For those who don't know, I have a collection of these fascinating figurines, hand-carved by the Embera and Wounaan Indians from a nut called tagua or palm ivory. The designs typically represent animals endemic to this area, such as native frogs, birds, fish, wild cats, etc. You can see a few of my pieces below. The photos is a little blurry, sorry, but the "garza imperial" (imperial stork) in the center is my finest piece:
I've been buying taguas for about a year and a half now and I've become something of a connoisseur. I know where to go in Panama city to find the best pieces at good prices (Mi Pueblito sellers have the best pieces, without a doubt, while Panama Viejo is the most expensive). I know what to look for and I know how much to pay.
The other day Laura, Salma and I were on our way out of the city after saying goodbye to her family members at the airport. Laura wanted to look at a few molas (her hobby) so I detoured to the Balboa Artesans' Market, where I know there are a lot of mola sellers. The day was broiling hot, so I parked in a corner of the parking lot where there was a small patch of shade.
When we walked into the market, a young Kuna woman was enamored of Salma and took her off our hands while we browsed the stalls. Salma never complains about this. She has grown up being held and carried around by everyone in El Valle.
I came to a stall where the vendor was selling tagua carvings of a type I have not seen before. They were unpainted and had broad, obvious features, unlike the fine work I am used to. The lines were smooth, but they were cute in their own way. These pieces reminded me of children's toys - and in fact the seller claimed that they were carved by children. Here are the ones I bought:
I bought these two, paying $9 each for them (a fairly low price), and back in El Valle I took them to Cleo at the market to get his opinion.
"These are machine made," Cleo said. "Imported, most likely from Ecuador."
"Machine made?" I was very surprised.
"Yes, you see these broad, smooth lines? That's typical of factory work. You'd better keep these away from your other taguas. Look here, you see these tiny holes? These are from insects eating the tagua."
Even though I had paid very little for the two pieces, I was disappointed and annoyed at the seller who had either tricked me, or who was clueless himself.
"You want to buy them," I asked Cleo?
"No, thank you!"
"I'll sell them to you at my cost!" I said, using one of Cleo's favorite lines. "No gano nada!" (I earn nothing!)
He wouldn't take them, so I've stored them in the freezer for now, until I figure out what to do with them. Give them away to local children, perhaps?