February 12, 2016
Around Christmastime there is a large influx of indigenous people (mainly the Guaymí – pronounced why-me) tribe in this area of Panama and Costa Rica. Their biggest money making time is when the coffee beans are mature and ready to pick. Even the kids in the family are often put to work. When Gary and I were living on the coffee farm from September through December, we saw scads of indigenous folks walking by our camp everyday. Gary spoke to them a lot and I tried. Here we are more isolated and I generally don’t see too many of them except when I take the bus to town.
One neighbor does have an indigenous worker who we do see occasionally. He owns a female hound that was in heat around the same time Suni was. The hound had puppies about the same time Suni did too;-). Courage took off after her one day and spent the whole day following her around. The poor dog is very skinny, since her master can’t afford dog food. The cheapest 40 lb bag of dog food is $25-$35. That is more than 2 or 3 days work for an indigenous person or for most Latins. Yet they all seem to have dogs. The dogs scavenge for whatever they can get. They are all generally very well behaved and in town they walk along the sides of the main roads. They are very street smart and they have learned how to avoid the traffic driving by (the ones that weren’t probably didn’t survive). They don’t expect much attention since they never get much.
Some indigenous folks are happy to talk to a gringa but I have found many of them to be very shy and won’t even make eye contact with me. There have been times when I asked an indigenous person a question and I just got a blank stare. I found out later than some of these folks don’t speak Spanish. They still speak their native tongue only. They choose to live in really remote parts of Costa Rica and Panama and many have to walk for miles just to get to a bus stop where they take buses to different coffee plantations where they are employed for the season (if they are seasonal workers).
We have had many indigenous folks ask us if we have work for them. The gringos here are known for paying better than the Latins. The indigenous people will also often ask for money or for “one dollar?” You can’t really blame them. It is hard not to feel guilty when you see how hard they have to work for so little pay. Then, like the Native North American Indians, their land was taken from them by “more advanced cultures” who wanted to “civilize” them. Many indigenous people have assimilated into Latin culture but there are still a lot of discriminatory attitudes towards them too.
One of Gary’s ideas is to be able to sell indigenous dresses online. The internet service here will have to improve quite a bit before we will be able to manage that though. The dresses are such a beautiful variety of colors and they would make a nice moo-moo or maturity dress. It would be nice to be able to employ some indigenous gals to sew and pay them a living wage or give them a decent price for their dresses. It is widely believed that the dresses were introduced by missionaries for humility’s sake (they traditionally wore loincloths). The dresses are usually adorned with geometric patterns at the ankles, around the waist and at the sleeve and neck lines. The classic Guaymi geometric pattern is called dientes, or “teeth”, and is said to represent mountains, animal teeth, the flow of the river, or dragon scales.
I was at a function at the local elementary school several months ago and I tried to communicate with these young indigenous boys. They seemed to be fascinated by me. I am sure they were wondering why a gringa was visiting their school. They seemed happy to have me take photos. I showed them their picture on my camera screen after I took it and they both gave me big smiles.
Some indigenous folks seem very startled when I talk to them. I am not sure if they are shocked that a foreigner would be interested in them, or if I am butchering my Spanish so badly that they can’t understand me :-). They often keep to themselves and I find that they don’t initiate conversations very often. When Gary and I spent time with his indigenous friend, Kimberly, and her family (when we were camping on the coffee plantation) they were more at ease and they got to know us since Gary can speak Spanish really well. Someday I hope to be able to have more than just a surface conversation with with the people here. This will be inspiration to continue with my Spanish studies when I get back to the U.S.
Until next time…….