Kuna Yala from mid March to early May 2015

We entered in to the land of Kuna Yala also known as San Blas in the far eastern border of Colombia and Panama. The mainland here is called the Darien which is a large area of rainforest,mountainous, largely uninhabited and wild. The Panamerican Highway which runs from USA through to end of South America is interrupted by this wild land. No roads exist and paths are limited. We met 2 Dutch boats in Sapzurro, Colombia and ended up traveling with them all the way through Kuna Yala. Gerard and Lies are on Sylfer, is from Edam. Ben and Ingrid on Blabber from Apeldoorn. So much better to have company when this remote. My Dutch improved as did Johns!

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Kuna Yala, comprised of many small offshore islands and the adjoining mainland, is the land of the Guna Indians. They are actually part of Panama but control themselves and consider themselves really autonomous from Panama. They do not use the name of San Blas saying that was the name Spanish invaders gave them. Kuna have preserved their culture and resisted control by outside forces throughout their history. They moved out of hill villages on to island villages largely to better protect themselves. Today they still live on densely populated small sandy islands. The Kuna number in population somewhere around 40,000 to 50,000 depending on who is counting. But there numbers are diminishing as outside influences reach them.Trading boats come from Colombian ports to buy coconuts from the Kuna. Coconuts are everywhere but picking them up is stealing and highly frowned upon.

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Here is a teacher taking a picture of his class in front of our boats. The children all wore uniforms and looked clean amazingly.

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Villages range from very traditional in the eastern end to more modern in western end. Homes are made of cane walls and palm leaf roofs. Jungle vines attach the walls and roof but some now have rope. The floors are swept dirt, the interior sparsely furnished with hammocks and remarkably cool inside. Wood fires still are used for cooking and the meals consist of banana or plantains, coconut, rice, fish and some meat supplied by pigs and chickens found roaming and in pens in the villages. All villages have now received solar panels and batteries.

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This allows for some lights at night as well as charging for cell phones which they do limitedly own. It used to be that visiting yachts were routinely asked to charge the cell phones for the locals. We saw a few satellite dishes but most did not wqork. Internet was only found on Mulatupu through the school. I am not sure how the cell phones made any connections because none of ours could.!

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The style of dress for women is colorful and homemade comprising of hand sewn “mola” which has become one of the main sources of income by selling these cloths to tourists. Molas usually depict abstract animals and objects from nature. They are all very intricate and colorful. The older women often have a gold ring in their nose. Women wear “wini beads” which are hand made colorful beads on legs and arms.

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Head covering with light red and yellow scarf and hair is cut short once a female marries. Once females reach puberty they begin wearing these traditional outfits. At the less traditional villages you will see modern dress by all. Permission needed to be granted before any pictures were taken in a village. Some charged a fee per picture as well.

The society is said to matriarchical and the women control the money and husbands move into the women’s family compound. Women choose their husbands. The village is run by the community and each village has at least one main chief called a Sailah. The community meets nightly in a central hut called a Congresso. Crime is rare and punishment is determined by sailah. Children are everywhere and appear healthy, friendly and vibrant. What a smile this guy had!

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Soccer is the main sport played and it can be played with any kind of ball. These 2 boys wanted their picture taken. They love seeing themselves in the camera.

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Transport on land is by foot with families walking some miles inland to grow their fruits and vegetables. By water they use “ulu” sailing or paddling. They are made from trees dug out by hand. All ages are seen coming and going by ulu.

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This man said he sells an ulu for $60 and took from 6 weeks to 3 months to complete.

Kuna is a language like none other. It is mainly a spoken language and is difficult to learn. Children are now learning Spanish in school so that is the language used to communicate. We visited many villages in our 2 month stay and found the people welcoming and friendly. Women tended to stay away but children and the men were eager to show us their village. The Kuna are small in stature, only the Pygmies are smaller. We felt large beside them. John stooping to walk into a home.

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We visited at a school on the island called Mulatupu, a larger village that had a clinic and larger school. A teacher at the school spoke good English as he studied in Panama City Panama so we spent some time with him learning about the culture and ways. We saw a ping pong table with paddles in the school and played many games with the kids and the other boats. That is the principal standing near me. They thought it great to play with us. This school taught about 800 students from kindergarden to high school. Kids came from nearby smaller villages to study. John spent his 62nd birthday here and we were invited to eat dinner with Mr Green and his family. We brought corned beef, some beer and i baked brownies to share. We also sang to John while the kids showed us their pets. We could have bought a parakeet for $1! We wanted to buy them and set them free. The whole extended family can to see us.

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Inside a school room

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Of course with all this water and reef, we did lots of snorkeling. The waters near the mainland were largely murky but the water in the western San Blas were fabulous snorkeling. I will try to continue this blog tomorrow or soon.

One thing I want to emphasize on this post. The surrounding might look drab or poor but the culture, the lives of these people is very rich. They have a sense of community that is hard to come by in Western culture. They are subsistence all the way and have resisted change and mechanization of their farming and fishing ways. Largely they are not a cash economy although that seems to be rapidly changing. We found the people overwhelmingly welcoming and friendly. I hope you can see all this in our pictures.

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4 thoughts on “Kuna Yala from mid March to early May 2015

  1. It is amazing how white the kids school uniforms were, always! We found the people of Kuna Yala enchanting. We had a great time while we were there. Looking forward to going back. I will be bringing reading glasses for the elder ladies to help with the Molas. We had children’s books last time, we came down.

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