Here is the story of our incredible adventure to get to the village of Mogue, to film the Emberas and their beautiful culture.
My team : Cécile Devarenne and Stéphanie Rigon
My sponsor : EcotourDarien (Erasmo de Leon)
Three years ago, while I was working as the cruise director on the luxurious cruise ship Le Levant, I visited the village of Mogue in Panama twice. There I met its inhabitants, the Emberas. They greeted us with music and dance in their traditional costumes. A real enchantment! A feeling of a lost paradise.
I was fascinated and bonded so well with the charming indigenous and their adorable children that I made myself a promise to come back and stay a bit longer than the 3 hours package tour we had.
So I kept my promise…
When I decided to make my dream movie about dance around the world, I remembered those lovely dances the Emberas did and decided to include them in my film.
Right after the arrival of my two friends from Paris to Panama city, we got ready to leave for the Darien region, eastern part of the country, near the Colombian border.
We were told it was a dangerous area and not so easy to get there on our own. I had tried to get in contact with local guides prior to my arrival in Panama but I received a quote of 900$ for a 2 nights trip! NO WAY!!!
As I couldn’t afford that price, I decided to go there on my own and was very happy that my friends came over to follow me on that adventurous journey.
On my first night at my hostal in Panama city, I met Igor, a Colombian. He happened to work in that region and knew some Emberas. He said he could help. I followed that option. We went all the way to Meteti to encounter his colleague, Tilio, who was supposed to help us get to El Salto, another Emberas village closer and easier access than Mogue. I decided to give it a try.
On the bus, on the way to Meteti, we met a charming mother and son from Costa Rica, living now in Santa Fe (Darien). The son, Arnie could speak French as his deceased father was French. The mother invited us to her house anytime.
In Agua Fria, we got checked for the first time (but not last) by the Police. They asked where we were going and why. They told us it was dangerous to go there. But they let us go beyond that point after a long conversation. Arnie helped us a lot, thankfully, as my Spanish hadn’t been quite refreshed yet and my partners did not speak it at all.
Another checkpoint just before Meteti. Again they ask many questions but this time we don’t say we are trying to get further than Meteti. We decide to lie and say we are just visiting a friend in Meteti. They let us go…
We arrived pretty late at night in a very deserted small town. The hotel that Tilio had supposedly booked for us was out of water and looked really nasty. We found a taxi who took us to a couple more. One was full booked, the other without water either. We started to worry a bit as the town at night didn’t look very safe and it was too late to go anywhere else. Finally we found the ultimate last hotel a bit outside the town. A lovely three beds room WITH water was waiting for us for 30$ the night. We were very hungry so we went back to town with the same taxi. The supermarket just had closed. The only option was the unique local restaurant still opened. Everybody was looking at the three « gringas » lost in Meteti, a non touristic place for sure! We really struggled to order food, cause communication issues. Then Tilio suddenly appeared in the restaurant. He knew who we were, we didn’t. « How did you found us? » He smiled – We were probably the only three female tourists in town. Easy to locate! He took us back to the hotel with our chicken, rice and French fries (wrong order obviously).
He told us a car would come pick us up the next day at 10am, then an Embera man was supposed to take us to his village, El Salto.
The next morning we woke up and enjoyed a beautiful view of the countryside. Much more appealing in daytime actually!
After a peculiar breakfast : pineapple juice and patacones (local dish : fried plantains), we were ready and waited for the car to pick us up at 10am. One hour later, still nobody. I tried to reach Tilio with my French cellular phone but got his answering machine. We started worrying again. Was this for real ? I finally got a hold of him and he tells me a taxi will arrive soon. 45mn later still no one…
All of a sudden, a young man from Costa Rica, working for a project in Meteti arrives at the hotel with a pick up truck. He is our next door neighbor and speaks perfect English. Great! He calls Tilio with his cellular to help us out. The decision is made that he will take us to him. Perfect! When he meets Tilio, we try to understand from him if we are safe. According to him, we pretty much are. The Embera man arrives short after, his name is Francisco.
The drive to El Salto is beautiful.
