Panama is a land steeped in history. From its mythic canal, to the leftover influence of Noriega, the country and its people are, like any culture, a product of what has come before. Our interaction with Panama was no different. We were forced to deal with and accommodate for preexisting conditions and perceptions, whether we wanted to or not.
Throughout our travels, as we went in and out of the various reservations and villages, I couldn’t help but wonder “how did all of this come to be?” We were interacting with tribes and people who had only the most basic of resources, yet they had come into possession of some odd anachronistic items. Just how did a television and DVD player come to reside in the most primitive village we saw? These were people who made canoes out of trees, and had never seen cameras like ours before. One shy child had never seen skin color like ours. And yet, another little girl proudly wore a shirt ironically bearing the message “spend your money on me!” Several clothes looked like they were clearly pulled out of the church donation box. How did a boy’s old little league shirt make it all the way down to this remote village in Panama?
I was even more fascinated by the architecture. Who built this concrete bridge in the middle of this reservation? How did one village come to reside directly next to a landfill? Who built this church? The people in that primitive village said they had only been there for 40 days… Did I hear that right? How did they come to live there, and who built all of these huts and shacks? Such are the questions that plagued my mind everywhere we went. As indigenous peoples, these tribes are direct descendants of those who first settled in Panama. The mythology of how and where they came to be where they are now is both fascinating and mysterious to me.
But perhaps the most interesting thing to consider is the various groups previous relations with white visitors like ourselves. Several of the villages we visited were wary of us, because they had been taken advantage of in the past. Apparently, similar camera crews came into their homes, take pictures and video, and offering promises of a better life. But that better life never came. The people disappeared, apparently selling the footage and photography for their personal profit. So naturally, these people did not want to be exploited again. One man said that if we really wanted to help them, we should live in the village for a month, helping in daily tasks. With others, we had to pay for the privilege of photography. Although these indigenous tribes may not know the phrase in English, it seems they are intimately familiar with the notion that those who do not learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.