Cheshire Cat in the San Blas Islands

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Islands of the Kuna Yala Indians; the Beautiful san Blas

Cheshire Cat anchored in the warmest, bluest, clearest water ever imagined, beside a pristine beach and an island of coconut palms

After five days and nights of glorious downwind sailing from Curacao, luckily avoiding the notoriously dangerous weather off the Colombian coast, we were all looking forward to taking time out to enjoy the unrivalled peace and beauty of this sparsely inhabited archipelago. In company with Sea Fever and Jasp we cautiously edged closer to the low lying reef fringed islands. Our downwind run from Curacao had been thankfully uneventful, despite the doom laden warnings that the stretch of water off Colombia is one of the most dangerous areas to sail.

The wreck of what was a very nice yacht lying on its side on the reef nearby was an unwelcome reminder of how careful we would have to be in these waters - an error in judgment could be fatal. We were fully aware that all our charts (both paper and electronic) were sadly unreliable by several hundred vital yards. Spray crashing over the reefs close by gave us due warning to be extra cautious in threading our way between the dangerous hard coral reefs towards our anchorage.

As we made our final approach Celtic Castle, Meg and Brian on board, radioed us with several specific waypoints to head towards in a serpentine approach to their anchorage and soon we were able to drop our anchor in the beautiful shallow, clear blue water close by and thank Brian and Meg for their helpful guidance. We were doubly grateful for their timely beacause, as all our charts were inaccurate, it wasn't always to negotiate between the reefs, especially if the tide covered the jagged rocks.

Clear water, sandy beaches, interesting reefs to snorkel over, together with cooling breezes was the exact recipe for us. It was a paradise - every island was covered in coconut palm trees and enticingly decorated with a golden sandy beach - but each one was also invariably protected by treacherous reefs.

Our welcoming committee

Almost immediately after anchoring we were approached by a simple dugout canoe and invited to visit the local Kuna Yala family who lived on a nearby island. We took the dinghies over next day and were treated to a private viewing of their hand made mola. All are sewn by hand with almost invisible stitching and often depict fish, birds or animals. Some are traditional geometric designs and others are taken from the more modern world of advertising. Each one is colourful and very original

We spent some time examining the intricately, hand sewn, reverse appliqué cloths and bargained as best we could for good deals. The ladies were delighted to swap for good quality thread, skin creams, clothes and a pair of trendy sunglasses.

We had heard on the local cruiser’s net that the Kuna Yala were to celebrate their Day of Independence on Isla Tigre, so we duly made plans to visit that island. We stopped briefly at Nargana, bought a few provisions (and Mike got beer) and set off for Tigre. Half way there we decided to turn back – we weren’t at all sure of the route and as it was in the middle of the afternoon the light wasn’t good enough for reef spotting. Next day we headed out earlier and eventually dropped anchor in a small bay between the shore and nearby reefs, after a dry mouth approach through uncharted reefs between the two islands.

Island of Tigre

Our friend Wanita arrived from Canada a day later. She flew into Panama, hopped onto a small plane to Nargana early in the morning. We had already arrived at Tigre so we arranged for a canoe ‘taxi” to bring her three miles across the coral reefs to where Cheshire Cat lay quietly at anchor. She was pleased that I had suggested she bring a large plastic bag to cover herself and her luggage however – it was a wet trip!

Transport between the islands or to the mainland is by canoe.

The 'ulu' are canoes carved by hand from hardwood trees grown on the mainland. The skilled men use simple tools such as adze and machete to hack and carve out these seaworthy craft. Each canoe has at least one paddle that is also used as a hand held rudder and where possible, sails that are made from any material available. The canoes can be seen out and about in all weather; a man paddling with long smooth strokes and using a bailer to toss out the water sloping over the sides most of the time; or with sails up, disappearing and reappearing between the waves. Whole families ride in them, the women usually protecting themselves with squares of brightly coloured plastic.

Village street in Isla Tigre.

The Kuna Yala nation originally came from Asia to Colombia in South America where they lived for many hundreds of years. They have preserved their Indian traditions over the years, resisting the effects of the Spanish in the 1500’s and more recently repression by the Panamanian government. People of small stature – just a little taller than pygmies, they live in the coastal regions of panama and on 49 of the 350 coral islands close by, subsiding off riverside smallholdings, coconut plantations and fishing. There are about 55,000 Kuna remaining, most of whom live on the islands although we did see the distinctive traditional dress worn by a few women in Panama City.

The Kuna govern themselves, their leaders making all decisions, policing their people, settling disputes, and maintaining their traditional way of life as best they can in an ever encroaching modern world. The Kuna people have their own laws, medicine men, police, schools and religion - there are no churches. They have no written language, and maintainh their history through songs and their own teaching. Houses are very simple and made of bamboo and thatched with palm leaves with earthen floors and an open fire for cooking. Hammocks are used for sleeping, and clothes stored on lines hung from the ceilings.

