Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Mola Lisa: Woman Between Worlds

The dugout was painted bright green with red trim. Lisa said the colors represented the forest and the sun. It was made by her father and was a gift to her when he died. It needed some work. We powered through the waves with a borrowed motor. Long story there. Suffice it to say that it was all but a miracle that Lisa was there at all, given all that had transpired that morning -- sickness, miscommunication, mechanical breakdown, evil spirits, and gender identity. It was only six-thirty and already a full day. We loaded up and headed toward the mainland, an hour by dugout across open ocean.

Water poured over the gunwales when we plowed through the heavy swells on the way to the mainland. Two by six boards had been bolted on the original limits of the dugout to make it more seaworthy, but the gap between the boards and tree wood had not been caulked. I  guessed that caulk was too expensive, if not hard to come by, here hours away from the nearest hardware store.

I bailed water with a cut-in-half gourd that was just like a big coconut shell as we talked over the whine of the outboard. Just what you do. No big deal.

Clouds hung over the summits of mountains that rose steeply from the coast. It was raining up there, hard, as it had been for several days. A big storm had blown into the San Blas Archipelago and whipped the seas into a nice swell. My shorts had blown overboard in spite of being clipped to the guard wire of the sailboat.

We rose and fell with the swells, and talked about gender roles and how women do so much of the work of the world. She mentioned that her family was short men: she had not married, her brother-in-law had died and left her sister and her niece for Lisa to care for, her father had died, and her mother too. Lisa was the head of household, a community leader, and spokesperson for women in the weekly congress meetings of her community. Her glasses hid her eyes, but I could see the gravity carried by them.

Her Spanish was excellent. She had been selected by the cacique, or silas, what we might call chief, to go to Panama City to study. She had been a star student and now spoke Guna Yala, Spanish, and English. She had been designated the "tour leader" by the tribe and now fulfilled that role with us. We were going to a sacred river to see a cascada, or waterfall, and would be permitted to wash off some of the salt film we had accumulated over five days at sea.

We asked if we could visit her village. Lisa told us that the village was under quarantine because a man had died at the hand of demons. Those demons were still around, and the leaders of the village were performing ceremonies to drive them off. No one who did not live there, even other Guna Yala, was permitted to visit the island. The whole island was under a red flag, and boats were expected to give it a wide berth.

I asked her to elaborate and she said there was nothing more to say. I turned toward the mountains and the trail we would follow up into them. 

The prospect of fresh water, agua dulce, sounded heavenly to me. I had not showered in fresh water since we got on the boat five days ago.

The trail wound past burial grounds, and we paused while Lisa paid her respects and cleaned the mounds covering her father, mother, and other family members. She told us the story of her life. It was one of work, and early responsibility.

Her family was struggling, in part, because there was no man to work on the house or to go work a finca, land used for bananas, rice, yuca, papaya, coffee, and other crops. The men leave the island communities every day at dawn and work until mid or later morning. The women stay and tend the children, cook, clean the house. The roles are quite prescribed, unless one decides to identify as a gender other than the one they were born into. Transvestites are common in the tribe, and, as it turns out, Lisa was one. As such, she was given access to cash by giving tours, with permission, of course. She kept some of the money, but paid fees to the tribe for the opportunity. With a little extra money, she could hire men to help with jobs that she, as a woman, was not supposed to do. She had made her choice and lived within the roles she was given. All very interesting to me.

She had no children for reasons other than marriage or fertility.

Still, she played to role of woman well and led us up to the waterfall with a steady narration of plant, bird, and cultural stories. One of the blossoms looked like lips. The women tried them on.

Lisa held up a sign of protection from evil spirits as I took the picture. Lisa kept invoking protection as we went along the steep, rooty trail.  I heard her speaking softly and asked her about that. She told me she was talking to the spirit world about us, about our being there. She wanted us to be in harmony and on good terms with them. She did not want to get hurt or to have any of us twist an ankle. We heard monkeys howling in the trees when rain began to fall. Lisa told us they hated rain and complained loudly whenever it began.

We passed some of the aqueduct pipes and storage tanks. The water comes from high on the mountain, travels down to the ocean, crosses underwater to the island and supplies the community with fresh water. Wow! Fresh water, no bugs because the island is surrounded by salt water, and cool breezes off the ocean -- not bad.

The trail, which had been climbing steeply for miles, suddenly dropped down into a tropical, muddy densely wooded defile. Then it opened onto a waterfall worth the long walk. Fresh water!

Time for lunch and some swimming. Lisa joined us for sandwiches. Her assistant kept his distance from the group and said little. I offered him some cheese and chocolate. He accepted with a nod but no smile.

Megan jumped in after Sean and we all began a trip down-stream following the river. We slid through various waterfalls and slides. Lisa purified us at the end of the pools.

After the purification, we headed back to the boat where Lisa showed us her molas. Lovely as might be expected. She told us how the molas told stories and were the results of years of practice and training in the stories of origin, of the animals, the ocean, the spirits -- everything that defined the place and the role Guna Yala played in it. Only women, a select few, were allowed by the tribe to make and sell molas. It was a high honor to be designated a molas maker by the community, and Lisa, holy woman, priestess, story-teller, inhabitant between worlds, was considered one of the best. 

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