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A LIFE UNDERWATER: ADVENTURES WITH THE KUNA INDIANS IN THE SAN BLAS ISLANDS
CHAPTER 9 OF A LIFE UNDERWATER: ADVENTURES IN THE SAN BLAS ISLANDS WITH THE KUNA INDIANS
Chapter 9 Adventures With the Kuna Indians, San Blas Islands, Panama
Our first landfall in Panama was the San Blas Islands. These remote unique islands lie southeast of the Panama Canal stretching for nearly two hundred miles and are tropical jewels scattered all the way down the coast to Columbia. Our first landfall was at the village of Carti which was a thatch hut covered tiny islet whose dwellings were separated by narrow dirt packed walkways running between the mazes of huts.
The San Blas Islands are inhabited by the Kuna Indians. It is a matriarchal society governed by an elder female Chieftess. The men in their society were truly second class citizens! The women ruled! Small in stature, a Kuna woman would dress in colorful garments consisting of hand embroidered patterns on a layered blouse called a “mola”. Colorful head scarf’s and sarongs were predominantly in red and yellow patterned shades, uniformly adorning their stout frames. Their jewelry consisted of a gold ring through the septum of the nose, thick gold earrings and a variety of elaborate beaded necklaces. Unlike the women, the men were discreet, soft spoken and dressed uniformly in drab plain colors. In the time I spent with the Kuna it was very apparent that the women ruled the home, conducted business and made all the decisions in the tribe while the men obeyed without question.
The Kuna were initially very serious on our first meeting and had a strict set of rules for “outsiders”. If you broke their rules, often times the reaction was in the form of violent repercussions. Just two months before we arrived in the San Blas an American sailor had helped himself to a quantity of coconuts on a nearby out island and had built a small beach hut for his personal use. The Kuna came one night, tied he and his wife to a coconut palm trunk and set them and their hut on fire! Don’t mess with the coconuts as they are someone’s “money” property we learned in all our travels.
It was strictly forbidden to take any photos of any of the Kuna Indians unless you were given spectial permission by the village Chieftess. The Kuna Indians believed their souls would be compromised or owned by the keeper of the image.. In fact, one had to have permission for just about everything, including the right to wander through the village, fish on the nearby reefs, visit the nearby mainland where the sacred burial grounds were, eat a coconut or attend any island functions! During my time with the Kuna it was very clear to me that these people did not want the 20th century invading their primitive but organized lives! I learned that their bitterness toward and wariness of outsiders was justifiably due to the arrival of a procession of Bible touting missionaries over the years who attempted to change the native culture while condemning many for their native practices. As a result, some converted Kuna villages down island felt their roots, cultural heritage and the old ways had been stolen from them. I visited one of these villages when exploring further down the island chain and the contrast between Carti village and Rio Diablo village was very definitive and sad. At Rio Diablo I saw poverty, alcoholism and filthy living conditions imposed on an afflicted and spiritless people who had lost their pride, self worth and cultural direction. The missionaries had long ago left but not before robbing the people of their cultural heritage which left the population in a void between the old ways they had long forgotten and the new beliefs and ways they did not comprehend. I understand that in the 25 years since I sailed to these magical remote islands, a cruise line now stops at the picturesque Carti village bringing boatloads of camera touting tourists. The strict rules have been lessened to a great degree to accommodate the inevitable commercialism that they bring. Change, good or bad, is inescapable in all societies and always comes with a price.
My contribution to Rafiki had been a bright red twelve foot inflatable runabout with a 15 HP outboard engine. It was fast and spacious and became a valuable tool for our cruising life. I therefore made a humble request and subsequently received permission from the village Chieftess to visit and explore the nearby reefs surrounding the island cluster. On a clear beautiful sunny morning, I grabbed my free diving gear and spears and headed out alone to explore the underwater world of the San Blas islands.
The reef formations were vast and formed a distinct barrier to the powerful energy generated by the deep ocean swells that swept over them. I suspect that if I had had more time to explore this reef I would have discovered many ancient wreck sites along its jagged teeth. The San Blas Islands were on the sailing routes of the Spanish fleets that were carrying back to Spain, the plundered treasures gleaned from the Mayan, Incan and Aztec empires. What I did find was a reef formation that was a veritable labyrinth of caverns, arches and tunnels that honeycombed the coral reefs. The heads rose 30 feet up from pure white sand and were covered with lush sea fans, colorful sponges and soft and hard corals of every description. The marine life was vibrant, rich and prolific.
