September 15, 2005
Waisaladup, Kuna Yala
San Blas, Panama
09° 28.303 North
078° 38.182 West

Time Warps in Kuna Yala

By Douglas Bernon

From the northeast, the wind is blowing 9 knots and Ithaka is riding calm at anchor, just south of the tiny island of Waisaladup. Behind us, due south, is the Panamanian mainland, with its range of peaked green mountains, bright in the morning light. Between Ithaka and the coast is the village island of Wuargandup, where more than 300 people live. You can measure the linear distance between Waisaladup and Wuargandup in miles (2.2) and the metaphysical distance in light years.

A collection of sunset rain clouds comes off the mountains toward Waisaladup.

Waisaladup is tiny; at its broadest point, it’s maybe 100 yards. No one lives here, although there’s a lean-to of fronds that Kuna fishermen (los pescadores) from Wuargandup have built for protection when heavy winds force them to steer their ulus into shore to seek protection. For gringo cruisers, Waisaladup is paradise. With its sweet beach, perfectly situated for sunset-facing barbeques, we’ve spent the last five nights there. Cade, on Sand Dollar, has been the awesome hunter here; we have not lacked for food.

Trigger fish offers a firm meat that is especially good for ceviche. It’s when snapper think they’re invisible, that they become dinner. (Photos courtesy of Windom.)

One day he nailed two large queen trigger fish and two smaller snappers. It was enough to feed the crews of Mesque Ukee, Macy, Sand Dollar and Ithaka. Waisaladup is surrounded by a series of reefs that form a totally protected anchorage—regardless of wind direction. The sea bottom is deep sand, so the holding is what all of us dream about. The other night we rode out a squall of 40 knots without any waves behind the reefs. Snaking through the reef labyrinth to get in here requires good light, but with the sun overhead, a turquoise highway lays a clear path between the thickets of coral.

A Kuna boy, his dog, and their ulu full of coconuts

Because Waisaladup is dense with palms, and because gravity delivers coconuts without regard to where people are resting, whenever we go ashore, we always look up before we sit down. The men of Wuargandup, who collect the fallen bounty here, sell their harvest to the Colombian trading boats that come through regularly, paying them 11 cents apiece. It’s a given in all the islands of Kuna Yala that no cruiser EVER touches a coconut. We can buy them, but to appropriate them would be treated as stealing.

Wuargandup, just offshore the mainland, may once have been a palm paradise too, but it is becoming a modern village and gradually giving up some traditions. However, it has maintained the generous Kuna spirit. When we first went ashore on Wuargandup, with Dave and Julia from Macy, the children flocked to us and grabbed our hands, leading us around town as if we were large, animated pull toys. One man heard the commotion, stuck his head out of his hut, ducked back inside, and then re-appeared with gifts. For the sheer pleasure of giving, he handed each of us a ripe mango.

The more modern village of Wuargandup and a gaggle of kids, led by Dave from Macy

Politically, the Saihla (island chief) is still in control of Wuargandup, and with the Congresso, determines rules and community policies. The local stores, called tiendas in Spanish, are typically Kuna still. They stock onions, potatoes, Clorox, toilet tissue, rice, and a few other odds and ends. Many island men head to the mainland jungle everyday to tend their crops of fruit and vegetables in the mountains, or to hunt. Many others are fishermen who go out everyday in their ulus to dive for lobster, fish and crab. All of their sails are handmade, patched together with tatters of bed sheets, rice sacks, political banners, pants, shirts, and whatever can be scrounged and secured. Their boats have no tillers. The man in the stern both paddles and steers with a large, heavy, wooden oar. We cruisers who are spoiled with Kevlar, Mylar, space-age laminates, lightweight blocks, and heavy-duty diesels all stand in awe as we watch these superb sailors with their low-tech systems take their rudderless, keel-less crafts many miles offshore in weather that daunts us in our big boats.

The Kuna women often make molas of what they know best, especially food from the sea.

