My time in Armila, an indigenous Guna Yala village, was made possible by the La Wayaka Current artist residency.
In this photo above, continuing straight (right) down the path, you will end up at Nacho's house, our host in the village, the cultural liaison for Armila. That is where we ate all our meals graciously prepared by his family. Turning left, just past the edge of the first hut is the "internet cafe" and the only convenience store in town with a cooler, run by a generator. I never used the internet, it apparently only worked with a phone and was apparently so slow if more than 2 or 3 people were using it at the same time that it might take half an hour for one text to go through. I didn't come to Armila to be in touch with Colorado, so I never used the service.
But I did go to the store nearly every day to buy a cool (not quite cold) coke for one dollar. The store was run by the oldest man in town. Even though he knew I was there to buy a coke, he never got up out of his chair outside the door until I had gotten it from the cooler and showed him I was ready to pay. Then I had to wait inside the unbearably hot and stuffy hut which had no windows, no air movement at all, because the door faced into the corridor where there was no breeze. I had to wait for him to shuffle ever so slowly around the end of the long counter to his cash drawer. I tried very hard to have exact change, because if I didn't, then I had to wait for him to make change, which often involved shuffling into a back room and shuffling back out. I felt like I was in that Carol Burnett Show sketch with Tim Conway, "The Oldest Man." I could feel the cool coke warming by the second as I waited for change, sweat pouring down my temples. Clearly he was not at all bothered by the heat. I tried to shortcut the process by showing him I had exactly one dollar and handing it to him while he was in his chair, but he preferred to conduct the transaction behind the long counter. If his grandson (I'm presuming, a younger guy) was there, he thankfully would take my coin on the spot.
There were a number of houses throughout the village that sold individual items, perhaps coke or juice or eggs.
This convenience store did not have a cooler, just sold dry goods, candy and cleaning products.
Each Guna village creates their own rules and regulations regarding alcohol. In Armila, the town decided that only beer could be sold and only on the weekend. Although foreign guests were not expected to follow the rule, it would be rude to drink in public during the week. The oldest man wouldn't sell us beer outside of the weekend, we tried. But we found another place that was kind of like a restaurant, with a cooler of very cold beer. Heaven! It was right next to the beach, so it could service tourists camping on the beach. They happily sold us beer, however on the weekdays we had to put it in a backpack to carry "secretly" back to our hut to drink. No, we're not desperate alcoholics, but most of us are used to a cold beer or cocktail at the end of the day, and it was nice to keep up one familiar tradition in the middle of this very foreign village and culture.
We learned so much and there were so many note-worthy scenes that I witnessed in the village, it's hard to select which ones to share ... for to share it all would be a novelette. But perhaps it's worth starting with the story of Armila village itself. First, let me explain briefly the Guna Yala territory. It's not something the Panamanian government gave to the Guna people or that the Guna negotiated for. After years of fighting against Panama after it declared its borders, which included within the traditional Guna homeland, the government ceased fighting them but cut them off from all aid and communication, isolating them for about 10 years as a form of sanctions. But the Guna could survive just fine without the government because they still had all their traditional knowledge and skills. Panama eventually said there couldn’t be one country (Guna) inside another, so the Guna agreed to join Panama on the condition they have their own land, written into the constitution, and nobody could tell them what to do with or on that land.
The Guna decided among themselves that they needed to know three things in order to work with the government and not be tricked or taken advantage of by them: learn the Spanish language, know the Spanish religion, acquire a general education. So they started to send kids to school in Panama City and build schools in their own villages. They learned Catholicism so they could know what is was about and not be told lies. Know thine enemy. Now they're lobbying to become an autonomous economy, as they already have their own land, culture and religion, now they want their own economy. In the village schools they continue to teach Kuna language so it doesn’t get eradicated. They are stepping further and further into the global community, allowing more and more tourism, but unlike a lot of traditional cultures in their twilight, they still understand the value in their unique culture, language and belief system.
