About a month ago I had just finished bathing and was wearing nothing but a soggy sarong as I approached the casa cultural, and much to my surprise, five members of the US military were standing at the entrance. Turned out they wanted to pay a visit to the tienda upstairs, where the women sell handmade jewelry and ¨canastas¨ (woven baskets and plates), and the men sell animals carved from cocobolo, or rosewood. At any rate, as it turns out, the military is on some humanitarian mission based out of Metetí, a little ways east on the Interamericana. ¨Center Front¨ troupes of Panamanian police, who usually man the Colombian border in the Darien Gap, have been removed from their duties and assigned to the Americans, who are required to remain unarmed. As everything east of Agua Fria is technically considered a war zone, the Americans are supposed to have armed accompaniment at all times. So, apparently they wander form village to village, building clinics and schools, while Panamanian police with assault rifles look after them.
At any rate, the troupes decided they would like to attend a indigenous festival; what they described as a situation in which ¨two tribes¨ could come together and ¨break bread¨. Thus commenced the organization of a traditional meal and danza for over 80 gringos. Obviously, this interaction was interesting for a variety of reasons; first of all, because the festival was not my first time meeting the cacique, Elivardo (one of a total of eleven for the Darien). I initially met him at a bus stop, and we talked about the climate change conference, United States foreign policy, the land problems here in the Darien, how aid is distributed ineffectively, how indigenous people are not consulted in the implementation of policies or programs that directly affect them because people with power feel they know better. At the bus stop, Elivardo was wearing jeans and a nice button up shirt, and talked extensively about how those in power should respect the emberá-wounaan as members of society. At the festival put on for the military, however, Elivardo was wearing traditional attire which had been altered for modesty, probably with the assumption that the gringos would not know the difference. His body was painted with jagua (pigment from a rainforest fruit that can take over two weeks to fully come off), but when I went upstairs in the casa cultural to get something from my room, I noticed them women drawing markings on his face in magic marker – probably so it would come off more quickly and he could continue his usual duties as cacique. The contrast between the two ways in which indigenous people must appeal to westerners is striking – at the same time that they strive for respect and to gain entrance into political processes, they must also take advantage of a growing tourist economy, which it seems more and more is one of their only viable modes for somewhat autonomous development, which they can claim without the management of outside influences.
The other central conundrum in my life recently has been the issue of where to bathe. There´s no running water in Arimae at the moment, and there hasn´t been for quite awhile. After the military fiesta there was some water left over from cooking that i was able to transport on small amounts to the enclosed area where I am used to bathing, but it slowly putrefied until I could no longer bring myself to touch it, much less bathe in it. I decided I would head to the river, but was promptly informed that it was thick with mud from all the recent rain and subsequent runoff. So I went without bathing for a couple of days, but eventually I couldn´t take it anymore. I asked what on earth I could do, and was informed that there was another river across the Interamericana, but I had to wear boots. Thus my hike to my bath commenced, through shin-deep mud. When I got to the river, which turned out to be a shallow stream filled with primarily standing water, i decided to take off my boots and venture in. I sank to my knees immediately. So I scrambled back up the bank, to find that I sank there as well. I ended up balancing precariously on banana leaves and stray branches and pouring water over myself while almost fully clothed. Needless to say, I could not have been more delighted when the larger, more accessible river got cleaner – since then, my life has improved exponentially.
Posted by Rachel Brooks-Ames — MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU