November 1, 2005
Isla Nusitupu
Kuna Yala, San Blas Islands, Panama
09° 26.670 North
078° 50.191 West

High-Stakes Mola Negotiations

By Bernadette Bernon

Coming alongside Ithaka in their wooden ulus, the Kuna women bring plastic buckets full of their molas. Sometimes one woman will carry the work of many in her family.

There is a rhythm to the days in Kuna Yala, especially during rainy season. After awakening, while the day is still cool, we do our boat chores for a couple of hours – we clean the boat inside, put everything back in its place, fix whatever needs fixing, maintain whatever needs our attention. If it’s rained during the night, we might pump the clean water out of our dinghy into two five-gallon buckets, add detergent to one, put in some clothes and sheets, any new molas we’ve acquired, or whatever, and let the laundry soak for a couple of hours. The other bucket we’ll use for rinse water. No fresh water gets wasted out here, and we keep the floor of the dinghy clean for just this purpose.

Adelesia Perez and her daughter visited Ithaka many times when we were anchored in Nargana: we bought two small molas from her, and she returned almost every hour on the hour, trying to sell more.

After we download our email and the weather faxes, at 8:30 we tune our single-sideband radio in to 8107 KHz, the Panama Connection Net, to hear the weather forecast, to hear if there’s any news pertinent to our area of Panama, and to catch up with the

whereabouts of friends. While Douglas is at the nav station, on the computer, if anything needs baking in the oven, this is the time I tend to do it, before the heat of the day slows everything down. With the net completed, I go out and wash the clothes, and hang them out in the sunshine to dry. Later, Douglas and I will take the dinghy out to the reef and go swimming and spearfishing – such are the activities of a normal cruising day at anchor here in Kuna Yala.

At any moment during these simple rituals of onboard life, an ulu of Kunas may paddle up to Ithaka. If it’s an ulu of men and boys, they come to see if we want to buy their fish, crab, or lobster. If it’s an ulu of women and girls, they’re likely peddling their handmade molas. When this happens, I stop what I’m doing and see what’s what.

This morning, for instance, we’re anchored off the island of Nusitupu, near the mainland, and an ulu with two women glided up alongside. “Mola bakae?” one of the women asked shyly in Kuna, meaning, “Do you want to buy molas?” Well, sure, we said in Spanish. They climbed aboard, bringing with them their own covered five-gallon bucket of molas, and we settled into the shade of Ithaka’s cockpit.

Criseniana Perez is wearing a traditional mola design-a geometric pattern. Underneath the horizontal line at the top of the mola, she has sewn in a zipper that makes it possible for her to breast feed easily.

As I looked at the beautiful workmanship of one particular mola blouse, inspecting its back and front, I had a stunning moment. One month ago, I’d cut off and rehemmed the bottom of a green flowered sun dress; it had come almost down to my ankles -- a useless length here in the tropics – and, along with other sewing scraps, I’d given the leftover fabric to a Kuna woman in a village about 20 miles from here. Now, here I was, one month later, looking at molas, and there was the distinctive green flowered fabric already incorporated into the back of one of the molas in my hands. Nothing is wasted here in Kuna Yala. I climbed below, got the now knee-length dress, and brought it up to show the woman where the fabric had come from.

“El mundo pequeno” – small world, I tried to say in Spanish. She smiled the demure smile of the Kuna, slightly bashful.

Next, she and I got onto the business of negotiating for a particular mola that had caught my eye. “Iggy mani?” I asked; in Kuna, this means “how much does it cost?” At this moment there’s always a transformation: previous shyness disappears, quickly replaced by the sharp negotiating powers of Martha Stewart in a red head scarf.

The blue molas are becoming increasingly plentiful, although we've yet to see a Kuna woman actually wearing one. Their production seems to be entirely for sales to cruisers who like the color. This fish, with its red-heart mouth is more an embroidery than a mola, because it has but one layer underneath.

Bargaining in Kuna is really something you have to hear to believe. The Kuna language has a guttural sound, and has no root in any languages I've ever heard. None of it feels intuitive. After struggling to communicate with the Indians, many Kuna phrases have crept into my vocabulary down here, such as “iggy nuga,” which means, “what is this called” or “what are you called” depending on where or at whom you’re directing your eyes when you say it.

Odilda Lopez, in her ulu next to Ithaka, is wearing the traditional Kuna headscarf, which she adjusted several times to get it just right before we took her picture.

Here in Kuna Yala, when someone asks me, “Iggy nuga” I say BB, as the name Bernadette is too much for them to deal with. If they ask Douglas’s name, we now say Choo-Car, which is how they pronounce his name anyway, so now we just start there instead of repeating the name countless times and hearing back: “Doo-Closs?” or “Chew-Glow?”