The name "Armila" is a combo of the Kuna names for iguana and a type of fish that used to be common in the river. Seven families in 1890 started the community. They used to live several hours by boat down the coast, but they were always coming here to fish and get food, so finally they decided to move here. So seven families came together. The village was originally a few kilometers away until 1943, when a tsunami came and wiped out that village site, so they moved and set up here. Then other people started to come from other places to this little Edenic location. So for 50 years it was just the seven families, and now about 600 people live here, and another 300 or so who call Armila home are living in Panama City. Both Nacho and Gladys’s families were of the original seven. The oldest man, who runs convenience shop, is the last person in the village to have lived in the pre-1943 village.
Well, how about a little tour through the village past some of my favorite huts. I loved the smoke seeping out of the thatched roofs, from cooking inside of huts, the heat and smoke of the cooking fires. (This is the left building in the above pic.)
If you have followed me for awhile, you may have figured out that I love kitty cats, so it's a special delight whenever I come across them traveling. I might travel more often (assuming I could afford to) if I didn't miss my own kitties so much when I'm away. Erik and I both have been guilty of luring kitty cats into our hotel and hostel rooms while traveling in order to play and cuddle with them. So I'm a giant hypocrite when I ask guests renting my own guest studio to please not let my kitties inside, haha. I try to keep pet hair out of it. (Want to stay with me in Colorado? Rent my studio!)
There weren't many kitties to be found in Armila. But there were a few ... allow me to share. We were surprised to look up and find this creative cat nestled in the rafters of the other residency hut (not the one I lived one).
I chased down this kitty for awhile through the forest before it stopped long enough for me to snap a picture. A random plastic elephant in the bottom corner.
This sweet little thing appeared to live in the house behind us, or at least it enjoyed stretching out on the concrete slab that made for their front porch.
But the only cats I ever really got to pet were Manuel's. Manuel is the sahila who gave us the hardwood protective "charms" in a special ceremony in his hut. Our guide Eduardo made a habit of visiting him nearly every day at his hut. He had a nice outdoor space, kind of analogous to a gazebo -- some benches and hammocks arranged in the shade under a large tent top. Manuel was one of the first people to really open up to the residency idea and participants. So one day I asked Eduardo if I could go with him when he visited Manuel. I had a very interesting time there, but the best thing was that I got to sit on a bench next to three very friendly and cuddly kitty cats.
I petted them nearly the whole time, so it was clear I liked them, and when Eduardo and I got up to leave, Manuel told me I could come by and pet the kitties any day. So I did. His house was on the way to the jungle creek that I often visited. They were always there in the shade, and I did take the opportunity to gather some kitty love. But let me tell you about some of the conversation with Manuel that involved local cures of illness, as I thought it was interesting. As a spiritual leader and healer, he collects traditional remedies from the forest. Although now, he is getting too old to tromp through the forest as he used to, and has a young apprentice.
For stomach pains and diarrhea, he said one cure is simply river clay, like we’d been collecting for Gloria and Judith to sculpt with, mixed with water. He showed us a pot that he had sitting nearby, it looked like it was just filled with mud. He lifted the pot to his mouth and took a swig of it to show us. I thought surely had hadn't just drunk mud, it must be more than that. But nope, just clay and water, he said.
Then he told about mixtures they make with the milk of trees. When you cut them with a machete, certain trees, including plantain trees, leak milk (like a milkweed does), and they collect this milk in bottles and keep some at home whenever they need it. For stomach and digestion issues, they add a bunch of fire ants, crushed up, to the milk and boil it. I guess maybe it’s a similar thing to how in India they use cayenne pepper as a heat element, but here they use fire ants! Manuel said pregnant women can’t drink this ant mixture, though, it’s bad for them. But they have something they can give to a woman giving birth to help the baby come out, which is the fruit of the cacao tree sliced and soaked in water. The slices look like little florets. We touched one in a pot of water and it was super slimy. Like, really slimy. Coat a baby in this stuff and it would definitely lubricate it for delivery!
