Inauguration Day, January 21, 2009:
Today we are acutely conscious of having no TV out in nowhereland. We know we are missing something akin to the moon landing.
And there are many people in their bungalows watching Obama—Colombians, too, are huge fans. But the proceedings are truncated for a foreign audience—and the English dubbed over with Spanish—and we are after all strangers, 24-hour drop-ins. Not exactly new-best-friend material even for this expansive people.
We’re in Sapzurro, a small town at the edge of banana
forests, jungle and mountains. Immediately beyond are actual FARC
paramilitaries or guerrillas (I always forget which are which).
He's had to cut some deals, we hear, to keep peace in areas where the government isn't (yet) as powerful as the bad guys. But bottom line, there are Coast Guard and army presence (obvious but non-intrusive) in all the villages along the Colombian coast. Sapzurro sits at the Panamanian border and,—guerillas or no—everyone exists pretty normally. We’re told the Panama and Colombia military play non-stop cards at the top of the mountain.
Maybe the guerillas are the bookies
Town cross Police and earring vendor
We left Cartagena January 10, provisioned for at least a circumnavigation. The refrigerators bursting with perishables—vegetables, fruits, lettuces, cheese—no room in the freezer for a Snickers bar (and you know someone tried), every available drawer stuffed with chips, sodas, wines and breads so laden with preservatives they’d likely float on their own, plus 60 eggs that need turning every other day. Cabbages, limes, onions, mangoes and avocadoes ride in net hammocks stretched across the starboard cabin.
It’s more than my day-to-day scarcity mentality operating. We’re en route to the San Blas Islands, where markets are rare, marginally stocked with canned corn, sardine tins and unfamiliar soaps, where mainland vegetable deliveries are irregular, where most cruisers pray to catch fish for their dinner. I exaggerate only slightly.
This low-rise mass of some 350 islands, islets and sand dollops and adjacent mountainous coastline is more officially called Kuna Yala. An autonomous region within Panama itself, it is the homeland of the Kuna Indians, a gentle, primitive people who, remaining faithful to their age-old customs and traditions live in bamboo dwellings and largely without electricity.
A hierarchy of chiefs keeps order. The three Big Chiefs are called Caciques, village chiefs “sahilas” (pronounced sigh-lahs). Chiefs frequently dispatch two or three families to tend smaller out-islands for a given tour of duty.
Kunas farm and fish, largely for their own use; their outside income comes from selling coconuts to foreign dealers and collecting small tourist taxes from visiting boats. Plus the sewing and sales of their famous handcraft: molas.
Each mola is a multiple-layer stack of colorful cotton cut into patterns—like stencils—and reverse-appliquéd by hand. The designs most typically are representational figures of animals, birds, fish, Kuna archetypes and tribal rites of passage.
So we can easily find molas but locating diesel fuel to run our engine, generator and beloved air conditioners will be more complicated; there are no fuel docks. We’ve already cut down on generator use and I finally removed the bedspread—pretty but perfect only for sleeping under in frigid AC nights—adding it to the jumble of stored stuff.
Bird mola Manta ray mola
Geometric mola Maracas mola
We can expect no restaurants. I’m on my own with my cookbooks. Thus I’ve been cooking relentlessly both to feed us and to stave off spoilage of the fresh vegetables from Cartagena.
First thing we find in Sapzurro is a restaurant.
Doña Triny sits prominently amid the village’s 50-yard “commercial center.” Triny herself is welcoming; her kitchen is operating-theatre clean, as is the rest of this tiny immaculate pueblo. Everyone everywhere is sweeping windblown dust and sand from front doors, stoops, streets and even around a pig tethered to a tree. The kids, barefoot mostly, wear clean, clean clothes, The girls’ unruly hair is combed, braided and snapped under a million or so barrettes. People flash wide smiles at you—no matter how few teeth.
Sapzurro street Sapzurro church
Local pet? Local kids
The whole pan-fried snapper Triny served up wasn’t yet caught when I ordered it at 2PM. Better still, she must have taken me for a guy because I got at least a 2-pounder.
