Day 17

The whole village has chicha in their veins. Lying in bed, I can hear a constant wail of noise that rises and falls. It is like a sea, punctuated by the hoots and cheers of women.

Meals are sparse during the ceremony. Breakfast is boiled yuca with a single sunny side up. It’s also because we have run out of vegetables.

Women are sat together in the temporary house. Only women are allowed in, but the men loiter outside, looking in. The chicha music comes and goes.

Drunk language is English. It’s great how everyone practices English when they are drunk.

After breakfast the women all sit in and around the temporary house. The immediate family and relatives of the girl sit inside. All women. They will begin the ceremony of cutting her hair at 10am. Buckets of dark looking chicha are drawn up and passed around.

I follow the men into the chicha house. It’s barely nine in the morning. There are two singers in the hammock; their singing is more of a half shout, atonal, continuous and punctuated by the rhythmic maracas that they shake in their hands. The smoke palls all around, it heats up the house. We are brought a small tortuma of chicha. This time, I take small sips and chase it with water. Then they bring Luis a large tortuma. He manages to down half of it and passes it to me. The chicha has fermented even more over the past two days. It is dark, almost fizzy and very, very strong. But because we are not expected to drink it all at once, it is a lot more palatable.

All the men have to vamos from the chicha house and from the house of the women. We walk past the basketball court and pull up plastic chairs. Someone hands all of us a beer. Luis, who is gluten intolerant, goes for his usual rum in a mineral water bottle. Ramiro Martinez, drunk as a skunk, draws ‘thank you’ on the sand.

Lucho mara leche means Lucho (Luis) is bad milk. It’s a drunk joke from Ramiro Martinez. I suppose it means the same as a rotten egg.

The tourists are still here. Apparently, their boat driver is too drunk so they will only leave tomorrow. The two French boys are engineering students and they are taking a gap year to travel and work on various ecological engineering projects. Various organisations and their university fund it. This is the holiday portion of their trips. A pretty good gig. While students in Singapore rarely take gap years and sometimes overload their semesters. And holidays are spent on multiple internships, maxing out their CVs. What a dank life.

Doing laundry while slightly high is like an act of cleansing. Rinse, soap, wash, wring. Repeat.

Luis is in the other house, so we work on a spoken word piece and another lyric that I wrote a few days ago. We are both not fully there but the art takes over, and we are able to concentrate and figure out something decent. The girls have gone for a beer and are still at the women’s house. Just as we are starting to record a demo of our song, I’m incredibly distracted by the sight of a naked man walking up from the river after having taken a shower, looking like a pudgy yet muscular vision of John the Baptist.

At the women’s house, women put oil in their hair and powder on their faces. According to Maria, she felt like a baby for a while. Everyone is drinking, of course. The girl’s hair is cut in rows, very slowly, close to the scalp.

Verónica comes back to Nacho’s house around lunch to apply sunblock. She tells me that the ceremony is still ongoing. I walk over for a peek. It’s just a horde of drunken women in there. The girl is still in the hammock.

Igua doesn’t drink. He’s working on a watercolour painting and seems to be disinterested in the chicha. He also wears a cross around his neck. I wonder if he’s the designated adult for the house, or whether he objects on religious grounds.

There is some concern about having allowed the tourists’ to be part of the chicha, because they were not briefed about protocol beforehand. This resulted in some uncomfortable moments, and apparently one of the French dudes grabbed Nacho’s ass at some point 🤪

Even the rooster needs to step out of the chicha house for a break!

Nague made lunch today, because Aida was out drinking.

Charlotte, Verónica and Maria return and between the three of them I try to piece together what happened during the ceremony.

There were five women sitting on towels on the floor and one in the middle was holding the girl. It’s the aunt of the girl, because the mother doesn’t drink alcohol and so she isn’t allowed inside. Something powerful here about the relationship between alcohol and permission. A woman on their left was chanting and across the women was three low stools with women who were smoking tobacco and cacao in containers as incense. Other women smoked tobacco in the faces of the other women who lined the house. 

Behind the women of the girl was the woman who would cut the hair. Her name is Iét. At one point the chicha finished so everyone collected money to buy beer. They poured all the beer into the chicha bucket and passed it around like it was chicha.

The women cut one lock of hair at a time in lines. They started in the centre and moved outwards. Men came in and they painted them with red pigment and powder. Then everyone ate dried fish and plantains. The men left.

When the girl was bald they undressed and washed her. They carried her and washed her near the house. They put some leaves and dressed her in a new, white mola. Whenever they carried her they were dancing. The girl was always wearing a scarf on her head. They put a leaf on her lap and a veil on her whole body.

Iét started singing again.

At some point the men came in again and held the hand of the singing woman. The woman sang to the men and then they left.

At the end they pulled out a hammock and put the girl in the hammock. The formal element was over and everyone relaxed and took photos and told jokes.

After lunch, the men are still singing in the chicha house and there’s still a group of men smoking around them. Chicha is still being passed around. At this point, people are staggering about or starting to walk sideways like crabs. A wall of a nearby house, made of sticks, has collapsed. But all in all, it’s not raucous or manic.

Suddenly tired, I take a nap while listening to Mumford and Sons, ‘Delta’; Then I read bits of Anis Mojgani’s book, ‘In The Pocket of Small Gods’; terribly devastating but also deep and true.

Everyone writes or draws something for Bernie on small colourful cards that Veronica has brought with her. It’s her birthday today! I write her a poem.

(for Berenike, on her birthday)

Each stroke of your brush
is a journey towards another story.

Everything finds light
under the sunshine of your touch.

Unfold flowers from lost things,
give them new names.

Hold yourself
up to the sun,

that you may sew new colours
across tall fields of grass.

A large group of men and women return from the beach looking very drunk. One of them is holding an empty chicha bucket. They certainly weren’t building sandcastles. Luis says that they went swimming naked in the sea.

Back at the house, Caroline, Maria and I start talking about Sellavision and memories of home shopping. It’s always things that we never needed but the people with pearly-white smiles and $39.90 deals always won us over. Plus if we ordered right now, they would throw an extra thingamajig that alone was worth $39.90. Just think of the value!

From this, we sidetrack to contests at the back of cereal boxes. Caroline has a great story of when her mother was a kid and she drew a pirate and sent it in and some time later two men showed up at her door, wanting to offer her more prizes because, “You’ve got talent, kid” I ask if Caroline’s mother eventually became an artist. She was a homemaker and after twenty years of raising kids, returned to work in a nephrology unit at a hospital. When she started she couldn’t figure out how to check her email!

And then, drama! Someone broke into the other house and when Bernie, Charlotte and Veronica returned from a walk, they heard a loud clatter but weren’t quick enough to see what it was. Apparently, a young boy, fourteen, had climbed in through the bathroom window and rifled through Bernie’s things, stealing money and a power bank. She was very affected because earlier this year, she had another incident in London where thieves snuck into her apartment and made off with her suitcase. And it happened when she had come home and caught them in the act. But there was no way to retrieve what she lost then, and that fear feeds into what has just happened. Fortunately, some ladies saw the boy climb out the window and told Aida, who went on the warpath and set a neighbourhood watch out for him. He stupidly tried to buy juice at a store and was caught red-handed. It’s a small community, and there really is nowhere to run. The boy is a recalcitrant. This will be his third strike. Apparently he had already been hauled up to the council before for being an unrepentant smoker. We manage to retrieve some of the money, but Luz says the family will return everything, although a power bank is still missing. But it’s more about the emotional toll on Bernie as well as the shock of something like this happening to us.

