Characters In Kuna Yala
On one of our first days in the San Blas, a 20-foot-long dugout, made from one huge tree, and propelled by an outboard rather than by sails, arrived gently alongside Ithaka. A young man was driving. Aboard with him was a pretty Kuna woman selling molas. As we tied fenders between Ithaka and the ulu, the woman offered us a regalo (gift, in Spanish) of three perfect avocados and held up an intricate mola shed made. Impressed, we invited her aboard to look at her work. She spoke to her ulu driver in Kuna, then introduced herself to us in fluent Spanish, telling us that she lived on Sidra, a Kuna island nearer the mainland.
When she heard what language we were speaking, she switched to English "My name is Lisa Harris," she said. "Im a Master Mola-maker." She was indeed. Her molas are gorgeous: intricate pieces of reverse-appliquéd fabricthree, four, and five layers thickthen embroidered over in minuscule stitches. The designs are sophisticated, and not a stitch showed anywhere where the fabric is sewn back in hundreds of places. Right away, I knew I was going to own a couple of these pieces of art before the morning was through. Then, as Douglas and I narrowed down our favorites, it hit me.
Lisa Harris. I knew the name.
Lisa is indeed a master mola maker and is known as one of the best in the San Blaswed heard that her special molas commanded higher prices than all others. Wed also heard that she was a transvestite. Cruisers whod passed this way before us had told us about her. Not since Steve Colgate stopped by Ithaka one day for lunch in Newport have we had such a celebrity on the boat.
"Lisa!" I said (after wed finished negotiating for three molas). "Weve read about you and heard about you. Youre famous." Not unaccustomed to attention, she beamed.
"I am the best," she smiled demurely. Not a bragjust a fact.
Mola making is a critical part of every Kuna familys livelihood. Mothers begin teaching their daughters to make molas when the girls are youngyou see many simple little coaster-size molas made by kids who are starting out in the craft, and their mothers often try to sell one or two of them for a dollar, or theyll give you one as a gift if you give them the gift of some foodcoffee, dried milk, sugar. By the time theyre teenagers, girls are making the real articles and going out with their mothers on the ulus to market them to passing boats. Weve heard it told that in Lisas immediate familya clan that had a heritage of famous mola mastersthere were no daughters, so she was brought up as a girl, and taught by her mother the sewing skills of a woman. Today, she looks and dresses entirely feminine.
Douglas and I are thrilled with the molas we bought from Lisa, have enjoyed her company and getting to know her. Weve seen her many times since that first day, tearing around in her ulu. When she sees us, she always waves and peels over to Ithaka to chat for a while. Shes taught us what makes a top mola, and shes told us about her family, about Kuna customs, myths, and icons that are often part of many of the designs weve been seeing in the work of other mola makers. She told us how every master mola maker must select one person she feels is capable of learning this skill at a high level, and then spend years teaching her everything the master knows. Lisas grandmother selected Lisas mother. Lisas mother selected Lisa. Lisa has selected a niece, whom she tutors every day. In addition to tutoring and making her own molasshe says she averages six molas every four months, working from one to another simultaneouslyshe goes around the islands selling them herself. Considering that she can speak English and Spanish (each self-taught) shes her own best salesperson.
Meeting Lisa was way cool, as my little sister Kelli would say. Lisas a major character in the San Blas, a working girl who supports her mother. But now that weve been here awhile ourselves, we notice that the place hosts lots of full-fledged characters who thrive on the freedoms and remote beauty of this still somewhat wild place.
