In the 1980’s and ‘90’s I was engaged in the business of acquiring ethnographic material directly from indigenous Central and South American coastal and riverine cultures and selling that material to museums and collectors in the US and abroad. One of the cultures that I worked with extensively during that period was that of the Cuna Indians of San Blas, Panamá.
San Blas is a Comarca, or province, of Panamá that runs from the border of Colombia on the south-east, almost to the Panama Canal on the west, and from the central cordilleras that run down the length of Panama out past the San Blas Archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. The islands that make up this archipelago are numerous; some accounts list as many as four hundred, though some maps show no more than three-hundred and fifty or so. Suffice to say, there are a lot. Most of the smaller islands are uninhabited. Some are only large enough to support a lone palm tree, but about thirty-five of them are homes to Cuna villages, which range in population from a hundred or so to over three thousand. There are several coastal Cuna villages as well, and a handful of Cuna communities in the Darien province of Panamá that are the remnants from their thousand-year long migration up from Venezuela.
During my trips through the islands, I traveled in my forty-five foot long piragua, or sea-going dugout canoe, which I had equipped with a 50 HP Mercury outboard motor. I always took along the same two assistants on these trips, assistants that turned into good and loyal friends over the years; a Panamanian from Santa María de Belén named Herminio and a Cuna Indian from Narganá named Lino. We would load several fifty-five gallon drums of gasoline and a few boxes of rice, beans and cooking oil aboard my piragua, the Don Tiki, from the dock at the Folk River in Colon and travel east, working our way from island to island all the way down the coast to Colombia and back again, visiting each and every Cuna dwelling on every island and coastal village along the way. At each stop, we would first meet with the Saila, or Chief, of the village and get permission to both spend the night on the island, and to buy the material that I was looking for. Sometimes these meetings were merely pro-forma, but sometimes they turned into debates that involved the entire village population coming together in a town meeting to determine if what I proposed to buy was something they wanted to sell. Once the permissions were granted, we would hang up our hammocks from the beams of the thatched roofed homes of some obliging Cuna family and stay a day or two in the village making our rounds buying the things I found interesting. After we had visited all of the houses on the island, we would pack up and move on to the next village. When the Don Tiki was full to the gunnels with loot, we would drop it all off at some friendly family’s house, and continue on for more. On our way back up through the archipelago on our way back to Colon, we would hire one of the two wooden hulled cargo vessels the Cunas operated, and load the caches of our purchases aboard the larger vessel as we stopped at each island where we had left a stash. In Colon, we would offload the material into a twenty- or forty-foot shipping container, depending on how much material I was able to find, and ship it back to the States.
Most of the time, my trips were pleasantly uneventful, but we were traveling in what were then fairly dangerous waters. Every year, dozens of small boats were accosted along the San Blas coast, and often their passengers were never seen alive again. Small, fast, fiberglass boats from Colombia, usually with twin hundred and fifty horsepower outboards, and manned by five to ten tough men armed with an assortment of firearms, would swoop down on a slow moving sailboat or piragua, and rob them of everything they had. If you were lucky, they would just leave you drifting, motor-less, but alive.
The sea itself sometimes presented us with enough problems to make me question what, exactly, I was doing there. I tried to make most of my trips in the rainy season in San Blas, because throughout the dry season the on-shore wind blows strong and makes some of the rougher sea passages between the islands even worse. During this time, the mainland coastal communities are sometimes cut off for a week or more, due to the huge breakers that form on the shores where they are situated. I traveled through the islands and coastal communities in the dry season when I had to, but it was a pretty scary ride most of the time. I much prefer the drudgery of working in the rain over those white-knuckle piragua rides through the surf any day of the week.
Accidents and illnesses were also a worry on these trips. A few of the islands had rudimentary clinics, but frequently there were no medical personnel to man them. I always took along a fairly substantial first-aid kit, stocked with super-strength anti-biotics, lidocaine, suturing material, pain-killers and the like, but I had little to protect us from most of the nastier ailments and parasites that were endemic there. Giardia, hookworm, pin worm, round worm, screw worm, Chagas disease, filariasis, rabies, and leshmaniases were just a few of the things my vaccinations couldn’t protect me from, and towards the southern end of the archipelago the vampire bats were common. If you didn’t sleep with a closed mosquito-net at night, you could wake up with bloody toes or a bleeding scalp and a possible case of rabies.
The Cunas are an odd combination of a closed, suspicious society populated by curious, quick-witted individuals. As a group, they seem to make more laws, rules, and regulations than most modern societies, and but as individuals, they delight in finding ways of getting around them. It was through this maze of sometimes enforced, sometimes winked-at tribal policies and cultural morays that Lino proved himself to be an invaluable asset. When we would run up against a village that seemed bent on enforcing some obscure and restrictive rule or regulation, Lino would help me prepare my plea to the Sailas, or Chiefs, in such a way that they could see my point, and more often than not, we prevailed.
