Panama Girl

Panama Girl

by Ida Freer


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In the exotic jungles of Panama, a sensitive and courageous twelve-year-old girl named Surni is on the verge of a new life. She is a member of the Embera tribe, an indigenous community that has thrived for centuries by knowing how to live in harmony with the land. But now, as the modern world encroaches, she and her family must face the challenges presented by strangers with unfamiliar habits, technology, and beliefs.

Her village now has increasing contact with the outside world, and this must somehow be accepted and integrated into their lives. Together, her family will learn what is best for them. Will the influences of the modern work make their lives better or pull them away from the traditional way of life they've embraced for countless generations? The ability to adapt is what has kept the community strong for centuries, and now they must determine which-if any-of these new discoveries are right for them.

Surni's story is one of friendship, family relationships, danger, fear, and many types of courage. In this rich exploration of indigenous people, readers will explore the art and culture of an unfamiliar land.

Partial proceeds from the sale of this book will benefit educational and social programs for the Embera Drua community of Panama.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781462030798
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/11/2011
Pages: 116
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.28(d)
Age Range: 9 - 11 Years

Read an Excerpt

Panama Girl

By Ida Freer

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Ida Freer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4620-3079-8

Chapter One

Village Life

Surni loved the time of day when she first woke up. The village was quiet but the jungle was alive with sounds. Vibrantly colored macaws called to each other. Capybaras, the funny animals that looked like giant mice, could be heard snuffling in the foliage nearby. As she looked up at the thatch roof covering her home she could hear the sounds of the pirre warbler birds. Her home was built in the traditional Embera style, on stilts and open to fresh breezes on three sides.

What would it be like to be able to fly anywhere she wanted and see everything, like the birds? Would she go to the big city for herself and see what it was like?

"Hey, Surni." It was her brother, Tarl, whispering. "Bet you're wishing you could be one of those birds and fly away from here."

How did he do that? Sometimes it seemed as though Tarl could read her thoughts. But wishing and wondering were two different things. It was really Tarl who wished to fly away from their village.

Surni ignored his question and quickly changed the subject. "No, I'm thinking about having to cook breakfast for a lazy lug like you." That came out ruder than Surni meant but she had tried to say something completely different to avoid Tarl's favorite topic: How much more interesting things were in Panama City. At fourteen he was two years older than her. Perhaps that made him restless and discontented, she thought. Tarl had a way of making things tense at home. Her father, Janus would frown and her mother, Ishnu would sigh quietly. Surni felt that it was her job to try to smooth things over or change the topic quickly. Lately, she felt tired of trying to be the peacemaker.

Now, she could hear her mother and father getting up on the other side of the bamboo partition that separated their home and gave it some privacy. It still allowed the jungle breezes to waft the sweet smell of the tillandsia blossoms into their home. "Let's talk later," Tarl whispered to her. Surni knew the talk would be a continuation of the same topic. How Tarl wanted to leave their village and go to Panama City. Something interesting was always happening there, he had often said.

A short trip made with their father when Tarl was ten years old had made a considerable impression on him. In the past four years his memory and imagination had combined to create a fantasy city that existed only in his mind. Janus, their father, had said more than once that he should never have brought Tarl to the City to help carry some heavier items that the community needed. Tarl had mostly stopped talking about his dreams with his parents.

If only Tarl would listen to her, Surni thought. But he never did. She was the pesky little sister still even if they were both getting older. When they were little they had good times together exploring the jungle that was their home but after the trip to Panama City he changed. When she tagged after him he would jump in his piragua canoe and steer upstream, away from their village. He would come back in a better mood usually and as she got older Surni learned not to pester him as much. But sometimes she longed for their happy times together.

Last year she had become best friends with Manya and that had helped. Tall, slender and shy, Manya was different from Surni but that didn't seem to matter to their friendship. With Manya, Surni could always say how she felt. But she had come to realize that her friend felt a certain fear, horror even, of life outside their village. That was the only topic she had decided to avoid when she was talking with her friend.

Manya had said that it was unfortunate that the Embera lived only a short journey upriver by piragua canoe from Panama City. Too close, some of the other villagers agreed. Many preferred to live in isolation away from a modern way of life that was too different and even frightening. It was true, Surni thought, that some people, like her father, seemed to be able to move back and forth between their jungle home and the enormous and exotic Panama City without any harm coming to them.

Their way of life was different, Surni knew, but she was content here and found her days full of interesting things to do. If only she could make Tarl feel the same. It wasn't that Surni wasn't sometimes curious about what Panama City was like. There must be something to a place that Tarl found so unforgettable.

