Welcome to the Native Future blog: a space to share writings by and about native peoples, their native ecosystems and their interdependence. The primary focus will be on our indigenous friends in Panama, Wounaan, Ngäbe and Buglé people, but also maintain a broad scope to allow many voices to be heard, and many stories to be told. In doing so, our blog aspires to translate native experience, languages and world-view for non-native readers.

Troubled Waters

When I went to live in Rio Hondo, a Wounaan indigenous community in Panamá Este province, I was initially more interested in the surrounding forest than in the village’s inhabitants.  I identified and learned the names of almost all of the birds living there before I could remember half of the names of the approximately 400 people living there.   They probably thought I was strange.  Most of the time when they asked me where I was going, I would say “I’m going to the forest to watch birds,” and that was one of the first phrases I learned in their language, Woun Meu.  In hindsight, it probably wasn’t strange that I was going to the forest to watch animals.  It was strange that I never tried to bring anything back to eat.

My site-mate had arrived before I did, and had already visited every house in the village to meet people and ask them about themselves and their livelihoods.  Thus, he had had a head start on learning everyone’s names.  I was not the only one having difficulty with names though.  Even though there were only two of us white people living there, our names were commonly switched or even combined, much to our amusement.

Through his interviews, he had learned a few things. Most families lived a subsistence lifestyle based on a combination of farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering with a little bit of outside income from selling fish, shrimp, mangrove clams and artwork to middlemen.  More than half of the inhabitants were children.  Most of the adults had never had a chance to graduate from elementary school. There was an elementary school, with a local Wounaan teacher, and two visiting Panamanian teachers. There was no electricity, health clinic, public telephone, flush toilet, sewer, or roads.  There were a few public water taps, but no household running water.  Most families practiced a form of slash and burn agriculture, planting mostly plantains, corn, tapioca, and rice and letting spent fields return to forest and lie fallow for about 10 years.  There was little in the way of house gardens, although many families had planted citrus and mango trees.  There was one cooperative chicken project, and a cooperative fishing project.

Our first community planning meeting was very informative and telling.  My site mate led them through a prioritizing of their wants and needs, based on an exercise we had learned in Peace Corps training.  First they came up with a list of all of the things they could think of that would improve their community and their livelihoods, and then they each ranked all of the items in order of importance.  With each item on the list, he would ask them to think about whether it was a real need, or just something that would be nice, but not really necessary.  The first item on the list was unanimous, and there was no debate about it.  This was land security and tenure.  If they didn’t have ownership rights to their land and its resources, everything else was essentially meaningless.  Without land rights and enforcement of them, they would become more marginalized over time to the point where they might as well give up their lifestyle and move to the city.  At that time, we had to maintain a non-political status, so we had to regretfully inform them that we could technically not help them address their main concern.  There were many other items on their list though.

I can’t remember what order the rest of their priorities were in, but they included a safe and stable water supply, a public telephone, improved access to secondary education, and better economic opportunities.  This led to a discussion of what we could actually help them with, so that we could prioritize what we would plan on trying to do.  In my case, it was decided that we could try to make use of my experience in ecotourism to try to establish a community based business.  They certainly had enough local beauty and wildlife to interest ecotourists, and I could even make use of my seemingly worthless and strange obsession with birdwatching. This could also bring in people who might be interested in buying artwork directly from the inhabitants, and I would also try to find other outlets to sell their products.  But it was obvious that the issue of a safe and stable water supply was a major issue, and despite not having been trained in environmental health (which included water systems), I could network with those volunteers, learn from them, and figure out how to address the community’s water needs.

When I had first arrived in Rio Hondo the whole village seemed to be hard at work.  They were carrying plastic buckets full of gravel from the river to the hill next to the community meeting house.  It was a community effort to help with the construction of a small health clinic.  The Ministry of Health was supporting the initiative, and the intention was to have a facility where medicine could be stored and distributed by a trained local, and where visiting extension workers could stay and operate during their periodic, brief visits.  Part of the plan was to construct a sizable water tank, which would be fed by the current water source. However, when I asked for details of the plan, I learned that there was no intention of improving the community’s access to water.  The idea was to provide sufficient pressure for a flush toilet in the clinic, which would only benefit the visiting ministry extension workers, since the clinic would remain locked most of the time.

