The Kuna are known for being "fiercely independent." They define their rules strictly and no one can force or cajole them into changing their minds. The Smithsonian Institute used to based themselves in Ukutupku, a man made island of houses on poles, connected by walkways. They were kicked out. Apparently, the current debate in the tribal council is whether or not to allow Colombia to put in high tension power lines through their territory. I believe the answer is NO. And I've heard from many that they are not always so friendly to visitors, though that was not our experience.
You fly first into Porvenir (meaning afterlife in Spanish), a small island, but larger and more populated than most of the region. You're greeted by a throng of people as you walk out and everyone offers you a place to stay. We chose a nearby island and went with a man named Orlando, who was, well, a very decent and wonderfully good natured person.
First he situated us in our room, a small cabin room with a very rare private bathroom and actual plumbing instead of outhouses placed directly over the water. This is why it's best not to snorkel and swim by these populated islands. Then he took us to the dining hall where his sister served breakfast.
Afterwards, we walked around the village, saw the pigs, dogs and visited every woman in town who sold something. Molas (the front and back panels of the traditional shirts women wear), masks, leg and arm beads and jewelry. One woman gave me a lesson on how to put them on. In truth, it's just a simple string with small beads on it. Somehow, they're woven onto your arm or leg in the most amazing patterns. This woman watched and helped as I put one on, unwound it, tried again. All the while, giving patient "Umhmms."
Let me also warn you, these woman from this matrilineal society are a hard sell. Don't be fooled by the sweet abuela who doesn't seem to speak any Spanish. She drives a hard bargain, but you will get what you pay for. When you chose a mola for 20 dollars, it is a far better quality and strength than one of 10 dollars. That you can count on.
This island is the second place I have ever felt comfortable leaving Lila to run around on her own. She was joined by a group of maybe 15 Kuna kids and it was a joy to watch them all play. Even though they didn't speak a common language (Lila still refuses to speak any Spanish), they communicated without a problem.
Last night as evening fell, I sat with a group of five girls.The men and women danced a traditional dance with reed flutes while an audience (literally set up in rows of chairs) watched, applauded and then paid a dollar for each picture taken. We didn't take any of these pictures, but I do have many of the surrounding area.
Lila stood up and danced. Then came back to the group of girls and instructed one, "It's your turn." The girl got up to dance something that looked very much like the dance her mother, perhaps aunt, danced in the larger performance. Then the next girl went and the next and then it was Lila's turn again. By the end, we were all cracking up.
While this was happening, Noah played ball with the boys. They loved how hard and far he could throw it. Couldn't get enough.
Had we not traveled there with Lila, I think we would have preferred to stay on one of the islands farther out where you literally sleep in a shack on the beach with almost no one around. You get three solid meals as part of the price to stay, but if you want water, juice, soda, drinks and snacks, you better bring your own. There is no tv and usually no electricity either. It is indeed rustic, but would have been nice to be all alone on a private island. With Lila, it was better to be with other people, others closer to her own age.
She would disappear with the pack, running back and forth, from place to place. We always knew how to find her, though, because we heard men, women and children calling "Lila! Lila! Lila!" all over the island. Who is this little girl who can turn strangers into friends, play in the dirt and run around barefoot? It's Lila, Lila, Lila. And I believe Noah and I were more welcome at Wichaub Huala because of her.