The Internet lady has more power than the sahila in this village. Another quip from Caroline.

The chicha is still going on, but people have already started going back to other communities. In the chicha house the men continue to surround the cantule, who seems to be singing all the way to the merry end.

We sit outside after dinner. The stars keep changing colour from red to blue to green to white. A star has just turned off. Maybe it was a satellite that expired. Maybe the star’s light finally depleted, millions of years after its death. Strange to think about legacies and the kinds of light they emanate.

We talk about spending time in airports. Luis moves from that to the time when he lived through an earthquake. He was a kid and traveling with his family. They were meant to fly that day from the north of Chile, but the flight was overbooked. His parents were incensed and argued for hours but they weren’t put on the flight. They refused the offer of a hotel to spend the night so the family went back to a house they had in the city. At night the entire house started shaking. Everybody ran out. The aftershocks lasted through the night. A lot of buildings collapsed (maybe even the hotel they were supposed to stay at!) and the airport was closed for two weeks. If they had made that flight, they would have escaped it all.

Day 16

I wake up around 9am but can’t get out of bed until 11. People in the house behind are talking so loudly it seems like they’re shouting right into my ears. It’s incredible how I have taken walls for granted all my life, the fact that they block both sight and sound.

Verónica joins me for breakfast. She tells me how around 9 this morning, she saw a large group of women walking back from the far end of the beach. They were stone drunk, and some could barely walk. 

Apparently someone entered Caroline’s room at 5am and shone a light on her face, jolting her awake. The intruder then ran right out of the house. It’s a mystery, and our best guess is that someone couldn’t find the way home.

Bryan Adams is playing on the Bluetooth speaker at Nacho’s house. The familiarity is surprising and suddenly welcome. Maybe we just had a collective nostalgia attack for 90s rock. Or maybe we are all hung over. 

The kids are trying to slaughter a chicken. They manage to hack at its neck but lose control when the chicken panics and darts away. They spend the next twenty minutes running in all directions, chasing a chicken with a rather severe neck wound. I’ve read that chickens can still survive for quite a while even after their heads have been cut off. I’m sure there’s a physiological explanation for this, but it’s a nice parallel to how life can still carry on even when you literally (or figuratively) lose your head. You learn to depend on other things, trust new people, find a better path of escape.

Two young boys help an older man to weave his way up from the edge of the river after peeing for an eternity on the side of a boat. He is wearing a t-shirt that has the name of Panama’s current president, Nito Cortizo, emblazoned on the back.

Many of the men in the chicha house have walking sticks with them. I’m sure there’s a ceremonial significance, but when you’re drunk out of your mind, they really make a difference!

Today is a quiet day for the chicha ceremony in terms of specific activities but we may all head over after dinner to drink a bit. I think one tortuma is all I can manage. I ducked in for a second after lunch to see what was happening and the hammock was up, the cantule was sitting on it but as far as I could tell, everyone was speaking the same language of drunk.

Chicha is a most powerful drink.

Around 5.30pm, I put my work away and go down to the beach. Groups of men are stretched out on the grass, and one canoe holds a couple of sleep- addled dudes. I sit on the edge of a canoe and look out to the river and the sea just beyond. I think this is the first time I’ve ever sat down to just observe the end of the day. I’m always foraging on the beach for natural objects, looking down and occasionally racing out to catch a purple pink sky. I need to do this more for the rest of my time here. Just be with nature.

I’m close to completing my self-assigned quota of poems. I am two away from 25, and am pretty happy with my output. It’s time to put the pen away and go out exploring.

In the chicha house, the cantule is definitely in some kind of trance state, helped on by a constant curtain of smoke.

We get into a discussion of the word ‘bitch’ after dinner. On whether women bosses are always, by default, seen as bitchy. And how alpha females are more than bitchy. The power they hold is somehow more ascendant and dominant than the state of being a bitch, which carries negative connotations of unfair practices and attitudes. So what do we mean when we say life’s a bitch? That its inherently unfair? Yes, but that its also a slog.

The women are in a unique position of power and silence here. Or at least, that is how it appears when you blend daily life and cultural practice. Men can enter the chicha house dressed any way they like. Women have to wear a mola blouse and a particular wraparound skirt. The women clearly have to cook and handle household chores. The men hunt and seem to have the license to drink more openly. But certain ceremonial rites are separate from the men. The men are the ones drawing the chicha from the gourds. The men blow the tobacco smoke and are the cantules.

Day 15

The town is up at 5am. It seems that everyone has congregated outside my room. I’m exhausted from the mosquito bites that kept me up last night and can’t haul myself out of bed to see what’s going on. I’ll go for a walk around the town at 7am. The neighbours are hosting some out-of-towners and they were talking, laughing and watching TV until pretty late last night. Their stamina is amazing.

On the way to breakfast I decide to walk around for a bit and near the chicha house, I see at least thirty men hard at work building a temporary house. While it has the frame of a traditional house, the walls are made of thatch and they don’t go all the way up to the roof beams. It will be used at some point during these three days, though it’s unclear what it’ll be for. Nobody really has a ‘schedule’ for daytime activities, although we do know that the ceremony proper starts at 8pm tonight and will continue throughout the night. 

There are a disproportionately high percentage of albinos in the village. We aren’t sure if it is a birth defect that’s hereditary or that the Guna are more predisposed to this genetic mutation. But they have their own way of dealing with them. Albinos, rather than being shunned, are seen as visionaries because their natural sight is impaired or extremely sensitive to sunlight. So they are said to be able to ‘see’ in other ways, as shaman-like figures.

Luz used to call a toe a foot finger for years. It’s both cute and quaint and immediately gives the toe a bit more credibility.

Caroline and I trade fan boy stories of David Sedaris. Apparently, all he does now is walking around his village in the UK and pick up trash.

Google doesn’t work in Iceland; the algorithm doesn’t work for such a small number of people. You either have to search for something specific that you know or you ask in another language and then translate. Perhaps life would be better if less of it could be found so easily.

During the Chicha ceremony, there are flowers on the nivar stem placed around the houses as a ward against bad spirits. Plants are sisters that protect us from other layers and worlds.

Those who can see beyond the natural world travel through various layers that the Guna belief existence is composed of. And in their travels they make a space for lost spirits, people who have died unnaturally and have not passed to the next world. These traveling visionaries are able to build a house for these spirits in a kind of middle space.

People who die naturally, on the other hand, have to be placed under the soil to be reborn and the Guna make a soil belly, a mound for Mother Earth above. This is such a difference from the Torajan people in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, who believe in the sacredness of the ground and so bury their dead above the ground, carving niches in rocks and dangling coffins from cliffs.

