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Latin America Abeja Dispatch

Bermuda, Bahamas, Come on Pretty Mama...Down to Porvenir

The white sand beaches and warm blue water are lulling me away from the stresses of traveling. I need to get to Peru? Where's that? The Internet? Huh? I think I'll just have another sip of coconut milk and forget my worries. I'm far away from Internet access now as I write this.

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A Kuna woman looks out to sea
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Porvenir, the island where we sit waiting for a boat, is the first in this string of 365 gorgeous white sand islands in the clear blue Caribbean, north of Panama. It is also the capital of the San Blas province. The indigenous people of these islands, the Kuna, managed to avoid the fate of most of the other Native American tribes. Due to tenacity and foresight on the part of the Kuna, the Spanish conquistadores never managed to conquer these people. In the 1800's, they developed traditional costumes and strengthened cultural identity in the face of Spanish and French attempts to colonize. They developed a democratic system of government that listens to the people.

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This nice Kuna family posed for a photo
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In 1925 they fought fiercely for their autonomy, and even declared themselves independent of Panama for a few months. When Panama sent troops to squelch their rebellion, the United States sent a warship to observe and protect the Kuna's rights. Today, the Kuna run the San Blas province, which includes all these islands and a small strip of mainland along the coast, with little interference from the Panamanian government. About 50,000 Kuna inhabit fifty of these islands, and the rest are used for growing coconuts (yum!) and for tourism. One local, when we told him we were writing about indigenous peoples in Central America, simply stated, "We Kuna, we're doing alright."

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Two Kuna women pause on their way through the village
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Most people here do not speak English or Spanish, only Kuna. That makes it hard to talk to people, even to the children. The women still wear their traditional dress. A red scarf sits untied on their head over a short "peter pan" haircut. Brightly colored molas cover the front and back of their blouses, and they wear a blue and green wrap around skirts. Molas are complicated applique cloth designs that the women sew by hand. The designs are intricate and beautiful-birds, plants, and complex patterns. They require great skill, and people come from all over the world to admire and buy them.

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Abeja with an elder Kuna woman (Abeja is the tall one)
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Most women and even young girls have a line tattooed from the top of their forehead to the bottom of their nose for beauty. In their nose they wear a center nose-ring. But my favorite parts of the traditional Kuna women's fashion are the bracelets and anklets they wear. They're made out of little beads and extend up both forearms and calves. I bought a few small sections and put them on. Unfortunately, the designs were lost on me, as my ankles and wrists are thicker than those of the small Kunas, so the pattern didn't line up with each wrap! (I read that the Kuna are on average the second smallest people in the world, after the pygmies in Africa.)

Clothes hanging out to dry
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I had heard that the Kuna have very powerful healers, so I asked a man named Charlie about it. Charlie told me in broken English that every island has at least one Nele, or healer. "When someone is sick, the Nele go around the island and get pieces of wood and leaves. They make a bath with these and bath for four days. They sing and do secrets, and then they know what is wrong with the person and can heal them."

Then Charlie brought out a long stick with a head carved in the top of it. "This is the doctor. If someone really sick, he cure them. Right now, he no here. But the Nele do secrets and call him. After four days bath, they send the sick person away and go sleep for ten or fifteen minutes. The doctor come to them and tell them what sickness that person has, then the Nele heal them. The doctor is very old. Older than Charlie." He pointed to himself and laughed.

The Kuna men no longer wear their traditional clothing, opting instead for shorts and T-shirts. However, they, too, speak the Kuna language and follow traditional cultural and political customs. It's prohibited for a Kuna to marry outside the Kuna race. That rule has enabled helped them survive to be the last remaining full-blooded descendents of the Carib indians. (Remember Jamila's time with the Garifuna in Belize? They were descendents of Caribbean indians, too, only mixed with Africans. Take a look at "The African Legacy in Guatemala: Black Guatemalans?".

When we got here on Sunday, they said that a cargo boat to Cartegena, which is allowed to take passengers, would be here Tuesday. On Monday they said Wednesday. On Wednesday they said Friday or Saturday. And so we wait, here, in paradise. Tough luck, eh?

I could wait here for a long, LONG time!

Abeja
 

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