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A Topless Embera Tribe Wedding in Panama

Yep... that's Henna! It was finally here, our 18th wedding day! We all excitedly piled into the van and set off to meet Anne. We had no idea what to expect from the day and speculated on the way, would we have to help paddle the canoe, will the tribe be happy to see us or excited about the wedding or dubious about us interferring with their day to day lives? We met with Anne and followed her to the river. There was one other family coming with us and the 8 of us collected our things. Anne suggested waterproofs, suncream and water.

We grabbed our water and I got covered in suncream and we waited for our ride. Before long a canoe came around the bend in the river with 2 of the Embera tribe driving. They were wearing their traditional dress (which was not alot). The canoe had a small engine and as Anne paid our national park fee’s to the ranger we were asked to put on life vests. It did quell the whole idea of an adventure into the wild but as we turned the bend away from the river bank Anne explained that as we passed through a national park on route to the village the park rangers insist on the life vests (understandably) and after being in the canoe for half an hour we realised the need for the engine, without it it would take 4 hours to reach our destination…and the boatmen would look like Rambo after rowing for that long! As we followed the contours of the river we saw several types of kingfisher, turtles catching the rays (from a distance as they plopped back into the river on hearing the canoe as the Embera eat them) and I even saw a little crocodile sink below the surface as we got nearer. At several points the river was so low that our guides in the boat had to get out to push us through the river bed.

As we neared the village we heard the beat of a drum welcoming us from the shore. We cracked our bones from our journey in our unusual wedding carriage and made our way up the man made steps to a circle of huts. The  men of the village played their hand made instruments as the women welcomed us with open arms. It was a strange moment but a nice one, Anne hugged her mother in law and the children rushed to hold her hands. We were introduced to everyone and once the children had finished saying hello to Anne they stood around us wide eyed and a little shy. Gaby and Hiske asked them their names and like most 5 year olds they had their hands in their mouth as they answered. We dropped our other worldly belongings on a table and were led into the centre of the village where the guest house had been decorated for our ceremony. Gingers and bougainvillea were tied to the posts and vines hung from the beams above. It looked beautiful and we were so touched at the effort that had been made. Anne explained that they had decided to give us ‘godparents’ who would look after us for the day and prepare us for the ceremony. Hiske and I were introduced to my Godmother, Lucila, and Alex and Gaby to their godfather, Erito. Lucila held my hand and led me away to her home where she would paint us and dress us for the wedding. I was so grateful for Hiske coming with me and of course as she can speak some Spanish it made it so much easier to communicate. Although the tribe all speak their own language (Embera), Spanish is their second language.

Lucila came to me with a small bowl (made from the large fruit of a tree we have seen growing all through Central America) with the tiniest amount of black liquid in the bottom, also made from a fruit. She held a stick carved into two prongs which she stirred the liquid with, there must have only been a tablespoon of dye and I wondered how far it would go. As Lucila started drawing lines onto my chest and shoulders another lady started to paint Hiske too. The drawings were well thought through and with intricate detail, mine in a criss cross pattern and Hiske’s with shapes similar to leaves all within double borders. The drawing continued onto my tummy and back and arms and then I had to loose my bikini top. It was probably the weirdest thing I have ever done but it also felt quite normal. None of the women or girls wore tops so we looked odd with them on. Having Lucila draw around my nip-nops and then color them in with plant dye was certainly strange but all part of the deal, poor Hiske went through it all with me too and I cannot thank her enough for her support.

Once we were completely painted…and I mean completely, legs, back, arms…we were given our lunch. It was impossible to sit or bend as the dye had become sticky and each time I brought food to my mouth my inbows stuck. We had fish fresh from the river and plantain served in a bannana leaf and then fresh papaya and pineapple which was lovely and much needed after such an unusual morning. We were kept hidden away from the boys and the rest of the village and we peeped through the gaps in the curtain to see if we could see the boys getting their painting done. We laughed as we saw Gaby playing football in his Embera  pants and Alex stood watching with his face painted. Once we were dried off a little and it was time for the ceremony to begin Hiske and I were wrapped in beautiful skirts and had bead necklaces draped around our necks. The tribe make stunning beaded decorations and they covered us up quite well which was a relief. Several of the children had come to watch us get painted and they had giggled at how white we were. Once we were ready with bangles and beads we watched as Lucila brushed her beautiful long black hair and rubbed rouge into her cheeks, she put on her earrings and just before we left her home she removed one of her own necklaces and put it over my head. I was overwhelmed by her kindness. She led us out into the square where the whole village waited for us.

I met Alex who had been seated in the middle of the guest house with beads slung across his chest and his body paint darkening by the second. As Hiske and I reached the top of the steps we had wreaths of flowers that the children had made placed on our heads and around our necks and I was asked to sit next to Alex.
The village chief (or Noko in the Embera language), Ceden’o introduced himself and welcomed us into his community. As the Embera Peru tribe do not actually marry the ceremony was from the heart not from a sheet of paper or from a memory of what has been before. He blessed us and my godmother Lucila gave Alex my hand.
After the ceremony which was said in Embera, translated to Spanish and then to English, we were told we could kiss which was hugely entertaining for everyone and then the music started. Drums, turtle shells and pipes carved by their own hands made such wonderful music and the women started to dance.

They danced around us, blessing us and wishing us well with their chants. It was mesmirising and I was close to tears as always at the genuine happiness being displayed by these complete strangers at our commitment of love for each other. It was an amazing experience to be accepted so warmly by the tribe and to see how happily they live, unchanged for hundreds of years.

I really hope you all watch the video’s and enjoy the complete happiness of the ceremony. It is unlike any other wedding we have had. Thanks again to Anne and the wonderful Embera Peru Tribe!

Location and Planning : Embera Village tours

comments

  1. Kylie says:

    This is just amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What an experience. Nice wedding attire 😉

    This has to be my fave so far xx

  2. Mother of the groom says:

    The whole thing looks so beautiful, such happy faces . I will say it again….how lucky are you two ?
    Such wonderful opportunities to share people’s lives . Such a privilege .

  3. Elita says:

    Hi L & A,

    I agree with your Mother! It’s so amazing to read how they were so willing to welcome you into and let you share in their lives. Loved this!

    And I really do love your wedding outfits and paint. That must have been a great experience, too.

    E

  4. Beautifully written and explained. It was a pleasure and an honor to host you both for your 18th wedding in the village of Emberá Purú. We all enjoyed it too. Come back and visit us for your anniversary.
    Best wishes for you both on this beautiful journey you have created.
    Anne
    http://www.EmberaVillageTours.com

    1. Lisa & Alex says:

      Thanks Anne,

      We had a blast and feel very lucky to have experienced the kindness of the Embera! You are such warm friendly people. Glad you like the way we explained it as that is important to us. 🙂
      xxx

  5. Kara says:

    I would really love to know how you organised your weddings in all these wonderful places? Who would you ask? How much it cost? As i would have no idea where to start? Please let us know as this is such a wonderful idea.

    1. Lisa & Alex says:

      Hi Kara! There is no master plan behind how we plan the weddings. Generally we reach out to local wedding photographers and planners. We explain about our mission and take it from there. We are just in the process of building a directory so we can add all these amazing places and make all the information very user friendly. It sounds like this directory would appeal to you! Get in touch as we would love to get feed back on our plans. x

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