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

The ocean is probably the most important zone and aspect of Armila. It is part of its glory and the primary part of its tragedy.  

Armila village is on the Caribbean coast of Panama, where the Armila river meets the ocean. By far the quickest and easiest method of transport to any other Guna village is by boat, as there are no roads in the Guna Yala territory, only footpaths for people and pack animals. And most villages are located on small islands in a long archipelago. There are only five mainland Guna villages.

So the ocean is the primary means to access the rest of the world and the means by which the rest of the world accesses Armila. This is good for the Guna people to get supplies and visit relatives in other villages -- a number of villagers own speed boats and can ferry others who don't. But it also brings in an increasing tide of tourists (who pay to camp on the beach), which, from my point of view, lies mostly on the tragedy end of the spectrum. That's a whole issue to tangle with on its own. I will find space for it in another post because it's an issue I've wrestled with several times in the past with other special places I've visited on the cusp of radical change.

The ocean also provides a bounty of food. For example all those crabs that crawled on land during the first week of our stay! haha. But mostly, of course, fish. I never saw any large fishing nets in the village like I've seen in other rural fishing villages in other countries, so I'm presuming they fish by pole or traps (though I never saw any traps sitting around either).

So between the river and the ocean, everyone needs to navigate the water. The shoreline of Armila is full of dugout canoes and speed boats.

Boats parked on the beach outside a home in Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Dugout canoe painted red and turquoise beached in front of a home in Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Boat beached in Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Dugout canoes parked on the beach, with a man rowing a canoe on the river outlet. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Speed boats anchored at the beach in Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Painted dugout canoe on the beach at Armila, Guna Yala, Panama. The paint is chipping off.

It was fun to watch kids learning their skills. Sometimes I saw them playing in the river outlet and tipping the canoes over -- sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. A fair number of people also took their dogs along in their canoes, which was really cute. This day the waves coming in were very small and kids were out in droves paddling canoes and using old pieces of wood like boogie boards. 

Kids practicing their canoeing skills in the ocean, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

The most amazing things the ocean brings to Armila are female leatherback turtles full of eggs, looking for a place on shore to dig a nest and bury their babies so the sand can incubate them until they pop to the surface and make their way to the ocean. When I read in the residency literature that Armila was an important nesting area for the leatherbacks, I was very excited and hoped I would be lucky enough to see one.

I got to see several, and it was a more profound experience than I ever could have guessed it would be. I've seen a fair number of critters in the wild around the world, but this ..... This was something else, and I could try to throw some words around it, but they couldn't really do justice to what I felt.

Our first encounter was at night, which is when the turtles typically come on shore to lay eggs. Most or maybe all nesting turtle "tours" take their clients out at night to look for nesting turtles. So after being in the village only a couple days, we went out one night with Nacho to the beach on the other side of the river outlet, where I had not yet been. So we took a boat across the river and started following Nacho up the beach. It was, of course, dark and I was just watching the ground, trying to pick out my steps, as I didn't have a flashlight. I figured we'd be walking for awhile, so I was startled when Nacho called halt after only a few minutes.

I don't want to take time to describe my Costa Rica experience with a turtle tour group, but having had that experience did not prepare me for the intimacy that we would have here with the turtles! Here we're just villagers living in the same space as the turtles. So when Nacho called halt, I thought he was stopping to tell us all something, but no words came. Then I looked where his dim red light was pointing. Red light does not bother the turtles ... a regular flashlight does, it would freak the turtle out and she may abandon the nest she's digging. So (also in Costa Rica) only light colored red should be used. I thought Nacho's light was probably pointed down idly as he was about to speak. So when I followed the light, I was so startled I nearly jumped back as I saw, right there, maybe 10 feet from me, a giant turtle head.

Nesting leatherback turtle at night in red light. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

It took me a minute to even parse the scene. The head was mammoth ... seeing pictures of how large they are doesn't prepare you for being right next to one. This lady was large even by leatherback standards. So that was my first encounter and I was very happy about it even though I couldn't get any real pictures in the dark. A couple days later, I was hanging out in our hut in the afternoon when Luz came running in telling me there was a turtle on the beach in broad daylight. She had gotten lost at night and went upriver instead of to the ocean after she completed her nest. She had been redirected and now was heading toward the ocean. I ran out to the beach with just my phone camera.

