San Blas

May 31, 2011

A small group of us went to San Blas this past weekend to visit the Kuna in Kuna Yala. We had a great time, despite the serious sunburn I managed to get. I’m still in awe of the fact that there are 365 islands in the archipelago. It seems impossible, even with as small as they all are. That’s a lot of islands. I’ve never been any place like that before. Tiny communities exist on many of the islands, all of which interact with one another by boat, constantly traveling back and forth from island to island in order to go about their daily routines. The hotel where we were staying was previously a Smithsonian research site for marine biology. It’s a tiny man-made island owned by Juan, a Kuna that we met during our stay. The Smithsonian used his island and built various structures on it for their researchers, and once they had finished with their project returned the island with all of the new structures to Juan and his wife Tina (and their mean parrot Flammy). Fabio explained to us how they create these man-made islands, planting palms in the shallows and waiting for them to slowly push the sand up from the sea, a very long process. It was very interesting to spend time with the Kuna, observing how they interact not only with one another, but also with tourists and with their environment.  I have to say the tiny sailboats on the open ocean make me a bit nervous, and I don’t think I could handle having to travel that way all the time. We watched a couple of them get caught in storms also, which I found pretty nerve wracking. The men sailing them didn’t seem too phased though.

Their ability to keep track of which island is which is incredible to me. With 365 islands scattered throughout the Caribbean Sea along the coast, it would seem almost impossible to remember exactly where they all were. Some of them obviously don’t know where all of them are, but many of the older Kuna are extremely knowledgeable about the geography of their comarca.

Fences

May 31, 2011

Something that I’ve noticed in the last week as I was riding around more in some of the neighborhoods in Panama City is the preponderance of fences and gates. Nearly every house has a fence around its lawn/patio, and many of them have full fences with gates. My first assumption would be that this was for security purposes, but it seems to be more of a phenomenon than that. Everyone has them. Perhaps because they houses are all so close together (essentially town houses, all connected to one another) they needed some definitive way of distinguishing between patio areas. I’ve also noticed a lot of fences up in the slightly more urban areas of the city, surrounding churches, restaurants and so forth. Here again, the purpose seems kind of ambiguous, whether because the neighborhoods are dangerous, just to separate property or purely for architectural fashion reasons. I can’t imagine that everywhere is so dangerous that people have to have gates around their houses. I’ve also noticed the windows in many houses around town, but especially those in more rural areas. Often there are not panes, just shutters, grates or carved concrete. Many stores (again particularly those outside the city) keep bars and grates over the windows also. They appear to be permanent too, not just security grates that they put up after business hours.