Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Kuna Yala - Comarca de San Blas- Report No 42.

Kristiansand, 27th June, 2007 by Stein.
For corresponding pphotos see Picture Gallery No 42.

Kuna Yala - Comarca de San Blas

The South-Western part of the Caribbean continues to give us pleasant surprises, and our visit to the archipelago of San Blas in March-April 2007 was a real delight. Diana and I have now for more than 30 years had the privilege to sail many seas and oceans and to visit some fine places on this amazing Earth, but our recent trip to San Blas is up there in our select list of favourites!
The official name is Comaraca de San Blas. It is an autonomous region of the Central American republic of Panama, but the 60.000 Kuna Indians who live here prefer to call it Kuna Yala.
The Kuna Indians originally lived mainly along the coastal mainland, using the 360-or so small islands dotted along their territory for fishing and cultivating coconuts. However, natural disasters like mainland flooding and earthquakes made them move out to the bigger of these small islands. The added attraction was less insects and a healthier environment. Today only their cemeteries, farming plots and a couple of villages in the south-east region remain on the coastal mainland.
Back in the 1500’s the Kunas managed to resist the invasion of Spanish Conquistadores better than any other coastal, indigenous population in the Americas. This was possible partly because they were fierce warriors, and partly because the Spanish thought the Kunas were poor and not worth bothering about. So today they are not as mixed-up with European and African blood as the rest on that huge continent.
Panama as a country was masterminded by USA in 1903. Before that Panama was part of Colombia, but USA wanted full control of the canal the French had unsuccessfully tried to build, and which they took over and completed eleven years later. When the canal opened in 1914 the Yankees were firmly in control in the area they named the Panama Canal Zone from Cristobal/Colon on the Caribbean side to Balboa/Panama City on the Pacific side. (USA and their large military bases only left Panama in 1999.)

Kuna revolution
In the early part of last century the Kunas felt increasingly threatened by outsiders wanting to exploit their land and people. In 1925 the Kunas again organized a bloody revolt against the intruders, i.e. the rulers in Panama City and, amazingly enough, defeated the army sent to suppress them. The subsequent negotiations resulted in borders and laws that created the San Blas of today. Here they have a large degree of self-government and strictly protect their land, traditions, ethnic and cultural integrity. No outsiders can own Kuna land, which is inherited from mother to daughters. The hilly, dense, tropical rainforest on their part of the Darien peninsula is to them sacred (like it is to most indigenous peoples of tropical forests), which in effect means that lumbering, large scale agriculture and hunting, building of roads, hotels and resorts is all forbidden. Every village has a Congreso where issues of communal importance are decided in public. If you want to fell a tree in order to build a dug-out canoe, the Congreso first has to give permission. Communal issues to be discussed and decided in this way may also include when people may leave or return to the village, how much to charge yachts for anchoring nearby, if one is allowed to go out to visit yachts and when to have a party! The main party or celebration is when girls reach puberty. This is marked by rituals, dances and celebration for three to four days. Main nutrition seems to be large quantities of weak beer brewed from sugar cane. Even when intoxicated, apparently nobody gets angry or violent. Aggression, crime and violence are almost unknown among the Kunas. The reason may be partly genetic, but if their lifestyle is the main reason the recipe appears to be a life in large families in tiny houses, have enough food, no privacy, be very tolerant and own little more than a hammock and the clothes you were, a canoe and have a public committee decide almost all important issues!
These amazing facts alone makes the Kunas worth a study, add that they have all these incredibly beautiful, palm-covered islands and no hurricanes, and you know why a visit has been on our agenda for a long time.

