Day 9

Patterns of speech are different amongst everybody here. Bernie says that she is dislearning her English. We learn bits of new words from other language, integrate them into our own.

Last year, there was an exhibition of the La Wayaka residents in London. Over 60 artists presented their works, culled over three years and residencies in three different locations. There are plans for something smaller, but more thematic, in Berlin next year. So much of the work, I imagine, is about transcending form. When your natural materials are the desert, the ocean, the sky, to call something by its medium is almost insulting.

After breakfast, we pile into a large canoe and start to paddle up the Armila River. Just a little way in, the river forks. To the right is Rio Negro, Black River. There are farms that way, and crocodiles too, but we are going up Armila River this morning. We paddle for close to an hour. The wooden paddle is heavy and our hands, soft from writing pens and the comfort of keyboards, are unused to such rigid, organic shapes. The river is calm and we pass a range of palms and plantains. Different palms have different uses. Some are used to wrap fish and are used for Guna ceremonies. Others become the thatch roof of traditional houses. Eventually, we pull up and disembark for a short walk into the jungle. This is much deeper jungle, and the vegetation is denser and the ants run roughshod all over.

Luz points out nivar – long vines that are placed outside every house when someone dies to help their spirit lift upwards and away from the earth. The fruit of the nivar is a medicinal herb that is used to quell anxiety. Perhaps anxiety is a kind of prelude to death, the uncertainty about where to go on a far more immaterial plane.

Fernando, our boatman, tells us that before WWII, a British company came to this part of the coast, harvesting bananas. They brought machines to open the land and built a small train to connect Armila to another community, Anachucuna. Some of the tracks are still there. When they left, the jungle came back, as it does. And now, foreign companies aren’t allowed to work in this part of Panama.

We pass freshly hewn canoes, still rough and unfinished. They are made out of cedar. They float on the water, awaiting the hand of a craftsman to give them their own identity, their own names.

We paddle some more to a tiny bank on the river where it’s possible to swim. The current is swift, though the water is shallow, barely waist-high here. It would be something to float all the way back to Armila from here.

Over lunch, Luis tells Nacho how cocaine is produced because we get talking about where poppy grows (none around here). In return, he recounts that when he was 16 and studying on another island in another community, he carried a really nice satchel as his book bag. One day, it was stolen, but a friend of his said that a bunch of potheads had stolen it. When he went to the principal of his school to complain, the principal managed to get the thieves to own up. But Nacho had to collect the bag himself from their house at a fixed time. When he arrived, his bag was there but instead of books, it was filled with bricks of marijuana! Needless to say, Nacho emptied out his bag before getting out of there.

Maria brings out a bar of chocolate from Guatemala from the personal stash in Aida’s kitchen. Somehow the chocolate keeps here without a fridge. I really should have bought that big bar of Tony Chocolonely that I saw in Frankfurt. Guatemalan chocolate is incredible. 77% cacao, but its smooth, flavourful and not bitter at all.

Scooping out a tortuma to make a container is the simplest thing. The insides can’t be consumed but they smell sweet and acrid at the same time, almost fermented. Could a tortuma make you high?

We are reading back in the house when Maria returns to say that some people have brought a large iguana, freshly killed, to Nacho’s house and we are likely to have iguana tonight or tomorrow. I want to go over to photograph it, but fall asleep, lulled by the warm afternoon and the sun burning its way through from the morning’s river expedition.

When I do get over there an hour later, Nacho has already drained the iguana and scooped out its insides. He’s starting to skin it. It’s kind of surreal. He tells me that hunters with rifles shot it and that it tastes like chicken. We’ll find out for sure at dinner tomorrow.

Nacho has never seen a tiger in his life, but there are tigers deep in the jungle. They don’t come to the coast, thankfully. The one time Nacho went hunting he was deathly afraid that a tiger was stalking him and kept turning around, to the irritation of his friend ahead of him, to check for tigers. Still on the subject of animals and extinction, Maria suggests that we anthropomorphize animals to make it easier for us to dominate them. Maybe there is something too about the nearness of animals that are like us in terms of intelligence, physical attributes, etc. So many folk tales and myths elevate animals to the stature of humans, focusing on particular attributes that perhaps we then amalgamate into our own natures. The serpent is sly, the fox is cunning, the lion is regal, the dog is faithful. Why then do we hunt animals to the point of extinction? What do we fear? What do they have that we lack, that we still desire?

“It’s Friday and the body knows it” is a saying that is apparently very common throughout Latin America. Even more so in Armila, where alcohol only happens on weekends. Tonight, the school is putting on a show for the kids in the community. This happens on the 25th of every month. The kids were singing earlier but when we get there the teachers are performing. A young man, who is Luis’ guitar student, does a decent rendition from a minus-one track on the PA. But what is even cuter is that he has a make-believe backing band on guitar, percussion and accordion.

The guitar man sways to the music, his left hand fixed in one position. The percussionist is holding a grater from a kitchen, and the accordion, held by the principal, is made out of paper! He gamely folds it in and out and even manages to amp it up during the accordion solo. I lift a girl up to see better and suddenly my right shoulder goes. It pops and creaks and I lose all strength. I quickly put the girl down, safely, of course. Hopefully nothing is torn. That would be the end of canoeing if that is the case.

Author: Marc

Creative educator. Sometime photographer. Fiddler of words.