“Who would have guessed that our gift to the Kuna Yala would be photographs and photocopies?” wondered Mike. Since our arrival at the whale-shaped Isla Pinos in the San Blas Islands, Panama, we have become a one-stop shop for both.
We arrived at the island at 7:30 a.m. following a rocky night on the sea. It was one of our toughest crossings as the wind, waves and current combined to create a passage that sent people, pots and paraphernalia flying in all directions. Consider it an amusement park ride where the passengers lean first one way, then the other, go up, then down, and the ride can’t end soon enough.
After a couple of hours to recover, Mike and Mikayla and Geoff, Miles and Alec Hufford of s/v Eclipse went ashore to meet the saila, the local Kuna chief, to pay for a day’s stay. He required $10US per boat and could not be persuaded to accept anything less for a few hours at anchor.
On their return to the dock, a gentlemanly grandfather, Horacio, stopped our group and asked for some assistance. He needed some photos taken and some copies made. Could we help out?
Mike readily agreed and returned to Happy Times (HT) to pick up the camera. I jumped in the dinghy eagerly. I knew that the Kuna are reluctant to have their photos made. If we were asked to take some, then we had their permission in advance.
When we arrived at Horacio’s house, he proudly showed us his grandson of five months. He wanted a photo of him as well as his granddaughter. After I took their photos, Horacio’s sister wanted a photo of her granddaughter. Then someone else wanted a photo of their sons and so it went for about twenty minutes. Despite my efforts to make the children smile, they looked solemnly into the camera. One little boy bawled like he had been set upon Santa’s lap.
Most of the photos were required for the local school. Back on HT, I uploaded the photos to my MacBook and organized them before printing. In the meantime, Mike took the documents that Horacio needed copied and burned through a few sheets of paper to accomplish that.
We went back to the village with the paperwork and stepped back inside Horacio’s house where he showed us his logbook of visiting yachts. We were only the second and third boats since August 2011. He politely thanked us for the papers and asked for more photos and documents. We agreed and asked his permission to shoot photos of the village.
Tupak consists of several houses built of bamboo posts with thatch roofs and dirt floors. They’re on the small side and cover 500 square feet or less. Hammocks are strung up inside or outside under an awning. They serve as beds for family members and rockers for sleeping infants. Some of the houses stand around an open area that serves as a playing field. Down the dirt road near the dock, there’s a small tienda that sells snacks, convenient for the children who attend the school around the corner.
Horacio’s house is finer than even the chief’s wooden one. It’s made of cement with a cement floor. It has a couple of rooms, and it’s painted on the outside. Perhaps one of Horacio’s two sons who live in Panama City are responsible for the nicer structure.
During our four trips back and forth to the dock, we saw several women working on the molas that the Kuna Yala have become famous for. The molas are intricately embroidered pieces decorated with birds, flowers, trees and other motifs inspired by nature. The molas are embroidered in squares and may become a blouse or sold alone as a souvenir.
On our final trip back to HT, I asked a couple of women with children on their laps if I could take their photo. They agreed and then one turned her head and the other closed her eyes while the children stared in fascination at the flash. Perhaps the women didn’t like the idea of their image taken due to their religion. Or perhaps they wanted to avoid seeing their photo for sale on a postcard for $1 each in Panama City, the result of one tourist’s work.
Mike and I took a break after our last trip. Soon the HT Copy and Photo Shop was back at work. A young man came by with his son who also needed photos for school. Then the young man asked for his photo to be taken. We were glad to do it.
Mike started to put away the printer after the two left, and I suggested that he leave it out just in case. Sure enough, around 5 o’clock Horacio came up in a dugout and said that we had made a mistake. It seems that he wanted the report cards copied as a duplex like a book. Then he needed a couple of additional photos copied.
Before Horacio left, I asked if there was anything else we could do for him. Well, yes, he said. He asked Mike for a piece of old rope. We looked around and found something suitable. He seemed pleased with the gift that he planned to use on his dugout.
All in all, Horacio was quite gracious. Before he left he gave us his mailing address. When we return to civilization, I plan to print all the photos on glossy paper so that Horacio’s family and friends have a permanent memory of themselves and the Happy Times Copy and Photo Shop.