Written by Jon:
Not all the visitors to the Guna Yala aka San Blas visit the easternmost islands and communities, but we were eager to see the very traditional villages and even though it meant a day of motoring at the end of our passage from Colombia. We normally sail when we can so this was an unusual decision and we are happy we did as we feel we were much rewarded for coming this way.
One of our favourite stops was Mamitupu because it has a lovely community feeling which we felt a part of, and because we learned a lot about the culture of the Guna. Lots of little experiences made this island our favourite.
Our selection of simple moments included, spending a short while sitting with some of the old men in the village, eating freshly deep fried donuts outside a hut under a palm tree, talking with two young missionaries from America about their work in the local community and hanging off the back of the boat talking to a local guy and his kid about hunting for lobsters and what to do with your kids on school holidays.
Another magic moment was when we stumbled upon four Guna men carving and painting canoes, the Guna call them “ulu”. There will be a few people in each community who spend their time making these pieces of transport, beautiful enough to be art. Of the four men working, the elder guy was clearly in charge and overseeing the work of the younger guys in their early twenties. We had a chat with the man in charge and he told us a little about his work. He said it is based on interest and others in the community prefer to fish or grow things, or in the case of many in the younger generation move to the city. But he was happy to be teaching these three young guys his skills. Luckily for us, he was happy to tell us about creating ulu and over the next few days we learned about this art.
First they need to find the right sort of tree; nothing suitable grows on the islands being mostly palm trees, instead they have sites up river where they know the correct kind of trees grow. They find one of suitable size, which is very big for even the smallest canoe and fell it with axes. On site they dig a bit more out with their axes and machetes mostly to make them easier to move.
Next they bring it back to the village where they strip all the bark and do the finer carving, making both the outside and inside fairly smooth, again using nothing more than axes and machete. The man in charge was telling us that there is often wood worm and showed where they were leaving behind traces, but they treat the boats with paint which stops it. In the old days they would use extract from fruits to paint, but modern times require modern methods in some areas. They paint the whole boat inside and out and they often leave a strip at the top and paint it another colour. Many have additional plank seats resting inside to sit drier. Also, in some ulu the plank fitted in the centre of the boat can have a hole into which to fit a mast for sailing.
These canoes are made from a singe tree, hollowed out and we spotted a few of them on land where they park their boats, that were at least 5 meters long. That must be some tree! Some of the bigger ones have an outboard engine on them and have planks at the top to make them deeper and more seaworthy. He told us that they take a month or two to make and last between 12 and 15 years doing daily work. They haul them out rather than leave them in the water so they last longer. Most of these guys paddle everywhere, setting off before sunrise to start their work on the mainland, substance farming, foraging, fishing etc. and return at midday for lunch.
We are not up early enough to see them depart but watch them return early afternoon. One afternoon we bought some mangoes from a dad in one boat and two teenaged sons in a second boat. Most afternoons someone would stop by and chat on their way home. We learned that each family has at least one ulu and they depend on it for their daily chores. They don’t push their goods onto us, unlike in the Caribbean islands, and seem happy just to hang off the back and chat, with a genuine interest in where we are from and where we going next.
We had read about a local named Pablo who had lived abroad and returned to Mamitupu and has some unique business ideas and is happy to practice his English with visitors. We met him one afternoon and talked about his business cold pressing coconut oil by hand and the work involved in the process. It seems like you need 200 coconuts and 20 hours to make about 6 gallons of oil and takes a lot of hard work. He is a bit of a celebrity in the area and it was no problem finding someone to help us find him. And he was also able to shed some light on a topic we had lots of questions about, one that broke our hearts a little bit: we talked about the trash problem on the islands.
Pablo had just come from a council meeting with the elders, and he was frustrated as they simply wouldn’t listen to him about the need to clear the islands of the plastic trash which is everywhere. It is pilled up in the streets and covers the beaches. It washes up on the shores, both windward and leeward; it is everywhere and the locals seem to just not see it. These islands would delight the photographers of National Geographic and Conde Naste and they seems blasé about the trash, it is heart wrenching! Pablo told me that he remembers his mother and grandmother clearing the islands and starting everyday clearing the street outside their hut and occasionally joining forces with neighbours to clean the shoreline, too. But now when they clear the beaches one day, the next day they are covered again, because it just keep on coming from the sea and it seems impossible to fight it. The Guna Yala islands have a very rough deal, being at the end of the Gulf Stream coming down from Europe and across from Africa. It gets pushed into the Caribbean sea, collecting more trash from the islands and from Colombia before ending up on the shores of Panama and the islands of Guna Yala. Some of it will continue the Gulf Stream north up and past Florida back into the northern atlantic, but most dies with the winds here. Looking at sorts of trash we found on the windward beaches, it wasn’t local trash – these people without electricity are unlikely to buy fabric softener. But once you live in trash then you stop caring about if you make more or not, so we saw locals just dropped plastic food wrapper in the streets and among the palm trees. They have a huge problem with trash and the solution is not obvious. Maybe the booming tourism business will force the locals to clean up the islands, but I suspect without the support of the Panama government it will just be dumped out of sight in some of the most pristine and virgin rainforest in the world, the Darien, which is the mainland behind these islands. At the moment there is no organised trash collection in the area and collecting it will do little good without a means to dispose of it sensibly.
We hope to return to this magical place someday and see lots more ulu and lots less trash.