| 8:30 AM local time, Saturday, March 08 (1330 Mar. 8 UTC) 09 28 N 079 54 W. Temp. 84, Humidity 79%, Cloud Cover 30%. At anchor in Colon, Panama, the entrance to the Panama Canal.
Greetings from the crew of Maverick.
Maverick's excursion in the San Blas Islands under the guidance of Juan took us to the tiny Carti Island group, and then to the equally diminutive Soledad Mandiga, the one mentioned in our last missive where we took photos and did not have to pay the $1 fee. In the Carti Islands there was a four-day celebration taking place, and as far as we could tell, there were two things being celebrated. One was the anniversary of the 1925 revolution against the government of Panama, and the other was the onset of puberty for two girls of the village. Maybe things have changed in America, but when I was a lad, the beginning of the menstrual cycle was a matter of mystery and embarrassment. The young woman in question may not even have felt free to mention its occurrence to her mother, much less her father, or horror of horrors, her brother or the neighbors. Men were often so ignorant of the entire process that women would shield them from any knowledge of it whatever, lest they faint.
But here it is different. Upon a girl's having her first period (and you thought this was just a sailing publication) the entire village is alerted and a two or four-day celebration begins. The girl, or in the case of the celebration we witnessed, the two girls, are housed, actually confined, in a small thatched hut constructed just for the occasion. They can be visited and observed by anyone, even two white guys from California. They have their friends over and do a lot of giggling. Each mother comes in and bathes her daughter often, alternating fresh and salt water. We did not observe this part of the celebration.
Meanwhile, the adults gather in the "Circa" or community center, where both religious and governmental functions take place. They've been fermenting "Chicha" which is made from sugar cane and is mildly alcoholic, and now they drink it, along with a more recent addition, rum. (Rum, although made from sugarcane, is not part of Dule tradition.)
Ship's Anthropologist Terry Shrode and the Captain attended the celebration in the community center. It's a large version of a Dule house, perhaps sixty by forty feet, the peak of the thatched roof about twenty-five feet above the dirt floor. Even in daytime, it's pretty dark inside. Though we are obviously not locals, no one takes special notice of us. There is a "kantule," the leader of the ceremony, lying in a hammock in the middle of the room who is singing in a rather non-melodic fashion, and his singing tells various stories of the mythology and history of the Dule, plus the history and situation of the two girls. I'm given the impression by Glomildo, another native who along with Juan acted as interpreter, that what the kantule sings both about the girls' current condition and the future wedded life it implies is quite graphic. It may or not pass muster as proper for the ears of a Christian congregation, but of course the singing is done in the Kuna dialect and Jerry Falwell will have no idea what it's about. Come to think of it, however, that's never stopped him before. Under the singer's hammock a chicken is tied that will be killed at the end of the ceremony. A ceremonial bowl full of incense burns near the chicken. To accompany the singing, men dressed in the ceremonial costume of a blue shirt, accessorized with a necklace of noisemakers, and a black hat that I would have called a pork-pie, dance a sort of crude jig. The dance seems to be impromptu, and men get up one at a time or in pairs, as the spirit moves.
Even though it is a celebration, there is neither the festive air nor the solemnity that the word would suggest to outsiders. As it's four days long, there may be an ebb and flow, and we may have been there at a low energy point. Or maybe not. People sit around the dimly-lit building talking quietly, and paying little attention to the singer and apparently indifferent to the notion that their conversation may distract from the focus of the event. The women on one side and men on the other chat, walk around, or just sit and smoke cigarettes in silence while the singing continues. Although the kantule physically holds the position of honor in the middle of the building, I would not have called the mood towards him particularly reverential.
Mr. Shrode was told that, though it was by no means mandatory, it would be showing good will to buy a couple of bottles of rum at $6 each for the assembled. The bottles were ordered and showed up, and at this point they are given to a sort of wine steward, who takes the bottle and a small cup and goes around the room pouring a shot for each person. In the end, people become fairly inebriated, but still not raucous, at least as far as we were able to observe. The party might have gotten wilder after we were gone. Or maybe not. Later that evening, after we had returned to the boat, as we understand it the girls would have been brought from their little hut into the room, and would have had their noses pierced and their heads shaved bald. When their hair grows out, as mature women they will adopt the hairstyle of the grown-up Dule female, a Beatle-cut.
As for our river trip, it is said in the cruising guide that you can take your dinghy up the rivers on the mainland, but at least on the river we took, the Mandy Yala, you wouldn't have gotten very far. It was frequently shallow and full of fallen trees and submerged logs, and sometimes swift. It was very hard work getting up the eight or so miles to the village that was our goal, and fortunately Ubaldo, our boatman, and Juan were expert canoe handlers. Juan, whose full name is Juan Amado Iglesias, is an indigenous Dule and despite his familiarity with city life, tribal politics, and the history and mythology of the Dule, he is not so citified that he has forgotten all the skills learned in his youth. It was four hours of paddling, poling, and walking the canoe through the shallowest parts before we arrived at the village. At one point while Ubaldo was paddling I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye and looked around just in time to see a wide, grinning mouth full of teeth submerge. I asked Juan if that was a crocodile, and he said, no, it was an alligator. I said, Juan, let me get this straight. We have for quite a while now been walking along, pushing the boat up a river that you now tell us is full of alligators? They don't, like, bite, do they? He said, no, not usually. I said, Juan, would it be too much trouble for you to get a little more specific about the use of the word, "usually," as it pertains to not being chewed up by alligators in this river? He said, don't worry, no problem.
