We spent a couple days after our hike on the island of Usuptu (translates to Rabbit Island) which was the home to the main leader of the revolution, Nele Kantule. The Gunas occupy the Caribbean shoreline on the eastern most side of Panama. They won their independence from the Panamanian government in 1925 making them the first (I believe) indigenous group in the Americas to win their independence. They have since been an autonomous state – no outsiders own land or businesses within their territory.
We went to the town square in the afternoon to watch reenactments which were narrated in Guna but looked a lot like Latino soldiers killing off Gunas one by one – throwing fake blood at them while another guy put off a cap gun type contraption.
We got to bed early because we needed to be dressed and ready for the parade at 7am. Little did we know, the reenactment never ended. I woke up at 2:30, 4, and 5:30am to men marching through the street yelling. “Uno, Dos! Tres, Cuatro! Cuatro, Tres! Dos, Uno!” We put on our red shirts and jumped in the parade. We marched through town and then the reenactment finished up on the beach. There were some more dealings narrated in Guna, but the Gunas eventually tipped the Latinos’ boat and dragged their wet bodies into a pile on shore. Stuck their flag in to seal the deal.
Now I would normally shy away from telling drinking stories, but I think it was the drinking that really brought this event together.
With their independence secured for the 88th year in a row, it was drinking time! We all filed into a dark thatched roof building; smoke and people everywhere. The men took one side and the women the other. The men got in a line of six facing a line of men with totumas (bowl/cup made out of a dried ghord) of the party drink. There were no mojitos, margaritas, or even national beers at this party. The drink was chicha fuerte, fermented sugar cane juice with coffee and cacao grounds. The men with the alcohol would dance and yell; those in the receiving line would reciprocate, copying the man in front of him, yells again from the gate keepers until it turned into one big jumble of gritars coming from dancing men. Once the men had successfully “fluffed their feathers” they got their chicha and downed it.
The women had more of a free-for-all mosh pit style to their consumption. There was no line, you just waited for a woman with a totuma to come up to you and offer it.
The best part of the ladies side were the HARMONICAS! I got one at one point and went to town!
There was a woman with a giant bowl of cigarettes (and suckers). Men smoking a giant tube of rolled up tobacco leaves – sticking the lit end in their mouths to take a drag.
We were all pretty tipsy when we started looking at the time and it was only 9:30am. Still a whole lot more partying to be had?! There was a plump little woman who had befriended me and she came back with a totuma. It was a really large one so I took a couple sips and handed it back. She refused to take it so I tried to pass it to the guy next to me. She said, “No. You can’t share. Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Would you share him with another woman?”
“It’s the same thing. You can’t share the chicha.”
I thought that was pretty funny so I downed it and then called it quits.
We headed home past drunk grandmas stumbling home with stupid grins on their faces, another woman under each arm. We saw a fellow volunteer off in the distance carrying a man over his shoulder to leave him at his home.
It was an interesting experience alright. They have this “house of chicha” a couple times a year for the independence celebration and for girls’ coming of age celebration. The idea is that the liquor and smokes are free to everyone so you can celebrate even if you don’t have money.
The next morning we got up before the sun and were on boats back toward the city. It would be another 5 hours before we got to land and then another couple hours in an SUV to the city. Our journey was complete.