Upon my asking the price of the mola, the Kuna woman normally says something in rapid-fire Kuna that I don’t understand. I put my hands out and shrug my shoulders. We figure out that she’s saying $75 – an absurdly high number for this particular piece -- because she eventually traces the number in the sand or on the deck, depending where this transaction is taking place. And then I dutifully assume my role, and go into total shock over the number. Often, if Choo-Car is there, he clutches at his chest, feigning a heart attack. The Kuna are amused by these histrionics, but not much swayed.

Odilda Lopez, in her ulu next to Ithaka, is wearing the traditional Kuna headscarf, which she adjusted several times to get it just right before we took her picture.

“Vente,” I’ll say in Spanish, which means twenty – a number I know is too low.

Then she'll do a throaty disgusted sound, like “BACHHH” and then blurt in English, "Twenny dolla? BACHHH! Cinquenta." That means she’s counter offered $50, and then she’ll say a load of things in Kuna that I don’t understand, probably not all of them complimentary. This number is better, but still too high for this particular mola. I know I have my nationality against me – Kunas have learned that Americans tend to pay more for molas than, say, Italians or Germans, and this woman knows from reading the stern of our boat where we’re from. But I’m a cruiser, which works in my favor, as the Kunas know that as a breed we won’t pay as much as, say, someone coming through on a cruise ship – the latter, although a rare phenomenon, presents a potential financial windfall in Kuna Yala.

For a while, after we arrived, during these high-stakes negotiations, I kept hearing a word in Kuna that, no matter how I asked what it meant, I couldn’t understand the translation. The word sounded something like “man-DEE-lye,” and the Kuna women used it with a confident air to explain why they wouldn’t go down in price any further. Finally, after two months of thinking this was the expression of some kind of Kuna pride, we learned from a fellow cruiser that the word meant “Mandalay” -- the name of the small cruise ship that stops in the westernmost islands of Kuna Yala once a month during the winter. Apparently the guests on the Mandalay are known to pay “top dolla” for molas, and the Kuna women who are within ulu-paddling distance of the ship on its Sunday drop-by – they’ll paddle for several miles without batting an eye -- now consider it the Mecca for mola sales.

These women from Soledad Mandinga quickly wrapped their bodies when we approached in our dinghy. They displayed their molas in this old wooden ulu, which was on their beach in front of the family hut. They bargained ferociously amidst much laughter.

All these factors come into play as I shake my American head, and hand her back the mola.

“No, gracias,” I say, sadly.

She pushes the mola back at me and, suddenly sweetly, says, “Muchos trabajo, BB” – which means something like, “C’mon, BB, let’s cut to the chase. These darned things are a lot of work! I don’t want to paddle all the way out to the Mandalay.”

I offer, “Vente cinqo.” She considers the $25 offer, makes a counteroffer in Kuna, sees my blank expression, and seamlessly switches to Spanish, “Trente cinqo.” We agree on $35. Everyone’s happy. We smile, drink lemonade, and take pictures, while her children scamper all over the boat. She invites us to her home, and tells us how to get there, pointing to a speck of an island in the distance. We promise to visit. As she paddles away, we call out "Nuedi, taki malo!" which in Kuna means something like “thank you, see you soon.” She says the same and waves.

So far, I haven’t tired of this experience. When a woman opens her bucket and pulls out the first mola, I’m always excited to see what lies within. She may have gems of intricate workmanship, fine lines, invisible stitching, and an inspired design sense – that’s a rare morning -- or she may not. She may have molas with a sense of whimsy. Or a rich hold on the traditional designs of her mother and grandmother. Or not. You never know until she opens the bucket; you never know unless you welcome the experience with an open mind. Being willing to look into those buckets of molas, again and again, opens you up to meeting the Kuna women, and to entering their world.

These two women from Tuwala chatted with us as they worked on their molas outside their hut. The elder of the two, with the traditional, gold nose loop, walked us through her village to help us find the hut where bread is made everyday.

There’s always awkwardness for Douglas and me in negotiating too hard with poor people; we don’t have the stomach for it. We’ve done our homework, and know the average price of molas – they range anywhere from $15 to $100 depending on complexity and quality -- and when we think we’ve gotten into the right range, we settle on a fair price without trying to wring the last few dollars out of it. A few dollars here or there doesn’t matter much to us in the long run, but it means a great deal to a Kuna family struggling to buy school supplies, or food, or medicine.

Among our collection of truly stunning molas, we also have a “side” collection of what we all call “charity molas” – most San Blas cruisers do, too. These are molas of poor quality made by people who really needed to sell something to take care of their family. Occasionally buying or trading for these molas results in people maintaining their dignity, instead of looking to the cruisers for “regalos,” gifts that may make the cruiser feel generous for the moment, but which over time erodes the Kuna’s independence and pride. Instead of giving gifts to individuals, Douglas and I bring medical supplies to the island clinics to be used by those who can’t pay; and we donate much-needed supplies to the schools.

