21 February 2013

Polar Behrs (pt. 3)

We're waving off our new friend from Ustupu, Andres. With him, heading back to his village, is our bag of garbage which he has offered to take (we have given him some money, of course), probably to prevent us from throwing it all in the sea.

He has also brought us a Guna Yala courtesy flag to fly on our starboard spreader along with the Panamanian one. It is comprised of three horizontal bands, one yellow in between two red. In the yellow band is a swastika, but, as he demonstrates, it is oriented vertically opposite from the Nazi symbol. (We know from our guidebooks that it predates it historically as well.)

We met Andres the day before while strolling the streets of Ustupu, the largest village in the Comarca of Guna Yala, home to some 8,000 people. It is below the part of the archipelago that most cruisers visit. All the more reason to go, as far as we are concerned.

As the largest village, we have hopes of 1) buying a Panama SIM card, 2) finding some chocolate, and 3) having dinner in a restaurant. We land the dinghy at the town dock, a concrete pier that juts out into the bay on the backside of the island. There is an attachment that is low enough for dinghies. We are immediately greeted by a gentleman who welcomes us and points to a bank of phone booths which is also where we pay our "anchoring fee" of quince bolivars. It's a little odd to use American money in a place so "unamericalike." We are directed (mostly by hand gestures, when they realize how poor our Spanish is) to some sort of administrative building. There, we are asked to sign a guest book, their twentieth and twenty-first visitors since 2010. Most of Ustupu's other visitors have come from places other than  the States. We also meet the sahila (cacique, chief) of the village, who does not speak any English and his secretary (the Secretary General), who does. He introduces himself and, at our request, teaches us how to say "hello" (na de gi te) and "how are you?" (nue di) in Guna. As we are to discover, the Guna get around. He learned English by living in Colón for years. Another gentlemen we meet learned English by working on the Canal for 20 years. 

After finishing  our "paperwork," we leave, not sure if we've been dismissed or not, but since the sahila and his secretary have vanished, we assume the check-in process has been completed. Since we were formally welcomed, we figure it will be OK to explore the village, so we do. Ustupu is a beautiful village: houses, made of bamboo canes lashed with creepers and covered with thatch roofs sit next to one another. They offer some visual privacy, but no soundproofing. There is a town square and high streets where the businesses are. It is incredibly clean.

In the first tienda we come across we buy cornflakes, coke, beer (Balboa is the national brand), canned fish of an indiscriminate variety, and bleach. ("Comè se dice "bleach" en Guna?" "Clorox.") We do not, however, score any chocolate. Bummer.

In the second tienda, we are met with great success: Snickers! ("I'll take six, please.) Who knew what godsends artificial ingredients and preservatives would be to cruisers?

Guna Yala women are a riot of color: dresses made of beautiful print fabrics empaneled with molas, their traditional handicraft; beaded bracelets, many of them, adorn their arms and yellow leggings with geometric patterns in red cover their legs from just below the knee to above the ankle. At puberty, girls have a gold ring inserted in their septums. For special occasions, they wear a thin black stripe down the length of their noses. Men have no traditional dress whatsoever.

They are very friendly, especially the children. They seemed happy to see us, greeting us with "Hola!" as we pass them on the streets. We are probably a bit of fun for them.

We happen on an art gallery. The works displayed all are the artist's own and he proceeds to describe them to us using far more words than we understand. Some of his works, paintings, depict women making molas, some are scenes of village life, one illustrates a Guna myth, we think, which he explains in great detail using demonstrative gestures, which are our only clues as to what he is talking about. Photos are not allowed anywhere in the village, nor are drawings, so to remember them, we choose a small scene of village life on parchment or vellum for $25 and a painted feather for $10. (The feather later met with a small bit of misfortune. The paint was not quite dry which he'd warned us about and it rubbed up against something else as we were trying to juggle it, the painting, and our groceries while getting into the dinghy.)

Strolling down one of the high streets we meet Andres. Though, I harbor a minor suspicion that Andres having heard about the new visitors, tracked us. Andres adopted us for the afternoon. He took us several tiendas intent on finding a SIM card or chip, (cheep) as they say.

He finds a place that sells them and while he and Jane are working out the details of the chip transaction, I catch the eye of a teenage boy standing in the doorway of the hut next to the tienda. He wants me to notice him, wants me to hear that he and his pals are listening to American pop music; he's turned it up to get my attention. I smile and nod and as are leaving, give him the thumbs up and say "awesome!" and then the rough Spanish equivalent, "bueno!".  

At Jane's prodding, Andres recommends one of the two restaurants in the village and walks us there to make a reservation. He apologizes for his poor English, explaining that he speaks Russian, having lived in Moscow for awhile when he was younger. He tells us that he has a sibling who lives in Las Vegas and one who lives in Canada. These folks really do get around.

On the way to the restaurant, we have to step to the side on a street while a group of young men in various states of combat dress march past us in formation, rehearsing, no doubt, for their upcoming independence day celebration. On the twenty-fifth of February, Ustupu and several of the other island villages will celebrate the eighty-eighth anniversary of the "Holocausto de las Razas," the day on which the Guna gained semi-autonomous status from the nation of Panama

We return to JOY for an hour or so, then get dressed for dinner and head back to Restaurante Vicky. The place, lit by two CFL bulbs, is not as empty as we thought it would be; it is actually good that we'd made a reservation. Sitting alone at another table is white man, probably American or Canadian. We'd seen him on the dock earlier in the day chatting with some Guna men. At another table are two young white guys, definitely North American. We never found about about the other guy, but as they were leaving, the two young guys introduce themselves. They are missionaries in the last few months of a two-year mission to Panama, Ustupu being one of their stops. They tell us they suspected we were the owners of the boat parked in the bay.

We chat with them until our food arrives at which point they excuse themselves. The chicken Jane ordered is awesome, moist and tender. I ordered carne which is served as a sort of stir-fry with some vegetables, also very tasty. Nine bucks and change for both, including drinks. Obviously, we haven't gotten to the part of Panama yet that is more expensive than Colombia. We return to JOY full and pleased with our decision to stop here.

When Andres comes out to visit the next day, we ask him about the missionaries. They are, as we suspected, Mormon. We ask about the religious traditions of the  Guna. His father, he tells us, is Baha'i. I remember that one of the seven worldwide Baha'i temples is in Panama City. Long an admirer of the temple in the States for its indescribably breathtaking architecture, I have made it a goal to see the rest. "En los estatos unidos..." I begin. "Wilmette" he finishes for me, referring to the Baha'i temple in Wilmette, Illinois. Later he sums it up for all of us, "El mondo es pequeño."

We all go out to the starboard spreader where we hoist the flag of Guna Yala. I mention that my father was Jewish because, despite knowing the difference, I'm still a little uncomfortable flying something that so closely resembles something else. Since as far as we--and they-- are concerned, we are not in Panama, we suggest replacing our Panamanian courtesy flag with the Guna flag as long as we are in Guna Yala, but Andres points out that it might become an issue with the Panamanian authorities. We acquiesce and hoist it just below the Panamanian flag.

There are so many questions we want to ask Andres about himself, his family, his society. Why do only the women have a traditional form of dress? Is your economy really based that heavily on trading coconuts with Colombians? How has technology changed Guna culture? We could talk all day, but he has things to do and we need to leave by 1:00 p.m. to make our next anchorage, La Bahia Golondrina, about ten miles away, before dark. One thing I do ask him: how to say "more joy everywhere" in Guna for our website.


I wake up from an after dinner nap (perhaps only one Bombay Sapphire martini next time). Jane has gone to bed, but she has started the watermaker and, inexplicably, the generator. Elvis is back in the house. It is ineffable. 

If I were asked to weigh the good against the bad and give this trip, this adventure of ours an overall thumbs up or thumbs down, I could not do it. On days that we go aground with no idea of how or when or if we'll get free, I loathe what we've done to ourselves; on days that we meet someone like Andres, I think I must be a genius to have ever imagined doing it. On days that we are covered in shit, literally, with only a bucket for a toilet until we figure out how to fix this one of many and constant breakdowns, I want to drink myself so far into a stupor that I never come back out; on days when we pack a picnic lunch and spend the afternoon on "our own" deserted island, I love my life beyond all imagining. 

...and on and on it goes. If there is any "overall" attitude to maintain with regard to all of this it is learning to live with self-induced, repetitive exposure bipolar disorder.

No comments:

Post a Comment