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The Two Captains


18 November 2000 Ustupu, San Blas, Panama
Latitude: 09-07.70N
Longitude: 077-55.70W

Usutupu, about eight miles north of Pinos, was a big change. The community, filling the southern end of the island, is the largest in the San Blas with "8000 people, not counting children!" How can you NOT count the children?! But then again, how COULD you count the children! They are everywhere and they are mobile!

We anchored west of the town dock in water turned brown from the outflow of several rivers from the mainland. The waterfront of this crowded island was not particularly appealing, with a couple of Colombia freighters on the pier, and we went ashore without much enthusiasm. We were pleasantly surprised. We were met at the dock by several dozen children plus the official fee collector, who was at the ready even though we were the only boat in the anchorage. Then we were guided to the congresso, where the sahilas sat in a formal row. The one in charge, whose name unfortunately we didn't catch, turned out to speak English fairly well. He welcomed us and ended up guiding us to the secretary, which here is an actual office in a cement building with a typewriter and everything. I guess with such a big village, there are a lot of permits to manage.

After we were signed, stamped and approved, we wandered through the town. A volleyball game of very fit young people was going on in the main square. A little farther along , when we stopped for a Pepsi (although all the walls bear beer logos, we found no beer to buy!), we found four seniors in a hot domino game who chatted with us in Spanish in short burst between games! I am repeatedly delighted with my successful Spanish conversations, and it occurs to me that one reason they are so successful is that Spanish is a second language for the Kuna, too, hence their vocabulary is not much more complex than mine!

From our Pepsi stop we wandered back through the blocks of houses, still all made of cane and thatch, most very neat, but all crowded together and all with banked cooking fires perfuming the air. At one point, we stopped to watch thatch being put on an addition, on frond tied in at a time! We're told that it can take as many as 1000 fronds to thatch an average roof, with each frond costing 25 cents. That's a lot of coconuts!

Back in the town center, we were again besieged by children, and we finally figured out that unusual curiousity they had for us had to do with our blue reflective sunglasses. They didn't want to look through the glasses, they wanted to see their reflections! Come to think of it, two white giants with blue metallic ant-eyes is kind of a traffic-stopper!

Our sahila-guide had shown us a local restaurant, a spot that seemed to double as a political party headquarters where we arranged to come back for dinner, hoping to try some Kuna comida. The plan started to seem more adventurous when the sun set and the town was pitch black. Not the cafeteria, however. The hut blazed with electric light provided by a
generator whose main purpose was to power the bank of pay phones at the dock! The kitchen, run by two girls in tank tops, was pretty simple -- a refrigerator and a stove -- and our meal was, I must confess, disappointing…the ubiquitous fried chicken part, only instead of fried potatoes it did come with mountainous pile of fried plantain patties. We used up a half bottle of ketchup! But it was tasty. And it didn't make us sick, and it did only cost $2 each…so what's to complain about?

The bigger disappointment of the day was the rain clouds filling the sky. Last night was the night of the annual Leonid meteor shower. We set an alarm to wake up around four, but instead of meteors, we had thunder, lightning and rain!



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