Insider Scoop on Kuna Sacred Traditions: Fiesta en la Casa de Congreso

Insider Scoop on Kuna Sacred Traditions: Fiesta en la Casa de Congreso
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Entering the village to the glee of the naked children

Entering the Kuna village to the glee of the naked children

The boat pulls up to the Kuna village but despite the festive election flags flying, the village looks eerily abandoned. As it is our third day on San Blas Islands, we’ve become better at systematically disembarking the boat but this time, we look questioningly at the captain before hopping out. “I thought there was supposed to be a festival today?”, someone asks Brando, our grizzled guide that scored us an invitation to supposedly partake in one of the Kuna’s most sacred traditions. As we unload, Kuna kids in tightie whites raced to greet us, brown limbs akimbo, looking for high fives. Even on our island, the indigenous children appeared everywhere, borrowing sun block to give each other tribal face paint, asking to play with your camera or flinging each other off island hammocks. But today, they roam with especially unbridled freedom and independence. As we walk through the sandystreets, we wonder, “where are their parents?” and the already tipsy Kuna captain a non-deserted convenience store where he can snag a beer.

Kuna kids playing soccer in the village

Kuna kids playing soccer in the village

Drinking Chicha From Coconuts on the Man’s Side

Consistent with his jungle hunter appearance, Brando tilts his head, sniffs his nose and tilts his head in the direction of the large Casa de Congreso. The sounds of bachata grow louder as we tentatively approach a large thatched hut with smoke billowing out of the low-entry opening. As our eyes acclimate to the dusty darkness, we see horseshoe-shaped benches, men on one side and women on the other. In the center, a man in a cerulean collared shirt and a cowboy had hops sideways, the string of animal bones broadcasting his movements. Around the edge, the men sit perched on wooden benches, organized by age, with the curious teens out near the door, puffing their chests to look nonchalant, although their anxious grins reveal their excitement.

Except for the women, everyone is dressed in decidedly un-ethnic garb. Belly-bellies poke through teal T-shirts “Juan Carlos para presidente” while trucker hats covering the sweaty heads of same person advertise “Jose Domingo 2014”. We plant ourselves on a bench and I watch four adjacent wrinkly men (one in a Yankees jersey, a “junior soccer league champs” tee, a knock-off Polo collared shirt and a Metallica tank) rise and head to the center when they are handed a coconut. They click their “cups”, let out a chimp-y chant and start to do a circular dizzy-bat-esque dance. Suddenly, they stop, line up, down the contents of their coconuts and sit back down, after some dramatic brow-wiping and spitting, passing their coconuts to the next people in line.

Just as I start to get in the rhythm, bouncing my feet in time to the shaken animal bones, it stops. Through the smoke, a short man enters the hut and everyone turns to stare. Loaded with lollipop-sized rings, his fingers hardly fit in the pockets of his back jeans. Gold chains and an assortment of other bling encircle his neck, a cowboy hat with a dusty feather covers his silvery hair and as he passes, I see “Music and Money” embroidered across his chest. “Where’s the poker tournament?”, jokes the Argentinean next to me, as several people offer this urban cowboy their coconuts but he waves them away and sits near the perimeter.

Eventually, I get passed the coconut, and it takes all my inner fortitude to down the chicha.  I barely could swallow this indigenous “corn beer” which tasted of rotten olives and coffee grinds. The man who passed me the coconut looks at me expectantly, and I muster a same spitball that I tentatively send to the ground. With an approving nod, he advances.

Election flags are flying high at the Kuna village

Election flags are flying high at the Kuna village

Shaded Story time: History of the Kuna

After an hour or so, woozy from the booze, heat and smoke, Brando decides it’s time for our village tour. We squeeze through skinny walkways, ducking under breadfruit trees, walk by convenience stores selling soda and chips and outhouses precariously placed over the water. Brando has us sit on the shaded steps near the basketball court outside the primary school (the only one on the island, where attending is optional) and he shares what he’s learned after 3 months living alongside the Kuna.

We learn about their battle for independence and their current political system, known as the most advanced of any tribal group in Latin America. Three chiefs (including the “Music & Money” man, I learned) manage village affairs democratically with collaborative decisions made from the Congress Hut. They move families around every three months to help preserve their culture and make sure that everyone can experience island life. Although the community pools their resources, Kuna have always placed a strong emphasis on economic success (and entrust women to handle the finances!) and international trade has earned them the financial stability to survive as a culture.

Traditionally, Kuna have arranged marriages with a hammock-centric wedding ritual.  The bride’s grandma would rock the couple in the hammock, then the wife-to-be would get her hair cut short, they’d rock in the hammock again, she’d get her nose pierced, they’d rock in the hammock a third time and she’d get her forehead tattooed. The grandma was responsible for making sure the couple spent a “sleepless night” together in the hammock before they could consummate the marriage.

In general, the Kuna seem to be open-minded and curious when it comes to sexuality. Brando wasn’t sure about the male sexuality rumor but incest is common, evidenced by the high incidence of albinism. In their mythology, Kunas entrust albinos with using special bows and arrows to protect the Moon from the “dragon” who tries to eat it during lunar eclipses.

Kuna woman selling malas

Kuna woman selling malls. Photo courtesy of Ben Kucinski.

Fiesta Fever: Female Side of the Tent

One of the women from our island recognizes us and drags the girls to the female side of the tent, where the real party is. Kuna women typically can’t drink and even though they are dressed conservatively in traditional garb, they go wild on this “free booze, free cigarette and free bubble gum day”. We bump by a woman dressed in traditional garb and a santa hat who baptizes us with rum as we enter. She’s waving around a communal shot glass and a bottle of rum, like someone from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World. The women take full advantage of the free tobacco, chain-smoking cigarettes and nuzzling each other’s foreheads as they bend down to share a light. They giggle and fall all over each other, snatching at the pipe that one lucky gal tries to pensively puff.

Two gay men in skin-tight Western clothes also join the women, making everyone especially giddy with flamboyant dance moves. Us gringo girls accept our shot of rum, smiling at the upgrade from chicha, the boys give us stony stares since our side looks much more fun. The wife of the Russian-speaking man spies the Russian in our group, and before we know it, we’re dragged to her house so her husband can seize another opportunity to practice Russian. As we move to the new location, a growing group of Kuna teens gather behind us, curiously following the girls.

Eventually, our gringo guys, jealous that they were missing the personalized festivities, decided it was time to head back to the island and end an incredible day. Of all the sub-cultures I’ve encountered, I have extreme admiration for the Kunas: open-minded, curious, welcoming and hospitable people. They work hard to maintain their unique identity and know how to let loose. Thank you Kunas, for sharing your culture with us!

P.S. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the hut but I hope this helps you vicariously experience it, without catching a cold from sharing communal alcoholic vessels, like I did!

Song of the Moment: Gangster Blues from Slumdog Millionaire Soundtrack (wrong kind of Indian I know, but in honor of the gangster chief!)

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