We emerged out of the jungle on horseback and decended to the small Kuna village along the river. The Kuna are an indigenous group in Eastern Panama steeped in tradition. This community is especially cut off from the outside world. We'd traveled nearly five hours on horseback from the nearest volunteer's house. As we approached the community we could see a soccer game in progress, but were immediately cut of by the Kuna welcome commitee, which consists of 5 grumpy looking men asking, "What are you doing here." A fair question.
Orlando is a successful cacao farmer from the Bocas Del Toro region, he was invited to come share his knowledge to with the community as they begin a reforestation project using cacao. Domingo, who bears a striking resemblence to Jackie Chan, is a Kuna naturalist, born in the San Blas region and well educated, he is our interpreter. The three Americans that tagged along didn't have nearly as concrete reasons for being there. Mateo is the closest Peace Corps Volunteer to the community, and was asked by the UN to assist with some of the paperwork for the project down the road. Alan had come to help survey for an aqueduct project in another town, and I was there to learn about reforestation with cacao, to see if it's a method that can be used in Maje, where I live. You'll notice that 2/3 of the Americans are named Alan, which became a little confusing for everyone involved.
Though we'd called ahead and told the only guy in town that speaks spanish we were coming, they still seemed a little suprised by our presence. The chief said that after the party that night, we'd have a meeting, and get everything sorted out.
That was all appartently accurately translated, because sure enough, there was a party that night. They had an awards ceremony for the soccer tournament, skits complete with acrobatic stunts, and karaoke, all of which was in tule, the Kuna language. Midway through the karaoke, we got word that the meeting wouldn't be until the following morning. So I decided to call it a night and went and laid down in my hammock.
The next morning I was awoken by three gorgeous young women standing in the doorway. They were talking amoungst themselves and giggling. "Como te llama?" we asked... giggles. Finally Mateo found his paper with phrases in tule "Beikeni ginika" They finally responded with their names. They weren't being flirty, or difficult, they just didn't understand a word of Spanish. Here we are, three single Americans, in an exotic place, with now way to communicate with the local women. Mateo asked "Bei igi birga?", or "how old are you," They said 16... it's probably best that we weren't able to communicate.
That morning, we had the first meeting to decide what exactly we were going to be doing there. The meeting house was basically a larger version of the regular houses, with palm thatch roof, strips of palm bark as walls, and hammocks hanging everywhere. There were benches to sit on along the sides of the hut, In the center hung several hammocks with benches towards the foot and head of the hammocks. This was the "throne" of the chiefs. The chiefs laid in the hammocks, and asked questions, and rested his eyes while we explained our mission there and how we would go about working. We sat on the bench at the foot of the hammocks, and other community leaders sat on the bench at the head. The benches along the walls were filled with other spectators. As we exited the meeting to go out to the fields. Far off in the distance, I heard beating drums. The music was captivating, though primitive. The melody was simple but, catchy, even familiar. It was as if this song spoke to the most primal part of my soul, identified with what makes me human, and called for me to dance. Little by little I began to hear the words... "I got a feeling, that tonight's gonna be a good night." The Black Eyed Peas, had followed us to the middle of nowhere.
I tried to avoid the house we were staying in as much as possible. The owner was a nice enough guy, but he was a chief, and wasn't around much, and when he left his wife yelled at me in tule, and there was rarely anyone to interpret, so she'd repeat, getting louder, until it was like a chant, getting closer and closer to me, sometime shaking hammocks, or slapping her thighs, it was terrifying. I felt like an evil gypsy was putting a curse on me. We brought all our food, but needed a place to cook it. So they let us use their fire. We cooked mostly pasta, because it was easy, whenever possible I shared what I could with our hosts, but we didn't bring enough to feed the 13 neighbor children who were also part of the family, and our food was gross to them. One time as I was boiling pasta, the mother in law of the chief started chanting at me, slapping her hips, then she started slapping my hips, and finally I was able to pick out some words of what she was saying. Chanting "Mani, Mani, Mani". The tule word for money. She was slapping my hips saying that I have money, I'm an american, I should give it to her. Mateo told her "Mani Sate" or we don't have money, and she backed off. This continued to be the trend whenever we were in the house. At one point, Alan was cooking and asked for a rag to pick up the pot. The women started yelling something at him, and the teenage son finally translated, "they want you to buy the rag." I let him borrow my towel, and spent as much time as possible outside the house.
Part of our time outside the house was visiting fields, part was interviewing community elders, to find out which trees are native to the area, and which were brought from other areas. It was custom to pay a few bucks for the interview, which seemed odd to me, because it was for a community project directly benefitting them, but it was the most effective way to get information. When we tried interviewing the oldest woman in town she wanted $10, and she would give us her entire life story, which I'm sure was very interesting, but wasn't the information we wanted. Then her son came in, he did know quite a bit about where the native trees were, and how to get there, but then he wanted to show us his dolls. We went into another hut, and there were tons of dolls carved out of balsa wood. We asked about them. He's a medicine man, and uses the dolls in healing rituals. Orlando pointed out that some of the dolls were as tall as me, and I pointed out that they white too, and that makes me very nervous.
Next to the the dolls were several airplanes and helicopters also carved from balsa, though given the setting, much more puzzling. So we asked what are the airplanes for. He said when someone's sick he uses the airplanes to hover above them collecting the bad spirits.
All in all the trip to Nurra was an interesting look at a starkly different culture. Though I never felt comfortable in the house we stayed, there were glimmers of hospitality. They were very generous with the corn drink they made. The first time they offered it to us. they gave us one glass for the three of us. So Mateo took a sip, and passed around Alan sipped and passed it to me. When it was my turn the women started yelling again, and Alan tells me they want me to chug it. Out of fear, I chug the glass at once, and they went to get more, and give it back to Mateo to chug the whole glass. It actually went down smooth, and so whenever they offered us corn drink we'd all chug the whole glass at once, because that was apparently how you are supposed to do it. When they'd yelled at us earlier, they were just trying to say, "We just have one glass, so go a head and drink it up so we can serve your friends." All the yelling just added to the confusion and made it a more stressful situation. Us not feeling comfortable in the house, wasn't because they were bad people, or we were bad people; more than anything, a failure to communicate.
So said Domingo our Kuna translator who looks like Jackie Chan. He said that the Kuna are a very misunderstood people. They have been used and mistreated by the Spanish explorers, and then the panamanian government, that they have put their guard up more than any other ethnic group. They've also organized themselves much more than any other ethnic group. For us Peace Corps volunteers, it's so different from anything else we've experienced in Panama. Everywhere else I've gone in Panama, they people treat foriegners like royalty, but the Kuna are very suspicious of foreigners. Jackie Chan continued to tell a story about a tourism student, who had recently graduated. He asked her what region of Panama she wanted to work in. She said she doesn't care, as long as she doesn't have to deal with the Kuna. He asked why she said that. She replied, "They're unfriendly, and plus, they make their corn drink by chewing up dried corn in their mouth and spitting it into a big pot."
So misunderstood or not, I will not be going back anytime soon.