In a small mainland Kuna village, we met Pedro, a schoolteacher. Hed come from Panama City, a sophisticated place full of museums, high-rises, medical centers, malls, cultural events, colleges and university, to accept a four-year government contract to teach English in this Kuna settlement. Hed jumped at the opportunity, he said, as the teaching market in the city was saturated, and hed been desperate to find a full-time position with benefits. Now hed been teaching at the settlement for a year and was absolutely miserable. The Kunas, who guard their autonomy with a passion, and seem determined to keep their bloodlines "pure," had their own unwritten laws for how Pedro should live among them. Hes allowed to socialize with the Kunas only on a very limited basis. But he was not, under any circumstances, allowed to socialize with the Kuna women. If he was caught speaking with a Kuna woman alone, she and he would be called before the saila (village chief) and he would be fined hundreds of dollars. If he was caught again, the fine would be tripled and he would risk losing his job. Oddly, he was not allowed to eat in any public place with "white" people. This, he told us, is so that he wont negatively influence the gringo tourists. (After years of oppression at the hands of the Panamanians, Kunas dont seem to like or trust them on principal, even if the person in question is a professional schoolteacher living and working among them.)
After wed met Pedro earlier in the day, Douglas and I had invited him to join us for some chicken at a little two-table Kuna dive in the settlement. "Watch this," he said with disgust, when the proprietor brought our three meals out. His was put on another table. We started to protest, but he shushed us. "Dont bother," he said, rolling his eyes. "If I dont move over there to eat it, Ill be called in front of the saila tomorrow morning. Its not worth fighting it. This is their Kuna Yala, and they want to keep their damn purity. So to hell with them. Ill just keep to myself and do a lot of heavy drinking to get through this next two years. When its over, Ill get my ass transferred back to the city." We left Pedro sitting there dejectedly, his face florid with alcohol, gulping back the nights tenth beer.
But not all characters are locals. One peaceful day here, just north of Banedeup, in the remote reaches of Kuna paradise, we saw an astounding apparition. Preceded by an elegant dinghy marking the trail and watching for shallows, a 95-foot Dutch-built Jongert sloop pulled into the cove where we were anchored. After so many months away from "civilization," Douglas and I were stunned to see a sparkling large yacht so close and dwarfing us. (Our mast didnt even reach as high as the first set of their four levels of spreaders.) We just gaped at it as the dinghy driver joined the other three people on board, settled their anchor and they puttered around on deck. Not long afterward, a young woman climbed into the inflatable and headed over to Ithaka.
"Hello!" she said. "We just came through the Panama Canal. Were heading north, and I was wondering if you have a schedule and frequencies for Caribbean weather faxes on the HF?" (High Frequency of SSB radio.) She was French, pretty and bubbly, and wanted to chat in a big way.
"Sure! Come aboard," I said. "Have some lemonade while we write it down for you."
"Oh, wish I could, but I cant," she said, glancing over her shoulder to the other boat. "Theyll see me and think I am having a good time."
"The owners. Theyre driving me absolutely crazy. We just spent the last year sailing 30,000 miles around the world. Rush. Rush. Rush. We sailed all the way down to Antarctica, and spent only two days there! We spent one day in Patagonia. Were only spending one day, today, in the San Blas. They get bored if we stay anywhere longer. Every day I have to call her madam and him sir, and iron all their clothes, clean, and present three formal full-course meals. My boyfriend is the captain. Its just the two of us running the boat. Theres no ventilation below, and they dont like to put on the air conditioner. Im going mad!"
"Well," said Douglas, "after dinner, when they go to bed, sneak over for a coffee or a nightcap with us." She was so thrilled, you wouldve thought hed tossed her a life ring.
Helène and Jean arrived at 9:30 that night, and we kicked back. They had their own cruising boat, an old Alden 40, on which theyd been cruising for a few years. They learned about the two professional crew positions on the Jongert and that the boat was going to the Antarctic. Always dreaming of exploring such a destination under sail but never imagining that theyd be able to go there on their own boat, they took the jobs as captain and first mate/cook on the 95-footer, left their boat on the hard in South Africa, and set off. A whirlwind year of offshore sailing and whistle-stop tours awaited them. We all laughed and chatted into the night, about sailing and traveling, and money, about how its a challenge to get the mix and pace of all three quite right. But we all agreed how crazy their voyage sounded.
The next morning, at first light, we heard an anchor chain being raised. We climbed up on deck and waved to Helène and Jeanboth outfitted in their pressed uniformsand wished them the best. Two weeks later, we received an e-mail from them. Theyd arrived in Miami, having completed in 10 days their cruise of the entire southwest and northwest Caribbean, an area that had taken us two years to travel.