Doña Triny My two-pounder
More good luck: Triny turns out to be the tia (aunt) of a man who can sell us 130 gallons of diesel fuel and transport it to LULU in his skiff. We submit to his price of $5 a gallon because we’re truly apprehensive about finding future fuel, plus we’re terrible bargainers—despite our birth religion. We also indulge ourselves in the delusion (clearly self-serving in supporting our negotiating torpor) that in overpaying we're boosting an above-the (but-not-by-much) poverty-line economy. Thus, we further advance the perception that we are rich, stupid Gringos, thereby further inflating prices and reinforcing the cycle of ripping off other cruiser dolts.)
The Nephew is called Sombrero by most, but to us he’s the Gas Goniff. Affable and engaging (why not at such prices?) while pumping—and possibly seeking forgiveness for this fleecing—he tells me (in Spanish) that 4 years ago, during the guerilla (or the paramilitary) heyday, he was rounded up, bound, gagged and tortured. Today, thanks to Uribe, he and the village are safe. He is not only free to commit smiley-face usury on rich cruiser-capitalists but, as the recent purchaser of a finca (farm), he is now one himself. (Likely he also financed Triny’s restaurant, fledgling two-room hotel and—what with our contribution to his bottom line—a future golf course
At least I think that was what he was saying. He also could
have been telling me my gravy was burning....
Fuel siphon setup
January 22, 2009:
We reach Kuna Yala after dabbling almost three weeks in Colombian waters and covering no more than 150 miles. The weather’s been unusually rainy, with strong winds making for high, rolly seas. But we’ve enjoyed the slow pace after eight weeks of party-party-party with a huge cruiser group, as well as the fun-loving Cartageneros, whose fiesta planning is surpassed only by their celebrating skills.
Puerto Perme is the proverbial port in a storm, a peaceful circle of calm amid turbulent waters, exquisitely green with a picturesque Kuna village nearby.
Puerto Perme Puerto Perme Kuna village
Within minutes an “ulu” dugout glides up under oar-power, bearing two adorable Kuna boys and their tiny father, the helmsman. Almost hard to tell the difference.
(Kunas, after pygmies, are the smallest of humans; our 5-year-old Casey might tower over a Kuna 9-year-old.)
The kids climb onboard, smiling like crazy. The dad, Andrès, soon joins them. We’re thoroughly nonplussed—“permission to come aboard” clearly isn’t in their vocabulary—but we find it kind of fun. I take pictures and Andrès promises to return later with pineapples.
But the pineapples aren’t ripe and when he arrives it’s with one of the original boys and two tiny girls. Plus, regalos—gifts—of a huge conch shell and basket that we have no space for and a small primitive carved figure, which I buy for 2 bucks. Later I learn such figures are called Nuchus. Every Kuna household has at least one considerably larger one; they are good-luck charms and sacred objects, links between the spiritual and physical worlds. I do not yet know that paying for one robs it of its fortune-bringing clout, signaling, perhaps, even further stock market bashings.
Full-size Nuchu figures
I give the kids tootsie pops and water. Gary writes home, "Only our own grandchildren are cuter than these Kunas. Smiles, you never saw such smiles. I hope we don't run out of tootsie pops."
particularly love about this first Kuna encounter is that they aren't selling
molas. Six years ago in our first San Blas anchorage we had two- and three-deep
lineups of ulus and mola hawkers astride the boat.
January 25, 2009:
We sail to our first big Kuna village—Caledonia—1004 souls, most of them kids.
Everyone lives in thatched-roof, bamboo-sided, circular huts, all laid out in an actual grid of packed dirt, sand streets. The one-room family homes combine bedroom, kitchen and living room. “Bathrooms” are out-back huts hanging over the water and beds nonexistent, because Kunas sleep in hammocks: mother, father 4,5,6 kids plus grandparents, sometimes from from both sides. Clearly the Kuna have worked out a way to make babies in hammocks while the whole family sleeps...or maybe just listens and learns.
