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.

Day 7

I wake up to a clear memory of birds migrating above me in the thousands. Large birds winging so confidently onwards. The ones ahead stop and circle in the sky. Armila is a kind of waypoint to their eventual destination.

In my bed, there might as well be no walls. Everything cuts through: conversations, chickens, even people farting.

My room

I will have been here for a week today. Incredible. It doesn’t seem that way. I don’t feel like it has been a week. Does time pass more quickly here? Or maybe it isn’t about time. We find a different rhythm.

Last night I found myself missing you acutely. Missing our spirited conversations, missing our house and how it is a palace compared to here. But I think this time away is really important for both of us to heal from the loss of Chubs.

Over breakfast, we trade cat stories. Luz talks about how she moved her cat Apollo from Argentina to Germany.

Nacho’s cat, Iluvia, who was rescued by Luz and has grown up into a feisty, tree-climbing, chicken-chasing terror.

Luis has gone with Nacho to cut plantains on Nacho’s farm. Later he tells us that at one point they were both swimming in the river and Nacho was telling him how there were crocodiles in these parts. And then Nacho disappears! Next thing, Luis feels a tug on his leg from below. He panics, imagining it is a crocodile and Nacho has been taken. But he ducks under to check and there is Nacho, literally pulling his leg. Nacho is 62 but still acts like he’s 16. Such a bundle of energy!

The weather is perfect. If it is the same tomorrow, we will take a day trip to La Miel, the very last point of Panama. The beach is apparently really nice and we can snorkel and even walk over a hill to Sapzurro in Columbia.

The conversation shifts to astrology and tarot. I ask if it is possible to create a deck from the mola symbols. Maria says that it might be better to think about an oracle deck instead. Potential new work!

Palm reading is like thinking about the structure of yourself; the ley lines that run before and after and through us. How do we read ourselves, how do we read others? Luz really is a philosopher. And she is the product of thousands of hours of thinking and talking. Talking is something that we are losing. Devolving things to pithy FB statuses is a broken kind of wisdom, a false dichotomy that reinforces our meaning.

I sacrifice my usual morning of reading and writing to pick lovely blue seeds close to the river in the jungle. It’s a lot less muddy today, so Luz, Maria and I go. Later, Maria collects some clay from the river. She offers to trade my plastic bag for her seeds. A good trade! On the way back, we spy a lovely seed, the serpent’s eye. It is bright red with a black dot in the middle. These are few and far between and it is hard work to gather even a handful of them. I’m probably going to make two separate installation/images with these.

After lunch, we are given access to the private mola collection of Gladys and Aida. Gladys is Nacho’s wife, and Aida is his daughter-in-law.  They unleash a barrage of mola in all shapes and sizes. I get one that I make into a tote bag and another small pouch. I also decide to make a shirt that is used for formal occasions. There will be some mola patterns on the sleeves and collar. It’ll cost about $37 USD with the fabric and sewing. It won’t be ready for the chicha ceremony next week, but I should be able to get it before I leave.

This occupies us all the way to the lecture, where Nacho regales us with two tales, or myths. One is the origin of everything, the creation myth, so to speak, and the other is a folk tale that carries a moral warning. It involves a man, a mole and a journey to the centre of the earth. And a lot of jealousy.

Origin story (or, it’s all about the chicha) 

In the beginning, when God sent beings to the earth, the earth was covered entirely in soil. These beings were animals with human characteristics; higher intelligence, conscience, speech. 

The tiger was the leader of all the beings. Everyone worked in harmony but the butterfly was a being who always seemed happier than the others. Apparently, she had visions! Tiger and the other beings held a meeting to try to discover her secret. They decided to follow her. In the village, where they lived, there was an enormous tree whose branches touched the clouds. So the butterfly flew high, beyond sight of the other beings. So they waited for her. When the butterfly came down, she was in a state of bliss, a state of grace. Tiger and the rest decided the only way to find out where she went was to chop down the tree.

So they started to chop. All day with machetes. But the next day, the tree was whole, as if nothing had happened. The same thing happened the next day. So the beings stayed up all night to watch the tree. They realised that the tree was crying, and the tears (the sap) of the tree began to regenerate its wounds. 

That is how the Guna explain botany. Nacho once had a machete cut and he used tree sap to salve the wound it was enough. 

