We are here, today, because of you.
Without your initial support back in February 2013 and in each subsequent round of boots, there simply would not have been another way for us to launch the project at the time. It was only with your support, which was at its core an investment, that we were able to take that risk and the leap of faith to begin something new and different like this. Boot by boot, it has been quite a journey.
A year ago, we had an idea, but we didn't know how we were going to make it happen. So Sanders, Travis and I decided to just go for it. I have never felt so energized as I did those first few days of seeing what textiles y'all chose, working with the bootmakers and the weavers, figuring out our systems, and getting to work. We started from scratch, and that was a pretty crazy thing to do...add to that the fact that we wanted all the boots to be an expression of you, so no two would be alike. I remember, at one point, I literally thought I was about to faint because I thought I had mixed up the translations for the measurements and that all the boots were made in the wrong size. The thought of letting you all down made me feel sick. Luckily, I realized that the translations had been correct and it was all ok, and we ended up having a 90% success rate with that first round (we are now at 93%!). There was this immense feeling of risk, knowing that you had put your faith in us. It is truly remarkable what faith like that can do for the human spirit, it makes you feel like you can accomplish anything, if you have your community behind you. We hope that we can repay that faith and kindness to you, and support the things that you are passionate about.
Making it happen
It has been quite a year in the boot world. In May, we decided to go full steam ahead and make the boots a permanent part of the Teysha family. Boy, were we in for a wild ride. There were times when we all felt like it would be impossible for anything else to go wrong, and then one more thing would happen, and then another, and another. There were times when we questioned what the heck we were doing, whether or not we were totally crazy for trying to do this. Of course, with those challenges, came learning and opportunities. Here, we want to give our immense gratitude to the incredible leadership of Hanna Hall, our Guate Boot Lady who has now been at the helm of the workshop for 9 months. Hanna was down there, day in and day out, figuring out how to create a system, build a team, improve quality and consistency, and bring this happiness to our customers. She bore many challenges and frustrations, but among those, she also grew an incredible bond with the people who would become our team. We also would like to thank Victor, who started out as a quiet leather cutter, and is now the assistant manager of the shop. We have seen him blossom through the opportunity to gain more responsibilities and to lead, a chance he never had before. Through those challenges, Hanna, Victor, Travis and co have built up the most amazing team of 15 boot makers in the community. The past few months we have felt like we have been hitting our stride, feeling really solid, and really excited. Excited, because now that we have built (and continue to build), this strong foundation, we know there is so much potential for the community, the families, and the art form. It's the greatest feeling to see the world full of possibilities. Thank you.
The future is bright
In this second year of Guate Boot World, we want to continue to grow our team and our boot family, innovate and create the best darn boots there ever were, and share this beautiful world with all of you, and with the whole world. We have plans in place to expand our workshop, continue to develop our Kuna Kicks line, invest in improved infrastructure, create new programs for the community, and many other projects that we don't even know yet. As we do this, our goal is to plant the seeds and form the basis for what will some day become a Teysha school of sorts, for artisans, designers, youth, and for all of you to come and learn and grow and exchange ideas. Slowly but surely!!
How you can help
We will be reaching out to you all again soon about our fundraising for our expanded workshop, new boot and shoe styles, and a new line of accessories. And, a new home coming soon in Austin!! Thank you for your support!
We also want to see who of you all would be interested in coming on the inaugural Boot Tour in Guatemala!!? We are thinking April, if you are interested please send us dates that might work for you. Click here for a sample itinerary. We want to do this as much as possible throughout the year, so if April is not a good time, there will be more!
It truly means the world to us that you supported us from the beginning, and we thank you so much for being a part of this journey. May the adventures continue, and may you come and visit!! Peace, love, and art!
A year ago we took a leap and landed into the world of custom hand-crafted boots. We started with a couple of pairs of boots, a small team of artisan cobblers, collected many-a-textiles from Mayan women throughout Antigua and got busy making our first round of boots. This leap propelled us into a wild journey of building supply chains, organizational processes, design, and all sorts of other challenges and has lead us to the point where we are actually creating our own shoe workshop where we can help many artisans gain access to the resources, designs, and knowledge to be a part of the global marketplace.
Without you, none of this would ever have happened. We would like to invite you all to Guatemala to experience the early stages of our next chapter, get to experience the beauty Guatemala has to offer, understand more about where your investment goes and how you are helping to empower communities in an amazing way.
Day 1: Arrive in Antigua, Guatemala. Sunset, volcanoes, welcome dinner and drinks at Cafe Sky and Mezcal tasting at Cafe No Se.
- Hotel options: Hotel Santo Domingo,
Day 2: Good morning, colonial tour, boots and BBQ (Guatemalan style).
- Breakfast at Y Tu Pina Tambien, orientation, and walking tour of Antigua ruins, markets, and architecture.
- Lunch on your own.
- Afternoon, boot fitting and shoe making demonstration in Pastores and churrasco (BBQ) with the artisan team.
- Night: optional Salsa lessons or rest up for trip to Lake Atitlan.
Day 3: Lago, volcanoes, and relaxation.
- Morning shuttles to Lago Atitlan.
- Arrive at Laguna Lodge Eco-resort and Nature Reserve
- Nature hike and history of the lake and culture.
- Swimming, kayaking, and hammock-ing.
- Sunset tour of Lake, give offerings to Maximón, Mayan dinner in Santiago.
Day 4: Textiles, natural dyes, and farming.
- Lake Tour to Mayan villages
- Natural dyeing and weaving demonstrations by Cooperatives of San Juan de Laguna
- Find new beautiful textiles for your home!
- Farm tour and natural dyeing initiative.
- Kayak to San Pedro, yoga, healthy dinner, and get weird with backpackers.
Day 5: Free day
- Hiking volcanoes, relaxing, shopping, exploring: Have fun!
Day 6: Chichi to Antigua
- Pit stop at one of Guatemala's largest Artisan markets. Experience the ChiChi power!
- Back to Antigua for boot pick-up or textile drop off
- Coffee farm tour at Azotea
- :Thank you dinner and party in secret location.
Day 7: Home or onward to Semuc Champey
- Airport shuttles for the homeward bound
- Journey to Semuc Champey for more exploration (3 day extension)
- Pave your own way! Tikal, more antigua, deep sea fishing?
Itinerary is flexible and so much more is possible. This is a simple outline of the possibilities and a general idea. Please feel free to e-mail Travis@teysha.is with questions, ideas, concerns, or if you are ready to rock!
Hope you will join us someday on an adventure!
We are so excited to announce we have recently been selected for THREE amazing opportunities in the global development world for Teysha, our team, and our artisans.
First, Sophie and Travis were selected to be part of the 2014 class of the Agora Impact Accelerator. Being selected to participate in the accelerator means that we will have undergo a five month intensive period of mentoring, business planning, impact assessment, helping take our business and our impact to the next level. We are honored to be a part of the class of 2014!!
Please visit Agora Partnerships online to learn more about their vision and how the accelerator works!
The Agora program does come with a cost, and we were so excited to learn Sophie had been one of three people chosen as a scholarship recipient from the McNulty Foundation, covering the full cost of the Agora program for team Teysha. Sophie will also be a McNulty Fellow for the 2014 year. We are so grateful for the support of the McNulty Foundation to make the dream of participating in the accelerator a reality!
Please visit the Mcnulty Foundation to learn more!
Then, we were selected to be one of 50 out of 530+ applicants to the William James Foundation's Sustainable Business Plan Competition! The competition will begin in February, but more than the competition, the William James Foundation is dedicated to bringing resources to social entrepreneurs like ourselves. Check them out for a wonderful list of upcoming competitions/ accelerators/ resources!
Check out the list of 50 invitees here!
Like a tree, we have been planting seeds, growing roots, and creating a network of allies, craftspeople, and amazing supporters-- we are ready to take our work to the next level. We are looking forward to these programs to bring support, guidance, resources, and ALLIES to help us reach our vision of empowering people worldwide to connect, create, and live life to their fullest potential!
Thank you all for being a part of this --- 2014 is going to be a great year!!
Below is an except from the Agora Partnerships site regarding their impact to-date, we are excited to be part of the future!
- Since 2011, Agora entrepreneurs have increased wages for full-time employees by 36% and created more than 1,000 new jobs in some of the poorest regions of Latin America.
Agora companies have experienced average annual revenue growth of 80% and have received outside investment of over $12 million - $25 for every dollar donated.
These testimonies from our entrepreneurs speak to the profound impact Agora has had on them as change agents.
Agora is the largest supplier of GIIRS rated companies in Latin America, with 26 companies currently rated and an additional 4 Certified B Corps.
Welcome to the Teysha Lounge
Open for the Holidays in down town Austin, TX
Follow us this week as we feature different artists on our Facebook page andWebsite -- we're bringing the shop to YOU!
We are so excited to bring a wonderful group of artists both local and global together for the first-ever Teysha Lounge. Every company in our shop shares our love of art, empowerment, and ethically and lovingly made goods.
Inside the Lounge we have beautiful art by local Austin artists, bags, jewelry, home decor, furniture, accessories, and of course our Kicks and Boots. We have many items that are $10 and up, and gifts that are sure to be adored by your loved ones. Artisans from Panama, Colombia, Guatemala, India, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Vietnam, and more are all represented in the shop! It's a beautiful local and global world in here!
The Teysha Lounge will be open from 11am-6pm until December 22nd. We are located at 615 N. Congress Avenue in Austin. We would love to see you! If you know anyone who works downtown we would also appreciate help in spreading the word!
We will be hosting a Holiday party on Saturday, December 21st. We will be open all day from 11am-8pm, so come on down and find some special gifts for your loved ones! We appreciate your support!
|We hope to see you at 615 N. Congress before December 22nd, and many thanks for helping us spread the word!
We now have gift cards on our website! Available in any amount, they are the perfect way to spread empowerment and beauty to those you love!
Visit us online and see our range of Holiday gifts!
We appreciate your support this Holiday season and are so happy to have you helping us in our mission to spread beautiful art and empowerment for communities around the world. Thank you!
We are so excited to announce that we have been selected as semifinalists in the La Idea competition! La Idea is a contest promoting collaboration between social entrepreneurs in the US and Latin America, which is what we are all about!
We met our partners, Renate and Andrea of Guatemala-based Wanderlust Wear, and instantly connected. We have similar backgrounds, mission and vision for our companies, opportunities, as well as similar challenges. We both know what it's like to work with small producers and make custom products, and what resources are needed to make the communities flourish.
We plan to work together to enable access to market and opportunities for many more artisans in Guatemala and beyond, while creating an experience that connects the wearer and the maker together.
