Our Kuna Yala
Olivier : I remember that our arrival in Kuna Yala end June 2013 was very hard. After five days of heavy sailing from Jamaica, we were happy to finally put our anchor and get some rest. But 5 miles from the finish, we suffered our first “culo de pollo”, a deep depression of a few miles in diameter, with heavy rain, storm and strong winds. Some gusts reaching 70 knots! Fortunately, it does not last long, just enough to get a good fright.
These “culo de pollo” translate “chicken ass,” were very common the first few months after our arrival, most days or nights and I confess that I have suffered a lot from it. Usually it wakes you up at 3 or 4 am and last about one hour. So, we put on our rain-jacket and I start a motor to be ready in case the anchor slips despite our 60m of chain! The danger also comes from the other boats next to us.
When the storm is there, you cannot see the islands around nor the surrounding reefs, it’s stressful enough but then come the lightnings that threaten to strike us at anytime. Meanwhile we fill up our tank with fresh water by collecting rain water (the only positive point…).
One night we avoided disaster very closely. The anchor had slipped, I was at the helm, engines on, Steph on deck with a high intensity headlamp to get our bearings, when suddenly a flash of lightning illuminated a reef, 2m port hull! A second flash brings to light another reef, “at 1m starboard” Stephanie cries out to me! A great back up and a good fright later, we went further into the lagoon in the middle of nowhere.
Exhaustion, bad nights, high entrance fees in Panama (barely arrived you should lighten your wallet with more than 600 dollars) and the lack of “ship-friends” have demoralized me those first few months. Fortunately the weather improved, human encounters have warmed up our hearts and then we could visit this beautiful archipelago with more enthusiasm. The journey could continue and I forgot my desires to return to shore.
As you would have guessed if the beautiful islands of Kuna Yala had only been white sand beaches, crystal clear waters and coconut trees caressing us with their welcomed shadows, we would not have stayed two years in this archipelago.
But then, how to talk about the San Blas Islands? How to share this call that became an initiatory call without denaturing it, without sweeping it with coarse clichés, without painting it with solely exotic colors which the world craves of?
For the Kuna Yala is precisely the antidote to the exoticism touristically put in scene, to folklore. And our motto “make a trip to the encounter of the Other” took on its full dimension here.
We certainly were able to take the time, but mostly we agreed to change our view and dared to enter the worldview of the Other.
Somehow the Kunas have taught us to go towards the Other. “The Other understood not in its irreducible difference but in its proximity, and even in the immediate brotherhood.” (JC. Guillebaud). Then naturally we shared our lives and deep in our souls forever we changed.
When we arrived in Kuna Yala we had the impression of entering a National Geographic documentary. We watched the Kunas like strange beings with obscure customs. We saw them as out of time; mysterious and inaccessible people.
But with time; because all the wealth of our adventure lies precisely in this time we have decided to “take” not in the insolent desire to want to stop it, but to live it fully …. Over time, these Indians we thought so different, became men like you and me, and with even more time, we could meet them, nay!, we met each others should I say, we shared our lives. Thanks to this trip, the routine of the other can be shared. The foreigner that we are, gradually transforms into a meeting, becomes a meal prepared together, a shared ancestral ceremony like the chicha *, a woven basket with 4 hands, a mola ** sewn one next to the other, a fishing trip with friends, a miraculous catch …
The Kuna Yala, also known by the Panamanian as San Blas, are a group of more than 300 islands near the Atlantic coast of Panama, but also a great coastal region of the country, neighboring Darien. The indigenous Kuna who occupy them, are organized in villages themselves organized in sort of cooperative communities. They live mainly on fishing, agriculture on mainland and trading of coconuts. They have their own language, but many of them also speak Spanish. The nearest islands to Colombia, we so enjoyed exploring, are more conservative, more traditional, still preserved from tourism and our consumerist society.
The “village-islands” have Sahilas (village chiefs and spiritual leaders) who can still accompany their people in tradition. Their values are those of Mother Nature: humans are their “servants” and their mission is to protect it.
Relations with Kunas can sometimes seem difficult, some find them mercantile, conservatives or unfriendly. I think they are mostly shy and reserved. Our meetings with Kunas were very different from one island to another, and we often asked ourselves about our impact on their communities and their traditions. Some “village-islands” have strict laws: alcohol, tobacco, and television are banned, while others are freer. Some villages we visited only see 4 or 5 boats per year, but that does not mean that people are flocking to us on arrival. In general we feel rather unnoticed, we can wander around in villages freely and naturally, share the daily life of people who welcome us as equal men and women. Then with time, shyness fades, tongues loosen and complicity settles. We share ideas, exchange thoughts (politics, philosophy, jokes, songs, stories), cooking recipes, craft ideas and sometimes some gifts. I exchanged a rope against a machete, stephanie swapped children’s clothes against molas, pounds of flour against its weight in fresh lemons, papaya, Yucca roots, bananas…
In Puerto Perme, near the Colombian border, we befriended with a family in the village. The dad, Andres, spoke good Spanish because he had worked for several years in Panama City. He explained us how his community work, I went fishing with him and we shared meals in his family hut. Stephanie has learned to weave baskets, cook Doulemassi (traditional kuna soup) or make Winis, kuna bracelets that women cover their arms and legs with, keeping them as thin as possible and whose ancestral designs also tell the culture of Mother Earth. This is also where she started to learn the Kuna language. And our children? As usual, they disappeared with their new friends, went to admire toucans, parrots and other “mascotas” (read: pets) or play football, fish, swim together. During these two years in the Kuna Yala, they learned Spanish and some Kuna and have thus made friends in each island (if not girlfriends in each port).
