Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving, Sailas, Caciques, Neles & Nuchus

November 24, 2007  Saturday
Kanlildup (a/k/a Green Island) San Blas Islands, Kuna Yala
09.28.762N; 078.38.158W      Traveled 11.9 NM from Devil Cays

After the no-see-um attack in Snug Harbor last Saturday morning we motored 16.3 miles to Niadup (Ticantiqui) at Devil Cays.  BLUEPRINT MATCH followed closely behind us.  Paul said that hand steering is tiring and difficult to stay perfectly on course like the auto pilot.  There was a large swell across the beam and we were glad that this was only a 16 mile trip and not 50 miles.  We anchored south of Niadup for Saturday and Sunday nights and motored to Green Island on Monday morning.  It was time to get away from the villages on the islands close to the mainland.

Bill and I did not even go ashore at Niadup.  The village looked uninteresting and there was a lot of smoke; we assumed from cooking fires.  We did not need to buy anything and I did not want to expose myself to more insects, so we just stayed on BEBE.  We did go over to BLUEPRINT MATCH for drinks one evening.  Right at sundown Michelle spotted a crocodile headed from the mainland towards the village.  Paul, Bill & I all thought it was just a log; but Michelle was right – it really was a saltwater crocodile.  Later, as we were preparing to head home I stepped into the dinghy and was waiting for Bill when Paul said “what is that there by your leg in the dinghy?”  I looked down and saw in the darkness what I thought was a medium sized iguana.  You wouldn’t believe how fast I was able to get out of that dinghy and back onto BLUEPRINT MATCH.  Bill couldn’t see what had caused me to abandon the dinghy so quickly, so Paul was trying to show this “iguana” to Bill.  A couple of minutes later Paul started laughing.  The “iguana” was a 2-foot rubber alligator that Paul had placed in our dinghy.   We all had a good laugh out of Paul’s practical joke.

Green Island is uninhabited and several miles off the mainland.  There is reef in various places around the island.  The channel into the anchorage was 113 feet deep with reef on either side, but no breaking surf on the reef.  Visibility was not the best on the day we arrived.  We again put our faith into the waypoints provided in the sailing guide by Eric Bauhaus and arrived safely in the calm anchorage area.  It was raining the day we arrived and has been raining off and on ever since, with the sun breaking through only for a few minutes at a time.   We are very glad to be out here instead of next to the mainland where there seems to be more lightning. 

Paula and Dennis on YEMANJA arrived here at Green Island on Thanksgiving.  We all gathered on BLUEPRINT MATCH for Thanksgiving dinner.  I provided the appetizer of local smoked fish from Iles des Saintes and smoked salmon accompanied by cream cheese/sour cream base spread and capers and chopped red onion on crackers.  It surprised me how much little Seanna and Merric loved smoked salmon.  That is very unusual for 3 and 4-year-old children.  We each brought our own lobsters and Michelle prepared some wonderful seared pork medallions with a fruity rum sauce.  She also prepared salad and baked cauliflower.  Paula cooked some pasta with tomatoes and artichokes.  I provided stovetop stuffing, which was Paul’s favorite.  For dessert, Paula prepared a baked passion fruit pudding; and I made a French vanilla cake with chocolate frosting and a raspberry and lemon curd pie.   (Wasn’t sure that pie was going to be edible because I made up the recipe, but it was darn good.)  It was great to be able to enjoy a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner with such good friends.  We missed seeing our family and having the traditional holiday treats; but it was a great Thanksgiving, even if paradise was a bit rainy.

We had planned to move all 3 boats out to the Coco Bandero Cays today; but the weather is dreary and we heard on the VHF radio that it is rocky and rolly out there today, so all 3 boats decided to stay put here at Green Island for at least one more day.  Weather is predicted to improve tomorrow.  If it does then we will move 20 miles or so to Isla Porvenir and officially clear into the San Blas Islands.  Figure we better do that soon since we are getting into the area where officials sometimes go around and check to verify that boats are properly cleared in.   If we wait much longer to clear in then we might end up paying a fine and be scolded.

