Cerro Name, Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé
This is the week of site visits where aspiring volunteers go to visit their counterparts in Sustainable Agriculture or Environmental Health in their communities across the country to experience firsthand the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer. I am visiting a fellow by the name of Jed in the village of Cerro Name in the Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé, an indigenous reservation in the northwest of the country. With a population of 120,000, the Ngobe are the largest indigenous group in Panama. Even outside of the Comarca they are easily recognizable. The women wear a dress called a nagwa which is more or less a mumu while men wear a pattern on their shirts and pants called "dientes", a throwback from their past when they would decorate themselves with jewelry made of teeth.
I took a westbound bus on the inter-american highway and got off in Tole where Jed met me at a roadside cantina where we watched Brazil's embarrassing defeat to Germany in the World Cup. From there a taxi took us to the chiva stand in Tole. Apart from buses an taxis, chivas are the only way to get around rural Panama. Imagine a pickup truck with a tent over the bed, benches built into the side and then a line of stools running down the middle, and then imagine the site of this contraption when it is packed full with over 25 men, women and children, bumping along a dirt mountain road and you'll have a good idea how one travels in Panama. We got let off on the roadside where we began the 2 hour hike into Jed's community. Jed dropped in to speak with neighbors along the way and we stopped for a while to play a quick game of soccer with some kids.
We split off from the main route to take a single track trail down to a creek and up the other side to get to Jed's hut. To go anywhere in the Comarca you have to climb down a mountain and then back up again. For Jed to get water, for example, he had to descend down to a creek and haul the water back up with him in buckets. Jed built his house himself after the termites and locals carried off what remained of the home of the last volunteer that lived in the community. It was a traditional Ngobe home with the exception of the roof which was made of zinc. The upper walls were made of penca, the lower half of bamboo slats, he had a wooden floor made of boards cut to size with a chainsaw and, most interesting of all, a door that was too small for even the smallest children that visited the house. To get in you had to get down on hands and knees and crawl. At night his neighbors come over and sit in silence, but it is a silence shared in company, a noble silence of a people who through the generations have exhausted the source of small talk leaving nothing left but the contemplation of the crickets to occupy the nights. Jed had brought in with him a few newspapers which the neighbors huddled around reverently, those who could read describing the context of the photos for those who couldn't. For those among them who had never left the village it was a window into a Panama that was a world apart from the one that they lived in.
History has always only known them as a people primitive and unchanging, in the 500 years since the old world conquered the new they have been the same static, loincloth garbed natives, the unwanted bastards sired by the violent coupling of half a millennium of destitution, derision and inequality. In literature they have never been more than the archetype- nameless, voiceless- always written about by others, descripted in the same way one would talk about the scenery.
Today I visited the heart of the village where Jed worked. We went to the school to talk with the parents gathered there for a meeting with the teachers, all of whom are Latinos. The meeting was about the needs of the school, about how the children were eating their lunches by hand, served up on plantain leaves for lack of plates and spoons. The teachers were asking for contributions from the parents, knowing in truth the futility of asking for money that they just didn't have to give. The women in the crowd, standing in groups on the side or crowded on benches in the back row, all wore their nagwas, those bright, colorful dresses so easy to make from home. Their feet left bare with their toes digging into the dust of the earth. Every person in the assembly had the same dark, earthy skin, red like the clay soils of the mountains. Their hair of every women there was as black and bright as obsidian, as black as a starless night sky but shining like the reflection of the moon in a pond. The men sat up near the front or slouched themselves against the wooden pillars. They wore baggy trousers tucked into the cusps of their rubber boots, they all wore their good shirts for the event, and on their head a woven hat dipped over their brow hiding half their face.