We walk the entire village for about two hours, slowed down considerably by hordes of kids following us, joining us, poking at us, smiling at us, asking our names (all in Spanish), jumping up and down yelling, “Foto, Foto!” entreating us to take their pictures.
Interesting, these indigenous, live-without-TV boys are as
silly as American kids, making cross-eyed faces, exchanging universal
dumb-macho signals and twisting into weird contortions just like boys
But nonetheless incredibly well behaved. They seem rarely to fight among themselves. Adults as well: everybody gets the joke, whatever it is. Peaceful and temperate, they flash genuine smiles as you traipse through their villages. How super-delightful.
This village includes a decent size concrete school—4 hours a day for 5 years.
Also a porchy wood construction that’s a hotel. Rudimentary as it is, offers a
cool terrace and dazzling palmy water views for $5.00 a night. Sorry, no
king-sized hammocks available—even at a supplement.
School exterior Hotel exterior
Ulus Back porches
We see women making molas on two or three old treadle sewing machines, thereby learning “modern” technology’s got its mitts in the old handiwork art form.
We’re also shocked to find several billiard "parlors' and one or two whole
buildings as we understood the Spanish, allocated—like Irish neighborhoods in
1940s Brooklyn—to let's-go-get-seriously-drunk after work. (And you can be sure
it's only the men who have such privileges).
As the afternoon wanes, some quasi-scary-looking dudes appear, wearing dark, wraparound shades, homey-shorts and earphones (probably unconnected to MP3 players of any sort.) They’re trying very hard to glare but the stance just doesn't mesh with the Kuna way, which is otherwise about welcome, smiles and relating to strangers. And sure enough, soon they’re vamping for the camera.
Kuna Kool Kats
Kuna dress has modified these last six years. A certain amount of worldwide style has intruded, resulting from increased contact mainland, cruiser boats and tourists. Men and boys now wear Yankee baseball caps and Brazilian Jiu Jiitsu tee shirts, the girls more “Hot Chick-type” tank tops
But most women past puberty still wear the unique, riot-of-color traditional Kuna dress. Molas incorporated into print-sleeved blouses, wraparound skirts of different patterns and colors, headscarves of still-other clashing prints, plus striped “leggings”—the women wind long strands of bright beads up their legs from ankle to knee—and similarly beaded wrist-to-elbow bracelets. Incredibly striking and accented further by dangly earrings and necklaces of hammered gilt. Plus striped facial tattoos and nose rings, gold-colored—or maybe even real gold—on most of the older women—which may mean older and richer or merely older.
Unfortunately the women don’t like having their pictures taken and rarely smile for photos. Some will allow it—for “one dolla”—and occasionally if they're doing something for you—like cooking lunch.
January 25, 2009:
Yes, in our next Kuna village—Isla Pinos—we discover a Kuna "restaurant,” really a happening that’s set up in the schoolyard on a needs-only basis—like when some cruiser asks.
We pay $2.50 US for a whole fish, a scoop of rice or fried
plantains, a bowl of lentils and a glass of Kool Aid—the kind we once called
Bug Juice at sleepaway camp. The fish are tiny, striped grunts, the ones we
swim past while diving because they're so small. Could be they're a full-size
meal for these petite people. The fish is very bony but wonderfully seasoned.
Second fish just another $1.50. How can a person resist?
Every family owns an ulu, carved from a single tree. And behind every house, suspended on stilts over the water, a slatted wood cage for the pig—a clever self-cleaning strategy. The pig is fattened all year and finally slaughtered for Navidad and New Year's. A few cats and dogs prowl about. Laundry hanging everywhere, all draped atop the spokes of bamboo or cane "picket" fences, which function as both clotheslines and front-yard landscaping, like, say, our rhododendrons.
cage Don’t touch the coconuts
The sahila may look like a combination of beachcomber and bum, but he is an important hombre. He presides over the congreso, or counsel, a daily event attended by the entire village. There individuals have their say, tribal problems get ironed out and the sahila pronounces, explains, adjudicates and may even hand down wisdom gleaned from dreams.
villages have more than one sahila. We don’t ask who then presides; they seem
to have worked all this out peaceably, without Donald Rumsfeld.
