January 1, 2006
Tigre, the Tidy Town
By Douglas Bernon
In a nation of islands where otherwise perfect beaches are sometimes cluttered with plastic, Styrofoam, bottles, floats, un-matched flip-flops, and whatever else the universe has washed ashore, the tiny island of Tigre, a traditional Kuna village where the ruling Saihlas keep a firm grip on the reigns, is one spic-and-span, little burg. Throughout Kuna Yala -- forever it seems -- the sea has been where the people threw stuff. As long as that stuff rotted, rusted, and sunk, no problem. But from the moment mankind invented plastic, a substance whose lifespan may exceed eternity, the ocean no longer worked so well as a waste basket.
On the windward shore of most islands in Kuna Yala, there’s always a mess of junk that’s found its resting place. But not in Tigre. There’s a profoundly different ethic here than anything we’ve seen on any other island in all Kuna Yala. Men and women police the perimeter every day, gathering debris and bringing it to a burn site. Outside the portals of most huts there’s a plastic bucket that families fill with burnable garbage, and children are encouraged to pick up bits of plastic and paper on the dirt streets rather than walk over them or toss them into the sea.
If cleanliness is next to Godliness, this village is at the right hand of the Almighty. The ruling community body, the Congresso, assigns a rotating responsibility for sweeping the streets, which are laid out in a grid instead of the usual Kuna fashion of concentric circles and blind, no-exit alleys. One particularly tidy family posted a hand-painted sign in Kuna and Spanish encouraging their neighbors to maintain a clean village.
Tigre is different in other ways as well. With two little restaurants and a set of four, one-room cabanas, it caters, in its own fashion, to a few tourists who arrive by motor launch from Nargana, an island with an airstrip that’s only seven miles away. Mostly these very basic rooms along the beach are taken by backpackers, who like both the modest lodgings and modest costs. Each of these cabañas rent for $10 a day and sleeps two.
The two restaurants -- one at the north end of the island and one at the south – are about five minutes apart, if you walk slowly between them. Both restaurants have wall-art-menus, but even though there are pictures of lobster, conch, and hot dogs, and therefore the expectation of choice, and even though the wall sign says there is a carta de hoy, for cada dia (a menu of the day for every day), there are really only two choices -- fried fish and fried chicken. The artful come-ons for other delicacies are either a bad joke, an anachronism, or aspirational statements, as if these foods are what the cook would like to serve if only she had the ingredients. When guests ask for what they see painted on the wall, the waitress/cook/janitor/owner says the same thing, in the same mournful, downcast way: “No ay” -- there isn’t any. Should you ask when they might have those items, you’re informed straight away, “Nunca” -- never. Think John Belushi. Think Pepsi and cheeseburgers.
The island of Tigre does not have spectacular reefs for snorkeling and spearfishing. The action here, for us at least, was on land. We sought out a young woman we’d photographed two years before, to give her a copy of Cruising World, which contained a feature Bernadette had written, and the girls’ picture. She accepted it happily and with some considerable surprise.
We also reconnected with Julio and Rodrigo Solana, a father and son, now aged 88 and 68, as well as Rodrigo’s son and grandson, four generations of men all living in the same hut. I thought of the photos I have of my own family. One print includes five generations of women, but none show even three generations of men. These Solanas are lucky guys. Bernadette had bought some molas from this family two years ago – two turned out to be her favorite ones from our entire San Blas experience that year – and she recognized the men. She kept a good log listing from whom she bought molas, and was able to call them by name. This time we bought some delicious bread, fresh from the Solana oven -- ten cents each for the still-warm little loaves.
We watched kids playing dominos, imitating the playing style of their parents with high swings of the arms and a crashing down of the dominos, the familiar slap-slap-slap echoing around them. We found the local health clinic — it serves this and the neighboring islands — and we left the nurse with a bag of supplies and medicines we’d been carrying to this village. The nurse had erected two signs to educate the community: one about self-detection of breast cancer and the other about diabetes. Those who live on idyllic islands are as vulnerable as anyone in the First World.
Tigre is unique in yet another way. When we dropped our hook in the anchorage, not a single wooden ulu full of enterprising women with buckets full of molas, crashed against our hull. No one hectored us to buy fish or lobster or molas or anything, and we soon learned why. The Saihlas run this place with a firm set of rules that include no pestering visiting yachts. Once ashore, you’re fair game, but no one hassles you in the harbor.
In addition to the clinic’s and restaurants’ wall art, we were delighted to see two other placards that were less colorful in design but, in their turgid simplicity, spoke volumes about capitalism. Throughout the San Blas islands, coconuts are a crucial cash crop. Colombian trading ships — rickety, frighteningly dilapidated wooden wagons of about 40-50 feet -- ply the waters between Cartagena (200 miles away) and the San Blas. They’re true trading ships, coming through every week or so with onions or sugar or hammocks or gasoline or lumber or Fritos or just about anything that a Kuna might want in exchange for coconuts. In some islands, coconuts are a currency, but in Tigre the largest tienda made clear their attitude about cash. One sign stated no hay credito (there is no credit) and the other stated no acceptamos cocos (we do not accept coconuts). Dollars, thank you, will do just fine.
On our first morning in the Tigre anchorage there were two other boats as well, one Spanish and one Venezuelan. A front passed over us and lingered between 4 a.m. until 6 a.m. Winds blew at a steady 30 and gusted into the 40s. Ithaka held firm, but nervously so. The Spanish boat also did fine, but the Venezuelans drug a good 300 yards and caught their anchor only in the nick of time, just a few feet from a razor-bed of shoals that surely would have holed the old wooden ketch. In the midst of the squall, the rain was horizontal and we couldn’t see even our bow or tell where land was. Our depth sounder, yet another new Raymarine product that’s been a disappointment, cannot tolerate turbulent water; when faced with some bouncing around, which is when you need it most, it merely blinks dumbly. Unsure of our depth, to be sure we weren’t dragging, we kept a keen eye on the radar and GPS, but also on our dinghy. As long as the dink continued to stream behind us without creeping alongside toward the bow, we were pretty sure we were holding still.
When the front finally passed, and the sky turned blue again, we breathed a sigh of relief and went ashore for our last morning in Tigre and a return visit to our favorite site, the Tigre Art Museum. It’s not really an official art museum, but that’s what we call it. Hanging on the walls of a small room behind the restaurant at the south end of the island is a collection of official, oil-paintings of the power-guys — six men (Saihlas of course) in their Sunday finest -- fedoras, jackets, ties, and the weighty-dour look that men of power everywhere seem to think is required of them.
We asked the woman in the restaurant who the local portrait-painter was, because if we could have found him I would have loved to have had myself immortalized in a similar style, but she didn’t know and nobody else seemed to know either. So we took photographs of the paintings, some of which the artists made to look like mafia dons, and others who were made to look like toads. Then we dinghied back to Ithaka, loaded with fresh bread and good cheer and prepared to hoist the dinghy and sail for Cartagena – 200 miles to the east. A good weather window was opening up for us the next morning, and just like that it was time to make tracks to Colombia, the perfect ending to our season in the San Blas.