April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tenth Anniversary Trip to Kuna Yala

Before and after our Anniversary trip we were extremely busy working on the 2009 Peace Corps Panama Calendar. The calendar is the main fund raiser for the Volunteer Action Committee, VAC, who uses it to fund Super Small Project Assistance, SSPA, grants (up to $60) for volunteers who need a source of funds to help get community members to events, jump start projects, etc. We were working until nearly 1am the night before we left, on the computer at our embassy host family's house (thank goodness for their hospitality and flexibility!), and then had to get up at 4:30 to head to the airport for a 6am flight. So we were well prepped to enjoy a relaxing week when we finally did leave. (We will post info on how to buy a copy of our wonderous PC Panamá calendar just as soon as they are available so you too can enjoy it!)
For our anniversary we went to the Kuna Yala Comarca (sort of like a semi-autonomous indigenous reservation within Panama; Kuna Yala was previously known as the San Blas islands, the name given by Spanish invaders) on the northeastern side of Panama (sort of on the Caribbean and Columbian borders).
We flew to Kuna Yala in a plane small enough that Kevin´s hat touched the ceiling. We landed on a small island that wasn't much more than the runway, a small hotel, an administrative office where everyone had to pay the $2 "tax" to be in the comarca, and a boat dock. The process of getting your baggage from baggage check was a little less organized than some I have experienced.
(Our plane, just off the runway, unloading luggage from the nose compartment. The plane unloads and then immediately loads back up and leaves. It was on the ground for less than 20 minutes. When we left, we noticed that everyone who had just arrived was snapping pictures of their small plane and the small runway, just like we did.)
We were able to sit on the white sand beach and look at the clear water, but what we really wanted was to sit in a hammock, read a book, and take a nap. Or go snorkeling. We waited and waited for the boat from the cabañas we'd made a reservation with to come pick us up. But the boat didn't come, despite several calls from the payphone (the cell phone service there is the other company from our type of cell phone :). Finally around noon, one of the helpful folks from the admin office made a call for us on his cell phone to "a guy he knew" on a nearby island, and we had a place to stay, and they came to get us.
(A picture from the plane of our island. The white dot in the front was our bathroom. The red roof just to its left was our "cabaña".)
It wasn't on a deserted island (there were probably 40 bamboo-sided/thatch-roofed houses, a school, and a basket/volleyball court, all in an area about equal to three football fields).
(The view from our bathroom dock, toward some of the houses and other bathrooms.)
There weren't white sand beaches, and we wouldn't have gone snorkeling from them anyway.
(The view from our bathroom, toward the water. Yup. That's right.
While talking with the family during the week, we explained a composting toilet and its benefits. We seem to always be working.)
And at $40 per person per night (including all meals and boat trips to other sites), it cost twice what the place with our reservation was supposed to cost. But in the end, they were very accomodating and although it involved a 30-45 minute boat ride to other islands, we were able to do a lot of snorkeling in clear waters with coral, white sands, and fish.
(Laying in clear water on the white sands of Isla de los Perros, with palm trees on another island in the background. Coconuts are a big source of revenue for the Kuna, who cultivate and protect the trees and sell the coconuts for 20 cents each to Columbian ships who pass through the islands to trade.)
We were in a six room cabaña. It was over the water between the main part of the island and a small spot of sand.
(The view from our bathroom dock, toward our cabaña. April is on the steps.)
Other than one night when two Australian couples (who are spending about a year and a half traveling, volunteering, and working their way through central and South America) were there, we had the cabaña to ourselves, and we did our best to make it our own, in celebration of our anniversary.
(The bamboo door to our room. At April's secret request, our parents sent along digital copies of some of our wedding photos, which we printed and posted to celebrate the day.)
But even with no one else staying in the cabaña, it was only so private feeling, considering how close everyone else was.
(The view from our bathroom dock, looking onto that spot of sand beyond the cabaña. There was another family living out on that spot of sand. In the foreground you can see their cayucas, or canoes. Most are cut from a single tree, and then augmented to have higher, more wave-protecting, sides.)
As you can imagine on an island that small, with space at a premium, soccer and baseball are not the preferred sports. While we were there, it was volleyball season, and daily afternoon practices in the beginning of the week led to a tournament on a nearby island Friday and Saturday.
(The view from our bedroom window early Saturday morning as the volleyball team loads into a cayuca for the ride to the tournament. Note the traditionally-outfitted Kuna women in the boat with the uniformed youth.)
We would travel by cayuca as well, but it was generally less crowded.