Renate and Andrea have been immensely helpful to our operations in Guatemala, helping us establish relationships with suppliers, navigate the city, as well as being all around great amigas to us!
For more information on La Idea, please visit- www.laidea.co
And click here to see Wanderlust's announcement in Spanish!
Kuna Living and Loving
So much excitement has happened since our last blog post from Panama! Not only have I been lucky enough to explore more of the beauty that lies in this magical part of the world with a few excursions in the mainland mountains and a visit to one of Kuna Yala's gorgeous uninhabited islands, but I have also continued learning so much more about Kuna culture through the deep connections I have made living within the community-- an experience that very few foreigners have been granted the opportunity to do. I hope my previous blog posts let you get an idea of the difficulties I was facing getting acclimated to hut-living on an island in an indigenous village where I barely speak the primary language and butcher the second, but luckily that transition period has ended and I am quite the happy Community Catalyst! I pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone and began to really feel integrated within the community, leaving my love growing leaps and bounds for these extraordinary people, their culture, and the place they take so much pride in calling home. I am excited to be able to continue sharing this exhilarating journey with ya'll, and give a peek into the unique culture behind our beautiful Kuna Kicks!
This is a picture of some of my closest animar (my friends in dulegaya) discussing a fire that happened on a nearby island. Seated behind the sewing machine is Rosa, and her mother is to her right. I love to sit with them because there is a constant flow of new people to meet coming through to buy madu (bread in dulegaya) from her house turned bakery. They love introducing me to them, and all go out of their way to make me feel welcome. We have daily lessons in dulegaya/English, and they love asking me questions about my life! The other week they even asked me if it was cold in Texas that day.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Last week I stumbled upon a book written in the mid 1900s by an anthropologist at the Gothenburg Ethnographical Museum in Sweden. Combined with my conversations, I am forming a more complete version of the history and traditions of the Kunas and really realizing the consistent changes the culture has undergone over the past centuries. Living on the islands has only been the custom since the early 1900s and the culture actually developed from living near rivers in the mountains. Molas, the distinct art form that make up our ballet flats and smoker slippers, actually began as body painting. Natural dyes were used to create geometric designs and it wasn’t until cloths became readily available that they transitioned to the molas we love today.
Winis have changed too!
Rosa preparing the fish her son just brought back. The bracelets on her wrist and ankles are winis. They are one long string tied in place with every wrap around the arm/leg. Mine were made by Rosa ahead of time simply because it allowed her the freedom to work on them when she could, but if created directly on the arm/leg I have seen it take hours.
Winis actually used to be made with seeds from the mountains, like these Santa Maria semillas (seeds) that eventually turn white and are still used in necklaces. I love the semilla necklace I have, and think you would too!...Kuna Yala Semilla Jewelry anyone?
Fighting through multiple subjugation attempts since the 1400s to protect their beautiful culture and traditions has left the Kunas known worldwide for their fierceness, but unfortunately the conquistadors don’t have anything on globalization. Things as a whole are still very traditional, with many continuing to drink cacao mixed with plantains every morning and spending their days completely immersed in traditional agriculture, fishing, cooking, mola making, and hammock lying just like their ancestors. However, the increased desire for money has helped drastically change the values and structure of the community over the past 50 years. Increased individualism has led to wide-spread hunger and a general lack of trust that never existed in the past. Some, especially the younger generation, are beginning to lose interest in important traditions like working in the mountains, making and wearing molas, chanting traditional songs /stories, and respecting mother earth.
Making a traditional fire for the day's cooking with dried coconut husks as a starter, and a fan made of weaved palm leaves.
Imports from Colombia and Panama have begun supplementing the otherwise whole food based diet with unhealthy items typically packaged in plastics. Since the culture has always thrown their trash in the sea and there is no education or system for this extremely recent and rapid change, these products aren’t only hurting their health but also that of the ocean! My nutrition degree really leaves me especially hurt by this diet change though. These imports provide regular consumption of refined breads and cakes, fried foods, and other processed items that are guaranteed to not be helping the Kunas with their track record for having remarkable health. While they do help individuals with shoes, clothes, and other needs that are beneficial to the community, it is obvious they have a huge negative impact on it as well. Most notably is a decrease in men working in the mountains, which could be a major contributor to the increased food insecurity on the island, in conjunction with a lack of sharing that will be discussed later.
Hojaldre, a fried doughnuts of sorts popular for breakfast. While delicious, the grease pictured shows it is not the best way to start the day…
Luckily, I have come to discover many people working with their own passions to keep the traditional way of life alive. For instance, we have recently begun collaborating with the incredible owner of the Casco Viejo Karavan Gallery and founder of the Mua Mua Foundation. She works with 110 Kuna women to provide a more steady income by celebrating traditional mola making with functional products just like we do with our Kicks! The foundation is the first Kuna cultural center in Panama and works to preserve the traditional Kuna culture in the midst of families moving to the cities. Now more than ever we are at a point where it is necessary (and very possible) to use globalization to combat the problems it has caused. When on the island strutting down the street in my Kuna Kicks I usually have people start up conversations asking where my shoes are from, showing me that Teysha’s celebration of the culture not only helps show it to people like you around the world but also contributes to a sense of pride for the culture so necessary for protecting it.
Sharing is Caring
The book I mentioned places lots of emphasis on what I have already come to experience firsthand: community, generosity, and friendship are absolute pillars in the Kuna culture. Not only have I learned about the many different donations our Kuna led partner organization, Foundation of Light and Indigenous strength or in Spanish Fundacion de Luz y Forteleza Indigena, has poured into the community over the years, but I have also experienced the intense generosity given by everyone in my new community of animar. When I am sitting talking with different families in their homes I am frequently offered chicha maiz, a traditional drink made of corn that is chewed up by the women and then boiled. I will admit I did enjoy the cacao and madun (plantains) chicha I was offered the other morning MUCH more, but the thought of pre-masticated boiled corn is much worse than the light pink drink actually tastes and I believe them when they say it has a lot of nutritional value. (Chicha is the generic name for traditional Kuna juices made with cacao, corn, lemon, plantains, pineapple, mango, guava, or a mixture of each)
Also, I am constantly having my thoughts of what to cook finished for me with a surprise bowl of fried fish or dule masi compliments of my neighbors or Rosa, a woman who lives in the neighboring community of Ogobsucun and helps my Kuna papa and I with a variety of hut-living tasks. Dule masi is a plantain soup with hand shredded coconut and usually fish but can have other catches from the sea like shrimp or lobster as well. The name literally means kuna food in dulegaya (dule=kuna person masi= comida), and since fish, coconut, and plantains are the 3 most common food sources I have witnessed it makes sense that it is eaten so much and has the name it does. Luckily for me, I still find it really delicious with a splash of picante (hot sauce) even after eating it nearly every day.
Ochi, dulegaya for bananas. The other day I was practicing my dulegaya with Ellie and Elida, women I am working with on the virtual consignment shop project, and their sister surprised me with this gift as a part of the lesson!
We get by with a little help from our friends
When I first came to the island I would frequently hear ‘uua, uua’ being chanted from the streets, and only after the second or third week came to realize uua means fish in Dulegaya and this was people walking around selling their daily catches. Since there obviously isn’t much refrigeration on the island, fish and other daily harvests used to be shared throughout the community, but now they are sold for anywhere from $1-$4 per fish. Hence, the new hunger in the community that I briefly mentioned early. This shift in communal sharing has also sadly affected important ceremonial rituals, like puberty rites ceremonies. These are a celebration of a girl’s coming of age, involving large feasts, the cutting of her hair, and drinking lots of the alcoholic chicha fuerte (fermented sugar cane). Traditionally this was put on by the entire community with everyone sharing sugar, fish, and other needs for the festival, but with fewer men working and able to contribute it is a completely different scenario with the average cost incurred by a family in the thousands. There are several community festivals throughout the year that are still done traditionally, such as the Nele Kantule Festival Sophie and I attended last month, but individual ceremonies like puberty rites ceremonies are becoming fewer every year.
These signs are all over the community selling various foods
The other day I was speaking with someone named Laidislou (excuse spelling), and these values were his response for what he loved most about Kuna culture and is most fearful of losing. The ones that supported one another no matter what and would never leave a child hungry. They are the same values that have been pushing him to use his farm to help feed the community with sustainable agriculture, and why another woman I was speaking with asked me to start a comedor (children’s feeding program), without realizing this was already a passion I have been figuring out how to accomplish with Fundacion de Luz! While these changes are creeping in, there are still so many Kunas fighting to hold on to their culture’s traditions just like their ancestors have done for centuries, and I truly believe Teysha’s work here empowers them to tighten that grip even more!
One of these people bridging the gap between industrialization and traditional way of life is a nephew of my Kuna papa Augustine (common theme in Kuna Yala: everyone is someone I know’s cousin, nephew, etc.) named Andres. Andres has travelled all over the world as an ambassador for Kuna Yala, and now uses cameras donated to him by a group of Italians and Canon to document community events and teach kids how to create multi-media projects for education about the importance of the environment and other serious issues relating to the continued strength of Kuna Yala.
Appropriate to my recent realizations of the cultural shift, he made a display a few weekends ago for October 12th, a day to come together to stand up for mother earth, protect the rights of indigenous groups, and collaborate for la buen vida (the good life.) The display had pictures of indigenous groups from around the world that still exist, and also facts about those that were completely wiped out over the past centuries. Witnessing how many people stopped to read it gave me a lot of hope for advocacy based education as a whole in the community. Also, it helped remind me how strong the Kunas truly are to have survived what so many other indigenous groups couldn’t giving me hope for their future in the face of all these changes.
Andres with his display
Indigenous groups from all over the world
A man named Henri that is always smiling with an adorable group of neighborhood kiddos in front of the display.
To leave you with some anticipation for my next blog post dedicated completely to my time in the mountains, here is a picture of the absolutely gorgeous Sugandi River. Until then, nade (dulegaya for ciao)!
Greetings all! For all of you who came by for a visit at ACL Festival, we thank you and hope you are still grooving from the festival! As some of y'all have seen we partnered with international artist, Alejandro Del Grizzel from the UK to create a work that we had been imagining for some time. Alex came into the Teysha world through Hanna Hall, our community catalyst in Guatemala and one of the many people involved in the making of our Guate Boots. We began describing how we, Teysha, hoped to function like a tree, growing our roots, stabilizing and strengthening communities, and creating nourishment and prosperity for a variety of stakeholders; namely, the environment, our supporters, the artisans, and our common future. We felt the cosmos aligning and Alex drafted up a beautiful illustration that depicted this vision wonderfully. Alex, on a mission to spread art, love and color throughout the world along his journey from East to West and North and South jumped at the opportunity to take his mission to Austin, TX for ACL Festival and loaded up his backpack to head North.
At Teysha, we are all about building connections and working to create community action across borders, cultures, and places. As of now we've been doing that through our Kicks and collaborating with textile artisans and cobblers in Panama, Colombia, and Guatemala. It has lead us to some really beautiful places, many of which Alex depicted in this amazing mural. In the ocean, at the base of the painting, we have the Comarca Guna Yala, known to many as the San Blas Islands (the colonial name). This is home of the Kuna(Guna) nation and the many women who create the amazing Mola tapestries for their blouses. Above the islands, we have Medellin, Colombia (recently voted one of the most innovative cities in the world) and where we produce one version of our Kuna Kicks line. You can see the famous Cotajer building and the iconic urban sky tram system that has made Medellin such a progressive town. To the right of Medellin, you see a sea of flowers, each of these countries national flowers, cleverly next to Colombia - a country famous for its flower farms and the 'Festival del Flores'. Below the tree that links all of these places together, we have our humble home, Austin, Texas. Alex did an amazing job capturing our city's skyline, the reflection on Lady Bird Lake, the bats emerging from the Congress bridge into the sunset. Throughout the mural, you see a variety of birds from Texas' mockingbird, the majestic Quetzal, and Colombia's Andean Condor. Then, of course, there is Antigua, Guatemala, one of the Americas' oldest colonial towns and one of the most charming and special places we have been so blessed to explore. Framed amazingly by Antigua's neighboring volcanoes, it is certainly one of the most surreal places we are lucky enough to work. Here, we plan to take our operations to another level in an effort to expand our ability to bring opportunity to more craftspeople and social entrepreneurs and also hope to create a home for supporters, like you, to come visit, learn about the Mayan people and art forms, and experience the amazing beauty of Guatemala, learn more about the realities facing our world, and get to know some really amazing people. Last but not least, are the roots that connect us all. Trees are one of the most vital life forms on our planet, they provide the ground stability, nourish the land and our bodies, they give habitat to many of the world's creatures, and provide much of the oxygen we breathe. We are actively seeking ways that we can bring the power of trees to the various communities we work with, both here and abroad. While we know we are making a substantial social and economic impact in the communities we work in, we are planning ways to expand our impact and bring prosperity to future generations as well. We can think of no better form than trees that can provide nutrition, protection, and life.
To all of you who have been a part of the Teysha journey, by visiting us, reading our posts, or rockin' our Kicks, we thank you from the bottom of our heart. It has been a wonderful and wild journey, full or twists and turns, great people and amazing art, we thank you for empowering this journey and hope that we can empower yours just the same. Much love to all and have a stellar week!
Another week has passed and with the adventures continuing the emotions have run high, low, and everywhere in between…
I am shocked this week has already brought October and the beginning of my last 6 weeks here this fall. In my case, the saying “time flies when you are having fun” can definitely be modified to “island time flies when you are enjoying your projects.” Since last weekend my programs have only continued to blossom into concrete plans and I have had absolutely incredible personal experiences. To truly allow you all to vicariously live through my experience, this week’s post will not only give you a peek into the excitement of my past 2 weeks, but also give you a brief ride on the emotional rollercoaster associated with living in a new culture.
When exploring hits the jackpot
Before my vacation the other week, my typical mornings on the island had entailed a bit of yoga, a crazy cold handheld calabaza shell shower, and some oatmeal and coffee with Papa Augustine before I spent a few hours using the school WIFI. On Monday of last week, I started my morning out the same way, and as I walked to the school I noticed there were a lot of ninos (children) walking home. This didn’t surprise me too much since I have seen some classes cancelled after only an hour or two because teachers were on vacation in the city (frustrating fact). Turns out this Monday happened to be fumigation day of the entire village compliments of the Panama government, so class was cancelled and so was the internet. I took the opportunity to go exploring the beauty of the island. Truth be told I was really just trying to find my own private beach spurred by my experience near Carti the week before, but I think I found something much better. I passed the airport, crossed over some small bridges, and passed a power plant that actually contains WIFI, again compliments of the Panama government! I didn’t know this at first, but instead continued exploring the island and found some absolutely gorgeous and serene spots.
I try not to live with regrets, but man do I regret forgetting to buy snorkeling gear during my last trip to the city. I can be a wimp sometimes and was too afraid to swim completely by myself on a deserted part of the island without a mask to see what I was swimming with and more importantly to ensure I wasn’t stepping on a fragile coral reef of sorts. Surprisingly enough, the stores here don't sell them. So, I absorbed the beauty a bit more before deciding to venture back. Luckily, serendipity was in my favor and I crossed paths with the man who owns the island I was exploring. He asked if I was using the WIFI and I immediately inquired for more information on this mysterious magical island WIFI. He then proceeded to help me out for 10 or 15 minutes to ensure I was connected before he went off to gather some coconuts. He made several trips back my way, each time bringing me a delicious treat. First a huge agua de pipa (coconut with the top cut off to reach the cocowater inside), and next fruits that I still haven’t quite figured out the names of since he told me them in Dulegaya and I was silly to not write them down. This man is a perfect example of the immense generosity I have experienced while being here. No doubt there have been some people who have taken a monetary advantage of the fact that I am a white American, but for the most part this has been a rare occurrence for me and is common everywhere in the world.
My office commute with WIFI/powerplant in background.