Cruisers might want to stop reading here.  The remainder of the log is info taken from the sailing guides for Panama and you probably have already read it.  This is provided for the landlubbers following our travels who don’t own the sailing guides.


The Kuna people do not like the name of San Blas Islands.  That name was given to this area by the Spanish invaders.  They prefer that these islands and the associated mainland territory be called Kuna Yala.  The land is not divided into individual properties and fences are absent.  Kuna treat their forests and lands as cruisers treat an anchorage; tribe members can pass through and benefit, but do not claim possession by industrial development.  The Kuna like visitors but prohibit any non-Kuna from permanently settling or intermarrying.  Foreigners cannot buy land or invest in Kuna Yala.  The Kuna have always considered themselves more closely aligned with Colombia than Panama.  They are normally a very peaceful people but when Panamanian rule was attempted to be forced upon them in the early 1900s, they rebelled February 21, 1925.  The Kuna killed every man, woman and child who was in the Kuna Yala lands and was not full-blooded Kuna.   The Kuna felt that this was the only way to ensure that their heritage would continue in the true traditional manner.   After the rebellion the Cacique declared total independence under the name of Kuna Yala.  When news reached Panama City the government immediately mounted a military campaign.  Only a quick intervention by the United States Navy, namely the USS Cleveland, prevented bloody retaliation.  Panama soon realized that it would just be simpler to allow the Kuna to govern themselves and that has worked well ever since.   First there was partial autonomy; then recognition as an official reserve in 1938; the Kuna constitution in 1945; and the grant of full administrative and juridical powers in 1953.  The rebellion was called “Holocausto de las Razas.”  The flag of the rebellion was a large swastika, which is still seen today in the villages and on the tombs of their most revered leaders.  This swastika flag has no political connection with the later Nazi symbol in Europe.  The Kuna population is now around 55,000 or about ten percent of what they were before the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors.  (And if the number of children that we have seen is any indication, the Kuna population surely is increasing.)

Each village has 3 sailas (chiefs).  They hold the highest level of authority at village level.  Three Caciques (high chiefs) rule the nation as a whole, each representing his part of the land.  One of these Caciques is elected supreme leader of the Kuna Nation.
The sailas are much more than political leaders.  They are also holders of the Kuna spiritualism, medicinal knowledge and history.  Every village has two oversized huts, the congreso and the chicha.  The congreso is like a town hall.  It is a gathering place for villagers most evenings.  A typical congreso finds the sailas swinging in hammocks in the center of the building.  The sailas are accompanied by Argars (interpreters). The Argar puts the sailas’ wisdom into prospective and applies it to the current situation.  Villagers can voice any complaints or comments to the congreso and the Argar interprets the sailas’ opinions about the topic.  The rest of the tribe are seated on hard wooden seats or benches surrounding the sailas’ hammocks.  The sailas sing long sacred songs about their ancestors and past exploits, including battles with the Spanish invaders.  These songs are part of the tribe’s oral history, passed down from generation to generation.  Sometimes the congreso meetings can become long and boring.  As a consequence, certain people are given the task of letting out ear-piercing shrieks at irregular intervals in order to keep everyone awake.

In addition to the 3 sailas, there are also many junior sailas.  These are sort of like executives and are responsible for tasks such as keeping the aqueducts working or building new huts.  There are also sualipetmar, which is a kind of police who carry sticks.  The sticks are status symbols and are never used to strike anyone.  In the most traditional villages the sualipetmar carry certain branches from a special plant that burn and sting upon contact.  These are used to control unruly children. 

