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My time in Armila was made possible through the La Wayaka Current artist residency.

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Witnessing the leatherback turtles dig their nests and lay their eggs was a far more profound experience than I ever would have guessed. Especially touching them as their ancient bodies move to perpetuate their species. A species which sadly, like so many other majestic creatures on earth, is endangered. Their numbers are a fraction of what they once were a few decades ago. 

They're called leatherback because unlike other sea turtles who have a shell over the soft part of their body, their covering is a hard rubbery material with ridges along it. It's by far the largest turtle -- they can reach a weight of 1,200 pounds and a length, from extended flippers front to back, of nine feet. 

Nacho said it was okay to gently touch the turtles while they were digging. The turtle did not feel like what I expected ... with its slick rubbery back, and hard rubbery flippers giving way to extraordinarily soft skin at the top of their flippers where they connect to the head and back -- essentially the leg joints. The hard rubbery "shell" and skin fuse together seamlessly, it’s not like, say, a crab with a discreetly different fleshy body and hard shell that can be separated from it. They’re fused together, I found it fascinating to feel this fusion. But I think that super soft skin was the most unexpected. In the photo below, it's the really wrinkled parts of the skin. 

The sound of their breathing was like nothing I've ever heard, almost like a fake animal sound they come up with in the movies for dinosaurs or alien creatures. It's almost unearthly, but in fact it's because it’s SO earthly, so ancient, that it's so emotionally powerful. They tended to drool, opening their beaked mouths each time they exhaled that ancient breath. A primeval giant eye looked out in a strange, struggling impassivity, the eyelid closing over it occasionally, which closes side-to-side like draperies. Great gooey globs rolled down their face from their eyes. Their tears were like little globes -- little bubbles and little worlds reflecting the sky and water. Popular legend says they cry because they are sad to leave their babies behind on land.

Although it's delightfully poetic, the turtles aren’t actually sad, they're not crying. Their bodies are simply shedding excess salt ... because sea turtles live in salty ocean water their entire lives, therefore drinking salt water, they have evolved a salt gland, which empties into the sea turtle's eyes and is excreted in these goopy tears. They have the added benefit of protecting the nesting mother's eyes from sand on the beach, and keeping her eyes moist during her time on land.

Leatherback turtle heading back to ocean after digging her nest on the beach at Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Leatherback turtle tears, Armila beach, Guna Yala, Panama.

The back flippers are the ones that dig the nesting hole, which can be remarkably deep. They swivel from side to side, as if from a central hinge in the middle. I kept my hand on one for a long time while it was digging one night, feeling the movement of her body, rocking back and forth, so powerful, so driven by instinct and intuition.

Leatherback turtle digging her nest on Armila beach, Guna Yala, Panama.Leatherback turtle digging her nest on Armila beach, Guna Yala, Panama.

After they drop in the fertilized eggs with the babies growing inside, I was told they deposit four or five other ones on top that can serve as food for the babies as they hatch. Just as mothers usually come ashore at night to bury their children, the kids pop to the surface at night to race down into the ocean as fast as they can before an array of predators can snatch them. I was told that if the first turtle pokes his head out of the sand and sees that it's daylight, he hunkers back down in the sand, signaling to his siblings that they must wait for awhile yet.

After they lay their eggs and cover them back up, the mother turtles spin a 360 in the sand (a slow spin, of course) before heading back down into the ocean. Nacho said they make this jumble of tracks to confuse predators. One time, we watched one turn her finishing circle and then start her way to the sea, but she kept pulling herself sideways along the beach (parallel to the ocean) and we kept moving back to make room for her and she kept coming toward us instead of toward the sea. It was totally like she was chasing us ... a surreal slow-speed chase.

After they’re born, for the female turtles who successfully mature (a tiny fraction of the hatchlings), they can circumnavigate the globe before returning to their birthing ground to lay the next generation. One leatherback turtle was tagged and tracked by satellite for 647 days before the signal was lost. In that time, she covered 12,774 miles swimming through the ocean! Leatherbacks have been sighted as far north as Alaska and the North Sea and as far south as Chile and New Zealand, but the females come to the warm tropical waters to beach and lay their eggs. The males never leave the ocean in their whole life.