Nevertheless the beings decided to chop the tree all the way thorough. Finally, they succeeded and the tree started to fall. Then it stopped. It branches were stuck in the clouds. Tiger thought that they had to cut the clouds so that the tree would fall. But nobody wanted to go. Finally, Tiger offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to the being who would cut the clouds. A squirrel volunteered and he managed to cut the clouds. The tree fell to the found and he had the tiger’s daughter in marriage, as promised. 

When the tree fell, they found that at the very top of the tree, God had put the seeds of every plant in the world. And when the tree fell, the force of its fall flung seeds throughout the world. And its fallen branches became the trees of the Earth. The impact of the falling tree made the oceans. 

Most importantly, the beings discovered fermented sugarcane at the top of the tree, which was what the butterfly was getting high on. And that was how chicha was discovered. 

The name of the tree was Baluala (the tree of life). But the animal beings didn’t believe in God, so God sent humans to earth to dominate the animals because the animals were causing chaos by doing whatever they wanted. Humans were the representative of creator God. In a kind of parallel Babel, God stripped the animals from having human characteristics, establishing a hierarchy of dominance on earth. 

A Mole Story

Before the arrival of the humans, animals held all the secrets of the world. When the humans came, they asked to know what was going on. They were keen to find out what was happening in the centre of the earth. That was difficult indeed, according to the mole. He told the humans that at the door of to the centre of the earth there were many beautiful women. But humans were not allowed to look or speak to them. Then there will be two jaguars, but human, you don’t have to worry because you’re with me.

So why did the mole bring the human? The mole told the human that in the centre of earth, there is a special kind of plantain that will produce food forever. The only way to there is with the mole but only the human can gather the seeds. So they had to go together. The seed was important because it would produce the plantain fruit and the mole wanted to give this to the humans. 

So they started on their journey. They passed the first test. And the second. They arrived at the plantain tree. But in order to gather all of the seeds, they had to make four trips in total. Back in the community after the first trip, the human told the rest of his people what he had to do. But after they had made three trips, people decided that he had gone enough times and were jealous. They wanted someone else to get a chance to go. Their jealousy won out in the end and another human was chosen. But he hadn’t been warned of the dangers, so he looked at the beautiful women and he became blind, and then he was so afraid of the jaguars that he lost all power of speech and died. Four people died in this way. And that is why, to this day, humans have never been able to get the eternal plantain. 

What is the moral of the story? 
Plantains are a staple part of the Guna diet, but jealousy is a limitation to making life easier for everyone. Sahilars use this mythology as an analogy to solve issues in the community. 

The lack of being connected to the Internet has led me to the realisation that everything I know I hold inside me. And everything I have allowed to let go or simply choose to forget is out of reach, inaccessible. If I remember half a story, that’s all I have. No facts to check, no ideas to confirm, no music recommendations to play. The stream is the one that’s a twenty-minute walk from the village. The cloud holds sunshine and sometimes rain. The net bulges heavy from the day’s catch. I search for seeds and coconut husks on the ground. Here in the engine of my hours, I fuel my desires by making, by taking, by working.

Washing clothes takes on new meaning here. The Guna are really big on washing clothes. They do have large households, but it is a marvel to see the lines of washing hung up every single day. If they run out of space they throw them onto their thatch roofs. I am reminded of how much work it takes when I do my own laundry. Maria remarked how the word for a washing machine in Iceland is taike, which derives from take and the sense that machines take work from you, but by hand-washing your clothes, you take that work back, redeem it, almost.

Random notes over dinner:

Death is figured male and female in different languages. Maybe we see whom we want to see at the moment of our passing

Caroline offers that being psychic is like having polaroids stuck to somebody. You see bits and pieces of a life.

Luis recollects that to celebrate tortaso is to have your face smashed into your birthday cake when you are about to blow out the candles. When you grow up it is about taking a big bite with your whole face. After a few years of this, Luis began to ask for a plate of fries instead of a cake.

Day 6

The large papaya has been cut down from the tree. It is twice the size of my head! It’ll take another four days to ripen. Papaya in Guna means a woman’s privates. It is not so straightforward buying fruit here!

