The day before their arrival, the citizens of Bayamon began preparing the village for the celebration where people from communities all across the area would be coming to celebrate the creation of the Comarca Embera-Wounaan. To the Embera the 8th of November is their independence day. It marks the beginning of their autonomy, long sought after centuries of living as second class citizens in the Latino dominated countries of Central America; but more than that, it is the day where their culture is celebrated by the dances, music and tales that link the people of today to the traditions that defined the tribe of their ancestral past. It is a chance for the elders- those that actually experienced these facets of their heritage- to indoctrinate the youth in the customs that otherwise would be lost forever.
And so the 6th of November was a busy day in Bayamon. While the 8th was to be celebrated in Peurto Indio, the larger neighboring community located on the river that acted as the conduit between the comarca and the outside world, the activities on the 7th were to be hosted here. Schools from across the comarca were invited to come, dressed in their best examples of Embera regalia, to compete over which community still knew the most about the old ways. So in the morning the Padres de Familia, the organization of parents in the school, came together to prepare Bayamon for the big event. The women were going to cook food to sell on the 7th, so it was up to the men to prepare the village for the arrival of the outsiders. The school had celebrated its anniversary only two weeks before, so we had already cleaned up the school, soccer field, and other public areas of the community. This task required the small army of fathers, machetes in hand, to form a line and walk across the village slashing all the grass that lay before us down to the nub from which it emerges from the earth. Our task on the 6th was much simpler in comparison. Around the meeting house of the town, the casa communal, is a fence. Our task was to decorate this fence with penca, or leafs, of a certain plant that grows in abundance in the forest. As a troop we went into the jungle to collect these leafs that grow up to 16 ft. long. When folded in the middle they served perfectly to cover both sides of the chain link fence.
Once this was done the next task for each individual family was to find the fruit, called jagua in Spanish or kipurrah in Embera, used to paint skin from nose to toes in the plethora of designs known by the tribe. The fruit will dye the skin for up to two weeks. Besides its pure aesthetic purpose, the jagua is used as a sunscreen and bug repellent, two things highly valuable to a nomadic people who spent their days traversing the mosquito infested jungle in search of food. Over time the designs have developed to represent everything from a certain fish to the hook used to hunt it, they have a design for the monkey, the tree, and even the aspects of different individual rivers. But to paint any one person fully requires about 5 of these fruits, and only a few families still have them on their land. By the end of the day we were able to find about 30 of the fruit, enough to paint my whole family with plenty to spare.
And so Saturday came and the village was as ready as it would get. The people arrived early and the new chiva obtained especially for this day continued to deliver them from Sambu throughout the day. From Dai Puru they came in the bed of a pick-up, at least 20 of them with my companero from Cuerpo de Paz Charlie, the giant of the village, towering over them all. In the afternoon the festivities began in the casa communal, but before this, those in the village who had their vestments to wear began gathering to dress themselves. For men the outfit was simple, it consisted of nothing more than the loincloth that ran between the legs, up and over before draping down to cover the more modest parts of our manhood. And then, for all but the most brazen of men, a decorative skirt went over this, made of beads, leaves, or simple clothe. Over the chest was worn thick strands of beads that crossed themselves across the sternum. For those who had the complete outfit there were also long, silver bands worn on the wrist and a small silver choker that crossed the neck.
The women’s attire came from the same materials but was adorned differently. Instead of the loincloth was the peruma, a colorful skirt worn by almost every Embera women on a daily basis. The chest, like that of the men, was left bare save for the necklace of beads worn about the neck. At times they would also have a beaded necklace interwoven with the silver coins of Colombia. They too had the bracelets and chokers with earrings made in the same style and a beaded headband with a tail that trailed down the back. The imagination cannot capture these clothes correctly without first taking in this room of painted men, women and children, each with bodies the dark blue-black of the night sky just as the last light of day fades into the horizon, each individual covered in a design that is absolutely unique to them.
From the start the casa communal was full, participants from four schools had come to compete along with their retinues from their villages to cheer them on. The competitions consisted of dances, singing, storytelling, even archery, but what made the events such a thing to see was the purity, the complete lack of awkwardness that comes when adult women put on the same show for groups of tourists. These children performed for no one other than themselves, and, besides myself and the dozen other members of Peace Corps sitting ostentatiously in the back row, it was a moment for the Embera to take stock in who they were and were they came from and to take pride in that.