The Guna also have particular practices when it comes to animals. If a snake bites someone and the snake hasn’t been killed, no one can leave the community for four days and everyone has to drink a special serum prepared by the botanist.

Later on in the morning, I sneak a peek into the chicha house. The men are moving back and forth in a line. It looks like a rugby scrum, but half the men are carrying tortumas, and the other half drink out of them. Then they swap. This could be practice for later, although they do seem to be drinking the real thing.

In the evening, I make a small totem from a stick and a seed that looks like an alien face. Inspired by the niva, it will be our ward during the chicha.

 I Dream of Medusa
Material: seed, bamboo stick

When the jellyfish come
they will be in bobbing clouds 
of soundless bodies, wild
tentacles grasping the sky.

A touch is electric enough 
to entrance and turn us: 
not to stone, but husk; 
empty of desire, 
floating in their wake.

We keep them dried, 
carefully planted at corners 
of houses; may whatever 
darkness that tries to enter 
look them in the eyes.

I try to sketch a dice that I found on the beach. It seems easy but I really struggled to get the angles right. It’s a lot harder with small objects.

A boat arrives from Anachucuna. It’s about the size of the boat we were on yesterday. Packed onto it are 30 people, all men. It sits really low in the water and takes an eternity to navigate into the mouth of the river. A sizeable crowd is waiting onshore to welcome them.

When Nacho was in La Miel with Veronica this morning shopping for supplies, he met four tourists who had come from Capurgana. They are a mix of young French and Germans. Being Nacho, he offered them his cabins at the end of the village and invited them to experience the chicha. They also had meals at our house. Instinctively, I feel slighted that they could just rock up and attend such a significant ceremony, but when I thought about it, the importance would be lost on them and they would see it as a ‘wild’ native ritual, whereas we have had a couple of weeks to prepare and learn about it.

All ready to observe the chicha ceremony!

We enter the chicha house after dinner, at 7pm. The actors, who are those who serve the chicha, smoke enough tobacco for a year of cigarettes. They light their wooden pipes from dried tobacco leaves. Smoke fills the house, thick and sweet. They wear necklaces made from pelican bones, long and thin. It jangles to no particular rhythm. Everyone gets his or her face and feet painted with the paste from the plant that is used as protection from sunburns. When that is done, the chicha begins with a pretty tasty corn chicha. It’s non-alcoholic. Then some men form a line and fill an entire canoe with the real chicha. That takes a while.

This is the canoe that held all of the chicha!

When it’s ready, servers carry tortumas, which have a handle of bone tied across the mouth, making it easy to hold and to dip into the canoe for refills.

When you’re asked to drink you have to drink, all of it, and not too slowly at that because there’s another round of guys waiting behind. Each set of men is 8 servers and 8 recipients. Because in Guna mythology, the sun has eight brothers. Each tortuma holds the equivalent of two to three glasses of wine. It doesn’t hit at first; but after four rounds I start to feel really uncomfortable. A fifth round would probably make me puke, so I duck out for a toilet break and to make notes.

The men and women are separated; and the women were yet to drink when I left, although a small group of older Guna ladies hung by the canoe, where the canoe servers gave them tortumas, which they shared among themselves. Nowhere near the binge drinking of the men, which is something serious. Luis’ trick is to spill half of the liquid down the front of his shirt, which is the same colour of the chicha. That’s how he survives. I might have to start doing the same!

Apparently, dancing and singing myths will start at 2a.m. I will try to get up then.

Around 11pm, I wake up. The girls are back for a bathroom break and I’m pretty high. The alcohol has fully soaked in. I mention something about being a frog and saying that Luz is a rainbow. But I don’t feel absolutely terrible so I follow them back, deciding to stay outside and not to drink. Luis is still there, incredibly, but he’s pretty wasted. Nacho has somehow made it through and he’s on his feet as well. As I’m sat outside, though, a bowl almost immediately comes to me, I take a sip, gag and hand it to the German tourist next to me. I race (or lurch, rather) to the toilet and am violently sick. But better out than in. When I rejoin the group they are making exit plans to hang out in the beach behind Luiz’s house, a Guna local who looks like a muscular Bali boy, long hair, quick smile and all.

We grab chairs and beers from his house and sit under a partly cloudy sky. The stars are dazzling and somewhere over the ocean, there is a lightning storm going on.

At some point we get up to help Luis into the house. He kind of fell asleep on the beach for a while. At a later point I decide to walk to the ocean to pee. Beyond the lights, there is a sharp line of darkness, I head for it, and promptly fall down a small slope of sand. This part of the beach is quite steep. I stay on my feet, water lapping around me, and try to climb back up. I cannot. And in my silly state of mind, I had decided that this was the only way up. I must have looked like a large, dysfunctional crab trying to crawl out of a too deep hole. Fortunately, a light comes bobbing my way from the other end of the beach. It’s a local Guna man, and I can’t tell him anything than ‘Si, claro’ because I presume he’s asking if I’m ok. But by his light I can see that the beach becomes a gentle incline a short distance away, and that allows me to get back up. Also, why are there so many canoes on the beach! Someone could totally trip over or into them.

Tilting her head back, the stars make Veronica feel like she is melting. She pukes.

We head back to the chicha house around 3 to see if they have started the next stage of the ritual. Two pairs of men stand on either side of the central portion of the house, holding a rope in their hands. In the middle, more men are working on putting together a large hammock. Everyone stops frequently to drink. Designated tobacco smoke blowers dance around, blowing directly into the mens’ faces. At some invisible cue, the pairs of men crisscross each other, taking turns to duck under the rope. They are moving fast, using the rope to break their sprints. This is how the main rope that holds the hammock gets woven. The hammock will be for the cantule, (the main singing sahilar), who will recite the names of the girl. Yes, this whole ceremony is about one girl. Although it is also a chance for the Guna to celebrate an important part of their heritage, something we haven’t really seen in the village. Daily life, while simple, still revolves around the trappings of modern life; televisions, mobile phones. The ceremony is primal, intense and raw. This is no packaged cultural show put on three times a day for busloads of tourists.

A little later on, a few men and a couple of women gather in a line and do a kind of dance/shake with maracas. They seem to gravitate toward the different pillars that support the building. They shake and roll and then stop (to drink chicha) but also for the lead dancer to blow a low, sonorous note into a pipe. It seems aimed right at the pillar. No one is around who can explain the meaning behind this.

Music has been everywhere in the time I’ve been here. There’s always a Latin bass line going on somewhere and traditional music fights for space with auto-tuned pop. The chicha house reverberates with the sound of men urging each other to drink, women chatting on the periphery, and the maracas of the dancers, an ebb and flow of dancing tension.

Maria offers a great thought, ‘We are made of rhythms.’ And it’s so true. Our heartbeat is our first drum. We depend on rhythm to stay alive.

I leave at 5.30am to sleep, exhausted by the constant tobacco smoke, having to dodge tortumas and the long night. Outside, a storm is passing over the town and it is just beginning to rain. The sky is lightening and soon it will be the second day of the chicha. There are at least 100 people still in the chicha house when I stumble home.

Day 14

There’s a poster of all the months of the year pasted on the wall in Baudeliano’s front porch, with the Guna names written below. Nacho helps to translate:

Yornii– the beginnings of things
Arrinii – the arrival of the iguanas
Dilanii – seeds from a palm
Olornii – cicadas that predict the sound of rain and herald the start of the planting season
Yaugnii – the arrival of the turtles, attracted by the moon
Masarnii– wood that the Guna use to build houses
Bunurnii – blossoming of ceremonial flowers
Gignii– the sea that recedes
Apinii – another medicinal flower
Guiblonii – the ocean floods, butterflies and birds migrate
Inanii – the returning birds
Bardunnii– flowers used to heal

The names we use are based on the planets. The Guna base their names on the phases of the moon, which is seen as feminine symbol, and the seasons. 

Luz drinks mate every morning. She has brought bags of it over. It’s a kind of tea, but very strong and there’s a technique to steeping it. She tops it up ever so often with hot water to ensure the strength and consistency remain. She has a special mate cup and a straw made completely of silver, which doesn’t colour the taste of the mate.

Caroline isn’t feeling so well. It was probably a spell of being exposed to pretty intense heat yesterday. She has no appetite and rests in the house while we go to another beach. The weather plus the mozzies and other small biting flies can be harsh.

In the boat, I start talking about how Singapore has denied itself as an island, with its intimations of a slow, idyllic life. We eradicated the kampungs, terraformed the landscape and even subjugated our outlying islands, merging them or reducing them to landfill. I wonder how villagers who used to live on Pulau Semakau feel about how their island is now a heaped pile of trash. We are City. A city breathing in the state of its reinvention, or maybe this is who we really are. We are no island paradise; we are a business hub. If you want an island, you fly elsewhere for the weekend. On weekdays, you work to pleasure those who are constantly remaking the city in all of its imagined ideological flex; through the external and internal landscape. For we have denied the old roads inside of us too. Forgotten languages, dialects, habits, rituals, ceremonies. Things that ground us to earth, to history. Instead, we are taught to yearn after the gods of capitalism, a faceless thing that is no real god, but a bottomless greed that never stops demanding our worship. We have lost our truest shape, and for what?

This beach has very different vegetation inland from yesterday’s beach, which was on the edge of the jungle. This fronts a sprawling coconut plantation. But there is a strange fruit that looks like a small sour sop that grows here. It isn’t edible, but the fruit can be used for shampoo and for burns. It’s incredible how people have figured these things out. Imagine the process of trial and error!

Snorkeling here is pretty satisfying. There are hardly any shells here, but the water is less choppy and I manage to film a bunch of pretty fishes and some coral that are bunched around a large rock. The world is so different underwater. I can completely understand why we are so taken with it, and how people are addicted to diving. It is escape and meditation, a kind of contemplation of a natural state (if you ignore the odd plastic bag and container drifting by). A jellyfish bobs in front of me. I instinctively start to reach out for it, something unknown, tantalizing, then stop short. It drifts away, heedless.

Over lunch, we are joking about how Maria has sewn a strip of mola with a crab motif, but no she didn’t just sew it, she made the tablecloth the chair, the table, even. Overnight! And Luis says that we are dreaming rather than just inventing. But it is also a nod to the incredible skill of the Guna. They build their own houses. They sew their own clothes. Of course, they aren’t entirely self-sufficient, but they won’t starve or be homeless either. I would probably not last a week out here in this terrain. All my skills are honed to thinking and reflecting whatever I see. I am dreaming against another reality.

Out of nowhere Bernie says, I think I am made out of bites. And all of us agree. The bites burn. They are a constant presence, a reminder of our place as strangers here.

When we return to Armila, a soldier waits for us holding a piece of paper, the best kind of weapon. He is probably tracking the visitors that are coming in for the chicha ceremony.

Nachito is all of three years old but he is already so intent on possessing. He lords over the cat and proudly leads the dog around on his leash, proclaiming, ‘mi perro’ (my dog). But do we ever really own ourselves? Even when we are fully grown, we are expected to own up, to own this. To own is to possess something tangible, of value. We own houses, cars. Companies. We used to own people, too. But do we ever really own ourselves? What does that mean? I’m in a conversation with Caroline and Maria about this. Maria offers an example of two men who are the only permanent residents on a small island off Iceland. They absolutely hate each other’s guts but are intent to remain separate, cut off because they each believe they own their individual right to anger and isolation. And Caroline recalls that a few years ago, she used to see how in the alley behind her row house how a woman would come and break up an entire loaf of bread each morning to feed the birds. And as soon as she had scattered the bread and went back in, her neighbour would open her door and let her fat basset hound out. He would waddle over and hoover up all of the bread. I suppose that is also way of owning space, by contesting it in a passive fashion.

Today I help Luis to prepare dinner. We use what we have, which changes every day. We also try to vary the routine. But it also depends on how imaginative people are. I just help him dice carrots and cucumbers. We make vegetarian pasta with a small topping of courgette in lemon and balsamic. The pasta is barely enough, but we used up all three packets. All of us are always hungry here, despite the fact that I hardly eat carbs in Singapore for dinner. Coffee is a large pot with one packet of coffee powder and Luis cuts a swathe of lemongrass from Nacho’s garden for the tea. It’s as organic as they come.

Various activities for the chicha ceremony start early tomorrow and will not stop until midday on Saturday. There’s always going to be something going on somewhere.

Day 13

Angelica was adopted recently by Aida and Igua, her husband. She’s 11 and was the unwanted child when her mother remarried. She is from another community and has never been to school in her life. She will start next year, but it’s amazing how she has fit so naturally into the family and how they see her as one of their own, wholeheartedly. This is Aida’s second marriage and Nachito, all of three, is the product of her bond with Igua. Aida’s two kids from her first marriage are Nague and Zlatan. Families are patchwork, hard work, a constant sewing of sutures. I think of the tablecloth used at Nague’s party. It’s a beautiful blend of different molas that come together like a symphony or, for the Guna, a dance.

We travel for close to thirty minutes in the speedboat to reach Anachucuna, another Guna community. As we are leaving Armila, two men walk across the sandbar towards the village, carrying a deer on a stick between them.

We are staying in the house of Baudeliano Perez, the counterpart of Nacho, here in Anachucuna. He was born across the river from where the village is today. In 1972, the village moved to their present location. They were further down the coast, closer to Armila, before.

There are two stories about how Anachuchuna got its name: 

A foreigner met a lady from the community in the jungle with her dog. He asked her in Spanish what the name of the community was. She didn’t understand and thought he was referring to her dog. So she said, “this is my dog”. In Guna, this sounds like Anachucuna. Another meaning is more natural, ‘Where the bay narrows to the river.’

The Guna name for the town is Assuamulo – the avocado tree.

There are 650 people living here between the two towns. The new town, twelve years old, is a ten minute walk through a large coconut plantation, which is a community crop shared by 38 families.

The villagers fish and cultivate crops, specifically coconuts. Traders from Columbia come here to barter with sheep and rice and other essentials. Students study until 9th grade (14 years) and then go elsewhere. Baudeliano says that they would like to even have a university in some part of the comarca (region, or county), where the Guna live.

The banana planters left Anachucuna in 1947. They left behind the tracks and rusted out hulls of their little engines. It was a short train line, spanning the coastline between Anachucuna and Armila. The remains of an old jetty can be seen by the water. Some of the planters, who were little more than indentured slaves, chose to remain and settled down but all of them eventually left because the locals were not keen about having outsiders.

The village is laid out very geometrically in a grid-like fashion. Ordered, with lots of work being done on various houses. The girls are staying in an extension of Baudeliano’s house. Luis and I are in a house on the other side of the village. It is a clean, well-furnished room. We each have a queen bed to ourselves!

After lunch – chickpea patties fried by Luis, hamburger buns, boiled yuca and salad – all the ingredients brought from Armila, we head to a beach ten minutes away by boat. The community is out of sight and Luz allows me to fly the drone. I make a couple of low passes over a small island in front. It’s a tiny rock with some vegetation and palm trees, surrounded by rippling, rich blue. The drone loses its line of communication as I am bringing it back but I can see it and manage to land it safely.

The rest of the afternoon is spent looking for shells in the shore and in the water, swimming to that island and trying not to graze the coral in the extremely shallow water. The hours pass comfortably. Bernie returns with a lovely large conch; pink in the middle. Maria finds the bones of a pelican’s beak, stripped clean by the tide. I have a small assortment of shells.

An almost throwaway line from Maria – ‘When we grow up we need less repetition.’ Maybe structurally, we are already set in our ways, for better and worse, and this is both liberating and a curse. We sometimes spend our whole lives dealing with the demons we have made through patterns we have set as children. But we should also look for the good things we have built into our lives.

While waiting for dinner, we sit by the dock and listen to Nacho talk about this community. Nacho’s grandfather was from Anachucuna. At some point people moved to Armila, but it has always been considered more hostile country. Whirlpools, and sometimes the ocean is so strong you can’t even reach the shore. In certain seasons the community gets a bit isolated.

The Colombians who remained from the banana plantations planted coconuts. The locals fought them and they bought over the land from the company. They used to have ranches with cows but now it is forbidden because it would damage the land.

There is zero tourism in Anachucuna. Nacho only joined us late because he was away at a meeting to discuss the kind of tourism they want to have here. An alternative way of doing tourism, with an emphasis on maintaining nature in its natural state. Carti, seven hours away by boat, has the capacity for 60 people but in the high season there are 500 people. People erode the landscape. The sahilas should represent the community, but they aren’t always interested in tourism. It’s a double-edged sword.

A road is being opened that will be an hour from Anachucuna by boat. So the community wants to be ready for the flow of people that will surely come. The road is something needed. 40% of people in Guna Yala live in Panama City, and it is difficult to travel. The road makes it easier to visit and also to bring produce and goods. It is a door, but unwanted things could also enter. The question of the road has been under discussion for ten years.

‘Tourists are the worst race in the world.’ A nice thought from Luz. We do become a different people as tourists. Heedless of impact, devolved to baser instincts. Hungry to take as much as possible.

This feeds into a discussion I have with Luis after dinner while waiting for the Anachucuna bar to open. In this community, people are allowed to drink from 8-11pm every day, but the only beer available is Atlas, a watered down ‘light’ beer. Thankfully Armila’s beer of choice is MF – the ‘finest American style beer.’ The best beer around here though is probably Aguilar and then Balboa, both Colombian beers.

I was remarking to Luis how I feel that I will never be comfortable as a tourist anymore, even though I will definitely continue to go on ‘holidays.’ Because the depth of experience on this trip has been unparalleled. Luis shares about his experience traveling as a musician, with nothing but his music and the clothes on his back and how people offer him more than just money; they take him into their houses, feed him, invite him in not as a stranger, but as a guest. The tourist is always a stranger, peering into the threshold, insinuating themselves into the picture. The traveler steps over the threshold, is made welcome. Shares something of their own, and is given something in return. The traveler gives.

But before we head to the bar, Luis appears in the doorway of Baudeliano’s house, looking serious. He beckons to me. I follow him upstairs. Luz is there, looking distressed in the dim light. They tell me that the community has fined me $100 USD for flying my drone without permission. I’m angry, of course, because I had asked and they gave me the green light. But apparently, even the beach needs permission, it wasn’t just about a no-fly zone in the village, it was about asking and receiving the permission of the sahilas. A couple of fishermen who were fishing next to the island saw the drone and reported it. In Singlish, this is summed up as kena sabo (deliberately sabotaged). But I can understand why this happened. It is about protecting the community with a series of rules that seem strict and even draconian. I am not here as a tourist, not wanting to exploit the community. The images are not for commercial use. But it is not about all that. It’s a simple order of things. I, and the group, did not respect that order and so we have been fined. Luz and Luis offer to split the amount with me, which is a relief, because I don’t have that kind of cash buffer. It is a bitter, unfair pill to swallow but I see it this way – how many people have actually been fined by the sahila of a Guna community? I should be grateful they didn’t toss me into a pit of fire ants!

The Anachuchuna bar

Rough music spills from a large speaker in the bar. According to Maria, ‘bootsandcatsand’ is the best way to replicate the sound of a club beat. It does work, though it feels muffled by distance, or a closed door.

I am trying to articulate why I am feeling and reacting far less emotionally these days. I do write emotionally, but it’s almost as if my body cannot feel extremes of emotion. I am an even keel, unmoved by currents, flippant even in a storm. When asked how long I’ve felt this way, I responded that it’s been a couple of years, at least. And then it hits me. That’s how long I’ve been at my PhD. Somehow, the constant need to think, reflect, process and write about all that over and over has kept me in some kind of narrow emotional channel. Even here, I’ve developed a structure and rhythm to the days. The journal is my way of reflecting on the entirety of the experience while the creative work is a more focused commentary through image and poetry. But even here, I have not given myself permission to play. Everything is ordered, rigorous. I wonder if this is just a PhD thing, or is this my new way of living?

Day 12

Caroline thinks she has cat pee on her sheets. Nobody wants to smell the sheets to verify.

The aftermath of last night’s party is an entire table of dishes set out to dry.

The mosquitoes are getting worse. Everyone has multiple strings of bites down their legs and on their feet. These are tiny mosquitoes, unseen, unheard. We think they are sandfly bites.

There’s a large cockroach, la cucaracha, on a towel that Luis has hung to block the sun from coming in. He swats it to the floor but it returns to haunt us, leaping onto the breakfast table. Caroline spears it with a butter knife and it falls, writhing, to the ground. Luz stamps on it. Cockroaches are the only things she kills. I concur. Caroline remembers that when she lived in an apartment in her college days, one of her roommates had a cat who would trap cockroaches but not kill them. It would flip them on their backs in the kitchen. Switch on the light, and a dozen cockroaches would be spinning, hypnotic. There have been stranger ways of telling the time.

Luz tells us about the upcoming chicha ceremony and how the Guna bestow a name upon the girl, given it is her coming of age. Sometimes it is the same name they are given at birth, sometimes it is a new name altogether and it merges with the new name. Perhaps one is expected to be a new person with a new name. It is, after all, a parallel to baptism.

Luis Manuel Angel Gordo. Luis was his grandfather; Manuel and Angel were the names of his grandfather’s brothers. As the eldest grandson, he was given a triple barrel of the family tree. There are at least ten Luis’ in his entire family, Caroline has two nephews on either side of her family who are both named Brooks after Brooks Robinson, who was the first black baseball player to break the colour line. This caused a lot of friction on both sides, because one cousin accused the other of stealing her ‘idea’, as if a name is something copyrighted.

And I talk about my middle name, Daniel, how my brother and I both carry it and how my father changed his name when we were kids to call himself Daniel too. What does it mean to carry the names of your family? To hold the weight of older times, to feel strange memories when you are called in a certain way. Names that sing of stories beyond us, that carry expectation, animosity. Names that are places. The weirdest name I have ever come across was No.14 Bus Shelter. True story. I don’t use my middle name much. Somehow I feel that it takes up too much space. I like my name short, economical. Daniel is the name that I leave to my father.

In the afternoon, we have the privilege to try our hands at weaving a small fan that is used to stoke fires, or to keep cool on a warm day. Acario, one of the village weavers, brings a bundle of reed-like strips. They have been sliced to precision from the branch (or stem?) of the niwa tree. He proceeds to expertly fold a lovely pattern and shapes it into a tiny fan. It is a joy to watch but I can’t quite follow the warp and weave. The patterns all blur into one for me. It’s great for Charlotte, though. She studied weaving and for her, this is chicken feet. I do my best but end up with… a triangle. I literally twist the ends together and cut my losses. It’s a…. usable coaster? If you don’t mind the sharp edges! But I also buy a fan to remind myself of Acario’s mastery.

Richard Kearney, in his introduction to Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space” writes, “Poetics comes from poiesis, meaning “to make,” and for Bachelard this is a two-way process: we are made by material images that we remake in our turn. We are inhabited by deep imaginings—visual and verbal, auditory and tactile—that we inhabit in our own unique way. Poetics is about hearing and feeling as well as crafting and shaping. It is the double play of re-creation.”

I am just starting on Bachelard but already there is such resonance with how he sees everyday things. ‘Deep imaginings’ is that homage to being able to see the stanza as a unit of a poem and as a room. All we do is re-create what is already all around us. It is the craft of how we create that allows us to offer the signature of our thoughts and who we are.

Over dinner, everybody trades cat stories while taking turns to hold lluvia, the family cat. Her name means ‘rainfall’. Suddenly, I feel terribly sad thinking about how I won’t come home to the familiar sound of Chubs, his nuzzle on my legs, the way he would race through his tunnel or leap up for treats.

At night the sky is made of lightning clouds. Thunder is far away. Like errant children, left unsupervised, lightning leaps from cloud to cloud, shimmering the sky for brief moments. The heavy cloud cover keeps the stars away. I do hope it won’t rain tonight, though we seem to have passed the rainy period that marked the first few days of our stay.

The chicha house at night

The chicha music calls to us again, and we return to watch this powerful, yet gentle dance. The dancers are still rehearsing for the ceremony on Thursday, and tonight, some of the faces are different. Maybe they have an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ team. One of the dancers, Victor, offers to let us try his pipes. They are of varying lengths and all seven of them form a scale, although it is a different mode from the Western scale, something completely haunting. I can barely make a sound through one pipe and I am in awe of those boys, who are able to blow the same melody on a loop, while dancing, for up to ten minutes at a time.

Day 11

I wake up almost too late to join Nacho and the rest to collect coconuts. I race out of bed and there they are on the opposite shore, just setting off. I shout, “Hola!” And Nacho graciously paddles back to get me. We walk along a well-trodden path, past a series of fincas that belong to Nacho, his cousin and his wife. Each farm is a hectare or two and is full of coconuts, plantains, bananas, and papayas. The coconuts are sacred and if someone picks another man’s coconut, there is a $5 fine. So the coconuts lie where they fall, secure.

The green ones are called pipa and they are still tender and full of juice. But Nacho is after the brown ones. A group of locals meet us at his finca. We thought we were going to help split the coconuts, but it isn’t that easy. The men do it with a long tool that looks like a kind of plier, efficiently splitting the husk so that the younger kids can pull out the seed.

The seed is used for various things in the community while the husk is left behind. Sometimes people will come along and use it to make a fire as it burns really well. We walk back along the beach. It is a 6km stretch of beautiful sand.

Trash is there, but it sits higher up. This would be a real estate developer’s wet dream and it is all the more beautiful for it being untouched by the grasping hands of the modern world. Halfway down the beach, Nacho leads us back to another of his fincas. He uses a long bamboo pole, sharpened at one end, to nick coconuts from the tree.

I try my hand and manage to dislodge one. It isn’t easy! He expertly slices chunks of them off and gives each of us a coconut to drink from. It is thirst quenching and absolutely perfect. He then splits the coconut like a samurai, a single stroke down the middle, strong and sure. I don’t volunteer to try the machete. I want all my fingers intact! The coconut flesh is tender, juicy and very tasty. Quite possibly the best coconut I’ve had in my life.

Walking back to the village, a light rain begins to fall, cooling us off as we go by a bevy of plants that have a range of properties and uses. The biodiversity is incredible. Here’s a plant whose fruit is used to make jam. Here is a flower none of us have ever seen before.

I am suddenly reminded of numerous long, solo walks I’ve taken in my years of travel all over the world. I’ve always thought that I work best alone, that solitude is the succour for my creativity, that it is about nourishing my well by drinking alone so that I will be able to produce. But perhaps that is just one way of looking at life. Over here, we are a group of artists within a larger community. One that does everything together. I ask Nacho why people don’t build houses on this side of the river. The view is incredible and there’s so much space. He replies that the Guna prefer to be together. They are not a solitary people.

In community, they remember their stories. In community, they reinforce a way of life. In community, they draw the most out of life. 

At the house, Luz is preparing the batter for a giant birthday cake. Nacho’s family is throwing a party for his granddaughter, Nague. It’s her 15th birthday. And there will be plenty of beer and rum and food this evening. Once the batter is ready, Luz pours is into large trays and we carry it to one of the ovens in the village.

This particular one belongs to Hernanto, who is one of the sahilas. He wakes at 4 am every day to bake bread, which usually sells out by 7am. The Guna are a terribly hard working people. Most of them wake around 5am to get a whole range of chores done before the sun rises. They don’t sleep that early either! Music plays on well past 11pm and a television is always showing something somewhere. Not every house has a TV, though, so television does become another reason to gather.

At breakfast, we remark on Nacho being almost god-like in his ability to do so many things at once. He pays attention to one thing at a time, but his peripheral awareness is very balanced. So he is always thinking about what is happening in the house, and is always ready to jump in and out of conversation. A parallel thought to this is Maria’s comment that we don’t think through or with language, rather, through a series of sensations; of desire and non-verbal affects which our brain then translates into words and then sentences (perhaps). We then attach context and emotion as an afterthought, dismissing what we first felt as something primal, when it really is the thing we have to be most aware of.

