September 1, 2005
Sidra, Kuna Yala, San Blas
09° 26.68 North
078° 50.18 West

Up The Rio Sidra With Lisa

By Bernadette Bernon

There were many memorable moments from our day hiking the rushing Sidra River with Lisa Harris, the transvestite master mola maker infamous among Panama cruisers. There was the heart-in-my-throat moment I had to jump from a cliff – sunglasses, sun hat, and backpack be damned -- into the freshwater pool below, and then a half hour later do the same into another, until I felt like The Sundance Kid outrunning the law. There was the bloody murder of the four-foot iguana. There was Lisa’s story of her adopted daughter, who was in private school in Panama City. There was Lisa herself, hiking in her Kuna wrap skirt, and matching pink sequined hat and purse. When I complimented her on the set, she smiled demurely, and said in English, “perfect for summer.”

Lisa Harris, in sequined hat and handbag, about to embark on an all-day jungle hike. In the photos on either side of her are two of her molas – of a skate and an eagle ray – showing her fine level of detail work.

We knew Lisa Harris from our last cruise of the San Blas, two years ago. She’d been the first Kuna we’d met when we arrived here in 2003, we’d bought a few of her exquisite molas, and had her aboard for a couple of hours. After that, whenever she’d seen Ithaka somewhere on the horizon, she’d putter over and stop for a visit. We remembered her with great fondness. When she found us again this year, she remembered us immediately, which was a nice surprise, as she meets new people every day. She found us in the central Holandes, when she’d motored up in her big ulu (no paddles for Lisa, she’s firmly in the modern world with her 15-horse Yamaha), and she jumped aboard excitedly.

“Come to Sidra,” she always used to ask us when we’d been here before. Now she entreated us again. “I show you my house. I bring you up the river to the sacred mountain.” The more she told us about it, the more we wanted to go, before rainy season and the daily thunder and lightening near the mountains made the trip out of the question. Our friends Katie and Jim were game, as were Lisa and Cade.


Bernadette takes the plunge into the river

Sidra is a Kuna island close to the mainland that’s not normally on the cruisers’ hit parade because the freshwater rushing out of the river, and the runoff from the mountains, puts enough sediment into the seawater to eliminate the glorious clarity that makes the outer San Blas islands such a paradise. But no matter, we weren’t going there to swim. We were going to explore the inland jungle, to visit traditional villages renowned for superb mola making, and to visit the Harris Mola Monopoly. After a pleasant day sail, we anchored off Sidra in 25 feet of suction-cup mud. Lisa Harris stopped by in her ulu, thrilled to see us, and we made plans with her for the trek the next day.

At 7 a.m., she arrived to pick us all up in a giant ulu, with her two helpers – Kuna teenagers in tall boots and long pants. I looked at our lightweight reef walkers and flimsy shorts, and had some second thoughts about the way we’d prepared. But then I looked at Lisa Harris, with her matching sequined sunhat and handbag, and figured we’d probably be alright as we were. At the last moment, Lisa from Sand Dollar decided to stay aboard, and no amount of coaxing could change her mind. We loaded ourselves into the ulu, as well as Cade, Jim, Katie, and Katie’s sister and niece who were visiting for a week from the States, plus our backpacks and dry bags, bulging with lunch and drinking water and odds and ends, and we were off.


Lisa's mola of a wise old medicine man in his hammock.

First the ulu traveled into the mouth of the river, and as the banks narrowed we slowed, and the canopy of trees closed in over us. We heard monkeys howling, and riots of birds calling to one another. Cade began calling back, and the cacophony increased to dramatic levels. One of the Kuna boys stood at the bow of the ulu with a long pole, pushing us along, and away from the shallows, until finally the river became too shallow to continue. We climbed out, waded ashore, and forged our way into the jungle on foot. For an hour or so, we were passed by Kuna men wearing Wellingtons, who were hiking up to work in their fincas, where they harvested pineapples, limes, mangoes, and the crops that feed their villages.

The cemetery for the town of Rio Sidra is located on dry sacred ground, up the mountain, where the spirits of the dead can rest amid keepsakes from their earthly lives.

