Emberá: The Indigenous Encounter

October 16, 2011
Emberá: The Indigenous Encounter.

In Thursday’s lecture at my university here, FSU-Panamá, I listened to my opinionated professor tell us that the natives of Panama were awful cooks.

“If I walk into a restaurant and see that they have an Indian man as a cook, I will leave immediately,” he told us.

I heard that, and then I heard from our program director that the following day, we’d be taking a tour to the Emberá native village about 45 minutes away. She also told us that they’d be cooking lunch for us.

Heeding my professor’s warning, I brought a granola bar and a bag of Spicy Nacho Doritos with me just in case they actually weren’t the best chefs.

The morning of, we all crammed into a bus and headed to the Emberá village to find a canoe waiting for us. “Five to seven minute boat ride,” our guide explained.

Nevertheless, I did it Emberá style. And, I mean, I brought my umbrella, so I was covered.

No sooner had those words been spoken, thunder sounded, lightning flashed, and I started to feel a certain way about being in the middle of a jungle, sharing a little canoe with over a dozen inhabitants with a storm coming.

Emberá: The Indigenous Encounter
Delicious food in Emberá

Nevertheless, I did it Emberá style. And, I mean, I brought my umbrella, so I was covered.

Five to seven minutes later, as promised, we arrived to the Emberá village, soaked.

We ran up a steep hill to get out of the rain (thank goodness I wore combat boots), and first thing was first: documentation was necessary. We all stopped to pose under the shade of the hut when, out of nowhere, two of the cutest little children come running out to greet us.

As soon as I picked one of the little ones up, I knew it was going to be a good day. I even shared my Glamour magazines with them, and that doesn’t happen very often.

Speaking of Glamour and fashion…I, of course, found something fashionable about the Emberá. The attirefor women is a chaquira (like a bikini-top) around their chests and a scarf (like a skirt) around their waists. I fell in love with the chaquiras; sadly, they were the only things I couldn’t buy, along with the little children. So no, I won’t be seen on the beaches of Panama in an original hand-beaded bikini. They probably don’t work well to be worn as swimwear anyway. Not that I go to the beach to swim. I digress.

I even shared my Glamour magazines with them, and that doesn’t happen very often.

The Emberá are an efficient and self-sufficient people. They produce their own woven baskets, plates, and masks to sell to tourists and to keep for themselves. They produce their own dye that they use for their hair and their woven pieces. They build their own houses, they hunt, fish, and harvest their own food. And they’re bilingual as well, speaking Spanish and another native language.

Emberá: The Indigenous Encounter
An Emberá woman

The only thing they don’t do, apparently, is paddle their own canoes (ours had a motor).

This particular Emberá community has a woman president. (Upon learning this news, I screamed, “Girl Power!”–just like a Spice Girl.) La Presidenta filled us in on all the Emberá customs, traditions, and ways of life.

And then, they fed us.

I plan to give my professor a piece of my mind when I have his class again. This was some of the best Tilapia and Patacones I have ever had. For dessert, we had fruit: pineapple, papaya, and watermelon.

And after dessert, we danced. I kicked it Emberá style.


Emberá: The Indigenous Encounter

About Sierra Leone Starks

Sierra Leone Starks is a multimedia journalist, fashion blogger, and social media junkie. Her work can be found on the print and web pages of some pretty fabulous women’s and lifestyle magazines and her footprints have graced numerous states and landed in several Latin American countries. Following her last extended stay abroad, she now lives by the motto, “If I made it through Panama, I can make it through anything.”

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