Wednesday, January 11, 2012

New Year in Mamitupu

Mark and I briefly stopped at two villages in Kuna Yala (the San Blas islands; the area where the autonomous Kuna Indians live and still keep many of their traditions alive) before stopping in Mamitupu, the most traditional of them all. We figured this would be as good a place as any to celebrate the New Year in peace. The afternoon of our arrival on December 31st, we were taken into the village by an older man who just returned in his ulu (wooden canoe) and led to the Sahili (chief) to introduce ourselves. Pablo, the only man who spoke English, was out of town, so we conversed through an “interpreter” in broken Spanish. By the sounds of it, the chief invited us to the New Year’s Eve celebrations that night and it would involve food and drinks. We were expected to pay a contribution to the village in exchange for joining the party. Mark and I accepted the offer, strolled around the village for a bit and looked forward to a traditional Kuna party… 

Around 6pm we gathered with many of the villagers in the congreso, the biggest hut in town, for what we thought would be a very interesting party and experience. Pablo was still nowhere to be found. We hoped for a clarification of the events, but since that didn’t happen, we took the evening as it came. Even in the dark hut, the kids couldn’t keep their eyes of us and were curious to check us out. While everywhere else, just a little head (covered in red if it was a female’s) stuck above the back rest of the wooden benches, Mark and I peered above them with part of our backs, shoulders and “funny looking” heads. We couldn’t hide… and waited with the hundreds of Kunas – dressed up for the event - to see what the evening would bring, with the difference that they actually knew and we were literally in the dark.

Every evening in Mamitupu, the villagers congregate in the congreso to hear what the leaders and respective department heads have to say and we thought this evening would start the same way, when four men took turns talking about something in the center of the hut, where two chiefs rested in their hammocks. It seemed that nobody was really listening. Some of the Kuna women had brought flashlights and worked on a mola, their traditional handwork – and part of their colorful clothing - which sells for good money abroad, on the mainland of Panama and to tourists. When the four men said what they had to say, the main chief started a monotonous song, interrupted/complemented by the short sounds of his colleague. Initially it sounded very interesting, until after an hour his monotonous tones still continued. By now, many Kunas had actually fallen asleep on the wooden benches. The women kept sewing, undisturbed.

An hour later, nothing had changed except for the fact that the one oil lamp received more oil and some people had left and came back later. Each time a woman left the hut, she walked over to the chief’s wife to pay her respect. Kids were running around the congreso unrestricted and played with the three other hammocks which were tied higher to the ceiling. Sometimes one of the chief’s grandkids joined him in his hammock. The songs went on… and on. I joked that the people who left, probably went home, cooked a meal, ate with their family and came back… Mark thought it “rude” that locals joined this service (we learned tonight was a celebration of the gods), just to sew molas or take a nap. Although after a while this started to make sense. We had been there for over two hours, just sitting still on our hard benches, looking into the dark, listening to the songs. Mark said “What if he does this until midnight?” When I gave him a worried look, he said he was joking…

The songs stopped once in a while. Each time, we thought the chief was done, but he only took a sip of water before continuing. Mark and I lasted about three hours, before we realized the signs pointed towards the singing being an all-night event. Some men had been handing out lollipops to the kids and now, they came around again, with candy for the adults. Is this the food we were supposed to get? Mark and I were starving by now, our butts were numb, and finally we decided to leave the “party”. On our way out of the village with our flashlight, a man sent us off (they usually don’t like foreigners in their village at night). I wanted an explanation of what was happening and this time, we learned that the singing would continue until midnight. I asked “And then what?” to which he answered “Then it is the New Year (Nuevo Aňo)!” Dah! The people would go to sleep afterwards and celebrate the New Year the following morning at 7am with food and drinks. Mark and I returned to Irie to cook a nice dinner around 9pm and made a promise to practice our Spanish!

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