THE SAN BLAS ISLANDS – MOLAS, ULUS AND CHICHA
The San Blas Islands are the home to the KUNAS. The Kuna Indigenous Indians live in 50 communities scattered amongst the mainland of Panama and the San Blas Islands in the archipelago of the Caribbean coast of Panama.
When the Spanish arrived in Panama in the 1,600’s, the tribes of the KUNA lived in the mountains. They slowly moved to the coastal areas and the islands to be away from wild animals, insects, other aggressive tribes and the Spanish invaders. Today nearly 60,000 KUNAS live a peaceful life in villages near rivers mostly on islands close to the shore. They are a strong nation of Indigenous people. Their territory is known as Kuna Yala.
Sea whisper has been cruising in the San Blas Islands for nearly 2 months. Fascinating and educational experiences we have had visiting the traditional KUNA villages and their families and learning how they live in nature gathering food each day and preserving the culture of their Ancestors.
SWIMMING, SNORKELING, AND REEF WATCHING
December 11, 2013
After an overnight stop in Portobello we sailed all day to our first tropical island, the Chichime Cays. We’ve arrived in the San Blas!!!! We have so much to learn about Kuna Yala, the KUNAS and their culture, and the villages and islands where they live. Navigating between the islands can be tricky. Routes have to be well planned out considering winds, weather, tides and currents. Coral can be a killer on the keel! Our friends Barb and Wil are onboard Sea Whisper for the next 2 weeks so it will be a magical time in Kuna Yala paradise for four excited Canadians. We are in awe of the natural beauty; the small palm-treed islands, the white sand and the turquoise waters. We spend our days swimming, and snorkeling in warm protected waters. We soon learned that Kuna Yala has some of the best snorkeling waters in the world. Each day we try to find fish we haven’t seen before. In the clear waters, there are Angel fish, Parrot fish
Sergeant majors, Rainbow fish, Barracudas, Rooster fish, Gruppers and many more fish. My most favourite fish that I visited for a long time on a shallow reef was a Lion fish.
When we first arrived the Mola makers soon came alongside Sea Whisper in their dugout canoes to show off their wares…..their marvelous MOLAS. Barb and I invited the KUNAS onboard and soon the cockpit became a sea of MOLAS. There was every design imaginable….birds, fish, marine life and geometric designs. Before long we had our favourites and the bargaining and bartering began! On Christmas Eve I bought 2 Molas from the famous ‘Mola Lisa’ a well known transvestite in Kuna Yala. Some dollars, a bed sheet, a blanket and a headlamp, for Lisa to sew MOLAS at night, got me two lovely MOLAS! Fair deal we both thought.
There are reefs 7 miles long in San Blas. Moving around the anchorages and Islands in Kuna Yala is a dodgey business. Literally! We move slowly with the aid of GPS, maximum zoom on our electronic charts and most importantly, our eyes. Traveling at midday with the sun high above or behind allows for better visibility of the shallows and reefs. Climbing a little ways up the mast steps is the best means of spotting the reefs. We’re getting lots of practice. Touch wood!! We were brave enough to glide Sea Whisper through some very narrow passages to secure a lovely private anchorage with our own Island ‘Sugardup’ for 6 days at Christmas. The KUNAS brought us lobster on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day we cooked a chicken with all the trimmings in our little spot in paradise. Life is good.
ABOUT THE KUNAS
The ‘Sahila’ the Chief. There are 3 Chiefs in each village
Kuna Yala The Islands and mainland the Kunas control. It is a matrilineal society.
The Kunas Very small and muscled.
Women Dress in very colourful cotton clothes with gold earrings, gold rings in their noses, breast plates, beadwork on their arms and legs called ‘Unini’, orange headscarves and beautiful ‘Mola’ blouses with spectacular designs. The women control the money and choose their husbands who move into their house with a Machete.
The Sunmaket A chanter /healer who sings sacred songs for spiritual, mental and physical well being.
Villages In every village there are 2 very large huts….one a ‘Congreso hut’ and the other a ‘Chicha’ hut.