Female leatherback turtle making her way back to ocean after laying her eggs. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Female leatherback turtle making her way back to ocean after laying her eggs. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

When I saw the turtle and what a good photo opp it could be, I sprinted to the best of my old and arthritic ability back to the hut, grabbed my real camera and sprinted back, catching a few pics before she disappeared into the ocean.  Female leatherback turtle making her way back to ocean after laying her eggs. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Female leatherback turtle making her way back to ocean after laying her eggs. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Female leatherback turtle entering back into the ocean after laying her eggs. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Female leatherback turtle entering back into the ocean after laying her eggs. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

After this I was pretty ecstatic. But this wasn't the end of my encounters! I'll talk more about the turtles, and share more pics, when I tell you about the Turtle Festival in another post. For now, this is just to point out the most amazing thing the ocean brings to the village.  

So the shore is beautiful -- a long stretch of soft, pale sand beach lined with palm trees and a wall of jungle behind them, gentle ocean waves coming in. Absolutely idyllic.

Looking down on the beach at Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Looking down the beach west of the village of Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Looking down the beach east of the village of Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Children walking along the beach, holding hands, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Sunset on the beach west of the village, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

The residency literature did not mention what we all would discover in our first few days in Armila. Perhaps because it might turn people off? I think it's fine that it's not mentioned. It was actually interesting to see how everyone reacted to the discovery, as we each explored around on our own, and then came and exclaimed to each other and asked our guides for explanations. For as soon as you pass the village center, more and more of the beach is choked with trash. 

Heaps of garbage washed on the beaches of Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Heaps of garbage washed on the beaches of Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

It's not the villagers' trash, though they are not 100% blameless, the majority is garbage that washes up from the ocean at large. Many of the items stranded on the beach and gathered in lagoons just beyond the high tide mark are things that aren't even available in the Guna villages or would not have any use even if someone brought them in from outside. I don't know how the currents work, I don't know if all the washed-up garbage comes from one source that would be identifiable (a particular large city, for example), or if it just collects randomly from all around the Caribbean.

The shore directly in front of the village is relatively clean ... a few plastic bottles here and there, nothing out of the ordinary for Central America. So walking a little ways outside of the heart of the village, it is a shock to suddenly come across the heaps of trash. Somehow I managed to permanently and irrecoverably delete some photos on my phone ... you see, I don't really know how to use the thing, so god only knows what I did. They were pictures of the trash lagoon -- the most shocking place of all -- and of a bunch of individual items on the beach. I took them the day I starting making a list of the items I saw (I'll post it the bottom of this article). Here are some pics I took on another day that I managed not to delete. (I didn't walk around with my "real" cameras very often, only in the jungle or early in the mornings ... so a lot of documentation comes from the camera on my phone.) 

Plastic doll among the heaps of trash along the beaches of Armila, Guna yala, Panama.

Plastic doll among the heaps of trash along the beaches of Armila, Guna yala, Panama.

Plastic vase among the heaps of trash along the beaches of Armila, Guna yala, Panama.

Child's rubber boot among the heaps of trash along the beaches of Armila, Guna yala, Panama.

Solidified paper (?) among the heaps of trash along the beaches of Armila, Guna yala, Panama.

And yet among the trash, little signs of life that seemed like little signs of hope. 

Tiny palm tree seedling growing among the trash on the beach of Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

The most common items in the trash heaps were plastic bottles and shoes. Why shoes? I have no idea. But two of the artists in the residency chose these most ubiquitous items to make some impressive installation art. Jeffrey Michael Austin collected shoes of all colors and tied them with bits of rope to the chainlink fence that was at the edge of the courtyard of the hut I stayed in. It took days for him to do the collection and days to visualize his design, and days standing out in the blazing sun affixing the shoes. I was skeptical at first, I admit, about having a bunch of garbage shoes tied to the fence outside my window. But wow, it was an amazing creation. Beautiful and tragic ... colors of the rainbow, geometric patterns -- ooooh aahhhh -- made of a minuscule fraction of the garbage sullying the beaches of Armila. 