Well, I could go on about their anatomy and biology, but those are the things I found most fascinating. This turtle's face had something wrong with it, but I didn't know what -- a disease or an injury? I asked a nice man at Conserve Turtles about it and he said the damaged areas are scar tissue, and likely they are the result of the turtle being attacked by a shark. He said that's not uncommon. Yikes! Poor thing. One of her nostrils is closed over in scar tissue. But clearly she's still healthy enough to breed and reproduce. Sweet trooper! 

Leatherback turtle with scar tissue from shark attack. Armila beach, Guna Yala, Panama.Leatherback turtle with scar tissue from shark attack. Armila beach, Guna Yala, Panama.Leatherback turtle with scar tissue from shark attack. Armila beach, Guna Yala, Panama.

One of the most magical nights, which started at a campfire on the beach and ended with singing in the rain, was watching a leatherback just down the beach from our fire lay her eggs, cover them up and go back into the ocean. That's the one I held my hand on for a long time, feeling her work and breathe. The scene was this: standing under the stars and a half moon; the moon reflecting on the wet sand each time the waves recede from the shore, and on the water each time they come in -- the beach curves like a C, the moonlight reflection was a straight line across it -- the sound of waves continually pounding the shore, coming in one after another, while she lumbers toward the water, slips in under the waves and disappears.

So ... moving along. Armila applied to UNESCO for World Heritage status for its importance as a leatherback nesting site. We were told it would be granted in December of 2019. The villagers have recognized the importance and the sacredness of the turtles for as long as they have lived there. In their folklore, there was a human couple in a small community on a beautiful beach, and one day the woman said she wanted to go swimming. So the man waited for her below a palm tree and he fell asleep. When he woke up, she was not around any more. He looked for her on the beach, in her house, or maybe she was in a secret place, he tried to find a secret place. By night time, he was really worried. Then he slept and had a dream. He saw her in the dream and she said to him, “Please don’t follow me, I’m living in the sea. The turtles came for me, and I’m living with them in the ocean." The Guna people therefore think that turtles are sisters of humans. Unlike a lot of cultures, Guna don’t eat turtles or turtle eggs, even though they could have a feast on them if they wanted. But they feel the sea turtles are some part of us who separated from us and went to live in the sea.

Armila recently began having a festival each year to celebrate the leatherback turtle and to impress upon the school children the importance of conserving their habitat and protecting them.

It was a sweet festival but so small, I hope they figure out how to attract more visitors from the surrounding villages for the important cause. Mostly it was just the villagers, but there were some Colombian artisans (and I bought something from each of them, haha) and some journalists. Maybe the journalists can give it more exposure. It was two days. One of them was a Saturday, so Chris and I tried to buy some beer from the oldest man but he wouldn't sell it, even though we kept saying, "Sabado!" Turns out the village made a rule this year of no alcohol at the festival after last year people got really drunk and out of hand.

The first festival morning, we in the residency were asked to dress in the traditional clothes, the village women donated molas and skirts for us to wear. Then we took part in the parade that started at one of the schools, where the children lined up in their classes, with little banners to carry in front of their class.

Young children waiting for the parade to begin through town for the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.

The parade was led by teenagers playing traditional instruments and dancing a traditional dance. See footage of the parade HERE.

Parade through town for the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.It ended at another school where the village volleyball court is. (Volleyball is extremely popular.) The dancing continued for awhile, then Nacho and the school principle gave some speeches.

High school kids gathered at a school for the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.

Each of the classes had made a mural about turtles (tortuga in Spanish) and Yoon, Chris and I were tasked with being the judges.

Mural created by school children about protecting sea turtles, tortuga, at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.

We each selected one to be our personal winner. Yoon selected the one made with bottle caps, below, clearly having an affinity for this project after she and Chung (working together as "Chulma") made a flag out of bottle caps collected from the beach trash, and also a stop-motion film. It's super cool, watch it (about 30 seconds) HERE.

Mural created by school children about protecting sea turtles, tortuga, at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.

I chose the one below as my winner. I liked the message ("the ocean is our future") because it encompassed the broader issue around the tortuga's survival, and I thought it was very artistic, too -- I liked the bright colors, and you can't really tell in the pic, but the animals are all 3-D.

Mural created by school children about protecting sea turtles, tortuga, at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.

