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The Chicha Chronicles Previous Log
Date: 2 February 2008 Next Log
Central America > Panama > Caribbean > Kuna Yala Log Menu

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Ulu at SunsetThe Comarca de Kuna Yala of Panama is a narrow, 226km-long strip on the Caribbean coast. The comarca (autonomous region) is home to the Kuna, an indigenous people who have lived here for approximately 200-400 years (previously lived in the Columbian highlands, but left after devastating attacks from poison dart-wielding tribes). Starting on February 25, 1925, after a violent and deadly uprising against the government and a self-imposed ethnic cleansing within their own people, the Kuna were granted permission to implement their own system of governance and economy while still maintaining their language, representation in the Panamian legislature and full voting rights.

Moremaketupu PaddlersThe Kuna inhabit the coastal islands, preferring to settle in tightly-packed settlements while leaving entire islands untouched. On the untouched islands, they grow their prized cash crop; the coconut, of which they harvest about 30 million each year! The mainland is primarily reserved for farmland, where they grow rice, yams, squash, yucca, breadfruit, mango, bananas, plantains, and pineapples.

The comarca includes over 400 islands, of which about 48 are settled. Many of the rest are completely uninhabited, or contain a single bamboo hut; home to a Coconut Caretaker, usually a married couple, who spend a few weeks on shift, guarding the coconuts, raking the beaches and selling the odd Mola to passing yachts.

Ulu at sunriseThere are an estimated 70,000 Kuna; 32,000 live on the islands, 8000 live on the coastal farmland, and 30,000 live outside the region (such as Panama City and Colon).

Each island has at least 1 chief, called the Sahila (pronounced Sigh-la, like silo with an A at the end), who always has the final word. He can be found swinging in a hammock in the Congreso (government) hut each afternoon before the nightly village meeting. Talking directly to the chief is often considered highly rude and visitors are required to speak through a translator or secretary, who often appears to edit Step One: Backflip at Swimming Holeour questions and the Sahilas responses as well, shortening or adding to them at his discretion!

Every night, each villager attends a compulsory meeting in which all the village problems are discussed. The Sahila often will sing his wisdom, incorporating Kuna religious beliefs (traditionally involving the gods - the Great Mother and Great Father - but increasingly, Christian beliefs - as well as nature and the cosmos) and this is translated by his secretary. Often the whole village will vote on a solution and the resolution must be adhered to, including even domestic disputes! Nothing is private on a Kuna island, particularily under the Congreso hut!

Step Two: Discover Crocodile.  Step Three: Climb back aboard and change shorts.Beside the Congreso hut lies the Chicha hut. The Chicha hut is completely dedicated to the consumption of Kuna Grog!

Chicha is a mild alcoholic drink, made from fermented sugar cane juice. The cane is cut and squeezed, dripping the juice into a large hollowed out gourd. The gourd is placed underground and left for a week or so to undergo natural fermentation. It is often flavoured with coffee at the time of consuming, and is only consumed during a celebration; most commonly weddings and during puberty rites. It is during this latter occaison that I was able to guzzle Chicha!

Ulus: Dugout CanoesYugea, a young girl in the village of Moremaketupu had recently received her first period (no secret in a small Kuna town, see Congreso notes above) and the town quickly began preparing for a celebration.

On the day of celebration, Yugea is dressed in the traditional Kuna attire (molas, facepainting and uini) for the first time. Early in the evening, the whole village crowds to the Chicha hut, and the grog is doled out in small bowls from gourds. Men and women sit separately, and 5 or 6 people drink at a time, starting with the chief(s), being served by a group of volunteers. Each gourd-bowl holds about 2 cups of the liquid, and drinkers are obliged to finish their serving; to not finish is to anger God, and to warrant teasing from friends and family.

Sailing UluThe Chicha tastes slightly sweet and cider-like and is probably the same strength as strong beer (5-7%). The flavour and aroma of coffee is also quite strong. One might describe it as a sort of primitive Kahlua. Not bad; I liked it so much, I drank about 8 servings. From that point on, the party got a little hazy.

Yugea received a haircut (by tipsy Chicha drinkers, no doubt) in her home as part of the ceremony, and is later sat down in the hut with a cloth over her head. Her outstretched hands are filled with shots of water and strong liquor, the first to cleanse the palette, the latter to ruin it.

Later, I find myself sitting next to the Sahila (who is Panamian Coastsupposedly 100 years old), with my arm around his shoulder, laughing and singing songs in the Kuna language (I mummed the words), and listening to villagers playing the pan flutes. Our group whips out some harmonicas and pretty soon we get a jam session going with the Chief. We laugh until tears are practically rolling down our faces and our sides are aching. The Chicha is mostly to blame for such behaviour.

In midst of the debauchery, I turn to the Chief, and noticing his translator has disappeared, I realize this is my big opportunity to get some Sahila wisdom! The raw deal from the source itself! A piece of the puzzle! The search! The busco!

Exchanging pie-eyed glances, I ask the chief in Spanish, "Sahila. I have a question. What is the meaning of life? What is the most important thing to remember in this world?" Sunrise at Mono

He looked me straight in the eye, nodded, and after a few moments, he said....


Hmm. The search continues.

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