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Indians in Panama

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Written by Matt   
Friday, 25 January 2008 07:03
Embera Indian PanamaMy early years saw a young Matt obsessed with the modern day equivalent to Discovery Channel; this publicly broadcasted station in central New Jersey which I liked because it regularly televised groups of indigenous women in the jungle without their shirts on. So that's what a breast looks like, I thought to myself mid-pubescence, whilst staring at this flapjack-like appendage. That's quite simply the most amazing thing I have ever seen.

The value of these shows was not that they were informative nor that they offered a different cultural point of view. No. The value was that they had naked women and that alone was worth its while to me at age twelve. The practice of flipping through TV Guide at the beginning of every week became akin to putting quarters in a slot machine; crossing my fingers and simply hoping for the jackpot that would be an indian documentary marathon. Mah! Get the popcorn!

Mah! popcorn!

In reality though, the closest I ever came to indians was a lame costume I was awarded for Halloween. I had been forced to go in a homemade Dalmatian outfit the previous year and was mistaken several times for a boy with leprosy. But upon finally splurging for a store-bought costume, the indian kit was seriously inadequate. (The slim rubber string of the mask broke before we left the parking lot.)

As a twelve year-old, there was a serious disconnect between me and, say, a group of Amazonian indian teenagers. I had been riding my new TREK to school for example while they had probably been hunting down wild boar. I had improved my grade in Home Ec from a C+ to a B, and they just built their third traditional Cumeeira hut complete with moon roof.

But after becoming familiar with indians in history class and watching them on my TV shows, it humored me to consider myself as a potential fit for such a clan. While other kids my age were dreaming of playing in the NBA or becoming President, I foresaw myself doing more admirable jobs like throwing spears and mashing berries for war paint. I wanted so desperately to be taken seriously in public while wearing only a cloth around my jewels. That, to me, was truly finding oneself.

Upon arriving in Panama, my dreams were put to a halt, if only for a brief moment, when at the Tocumen Airport I discovered in a tourist magazine that tribal tattoos were a prerequisite for several of the nation's ethnic groups. Seeing as though needles and I don't get along, I figured maybe I could propose a temporary tattoo ritual: one in which all the members of my new indian family counted in unison those vital thirty seconds while the shaman man affixed a sticker to my arm. "Leave it on for a little longer", my new friends would say in their cryptic indian tongue. "If you take it off too early, it won't stick."

As my time in Panama progressed, my boyhood delusions of officially joining an indian tribe grew monumentally more realistic thanks to a small handful of thriving indigenous tribes. I'd see a specific breed of indian walking down the street, downtown Panama City, in their brightly clad outfits and want to just tackle them with love. Perfectly representative of Panamanian contrasts to me: a Kuna Indian on her cell phone at the intersection of Via Espana and Via Argentina. Amazing!

There was even a tour I went on of San Blas, where my guide spoke in broken Spanish: "Now we will take you for to have the reunion with the indians". A reunion, I thought. This is great! I'm finally going to be reunited with my people. I'd no sooner have thought I'd fly to the moon than have a reunion with the indians I'd come to know and love.

The Kunas, Emberas, Ngobe-Bugle, and Waounan are all culturally rich tribes that exist here in Panama and throughout various provinces. They maintain a great sense of independence and pride, make a wide array of beautiful handicrafts, and have not to date (at least that I know of) let a gringo in on their club. There are a bunch of tour companies that will take you to visit these indians and act out any fantasy you have. Well, not any, but if it involves dancing in circles of dirt, they can probably accommodate the best of you. While rich in tradition and history, Panama's indigenous population has fought hard to maintain autonomy; so when you visit try to show respect, make an attempt to learn, and see if any of them are looking for an extra member.
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hilarious
written by gwend. , January 25, 2008
hilariuous article matt. had me balling. keep em coming!
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ditto
written by yoshi , January 26, 2008
your articles touch a nerve deep down that makes me want to get up and do something wild like move to PANAMAA!
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Your writing.
written by Heather , June 26, 2008
Your writing of Panama makes my heart ache to move back and run topless on a beach wih a Kuna looking at me and thinking to himself "Stupid Gringo". You made me laugh, and made me want to drop everything to move back the only place I want to call home.
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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 23:07
 
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