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Village huts on the banks of the Armila River. Armila, Panama.

Well, dear readers, I’m having a difficult time deciding how to present to you the indigenous Guna village of Armila and what I witnessed there. I have no obligation to do this from the La Wayaka residency that gave me the opportunity to live there for three weeks. No obligation to anyone, but, like my time spent in the Chinese peasant village of Dang Jiashan, it’s an experience not many people have (like a lot of my wacky and volunteer experiences, haha) and that’s kind of why I started my own travel blog in the first place. I like to share what I find interesting, to educate people about pockets of the world they might not even know exist, to amuse armchair travelers, inspire others to see the world, etc. So … I'd like to tell you a bit about Armila as my energy allows. But how to organize? Well, it’s silly to spend time thinking about that when I should just dive in and start sharing. So, posts may end up being a little jumbled and random, but here we go.

Armila is home to roughly 600 inhabitants, while another 300 or more call Armila home -- they were born there, but now live outside of it in a town or a city like Panama City. They may come back for family ceremonies, elections, and to simply visit family. The village lies at the mouth of the Armila River as it empties into the Caribbean Sea at the very southern tip of the eastern side of Panama, near the Colombian Border. It lies within the Guna Yala indigenous province, an autonomous region for the native Guna Yala people. There are no facilities to accommodate tourists in the village. There are a few huts available to people officially hosted by the town, who must be along the lines of researchers or journalists or artists like ourselves, who are not just tourists but are there to learn and give something back to the community. The La Wayaka residency program has been forging a relationship with Armila for several years, and now brings four separate groups of artists over during the course of a year. 

Here are a couple views of the village looking at it and the mouth of the river (coming in from the right) from the ocean. The water at the mouth is always full of people, particularly children, playing and bathing. 

Coming into the village out of the river toward the ocean.

So how about a little tour around my own hut in the village. With seven artists and two guides/interpreters, our group stayed between two different buildings in the village, a short distance from each other. In mine, I had a private room, frankly I think the best one out of everybody, a great stroke of luck.

Artist residency house and my room, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Chris (from England) had a private room, Chong and Yun (from South Korea) had a room as a couple, and one of our guides, Luz (from Argentina), had her own room.

One common space with a table and hammocks, and a bathroom … understand that indoor plumbing is a fairly nice luxury. Some homes have it, but a lot don’t. We had a toilet, a sink, and a spigot that came out of the wall about three and a half feet off the ground to serve as a shower -- a challenging shower, especially for one with arthritic knees to have to kneel under the spigot to wash their hair. (I'm referring to me, if you didn't guess!) The village actually voted to build this house specifically for La Wayaka guests, though I imagine they use it for other visitors when the residency is not there the majority of the year.

A lot of things we take for granted at home were not available in our hut, such as cups. So, below, Chris has ingeniously cut a plastic water bottle in half, using the bottom half as a cup for a little happy hour beer. (Mostly we didn't use plastic, but rather, refilled water bottles each day from a large tank of filtered water at our village host's house.)

We are drinking beer in those photos, but alcohol is only sold on Saturdays and Sundays in Armila. This was a decision made by the village council, and it keeps the residents healthy and productive during the week without draconian prohibition measures. It's a very nice balance for people to enjoy themselves on the weekend, but not fall into the clutches of alcoholism, which has been a challenge among indigenous people throughout the Americas. Each individual Guna village decides their own rules regarding the sale of alcohol. Western visitors are granted some leeway to this rule, however it would have been rude to drink in public on a weekday, so if we had beer, we drank privately inside our hut or our host's. Of the two shops near us that had coolers and carried cold beer, only one would sell to us on the weekday. 

This is the other residency house and also where we all gathered for any group activities, such as craft demonstrations and informative talks by our village host, Nacho.

Villagers without plumbing have an outdoor loo for a toilet and simply bathe and wash clothes in the river. We also had a cement floor in our house, which is quite a luxury, most homes have dirt floors. Some are built of bamboo sticks, ours was built of wood planks, as you saw above.