The next morning was designed for children's activities, and it was seriously one of cutest things I've been a part of. Some of the artists (the *real* artists) helped kids with painting projects. This is a mural that Chris painted that included scenes of the village and portraits of all the residency participants. The kids had a fun time going up and recognizing each of us and pointing each of us out.

Painting by Chris Holley displayed at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.

On the other side of the canvas was this turtle design that happened to match the blue and white paint of the school. Chris Holley is a talented painter and an elegant dancer specializing in tango!

Painting by Chris Holley displayed at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.

Then some of the artists had gathered materials from the forest to make turtle costumes for the kids. This was totally awesome and the kids were way into it.

Children in turtle costumes made from leaves and tree bark at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.Children in turtle costumes made from leaves and tree bark at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.

This sweet girl was having a hard time keeping her costume on and was too shy to ask someone for help, but I could tell she really wanted to be a turtle, so I knelt down to her and attached her leaf "shell" and wooden flippers.

Then they all marched down to the beach with their costumes on. 

Children in turtle costumes made from leaves and tree bark at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.

There they broke into several groups and had a sand "castle" building contest, but they were to build a sand turtle instead.

Children building sand turtles at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.Children building sand turtles at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.

The most hilarious part was the bubble blowing. Other artists -- you notice everyone else did all the work, I just took pictures! -- made buckets of bubble water with dish soap and fashioned bubble wands out of sticks and pipe cleaners. I would never have thought of this, the other people were so creative! Clearly the kids had never done this before, it took a little practice before they got the hang of it.

Child blowing bubble with a homemade bubble wand at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila, Panama. May 2019.Child blowing bubbles with homemade bubble wand, turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019Some blew the bubbles, some chased them!

Child chasing a bubble, turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019

This kid was completely enraptured with the bubbles. The adults also played other games with them and he was just as enthralled at everything going on.

Child enraptured by bubbles, turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019

I tried for ages to get a focused pic of the little kid popping up in back, almost like a little photobomber. He was so cute but always, always moving. Before the end of the day, though, I finally captured his wonder-filled eyes in a brief moment of stillness.

Indigenous children at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019

This was the only day in the whole residency time that I could freely take photos of the people with abandon. Journalists were there doing it, too, it was expected. So no awkward asking if it's OK, or waiting for the Monster Hour to begin. (as explained in The Village post) It was definitely my favorite period of time, getting to use my 70-200mm lens for what it was intended rather than for insects, as I had been trying to capture from four feet away in the jungle! So here are some shots that I like of the children playing that morning on the beach.

Indigenous children at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019Indigenous children at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019Indigenous children at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019Indigenous children at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019Indigenous children at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019Indigenous children at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019Indigenous children at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019Indigenous children at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019Indigenous children at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019

These two kids, I presume they are brother and sister but I don't know that, completely captured my heart ... walking hand-in-hand, the boy always looking out for the girl and hugging her, playing with her. She clearly felt safe and loved. 

Indigenous children at the turtle festival in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019

While we're on the beach, these pics are from another day, but I had fun with these kids. There is this black clay-like substance on the ground under the water right where the ocean and river outlet meet. The kids dive down and grab handfuls and smear it all over themselves, and of course I tried it, too, with them, making designs on my legs. Interestingly, I did not wash the mud off for many hours, not until evening, and even though the muddy substance was washed off, the dark colored design actually stayed on my legs for another day before fading away!

Indigenous children playing on the beach in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019Indigenous children playing on the beach in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019Indigenous children playing on the beach in Guna Yala village of Armila. May 2019

And as a little coda, sort of in the vein of festivals ... another celebration we took part in was Nachito's birthday. Our host and cultural liaison, Nacho, is nicknamed Nacho for his real name Ignacio. So going off of his nickname, his grandson is nicknamed Nachito (although in my mind I kind of picture it as Nacheetoh, haha). Nachito was two years old when we arrived, and he turned three at his big birthday party. He added so much entertainment to our time eating meals at Nacho's house, where he lived.

