Learning from the Embera of the Panamanian Rainforest

Reporting on a January 2023 trip

Arriving in Embera Quera was like arriving in paradise.

On the way to the village, as our dugout boat was gliding through the rainforest, we saw toucans, sloths, and capuchin monkeys, and heard the unmistakable rumble of the howler monkeys disturbed by our noise.

There were cows in the clearings and occasional fishermen.
No crocodiles, though we heard there are plenty, as are the snakes.

The waterways our native guide took continue into the inner valleys of the Darien Peninsula, which leads into Colombia, and further into the Amazon region, to whose people the Embera are related.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the villagers in beaded skirts and wraps, men drumming and women dancing.
Do they dress the same way when the tourists are not around? I doubt it. But it certainly made it special.

What was authentic though was to see a one-room classroom hut educating all of the village kids, watch bare feet stomping terra cota red earth in a circle dance, observe the artisans working achiote-colored grass strands into baskets and masks representing the jai, and others carving tree nuts into the netsuke-like figurines of the creatures of the forest.

My daughter and I bought these handicrafts for very little. You do not bargain with the Embera, we’ ‘d been told. They set their prices low based on the days of labor it took to create them. There is no overhead.

And we lunched on the plantains grown among the huts and fish from the river that had brought us to the village.

The Embera live on a government-deeded land in a semi-autonomous region of Panama housing many indigenous tribes. The village has no running water, and the electricity comes on for only several hours a day, via a generator. There are no plugs in the walls of their huts; the huts, in fact, have no walls, only elevated platforms and thatched roofs.

And yet, there is a pull to stay home, rather than move to Panama City, the modern, urban, financial heart of Central America. The village provides the basics, and the rhythm of life is slower.

I learned some things about the Embera beliefs from the local guide – a young woman who spoke both Spanish and Embera – and the village jaibaná (shaman) told us quite a bit about the traditional beliefs. Some of them are summarized in the “Embera” entry in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures (2019).

Emberá religion is centered on invisible forces called jai. These constitute the essence of things, natural phenomena, animals, and people. They belong to nature, and only the shaman (jaibaná) can see and control them. . . Illness occurs when these elements, which must be kept separate in everyday life, unite; they must then be separated anew by the shaman. The Emberá are emphatic in their belief that the jai are [not spirits, but] material forces or energies. They also believe in “mothers” or “root stocks” of animals—for example, the mother of fish, or the mother of peccaries.

A beautiful village and a memorable experience.


PS. Panama is famous for its wide variety of huacas, poisonous dart frogs, often represented in indigenous / pre-Columbian jewelry and pottery, as well as sloths and butterflies. All photos are taken in the Caribbean rainforest near Embera Quera.

© Lane Igoudin, 2023

Reading the Parabola essay at CWCLB

Delighted to see my travel/spirituality essay “Out of the Dark Depths” come out in the current, Winter 2023 issue of Parabola: The Search for Meaning.

Parabola is a popular, New York-based magazine dedicated to the world’s religious, cultural, and mythological traditions. The issue theme is “Darkness and Light,” and in my essay, I recount an unexpected spiritual awakening that occurred to me while swimming in an underground burial lake, a purported entrance to the underworld in Yucatan.

“We used to bury our people down there, at the bottom,” said my Yucatec Maya guide as he pointed at the cave’s dark mouth, dropping underground at a 45-degree angle. “We would keep them there for eight years, then remove the bones, clean them, and bury them in the ground outside for good . . .

And I just did the first reading of this essay at the annual group reading of the California Writers Club, Long Beach chapter – a warm, supportive group of local writers. (12/10/2022)

The Magician by Colm Tóibín – my book review in Lambda Literary

Lambda Literary published and included in its December mailings my review of The Magician, Colm Tóibín’s novelized biography of Thomas Mann, Germany’s greatest 20th century writer – and a married and closeted public figure.

“Gay, artistic Thomas is born into a prosperous mercantile family [where] money is as self-evident and essential as water and sunshine. When, a few decades later, the post-war inflation evaporates the family fortune, his mother does what other self-respecting women of her class would do – take to bed and starve herself to death – because she simply doesn’t know how to live otherwise.” [. . . ]

I proposed to write this review for Lambda Literary because of my deep love for both writers. Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus, and Death in Venice are among the finest works of fiction I’ve ever read. Toibin’s The Master, Brooklyn, and the lesser-known The Story of the Night are simply delightful. That said, my review points out some flaws in The Magician, and yet, it is a profound book which deserves to be read, a study of a life rich, complex, and meaningful.

Check it out and please 🙏 support this wonderful organization.

“Out of the Depths” in Parabola (Winter 2023)

Delighted to see my travel / spirituality essay “Out of the Depths” in the Winter 2023 issue of Parabola: Searching for the Meaning (circ. 20,000).

From swimming in a cave with skeletons to finding faith in unexpected places.

“We used to bury our people down there, at the bottom,” said my Yucatec Maya guide as he pointed at the cave’s dark mouth, dropping underground at about a 45-degree angle. . .” More at

https://parabola.org/2022/10/30/out-of-the-dark-depths/

Travel/spirituality essay to come out in Parabola

Super excited: my travel essay “Out of the Depths of a Mayan Burial Cave,” based on a mind-opening spiritual experience in Yucatan, has been bought by Parabola (New York). Can’t wait to see in their Winter 2022/23 issue!

Parabola, also known as Parabola: The Search for Meaning, is a Manhattan-based quarterly magazine on the subjects of mythology and the world’s religious and cultural traditions.