Weve met some very entrepreneurial Kunas, who travel miles and miles in their ulus, out to where the cruising boats are anchored, offering to do our laundry or go to the mainland to buy groceries. On the mainland, we met Federico, a jolly Kuna man whos plugged in to everything a cruiser may want or need in Nargana. On top of his hut, he has a tattered flag that once said, he claims, "Yacht Services." Federico found us diesel and transported it out to Ithaka. His wife did our laundry, he walked us around town to show us who was making the best bread, who had the best vegetables, the freshest fish, where we could make phone calls. He took us on an entertaining voyage in his ulu up the Río Corazón de Jesus where we collected fresh water in our jerry jugs when our tanks were getting low, where we swam in the cool running river, and then on the way back he stopped and we picked dozens of perfect golden mangos from the trees along the rivers banks. All the while, Federico, in a mix of wild gesticulations, Spanish, facial gyrations and some English, entertained us with Kuna history. When we ordered a new windlass motor from the States and had it shipped to Panama City, the agent we hired there to handle the transfer to the San Blas screwed up, and had it dropped off at the airstrip in Nargana, where theres no terminal. Ahhh! When we found out about the error, long after wed sailed on from Nargana, we hustled Ithaka back there, a one-day sail, and as we puttered into the harbor and dropped the anchor, there was Federico, heading for us and beaming, our windlass motor in the front of his ulu.
Weve met scraggly characters in the San Blas whove been cruising out here among the islands for years on end, many of whom have never even officially checked into Panama. Nobody comes out to check. Kuna Yala is a different universe than official Panama, and everyone, especially the cruisers and the Kuna, seem compelled to keep it that way.
The most interesting characters were meeting out here continue to be the Kuna women with whom we come in contact almost daily. Most of them are very shy, but polite. Theyre proud women, and they just want the chance to show you their amazing work. They dont ask much money for their molasanywhere between $5 and $20 each, depending on quality (although some of Lisas can be several times that). Sometimes, as youre anchoring, and preoccupied with the task at hand, its easy to become annoyed as ulus crowd around your boat, even before your hook is in the water. But if you wave them away politely and ask them to come back later, theyll wait a ways off, hovering for the signal that its OK to resume their marketing efforts.
Once you smile and wave, theyll paddle up and stay alongside your boat for as long as it takes for you to admire their buckets full of molas, and admire their children, who are usually in the ulu with them. Theyll do their best to explain, in Spanish, what each mola means to themafter all, the inspirations for these varied geometric and realistic designs come out of each of these womens heads. Every mola, like a response to a Rorschach card, exposes the womans imagination, how her gray matter interprets her world.
Often, the Kuna women ask us for "revistas, por favor?" They love to see magazines, which give them new ideas for new images for their molas. Often, Ive wished wed brought down some old National Geographics, or art magazinessomething inspirational, but not junky. Or maybe not. In their efforts to be more commercially successful, some women have incorporated some distinctly non-Kuna icons. Weve actually seen molas with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and in a particularly jarring cross-cultural calamity, a magnificent mola depicting three Teletubbies, which Douglas bought for a particularly idiosyncratic friend of ours. So, maybe its better if they just continue doing their craft as they arean entire population of women, almost every one of whom is expressing her wildest imagination in molas.
Kuna women, in the dramatic native costumes and beads they wear every day, are extremely photogenic. But they are particularly put off by cameras aimed their way. If they see a camera, they often cover themselves completely in the plastic sheets they use to protect themselves from spray and rain in their ulus. Often they ask for a dollar if you want to take their picture, because a saila on one island once saw a postcard of a Kuna woman for sale on the mainland for a dollar. Annoyed that Panamanians and others were profiting off his people, he decreed that a dollar was also a fair price for a photo, so the Kuna, too, would get something out of the experience.
