February 24, 2007

Kuna Yala Tales

Kuna Yala is the part of Panama controlled by the Kuna Indians. They govern their own territory independently under the umbrella of the Panama nation. Most land is owned in common and people share duties, resources, and equipment. Tomorrow is Kuna independence day, marking the day in 1925 that a rebellion against repressive Panamanian rule began. 

Though the second smallest race on earth (after the pygmies) Kunas are universally very strong and fit due to endless paddling and hiking to get their daily hunter-gathering work done. In 1925 the Kunas slaughtered the Panamanian police forces and killed off mixed race people as well. Only the intervention of the U.S. Navy prevented Panama from retaliating with serious military might, which might have been the end of the Kuna people. In a series of political moves over many decades, the Kunas have gradually gained more and more independence in governing their nation.

We've come to a more traditional island, Isla Tigre, to witness the independence festivities. At the moment Leslie and the kids are ashore enjoying (I hope!) a traditional puberty festival that precedes the independence activities on Sunday. Kuna society is matrilineal and the men play a secondary role mainly as hunter-gatherers. When a girl reaches puberty the whole village celebrates in a day-long rite of chicha drinking, dancing, and socializing. Soon everyone on the island is reeling around drunk and enjoying themselves. We understand that families start saving up for this celebration the moment a girl is born.

I've decided to skip this traditional festival. I'm not wild about crowds and drunk crowds give me the willies—I'll get the play-by-play from Leslie later.
We're traveling in company with Kalani, a catamaran with two kids the right ages for Ian and Heather to hang out with. The other day we took our two dinghies up the Rio Diablo, deep into the jungle. The river was very shallow and full of snags and fallen trees. It was very reminiscent of paddling up the Kayaderosseras River back home, if you ignored the alligators. Finally, we reached an area that was too shallow to continue without lots of dragging across sandbars, so we pulled up the dinghies and jumped in for a wonderful freshwater bath. We were surrounded by primeval jungle, millions of polliwogs, and lots of young frogs. Parrots were chattering in the trees, but we didn't see any monkeys. We did see lots of birds that will require our bird books to figure out what they were.

Last week we were over in the East Lemmons for a Kuna dance demonstration and langousta cookout on the beach. Leslie was in seventh heaven and we were able to film a lot of dancing. Often the Kunas don't want their photos taken, or else they demand a dollar to take a shot, so it was great to be on an island where they didn't mind photography. We had a wonderful sail from the Lemmons back to the area we call the Swimming Pool, which is the cruisers' favorite hangout. There is an island there we call BBQ Island, where every Monday cruisers get together for a potluck dinner and giant trash burning. Unfortunately, a huge rainstorm blasted through just after we lit the bonfire, which quickly became a huge smoke pot as we all ran for our dinghies. Some of the boaters dashed into the kids fort they had built under the palm trees, complete with a good thatched roof. The local Kuna caretaker, Edwina, is very friendly and he encourages the kids to come and play on the island. When we're in the area we bring him a little treat of cookies, or some sort of food, and say hello.

We're finding that we know a fair number of Kunas too. Onshore we ran into a family that we met last summer on the Coco Banderos Islands. Families are rotated around the various islands to take care of the coconuts and maintain the islands, and to gain access to new fishing grounds. This group remembered Leslie from her dance and singing routines on the beach, and for the day we towed some of them to safety during a storm. Leslie was quickly surrounded by dozens of Kunas all wanting to meet her and to introduce their extended families. It is an interesting experience for Leslie (all 5' 2" of her) to tower over the crowd. Ian, who is now taller than Leslie, gets lots of odd looks. He is taller than everyone. Kids his age look like grade schoolers next to Ian, and Heather fits right in with some of the adults. I am constantly banging my head on low overhangs, rafters, and branches that are cut just high enough for the average Kuna. Entering a store gives me a crick in the neck because I usually have to stoop the entire time.

On the boating front the big news is the salvage of After You, a 35-footer that sunk after being towed off a reef. The singlehander (all by himself) came in from offshore late and tired and decided to anchor on Mayflower Reef, a shallow area studded with coral heads. He let out all his chain and some nylon rode, which eventually was cut through by the coral. There was a large sea running which pushed him rapidly onto a reef further to the south, where the boat pounded for at least a day. Rescuers soon gathered and plucked the sailor off the boat. 

In a situation like that the laws of salvage come into play, and essentially the salvagers get to keep the boat if they save it, or they get paid by the owner to get the boat back. (Never accept a tow on the water unless it is clear that you are not agreeing to a salvage claim.) Towlines were rigged and the boat was dragged off into deep water but rapidly filled from damage on the starboard side. In fact, the boat went down so quickly that several people onboard had to swim for their lives. It sank in 160 feet of water. From there a local trader with a big shrimp boat managed to dive down, secure a towline on the craft, and then drag it into shallow water. A fiberglass patch was applied and the boat was refloated. 

I took a quick tour of the craft and it looks pretty good for a boat that was on the bottom for a week. The interesting thing is that items containing air were crushed flat by the pressure at 160 feet. The cockpit cushions looked like slices of cheese. The salvager has made some deal with the former owner who is now off to Mexico to look at buying a new boat—jump right back on the horse after it throws you! After You will be towed to Cartagena for a rebuild and then sale.

We also had a fun time obtaining water at Rio Azucar. This tiny island has organized a pipeline from the river to a small water tower, which then feeds pipes that run down to the public wharf. The town earns a bit of money by selling water to sailors and others. We sailed in only to find an inter-island freighter tied to the wharf, but they waved us in and we rafted alongside. Everyone was very friendly and excited to see us, but no water was available for some reason to do with washing laundry?! We bought a few good veggies and decided to try again the next day.

The next day we arrived at the wharf and tied up alongside a big dugout, who soon decided to leave, causing another fire drill. But, no water available again, due to it being Sunday. Aargh! We left the dock but the crowd started shouting "Agua, agua!" So we circled back, and then we could hear everyone sigh, then shout "No agua, no agua," just as we reached the wharf. We took off again, then everyone started shouting again: "Agua, agua!" Were they playing a game with us?

Back to the wharf we went, but this time we could see the secretary showing up to take our money ($5 for dockage, $10 for all the water we could hold) and we tied up. Then we discovered that the regular pipe had no water pressure, but a 2" PVC pipe could create a gusher. The problem was to connect our garden hose to the big pipe. Lots of rags and lines later, and two Kunas holding the lash up together, and we were golden. We took on lots of water and were almost full up when a little child decided to turn up the water pressure, which blew out our temporary lash up sending a geyser over the laughing crowd.

Finally, we were just about done when a missionary boat showed up (this was Sunday) and wanted to dock outside of us. We didn't want missionaries tramping back and forth over our boat all day, so we waved them off with shouts of "cinco minutos!" We dashed around coiling hoses, paying off our helpers, undoing lines, and off we went with half the town shouting and waving goodbye. We were the entertainment for the day.