A Ngobe Community Visit – Hola Keem!
Isla San Cristobol, Panama
A light smoke from cooking fires hung above the jungle as our boat got closer to Isla San Cristobal, Panama. We continued along shore and entered into a smaller channel through the mangroves and into the island. “Hola Keem!” I looked over to see a small boy standing at the end of a dock smiling and waving as he repeated, “Hola Keem!” before turning and fleeing back down the dock into the village. As we approached the next dock, two more children were already standing at the end – they smiled ear-to-ear, excitedly waved, and yelled, “Hola Keem!”
Isla San Cristobal is a 800-person traditional Ngobe community in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro and my friend, Kim “Keem” Woods, had lived there for two years while volunteering for the Peace Corps. After three months of being away (she now lives in Changuinola, Panama), this was a sort of homecoming for her and the kids were extremely excited to see her, swarming all around. We unloaded and crossed the marsh down the ‘sidewalk’ made up of planks, rocks, and some cement and 8-10 kids followed and clung to Kim like they were holding on for dear life. Me and Mike? We just got stared at with an innocent curiosity that basically asked, “who are these grinning gringos?”
In 2008, the two local artisan groups on the island came together to create a tourism group that offers different activities and demonstrations on the island and they also run the hostel (and only lodging option) we were staying at for the night. We went right to the artisan hut where Kim introduced us to the women of the group and said her hellos. I had regretted not knowing Spanish earlier in the trip, but I think this was the moment I actually felt straight guilty, only able to mutter, “Hola,” before sitting back and observing. As we left the hut to head up to the hostel our flock of kids swarmed again and I looked down in surprise as a little girl grabbed on to my right hand, but she just smiled and held on, walking alongside me up the path. A little boy then grabbed onto my other hand and joined the procession. Before I knew it, I had four kids holding my hands and arms as maybe fifteen of us paraded up the hill to the hostel, Kimi yelling out “hola” to everyone she saw.
The eco-hostel in San Cristobal is a large two-story stilted hut that was recently built (last couple of years) entirely by community members using local materials. Two large porches overlook the village and bay, a few private rooms offer bedding with mosquito nets, a rain water catchment for bathing, and there’s a composting latrine outside to take care of business. Not luxurious by any means, but an real awesome spot in the heart of the small community. We settled in under the watchful eyes of the kids before heading back into the village and wandering around, entourage alongside. Still kind of feeling out the situation, I attempted to “hide” my camera along my side, but that’s not the easiest thing to do with a 18-300mm lens attached. One kid shouted, “Photo!?” and the domino effect began… I was unable to take more than five steps without one of the kids excitedly saying, “photo?!” and then instantly posing the moment I touched my camera. Our welcome party had turned into a group of self-proclaimed models.
While the afternoon sun set in, we meandered our way to the edge of the village where the men were playing some futbol in an open field. Some of the kids stood by our side while others ran around just chasing each other and throwing some toys in the air for the group to try and catch, stopping once and a while only to burst out, “Photo?!” We hung around there for a little while; Kim talking to (and doing a little interpreting for us) her friend Narciso, who owns the biggest farm on the island, before we were dragged away by some kids to see one of the family’s new goats. And that’s really how the whole evening went – the three of us walking around just soaking in the relaxed village life. Kimi visiting with all her friends she hadn’t seen in a while, while Mike and I followed closely like lemmings with our new buddies close at hand. Eventually, as the kids learned our names, we couldn’t walk very far through the village without hearing, “Hola Keem!” “Hola Michael!” and “Photo?!” (The closest they ever got to pronouncing “Brendan” was, “Brindy” so my village name was simply, “Photo.”)