(The volleyball cayuca headed to their tournament. Our cayuca was slightly smaller, but typically had just the two of us and a capitan.)
As we boated along, in a fashion earily similar to our normal life in Peace Corps, we did dream a bit. Our original plan for this trip had been a bit longer, and it was supposed to include a few days on a sailboat going through the islands, learning to sail, and getting to snorkel where ever we were.
(View from an island out to modern catamaran sailboats contrasted with the sail on a cayuca. Cayuca sailboats form a primary method of transport for the Kuna amongst their islands and for fishing. Gas costs $5.50 a gallon in Kuna Yala.)
But we were able to spend all but our first day snorkeling on a variety of islands, and based upon how red we turned in spots like the backs of our legs, despite using a lot of sunblock, we probably didn't need any more snorkelling time in the sun. And we were lucky enough that on several of the days, we had a small island to ourselves, or very nearly so.
(View from Isla de los Perros, where we did a lot of snorkelling and some sitting in a hammock on a white sand beach.)
On our actual anniversary, we paid a bit extra for the gasoline and went all the way out to the Cayos Holandeses (Dutchman's Keys). Because it is further from most of the islands (and closer to the open waters), it had more fish to see, as well as some pretty good corals. Afterward, April asked about bigger fish and our capitan took us out closer to where the open waters break on the coral's edge. But all we saw right there were about four four-foot barracuda, which was not the type of "bigger fish" we were looking for. So we started back in and spotted some clear waters with starfish (look for another post about them scheduled for the next week) and sand dollars, and did one last swim. That's when we found the next day's lunch.
(April brought up this large conch, which we brought back with us. The family cooked it out that night, and we had coconut rice and conch in tomato sauce for lunch the next day. We brought the shell home too. I think the family enjoyed the fact that they didn't have to buy fish or conch to feed us for that meal.)
On our final day, we went snorkelling mid-day, then went mola shopping in the afternoon. We picked up a couple of not-so-bad ones, but before we found the really good molas, we found our first really good sunset.
(Sunset our last night, from Carti Supu, an island just off the shore from Carti, the terminus of the only road that connects the Kuna Yala Comarca to the rest of Panama.)
Check through some older posts from April if you need more info on molas, but in general, they are a layered fabric stitching technique that the Kuna women use to create blouses. They stitch a front and a back piece, then attach a lighter fabric for a neck and arms and below. Previously in our searches for molas in Panamá City and other parts of the country, we had only encountered the molas, but here where the Kuna live, most of the molas were in use, still attached to blouses.
In Kuna Yala, women would bring hangers, obviously from their closet, of blouses with the skirt that matched them, to sell. Several women were willing to separate the stitching on their blouses to sell us one of the molas that made them, but some weren't and insisted we take the entire blouse, with both molas.
In the dark after that sunset, we visited a small island near Carti Supu and, surrounded by fifteen people speaking rapid fire Kuna, under the light of a flashlight, we found several molas we liked, but the woman didn't want to separate the blouses. She insisted on selling the entire blouse, for only slightly more than we'd been willing to pay for just one side.
But that wasn't the craziest mola purchase we made. We had seen several molas we liked a lot at our cabaña, from the women in the family there. So we had set aside money for those molas, so we could purchase them at the end. But negotiations bogged down, and we thought we had lost the chance to buy them, some of the most impressive ones we'd seen, when she walked away.
But she came back. With several other blouses! And they were even more amazing.
(One of the late coming blouses, that forced us to reconsider what we wanted to purchase.)
(Closer look at the mola on the back side of the same blouse. Normally, the front and back are very closely related in pattern, but on this one, the patterns are not only different from each other, but dramatically different from most other molas we've seen.)
In the end, after looking closely at several and debating how much we could spend (being low on cash after paying twice what we'd planned for our housing, and now feeling like we wished we still had the money we spent buying the other molas on Carti Supu), they offered to have their son meet us at the airport in Panamá the next morning and we could use the ATM there to withdraw more money and finish paying for the ones we wanted. Which is what we did. What an amazing amount of trust. And what amazing workmanship.

(The sisters who crafted the molas. Initially we were interested in three molas from these two sisters, but we ended up with six. What shrewd barginers they are! The young girl is the daughter of the owner of our cabaña and on the volleyball team.)

We returned on a beautiful sunny morning in Kuna Yala, landing in pouring rain in Panama City. Our trip was a bit different from what we'd expected, but we enjoyed it, and we will have great memories, and momentos, for the next ten, and more, years!

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