The ocean lapped like a lullaby against the hull as I stood on deck of the 395-foot S/V Mandalay, a three-masted barquentine headed toward an island not much bigger than a football field. I was on a seven-day cruise sailing to a few of the 370 islands of the San Blas archipelago on the Caribbean side in Panama. Each day the Mandalay would sail to another powdery white sand beach island dotted with palm trees and surrounded by bathtub-warm turquoise waters. Most of the 40 passengers spent their island time snorkelling, basking in the sun and buying colourful crafts from the Kuna Indians, the indigenous occupants of these islands. But I was on a different mission: I was searching for nuchas, figurines hand-carved out of balsa wood whose job is to guard against evil spirits.
I'd first seen the little figures a year before in Santa Fe, N.M., while perusing the merchandise of a roadside vendor selling Indian baskets and pottery. I spotted a box of colourful folk-art figures about 20 centimetres tall; the men had hand-painted suits, ties and top hats, the women were painted with bright-coloured dresses, and there were also little children, less than eight centimetres tall. These were nuchas made by the Kuna Indians in the San Blas Islands off the east coast of Panama, a place almost impossible to reach except by boat. Even though the little figures were simple and their colours faded, they resonated with me. Some only had one leg and were pockmarked from termites, but I loved them and bought a few. One day, I decided, I would visit the San Blas, meet the Kuna and find nuchas.
A year later, I signed on to a cruise to Kuna Yala (Land of the Kuna), where the indigenous people live much the same way they have for hundreds of years: The men fish and sell coconuts and the woman sew beautiful and colourful molas, intricately appliquéd cloth squares portraying turtles, fish, geometric patterns, boats – anything which is part of their lives.
Each day, we'd motor from our tall ship to the sandy shore of another island called Achu Tupu or Nalunega or Tuborgana. Except for the handicrafts, everything in Kuna territory cost one dollar. To rent a plastic chair was a dollar, a cold beer a dollar and for each photograph taken of a Kuna, one dollar. Whenever a young Kuna girl in traditional dress saw someone with a camera, she'd rush up, usually holding a tortoise or parrot, and say, "Picture! Picture! One dollar." On each island we'd see rows and rows of molas, strung like laundry on lines tied to the trees. The Kuna women smiled patiently, but never pressured us to buy. In addition to their mola-decorated blouses, the women wore long, colourful sarongs, red and yellow head scarves and brightly beaded bracelets wrapped around their arms and legs. A single black stripe had been painted from the top of each woman's forehead to the tip of her nose, and a large gold ring pierced her nostrils.
I always asked if there were nuchas for sale. Every traditional Kuna household has boxes of them to ward away the evil spirits. Once the evil has been lifted, the nucha loses its power and is worthless. I was told I could buy those nuchas, but so far, I hadn't found any, so I snorkelled, swam and chose some molas. One day, I paid $3 for a Kuna woman to wrap a blue and yellow beaded bracelet around my wrist, layer after layer. It never fell off, even when I swam.
Each evening at sunset, the three sails were lowered as Amazing Grace played on the loudspeaker. Maybe it was the setting sun burnishing the ocean liquid gold, or the sounds of the pure melody piped out over the sea, or maybe it was the whale cries in the background of the recording, but it always brought tears to my eyes. At night, there was disco dancing or entertainment, such as the evening we bet on which of 10 small crabs would be first to race across a chalk finish line on the deck. Later, I'd retreat to my cabin or bring my pillow and blanket to the top deck and sleep under a star-filled sky and the soothing sounds of the yawing ship. I was still hoping to find a nucha, but even if I didn't, I'd come back relaxed, rejuvenated and with a tan.
It was the last day. I'd fallen asleep on the beach when a fellow passenger woke me and asked if I wanted to go with an English-speaking Kuna in his hand-hewn canoe to visit a neighbouring Kuna village and meet the medicine man. The trip would take about 20 minutes each way and would cost $10 each. I grabbed my bag and we motored in the dugout toward the island, much bigger than the ones we'd visited. Kuna women sat outside thatched-roof homes sewing molas, feeding their babies and preparing meals. A few Kuna men repaired fishing nets or unloaded coconuts from their canoes.
As we walked down a sandy path past a large building, a ringing bell startled us and a group of screaming elementary-school children raced out of the building. We continued down another path past row after row of dugout canoes before we arrived at the home of the medicine man. He was in his 70s and wore a T-shirt, khaki pants and a New England Patriots hat. He showed us into his home, a small dark space with a packed-earth floor. I asked, "Do you have any nuchas I can buy?"
He pulled a wooden box from a corner of the room. Inside were about 30 male figures painted with the same bright cheeks, suits and black hats I'd seen in Santa Fe. There was also a woman figure dressed in a yellow painted blouse and a little boy and girl nucha. As I held each, he said these nuchas had no more power so I could have any of them.
I wrapped my purchase carefully in my dirty clothes. They now hang happily in my apartment. Maybe the nuchas held no more power for the Kuna medicine man, but they continue to magically transport me back to the sound of the ocean water lapping against the huIl, the shrouds chiming on the masts and the smiling Kuna women with their gold nose rings and striped faces.
The writer travelled with a company that recently went out of business. The best way to visit the San Blas Islands of Panama is with Texas-based Nomad Hill (nomadhill.com or 713-481-7222), which will arrange a customized trip including flights to San Blas and all hotel and yacht accommodations.