DARIEN NATIONAL PARK, Panama
Not many cruises aim for shore excursions at a place named the Beach of the Dead.
But that name is centuries old, attributed to bodies washing ashore after a clash between Spanish and English warships. Now, when passengers clamber over the sides of their motorized rafts from the exploration ship Pacific Explorer, they are warmly welcomed by the Embera tribe living a few dozen yards inland.
We are expected — the CruiseWest company has been sending the same 100-passenger ship to this spot on the southeastern coast of Panama up to 20 times a year for the past 10 years. So some of the Embera (pronounced emm-bur-AH) men help the ship's crew steady the rafts as we climb over the side.
"Bia bua,'' we offer, which means both thank you and hello. We will say "Bia bua'' many times during our five-hour visit.
Waiting on the black sand beach, studying us as we photograph them, are a few children, a few women and a few more men.
The village is in the Darien National Park, a vast, untamed wilderness from which Colombia's drug dealers have chased the indigenous people. Numbering about 18,000, the Embera are scattered throughout Panama.
This village of about 200 is less than 60 miles from Colombia, and a boat carrying armed Panamanian national police comes alongside our ship before we go ashore. It was just 10 years ago that guerrillas set fire to the village, so now a wooden police building stands amid the simple stilt huts.
Whether it is the perception of the danger to their fragile lifestyle or just the smiling villagers' readiness to bring from their huts their few handmade possessions to display, the passengers quickly warm to the natives. Beyond bia bua, however, our naturalist guides must communicate and translate for us.
The Panamanian government has aided this village, building a stucco-block school and a few small buildings with corrugated tin roofs. The men are being shown how to maintain outboard motors for the hand-hewn canoes.
The tribe lives on what it hunts or takes from the Pacific Ocean or nearby river, and tribe members make most of what they need:
Gourds from casaba trees are hollowed to be bowls or containers; plant fiber is made into twine. Women weave palm fronds and use plant dyes to fashion baskets and platters. Men use metal blades to carve cedar and cocolobo into utensils and decorative pieces, which are polished by rubbing them with deer antlers.
Some processes are demonstrated for the passengers; the techniques are taught to children in the school, along with reading and speaking Spanish. The items not needed for subsistence are traded in the town for manufactured goods.
The highlight of the visit comes when we adjourn to a thatched-roof shelter open on the sides. Passengers sit on the perimeter while the village's chief welcomes us, introduces the chief hunter — a fierce-looking man wearing a necklace of nasty-looking teeth — and the medicine man. Whatever the chief says is translated from Embera by our chief guide.
After the welcome, about a dozen young girls and teenagers perform three dances, to sounds from flutelike pipes and the beat of a drum the lead dancer carries. The youngsters move from one foot to the other, in a circle. Each dance represents a facet of village life, such as hunting or gathering fruit.
Then, the passengers are invited to get up and also sway or dance to the music.
Finally, the handicrafts are displayed nearby for sale — 4-foot-long canoe paddles, a fishing spear, carvings, baskets, masks, shell necklaces. We have been told not to negotiate prices, because the tribe does not understand that back-and-forth process. But business is good.