The range of mola designs is only limited by the imagination of the Kuna women. We’ve seen molas depicting everything from a rat with its head in a trap, to cockroaches making a cauldron of fish soup, to Elvis holding a chicken. We’ve seen the motifs on the molas change depending where we were, and where the Kuna lived. In the Holandes islands, for instance, out along the barrier reef, the motifs are nautical – fish, coral, shells, boats -- because these Kuna live and breathe the islands, reefs, and ocean. In the mountain villages, the motifs are all jungle – lions, monkeys, butterflies, fruits, vegetables, and birds. Kunas express in their mola artwork either the world they see around them, or “antique” designs, which came from the geometric patterns their ancestors once painted on their skin with root dyes. These geometrics, normally abstracts of philosophical and ritual concepts, are some of our favorites.

When we dinghied ashore at Isla Gerti, these two women rushed into their huts, grabbed buckets full of their molas and laid them out in the sand.

Occasionally these days, when a Kuna woman has gotten hold of a foreign magazine, and has been inspired by what she sees in there, you might find molas of outrageous images -- everything from ninja turtles, to the twin towers of World Trade Center, to polar bears. But, no matter the image, every mola ends up being personal to the woman who labored for a month or more making it; it carries her imagination, her vision, her whimsy, and her interpretation of the world. We’ve bought mola blouses that, later, as I’m washing them, I notice have been altered. Sometimes they’ll have matching two-inch panels sewn into the sides. I smile, instantly relating to this Kuna woman who probably put on a few pounds over the holidays and wanted to give herself a bit more breathing room. I’ve seen mola renditions of Olonadili, the mother of Kuna women, coming from the heavens to teach the rituals and work of women. We’ve seen many renditions of dolphins; the Kuna tell their children that new babies are brought to the family by dolphins, who carry them to the beach.

In Nusitupu, and in the nearby island of Sidra, there are many mola-making “masters” – women, and even a few men living as women, who make excellent molas of much renown. Here, we’ve seen the competitive nature of people who are at the top of their game. When we buy a mola from one of the masters, they give us elaborate instructions in Kuna and Spanish, imploring that we reveal our molas to NO OTHER KUNAS! The woman will fold up the purchased mola until it is as small as it can be, and she will gesture to our backpack. We’ll give her the backpack, she’ll unzip the back of it, and put the precious mola way down at the bottom of the pack, trying to stress that it must remain there NEVER TO BE TAKEN OUT while we walk around the island.

Frequently when women paddle out to Ithaka, and especially if they have their kids with them, they will come aboard, and we'll all have some fresh lemonade together. We keep a ready supply of bubbles and a bubble wand, although this little girl, who was none to happy to visit, declined to play.

Thinking at first that this was an exaggeration of instructions, before the day was done, another “master” came out to Ithaka to show us her molas. We purchased one, and while we were chatting together, and while her little girl explored Ithaka, Eleana tried to get me to show her the mola we’d bought that morning from one of her rivals ashore.

“No,” I said, “I’m sorry; I promised I wouldn’t show it to anyone.”

Oh, this distressed her. The design was a sacred one from her own family archive, she said. She needed to see it just once, so she could draw it, so her family would be able to make it once again. She looked at me with a sincere smile.

“Por favor, por favor, mi amiga, BB,” she entreated, then took her red headscarf and put it over my shoulders in a lavish display of protecting my skin from the sun broiling down upon me. “Por favor?”

“Oh dear. I’m so sorry, lo siento,” I said, almost relenting. But then, in the end, I held firm. “I promised,” I said in Spanish.

Alidia Mendez, from Isla Carti, paddled out in her ulu. Like many Kuna women she puts her subtle and traditionally designed molas on more flamboyant material.

“BAAAACH! BAAAACH!” sputtered Eleana in the typical expression of Kuna disgust, waving her hands wildly in my general direction.

Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, Eleana’s daughter noticed Lisa Harris, another master mola-maker, approaching in her ulu. A pandemonium of rapid-fire Kuna broke loose on Ithaka. Eleana grabbed out of my hands the mola I’d just bought from her, balled it up and pitched it to her daughter on deck, who aimed and pitched it down Ithaka’s butterfly hatch.

This Kuna woman from Suletupu held up a gorgeous mola depicting dancing female lobsters wearing fancy shoes. The other side of the blouse showed male lobsters wearing shorts and tennis shoes. They now live on in Rhode Island, as beautiful pillows on the couch of our friend Heather.

“BB, BB, no show! No show mola!” she beseeched me, pointing toward Lisa Harris.

“OK, OK, promiso,” I said.

“Si?” she double-checked, then grabbed the red headscarf from my shoulders, and leaped back into her ulu.

“Si,” I promised, and with that Elena and her daughter paddled off.

When Lisa arrived, we invited her aboard for coffee. She’s become a friend, and we always enjoy her visits. We chatted about this and that, and then…

“Yesterday,” she said, “I hear you buy crab mola?”

“Si,” I said.

“BB, I have favor to ask,” she said in her slow careful English. “This mola? The design? Is a very old design from my family…

This rendition of medicine plants shows both the leaves and seeds as valuable. This is a five-layer mola and has some of the tiniest stitches we've ever seen.