Kuna culture and sandy islands

Trip Start Nov 15, 2009
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Where I stayed
Canti Island

Flag of Panama  ,
Friday, July 9, 2010

In the early hours of the morning, we were collected by a luxurious 7-seater Toyota Land cruiser with blacked out windows (yes, it's been a while since I've seen a nice car, let alone have the front seat to myself)!  Worse luck, I was with 6 loud and obnoxious people (yep, you guessed it, Israeli), which the driver picked up on quite quickly and let me have the front seat.
The Panama city skyline was gorgeous as the sun was beginning to rise - a backdrop of black skyscrapers and palm trees to a reddish-pink sky.  But it seemed like a while lot of faffing around since we left the hostel, because we stopped off at a supermarket for food and supplies (I'd done that the day before - ever the girl guide!) and then another half an hour stop for the drivers to have breakfast.  Around 3 hours after having set off from the hostel, we really set off for the San Blas Islands.  The drive wasn't for the faint hearted though ans it was more like a roller coaster ride up and down the mountain, steep inclines at speed, so much so that your stomach felt it as you do on a roller coaster.  The girls in the back were bricking it and shouting "amigo" at the driver to make him slow down.  He just smiled at me as I was loving it and continued - I had every faith in his driving skills as he's been doing the same route twice a day or more for 8 years - come on!

We arrived at 9:30am to the boats that would take us to the island we had each chosen to stay on.  Thankfully the other 6 in my jeep had chosen to stay on one of the "idyllic" islands, but I opted to stay on one of the inhabited islands to learn about the Kuna culture and stay with a Kuna family.  I arrived by small wooden boat to the island of " Mulatupu", part of the "Carti" islands.  Overall there are 305 San Blas islands, only a handful inhabited.  Mulatupu has 500 inhabitants (one of the most inhabited islands), a great deal of which are children as there really isn't much to do on the islands by way of entertainment if you catch my drift ;)
At first glance, the island looked run-down, but a quick look around showed that the Kuna people have all they need.  their houses, made of concrete and bamboo with thatched roofs, house approximately 8-10 people in the family.  The toilets are wooden shacks directly over the water so it's all natural, even with crabs scurrying around (the younger generation reading that last sentence, get your minds out of the gutter please!).  There are no showers either, just large plastic water tanks from which to wash with behind a curtain where the toilet is.
The Kuna's main source of work is fishing or construction for men and cooking, embroidery (the Mola - art from the San Blas islands and Kuna people) and raising children for women.  In my host family, the father is a pastor.  He was so friendly and welcoming, I think he must have spoken with me for 2 hours straight (in Spanish of course).  Most of the Kuna people only speak Kuna so I was lucky that the pastor spoke Spanish (forget English, even broken English).  The pastor moved to Panama city when he was 2 years old for a better education; was raised by a family he thought was his own until they sent him back to his real family on the San Blas islands.  At first life was difficult on the islands until he became accustomed to it, then life in Panama city began to look horrible with unclean air, fights, riots, politics etc.  Having grown up in Panama city, the pastor returned to the islands with a passion to help the youngsters on the island to learn good things and work for a living rather than steal or take drugs.  he's a real community figure, with his house open for all to walk into at any time.

We'd already spoken, the pastor and I, about the fact that in my short time on the islands I wanted to immerse myself in the Kuna culture and way of life and would want to contribute to the daily activities of the family i.e. fishing (which I arrived too late for as it is best in the morning), cooking and eating with the family and so on.  So I was taken aback slightly when ,y "tour guide" (I use the term loosely as he was useless) Carlos showed up to take me to his house, to a separate hut no less to eat by myself.  I asked him to join me but he said he would be eating with his family and I didn't want to intrude by asking if I could join them.  I spoke with the pastor later and he agreed I could have dinner with them.  In the afternoon, I had planned to spend some time on the beach but a thunderstorm was brewing overhead so I went and spoke some more with the pastor about life on the islands and then went and observed the island people.  The kids are just so content playing with a battered football or balloons or just laughing and giggling with each other by the waterfront.  There are just so many of them, I believe each family has 5-6 kids if not more and they're all so polite as well.  They were mesmerised by me as I walked past, especially when word got out that I was visiting the island, and so they all came to have a look at me and all waived and said "Hola" - I kind of felt a bit like Angeline Jolie when she visits the kids of Africa!  I only wish I'd known there were so many kids on the islands, I could have brought them some gifts or toys.