We get stopped another time by the police but the presence of Francisco makes it easier this time to go through. On the way, we speak with Francisco who speaks very good English, as he lived for some time in the US as an exchange student. We are very impressed. I start to ask questions about the Embera culture and I understand what I was fearing the most but predicting : the Emberas do not live the way they show it to tourists on an everyday base. They do wear T-shirts most of the time! So what I saw 3 years ago was just a show they put on for tourists. At first, I was very disappointed; thinking my trip to Panama was useless that my film will not be accurate and authentic. But I learned more later on…
We arrive at the river and his father who is the chief of the village picks us up in his little boat to take us to the village. The small ride on the river is already enchanting my friends and I.
This village was very different from Mogue. Much less pretty and of course as expected then, the inhabitants did not greet us half-naked, playing music this time. They seemed quite poor wearing for some dirty clothes, the houses mostly in concrete were not in a good shape. But the locals were curious and warm.
We walked a bit in the village, met a few people, mainly children and took pictures.
I was offered to pay 150$ if I wanted to make the film with them, they would therefore get dressed and dance for me. Even though Francisco and his family were very nice and the atmosphere of the village quite pleasant, I still had the feeling this wasn’t right. I took the decision to try to make it to Mogue no matter what. Within a couple hours we came back to Meteti. Though disappointed and a bit lost, it was a nice experience to visit this other village.
On the way back, Francisco explained to me that on special occasions they do ceremonies just like those for tourists. For instance, for a girl’s 15th birthday or for a new house built in the village. I feel better knowing that now. And my hope to get to Mogue is higher. I’ll make it!
We remembered then our new friends from Costa Rica, living in Santa Fe, met on the bus the day before. We decided to go to their house as kindly offered. That way we would get a bit closer from our next destination for the following day. It was a big surprise for Arnie and her mother to see us. We explained the whole situation. Unfortunately, Arnie’s mum could not host us, there was no room for us actually. But we get an invitation to come share breakfast the next morning. She has a beautiful outdoor kitchen.
So we found a hotel in town. There are only two. Santa Fe is very small as well.
At the reception, I see a poster, a tour company advertisement, figuring Emberas on it. I ask Arnie where is that village with Emberas. He happens to know the manager of this tour company. He immediately takes us to his house to find out.
That’s when we meet our hero Erasmo. Erasmo is a great nice guy who started his tourism company in parallel of his work as a teacher. His English and my Spanish allow us to communicate good enough, not without the help of our dear Arnie of course.
After long talks all night long around a good dinner with patacones, he comes with the idea to help me as a sponsor. A decent deal : you help me, I help you ! He can try to help us get to Mogue but it will be very expensive. So he offers another option: to spend a week-end in another village with the Wunnans, quite similar community to the Embera’s. He can show us the village the next day to see if I like it. It will be free of charge in exchange of promotion for his company, through my project.
That night, we go to bed really late. The next morning, Erasmo comes wake us up very early in our hotel room. Not much sleep! He just spoke to the coordinator of Mogue, Emiliano, and arranged everything for us for much cheaper than usual. But we have to get ready fast as a boat to Mogue leaves from Las Palmas at high tide only. We have a couple hours to get there. We rush as much as we can and off we go, in total panic but all excited. We grab a taxi instead of a bus, three time the price but we don’t want to miss our ride to Mogue.
Police check in Meteti !!!
This time, we are alone in a taxi that is supposed to drop us off in a little port at Puerto Kimbal. The police asks a permit we don’t have. We don’t quite understand what it is for. They say it’s for our own security. Someone needs to be responsible for us. We contact Erasmo who immediately comes pick us up as the taxi left us at the police station, sick of waiting
We all get inside the police station and a chief officer writes a permit on behalf of Erasmo. It is clearly written that I am making a documentary. Now everybody will know I am carrying equipment. Great! All the other officers are so curious and intrigued by us that there is a defile in the office! All of a sudden they all need the staple or any kind of office supplies, some take the opportunity to take a peak behind the door that must have been opened at least 10 times during the interview. We laughed about it discretely. Some even ask us to marry them, once outside. Why not, marrying a policeman in Meteti. Hmmm, let me think about it all right?
Now we have a permit! But it’s too late to go to Mogue. Low tide! Sigh! L
But tomorrow for sure, we will go!
