Thursday, February 26, 2015

Viva la Revolution

After a couple days of boat projects at Shelter Bay Marina, we headed back south to the San Blas Islands via Isla Linton, a nice anchorage about three hours south of Colon. The next day we headed back to the Swimming Pool where we saw our friends Phil and Monica on Miss Molly.

While we enjoyed our time in the Swimming Pool and Bandeup, we stayed longer than planned due to a nasty cold that Walter caught. Miss Molly had left to attend a very special festival, the Reenactment of the 1925 Kuna Revolution on Isla Tigre.  While I just wanted some more bed rest, I understood how much Meryl wanted to attend the festival so we plotted a course to Isla Tigre, a short but circuitous 12-mile sail to the southwest on Tuesday, Feb. 25th. You don’t just sail straight from A to B in the San Blas, the omnipresent reefs are everywhere and you’ve got to be very certain of your navigation, evidenced by the many wrecks on the surrounding reefs.

With just the genoa flying we had a relaxing sail averaging about 5 to 6 knots the whole way to Isla Tigre. We could see a lot of sailboat masts in the distance and knew anchoring was going to be an issue. After a dogleg right around one reef and a dogleg left around another, with surf breaking on all of them, we rounded the corner of Isle Tigre and shoe-horned ourselves behind Miss Molly and very close to a beautiful French Catana cat, whose captain was on the foredeck glaring at me the whole time.
The village of Isla Tigre where the Revolution took place in 1925.
The VHF crackled to life with a call from Miss Molly giving us the 411 on the festival and an invitation to dingy in with them around 6:30 pm.  Isla Tigre is a relatively small island, but boasts a population of over 2,000 Kuna adults and 500 children. The island was spotlessly clean with round wooden stick huts covering every square inch of earth. You would not call Isle Tigre a traditional Kuna island, but more transitional as they have some electricity, an occasional satellite TV dish, and some younger Kuna dressing in more Western style.
Kuna's from surrounding islands come to Isla Tigre for the Revolution Reenactment. Some are dressed traditionally while the younger Kuna tend to favor more Westernized clothing.
Kuna women in traditional dress lead the procession in front of the audience and the Chiefs.
Many Kuna women wear the traditional winnies, long strands of beads wrapped around each leg.
We entered a large open plaza area full of Kuna dressed in their incredibly beautiful native dress. The Kuna have a sense of style and color that rivals no one, and their native molas reflect their feel for color and design. Most of the women wore bright red headdresses, a colorful top and a wraparound sarong-type dress with designs similar to those seen in Polynesia. Their legs are bound with winnies, a continuous beaded line that wraps from ankle to just below their knees.

Each "act" of the Reenactment began with a group of Kuna men playing pan flutes and women on maracas.
A haunting Peruvian melody played continuously on the loudspeakers as hundreds of Kuna men and women milled about, with children darting in an out of their mother’s shadows. Festive balloons and red/yellow flags criss-crossed the plaza with an occasional electric light here and there. An announcer talked continuously in Kuna about the meaning of the celebration and the importance of Kuna’s understanding their heritage and fight for independence.

The Kuna are second only to the Pygmies in lack of height, the average Kuna being about 4 ft. 11” and are a peaceful, respectful, and friendly people. It’s very difficult to think of them as warriors having to fight for their independence, but that’s what happened in Feb. 21, 1925 when the highly repressive Panamanian police pushed them the last inch too far. 

The Kuna flag is based on a centuries old Sanskrit symbol.
The Kuna had remained loyal to Columbia, who relinquished the Canal area to Panama following a US inspired one-day revolution.  The Panamanian’s, wanting to consolidate their power and influence over the Kuna, constantly harangued them about their customs, native dress, and any other thing that popped into their head, to the point of Kuna’s suffering severe beatings and death at the hands of the police. On Feb 21, 1925, a group of Kuna on Isla Tigre, lead by Juan Fernandez, rebelled and killed the police chief on the island. When word of the revolution reached Colon, the Panamanian government readied a military force to deal with the Kuna, only to to be saved at the last minute by the intercession of a U.S. Navy vessel, the USS Cleveland. The US left a clear message to the new Panamanian government, hands off the Kuna.

Ferdinand briefed Monica, Meryl and Phil on each day's activities.
Only two Kuna speak passable English on the island, and one, Ferdinand, briefed us on the festival and the event schedule. He also dutifully collected $20 from each boat to help defray expenses for the festival. He was also an “actor” in the event and cautioned us that he played “a very, very bad man.” He was kind of a character in many respects.

The Revolution Reinactment Festival, for lack of a better term, was centered around four acts, similar to a play. The first act, that night, was a series of vignettes about the Kuna, their culture and their struggle with the Panamanians. All the acts begin with a group of men and women facing each other, the men with pan flutes and the women with maracas. The men play a haunting melody and dance interwoven with the women shaking their maracas in rhythm.

The procession features different aspects of Kuna culture.
Kuna Yala is most famous for the beautiful molas made by the island women (and a few men).
In the second "act" Panamanian police attack the Kuna tearing husband from wife.
In the central Congresso hut Panamanian police harass and threaten the Kuna.
The Kuna rise up under the leadership of Juan Fernandez and kill the Panamanian police.
This was followed by a group of Kuna, lead by a couple with a baby, who was held high in the air to celebrate life. Other Kuna followed with symbols of their culture, such as molas, carvings, and handicrafts. The next scene, rather frightening to the young children in the audience, showed the Panamanian’s rushing in to slaughter the peaceful Kuna, leaving piles of dead bodies in their wake. In a final scene, the Kuna rebel and slay the police chief, with all the children chanting the name of “Juan Fernandez” the liberator of the Kuna.

This little Kuna girl kept us in stitches all night long with her antics.

The most endearing moment of the evening was a 4-year-old Kuna girl who played hide and seek with Meryl and I, oblivious to all the regalia going on around her. A priceless moment.

German couple working with the Kuna on sustainability projects.
We were fortunate to be seated next to a German/Austrian couple who work for a German foundation that promotes sustainability around the world. The woman spoke fluent Spanish and passable Kuna and filled us in on the challenges working on sanitation, refuse removal, habitat restoration and other projects they were sponsoring on the island.

There is no sanitation system on the island, the Kuna use what are euphemistically called “long drop” toilets that perch out over the water. Currently all trash goes into the sea. Water is plentiful thanks to a pipeline from the mainland. The little electricity is supplied by gas generators and an occasional solar panel. Given all that, the community has functioned well for centuries with little changes.

The ubiquitous "long drop" toilets used by the Kuna.
With the aid of the German foundation, the Kuna have begun restoration projects on one end of Isla Tigre.
The Kuna’s are receptive to improvements, but have almost no resources and receive very little from the Panamanian government with whom they have a tepid relationship. The men travel to the mainland in their ulla’s (wooden canoes) to tend small agricultural plots with coconuts and pineapple, fish the surrounding waters, while the women (and some men) make the famous molas that sell from $20 up to $100.

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