An unusual topic for a post ... I'm quite sure I haven't made an entire feature article out of souvenirs acquired on a trip! Even though I've gotten some pretty cool stuff over the years. Most notably in Iran and second notably on my two trips to northern China. But this trip was even more unique in terms of souvenir acquisition, and frankly, I never expected it to be the kind of trip or place where I would be coming home with ANY, let alone a big basketful!

I will explain the details of my time in Armila, Panama, in a future post, so for now let me just give you the bare bones. I went to this village in the indigenous province of Guna Yala in southeastern Panama, very near to the Colombian border, as a participant in an artist's residency program, La Wayaka Current. I'll plug them in every article I write about this trip, because I whole-heartedly endorse them and the experience they provide after having been in one of their programs.

I spent three weeks in this traditional village of Armila with six other artists and two "guides" who have been making friends and connections in the village for several years and they functioned as our translators also. The villagers speak their native language of Kuna and also Spanish. (the lingua franca among the artists was English)  

We lived right in the middle of the community and our time was our own. But our host, "Nacho" nickname for Ignacio, provided several presentations for anyone who was interested (which was all of us), explaining their folklore and mythology, and demonstrating some of their traditional crafts, etc. After each of the craft presentations, the items were so cool and unique, I couldn't help but want some! (as with most of the other artists) Unlike the craft souvenirs I often get, a lot of these weren't just items you set around your house for display, but rather the things that the villagers themselves use and wear in daily life. So that makes them more cool in my eyes.

So I'll show you the sum of my loot and then explain each item. I can tell already this is going to end up being a lengthy post! But I hope it will maintain your attention and interest. So ... excluding my wrist wini and one necklace I forgot to include, here is the collection of my souvenirs.

Souvenirs, bought, found and given, in Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Where shall I begin?! Well, let's start with the molas -- the blouses -- as they are one of the signature expressions of the traditional culture, worn by the women, and girls are to wear the colorful ones after they reach puberty. These and the winis -- the beads covering their legs and forearms -- are the hallmarks of traditional female Guna attire. They don't wear them just for show for foreigners, as few foreigners are even allowed to hang out in the village. This is really what they wear. Sorry for the stiff poses, but we couldn't really take casual photographs (I'll explain in another post), but these women kindly agreed to pose for me. They illustrate the dressing traditions of which I speak.

Three ethnic Guna (Kuna) women wearing traditional molas and winnis. Armila, Guna Yala province, Panama.

In the old days, molas and winis were made out of natural materials found in the jungle and sea. I could diverge into a tangent here on the wealth of such material, but I'll refrain for now. After contact with western civilization, going back to the Spanish conquest in Central America, they began incorporating more "western" materials so that now instead of seeds and dried berries, bark and sea shells, they use manufactured beads and fabric. It's still super cool and unique.

So the decorative cotton fabric "panels" on the molas are created by adding layers of fabric on top of each other, one at a time. It looks like they have cut down through the layers to expose the bottom ones, but in fact, the top layer is cut out a little bit smaller than the bottom layer to leave some visible parts of the layer underneath. The quality (and price of) a mola is judged by how many layers of fabric are used and by the fineness of the stitching that is added in designs on top. The density of the images and geometric designs has a significance in that the molas are not only clothing, but protection against evil spirits, and spirits can settle into the empty spaces, so the objective is to leave little empty space. You'll notice that the ones the Guna women are wearing are packed with lines and shapes. 

Indigenous Guna (Kuna) woman sewing a mola. Armila, Panama.Indigenous Guna woman sewing a mola. Armila, Panama.Indigenous Guna woman sewing a mola. Armila, Panama.

You can rip off the stomach panel, the essence of the mola, and attach a new one to the sleeve/chest frame. Fellow artist, Yoon, and I both liked this turtle mola. The shirts have a mola pattern on both front and back, so the woman who made the shirt (I wish I had thought to take a picture of it as a whole) detached the molas and Yoon bought one and I bought the other. So one had been the stomach-side and one the back side. The woman standing between us is the one who made our turtle molas. Molas are only sold in Panama and Colombia, the countries where the Guna people live. They are considered a cultural heritage and the Guna have forbidden their sale outside of these two countries. 

Me and Yoon holding the turtle design molas we bought, with the woman who made them. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

So I ended up with the turtle and then I bought another one from our host, Nacho's wife Gladys, who is a very accomplished and prolific mola-maker. Her design depicts rainbows, which was a common theme in the molas.

Turtle design, traditional mola of Guna Yala people (Kuna), Panama.Rainbow design, traditional mola of Guna Yala people (Kuna), Panama.

Now, if you know me personally, you might know how much I love bracelets. And perhaps also that jewelry is one of the most common souvenirs I buy because it doesn't require shelf space, it doesn't have to be dusted, and every time I wear it I think of my trip. So ... when I learned we could have our own wini made, I was SO down for that!

I would love to describe the scene for you inside the wini-maker's house, but I'll save that for another time, it's lengthy. Fellow artist, Judit, and I had winis made by the same craftswoman. Judit is from Spain, so she could speak to the woman in Spanish which was super helpful for me. We went together to get wrist winis made, then I returned a second time alone to get one for my ankle.

The remarkable thing about the winis is they're made from a single string wrapped around and around. It looks like a series of hoops stacked on top of one another, but it's just one string. It's created directly onto your wrist so the design is perfect and fits your arm perfectly.  I picked out the colors and the design (the lady drew several on a piece of paper and said I could choose from those) for my two winis. To get the tiny beads onto the needle, the women just jiggle the needle around inside the dish of beads rather than trying to pick up the tiny beads one at a time! First pic, I took of Judit having her wini made, second photo she took of me. You get a glimpse of the interior of a typical bamboo stick hut with dirt floor.

Guna (Kuna) woman in Armila, Panama, making a wini.Guna (Kuna) woman in Armila, Panama, making a wini.

Here are some close-ups of my designs. They each took about an hour and a half to make. USD$5 each. I felt guilty paying so little for so much time. So considering how long it took for such relatively small winis, I can only imagine the hours put into winis that extend all the way up their forearms and calves. 

I didn't buy this mola, I wore it on loan, along with all the other artists who borrowed one for a couple of the cultural events we attended. They look kind of uncomfortable to wear, but it really wasn't uncomfortable at all for me. The skirts are just pieces of fabric you wrap around your waist. This pic also shows my wrist wini, and it was purely coincidental I chose a mola that matched the colors of my wini! I guess subconsciously I am drawn to them!

I found some pretty cool things while wandering the beaches on my own. Seashells, of course. I'm a compulsive seashell collector. I can't help it. I love picking them up, each one a little treasure to marvel at, it's a very meditative activity for me to walk along the beach looking for perfect ones. So I collected a bunch and then left most of them behind in our yard in Armila. But I kept ones that were unlike anything I have in my existing collection. I've never found such perfect conch shells or ones as large as the white ones at top of photo.

Seashells found around Armila, Panama.

Something I certainly have never seen anywhere else was the remains of leatherback turtle eggs. Armila is one of the most important leatherback nesting sites in the world. Mostly you see the broken remains of ones that baby turtles hatched out of. But I found this one that appears to have crumpled down and started to decompose. When I found it, I was pretty convinced it was some kind of dried up sponge creature or something. But I was very wrong. Our guide, Luz, suspected the egg and we confirmed it with Nacho. I thought it was really interesting the lattice-like structure and how you can see through part of the outside.

Dried up leatherback turtle egg.Dried up leatherback turtle egg.

And then I found on the beach this complete tortoise shell! It was sitting on the beach amid piles of other stuff ... seaweed, driftwood, and tons of trash (I'll address that in another post). I had been walking along cataloging some of the things in the trash, so I had my nose to the ground, so to speak, when I found it. It took me a moment to recognize what it was I was seeing. I turned it over to discover the fleshy animal parts were nearly 100% gone. A few very minor bits of rubbery flesh were still attached to the spinal area and around the edges. I figured if I set it in the sun, they would dry up and I could easily pull them out.