In addition to us human roommates, we had a couple canine residents. One was a female dog who lived right next door and was probably the cause of the numerous horrifically vicious-sounding dog fights that took place in our courtyard and around the village many nights in a row while she was in heat. The first time I awoke to one of the fights taking place right outside my window, I honestly thought it sounded like a monster, and wondered what in the hell roamed the Panamanian jungles, and if it came out for human flesh at night!

My favorite canine friend lived pretty much all around the village, but particularly with the artists, often found at one of our two houses. He was an intensely loyal companion to all of us.

The first time I went into the jungle alone, he stayed with me the whole time. If I stopped to take some photos, he would sit and wait for me. Then we’d continue on together. I thought, “Oh, I’ve found a special friend!” But then I found out he accompanied other people, too, on their outings … I was admittedly a little jealous, my little buddy was not my own! I named him “Buddy,” by the way.

Buddy the dog waiting for me to catch up in the jungle. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

It wasn’t just into the jungle, but even along the beach, and he would swim the narrow channel that we had to cross at the mouth of the river to walk down a long stretch of beach looking for nesting turtles and hatching turtle eggs.

I made no secret of the fact that before departure I was really scared of what creepy jungle spiders I might encounter, because on TV shows, they are always gigantic, terrifying looking things in the jungles. Well, I only ever encountered one … and I was less afraid of it than the roommate who was home with me at the time! Instead, our insanely creepy nighttime roommates for the first week we were there were large blue crabs coming on land for mating season!

Although our house was made with wooden planks, they didn’t meet with the cement floor everywhere and the doors didn’t exactly fit their frames, so the crabs infiltrated through these weak points of the house. Scuttling across the floor, their claws snapping in the air. Aaaaaack! I was seriously creeped out, I think more so than anyone else in my house. Thank goodness, the door to my bedroom actually came all the way to the ground, so I never had a crab inside my room, but other people had them scuttling around through their clothes and under their beds. I would not have slept one wink if I had them in my room! I kept my space extremely spartan, no piles of anything on the floor where a crab could hide if he did get in.

One night near the end of their mating season, I found two of them crawling the outside wall of the house right next to my window. I tried to contain my horror as I quickly went into my room, scouted for lurking crabs, and closed my windows.

Ten minutes later I opened them. It was entirely too oppressive without air flow! I couldn’t take the stuffy heat. That was even worse than the prospect of crabs. So I sealed myself into my mosquito net and hoped for the best. Mega hurray, they never came inside. Walking around the village paths at night they were crawling around everywhere, so while I normally prefer walking at night by moon and starlight versus flashlight, I always kept one on so I wouldn’t run into a crab...

...AND so I wouldn’t step on a toad! The other nighttime companion throughout the village was big toads. Fortunately they didn’t seem interested in coming inside the house, but they were always lurking around the paths. I wished I could have seen one better in the daytime to get a photo, but they only really came out at night. If you look closely you can pick out a crab on the path in the background, top left of first photo.

And of course, there are always chickens everywhere! I love chickens. Ever since I was the chicken-chaser while making the film The African Witchfinder in Namibia, I have had an affinity for chickens; they’re far more interesting and pretty creatures than I had given them credit for most of my life.

Our house was right near the western boundary of the village, where the Armila river comes out and meets the ocean. There was just one more hut west of ours before it was all marsh and grassland. There were two horses who grazed here, which seemed so incongruous with the jungle landscape. I’m used to seeing horses on desert plains and in canyonlands and alpine forests.  

Only a handful of villagers owned horses or donkeys. There are no roads of any kind to the village, only paths through the hills. So your only options for bringing in supplies from the nearest town, where the airstrip is, is by boat if the water is calm enough, to walk, or to ride a pack animal. I was given the impression that at least some horse owners would loan them out to other villagers who needed to bring in heavy supplies.

I also watched a variety of bird life in this marshy area. There was a stretch of barbed wire that went all the way down to the river, so I could never get very close to them to take good pictures. I’m not really sure what purpose the barbed wire served, to be honest, it wasn’t private land beyond it.

