The island of Achutupu can be found within what is today known as the Comarca de Guna Yala, a thin 226km-long strip along the Caribbean coast. Formally known as San Blas, and later as Kuna Yala the Comarca de Guna Yala is the home of the Kuna people, an indigenous group of Panama and Colombia. The Comarca consists of nearly 400 small islands, and according to the Kuna people, there is one island for each day of the year. Despite its numerous islands, however, the Kuna only have 59 inhabited communities.
With a population of around 1,000 inhabitants, Achutupu is one of the more crowded islands. After a bumpy 45-minute trip on a tiny plane, I arrived on the Achutupu airstrip. It was a stifling hot day and the sun was scorching. The air was hot and dry and before the plane door even opened, I could already feel the sweat dripping down my back.
As I made my way off the plane, a Kuna woman dressed in traditional clothing approached me. “Nuegami”, or welcome in Kuna, she said, as she collected my $1.25 entry fee and directed me over to the customs area. Customs consisted of an open-faced shelter with a thatched roof and a few wooden benches. The two Kuna men working in the customs looked through by backpack said something in Kuna I did not understand, smiled and then sent me on my way.
From the airstrip, along with group of Kuna people, I was taken in a small boat or “cayuco” to the neighboring Achutupu Island. About 10 minutes later, I stepped onto what would be my new home for the next month. The island was crowded with manythatched huts, and small Kuna children were running around shouting and playing. When they saw me, the stopped to observe my arrival. As I unloaded my large backpack, I received many inquisitive looks from people, as I was the only “waga” or foreigner, for miles around, and surely they were wondering what I was doing there.
The main purpose of my visit was to learn more about the Kuna, their culture, and their way of life, by living as they do, learning their customs, and integrating myself into their society. While learning about their culture, I also worked on community development projects on the island, including leading workshops and teaching English. I stayed in a small two-room house on the island with a thatched roof and slept in a hammock.
The island itself was very different from the imagines I had previously envisioned of untouched pristine beaches. The island did not have a trash disposal system so people simply threw their trash into the ocean, much of which just washed back up onto the beach. The water was polluted from the trash, but also from human waste. Since most families did not have plumbing, using the bathroom consisted of walk out to the ocean. Some families had an outhouse over the ocean. On the bright side, however, there were some nearby islands with very clean beaches that were just a cayuco ride away.
Over the next month, I integrated myself into the Kuna society. When I wasn’t teaching or leading a workshop, I spent my time talking to the Kuna people about their lives and experiences, learning how to make a mola from Kuna women, attending Kuna church ceremonies, or reading to the Kuna children. I found a few people on the island that spoke Spanish so I was able to communicate with them, and they often helped me with interpretations from Kuna. Despite this, however, I also learned enough Kuna to get by on a day-to-day basis.
The Kuna diet is very basic and consists mainly of fish, coconut, chicken, eggs, tortillas, and plantains. Patacones, or fried plantains were a staple. Rather than having restaurants, Kuna families would open their homes and charge a small fee for meals.
The going rate of a lobster dinner was around $1, but some families would not charge me anything. In fact, when I tried to offer one family in particular some money, they refused to take it, saying that I was a “friend” and they did not charge friends to have dinner with them. This was a family that had five young children to feed and had very little.
Having gained their independence from the government of Panama in 1925 after an armed conflict, the Kuna have their own form of governance, economical, and political system, and their official language is Kuna. Isolated from the rest of the Panama, the Kuna live a traditional way of life. They live a simple, peaceful life and rely very much on Mother Nature for basic needs and have successfully preserved their culture and native language, Kuna. This simple lifestyle, however, means that they do have any of the amenities that we take for granted in developed societies such as indoor or for that matter even outdoor plumbing and electricity.
The Kuna is a conservative society, despite the extreme heat, and island environment, you won’t find anyone wearing a bathing suit, or any other revealing clothing. The men typically dress in t-shirts and pants, and the women wear colorful handmade dresses, or tulemolas, bearing traditional Molas on their chests. The molas are handmade cloth panels with reverse-applique needlework in which various pieces of cloth are sewn together so that the design shows through the openings in the layers. The artistry of the mola is largely inspired by traditional Kuna culture as well as influences of the modern world.
On their arms and legs, they wear multi colored beaded bracelets, known as Winnis (in Kuna) or Chaquiras (in Spanish), which are believed to protect against bad spirits.
One of the questions I carried with me was, what did the Kuna dream of? When I asked this question to a man we’ll call “Javier”, a middle aged Kuna man with a wife, and two children, told me that he dreamed of giving more to his family. That everything he did was to provide for them, and to give them a better life. He dreamed of success for his children, and that they would continue their education. On the island, the school stopped at 6th grade, and for many this is where their education ended, and they would then begin working or start families of their own. This, however, was not Javier’s vision for his own children. He and his wife, who I’ll refer to as “Flora”, confessed to me that when their children finished school on the island, they wanted to send them to school in the United States. Their daughter, “Katia” then told me that if she went to study in Panama City, there would be nobody there for her, but if she came to the US, xshe would have me.
While many Kuna have adopted a more modernized lifestyle, and have migrated to Panama City, and other developed areas, not all share Katia’s vision of leaving the Comarca to continue their education, or search for jobs in the city. Many are perfectly content with their tranquil life in Kuna Yala and have no plans on leaving. This group of Kuna, prefers a more traditional lifestyle and do not desire modernization, but by the same token would still have to have more basic comforts such as clean water and education for their children.