October 31, 2016

International Motherhood—finding a kindred spirit in Guna Yala

Maia exploring BBQ island
 Alma was sitting in the breezy shade of her palapa. She had agreed to sew a narrow mola to cover a tear on my favourite skirt. While we waited, Maia and I decided to walk the circumference of BBQ Island. BBQ Island is the ‘ultima’ island (last) in the Holandes Cays and Alma’s extended family takes turns living on the pretty outpost—running a casual restaurant and beer concession for cruisers and other tourists.

Alma sewing molas
Maia and I returned from our short walk just in time to see Alma’s son Manuel rescue our dinghy—we hadn’t tied it up, thinking we would only be a few steps away, but then the sweet island beckoned and our dinghy took a runner for the reef.

Manuel, Maia, Alma and Alma's mum
After tying up our dinghy for us, Manuel plunked himself down in a chair under the palapa and started to thumb through his phone. Alma asked if we wanted a cold drink—they have a ‘machina’ that makes electricity and keeps them cold. Knowing the only options were beer and a sweet strawberry pop, I asked for a coco pipa—a drinking coconut. Like teens everywhere, who have been asked to climb a tree and fetch a coconut after having just dived in warm tropical water to rescue a dingy, Manuel rolled his eyes.

BBQ Island seen from the anchorage
I knew the look—it was the same as one I’d later see when I suggested Maia might want to snorkel the gorgeous reef rather than watch bad TV. Alma caught my eye and we both laughed. This was why she and Manuel were on BBQ Island. Her three younger kids were on course in life—but Manuel, who never identified with the Guna culture (to the point where he’s refused to learn his family’s first language), also wasn’t thriving in the Spanish culture. He hadn’t made it through high school in Panama City before getting kicked out for fighting.

So Alma was embracing tradition by bringing him back to their land. Despite not being the most traditional Guna woman—Alma finds the mola (literally ‘clothes of the people’) too fussy for daily wear and has sent all her kids to Panama City for schooling and hopefully university. But now she was living in a thatched hut—a couple days’ cayuca ride from the nearest city and a half day’s paddle from her parents. Manuel, she hoped, would find his path on the island.

the daughters of our favourite fisherman
Most of us travel with the hope of encountering these small moments of connection: sitting under a thatched roof, with a woman from one of the world’s last remaining traditionally-living indigenous cultures, talking about the challenges of parenting in a rapidly changing world.

In truth, it was both precious and surreal. It’s easy to see people as little more than the colourful characters who make our travel photos look exotic. But with Alma we were lucky enough to share a second language (bad Spanish) and a universal moment of parenting angst. From there we got a window into the Guna culture.
the veggie boat--everything was $1 a pound

So once again we shifted our cruising plans. Rather than exploring more islands we stayed in the Holandes. Each day we’d snorkel a new section of the reef. Cayucas would stop by bringing lobster, conch, vegetables or molas. We’d buy from the same fishermen each day and then head in to see Alma and Manuel and play volleyball, swim, share snacks or just sit in the breezy shade and talk about life.

The Guna survived culturally intact and unconquered by adapting to the changing world, never giving up their core identity and by being a mean shot with a poisoned arrow. They number about 50,000 people—spread over 250 small islands and several mainland settlements. The women tend to only speak the Guna language while the men often learn Spanish in school.
Our visitor showing the traditional mola outfit. Many women still wear it daily while some just save it for celebrations
Local women visiting the boat--they only spoke enough Spanish to talk about molas. They really are this short btw, Guna people are the second shortest indigenous group in the world
 Like many indigenous and island cultures the Guna have the most to lose with climate change: Their reefs, which provide the lobster which make up a good part of their income, are showing stress from warming water and overfishing. The islands are barely above sea level, and though they are out of the hurricane zone, they have been subject to vicious storms, flooding and erosion.

On our last night off of BBQ Island Maia, Evan and I talked about what might become of Alma, Manuel and their family. Under the bright stars I watched as the ‘machina’ shut off and the island’s three lights went out. Manuel can’t wait for his time on the island to be done so he can return to his friends in the city. Alma hopes that by showing him something different she’ll plant the seeds that will allow him to survive and thrive in the world he inherits.

I hope that both she and I have gambled the right way with our children.

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