Gun powder, treason and plot!

That’s easier than paddling.

4th November 2022

Isla Pinos, San Blas, Panama – Ustupu, San Blas, Panama via Bahia De Masargandi, San Blas, Panama

At this time of year, the UK is awash with celebrations. At the end of October people dress up as something from the occult and terrorise homeowners with the threats of violence and menaces. A few days later everyone comes together to commemorate the state torture, forced confession and subsequent murder of a religious martyr.* The San Blas have also been full of Celebrations but they’ve been a lot less macabre and much more wholesome.

Leaving Isla Pinos we hoped that upon arrival in the next bay we’d be celebrating on Ruffian as we had a race on with Free Spirit. Free Spirit however had other ideas as they employed every trick in the book. First, they silently sailed off their anchor, then took a short cut through the shallows and finally, instead of facing backwards and reading books, they set a spinnaker, concentrated on sail trim and zoomed into the distance. This outrageous behaviour (and that they didn’t actually know they were in a race) led to Ruffian’s defeat but we still had something to celebrate.

The water we were sailing in was perfectly clear and flat and the dolphins that we had for company at sea followed us deep into the bay. Even as we dropped the anchor, they swum around us intrigued by the noise and then later focussed on the fish we had disturbed on the seabed.

The deserted bay we’d anchored in proved to be only near deserted. A small isolated hut sat lonely on a tiny atoll and within no time we’d met Mr Martin Martinez who invited us to his farm, offered to guide us through the mangroves and take us on a surprise adventure.

Under Martin’s guidance, deep in the mangroves Brock pushed his way through the overhanging foliage and as the water grew too shallow even for him, we dismounted and felt the ooze of mud between our toes. We were now in the dense jungle, far from the sea and surrounded by the sounds of the forest. To our untrained eye we just saw green, but as Martin educated us, we started to see limes, ñame (a kind of yam) and yucca, mango and noni trees. Sustenance could be gained from every plant we saw, and Martin’s forest farm was providing for him, his family and his grandchildren.

Martin also told us of the impending celebrations that were about to take place in the town, which was within rowing distance of his hut, but he was happy with his quiet isolation. The celebrations would see the whole populace dressing up, parading and marking the independence of Panama from ‘Gran Colombia’ in 1903. It was set to be quite a spectacle.

Having no idea what to expect, we landed in town where all the streets were deserted and not a single voice shattered the silence. Every house looked recently abandoned as fires smoked, windows were still open and doors swung gently back and forth. Working our way to the town square we found a mass of humanity, all either lined up ready to parade or looking on, intimately invested in everything this gathering represented.

Songs were sung, traditional dances made, thanks were given and then the drums fired up. In unison ladies dressed with matching molas, children in uniforms of every type and resplendent village elders set off in time to the beat. Above the base noise of the drums, pan pipers lifted the tones giving a spiritual feel to the show of unity.

Having walked every street and alleyway in unison, celebrations of individual success were now happening. Infront of all the great and the good academic achievements were bestowed, feats of cultural success were awarded all to the cheers and admiration of the entire village.

With the rest of the day left for entertainment every spare space was turned into a court for what seems to be the national game; volleyball. Every team was expertly laying up shots, bashing the ball with amazing precision or jumping to unfathomable heights and if you were not on a team then it was up to you to cheer, applaud and become emotionally invested in the struggles of those on the court.

Being part of the Kuna Yala celebration, we have not missed the sweet treats of toffee apples and toasted marshmallows of Guy Faulks night nor the apple bobbing and orange treats of Halloween. We have seen something much sweeter in the marking of independence and devolution of the people that continue to amaze us with their warm welcomes, rich history and fascinating culture that are the Kuna Yala Indians.

* Halloween and Guy Faulks respectively.

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Author: Iain & Fiona Lewis

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