Meeting the Kuna, Finding a Homeby Dan and Jeanie Miller
We finally got away from Cartagena, Colombia on February 23, 2002, and arrived at our first San Blas island after an uneventful 26-hour passage. There are over 300 islands in the San Blas. Perhaps 50 are inhabited, with populations ranging from one family to up to 5,000 people. We visited Tupak, Mamitupu, Tigre, Chichime, the Holandes Cays, and Porvenir before heading on to the mainland of the Republic of Panama.
The San Blas Islands are also known as the Kuna Yala, a largely autonomous region of Panama inhabited exclusively by the Kuna Indians. Some of the men, most of the children, but only a few of the women speak Spanish. The rest speak only the Kuna language. English is very rare. The Kunas are generally thought to be the last pure-blooded Carib Indians who survived the Spanish Conquest.
Our favorite village was Mamitupu, located toward the eastern end of the island chain. The adjacent waters are "unsurveyed", with numerous reefs not shown on the charts. It is rarely visited except by cruisers and the occasional coconut boat from Colombia. Mamitupu is called El Cuero (cuero means skin) by the Colombian traders, because the Kuna men there did not adopt European style clothing until about 40 years ago, long after other villages did. The congreso (the local government) has a traditionally tight grip on the community, and like the other Kuna villages we visited, the place is clean as a whistle, with not a bit of trash in sight.
Pablo Nuñez Perez, a Kuna who married an English girl and lived in England for seven years, paddled out in a dugout canoe (called an ulu) to welcome us. He speaks good English, and invited us to visit his little restaurant. He serves what they catch, and that is limited because his partner lost the tip from the spear he uses to fish. Pablo, now about 50 years old, has been back on Mamitupu for more than 12 years, and now has a Kuna family.
On March 1st, we went to the island and tied the dinghy to a tree at Pablo's hut. He introduced his wife and children, showed us some molas, the intricate reverse-appliqué work for which the Kuna are famous, and then took us on a walk through the village to meet the Saila (chief). The Saila was sitting on a bench in the congreso hut, and had put on his dark felt hat for the occasion. A man of perhaps 60, he welcomed us very graciously. After a few minutes of polite chat, he asked for the normal five-dollar anchoring fee.
The congreso building is the largest structure on the island. Constructed of stakes and covered with coconut thatch, it is about two stories tall and 50 by 100 feet. There are rough-hewn wood benches, and a few hammocks at the central area for the use of the chief officials. All males over 18 are required to attend every Saturday afternoon, and those who fail to respond at roll call are fined. Having paid our fee, we became honorary citizens of Mamitupu, entitled to attend the congreso meetings.
The next afternoon, we attended the congreso meeting, along with most of the adult males on the island (there is a meeting for the women earlier in the day). We sat at the back, and were greeted warmly by many of those who entered. The meeting started at about 1630 hours, with the calling of the roll. Since this was the monthly financial meeting, the roll call was followed by a reading of the list of families and the number of coconuts each had brought for sale. According to Pablo, who translated for us at times, some of the families had brought just over 300 coconuts for the month, some of the lazier ones many fewer. The coconuts are sold at 12 cents each, so a prosperous family might earn up to 40 dollars a month from their coconuts. The chief rose to exhort the less productive families to produce more, and asked how the children could learn to be industrious if their parents weren't. The weekly congreso meetings also resolve disputes and establish rules for the residents. They are important, since each of the villages is largely independent of the others.
We left after about an hour and Pablo escorted us back to our dinghies. We arranged to go to his "restaurant" for dinner the following day. The water had been too rough for much fishing, and Pablo had only been able to catch four small fish, so the ladies had the fish and the men ate clams. They were very small clams, about half an inch in diameter with just a speck of meat inside. They were good, but more trouble to eat than they were worth.
Another day, we and the denizens of the three other cruising boats anchored at Mamitupu went to a mola exhibition that Pablo had arranged. There were 30 women and lots of children displaying their crafts. Jeanie bought three small molas, and traded a few plastic hair clips to children for small (3-inch diameter) molas they had made. The girls were really excited about the hair clips, and if Jeanie had brought dozens instead of only three, all would have been taken. Then at 1730, a dozen of us assembled on the beach in front of Pablo's hut for a pot-luck supper. We had invited Pablo and family to dine with us, and they had arranged enough tables and chairs in front of the hut. After dinner, the children insisted on washing our dishes.
We had planned to leave Mamitupu on March 5th, but the wind was forecast to blow at 25 to 30 knots with ten-foot waves, so we decided to wait for better weather. Jeanie walked through the village again with Pablo. He told her of the difficulties of teaching Kuna ways to the young people. They have one old lady now who weaves hammocks. None of the young girls wants to learn her trade, and it will probably die with her. The school, which goes through 12th grade, has Kuna teachers but they are paid by the Panama government and are not allowed to teach the Kuna language or customs. Despite their relative isolation, the villages continue to come into the 20th (not yet into the 21st) century. A few now have small gasoline-powered electricity generators to power TV sets with Direct TV, something we wonder at since few families earn more than $50 per month from coconuts, fishing, and mola making.
Pablo let us borrow a small collection of his writings about the Kunas. One deals with his youth, and how he missed Mamitupu when forced as a young boy to go to missionary school on another island. Even though the chief of his island did not like the missionary schools and believed that the strong white man's influence would change the Kuna life in a bad way, Pablo's parents felt differently. Atilio, a relative of Pablo's father, was the second Kuna Indian missionary under the Baptist mission based in Ailigandi. "He was tall and thin. He wore clean clothes and a gold watch. He definitely impressed my family. When he came to visit them, he would always bring gifts of food, sugar and clothes." Pablo does not think highly of the missionaries, or of the changes they brought to the Kuna Yala.
After a month in the Kuna Yala, we headed to the mainland, anchoring in Linton Bay on March 23rd. And there Namaste remains. Linton Bay, or Porto Lindo, about 15 kilometers from Portobello, on the northernmost tip of Panama, is a well protected little anchorage, very popular with cruisers. The locals are very friendly and, unlike most of the Caribbean, theft is not a problem even though the normal daily wage (when work is available, which it usually is not) is $8 to $10. Generally, there are ten to 20 boats here.
Porto Lindo is beautiful, and soon after arriving we toyed with the idea of settling there. We looked at several parcels of land, once on horseback with a local guy on foot preceding us with a machete to hack away the jungle underbrush. Ultimately, we decided that the Caribbean coast of Panama is just too hot and humid for us, so we traveled inland to Boquete, up in the mountains at 3,600 feet, and immediately knew that we had found our home. The area is known for its excellent coffee, abundant flowers, and exotic birds. The air is clean, and the people are delightful. They are largely of European descent, many having settled there on the way to the California gold rush. There is even a public library with a good collection of English-language books.
Fifteen minutes outside the town of Boquete, we found a breathtaking piece of property with a 180-degree view of mountains and of the Pacific Ocean some 60 kilometers to the south. The temperature varies from the low 60s at night to the high 70s during the day, year round. Even though it is an eight-hour drive from our anchorage at Porto Lindo, we manage to get to Boquete on an average of once each month. We can hardly wait to live there on a permanent basis.
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