Over breakfast, Nacho tells us a bit more about the turtles. Up to five different species of turtles come to Armila to lay their eggs from Feb to June every year. Armila is a critical nesting point for the turtles, which will stay for up to two months until the eggs hatch. Some nights as many as 50 turtles, including the sacred leatherbacks, will mount the shore. It is forbidden to eat or make anything from the turtles here in Armila, though other Guna communities elsewhere do consume the smaller turtles, like the Hawksbill and Green Turtles. The Leatherback is considered sacred across all the communities.

The conversation moves to history and Nacho pulls out a Spanish book that lists some of the key figures of the Guna from the 19th and 20th centuries. He explains the origin of the flag, which was devised by a woman (of course!) and used as a standard in the 1925 revolution.

I mistake tortuma (calabash) with tortuga, turtles. It is the tortuma, a hollowed out gourd,that is used in one of the ritual ceremonies of the Guna.

Luis mentions that the turtles eat hedgehogs. Hilarity. It emerges that the Spanish word for Hedgehog and sea urchin are the same. Erizo. Perhaps sea urchins once were hedgehogs. Lost under the sea, they slowly forgot the taste of wood and soil.

Trash is normalized for the young kids. They have not known a time when the beach was clean, pristine. When the world wasn’t as heavy with all the weight of this undying skin. 

I spend an hour digging a hole in front of our house. At first, I am trying to look for stones or shells. Then I recognise that I am making the shape of a coconut, inspired perhaps by the half coconut that sits in front of the door. I place the coconut in the hole and arrange twelve stones around it. The coconut is now a clock. I take a picture and then write a poem around this idea.

After lunch, which is a tasty fish broth with plantain, rice and salad, I make my usual daily sketch + poem of plastic trash. Today it is a scrubbing brush.

This afternoon’s lecture is on the imagery behind the mola. Nacho draws all of the different symbols out and tells us the story behind how they came to be. They are everyday objects, turtles, mountains, etc.

Then Jessica, a local artisan, gives us a live demonstration of how a mola is sewn. The layers are intricate and it is a primer for the more complex patterns laid out on the other table. Everyone lunges for the different molas. It is frenzy. and I buy two. One is a mountain and the other is a pair of animals that make up the meaning of Armila in Guna, an iguana and a fish.

It’s not as if there are loads of molas on offer. The ones we see have been sewn over months and are of a pretty high standard. All of the tourists who stay at the more popular Guna areas such as San Blas will never see molas such as these.

After class, we cross the river to gather firewood for a fire. It has been a clear, hot afternoon, and the wood is dry enough. The fire is behind Nacho’s house, and becomes a welcome way to end the day. A round of MF beers seals the deal.

The fireflies are stars that have come to visit for a while.

We speak of revolutions near and far. Some happening even now, in the places we call home. Others that reverberate, not across continents but through the heart of people who are tired of being forced to consume everything. They have seen that needing more is the lie that must be devoured. But how? Meanwhile, the artist comes and goes, crossing borders and belief systems, while holding on to that small knot of knowledge to call their own; whether it be a song, a sculpture or even a melody that needs no home.

Day 5

Over breakfast, Nacho tells us about the village’s chief ‘chemist’, Tigre, who is responsible for tasting each of the 40 drums of fermented sugarcane alcohol that the village is preparing for the ceremony. These are giant metal containers, eight of which were newly purchased in Columbia at a cost of almost $1,000 USD. They take their ceremonies very seriously.

The sugarcane is first pressed flat using noisy motors (that start up at 2am) and then is boiled and fermented along with cocoa, coffee or corn. The chemist will test if the alcohol is fermented enough, whether it is too sweet or needs to be sweetened further. While they started the bulk of the fermentation two weeks ago, top-ups may occasionally be required, hence the late sugarcane pressing. Only when the chemist has tasted all the jugs would he be able to ascertain and pronounce the exact date of the chicha. Alcohol drives the ceremony (as it should)!

There is such clarity to the light here. Everything sings in Technicolor. Is it the absence of pollution? Or the isolation that allows the eye to focus and marvel at even the simplest things? The Guna certainly know how to use colour. It is everywhere, in their blankets and hammocks, in the intricacies of the mola fabric and certainly in the colourfully painted boats and houses.

