Learning the Basics – San Blas, Panama

Learning the Basics

San Blas, Panama

Me and my new friends
Me and my new friends
The Kuna Indians are pretty recognizable. Their faces have these warm-hearted round features and the women wear distinct outfits of bright colors and their world-renowned textiles called ‘molas.’ Without sounding too patronizing, they are, well, cute. They live on 365 islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast and for the most part keep to themselves.

I motored up to the island of Mamitupu and entered a storybook: hundreds of thatch-roofed huts with bamboo walls and smoky puffs billowing out from all of the little straw cracks. A foggy haze suspended over the village. Narrow waterways spilled into the community making for Venice-like passages. Giant palm trees sprung up from the middle of the island like flagpoles. On the shores, little naked boys played in the sand with a beat up soccer ball. Drifting off the coast of the village were Kuna boaters going out and coming in. The Kuna people seem to have this innate navigational ability – this instinct that allows them to get from one place to another using only nature’s cues.

I didn’t know what to expect. How was I going to interact with these people? How was I going to communicate with these people? How were these people going to react to me? These were my personal inhibitions.

They’ve survived for nearly 500 years. They have this rich history of struggle and defense; of resistance and perseverance; of fighting off people much bigger, stronger and more militarily advanced. However, once you arrive and look into their eyes, you can see what has helped them survive for so long. You can literally see the love, the respect and the generosity. You can see on their faces that what little they have is yours to borrow. They have so much pride in themselves – their survival and joy in their existence is what makes them unique.

Within minutes of my arrival to the village, I met Jonathan, a 10 year-old boy with this tiny inquisitive face as if it was wondering “what are you doing here?” and “where did you come from?” He wore a blue mesh tank top. Oddly enough, he liked me – introducing me to many of his friends and then his pet turtle who didn’t have a name. His family home was bare: dirt floor, hammock, mortar and pestle and make-shift stove. I snapped this photo of him smiling, after he told me I had big hands – in the background you can see a traditionally clad Kuna woman alongside a young albino boy (in Kuna culture, albinos are known to be legendary descendants from the moon and thus they are worshipped). The people are just beautiful.

Little boy in village
Little boy in village
Town hall was a larger hut in which important meetings were held. I was lucky enough to sit in on part of one – all the village chiefs lying in hammocks like butterflies in cocoons. The meeting was quiet and organized, each chief raising his hand when he felt it necessary. Their political system is actually very advanced for Latin America. Each village with several main chiefs, two of whom I met in passing. They resembled the Blues Brothers, both wearing black hats, button down shirts, ties, rolled-up pants, and no shoes. Belushi would have fit right in.

The Kuna tribe is famous for its intricate sewing work called ‘molas.’ The work is world-renowned and you can see the Indian women sitting out in the harsh afternoon sun stitching away: the afternoon is when the sun provides the most light for their delicate craft. The work is so intense and detailed that many Kuna women lose eyesight at middle age because of the strain. However, they wear their work proudly like a king wears his crown. I snapped a candid photo of a Kuna lady by her home.

As time went on, my friends grew, all of whom seemed to be enamored with my camera. These were such happy people and as cliché as it sounds it is true – with so little, they seemed to have so much. There was the village store, where coconuts (the island’s currency) could be used to purchase oil and other ingredients. The people were so simple and trouble-free.

The closest my photography will ever come to National Geographic
The closest my photography will ever come to National Geographic
I was walking through the pages of National Geographic – each turn uncovering something I had never seen before. Little women carrying cords strung with fresh fish, which they unquestionably caught themselves. Tiny children, maybe three or four years old, out alone in canoes wheeling and spinning like seasoned adults. In-hut stoves and roaring flames which would definitely constitute some sort of fire hazard at home. Marmosets ran freely. The Mamitupu school, sitting right on the coast and its students impressively taking lessons in Kuna, Spanish and English: a walk through echoing valiant attempts at pronunciations of the words “hell’” and “good mornin’.”

This was a totally different world and it opened up my eyes to a lot of things. Whether we admit it or not we live in a material world. We work to earn money so that we can buy things that make us happy – like nice cars and big houses. The Kunas don’t live that way. They live with nothing and they are so proud of it. It seemed ironic and sort of counter-intuitive that a culture so seemingly less developed and less advanced than mine could impose so much upon me. I was learning life lessons from old men who walk in puddles barefoot. I left the San Blas islands with a new glimpse at things. A new perspective maybe. The things I loved, like my new laptop and my precious iPod seemed sadly and oddly irrelevant. Waking up by the sea under a giant palm canopy had conquered me. It made me never want to live for my paycheck, to work so that I can buy that new house or that fancy car. I have seen how happy I can be, as the Kunas are, with only the basics of family and good values. They were proud of themselves. And now, I jealously know why.


For more information on Panama, check out the author’s website at The Panama Report.

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