San Blas islands in Panama
We are sitting in a large bamboo hut on a Guna Yala (San Blas) island , Mormake Tupu (Molamaking Island). Several rows of hard wooden benches surround in the middle 4 hammocks, in which lie 4 men. 2 of them have sat up and massed a greeting and “prayer” to the sun – both sunrise and sunset. We are sitting among the villagers. Many women sit with a scarf over their heads, a headlamp in their forehead, and sew on molas. In the row behind us, a child is breastfed by a total of 4 women, and elsewhere women throw small stones at the men who may have fallen asleep.
We have been allowed to attend the ceremony and we are still a little in doubt as to whether this is a so called Congresso. And it’s a bit of a test. Without knowing how long it will last, and for those of us who did not discover the small clock on the pole in the middle, without knowing how much time has gone by, one can only practice experiencing the present and the impression it gives to be part of the everyday life of a completely different culture, and to find the peace that reigns on these amazing islands. An hour and a half the 2 men massed in the hammocks, and to the outsider it seemed like it was the same verse that was repeated over and over. Then the chief spoke for an hour and a half, of which we understood nothing, speaking in their native Guna Yala language. And then the ceremony was over.
The San Blas Islands are located in the northern part of Panama, approx. 12 hours sailing from Shelter Bay at the Panama Canal. We spent a few days on the outermost islands of San Blas, where not as many people live as on the innermost islands. Once in a while a canoe comes by to sell lobsters, fish or molas, or to ask for water, as it is a scarce ressource at the islands, especially when you have to paddle your canoe for several hours to get home to the island you live on. The sea water on the outer islands is clear, so it is a great place to snorkel, either on the inner reefs, or when the weather is good on the outer reefs that protect the islands from the big waves of the Caribbean Sea. Here we came as close as 2 meters to a large Stingray, and saw all sorts of colorful fish.
The Devil’s River
The last few days we spent at the innermost islands towards the mainland of Panama. Here are several densely populated islands and we could get closer to life in Guna Yala as the people prefer they are called rather than San Blas.
Right on the mainland is the river Rio Diablo, and you can take your dinghy up the river. At the nearby island, we were greeted by Federico, who makes a living by helping the long-distance sailors who pass by. He could tell the island was closed down due to Covid-19, but he could get us groceries etc. The island is not a traditional island so it was ok that we could not visit it. Federico asked the chief for permission until we sailed up the river, and we were given permission if we took Federico with us. It was a wonderful and peaceful trip up the river. We passed small gardens where they grow fruit and vegetables, and family graves. We met several canoes or dinghies that sailed back and forth with fresh water to the village, because it was collected some distance up the river. We also swam in the river, and luckily saw no crocodiles. It was great to bathe in the fresh water after a few days in salt water.
Visiting a village
Sunday we sailed to Mormake Tupu where the above ceremony took place. It is a densely populated island, where they live in a very traditional way, and where they are said to make the most beautiful molas.
Expectations were high and we were not disappointed. Already as we approached the island people started to gather on a small jetty, we shouted in and asked where we had to drop anchor and shortly after came 2 paddling in a wooden canoe. One of them was Venancio. He is the only one on the island who knows English and also one of the most skilled at sewing molas, and he is among the very few men who sew them. We invited him on board, and his nephew paddled in for molas and then we were shown many very beautiful molas. The nephew also took his son and daughter out, two very sweet children of about 2 and 4 years – very sweet children. We bought some very beautiful molas. Meanwhile, people stood at the jetty and took pictures of us😄
Monday we took the dinghy into the island and were received by Venancio. He lives with his mother, sisters, nieces and their husbands and children. A niece was about to make a traditional “tattoo” on the nose of a child, and vupti, everyone except the skipper was “tattooed”. Outside their first cabin they had an aquarium or a little pool with a seaturtle and some fish.
We had some gifts for the children, but unfortunately not enough for all the wonderful children we met (note to self: we must have lots of gifts with us when we return). After spending some time with the family we were shown around the village by some of the island’s many children, the trip ended with some of us playing basketball with some really talented boys who were almost half as big as us. We got the impression that there was a great sense of shared responsibility for the children. We saw a small child whose mother was very ill, and this child was well taken care of by the others.
It was a huge experience to visit the Guna Yala people on the island, they were very welcoming and curious about us just as we were on them.
A few Fun facts:
They get fresh water through a plastic pipe which lies on the seabed from inland and out to the island. It is very important that we do not anchor on top of these pipes and destroy them. It can take a very long time to get them repaired.
In the “kitchen” there are fires burning (there are smoke from the fires on the whole island), the fire places consist of long pieces of wood which are pushed under the hanging grate as the embers consume them.
Due to Covid-19, the school’s only teacher has traveled to Panama city, and the children are taught via WhatsApp.
The Gunas are somewhat lower than us, even Laura who is 1.63 is tall compared to them.
They call dolphins their sole spirits.
They live in a material society, for example the women choose their husband (and a Guna man does not say no when he is elected) when they get married the man moves in with the woman’s family.
They must not teach anyone but their own people to sew molas.
In the morning they sail into the rainforest and work in their “gardens” where they grow papaya, plantains, mangoes, bananas and coconuts, at lunch time they return to the island.