“The iPad Wars” Published by the StoryHouse Writers’ Showcase

My parenting essay “The iPad Wars” has been picked up by the online StoryHouse Writers’ Showcase of The Preservation Foundation, a literary non-profit which has been “preserving the extraordinary stories of ‘ordinary’ people” since 1976.” It originally appeared in print in the 2018 issue of The Citadel, the literary journal published at Los Angeles City College.

As I explain in the preface to the online version:

I am a father of two teenage daughters: one just graduated high school, the other still has two more years to go. Over the last few years, I’ve been watching with amazement and trepidation their transformation from adorable kids into assertive young women, a challenging journey of growth for them, but also for my partner and me. In this story, I recount one such experience.

Take a look!

“A Mindful Pilgrimage” in ZCLA’s Water Wheel

We started in a circle, hands in gassho, chanting “mu.” The sound first vibrated throughout my skull, like an inner bell inviting me to turn inwards, and then, when shared by a group of 30, it turned into a spontaneous vibration rising up to the morning sky . . .

Continue to the article.

In April 2022, I took part in a pilgrimage walk from Zen Center Los Angeles to Dharma Vijaya, a Sri Lankan Buddhist vihara (temple), a 5-mile roundtrip hike through the heart of urban LA. What started afterwards as an individual article turned into a rich, collaborative piece in the current issue of Water Wheel, ZCLA’s quarterly, reflecting on the walk and the important lessons I learned from it.

Zen Center LA is a very dear place for me. I’ve learned so much about meditation practice and Buddhist values there and took classes there to prepare to receive jukai, a lay ordination in the Soto Zen tradition in 2016. I am continuing to learn, and every meditative practice or exercise, like this pilgrimage walk, is both a reminder to see the world as it is, and live your life accordingly.

You can view the article here. And copied below are some more pictures from the walk.

“Caps Off to You!” A Fathers’ Day feature on FamilyEquality.org

Happy Father’s Day to all parents out there!

So glad for the opportunity to share the experience of watching our first child graduate from high school – a new frontier for gay families – with Family Equality supporters. I can’t praise enough the work this organization does to protect and advance the rights of gay families in every state of this country.

This was my third article for Family Equality. My Fathers’ Day feature last year was about the blessing of parenting daughters, and the one the prior year, written for the International LGBT Family Day, described raising an intersectional gay family

Those Tactfully Confusing Euphemisms

Students in my ESL writing classes are often confused by the indirect terms we use to address sensitive issues. Here is a handout I put together for them to introduce them, in simple terms, to some out of the many euphemisms we use.

Americans teach their children: “If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all.” But what do you say when you need to mention something that isn’t nice, for example, unemployment or death?

Euphemisms are special words or phrases we use to refer to sensitive subjects, for example, death, unemployment, physicial appearance, or race. Some examples of euphemisms are copied below. You can see more examples, including those concerning sex and bodily functions here (Links to an external site.).

Appearance and Behavior

  • fat => big-boned, a bit overweight, a big man, a curvy woman
  • short => petite
  • odd or weird => special
  • he lies => he doesn’t always tell the truth; has vivid imagination
  • late => running a little behind
  • pushy/aggressive => assertive
  • bossy => outspoken
  • pregnant => with child, in a family way
  • sick/ill => under the weather
  • not here => unavailable
  • rude => highly strung, inappropriate
  • teenager behaving badly => a precocious teenager

Disability

  • blind => visually impaired, can’t see very well
  • deaf => hard of hearing, can’t hear very well
  • physically disabled => differently abled
  • crazy/mad => developmentally disabled; has a mental disability
  • autistic => to be on the [autistic] spectrum
  • neurodivergent means “differing in mental or neurological function from what is considered typical or normal; frequently used with reference to autistic spectrum disorders” (Oxford Dictionary)

Death

  • died => passed away
  • dead (adj.) => resting in peace / no longer with us
  • dead (adj.) relative => my late grandmother
  • euthanizing a sick, old pet => put to sleep

Finances

  • cheap (cost) => economical 
  • cheap (person who likes to save money) => frugal, thrifty
  • past-due bill => outstanding payment
  • poor => economically disadvantaged, low-income 
  • rich => wealthy, well-off
  • poor country => developing country

Unemployment

  • fired from the job => they had to let her go; the company downsized; her position was eliminated; she left the company
  • unemployed => he is between jobs; pursuing other opportunities; considering options
  • jail/prison => correctional facility
  • a low-paid job => an entry-level job

Politics

  • supporting abortion => pro-choice
  • against abortion => pro-life

5 races, as definied by the federal government

  • African American / Black
  • Native American (not OK to say American Indian)
  • Asian American
  • White = Caucasian
  • Pacific Islander – someone from the Philippines, Tonga, Samoa, Hawai’i, and so on

Ethnic marker:

  • Hispanic, Latino (m) / Latina (f) / Latinx (both m + f)

Examples:

Luis is from Mexico -> white / Hispanic

Omar is from Dominican Republic – black / Hispanic

Eva is from Poland: white / non-Hispanic

Additional terms

Chicano = Mexican American born in the US

Nationality = citizenship

Ethnicity = belonging to a certain ethnic group of people

Sometimes they are the same, but often different. For example, Sarkis is Armenian, born and raised in Syria. He has a Syrian passport. His ethnicity: Armenian; his nationality: Syrian. If he becomes a US citizen, then his ethnicity will remain Armenian, but his nationality will become American.

PreviousNext

Lit agent search using Publishers Marketplace

My advice piece for fellow writers on how to find and build a list of prospective literary agents landed on the front page of the California Writers Club quarterly newsletter. Click below to read it.

Founded in 1909, California Writers Club is one of the nation’s oldest professional clubs for writers. With 22 branches throughout the state offering workshops, contests, and conferences, CWC “is dedicated to educating writers of all levels and disciplines in the craft of writing and in the marketing of their work.” It’s my second time getting published in it.