10th November 2022
Ustupu, San Blas, Panama – Isla Mono, San Blas, Panama via Achutupu, San Blas, Panama
Man has 5 senses; sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, like appetites these can be starved, satisfied or overwhelmed. The San Blas islands have the habit of putting all our senses though all their differing levels and we’ve been starved and overwhelmed in equal order.
After a day of boat jobs in Ustupo, which surprisingly, included fixing toilet seats, painting brackets and a crazy amount of woodwork, we entered a world of sensory deprivation. The sun sunk over the hills leaving no light anywhere and the silence was complete without a ripple stirring the surface of the sea or wind whistling in the rigging.
In this absence of stimulus our senses were heightened. We only knew that our eyes worked as we could track the occasional shooting star leaving bright trails in ionosphere while closer to home our ears picked out the tell-tale gasps of air as dolphins surfaced to take breath ready for their next hunting expedition.
After all the weekend celebrations in Usutpo, the ‘town’ was waking up to its usual Monday morning activity and we were about to be part of that activity. We’d been invited by one of the school teachers to greet his class, give the them the opportunity to practice their English and be a spectacle for his morning lesson.
Leaving the town’s silent deserted streets, the school was all smiles and excited chatter as the children’s welcome overwhelmed us. We were taught some Kuna, which we promptly forgot, but the kids hadn’t forgotten their English. Towering above all these little people was Fiona who was greeted by each child, who told her their name, age and something interesting. Overseeing this spectacle was the teacher who was puffed up with pride at the show his students were putting on for his esteemed visitors.
Moving on from the ‘metropolis’ of Usutpo we anchored in front of the next town and instantly had company. Dugout after dugout approached us and through sign language and Iain’s near fluent Spanish (read; a mix of the few words of Spanish, French, Italian and German that he knows), invited us to join the whole village after sunset. We weren’t sure what was going to happen but every dugout was excited at the thought of the freshly brewed Chicha Fuerte and the effects it was going to have. There was also something about a girl going through a once in a lifetime right of passage, but the focus was all on the Chicha Fuerte.*
Word of our arrival had spread through the village and a welcoming party was clogging the shoreline awaiting our arrival. As soon as we stepped on land, we were ushered to the saila (pronounced “sigh-lah”) who ceremoniously granted us permission to be ashore after dark, be part of the mystical proceedings and even ‘lent’ us an interpreter who could explain what we were seeing.
All our senses were pricked as soon as we entered the main square. The atmosphere was electric with anticipation of the upcoming proceedings and this was only heightened as these tall strangers held court among swarms of inquisitive children, under the looks of sultry teenagers, while the women ran around putting finish touches to things and men, as seems usual around the world, sat, smoked and drunk.
Pulling us away from the children we were ushered into the communal hall where we were about to witness age old rituals. Woodsmoke filled the air and each man was blessed by an aromatic blowing of smoke over his shoulders while he jigged to a silent beat. In the centre of these proceedings were the saila who, with a simple sway of a hand, or nod of a head moved the things on and ushered our next sensory overload.
From nowhere men dressed in smart shirts bounced their way into the hall. Around their necks were strung lengths of pelican bones which rattled in time to their dancing and created hypnotic aura. Over this base rhythm, pan pipers played a high-pitched tune and this was the message to all to move in unison.
The saila unseated themselves and led a procession around the village. They were closely followed by the dancing men, women dressed in their traditional costumes and finally the pipers. We could feel the earth move under their stamping feet and the lively raucous children who lined the streets grew quiet at the spectacle.
Re-entering the hall, the event that everyone had grown excited about was unveiled. Vat after vat of Chicha was ushered in and ceremonially consumed. As each mugful was downed a cheer rose, the crowd grew more excited and yet more chicha was handed around. No-one was spared the ceremonial drink which looked like a mix of cloudy swamp water mixed with floating kitchen detritus and like all those around us we downed mugs of the stuff.
According to Fiona it tasted like aged wine that was too warm and too aged, but others detected hints of chocolate, musty undertones and woody notes. This Chicha was clearly a vintage and a vintage that was dulling some senses while enlivening others. For us, all our senses were overloaded, from the ancient sights we saw, to the smoke that filled our nostrils, to the Chicha that numbed our tongues and threatened to sting our heads.
* At the centre of these celebrations was a pre-adolescent girl who was about to have her hair cur for the first time since birth (or something to that effect).
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