Chagres National Park Stories and Tips

Bare Truthes -- Exposing the Emberas

One hell of a holiday... Photo, Chagres National Park, Panama

Usually game for anything, I eagerly accepted Lucho's offer to visit friends after returning to Panamá City. Initial travel plans had changed with his relocation to Boquete, and while there were no disappointments, now was opportunity to sample what had originally comprised itinerary.

Exploring the National Parks, sprawling between the Pacific and Caribbean, held greatest significance. Recognizing my cultural pursuits, Lucho had also promised to base some of these activities while staying in an Emberá village. Perhaps an extended rendition would've cultivated a bit more appreciation.

Passion and romance are sustained with ongoing relationship; not in-and-out quickies but that's what I got - the kind of instant gratification that leaves one questioning, unfulfilled, and in this case, certainly not convinced! Impressions are what they were, and I assume full accountability for cynicism that still run as shallow as the Chagres River in April. Even worse, confessions may unnecessarily jade future day-trippers.

There's no faulting the Emberas trying to survive by welcoming in the outside world. That is unless failing to realize that contemporary exposure has, and will continue to compromise the very things they promote - a primitive civilization existing as they have for generations. Otherwise, there's no stopping progress; even in realms of the Panamanian jungle.

Indigenous Gestures, Village Jesters
Throughout morning explorations, Lucho had been on his cellphone shoring-up arrangements for later visiting the village. Arriving at Madden Lake, there were no docks or official places of business. People were scattered along the riverbanks, enjoying this holiday Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.

Immersing into the exotic sprawl, another quick call confirmed boat was on its way, and yes -- the Emberas had cellphones. That accepted given didn't even register until seeing an approaching botey, which turned out to be contacts Lucho had been speaking with. Clad in the skimpiest of loin-cloths, first quandary was wondering exactly where they'd stashed the cellphone?

Contradiction was quickly superseded by thrill of the adventure. At this point, I wrote-off uneasy feeling to extreme rockings of the botey and fears of loosing backpack and camera to unknown depths. Ride to the village wasn't far, and land promised to calm skittishness. Little did I know that back in those same tumultuous waters would provide saving graces for the day.

I came expecting to casually hang-out with Lucho's friends; not be a one-man tour! Cresting the hill to find entire village rushing to greet me was cause enough for immediate retreat. Lucho must have sensed my hesitancy and encouraged, "Enjoy this man, it's all just for you." Well I didn't, and quite honestly got the feeling many of them didn't either.

As a long-time employee serving the public sector, let's just say it takes one to know one, and I immediately recognized people reluctantly going through the motions. Yep, been there, done that. For them, this wasn't just another day in paradise but a holiday weekend when everyone else was out enjoying leisure activities along the river.

Others didn't have to "work" and that's exactly what this was, where general problems always conceive; especially regarding cultural presentations deemed to be authentic. Home is supposed to be a sheltered haven; not something that's put under a magna fine glass for anyone to scrutinize. Compounded with the exploitation factor, that was enough right there to make me feel uncomfortable.

At least I wasn't the only inconvenience. A couple of Tica divas had earlier arrived with a guide. Their upstaging efforts to never relinquish spotlight only sabotaged optimism. Preference for becoming a fly on the palm-thatched wall is where critical surveillance likely stemmed from, though this entire far-fetched milieu was beyond discernment.

In the Flesh...
As the American way, when all else fails, find someone to blame and I thank Randy Swensen for spoiling this predicament. Taboo of this whole scenario must have originated from his obscene show-and-tell revealed in a playground corner. For a group of inquiring 4th graders, National Geographic was our enlightenment to "boobies", that cost a week's worth of recesses to write 'I will not...'-sentences. Now, here I am years later; writing an exposé after gawking again.

Even harder to ignore were tribe members not letting it all hang out. Most were in their teens and 20s; conceivably modest or a measure to curb raging hormones. However, they were also the ones appearing "checked-out" like myself. Asserting independence, usually tempered with a touch of rebellion, tends to dictate social demographics of this age-range, regardless.

I truly sympathized, and would've spontaneously joined them at the river to find out where their generation was headed; not where ancestors had been. Modern society awaits beyond the Madden Lake pick-up point; Panamá City just an hour away. Turns out, the Emberas are by no means sequestered or discriminately impoverished.

According to Lucho, many of those disengaged young people were college graduates. It was also discreetly confirmed that all those others out enjoying the river, wearing appropriate wardrobe, were Emberas living within the park! As an outsider looking in, this only fueled second-guessing of credibility; tourism now a viable cash cow that was anything but sacred.

Sorely regrettable, a couple of hours wasn't enough to surpass the impetuous label of "tourist trap". This might have been an indigenous village out in the jungle, but presentation felt more like a theme park stage where employees had shown-up for work, gotten into costume, and were waiting to clock-out and leave shortly after I did. Notion was bolstered when passing an even larger settlement further up-river, completely abandoned without even traces of flailing laundry.

Discrepancies in projected lifestyle were also too perplexing. Jagua fruit juice is used as a natural insect repellent and absorbed curative. Emberas stain themselves, scripting in tattoo-like designs. For holding such importance, only one tribe member was blotched; a young lad whom possibly drew short stick for the day? No explanations were given or needed about white pit-marks from deodorant.

Another orientation segment included details for artwork, and tour ended at a crafts market with tables piled-high. Unless some pieces were prehistoric relics made by previous generations, there's no way people in that village could've made all those things based on the effort each item required. Of course, "said" time involved ultimately dictated the price ranges.

I may have bought two things, but I wasn't buying much of anything else. The show was over, and tribe scattered to whatever they really do. Bowing out of conversation with Lucho and his friends, permission was given to walk around. Guilt, for being so cynical, became my only escort.

These people really had opened their communal village to the outside world. The incomprehensible was now beginning to make sense along rows of stilted shacks, with thatched roofs and caned walls shadowing meager possessions. Intrigue was cultivated from the mundane elements of everyday life which held no entertainment value; not some 2-hour primal orgy catering to tourists.

Determinants resolved that the only way to thoroughly embrace the Emberá would require an extended stay. I'm all about the humble lifestyle, which obviously fostered a very close-knit community. If it kept all those young people from defecting to realms beyond, then there had to be something more worth coming back to experience.

Centerfold; the Final Encore
Lucho's familiar birdcall signalled it was time to go. Thankful for the change of heart, I headed back to hear children playing inside one of the huts. Mutual curiosities led to small talk, and realizing extravagance of a National Geographic-inspired photo.

Eager to oblige, the kids got all serious clustering around the entry. "¿Dónde están sus sonrisas?" Where are your smiles, accompanied with a goofy expression of my own, stirred laughter that again quickly disappeared when aiming camera. Trying to work with what I had, who knew that the defining, tell-tale moment was about to be unleashed.

Teenage girl, second from the left, yelled to wait and suddenly ripped-off her top! Apparently, she'd almost forgotten her cue. Yes, no different than squelched animations of the children despondently posing for the camera. Well-rehearsed performers to the end; every last one of them, though the one shorty had forgotten his Swatch.

This whole jungle thing was nothing more than some apeshit caper, and here I was; the big green banana! It pissed me off to think the most costly thing I'd done in Panamá was this farce. Ever the American critic, Lucho would later seemed shocked by these affronts a Latino would never bother to notice; little alone dare mention.

I'm sure these were very nice people but sincerity on every level was definitely compromised. Perhaps it was just this tribe, or location, or time factor. Nevertheless, even with all these disavowals, I still think it's worth a second chance to delve a little deeper trying to somehow connect. What's there to loose, right? When I've had enough, at least a cellphone will be available for calling a ride.

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