Letter to the Embera

Dear Embera,

Thank you for letting me step into your world. It felt wildly different from my own, even though there were no walls between us. You welcomed us in unquestioningly.

Perhaps you’ve grown used to accepting foreigners into your home. Wherever it came from, it mattered to me. I watched your children laugh and play with my teens. They did not hesitate to speak with them, learn games from them, and be tossed in the river by them. You have taught them not to be afraid of us.

The conversations we shared were honest and open.

Standing in the river, I spoke with an Embera woman holding a baby, only a few months old. Without hesitation, she passed him over to me and I rocked him in and out of the cool water. We talked about my family and if I will get married and have kids one day. The boy suddenly began pooping on me and we both burst out in laughter. I dipped him into the river to gently clean him off, unfazed.

Relaxing in the water, Embera children surrounded us. They were like fish, dipping in and out of the surface, jumping up unexpectedly. They brushed across the current with ease, having grown up knowing this river well. One boy met me on the other side where I was sitting on rocks near the shore. He sat near me and put his hand on my shoulder, studying me intently. He reached out and touched my nose piercings, and I began to understand what he was inspecting. He then touched the ones on my left ear curiously. I turned my head, showing him the other side, and he reached to feel them as well. Before I knew it, he was back under the water, swimming briskly toward the others.

One of the village boys sat near me on the bench. He began a series of interesting questions, leading us into a lengthy conversation. I didn’t have all the answers for him, but I tried my best. He asked about where I came from and what it was like there. It’s cold there? It snows? What do the dogs do when it snows? What do you do? I explained our houses made of cement and dogs that live inside with us and of a system like air conditioning, but with heat. How does the food grow? Where do you get it? How do you bring it back? I stumbled for familiar words to describe stores that sell food and how we don’t grow it–only some people do, and how we take cars around which are similar to boats but not. What kinds of animals are there? Do you have dogs and cats, what about birds and monkeys? I told him about the animals in the mountains like bears, deer, and all kinds of birds. But no monkeys. He listened intently to my answers, looking as if he were piecing together an image in his mind of this strange place, “afuera”, on the outside.

In the evening before bed, I took a moment to write in my journal about the day. I was interrupted by an older man, who unexpectedly started up a conversation with me. I politely put my pen down so we could talk about my job and the group I’m with. He continued to ask about my life and what I do. I told him about my move to Medellin to be a teacher and he recognized the name of the city. He asked about our stay in Panama and we chatted about the islands. We eventually parted for the night but when I saw him again during our farewell celebration, he wished me good luck in Colombia.

On our last day the chief of tourism, Erito, and his wife, Dina, led a discussion and demonstration about the Embera culture. They explained some of their cultural history, including the traditional clothing and accessories worn during festivals, and celebratory practices. Dina showed off her beautiful necklace, body paint, bracelets, and crown of flowers. She demonstrated how to tie on the skirt that women typically wear, using one of our group members as an example. After the chat, I thanked her and complimented her outfit. She picked up her flower crown and placed it on me saying simply, ¨Here I don’t need this anymore, keep it!¨

At the market, Sara and I chatted with the women selling their handcrafts and painting us with traditional natural tattoos. They noticed our ink tattoos from home that stood out on our light skin. Are they permanent? Yes! We said. These ones won’t fade. They’re not made with a flower, but with ink. They’re not painted on top of our skin, but with a…what’s the word for it, spine?… Needle! She said, Yes-that’s what I mean. Did they hurt? Yes! Lots! We laughed and continued to explain. They winced in pain with us as we described how they bled and took time to heal. We looked curiously at one another and the different types of body paint we wore.

Thank you Embera, for an unforgettable experience.

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