Friday, April 26, 2013

White Teeth*

I recently visited Embera Drua, an indigenous community located in the Darien region of Panama. When I first arrived, these are the things that entered my mind: paradise, happy, Tahiti, Gaugin, staged?, white teeth(!)

When I thought about the angle of this blog entry, I considered three options. The first is to write like a romantic anthropologist and celebrate how wonderful it is that this girl is dressed like this:
Panama or Tahiti?
The second option for a blog entry angle is to tell a far less romantic side of the story.

The third, and final, option for this food blog entry is, of course, to talk about the food. After much consideration, and because I find all three angles equally interesting, I'll incorporate them all.

Our guide, a prominent member of the community and the person in charge of public relations for the indigenous group cooperative, explained that back in the day, the Embera Drua used to wear clothing made of tree bark decorated with natural dyes. He explained that they stopped using this clothing in order to preserve trees. He said that only two of the seven indigenous communities of Panama, the Embera being one of them, dress in "traditional" clothing. So, what is "traditional"?

As an anthropologist, "traditional" and "custom" are my least favorite words. This is because I believe people are constantly changing, especially at this point in time, when the world is a peanut and it is easy to blend traditions and customs, such as, say, the Embera Drua of Panama with Tahiti. Therefore, I think tradition and custom are evolving concepts and if I lifted the skirt of an Embera lady, I would probably see the following text printed on the fabric: "Made in Tahiti". Actually, I don't know whether or not Tahitians still wear the skirts that Gauguin made so famous. I doubt that Tahiti exports anything other than gorgeous vacation memories, so it would probably say "Made in Bangladesh, Pakistan, or India" but you get the idea. 
Embera house and hanging kilts, which are purchased in Panama city but my guess is that they're probably imported from Asia.
Ia Orana Maria Aka Hail Mary, Paul Gaugin, 1891
This doesn't mean that an Embera woman's current "tradition" or "customs" are less valid. In fact, the Embera are (very wisely) adapting their traditions and customs in order to participate in Panama's tourist market. The tourist industry is one of their most significant sources of revenue, so they are re-inventing themselves in order to preserve their existence as an indigenous community. So what if they add a few "non-traditional" beads and textiles along the way in order to look pretty and make for better photo ops when the tourists come by. 
Necklace made of US quarters (which are used as currency in Panama).
Now let's talk about the Embera community's white teeth. Well, they have them, and the reason I find this interesting is that I doubt they see dentists every six months. I think it's because they eat real food. Not processed food, mega sugary drinks and snacks, but rather fruits, fish, plantains, and vegetables. 

Here's another popping of the romantic bubble, however. To my heartbreak, I saw a pile of Coca Cola crates, a young girl drinking a florescent pink fizzy drink, and a mother feeding a fuscia-colored creamy sugary wafer to a seven-month-old baby. I wanted to shout "NO! DON'T DO IT! Keep your white teeth!" But I guess it's inevitable that now that they can afford to go to town and purchase beef, cooking oil, and rice, they can also buy junk food along the way. Oh well, there go the white teeth.
Embera Drua woman preparing the fire for our lunch.
Delicious fried fish and plantain for lunch.
*By the way, I'm reading Zadie Smith's White Teeth and it's fantastic. You can tell a lot about a person by the color of their teeth.

**Check out my photographer friend Alejandra's gorgeous photos of the community.

***I highly recommend visiting the Embera Drua. They have a community cooperative that organizes day trips that includes a canoe ride along the river Chagres, a dip in a beautiful waterfall, and a chance to meet the lovely people of the community, have lunch, and shop for stunning Embera crafts.
My son with an Embera Drua tucan mask.
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