One of the aspects of my Darien visit that I was most looking forward to was getting to experience an indigenous culture so different than the one I live in. I had heard tons of great things about the Embera and Wounaan people from other volunteers: that they're friendly, open people, the women still don parumas everyday, they feed you a lot of food, and that you can (especially on special occasions) get painted with jagua- a dark blue dye made from a small fruit. Similar to henna, these faux tattoos last 1-2 weeks before fading away on their own. Said to have both medicinal and bug repellant properties, jagua was originally used as a type of camouflage to aid with jungle hunts. Today this tradition is used mostly on special occasions and holidays and can be quite intricate and beautiful.
Since I didn't know if I'd have the chance to return to the Comarca Emberá-Wounaan, I was determined to get painted during my short visit. Though I'm sure the guys were tired of my daily inquisitions of the who/when/how/how much of jagua, it finally paid off and I talked a sweet Emberá woman into painting me on my last day.
The local women's group making tortillas for a fundraiser
The jagua is painted on with small sticks, cloths, and/or fingers. While at first the design doesn't appear to be very dark, it deepens into a deep navy overnight. Since I don't have any tattoos- and especially not full sleeves or leg pieces, I wasn't used to the range of reactions I've gotten since getting painted. I've seen everything from disgust to looks of being intimidated to outright impressed. While sometimes it's been a little trying to be so obviously judged on a superficial element in which the observer usually doesn't even understand, it's been both eyeopening and quite entertaining. As your mom always told you, "Don't judge a book by it's cover." :)
My sweet little Bocas neighbors modeling some of the handwoven masks I bought in the Darien.
If you want to learn more about the Emberá or see cool photos of life in the Darien, you should check out Nick's blog here.