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The Two Captains


12 November 2000   Isla Piños, San Blas, Panama
9*00.012N, 077*45.621

We have sailed into the pages of National Geographic. This is what the adventure of cruising is really all about - seeing places and meeting people who really live differently than we do. We have been in the San Blas islands only four days, and already we are overflowing with experiences!

We made "landfall" at Isla Piños (or Tupbak in Kuna, which means beached whale), a big mound of an island with clear entry through offshore reefs. The anchorage is a perfect picture, placid green water, a shore fringed by neat coconut palms, dugout canoes paddling silently. The mainland across the channel rises in layered hills to a mountainous spine, reminiscent of Vermont, or better yet, the Blue Ridge Mountains, because there always seems to be wisps of cloud and mist in the folds.

Before I go on, I need to tell you a little about Kuna Yala, the almost autonomous nation of indigenous Indians that inhabit the San Blas archipelago. The Kuna tribes moved from the mountains to the coast about the time of the Spanish occupation, ie the 1600s. Even so, they suffered the same violent inroads that most other indigenous peoples suffered during colonization by outsiders. Panama itself only seceded from Gran Colombia in 1903, and they did so only with the support of the US, who by then were committed to building a canal. The canal, to give you a frame of reference, opened in 1914. An independent Panama was no kinder to the Kuna and 1925 they finally rebelled, violently. Interestingly, it was intervention by the US that prevented retribution, and by 1938 the Kuna were granted an almost autonomous rule enabling them to maintain their traditional lifestyle. Speaking off the cuff, it looks to us like they got a better deal than theAmerican Indians!

There are three districts in the Comarca de San Blas, the region's official name, and each is governed by a high chief called a cacique (pronounced ka-see-kay). There are 49 communities, each of which has a sahila (pronounced sigh-la) , and below him continues downward a hierarchy of "deputy" sahilas plus a secretary who interpret between Kuna and Spanish and who keep track of all the permits. You can't do anything in San Blas without the sahila's permission, and all permits cost. This applies not just to cruisers, but to the Kuna themselves. Simply wanting to travel between islands require a permit. For us it means we must ask for permission to anchor, tour the island, explore a river, etc. and for the privilege we pay out our fees, usually about $6 per island. In a rather bizarre irony, here in this most different of cultures, the currency is the US dollar!

We'd all read the guidebooks, but you never are exactly sure how things work for real, for example do you need to pay if you just anchor. Fortunately,the fisherman in the dugouts, called ulus, inched closer and closer to us until communications began and we learned, in tentative Spanish and, surprisingly, a little English, that indeed we did need permission to anchor. (We learned later that a boat a head of us had slipped in and out, dodging the ritual, so things were a little extra sensitive!) So, after a nap we and our friends (3 other yachts made the trip across with us) went ashore to see the sahila.

The main village of Piños was just around a bend from our anchorage. There was a long cement dock to accommodatesupply boats and a small cement store, but everything else is built of cane sticks for walls and thatch roofs. On the dock we were met by several Kuna, including an exuberant young man named David who had a fair amount of English who undertook to guide us to the sahila. The houses cluster close together and we all had to dodge eaves designed for a shorter population.

Sahila Julian Gonzalez received us graciously, shaking each of our hands before collecting the money. We later learned that this sahila will be a cacique next year! His house was no different than the others, but very tidy. The cooking fire out the back scented the air with a light smoke, children hung in several hammocks suspended from the rafters, ears of corn were stacked overhead, coconut piled in a corner and the floor was neatly swept dirt. There are no windows, but light comes through the walls.

We received permission to hike around the island, which we set up with young David for the next day . But the next day brought rain, so we postponed. The following day we had to wait on shore for David until he caught his required seven fish for his family! We could have gone sooner if we'd had any fish to give him. The men of the island have a work quota divided between fishing and agriculture to provide subsistence for their families. Once that's done they're done! He and Treciliano, a 14-year-old also with some English took us on a two-hour circumnavigation of the shoreline. Although there is no property ownership per se, and although all the residents live in the village, all the coconut trees on the island no matter how distant belong to someone. David, for example, pointed out his clump, about a third of the way around the north side. Unfortunately his English did not go far enough for us to be clear if he just owned two or three trees at this remote section of the island and how he came to have them. We do know that it is a serious offense to pick up a stray coconut. It is like picking up quarters. We actually watched little girls and old men buy cold Pepsis at the store for 3 coconuts!