The performances lasted well into the evening but with the coming dark the event itself changed as well. After the archery contest the chin-bon-bon players began the dancing music. At first it was just the children dancing with each other but as the music became more raucous every one began to find themselves dancing with a partner in hand. Night came on fully now but the event still held its composure, it would not be until the last of the children left that the alcohol would start pouring in over the fence from the cantina next door. The drums bellowed and the turtle shell and marimbas rattled as the flute danced it’s away above the mayhem of the rhythm, dragging it behind it and it pranced ahead in its gaiety. By this time most of other gringos from Cuerpo de Paz had made it back to Sambu and there was no one left but Charlie and me who would head into Puerto Indio in the morning. Each time we tried to leave the casa communal there was someone on the fringe of the crowd dragging us back in.
The next day we walked the hour and a half it took us to get to Peurto Indio where the celebration of the actual 8th of November was to take place. We arrived in the village to find it bustling as I had never seen it before. The people from villages all around the area had flocked to Peurto Indio for the festivities, dressed in their best traditional attire and painted in a plethora of designs. The Peace Corps house was filled with the visitors but for the better part of the day there were people out participating in one event or another. It started with a basketball game between the slapped together team of Peace Corps volunteers and the well-practiced opponents from Bayamon. While we had strategy and height to our advantage, we rightfully lost to our more talented opponents. Next came a round of tug-of-war between the women of the different villages and our own team from Cuerpo de Paz. Nobody cared who won, the entertainment gained from watching opposing teams getting dragged through the mud, tripping over one another as they struggled to dig into the fresh mud was prize enough for spectators and participants alike. A breath holding competition came next, taking place in the Rio Sabalo as a fresh rain fell on our heads.
As the sun began to set we started the last event of the day, a game called Gallo Enterrado, or Buried Chicken. For this one they buried a chicken in the ground up to its neck and then it was up to a blindfolded person wielding a stick to strike the head off of the bird with the meal provided by the chicken going to the winner. It’s like a cross between pin the tail on the donkey and a piñata, dinner included. I was told that the game is normally played with a machete and after watching it for a while I think that this may be a more humane way of playing. A person could only locate the bird by listening to the advice of the shouting crowd, so more often than not the person ended up beating at the grass until it was someone else’s turn. We entered a contestant, thinking that it would be hard for him to get confused when all he had to do was listen to the only English speakers present to locate the bird. Well it worked and his two allotted swings hit the chicken right on the head, but the blunt stick did no more than raise a squawk where as a real machete would have brought the humiliating death of the bird to a quick, someone clean end. But alas, the game continued for an hour more when a winner was declared after a glancing blow on account of the setting sun.
That night everyone crowded into the casa communal to watch another round of traditional song and dance. Nico, the volunteer living in Peurto Indio, was surprised when he was brought up to the stage for a naming ceremony that involved chugging corn liquor out of a split gourd while a gaggle of girls danced circles around him. Soon after we were invited to present a dance. Well not to disappoint the crowd, four of our men went up there with the girls, dressed in nothing more than perumas, or the traditional skirts worn by the women. The dance was butchered but the crowd was entertained none the less.
The same as the night before, as the night grew later and the families faded away, the festivities grew rowdier until everyone found themselves in one cantina or another, traditional music and dance exchanged for typica music. The next morning when I woke up there were still people up drinking as others stumbled their way home, the last drink of the fading night still cradled in arm. And so passed the celebration of the inauguration of the Comarca Embera-Wounaan. What my words failed to capture my memory will forever preserve. For two days I experienced that which set the native people of the isthmus apart from all other on this planet, and I am not talking only about the song, dress and dance. To know a people in their moments of joy is to see past the façade of skin and bones to glimpse the soul laid bare. Customs can be learned from a book, studied as all things empirical can be studied, but to know joy- to hear a laugh, see a smile- only through experience can one understand such a thing, only by sharing in that laughter, mirroring that smile, do we, as the Spanish language says, begin to conocer.