Day 113, Year 1: Carti Sugtupu, San Blas, Panama
Date: Tuesday, February 7, 2006
Air Temperature: 82 degrees F
Water Temperature: 81 degrees F
Latitude: N 09 degrees 33 minutes
Longitude: W 78 degrees 56 minutes
Location: Carti Sugtupu, San Blas, Panama

This was quite some day, so this log will be a long one. If you just want to know if we are fine and enjoying the San Blas, you can stop here. We are. If you want the details, read on. I hope you enjoy reading about our wonderful day with the Kuna Indians on Carti Sugtupu.

When we got up this morning, we still weren’t sure which island we were going to travel to today, so we spent more time reading the Panama Guide and trying to decide. Did we want an uninhabited island or an island with a village? If we wanted an island with a village, did we want totally traditional (no schools or churches) or one with a school? Did we want to go to an island close to the mainland, or one further out? As we read, we discovered that one island, Sugtupu in the Carti Group, has a post office. We desperately need to mail something overnight to the US dealing with our boat documentation, so even though I had read that this island has been spoiled by the number of cruise boats that visit it, we decided on Sugtupu. We knew if that didn’t work out, we could move about a half mile to another very traditional island with only 4 families living on it. So we left Porvenir around 0930 headed about 3 miles south to Sugtupu which is very close to the mainland in the south of the Gulfo de San Blas. As we left Porvenir, I was at the wheel and had to cut in front of a boat whose crew was pulling up the chain anchor rode by hand. The boat turned out to the Gipsy Moth IV from Great Britain. This boat was sailed around the world by one of the most famous cruising couples of all time, Eric and Susan Hiscock. Eric wrote the first book that Mark ever read on world cruising: Cruising Under Sail. It was a real rush to be right next to this boat carrying so much history.

We had a latitude and longitude reading for an anchor destination of Sugtupu, and as we neared the island, a man and his son came paddling up to us in an ulu (traditional dug out canoe). The father, Ernesto, was dressed in jeans shorts and a t-shirt and spoke very good English. He talked with Mark, who was on the foredeck ready to set the anchor, and before I knew it, he was onboard helping us to navigate between two reef areas. His 11 year-old son, Rudy, stayed behind in the ulu and kept up with us as we headed in to anchor. What I didn’t realize at the time was that there was another 7 year-old son, Kevin, in a second ulu. He couldn’t keep up with us and after anchoring, Ernesto and Mark had to rescue him with our dinghy. Ernesto is a 42-year old Kuna entrepreneur. He speaks Kuna, Spanish, English, French, and a little German. His business card lists him as a local excursion tour guide. Basically, he does serve as a tour guide of Sugtupu and of the cemetery and jungle on the mainland for people who sail into the island as we did today or for those who come in on the “adventure-oriented” cruise ships. Ernesto, Rudy, and Kevin spent some time on the boat with us and we learned that we had come on a good day for visiting. There were no cruise ships anywhere near the San Blas and at 1300, two families were hosting puberty celebrations for their 11 year-old daughters. We could visit the island and see the celebration.

Shortly after 1300, we dinghied over to the island and were met by Ernesto. We started our island tour at the southeast end of the island where the medical center and school are located. The school and medical center are poured concrete and the school is being renovated for the February visit by the President of Panama, and the children are on holiday until March, so we saw only an empty building. This whole island is not as large as a city block in New York City, but 1,000 Kuna Indians live here according to Ernesto. There are 2 dirt-packed avenues that run the length of the island, with narrow walkways that run perpendicular to the avenues between the huts. Each room in a hut is about 12 feet square and some families have only one room while others have 2 or 3. No hardwood is needed in the main construction of the huts. The walls are made of what I assumed are sugar cane poles lashed together vertically. The roof is layer after layer of palm fronds. There is a wooden door, but no windows, so the insides are very dark. Hammocks are everywhere as this is what the Kunas sleep in. There are stores that sell cold drinks and a few essentials, but certainly nothing fancy. We went to the congreso building and met one of the two men who are second in command under the chief or sahila. They are referred to as the deputy sahilas (pronounced like silo). The congreso looked just like all of the huts, just larger. Four hammocks hung in the center of the room and only the chief and his deputies can use these, while everyone else sits on the hard benches that form a square around the hammocks. More benches fill the room, all facing the center. Ernesto explained that all decisions for the village are made here. Woman can attend and sit and watch, but they cannot speak. Men make all of the decisions in this otherwise matriarchal society. Next we visited what Ernesto called the “bar” or party hut where the celebration was taking place. Traditionally this is the hut where chicha is made. Chicha is a mild alcoholic drink made form fermented sugar cane juice, but today the chicha hut was being used for the puberty rite celebration and the alcoholic drink for this day is rum. Here we met the village chief and the second of his deputies. We also met the man in charge of the “bar”. These men all wear long pants, dress shirts, and formal dress hats. Each time we met an important person, we were directed by Ernesto to give them a dollar, or five in the case of the chief, as part of getting their approval for our island visit and to pay our respects to their position. A bit of a strange system, but it works. You are also expected to pay a dollar to get permission to take pictures of any adult Kuna women. You can photograph children, but pictures of the women or special ceremonies come at a price.

We went to Ernesto’s complex of huts and met his oldest son, Ian, and his 5 year-old daughter Nayelin. He showed us molas that his wife had for sale and we sat inside and then moved our chairs outside to enjoy the breeze. A couple of men came by in an ula with lobsters for us. They had 3 for $3.00 and threw in a small one as a gift. Ernesto’s complex is on the north side of the island on the water, so there was a wonderful breeze at all times. I had seen his wife in room next to the one where we were sitting. She was in a hammock, but did not come out to meet us. A little later, one of the boys came out with Wilfran, the 7-month old. He was a very cute and very happy baby and the 3 boys seemed to be very much a part of taking care of him. It was time to move on and we visited Ernesto’s mother-in-law’s complex, visited the Kuna museum on the island, and then went back to see how the celebration was proceeding. Everyone was still passing the rum bottle around and drinking shots. All of the women were on one side of the large hut and all of the men on the other, with a group of about 6 men sitting between. They were wearing green dress shirts, long pants, and black dress hats. Eventually, a couple of them put on pelican bone necklaces and danced. If we had stayed on into the evening, everyone would be dancing, but around 1700, we decided it was time to go back to Windbird for the evening.

The chief is coming out to Windbird at 0800 in the morning to visit with us and then Ernesto’s 2 oldest sons will go with us in our dinghy to another island closer to shore. We might get to explore a small river near there that goes into the rain forest. We will do that and then move to the north to some uninhabited islands for tomorrow night.

We feel overwhelmed being immersed into this culture so foreign to our own so quickly and at the same time feel so lucky to have met Ernesto which gave us the chance to really get to know the island of Sugtupu.

060207 Day 113a Caribbean, San Blas–Carti Sugtupu Arrival
060207 Day 113b Caribbean, San Blas–Traditional Kuna Dance Video