Armila women with their intricately sewn molas

There is a special breed of dog in Armila, called tipo perro, roughly translated to any kind of dog. Mongrels live everywhere. They are the most faithful, the kindest and the most obedient.

Luis tells us that in San Pedro de Atacama, nobody is allowed to dance. Musicians’ play and people get up, and the band has to tell people to stop and sit down. Maria chimes in: A long time ago in Iceland, there was a law against dancing. And it means that today, nobody really knows how to dance. Icelanders are people who stand. Despite being a performance artist, Maria remains self-conscious when she moves. She is still herself, vulnerable. But the focus is on care and consent and not on pushing the body through its boundaries.

Today, Nacho talks to us about the various ceremonies that girls go through in the community.

When God, Baba Dummad,  made the world, everything he did was hand in hand with a woman, the Great Mother, Nana Dummad. This is the starting point for the value of the woman and the main reason why ceremonies are focused on women. 

When the Earth was created, Baba created another world and told Nana to stay on Earth with humans and watch over them. That is why the earth is figured as feminine. When humans die, they will go to the other world. In their life on earth, everything is preordained by Baba and Nana.

There are four ceremonies in the life of a Guna woman:

1. Eko Ina (needle + chicha)
Perforation of the nasal septum (two months) The whole community is invited. This is a one day affair. It is done using a single needle. Chicha (fermented sugarcane) is drunk in copious amounts. The ceremony is done in the chicha house (a kind of religious communal building) Men and women are separated. After three toasts, the little girl is brought with a dance to the middle where the mother and the piercer await. The scream of the baby when the septum is pierced is a sign of happiness for everyone. This is a compulsory ceremony for all girls.

2. Ina Suit
This happens when the girl is seven years old, which is the middle age between being a child and a young woman. This involves a long chicha, over three days. The girl’s family prepares for this for two years. The community helps the family out to house the guests and provide fish. El Cantule, (The Cantor) is the MC, he sings different names for the girl. The mother will have to pick the name of the daughter. It will be a Guna name, just like a baptism). This is an optional ceremony. Usually, families who are better off will undergo this ceremony.

La Ayate is the woman who will cut the girls’ hair. Only women are allowed around the girl. There are various ‘event highlights’ over the three days. A communal spirit is evident, with people sharing biscuits, cigarettes and beer. Armila is the only community that opens itself to foreigners to experience this. 

3. Celebrating Puberty
The third ceremony is to celebrate puberty. It is obligatory. After the girl’s first menstruation, her mother will lick her in the fish. The parents will go house to house and ask the men to cut leaves and bring fish, while the women get water. The father gathers wood to build a small house for the girl. She will stay there for seven days. On the seventh day, people enter the house of the girl, put water into the tortuma (a small bowl made from coconut husk) wash the girl eight times (because the sun has eight brothers). They then use jagua, a kind of pigment, like henna, to cover the girl. This is a symbol of purification, a representation of mother earth. For example, when it rains and the river rises, it brings the overgrowth from the jungle and throws it into the sea. This is is the same as the woman. As she prepares to be fertile, the water is a kind of washing away of the detritus.

4. Becoming a woman
The last ceremony takes place when the girl is around 15 years old. This the age when she is deemed ready to become a woman. Her hair is cut short and she will be ready to leave for further studies and even get married. She will also start to wear the traditional Guna clothing. 

This last ceremony isn’t obligatory but it is important. It helps to keep the family, and by extension the village, together.

The other fascinating bit of history is the process of arranged marriages, which used to be the norm but are no longer practiced.

On arranged marriage

In the past, arranged marriage was the norm and the decision was always made by the parents of both families. The reputation of the family was always considered, not just the man himself (in Guna society, the woman’s family holds more power). The man would move into his wife’s family home after marriage.

In the traditional marriage ceremony, the woman would begin being completely covered in a chair. The man would then be placed in a hammock. The woman would be on top of him. The family would then swing the hammock and sing about different (deep) things, such as the duality of life and the beauty of nature. The couple will then be washed and they will return to the hammock. This process will be repeated four times. After that, everybody leaves except for the man’s father, who occupies a hammock on one side, while his mother is in a hammock on the other side of the couple. The couple are not allowed to consummate until the process is completed.