The issue with the community water source was that during the dry season, for a period of 3 or 4 months there wouldn’t be enough water in the community taps, so the residents would have to use the river for all of their needs.  Previously this hadn’t been a big issue, since the river is right next to the village, and this was how the Wounaan had always lived.  They’re a riverine forest culture.  In the past few decades, however, colonizing ranchers had encroached into the Wounaan watershed upstream, and cut a great deal of forest bordering the river.  Their cattle wandered to the river to drink, and crossed it back and forth from one area of pasture to another.  As such, the river water was thought to be contaminated, especially during the dry season.

I decided to collect water samples from the river next to the village during the dry season in order to verify the presence of disease-causing agents. In doing so, I thought I could convince the Ministry of Health to not only utilize the new water tower to improve the availability of water to the community during the dry season, but also to introduce a mechanism of water purification to the system as well.  The water samples had to be kept cool before the analysis, which was no easy task, given the lack of electricity.  However, sometimes the fishermen in the village would have access to ice, which they were given to keep their catch cold before it was sold and transported by middlemen to the nearest river port in the district capital of Chepo.

I had a contact in the Ministry of Health in Chepo, who had told me that they would analyze the water samples, and who had given me some collection vials.  It wasn’t easy to plan or make the trip from Rio Hondo to Chepo.  Trips were often scheduled at the last minute, and due to variations in tides or lack of fuel, sometimes we would have to wait out a half tidal cycle on a sand bar at the river mouth.  My longest trip was over 13 hours.  That uncertainty and the unreliable source of ice made it tricky, but I would also have to arrive at the Ministry office during their hours of operation.  Perhaps that contributed to the difficulty, but for some reason, they didn’t analyze my samples.  I wouldn’t give up, and brought them water samples 3-4 times, but the results simply didn’t come back. By that point, my contact there just told me, “Why are you even bothering, you know the water is unsafe to drink.”

This led me to ask myself why, if they knew about the issue of access to clean water, they didn’t even try to address it?  In comparison to that, the sporadic availability of over-the-counter medicines seemed to be relatively unimportant.   After I met the health extension agents, and interacted with them several times, I realized that they knew very well about the situation.  There weren’t enough resources to set up a proper water system for every small village, so they would use the resources they did have to make sure they were more comfortable when they had to make the rounds and visit the village for one or two days every 3-6 months.  This wasn’t just an opinion I came to through encountering a difficult situation.  The extension agents openly expressed their views, and disparaged the Wounaan lifestyle to their face in community meetings.

It was probably around this time, in the height of the dry season, that I noticed the severity of the situation.  You could hear the noise of chainsaws in the upper watershed from the ranchers cutting more forest to burn and convert to pasture.  I heard accounts from people in the village of being threatened by ranchers at gunpoint if they approached too closely.  And one of my good friends in town had a sick toddler with diarrhea.  I gave him the rehydration solution packets from my medical kit and told him how to administer it.  Perhaps it was too late, or not enough, but his child died, and it was not uncommon.

That was probably the beginning of my understanding the scope of the challenge confronting the Wounaan in communities like Rio Hondo.  It was not simply a matter of making the issues known to the local government agencies.   I knew from the beginning that making progress would be hard, but I didn’t think it would require international assistance and motivation.

My Winding Road to the Wounaan

In 2001, when I was accepted and invited to join the Peace Corps in Panamá, I was somewhat disappointed. I had already been to Panamá and traveled around Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí provinces for a couple weeks during a vacation while I was living in Costa Rica the year before.  As great as that experience had been, I had been hoping to go to somewhere deep in South America, Bolivia perhaps, where I would be likely to encounter some rainforest cultures with profound plant knowledge.  I had been reading a lot about ethnobotany, and spent over a year in Costa Rica learning to love and appreciate the incredible diversity of life in tropical rainforests.  Costa Rica was and is a pioneer of environmental conservation, with an impressive system of national parks and ecotourism development. Even there though, forest was still being degraded and destroyed, alarmingly fast.  Despite the high levels of equality and education, the average Tico (Costa Rican) at that time had little love or knowledge of the intricate web of life surrounding them, and was caught up like most of us with daily economic concerns.  The biggest and best areas of forest left were near the border with Panamá, where the last remnants of indigenous people and culture held out.  I realized that helping those kind of people, who maintained a connection with and respect for the forest, would likely be the easiest way to help save the disappearing forests which inspired me with wonder and awe.