After our hike, a couple dozen women brought out their molas for us to inspect. Molas, THE cash industry of the San Blas, are a very unique kind of embroidery worked on layers of colored fabric that are cut away to make patterns and pictures which are then embroidered. The handwork is phenomenal. The molas are part of the women's elaborate and colorful
traditional dress, which stands out all the more for the fact that the men dress American drab - shorts and T-shirt for everyday, while the more formal sahilas wear long pants, cotton shirts and felt dress hats! Generally the women wear two layers of skirt, the top one a black and gold wrapt, topped by blouses of mixed bright patterns, of which the molas make up the front and back panels. On their heads the woman wear red kerchiefs, and their ankles and wrists are bedecked with 6"-wide bead bracelets making fancy patterns plus gold necklaces, a gold nose ring, and usually some face decoration. The molas laid out on the ground for us to shop from were amazingly varied, the designs evidently up to the seamstress's fancy. Crabs, lobsters, fish, and birds are common motifs, although there is some influence from outside - our friend Sam bought one of a cowboy on his horse! Many are just rectangles about placemat-size, but others are still in whole blouses, right out of the "closet" (which in Kuna houses is the rafters). A single mola panel will usually sell for $10-20, a blouse for $30-40. We bought two blouses, for $30 apiece, not that either one of them could ever fit me; (I am definitely a Gulliver in Lilliput-land.) Selling a mola is a big economic coup, and mola sales are usually not so organized. In Piños, both before and after the "sale," we had several women, sometimes with husbands, sometimes with kids, paddling out to the boat repeatedly in the hopes of catching us in a weak moment. And it would seem there is politics involved too, as several men tried to sell us molas and the sahila was notto know!

By our third day in Piños we had a widening circle of people we knew by name! There was Yolanda, who soldme my firstmola and a bead bracelet for my ankle. There was David and Treliciano, who persuaded us to let them visit the boat. There was Suarez who wanted a photo portrait of his wife, which George of SueThing took and we printed, and Horatio, who invited Don in to sign his scrapbook of visitors. And everywhere there were children. Little ones who shriek "Hola!" til they get your attention, then scurry away in giggles when you turn. Don was a big hit with kids, and I don't think it entirely had to do with the pocketful of sweets he had handy.

Our fourth morning in Piños we were invited to a Chi Chi Party. There is a special Chi Chi hut in every village, big enough to accommodate everyone. The event being celebrated was a girl's coming of age. The party means a day off for everyone, which is good because the major activity is getting drunk! The party started at 7am! Six of us arrived at 7:30. Already there was a definite glow on most of the faces, and everywhere were cigarettes! We'd seen no smokers previously. It turned out they believe that smoking will prevent vomiting! This is because they don't drink normally, either!

Inside the hut, the men and women were separated. The men sat on chairs and benches and while the women had hammocks at hand. Don was the first to figure out the routine. About five or six men would fill calabash bowls with the chi chi fuerte (like whiskey, we were told) from the earthenware crocks buried in the ground where it had been fermenting for a month. Against the opposite wall was a bench with five or six guys waiting. The guys with the bowls would give a shout, the guys on the bench would leap to meet them and the two lines would dance back and forth whooping in a quite an "Indian" fashion. Two passes and the new guys got the bowls to drink down the chi chi. Once done, the new guys rinse the bowls and refill them, while another six guys fill in the bench. After several rounds, the calabash bearers would turn
and serve the sahilas, who remained sitting dignified in their chairs, around the fire which kept the hut filled with a fine smoke!. At the other end of the hut the women did much the same thing, only more quietly and with smaller bowls. The women, by the way, were all dressed identically with same color blouses and brand new molas, more jewelry and more face paint!

Eventually we were asked if we would like to partake! The guys were game (we were in the guy section) and the sahila gave permission (no fee!). Bowls were brought and the guys did their best to gulp it down. Don gave a little whoop which pleased everybody. The "whiskey," they reported, was more like a coffee-flavored wine! Not long after, the ladies were asked if we'd like to partake! Over we went to the ladies' side, and with much merriment we were presented with our bowlfuls. They may have been smaller calabashes, BUT there had to be 8oz of the stuff in there! We danced a little for the ladies which made their day, and shortly after beat a retreat! Yikes! All this and it wasn't 9am yet!

After a little rest and a little coffee, Don and I couldn't ignore the clearing sky, so leaving our buddy boats behind, we upped anchor and headed north. For you see we have committed the cardinal sin of cruising. We have a rendezvous to make by December 2 with our friends Diane and Alex who will be flying in. Amazingly there are airstrips all through these islands - thanks to the US military - and although anyplace along the archipelago would be a great experience, the diving is said to be better in the northwest, so we are doing our best to get up there.



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