With one foot in the 19th century, Wuargandup is also stepping crisply into the 21st. Women no longer wear traditional mola blouses here; instead they wear shorts and tee-shirts, or whatever they have. No one sells molas. Concrete pads are laid under most huts, and some people have totally concrete buildings with TV antennas and even an occasional satellite dish. Giant wooden ulus (some can hold 40 people) or fiberglass pangas with twin 200-horsepower engines come every week from Colon, Panama, with fresh fruit and vegetables, cookies, Frosted Flakes, and frozen chickens. There’s a generator that runs constantly now, providing the power for a few street lamps, a couple of stoves, many radios, lights here and there. From our cockpit two miles away we can see the village glowing through the night, a rare sight in Kuna Yala, where most islands have no power and, therefore no lights at night.

This mola of faucets, buckets and valves is one woman's sweet depiction of water's journey in her village.

Recently Wuargandup got water on demand. The close-by Rio Azucar now contains a large PVC pipe, which delivers sweet water from high in the hills, where it first runs through a simple yet ingenious sand-filtration system built and maintained by the Kunas. With a gravity feed, water from the mountains is now available 24 hours a day trough a faucet at the town dock. Many families have connected to the big pipe and now have their own smaller PVC pipe and faucets sticking up from the ground right at their huts. We were told that the town charges $2 per month for unlimited water. Some highly entrepreneurial Wuargandupians have bought 55-gallon plastic barrels that they fill with water, motoring large ulus to outlying islands where they sell it easily. Once a village has power and electricity, life is fundamentally changed.

Water in 55-gallon plastic drums will be delivered to outer islands. Most of the 350 islands in the San Blas archipelago are without fresh water.

Before we dinghied in to Wuargandup we’d already met several of the men and boys, fishermen who’d stopped by Ithaka selling whatever they’d caught that day. A large crab, with a pincer-spread of two feet and enough meat for both of us for dinner, costs from $1 to $3 depending on the vagaries of the day and the size of the crab.

Fish appear on many molas, including this fine example of the craft.

One afternoon at Waisaladup, when they were collecting coconuts, we met Javier, his son Jose, and Jose’s perrolito (puppy). All Kunas ask in Spanish if we have magazines -- “Ay revistas?”-- and Dave was delighted to deliver a Batman comic and an issue of Snowboarding magazine. Javier spoke some English, and immediately instructed his son to “Say tank you.” When Dave and I dinghied off, we left Javier and Jose sitting on the beach, staring at the photos of mountains with snow.


It was a toss up whether the father or son was more tickled by the snowboarding magazine. Neither has ever seen snow, but both recognized Batman.

As we approached the south side of Wuargandup in our dink, we were surprised to find what we think was either a navigational aide for shallows or a marker to indicate the path of the water pipe from the river. Unsure, we gave it a wide margin and puttered up to the town dock where we found good fortune. The supply boat from Colon had just come in, so we stood in line with the locals. When our turn came, we bought a case of Balboa, the Panamanian beer, and two frozen “pollo entera” -- whole plucked chickens with feet and heads intact. We didn’t plan to make soup, so Bernadette rounded up a man with a machete, hacked off the extremities, and gave them to a little girl who’d been holding her hand all morning. “Por su madre,” Bernadette said, for your mother, to make soup. The surprised child ran off happily with the bag.

In more remote villages we’ve visited—smaller islands much farther from the mainland—school ends for most kids after third grade, but in Wuargandup, children are in class through sixth grade, and the differences showed. Many of them spoke some English and Spanish. I kept wondering what the overall trade offs are when children are educated further and further beyond what their parents and village has known. There will be losses and gains, and while the greater answers won’t be revealed for some time, it was clear that one immediate change is a priority on preventive health care. Everywhere in Wuargandup we saw government-printed signs endorsing anti-malaria medication (Panama is mostly a jungle, after all.) These signs have been erected by the local clinic that can provide the medication. We also saw a sign showing women how to perform breast examinations. We were impressed that the clinic also owns a large ulu that picks up and delivers patients from other islands.

The local health clinic at Wuargandup has a large ulu that they use for long distance transport, borrowing an outboard engine from the Saihla.

As we traveled back and forth between the peace of Waisaladup and the bustle of Wuargandup we felt some of the time warp ourselves. It will take Sailhas with strong but delicate hands and much good sense to retain the soulful Kuna traditions while reaping some advantages from modernity. In Wuargandup there are signs that they’re making that effort. I keep worrying, though, that those new satellite dishes, are more likely to bring want than wisdom.

It's clear which is the more beautiful vessel, and clear, too, that the price of modernity is often the loss of elegance.