After flying past the Panama Canal and the skyscrapers of Panama City in a small Cessna Grand Caravan, we entered into a thick blanket of clouds. Whenever a gap opened up, all we could see below us was the uninterrupted, thick forest of the Darien Gap. I fell into deep, REM sleep. Sitting next to me is Amanda Gibson, an Oceanic Society Research Fellow who is studying the impact of plastic waste on indigenous communities. She and I had stayed up the entire night before separating our possessions into those we would carry on (money, expensive electronics), those we would check as luggage (clothes for a week, medical kit, and other essentials), those we would ship in a waterproof case via plane cargo (less essential but very useful things such as rope, bug-spray, books, extra medical supplies), and those extra luxuries and furnishings that would make the long journey by 4x4 through forest and sea all the way to where we were headed: to a small town called Armila on the border of Panama and Colombia.
Armila, like many other towns near sea turtle nesting beaches, is limited in the resources it can allocate to scientific research. My goal for the next year is to establish a monitoring protocol according to the State of the World's Turtles Program's Minimum Data Standards for Sea Turtle Nesting Beach Monitoring. This small handbook was developed by SWOT in conjunction with the Marine Turtle Specialist Group of the IUCN to help such communities produce scientifically significant data. In addition, Amanda and I will be bringing together local conservationists, educators, researchers, and government officials to support the community's nascent conservation efforts.
We stepped off the plane and were greeted by a familiar face. Elliot Blumberg, who has been working on his photojournalism thesis in Armila for the past month, helped us carry our luggage to the SENAFRONT station (border patrol) in Puerto Obaldia, where we presented our credentials and boarded a small fiberglass boat bound for Armila, a bumpy, 15-minute ride away. It’s always an experience coming into the mouth of the river next to which the town is situated – it takes an experienced, local motorist to ride between two 8-foot waves and not run aground on an invisible sandbar.
It seemed the entire town knew us by name, and had been expecting our visit. Old friends immediately greeted us and filled us in on the happenings in the town. On Friday there would be a “Chicha Fuerte” ceremony – an exceedingly intricate ritual that begins with the gathering of sugarcane, cacao, and coffee and ends with the entire town gathering in the Big House to drink the night away. Amanda and I attended, but didn’t see much of each other during the ceremony since men and women celebrate separately on opposite sides of the massive room that serves as the town’s religious and political meetinghouse. The men gather in circles of ten, fill a gourd with the champagne/red wine-tasting “chicha” and perform a dance. Amanda dressed in full traditional dress (mola) and attended with some new friends, who assured me they would make sure she didn’t drink too much (apparently the peer-pressure to drink among the women leads to notoriously bad hangovers). In the middle of the ceremony, everyone leaves the Big House and runs to the river to bathe, before coming back and drinking more. It was a perfect atmosphere for making new friends and catching up with the old. The drinking and relaxing continued throughout the weekend, during which time Amanda and I sat and talked with townspeople, caught up with Elliot, and presented ourselves to the chiefs and elders of the town.
The leaders in a Guna town are called Sahilas. There are five in Armila: Esterbino, Osbaldo, Carlos, Caraballo, and Fidel; the latter of which is the head Sahila. After we had introduced ourselves and stated our purposes, they told us that they have been expecting us to come and are glad we had fulfilled our promise to come on the exact day we had told them (the people of Armila seem to be accustomed to foreigners and Panamanian politicians that don’t live up to their word). They said that we are now part of the community and that they are at our service. They insisted we come to them with any concerns or questions we have throughout our stay. They also said that, as members of this community, we were entitled to have a house made for us on our own land, built by the community. We thoroughly thanked them for their warm welcome and generous offer of a house, and agreed that we would discuss the matter in more detail during the coming weeks. All of this was done in the local dialect, so even though most of the Sahilas speak very good Spanish, our words had to be translated into the local dialect before they could be acknowledged, and the Sahilas spoke to us through the town’s official translator.
The revelry of the weekend transitioned abruptly transitioned into the workweek. Most men in the town wake up at 0400h to start working; work until lunchtime at 1300h, rest, socialize and/or work during the hotter part of the day; eat dinner around 1800h, then attend city council hearings and meetings until sometimes 2300h. Amanda’s and my daily schedule consists mostly of work in the mornings and social/business meetings in the afternoons. I have been dedicating a couple hours a day to learning the Guna dialect from a children’s book for learning Spanish. There is only one public telephone in the town, which is currently working for incoming calls (you can call me at 011-507-333-2060, ask for “Moe-ree-sone ee Ah-mahn-dah”). The only way to call out is with a phone card and the town’s fresh out, but we can make emergency calls out via the radio at the police station if need be. Currently the only internet access is a 1.5 hour walk away in the town of Puerto Obaldia.
This week I will meet with the Sea Turtle Commission of Armila to discuss the status of their conservation efforts. We will also meet with Gammibe Gun Galu, the folkloric group, for whom my brother, Terrill Mast and I recorded, produced, and promoted an album, which is now in the process of being submitted to Smithsonian Folkways for publication. I have also arranged meetings with the educators of the town to talk about how they are collaborating with local conservationists to achieve their goals, and to discuss how Amanda and I would be willing to implement English and environmental education/biology education programs targeted toward students and adults. The goal is to start a conversation about the mission and vision of the community so that everything we help out with during out 10-month stay can be tied back to community-set goals.
All is good here in Armila with Elliot, Amanda, and me. We are safe, healthy, and happy.