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A Day of Rest in Darién
José de Jesús Vargas González — in Harpy Eagle Conservation and Research    Share
Waking up early in the morning can be a stressing affair in the city, but surrounded by the songs of many birds and the constant chirping of crickets, it is something wonderful. I have often asked myself, “How do these sounds come together to create such beautiful music?” After being awakened from such melody, a quick and refreshing shower is a way to start preparing for a good day of work in Darien, as they say in Embera. They take a shower sometimes three or four times a day. But today is Sunday, day of rest! There are a thousand and one things to do in the forest, but today we wanted to do something a bit different, talk about the costumes and traditions of the Embera and Wounaan community. Most of my work here is shared with six young members of the Embera and Wounaan community.

The subject of our conversation this Sunday was something they called “ombligar” (it means navel or belly button in Spanish). Gabriel, the most talkative of the six, told me that their grandparents, and still nowadays ancients, “ombligan” their children when they are born. Ombligan is an entire procedure. At the time of birth, the umbilical cord of a child is cut, and the belly button is then treated with the extracts and juices of certain plants and animals. If done so, the child will gain the abilities, strength, and powers of the plant or animal whose extract was applied. Incredible, isn’t it?

They told me that some people, and I later consulted this with an Embera leader, use bones and claws of the Harpy Eagle, thus giving the child many skills from the raptor. Others choose a small owl, which they call “Macua or Bombora,” for boys only. According to histories this owl is capable to attract with its chants other small birds on which it is fed. By now you wonder what good can this do to a child later in life… but of course! To attract girls!

We spoke a lot about this subject, and my last question to those in our company was “Can an adult be ombligado?” Surprisingly the answer was “yes.” I was delighted. But it is not a simple process. First, I thought we needed an Embera “brujo” (shaman), some magic enchantments, alcohol, and the animal or plant of my choice.

Gabriel and the rest of the parabiologists said that keeping the Emberá and Wounaan custom and tradition is very important, but they also said that is necessary to keep the forest. On the other hand, Dadildo, one of the parabiologists, asked, “How do we keep our traditions if at the same time we are destroying nature?” I said that a main part of our work in Darién, and this is the hard part of this job, was the integration of the traditional and scientific knowledge to help us keep and conserve birds of prey and their habitats. So, the day of rest was another work day for bi-directional information and ideas exchange to strengthen our conservation program.

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