Ulu Men. Cowboys of the Sea
In the morning, very early, before the first rays of sunlight gently touch the top of the tall palm trees with pale pink light, they crawl out of their hammocks, of their little huts, and disappear into the sea. We watch them every day passing near our boat, returning in the afternoon, their dugout canoes filled with coconuts, a few mangoes, fishes and conchs.
Here comes Victor again. Victor is the skinny guy, about 60-years-old, who came to collect a $10.00 anchoring fee (valid for 1 month and only for one island group) the very first day we drop anchor near one of the islands in Cayos Holandes. His main occupation is harvesting coconuts from the nearby islands, and he paddles his dugout ulu slowly from island to island for a few hours every morning collecting coconuts. He brings us a pile of mangoes, avocados and bananas. In exchange, we charge his cellphone and all the cellphones of all the rest of the men living on his island (because they have no electricity, not even a generator, and we produce more electricity than we need sometimes with our solar panels). We also give him a couple of bottles with drinking water.
“I’ll bring more empty bottles for water” he says, but we have to explain that we can only produce a certain amount of freshwater per day with our watermaker (desalinating machine) and only if there are no clouds and the solar panels work full-power to make the electricity needed for the watermaker.
“When it’s cloudy and rainy we can’t make freshwater and we can’t charge your phones.” We tell him. He seems to understand and slowly paddles away from the boat.
We have become the local “Water&Power Station”. And we really love the fact that we can help the Kuna Indians of the small islands and we gladly charge their phones and give them water everywhere we go.
The wind has picked up a bit and suddenly our friend in his narrow long twenty-years-old ulu made from one single piece of hard wood, is rigging a sail! First the mast is up and then a piece of whitish cloth, like an old bed sheet, flaps for a few seconds. Victor fiddles with the “mast” and the “boom” and soon the “sail” catches the wind. The ulu slides faster now, like a snake on the surface of the water. Our friend uses his paddle as a rudder to steer in the right direction. Glorious sight: this slender dark canoe a foot over the sea, suddenly sailing! It turned out that the Kuna Indians are excellent sailors.
The next day I ask Victor about his sailing ulu.
“We have always sailed these waters, ever since we came down from the mountains and moved to live on the islands, many years ago, before you white people showed up with your big boats. Only, in the old times, the sails of our ulus were different shape and made with different materials. Now, we met you, the cruisers, and since we have learned, we make better sails now. Some cruisers have old broken sails which they don’t need any more and they give them to us. For us an old sail is a treasure, we need just a piece. And we make better shape for our sails now. Everyone has learned how to make better shape and now we all have good sailing ulus.”
An ulu is a dugout canoe made of one single piece of hardwood tree up in the mountains, on the mainland. The islanders usually buy their ulus, which are extremely expensive for them ($100-$500, depending on size and quality) from ulu makers. It is their most treasured possession- an investment that lasts twenty-thirty years, even more.
Like the cowboys in the Wild Wild West who were dependent on their horses and defined themselves with them, the Kuna Indians, who live on the small isolated islands in the San Blas archipelago are extremely dependent on their ulus. They use them for transportation between the islands, when they go to visit their relatives on other islands or to buy provisions, to go fishing, to bring freshwater from the rivers on the mainland, and to harvest coconuts, plantains, mangoes and avocados. When there is no wind and the sea is clam, they paddle their canoes, but as soon as the wind picks up, they shoist the sails, which are often made of found and recycled materials, some more elegant than others.
The Kunas’ main food is fish, coconuts and plantains. Typically, the men and boys from each family wake up very early and go out spearfishing in the shallow reefs until the early afternoon, when they return to their islands and relax for the rest of the day. On the way back, they may stop on some of the uninhabited islands or on mainland, to collect coconuts and fruits. They sell the coconuts, as well as all exotic catch such as octopus, lobster, and crabs to Colombian boats for export.
Soon we get used to seeing the sailing ulus crisscrossing the watery ways of the Kuna Yala territory. Sometimes they create traffic between the bigger island communities early in the morning (going to “work”) and in the afternoon (returning from “work”), a regatta of small wooden ulus with sails, like one-winged moths. When sailing between the islands, we ourselves are very vigilant not to run over a silent little one-winged moth.
The Kuna Indians we meet in the Kuna Yala world also get used to seeing us and demonstrate a great respect for us as well, maybe because we too are paddling around in a “ulu” between the boat and shore- a plastic orange kayak- a precious gift from our sponsors www.KayakShop.bg.
Kuna Yala Sailing Ulus
About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page: