We haven’t seen another cruising boat for weeks, now that we’ve moved east and south in the San Blas, towards (but not approaching, since our Panama papers don’t expire for a while) the Colombian border. We’re visiting some places we missed when we came north and west from Colombia last year, like Ustupu, Ailigandi, Achutupu and Playon Chico.
It’s been a pleasant surprise. The people we’re able to deal with are friendly and happy to talk, or they politely just leave us be. The children are full of ‘holas‘ , waves and smiles. Even naked little babies wave. The confident among them ask our names. Ana, I say, y Douglas -“Doo-glas” is how it comes out here. When the kids give back a name, they don’t leave any part out; we’re amusing to them as we tangle our tongues. Hey – we’re here to entertain!
The village houses are densely packed together on islands not too far from the mainland. Most are palm-frond roofed, and walled, fenced and gated with laced-together bamboo cane. They remind me of a long-haired, huddled herd of llamas or yaks. There will be a few houses with metal roofs, with block, or even wood-sided walls, sometimes, for a lucky few, two-stories.
The streets are almost always dirt and often more path than boulevard and we’ve seen them raked daily by a squadron of women and children. The smell is of cooking fires, fueled by husks of coconuts. Almost every house on the waterfront has an outhouse over the sea. The schools are concrete with breeze-block ‘windows,’ all painted yellow above blue. We notice the differences between islands: solar panels, TV antennas, satellite dishes have come to a few islands, public water taps, tiendas and panaderias, libraries, churches and their denominations, but we don’t know enough to come to conclusions.
We always come ashore with a mission, or maybe it’s just an excuse to wander around – let’s find some eggs, or cooking oil, see if there’s bread. I wish there were cafes or bars – they’re good places to chat people up, but generally the best we can do is buy a juice or soda, then park ourselves as bait on a bench out front of the tienda. Wander too far down into some alleys and you’ll end up in someone’s house, feeling a little awkward, not to mention banging your head on some low-slung roofs. Lost in a little-alley-maze in Mamitupu, we found ourselves modeling speech to a pair of young parakeets, ‘merkey, merkey’ which turns out to be what the Kuna call Americans.
In Ailigandi there was a museum; sadly for me the proprietor, Sr. Roy, was in Panama City. I’d love to meet him. It would take much ambition, not to mention talent, to create all the things he has made and exhibited here. I gather his goal is to make Kuna oral-tradition stories available to Kuna outside the congreso/meeting halls.
Spring – I love it anywhere and everywhere. The isobar squeeze that brought heavy winds and big seas to the entire coast thru much of February and March has vanished, and we’re left with modest seas and amiable breezes, and, most of the time, good light for locating the shoals which pock-mark all these waters. The rainy season may start in a month or two, but for now, it’s a pleasant blend of balmy temps and light breezes. The problems will now arise when the wind fails to tame the insect clouds of no-see-ums waiting in the wings.
The Kunas are taking advantage of the lull before the rainy season to clear the forest for agriculture. It’s perfect weather for slash and burn, and plumes of smoke rise all along this part of the coast. We were much less aware of this phenomenon in the area closer to Porvenir favored by most of the yachts.
We bought mangos from this gent near Ustupu, largest settlement in the San Blas. When I asked if I could take of photo of him and his dog he struck this pose, then asked if I would be putting in on Facebook! And seemed disappointed when I said no. I’d be appreciative if someone could tell me what the hand-shape is meant to be communicating. UPDATE: Thanks for letting me know: this is I Love You, ILY, in American Sign Language. Now I’d like to know how it came to be the thing to ‘say’ while posing for pictures! ILY is way nicer than a gang thing, which was my first guess.
I think the further eastern sections of Kuna Yala are definitely more agricultural. Every ulu which passes by has green mangos, green bananas, plantains, limon, yuca, avocados, coconuts. I’ve often said that we do most of our eating out of self-defense, when it all comes ripe at once. I’ve been eating so many mangoes that I seem to have scraped the inside of my mouth trying to get the last of the juice from those scratchy seeds.
I gather the newly-cleared fields will be planted with corn, or bananas or plantains, maybe yuca, all for local consumption (not for sale or shipping to the city). The soil, or the steepness, or the heat, or something, will not permit crops like tomatoes or squash. I’ve yet to see more than a handful of gardens with that kind of produce. The fields will be abandoned in about 4 years, and a new one burned to replace it. It makes me sad to see this, actually. Even the Kuna, who in some ways still have a tightly controlled society, have not managed to avoid the ‘tragedy of the commons’, wherein they are free to use community resources like land and seafood, and will do so until they’re gone. There seem to be more people to support, and less knowledge of the traditional ways. I think the Kuna people finds themselves in an awkward place, straddling conflicts between their old way of life and a new one ever more firmly established. I want to say to them “are you sure you want all this city stuff and that individualized way of life? It’s not worth it! Turn back!” Considering the ethically conflicted culture I represent, however, I’m not really in a position to comment. And of course, it’s complicated.
Speaking of agriculture, the Colombian freight boats, like the Caracol, run through here regularly. Here’s a ‘crop’ of coconuts bound for Cartagena. Each one of the 15,000 nuts (they’re actually seeds, I believe) aboard brought thirty cents to its seller, said the man whose legs you see. Coconuts are prime source of income throughout the San Blas. As the Bauhaus Cruising Guide to Panama is quick to inform, every coconut has an owner, and it is not the cruiser who finds it on the beach!
My sea-going nephew K learned at an early age that the best small-boat cargo is a waterproof one. Coconuts are waterproof, but they need shade lest they crack open, and they’re heavy. These are destined for ‘food’ in Colombia, and fetch I think about 800 pesos apiece there, not quite doubling in value en route.
Especially in these somewhat more traditional villages, there is a charge for anchoring, or for using the town dock, and it’s not just a way to profit from the yachts, of which there are precious few at this end of the province. The trading boats pay it, even Kuna visitors pay fees. It can seem a bit steep if you’re just staying the night, (how quickly we forget the $20/night moorings in the British Virgin Islands) but the fee is good for a month, or as long as you stay, depending. Anyone coming to collect it will have a receipt book and a well-worn letter of authorization like this one.
One village, Caledonia, had a nicely typed explication, in English, of basic visitor etiquette: wear modest attire ashore, don’t take photos or make drawings without permission or without paying, don’t stay after dark, don’t do painting, boat work or otherwise pollute the harbor, no SCUBA diving, and, ‘no lolly-scrambles’ which I took to mean don’t throw candy to the children, or coins to encourage them to dive in the water.
We’ve tried to live by all these rules. The one that is hardest for me is about the photos- there are such stories to be told in images here. I actually share some of Doug’s aversion to the often rude spectacle of ‘a tourist sticking a camera in someone’s face’ but I’d love to have a lens in the flower of my lapel, say, with a remote wire. Some people, women especially, don’t want to be photographed. Some few want to be paid the dollar they’ve seem postcards with their image selling for in Panama City. So, I ask permission first, (sometimes I sneak), or I don’t shoot at all around here. Those cane-slatted house walls are full of friendly hellos, but also of surprising numbers of invisible eyes. I may be ‘merkey’ but I don’t want to be ugly!
There’s more about Señor Roy’s museum here:
and some interesting reading from a 2002 San Ignacio de Tupile Peace Corps volunteer’s letters home here: