BootsnAll Travel Network

Mountain Journey:Part Two: An Intimate View of Ngobe Life

This entry is the second entry in a series of four.

Breakfast this morning consisted of a bowl of taro chunks boiled in water, and some weak, slightly sweetened coffee. I ate my breakfast under one of the ¨dormitorios¨-dormitories-sort of these large, grass roofed huts which serve as sheltered areas from the sun and have hammocks for sleeping for guests. As I ate, I was surounded by numerous children-all eating their chunks of taro with their hands.

After breakfast, I took a look around the hamlet.

Although it was only 5:00 am, people were already busy working. Rice was being pounded in a hollowed out tree trunk; coffee beans were being roasted over a fire in an iron pot; a chicken was being killed and scalded for lunch; beans were being shelled; and animals fed.

One of the most interesting things going on was the making of chicha de maiz. Although this is one of the central customs of the culture-the making and drinking of this slightly fermented drink-I had never seen it actually made.

This is how it is made:

A large plastic sack is filled with maiz kernels, and this bag has small perforations in it. The bag is then immersed in water-usually in a five gallon plastic container. It stays immersed in the water for about 1 day, but you can immerse it for longer depending on conditions. After 1 day, you take the plastic bag out of the water and drain it. The kernels will have all sprouted. The kernels are then processed using a meat grinder (if you do it the modern way), or pounded by hand, with an enormous mortar and pestle( if you don´t have money for the hand-cranked meat grinder). To grind all the maiz kernels takes many hours, and usually everyone takes turns feeding the kernels into the grinder and turning the crank.

After all the kernels are ground, it gets put back into the plastic tub with water and cakes of sugar, and ferments for one to three days. For a lightly fermented, sweeter drink-the type of chicha Ngobe drink everyday, the chicha may only ferment for one day. For a drink that will get you very drunk quickly, the chicha needs to be fermented 3 to 5 days.

Chicha can also be made with fruits-anything with a high sugar content can be made into chicha. People also use pineapples and fruits of palm to make chicha.

After my chicha class(!), Catalina´s brothers and her father invited me to see another part of their finca. What I didn´t quite understand is that this other part of their finca was a four hour walk away-one way. They said it was close by, so I grabbed a liter off water and off we went. This time, I asked for a walking stick, as the trails are either insanely steep or so uphill I feel like I´m going to fall over. A walking stick was fashioned for me along the way-a stalk of sugar cane was plucked up fromt the sugar cane patch, cracked open for the sugar inside, and then bound with a vine to keep the two halves together. A walking stick and a snack in one.

We walked for over 4 hours-crossing makeshift bridges across rivers and streams, passing thru neighbors hamlets, and occassionally, navigating our way thru barbed wire fences.

Barbed wire fencing in the mountains of Panama? Why? I was wondering this as well.

Barbed wire fencing has only existed here for about 60 years. It came along with the cattle people began to raise for food and profit. People began using the fencing to make clear property lines between members of family and neighbors. Unfortunately, what this means is that to get anywhere, you have to crawl under and thru alot of fences. Not easy in a skirt, with four men watching you. Especially when you are a tall woman, and you practically have to crawl on the ground at times to get under a fence! I finally just started telling them to turn around whenever we had to crawl thru a fence.

This is not because I am a particularly modest person-it´s because it is a very modest culture for women, and a flash of my calf causes comment-and at times, almost embarrassment to the viewer.

Thank God I was not wearing pants, they told me. I was the very first white woman some of these neighbors of theirs had ever seen in person-and a woman wearing pants would have been really shocking to them. In Soloy, you do occassionally see a woman wearing pants-but she is usually riding a horse, or doing what would be considered ¨men´s work¨. In the mountains, people are alot more conservative-polygamy is still flourishing, women do not go to school, and so forth.

Anyway, we finally got to their other finca, where they have more of the same crops, as well as grow a considerable amount of coffee. Coffee needs cooler temperatures, so it´s grown in areas deeper in the mountains. They also had livestock-mostly cattle, who all were calving. I also watched a mare give birth. This was an amazing experience-I´ve never seen anything like that before and it was certainly in one of the most pristine settings you can imagine, on a grassy hill, under a large mango tree. The colt was born healthy and was a beautiful greyish white. What was amazing is how it just got up and started walking around!

I was really fatigued, but we had to head back towards the hamlet, because I had been invited to attend a funeral at the cemetery. The cemetery was about half way home.

We started out walking and I realized I did not have enough water( Bad Gigi! Bad!). In my defense all I can say is that they told me the second finca was close by.

By the time we reached the cemetery, I was really feeling like I needed to drink something-anything. Normally I don´t drink anything that hasn´t been boiled, but there was no choice this time. I had two choices-chicha de maiz or koolaid. I chose the koolaid, figuring the sight of a gringa drunk at funeral might cause comment(and besides, I don´t like the idea of drinking something that sits around for days on end). The koolaid did the job-I felt better, and actually drank two big gourds full. I tried not to think about what was in the water it was made with and prayed I would not get giardia.

Being at a Ngobe funeral has been my most ineresting experience here so far.

However, it was also one of my saddest experiences.

The woman who had died was only 21 years old. She had died during childbirth-actually, her baby died first, without having been born, and she hemmorged soon after. It was her second child. her first child had been born by c-section in the hospital in David. She had walked down the mountain(alone) a week ago to go the clinic in Soloy, and they had sent her to david, telling her she needed to have her baby in the hospital. She stayed for two days in David, but they would not let her sleep in the hospital-she wasn´t close enough to giving birth.

She had no money for a place to stay, or for any food, and worst of all-she did not understand much of what was being said as she did not speak much Spanish and could not read. She was all alone and knew no one. I´m sure she was terrified of having another c-section(c-sections are not common for the Ngobe).

So she went back home, and several days later, died trying to birth to a stillborn child.

Strangely, in spite of the tragedy, people at the cemetary were quite social-talking in small groups, some making jokes, others saying hello to old friends. Only the girls mother and sister were crying, and they stayed to themselves under a tree close by the body. Perhaps this more casual attitude toward death is because the period of officail mourning had begun several days ago, and this is traditionally when people express deep sadness. However, I think it was more because death-particularly death resulting from problems with childbirth-are extremely common. Another woman, aged 15, was going to be buried tomarrow. She had died one day after giving birth to her 3rd child.

Due to the fact that I was an outsider-albiet, with an invitation-I did not get very close to the rituals or the body, deciding instead that it was more respectful to view the goings-on from a distance and ask questions.

First of all, after the person dies, there is a three day mourning period, where the body stays with the family. Candles are lit, family and friends visit, and the body is washed if possible and dressed in whatever clothes the person has that are the nicest. If there is money for one, a person will be paid to fashion a rough hewn casket, which will be wrapped in black cloth. If there is no money, the person will be wrapped in whatever materials are available, kind of like a big bag.

The body is carried to the cemetery on a sugar cane pallet-usually two men can do the job. If there is no cemetery close by, they still try to get to a cemetery-even if they have to walk for 10 hours.

Once at the cemetery, the grave is dug-surprisingly deep-by all the neighbors and family memebers. This is only a job for men.

Meanwhile, women have the job of mourning, as well as the more important job of bringing all of the person´s things with them to the cemetery. Ngobe are buried with their valuable possessions-all of them. Women are buried with all of their ¨naguas¨(dresses), ¨chakras¨(bags made of jute, bromeliad plant fibers, or plastic), jewelry, 2 to 4 spoons, and a plastic gallon of water. men are buried with all of their clothes, ¨chakras¨, jewelry, a clock or watch if they own one, tools, machete, and a gallon of water. Children are generally buried with little but a set of clothes and a small container of water.

Just before the burial, the women in the family of the dead women gathered around the body, and called for all the women in the cemetery to gather around them. They formed a lage close knit circle. The mother of the woman opened up the dead woman´s chakra´s and pulled out each item, telling the other women what it was and that it would now be placed with her dead daughter. With each item she lifted up, the crowd of women murmured and nodded their heads.

The women dispersed and the body was placed into the grave. Women are placed in the grave facing the moon, and men are placed facing the sun.

People then gathered for the service, which was Evangelical, and performed by a man who was not a minister, but a person of some importance in the community. He had a Bible, and the service was performed in Spanish and Ngobe. As the service was performed, the casket was covered with earth by 4 men with shovels. The possessions of the woman were not completely buried-they were added last, and only a shovel or two of earthwas on top of them.

I asked if there was a problem with robberies-the possessions of the person weren´t even really buried, and anyone could come along and take their things. It was pointed out to me that all of the graves surrounding us-both recent and old-had old chakras on top of them, and the contents were undisturbed. Occassionly, spoons and bits of fabric littered the ground close to a grave, but no one touched them or moved them. The Ngobe believe in ghosts.

The funeral ended, and a man came over to me to tell me about the grave marker he was making for the woman. He was using a nail and two pieces of wood. The wood was nailed together in a cross, and the nail using to ¨write out¨her name and date of death. He told me that they had three kinds of markers they used as headstones-one, a Christian cross(this being the most popular, as most people said they were Evangelical); a piece of wood cut into a star, for those people who were of the Bahai faith(the only radio station is owned by the Bahai); and for people who either believed in nothing or nothing was known about them, a tree was planted.

