Kuna Yala: Paradise at The End of The Sea

Kuna Yala: Paradise at The End of The Sea

by Mira Nencheva

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It’s a beautiful sunny day in Kuna Yala. A few white clouds slowly sailing in the sky, the sea calm, transparent and sparkling in the sun. A wet blue landscape in every direction. Small islands of fine white-and-pink sand covered in tall coconut palms are scattered in the distance.

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Rodencio Garcia is paddling slowly in his old dugout “ulu”, after spending all morning diving in the sea spearfishing in the reefs, and collecting coconuts on one of the few uninhabited islands in the Cayos Holandes island group. He proudly shows us his harvest and his catch: a few coconuts, avocados and mangos, few conchs, and a few small fishes of all colors.

Kuna Yala

Kuna Yala

He takes two fishes from the sea each day for his wife and two for himself. He has no children, so all he needs is four fishes per day and a couple of avocados, coconuts, and plantains. Four fishes per day, that’s all, because he has no fridge to keep any extra fish. Rodencio Garcia has no fridge, because there is no electricity on his island. No one of the three families living on his island has a fridge, or a washing machine, or a television set.

Rodencio Garia

Rodencio Garia

Rodencio Garcia's catch

Rodencio Garcia’s catch

Kuna Yala, officially known as the San Blas Islands, is a vast archipelago in the Caribbean Sea stretching over 2,300 square kilometers and consisting of over 360 mostly small flat islands scattered among coral reefs off the eastern coast of Panama, of which only about 40 are inhabited, home of the indigenous Kuna people. The bigger inhabited islands are densely populated by organized communities, and on some of the smaller ones only two or three families reside.

A small island where only one Kuna family lives

A small island where only one Kuna family lives

This autonomous Kuna Yala territory within Panama has its own independent administrative, political, and social order kept very much unchanged for centuries, where the indigenous people have preserved, to a large extend, their way of life outside of the rest of modern civilization, and where foreigner are forbidden to own property, to settle, or to marry to Kunas and remain in the communities, and only recently (since about twenty years) outsiders are allowed to visit.

 

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

Rodencio Garcia invites us on his island. We arrive there paddling in our plastic orange kayak and are greeted by everyone, about a dozen of men, women and children. The women are dressed in traditional skirts and colorful blouses called molas with bright red scarfs loosely hanging over their short black hairs, long strings of colorful beads coiled around their ankles and wrists, and a gold ring under the nose. They immediately start taking out and showing us their molas for sale. Only one of about five women knows Spanish. The rest speak their native tongue- Dulegaya.

A Kuna woman

A Kuna woman

Molas are made of brightly colored fabrics collaged layer over layer, forming intricate abstract patterns. They are the most important part of the Kuna women’s traditional clothing, and since cruisers and tourists started visiting the islands, molas became an important source of income too.

A Kuna woman showing us her molas for sale

A Kuna woman showing us her molas for sale

We choose a few molas and beaded bracelets for which we give them rice, flower, beads, and other food products and things we have brought to exchange. This is one of the most isolated islands, and getting cooking oil, coffee, rice, even fresh drinkable water means a long journey by small improvised sailing “ulu” or a small motorboat to some of the bigger islands, where Colombian trading boats loaded with various goods like gas, clothes, plastic bins, food products, beer and coca-cola, as well as all sorts of other “indispensables”, arrive regularly to sell stuff and buy coconuts, the Kunas main source of income, which they export back to Colombia.

Trading with Kuna women

Trading with Kuna women

On most of the larger islands electricity has made appearance a few decades ago, providing the islanders with refrigeration and television through generators running on gas, or solar panels. Here there are local tiendas (small stores), panaderias (bakeries), small schools and clinics. It’s almost like any other town, only there are no paved roads and cars, and most of the houses are tiny, made of thin bamboo sticks or cane, with palm-leaf roofs and no running water.

 

Kuna women near the island of Porvenir- Kuna Yala's capital

Kuna women near the island of Porvenir- Kuna Yala’s capital

But on the smaller islands where only a few Kuna families reside in huts on the beach made of renewable materials among tall palms, there is not even electricity or grocery store. The only light in the evening is from the small fires of coconut peals, over which the Kuna women boil fish-and-plantain soup. Life here is still completely self-contained and off the grid.

 

A Kuna women boiling conch over slow fire

A Kuna women boiling conch over slow fire

After we choose our molas we walk around the island for a bit. Near the huts, between piles of coconuts for export, dogs and young children are running around, men are resting in hammocks strung between palm trees after a day of fishing and collecting coconuts, and women are busy boiling conchs.

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Inside, the huts are dark. Typically, one family has two huts. A smaller hut serves as the kitchen, where fish is being smoked in one corner over a slow fire. The bigger hut is where the entire extended family, sometimes 10-12 people, sleeps in rows of small hammocks; there is no other furniture. We constantly have to bend our heads and be careful not to bump on doors and beams, as we are considerably taller than all the Kuna Indians. Most barely reach to our shoulders.

Smoking fish in the "kitchen" hut.

Smoking fish in the “kitchen” hut.

A Kuna man is having lunch- fish sop- on the compacted sand floor of the kitchen hut.

A Kuna man is having lunch- fish soup- on the compacted sand floor of the kitchen hut.

The "bedroom" hut

The “bedroom” hut

The Kuna Indians are the second shortest people on earth after the pigmies.

Mira (176 cm tall) with a Kuna woman

Mira (176 cm tall) with a Kuna woman

They also have a long tradition of matriarchy, where women rule. The Kunas total about 50-60 thousand and are one of the most peaceful nations on earth, where crime is extremely rare, homosexuality is accepted as something perfectly normal, and albinism has one of the planet’s highest rate. The only two times the Kunas fought in a war was, first when they rose against the Spanish after numerous invasions in 1750 and slaughtered the invaders. This led to a treaty between Kuna Yala and Gran Colombia and the Kunas were left alone. The second time was in 1925 when they organized a successful full-scale revolution against the Panamanian authorities on the islands who were oppressing them and threatening their culture, and consequently, the Kunas were granted autonomy within Panama. Centuries later, the Kunas are still resisting Hispanic assimilation and are still very much concerned with preserving their indigenous rights and ways, even though they are aware of the rapidly changing civilized world beyond their isolated scattered islands.

The Kuna Yala flag. It was created during the Revolution in 1925 and has nothing to do with Hitler and the Nazi swastika.

The Kuna Yala flag. It was created during the Revolution in 1925 and has nothing to do with Hitler and the Nazi swastika.

“Do you like it, living here, so far away from the cities?” I ask Rodencio Garcia.

“This is my island and I like living here. I have been in Panama City a few times. I wouldn’t live there. I like this place, the sea, and my island. My family lives here. I fish for a few hours in the morning and I spend the rest of the day with my family. Sometimes I catch lobster and octopus, but we don’t eat them, we sell them to tourists. We only eat fish and conch, which we cook with plantains and grated coconut. First, you boil the plantains for 20-30 minutes with the coconut. Then you add the fish but you don’t boil it too much; when the eyes pop out, it’s ready.” He says.

Kuna Yala Image Gallery

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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:

 Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

Maya, Ivo and Mira

Maya, Ivo and Mira

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