"Let's start breakfast." Surni's reverie was interrupted by her mother's voice. Her mother was a quiet woman, Surni realized. She did a lot for her family and always had time to listen to Surni. She was graceful, no matter what she did, her slim form now moving around their home arranging the morning meal. Surni had recently decided she was not very much like her mother. They were both short but Ishnu was slender with long expressive fingers. When Surni had tried to catch a glimpse of herself in the shiny round mirror pieces that decorated her favorite halter top, she saw the same kind round eyes as her mother but then a stubby little nose and a wide mouth. She had practiced different smiles, turning her head this way and that but it hadn't seemed to make much difference.

Sitting down to a silent breakfast, Surni shook away thoughts of her unsatisfactory appearance. The breakfast they ate was the same everyday: yucca roots were gathered and cooked and then ground to a paste. This was then mixed with cooked black beans. Surni had heard that some people ate different things for breakfast everyday but she couldn't imagine starting the day without this food.

As she ate, Surni heard flute music from a home on the other side of the village. Like her house, it was built on stilts for protection from wild animals and insects. It had been many years since a jaguar had threatened her people but wild pigs sometimes made their way to her village. Surni had been told that once when she was a baby a flood had brought water to within a short distance of the homes. If not for the stilts everything, including the people, would have been washed away. Her family did not own many things and almost everything had been made with a great deal of work and effort. The same couldn't be said for banana leaves; they grew everywhere. There was a never-ending supply of these to use for plates and dishes.

It was her best friend, Manya who was playing the flute. Surni had to admit that all the practicing had made a difference. Except for two of the elders, Manya was the best flute player in the village. Surni had tried to play like Manya but the sounds she made squeaked and squealed. Not at all like the beautiful melodies which Manya called forth from the bamboo instrument that she had made herself.

Surni noticed that Manya had waited until others were arising or at breakfast before starting to practice. In a small community, everything anyone did affected others and people grew accustomed to thinking of how their actions might be bothersome.

Her family ate breakfast in silence. That was the Embera way. It gave everyone a chance to reflect on the day that was beginning. Also, she thought, it might be because some people, like her, felt a bit grumpy when they first woke up. They were liable to say something they might later regret if they starting speaking too soon.

Chapter Two

Danger on the River

"Surni, come and hear my new flute song." Her best friend, Manya called to Surni from her home as she walked by.

"Okay, I'd like to hear it. I am sure it is beautiful—you practice so much," she teased gently.

Manya flushed at the praise. "Well, I have been practicing it a lot," she admitted. Surni had decided that even though she and her best friend seemed different in some ways Manya's calm and peaceful nature was so pleasant to be around. Surni noticed Manya had tucked a pale peach tillandsia blossom in her hair this morning. Surni pushed her own uncombed hair behind her ears as she sat down to listen.

When Manya was a young child her mother had been bitten by a coral snake, a poisonous snake that lurked occasionally in the jungle, Surni remembered. She had been walking out searching for some of the plants that were used to dye the fabric for skirts the girls and women wore called uhuas. Today, these dyes were purchased from a store in Panama City or more often now the fabrics were bought with patterns and colors already in them. Surni wondered if the accident with Manya's mother had started this practice. Surni had several uhua that she wore with different halter tops but the blue and white skirt and the almost matching blue halter top with the shiny metal and mirror decorations was her favorite outfit.

After her mother's death, Manya came to fear life away from the circle of their thatched houses. Surni suspected that her friend liked her brother; she guessed that some would think he was good looking. Tarl was tall and muscular and wore his straight black hair shoulder-length hair tied back with a narrow leather strap. He was always seeking excitement but Manya was afraid of it. Much as Surni would have liked to have Manya as her sister she couldn't imagine Tarl noticing her.

As Manya played her new composition, Surni closed her eyes and let her thoughts wander. What about her future? She had heard at a recent evening meeting that there were plans to build a school in her village. The Panamanian government had decided to send a teacher so children in the village from ages seven to twelve could go to school. Surni wasn't sure how she felt about this. As a twelve year old she would be attending the school but she would be learning with the younger ones.

Surni had more than once looked at two children's books left behind by a Peace Corps worker that had lived in their village a few years ago. The worker had helped improve their water supply by assisting with the building of a well for their drinking water. The books had pictures of incredible birds and animals as well as a lot of letters and words that she couldn't read. She wished she could.

"Well, how did you like it?" Manya's music had stopped.

Surni opened her eyes. She was able to answer truthfully. "Your playing always makes me feel calm and peaceful."

Manya smiled her sweet smile. It had been the right thing to say.

"Why don't we make some bead jewelry?" Surni suggested. "I thought of using part of a tattoo pattern for a bracelet design. We could go and sit down by the river. Some of the boys have set up fishing nets near there."

"Okay, let's." Manya usually went along with Surni's suggestions as long as they didn't involve leaving the village.

