Try to Imagine- Part Two

On the last entry of the Rainforest Connection we started to learn about the Kuna culture. During our stay at the Dolphin Hotel I had a very interesting conversation with one of the Kuna women. Her name is Jasmina, and she, along with other people, works at the Dolphin Hotel. She does a little bit of everything. She is our tour guide, serves food, works in the kitchen, but she is also a daughter and a mother. We had the chance to meet her mom and two of her daughters when we visited her hut on the big island near our hotel island.

As I was enjoying the view and the sound of the water, and getting a suntan, Jasmine joined me to tell me more about her culture. Through our conversation I was able to learn more about their fascinating customs.

The Kuna Indians inhabit only 51 of the 365 islands that form the San Blas archipelago. Although the other islands are uninhabited, they have caretakers that watch over them taking care of the plantations. None of the islands has an owner, but the coconut trees, and other trees, belong to different families. Each island has its own chief or Saila, who has to take care of the community affairs and differences among the residents in the community. The Sailas from all the islands meet during the year to take care of the matters that affect the islands. They also choose the person that is going to act as the governor and is the liaison between the tribe and the Panamanian government.

Women are highly respected in the Kuna culture. They take part in the community meetings and are able to make decisions that will benefit the tribe. Girls marry very young. Parents arrange their children's marriage. Wives have a very busy life. They take care of the children, cook, do the home chores, and make the "molas". At a very early age, girls are taught how to sew, this way, they can help their family by making clothes and molas.

After working late at the hotel, Jasmina goes home to the big island and keeps on working. She makes molas to sell to tourists. Her mother and daughters help her. Molas are panels of cloth made of different pieces of fabric sewn in layers that have been cut to show the different colors.They are very colorful and have many different designs. They form the back and front of the blouses that women use. When I saw the molas, I was amazed at the amount of work put into them.

I loved to see the way Kuna women dress. Their blouses are very colorful, no two are the same. They wear skirts with different designs. They also wear bands made of beads of bright colors. These bands are tightly wrapped around their wrists and ankles. All the women we saw wore gold earrings and necklaces. Married women cut their hair and cover their head with a red scarf. Some women pierced their nose to place a gold ring in their nose. It was interesting to see how many of the women paint their noses with delicate patterns in black ink extracted from a plant. They use this just as a decoration. The design will last for three days and doesn't come off with soap and water.

The Kuna men dress in a more western fashion. They wear ordinary shirt and pants. They are the ones who may work in the city or other parts of Panama outside the Kuna lands. It is the man who has to provide the food for the family, build or repair the hut, work in their communal plantations, and fish. The men leave early in the morning to go fishing or hunting. They come home and give the food to their wives who are waiting to cook it. Their diet is very healthful: they eat fresh fish, vegetables, and fruits.

We leave the San Blas: It is Sunday morning; we got up early to cross the lagoon and catch the small airplane that would take us back to the city. As we wait for the airplane to come, we see many people walking by. They are carrying baskets with food, machetes, and other things. It looks like they are going to a picnic. Jasmina explains that the families are going to the cemetery. The cemetery is a very important place for the community. Since they believe that there is life after death, when someone dies, he/she is buried with his/her belongings. These things are going to be useful for the person that just died, to begin the new life. Before they place the dead body, they put burning candles in the ground. These candles are going to give light to the dead person to start the journey to meet God. After someone is buried, the family goes every day to the cemetery for a month. After that, they go once a week, Sunday being the most common day to do this. After awhile they go less often. Since today is Sunday, many families are going to visit their dead relatives. I asked Jasmina why they were carrying food. This is because they spend the whole day at the cemetery. Isn't this strange to us? I guess so, but this is part of their culture and traditions.

Finally, our plane is here. We had waited for over three hours. It was a long time, but it gave me the chance to observe the families that were there. The women talked to each other in their own language. Most Kuna speak the Kuna language, and may speak little or no Spanish or English. The men were passing by to accomplish their daily routines, loading and unloading canoes.The children played together in the sun. The little ones were amazed by Jackie's long, reddish hair. They all wanted to touch it. They kept sneaking behind her and giggling, pulling lightly on the ends.

It was a really great experience to be able to learn and see a little of the Kuna culture. If you would like to know more, visit the San Blas website by clicking here.


woman on shoreline of the river
hotel courtyard
looking out at an island from the shore
mola shirt
man fishing on a boat
boarding plane at the airport