Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Third World Surprises in Panama

Who would think about Panama as the site of Third World experiences but that is what this close by neighbor offers the intrepid traveler. Of course Panama City is modern and up to date as is much of the country in the former Canal Zone where Americans thrived not many years ago and where quite a few of them have decided to retire. But that is only one thin strip of this fascinating country.

Panama offers the opportunity for the visitor to spend time with indigenous Indian tribal groups on the mainland, on islands and deep in the jungle. The Embara, for example, still live in modest thatch-roofed buildings deep in the Darien jungle and, until very recently, lived a hunter-gatherer existence. Like so many indigenous cultural groups, however, civilization is impinging on their way of life. They can still be visited and one can still get a sense of what tribal life in the jungle is like from them. Their dancing, their cooking and their jungle knowledge are still available to the tourist. They dress more self-consciously now and they make their money from visitors rather than wild animals these days, but they remain interesting to be among. Their relative isolation requires getting to their villages in a motorized, dugout canoe like vessel along a jungle river.

Not too far away, on a group of islands called the San Blas Islands, another quite unusual community of fishermen and farmers live. They are the Kuna and they have been given a relatively independent status by the central government. The dramatic characteristic of this group is the extremely colorful dress they wear and the extent to which they decorate their skins. They weave imaginative cloths called molas which are then sold to visiting tourists. Their villages are also very traditional. Unfortunately, their islands have been inundated by visitors and they now exist to a large extent on what they charge for housing and molas and photos. Nonetheless, they speak a distinct language and live a simple island life. As an aside, the tourist can rent housing on tiny islands in the area serviced by Kuna, paradise like dwellings where one feels separated from the real world, where tropical fish lap the shore and the water and sunsets are exquisite.

There is still more in this tiny country worth investigating. The Indian inhabitants of Bocas de Toro province near Costa Rica still offer villages with thatched huts and no electricity or plumbing. These are primarily farmers who often speak Spanish and who farm the coastal areas where they live. They tend to be rather unaffected by the world around them and offer the visitor a warm welcome. With the fascinating Canal, the lovely highland areas and the warm surrounding waters, Panama is surely a treat to be sampled.

Kuna Woman w/Pipe, Panama

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