Kuna women watching the show

Kuna women are very shy and often refuse to have their photographs taken. They proudly wear gold jewelry of a flat, distinctive design, usually a breastplate (more symbolic these days) earrings and rings on their fingers and many of the older ladies wear a thick gold nose ring. They frequently draw a black line down the middle of their nose (maybe a substitute for a tattoo?). Their cheeks are heavily rouged. The women wear their hand sewn artwork every day together with a loose wrap-over skirt, and a red patterned headscarf tied over short hair. On their arms and legs they display distinctive wide bands of beads called weni – maybe the beads are a substitutes for the pearls they used to wear.

Street acting

This was to be an incredible experience for us. There were only nine yachts visiting the island, so there were very few outsiders privileged to watch. We were allowed to take photographs during the acting, but no videos. And later in the day there was to be a chichi party that we might be allowed to visit.

The Kuna showed us, with energetic play-acting, how their leaders met and thrashed out their problems in formal meetings amongst themselves and their peoples. In the Congresso Hut the most important headmen (Sahilas) sat in hammocks to denote their lofty status, and the lesser leaders sat close by. Everyone had a chance to say something before they decided what course of action they would follow. They even provided translator to tell us what was happening amongst us in the hall.

Inside the Congresso hut

There was a performance in the Congresso hut depicting how after Panama gained independence in 1903 the Panamanian government harassed the Amerindians in an effort to subjugate them through torture, rape and killings, insisting they abandon their spiritual way of life and succumb to western schooling and influences.

Later we all took to the street to watch the show continue. As special guests we were provided with chairs ti sit on, but most of us moved around, watching the events and the villagers themselves.

Kuna street fights depicting the savage treatment received by the Kuna at the hands of Panamanian armed troops. It was pretty vivid and some of the smaller children looked horrified to see the beating and screaming of the enthusiastic actors. I had to agree that the Panamanian soldiers were evil looking – even though the beards and moustaches were painted on. The clubs were made of Styrofoam, but the actors were struggling wildly and begging for mercy.

Panamanian soldiers dragging a victim through the crowd while his wife begs for mercy.
The Panamanians came to the islands and beat and tortured the inhabitants, but the Kuna were wily and cunning and eventually succeeded in deceiving the Panamanian militia,

Traditional Dancing

Under cover of the singing and dancing and feasting the Kuna freedom fighters snuck up on the Panamanian despots and killed them, finally regaining their independent status and resuming their traditional peaceful way of life. (In actuality they also involved the western governments who negotiated on their behalf).

We watched the dancing and realized it was very ceremonial and ritualized.

The Chicha party was especially interesting as it is linked to the puberty rites of the young girls and is mainly attended by the women. When the girls reach puberty they are given a name - before that they just go by nicknames, and their hair is cut to the traditional short hairstyle. There are no formal marriage ceremonies here – the suitor merely moves in with his wife’s family, and if things don’t work out, he moves back out. He is expected to contribute to his wife's family by fishing, farming, or tending the coconut plantations, so is generally a welcome addition to the family circle. Of course girls are favoured as they will grow up to bring in the extra help, and land ownership is passed down through the women.

Chicha is a fermented liquor made from local roots and plants, distilled and fermented by specialized individuals in the village. It takes several days to prepare and tastes quite mild to our western palettes although obviously has quite an effect in the villagers – especially the women! We saw several older ladies with very wobbly gait being escorted to their homes by attentive daughters.

Women only in the Chica hut

In the afternoon the special building set aside for the party was crammed with people. We went to the women’s entrance and were soon invited to join in. It was dark and smoky, and full of women dressed in their traditional bright colours, busily smoking and having a wonderful social time.

nside the Chicha Hut, the ladies had a great time

The older ladies smoked pipes that they repeatedly refilled from galvanized buckets of tobacco that was continuously passed around, some of the younger ones smoked cigarettes. We squeezed between the women and sat on a low wooden bench and immediately had a gourd cup thrust at us with instructions in sign language to drink all up in a single big gulp.

At first we were a little tentative but soon discovered the taste was not totally unpleasant, so downed the full cup with gusto! By this time some of the women were well away - lots of singing and dancing on the chairs, giggling and exchanging jokes. The place was alive with colour and joy. This was probaly a rare opportunity for the women from the various islands to get together and the occasion was obviously fully appreciated.

Sahilas – Leaders or Headmen of the Isla Tigre Kuna Yala, Independence Day 2005

These are the village elders, and include a medicine man, a spirit man, head of police, secretary, the person responsible for graveyards, another for coconut farming and a secretary. The secretary is also the translator because many Kuna do not speak Spanish.

Working canoes drawn up on the shore

We would like to thank the people of Kuna Yala for their hospitality and for sharing with us with a fantastic experience