We recently returned from one of my bucket list trips–a cruise to the Panama Canal. Our bags still smell like our stateroom, the souvenirs are still sitting out on the counter, the tan that slipped through the sunscreen is still hanging on, and I’m still high from the memories.
So as I process, I thought I’d give you a peek into one of my favorite days of the entire trip–our adventure to the Embera Indian Village.
The Embera Indians are a tribe of indigenous people who live in the country of Panama. We were told that they were were fairly isolated and independent until 1984 when their land was turned into a national park/forest. Once it became an official forest, they could no longer hunt the animals or use the trees for their buildings. So the government taught them how to open their doors to tour groups like ours. The Embera Indians sell their goods and share their lifestyle with tourists to generate money for the children to attend the city schools. (A part of me is bothered that they’ve had to join the world of modern capitalism. But I’m not sure what to do about that sadness. Is there a better way?)
Helpful tip: Cruise passengers interested in this excursion might be interested to hear that the village was a little less than two hours away from the port. It included an 1 1/2 hour bus ride and a 15 minute canoe trip each way. The bus ride back was great for our little one’s afternoon naps!
I appreciate that our excursion guide gave us a few hints to help us keep the sanctity of their culture. For instance, he asked us what we’d assume a child would want if he/she put out her hand with an upturned palm. It means they want money, right? No, not in this case. It’s simply a gesture of friendship and an invitation to take their hand and follow them.
But what made this visit so memorable was watching my girls interact with the children.
It started with the toddlers. I suggested that my two-year-old give the other little girl (who we later learned was also two) a high five. High fives are universal, right? Okay, so I’m not sure that’s true, but the little girl reciprocated with a similar touch.
And then the bigger kids saw me taking pictures and cautiously joined us. (The guide said they love to see pictures of themselves since they don’t have cameras of their own.)
I asked a few questions in our shared second language, Spanish. What’s your name? How old are you?
It wasn’t long before the Embera kids were smiling and pinching my toddler’s cheeks.
I mean, can you blame them? Who wouldn’t be tempted to give those round, rosy cheeks a little squeeze?
And then my four-year-old connected with a little six-year-old girl. Soon they were laughing and holding hands and chasing each other.
They didn’t need words to play together…which is good since they didn’t speak the same language.
While the meeting was artificial (a Panama tour for tourists), the brief but sweet friendship that formed between the young ones from the very different cultures was natural and precious.
All of the little kids skipped out on most of the chief’s son’s presentation and instead spent the morning chasing each other up and down the natural staircase of tree roots (my “city girls” weren’t quite as quick as their barefoot friends!), tossing leaves in the air, laughing (so much laughter!), holding hands, skipping, and jumping down small hills.
At the end of our stay, our preschooler sadly told us that she wished her new friends lived in our city…and spoke English. We gently pointed out that maybe the experience would be good motivation for her to learn more Spanish. Until that moment, I don’t think she had any concept of the value of learning Spanish.
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou
Overall, I think it was one of the coolest experiences we’ve shared with our girls, and a highlight of our cruise to the Panama Canal!