The Kuna have an elaborate system of penalties and fines.  These are strictly enforced by the congreso.  A favorite penalty is to collect coral rubble and deposit it in a barrel to be used as land fill.  This explains all the ulus we saw in Ustupu going up the river and returning full of small stones.  The penalty serves for the good of the community.  There is a story of one case when a Kuna man was sentenced to fill ten barrels because he had hit his wife.  He appealed to the congreso, saying that his wife had provoked him.  So the saila decided that the wife must also fill ten barrels as her penalty for provoking her husband’s aggression.

The other big hut in each village is the chicha hut.  Chicha is an intoxicating drink brewed from sugarcane and other special ingredients and is used for spiritual events.  The chicha ritual is held once or twice a year, and required at least a month of preparation.  It is considered sacred.  I won’t describe the chicha making process here because it takes too long; you might be able to find it on the internet.  The ritual can last several days and the men and women are segregated for it.  They do not drink this intoxicating beverage in mixed company.

Since 1925 no Kuna is allowed to intermarry with a non Kuna.  Violation of this prohibition results in expulsion from Kuna Yala.  This has led to a kind of genetic insulation and there are many albinos.  Based on the number of people that we have seen, Bill and I estimate that about one percent of the Kuna population is albino at this time.  BTW, weddings take place only in February each year.  You are not allowed to marry whenever you want to.  Also, public demonstration of affection is forbidden.  Paul & Dennis on YEMANJA met one Kuna man who told of being fined $60 by the congreso when he was caught kissing a girl.  That was a huge sum for a 14-year-old boy, but he worked and saved and paid the fine in 2 years.  Then he was caught kissing her again.  This time the congreso fined him $120.  He again worked 2 years and paid that fine.  Then he was caught kissing the same girl for the third time!  This time the congreso fined him $180!  He managed to finally pay that fine.  And then he married that girl.  They now have 3 children.

The mainstay of the Kuna economy are coconuts, which grow like you would not believe.  These coconuts are traded to Colombian trading boats.  The Colombian traders bring crackers, poor quality canned goods, potatoes, onions, oil, fuel, glass beads, machetes and assorted trading goods.  Each coconut might be worth only 10 cents when the Kuna are trading them to the Colombian boats, but if a cruiser wants to buy a coconut from a Kuna the current price in November 2007 is 50 cents apiece.

Nuchus are small sacred statuettes.  They are usually about 15-inches tall and act as a link between the spiritual and the physical world of the Kuna.  Every Kuna owns one.  The statues are believed to be alive.  There are many different types, some having a stronger spirit while others are weaker.  Some are good and others are bad.  They mystically represent the owner but also have a character of their own.  Nuchus are normally made of a hardwood like purpleheart; but the ones made for sale to tourists are crudely cut from light balsa wood and have no spirit.  If a nuchu is given to you, then it is considered to possess a spirit.  If money is paid for a nuchu, then it has no spirit.

If a child is sick, the father might bring the child’s nuchu to the Nele (medicine man or shaman).  The Nele would then diagnose the cause of the child’s illness, which is usually a bad spirit (surprise,surprise).  The Nele is a powerful and important personality.  Nele often use selected natural drugs to give themselves special powers.  (Hey, this is beginning to sound an awful lot like Clan of the Cave Bear!  Guess some things never change.)  There are 3 main branches of Kuna Nele, each divided into different specialties.  Ones who chant at funerals are especially impressive.  They sing a continuous song for over 24 hours, in a secret language known only to himself and the deceased.  This is intended to help the deceased find his way and not get intercepted by evil spirits that might be roaming around in the different layers of the Kuna underworld.

I wrote earlier about the transvestites in Kuna society.  These are usually the eldest sons of families who have no daughters.  The first-born son often is raised as a girl and taught the economically important skill of making molas.   Supposedly there is also no stigma associated with homosexuality in Kuna society (according to one guide book), although we have certainly seen absolutely nothing to indicate this one way or the other.  As any public display of affection is forbidden, I wonder where the author obtained his source of information for this subject.

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