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March 3, 2013


Dear Friends and Family,

It is a cool, cloudy, rainy, windy day.  We have taken cover for a big blow today with winds in the 30 knot range.  That is 33 mph for you land lubbers.  The storm had been predicted for some time and is the result of a cold front that has impacted weather in Florida all the way to the east Caribbean and to South America.  I understand that friends on their sail boat in the Florida Keys are experiencing temps in the 50’s.  We have temps in the 70’s and while cool for us, it is down right cold for the Kuna people who are probably huddled inside.  The kids usually walk around naked or mostly so and their play ground is the whole island.  It must not be much fun on a day like today.  Some houses now have corrugated tin roofs and while it keeps their houses more dry (at least until they get corrosion holes in them) they are quite noisy during a rain.

We are comfortable on our boat.  We are back near the village of Gerti which is in the north west corner of a land mass and so we are well protected from the winds that are coming to us from that direction.  We have very little wave action and are feeling very comfortable.  I think some of our boater friends are in bumpier conditions at anchor.  While this seems the best place to be in this storm, there is only one other boat here.  It is a little out of the way and you need a real reason to come here.

Why are we here?  Well, as the title suggests,  we are here to go native.  We have had a great time with the boaters but I can have boating friends everywhere, including back home.  What is possible here is to make a real connection with the local population and have a strong cultural experience with a group of people who live very different lives than we do, on the surface anyway.

We are waiting a visit from Justino.  He is someone we met 8 years ago.  I sent his picture in another log.  The Saila, or leader of the community, has been eager for me to volunteer teaching English and they were happy to see us return after being gone over a week.  We will talk about when to come to the school tomorrow and I hope to find out how many students I will have or if I will do the whole of the school all at once.  I would like to work with adults too if there is interest.

I may see if anyone can give me mola making lessons.  I sure don’t need another mola but it would be fun to try and see if it is good enough to show anyone.  I am not sure what will occupy Rob.  I may get him to help with the teaching but since there is more solar power on the islands and more electrical things, helping them hook things up correctly or teaching someone about electrical work would be a good thing for him to do.  Of course the language barrier will be an issue but his Spanish is better than mine and when you know the context of things, it is not so bad.

We arrived in Gerti last week for a Chicha ritual.  This is a 3 to 4 day event to celebrate the spiritual life of a girl.  Traditionally, it was done shortly after a girl has her first period.  This time two families went together for the party.  This is not unusual as it is expensive for them and so they can share the cost.  One girl was young, only about 5 or 6 and the other was more like 16.  The ceremony is done to protect the girls from evil spirits and to keep them pure of spirit.  In fact, one person told us that they like doing it for younger girls to insure they are pure at the time of the ceremony.  They thought it also made the whole process of becoming a woman  more calm and beautiful.

What is interesting is that this culture doesn’t discuss things like periods or even where babies come from, much as it was not that long ago in our culture.  When a girl starts her period,  you can imagine the fear she must have.  When a child asks a woman who is big with her pregnancy why she is getting fat, the pregnant woman will say that they are eating too much.  They tell the children that babies are brought by dolphins.  In fact a new baby is commonly called a dolphin for awhile.  (Guess they don’t have storks or cabbage patches here!)
What I am unclear of is how children cannot know about the facts of life.  People live in houses right next to each other without solid walls.  The houses are one large room.  There is little modesty or privacy.  There are enough children around to know that lack of privacy doesn’t stop sexual activity!  It would be great to ask more questions but the lack of clear language exchange gets in the way.

Anyway, back to the Chicha party.  Chicha is the name for a fermented drink made with pressed sugar cane juice and coffee.  The date of the event is tentative as it won’t start until the official chicha maker says that the chicha is ready.  In a previous log, I sent a picture of the pots that the liquid ferments in.  It takes about 20 or so days.  This particular party started a day or so later than we had expected so we only stayed for the first day as we had another cultural event to get to.

We arrived back to Gerti to find a couple other boats that had heard about the event when we announced it on the SSB net in the mornings.  We had not met them yet but one woman was having her birthday and invited us other two boats to have a traditional Kuna meal at the home of one of the Kunas that do jobs for boaters.  It is Bradeo, the one I sent a picture of with the albino baby.  The meals are $3 each and served in his home.  I was a little confused because I had seen his home and it was small with no table or chairs.  We were surprised that he had it fixed up pretty good in his walled in open court yard area.  There was a blue tarp spread over the table as a ceiling and there were two home made rough tables with 3 plastic chairs and a board put on low pieces of wood to make a bench for the other side.  The guys let us girls have the chairs and they sat with their knees up around their chin.  In addition, the plank was thin and their behinds were not!  It was not really very comfortable since you couldn’t really put your legs under the tables because of the way they are made.  Of course, the people they are made for are quite a bit smaller than we are!  The table tops were covered with the same cloth that they use as their wrap skirts.  When it got dark, Bradeo put up a head lamp from a line under the blue tarp.


It was awhile before we got our food.  We brought our own drinks with us but the food was really traditional.  It was the boiled plantain and yucca done in coconut water.  It was hot like a soup might be.  There were two small whole fish grilled or fried, not sure which.


Rob, who doesn’t like fish, especially with bones, tried to eat one but gave up on the second.  By the time you took out the bones, there was not much flesh.  There was salt and lime juice on the table to add flavor but basically, this is what the Kuna eat all the time.  They have bread and rice and sometimes pork or chicken, but little in the way of seasoning happens.  It would suit my Dad as he doesn’t like the natural taste of food to be hidden!

