Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Panama, San Blas (The Kuna people and Molas) - 2015-10-11

We've just had an amazing time in the San Blas with Becca and Dale. They came to visit us for almost two whole weeks! I don't even know what to say, because we didn't really do much. We snorkeled and ate and hung out and snorkeled. I think my feet only touched land twice during their whole stay. That definitely wasn't intentional, but it's just how it worked out - there was lots to see underwater! We picked them up from the mainland at Carti (quite a long way away from where we were supposed to pick them up from), where we immediately got into trouble. The people standing on the dock wouldn't let our visitors onto our dinghy without life jackets. Which was ridiculous. I haven't seen a single person wear or even carry a life jacket on a dinghy since we were in NZ. So I had to leave them on the dock and go back to dig out life jackets, totally destroying the clean boat I'd agonised over for their arrival. I guess it was never going to stay clean for very long anyway.

Gunboat island

We didn't go far initially, just motoring over to a nearby island (Gunboat island) to drop the anchor for the night. We went snorkeling, which was inevitable considering almost every one of over 300 islands in the San Blas is near a reef of some kind. We actually went snorkelling every single day we were there, sometimes twice. So I have a lot of pictures of fish and coral. I won't go into detail about every single snorkeling excursion, so I'll just premise this by saying that the snorkeling in the San Blas was excellent. There was lots of soft coral, which was new for us, plus lots of other different coral and fish that we'd never seen before. Hooray for the Atlantic! I was blown away by all the different colours underneath the surface of of the water. Both Fiji and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia were really colourful, but they were also really different. So we had a great time exploring a whole new world below the surface.

Alien coral?

I had been excited about buying a few Molas while we were in the San Blas, and we were not disappointed. A Mola is a traditional outfit worn by the local Kuna Indians (I think they prefer it to be spelled ‘Guna,’ but they are both pronounced the same). Molas are completely hand sewn, and are made up of multiple layers of fabric. Instead of making pictures by cutting out the shapes and layering them on top of each other (a technique commonly known as applique'), the Molas are made using reverse applique. Instead of building the pictures up, they start with a few layers of different coloured fabric and cut them away to reveal the colours underneath. They do applique more details onto the top of the Mola after It’s been cut away, which adds yet another dimension to the picture. Molas with two or three layers are a lot easier to make than the thicker ones (so they’re are also a lot cheaper!). These were the ones we mostly looked at. When there’s four or more layers involved everything gets a lot more complicated. It's easy to tell how much work has gone into each piece - aside from the amount of detail in them, the edges are left loose and you can easily count how many layers there are.

The traditional Molas are made up of two matching panels and they get wrapped around the waists of the Kuna (Guna) ladies, so their front and back are the same. Underneath the molas, the ladies wear beautiful clothes made up of very bright fabric and their arms and legs are adorned with huge beaded bracelets that are permanently attached. I think they used to be tied on quite tightly, but most of the younger women seem to have them loose so they don't cut into the skin.

A happy Kuna lady ties a beaded break let to my wrist. You can just see the top of her Mola underneath my arm (Taken by Becca)

You can see all the pretty beads on her arms and legs here (Taken by Becca)

A Kuna woman and her family visits us in their ulu

The Kuna people are very interesting and very friendly. They live on the hundreds of islands that make up the San Blas, and until recently didn't even have access to solar power. I don't think any of the islands have electricity except for maybe the one or two places built up for tourists. The ‘resorts’ there have hammocks for beds though, so I'm not sure whether electricity would have been connected for the tourists or not.

A local Kuna man travelling in his ulu (dugout canoe)

They used to nomadic and I guess that’s why they chose this type of artwork rather than sculptures or statues like most indigenous people. They adorn their bodies with the Molas and take them everywhere they go. Which we love, because they are bright and beautiful. Kuna ladies walking down the streets are literally brightly coloured works of art. It feels wrong to stare at them, but the clothes they wear are all very different and all very interesting. The more traditional molas are made up of patterns rather than pictures, but some still tell a story.

The local men fish and work on coconut farms to make a living. One of the things I love about these people is that they have a matrilineal society - the women are in charge of the financial side of things and families are defined by the mother rather than the father. Surnames and property are passed down from the mother’s family and a newly married couple will move into the woman's compound instead of the man’s. Whilst they still need men to help provide for the family, it's the women that carry on the family name and traditions. So instead of wanting baby boys like in most societies, it's the girls that are the most important for the family to continue. Because of this, If a Kuna woman gives birth to only boys then one (I think the third) will be raised as a girl to make sure the Mola making skills and Kuna traditions will be passed on. Whilst some just learn the Mola making skills and still identify as boys, the Kuna people end up with quite a few transvestites in their communities.

And so our first Mola visit was not from a woman, but from Venancio - a very well known Master Mola Maker. He came to us from several miles away, bringing many buckets filled with Molas. We knew the locals would come to us pedalling their wares, and I had planned on buying one every once and a while. But there are two names we knew to look for in order to find the best Molas - Venancio was the first and Lisa was the second. Most of the local women make and sell their molas to tourists, but those two came with many recommendations. Unfortunately we were presented with the best of the best on our very first day…

Venancio!(Taken by Becca)

Venancio with some of his molas

Venancio spoke very good English and as he displayed each Mola we all gathered around to look. We each made three piles… Yes, Maybe, and No. Becca and Dale gathered quite a collection and even though we tried to be ruthless, there were so many and they were all so beautiful. Each one had Venancio’s name stitched along the top, which is the mark of a quality Mola. They take so long to make, so nobody would bother spending extra time stitching on a name with tired fingers unless it meant something to have a Mola with their name on it.

My first Mola, with Venancio’s name stitched proudly on top

He must have shown us hundreds of Molas. Finally we went back through our piles, trying to narrow down our selections. Venancio held each one up for us, making encouraging noises while he danced them around in the air. He even told us stories about the pictures, and just generally made it very hard to say no to any of them. I ended up with a few very nice ones, and one in particular that was quite large and had a lot of detail in it. It featured a fish with a pirate hat, and Venancio explained that the happy pirate fish had been dinner for the bigger fish stitched around the outside of of the picture. I couldn't leave him behind and most of our Mola budget went towards acquiring my new pirate friend.

My pirate fish

It’s hard to believe these tiny stitches were done by hand

So that was the beginning of our San Blas journey. Over the 10 days we had with Becca and Dale we saw lots more Molas, but none as beautiful as Venancio’s. He came by a few more times to say hi and to have a chat, and was just generally a really great guy. We eventually did meet Lisa (who is quite famous in the San Blas for being a very loud and rambunctious transvestite), and her Molas were lovely. But I didn't regret getting overexcited on our first day! Most of the women came onboard and spread all their things out for us to inspect when they visited. The Kuna ladies are very short, and they always had a laugh ready for when they attempted to climb onto our boat from their Ulus (dugout canoes). Some tried to use our swimming ladder, and some climbed up over the lifelines like we do. But they all needed a hand and nobody found it easy!

A Kuna lady shows us her ‘tourist’ molas, which are nontraditional applique pictures, usually done by younger girls to start learning the art.(Taken by Becca)

Xxx Monique

Click here for more pictures!

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Panama, Linton (Spider monkeys) - 05/10/2015

We just had one of the most amazing experiences of our lives.

We're at Linton Island (Puerto Lindo) in Panama, and the reason we've stopped here is because the island has a family of wild spider monkeys on it. Garth loves monkeys more than anything in the world. I'm sure he was a monkey in a previous life. So after our brief stop at Portobelo, we hightailed it to monkey island.

As soon as we arrived we could see them playing in the trees not far from where we were anchored. They were adorable! We were tired so decided not to go to shore until the next morning, and instead just sat in the cockpit to watch how other people interacted with them. Mostly cruisers, they came in groups (albeit small groups) which I'm sure was overwhelming for the monkeys. The tour boats have a reputation for hyping the poor things up by yelling and jumping around and shaking their trees. We didn't see any of this, maybe because it was a weekend. There was a big stick on the beach that people used to poke their trees with though, I'm guessing so they'd come down to play. I also noticed that the smart tour boats had their people stay in the water. Ankle deep in the water they could observe the monkeys from less than 1m away, and the stars of the show didn't seem very enthusiastic about getting their feet wet. 

You can just see the tiny black monkey dots on the beach (behind the buoy in the water)

If the tour groups had a reputation, then these monkeys were full blown celebrities. So many people have told us to be careful of them. When people rile them up they get overexcited and bite. If you get too close, they bite. If they feel like biting, they bite. Our good friends on Fata Morgana warned us that one of their friends had been bitten down to the bone just from trying to feed them. They are extremely agile, and Gibbons are the only primates that can move faster. I guess that's how they manage to attack so many people - they can move so very quickly. So we had been sufficiently warned. I wanted to take gloves with us to shore, but Garth was confident we would be safe. 

So the next morning we took off to shore first thing, before anybody could get them over excited and before they ate their breakfast. I started tying the dinghy up but Garth was already on the beach before we came to a complete stop. Two monkeys came down to him right away and held their hands out for the apple slices he had taken with him. After they had introduced themselves and had a quick snack, they all just stood around like a group of friends chatting on the street. They looked very human-like standing upright next to Garth, like miniature people.

Because he loves monkeys and primates so much, Garth knows a lot about them. He didn't make eye contact right away, which probably didn't really make any difference to their behaviour because that precaution is pretty specific to gorillas. Besides, although these spider monkeys are living in the wild and aren't domesticated at all, they're used to humans. Garth was very quiet and let them get used to him the same way that you would for a dog - they touched him, became accustomed to his scent and established that he wasn't a threat. Then Garth quietly sat down on the remains of a dock by the water's edge. His two little friends followed and sat down beside him. The younger one was male, with a red tinge to his fur. Though friendly, he was slightly more skittish and sat away from Garth. The other one was female, with jet black hair. She eyed Garth up for a moment and then crawled onto the plank beside him, snuggling up next to him like a happy kitten or an affectionate child.


Just chilling

I stayed in the water so as not to overwhelm them, taking photos from the dinghy. Everybody seemed quite content. Then another boat arrived. I suspect the "tour boats" are mostly water taxis, taking people from one of the islands to the mainland. That's what this one looked like. There were two people onboard along with their driver and an excitable puppy. I don't understand why you would take a puppy with you to meet wild monkeys, but there it was.

The monkeys momentarily ran off, so Garth and I sat quietly on the dinghy and waited for these new guests to leave. The dog kept barking and the poor things didn't know what to make of it. The lady jumped out of the boat and to my surprise she opened a huge bag of tortilla chips to feed to them. The female monkey was happy to eat them, though I'm sure she preferred our apple slices. She stood next to these people while the lady tried to pose for the camera, holding the chip frozen near the monkey's face. She was no novice in posing for pictures. Our little friend kept reaching for it, but the lady wanted to get her picture before the chip disappeared.

Meanwhile, the sneaky male sidled towards the boat which was now just occupied by the driver and an open packet of chips. It was like something out of a cartoon. He crept towards it, overexaggerating each movement and looking around like a cartoon criminal. It was like watching somebody in a very bad acting class. Eventually he got close enough to snatch the bag and he made a run for the trees, his prize held high. So that was why Garth had warned me not to leave anything in the dinghy and not to take the camera off from around my neck under any circumstances. The little guy was so proud of himself! He gripped the bag with his tail and zipped up the tree, which was actually pretty comical in itself. When he was happy with the branch he had chosen, he switched the bag to his hands and hung from his tail which left four limbs free to stuff his face with. 

Sneaky, sneaky...

Quick like a bunny!

The man from the boat went over and started yelling at him, trying to get the bag back by poking it with a stick. Eventually chips rained down from the trees onto the ground and the annoyed monkey was left holding an almost-empty bag. He held it with both hands and stuck his entire face inside, looking for more salty snacks.

Looking for crumbs

That was when another boat turned up with two guys on it. One of them was a local cruiser, the other an obvious tourist. Thinking the bag of tortilla chips was still full, the local guy tried to swap a bag of garbage for the bag of chips. I'm not sure whether he wanted to return the chips to the couple, or if he was just trying to stop them from eating nasty processed food (often monkeys will give up something they're playing with if you trade them for something else). Either way it ended in a game of tug of war. The monkeys weren't very happy. Garth quietly moved closer to them and sat against a tree trunk, watching but not interfering or saying a word. 

The first boat took their dog and left their bag of chips scattered all over the ground. Then there were just four of us on the island. The two guys stayed for a while longer and the local cruiser actually had some interesting information for us. He told us that the female was usually very docile but that the male could snap and get angry for no reason. I expected him to be nicer to our little friends, but he didn't seem to have that much compassion for them. He encouraged his buddy to grab some tortilla chips from off the ground to feed to the female, who was (literally) just hanging around nearby.

Happy to have the opportunity for a selfie with a monkey, he got closer to the female and she took the chip from his hand. Then he touched her arm and posed for a photo. She was not pleased with this. When he turned around to smile for the camera, she lurched forward and bit him hard on the wrist. Even though her smile was mostly all gum, she still managed to break the skin and draw a decent amount of blood. It looked painful. Garth said that just before she bit him, the female squinched up her face, bared her teeth and screeched at him. He didn't notice because he had his back to her, giving the camera a thumbs up.

I guess it's hard to remember that monkeys are wild animals, because they're so friendly and they look like people. But they're wild animals. They're used to people but they're not house pets, and we're the ones intruding on their home. So I'm not surprised that they get angry with people touching them while they're trying to have breakfast. You'd never approach any other wild animal while it was eating, but for some reason it seems okay here because spider monkeys are like cuddly little people. I'm not surprised so many people have been bitten by them! (Having said that, I'm sure they sometimes just snap for no reason if they've had a bad day and too many people have been bugging them).

Dripping blood, the two guys left and we were alone with the monkeys again. Garth stayed where he was, calmly sharing their world. Then he moved closer to their tree and just sat. Eventually the female climbed back down and hung from the lowest branch, right next to his head. Garth didn't turn to look at her. He just sat still and she hung down next to him. After a while she leaned over and pressed her head against his. For a minute or two they both just stayed like that, their heads pressed together. 

She must have thought he was safe, because she took an arm off the branch and leaned on him. Slowly, she extracted herself from the tree until she was sitting on his shoulders with just her tail and one arm still clinging onto the branch for safety.

Eventually her worries were gone and she slid down onto his lap. She kept one hand on the tree for a while, but once they were all cuddled together she looked at him. Then she looked back up at the branch. Then she looked back at him again and in one swift movement her arm went from clinging to the tree to clinging onto Garth. She looked up at him with her big doey eyes and then nuzzled her head into his chest, wrapping all her arms and legs around him.

They stayed like that for at least half an hour. She couldn't decide on the best way to hug him and constantly squirmed around, arms, legs and tail moving all over the place. She would continually look up at him and then nuzzle her head into his chest. I tried to feed her some more apple, but she wasn't interested. She just wanted a hug.

It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. I don't know why animals and children love Garth so much, but I suspect it is his calm and gentle nature. A few minutes after this wild monkey had attacked somebody, Garth had her in a cuddly ball of happiness. He said she was like a sweet little grandma. She was obviously quite old, and her movements were much slower and more gentle than those of her younger male friend.

I'll scratch your head if you scratch mine

Having a laugh together. She somehow enjoyed Garth's endless supply of bad jokes

After they hugged for a long time, the sun started getting hotter and cuddling seemed like less of a good idea. They both started dripping In sweat, and Garth's new lady friend decided it was time to move on. She nuzzled into his chest one more time before wandering off back into the trees.

I'm not entirely sure what kind of spider monkeys our new friends are but I suspect they're Black Headed Spider Monkeys or Geoffreys Spider Monkeys, which are both critically endangered (although all spider monkeys are either under threat or endangered). They're about the same size as the howler monkeys we've been seeing around Panama, except their brains are twice as big. They mostly eat fruit, but they like nuts and leaves as well (not tortilla chips). I can't help but wonder if our lady friend was missing so many teeth from inappropriate food brought by well-meaning tourists. They're more social than most other monkeys and usually travel in large troops. I'm not sure how many other monkeys share this island with them, so maybe they were so affectionate because they're lonely. Because they mostly eat fruit and there's fruit trees scattered all through the jungle, they have to remember where all the trees are and when the fruit will be ripe (they keep track of up to 150 different trees at once). So the whole jungle is like a complicated game of memory and they're very good at it. It's assumed that this is probably why their brains are so big. It's also probably why the cheeky little things are so clever and wily. It was kind of bizarre interacting with animal that are almost as smart as us, but definitely very special at the same time.

Xxx Monique

Believe it or not, I took took a ridiculous number of photos. Click here to see the rest.