Villagers also let fire ants bite them as a cure for a serious illness, even for cancer, and to make them stronger. They stick their hand or foot into a hole filled with the ants and let the ants bite them. Manuel told us that he had done it himself for something he had been diagnosed with by a doctor of Western practice. But instead of using Western medicine or treatment, he came home and communed several times with the biting fire ants. As an indication of how painful it is, this is also sometimes used as a punishment -- to put fire ants on someone.
The other place that I saw Manuel was when we were allowed to attend a spiritual congress in the big congress house. We were asked to wear the traditional outfits while inside the congress that we had all borrowed for the turtle festival. There are different types of congresses, so that ultimately there is one nearly every night. One kind is for making decisions and policies about the village by vote, another is kind of analogous to going to church. There are no preachers, sermons, books, hymns, dances, no mandate to sit still or be silent.
The congress house is a large one-room hut full of wooden pews, low and slanted backward so that it would be easy to lean back and fall asleep, which a number of women had done. Some women were working on sewing molas with a torch flashlight on their head. Some were holding children, some sleeping or dozing. Men sat around the edges of the house. Men, women, children come and go casually, one doesn't have to be present from the beginning till the end.
The sahilas and “interpreters” sit in the middle of the hut, the sahilas in hammocks. Manuel sang stories, like how he sang for the heartwood “ceremony” for us. And after every so many “bars” of singing, a second sahila (Carlos) would sing a 4-note sliding descent, which was saying basically, “right” or “that’s the truth” kind of thing. At one point another sahila yelled, or more like shrieked, out loud, and apparently he usually adds more things like that throughout the songs, but he only did it once.
So in the spiritual congresses, the sahilas sing what are basically parables -- stories that tell a moral to the audience, or counsel a way of behaving. The interpreters sort of summarize what the sahilas are singing to the audience. Later that night, Nacho explained to us what that night's song was about, as he is one of the interpreters. I won't give you the whole tale, but basically: be hospitable to strangers and kind to your neighbors.
There were also a couple little puppies that hung around Manuel's place, but I'm not sure if they were his family's.
Dogs were generally well taken care of, except they did not seem to have a cure for the fleas. But just like it's often said you can judge a person by the way they treat animals, I think this is basically true of cultures, as well -- how they treat domestic animals. I often saw people washing their dogs with soap in the river. They were sometimes at the helm of canoes as people paddled them up and down the river. Although there were quite a few running around the village, there did not seem to be an overpopulation of dogs like I've seen in other rural areas of the world. The ones in Armila seemed to all belong to someone as their pet. I remember places in Africa, Brazil, and other countries, where I've seen children beating dogs with sticks, and adults yelling and shooing them as if they were vermin. Never saw that here.
The children might not have been monsters to the canines and felines of the village, but I started to call it The Monster Hour at about 5:00 p.m., when the kids started going nuts around us. It was this palpable frenetic energy from kids who came around. Once Jeffry started working on his shoe design on our fence, and Yoon and Chung were working on their bottle cap flag, the kids often clung to them, charting their progress, poking their creations, begging for photos. Other times they would just run around our courtyard doing cartwheels or pushing each other around like wheelbarrows, crab walking, just all kinds of silly antics. One evening, several of them sang a bunch of songs for me and recited their pledge of allegiance (I tried my best to member ours to say in return).
