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To Panama (part 1)

Panama. Rewind. Living room full of uncles and aunts and cousins. My mother pulls out Pictionary and I fight with everyone to be on my father’s team. It was his turn to draw and he starts drawing a pack of cigarettes. The perfect homage to the advertisement’s cigarette box styling, he painstakingly sketches two sticks peering out through the open lid. A few strokes of the pencil result in two chevrons on the surface of the cigarette box. I recognize it and yell out ‘Panama’, partly ashamed that I knew the name of a brand of cigarettes when my memory was expected to hold nothing but ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’, or maybe something a bit more grown up. Like the national anthem, maybe?

Panama cigarettes

If only I’d have known that one day I would go to Panama and learn for myself that the name holds more thrill and adventure than any cigarette advertisement can muster together in a 30 second slot.

Now equipped with a Spanish vocabulary substantially better than its 3 weeks younger self, I landed in Panama late at night. The joy of being first in queue in the immigration line gradually dissipated when I discovered that my Indian passport was going to be the most interesting thing Panamanian authorities would see that day. Enough interest to ensure I was the last person out of the immigration queue that I was initially leading. Was it that they’d never seen an Indian passport before, was it all the stamps in incomprehensible scripts (Devanagiri, Arabic, Dhivehi, Thai) or just too many entry and exit stamps in close succession? Whatever it was in my passport that caught their attention (for an hour), I hope was important enough because I had a friend waiting for me outside, who I could not reach to explain the delay and apologise for it. It was a friend who I hadn’t seen in 4 years and was part of the excitement that this trip to Central America held. In Panama, I was hosted by a former classmate and ‘casa-mate’ from grad school in Costa Rica. Thanks to her, Panama city felt nothing short of home.

The plan for Panama was clear. I was to travel to two different parts of the country to meet two tribes- diverse yet related through a time in history. The first group, the Kuna, are known the world over for their deft applique techniques that turn scraps of fabric and thread into vibrant molas– their interpretations of the world they live in. It is said that molas began as body art using the juice of the jagua fruit, before graduating to panels on women’s colourful shirts.

The Kuna are a small group of people with possibly the most enviable address on the planet. Residents of the San Blas archipelago, this tribe has endured many hardships together. From the Conquests, which they successfully resisted, until the time they managed to secure themselves an autonomous territory called Kuna Yala (also Guna Yala), the history of this tribe is punctuated by strife. Yet the Kuna (taller only to the African pygmies) are friendly and peaceful people.

I was accompanied to San Blas by another former classmate and her boyfriend. Better company, I could not have asked for. We checked ourselves into one of the 365 islands (one for each day) and immediately began exploring this beautiful place we found ourselves in. A water taxi picked us up and we were welcomed to it by Chichi the Guide. Chichi and I played a game where he tried to guess my nationality. After 45 minutes and a hundred guesses, he still couldn’t correctly guess my home country. He later told me I was the first Indian he has ever met. This was the second time this had happened to me. The first time was at the reception desk of a camping area in Sardinia.

Chichi, the happiest guy on the boat

Kuna dance

Our first stop was the island of Wichubwala. We walked in on a group dance being staged for a group of tourists. Sounds of fan pipes ad rattles gave rhythm to prancing feet. A little later we met a Kuna artist who has spent his entire life telling the world about the Kuna and their philosophies. Talking to him, it felt like I was being told about Pandora by the Na’vi. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to hear that James Cameron spent time with the Kunas and then developed the plot for Avatar. I could draw many parallels between the Na’vi and the Kunas (and Emberaa that I met later).

The next days were spent meeting with Mola artists, learning from them and creating a collection for RoadsWellTraveled. From the emergence of the molas, to how they’re made, to what the motifs mean, every stitch in a mola tells stories. What I learnt from the Kunas about their way of life, added more intrigue and value to the molas that I was sourcing from them. They live very close to nature and relate everything back to their pristine surroundings. By means of an oral tradition, the Kuna further their heritage and religion of Paba (God) and Nana (Earth Mother) who sent Kuna ancestors (the Nele) to Takar Kuna (sacred mountain on the border of Panama and Colombia). Ibeorgun, the greatest Nele taught the Kuna the ceremonies, community life and about the Purbas (spirits) that dwell in eight realms above and below the earth. Their oral tradition also talks of how they were driven out of their homeland in the Darién forest by another tribe (possibly the Emberaa and Wounaan) with poison tipped arrows before they settled on the San Blas islands.

Kuna Man

Kuna woman 2

Marrying within the community is an extremely common Kuna practice. Due to this practice, albinism in the Kuna community is staggeringly high. Known as the moon children, the Kuna albinos are believed to be blessed with special powers. While they remain indoors during the day, they come out of their shelters only in the evenings and at the times of solar eclipses. The Kunas believe the solar eclipses to be when the evil dragons swallow the sun. The moon children are called on to fight the dragon. Little surprise that the moon children have a 100% success rate against the evil dragon.

I took the final day off. My friends and I hopped on a speed boat to ferry us to one of the uninhabited islands on the periphery of the archipelago. As we whizzed past island after island, we wondered which island would be ours for the day. With every beautiful little island with white powdery sand, I imagined the potential. A hut, a dog, a kayak, snorkels and fins, a couple of hammocks, coconut bearing trees and a gigantic library. Yeah, the aforementioned list, and that island. That would do.

And while I write this, thinking back to those glorious days in the San Blas islands, I think of the Kuna- I know they struck gold when they were unfortunately forced out of Darien and into San Blas. It must have been for these very pieces of land that languorously float on azure waters that they waged a resistance battle that lasted years. Yes, these 365 jewels would be worth fighting for- to keep and protect.

To be continued…


Learn more about Molas and the Kunas in our museum here

Buy our carefully curated collection of framed molas here


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