I received an informational packet about Panamá in the mail, along with the orientation materials I was supposed to read to get ready for my 3-month training period.  I was immediately drawn towards the section on Panama’s indigenous groups.  Unlike Costa Rica, where most of the native peoples were simply gone, Panamá still contains an impressive cultural diversity including 7 indigenous groups.  Having been fascinated by South America’s native cultures since learning about them through books and college courses, I was most interested in the Wounaan and Embera, whose range extended across the border with Columbia.  Seeing pictures of them with geometric body painting, adorned with silver necklaces, and gliding though rainforest rivers upright on slender dugout canoes sparked my interest even more.  And they inhabited the Choco-Darien ecoregion, one of the great centers of biodiversity in the world and an impassable wilderness where the Pan-American highway famously stops at the Darien Gap.  I thought to myself, “I want to live with these people…that would be an experience of a lifetime.”

Mangroves to mountains, Wounaan territory contains some of the most intact ecosystems in Darien, Panama.

After arriving to go through training in Panamá, my hopes were quietly dashed as I was told that most of the Darien is off limits due to narcotraficantes and guerillas.   The area was mostly ungovernable, and my safety couldn’t be guaranteed.  Being young and somewhat foolish, I didn’t want my safety to be guaranteed.  Wasn’t half of the point of the experience to learn to be self-reliant and immerse oneself in the local culture?

To begin with, based on my experience and education, I was placed in one of four available sectors.  I would be in environmental education.  In addition to language and safety training, I would participate in sessions designed to help us think about lesson planning and the like.   Fairly early on, we were informed that there were several indigenous communities that had requested volunteers, so those who had interest in living there could choose to do so. This was somewhat limited to volunteers who already had good command of Spanish, since language training in the indigenous language in question would take place concurrently, and learning two new languages at once is not easy.  We were warned that these were the poorest communities in Panamá, and that conditions would be rural and rudimentary.  If I remember correctly I could only choose a Kuna (now spelled Guna) community.  The Guna communities available for environmental education volunteers were located in the Madugandí Comarca on the north side of the Pan-American highway next to Panamá Este province.  Since these were forest communities, I was content with my prospects.

Part of the training involved living with a host family, in order to practice speaking Spanish and learn about overall Panamanian culture.  My family had already hosted two or three volunteers previously, so they were familiar with the routine and expectations.  They were wonderfully kind and friendly, and thankful that my Spanish was good, since they had struggled at first to communicate with the previous trainee who hadn’t known much at first.  He had been an infamous character though, so they seemed somewhat disappointed that I was so comparably quiet and tame.  They were baffled that I would choose to live in an indigenous community.  Why would I subject myself to living in such poor conditions? That was a common response among most of the non-indigenous Panamanians I met, who were openly, usually somewhat innocently, and obliviously racist.  I would repeatedly have to deal with that general attitude over the ensuing months.

We began to have several Guna language classes per week.  In addition to the few agroforestry and environmental health general training sessions I was allowed to attend, they were by far the most interesting aspect of training.  Despite the good friends I made among the other trainees, I was impatient to proceed to the finish and immerse myself in another world.  I was given a few glimpses of what that would be like towards the end of training when we would spend a couple weeks visiting current volunteers in their sites and then a week in our own prospective site.  Since the environmental education trainees and those going to Guna communities were mixed up, I had the chance to see several volunteers in different sites. I was impressed.  Of course, they were probably hand-picked to both be relatively easy to travel to and show us people doing good work, but they seemed to be hard-working and dedicated with great relationships with their communities.  They were also all near the end of their two-year terms of service, and in some cases contemplating a third year, so they had all worked through their initial difficulties and doubts.  I was beginning to have doubts about my ability to meaningfully engage with a community.

