February 10, 2001
9 Degrees, 32.84 N, 78Degrees, 58.04 W-Anchored off Mamitupu, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coming of Age Festival in Mamitupu
By Lois Joy     

Stories in this section... San Blas Islands
Coming of Age Festival in Mamitupu

Scores of Kuna children were crowding around me, and the grandmothers and great-grandmothers were in my face.  I had asked Antonio, the Kuna Indian from whom we had purchased our fish for dinner, to bring me to the houses of grandmothers.  I had purchased paper tablets, colored pencils and crayons in Cartagena and thought the best way to assure an even distribution to the children was to give them to the elders of the village, and since the Kuna Indian society is matriarchal—to the grandmothers. Wrong.  Their society appears not to be all that democratic.  These women, shorter than me, less than five feet tall, are extremely aggressive!

Lois with the Kuna Indian grandmothers

I didn’t know whether the supplies would be distributed at all, so I handed one set to Antonio for his family.  He breathed a sigh of relief and jammed the gifts into the pockets of his trousers.  I had saved out one package of crayons and gave one crayon each to the children individually as I took their photos. Not that they needed coaxing! They crowded around me begging to be photographed.  When some of the teen-age boys noticed that they could see the photo being taken in the viewfinder of the Nikon digital, the word spread, and soon I was the pied piper traipsing through the small island village with a following of eager, smiling children.

Kuna Indian children

Kuna Eyes

The women were eager to point out their mother, their mother-in-law, and their grandmother.  They proudly showed off their babies, all dressed up for “The Festival” the little girls already wearing jewelry.  The women and girls were strikingly beautiful and festive in their colorful molas, with bright blouson sleeves and intricately designed patterns on the front and back.  Many of them had a painted black stripe running from the their foreheads to the tip of their noses.  They wore golden rings in their noses, earrings, jeweled breastplates, and intricate beadwork, called unni, on their wrists and legs.  The scarves were always the same: a bright orange, small print design.

Kuna Girl in Pink Dress

Pretty Lady

Other than Antonio and his son-in-law, we didn’t have the opportunity to meet many Kuna men.  They were heavily into drinking in the congresso, where vast cauldrons of rice were being cooked for the feast.  Some islands have chica huts; we did not see one here.  The chicha of Kuna Yala is a mild alcoholic drink made from fermented sugar cane juice.  The grandmothers drank shots directly out of a bottle that looked like white rum, but perhaps was chicha; however, they stayed near their houses.  The children ran wild, having a grand time with all their friends from neighboring islands.

We were anchored right off the south side of Mamitupu, a small island with thatched huts around the perimeter for a few families, tall coconut palms and a few spreading breadfruit trees, a congreso, a chicha hut, and a large basketball court in the center. The anchoring process had been challenging, with reefs close to the island and eight-foot depths coming in through the channel.   The rewards of anchoring here have been well worth the effort.  At our stern, within 50 feet, is an island home, built on a sand bar and surrounded by a wall of stones to protect it from the sea.  At our port, we can observe the village life of Mamitupu. Off our starboard pulpit seat lies the picturesque island of Korbiski, where the local island ferry docks. Today, ferries were bringing the villagers from the neighboring islands to the Festival.   Pangas were also bringing their cargo of Kuna ladies in bright, colorful attire.  What a colorful sight!

Gunter and Richard Observing Mamitupu life.

We arrived here about noon, motoring the six-mile passage from last night’s anchorage at Cayos Lemon.   Immediately after anchoring, a man in a dugout canoe approached Pacific Bliss. He was from the closest home, right at our stern.   He was selling molas that his wife had made and apologized that she could not come because of a lame leg.  We purchased a few, then began to spread out a lunch on the cockpit table.  What a view!  We were sitting right in the midst of Kuna Indian life.  Children came up to us in dugout canoes just to investigate the big ship.  Older boys splashed and played alongside Pacific Bliss, showing off by turning over their canoes and righting them again.

Boys Overturning their Canoe

The families had come from other neighboring islands to attend a rite of passage for a twelve-year-old girl.  The ceremony involved cutting off her hair, Antonio had explained.  We could see groups of women surrounding the girl as the rite was performed.  Antonio had invited us to the island for the party following the ceremony. 

After walking through the village, we spent some time with Antonio’s family.  He was the only one on the island who spoke English, and was very helpful.

Antonio’s Family Sits for a Portrait

Antonio’s daughter-in-law, granddaughter and puppy.

As we left the island for Pacific Bliss, the children crowded around to see us off.  This is the essence of cruising, I thought.  I would not have traded the experiences of this day for anything!

Children crowd around as we return to Pacific Bliss.

See the Photo Gallery for additional photos of the San Blas Islands.







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