One of the highlights of our trip to Panama's Darien province had to be our ride up a winding river to visit an Embera Indian village. Mogue (MOE-gay) is a curious mixture of modern conveniences vs. chickens running wild, a concrete schoolhouse vs. open, thatched huts on stilts, and schoolchildren in logoed t-shirts and jeans versus bilingual (Embera/Spanish) adults who spend their days creating traditional handicrafts.
Yep, even though the village is isolated, it is still connected to the outside world. Every Embera home has electricity, thanks to free solar cells courtesy of the government. I don’t know if those cells can emit enough energy to power a refrigerator, but satellite antennas were everywhere and we heard radios all over the village being switched off as we entered. (I guess they thought it would give us a more “authentic” experience, haha.)
Our hosts were dressed in traditional outfits with a modern twist. Their traditional bark skirts have been done away with, thanks to pressure to save the rainforest, so now they wear brightly-patterned skirts made with a special $25/yard fabric made just for them in China.
Many of the older women there were comfortable wearing nothing above the waist but others had a bra-like top made of beads (now made of plastic). Some of the topless younger girls, on the other hand, hid behind their arms and long hair.
Trips to these villages are marketed as cultural experiences, but in reality these visits are primarily focused on selling their handicrafts. This is the best way to support their economy.
The men craft detailed carvings out of cocobolo wood and the women weave beautiful baskets of palm fibers. The most intricate ones will sell for hundreds of dollars because they can take weeks—or even months—to create.
An Embera basket is the perfect souvenir of Panama: it's a local, handmade item created for practical use. With no middle-man to jack up the price (they cost double that in Panama City!) I was excited when I realized I could afford two. Our guide said we could barter and I considered it, but considering how much time they took to make I didn't. I paid the asking price because I was paying the two women who had woven them. One of the baskets now holds my makeup and one receives our spare change.
More photos from the Embera indian village
There is a saying that “getting there is half the fun,” but if that's true then these warm and friendly people must make up the other half. Here are a few other photos from our long journey.
What’s your take on the younger Embera girls who were topless, yet hiding behind their arms and hair?