Nacho beckons us over to see two roosters that he has killed to make chicken soup for the party tonight. He dips them in hot water so soften the skin and then starts to defeather them, expertly plucking out the short and long feathers. The chickens in his coop are all natural. No pesticides, no injections. He could sell one for $15USD. Not all the chickens we eat are from his garden, and he says the taste is very different. I think the chicken we consume is bought from Francisco’s store. I’ve seen pieces of raw chicken floating in a pail beside the beer coolers.

Over lunch, Luz tells us a little about house building for the local community. The entire village pitches in to build a traditional house from sticks and thatch. Everyone gathers materials for two weeks and then everyone builds a house in a single day.

There are members from the General Congress visiting Nacho today. As an important man in the village, Nacho is not only innovative but is also deeply connected to the community. He doesn’t think about making a profit off his skills and advantageous position but always has the good of the community at heart. He could have housed us in cabins that he owns at the edge of the village but instead, he got the community to convert an old Congress house by the river to become the main residency space for the artists.

Nague’s party takes hours to prepare for. Aida has been cooking all day. She expects 50 people to come. Nague’s entire class will be there. Luz’s cake is huge; it is a three-tiered con de leche. Maria and her grate coconut over it and place flowers from Nacho’s garden on top. It looks like a wedding cake.

A gaggle of 15 year olds occupy all the chairs. They are ravenous and the food doesn’t really come out until 8pm, so they busy themselves on their phones, watching music videos. We wonder where and how they get their content and also think about the effect these videos could have in how they see the world. Do they feel stifled here? Or are they able to live with the knowledge that there is an entire world out there that isn’t for them? Many adults in their 20s and 30s have left Armila to work in the city. And some, like Nacho, return to make a life back in the village later on. We often talk about going back to the real world after a holiday. After being here for a week and a half, I’m really not sure what the real world means anymore.

The older people at the party are Nague’s teachers and a handful of sahilas. A few beers in, everyone is starting to slur and Nacho tries to impress me with his drunk English. He makes no sense! One of the sahilas is pretty tipsy, but still lucid enough to hit on Maria, spinning a line about how Lord Of The Rings is from Iceland and how beautiful she is and how he would like a beautiful lady to pay for him to visit Iceland and would she like to take him there? He definitely crossed a line there. But what can you do? We laugh about it later and try to think of ways to exit such uncomfortable situations. The best line we come up with is ‘Estoy teniendo diarrea’, ‘I am having diarrhoea.’

Day 10

I walk into a breakfast conversation on dreams.  Charlotte dreamt that she was late to go fishing with Nacho because she hadn’t set an alarm. She raced to the shore where Nacho was waiting but he couldn’t see her. She was waving and jumping around but it was as if she were a ghost, haunting him.

Every coconut is worth 40 cents. They are put on a boat and sold in Columbia. People here wait for the coconuts to fall before harvesting them. No monkeys climbing up to pluck them from trees. This slow process keeps the natural rhythms of the coconut tree, prolonging its life.

Caroline wants to find out more about the origin myth of the Guna, specifically between god and the woman figured as Mother Earth. According to Nacho, God and the mother exist together, creating in a dual fashion. Father God has a duality. God set up two worlds, feminine and masculine. The feminine world is called Nawana. The masculine world is where God dwells. And where humans go after they die. In the Congress, they sing thank you to Nana and Baba, almost universal terms for elders everywhere.

This stands in contrast to the Catholic tradition, which Nacho says is an example of a late use of the woman in the history of religion. For the Guna, it is the woman who gives life to the communities and produces in terms of Mother Earth and reproduction. Mother Earth needs to get dressed, so we have to work the ground, harvest and love Nature. Education and technology moves people away from the land, into the barrenness of cities. It’s not just about subsistence farming here, nature needs man just as much as man needs nature.

A father would always give more possessions to the daughter and to the sons, because when a couple marries, the man comes to live in the house of his wife’s family. The man comes to work for the woman. Even Nacho only came to live in his current house seven years ago. If a man makes a mistake, his father-in-law disciplines him before he is allowed back into the house. If he really messes up, the Congress disciplines him.

And if a man or a woman kills someone else, the killer is caught and put alive into the grave along with his or her victim. There was a murder case twenty years ago after a chicha. A teenager, 16 years old and very drunk, entered the village on a donkey at nine in the morning and he cantered into the chicha house, still on the donkey. He was told off by a sahila and he didn’t like this so he attacked the sahila. A young man stepped up to defend the sahila but the teenager drew a knife and stabbed the young man in the face. He went to the hospital but died from his wounds. The one policeman in the village managed to arrest him but he now had a problem. If he gave him to the community, they would kill him and he would be an accessory to his death. So the policeman decided to protect him. He let him go and the killer went to Puerto Obaldía and surrendered. The Gunas tried to take him back to try him in their way but were not successful. So they went to the family of the killer and took everything in the house, even the house, and gave it to the family of the deceased.

Nacho’s memory is a house, every room known intimately to him. A robust, strong house, finely detailed and rich with the trappings of a life fully lived. And with each new day, the house grows a little larger. Yesterday, he just finished building a small coop for the hens, who knows what he will build today?

You are born in a hammock and you die in a hammock. The body is wrapped in a hammock and lowered into the ground. It is like a second birth for the Guna. Once they are buried they will go to the other world.

One of the best parties that Nacho remembers was the farewell party of his mother. She was a midwife, was a hammock-maker and a mola designer. A very important person in the village.

For the Guna people, the women are tasked with making and the men are tasked with memory. Only men are allowed to be sahilas. Throughout their history, it was men who organised village life and who learned to build. Both genders carve out their place not in a sense of equality but in terms of role.

If a man were to commit a crime such as smoking weed and be unrepentant about it, the Congress would punish him by ordering into a hole filled with fire ants. Just like the movies. His head and genitals covered, he’ll be left there for ten minutes at a time. This could happen up to eight times over a few days. But it isn’t all bad. The Guna believe that ant bites aid circulation and some of the older folk regular go for these sessions for their legs. The very definition of tough love.

This morning I write a lyric for a melody that Luis plays on his guitar. It is a gentle tune that reminds me of standing on the shore and looking out to sea. We manage to record it before lunch.

Slow Return 

The sea rolls in kindness
The sun brings a blessing
Where we must walk
The day is bright 

The beach that saw our love
And sang the songs of old
That teach us truth
The way to live 

May we meet here again
As often as the tide
To listen for the change
From darkness to light

My love is oceans away
The clouds carry these words
May birds give you
their morning songs 

May we meet here again
As often as the tide
To listen for the change
From darkness to light 

Nacho cooks us lunch: a different river fish, plantains, rice and a spicy salsa side dish. There are tiny peppers inside, the size of a papaya seed, but they burn the lips and sting all the way down. I try one and it is more than enough for me!

I carry on working on my short poems of found plastic and small installations of found natural objects. I have about ten poems so far. I can see it coming together as a kind of photo poetry chapbook. Probably an e-book because it’ll cost too much to print.

