Central America | Panama – Silico Creek
Balbina, Melida, and I were on our way to Silico Creek, which is in the Comarca, but on the other side of the cordillera, the Carribean side, the part of the Comarca which used to be in Bocas del Toro, but is now reffered to as ?o Kribo, its Ngabere name. I’ve heard this means Big River or Lots of Rain, and both are true. There are a couple huge rivers, and it does rain most of the year. ?o or ?u means water or river, I always get confused, and Kri means big. Balbina also calls me Kri, sometimes, short for Kristina, which I like.
Our trip had two purposes. We found a new market to sell artesania, because they are a talented artesania group, but so islolated, no one from the outside comes to Chami to even see it. We were so lucky to have the offer from a hotel in David to let us sell their work there. However, ladies in Chami’s group (Balbina is president, Melida VP) only make chacaras (woven fiber bags) and nagwas (traditional dresses, beautiful and colorful, but big and bulky and expensive). The owner of the hotel wanted smaller, cheaper, functional things that backpackers were more likely to buy. There is a Ngabe artesan cooperative in Silico Creek, a fabulous project of a fellow volunteers of mine. Melissa is now working with it. It is right on the main road to Almirante, where lots of tourists and backpackers pass on their way to the famous Bocas del Toro islands. You can park a private car there, or hop off a bus, check out the shop, and hop on the next bus. This coop is run by a Ngabe artesan group, and any nearby community can sell there. They also have innovative, cheap things that travelers are more likely to buy, like headbands made out of characa materials, or pouches to protect eyeglasses or passports and money and embroidered with dientes, a traditional symbol. So that is one purpose of out trip, to learn new ideas for artesania. But not to be taught by me, I’m not qualified to teach them about their own artwork. Some other volunteers and I dont like the idea of us gringos teaching them things, and are trying to use a Ngabes teaching fellow Ngabes format instead.
The other purpose of the trip was a cross-cultural exchange. True, the two groups were of the same culture, Ngabe, but the ?o Kribo region is very different from Nedrini, where I live, and those differences will become obvious. But these groups are so poor, and rarely leave the town they are from. Melissa and I liked the idea of the people from the two different regions being able to interact and learn about each other, hopefully resulting in cultural pride.
After we took the chiva from Chami, the one where I was riding on the roof, we caught a bus to David, and then got on the Changinola bus, which would take us over the mountains to the Carribean side, and to Silico Creek. The bus left David (this was only Balbina and Melida’s third time in David in their lives), and quickly started climbing the mountains. The views were beautiful, and they were glued to the windows, seeing the rolling green hills above the Pacific below. We finally reached the top. Fortuna, a hydroelectric company, has a dam and plant right in the middle of the mountain range, and I had a terrible time trying to explain the concept in Spanish to Balbina and Melida. And as we began to descend, we were engulfed in clouds. The Pacific side is in its driest time of the year, incredibly dusty and scorching temperatures and sun. But on the Carribean side, it was rainy, cloudy, and chilly at the top of the mountains. It was pouring for the couple hours it took to bus to reach the lowlands, and it was dark, around 9pm, when we finally hopped off the bus into the rain at Silico Creek, which is right on the highway. And it was still chilly!
Melissa had sent some teenage boys to meet us. “Melissa!” they yelled at me, did they think all us volunteers have the same name? We followed them to her, and she took us to a house where the ladies would sleep, Melissa’s old host family. She had just moved into her own bamboo house. Balbina and Melida were shocked at how big the houses were, and that they were made of all boards. There is a little more money there, than in Chami. People in Silico Creek live in poverty, but at least could afford board for houses. (In Chami, they usually make them out of natural materials, penka, sticks, logs, etc.) Also, here houses are raised off the ground. All the rain results in so much mud. Houses in Chami are 99% dirt floors. Only a few people have a paved floor, either from bags of cement they bought (rare, because a bag is $7) or they tried to make a mix out of cement-like chalky rock they gathered and carried from Cerro Flores, ground up, and added water. This doesnt really result in a quality, long-lasting floor, but o well.
We were offered coffee, a very important gesture in this culture, and its usually weak enough it wont keep me up at night. Soon the ladies were ready to sleep. It had been a long day, imagine, that morning, we had seen the First Lady of Panama! I followed Melissa to her bamboo house. Another difference between the two villages- sidewalks! Lots of mud, plus being able to afford and access cement, leads there to being sidewalks in Silico Creek. There are also powerlines. They say there used to be a generator that brought electricity to the town at night, but broke down years ago.
The next morning, we walked thru town, and got to see a group of women making Jonnie Cakes, thick, dense, round bread, that is sweet fron being made with coconut milk. They are only made in ?o Kribo. And it is only the Nedrini Ngabes that wear nagwas, the colorful traditional dresses embroidered with dientes. They dresses are not worn in the other two regions of the Comarca, ?o Kribo or Kadriri. (Kadriri is on the Pacific side, east of Nedrini) Most of the town of Silico Creek has the last name Aguillar, because of the five Aguillar brothers who settled the town decades ago. The most popular names in Chami are Montezuma, Salinas, or Sandoya. Chami has also about 3 times the population than Silico Creek. We had Jonnie Cakes and eggs for breakfast.
Then we toured the artesania shop. It was a lovely and humble board building, full of colorful Ngabe artesania. The groups of women each said some words about their groups, and seemed to hit it off. And just when I was worried that my ladies would feel bad, because Silico Creek has so much great stuff (sidewalks, an artesania shop, jonnie cakes) a woman asked Melida for help making the nagwa she was sewing. Women in ?o Kribo dont wear nagwas, but my friends are experts! Melida put on her glasses and went right into teacher-mode, explaining how to make the dientes on the nagwas, with all the Silico Creek women listening intently and asking questions. It was perfect, both groups were contributing and learning.
The trip was over to fast, and we had to catch a bus to David. But we werent going home quite yet. We had a meeting with the owner of the hotel in David. The owner, Balbina, and Melida talked about how they would do business, and what kinds of products they would sell. It was all really exciting. Hopefully it will work out for the artesania women’s group of Chami.
So if you are traveling through Panama, buy Balbina’s stuff. Buy lots of it. Her family helped me build my house, she’s fed me when I have been hungry, and she makes quality artesania.