This was brought home both times I visited the community of Ipetí Guna, once by myself to visit the volunteer there and later for a week with several agroforestry trainees for more intense language and cultural training.  During my first visit there I was initially bombarded with attention by the local children and simultaneously ignored by the adults. I was swarmed by groups of kids who wanted to run their fingers through my hair, and rub the hair on my arms and legs.  I had never been the center of that kind of attention before, and after a while it felt exhausting.  In addition to that, the volunteer there spent every afternoon and evening strolling around the village, trying to chat people up, exhibiting his impressive command of their language.  Otherwise he seemed resigned to having not accomplished much, apart from incorporating a few minor changes to the farming approach of maybe two men from the village.  He would spend a lot of his time alone in his hut, relaxing in his hammock, waiting for the evening to roll around.  He had been sick often, perhaps since the river nearby was the village water source, and struggled to get enough to eat. The staple fare of tule masi (banana and fish soup) was hard to enjoy unless chili paste and lime juice were available condiments.  He had only recently learned the language well enough to participate in community meetings, but his time was almost up so there didn’t seem to be much point in starting any new projects.

Although it’s located right next to the Pan-American highway and thus subjected to daily non-indigenous influences, Ipetí Guna seemed to be very traditional.  All the residents seemed to speak entirely in the Guna language, all the women wore Guna dresses and jewelry, and several times a week they gathered to dance together in traditional style.  This seemed remarkable to me, since across the street and a little way down the road in Ipetí Embera, where a volunteer couple was residing, the cultural traditions seemed to not be adhered to as strongly.  The Guna were well known for being relatively well organized, confident and stubborn in fighting for their rights.  The Guna Yala Comarca along the Caribbean coast was said to be the only self-sufficient Comarca in the country, and the recently demarcated Madugandí Comarca was located in hotly contested territory subjected to intense colonization pressures.

I would be the only volunteer going to a community deep in Madugandí, while all the others would be in different communities in Guna Yala. During my weeklong stay there I lived with a local family, and strung up a hammock next to theirs above the dirt floor in their small house.  It was a struggle to communicate at all despite my ongoing language classes, but the family was friendly.  Luckily two of the trainees in our group loved hamming it up for the local kids, so they attracted most of their attention.  We had to bathe in the river next to the village, and it was awkward changing into and out of my bathing suit while women did laundry nearby.  The other trainees were lively and I was glad they were there.  Our language classes were fun and we were all looking forward to our upcoming adventures.  I wondered how I would do by myself.

I can’t remember the name of the village where I was supposed to live now, but it was about a four-hour canoe ride up a river from the Pan-American highway.  Although I had a cold, I was thrilled along the journey, since it was the first time since arriving in country that I had seen some real forest, with sightings of toucans and monkeys along the way.  I was also excited since the volunteer in Ipetí Guna had told me this was a more traditional village, and he seemed a little envious of what I might experience there.  However, I was on my own this time, and exhausted after the long bus and canoe trip from Panama City.  It was smaller than Ipetí Guna, but seemed to be cleaner and cooler, being inside a more intact forest far from the influence of the bare highway. I was shown where I could hang my hammock, inside a dark thatched house with a dirt floor, next to about 6 other hammocks. I took a short rest and wandered around a little bit before a meeting was supposed to begin with the three village caciques (chiefs) in the community house. This house was dark, with a small fire going, and the caciques were hanging in hammocks while the rest of the village sat on benches around the periphery.

The meeting began and they allowed me to introduce myself in Spanish, and asked me what I proposed to do there. I introduced myself, and felt ridiculous offering to help teach environmental education, since they probably knew a lot more about environmental stewardship than I did.  When I finished, they talked for a while amongst themselves while I got a sinking feeling that something was not going according to plan.  This was supposed to be a formality since the supervisor of my sector and the volunteer from Ipetí had already come here and explained what my role was supposed to be.  They finished talking amongst themselves and told me that they were in a precarious situation, and did not want any further outside influence on their community.  They were still dealing with colonists trying to invade their land, and quite frankly they didn’t want to be further contaminated with foreign languages and values.  I would have to leave the next day.  I was somewhat shocked to hear this, and double checked that my supervisors had previously made arrangements with them. However, they had only spoken with one or two of the caciques previously, whereas now at least one of them was not in accordance with the arrangement. While I was taken aback, disappointed and somewhat annoyed, I could only agree with them since they had a good point.  I certainly didn’t want to impose myself on them if they didn’t want me there, so I told them I respected their position and wished them luck.  I hardly slept at all that night, since I never did get used to sleeping in a hammock, and I second-guessed myself over and over, thinking that I hadn’t spoken well or I had said the wrong things, or that they had seen through me and known that I wasn’t worth their time.