Erasmo takes the opportunity that we have the afternoon free to take us to the other village he mentioned the night before with the Wunnans, Boca de Lara. That way, if I like it I don’t need to go to Mogue anymore.
An hour drive in his four wheel car on very bumpy roads. Better than rollercoasters ! Lovely ride though, with beautiful landscapes and many jokes with him and his wife who came along too. My favorite game : learning the Spanish names of the animals encountered and say Hi to all of them through the window. « Hola vacas ! » (Hi cows!)
The visit of the village is very nice, the people too, but I still feel this is not as great as Mogue.
Mogue for ever !
That night, back in Santa Fe, we realize this town is full of drug dealers and drug is all around. We feel not so safe anymore and are impatient to leave that town for good. But we are glad we met Arnie and Erasmo. Arnie will keep our big back-packs home till our return. We hope we’ll find them back… 😉
Next day, we wake up early again. An Embera man was supposed to wait for us in Las Palmas to take us to Mogue on his little boat.
Police check point in Meteti! We are famous now! AND we have a permit! 😉 Less than 5 minutes later, we go through with a great smile from the police.
Arriving in Las Palmas, we look for our man whose Embera name is hard to remember and to pronounce. We found out he’s left without us. NO F. WAY!!!
We see an Embera woman (recognizable because of their skirt) Marlena. We ask for help to get to Mogue. Mission impossible for at least 2 hours. Finally another Embera man arrives on his boat and tells us he will go back to Mogue with the next high tide, but late at night. -How late ? -6pm -Are you sure ? -Yes a las Seis, seguro !
OK! So patiently, we wait again all day long. We settle in a little local restaurant near the boat. Suddenly as I take a walk around, I see all some Emberas getting on the boat ready to leave, it’s only 4pm. « Hey! Are you leaving now? What about us?
The man smiles gently and explains there is no more room on his boat.
I try to insist with my poor Spanish. But I can see the boat filling up quickly with women, kids, big packs of rice and other supplies. Exhausted, weak (I forgot to say that I had been really sick for 2 days already) and strongly disappointed, I abandon and come to the conclusion that Mogue doesn’t want me back.
I go to my girlfriends still waiting comfortably in the restaurant: « It’s over, they are leaving 2 hours earlier without noticing us and there is no more space for us ». My friend Stéphanie, that I expected the least to react that way as she is the quieter of us 3, jumped off her chair and rushed to the boat. She looked really determined and angry.
She went to the guy and yelled at him in French, treating him « a bad liar »! Ha Ha! For me for sure it was hopeless. But she made it! She came back to us « Let’s go, we’re in! » I couldn’t believe she did that and that it actually worked!
We rush in the boat. Panic again! We were not quite ready for it. I don’t have time to go a last time in the bathroom though I’m still very sick with my stomach. Oh! Oh! But I expect the drive to be 30mn or so as I understood. So I hope I’ll manage…
The most adventurous part of our trip was yet to come…
About 30mn later, as we sat squeezed among 20 other people and packages on a very small boat, I asked the Embera woman we had met that morning, how much longer would the ride be. The answer was : 2-3 hours!
OH MY GOD ! … I will never make it!
More than an hour later I start to sweat big time. My diarrhea problems are back. We are in the middle of the ocean, far from the coast and for sure there is no BANO on el barco.
When I got to a critical point, I begged for mercy and thank the universe, the driver decided to stop on the shore. Well not exactly the shore…
In the middle of the ocean, because of low tide, appeared a little sand bench, a very very flat and very very little sand bench. He anchored there and kindly invited me to use the toilets at my own convenience. I understood the word « Popo » which makes the all boat community laugh really hard. Made me feel absolutely comfortable.
NIGHTMARE!!! How can I hide here?
But when you have to go you have to go right? I rushed to the stones where he told me not to go cause they cut your feet. But rather cut my feet than show my ass. So I managed to pooh discretely enough, while my feet were bleeding. The good news, there were no mosquitoes to bite my bum. We had stopped there purposely, I later found out, to avoid them. As at the entrance of the jungle they would have been much more.
Here we are at sunset, on a tiny stretch of sand, in the middle of the ocean, waiting for the tide to go up. Extraordinary experience (past the toilets incident)! We lied down on our plastic bin bags, watching the stars, talking to our new friends, playing with kids, and eating chips and crackers for 2 hours. It never got totally dark because of the quasi full moon, so it gave an even more special feeling to that very special night.