Another time two girls went completely manic over the touch screen on my laptop, as I was sitting outside, just about to make some journal entries when, as always, they came out of nowhere. I specifically looked around to make sure I was alone, and within probably a minute, no more than two, these girls showed up. I was showing them photos I had taken around the village. They loved the butterflies and leaves on water, but laughed themselves into hysterics over some of the pictures that included people. They kept zooming in and out by moving their fingers in and out on the touch screen. They so much loved zooming in on the butt of a man fishing from his canoe that they called over a couple of other passing kids to look. They scrolled through the photos at warp speed, practically paddling across the touch screen with their hands, and pushing the keyboard buttons that I said they could (mostly just the arrow buttons) so crazily that I thought they might break them. I finally had to insist that I had to go eat my dinner (though it was still a couple hours away), as I was beginning to fear for the welfare of my laptop. So I came back inside and had to use soap and water to clean the screen that was just a giant smudge of dirty fingerprints.
One evening, these lovely girls came up to me as I sat in a chair in our courtyard. I was scrolling through some photos I'd taken on my phone camera and they asked if I would take their picture. I decided to get my real camera instead, which pleased them. It was almost dusk, the light was tough, but I got a few of these extremely well-composed and serious girls. They never wanted to smile. Even after they reviewed the first few pics I took, they wanted more but they wanted to maintain their serious expressions and poses. It was a welcome refreshment from the other children who usually stretched the skin on their faces trying to smile big enough, haha. Don't get me wrong, I love the smiles. But it was also fun to capture some more serious poses.
This boy had been climbing the hibiscus tree beside our courtyard. I mainly took his picture to distract him from pulling off all the pretty flowers and breaking the branches that were bowing under his weight!
The hibiscus the boy was climbing was much, much smaller than this one, but this is a typical hibiscus tree around the village. Absolutely gigantic ... I can barely manage to keep one in a small pot at home. I think they have such cheerful flowers.
I have learned to greatly enjoy young children of another language. When you talk with kids who speak your own, even if they are just toddlers, even if they are pre-speaking themselves, you still feel compelled to make some sort of sense with your words, right? I do, anyway. Even if they're silly, inane sentences or questions, and I say them over and over, I still feel they must be vaguely sensical, and so I have to put a little thought into saying something. With kids who don't speak English, I can say literally whatever comes into my head, it need not make one wit of sense. It's all about the tone of voice, smiling, and gestures. I can say to them in a playful, friendly tone, with the universal "toddler lilt," down on my knees with a smile, "Whose pickles are in the train station? Are those your pickles? Blue dots smell lovely, don't you think? My, what a purple ball!" It's all good, we're total friends. I don't have to think about anything, we just enjoy each others' company and good will. I find it fabulously refreshing.
I think the sweetest thing I saw in the entirety of my stay I did not get a photo of. But it took place on the path through this ocean-side coconut grove, as pictured below. It was at sunset, and the sky and the light filtering through the trees was a magical golden color. Then a father and daughter passed by me. The father was holding the little girl's hand, it was the only time I saw a girl child completely naked (usually just the boys). As they walked on, she kept turning around to look at me, padding through the dirt with her little bare feet, as I waved and smiled each time. The sun had turned the western air into a soft golden mist. The daughter and dad holding hands, walking through the gold. It was like a fairy tale scene, beautiful and precious.
Yoon sent me this pic she took of me and this little boy. The morning we left Armila, our speed boat was all packed up with our stuff and I was just hanging about near shore waiting to launch, when an older woman who lived in one of the huts next to us came up to me and started talking and gesturing. I had never spoken with her, but I waved at her grandkids about ten times a day with "hola!" They were often sitting in a tub of water outside their hut. That family seemed to be perpetually doing laundry and washing their children -- a spigot nearly always turned on, water often running from the house in a little trough (made naturally by the water) down the path. This little boy in particular never ever tired of waving and yelling "hola" when I walked by; I was always sure to make a very enthusiastic wave back.
So this last day, I could not understand what this woman was telling me rather urgently (I think she must have been speaking Kuna, because I think I could have made out a few words in Spanish), but she kept pointing back toward her hut. I got a feeling she was referring to something there and maybe I should even follow her, except she turned around and did not walk to the hut, she went another direction.
