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Hang’n with the Kuna Indians of San Blas

Copyright 2005 by Cap’n Fatty Goodlander

We were ushered into the Big House reverently. We were on the seldom-visited island of Artitupu in the San Blas off the rugged north coast of Panama. My wife, Carolyn, despite being a woman, was allowed to accompany me to visit the Chief. It was dark inside the Big House, and gloomy after the bright equatorial sun. There were a number of men inside, gathered silently in the back – with more filling up the pews moment-by-moment.

We were carefully directed to sit off to the side, near a silent man praying. Or, at least, that is what he appeared to be doing. Or sleeping. Or inspecting his finger nails …just drunk, perhaps?

More and more male villagers filtered in. You could have heard a pin drop.

The thatched Big House was, actually, big. There was about twenty-five of us inside. There was plenty of room. Dust motes floated. We waited. Waited more. And waited again.

Finally, it dawned on me what we were doing: waiting for the Kuna Chief. He was an important man, thus we could not just see him right away. We had to WAIT to see him!

The lone man praying snuck a sly glance at us through the gloom. There was cunning in his slow, blood-shot eyes. He wore a brand-new black derby hat and there was an ease and insolence to his countenance which was in contrast to the others.

Suddenly, there was a commotion at the back of the room. The ‘Man Who Talks With English’ had arrived to translate. He peered at us as if we were from Mars and then, with a gulp, launched into a long and flowery speech. I let the words wash over me without thought… until I realized, with a sudden start, he was speaking English…the only part I understood was the final ‘…twenty dallar!’

“Oh,” I said, and looked stricken. “Twenty dollars is a lot of money in my country! And I am a poor, poor man…”

“…yes,” Carolyn said, “a twenty is much money.”

“…would,” I asked the translator, “the Chief be so kind as to accept a mere ten dollars?”

“Oh, yes,” said the translator gleefully/instantly, waving to the crowd at the back in joyous victory, “ten dollars is very much fine!”

The Praying Man is beaming at us openly now. He is, indeed, the village chief, which the Kuna Indians call sahila (pronounced silo). His face has the puffed, pampered look of a rich alcoholic. He does not scare me or worry me, but there is something lurking within the corner of his hooded, clever eyes, something ancient and malevolent, something Aztec or Mayan, something cruel and unflinching.

“…mucho gracis,” I say to him, and bow in deference.

Nobody in the world knows where we are. We have not cleared in and are illegally in their reservation/country. We need to be under the chief’s personal protection unless we want to spend all our time guarding our vessel.

He graciously waves away my thanks, as if to say, ‘We are both chiefs, eh?’

There is a bottle of sweet Italian liquor kicked over near his bare feet.

Outside, blinking in the bright sun, we are faced with the children of the village. They are utterly silent, large-eyed, and skittish.

There is a little girl of three or four in the crowd. I look at her. She is shaking. She can’t seem to believe what she is seeing: a white devil with a writhing face of ugly grey hair… Satan Himself!

I bend down to her and smile gently. It does not help. Her eyes pool. She quakes. I am too terrifying to look at. Her mouth curls opens and gapes pink. For a long time, no sound issues… then a cry of utter terror… so primitive and deep and true… it cuts me to the quick.

The translator says something, and most of them, adult and child alike, eagerly crowd around us with outstretched arms. Carolyn hands out cookies and candy, I tie brightly colored bracelets (actually red/pink Kevlar string) around their wrists.

We work hard. We have brought over a hundred items. However, we soon run out. This seems impossible. Then I notice the smarter kids hiding their treats and getting back in line immediately.

Clever.

Finally, we are out freebies. It is the sellers turn now: first we give, then we buy.

An old lady emerges from her hut with a crude necklace. She is bare-breasted. Her breasts are flat and long and point down/in like triangular arrows. In the serum of her nose is a large hunk of gold. This has, over the years, pulled her nose down and sort of elephant-trunked it.

She is not a child, but I cannot tell if she is in her 30s or her 80s.

Somebody nudges her and shouts – but first she sells me a necklace for ‘one dallar’ before slipping back inside her hut for a moment to don a bra. (Black lace, preferred… as many of the woman wear tattered bras instead of blouses).

The huts have no furniture: just an earth floor and maybe a discarded crate for a clothes hamper.

A muscular man pushes his way forward and thrusts a fresh pineapple at me. ‘One dallar,’ he, too, says, and I’m starting to believe this is the only word/price they know.

We run out of dollar bills. We are taken to the only store. It is run by a Chinaman. He sells food, fabric and (upstairs, behind a dirty gauze curtain) women.

We buy candy to get change, and a roar of approval goes up from the kids. (School has been temporary canceled for our visit).

I look at the excited crowd before me. I blink. I look at the thatched huts. I think of the chief. None of this seems possible, as if we’ve suddenly slipped modern reality in exchange for the distant, dreamy past.

Did we really start our circumnavigation just 14 days ago? In St. John, USVI? Surrounded by all the creature comforts of the First World? By familiar friends? Federal marshals? Law and order?

It really does not seem possible. It seems we’ve traveled a thousand years back in time rather than across a mere thousand miles of ocean.

I hear a chopping, and, trailing yelping children, wind my way quickly through the narrow pathways of the village, and suddenly come upon their canoe maker.

He is making canoes the exact same way they did in Christ’s time: by burning, gouging and scraping away the wood. We look each other in the eye. I nod my respect. His canoes may be heavy, awkward, and bluff-bowed… but they float, they last a long time, and are the lifeblood of the village.

His tribe has had a tough time, but they are, in a small way, victorious. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were being slaughtered like cattle by the greedy land-robbers on mainland Panama. The Kuna fled as far as they could – to the outer islands of the north coast of Panama – but, once there, they had no choice but to make their stand.

They proved to be ferocious, tenacious fighters. “We have bent, but never bowed,” one said to me and I could hear the pride in his voice.

Help came to the desperate Kuna tribe from an unexpected quarter: the Americans. The US of A did not want a ‘distraction’ from their primary goal of canal building, and thus interceded on behalf of the Kuna to stop the slaughter.

Thus, the Kuna have kept to their cultural roots far more faithfully than any other Latin American tribe. They rule themselves with almost no outside interference. And, they love Americans to this day. (Answering ‘Yes!’ proudly to the ‘..are you an American?’ question is not something I get much practice at lately).

Finally, Carolyn and I are out of both gifts and money. The whole village escorts us to the dinghy dock and waves us good-bye.

I crank the engine to Wild Card, our 38-foot modest sloop. Carolyn manually cranks up our anchor chain. A cheer goes up as our 44 pound Bruce rattles into its roller.

Later than evening, while sailing toward the Panama Canal, the Pacific Ocean and our future ocean-roving destiny, I say to Carolyn, “That was like a dream… like we were lost in an old National Geographic video or something.”

“Yes, it was,” she said. “And that’s the best part of traveling: doing things and going to places and learning things you don’t, in a million years, expect to.”

“I love you,” I told her.

She smiled, said nothing, and stared at the empty horizon ahead.

Cap’n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. He is the author of “Chasing the Horizon” by American Paradise Publishing, “Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies” and “The Collected Fat.” For more Fat-flashes, see fattygoodlander.com

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