The boys hacked reeds down with their machetes, to clear an overgrown path; one of them made small crosses of two reeds together, and gave us each one, a Kuna tradition to guard us against dangerous spirits. Meanwhile, Lisa Harris narrated our climb. She showed us a flower that, translated from Kuna, means “Marilyn Monroe’s lips” and indeed it did look like luscious red lips. In the forest, she stopped and picked leaves from a bush, rubbed them between her palms, and let us smell the fragrance. It was pungent lemon balm. I tucked some into my pockets to relive the fresh scent again later. She showed us the different sizes of calabashes growing on the trees, and explained how each has a different purpose for the Kuna’s everyday life – as water bowls, plates, and cups. She taught us a bit about Kuna medicine plants. There was one to stop men from straying from their wives, called “machircanera” in Kuna, another that acts as an enima, called “abeyina.”

With sudden solemnity on the part of our hosts, we arrived at the Sidra graveyard, a vast plot of small dirt mounds, each decorated with cups, and candles, and personal effects of the deceased -- the whole thing covered by a vast thatched roof. Here, Lisa said, there were many spirits, and she lit a candle and some incense to pay respect to them before we passed by. In the distance I could hear roaring, and asked Lisa if they were tigers. Maybe, Lisa said, but more likely the roars were from great monkeys that lived in that area of the mountain. We carried on.

Ahead of us the trees and lush vegetation parted, we emerged into the sunshine, and before us was the Kuna sacred mountain, called Ubu, the highest peak from horizon to horizon, the mountain the Kunas revere as the place most often visited by the spirits of their ancestors. From this reverent spot, we turned around and looked out to see the entire chain of San Blas Islands dotting the seascape spread out before us. Below, we could just make out our boats anchored near the little island of Sidra.

Lisa made an exquisite pair of Adam-And-Eve molas. She's holding the one depicting the Garden Of Eden before Eve eats the apple. The second mola, which would be worn on the back of the mola blouse, depicts the tragic scene after the apple has been tasted.

It was fun to walk with Lisa, and talk to her about all these traditions, and about her life as a mola maker of great distinction. Over the years, she’s taught herself English. She also can speak Spanish, again self-taught. And when I ask her what other languages she can speak she says she can speak a little French, some German, and some Italian – “But only the numbers really,” the businesswoman says with a demure smile.

As we walked along, Lisa told me of her daughter, who’s in a private school in Panama City. The girl is really Lisa’s niece. But two days after she was born, Lisa’s mother brought the baby to her, and said that it had been decided that from now on Lisa would be the mother. “She only went to her real mother for milk,” Lisa said proudly. Since then, she’s raised her daughter with a strict hand, insisting she learn how to make molas, as well as excel in school. When her daughter finished the local Kuna school on Sidra, Lisa decided to send her to the city to continue her education in a private boarding school, where she studies with the children of non-Kunas. Despite these modern influences, Lisa also insists her daughter honor the traditions and rituals of any other young Kuna girl. She had a chicha ceremony when she turned 12 – the village-wide celebration of a young girl getting her first period, and then getting her hair cut to demonstrate her new status as a woman -- and all Sidra had turned out for it. Katie and Jim were lucky enough to have been invited, and told us it was a monumental event of music, ritual dances, ceremony, and drama.

Lisa and her daughter on the long-awaited day of the big chicha ceremony to celebrate a girl's coming of age. The village is invited to the festivities of dance, hair cutting, and ritual.

As we walked along, Lisa said that her daughter was about to have another birthday. She was about to turn 14, an insignificant birthday in the Kuna lexicon, but at her boarding school that one birthday was celebrated in a special way. The family of the child was supposed to put on a party for the other children. Lisa pondered this development, and although she wasn’t thrilled with the idea, considering the more important birthday had already been celebrated in enough pageantry for one girl to last a lifetime, and considering that the money for tuition was already almost impossible to come up with, she acquiesced. However she made it clear to the headmaster of the school that she had a caveat. Yes, alright, her daughter would have this gringo birthday party. But she’d need to respect her role as a Kuna at the same time, and wear a special mola to this party in her honor. The headmaster agreed to honor the request, and Lisa got busy making this new mega-mola, which was almost ready.

As we walked and I heard this story, I imagined Lisa’s stunningly beautiful daughter, and the incredible perspective she’s getting on life – her strict Kuna upbringing on the poor island of Sidra, daughter of the most famous transvestite mola maker in the islands, and now attending prep school in the big city with Panamanian kids who speak English and Spanish fluently, and who’ve grown up exactly like American kids. It made my head spin, and I wished I could fast-forward a decade to see how this story would turn out.