Most Kuna don’t eat around a table together.  Eating is to feed the body, not the taste buds or the soul.  Probably a good thing for your physical health but I would hate all that I miss with the creation and consumption of food.  Still, you see very few heavy Kuna.  Unfortunately,  the western style of foods they are adding to their diets are sodas, sugar water disguised as juices, cookies, candies, canned spam and other like products and cheese whiz!  There is so much they can gain from adding different things from the developed world to their life style but so often I see that they are adding what will harm them more than help.

The next day, we ladies from the boats went in to help peel the large number of yucca and plantains that would need to be prepared for the party.  They feed people for 4 days of drinking and they need something to fill up the stomach.  We didn’t take a picture because we were asked not to take pictures during this spiritual time and many of the women still would prefer not to have their picture taken.  We brought knives and 5 of us helped peel and cut.  There were at least 30 ladies there and the job was done quite quickly.  I guess they did more the next morning but we didn’t go in again.  There is a special hut used just for this kind of event when large amounts of food must be prepared.  They were also boiling large pots of rice with sugar which makes a sweet rice.


In addition to the rice, you can see the things we peeled with some of the ladies from the boats with me.


In addition to the rice and vegetables cooked in a soup, there was smoked and dried iguana.


After seeing that, I was glad that the big chiefs were the only ones that got that treat!  I have had iguana a couple of times but not prepared like this.  The other offering that everyone got was dried smoked fish rehydrated.


One of the boaters tried it but was not even able to get her teeth in to it.  It was worse than jerky.

One of the other things I did that day was to meet with a woman who offered to find me a mola blouse that I could wear for the event.  Here is one I tried on with the woman who arranged things.


I had bought some molas from her 8 years ago so it was so nice to see her again.   This mola was not the one I ultimately used.  Here is a close up of just the work on the blouse I did wear since you can’t really see how wonderful the picture and workmanship is when I am wearing it.  I think  it was made with silk thread as it looked so rich.


I had been unclear if she wanted me to buy it or borrow it.  When I asked if it was for sale, she said no.  I didn’t need another mola but this would have been a beautiful one to have, though I bet it would have cost me.

Here I am, ready to go to the party.  You can see the tiny island village of Gerti behind me.


It is too bad we were not allowed to take pictures at the party.  Most everyone was dressed traditionally.  The leaders of the community that were men were dressed in pink shirts and fedora hats.  All I can show you is us ladies that wore more traditional style


and the group of cruisers who attended the event with us.


The other two ladies wearing the blouses are blouses that the blonde lady had bought on a different island.  Both of them are so slender that they could wear the regular size ones.  They got the head scarves and did their own type of skirt.

Justino met us and after a while escorted us in to the Chicha hut used for this purpose.  It is a large building with benches along the sides and some put in the middle.  The chief people sit in a place of honor and conduct ceremonies here.  We were split up with women on one side and men on the other so we didn’t have Justino to interpret for us.  We thought that the passing of the chicha would start about 5:30.  Some of the people started in the congreso building (the main meeting place for the village) and so were already a little tipsy.  Some already were in to the beer and rum.  Finally, about 8:30 we got to taste the chica for ourselves.  It was not as sweet as I expected and you didn’t really taste the coffee.  It was like a very young wine with a little of the yeasty taste left.  I only had two sips so couldn’t tell you if it was strong or not.  Technically, one should try to get as drunk as possible because it will be more likely to put you in tune with the spirits and send you to heaven.  We didn’t stay “to get to heaven” but left before the party got too wild.  After the chicha runs out, people turn to beer and rum which is provided by the families of the girls.  You can see why it gets expensive.

We didn’t stay for the three following days.  There were ceremonies and different chanting and music.  Many things take so long, are in the middle of the night, or boring for those who don’t understand what is happening.  Some things were done with the girls who stay secluded during this time and don’t even see what else is going on in their honor.  Among other things for them, there is a body painting ceremony and a washing ritual and lastly the big hair cutting ceremony.  Traditional Kuna women will wear their hair short once they marry but we are seeing more and more of the young women with long hair so things are changing.  Some families are choosing not to do the ceremony.  The biggest expense of raising a child is this ceremony.  There is nothing like it for boys and weddings are not this big a deal.  We were told that the average cost of the 3 or 4 day event is about $2000.  When an average income is less than $20 per day, you can see how hard that kind of money is to put together.  Some families can only afford a one day party.  What helps is that each couple attending provides a bit of sugar and rice.  It comes to $1.80 at the island tienda (store).  Several of the boaters upon hearing about it, also contributed a portion of rice and sugar, much to the appreciation of the village.  When there is a wedding, the traditional gift is to give 20 sticks of fire wood for the new couple who is starting out.  Guess they don’t have Bed Bath and Beyond handy!

One last picture.


While we were waiting around to drink Chicha, two older women came around and one put one smudge on my nose and one on a cheek and the second did the remaining cheek.  This was done to every woman, not just us gringos.  I don’t know what this red paste is but women often wear it all over their cheeks when they are in traditional dress, especially for ceremonies.  Of course it is spread out, unlike my finger print ones.  Luckily,  it washed off easily.

We left the next day for Isla Tigre which was a long distance from Gerti.  You will hear about our time there with the celebration of the Kuna Revolution in the next log.

I hope  you enjoy learning something about the Kuna tradition.  Remember, it is obviously brief, incomplete and probably not very accurate.  Before you start judging, think about some of the traditions we have that, if viewed through different eyes, would seem really strange.  I hope to learn more from these generally peaceful and loving people and if I can share a little of who I am with them, that will be a good thing too.

Fair Winds,

Sue and Rob

Aboard Catalyst

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