Sahila’s wife and granddaughter
We meet David, who speaks fine English and shows us around.
David has a wife and 2 kids, Emily, 3, and a year-old baby, also David.) I ask
his age: 19.
In Isla Pinos we buy our first Kuna bread, which depending on the baker’s style, come in rounds—from biscuit- to hamburger-roll size. Or. torpedo-shapes—from croissant to hot-dog to just-shy-of-baguette. This bread is surprisingly good, frequently out of stock but when available always just-made.
We usually buy all we can. I ask one baker-lady, “Can I freeze these?” She clearly doesn’t understand. Maybe it’s my Spanish—maybe “congelador” is the wrong word for freezer? Eventually I get it. How would a Kuna know what a freezer is?
As if that’s not enough Kuna for Dummies, later I ask for canned coconut milk (leche de coco en lata,”) Lots of tee-heeing. More giggles as the comment gets passed around the counter. Not till I leave and trip over my first coconut do I understand their astonishment. Why would anyone put coconut milk in a can when they're everywhere for the hacking?
We frequently forget that this stone-age mode of life is without electricity.
It is astounding to gaze across the water at sunset and see a lively village of
anywhere from 100 to 7000 people and then look up a few hours later and see
only inky black water and dark sky. It's easy to believe you are alone on
earth—you could be Balboa or Columbus.
January 26, 2009:
In Isla Pinos my stove refuses to spark and I realize after 2 1/2 weeks of compulsive meal-prep we’ve run out of cooking gas. Just when I’d taken my first successful stab at bread baking. (English muffins, on the other hand, were an execrable failure.) In restaurant-rich islands a tank can last us 4 to 6 months.
In most anchorages refilling propane tanks means researching where and how refills happen. Then you (Gary) schleps the tank (about 10 pounds) out of from under the teak decks outside, then schleps it into the dinghy, into shore and out of the dinghy where some service or other picks it up and brings it back in some reasonable amount of time. Generally this happens seamlessly. Meanwhile we use the spare tank.
But in the San Blas there’s only one brand— Tropigas—and the tanks have a different fill-fitting. We can’t refill our regular boat tanks there. Empties are swapped for full tanks. So we need to locate and buy a full Tropigas tank and then find one of many cruisers who has a fitting to siphon the gas into our tank.
We begin our quest for a full Tropigas tank right here in Isla Pinos, where it
seems only three families of the whole 300 people use propane to cook with. And
they’re out, totally out.
Typical Kuna cooking setup
Water gathered at the village’s pipeline Dragging water home
…and a Kuna toileting setup
Thus, there is none Tropigas to be had. So David, who was lucky enough to learn English in Panama City, jumps in our dinghy and leads us over to Mamitupu, which is backtracking some
4 miles. The seas have not calmed down and we are climbing up and down 10-foot waves for about half an hour. Notwithstanding the 3000 people in this village, nobody will sell us a tank.
David, 19, and father of two
And we do a thorough sweep of all tiendas, which is saying something in such a big village.
(We skip only the Barney's branch, since I know Barney's is slavishly devoted to black and Tropigas containers are aluminum—battered aluminum, at that, clearly outré. Hammered-evenly-then-buffed—well, maybe—but battered, definitely not. I am still New Yorker enough to know that grunge is gone and bling is in. Though considering our crumbling economic system, distressed may soon be back. Heavily distressed.)
One storeowner has five tanks, all wired together, which might say something unusual about that particular island because Kunas have an almost-zero crime rate. In their society there’s little to covet and everybody shares. But this storekeeper isn't willing to sell any of her five because she'd then lose one of her swappers and be out 20% for the rest of her entrepreneurial life.
Apparently right now all these islands are in the same boat: no boat. Given the rough seas and high winds, no supply boats have traveled from Panama or Colombia in more than a month. Store shelves and personal pantries are empty.