The sun was warm and the air moist near the River Chagres as it flowed past their village. Surni and Manya concentrated for a while on getting the new pattern in their heads but once they had mastered it they could let their thoughts and eyes wander. They watched the boys tending the fishing nets catching the tilapia fish that they ate most days. A few of the older boys, including Tarl, were in the piraguas, the dugout canoes her village used for transport. The older boys had helped with the making of the long communal boats that were long enough to hold twenty people and a lot of supplies and cargo. The Embera used them to bring the tourist visitors from the landing area about forty minutes away.

Every boy wanted his own piragua from the moment he could talk and walk. Eventually each made at least one and it was a challenging task. A single tree trunk was carved into a canoe so they were of varying lengths. Surni had wanted one, too, but the traditions of her people did not include girls or women making them. It had bothered her for a while but she wasn't really interested in spearing the gleaming silver fish, so now she didn't mind. She had watched Tarl and the other older boys maneuver around the stony bottom and swift flowing rapids. She knew she could do it if she tried.

Tarl had made three piraguas in his almost fifteen years. The one he made last year when he was thirteen was sleek and the elders had admired his skill and craftsmanship.

Out of the corner of her eye, Surni could see that Manya was watching Tarl as he deftly paddled his piragua against the strong river currents. It takes a lot of practice and training to read the ever-changing currents of the River Chagres. The younger children tumbled into the water many times but that seemed to be part of their fun. There were rarely problems as they all learned to swim at an early age.

Surni noticed Cana, a small seven year old boy, wobbling a bit in a borrowed piragua. Cana had been born with one leg shorter than the other and limped when he walked. Surni knew that he had been born after his mother had lost three previous infants at birth and his parents treasured him. Some of the elders had shaken their heads at thoughts of his future but his mother was fiercely protective and had never asked for any favors for Cana. Surni had once heard her father talking to her mother about him. He had wondered if the doctors in Panama City could do anything for the boy but nothing more had been said.

Suddenly, a strong current swept Cana's piragua away from the others and sent it spiraling downstream. Caught off balance, Cana let go of the pole that might have steadied him. Dropping to his stomach, he tried frantically to regain some control by paddling on each side of the piragua with his hands. This seemed to be a futile effort. For a few seconds no one but Surni noticed. She was about to call out when one of the other boys yelled for Tarl.

Tarl turned swiftly from his spear fishing and using his pole on either side at the back of his piragua he steered into the swiftest part of the current. Cana was now wailing in the distance. The rainy season had started a few weeks ago and the river had swollen in depth and increased in speed.

Surni stood up and called to Manya, "Come on, he needs our help!"

Manya hesitated, glancing down the river, but rose and began following Surni who was running towards the path. They both ran a short distance along the riverbank but then Manya stopped.

"You go on without me. You're much faster, anyway." Manya was breathing heavily and she also looked frightened.

Surni felt impatient momentarily at Manya's fears and grimaced. She said a terse, "Okay," before speeding along the narrow dirt path that followed the river. The spiky orange blossoms from the passion vine drooped down and tangled in her hair. Through it she could see that she had almost caught up to Tarl's piragua. Her bare feet knew this way well and she added a burst of speed. Her legs were short but swift.

On the opposite riverbank she could see that Cana's piragua had overturned. She thought she saw a small arm clutching over the back. Tarl dug his pole into the gravelly bottom of the riverbank. He steadied his piragua and put a foot onto Cana's small boat and reached down to pull on the clinging hand. Surni plunged into the river. After a few strides she stopped as she realized the current was too strong at this point to allow her to swim. She watched anxiously as Tarl placed Cana face down in his own piragua and maneuvered over to her location.

She could see that Cana was not moving and his eyes were closed. "He's not dead," she whispered to herself. Surni moved forward into the water to grab the stern of the boat and help guide it to the shore. Now that the rescue was over Tarl stood helplessly and looked at Surni. She remembered a drowning a few years ago when a child of two years had gone under the water. She had a vivid recollection of the uncle moving her arms up and down, in and out and then pressing on the child's back twice. This had gone on for what seemed a very long time with the mother wailing in the background. In the end it had made no difference.


Excerpted from Panama Girl by Ida Freer Copyright © 2011 by Ida Freer. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One Village Life....................1
Chapter Two Danger on the River....................7
Chapter Three Jagua Tattoo....................14
Chapter Four Community Meeting....................18
Chapter Five Discontentment....................27
Chapter Six A School is Built....................30
Chapter Seven Learning....................36
Chapter Eight Panama City Visit....................42
Chapter Nine Illness....................48
Chapter Ten Changes....................52
Chapter Eleven Tarl Runs Away....................55
Chapter Twelve Hunting Expedition....................59
Chapter Thirteen A Time for Action....................65
Chapter Fourteen A Desperate Venture....................72
Chapter Fifteen At the Hospital....................77
Chapter Sixteen A Chance Encounter....................82
Chapter Seventeen A Time for Truth....................89
Chapter Eighteen Reunion....................98

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