If you buy a mola, however, shyness begins to disappear. Usually youre enthusiastically invited to dinghy ashore to visit the womans family on the island. Often, youre welcome to take a couple of photos of the woman who made your mola. Then suddenly, they get shy again, giggle, and paddle away. Except for the greatest character of all, of course. Lisa. When we asked if we could take her picture, she took out her compact and lipstick, and checked her makeup, ready for her close-up.
e-mail the Bernons: Ithaka@CruisingWorld.com
Chartering in the San Blas
For sailors wishing to charter a boat in the San Blas archipelago, there are two options. Both are crewed, and both are excellent value. (Theres no bareboat chartering allowed in the San Blas.) Getting here is easy; fly into the international airport at Panama City, then connect by smaller airlines that service the outer islands into the larger Kuna towns of Porvenir, or Nargana, or any of several other choices along the mainland coast. Meet your charter boat there, and off you go! Weve checked out the following opportunities:
San Blas Sailing
This company is the only one operating out of the San Blas islands as a regular year-round business. We spent an evening with the president of the company, Jean Charles Coissard, aboard his Jeanneau 42 Typhoo. JC had a chartering couple on board for a week who were celebrating their honeymoon, and we all shared a delicious dinner together, compliments of the skippera great chef. The boat is also JCs home, and although its basic, it has all the amenities and easily accommodates at least one couple.
JC explained that San Blas Sailing likes to have boats in their small fleet whose owners (who are the crew) respect the islands, the environment, and the Kuna culture, who love to fish, and to entertain, and who are committed to staying in this area for an extended period so that they know it well. Chartering Typhoo with JC, it seemed to Douglas and me, would be a great way to see these islands; hes a warm, interesting, and enthusiastic man who we found to be wonderful company.
San Blas Sailing specializes in charters from two to 14 days, explorations of the reefs and some of the 368 islands, visits to remote Kuna Yala villages, snorkeling, fishing, and kayaking. (All this equipment is onboard.) Also available is a 65-foot powerboat, and a large catamaran, which also charter on the west coast of Panama, and on which guests can do a Panama Canal Transit. Heres how to contact San Blas Sailing, which has their booking office in Panama City: Tel/fax: (507) 214-3446 or (507) 687-8521. Website: www.SanBlasSailing.com. Email: Info@SanBlasSailing.com
Occasionally there are charter boats cruising through the San Blas for a few months at a time that offer private charters while theyre here, but finding out about them is only by word of mouth. (Or you can try calling a few of the professional yacht brokers listed in Cruising World; they may know of peripatetic crewed charter boats working this area.) However, we know of one luxurious crewed boat that we can enthusiastically recommend, as weve gotten to know the owners, Erwin and Kris Pino, delightful, bright, and very interesting people whove been cruising their beautiful Morgan 60 Dutchess for three years, and wholl be in the San Blas for several more months.
Dutchess is well maintained and has all the modern conveniences: diving equipment and compressor; two large staterooms with queen-size beds; air conditioning; e-mail availability; washing machine and dryer. Kris and Erwin take groups of two to four guests for five to 20 days and encourage active participation in the sailing of the boat, if guests so wish. Erwin, a former electrical engineer and computer software specialist (he had his own company), is an avid spear-fisherman, and enjoys taking guests out to the reefs to fish, dive, and snorkel. There are tanks and a compressor aboard for certified divers. Kris, a former KLM flight attendant, has made the boat their comfortable home with great flair, and theyve been cruising it leisurely on a clockwise circumnavigation of the Caribbean. Both are excellent cooks and have gotten to know the San Blas area well, including making friends with many Kuna families on the outlying islands. If youd like to spend time with wonderful, fun people who enjoy sharing what theyve learned about real-life cruising boats and Caribbean destinations, and also see some special, out-of-the way places, this is the boat for you. And the price is terrifica fraction of what youd pay for a similar crewed boat almost anywhere else.
After the San Blas, Dutchess will cruise north to the Bay Islands of Honduras in November and December; and Belize from January through March, although these dates are tentative, depending on their plans and those of their charter guests. For information about chartering Dutchess in the San Blas, or any of the countries mentioned, contact the Pinos via their email address: email@example.com.