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

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