Friday, April 26, 2013


Ok guys, yes I'm aware that I've not posted a blog entry in approximately 17 years. At first I got a lot of flack for it, but now I think everyone's just forgotten...So here you all are: a brand spanking new blog post. Given my apparent apathy for photo taking, all photo credits go to Ms. Erica Jones.

So as you all may or may not know, depending on how much of this blog you once read, I live with indigenous Panamanians. And as I may once have clarified (but cannot now remember), there are many distinct groups of indigenous Panamanians. I happen to live with the Ngobe but there are also the Bugle, Embera, Wounaan, Naso and Kuna. I believe there are also others but these are the better known groups.

Now in the United States if I were to ask you to think up some stereotypes of what a tropical indigenous person would be like, you might be inclined to say they had rings in their noses, ran around partially nude, lived in the jungle, made pretty handcrafted widgets and traveled in dugout canoes. We will call this the 'sexy' tropical indigenous person because that's what a traveler (or ecotourist, or backpacker or whatever) might expect to see on a trip to Panama or any other jungly part of the world. The Embera, Wounaan and Kuna could probably be classified as 'sexy' indigenous people. The Ngobe are not.

To be perfectly clear, this in no way reflects upon my attachment to my 'family', friends and the Ngobe people as a whole. I wouldn't want to serve anywhere else. It is simply to say that the Ngobe as a community are not National Geographic material. They are poorly organized, live in mountains where, due to poor agricultural practice, the soil produces less every year and, thanks in part to a terrible educational system, are losing their language. They do make handmade bags called chakras, but these are a far cry from the fare offered by the groups in the jungles of eastern Panama. So the Ngobe aren't sexy. To illustrate my point in a more entertaining way, though, lets take two case studies: one of an annual Ngobe festival, the other of an annual Kuna festival.

First, the ballseria. The story goes that every year, at least in years past, a Ngobe community which had been blessed with a good harvest would invite another community over for a good 'ol party so that all the excess food wouldn't go to waste. The host community would provide the food of course, but perhaps just as importantly, they would provide the 'chicha' (generally meaning a type of fresh juice). In this case it would be 'chicha de maiz' (corn drink) and would be enhanced by adding sugar daily for almost a week, thereby allowing fermentation to occur so that everyone can get good and drunk. The Ngobe were a war making people so sitting around and shooting the shit with the neighbors wasn't enough fun. These parties had to include games. The two games of choice (at least nowadays) are plain old fist fighting and the ballseria. Generally there is a day assigned to each. One day is the day for fist fighting, the other is the day for ballseria and then everyone just kinda stumbles home at their own pace. Obviously a weekend of games must include some sort of prizes, so the rule was that the two participating men were automatically betting their wives. The winner took both women home with him (unless of course he lost one at some point later in the weekend). I have heard that this was a way of diversifying the gene pool so that the same families were not always inbreeding (to be clear, this wife swapping is far less common nowadays, but not unheard of).

Not a lot of explanation needed

Hipster Ngob...and Kingsley.

This man has the biggest dead animal on his back. He is therefore the manliest man at ballseria.


In any case, lets get to the games. The fist fighting is pretty self explanatory. You fight until someone falls and then the fight is stopped. Ngobes aren't versed in throwing textbook punches so you see a lot of overhand hitting to the top of the head. The ballseria is more interesting and quite a bit more confusing. This is what I understood (even after participating it's a little murky as to what was happening): two men face off in some sort of open space. One of them starts with a large balsa wood log about 4 inches in diameter and 5 feet long. The object is to hit the opponent below the knees with said log. Hits above the knees do not count (although they still hurt a lot) so if the opponent dodges the log or is hit illegally, he gets a chance to toss the log himself. And that's pretty much it. I could see no way for actually determining a winner, you generally just kept track of how many logs you dodged or how many were thrown at you and then bragged about it later.

Throwing logs at gringos.

Gringos throw back.


The ballseria, to review, consists of drinking heavily, passing out from drinking heavily, getting up to fight someone (it should be noted that fighting is also a sport for women, although female fights are far less regulated and far more ferocious), throwing balsa, drinking, passing out, eating some soup, drinking, passing out, etc...

Also of note is the attire. Women generally wear their traditional 'nagua', but on this day some drunk men also wear the 'nagua' (it's just a big dress). It is also traditional and encouraged to wear a big hat with feathers in it, carry a large bull horn or conch shell to blow as often as you can, and wear stuffed animals (usually types of wild cats but baby dolls and teddy bears are also present) or animal pelts on your back.