2 hours later, we all hopped back into the boat and this time entered the mouth of River Mogue, with its mangroves and jungly creatures all around. We again thought it would take 20mn to get to the village by now, but the tide was not high enough. We got stuck in the middle of the river in the middle of the night. They stop the engine. All you could hear was strange noises from the jungle and the water bouncing on the boat. My friends started to freak out. « We are going to get eaten alive by mosquitoes here! » « We never gonna get there! » « Maybe we should have never come… ». But we laughed more than anything. I realized this was a great memory to remember forever. A very special moment in our lives…
After some women pushed the boat walking in the river with their clothes on (why women and not men? We still haven’t figured that one out) the tide was slowly going up and we finally made it after an hour and a half, arriving at the pueblo around 11:30pm.
We started hearing dogs barking, what a sound of relief for once. Till then we had managed to stay dry, but to get out of the boat we had no choice but to jump in the water with our shoes on. Bummer! Right after, we had to walk in muddy paths (rainy season I recall). So our shoes were in a terrible state when we arrived.
For me, being back under those circumstances was very strange but I had a feeling of knowing the place already. Which wasn’t the case of my friends who were experiencing their first time to Mogue. What a better way than that? So much more authentic and exciting than with my American tourists on my luxurious yacht!
Another 30mn’s walk through the jungle, in the mud, in the dark, with for only light the moon and a couple of flashlights.
We say goodbye to our travel mates who all go home and finally get the good surprise to have tents already set up in the biggest and nicest hut of the village. The guests and party hut!
I recognize the village, unchanged, still beautiful! My friends, though as exhausted as me, are delighted to be here, finally…
A last adventurous visit to the toilets, with huge spiders and cockroaches watching us brushing our teeth and we were ready for a good night’s sleep. One o’clock, the sound of the jungle rocked us…
Six o’clock! The sun, the heat, the rooster chant nicely wake us up. The sunrise over the village that we see from the height of our hut is just breathtaking! My friends and I are so happy we made it to Mogue.
Emiliano, the « coordinator » of the community who greeted us upon our arrival the night before, came to meet us again around 8am, along with Mireilla who brought us a great breakfast made out of fried eggs and the famous patacones, on a beautiful large wood platter. There is tea as well but I don’t take the risk! Nope!
We started to discuss the planning of the day for the shooting. I was so lucky. It seems like the entire village was on hold for my movie. We first started shooting the tattoo scene, then the music, then the dance and finally I got more than lucky with Emiliano accepting to play in my scripted telephone booth scene.
After the shooting, I downloaded all my videos on my MAC and organized a private screening in our hut. The audience/actors were laughing hard, amused to see themselves on the little screen. Fun time!
It was planned to leave right after the shooting but that day no boat left to Las Palmas so we ended up staying one more night which was great to get to know them even better during all that extra time and enjoy the peaceful pace of their village.
On our second day, a French guy, Julien, came with a friend from Panama to visit the Emberas as well, to prepare a future tour with tourists. How funny to meet a French guy all the way there. He and his friends took us all the way back to Panama City in their comfortable truck. The trip back seemed so easy. We realized we were not that far. The 3 days and all the adventure that it took us to get there seemed lasting forever though. What an adventure!
We stopped quickly on our way to Santa Fe to get our backpacks at Arnie’s and said goodbye to our new young friend.
I want to thank him again and Erasmo for their great help. « Ecotour Darien » is now officially one of my new sponsors. If you ever want to go meet the Emberas, please go through him. He’s the best and the nicest.
Thanks also to all the Emberas from Mogue, to their coordinnator Emiliano, the best in the world ! And our great cook Mireille whose dishes were delicious. She offered me a bracelet she made herself just before our departure that I will keep all my life for sure.
I have this feeling that… I’ll be back one day! Maybe to show them the film finished on a big screen, in the village… 😉 Anyone interested in that adventure? 😉
Thanks to my partners/friends Cécile and Stéphanie who came all the way from France just for 10 days to help me and meet the Emberas.
Photos credits : Fanny Jean-Noël, Stéphanie Rigon et Cécile Devarenne.