Step into my office…
My stint as a teacher
Last week I also finally got a chance to help out at the school with Professor Smiths English classes on Wednesday. They ranged from 5th-8th grade and we were teaching future tense to most classes and simple past to another. I am thoroughly impressed with these kids. Not only do they speak Dulegaya but most also know Spanish, and on top of that they are learning English. Many Americans can barely speak English properly let alone care to know another language! I struggled a bit in the beginning, but once I channeled old Spanish professors I really started to get the hang of it. I’d like to think I did a pretty good job because even the professor was asking me for help with his English.
Each class started out with an introduction and time for questions. Without fail one of the first 4 questions was if I was single. This question comes up in nearly every conversation I have with men, women, children, and if plantains could talk I bet it’d be the same. Luckily I am pretty secure with my singledom so it doesn’t bother me much, but in my opinion it definitely shows some of the priorities associated with the culture. However, I do think it is a general thing in Latin American culture. Plus, what’s wrong with believing in the importance of finding someone you love and depend on? Overall teaching in the school was a really great time, and now I have kids all over the island calling my kuna name, Alisob, as I walk by. Some side facts about the school. It has heavy support from the Panama government, but it's structures were built by the village. The first school on the island was all boy, and today offers pre-k-12th for both. Most people like to send their kids to the city for high school thought because the resources are slim on the island. One mother who has 1child living with relatives in the city to attend school told me the most notable reason to send your child is the fact there are no science laboratories here.
Fasten your seat belts, the emotional rollercoaster will now begin
I spend many mornings at my beachside office getting internet research done for different project ideas and connecting with the Teysha team or family back home. Since the school offered quite the distractions with a steady flow of curious kiddos and more importantly an intense firewall blocking tons of different websites (even islanders block facebook..and even this blog!), I am very excited about this new gorgeous spot. Having facebook has been a bit bitter sweet though. While it is great to connect with people and see what is going on with my friends around the world, it definitely helps contribute to the newfound homesickness and reinstated culture shock I have been suffering from since my mini-vacation.
As you may know from last week’s post, I went on a trip that provided me with modern bathrooms, deliverable Indian food, and many Americans leaving me feeling a little upside down in culture shock. I have since had a realization that all of life is basically a perpetual state of culture shock, since in reality we are constantly changing and growing and needing to readjust to our surroundings no matter what situation we are in. This could help explain why each day since has had insane ups and downs. I will be ecstatic with a new growth in programs or have a conversation with someone that makes me never want to leave this beautiful place, and then a few hours later succomb to a cultural barrier sucking me into a state of wanting nothing more than a glass of wine surrounded by English speaking friends and hummus or gouda cheese.…cue Julia Andrews, ‘these are a few of my favorite things’…
After talking with a friend that has been doing community development in the Congo for the past year and a half, I have learned that these feelings of homesickness don’t really go away. In reality, life already is a perpetual state of missing people and old experiences. It all reminds me of a quote I read once saying, “Nostalgia is the art of forgetting details.” If I was anywhere but here, I would likely be wishing I was while completely neglecting the parts of this experience I don’t like. The most appropriate sentiment may be #paradiseproblems.
The universe seems to give just what you need when you need it most!
Per the rollercoaster theme, Thursday night was a steady climb uphill while enjoying several hours being a human jungle gym for the kiddos next door with Friday being a huge drop of loneliness and despair. I was in quite the self-pity rut that nothing could really pull me out of. Luckily, the universe knew I needed the experience that ensued that night, or my Spanish just hasn’t improved as much as I thought. I thought I had plans with Teysha’s resident Kuna mountain man, Cooper, to go night fishing for langostinos (crawfish) on Saturday night, but instead he came by Friday afternoon to tell me it was time to head to the mountain. So, we bought some bread for a snack and spare batteries for our head lamps and quickly set out by ulu (traditional Kuna dug out canoe) for an adventure in the mountain that I truly didn’t know what I was getting into.
Traditional ulu! With a handheld saw, these take about 5 months to make. With a chainsaw, 20 days. This is a major inhibitor to why many men have stopped fishing on the island, and is a motivator for me to look into micro-loan type of program to help our partner foundation and the community.
As soon as we set out the serenity of it all gave me a feeling that all the anxiety I had would wash away. I was definitely right. We put our boat in a few miles into the river and started another mile long hike. As we walked we passed tons of cemetarios (Kuna gravesites with small roofs over them and a plate + cup for offerings) and I had the thought of how peaceful it would be to be laid to rest in these mountains. I plan on exploring the significance of these cemetarios more to share with yall in another post. We also passed a steady stream of worker ants carrying pieces of leaves away from a pile they had made. Cooper scooped a bunch into a bag to use as ina (dulegaya for medicine). They are burned in the fire, and women put their hands in the smoke to help make molas faster. Clever, clever! The serenity continued as we walked through a cacao field as the sun began to set. He grabbed a cacao fruit for us to eat as we continued to walk. Raw cacao is so delicious and it was perfect timing, as I had been thinking how much I needed some extra nutrition beyond my usual diet of plantains, rice, lentils, and fish.
I didn’t bring any electronics on my excursion, so here is a picture of the mountain from Ustupu at sunset instead. Picture yourself a little to the left somewhere in the middle of the back mountain.