He was absolutely adorable but prone to temper tantrums, and since I wasn't his mom or step-sister who usually had to deal with him, his tantrums were adorable, too. One afternoon he wanted desperately to go with his dad as his dad went off to do some work somewhere. Dad had already walked away, but Nachito kept running down the yard trying to catch up, his step-sister had to drag him back to the house over and over and finally locked him in the bathroom (the outer-most room of the house). But that ratcheted the meltdown to Level 10. Finally his grandpa was able to calm him down.

Another night he did not want to take a shower before bed and was throwing a tantrum over it. Cried and screamed and fussed, and finally his mom strong-armed him into the bathroom and into the shower. Things quieted down in there for a few minutes and then he came out naked and squeaky clean, still dripping with water. Good job, Nachtio, you're nice and clean! Then he promptly laid down in the dirt and rolled around. So ... he was an adorable little mud sausage.   

All was good at the party until his mom tried to coax him to blow out the candle on his cake and he was apparently scared to, was on the verge of a meltdown, then another girl came to the rescue and blew it out. 

My brother said my nephew changed like a light bulb on his second birthday into the infamous "terrible twos." Nachito changed like a light bulb out of the terrible twos on his third birthday. All of a sudden the next day, he was interested in coloring books and pretending he was learning like he was in school with his step-sister. I never saw him cry again.

Fittingly, it was during the turtle festival weekend that this nesting shark survivor came ashore. I don't know if the kids always take this much interest in the turtles, as they are commonplace to them; my guess is they gathered around because we did.   

Leatherback turtle digging her nest on the beach, with children gathered round, at Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

I like this shot because it looks like the turtle is flying.

Leatherback turtle digging her nest on the beach at Armila, Guna Yala, Panama. She looks like she's flying.

Click HERE to see a video of this turtle digging.

This was the single time when I was trying to take a photo withOUT kids, and so of course they all wanted to photobomb! Even loyal Buddy came with us to watch the turtle. 

Leatherback turtle digging her nest on the beach at Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Buddy the dog watching a leatherback turtle dig a nest on the beach at Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Nesting leatherback turtle returning to ocean, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Perhaps taking their cues from our excitement, the kids escorted the leatherback mother back into the ocean and cheered her on, just as I was doing. You get a good sense of scale here, how mammoth this amazing creature is next to a line of kids. I thought it was a really neat moment as the indigenous children ushered the ancient turtle back to her home -- not a scene I am likely to see again.

Nesting leatherback turtle returning to ocean, a line of children beside her, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

At this point in my traveling "career," I've spent time, not just tourist time but real time, with a number of rural, traditional and indigenous cultures and tribes around the world, and I have so many thoughts about the similarities and differences and what makes for those, ideas about why there are parallels and why there are intersections. The degree of the Guna's traditional resistance to outsiders is unique to my experience. Only a couple decades ago the Guna were considering isolating themselves completely -- no foreigners in and no Guna out. Although they are a part of Panama, they are their own sovereign entity and could enforce this segregation. They eventually decided that was too drastic, but they have kept the rest of the world at the far end of a long stick until only very recently. Now it seems clear to all of us in the residency that they’ve opened themselves up too much to foreigners … this revelation cementing after a big group of tourists landed on the beach one night and stumbled around the village for an hour the next day before leaving. The whole village had a completely different vibe.

Because of the recent increase in interaction with outsiders, Armila's cultural integrity is already starting to degrade. Some of the villagers see this and are saddened, some see it and are indifferent, some don't see it. I could see a few of the older children already becoming jaded and disrespectful, losing their personal integrity, as well -- instead of friendly and welcoming, they were yelling at the foreigners and mocking them. It's a tough situation because tourism is such an easy way for the villages to generate revenue, one can hardly blame them. But the upshot is that the villagers come to see visitors not as people, but merely as dollar signs, and this is when cultural dialogue and interpersonal communication breaks down, people separate into camps of "us" and "them," the village people and the foreign money. 

I look at the spirit animal of the Guna of Armila -- the leatherback turtle -- and can't help but see it as an analogy: their efforts to keep outsiders at bay until now is like a turtle shell over their land, their indigenous identity and history. Their strong culture protected their weaknesses and vulnerabilities under its shell. As the sea turtle becomes threatened and endangered, so does the Guna culture. I'm blessed and grateful to have witnessed it, and I want to share what I saw with others, but I'd feel a secret happiness if I, and all foreigners, were never allowed back. 

*

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