity to visit
the exact location to test my skills against their experience.
My challenge was to be dropped off shore of Isla Mogo-Mogo amoungts
the submerged rocks and shoals, swim ashore with only a knife and
build a fire before the sun went down, using only resources I could
find on the island.

Video of this challenge to be posted soon.

Isla Mogo-Mogo's leeward beach

Scouring the tidal pools at low tide

Isla Mogo Mogo also provides me an opportunity to try out some seafood
that lends itself perfectly to the coastal or island primitive. Tidal
rockpools are an extremely common feature of these islands, where the
tides can drop as much as 15 feet. This opens up a whole range of
food that can be easily collected, from simple snails to crabs and
fish. One such organism is the humble limpet (Order
Archaeogastropoda). The variety we found was quite large, up to 2
inches in diameter. These shells can be collected by using a rock to
either push firmly at their sides until they dislodge (or strike them
carefully in the same place, be careful not to crack their shells).
Place them on a broad, flat rock and cover with hot coals. Their
shells will actually steam them. Once cooked, remove their shell and
the bubble of guts on top and eat the chewy disc that is left. I found
these to be surprisngly good and tasted like BBQ octopus, and not at
all fishy as I anticipated. They're also a safe and very abundant
food source that can be collected with minimal effort. These can be
found worldwide in varying forms, and make up the bulk of shells found
in middens in the UK.

I have thought of possible ways to make them more tender, and the use
of an Umu or Pit Oven may produce a more tender result, but this
method would not be justified by a few limpets. You would probably
want to deshell a few and place them in with fish, clams, and anything
else you have to cook. There is interest on our boat amoungst the
crew to try this method at the next beach BBQ.

Adult Female Frigate Bird

Friday, February 5, 2010

Embera Village

The Embera people are one of 7 tribes within Panama. They have long been closely associated with the Wounaan people, though they speak two distinct languages, and only really share a root language. These people speak their own language, as well as Spanish.
The village we visited was Tusipono, the village of the Bird and Flower. It's inhabitants are descendants of the Embera who chose to move from Darien Province to Panama City, hoping to get education for their children and live a better life in the city. They found themselves doing jobs such as house cleaning and gardening, and were not happy with this arrangement. So they decided to leave the city and return to their traditional life. The problem was that when they left Darien Province, they sold their lands to other Embera, and so had no place to return to. So they settled in what is now the National Park (though it wasn't at the time). When the government established the park, they told the Embera they had to move, which they refused on the ground that they had no other place to go. The government made a deal that they could live within the park, so long as they opened their villages to tourists and engaged in the tourist trade.
After an hour and a half bus ride, this is the view that greeted us from the doors of the bus. Several dugout canoes made from the Wild Cashew tree, piloted by two Embera guides, all framed by the immensity and beauty of the Panamanian jungle. It was easy to feel as though this scene has echoed through hisitory along many of Panama's rivers, minus a few outboard motors and tourists.

After a trip along the river, gliding past villages and local Embera, the guides skillfully maneuvered our dugout into a muddy tributary. They beached their canoe on a muddy bank where they encouraged us to disembark and journey into the forrest. We were to hike along a worn path until we reached an amazing waterfall.
The whole way, I couldn't help but think back to all the time I hiked along Maryland's streams and rivers, and found it remarkable how similar they are to the stream I was hiking along in Panama. Even Rex commented that it was similar to the time he visited us and we swam in the Patapsco River. Even the geology of the area is the same, with quartz and similar types of stone.

Watching Embera guides doing some rough trailwork

Tropical Flora

A crossing in the stream
After our swim in the cool jungle waters, we returned to our dugouts and moved back into the main river to make our way to Tusipono, where we would meet with the village chief, and hear about their way of life in the jungle, as well as have lunch.

Children playing around dugouts on our way to Tusipono

This is the first view of Tusipono, as you arrive by dugout. You arrive on a grassy landing, where the villagers greet you with music played on traditional instruments such as small drums, turtle shells, and flutes. The yellowish sign at the entrance greets you to Tusipono, in Spanish.

All the houses are stilted, to keep their living spaces away from wild animals and insects. They share this jungle with spiders, venomous snakes, Jaguars, Panthers, Leaf-Cutter Ants, and numerous other creatures. These jungles are some of the most diverse on the planet.
We were free to photograph anything in the village, with the interiors of their homes being the exception. In this picture on the left hand side, you can see a slanted log. This has notches cut into it so as to be used as a ladder, which is drawn inside the house at night to prevent animals from entering while they sleep.
Cooking is done on a clay hearth within the meeting house. They use a method I have seen used by South-Eastern tribes, of putting several log ends together, like spokes on a wheel, and placing their cooking pots on top.
This is looking up into the slanted roof of the meeting house. The thatch you can see here is done with Royal Palm and lasts about 3 years. The base of the house is thatched with another kind of palm that lasts 10 years. Note the two termite nests at the very top of the roof.
Details of the lower part of the roof, these leaves last 10 years

The Embera have a number of dances that are kinds of gifts to the spirits who inhabit their world. They offer these dances to the hills, butterflys, rivers, and many other parts of the jungle they rely on. The men play instruments while the women dance and sing. Some dances are social and we were invited to dance with them.

Women dancing

Left to right: Chief, tour guide, first lady of the tribe

The Embera are skilled artisans, proficient in basketry and carving (both dense woods and even harder seeds). The baskets they are able to produce are watertight, and go for up to $300+ in Panama City. They use traditional methods and materials to produce these works of art. The birds on these shallow baskets are the Harpy Eagle, Panama's national bird, and a species you can see in the Jungle. It is an immensely powerful raptor, with a 2 meter wingspan.

Some examples of wood carvings done by the Embera

Visiting these people was a pleasure and a privilege. To walk barefoot shoulder to shoulder with Embera guides, and travel their rivers in dugouts will be one of my fondest memories of Panama. They are exceedingly friendly and open people, and you could truely feel welcome in their village.

Back in the dugout after an amazing day with the Embera

Photographs credited to Rex Budd