Hazing Kuna Style

Super Bowl Sunday began with a great deal of promise but, ultimately, ended up being far from super. Due to a communication failure, likely resulting from our nearly complete lack of understanding Spanish and our total lack of understanding Kuna Yala, the grande fiesta that we were told was to take place on Sunday was actually scheduled for Tuesday. Luckily, we could at least enjoy listening to the Super Bowl on the Armed Forces Network over my single side band radio. Or, maybe not. Of all the days for the Armed Forces Network to be off the air, Super Bowl Sunday has to be one of the worst. I blame Hugo Chavez.

Considering that we had already spent several days in Isla Robeson, we decided that we might as well stay a few more days to partake in the traditional Kuna celebration. After all, how often does an opportunity like this come along? (Digression: there is a business school case study in which each person is placed in charge of a car racing team. The manager of the team is faced with a decision of whether to enter a car in the biggest race of the year. The only information provided is that the team has been working on developing a new engine, which has a tendency to catch on fire and could be lethal. Several hundred thousand has been spent on the engine and the potential payoff of the race is in the millions. Should the team enter the race? Being hard-driving future business leaders, most people say “yes.” We were then told that the circumstances were similar to the one NASA faced when launching Challenger. The end result was that, instead of basking in the glow of winning the Pocono 100, we killed twelve astronauts and the moral is not to make decisions based on sunk costs.) We made a decision based on sunk costs.

After spending a couple of days entertaining the Kuna children, our attendance of the big celebration was almost thwarted when a fleet of German boats sailed into the harbor on the day of the party. The past century might not have been kind to Germany, but that has not diminished the desire of present day Germans to travel great distances in order to get free alcohol. And, like college freshman, they travel in inconveniently large packs. Fortunately, some friendly Kuna intervened and we were eventually invited to join the festivities. At around 3:30 PM, we were escorted into a large thatch-roofed meeting house. The men were seated on one side, while the Kuna women were decked out in traditional garb on the opposite side. Right after sitting down, four Kuna men came up and presented us with hard gourds containing a dark liquid. This was the chicha of which we had heard so much about. A combination of corn, coffee, and sugar, the mixture is fermented in large vats for 10 days before it is foisted upon innocent bystanders just looking to imbibe some authentic Kuna culture. Upon receiving the gourd, we followed the example of the French gentleman next to us and downed the substantial serving in one breath (when in doubt about drinking etiquette, always look for a Frenchman).

Although chicha is often compared to wine, it is difficult to accurately describe the drink since sipping was hardly encouraged. Based on my brief experience, the concoction had a sharp nose, a subtle hint of coffee, and a finish that tasted like burning. Tears in our eyes, we were quickly ushered out of the meeting hut and reunited with the Germans, who acted German by purchasing far too many rounds of awful Balboa beer. Several more trips to the meeting house ensued, the hours passed, and my recollection grows a bit hazy. If I had to guess, I would venture that I declared myself to be the native God Lono. The savages received me as befits a God: cowering before my omnipotent power, presenting me a nubile maiden, and showering me with worthless trinkets. However, with time, the power corrupted my initially fair leadership and my worthy subjects eventually grew resentful. At some point, they decided to take up arms with their primitive weapons and drove me from the island paradise among a shower of spears and cruel Kuna Yala slurs. My crew fought valiantly, but, alas, it will be many years before these savages see the light and are made to understand the one true God. Then again, maybe I just imbibed too much of the devil’s drink and mumbled incoherently to myself before somehow finding my way back to the boat. Whatever the case, with the poisonous chicha still pumping through our veins, on Wednesday we limped to Porvenir.

Somewhat rested and tired of too much painful Kuna culture, we sailed the roughly 55 miles to Portobello on Thursday, arriving just before sunset. Portobello was probably an impressive town 400 years ago, but now it looks like a town 400 years past its prime. The forts are overgrown, the cannons lie impotently on the grass, and the people look like they are still pissed that Columbus took all their silver. Not surprisingly, the church is the only building in town that has been well-maintained. I haven’t reached the part in The Bible yet where God recommends tithing, but it was certainly an inspired idea. What the good people of Portobello lack in wealth, they make up for in ingenuity. Throughout town, citizens have spliced into power lines to steal electricity. I am guessing that Portobello either has the most electricians per capita or an incredibly high number of deaths by electrocution. We have been told that the utility company regularly comes through and disconnects the illegal power connections while threatening legal action, but that the wires are tapped again within half an hour.

Despite the dilapidated town, it is easy to see what drew Columbus to Portobello in 1502. The harbor is wide and deep, protected from strong winds by the surrounding mountains. We arrived to find about 35 other boats at anchor, including about 15 yachts participating in the Blue Water Around the World Rally. These boats are moving together on a course that will complete a circumnavigation in 2 years. We were told that yachts join and drop out throughout the trip. Some of these withdraw involuntarily, such as an unfortunate French boat that ran aground on a reef while sailing at night in Los Roques, Venezuela. The attraction of moving in a group and having logistics such as weather, customs, and immigration provided is obvious, but two years does not allow very much time to see many of the interesting places along the way. Further, sailing without the flexibility to go your own way, even if it means mishaps and hassles, seems like it defeats the purpose of cruising.

On Friday afternoon, we took a bus from Portobello to Colon, the location of the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. Stepping off the bus in Colon, we quickly hailed a taxi to take us the several blocks to the Port Cristobal Yacht Club since Colon is supposed to be an extremely dangerous area for foreigners (some readers may remember that my friends from Norway were robbed twice there in a single week, just outside the gates of the yacht club). Inquiring about arranging our transit of the Canal, we were told to return on Monday to have our boat measured and to be assigned a transit date. Although a lengthy stay in the urban jungle that is Colon is not overly appealing, we look forward to completing a few boat-related projects, exploring Panama City, and preparing for what we expect will be an interesting transit to the Pacific Ocean.

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