This was pretty early on in the trip, so I set it outside our hut but it didn't dry up or decompose quite as easily and completely as I thought it would. So as time was winding down, I realized I was going to have to figure out how to scrape out the last clinging bits myself. But we had no tools of any kind that would help. (Just as an example of how you couldn't just run to a store and buy something, first there is no such thing as a hardware store, you probably have to go all the way to Panama City or maybe over to Colombia to get an electric drill. There was exactly one in the entire village so people had to share it. We learned this because Yoon and Chung asked if there was one they could use for their art project.)

So what to do? I took the shell down to the river bank and washed it out really well and tried just pulling on the bits, but they were very firmly attached to the shell, no wonder they were the last to decompose. I was feeling like I was just going to have to wrap it up super tightly (because the flesh is what was still giving it a smell of death)  and deal with it at home. Then I looked down in the water and saw a couple of crab claws. There are crabs all over this area, when we first arrived it was mating season and they were all over on the land, too! So crab parts are everywhere. I picked up the claws, a small one and larger one, and tested their points ... they weren't fabulously sharp, but it was the only thing even remotely pointy I had found.

So I started scraping away the inside of my tortoise shell with a crab claw at the river's edge. I felt deliciously Paleolithic. I've spent time in the past doing archaeological surface inventories of Paleolithic artifacts in Colorado, and I had a special appreciation of utilizing my natural world in this unlikely situation. If you've followed my adventures through the world, you know I've done some pretty unusual things ... have a lot of party anecdotes, "Well one time I found myself doing such and such." And then there was the time I was cleaning out a tortoise shell with a crab claw.

Some of the kids came over curious to see what I was doing. I think they thought I was very strange in my endeavor. In the end, I still couldn't get off some bits. But I remembered a fellow artist Jeffrey had brought a pair of boxcutters with him, just as part of a general artist's tool kit, not knowing what he might end up wanting to make here. I'll explain everyone's project in a future post. With only one unbroken blade left, it was in fact a crucial tool in his project, but he kindly loaned it to me to cut off the last bits. So hurray!! At home, I soaked it in some bleach water and then some vinegar water (after Googling how to preserve a tortoise shell). Then I put several coats of spray lacquer on it. Here is the underside I so neatly cleaned. 

But before I got it home ... I was in a conundrum about how to safely transport it in my luggage so the outer scales wouldn't get damaged, as a few of them were already coming a little loose and peeling up. My suitcase was just a large duffle bag on wheels, so I didn't have any nice protective pockets or anything. Then, we were given another craft demonstration by a man who makes baskets and fans out of the local plants. The plant from which the traditional baskets are made is called naiwar. Both the bark and the leaf buds can be used in weaving. He learned the skill from his father, who learned from his father, and back down the line. It's a family skill.  I'd actually seen him sitting outside near the river on several days making a basket. I had thought of asking if I could take a photo of what he was making, but in the end he came and demonstrated for us.

Guna (Kuna) man weaving a naiwar basket. Armila, Panama.

We each had the opportunity to try the weaving ourselves. I was hopelessly incompetent at it and gave up after only a few rows. Compare ... my attempt versus the masterful basket, haha.

Completed naiwar basket, Guna Yala, Panama.

Well, our guide Eduardo who had been translating for us, said that we could buy baskets and fans from the weaver (and there was another weaver in town who made hats). A little light bulb went on in my head and I asked if he could make a custom basket for my tortoise shell for me to take it home in. Yes! So I retrieved the shell and he measured it, and a few days later, for a whopping USD $7, got my custom basket, even with a handle!

Guna naiwar basket custom made for my tortoise shell. Panama.

I only had a $10 bill and he didn't have change (he doesn't have a shop or anything, you just go to his house). But it happened that the fans cost $3, so I bought one of those to make the purchase an even $10.

Traditional naiwar fan made in Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

I still wrapped the shell in plastic and packed the rest of the basket with clothes and it made the journey home perfectly.