The next morning, at 5 a.m., the woman’s father will bring the man, together with his machete, to the mountain. The man has to chop 100 (yes, 100!) trees. And he has to bring four of them down to his wife’s kitchen. While he’s there the woman goes to take her husband’s things back to her house. When the man returns, she will receive him with a dish of bananas at his house. They are given a hammock in the corner of the man’s house. Everything, from birth, to life to death, happens in the hammock.

Day 4

Time here is defined by mealtimes and larger village events. We are apprised of what will happen the next day just the day before. Schedules are made to be malleable. Today we are looking forward to welcome Maria, the last member of the residency. She couldn’t make the flight on Thursday because it was full. I think there was space for no more than seven passengers on the plane.

Today is also a birthday in the village and there will be a fire, which I believe will be a communal gathering. There will also be beer. This last is significant because beer is generally only sold and consumed on the weekend. The Guna are very strict on this. While foreigners aren’t subject to the same restrictions, nevertheless we feel we should observe them as well out of a sense of solidarity.

Part of breakfast this morning is arepas, a kind of flatbread made of corn. There are many different ways of making corn, and Aida, Nacho’s daughter-in-law, fries the palm-sized puffs. They are like flattened muffins, slightly grainy in texture and utterly delicious. We eat them with a sunny side up, dipping the arepas in the runny yolk. As usual, there is fruit. This morning it is pineapple and oranges.

Nacho and Luz head off to Puerto Obaldía to wait for the plane that will be bringing Maria. I decide to shave my head. It is fuzzy. Luis helps me boil a pan of water, and I shave in full view of Nacho’s household. The kids gather around, fascinated by my headblade, while the novelty of a foreigner never seems to wear off for the children. They are polite though, never invasive.

The children here are magical. The village has 200 children out of a population of about 600. The children are everywhere, running around from sea to shore to hut. They are insatiable but also highly trained, helping to take care of younger siblings, carrying wooden washing boards down to the river and even helping to cook in the kitchen. A far cry from children in cities, who are thrown from school to enrichment class with hardly a chance to breathe. It’s all about assessment and over-learning. At night in Singapore, anxious parents gather outside enrichment centers, desperate to hear from teachers about what new skill the students have learned that day.

In Armila, children swim in the sea, unbound. No one watches over them. Learning is a kind of diffusion, watching and mimicking their elders. The end of the world could come, and methinks Armila would carry on without a care.

The weather these days is changeable. Morning is bright and blazing, the right amount of cloud in the sky. Tourists would call this paradise. By lunchtime, distant thunder speckles the horizon and a light rain begins to fall. It keeps us fluid, uncertain. What we want to do tomorrow may not be what we end up doing. It also keeps us shapeless, ideas slip in and out. For someone so fixed on projects, I find myself productive and yet loose, happy to read or chat with the others

I am in awe of Ocean Vuong’s memoir/long poem/novella, ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous,’ One of five books I have brought with me. His writing is dense with detail yet twists into unexpected turns of phrase. Here is just one example:

“The truest ruins are not written down. The girl Grandma knew back in Go Cong, the one whose sandals were cut from the tires of a burned-out army jeep, who was erased by an air strike three weeks before the war ended—she’s a ruin no one can point to. A ruin without location, like a language.”

The first statement is a humdinger. Deep and infinitely reflective. Then he goes on to enact a memory, one that pulsates with war and death and loss. Something absolute and heart wrenching. He offers just three details about her, how and where Grandma knew her, what her sandals were made from and how she died. Then he ends this memory by comparing erasure to a ruin that does not exist, and finally comparing it to a language.

How does one even write to that point? And all this as an aside in a passage where he recounts his journey home after learning about the death of his friend and lover, Trevor. It is a passage about silences; he doesn’t go to Trevor’s house and when he returns to his own house he doesn’t speak to his mother in Vietnamese, but only in English, a tongue distanced.

It is an implicit form of narrativity and meaning making that is rare indeed. I feel absolutely pedestrian by comparison. Ocean Vuong sets a bar that ceases to exist the moment he writes.

Maria is a trained concert pianist, just like Luis. She is now a performance artist and speaks Spanish. Only Caroline and I don’t speak the language. Even Charlotte, from France, understands though she can’t speak. It does mean that certain swathes of the conversation pass me by, so I focus instead on gesture and tone. The lilt and heft of voice.

