Saturday, November 10, 2007

Ustupu -- visited home of the village chief

November 10, 2007  Friday
Ustupu, San Blas Islands, Panama
09.07.748N; 077.55.710W                 
Didn’t measure distance traveled from Tupbak to Ustupu, but it seemed less than 10 miles.

Yesterday we came to Ustupu from Tupbak, and BLUEPRINT MATCH also left Isla Iguana and moved to Bahia de Masargandi which is nearby.  I did not want to visit that bay because the anchorage is behind the Punta del Nalimunkuet, a/ka Point of the Mosquitoes and that sounded most unattractive to me.  Paul said on the radio this evening that they enjoyed their day there but would be ready to move to Ustupu today.  So we decided to wait until Paul & Michelle arrived before going ashore to visit the village.   It was another rainy morning and it began to clear around noon; BLUEPRINT MATCH arrived in Ustupu in early afternoon and we all went in to check out the village.

Think we finally have it straight on who is who.  Luis is apparently the chief’s secretary.  We met the real chief (sahila) today but could not understand his name; he was like Mr. Cool, wearing dark wrap-around sunglasses and black slacks with ironed button-down shirt.  (How did that shirt get ironed on an island with no electricity?)  He reminded Michelle of Sammy Davis, Jr.—very, very small in stature and very thin and oh so cool with the dark shades.  The sahila does speak some English but not as well as Luis.  All of us had to visit the Panamanian police post and sign in a small book; they did not even ask to see our passports to confirm identification.  Paul & Michelle had to buy their $8 permit to anchor and visit the waters and village.  We think Luis saw an opportunity to get a few more bucks into the village kitty because he suddenly decided we also needed to buy a “permit” to allow us to take photos.  None of the guide books mention any type permit for photography, so we really think Luis made this up just to collect another fee.  But Michelle was quick on her feet.  She paid the $5 photo permit fee and said that we should only need one permit because all 4 of us were together.  No one argued with her logic and we all exited the office and proceeded to take whatever photos we wanted in the village.  Luis did tell us that we must still ask permission of each person before taking his/her photo.  Some Kuna do not want their photos taken, especially the women.  One of our guide books says that no photography of any kind is allowed in Ustupu unless people invite it, and that drawing and painting by visitors also is not allowed.  We did ask women before taking their photos and no one objected; we also took photos of the village itself and no one objected; so obviously this ban on photography is not very strictly enforced.

Luis also escorted us to the gallery of a local artist.  Some of his work was quite striking and perfectly captured the Kuna traditional way of life.  We can’t hang paintings on the boat because we don’t want to put any holes in the woodwork, but Paul & Michelle plan to buy a painting for their boat.  We did buy 3 very small simple items for Christmas gifts since we are going home for the holidays this year.

Little Seanna fell asleep so Michelle sat on a bench to hold her while Merric played with some local children, and Paul went for a walk through the village with Bill and me.  We were all struck with how happy and contented everyone seems to be in this village.  They have none of the modern-day conveniences that we think are so essential for a comfortable life, but they are very happy with their simple way of living.  

This morning Paul & Michelle found the Sugandi Tiwar River that Bill & I could not find the other afternoon.  They told us where to find the opening through the mangroves and this afternoon Bill and I took our dinghy up the river.   This is one of the rivers in which you are allowed to use an outboard engine, but many of the rivers in the Kuna comarca are either off-limits to tourists altogether or outboards are not allowed.  If anyone has ever tried to paddle an inflatable dinghy, then you will understand why we would not try to paddle up a river, even a slow one. 

The river trip was interesting.  There are farm lands on each side of the river.  Mostly fruit such as coconuts, bananas, limes and oranges are grown closest to the river.  Farther away from the river are farm lands where the Kuna grow 5 kinds of corn, squash, yucca, etc.  Supposedly it is a 2 hour trip for the Kuna to reach their main farm lands from Ustupu.  Harvesting of the fruit crops grown along the river is alternated from side to side.  The Kuna will pick fruits from one side of the river until the plants are depleted; then they harvest from the other side of the river, allowing the first side to blossom and replenish.

Also all along both sides of the river are the cemeteries.  The Kuna bury their dead (either underground or, more commonly, in a concrete tomb on a concrete slab) and then a “hut” is built over the tomb.  The hut consists of 4 corner poles, no sides, with a peaked roof.  The roofs are usually made of thatch but a few burial sites had corrugated tin roofs.  Often items are placed on top of the graves.  These items might be something that the deceased cared for when they were alive.  Some of the items seen were bowls and small tables.  Also, sometimes relatives of the deceased will go to a loved one’s gravesite and cook a meal to eat and just hang out with the deceased for the day.  This reminded me very much of my childhood because each Easter Sunday after church we would drive to Buna, Texas, to have a picnic at the old Antioch Cemetery where my mother’s relatives have been buried since the early 1800s.  Having a picnic in a heavily-forested country cemetery where your ancestors are buried was a thing of my childhood.  Bill has always thought this sounded crazy.  Kind of nice to learn that it is also a tradition with these very traditional indigenous people.

This afternoon we went for a walk through the village and ran into Paul & Michelle and their 2 kids.  Their little boy Merric is 4 years old and little girl Seanna is 3 years old.  Seanna and Merric caused a stir among the locals wherever they went.  Several of the Kuna women came outside and grabbed little Seanna and brought her back inside their homes to show their relatives.  They called her a “child of the moon.”  A child of the moon is an albino in the Kuna culture.  Albinos are considered special and sacred.  This concept was also common in several North American indigenous cultures.  Merric is also blonde but they weren’t going after him so much; he was busy playing with the little Kuna boys.  Seanna tolerated all this attention by strangers really well for a 3 year old.

We were all invited to the home of Thomas – did not get his last name.  Thomas was born in 1925 and is the youngest looking 82 year old man we have ever seen.  He has visited almost every Native American tribe in the United States, including Hawaii.  He had been requested to serve as a delegate for each of these indigenous peoples.  He has also visited Germany.  He is likely the most well-traveled Kuna man ever.  Thomas’ wife was dressed in the traditional Kuna attire, as were his daughters and daughters-in-law and other adult women relatives.  The younger girls were dressed in normal western culture attire, but all the adult women wore traditional Kuna molas, skirts, jewelry and headscarves, with the beaded leg and arm coverings.  It was really cool to sit and visit with these people and we took several photographs.  Thomas had 9 children and has 13 grandchildren.  Looked like he probably also had a couple dozen great-grandchildren. 

After talking with Thomas, we are very happy that we were able to visit the Kuna now.  Bill and I fear that the traditional way of life won’t survive too much longer.  The children are required to attend school through 9th grade and those who can afford it then go to Panama to complete high school and college.  This education exposes the children to other cultures and will certainly make some of them want different experiences than the traditional life they are accustomed to now.  Thomas said that many of the young men (teenagers) don’t want to work on the farms and do the necessary communal work for the good of the entire village.  He said they must do this work even though they don’t want to.  Given this attitude and a little more time, the Kuna traditional way of life will change.  What a shame.  The Kuna are the last indigenous people in the Americas who still live their traditional lifestyle.  I would hate to see them lose this wonderful way of life.

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