Trip Reports

Dreamworld (03-Mar-2003-20-45):
8:45 PM local time, Tuesday, March 03 (2345 Mar. 3 UTC) 09 28 N 079 54 W. Temp. 84, Humidity 77%, Cloud Cover 30%. At anchor in Colon, Panama, the entrance to the Panama Canal.

We're going to check in tomorrow and do some of the paperwork for our canal transit, but the following will begin to get you up to date on our San Blas experience.

When you leave the highly civilized industrial world and set out on a small boat to explore the rest of the universe, the dreams that propel you are visions of places like the San Blas Islands. We missed the outlying islands of Vanuatu, the Louisiades, New Guinea, and the Solomons in the South Pacific because of a few setbacks and because we were too enamored of Fiji to leave. Outside of Bali and Borneo, we stopped nowhere in Indonesia, partly because of the difficulties in getting a cruising permit, partly because of the weather. (Paul and Francis on Okiva, never ones to be hemmed in by bureaucratic regulations, went to some out-of-the-way islands and dealt with the authorities with the old-fashioned remedies of bribery and rum.) Because of problems with our engine, we sailed straight up the Red Sea, and so did not stop in the little villages of Sudan where desert people rarely see outsiders. And the rest of our ports of call, even in Africa, were places that, if not thoroughly modern, had cash machines, internet cafes, cell phones, and satellite dishes. But here in the San Blas Islands, the place the Dule call Kuna Yala, much of the population lives with only rare signs of post iron-age civilization. Although fairly familiar in the reports of long-distance cruisers, the islands are not well known to the world at large.

There are about 50,000 of the Dule people inhabiting the shoreline and islands on the northeast coast of Panama. They are descendants of the Chibcha people who numbered ten times that many at the time of the Conquistadors, and represented the most highly organized society in South America outside of the Inca Empire. Their culture and traditions were crushed by the Spanish between the 16th and 18th centuries, but the stubborn Dules held on to theirs and in 1925 fought off yet another enemy, the Panamanian government, to win their current independence. They were assisted in the battle by the warship USS Cleveland at the direction of Calvin Coolidge, that arrived to take the side of the indigenous people. And you thought America only helped the bad guys in this part of the world. OK, there must have been an ulterior motive somewhere.

Today the Dule people have a relationship of independence from the Panamanian authorities that gives them just a bit more separation from the powers that be than our own Native American tribes enjoy. They pay their taxes not to Panama but to their own government body, yet Panama would defend them in case of an attack by outsiders. But I asked Juan, our guide, what would happen if oil or minerals were discovered in Kuna Yala. He said, "We'd be screwed."

The people mostly live on 49 islands of the 365 of the San Blas chain, some man-made. Some villages also exist on the mainland, where the Dules control a narrow strip of shoreline. It is on the mainland, mostly, that crops of sugarcane, bananas, coconuts, corn, rice, mangos, and breadfruit are grown in native plantations. Their houses give the impression of being those faux, quaint thatched huts that are rooms in the tourist hotels you see all over the tropical world, for example in Bora Bora. But they're not for show. They are made of post-and-beam construction with walls of white cane that is cut from the river banks on the mainland and held together by vines, cloth, twine, or whatever is available. The roof is thatched palm leaves, and the floor is dirt. There are two separate buildings to each household, one for sleeping and one for cooking, which is done on an open wood fire. Since many dwellings have no doors and the gaps in the cane in the walls is not filled, and since the whole family lives in one room, privacy as we know it is not a feature of Dule life. Furniture consists of hammocks, blocks of wood, and sometimes the molded plastic chairs like the ones we buy at the local Target store. Many islands have no electricity and the only illumination at night is by a fire on the floor or a simple oil lamp with no chimney. It is pretty amazing that every village doesn't burn down weekly.

The islands are mostly small with perhaps thirty families, but some are home to 1,000 people. Transportation between the islands is by the three main watercraft of the Dule world, handled mostly by men but with equal skill at times by women: a small dugout canoe without a sail propelled by a paddle, a small dugout canoe with a sail that is also propelled by a paddle as auxiliary power, and a large dugout canoe with an outboard. The canoes are hand-hewn from cedar. The sailing canoes are sloops with a headsail but no keel or centerboard, so are not particularly weatherly as they make a huge amount of leeway. The rig on the sloop is that sort of gaff rig where the peak of the sail, which is made from bed sheets or whatever is available, is supported by a spar which is lower than the head of the sail and ascends to the peak at a more acute angle than a gaff. I don't know what the name of this sail arrangement is; I don't believe it falls under the same heading as a Gunter rig. In any case, the local sailors go out in these things in twenty knots and three feet of chop, with a full load of goods and little in the way of either form or ballast stability. They will hike out holding onto a line attached to the masthead, not quite what we would call a trapeze but serving the same function. I would be a bit daunted to try to sail between the islands, as they are often many miles apart, in one of these unless I had a native skipper. Our Mr. Shrode took a ride as cargo with a young helmsman and crew, however.

On the islands water is obtained by sailing or paddling your canoe a couple of miles to the nearest river on the mainland each day and filling five-gallon plastic containers, usually returning around dawn. For this reason only the islands reasonably close to a mainland water source are inhabited. As far as plumbing is concerned, around the island one sees short piers, and at the end of these is a little hut. The interested party goes out to one of these to "send a fax," or more currently, "send an email," according to Juan. The sea disposes of the sewage.

One gets the impression of friendliness, cleverness, and competence from the Dule. Unlike what many might expect to see in an environment so devoid of modern conveniences, the people are energetic, canny, enterprising, and it is interesting to ponder how much of this is because of the fact that they have maintained their freedom and independence for so long. Of course, you could argue the reverse, that they have remained independent because they are canny and enterprising. So many of the indigenous people we've seen seem apathetic and lethargic by comparison. They are also very beautiful. Their strong faces remind one of the pictures of Peruvian natives (I've never been there so I rely on National Geographic). They have a prominent nose, high cheekbones, and sharp, alert, hawk-like eyes and though they are slight, the general physical impression is proud and even haughty. But their personalities are gentle to the point of shyness.

The island we anchored at when we first arrived is described by Juan as a "tourist" island, although I think few of those reading this would find the atmosphere too "touristy." You can get to the airport at Porvenir by means of a short flight from Panama City and the details can be found in the Lonely Planet Guide to Panama. But the Hotel San Blas on Nalunega, and others like it, will not have air-conditioning or cable TV. You may get a concrete floor and a bed as opposed to a dirt floor and a hammock, but otherwise your accommodations will be similar to those of the natives. There are no golf courses. Molas and other native crafts are sold by their makers, and if you want to take a picture of the native women, about whom more in a minute, on the "tourist" islands it'll cost you $1 per photo per woman. One photo of three women, to do the math for you, is $3. The Dule know their market value.

We were taken on Maverick by Juan to two "non-touristy" islands in the eastern Gulf of San Blas. On these islands there was no electricity and the people were quite a bit shyer than on Nalunega, but fortunately we had Juan to help prevent us from doing too many offensive things, a first for us. The second island we visited is called "Nellie" on the charts but "Soledad Mandiga" by the natives. Ashore, our beards were the subject of much curiosity, and among those under ten months of age, terror, as no men (or women) in this society have facial hair. Taking pictures is forbidden without the consent both of the individuals involved and the chief of the island, and the goal of anyone with a camera is to take pictures of the women of the Dule, the most spectacularly attired women, in my experience, on our planet. Unfortunately, they are also the shyest and most likely to hide their face, or run inside, when a camera comes out of the bag.

With the help of Juan, however, we maneuvered ourselves into a position where people practically begged us to take their photos. We did this by taking pictures of people who didn't mind, and this included the island's chief. Returning to the boat, the Captain took out his Cannon BJC-50 printer, which is not a very good printer but it is only as big as a carton of cigarettes and runs on its own battery or 12-volt power. It was brought along for this type of use but we've had no reason to do anything with it until now. We printed out a picture of the chief and returned to the island with it. This caused a sensation. Next, the bolder women were willing to have photos taken of their babies, at times with themselves holding their babies. These were printed out and caused another wave of excitement, and after that the Captain had them lining up for photos. I'm afraid the really shy ones still couldn't get up the nerve, so we didn't get a shot of every single woman and child on the island, but we got a lot.

Why are the women are so photogenic? Of course it starts with their native beauty. But the further key is their native dress. For the benefit of our female readers, and those male readers who from time to time enjoy wearing women's' clothes, the Captain will describe how their colorful look is achieved. Starting from the top, the older women always, and younger ones usually, wear a bright red scarf of store-bought material, loosely draped over the head. The cheekbones are rouged with an orange substance from a local tree, and a stripe is applied down the center of the nose with makeup. I'll leave it to our readers to find appropriate substitutes in the cosmetics departments of their choosing. A blouse with puffy elbow-length sleeves, sewn from a store-bought print of any color, is worn, and the bodice, from the breast to the waist, is constructed of the famous "molas" of the Dule people. These are brightly embroidered panels made of two or more layers of cloth sewn in a reverse-applique method, a foot or so square. The commercial ones turned out for tourists are made in a couple of hours, but the ornate traditional ones may take a week or more to finish, using hand-powered sewing machines. Juan introduced me to a man who is the designer of some of the modern patterns, and told me he's gay. I think you'll have to come here to acquire your own molas, as I don't recall seeing them in Penney's, where the Captain shops every fifteen years or so when old clothes need replacing. The skirt is a wrap-around cloth of colorful store-bought prints, usually blue, and shoes are simple sandals from a store in the city.

