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