We were in the last stage of a Sierra Club adventure through Panama. This was a visit to the Kuna Indians, a semi-autonomous group of indigenous Panamanians living in the San Blas Archipelago, just off Panama's Caribbean coast. The Kunas are organized into 25 individual tribes on 50 plus islands, and each tribe decides for itself what it will focus on for its livelihood. The tribe that we visited had set up a small resort with a half-dozen thatched roof huts and a dining area. This "seaside resort" was our reward for having survived an ill-begotten trek through a rainforest (complete with fording waist-deep rain-swollen streams and a broken leg) and a few days in the Darién, a large and isolated wildlife-filled national park along the Colombian border.
The De Havilland Twin Otter that picked us up in the Darién now put us down on a mainland airstrip from where we walked a few steps to waiting canoes. We were a dozen gringos aged 20 to 70; we could relax, snorkel, buy molas (the local specialty handicraft of colorful reverse appliqué decorating clothing, tote bags, whatever could be sewn), and we could visit the chief.
On our first day we went off to the tribe's other island where the long-house was located and got ourselves introduced. The chief explained a few things about his role as tribal leader, a few more things about his people, and then invited us to come to a coming-of-age ceremony the next evening there in the long-house. One dollar per person, por favor. We all obliged.
The coming-of-age ceremony, the inna suid, it turns out, celebrates the 12th birthday of a Kuna girl, a big deal in this matriarchal society. The whole tribe gets invited to a grand party. This ritual has tended to fall by the wayside in these days of larger tribe, plus higher expenses/greater expectations. But there happened to be two girls coming of age at nearly the same time; furthermore, it was New Year's Eve! Altogether, a fine excuse to reinstate the tradition.
The main attraction at any social event among the Kuna seems to be chi-chi. This is the local brew made from sugar cane juice. The fermentation process is started with saliva, corn squeezings are added for flavor, and huge cauldrons of the brew are stirred with canoe paddles for two weeks. This is done for all kinds of holidays.
The night of the big event arrived. At dusk, we were ferried over to the other island, walked to the party and found the entire tribe – perhaps 200 people – in the torch-lit overheated longhouse. A quiet buzz of conversations was overridden by the beat of bongos. A half dozen people were dancing to the bongo beat. They wore necklaces of pelican bones. (Bird bones are hollow – it makes for a lighter structure, easier to fly with, and thus, they make decent rattles.) At one end of the longhouse was a dugout canoe, into which several buckets of chi-chi had been poured. Behind the canoe-cum-punchbowl were two men scooping out the brew with coconut half-shells and handing them to two men on the other side of the canoe. These were designated drinkers, who would drink from the coconut shells as fast as they were handed to them. Eventually, they fell down drunk, were dragged away, and their places taken by two more "volunteers".
Later, we were told it would be the women's turn to get falling-down drunk. This celebration might go on for two or three days. Meanwhile, other coconut shells were being filled from the cauldrons and passed around to the rest of the crowd, including us gringos. We could have as much as we wanted (you can interpret that however you wish), and we did. How should I describe it? Well, imagine the cheapest mass-produced "lite" beer sweetened with corn syrup and tasting slightly of used corncobs. For color, think of dilute saliva or clam juice – a murky, grayish stuff. Needless to say, we gringos did not get falling-down drunk. Not even close. In fact, after a half-hour or so, we'd had enough of the heat and crowd and, wishing everyone a Próspero Año Nuevo, retreated to our rowboats and our beds.
Meanwhile, where were the birthday girls? They were locked up for a week in a special cabin, where their grandmothers gave each one her first haircut – in some tribes right down to the scalp (revealing "the beautiful woman underneath") – and were telling them all about Life.