In the afternoon, Nacho begins the first of his informal lectures. This first one is on how the Guna people came to have their own autonomous region. It is an amazing story of grit, foresight and a refusal to compromise. It also emphasizes the importance of not giving up on the land you have been given.

History of the Guna (as told by Nacho Crespo)

The Guna had a large territory back when Panama was part of Columbia. Guna territory stretched from Shark Cape to Carti. The territory was called San Blas Islands, also known as the Guna Yala.  

When Panama became a republic, they wanted to protect their borders, so they brought people from Gabon to be police men and to settle the Guna territory.

The government wanted to integrate the Guna territory, but it became an imposition on the Guna,. They had to give up their language, clothing and rights. In return, they were taxed and were subject to violence. They were even forced to adopt Roman Catholicism as their faith. 

In 1925, the Guna Yala declared war on the national police who were stationed in their territory. This did not come out of the blue. The Guna had spent 12 years observing the police. On 25 Feb, 1925, the Guna attacked during a carnival, when the police were relaxed and not on their guard. The Panamanian government sent an army, but the Guna had shrewdly made a deal with the US government beforehand to back their revolution. The Panamanian government closed the border with the Guna, but they were self-sufficient and resisted for 13 years. 

In 1938, Panama decided they had to make the Guna Yala part of the country, but the latter insisted that they need ed to have, in writing and in law, a defined autonomous region. 

Notable highlights in Guna history:
1968 – The first time a president in Panama involved the working class and indigenous people in politics
1980 – Two MPS who are Gunas and 5 representatives who are Guna Yala were in parliament 
1997 – a Guna MP demanded that San Bas be officially changed to Guna Yala (which means Guna territory). 

There are 49 communities of the Guna Yala. Each one has 5 representatives. They meet as a General Congress two times a year. To develop an independent economy, the Guna started to build a tourism infrastructure in the country, sending their young people overseas to gain expert knowledge. The Guna also want to revise the education system: the first three years in school would be taught in Guna, not Spanish. There is no private property for the Guna. By law, you cannot sell land to another foreigner.

The three main tools that the Guna use to confront the world are language, religion and education. They learn the language wherever they go, understand faith and commit themselves to learning about another country. But education beyond the Guna comarcha, which was seen as a tool, became a threat because of brain drain. T

The Panamanian government found traces of gold on Guna land and wanted to mine, but they were stopped. The Guna believed that was is under the ground also belongs to them, this informs their mythology. 

Tourism is another double-edged sword for the Guna. If the Guna are poor, they are poor by choice, because land is abundant. The road that connected the Guna at Carti brought tourism and created a big impact . On many islands, their way of life changed and the Guna forgot their old ways. Money brings corruption and greed.

If a man doesn’t have a horse, he has no spirit If a group of people have no land, they have no spirit. 

Guna Proverb

At dinner, the fish we are eating (each one has a small whole fish) was caught by a blind fisherman. After dinner, Nacho opens a bottle of Abuelo rum and we share shots topped with a squeeze of lime, freshly plucked by Luis from the tree behind the house.

There are bottles of Abuelo rum on the beach, and this leads us into a general discussion about the drinking habits of the Guna. Apparently, alcohol is tightly controlled here. The congress buys cartons of beer for USD 11 from a small duty-free store on the very edge of Panama. The beer, MF (Luz jokes that it stands for mother fucker), is only for export, but the Guna have wrangled an agreement to buy a set number of cartons each week, around five. The beer is then sold to different houses, like a co-op, at USD$15 a carton. Each house then sells a can at $1 each. This helps to divvy up the profits and ensures that no one family has a monopoly on beer. And the profit the council makes is used to affect repairs and maintain the village. Drinking is generally allowed only on weekends and drinking on the streets (when it isn’t a festival) is frowned upon. This weekend, the village is really quiet as everyone is gearing up for the chicha ceremony.

Day 3

Armila

The day begins in rain. It turns the ground muddy, holds us within the long silence of the rising river. The morning passes in cups of coffee. I write a little, trying to capture the sense of the city seeping out of me. I have not shat in three days. Perhaps this is the body still trying to hold on to its history.

In the rain, 
I watch the world seep out of me.