The first cavern formation I discovered lead me into a series of three large chambers. The last of which had a dozen large nurse sharks scattered about on the sandy floor. The dancing shafts of sunlight that illuminated the last chamber's interior gave the shark filled cavern an appearance similar to the light pouring through the stained glass windows of a church cathedral. In another cavern formation I found dozens of great southern stingrays of various sizes. Some as large as 5 feet across and others as small as a dinner plate! These barbed creatures are in the shark family and were very accepting of my presence as I visited their habitats on each of my breath holding free dives. Perpetually shifting about in the wave generated currents of the cavern, they would flutter across my legs to gently settle on to the blades of my fins resting in the sand on the cavern floor.
Coming around the base of one coral head I spotted a huge 25 lb mutton snapper. When hunting fish it is important to never take a shot unless you have a good degree of certainty you will kill the fish. A wounded fish dies a slow death, bleeds copious amounts of blood, and thrashes about violently. Not only does the fish suffer but his struggling body's vibrations will call sharks from miles away and can create a dangerous competitive situation for the spear fisherman. Snappers are exceptionally wary and difficult to stalk and shoot and when I drew back on my Hawaiian sling spear and let fly I was very fortunate to stun the fish with the one shot. I grabbed the speared fish and swam straight to the surface to minimize any blood or predator attracting vibrations. My boat was 50 yards away but the sea surface was calm so in no time I was tossing my handsome catch into the inflatable boat.
As I clambered aboard I noticed a black dugout canoe paddling toward me. I could see a brightly dressed Kuna Indian lady sitting regally amidships and a plainly clothed, slightly built man sitting in the stern paddling and steering the dugout. The canoe came alongside my boat and the colorfully clad matriarch leaned over the sides of my inflatable and intensely studied my large snapper lying on the floorboards at my feet. Abruptly her eyes snapped up to my face, giving me a haughty glare! She began chattering away to her male companion who simply grunted in acknowledgment at her angry dissertation. I immediately got the impression that she was not pleased with me having that fish in my possession!
In my most humble and diplomatic voice, coupled with an abundance of gestures and smiles, I announced to the regal lady that I was most unworthy of such a magnificent fish and would be greatly honored if she would take it off my hands! The dark scowl on her face turned immediately into a beaming, partially toothless smile! Her “man” took the fish from me, skillfully spun the canoe around and began paddling vigorously back to the village several miles away.
I eventually shot enough fish for dinner later in the day and headed back to Rafiki, forgetting about the encounter with my scowling Kuna lady. I was back at the reef the next morning and had just speared a sizeable grouper when I spied another canoe approaching. “Oh great,” I think to myself. Word is out that the white guy is good for a free fish! “Just scowl a lot and he will give it to you!”
As the canoe pulled alongside I found myself looking at a handsome, stern faced, bare chested, powerfully built Kuna Indian man about my own age. Rupa, as he called himself, ask me if I was the diver who had presented the big fish to the village Chieftess's sister. Not certain where Rupa's inquiry would lead me, I admitted that I was that person. Rupa's stern face suddenly broke into a huge smile. He thrust out his hand and began pumping my arm in an enthusiastic greeting! Rupa told me that I had done a very honorable thing in presenting the large fish to the Chieftess's sister who, he explained, would be the next Chieftess to rule the Kuna tribe. I didn't bother to tell Rupa that from my point of view, there really hadn't been much of a choice for me. That fish was going to be hers! Chieftess “scowly face” had been rather intimidating!
Rupa further explained that he was the village spokesman and had been sent by the Chieftess to find me and invite myself and the crew of Rafiki to a ceremonial puberty ritual in the village! He further stated that this was a three day ceremony and to his knowledge no white people had ever been invited to witness this rather personal event. He advised me that the twelve year old girl being initiated into womanhood through this sacred ceremony was his cousin. My thoughts were whirling and I could only guess what accepting this invitation would entail but I stated that we would be honored to attend the ceremony which was scheduled to begin the following night at sunset.
With relentless and hypnotic drumming filling our ears, we, the crew of Rafiki, were led through the maze of passages that comprised Carti village. The night’s darkness was absolute and complete. We trusted the Kuna children who guided us by our hands to the ceremonial house which was located in the center of the village. Ducking through the low thatched doorway, we found ourselves in a large hall with a hard packed dirt floor. Scattered around the edges of the large hall were an array of split palm trees which served as low benches for the villagers and observers to seat themselves on. Dim lighting came from numerous burning torches whose flames cast eerie flickering shadows on the thatch walls of the hut. The thick smoke filling the hall from the burning torches gave the assembled occupants a sinister ghostly appearance. For one fleeting moment I considered the fact that maybe we had made a fatal choice in attending what appeared to be a very barbaric scene!
