"Later on one of the senior sailas chanted episodes from their history. Every so often he would be interrupted by shouting coming from each end of the room..."
“Na!” That’s ‘hello’ in the Guna language. We have so far visited some of the eastern Guna islands that stretch from the Colombian border. These islands are only visited by individual cruising yachts, not by the tourist trips which are organised from Panama. Thus their way of life is still very traditional.
The Gunas live an intensely communal and independent way of life, although they are extremely welcoming to visiting cruisers; the fact we are itinerant is probably what makes us welcome - we are not a threat to their independence or traditions.
Our first stop after clearing in was Tupbak (Whale) Island. We anchored and then paused to admire the breathtaking beauty of our surroundings, with its tiny beach fringed with coconut palms on the corner, the green jungle across the interior and at the far end of the island quite far from the anchorage, just a glimpse of the village.
One of the sailas (chiefs) paddled up to the boat to collect the anchoring fee and invited us to attend the Congreso (evening assembly.) We gladly accepted, paddling the few metres to beach the dinghy on the white sand. We walked excitedly through the trees to the village as evening fell.
The Guna dwellings are made from natural materials, most commonly slim vertical branches are used to construct the walls and the roofs are thatched. Fences of these perpendicular branches separate the outdoor areas for each house, offering some privacy. It was dark when we arrived, but warm as it is at these latitudes and lots of people including children were out and about.
The congreso was a large structure made with huge wooden beams. In the centre swung the three main sailas in their hammocks. All of them were smartly attired in pressed white shirts and narrow brimmed hats.
The women sat in the front rows of wooden benches and men sat in the second row. Women are only permitted inside the congreso if they are wearing their traditional molas. Their outfit consists of floral chiffon sleeves and bust with a colourful embroidered bodice, which they make themselves. They wear a sarong type skirt, about knee length in a batik design, usually of plants or animals. Some also wear multiple strings of tiny beads that run vertically up their calves and are fastened below the knee and at the ankle.
The congreso is held every single evening. In the beginning a man was talking passionately to the sailas - presumably bringing up some local matter. They listened patiently and seriously to him.
Later on one of the senior sailas chanted episodes from their history. Every so often he would be interrupted by shouting coming from each end of the room. This, we were told by a young man we met called Romeo, was the role of the ‘policemen’ to make everyone pay attention because you need some stamina to stay focused.
It wasn’t enough to keep the very oldest of the sailas awake though. He was a very elderly man and slept most of the time in his hammock. The atmosphere was relaxed and it was clear that this practice of coming together every evening was community building in itself.
Many of the women were sewing their molas using head torches and reading glasses. Children were running in and out and playing. A young woman swung on one of the hammocks at the end with her child on her lap and then on her own for the joy of it.
Romeo told us how important it is to keep these traditions alive and bemoaned that with the disappearance of many fish, it was becoming more difficult for the Guna to sustain themselves this way.
Romeo told us that a Chicha ceremony involving a fermented alcohol would take place later that night to celebrate the birth of a baby girl one month previously. Only the births of girls are celebrated as the Guna are a matrilineal society.
Like many societies, men and women have distinct roles. As a matrilineal society, men have to move in with the women when they marry. It is women who make and wear the traditional molas and whose births are celebrated. The role of men is to fish and for the sailas to pass down their oral history and listen to the problems of the community.
We felt we learned a lot just from this one evening and by the openness of the Guna to allow us to be there. Unfortunately, a couple of days later I felt very ill and took a Coronavirus test, which was positive. That meant we were confined to the boat for a week!
At least we had a beautiful view.
After a week we were restive and pulled up the anchor for the next destination - Ustupu, the most populous of all of the islands. Every inch of the island was covered with buildings. Many of the islands, including Ustupu are close to the mainland, a vast mountainous jungle - parts of which have never been visited.
The Guna trade, of course, but they also use the jungle to source fruits, wood etc. This enables them to live very densely on the inhabited islands. In addition they trade coconuts and catch fish on the uninhabited islands, such as Ratones Cays, our next stop.
At Ratones Cays we anchored among the reefs, watching a lone Guna man parading on the beach. When the boat was secured, we paddled over and met 19 year old Edwin, who was not alone. He was there with five friends who had sailed in their Cayuco, like a wooden dinghy - with a small sail raised on their wooden canoe from their home island of Playon Chico. They had come there to fish and to guard the coconut trees, an important trading item.
Edwin walked with us all around the island and told us excitedly about the centenary celebrations that are coming next year to mark 100 years since the Gunas successfully won their independence in a revolution. He was particularly excited about the firing of pistols that he said will be part of the battle re-enactments. It is impressive how much territory the Guna secured in their independence movement which has enabled them to perpetuate such a traditional lifestyle.
Our next stop was Niadup, a very pretty island. We were shown around by one of the functionaries, Jamie and introduced to two of the sailas. Niadup is less densely populated than Ustupu with beautiful greenery and flowers around. They are highly organised with a school, health centre, football pitch and volleyball court and were in the midst of constructing their new basketball court. We watched them gathering sand from the mainland beach, working until after dark to ferry it across to the island in their canoes.
Everywhere we went the children called out ‘hola.’ The Guna we have seen in their boats without exception wave and on the islands they have been incredibly welcoming and friendly. They are very proud of their culture and take great pains to preserve it and to share it with visitors. With the dearth of fish that is making it harder for them to survive, tourism has become more important. Even these less visited areas benefit from the anchoring fees and the selling of fresh foods like bananas, limes and delicious coconuts to the cruisers that pass by.
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