Way back in July 2015, when I was still a Trainee, I had my Volunteer Visit week. I traveled to the far end of Panama Este to visit Julia! It was a fantastic week in a cowboy’s campo, hiking distance from the Comarca Kuna Yala and Embera communities near the Darien. We ended the week on a high note, visiting a small Embera community that welcomed us with open arms. Previous volunteers in the area established good relationships with the members of this community, so they were no strangers to gringos. Our passionate interest in their culture and practices also helped ease any cultural barriers. We walking along with our stuffed backpacks, until finally pasearing at someone’s house. Before coming to Panama, I was super nervous to do this. Just go up to a stranger’s home and start a conversation. But after a lot of practicing in our training community, I felt more confident.
The family was really friendly and invited us to go to the nearby river with them. Since we didn’t have the proper attire for river bathing (a peruma- traditional Embera patterned and colorful skirt), they lent us perumas! I was blown away with the generosity. Afterwards I totally had to buy one! Swimming in the river with the family was a blast; although I found it difficult to get the peruma to stay up on my shorts. It takes practice. The river was a milky brown with a strong current. Underneath were slippery rocks, perfect for washing clothes slap style. Afterwards we went back to their house to change and they invited us to stay for lunch- fresh fish with coconut rice! As one woman prepared lunch, another laid out all the jewelry they made. I bought a baby blue choker necklace for myself, and other pieces for family members. They also made gorgeous husk masks and vibrant chest adornments, but I went with something else- jagua painting!
Jagua painting is another Embera custom. Similar to henna, jagua is a temporary dye made from the jagua tree. Seeds are smashed and mixed with water in a calabasa bowl, until the artist has a wet paint. It is then applied with a stick, in patterns and designs drawn from nature. Arms, legs, chests, stomachs, everything are painted. On my check, the lady painted a design stemming from a snake. On my wrists and upper arms, triangular patterns were made. Sometimes, whole sections are painted pure black. The jagua, like henna, gets stronger the next day, but then fades in about a week. As you sleep a lit also sweats out onto the bedsheets. When getting jagua applied, to not to sweat as well (easier said then done). Sweating will make the neat lines drip and fuzz together. I went back to training with awesome jagua designs and was stoked to share my experience with the group.