Kunas believe that earthquakes are caused when the keepers of the "temblors" - who carry the weight of the world on their heads - drop them. Lisa depicts these carriers in her mola. In the other mola, she depicts a special medicine man for sick children; this healer rides his mythological ulu out to sea to find unique cures.

We heard the increasing roar of rushing water in the distance. As we got closer, the roar became so thunderous that we began to speak more loudly to each other in order to be heard. Then, there was the white waterfall before us. We stopped for lunch together at that dramatic spot, sharing what we had with Lisa and her assistants, enjoying the cool shade, our friends, and the spectacular view of white water cascading down from above into a giant pool below, and then rushing into the rapids of the river.

Lunch completed, Lisa got up, walked to the side of the cliff, gazed down, AND THEN JUMPED! To my horror, the two boys did the same. Resisting vertigo, I crept to the edge and looked over to make sure their rag-doll bodies weren’t dashed on the rocks. What the heck was going on? There they were, floating in the rushing pool, and encouraging us to jump in as well. No way, I thought. Not my cup of tea AT ALL, thank you very much. Then it began to dawn on all of us at the same instant. This was the only way down, unless we retraced our hike through the jungle. But, but, but… our jungle guides were now floating down the river!


Cade drifts to the shallows of the river, then makes his way over the slippery rocks the safe way.

Cade held onto his backpack, and his hat and jumped. My head began to spin. What the… Douglas shrugged, put our underwater camera under his arm, and jumped. “I’ll tell you what it’s like when I get down there,” he’d called out to me. My temples began throbbing. “You can do it!” he called from the pool, as he was swept downstream like a speck. Jim and Katie jumped. Her sister and niece jumped. Oh for God’s sake. The momentum of others doing a thing is a powerful motivator. I held my nose with one hand, my good sunglasses with the other, and jumped out into the void, thinking this moment could very well be my last. The rush of the fall was electric. Then I hit the cold water, and thanked Almighty that I’d survived it, never to do something so idiotic again.

Women dance at the chicha party for Lisa's daughter. On either side of the photo are two of Lisa's molas, depicting a lobster and a crab.

We drifted down the rapids until it shallowed, we could catch our footing, and stand up. We walked through the rushing water, reached another waterfall, jumped again, following the dripping sequined summer hat of our fearless leader. After an hour, the water began to calm. Lisa and the boys began collecting tiny periwinkles in a calabash – for seafood stew later at home, she explained. Suddenly all progress stopped. The boys rushed to the side of the river in a panic. Lisa looked underwater with her mask and emerged announcing that there was a crocodile ahead. Cade, the cowboy of our party, looked underwater with Lisa’s mask, inch by inch approached the “crock,” closer and closer, until – in a great show of thrashing – he emerged holding the tail of a five-foot iguana.

“Hey look at this beauty,” Cade said. “This is no crock!”

He put the iguana down on the ground, still holding his tail. As we came closer to admire the beautiful creature, a giant rock came down and smashed him on the head. We all screamed. One of the boys stood there with a smile and a barrage of Kuna that to my horrified ears sounded something like, “We can forget about periwinkle stew tonight!”

Cade was despondent to have been the cause of the iguana’s death, the rest of us were overwhelmed by the sudden violence of the murderous act, and after the boys trussed the bleeding iguana up with a rope and threw it over their shoulders, we all trouped along to consider the life of the Kuna, and what it meant for a hungry family to have iguana meat.


When there is an eclipse, Kuna's believe a great dragon is eating away at the moon.

After two or three hours of walking and swimming down the river bed, we finally emerged near a trail that lead back into the woods, and the cemetery, and we made our way to where we’d left the ulu. Exhausted and excited by the sights and sounds and experiences of the day, we couldn’t wait to get back to Sand Dollar and encourage our Lisa that she had to go on the next jungle walk. When the ulu brought us back to the boats, though, a surprise of an unfortunate nature awaited us. Lisa was there, distressed, and told us that her 87-year-old mom had emailed to tell her she’d been diagnosed with colon cancer, and was scheduled for surgery within a few days. Suddenly, our Lisa was going home.