The ensemble just described is extravagantly ornate and colorful, and by itself would be plenty striking. But added to these are bracelets covering the lower arms from elbow to wrist, and leggings covering the calves from knee to ankle, made of tiny plastic beads strung together to form bright geometric patterns. The beads are sewn together onto the arms and legs and not taken off until replaced, about every three months or so. Finally, as if accessories were needed to spice up a drab outfit, the women often sport gold earnings, necklaces, nose-rings, and as many as eight finger rings, jewelry made by Dule craftspersons. You might think that clothes designed to fit the tastes of "primitive" people wouldn't look fashionable or sexy to us, compared to the modern western clothes Britney wears. You'd be wrong, wrong, wrong. The entire outfit, except for the jewelry, is a product of the desire of these women to show off their beauty in spite of the harsh prohibitions of the missionaries who taught them that to display their naked bodies was a sin in the eyes of God. For the patterns on the molas are copies of the original body paint the women used before the coming of Christianity with the Spanish. Another change came when the women switched from painting to beadwork when cheap beads for their arms and legs became easy to buy. Evidently the ancient ways of doing things practiced by the Dule women can be readily cast aside, when something more appealing to one's vanity becomes readily available. It's a sign that the Dule culture is adaptable to changing conditions, whether they're enforced by a new religion or accomplished by more extensive trade, without sacrificing their beauty in the process.

As for inquiries concerning foundation garments, about which many of our readers are no doubt curious, the Captain quite innocently came upon the answer to this question and can say with some certainty that under this spectacular costume women sport the same sort of underwear that they do in Fresno. This brings us to the subject of the location of the store where such things can be bought. The islands we visited are about a half hour from the airport by the canoes with an outboard. The flight to Panama City takes about twenty minutes, and costs thirty dollars, the price of three molas. From the village on the mainland we visited by canoe, it's an eight-hour walk and then a $3.25 bus ride to the city. According to Juan, most local people go to the city from time to time, mainly to shop. They have therefore been exposed to CDs (Juan is not a Britney fan, preferring Beethoven), movies, television and the rest of modern life. But they return to their peaceful villages and, unlike the Lau Group in Fiji, do not seem to worry about corruption from the outside world. The owner of the San Blas Hotel, a native of the chain, is quite well off and owns several houses in Panama City. But he almost never goes there. Despite the fact that as in many places of the world, many young people are moving to the cities to work, there is plenty of vitality here and no sense of being in the last stages of a society's history.

Amazingly, the women don't wear their costume just for special days or for tourist shows, but dress this way at all times, while the men wear aging t-shirts and shorts, with baseball caps. I don't know whether the fact that this is a matrilineal society explains that or not. The women own the property and control the household finances, but oddly do not participate in the political process of the tribe, controlled by a council of chiefs.

We had the honor of meeting the highest chief of all the Dule who is a resident of Soledad Mandiga, and his picture will appear on the website with lots of other photos of the folks hereabouts. On the last day we were at the island, word came to Juan that he and the Chief were to fly to Panama City to greet a delegation from the indigenous people of Guatemala. They are not of the same racial or linguistic group as the Dule, but share similar concerns, and they speak to each other in Spanish. They've flown off now but we will try to contact Juan at his office in the Kuna General Congress in Panama City when we get there. Next time: a celebration and a trip up the river.


Jim Mead has an earlier source for "It was a dark and stormy night." According to him, "the stormy night passage comes from the novel 'Paul Clifford,' written in 1830 by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. Dumas wrote 'The Three Musketeers' in 1844." That's all very good, Mr. Mead. Three demerits for correcting the Captain. Your claim for special privileges for this and other unseemly gainsaying of your commanding officer is denied.

Mark Taylor reports that the puffy white chef's hat is the "toque blanc."

My comment about people being able to contact anyone with a few phone calls was, according to Jerry Van Baren, the subject of Kevin Bacon's "Six Degrees of Separation" and a related game.

For those who've asked, yes, we will try to get an approximate time and info so that you can watch Maverick's passage through the locks on the canal website.

PS to Reg Daudert: Thanks for the invite; we'll more likely be in the area in June, so send us another email around the beginning of June.

PS to Dick Lathrop: We anchored in Paarden Baai (Bay), Aruba, but did not go ashore. You'll see a marina there, too, but we were in the anchorage to the southwest. Cruise ships are docked a (long) stone's throw away. As well as the above discussion of the Dule's watercraft and the one on the Canaries, check the missive from April 18, 2002, called "Night Train To Cairo."

Next report from this location: Dreamworld II

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