Isla Corbisky, one of Panama’s larger San Blas islands, is home to around 200 Guna Indians – the indigenous people on the country’s Caribbean coastline – and offers a chance to see their daily life at first hand.
“Children come here to school by canoe from the smaller islands,” says my guide in Panama, Gilberto, who has the typical short, stocky build of the Guna. “Fresh water also has to come from the mainland, where a lot of the men have small farms, although the land is passed down through the women. No one owns the land, which is held communally, but they have the right to use it and pass that right on.”
The Guna lifestyle, as I discover when I take a battered wooden boat out to one, is one that at first sight looks like a permanent holiday: fishing, lying in hammocks and drinking home-brew. That’s the men, obviously. The women have a tougher time of it, cooking, making the home-brew, looking after the children and making and selling the colorful mola cloths that are the main source of income.
Between fishing, farming and fetching water, the Guna men work a lot harder than it might at first appear. But, as a matriarchal society, the Guna’s most interesting ceremony is reserved for girls reaching puberty. This involves several days of celebration, with her parents supplying free food and booze for the whole community. There are a lot of children running around the island, so it is no surprise to find one such ceremony taking place. The men are lying quietly on hammocks in a smoky, dark communal hut, while a few women are cooking yams in a pot, all giving the impression of suffering from a bad hangover. The only signs of life in the entire settlement are the kids at play and some older women stitching, and hoping to sell, molas in the traditional colors of black, red, burgundy and a splash of orange.
Besides her traditional dress, every Guna woman has a gold ring through her septum. “The first ceremony for every baby girl is the ikko inna or needle ceremony, when her nose is pierced,” says Gilberto. “Then there are two puberty rites: the inna tunsikkalet (short ceremony) and the inna suit (long ceremony), where her hair is cut for the first time. Afterwards, she must wear the molas and a head scarf and is ready for marriage.” Guna boys have no similar rites.
Gilberto was born here but now lives in Panama City and I catch him giving a wistful look out of the plane window as we fly off from the small airfield on Porvenir a few days later. “Life here is much better,” he says. “No stress, no noise and you are close to nature. But I want to give my children an education and, once you have left, it is very hard to go back.”
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