Kuna Huts Designed with a thatched roof made from palm branches and side walls made from bamboo cane.
Ulus Dugout canoes made in the jungle from a big tree and finished in the village. The Kunas paddle and sail everywhere. Their transportation!
Chicha An alcoholic drink made from fermented sugarcane and coffee and drunk to celebrate spiritual events, anniversaries of Kuna Independence and puberty rites for young girls.
Economy Mostly coconuts and bananas and the MOLAS made by the women
Molas Layers of appliqué cloth hand-stitched into abstract birds, and animals
LIFE IN THE VILLAGE
Log Entry January 20, 2013 Enroute ‘Ustupu’
We are traveling with SV Lonely Planet from the Netherlands. USTUPU, the largest village in San Blas is our next anchorage. Three thousand people live in this crowded village. On shore the KUNA huts are jammed together, the KUNA women are making MOLAS and carting around metal pans and straw baskets and the children are running in every direction shouting ‘hola, hola ’trying to catch our attention. The Elders are walking slowly in bare feet with their canes to the Congreso. The village scene is colourful, dusty and warm. And an atmosphere imbued with peace and harmony.
We met LENNIE, AN ELDER who spoke English. We had a fine conversation with him as he told us, in broken English, that he had worked in Panama with his forefathers. The next morning I continued my journey into the village. A friendly gentleman called out “Hola” and then “Hello.” I stopped and turned. “Buenos Dias,” I am Barbara from Canada. “I am BENJAMIN.” I guessed that he too was an ELDER of USTUPU. He had nice trousers, a red shirt and bare feet. I looked at his feet as we continued our walk together on the gravel, dirt and tufted spiny grass. “No shoes? I remarked. “I like it like this, number 1!” was his quick answer. “How did you learn to speak English?” I asked.
“I worked in Panama many years ago for the Canal,” BENJAMIN said. “And what did you do?” “Cocinar, Cocinar….cook, cook…. for the Americans.” “Si, Si and what did you cook for them?” BENNIE, as he liked to be called, responded blatantly “American chow! I laughed out loud. I asked BENNIE when he was born. With his index finger he scratched 78 in the dirt….meaning his age of course. He told me he was a Medicine man in the village. We reached his grass hut. “Would you like to see my house?” I politely responded, “Si, Si.” There outside sat his KUNA wife in colourful dress sewing the ubiquitous MOLA. “Come inside, this is my house.” He was so proud of his house. I scanned the interior of the one room grass hut…..his ‘casa’. Compact dirt floor, 2 hammocks, bamboo rods with clothes draped over, pictures of family hanging in a corner and a couple of tin basins on a wood table. Wow, down to basics I thought…..like camping! I looked around to see a kitchen, ‘Cocina’. BENNIE pointed to another little hut outside. Thanking them graciously for their hospitality, I bought a little MOLA and was on my way.
MEETING LENNIE AGAIN
Down the street, I encountered Lennie who was on his way to the Congreso, the gathering place. He greeted me with “Where have you been?” We walked together and he talked to me about the Congress and the men who meet everyday to follow their KUNA traditions. He says he likes it. “I also like to sing,” he tells me. “I like to sing also. I sing classical music.” “I like to sing Cowboy songs. I have a record to listen to.” I didn’t expect a Kuna native to talk about Cowboy songs. I chuckled, stopped in my tracks at the village square and asked LENNIE if he could sing me a Cowboy song. “I like The Red River Valley.” Could this be ‘The Red River Valley’ that my father and I used to sing together I thought? LENNIE sang the entire song with a KUNA accent. With tears in my eyes and almost tongue-tied I said “This was one of my father’s favourite songs and he would play the violin and we would sing it together.” I asked LENNIE to sing it again and together we sang ‘The Red River Valley’ in the middle of the USTUPU KUNA village. I looked up and a crowd of young people had gathered around us. Precious moments….precious memories.