A rough trip to a beautiful spot

Our two visitors, Anne and Jim had returned to Norway and Canada respectively a couple of days earlier when at 10 a.m., Monday 19th March we left Club Nautico in Cartagena (position N10°21,75’ W 075°30,6’). We motored across the bay to Todomar Marina to get some fuel and a last glimpse of the proud Naval School Ship Patria in front of the Old City wall. A couple of hours later we were between the two forts of Boca Chico and heading for the Caribbean Sea. Here we left the protected waters of the extended Cartagena Bay and received the full force of the fresh trade-winds. With only a reefed genoa we shot off towards El Porvenir at the NW corner of San Blas, 204 n. miles ahead. Another catamaran in front of us was apparently not prepared for the rough conditions and struggled to get their main-sail down in the big seas before heading back again to still waters…
The sail was rough, bumpy and uncomfortable, but Otto, our faithful aoutopilot (Autohelm 4000) coped with the movements, we averaged 7 knots and at noon the next day realized that we could reach a good anchorage in the East Holandaise Cays of San Blas before dark. But the Caobos Channel we entered was scary with breaking seas even over 7-10 m shallows. High up on the foaming reef to starboard loomed the wreck of a large yacht; a solemn warning. But I did not get a heart attack and we did not hit breakers or reefs and could happily arrive in flat, calm water behind a cluster of amazingly beautiful islands. Our electronic charts were not very accurate, but our copied pages from the Barhouse guide were, and at 6 p.m., 30 minutes before sunset, we anchored off Banedup Island. What wonderful bliss!


We knew that the authorities are quite relaxed and do not mind if yachts spend a few days before officially entering the country either at El Porvenir in NW or Puerto Obaldi in SE (by the Colombian border), as long as you follow local rules and regulations. So we spent nearly a week visiting some of the many anchorages on the way. From Banedup it was just a short dinghy-ride to the popular anchorages known among yachts as the Swimming Pool and the Hot Tub. Here 15-25 yachts can be found at anchor most of the year. There is no permanent village nearby, but a few Kunas usually stay on the outer islands for periods of 2-3 months to attend to the important production of coconuts. Also locals from further away will come mostly in their dug-outs which they paddle or sail. They may offer crops, fish and shellfish and molas. The mola is the San Blas “trade-mark” more than any other item. It is a square or rectangular form of textile art of intricate patterns cut and sewn with fine stitches on several layers of cloth. Molas are worn on the dresses of women and serve not only as decoration but often have symbolic meaning like fending off evil spirits. Price varies depending on the quality and the business-sense of the trader, but for US$ 10-15 one can get very decorative molas.
Especially at The Swimming Pool in the East Holandaise, the international yachts form a small community, and some yachties like it so much that they more or less settle, only going back to Cartagena or up to Colon for fuel, stores, antifouling or essential maintenance. Staying for many months and returning annually is quite common, but S/Y “Runner” with Debbie and Reginald from USA has the current record of more than 7 years!
En route to the officials in El Porvenir we anchored at Waisladup and Lemon Cays. Waisladup is a difficult anchorage with small sand-patches between coral heads. We had the place for ourselves. The snorkelling here was particularly good, and we saw some large sting-rays. At Lemon Cays we met our first mola-traders. Most of them are women who paddle about in their dug-outs, often with children. But two of the best mola-traders are men and are known as Master Mola Makers; Vanuncio and Lisa. Both are obviously well-off and travel around with an assistant in a more modern boat with outboard engine, have mobile phones and wrist-watches, items not commonly seen in Kuna Yala. Both are effeminate, Lisa in fact is a male transvestite dressed as a woman. Kunas do not appear to have typical Western prejudices and are liberal regarding sexual orientation, so being a homosexual or a transvestite does not carry a negative social stigma.