You might wonder what is so interesting about a wooden stake. Well, this was not something I purchased or found.

This was an extra special gift from Manuel, one of the village sahilas. The sahila are the elders in the village, and he is a medicine man and spiritual leader in the community. Over the years that the La Wayaka Current residency has been operating in Armila (12 weeks each year -- four 3-week residencies), the guides have established a particularly close relationship with Manuel. And last year he said he wanted to start doing a special ceremony for the visiting artists. I don't know if Manuel is doing this for each of the four groups that come through in a year, but he did one last year and for us this year (the first group of the year).

This particular piece of wood is from the sabwe tree. (I didn't actually confirm the spelling of that, but it sounds like "saab-way.") There are a lot of hardwood trees deep in the surrounding jungle and the Guna believe they have special spiritual properties in terms of protecting people from harm and evil spirits, etc. Manuel has become too old to forage for medicinal plants and hardwoods in the jungle himself, but he has a protégé who now collects them for Manuel and will eventually take over as a medicine man. So anyway, the apprentice collected a variety of woods and cut them into these stake shapes. I think each of us received a different type of wood, he said the name as he handed them out.

Now, to awaken the properties of every plant, be it medicinal or spiritual, the Guna medicine men sing to the plants. I think it's so lovely. When they cut them, they sing to them, and when they get ready to utilize them, they sing to them.

So his apprentice handed Manuel a bag full of these stakes and he began singing to awaken them. Shortly after he began, somebody next door started up an extremely loud machine, it sounded to me something like a chain saw or weed cutter. So there we are inside his hut trying to have this special traditional spiritual ceremony and we could hardly hear Manuel over this intrusive piece of modern equipment. It was kind of surreal, actually. I tried very hard not to be annoyed, because Manuel seemed unaffected, he just kept on singing. I didn't want to fill that sacred space with negative energy, so I just let the scene be what it was. About the time Manuel finished singing, the machine went off. Whew.

Now the apprentice handed each of us the stake and told us the tree name. Then Manuel sang again to "activate" the spiritual properties of the woods, now that they were awake. This time, it was nice and quiet as he sang the ancient songs he learned from medicine men before him. It was very cool. As in neat, not temperature. It was hot in the hut! An experience not common for foreigners to have ... my favorite thing about travel off the beaten path: those special moments. 

I wondered how the other people were taking the ceremony, as I don't know them well enough to know if they would find it sacred or hokey. But everyone seemed to take it seriously. I did. Why not. I asked how to care for the wood and where to keep it, and I intend to honor the spirit in which it was given. Eduardo showed me that he carries the stake given to him last year by Manuel in his little pouch he wears everywhere.

So those are the items that are unique to Armila, to the Guna people, and special to me. The other items on the table (in the photograph of full collection) I bought from some Colombian artisans who came to Armila for the turtle festival, which I'll write about in a future post. At the bottom of the picture of my full collection: two choker necklaces and two ankle bracelets (and one necklace I forgot to include). And this little turtle carving. It looks like it's carved from stone, but it's the seed of a tree, called a tagua seed. Eduardo told me they call it "vegetable ivory" ... in other words, the plant equivalent of an elephant tusk because of how hard and ivory-like it is. If you Google tagua, Wikipedia tells us that the scientific name, Phytelephas, means elephant plant. If only the Asian cultures who prize ivory for carving would use tagua seeds instead. Anyway, I thought it was really cute and appropriate to Armila, the turtle hatching from an egg.

Turtle hatching from an egg carved from a tagua seed.

There were four artisans at the festival, and I bought something from three of them. Because the festival was so small, and I think we foreigners were the primary customers, and we stood out so clearly, spending time looking at the craft tables, I felt badly that I had left out one vendor, haha. So I bought one thing from him, too, just to make it even. The prices were so cheap, I could afford to splurge and buy such a cache of goodies!

So, my friends, there is an introduction to Armila, to some of the Guna tribal traditions, and to my residency, through my souvenirs. I plan to share more about all of those topics in future posts, so if they interest you, stay tuned!


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