(this is for the lightbulb)

Warm currents tug at our toes
as we walk between undying bottles. 
The occasional frog splays in death, 
holding an omen or a kindness. 

When the sun sets the beach inks 
itself into an invisible roar of waves.
Bulbs of sea fruit long forgotten 
slowly harden into dreams.

If a jellyfish were to sting you,
first there is an electric surge, 
all the lights going on at once; 
and then comes the pain. 

This afternoon’s lecture is about the string sheaths worn by the Guna women on their arms and legs. They are called uinnis. A woman sews one on Bernie’s arm for a whole hour. It’s painstaking and she probably only completes ten per cent of the entire sheath. One whole sheath costs $20 USD. The designs are mostly colour blocks and traditional geometric patterns from the molas.

Tomorrow morning we are going to collect coconuts with Nacho at 6 am. And in a few days, we will be taking an overnight trip to another community, very likely before the chicha ceremony, which is due to start on Wednesday.

Today is a rather beautiful sunset. Rich purple and orange hues shoot across the cloudy sky. We don’t actually see the sun, just its rays reflected on the water in slow ripples. Right on cue, a canoe paddles into the scene.

I sit in a hammock before dinner and think about what someone said to me a few days ago, “Don’t forget to read your Bible and pray.” It was sincere and well intentioned, but it is also a phrase I have heard all my life. It’s a mantra that is a Sunday school song but carries a veiled threat. IF you don’t… there’s no telling what would become of you. You’ll backslide, start doing drugs, sleep around, and become a shaman. And so on. And it used to make me feel guilty for not being a good Christian.

But I think about how the Christians around me don’t actually use the Bible in their daily lives; for them, it’s habit, like needing to practice the piano. Sometimes, a chore. Or at best, the equivalent of reading a charm aloud every day. And don’t forget how preachers abuse and treat the Bible like it’s context-free, devoid of the social conditions and historical epoch when it was written, how they twist and manipulate Scripture to the shape of their desires. But to read the Bible is in a way, to pray. Both are aspects of communion. To commune is to connect. And not just Communion as ritual, but communion as relationship.

Truth be told, I feel closer to something divine out here amongst the pagans, who, unlike us city dwellers, remain connected to the beauty, wealth and power of nature. And if nature is the bountiful creation of God, then they are doing a much better job of communing then we are. Ours is lip service in plush chairs and air-conditioned auditoriums. Our is a carefully crafted bullet point sermon and four songs practiced to chordal perfection. Ours is a sound and light show of emotive peaks and troughs. I feel nothing for the church. Why lift up a religion that has displaced all our stories? I feel saddened that I live in between cultures, knowing neither. When I learn about Guna mythology, when I listen to Maria talk about how she can read the Viking script and how she knows all the old stories, I feel bereft, an orphan in a multicultural city that remembers nothing and desires only the next empty edifice.

The iguana has been cooked in a stew. The texture is almost like pulled pork, but it tastes like a blend of chicken and pork. As we are walking back after dinner, a strange, almost eerie music floats over us. We set out to explore. It’s coming from the chicha house. Luz tells us that we have been invited inside to watch a rehearsal for the chicha ceremony.

Six men and six women face each other. The men begin moving back and forth powerfully, while blowing hard into a set of mouth reeds. The women hold maracas, which they bring down in a steady rhythm. The men symbolise a kind of power, a ploughing force while the women keep the tempo. Perhaps men are representing the idea of work while women are Mother Earth. There are variants of the same dance but in all of them the dynamic holds true. The men always moving impossibly back and forth for up to ten minutes at a time. The women match their movements in a more sedate fashion. They weave in and out, shift formation, and move in parallel, braiding themselves together like uinnis around the wrist. And all the while the melody, minor notes that build a palpable energy, plays on. It is mesmerising, hypnotic.

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.

Day 8

The little boy next door singing a long nationalistic song about Panama and the Americas wakes me up. He is regularly interrupted and corrected by his parents, who I’m told are teachers.

Morning singing next door

This morning we are talking about cacao. Nacho grows some cacao. He’s now drying the beans. Apparently, chocolate isn’t eaten here. It’s only used for cooking, or as a chocolate drink, ChocoListo, or as incense during the chicha ceremony.

Apparently, there are cacao ceremonies all around the world, a blend of the spiritual and the hippy. They stem from Mayans and how people used cacao ritualistically. Today, these ceremonies create a safe space for sharing with chocolate. In the Cacao Temple in Reykjavik, which Maria has visited, people sing mantras and drink 100% ceremonial-grade cacao. But one can also add sweetener and spices. There is a goddess of cacao. I think when cacao is consumed in this way, it isn’t about chocolate as class or price or some kind of elitism, a la Godiva. It isn’t about finding one’s space on the spectrum between bitter and sweet. It is about being with cacao, of allowing it to effect the body. Perhaps there is a ritual kind of magic that we have forgotten, that the Nestles and Van Houtens of the world have destroyed. The goddess of cacao has many worshippers who never know her name, never give her strength. May we never forget.

For as many rules as they have in Armila, there isn’t one about noise. There’s always a kid shouting in glee somewhere, a radio going off with auto-tuned Latino pop at 5 am. The bats scurry about in the eaves, dogs chase each other around and roosters strut about going off like awkward bombs at all hours.

Listening to the radio next door in my room
The beach at La Miel

We take the speedboat to La Miel, the border town of Panama. It’s a pretty beach and I grab the chance to fly the drone. The batteries are already depleted (I didn’t check) and there’s less than ten minutes of flying time on each of them. On the second battery, I am too far out at sea to make it back to where I am, so I improvise and land on the jetty. Like a seaplane!

The water is warm and full of small fish and coral. It’s also very salty, but without a snorkel it is impossible to get too far. Still, the play of light on the seabed is a ripple of delight. We try a coco loco, a potent local cocktail of rum, Baileys and coconut juice for $5 USD. Lunch is plantains, coconut rice and snail curry. Incredibly delicious. The clouds are light and clear of rain, so we cross the border to Sapzurro, where ice cream and another beach await.

It is a steep, but manageable hill to climb to cross into Columbia. Apparently, a land crossing between Panama and Columbia is rare so what we are doing is quite the score. We have our passports with us but they aren’t stamped as quite a few people move back and forth every day. Or maybe the border guards can’t be bothered. We saw a few of them drinking from coconuts as we were leaving La Miel.

Sapzurro is tiny, but tourists do come here from the next sizable town, Capurgana. And I can see why. There are quite a number of hostels so it must be on the backpacking radar. The beach is in a very pretty bay and is quite chill. ‘Main Street’ has a church, drugstore, a few restaurants and the usual clump of old men shooting the breeze. We get an ice cream and sit on the beach. The girls go swimming and I take a walk around the curve of the bay, discovering another beach and some kind of local cookout. Even the sentry on duty in full army uniform and rifle gets a plate. Columbia doesn’t seem all too different from Panama, but still, it’s really pretty amazing to cross geographically from Central to South America overland.

The boat picks us up in Sapzurro and we wing our way home through steady rain to Armila. A long but satisfying day.