But, (…. aaahhh, why is there always a “But” …?) this rich culture that the Kuna have so generously shared with us (although we were still far from totally mastering it), is shrinking under the influence of tourism which is taking hold of their ancestral values. The Kuna people have yet valiantly resisted the ravages of colonization, up to a bloody revolution 90 years ago to gain their autonomy and independence towards Panama; because as they say “a landless indigenous is a dead indigenous.” But today they are defenseless against the invasion of the dollar. Fortunately the picture is not uniformly painted the same color on the archipelago. The South East is hardly visited by lack of accessibility and tourists are rare. These villages can thus preserve their simple lifestyle, close to a Nature offering them all they need to live happily. For how long? This will depend on the Kuna people, of the discernment of their Sahilas and on the degree of respect shown by the future visitors. Hopefully in the coming years, this incredible culture won’t be reduced to mere Molas, Nuchus (wooden figures embodying the soul of the Kunas) and Winis souvenirs exposed in tourist shops.
The Kuna Yala was for me a school of life where my lessons were given to me by “tutors unconscious of their task to a fickle student, always on the departure, but who came from very far to receive their instruction” (S. Tesson).
Among others … I remember:
Lisa (island of Rio Sidra) and Prado (island of Soledad Miria), Molas makers, artists in my eyes, who generously shared with me their knowledge of the Molas: the stories illustrated by its symbols, often transmitted orally or through dreams by the ancestors to its creator.
Bredio (in the Robeson Islands). A wonderful man with a wise philosophy of life. Orphan at 6 years old, he was adopted by a Kuna family who took him to live on the big island of Carti. When he was 12 they settled in Panama City so that he could continue studying. There, he learned Spanish and his future job. At 24 years old, while Bredio had an excellent job in Panama city, while he “earned a very good living” as we say, an emptiness inside him remained, a “bitterness” made him lose the flavor of “good things” the city, the civilization had to offer. Then, he went in search of his family on his native island in KunaYala and realized that back there was the real life. Far from the “comfort” of modern life he found appeasement in a more traditional way of living. “Here we no longer need to run to possess more and more. Here you eat what Mother Earth can offer if you’ll give yourself the strength to cultivate, hunt or to fish. Here you share your life with your family and fully enjoy the present time before it becomes tomorrow and already the past. “(Bredio).
Teo (island of Nalunega) has transformed his hut into a museum where the past and the present make one. Through his sculptures, paintings and stories, he tells children of Kuna Yala (and whoever interested) the Kuna version of mankind and earth history and thus helps transmitting and kipping alive the Kuna culture (history, tales, medicine, tools, crafts etc.). Museum of the present too, because Teo educates his people to the threat of excessive consumerism at the expense of Mother Earth. He built his hut out of plastic bottles, flip-flops and other waste collected at the edge of the water just outside his hut, as vomited by the sea. Waste coming from all over the Atlantic and the Caribbean, from another world, called “civilized”.
I also think of Achu, exceptional Kuna painter (and poet in my eyes). His heart, his soul shared between his family life in Canada and his roots in Kuna Yala where he returns every year. One foot in the materialistic capitalist West and the other in the minimalist, spiritual, “naturalistic” Kuna Yala all giving rise to paintings where the Kuna and Mother Earth are struggling with the tormented human hearts drifting among consumerism.
I think of Achu’s parents who I hardly know, but I still see them sitting in front of their hut in Ustupu island, old, loving, clear-sighted and so peaceful, both connected to the world, to the universe.
The Kuna people: still strongly anchored in their culture, makes them proud of their nation, their traditions and we welcome their wisdom. They don’t need us (tourists, people from the so called “developed countries”) to live happily and it was a chance for us to navigate among these islands and meet with these people who became our neighbors for a while.
* chicha is a tradicional Kuna ceremony to celebrate various stages in women’s life (first hair cut, menstruation, kinds of wedding). These ceremonies can last several days during which the family invites the whole village to get together in the ceremony hutt (Chicha hutt) to traditional songs, dances and the Chicha drink (made from fermented sugar cane juice).