Comarca de Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands) in Panama

Kuna Yala is officially a province of Panama but is ruled autonomously by the Kuna Indian Congresso. It includes part of the main land and about 400 islands – 49 of which are inhabited. They cover a stretch of around 150 miles on the north east coast.

When we arrived from Colombia we spent a couple of weeks visiting the easternmost islands – more traditional than those of the western part of Kuna Yala. We arrived at a large, well protected, empty anchorage near the village of Mulatupu . We had no sooner got the anchor down when we were approached by several ‘ulus' (dugout canoes) their owners grinning and shouting ‘Hola'. Many of them were just curious and didn't want anything but some wanted to try speaking a little English. Their language is Kuna which bears no relation to Spanish but most of the men do speak Spanish and a few a little English. So it was good for me to get to grips with my smattering of Spanish and chat to them. They are a very friendly, peace loving people – quite small in stature but live to a ripe old age. We were given gifts of bananas in exchange for cups of tea and coffee and orange juice for the children – yes we had many visits from ulus paddled expertly by small children in the afternoon – all of them very careful not to bang their ulu on to the boat – we subsequently had a whole lot of small hand prints all along the hull!

We were invited by one of the men ‘Mr Green' to come to the village in the afternoon to show us round and take us to meet the chief. Our meeting with the chief was quite brief – we were officially welcomed and charged $5. Our receipt was printed out by the ‘secretary' on an old typewriter – no doubt taken from a stack which took up one corner of the chief's office! Usually each village has 3 chiefs (Sailas) who take on responsibility for different aspects of Kuna life. One of the chiefs will be responsible for governing and will attend the congresso in Panama City where the High Chief (Cacique) resides.

We had a walk around the village – very clean and quite pretty – the walls of the huts are made of cane and the roofs from a special type of palm leaf – despite the fact that there are torrential downpours during the rainy season, allegedly the huts are quite waterproof – the floors are slightly elevated with sand and the walls and roofs held together with jungle vine! After the tour we were invited to have a meal with our host in his hut. His wife had cooked coconut rice which we had with bananas – very tasty. The cooking is done over a wood fire – no microwaves here! Each family appears to have one small compound which consists of a room in which to cook, a room in which to sleep and a courtyard. They do have ‘bathrooms' but these tend to be away from the compound and as far as we could tell built out directly over the sea for automatic flushing! There is very little in the way of furniture – just wooden table and chairs and perhaps the odd plastic garden chair. The sleeping hut just has hammocks for the whole family. The Kuna is a matriarchal society – when a women marries the man will move into her family compound which can consist of the woman's' parents and other relatives and children. No privacy there then but with the number of small children running about they obviously do manage to find some somewhere! A girl reaching puberty will have a ceremonial hair cut and on being married gets to wear a ring through her nose! The Kuna law does not allow marriage with non- Kunas and perhaps as a consequence of this inbreeding, we saw a few albino boys – white hair and red eyes. To some of these we gave gifts of factor 50 suntan lotion to protect their skin.

The day for the Kuna starts early – the men are up before the sun and as the day breaks they are paddling (or sailing) their ulus to go to work on their plantations – harvesting coconuts, bananas, avocado, mangoes and other fruit and roots as well as collecting wood for the stove fire. They return with their produce around mid day and then will spend the afternoon out in their ulus fishing. The women earn money by making molas. These are part of the traditional dress – intricate patterns sewn on layers of fabric and made into a blouse. The women also wear ‘wini' beans on their legs and arms which they make over a suitable size branch of coconut tree! Whilst we were in one of the villages, we were approached by an old lady who beckoned us to come to buy molas – we were led to a family compound and given chairs to sit in the ‘courtyard'. Abelia then produced beautiful work for us to inspect. I had read that the cost of the mola (anything between 5 and 100 US $) depends on the number of layers of fabric, the design and whether the stitching is visible. The molars I was shown were excellent – and despite the fact that we had not seen many others to compare, we ended up buying half a dozen! I subsequently learned that Abelia is a master mola maker and has won prizes in Panama City for her work. One of the gifts we were able to give to some of the women were reading glasses – as once their sight starts to go so does their ability to make molas.

We had been told that the Kuna bread is really good so we asked if there was a baker in the village and were informed that yes but we had to be up very early – 7am as their days starts at daybreak. The next morning at 7am I got out my kayak and paddled in the rain (much to the amusement of the watching Kunas who were already out in their ulus). Off I went in search of the baker – only to find that he was still asleep! Roused from his slumber in his hammock he told me to come back at mid day. So back to my kayak – which I had found was surrounded by curious bystanders and had been untied and turned around then retied! Still raining at 12 but we really wanted bread so off I went again – this time the bakers hatch was open in his hut but no sign of him – although there was a sign hanging saying ‘Quiet please' – maybe he had cakes in his oven- no smell of baking bread though! Later that afternoon one of the visiting ulus was paddled by 2 teenage girls – came to tell me that the baker was there – obviously word had got round the village that I was looking for him! So off I went but no baker again but once more his hatch was closed – maybe my Spanish is so bad I have totally misunderstood what they were saying!

The traditions and skills are being passed down to the younger generation but as the youngsters have to go to high school in Panama City (if they have relatives they can stay with) they are being introduced to technology and many do not want to come back to live in the village and work on the plantations. This is one of the main problems for the Kunas – one or two of the villages have decided to abandon the strict Kuna way of life. Allegedly this is a recurring discussion point at the local village congresso. The congresso is held every evening at 5pm and can go on until about 10pm – apparently the chiefs have hammocks to lie in whilst everyone else has to sit on a hard bench. Attendance at the congresso is obligatory for the men and if they don't attend they are punished. At one village we were told that the punishment was a 2 day stint at the end of the island in a small shelter checking in the ulus as they came back from their days' work (I guess the equivalent of the naughty step!) The produce which the men bring back is checked in so a record is kept of who brings in what. This way they would know if someone is taking produce from other plantations (not a major concern but it does happen occasionally). Coconuts are currency in these islands – they can take them to the shop and exchange them for other foodstuffs – the shop owner will then sell them to the Colombian traders.

As we got further west, we came across one island with a plethora of TV aerials and a huge generator. The noise at the anchorage was too loud so we moved further away into the mangrove area. This was one of the 2 islands which had decided to abandon the traditional Kuna way of life. The next day we visited the island to buy a ‘digicel' sim card and although technology had reached the village, it was still fairly traditional – although they did have a police station and a jail!

At the western end of the Kuna Yala there are many islands which just have one family living on them. As no one ‘owns' land here, these families are only caretakers and come for a 3 month stint from the populated villages. They then have a chance to make more money (from tourists and cruisers) by selling fish, fruit and molas. Many of them have mobile phones but no power to charge them so they come out to the boat and will swap a ‘charge' for a coconut!

The main impression we got from the Kunas we met was that they are very happy with their lot – they work hard but still have time for family. They live a very simple life and are very healthy and live to a ripe old age. We met a local school teacher who was teaching in his village after living in Panama City – he told us that some Kunas find life in Panama City too stressful and expensive – many of them do go back to their villages so hopefully the Kuna traditions will continue.


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