At dawn the KUNAS launch their dugout canoes, ULUS, and head for the rivers and the mainland to work on their farms and paddle back canoe loads of bananas, coconuts, sugar cane and wood. They also collect water from the river and wash clothes. Near USTUPU Lionel, Wim and Matilda(our Dutch friends) and I took a journey up the SUGANDI river to view the jungle, the rain forest and spot birds and wild life. We soon came to the river banks where the KUNA cemeteries silently graced the landscape. There were many little
thatched roofs and clay graves displaying cooking utensils for the after life.
On January 23 , 2013
The day began with another river excursion to the Mono river. We spotted interesting birds but did not see the rare crocodiles. Paddling up the river we listend to the hush, then the jungle sounds, viewing the textures of vegetation tangled together: the bamboo, banana, coconut trees and the colours of hibiscus cascading over the river banks. The scene is intoxicating. We all express feelings of euphoria. The KUNAS in their ULUS paddle close to us and gesture with their hands to remind us not to us our outboard motor in this almost sacred place. “No lancha de motor.” We nod affirmatively and respect the pure and rare beauty.
January 23, 2013
Leaving USTUPU early afternoon we pulled up the anchor and heard a voice “Bar bar a, Bar bar a.” Lionel went quickly to the stern and then called, “Barbara, there is someone here to see you.” I jumped up on deck. Who could it be? Along side Sea Whisper was an ULU with BENNIE, the ELDER, looking very bedraggled. He was returning from the river in his ULU with bamboo and coconuts. He came to say goodbye to Sea Whisper. Unbelievable, this 78 year old man had paddled up the river at the light of dawn to his farm plot to do a half a day’s work and then paddle back home to his village. With his toothless grin he wished us a good voyage on Sea whisper.
Over the many weeks we have humbly watched ULUS paddling against strong currents and the formidable trade winds. We admire the KUNAS stamina, their muscle and the will to embrace each day with an indomitable spirit.
THE CHICHA HUT – Achitupu
It was a party! A KUNA family who came to our boat to demonstrate how to prepare and cook ‘Breadfruit’ suggested that we go ashore and take part in the ‘Chitcha Fiesta’. The KUNAS were celebrating the anniversary of their Independence. Off we went for another KUNA adventure. We soon found the large Chicha hut filled with nearly a hundred women cavorting and dancing. Only women! They had spent several days collecting the cane, pressing the juice and fermenting the ‘Chicha’ concoction. It was time for the Fiesta! Matilda and I were invited to join in this KUNA ritual. Dim strands of light in the Chitcha hut were laced with cigarette smoke and the air was pungent with the ‘Chitcha’ as it made the rounds in coconut husk bowls. We danced! The KUNA women made us feel so welcome. The Chitcha hut vibrated with colour, motion and fervor. One Canadian, one Hollander and nearly one hundred Kuna women blending together in the ‘Chitcha Fiesta’..
San Ignacio de Tupile
After our Dinghy ride to the Mono River we journeyed to this village. The dock was busy with the arrival of a Columbian freight boat bringing supplies to the KUNAS and of course many were attracted to the non KUNA dinghy arriving as well. There were friendly greetings and we soon asked about a Restaurante. No one on the dock could come up with a name but hand gestures and a few words implied that we could eat at someone’s home. We wandered around in the heat of the day. A little impatient, I began to ask people as we passed by. “Dande preudo comprar de Restaurant. After 3 or 4
attempts to locate a restaurant house, a guy finally lead the way to a large grass hut near the edge of the sea. The four of us were invited in. We sat down on plastic chairs in the KUNA hut. Lo and behold 4 dinners appeared in front of us. Fish, rice, lentils and fried banana. The cost? $2.00 each. Traditional, delicious with grand hospitality. Four generations of the family appeared from nearby huts. Matilda bought a MOLA. Another grand Kuna story!
We have shared spectacular anchorages with sailing vessels from many countries of the world in San Blas. It has been a delight to see flags flying from boats of nations around the globe. Before we leave the Kuna Yala and this archipelago of 340 islands in a few weeks we will indulge ourselves in these beautiful islands, the coconut trees, sand beaches, the snorkeling reefs, and the KUNA easy way of life. A journey of a lifetime.
ALL THE BEST…MORE TO COME
Barbara and Lionel
SV Sea Whisper
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