The following morning and trip back down river were awkward and exhausting, since I hadn’t slept, felt sick, and didn’t know what to say.  My Panamanian host family was surprised to see me back so early, although when I told them what had happened, they were totally unfazed and said something along the lines of “those people don’t know what’s good for them.” I didn’t place blame with the caciques at all, but rather began to think more critically about the role of the organization and if we had any right at all to be there.  After a brief crisis of consciousness, I became determined to not take anything for granted, and would try to make sure that I would only undertake projects that were clearly wanted and addressed real needs.

I think my situation was unprecedented at that time, since there was a procedure for finding suitable sites which resulted in favorable outcomes for volunteers and communities.  However, I had stumbled onto an inconvenient truth, which was that the Panamanian sector supervisors (well-intentioned as they were) often felt uncomfortable visiting indigenous sites and so they would avoid visiting them if possible, or go through the motions without following all of the prescribed steps.  This was a recurring issue with government extension agents from various agencies as well.

The bureaucracy responded by frantically trying to find someplace for me to live before the end of training, which by this point was within a couple weeks.  They attempted to shoehorn me into a half dozen sites, but after speaking with several seasoned volunteers, I held my ground and demanded to be placed in an indigenous site.  The incident at the village I had visited had caused somewhat of a loss of face I think, so another Guna community nearby made clear that they did want me.  I made another visit via a similar canoe voyage, this time with supervisors along, and the community meeting went well as planned.  But then it was decided that since there was no cell phone service I couldn’t live there since it was too far from the nearest road.

Everyone seemed near desperation until my future site mate came into the picture and our paths aligned. The Wounaan village of Rio Hondo was even more remote than Madugandí, but they had a sat phone and if we went together, the bureaucracy would make a special case for us.   We made our first site visit together with his sector supervisor (mine would never make the visit) and it couldn’t have gone better.  I couldn’t have been happier, despite enduring a long, bumpy and winding road.  It wasn’t the Darien, but in many ways it was better.  I wouldn’t really be able to make use of my environmental education training, but I was free to figure out how I could help.

By this time the training was over, and my indigenous language tutoring had been in the wrong language.  It was extended for a week so I could undergo a special shotgun language course in Woun Meu.  While my site mate went to Rio Hondo first and undertook surveys to conduct a community analysis like the model volunteer he was, I lived with and was tutored by a Wounaan couple whose lives were entirely dedicated to and dependent on the pursuit and perfection of their artwork.  They were my introduction to the urban Wounaan who were sacrificing their way of life in order to provide opportunities to their children, and who were trying to organize and give voice to their forest communities, so that they might always have a place in this world.

An Entry into the World of the Wounaan

I lived in Panama as a volunteer in the Peace Corps for a little over a year (2001-2002).  It’s probably safe to say that it was the most intense period of my life so far.  It was dense with new experiences and emotional content. It shifted my point of view. I still struggle in communicating my story, but that’s not really that important to me anymore.  What remains important are the people I lived with and learned from and the places where they live – the forest dwelling Wounaan of eastern Panama – and people like them.

Not every Peace Corps volunteer has life-changing experiences, but many do.  Most average young entrants have little idea of what they want.  My site-mate and I used to joke that the agency motto should be “Looking for a place to find myself.” We were both somewhat different than the average modern day volunteer though.  He had already finished a two-year stint in a Latino community in central Panama doing permaculture outreach, and was interested in a third year living in a remote indigenous community.  I had previously spent a year as a naturalist tour guide in Costa Rica, and was well-read in conservation biology and ethnobotany.  We both wanted to go deep, culturally and experientially.

These days the Peace Corps doesn’t really allow real immersion, despite the fact that the most remote communities are often the ones that could most use assistance.  Volunteers have to be within a certain time frame for communication and evacuation from their communities.  During our tenure some exceptions could be made if one was willing to share a site with another volunteer.  Luckily for my site-mate and me, our time-lines aligned and our proposed community of Rio Hondo just happened to have a satellite phone from a cooperative fishing project.  Later on we fortuitously discovered a small hill in the forest 20 minutes on foot from town where one could catch reception with a personal cell phone.