Wichub Huala

In El Porvinir 26th March (anchored at N 09° 3,42’ W 078°56,87’) we had to wait a day for the Harbour Master to return from business in Panama City, but finally on 27th we were officially entered and received a valid cruising permit. It cost us US$ 60. (Like in Ecuador US$ is now the official currency.) The cruising permit is valid for 3 months. In addition you normally pay $5 to the local chief (Sahila) if you anchor near a village, so the Kunas have indeed discovered how to make an income from the many yachts that visit their islands. Apart from about 2000 yachts/year a couple of small cruise-ships make regular calls and a handful of back-packers travel there on coconut-traders from Colombia, hitch-hike a lift on a yacht or come by small planes. El Porvinir has only 11 permanent inhabitants, but has one of several small airstrips dotted along the coast of San Blas. Often in the mornings we could see these twin-engined, small propeller-planes landing and taking off. Two airlines provide this service and at a price of $39 for the 30 min ride to Panama City it is a relatively cheap and popular way of transport, so booking is often necessary weeks ahead
South of El Porvinir is a cluster of six little islands densely covered with houses. The nearest is named Wichub Huala and is only 5 min from Porvenir by dinghy. 306 people inhabit this island. Life here is quite civilized by Kuna standard. Here are a couple of shops, a generator provides electricity for a few hours each evening, there is a school and even a clinic staffed by a nurse from Panama; Carlota Alvarez. She gave us a little tour and outlined the main health problems among the 1181 souls she looks after. We returned to Wichub Huala the next day to collect a Panama courtesy-flag we had ordered from a seamstress. Luck had it that this was cruise-ship day. The ship’s capacity is 100 passengers, but it was only half full. Even so the whole village was transformed in order to entertain the visitors, display some of their traditions, trade molas and other souvenirs. So Diana and I happily trotted along with the other visiting gringos admiring the various sights and handicrafts. We also witnessed typical Kuna folk-dancing: The men in orange shirts, black pants and straw hats, women in headbands, mola blouses, wrap-around skirts and arms and legs decorated with stings of glass-pearls forming yellow, geometrical patterns. While dancing the men play pan-flutes and the women beat the rhythm with calabashes.
In Wichub Huala we also learned another way the Kunas make a small income: To photograph a Kuna you have to pay $1,- (Unless you have just bought a souvenir or made another type of financial deal, in which case you may freely take pictures.) The man at the Bible School who let us tie our dinghy to their jetty was one such example. He did not want anything for the use of the jetty, but was pleased to have his one dollar for the picture taken.
(This North American bible school and a few other Christian missionary organisations acquired land in San Blas before 1925, and it has proved difficult to get rid of them. Kunas have their own religion and the majority are not interested in missionaries)

No see-ems and Tupsuit Dumat

After Porvinir we travelled south and did the mistake of anchoring in the beautiful, mainland bay of Nalia. The guide wrote about its quiet beauty, its abundant bird-life, its easy access to farming plots, and recommended a nice path to another bay for keen walkers like us. But there was no mention of the insects that invaded us when the sun and the wind disappeared… Diana wrapped herself in a sheet and had a mosquito-coil smoking next to her in our cabin and slept OK, but I thought a new mosquito-net erected in our portside, stern cabin combined with chemical repellents would be good protection. It was to be a sort of test for future visitors. What I did not realize until it was too late was that the tiny blood-suckers are so small they crawl through the mesh! Indeed I found out why these nats are known as “No-see-ems”! So I had the worst night I can remember and was covered in itchy spots for two days afterwards. Never more shall we anchor close to land in a windless, mangrove-covered bay! Ashore we met two Kunas working on their plantain fields, we saw lots of birds and a stick insect, but we never found the picturesque path. Needlessly to add, we moved away from the mangroves long before sunset!
Tupsuit Dumat in the Robinson group was free from insects, but instead of nats and mosquitos we were invaded by cheerful children wanting sweets and extrovert adults wanting printed photographs. We also saw several albinos known as White Kunas. For reasons unknown the frequency of albinos is high among Kunas. These white-skinned locals have skins and eyes badly suited for the tropics.
The friendly invasion was partly our own fault; we were a little too friendly when we first anchored. But it also was a lot of fun and opened doors ashore. We did a couple of medical consultations among the tiny huts, met Alberto, Sahila (chief) for all the Robinson islands and gave reading glasses to an 84 year old woman struggling with her needle-work.
Alberto impressed us. He was a lean, fit-looking 76 year old man, who spoke good Spanish and English in addition to his native Kuna. English he had learned from working for an American family in the Canal Zone in his youth. He was very friendly in typical Kuna style, very patient with all the children that always swarmed around us, and he was clearly both knowledgeable and tolerant. When we went to pay our $5,- anchor-fee he was busy teaching himself Italian. He explained that among his many jobs he worked as a guide for an Italian cruise-ship that visited at infrequent intervals. But he did not have a good photograph of himself until we gave him one.

Lemon Cays and Carti

Two days later we were back in the relative peace of Lemon Cays – first the West group we knew from before, then the East group. With another couple from an Australian yacht we hired a fast boat for a day. The boat was an old speed-boat, gutted for all instruments, badly maintained and falling slowly apart, but the manually started, 40 HP Yamaha outboard engine was brand new and cost a fortune by any 3rd world standard. The Kuna driver spoke only a few words in Spanish, but we understood that the boat belonged to Alberto!
A bumpy ride brought us to Carti, a large island village of about 2000 inhabitants. Like in all the villages we visited, the areas between the houses were tidy and free of garbage, but the windward shore in Carti was a smelly mess with plastic and debris of all kind. Piglets and chicken made an effort to recycle anything edible. A typical Kuna toilet is a small shed on stilts in the water just by the beach, often on the windward side. Carti has lots of them. I need not say more…
Our main reason for visiting Carti was its small museum. Here we were given a long lecture on almost every aspect of Kuna life by a small, energetic man who spoke reasonable English. He is also the main collector of the artefacts in the museum and the artist behind many drawings explaining Kuna history and traditions. Definitely worth the trip. Afterwards we motored up a river, admired the vegetation and the birds while eating our sandwiches in the drizzle, and on the way home visited a Kuna cemetery (always on the coast) as well as the island of Nalunega, where our driver introduced us to his family. Here we took a $1,- picture of the only Kuna we ever saw smoking, an old woman with a big golden nose-ring and a crooked pipe!

From Nuinudup to Ailigandi

For the last 16 days of our stay in San Blas we slowly moved SE towards Obaldia anchoring at Nuinudup, Rio Sidra, Salardup, Nargana, Snug Harbour, Ailigandi, Islandia, Isla Pinos and Carreto. We alternated anchoring by uninhabited and inhabited islands and this way we could chose whenever we just wanted to be on our own or with other yachties. There was a period of about 10 days when the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) moved further north than normal and belted us with heavy showers. But we still had clear skies nearly every day, we never had strong wind, and we collected a lot of clean water!
No two anchorages were identical. We snorkelled a lot and saw a large variety of marine life – several large barracudas and different types of rays, even a couple of nurse sharks.
And we ended up with a lot of molas! Some of the female traders that visited us in their dug-out canoes (locally known as ulus) were so charming and their needle-work so impressive and reasonably priced that we could not resist them. (When writing this back in Kristiansand I can report that thanks to Diana’s own needle-work many of these molas now decorate pillows and dresses!)

Nargana had a bridge connecting it to a neighbouring village, and together they have a fairly large and modern community. We found a small hotel, a telephone booth, a sort of supermarket and a tiny post office. But in this village a lot of Kunas dress more like mainland Panamanians and they do not practice Kuna rites.
Ailigandi has a hospital staffed by two doctors and a solemn-looking statue of the most famous freedom-fighting politician from the 1925 revolt; Simral Colman (locally known as Ulokindibipilele). He lived from 1840-1929.

Isla Pinos

The large island of Isla Pinos was the last island we visited. It is mountainous and very unlike the flat coral islands we were used to further north. From a distance the island looks like a sperm-whale. The lee of this island was a popular hiding place for buccaneers and pirates in times of yesterday, now Colombian cocaine traders use its shelter instead.
The Pinos village with its 150 inhabitants is very traditional. Here the Sahila and the Congreso have decided that nobody may visit yachts unless specifically invited. And they also have rules that prohibit visitors to take walks outside the village unaccompanied… So when we wanted to walk around this lush island we had to pay old Horatio, Congreso Secretary to “guide” us. And of course tagging behind was a long tail of children, two of which were too small for the 90 minute trip, but the bigger children and I took turns in carrying them. In typical Kuna fashion Horatio was not the least worried by either the large number of kids or the noise they made. That one of his flip-flop sandals broke did not worry him either. - The children quickly found him other, single sandals that had floated in on the beach – in fact he returned with a spare, unmatched pair of flip-flops!