Several brightly clad Kuna women took Sue and my wife by their hands and led them to the opposite end of the hall were all the women were seated. Bill and I were directed to sit with the men of the village on the rough sawn logs located at the other end. No sooner had we seated ourselves then a Kuna woman appeared in front of me and presented me with a half of a coconut shell. She began filling it to the brim with a brown liquid from a large animal skin. Immediately the sweet aroma of raw sugared rum assailed my nostrils and with smiles and enthusiastic gestures coming from the native men around me, I chugged the whole cupful! The burn down my throat and in my belly lasted briefly and through my tearing eyes I watched the Kuna woman proceed down the row of men administering the home brewed concoction to each man. I soon learned that the flow of this home brew was never to cease right up until each of us stumbled from the hall as the sun was rising over the horizon heralding a new day.
Through the smoke, I could just make out the girls across the hall and it appeared that they were imbibing in the “rum” ritual as well. During all these first impressions the hypnotic drumming never ceased. A dozen men, naked to the waist, each had a hollow log of various sizes in front of them which they pounded with thick sticks in a continuous steady beat. You felt its throbbing pulse in your head through your body and as the home brew continued to flow, you felt it in your legs and feet. They began moving to a rhythm on their own accord!
Rupa slid in beside me with a broad grin on his face and I realized that I was grinning just as broadly back! I do believe we both were drunk! Rupa told me that what I was about to see next may shock me. He was right!
From a wide covered doorway that I had not noticed before, the village witch doctor entered the smoky hall. He immediately began stumble dancing to the beat of the incessant drumming, his jerky movements making a clacking, tinkling noise which came from a bizarre garment that he was wearing. From his black painted face and neck to his dusty bare feet, his obvious nakedness was covered only by a curtain of small hanging bones! Rupo explained that these were Pelican bones threaded on twine and their clacking sound while the witch doctor danced symbolized the spirit of the bird who would be whisking away his young cousin's youth, leaving a mature Kuna woman in her place.
It was obvious that the witch doctor had consumed a considerable amount of home brew rum and had already partaken of it in great quantity. His stumble dance however had a determined pattern, matching the rhythmic drum beat and I sensed that what we were witnessing had been replayed many times over many centuries in just the same way.
After a period of time the witch doctor retired to a corner of the ceremonial hut. Through the same door that he had first entered there now appeared several Kuna women followed by four strong Kuna men carrying a large bamboo cage. In the cage sat Rupa's cousin!
She was naked and her young body was painted entirely in black. Rupa explained to me that she had lived in the cage for a week as part of her purification rite and all her personal needs were taken care of by the attending women during that time frame. Now the women opened the bamboo cage and the young woman stepped out on to the hard packed dirt floor of the ceremonial hut. The drumming began to intensify, as did the shouts and yells of the attending villagers. The witch doctor was on the move again and was stumble dancing his way toward the young woman. It became very evident that he was in an excited state of sexual arousal and as he approached the young girl the Kuna women attendees bent her over at the waist aiming her buttocks toward the advancing witch doctor. In one quick and practiced thrust of his hips, the dancing shaman impaled the young girl from behind with his aroused phallus effectively rupturing the young woman’s hymen. He as quickly disengaged from the young girl and danced his way out of the ceremonial lodge!
Quickly the attending women surrounded the young girl and hustled her out the same door from which she had entered. The drumming now increased in rhythm and intensity and the noise was deafening as the village inhabitants shouted, clapped and stamped their feet. More “brew” was passed around and then abruptly all noise ceased! The silence was deafening!
Through the doorway across the ceremonial hut, there suddenly appeared the young and beautiful Kuna girl shrouded in the whirling smoke that filled the lodge. She was free of the black dye that had covered her nakedness only moments before and now she was fully adorned in the traditional and colorful Kuna Indian garb that established her now as a mature Kuna Indian woman. The lodge erupted in a deafening roar of drumming, shouts and stomping feet!
From this point on the celebration was chaotic and tumultuous. I was grabbed by the hand by a Kuna lady and dragged into the center of the lodge where I stood with most all of the assembled villagers. I could just make out the grinning faces of Sue and my wife over the heads of the crowd. And then we ran! Running, stomping, clapping, everyone in the village thundered around the proud young newly mature Indian woman standing in the center of the throng.
All night long the celebration continued in this manner with brief rests and the intake of more rum. We all stomped and ran until the first rays of the new day began peeking over the ocean's horizon. In a fatigued and mental fog, the crew of Rafiki slowly made our way back to our bunks in the early morning light. We would sleep the rest of the day and wake with the brain splitting agony of a raw rum hangover. The village was silent and we knew that we were not alone in our pain! We also knew we had become a part of something primitive, erotic and flavored with the exotic mystery of the tropics. We would set sail the next day, leaving the San Blas Islands in our wake but we knew with a certainty that the memories of the San Blas Islands would never be leaving us.