I remember well our initial site visit, when we first went to live for a brief test run in the community we would work with.  The idea was to meet with village leaders, agree upon our terms of residence and service, and arrange our living situation with families who volunteered to host us.  Most of the recurrent themes of our experiences living with the Wounaan and subsequently working with them after our departure were almost immediately apparent during that first trip.

Having no road access, getting to Rio Hondo requires a voyage by boat – down one river to the Pacific Ocean, eastward along the coast, and up another river through mangrove to the village surrounded by forest.  Despite meaning deep river, the Rio Hondo is ironically shallow, so given the small size of outboard motors available, the boat captains had to time the tides just right to make the journey in less than six hours.  Following the tidal cycle meant that departure and arrival times were often in the middle of the night or early morning.  During our first visit it was still dark as we made our way east along the coastline, and I noticed with pleasure the bioluminescence created in the water by our wake.

As I enjoyed the night sky and imagined what the blurry outline of land would reveal at sunrise, one of the older passengers began to tell me about the history of the community.  He told me about how not so long ago, there was forest as far as the eye could see, and animals of all kinds in it.  But, as migrants from the western and central provinces began moving in with their pastoral way of life, the forest began transforming to grassland.  Communities of ranchers sprung up and expanded their influence more and more each generation, until Rio Hondo and the two other Wounaan villages in the province (Maje and Platanares) became shrinking islands of forest in a growing sea of grass.  The leaders of the Wounaan villages had been struggling for decades to convince the government to intervene and help them protect their territorial rights, to no avail.  Did I think I might be able to help with this?

As we approached the mouth of the Rio Hondo and we waited for enough light to navigate upriver, I realized with amazement that despite what I had just been told this was still a sizable wilderness area – that I would be living in a natural paradise of sorts.  I became silent with awe as our boat weaved through a magnificent mangrove estuary full of shorebirds.  I noted with interest the subtle and gradual change in vegetation and the clarity and depth of water as we finally found the main river channel and followed its serpentine course towards the village.  Of course, as would often happen, the tidal influence petered out just before we arrived, and due to our heavy load of passengers the boat came to a halt and we had to jump out and push for the final stretch. Time to get feet wet.

My initial impression of the village of Rio Hondo was idyllic.  There were small houses and huts, many of them with thatch roofs, that lined a dirt foot path leading from the river’s edge through the center of town to the communal meeting house at the top of a small hill.  There were no cars or motorcycles, and the only motors at all apart from boats for transport and fishing were a couple of small generators used primarily at night for special occasions like meetings or movie nights.  Our arrival had generated great curiosity among the many local children, who followed us with excitement and helped carry our things along with whatever cargo was in the boat.  Many of them were swimming and jumping from the banks in a deeper section of the river, nearby where a few women were doing laundry.  We were led to the communal house where visitors could stay, and where we would meet later that night after all of the adults were back from their work in the forest, mangrove, and ocean.

The community meeting happened after dinner, and I was somewhat nervous at the prospect of public speaking, and explaining my origins, qualifications and intentions.  We did our best to describe how our service as volunteers was supposed to work, how long we planned to stay, etc. and that we would have to live with local families for at least the first six months in order to better learn about the Wounaan language and culture.  I was amazed at how many people showed up.  A high percentage of the community, men, women and children, was there.  I suppose when there’s no electricity a community meeting presents an opportunity for something to do after dark.  But in that and subsequent meetings, there was a surprising level of participation and a willingness to ask hard questions and voice personal opinions, despite gender.  Here was a level of egalitarian democracy I was unfamiliar with.

I was thankful for my site-mate’s presence and experience.  He was organized, smart, funny and a natural leader.  He had a way of using simple language to get his point across, and he was excellent in facilitating meetings.  He believed in doing things the right way, and wanted a chance to do them right from the start.  He would do surveys of the residents and we would figure out what their real needs were.  We would prioritize their needs together and to the best of our abilities and training we would attempt to address them together.  I was more than happy to follow his lead, listen and learn.