Artwork of Jeffrey Michael Austin, shoes gathered from the beach trash tied into geometric patterns. La Wayaka Artist Residency, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Artwork of Jeffrey Michael Austin, shoes gathered from the beach trash tied into geometric patterns. La Wayaka Artist Residency, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

My roommates, Chong and Yoon, who work together artistically as "Chulma," made a flag out of every color of bottle cap ... spending ages collecting enough of each color, sketching out their design, and then an unbelievably painstaking amount of time "stitching" them together with twine. Chong drilled a tiny hole on four sides of each cap with the only drill in town, which he was able to borrow in spurts, and then they threaded the twine through them to make a solid, stiff "flag" of a turtle. They hung it up at the turtle "hatchery" ... a fenced-off place where the villagers translocate eggs from nests that are too close to the ocean and will wash away, or are otherwise in danger.
Yoon placing plastic bottle caps in shape of a turtle. La Wayaka Artist Residency, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Chong stitching together plastic bottle caps in shape of a turtle. La Wayaka Artist Residency, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Artwork by Chulma. Turtle flag made of plastic bottle caps installed. La Wayaka Artist Residency, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

They also spent an immense amount of time making this short stop-motion film with the bottle caps. It just so happened that there was a concrete slab right outside our hut, I have no idea why it was there, what it was made for, but it was the perfect platform on which they could create their film. Since I was their roommate, I saw how much effort they put into it, to the point they became sick of it but were determined to finish, and I really can't stress enough how amazing their effort and their final product is. Check out the first draft of their film (about 40 seconds long): 

A Seed Story

So the trash is a bummer. And most of the villagers don't seem to care much. But some do. And some have tried various initiatives to use the trash constructively (make things with it to sell, etc.). Outsiders have also come in to introduce methods of making crafts or useful objects from the trash. Inevitably those projects peter out, no one takes the helm as leader of any project and group enthusiasm quickly fizzles with no one to direct, organize, or cheerlead. They burn a lot of the trash, raking it into piles covered with dried palm leaves as tinder, which is totally toxic, all that plastic burning. 

Trash fires in the trees at the outskirts of Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Trash fires on the beach of Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Colombians come over (as Colombia border is very near) and buy the aluminum cans, as they have a recycling facility for aluminum. So you don't see many cans lying around, just plastic. The village discusses collecting and burying it, but that's just a cover-up, it doesn't solve the problem, and there are two big prohibitive issues with this approach: (1) wherever they decide to make a hole, it will inevitably be near somebody's finca (farming plots) and nobody wants a trash hole near theirs, (2) in their folk beliefs, their magical, mythical creatures and places are underground. Many cultures take their mythological stories from the sky and stars, and the good places like heaven are up in the sky; in Guna beliefs all of those places are underground. So digging deep into the earth offends all these beliefs, it's sacrilegious. 

Here's how serious the Guna take their beliefs in the underground world and spirits. This is a story from another website about when people in Armila decided to build some fish tanks and try fish farming. They dug into the earth to build a deep tank. Then one day a man said he saw an evil spirit come out of the ground. Village suspicion is that he was a fisherman who was simply afraid of losing his business to the "farmers." But their beliefs are strong enough, and it makes sense that the spirits could be angry for digging into their sacred realm, that nobody was willing to dismiss the sighting. So the village shaman declared they needed to do a purification ceremony. This was not just a one-day ceremony, but took two weeks with many restrictions in the village during that time and the women and children vacated the village and set up camps on the beach across the river outlet. This was serious stuff. 

In terms of the villagers' own contribution to garbage, the genesis of that came from many years ago when one of the sahilas declared that villagers should not keep trash in their homes, it was unclean to do so, and they should take it all to the ocean. But back then, most of the villagers' waste was organic in nature. Plastic had not been invented. Now, plastic is particularly used in rural economies because it's so cheap. So the idea of throwing trash to the ocean is no longer appropriate to how their society has changed. I asked Nacho if a current sahila could influence the villagers' habits if he, or all the sahilas together, told the villagers that now they must not throw things out into nature. But then the question is, what DO they do with it? This is an isolated community, they can't just have a trash company come by and empty trash cans. Even if they gathered up their own trash, where could they take it? Then they're back to burning it or burying it, none of which are adequate, or healthy, solutions. 

