Carnival in Panama

By Meret Schueschke

During the last days, Panama City has been a different place: It was Carnival, and the entire city celebrated it.

The first sign we noticed on Friday was the closure of a major downtown road, Avenida Balboa, which runs along the coast. Part of this road, and the Cinta Costera coastal park next to it were the main area for the celebrations, with daily parades, four stages where music and show acts were hosted, and a multitude of little stalls selling food, beverages, souvenirs and toys.

On Saturday morning, the entire city seemed deserted. The usually busy roads were empty, restaurants were closed, and even the bustling Casco Viejo with its souvenir stores, restoration projects and tourist activity was empty and quiet. As soon as we reached Cinta Costera we knew why: live music was playing on several stages while big water tanks stood by to spray the dancing crowds with water, a very welcome refreshment in the hot noon sun. Soaked with water, hungry and excited, we retreated home during the late afternoon to get changed and rest, before joining the celebrations again in the evening. The atmosphere was like a big street festival, and it seemed that the entire city had come out to participate in the festivities: from old men in Wheelchairs to babies in the arms of their parents,  from Kuna women in their traditional Mola to Tourists in their not-quite-so traditional flower print shorts, everyone was there. We strolled through the crowds, considered buying funny sunglasses and flashing hair ornaments, tried grilled Chorizo and marinated pork on skewers, and listened to the rhythms of Salsa, Rumba and Reggae being played everywhere. Children darted through the crowds, spraying unsuspecting people with fake snow, couples young and old danced by the stages, while the carnival queens waved serenely from their decorated wagons.

Each evening brought new parades with elaborate floats, stunning carnival queens and animated calypso bands, we could not get enough of the multitude of things to see, the flavors, smells and sounds of a whole city dancing and celebrating together.

The whole thing had a strong feeling of community, an openness that large cities usually do not experience, people were brought together by the music and the festivities.

And then, today, Ash Wednesday, it seems like it was all a dream. The colorful displays, the calypso bands, the queens and dancers and revelers are all gone. The city is returning to normal, until next year, when the next carnival queen will be crowned to lead the city during these exceptional days.

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Visit an Embera Community in Gatun Lake – A unique experience

by:  Anne Kehmeier, Intern

Luckily I had the chance to join an exciting EcoCircuitos tour to the indigenous village of the Embera Drua people to get to know their lifestyles and traditions. Accompanied by a great naturalist guide we started our trip with a ride through the Canal Zone and the nice Soberania National Park where we even saw a small anteater on the street. Arrived at the bank of the Chagres River we boarded a motorized piragua (dugout canoe) with an indigenous guide and captain and traveled the Gatun Lake to the communityt. We had a stop for a small hike of the botanical trail “Venta de Cruces” off the community. This forest was full of interesting trees, plants and small animals like the rana hoja, a frog that looks like a leave and is very well camouflaged. The indigenous guide explained us how the trail was used and showed us many different plants. He described how these plants were applied and still are nowadays, for example for medical purposes. After the small hike we continued our boat tour to the village. While enjoying the view out of the boat over the river and the nearby forests and the refreshing water that spilled over to us in the boat from time to time we reached the bank where the Embera village is situated. Our arrival at the “dock” was accompanied with local music and we were welcomed very friendly. After some time of enjoying the marvelous location and the view of the river we were given a presentation about clothing, handcrafts and other traditions and lifestyles by a young representative of the Embera community. Most of the arts and crafts are made of natural resources like seeds, leaves and different kinds of wood. Then we even had the pleasure to have a traditional lunch which existed of delicious fried plantain and fish, followed by fresh bananas and pineapples as desert. After this yummy lunch the Embera women showed us a really fascinating dance accompanied by interesting traditional music presented by the Embera men. We were even invited to join the dance and learn some steps; this was really exciting and fun! After this program we had the opportunity to explore the village and the surroundings a little bit, of course in way that does not disrupt the daily life of the community. By doing so we could also buy some of the beautiful handcrafts made by the Embera.

I was very pleased to hear and to see that the local community really benefits from tourism and this is a way for them to demonstrate their traditions and sell their self-made products. As this community lives in the Chagres National Park, thus a protected area, they are not allowed to hunt, to cultivate fields and use the wood of the forest to keep their farms. Therefore it is a great opportunity that they profit from tourism as they welcome regularly small groups and thus they have the opportunity to sell their handcrafts like nicely designed plates, small statues, neglects, bracelets and much more. In this way they do not only preserve their traditions but also conserve and preserve the nature around them.

I really enjoyed this adventure, the people were really friendly and open-minded and I learned a lot about the life in the Chagres National Park. It was a pleasure for me to get to know the Embera people and I am really glad I had this opportunity. Thanks for this great, exciting, personal and very unique experience!