Folks, when you travel around the world, no matter what country you go to outside of the industrialized nations, a universally used English phrase you never, ever, want to hear, a phrase that instantly makes the blood run cold even though it is always said with a big smile, is "no problem." In Tahiti, when we entered the channel to Papeete and called on 16 to request instructions on anchoring, the person on the radio had only one thing to say, which was, "no problem." The full meaning of this phrase happened to be, in this context, "I don't care where you anchor. But wait until you meet the Port Captain. Compared to dealing with him, right now you have no problem." When you meet the Port Captain you find that, although there are 206 bones in his body, none of them is a funny one. In Thailand, "no problem" means "What you're requesting cannot be done, so it doesn't inconvenience me in the least." In Egypt, "no problem" means "this is going to cost you a very large sum of money."
So when Juan said there was "no problem" it didn't slow my elevated heart rate one bit. What I had hoped to hear him say was that the alligators preferred smaller prey, like little children, and I was further hoping that plenty of little children were nearby.
As we proceeding along our merry, alligator-infested way we saw two men in a canoe full of bananas headed downriver for market, and a young family harvesting coconuts and bananas into another canoe. We bought four coconuts and the woman, dressed in the manner described in our previous missive even as she waded through the river, took a machete and quickly hacked off a slice from each, leaving a hole we could drink the milk from. Then, as her boat was full, she left her husband and headed up the river, pulling the canoe back to the village. Though we had four grown men aboard, we could not keep up with her. Juan said that she would be returning to her house, from her plantation. Her husband provided labor and help, but she owned the property.
When we arrived at the village, the air was dryer than on the islands. A few villagers had horses, but the canoe was the main transportation, up the same way we'd come. The houses were farther apart than they are on the islands, where space is at a premium, but otherwise the layout and construction were the same. We observed a woman pressing the juice from sugar cane in the following way: A log is supported between two uprights, and the end of another log, about half again as long, is hinged, via rope, to one end of the elevated log. This longer log runs parallel to and above the first log, and out on the end of it a woman stands, and holds onto a shaft planted into the ground for support. As someone feeds the cane through the space between the two logs, the woman at the end jumps up and down, providing the crushing force needed to squeeze the juice from the cane.
The chief of the village was ill the day we were there so it wasn't possible to get permission to photograph, but Juan said it was OK if I took a shot of a local house when no one was around. I took only the one photo so I didn't get any pictures of the inhabitants, but I can report that, as remote as they are, the women of this village wear the same everyday costume as their friends and relatives on the islands. And despite the fact that wading in a muddy stream may be a part of the day's chores, their clothes are neat, and considerably cleaner than those of the Captain.
We returned in the afternoon to Maverick. Ubaldo carefully steered his outboard-powered canoe from the mouth of the river through the chop whipped up by a twenty-knot northeasterly, so as to minimize the spray on the two old Merkis, or Americans. It was a reasonably dry two or so miles to our anchorage in the lee of Soledad Mandiga. The next day we sailed with Juan back to the island of Nalunega, about an hour's distance. From there he went to the airport, and, as mentioned before, he and the chief flew to Panama City to meet with a delegation from Guatemala. Juan to the end refused to accept any payment, but we finally persuaded him to take a donation, along with a fistful of photos from our printer and a thank-you note written in the Kuna dialect, back to Soledad Mandinga when he returns home from the City.
Oddly, on our last nights at anchor in the San Blas Islands, both Mr. Shrode and the Captain experienced vivid, intense, and disturbing dreams.
Though I was assisted in understanding the Dule by Juan Iglesias, to whom I am very
grateful, any misinterpretations or errors in my rendering of the people or their culture are due to
my inattention or neglect, not his lack of knowledge. Juan is preparing a book on the mythology of
the Dule, under the auspices of the Congresso General Kuna, or Kuna National Congress, with
particular emphasis on their creation myths. (As it turns out, these are different from those taught
by Trevor and Harold back in Grenada.) For further clarification, or to arrange cultural tours of
the San Blas Islands, Juan can be reached at www.c.g.k.p.com.pa.
Further comment on the name "Dule" rather than "Kuna": Juan views the naming of the
Congress "Kuna" as a mistake, and it is notable how sensitive names of cultures tend in some cases
to be. There are many "Eskimo" tribes. Some of them don't like the word Eskimo, but to others it's
fine. Some undoubtedly think the NAACP should be called the NAAAAP instead. Even though Dennis Banks
is ordinarily a soft-spoken, gentle giant of a man, I would not want to be the one to scold him on
the political correctness of the title of his "American Indian Movement." There is an elderly Dule
woman selling molas at the Panama Canal Yacht Club, and when I called her Dule instead of Kuna, her
face lit up. She gave me a kiss, but maybe it was because I bought a t-shirt.
The photos of the Dule have been emailed home and in due time will appear on the website.
We don't usually comment on them, as we are limited in space for the captions. But a couple need
further clarification, so you can refer back to this missive when they're posted:
The picture of the senior citizen with his grandchildren is that of Gilberto Deids, who is
the Cacique General Kuna, or the highest chief of the Dule people, taken on Soledad Mandiga.
The picture of the young girl holding an infant and small child shows how the average Dule
girls look before the ceremony described above, at which time they will assume the dress and
hairstyle you see in the other photos.
We have a date of March 13 for our transit of the Panama Canal, probably lasting two days. Most likely,
if our transit is not delayed, we will be in the Miraflores locks, where the web cam is, on the 14th. For those of
you who aren't bored by watching vegetables grow, and your willingness to read these missives puts most of you in
this category, we'll soon be sending details of how you can observe us in the lock from the comfort of your own home
or office, via the Internet.
Next report more-or-less from this location: The Great Divide