January 27, 2009:
En route to our next stop, Achutupu, we note that nearby Ustupu is the largest of all Kuna villages. Maybe we’ll have better luck there. So we divert and—lo & behold—find two Panamanian supply ships in port.
No tanks for sale, but with many questions, dogged
perseverance and some good fortune we find Senor Estuarto Phillips
(Pheeeleeps.) Trotting out my best Español I sweet-talk him into selling the
tank he doesn’t have, can’t spare, the one he loves like his mother—for the
indecent price of 60 US. Same tank yesterday in Pinos and Mamitupu was
$25—except nobody had one.
$60 Tropigas tank
February 3, 2009:
We are in Mormake Tupu AKA Isla Maquina AKA
the mola-making island. We detour here lured by the prospect of a combination
Kuna Puberty Celebration and Chicha brouhaha.
The entire ritual is pretty much incomprehensible. Pictures
are forbidden so for the “religious” part of the occasion, you'll all have to
do with this description.
Venancio at home sewing
Dancing and piping
To the Chicha House
them, some 50 women, everyone gamboling through town dancing and hopping their
way into the Chicha House, a vaulted bamboo-and-thatch auditorium used only for
this purpose. About 200 other villagers also join these Pied (literally, given
their riot-of-color attire) Pipers. Then visitors like us.
Lisa, a transvestite mola maker
Regarding gay and transvestite mola-makers, the Kunas do not stigmatize alternative lifestyles or, indeed, differences of most kinds. Applying not only to gays and transvestites: the many red-eyed albino Kunas—resulting from significant tribal intermarriage—are not only tolerated but considered special people.
We’ve also heard that in one of the most Westernized islands the volleyball tournament consisted of a gay and a straight teams. Didn’t find out the winner.
For the Chicha ceremony the "Important Men" are also dolled up,
wearing the Kuna version of corporate: almost-threadbare black pants rolled
above skinny ankles; long-sleeve, button shirts of magenta, purple, emerald,
chartreuse, cobalt and yellow, the more or less semi-official Kuna colors;
skinny black neckties not quite Windsor-knotted, all crowned by black bowlers
or fedoras, mostly bashed or incorrectly brimmed or too small or set askew on
their heads. This rakish finery is set off by bare, dusty feet.
(Idelfonso is not only the brother of Master-Mola-Maker Venancio, but his chauffeur. They flit about in a motorized dugout making inter-island sales. Venancio’s acclaim earns him entry onto virtually any boat—along with 4 or 5 plastic barrels containing some 400 molas, each different, each of which he unfolds and proudly displays across his skinny chest.)
Lesser-status Kuna men, who wear baseball caps and logo tee shirts—probable cruiser donations or trades for fish—are seated around the opposite side of the Chicha House.
In the center of the floor two Important Men hover over a small fire. One
inhales a pipe, then proceeds to exhale it all over the other. At some point,
these two trade jobs. Idelfonso says they are receiving important dream
interpretations and critical messages from their gods via the smoke. Like
maybe, "Bad batch of chicha!" Or, "Cigarettes are NOT bad for
Kuna Marlborough Man
We sit as nicely as we can amid this crowd of 250 and the
100-degree temperature, fanning ourselves with hats, eyes tearing and gagging
to their places The Important Men hover, mumble and bow over their bowls—kind
of like davening Hasidics. (Remarkable how similar some of these utterly
different cultures are!) Then, responding to some unseen (by the likes of us
anyway) signal, they lift their bowls, bow
Though I make sport in this description. there is truly no way to do anything but respect the Kuna’s peace-loving natures, ability to live together in harmony, without rancor, demonstrating enormous love for their children, respect for the land and an outstretched welcoming attitude.
MORE KUNA YALA PHOTOS
Kuna sailing ulu Veggie boat arrives
Visitors bring smiles…
…and their catches of the day
Four pounds of crab: $5.00 Fifteen Langoustinas $6.50
We even learn to fish…and filet…for ourselves