A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to See Molas!

Here’s a Winterlude Update from our time in Kuna Yala, aka the San Blas Islands.  This day was one of the highlights of cruising the San Blas!


Everything about Kuna Yala is fascinating … the fact is that the Kuna have maintained their culture through the Spanish invasions in the 1500’s through the Panamanians in 1925 and continue to struggle every day to integrate the world into their way of life.

So yesterday, Doug, Rayene, David & I dinghied ashore in Playon Chico … this is the largest Kuna village we have visited so far in our explorations and we weren’t expecting much tradition. And in several respects we were right, there are some cement block houses, replacing solely traditional dwellings and there are six churches – this community has three thousand Kunas, so six churches seems a bit extreme … plus there is no medical clinic, which indicates to us that they’re still following the spiritual healing of their traditional Nele, the medicine man/women.

So we’d just bought delicious cinnamon rolls at a window along the main street, we’d not seen cinnamon rolls anywhere before … when a Kuna lady with all the trimmings… decorative nose line, gold hoop through her nose, red & yellow head scarf, gaudy blouse with BIG puffy sleeves and a mediocre mola, a brightly colored blue & gold wrap skirt, contrasting with her red & orange leg & arm beads that reached all the way from her wrists almost to her elbows …. accosts us asking if we wanted to see her molas.

Gringa Dressed In Traditional Kuna, Entertaining the Locals

Gringa Dressed In Traditional Kuna, Entertaining the Locals

These women are fairly persistent to put it mildly & Rayene & I agreed to follow her. She wound through the narrow “streets” – sometimes as wide as a half a sidewalk in the U.S. back to her residence compound. This was the first time we’d been invited inside a Kuna house compound, so we were fascinated. She showed Rayene a couple very mediocre molas – on blouses, of course. “Real” molas are always on blouses, or have been on blouses until they were removed to sell. Turista molas are those rectangles made specifically to sell to tourists, which can be very good, but Rayene & I are in search of the real thing. We said the appropriate things, all the while taking in the way they live from inside when Doug & David who were trailing behind blowing bubbles for the kids, showed up. About this time, our Kuna friend, named Cedelia, by the way, decides we’re not interested in buying anything, but I had commented on the blouse she had on because it had the black & red geometric designs I like incorporated into two birds carrying fish in their claws.

Quicker than you would have thought possible, Cedelia disappeared into her sleeping hut and reappeared sans mola blouse … in fact, sans ANY blouse. She had her bra on with her skirt and that was ALL!!! That’s not uncommon in a Kuna village, in fact, we’re beginning to suspect that the women don’t wear the traditional blouses when there are no outsiders in the village, they just run around in their bras & wrap skirts. But we found it VERY unusual that she just whipped it off in front of us! THEN it got even weirder! Doug was joshing with her in Spanish and the next thing I knew they decided to DRESS ME as a Kuna! Now these people are TINY! She had the mola blouse that she had just removed in her hands & I demonstrated how my shoulders are WAY too wide to put it on. She didn’t pay any attention to my protests, grabbed my wrists … did I mention that these people are VERY VERY strong as well as tiny? They paddle their Cayucos everywhere and don’t mind how much the wind & waves conspire against them. The next thing I knew, she put the sleeves over my wrists & was bending my neck to put it through the neck & literally PULLED the mola part down over me to the waist. YIKES! Now I’m literally POURED into this blouse that smells of woodsmoke because the women have been cooking over wood fires all morning and I’m afraid I will never get out! Doug joked that I’d have to buy the blouse & take it home & cut it off.

But Cedelia is not finished. She disappears into her sleeping hut & re-emerges with a wrap skirt. David & Rayene are getting into the act, urging her on by now & they make me roll up the legs of my capris so they won’t show beneath the skirt. Then my crocs have to come off & a red & yellow headscarf appears. The courtyard is getting more & more crowded with generations of family members watching the fun & laughing.

Doug takes photos & then thankfully Cedelia helps me re-emerge from being a Kuna women! After the fact, of course, I had to buy the blouse – usually we request that they remove the panels from the blouse & let them keep the fabric to put attach another mola, but this one I kept the whole gaudy ugly thing! The top is bright reds, yellows & lime green daisys with black polka dots on a red background, the mola is mediocre and the bottom ruffle is hot pink – these Kuna women have some funny ideas of beauty and color combinations!

Needless to say, being invited in to their homes was a highlight, but not as much as their idea of dressing up the gringo woman for their own entertainment!

Who knows what tomorrow will bring!  So many unimaginable experiences in this lifestyle called cruising…..

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