I say I didn’t know what I getting myself into because I assumed we would be catching the crawfish in one spot. Silly gringa (white girl in Spanish)! We ended up walking through the river for the next 3 hours spearfishing by head lamp. I’d like to sound hardcore and say I caught something, but I simply held the bag and offered moral support. Still, obviously very important! I had the mild annoyance of bugs continuously in my face…which tends to happen when their favorite attraction is attached to your head, but the light is what provides the opportunity to catch things. If you have ever been camping, you likely know light catches on the eyes of insects and animals. Langostinos have pink eyes, and while I was watching for our dinner, I was also using my light to watch for spiders. With spiders, the larger the light = the larger the spider. At one point we noticed a light a bit upriver. I initially thought it was another fisherman, but the light was only bright when our headlamps were pointed at it. Once we got closer the light mysteriously dropped into the river. Turns out it was a teenager crocodile! ….a few feet away from us in a river that we in no way could have got out of… While I wasn’t too worried with Teysha’s mountain man expert with me, I definitely did not want to stick around to see how close we could get before he would move.
Some of our catch! I wish I could’ve gotten better pictures of it all, but see below…
When we finally got back to the village around 10:30pm, I had to cook up my share of the catch. For $33 a month, we get 5 or 6 hours of electricity a night, and when we got back ours had already been shut off. Meaning I was gutting, washing, and cooking these bad boys by headlamp, which actually wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be. Similar to how much more delicious vegetables are when you grow them yourselves, the fish and crawfish were so incredibly delicious. This could also be attributed to the hunger I had after our 6 hour adventure--either way it was absolutely delectable! We are going again this weekend, but to another part of the mountains in the Sugandi river.
The night gave me a whole new wave of inspiration for this experience, and for showing adventurers around the world with Cooper enthusiastically interested in taking others on this same excursion on top of having ideas for camping and multiple day expeditions in the mountains. The weekend only continued in awesomeness with the discovery of a store owned by 2 sisters that collectively have hundreds of molas and other finished products like bags, wallets, and oven mitts. I spent 6 hours taking photos and documenting the meaning of nearly a hundred molas, and that night created a database so we can offer them to people around the world through Teysha’s website. This should be up in the next week or two for all of you to explore, and I can’t wait!
Afterthoughts, more awesomeness, and a run-in with the French.
This week has brought some frustrations, doubts, and of course typical to the roller coaster I am constantly on a complete reversal of all these with a simple meeting. I had been feeling like some of the ideas I had been thinking of cresting into programs were really for the people and not with them. On top of this, I was feeling the most homesick I have been so far and simultaneously overcome with terrible concern if I’d be able to pay my student loans back come December leaving me wondering if my passion was strong enough to find the light. Then the owner of Hotel Kosnega, Senor Euladio Correa, stopped by to set up a meeting with Augustine and me. The meeting follows the theme of the universe dropping off everything I need when I need it most. As community catalyst, I am not here to create projects, but instead help catalyze their ideas with my different set of knowledge and resources, while also exploring new awesome product ideas for you folks! Euladio has a beautiful hotel with 8 spaciois cabanas complete with full service private bathrooms, a beautiful view of the mountains from hammocks on his deck, and daily tours to private islands, waterfalls, surf and snorkle spots, and more important a real peek into kuna culture. He has become a great friend, and I'm really excited to have him as a Teysha ally. More on him and his hotel in another post though!
Shortly after our meeting, we saw some gringos in the town center and decided to speak with them. They are from France and travelling by Colombian cargo boat through the comarca eventually ending in Colombia. They had the typical concerns most tourists have with trash, missionaries, and the importance of money here. It was refreshing to be exposed to the western way of thinking, but also showed me how different Teysha’s thinking is and why I love what we do. While they didn’t understand the importance of tourism as an economic sector here (ironic since they are tourists here..), I have come to truly see that similar to every experience, every culture can teach someone something new. The kunas love meeting people from other countries and surprisingly have traveled extensively themselves. There is a saying from the great Kuna chief about learning from outsiders, "take the good, leave the bad," and I think it is spot on for most situations in life as well. I have come to truly appreciate the importance of intercultural exchange is through this experience. We are all rich in resources that can be interchanged, and it just so happens that money is one the Kunas are not rich in, but typical to most of the world have come to depend on. That is where our work with bringing opportunities that are so ample in the US comes in. We bring the culture and beautiful art form of Mola's (and other latin american artisan) to consumers around the world, and in the process provide an opportunity for these people to live a more stable life supporting their families. I am excited for the ability to explore expansion into different sectors such as ecotourism, dreammaking, and agricultural products as we continue spreading this interchange to more people around the world. More on these project ideas as they unfold!
Welcome back to the wonderful adventures of Alisop!
(My Kuna name= Alisop, means one who brings children into the world)
I am currently re-adjusting to a new found culture shock upon returning to life on the island after I took a mini ‘work’ trip last week. I’ll give you a ride through the incredible trip that brought me to the jungle of Panama, a private luxury island in Kuna Yala, and back to the nitty gritty Panama City life before I end with a gratitude inducing dose of the reality of Kuna Yala’s extreme poverty. This week’s vacation was all provided by a mutual friend of Teysha, Jimmy Stice. He is the CEO of Kalu Yala, a sustainable community development and entrepreneurial study abroad program that Travis, co-founder of Teysha, actually participated in a few years ago!
Hippy in a polo Jimmy Stice has lived in Panama for 7 years making this incredible dream of an alternative living settlement a reality. Along the way they have inspired over 200 students from around the world!