The early morning start and the heat finally took its toll and I succumbed to a nap for an hour or so.  I then had dinner with the pastor - basic rice and fish, which had just been caught that morning as they do every morning.  It was a small pink fish with spines (no idea what it's called but I'm sure I've seen similar in Malta) and so with a pitiful amount of actual fish to eat off it, I ended up doing as my host did and eating the bones as well, although I did stop at the head (he didn't - suffice to say, there wasn't much left for the cats!).
I enquired some more about the Kuna traditional dress, which some women wear (not all as it is no longer obligatory).  I'm still not entirely sure as to the reason behind the beads worn on the arms and legs, but I believe the pastor said it was to indicate that a woman is married.  The traditional dress also includes a sarong-style skirt, a puffy sleeved blouse with the mola sewn onto it, a gold ring through the base of the nose, gold earrings and a short bowler-style haircut.

The evening didn't pan out as planned as I was supposed to have gone to see a local song & dance event, but Carlos never showed up.  Spending the evening with my host family wasn't a problem as such except, the pastor had to go to a men's congregation for the evening and since he was the only member of the family who spoke Spanish, I was left wondering what the rest of them were all talking about in Kuna whilst swinging in the hammocks.  The kids started singing which was quite nice, but good job I brought a good book with me!  The congregational meetings the pastor was telling me, are obligatory as your attendance then grants you a pass to the mainland.  So even small communities such as these have rules / politics to abide by!  I decided on an early night except for the fact that my room was directly next to the TV room, where all the kids from the island came for a movie night and also the generator to power electricity was pretty loud too.

I realise now that a sailing tour around the San Blas islands with a good bunch of people would have been a nicer experience, but having already been to Cartagena, Colombia, I didn't want to end up there again.  Only a few of the San Blas islands are inhabited as I mentioned before, others are just palm trees on a sandy island as I came to know on day 2.  I took a small boat ride to "Archuerdup" or "Diablo" island and decided shortly after my arrival to return to the inhabited and less idyllic island of Mulatupu where I had spent the first night.  Diablo island I walked around in 10 minutes.  To spend a whole day here on this deserted island when the weather was cloudy & stormy, would have been boring.  So Carlos collected another couple who had stayed on Diablo last night (awww, very romantic) and headed back to Mulatupu to see the pastor.

The guy was is an anthropologist & professor and wanted to learn more about the Kuna's musical instrument, so his partner and I watched in the background as he conducted an interview with a local "maestro" about their sacred instrument the "flauta" (a windpipe instrument).  Following that we relaxed a little whilst waiting for lunch and finally had lunch way past 2pm after a lot of confusion from Carlos as to whether the pastor had fed us.  When he realised we'd been waiting hours and the pastor was not going to provide lunch, he took us to a local basic restaurant on another island "Cartisugdub" for a quick feed.  On this island we also came to visit another maestro of the flauta to see how the locals would dance to it in select religious ceremonies, only there was an important community congregation taking place so it's been arranged for the following morning before we leave.
I must say, day 2 has been a lot of just sitting around and waiting, not knowing what the plan was (if there even was one) - it felt very unorganised, almost a waste of a day here, particularly as the accommodation costs double that of panama city!
Total cost of tour including jeep transfers, accommodation, 3 meals a day, boat transfer and island entrance fees: $110.

For me, the San Blas islands weren't as magical as everyone makes them out to be, but then again I wasn't on a sailing tour and the weather was rubbish.

I feel like the Kuna culture is not a patch on the Inka culture of Peru, but I have to remind myself that there is much more history linked with the Inka's who aren't around anymore, where as the Kuna's are still a living and breathing community.  And whilst the younger generation now shy away from the Kuna tradition, the older Kuna generation are constantly striving to expand the culture into the mainland.

I'd like to finish with a quote I saw on one of the islands:
"Una gran revolucion solo puede nacer de un gran sentimiento de AMOR"
                                                                                                            --- Che ---
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