But beyond it, the river snakes back into the jungle and the villagers fish from their dugout canoes, or take the canoes up the river to their plots of land, called fincas, where they grow bananas and a variety of tropical fruits.

Or they  harvest wood for building material. Some villagers could walk to their fincas from the village, and some had to take canoes further upriver. If they are harvesting wood, they don’t drag the trees out, rather they shape the planks in the jungle and carry those out.

I will make a lot of notes on the strength of the community spirit during this series. One example of this is that when a villager puts up a new structure or replaces a bamboo hut with a wooden plank one, the whole village comes together and does a “barn-raising.” Having spent time in several different traditional villages and regions around the planet, every time I come home from one of those places, I am struck by a profound sense of isolation which is the “gift” of capitalism. The quotation marks denote sarcasm. I’m a hermit and an introvert, so I don’t refer to isolation from the kind of social atmosphere that comforts a social butterfly. I mean that in these villages you are part of a network, like the branches of a tree, or the silks of a spider web … you are an individual, but there is a social safety net and a community that cushions you and that you likewise feel necessary to its functioning.

People don’t fall through the cracks in a community like Armila. Capitalist societies are like sieves … full of holes people fall through and nobody even notices. The capitalist ideal is to live so big you have to section yourself off into a gated community and a gated house and have the home theater system secluded in your basement and shiny car sequestered in the garage so you can enjoy them by yourself. In Armila, the people who have a TV invite their neighbors over to watch soccer matches together. If you have a horse, you let other people use it. If you’re building a house, you don’t draw up private blueprints and get city approval certificates and hire a contractor, you have a party with your neighbors and put up a house that fits into the village – neither bigger nor smaller than the rest. Yes, you will notice I have a soapbox to stand on against the individualistic economic ideals of capitalism. Be an individual in your interests, in your heart and soul, in your creativity and kindness, not through a lack of sharing and community spirit in order to elevate yourself to your own pedestal. I manage to stay afloat in America and I play by the game rules, but I admire immensely the cultures that revolve around community. Anyhoo … I will step down from my soapbox and move on. :-)    

So our house was also just a stone’s throw from the riverbank, so every morning I could watch the women come down with their laundry and children come down to stay with their mothers or play.

It was a very traditional, almost idyllic scene. The big incongruity was the music often blasting from the hut right next to ours (further inland from the river). And I mean *right* next to ours. Nearly every day, around 7:00 a.m., sometimes earlier, they would crank music through an amplifier and speakers powered by a generator, which was also loud. These weren’t like rowdy kids or anything, it was a very nice family, the man of the house was the English teacher in school. They simply loved music. There were a few other houses scattered around the village who also perpetually played music. At least I liked their play lists. They were traditional Central and South American styles of music … so while being blasted through speakers was a bit of anachronism to the women washing their laundry in their traditional blouses and jewelry, at least the music was vaguely appropriate to the region. But I think the young South Korean artists were in a little bit of audio hell, as they prefer modern electronic music, haha. But they were good sports. And wonderfully creative and artistic people, I might add. I plan to show you some of their work later in the series.

The heat and the 99% humidity were tough for me to deal with. Best thing I brought with me was my rechargeable travel fan. And fortunately, our house had a power strip (the other artist house didn’t). Powered by solar. Several years ago, the Panamanian government provided, at no cost to the villagers, every house in Armila with solar panels. Some people have also purchased gas-fueled generators, but every household has the same solar capacity -- another egalitarian aspect of the community.

So at night, the only way I could get any sleep in the heat and humidity on my wretchedly uncomfortable bed, was to open my windows and lie with the fan literally resting on my chest or on my arm, blowing onto my face. So going to bed wasn’t necessarily something I looked forward to, but waking up every morning and coming out of the sleep fog to recognize where I was, I felt very contented. I was ready to come home after three weeks, but I looked forward to each day learning and exploring in Armila.

One of the neighboring huts between us and the river. 

There is another side to Armila, the ocean side. I'll tell you about that in my next post.

*

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