Thankfully the community was spirited and ready to try anything.  This would be a new experience for them too, and they were willing to graciously accept any kind of assistance they could get.  While their community was a peaceful refuge in a forest that provided almost all of their needs, they recognized clearly that their world was changing rapidly and that both current and future generations would need to adapt with education and new skills in order to survive and thrive.  While they understood that we could not technically be involved in their land struggle due to our non-political status, I think they saw in us a potential link or bridge with which they could transcend the limitations imposed upon them by provincial political discrimination.

In any case, they were very welcoming.  We could figure out what we would do later on, but first we had to determine where we would live until we could build a house.  Thankfully two families volunteered.  The next day we went to inspect our prospective lodging and meet our families in earnest.  My family’s house was just down the hill from the traditional community house.  It was rectangular with a tin roof and a small thatched cooking hut attached to the side.  It was elevated on stilts about 8 feet off the ground, and there was a log ladder with cut steps to climb inside.  At night this was raised into the house so that no intruders or dogs could enter.  There were two walls, sort of, but the house was mostly open.  The floor was made of palm bark, which flexed between the frame as it was walked on.  At first I thought I was going to fall through with every step. There were no interior walls.  I would have a small area in the corner to sleep in and the rest of the family would share the rest. While sleeping, privacy was provided with mosquito nets made of white cloth, which protected one from tiny biting black flies.  My mosquito net was transparent though, so essentially I would have no privacy.  I began to feel a bit nervous about my choice to live here.

My new family put me immediately at ease.  We sat in the adjoining kitchen hut, where we would often sit and casually enjoy conversation over breakfast or dinner, and where the smoke from the fire would keep the biting black flies somewhat at bay.  For cooking they used three logs, pointing inwards to prop up a cooking pot, with a small fire going in between, as the log ends slowly burned down.  This required constant adjustment but was efficient and provided a stable cooking surface, while emitting a stream of smoke which cured the thatch roof and kept it in good condition for years.  Many houses also had small gas stoves and propane gas tanks, but these were an expense and required significant effort to transport, so most cooking was done traditionally.  There was no electricity, and at that time no running water either, so big plastic buckets were used to schlep water from the river for cooking and cleaning.  Bathing was generally done in the river, which I learned to enjoy immensely.  There were a few scattered outhouses around town, which I never learned to enjoy.

My host “parents” were the same age as me, and they had three children ages 9,7 and 2. They came from a different village in the province of Darien, and my host father was leaning on his uncle – one of the founding members of Rio Hondo – to help them get their new life started there.  They were allowed to use some of his plantain parcels to grow their staple foods, which were mostly bananas and plantains.  My host father also worked as a fisherman, and like many other men from Rio Hondo would take small boats out to the ocean to catch shrimp to sell and bring home some bycatch fish to eat at home.  As such our most common meal was some variation on tapao, or boiled fish with boiled banana.  This was often hard for me to get down for breakfast at first, although as time passed and my body adjusted to our average of two meals per day, I learned to love just about anything edible.

In addition to my host father’s small fishing and subsistence gardening, my host mother was a talented artist.  She wove exquisite baskets, which at that time had already been paid for in advance.  She was one of the few women whose level of skill enabled her to sell everything she produced. But with three children to care for she only had enough time to make a small to medium size basket every month or two, which provided perhaps an extra 30-50 dollars per month. The family was obviously scraping by with enough mouths to feed already, so when I came along with an even larger mouth I expected that the stipend I was provided would be a welcome supplement to the family income. However, when I brought up the subject of how much rent I could expect to pay them, my host father said he didn’t expect me to pay anything, since I was part of the family.

That was my first lesson in sharing there, of many I was to receive.  Sharing was the foundation of the family and community which invited me in to participate.  Despite having so little, they were willing to share pretty much everything they had.  This drew me in to their circle, and while I was probably a bit slow to emerge from the individualistic tendencies I had learned from my culture, eventually I couldn’t help but enjoy sharing what I had with them.  With those interactions relationships were created and maintained, and a sense of fairness emerged.

This kind of active participation in a small community was a new experience for me, and probably activated a deep unmet need inside of me.  I guess that’s part of why it was so hard to leave, and why it’s impossible to forget almost 15 years later.  For me the folks of Rio Hondo are still family, and all of the Wounaan that come from and represent that lifestyle are an extension of that.