Up at 6am to prepare for our longest day yet (besides our travel day).
We arrived in the Embera-Wounan village after a 2.5-hour car ride through the country. We were in the mountainous region of the country, amid farms and thick vegetation. And let me tell you, this part of the country is miserably hot. When they say Panama has a tropical climate, they aren’t joking. As soon as we arrived in the village, we were ushered into an open-air church. It had wooden planks that served as walls and a cement floor and a tin roof overhead. Villagers gathered in the church to give us a big warm welcome. The minister of the village stood at the front, giving commands in Spanish. Children were scattered around the structure. The villagers were very friendly, one old woman stood up to shake each of our hands and greet us. She wore a bright green skirt and a yellow top, which is traditional dress for this culture.
The minister explained to the villagers that we were there to share their experiences and stories with the world. As he spoke, I watched a baby boy entertain himself by running around the Church and climbing over the wooden pews. As I looked around I realized all of the women are wearing traditional skirts in bright colors and vibrant patterns– an homage to their rich cultural past. The minister called people to the front of the room to introduce some of the villagers who are in need of help. He went on and on in Spanish, as Victoria tried to memorize their stories to translate to us later.
The minister introduced us to a little boy who has only one arm, an older gentleman who is deaf, a young boy who is mute, and a young girl who is deaf. Victoria explained that the community desperately wants to better themselves but they do not have the resources to do so. They especially want to be able to send the children to special schools so they can attain an education.
The minister thanked us and the villagers began to applaud us for our service to them. Their gratitude is heartwarming. They are faithful people and they feel that our presence here is a sign from God that their condition will soon improve. As I sat and watched their hopeful faces, I hoped they were right.
As we went around the village, visiting with families in need of assistance, I was touched by their hospitality. These people have so little and yet they used all the resources they could to make us feel at home and welcome in their community. The mothers are in dire circumstances, but they all smiled at us and offered us whatever they could to make us more comfortable.
While the visual team was taking photos and video of some of the cultural artifacts around the village, I decided to make friends with a group of girls who were decorating their hair with beautiful pink flowers. I used my best Spanish to introduce myself, which they found hilarious as they mimicked my accent. They were sweet girls and I tried to teach them a few English words, like their names translated to their American versions and “beautiful” for “bonita.” They laughed at each other as they clumsily tried to pronounce the words.
They offered me a flower to put into my hair, which I readily accepted. “Bonita!” one of the girls exclaimed, although I’m sure to her I actually looked like a pale alien. I asked the girls to pose for a picture and when I showed them the image on my digital camera they giggled endlessly at their appearances. I was glad to have made some friends in the village, and to have received a gift from them, despite the language barrier.
After we visited with all of the families, we sat down to watch a traditional dance performed by the young girls and their mothers. They all laughed because of their stage fright and shyness but they performed their dances by stepping and keeping beat by banging an empty orange juice carton.
After the dance, the villagers fed us a lunch of rice, beans, and chickens. We were all a little afraid to eat the food because of our weak American stomachs, but out of politeness we tried it anyway, and it was actually pretty good. Again, I was struck by their generosity. Our group saw other chickens wandering around the yard and we joked that they would be tomorrow’s lunch, even though we knew the joke was not too far from the truth.
Despite the rural and primitive conditions, it is interesting how Westernized these people still are. They served us coke and fresca with our lunch. Victoria explained that they were using their fanciest manners by serving us our food in bowls with spoons. Usually, they eat with their hands out of the pot.
After lunch I had to brave the bathroom. The village had no indoor plumbing, so I was taken by one of the women into an outhouse, where they tried to explain to me in Spanish how the toilet worked. To put it bluntly, there was a hole for #1 and a hole for #2. The “toilet” was a cement structure with a partition in the middle separating the two holes. My thighs got a great workout as I squatted above it, making sure I was careful not to let any part of my body touch the structure. Needless to say, there was no toilet paper option in sight.
I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it because the family was very kind to allow me to use their facilities. I thanked them politely in Spanish and when I walked back into the room with the rest of the group, I told them “It was fine.”
My favorite part of the day was after lunch, when one of the women came out with one of the traditional tribal skirts. She motioned me over and held it out to me to try on. I thanked her and let her wrap it around me. The rest of the group laughed because of all the attention I was getting. I’m sure it’s because they hadn’t ever met anyone with strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes, and freckles, before. I posed for pictures with the women and then one of the older ladies pulled out more skirts for all of the girls in our group to try on. We all laughed together and posed for pictures as they teased us about how it was our turn to dance for them.
We were very sad to leave the village and our new friends. The team was able to capture a lot of great footage and photos throughout the day. As we were leaving I commented that meeting those women, who were so full of laughter, smiles, and hospitality, was well worth getting up at 6am that morning. These were some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met, despite their primitive environment. I realized that friends can be made in the most unlikely of places.
During our trip home, we made a pit stop at a Kunas village. Randy, Victoria, and Delberto left the van to ask for permission to enter the village from the chiefs. The rest of us sat in the van and ate snacks and waited… and waited… and waited. An hour went by before the trio came back with the answer. Apparently there was a very heated discussion among the Kunas as to whether or not we should be allowed in with our equipment. The 4 chiefs finally decided that it would be all right to come back Wednesday and shoot. I don’t know how an experience could top today’s but I know we are all looking forward to working with the Kunas later this week.
Tomorrow is another day in the field but it should be shorter than our 10.5-hour day we had today. We are all exhausted and I know we are looking forward to going to bed in just a few hours!