Gringo blows a big horn.


So the moral of the story, and getting back to my point, is that when the Ngobe (who live in extreme poverty) get time off they all get together for an enormous brawl. This is not a sexy behavior.

So now for the Kuna and beginning with some backstory. Back in February a group of 20-some-odd volunteers gathered in Panama Este (one of the provinces here) at the site of an old volunteer who still lives and works in the area. We were going to hike from his old Peace Corps town to the island of Ustupu in the Comarca Kuna Yala (the indigenous reservation of the Kuna) to partake in their independence day celebration. This would be the 4th or 5th annual hike.

The Kuna live here. Not a bad place to be.

A word on the Kuna (who I grouped into the 'sexy' indigenous category). They are nearly the shortest people on earth ranking 2nd behind some other indigenous group (according to somebody who probably read it on wikipedia). They are also fiercely independent. They were the first indigenous group in the Americas to retake any amount of land from their national government in 1925 and did so through bloodshed. They also happen to inhabit one of the most strikingly beautiful parts of Panama (a huge length of coastline and islands in the Carribean Sea). The women mostly wear rings in their noses, and wrap their forearms and shins in decorative beads. They wear colorful scarves on their heads and colorful skirts around their wastes (essentially bath towels). They also make world renowned handcrafts. It should be said that the Kuna are also a slightly better-off group of people when compared with the Ngobes. This may be a function of a couple of things. First, the Kuna are incredibly well organized and hold daily community meetings (this will not happen with Ngobes anytime soon). Second, the Kuna have been independent since 1925, the Ngobes only since 1997. Lastly, and probably not least, a large portion of Columbian cocaine is transported through this part of Panama. This, I feel, can be considered a 'sexy' indigenous culture. I suspect Nat Geo have already done many a piece on the Kuna.

In any case, back to our story. Our group hiked for two days (30 miles) across the continental divide, camping by a river at night and arriving in Ustupu by boat the night of the second day. We were housed in the spare two-story house of our guide, Gaspar, and spent the next day walking around the island, eating at their two surprisingly good restaurants, buying souvenirs and generally recovering from our hike. The island sits on one of the more popular cruising routes for sailors in the area so there are generally a couple of boats anchored offshore but we were mostly the only foreigners on the island (the Kuna keep to themselves but did appreciate that we had hiked so far to share their party with them).

Party day was the second day on the island. The preceding days had been filled with reenactments of the Kuna fight for independence including very large explosive special effects and lots of throwing of bodies. It was quite exciting. The reenactment of the final 'battle' for independence was saved for independence day itself and once again included explosions and throwing of bodies but the climax included a staged beach assault by the 'government troops' which was obviously thwarted by the Kuna, the dead bodies thrown on a pile and then the Kuna flag was raised over said pile. By the way, the Kuna flag is horizontally red and yellow striped with a swastika in the center but please note that Kuna independence occurred in 1925 which predates Nazism.

Iwo Jima-style flag raising over a pile of dead 'latinos'.

After the end of the reenactment, the whole town went into an enormous thatch-roofed hut for the celebration. Like any good party in Panama, including the ballseria, there was an enormous amount of chicha. Except this time it was a combination of coffee and cacao used to make the alcoholic juice and not corn. It was kinda like a chocolate wine...quite strange. At any rate, the idea of the celebration was just to drink all the chicha as fast as possible (this started around 9:30 or 10 AM). The group divided so that men were on one side of the huge hut and women the other. The women drank their chicha socially handing bowls to one another, smoking cigarettes, playing harmonicas, telling stories, etc...The men had a more organized method which required that men make lines of 6 standing shoulder to shoulder facing the giant drums full of chicha. At the indicated time, all 6 men would begin to advance towards the men distributing the alcohol but had to do so in a way that the distributors approved of. This meant, singing, chanting, screaming and dancing until you had satisfied the man with the chicha at which point he would hand over a bowlful and you would have to drink it as quickly as possible. You then got back in line and did it again. This insanity continued until the chicha was gone (somewhere around 11:30) which was well after everyone in town was too drunk to stand at which point everyone waddled, crawled or was carried back home to sleep (Peace Corps Volunteers included). The town was virtually dead until later that evening.

Partay.

Drink.

Even grandmas.

12:00 noon. The end.

We all got up the next morning at 4:00AM and took a 5 hour speedboat ride under a full moon. Arriving in Panama City was almost like the whole thing had never happened.

1 comment:

  1. Great to see the update. A lot of good information to go along with the pictures. Take care of that foot. Tell Erica hi.

    ReplyDelete