Carreto and Anachucuna, mainland villages.

South of Isla Pinos are only a couple of villages and these are on the mainland, like Carreto. It is an old community at the mouth of a small river and a place we liked a lot. This village was the cleanest we have seen so far, no garbage even on the beach. And people were extremely friendly. As we passed one house we were invited in and served avocado, freshly boiled land-crabs and coffee. We later repaid them with a photographic print and bought a couple of molas. We were now quite close to the Colombian border, evident by the small police station and its two policemen and their machine-guns. One was a Kuna from Ailigandi. He introduced us to the assistant Sahila where we paid our $5 and were given juice and several avocados to take to the boat. This man had an abdominal problem, so next day the police-man and a young helper paddled him out to White Admiral for a check-up. I examined the man in the cockpit with the machine-gun resting beside him... I could not find anything serious, and with renewed optimism in the future the old chap discovered that Diana’s flippers fitted him perfectly - so she let him have them. Later we also gave him a photograph from his visit aboard.
Anther memorable incident in Carreto Bay was the freshly caught, huge sea-bass we bought from a cheerful fisherman for $10. He had just caught it using live bait while paddling close to the shore in his ulu. The fish fed us well for three days!

From the beach opposite Carreto we had a most memorable rain forest walk of about 1½ hours each way to Anachucuna village. A lot of the path winds its way through plots of farmed land of yucca, bananas, plantains, sugarcane, pineapple, avocado and mangos and more. The various crops seemed scattered at random, and there are no fences. We never met anybody, but we saw smoldering fires and other signs of recent farm-work. People obviously trust each other. We also saw the remains of an ancient tractor, built from clinked plates of steel. – A memory of several failed attempts, usually by missionaries, to mechanize and industrialize Kuna agriculture. And we saw lots of birds and butterflies, a small black frog with brilliant emerald spots and heard the strange rumble of distant howler monkeys. On the beach near the start of the path were tracks of cayman alligators.
From Anachucuna we returned with muddy feet and more molas…

From Obaldia via Isle Fuerte to Cartagena and home

Obaldia was a bit of an anticlimax. It rained, the town and its shores are a dump, and it took us a long time to check out and get the stamps and papers known as “zarpa” from the various officials. The shops had hardly any fresh vegetables and no cheese. But they do have an airstip built on a hillside up from the beach and when the planes land or take off they pass very close to a camouflaged bunker with soldiers and a canon. – Another reminder of the proximity of Colombia, its unwanted guerrillas and drug trafficking.

We sailed off in light wind from the north in the afternoon. The sea was flat and were just able to hold our course overnight towards Isla Fuerte off the Colombian coast. Here we met more friendly locals, had a long walk and bought the tomatoes and cucumbers we had not see for so long.
We also had a visit from the Colombian navy. We were not officially checked back into Colombia, so we had a few nervous moment as we watched a boatload of fully armed, uniformed officials approach us. However, they cheerfully checked our papers, telling us there was ‘no problema’, admired the photos of our family on the wall, and even gave us a present of a mug with the navy’s logo!
A long day of mostly motoring brought us to familiar territory in Rosario, and the following morning, 21st April, a final 5 hours up to Club Nautico and to Cartagena. At the Ferrroalquimar yard a few days later Jorge Blanco and his men safely lifted our floating home on land. Some hard work followed, before boarding an Avianca plane to Madrid 30th April. Diana’s birthday the following day was celebrated with good food and good singers in the Opera CafĂ©. Finally Ryan Air brought us on the last leg to Norway- to family, friends and a job and some welcome income at Sørlandets sykehus, Kristiansand..
Plans for October are already definite: Another sail to that fascinating land known as San Blas or Kuna Yala!

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