Chicha! San Blas January 2009
After leaving Cartagena on New Year's Eve, we sailed down the coast of Colombia until we reached Kuna Yala, the semiautonomous region of Panama inhabited by the Kuna Indian tribe. We visited several traditional villages as we worked our way westward along the coast, finally arriving at Isla Tigre (Tiger Island) on the ninth of January. A cruising friend we'd met when we were in Barcelona and Turkey had written us a Christmas message telling us that his daughter Robyn, whom we had not met, was going to be in Panama around the time we were planning to be there, and she had followed up with a note saying that she and her family would be at Isla Tigre from the seventh to the twelfth. The island was directly on our planned route, and the timing was perfect, so we stopped to see if we could find her.

As it turned out, Robyn was easy to find - she was the only adult Gringa on the island; most of the other 900 or so were Kuna Indians, about 2/3 of whom were children. Robyn and her family were staying in one of about a dozen small, traditionally built cottages at the western tip of the island that the Kunas rent out to tourists. The accommodations were Spartan, but clean and dry, and the view was spectacular, as the Caribbean swells, driven by the tradewinds, pounded the reef and shore about 50 feet away.

There were two very friendly and helpful guides who take tourists on kayaking trips around the islands and up the rivers on the mainland, and provide information and advice. These guides told us that there was to be a Kuna ceremony that night, so we met Robyn, her husband Dave, and their three girls for dinner (there's a nice open restaurant associated with the tourist camp) and went with them to the celebration. It was the anniversary of an event in 1965 when some of the women of Isla Tigre had thrown stones at the Panamanian cops stationed on the island, and driven them away. ("Shoot me!" cried one of the women, who was wrapped in the Kuna flag; but the policemen wouldn't oblige.)

The event turned out to be composed of several long and energetic, but repetitive, traditional dances by adults, long unintelligible speeches by the chief (or "sahila") and two of his lieutenants, and some children's pageants, including one in which four little girls in traditional garb threw fake rocks at four little boys dressed in traditional Latin American garb (white shirts and pants, with sashes for belts) and holding stick "rifles." The spectators were enthusiastic, but we decided that was mainly because their kids were in the pageants.

Next day we simply walked around the village, trying to buy some eggs and bread. We found neither eggs nor fresh bread, but ended up buying another mola, talking to people and being welcomed by kids, who cried out "¡Hola!" and mobbed us wherever we went. They sometimes came up and hugged our legs, offering their hands for us to hold as we walked along the street, or even gave us kisses. Adults, as well, welcomed us with handshakes and big smiles.

We learned that the following day, Sunday, there was to be a "coming of age" party, in honor of one of the town girls who had just had her first period. They planned to drink the traditional beverage, "chicha", made by fermenting sugar cane, and although such events are closed to foreigners in some villages, the Tigres invited us to attend. We asked when the party was to begin, assuming it would be in the evening. "At 8 o'clock," they told us, "in the morning." The reason for the early start, we were told, is that the party would go on for hours and hours, and because there's no electricity on the island, a party that long couldn't be held at night. (There is a generator, but it only runs from 6 to 11 each evening.)

Sure enough, at 8 o'clock the next morning the villagers started to gather at the "Chicha Hall", a large building of thin poles and thatch roof, just a short way down the street from the Congresa, or meeting hall, which was identical in design. By 8:30, we had each quaffed our first coconut-shell bowl full of chicha, and things progressed from there. The chicha was cool, brownish in color, tasted like dry red wine with a hint of cocoa. It's only fermented in open buckets for 10-14 days, so it's not very strong.

The women, dressed in wraparound skirts, mola-adorned blouses and with loose red cloths draped over their hair, sat at one end of the hall; the men, dressed in shorts or jeans and short-sleeved shirts and wearing either baseball caps or Panama hats, sat or stood at the other. Along the side of the room, between the men's' and women's sections, was a railing, at which stood the girl whose coming of age we were celebrating. She was painted in black from head to toe, and wore her head cloth well forward on her head, in theory so that nobody could see her face - though in fact we could all see her peeking out with a shy charming smile.

Seeing the separation by gender, Andi went over and sat with the women while Rob stood amongst the men. The women all welcomed Andi, literally with open arms, declaring her to be a member of the family, which at first she took to mean the family of the girl but turned out to mean something like the family of all Kuna living on the island. Every fifteen minutes or so, the women would all stand, pulling Andi with them, and go over to the railing where the girl was standing. They would line up and, one by one, be served bowls of chicha, which they were required to down in one go, like Russians drinking vodka. Andi kind of stood out in those lines; not only was she at least two feet taller than any of the Kunas (the Kuna race is the second-shortest in the world, the first being the Pygmies), but her head was uncovered and her blonde hair contrasted with the red head-cloths all around her.

After the women were served, the men got their turn, all lining up at the rail for their bowls of chicha. But even between these formal servings, chicha servers would come around with buckets of chicha and press people (especially the two Gringos and the close relatives of the girl) to drink some more. We planned to go sailing later in the day, so we declined most of those offerings, but had to be pretty forceful in resisting. There were a few other men and women who restrained themselves (including the security force of 22 men), but the rest of the 200 or so people in the hall, especially the women, quickly became very drunk.

One custom associated with drinking chicha, at least for the men, was that when offered a fresh bowl they would do a little dance, hopping twice on one foot and twice on the other, while bending over, looking down at the dirt floor, and grunting. Then they would take the bowl and drink from it. Rob asked about this little dance, and was told that its purpose was to force the spirits of the dead, who live under the ground, back into the earth.

Rob had remained standing, and it turned out to be just as well that he did. A Kuna man in his 40's came over and introduced himself as Hernandez. His Spanish was excellent, and he told Rob that one group of seated men were the sahilas (chiefs); there are seven of them in that village, recognizable because they were the only ones wearing ties (sometimes over t-shirts). Rob asked, "So I shouldn't sit over there with them?" His new friend looked truly horrified, as if Rob had suggested something obscene. Another group of men were the "Chemists", that is, the men who are responsible for making the chicha, and Hernandez acknowledged that Rob probably shouldn't sit with them, either. There were plenty of available seats, however, and Rob gratefully sank down on one of them (their seats were all about 8 inches off the dirt floor). One man, the father of the girl for whom the party was being thrown (though she appeared to be having less fun than anybody there), was the "dueño" (host) - you could tell because he held a 4-foot ceremonial stick in his hand, like a scepter.

Hernandez, it turns out, is a "parlante" (speaker); when one of the sahilas speaks in the Congreso (which meets twice a week and at which attendance is mandatory for all adults) he always speaks in broad terms, and sometimes is unintelligible. The parlante´s job is to translate what the sahila says into practical terms, for example, "It's time to harvest the coffee beans - all able-bodied men report to the dock at 6 o'clock tomorrow morning to go to the coffee fields (on the mainland)." One of the sahilas is the village chief, in charge of the town's government and religious life; each of the other sahilas has one or more areas of responsibility in the island government - one is in charge of security, one in charge of food, one in charge of trade, etc., just like members of the Cabinet in a democratic country - and one is in charge of the chicha "chemists". Each parlante also has areas of responsibility under the sahilas, sort of like undersecretaries. Rob's friend Hernandez was responsible for the telephones.

Every Kuna village has one or more telephones (Tigres has two), in blue booths that could have come off the streets of any town in the US The telephones are connected to a microwave transceiver on the top of the nearest hill, and the whole system is powered by big arrays of solar panels. Apparently the quality of the calls is excellent, and the fee for using the phone is only a few pennies. Of course, with only a couple of phones for a whole village (900 on Isla Tigres), getting an incoming phone call is problematic; the Kunas solve this problem by stationing two women at the phones. When a call comes in, one of the women answers it and sends the other running to the house of the recipient, who then comes to answer the call. The other woman stays to guard the phones and to collect the payment for their use.

Andi had, fortunately, worn a skirt to the party so she fit in well with the women of the town, except that her head was uncovered. Rob asked Hernandez where he could get a head-cloth for Andi, and Hernandez had a boy (probably his son) run to a house and get one. Wearing the head covering, Andi was much less conspicuous while seated, but standing, she was still two feet taller than everybody else and there wasn't much she could do about that.

Hernandez told Rob that he and the other parlantes are sort of sahilas-in-training, and if all goes according to plan he will eventually rise to the level of sahila himself - though this is by no means certain, as the parlantes only serve at the sahilas' pleasure, and in any case the sahilas are democratically elected. So Hernandez had better do a good job with the telephones (presumably, organizing and paying the phone-watchers, as the equipment is maintained by the Panamanian government). But additionally, Hernandez must prepare himself to take over the sahila's religious leadership role. For that, he said, he needs to memorize the Bible "from Genesis to Revelation" as he phrased it. Apparently, the sahila he works under can (and does) ask random questions about Bible stories, and Hernandez is supposed to know the answers.

It's not clear exactly what the religion is. It's clearly Christian for the most part, and some islands are said to be "Catholic" while others are "Protestant." But if there are ministers anywhere we sure haven't seen them, and certain customs and rituals (like the one about stamping spirits back into the ground) don't sound to us like regular Christian rites. The graves we've seen all have crosses on them, and we've seen flags with crosses waving above certain buildings. These flags we assume to be church-related (though the crosses could be deceptive; the Kuna flag displays a swastika, and that has no relationship with the Nazis).

Meanwhile, the party got drunker and drunker. Many, such as Hernandez and the security men, were clearly pacing themselves. Others, such as the dueño and his immediate family, who were being plied pretty much nonstop with chicha, soon became sick, and threw up onto the dirt floor. The up-chucker's companions immediately covered the vomit with sand (there were buckets of sand there, for the purpose), stomped on the sand to absorb it - and then offered him or her another drink of chicha. Several of the women got so drunk they passed out, and they were carried out by other women; sometimes these women grabbed their inebriated friend under the armpits and dragged her feet on the floor, other times they took her shoulders and feet and lifted her completely off the ground as they carried her. Some women had not yet passed out, but could no longer walk; their friends, one on each side, assisted them up to the rail, so they could get some more chicha.

None of the men passed out, that we could see, but there were several, including the dueño, who could not stand and had to have the chicha brought to them. There was really no need to move, as they could simply turn their heads to vomit.

We're not sure what happened later in the party; we left at 10:30 in the morning.