A Country that Connects Two Oceans (PART - 2)

A Country that Connects Two Oceans (PART - 2)
Published On: 29-Nov-2021

Speaking of native cultures, I think of the indigenous Emberá people who still live unconnected from modern civilization in villages, dotted along the banks of the river network of Panama in between thick forests. I went with a small group to tour one of the Embera villages. We drove in a van for two hours and then took a motorboat for another hour to reach there. The boat meandered its way through a tortuous river with thick forestation on both sides. The water looked peculiar, with red-brownish hues. The boat looked unstable and the water, very deep. We could hear unusual birds chirping and at times saw turtles slowly climbing to the bank. We stopped at a waterfall before reaching the village. The boatman encouraged me to go stand underneath the gushing water and get refreshed. But I preferred enjoying the sight from a distance, while listening to the soothing sound of splashing water.

A group of young Embera girls welcomed us as we reached their village. Embera people do not believe in covering their bodies. They leave their upper bodies entirely free of clothing and wear some loosely hanging items on their lower bodies to cover what must be covered. They use jewellery made of beads and shells and tattoos to beautify their bodies. Our guide walked us through the village and taught us about the Embera lifestyle. Emberá people live in open-air dwellings raised on stilts, having thatched roofs made from palm leaves. These houses are typically round and have enough room for many members of a family.

The villagers offered us lunch that consisted of scrumptious fish and plantain. Afterwards, they played their traditional drum music and danced in a circle. We watched and clapped as the girls danced. An Embera girl came, took my arm, and dragged me to join their dance. Thus, one by one, each one of us was taken by Emberas of the opposite gender for a dance. We danced with the sync of our heart, some of us got tattooed. I got one on my upper arm, which stayed there for three months before it faded.

Even though tours to Embera communities are organised in a semi-commercial way, with the whole village enacting for the tourists, it's still an insightful experience for outsiders and a good source of income for them. After eating their food, dancing to their music, and inscribing their designs on our bodies, we got back to rowing boats. The Emberas waved at us with drum rolls, as we continued the journey through the riverine network of muddy waters.

Back in Panama City, I stood underneath the building and shouted my host’s names as loud as I could, so my voice could reach the seventh floor and they would let me in. This was the protocol I was told to follow by the Argentinian couple, because the building lacked a doorbell. Later that day, Matias set his camera on the table with the timer on. Valentina, Naim, Matias and I posed for a photo. The photo was posted later by Matias with the title Con Amigo De Pakistán (With a friend from Pakistan).

Since a trip to Panama warranted a visit to the famous Panama Canal, I dedicated half a day to pay my respects to that marvel of naval engineering. I witnessed gigantic ships approaching from one side, entering the lock as the level of entrapped water rose, gradually lifting the gigantic ship with it until it reached the surface level on the other side. The opposite gates of the lock would then open to let the ship cross over between two massive oceans of the world through this man-made link. One felt overawed by the unbelievable human ability to conquer mighty nature. The feeling of awe gave way to boredom soon for how long one could keep watching ships come and go. Therefore, I took a cab to Amador Causeway, a 6-km long stretch of road that connects the city to four small islands. I rented a bicycle and rode it along the causeway’s track, making several stops to take in the views of Panama City's splendid skyline while enjoying Dulce de Leche ice-cream.  

My last stop in the Panama sojourn was the island of Bocas del Toro (literally 'Mouth of the Bull'). It is a group of exotic islands in the Caribbean Sea. The plane I took from Panama City to Bocas was the smallest I ever travelled in and had less than twenty seats. It flew low, offered stunning views of land, and water below. My hotel was only two blocks away from the tiny-village-airport, got there in ten minutes by foot. I walked past houses painted in bright colours, covered with tin roofs. Domestic chicken pecking, in the streets. It was the eve of Christmas, but the village lacked any festive-vibe. The weather was pleasantly warm. I stayed in that night, sitting in a chair laid out in the patio overlooking the street, observing the odd pedestrian passage. I imagined that most people would be at their homes with their families on Christmas eve. The hotel manager kept me accompanied until wee hours. 

Next morning, I took a motorboat from the Bocas pier to visit other surrounding islands. The wooden motorboat jumped on floating waves violently, stirring-up my internal organs. The water surface looked hard, fierce, and threatening. In half an hour, I reached Bastimentos island, where wooden buildings extended into water, built on stilts. People lay about in their hammocks drinking or reading. Everything about the place looked idyllic. I recognised a man who was in the plane with me a day before. He waved at me from his hammock. I got out of the boat and took a path leading up the hill.

I came across a sign for a café named 'Up in the Hill' during my trek on the hill. Following a path through the heavy vegetation up and down the hill, I continued following the arrow signs for that café fixed on to tree trunks. The café finally appeared at a strategic spot on the hill, giving off a serene view of the surrounding scenery. The place was also the owners' residence. Doors of the wooden houses were wide open. Shelves in the verandah were stocked with books, handmade trinkets, lotions, oils, and fragrant homemade soaps for sale. A toddler played on the floor with no adult to watch over. I realised that the circumstances assigned me the duty of watching him over, as he was slowly crawling over to the muddy sloping path. I had to lift him and bring him back to the veranda. The baby seemed cool with strangers. But as soon as I brought him back, he again crawled back to the muddy path. 

His mother finally appeared, took my order and without any verbal assurances, left me to babysit while she made coffee in her kitchen. I would have loved to be there for hours, gazing at the hills, watching over the baby, leafing through the paperbacks, sipping coffee… munching on brownies made from cocoa grown on the same hills, but I had to be back in two hours to pick my bags from the hotel and run to the airport next door to catch my onward flight to San José, Costa Rica. 

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