It bleeds, slowly.
Days have to pass before the post world becomes
the past world, the old world.

It is hours of forgetting minor disasters,
sudden silence after the downpour.

The rain mixes with shouts of children,
running games with no head or tail
a melange of wrestling in the soft mud.

Rain streaks every face, tips glistening
leaves, keeps the spiders indoors.

I make a small sketch of a wall of Nacho’s house. The main subject is a television encased in a kind of cupboard. I have seen idols kept in such enclosures before, and assumed the day before, when it was closed and locked, that it contained something of religious significance. This is, to my knowledge, the first sketch I have ever done!

I suppose the television is its own god and still keeps its devotees all over the world.

When the rain stops, I walk to the beach to find more subjects for my Plastic Ghosts series. The pickings are equally varied, and rich, as the day before. It never ceases to amaze me, looking at the range of things that end up in the ocean. You would think that with 70% of our bodies filled with water, we would have more respect or even solidarity with the ocean.

After lunch and another downpour, we take a walk out of the village and into the outskirts of the jungle. It is an uneventful walk, save for the mud and some beautiful tiny blue seeds that I want to come back and collect.

We end up where the river forks in three directions. Upstream is where water is collected and piped to the community. Straight ahead is the path into the mountains, and following the stream downriver would meander away from the village and back into jungle.

I record a few tracks of the flowing water, bringing the mic low as it rushes over the rocks, moving it closer and then further away to mimic a phaser effect. Sound is always a useful layer in performance.


Before dinner, we head over to meet Nacho, who is back from his trip, at his house. He is a natural born storyteller, drawing his audience in effortlessly. He asks us for fragments from our own language, writing them down as he hears the words and then repeating it back to us almost faithfully. He regales us with tales from his life, of the many countries he has visited and the many beautiful girls he has met. This is an adventurer in the truest sense of the word. We are sitting in a house that he built from scratch with his hands. Men like Nacho are few and far between in the world .

I give him the numbers one to ten in Mandarin, then in Malay. Malay is a lot easier for him to grasp. And he starts to compare some of the words to Guna. 

Satu (one) – a small fish caught in the river
Dua (two) – the femur bone
Lima (five) – a whetstone, used to sharpen knives

Coincidences, accidents of sounds. Perhaps that is all language is; a concatenation of various shapes in the mouth, given meaning through time and chance, through use and usefulness.

Day 2

Armila

I am woken by a human alarm clock around 5am. He walks around the houses yelling for people to wake. Today is a big day. Armila is hosting Juegos Florales (Floral Games), a day of competition amongst various schools in the district.

The human alarm clock is replaced shortly after by a very loud radio blaring the latest in Latin pop. It is enough to send me reeling from bed.

I go for a walk along the beach before breakfast. The day is mild and cloudy. I walk between large hacks of driftwood speckled by plastic bottles and styrofoam. A little further on, past the women washing clothes, the beach begins to stink with an accumulation of trash. It smells like a dumpsite. Trash rolls in from the Atlantic and lands on the shoreline of Armila. It is a double insult to this community who has eschewed so much of the modern world. And in return this is what the world has to offer. Not support for their schools, not cooperatives for the local artisans, but castoffs from capitalism.

After breakfast, a brief chance to connect to the Internet. It’s a dollar for a thirty-minute chance to connect to the world beyond. Subject to the weather in Panama City, of course. Only WhatsApp text messages make it through. Even emails can’t be opened.

We have been invited to observe the school competition. It was supposed to start at 8am, but at 10am, the only thing that’s going on is a drawing competition and a spelling bee. I am asked to dictate 50 words to children, reading them out in English and offering a mangled translation in Spanish. At least I learned a few words along the way!

The competition itself, which takes place in the Congress Hall, a kind of communal community space, is a mix of poetry recitation, singing and dancing acts for kids from four different schools. 

Later in the afternoon, we sit with our guides, Luz and Luis, to give them a sense of our plans for the residency and what we would like to achieve or work on.

It would be good to try my hand at sketching, I think, though in the end I might just default to photographs. I’m thinking of making a series of images of found plastic objects on the beach and writing poems in response to them.