I also learned that after the funeral, they prepared alot of food for the guests-if they had no money, they prepared what they had. Usually it was a meal of rice, yucca, and so on, and of course chicha de maiz. In the past-30 years ago-chicha was drunk in vast quantities during and after the funeral, and people became quite drunk, but now, people didn´t drink until after the funeral. (Koolaid was often drunk instead. )

Additionally, all food prepared was made without using salt or sugar. In fact, family and close friends of the deceased did not eat sugar of salt for 4 days after the burial. This comes from a belief that if you eat sugar of salt after a person close to you is buried you will have problems with your teeth, and some of them will rot and fall out.

I decided not to stay for the meal, and thanked my hosts. The men of my family accompanied me on the long walk home(about 3 more hours). By the time we got home, I was very hungry, and eagerly ate an entire bowl of boiled plantains accompanied by some sort of reddish, sticky beans. I also drank alot of water-almost two liters.

At this point, my ankle that had really been bothering me the day before was somewhat improved, but it still was a bit swollen. (This is normal for me because of lymphatic system problems). Catalina´s mother asked to look at my ankle and poked it with her fingers…and then hurried away, calling for Catalina.

Catalina came over and asked me if I would like them to use the ¨clavo¨on my ankle. The clavo is basically a metal rod that is heated up, until it is red hot. They use this red hot rod to heal people of miscellaneous maladies-by touching the affected part with the rod four times on each side. It leaves small patterns of burn marks.

The clavo can only be used by either a man who has gotten bitten by a snake, and survived; or a pregnant woman. One of Catalina ´s sisters was very preganant-so she was going to be the one to give me the treatment. She stuck a metal rod into a corn cob, and using the corn cob as a handle, heated up the rod until it was hot.

I was told to sit on a rock near the fire, and place my ankle near the fire. When the rod was hot enough, she used it eight times total-four times on one side of my ankle, and four times on the opposite side. Um, yeah, it hurt alot. It basically burns you.

While getting my treatment, I was watched by all of the family that were present. It was a a big deal that I opted for their treatment method-it kind of bridged a gap that had existed before that moment. Ngobe are used to outsiders thinking that they are backward and they are very private with outsiders about some of their customs because of this. I found the treatment to work at least temporarily-the burn pain certainly dulled the other pain!

The clavo is used for pain(except for in the mouth, where they use a hot nail on the painful tooth!), and it is also used for parasites. People here know when they have parasites-they recognize the signs. When a person has parasites, the clavo is used on the arm, opposite the elbow, and in the small of the back.

After the clavo experience, I got a lesson in how to make a Panama hat. Catalina´s brother makes these hats as a hobby and was in the process of making one. It´s a very time consuming process, and sadly, for much work, he will be lucky to get even 5 dollars. makes me think about all those Panamian hats being sold in the USA for so little-who is making those hats, anyway? Probably some poor person in some impoverished community.

The way the hat is made is very interesting. First, the sisal fiber is collected and cleaned. Then, some of the fiber is sometimes dyed with natural dyes to create a pattern on part of the hat. The material is woven using a sugar cane frame. Two large sticks of sugar cane are cut, stuck in the ground, and tied together to form a triangle shape. The sisal is wrapped around the part where the sugar cane overlaps, and the weaving begins. Men usually weave standing up, and women weave either sitting down or in a crouching position. The fibers are woven into one long braid, adding fibers as the weaver goes along. After all the fibers are woven, they are sewn together. It takes two weeks of work to make one hat.

Everyone was watching how interested I was in the hat making process, and afterwards, all the men brought out different things that they had made. One man brought out a beautiful bow and arrow; another man brought out a hoilowed out enormous gourd, used a storage container; another man showed me how to make rope; and my favorite thing was a large wooden cooking dish made by Catalina´s brother in law. I liked it so much, I asked him to make me one-paying him a fair trade price of course.

What a day. I went to Ngobe funeral-something I never thought I would do.  I learned all about the food of the Ngobe and the work that it takes to make it. I got some traditional healing. I learned how many useful items are made…and I walked over thiry miles, according to my pedometer.

I wonder what will happen tomarrow?



9 responses to “Mountain Journey:Part Two: An Intimate View of Ngobe Life”

  1. Gerald Bear says:

    Your blog is not just a report of your travels, it’s a fascinating education, like a series of anthroplogy monographs without the duller stuff. Love the how-it’s-made descriptions.

  2. Jim P says:

    “I wonder what will happen tomarrow?”

    This sentiment, I think, may be the closest thing to the true meaning of life.

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