The village is also talking a lot about filling in a valley-type space, a natural depression, as opposed to digging a hole and then when it’s full to the level of the surrounding ground, capping it with cement and making it into a volleyball court or something like that, something the kids and community will benefit from, so they’ll feel motivated to fill up that space with trash rather than throwing it somewhere else. But once again, the valley is only so big, it will fill up.

The solution to the community's trash problem is clearly to prevent plastic from entering the village ... no plastic bottles, that alone would make a huge difference. Limit items to only what can be sustainably dealt with from now into the future. And what do they do with the trash that washes in from the ocean? That's a Sisyphusian effort to clear that away, and they have no control over its continual assault of their beaches. 

So this is the ecological tragedy of the seemingly paradise village -- the garbage problem.  But the ocean brings in some gems, too. Helpful things, like driftwood. For their fires, the villagers don't have to cut down many trees because they just collect driftwood from the beach. I saw one family come in with their dugout canoe to a place further down the beach than where the village is and load up their boat with driftwood. We gathered a bunch one night because Nacho wanted to put on a big bonfire for the artists. This was rather amusing to me because it was so hot already, I couldn't fathom sitting next to a bonfire! Indeed, I had to stand way, way back.

Some of the driftwood was incredibly beautiful and picturesque.

Beautiful driftwood on the beach of Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Beautiful driftwood on the beach of Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Beautiful driftwood on the beach of Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Beautiful driftwood on a beach near Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Beautiful driftwood on a beach near Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

And of course seashells! As I showed you some that I took home, in my Souvenirs from Armila post. 

Seashells on the beach at Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

So here is the list I started making, first of any items that struck me as strange, amusing, disturbing -- things you might not normally find on the beach! Then I switched to a disheartening list of just all the different things made of plastic. Then my piece of note paper was full and I just took pictures, which I then accidentally deleted. But in any case, the list here and the pics all only represent a fraction, a tiny fraction, of the kinds of things found, and I was only walking around a small portion of the beach. Later I would see one of the nesting turtles dragging herself back to the ocean over a pair of metal scissors.  

Bicycle, life vest, scrubbing brush, size DD bra, toothbrush, deodorant, volleyballs, plastic flashlight, plastic bucket, balled-up used diapers, plastic deck chair, plastic milk crate, plastic pulley and some kind of construction panels, rubber hose, DEET bottles, fast food styrofoam, backseat of a car, couch, plastic cooler, infant walker and play chair (plastic), plastic tampon applicators, plastic buckets, television, metal cooking oven, metals pots, plastic wheel from a kid's cart, large satellite dish, plastic cups and dishes, an occasional glass bottle, eye mask for sleeping, rubber bucket, pillow, ping pong ball, basketball, baby wipe lid, plastic hanger, two matching flip flops far down the beach from each other (had particular flowers on the straps), lots of corn cobs, kids backpacks, bed post, part of a humidifier (plastic), several plastic piggy banks, plastic thermos, plastic tricycle handlebars, plastic jerry can, plastic shovel handle, plastic rake, plastic dolls and more plastic kids toys than I can list. This is the next most common item after bottles and shoes: children's toys. 

The pillow I found had some plastic thing on it that at first I thought was part of the pillow. I poked it with my foot and it started screeching like a car alarm, "skreek skreek skreek!" I was horrified, I thought somehow I had set off something by touching that plastic and I had no idea how I would turn it off. I looked around all panicked. But the sound stopped. I looked up, and realized it was just coincidence that a bird in a palm tree started screeching at precisely the moment I touched the plastic. Obviously it's very silly that I thought I set off an alarm by touching a piece of garbage plastic sitting on a pillow on the beach. But at the moment, there was no other available explanation for the noise that began right when I touched it! But I had a good laugh at myself after I saw the bird. 


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