I didn't know what to do, so I did nothing. A short while later, this little boy, my waving friend, came running down the path from his hut, ran right up and threw his arms around my leg, giving it a giant bear hug. I knelt down and gave him a real hug, but now I'm sure that his grandmother had been telling me something about him ... either asking if I would go say goodbye to him or telling me he was going to come out. A pretty darling little moment. He was clearly sad at the prospect of not having people to wave at every day. He hugged Yoon as well, and stayed in the shade with us till we left.
Early in the morning, there is only evidence of children in the village, as they are in school before 7:00 a.m. A soccer ball has spent the night in the "street" alone.
There were several schools in the small village, but they consisted of pretty much empty rooms with chairs and desks. Most of the rooms were cement blocks, I thought this one was much more pleasant. One morning I walked past a classroom of young kids to hear some of their English lesson. The teacher would say the word and the children repeat it. They were apparently studying exotic animals that day, I imagine he was pointing at a picture of each animal on a wall poster or something. Teacher: "Tiger." Kids: "Tiger!" Teacher: "Elephant." Kids: "Elephant!" That was about the last word I expected kids in a traditional indigenous village in Panama to be learning.
There are a surprising number of Kuna words that sound very similar to English words but have wildly different meanings. The first time our guides introduced us to a sahila, we ran across him sitting outside his hut in a shaded space much the same as Manuel has. He was sitting there with some women swinging in hammocks in the same space. As we approached, and it had been explained to us that there were five sahilas in Armila, Eduardo said, "And here is one sahila." All of the villagers in the shade busted out laughing. It took Eduardo a minute to realize what he had said while the women kept giggling and giggling. The word "one" in English sounds like the word for "penis" in Kuna. So he had introduced us to "the penis sahila."
We were then informed the English word for "that" sounds like the Kuna word for "grandfather." So we were advised to try to remember when we were in a store not to point to something and ask for "that one." As we likely did not actually want a grandfather penis. Strangely, another number, "six," in English sounds like the Kuna word for "vagina." I discovered another similarity when I told Nacho I was leaving Panama City to go back home on a Wednesday. He made a short reply in Kuna to his family around him, and everyone started laughing. I’d basically said I was going home to pee, as the word for "Wednesday" means to relieve one's self in Kuna.
Well, my readers, there is much more to my time and learning experiences in Armila, but this is getting pretty long, so I think it's time to wrap it up. But hopefully you've gotten a tasty tidbit of life in a Guna Yala village. Here are some photos to expand your feel for the physical village. Parts of the town, like where my hut was, are more open, but leading toward the outer edges are long corridors like this one, with different family "compounds" on the other side of the bamboo fencing.
Eventually opening up into wide spaces like these. In another culture, the colorful items might be presumed prayer flags, or something. But it's just laundry.
I thought this was so cute -- chickens heading out for a stroll beyond the village. They look so purposeful, not like they're going to go peck around aimlessly, but like they're taking a pleasure walk to do some sightseeing.
This is the view from my window in my bedroom in our hut that the villagers built for residency participants.
The shore where the river meets the ocean, just a short barefooted walk from my hut:
Below: a red chair, empty in the early morning. The significance: in Armila, these were our neighbors on the north side ... the only huts between ours and the river. That chair always had somebody in it, and usually there were several chairs occupied outside. The woman of the house was often hand-sewing molas in that chair. Kids playing, men talking, women laughing the loud cackle laugh that all Guna women seem to have. There were always plastic chairs full of people there in that space between the two bamboo huts. So one early morning when I walked by and that chair was empty, just sitting there facing the river, it stood out to me, and in context of my own experience there, it was somehow poetic. In a strange way, to me it represented the family's continual motion and vivacity through this singular moment of emptiness.
Some gorgeous sunsets, standing on the river bank.
Goodnight, village. Sweet dreams, Armila. Please try to stay the way you are for as long as possible.