Leaving panama City by taxi to get to Colon to load or boat, we would travel north to reach the access road that dumps onto the Trans-Isthmian Highway. This two lane blacktop follows almost the exact path the Spanish blazed nearly 500 years ago in order to carry the gold, silver and trade goods that arrived in Panama City from Peru and Bolivia to the small port of Nombre de Dios and later, in the 1600’s, to the newer, larger port of Portobello. There, Spanish galleons would take on the cargo and passengers, and make their way north to Cuba to join other Spanish galleons arriving from Veracruz, Mexico. Later, they would set out together in a huge flotilla of treasure-laden ships heading home to Spain, all the while trying to evade French and English pirates.
Not many taxi drivers wanted to make the trip to Colon back then, since the chance of picking up a fare for the return trip was problematical, at best. Most businessmen took the aero-taxi that Transpasa flew from Paitilla airport. Throw in the facts that the deteriorated two-lane black top was laden with slow moving trucks carrying shipping containers to and from the ports of Colon on the Atlantic side and Balboa on the Pacific and that there were no shoulders or passing lanes for most of the 70 mile trip, and it added up to a mean road to travel. Impatient drivers often ended up as hamburger meat crushed into the crumpled remains of their cars when they met an equally impatient driver head-on in the oncoming traffic. Incorporate into the mix two police checkpoints (or “shakedown” points, really) and it was amazing you could find a cabbie to make the early morning run.
Most people think of the Panama Canal, and by extension, the road and railway that run along side it, as laying in an easterly-westerly orientation, but because of the way the Isthmus of Panama is shaped like an “S”, the canal actually runs north-south. Colon, the northern terminus of the canal and the trans-isthmus railroad, was a purpose-built port city, originally called Aspinwal in the early-1800’s. It was a cesspool under the French, being built over a swamp and lacking any proper drainage or sewer system. When the Americans took over the concession to the canal in the late 1800’s, they completely rebuilt the port of Colon, widening streets and adding drainage systems, sewer systems and water treatment facilities. Now, after ninety years of Panamanian administration, it has returned to its original state and it’s one of the worst slums in all of Latin America.
I always departed Colon from the Folk River pier. Folk River is a misnomer. It’s not really a river, just a slow-moving, black trickle of human waste, oil sludge, plastic bags, and other garbage oozing into the backside of the harbor behind the new Colon Free Zone. In contrast to the brightly lit, bustling Free Zone, surrounded by its high cyclone fence, the Folk River pier was a dark greasy finger of chipped and worn concrete surrounded by derelict tramp steamers listing at awkward angles as they settled, rusting apart, into the muck that was the harbor bottom. Methane bubbles slowly worked their way to the surface and broke, leaving behind colorful oil-slick rainbows when they popped.
My ocean-going dugout canoe, Don Tiki was key to me being able to make these trips through the islands. Herminio and I had picked out a huge bateo tree, growing near the village of Santa Maria de Belen, in the Atlantic coastal province of Veraguas, where he lived. Over one hundred and fifty feet tall and around five feet in diameter, it had taken a full day for his cousin, Dionisio, to cut it down with a simple, single-bladed ax. Later, Dionisio and his brother, Octavio, trimmed off the limbs, and cut out a forty five foot long section of the trunk. Over the course of two weeks, they roughed out the shape of the canoe, and began to hollow it out, until they had reduced its weight by about seventy-five percent. Then, after gathering a crew of thirty men from the village, we tied ropes around the half-finished hull, and drug it two and a half grueling miles down a jungle stream to the bay at the mouth of the Rio Belen. At the edge of the bay and near to his house, Octavio had constructed an open-sided, palm-thatched shelter where he and Dionisio could work on the piragua in a more comfortable environment, instead of hiking to and from the jungle clearing each day. During the next week, they refined the lines of the craft, and smoothed out the sides and bottom with a hand adz until they were around three inches thick. They added a few hand-hewn planks to each side, to raise the freeboard, and then they added brackets that they carved out of naturally curved tree limbs to help attach and support these planks. The prow was raised into a high point by the addition of a stem-post and a few intricately interconnected planks, so as to better ply the ocean waves. Wooden supports were fitted to various points along the inside to hold up twelve-inch wide boards that would serve as benches. These benches simply rested loosely on the supports and could be removed, if need be, to make room for more cargo. Lastly, the joints between the planks were caulked and the craft was given a couple of coats of black paint. “What will you name her?” Herminio had asked, standing near the prow with a can of white paint in one hand and a small paintbrush in the other. “Don Tiki”, I had said, without hesitation. Don Tiki had been the name of my first dugout, a 12-foot long cayuco, or small, double ended dugout canoe. It had served me well here in Panama before it was stacked up with another thirty or so other cayucos my wife and I had purchased from nearby villages and shipped to England, where they were eventually dispersed to places as far flung as Euro-Disneyland in France and a movie prop rental store in Miami, Florida.
Stay tuned for more about these trips later….