Day 1

Enroute

A large storm rolled in right after breakfast. The skyline quickly became obscured. A dark wall of cloud hefted its mass over the bay and dumped a boatload of rain on the Casco Viejo. The rain abates in time to grab an Uber to the regional airport.

At the airport I meet Verónica from Puerto Rico, Charlotte from France, Berenike from Belgium, Caroline from the U.S.A. and Nacho Crespo, who’s going to be our local Guna host. He bids us a warm welcome but has to stay in the city on business. He’ll join us in a couple of days.

The plane I’m on is tiny. So tiny that some SUVS are probably larger. Everything is weighed, including the passengers. The plane, which flies to Puerto Obaldía three times a week, is heavy with boxes of goods, letters and indeterminate parcels. For many people, this is the postal service. There is no road from Panama City. It ends at Carti. And the only way from there is a bumpy eight-hour boat ride. No wonder a large crowd was waiting for the plane as we roared in just above the sea, and skidded to a stop.

Puerto Obaldía is hot and rather barren. We stop for a welcome beer before heading to the boat that will take us to Armila. We also have to go through customs, because we are on the border with Columbia, a thirty-minute boat ride away.

The first glimpse of Armila is that of a sleepy hamlet. Narrow one-man skiffs skim the waves; children splash around in the shallow water and the bass from a Latin tune carries over to our speedboat. It’s an unseasonably hot day, which makes everything pop in colour.

The rest of the day is a haze of explanations from our guides Luz and Luis, who are accomplished artists.

Luis and Luz through the slats of the Turtle House, where we work, play and live.

Luz is a visual artist and Luis is a musician who can play just about any instrument. But jet lag overpowers my best intentions, and I am in bed well before 9pm.

Day 0

Panama City

After commuting for 33 hours, I arrive in Panama City in the evening. There’s just enough time to walk around Casco Viejo, the old city, which at first glance feels rather unfriendly with its short streets and uneven lighting.

Large patches of shadow challenge the pedestrian. Everyone looks wary and walks quickly. My decision to sling my camera doesn’t seem too wise. But far from being run down, many buildings have been restored and gentrified into quiet restaurants pulsing with mood lighting. They look expensive, even from the outside. I am on an artist’s budget, so I head for the Coca-Cola Cafe, a recommendation from my hostel. Inside, a pair of cops are sat at the bar, instantly negating the unfriendly African men who glared when I walked though the doors. The cafe is homely and old-fashioned in that mix of American diner and family restaurant. A Coca-Cola girl smiles down on all of us, bestowing fizzy life and love from a cooler of glass Cola bottles.

There are riots sparking in Bolivia and Barcelona on the television. The menu is understandable, but I thought my translation app would allow me to converse. Not so. The quick-fire Spanish I overhear catches me off guard and I have to end every interaction with a pathetic “no habla Espanol.”

I decide to walk a little beyond the pretty buildings after dinner. The streets quickly shift to being a lot grimier. Rough looking youth loiter on street corners, sharing space with old men declaiming outside family-owned mercados (markets) and corner rent-a-cops, hard-eyed and unsmiling.

I pass three instances of religious fervour; a man preaching to a bunch of bored pigeons in a park, another man, seen through clear glass doors, holding a mid-week service and the last the impassioned sounds of prayer and tongues in Spanish coming from the ruins of a building. An enterprising pastor has set up a PA system and he was busy praying for and delivering people from within half-finished masonry. Not all of God’s work is done in the light.

between memory and forgetting

A photograph, perhaps more so than any poem, is something that continues to haunt me. One can describe place, deconstruct its technical aspects, but there is something haunting about the visual quality found in an image, its raw affect that straddles the space between memory and forgetting. It lodges in some limbic node and refuses to be described.

To describe carries the idea of sketching, to mark the form or figure of.

These monochrome images, taken over the years in various places, carry something of that indescribable moment to me, whether it is in gesture, the depth of a building or the way an image bisects itself; the frame drawing its own lines of meaning.

Sri Lanka (2017)

“In these all-seeing days, the traffic between memory and forgetting becomes untrackable. Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.”
– Teju Cole, from “Known and Strange Things”

India (2011)

“The photograph isn’t what was photographed, it’s something else. It’s about transformation”
– Garry Winogrand

Nottingham, UK (2012)

“All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”
– Richard Avedon

London (2016)