San Blas first impressions
It has been a week since we left Cartagena. We travelled 200nm to the San Blas Islands of Panama but it is like we have travelled to another solar system. We unfortunately will likely not be able to send any pictures for a while, so we will do our best to describe these amazing islands in words. The San Blas Islands are 350 small islands off the Mainland of Panama. They are property of the Kuna People, who fought ferociously through history to maintain their land. In 1935 they were granted self governing independence. They are a nation of 55,000 people who have a sociopolitical system that is equally if not more effective than any developed nation. Their laws and land belong to all the people so they see themselves as co-owners of these beautiful islands. Every village has a Sahila, or chief who presides over a local daily congreso, in which all members of the village can discuss concerns and grievances. The Kuna society is a matriarchal society, a new husband will move into the wife's family compound. Possibly he will only bring some clothes and a machete. A real asset for the man is a mask and snorkel as their main contribution to the family is to dive for lobster and octopus as well as fishing. The women are the major money earners for the families. The traditional dress for women is very colorful, they wear bright beadwork on their arms and legs, gold earrings in their ears and nose but their most famous article of clothing is their blouse which is called a MOLA. They are a reverse appliqué design often made of 5 layers of brightly coloured cloth and thread. The women, and some men, sell these Molas , and have become quite famous.
So what have we seen during our first week? So far about 10 of the 350 islands, of which only 1 was inhabited. All of the Islands have been covered with coconut trees that are loaded with coconuts and fringed with fine white sand beaches. The water is gin clear and about 85 degrees. We have snorkeled on several reefs seeing a huge variety of fish including a nurse shark. We have seen a few turtles while sitting in the cockpit having breakfast. On Monday we attended a cruisers happy hour on BBQ Island, where we visited with new people as well as cruisers we have met in the past and were thrilled to see again. At some point during the day we are usually approached by kunas in a dugout canoe, called an Ulu who ask if we would like to buy bananas, molas, Lobster, local kuna bread or whatever else they have that day. They are always polite and wear big smiles. Yesterday was the first day we saw and purchased molas. Florinda Salazar was the local kuna woman who with her family approached our boat. We happened to have an Australian family we have befriended visiting us. They had caught a fish earlier that day and had come to cook it on our bbq as they don't have one. Florinda asked if she could come aboard to show us her molas. We of course said yes and were then shown about a hundred different molas. These represent month's worth of work. We purchased 4 and the Australian family from SUNBOY purchased several as well. I think this was a good day for Florinda. Janine made it an even better day by bringing out some magnified reading glasses. We thought this would aid in our negotiations for the molas but 3 pairs of glasses were taken and the price of the molas remained the same. We definitely need to work on our bartering skills!
Florinda told us she was from an island called Tigre, we heard there was a transition ceremony happening on this island and tourist were welcome so along with 2 Australian boats, SUNBOY and GHOST, we headed the 7nm to Tigre. We caught a small Spanish Mackeral along the way but let it go as it wasn't big enough to feed us all.
Tigre looked pretty dilapidated from the water but when you went ashore and saw it from the inside out it was a very nice village. Most of the buildings are made of bamboo and palm fronds built on concrete slabs. There were a couple buildings made of concrete. The transition ceremony ( this is a celebration held when a girl enters puberty and is a big deal) was taking place in a Chichi hut which was a large palm frond meeting hut. It was very crowded inside with local kunas so we decided to just wander around the village until we found a "hotel" at the end of the island with a bar that served cold drinks. The hotel consisted of the bar/restaurant and a couple of huts. This was a pretty upscale hotel for here as there were actual beds for the guest to sleep in instead of the usual hammocks. The other luxury here was toilet facilities with an actual porcelain toilet, a door and toilet paper. The toilet required a bucket of water to flush it, but this was provided as well. Most facilities here consist of an outhouse built on the end of a dock with a hole in the floor. We had a few cold beverages in the restaurant and then decided we would have an early dinner there. They were sold out of fish but would make us lobster and octopus with rice. We gave it a try and were glad we did. It was delicious. (and yes the kids ate it too, and liked it!
) While we were there we met a young couple from Portland, Oregon who were vacationing here. They were hoping to get married while in the San Blas. The Kuna offered for them to have traditional Kuna ceremony where the bride and groom are prepared on opposite ends of the island and then get carried in the center of the island on platforms. A pig gets slaughtered and roasted and a party is had by all. We thought they should do this. They weren't sure they wanted that much of a ceremony. Oh well we hope it all worked out for them.
The next day we headed to an Island called Nargana at Rio Diablo which is joined by a bridge to an island called Corazon De Jesus. These islands have opted out of the traditional kuna lifestyle and in our opinion it doesn't make for as nice a village. There wasn't the same feeling of pride that we had noted on Tigre. There was a definite westernization in the demeanor and dress of the local people. We hope this isn't the beginning of the end for the kuna traditional life. It will be interesting to see how the next decade will change these islands. A lot of the huts on Nargana and Tigre had TV antennas, will this influence the young people of these islands to seek a different lifestyle. It is hard to believe that Club Med or a similar type resort hasn't found a way to set up a facility here. We hope the kuna can continue to keep these developments at bay in the years to come. We didn't stay at Nargana as the the water is murky from the river and the sound of the village generator was disturbing the peace. Sunboy and our selves travelled back to an anchorage called Coco Banderos where the water is clear, warm and the islands are uninhabited.