My trip began with an unbelievable plane ride over Kuna Yala that invigorated my love for this community on a whole new level. I had been getting down about all the trash in Ustupu, so seeing the respect they have for this land as a whole as I flew over the never-ending broccoli looking mountains among hundreds of islands scattered in exquisite clear blue water was extremely refreshing.
I could continue, but a picture really is worth a thousand words.
I have heard the islands of Kuna Yala are created by coral, and these pictures really show how true this probably is.
Hello civilization! The skyline is Panama City, and the circular structure in front is a new highway being built around Casco Viejo –seen with the red roofs in the middle.
Kalu Yala: Changing the way we think about communities one student intern at a time
Once I landed, Jimmy and I ventured to the jungle to check out Kalu Yala. As soon as we left the hustle and bustle of the city, I was in a state of arbol (tree) bliss and could not believe we were only 45 minutes away from downtown. I was immediately impressed with the program they have going with the students and know this has and will continue to change people’s lives. The best part all this is that the student program was created as a side thought of the original sustainable real estate development, which in itself is a whole other mind-blowing accomplishment. Check out Jimmy's TedX talk concerning the thoughts behind their town 2.0 There were several other social entrepreneurs staying there at the same time and being among so many like minded individuals in general was beyond inspiring. We ate gourmet camping food, enjoyed a bonfire party, swam in fresh water rivers surrounded by awe-inspiring mountains, and I reveled in the ability to speak nonstop English.
The shirtless man in front happens to be part of a team creating Latin America’s longest zipline on the Kalu Yala property. Looking carefully you may think the gentleman sitting to the right of the rooster is naked, but that is just Buddy- he welcomed me with a huge hug in his loin cloth. I definitely missed gringos (white people).
Imagine waking up in your hammock to this every morning..
Or this…a beautiful backdrop behind delicious hibiscus
The Kalu Yala farm! My pictures don’t do the beauty of this community justice.
Now, back to the Kuna, but this time as an actual tourist!
Jimmy decided to show me a side of Kuna Yala I had not yet seen. I crashed a boy’s trip to a private island near Carti with 5 of Jimmy’s amigos and was blown away by the beauty of relaxation in the Comarca. Comarca de Kuna Yala encompasses a long strip of mainland San Blas and 365 islands stretching all the way down to the border of Colombia. My island of Ustupu is in the middle about halfway to Colombia with not nearly as many tourists as the nearby Carti islands, which are the most touristic due to their close proximity a quick 2.5 hour drive from PTY. Carti is a bit more developed with rows and rows of upright bamboo fences and women pushing sales far more than I experience on Ustupu. I immediately noticed how different the Kuna reacted to me as a tourist, and honestly I missed the smiles I am given from the children and joy the elderly women express when I say Nuedi on Ustupu. However, I could imagine the need for this reaction on Carti when you have the high number of tourists rolling through your hood as they do.
Mainland Comarca de Kuna Yala
We were picked up in Carti by our host, Eulogio, who actually knows Sophie and Travis from a previous trip. You can read about their time on the island in a previous post on the Teysha blog! The island we stayed on was absolute paradise. Ustupu is the most populated island in Kuna Yala, so I was not even close to prepared for the complete solitude nor front row sparkling clear water I was blessed with on our private island getaway.
The fun began with a family of dolphins following us to our island, weee! Sorry picture doesn’t capture the awesome mid air jump imprinted in my memory.
Kuna Yala paradise
The next day we awoke to a conch signaling breakfast of cold eggs and bread with nutella. The boys weren’t too thrilled, but I didn’t have the heart to tell them how fancy this breakfast is for Kuna Yala. My daily regimen of oatmeal or bread with peanut butter may never look the same. While I can get eggs on Ustupu, they cost a whopping .75 cents each! Later that morning we set out in one of Eulogio’s 3 boats to a snorkel in the middle of the ocean with starfish. It was unreal. I had never seen starfish before, or snorkeled for that matter, so I was really excited! The small world coincidences this crazy universe is known for brought Michal and Victor from QQQ, the beach clean up org mentioned in last weeks post, to the EXACT SAME snorkeling spot as us. It blew me away that right as I was climbing into our boat to leave I spotted Michal’s unique hair in the middle of the Caribbean Sea just 2 weeks after we parted ways in Ustupu. After we hugged several times, I hopped in our boat for more snorkeling on a shipwreck off a nearby island. It was fantastic! It was my first time really snorkeling and I was thoroughly impressed with the awesomeness of it all. For the number of tourists who have likely accidentally touched the coral attached to the ship, we were impressed with how much it was still thriving with life. Ah, I absolutely loved it and upon returning to our island I continued to spend a number of hours lost underwater.
No starfish were hurt in the making of this photo
The rest of the trip was packed with lots of hammock laying and me realizing how much I don’t like being the only woman on a boy’s trip of 5 businessmen and social entrepreneurs. While I am one to handle most situations with grace, I was definitely ready to get back to some feminine energy to match the heavy testosterone levels I was surrounded by those past few days. I spent the following days in the city soaking in the air conditioning and steady WIFI, but was ready to get back to Ustupu, animar (my friends), and more importantly to continue working on my projects.
Culture shock is no joke my friends.
While the relaxation and beautiful sights were a true gift, the culture shock it brought back upon my return to the island was not. Losing that regular and easy connection to English speakers and more importantly a standup shower is harder than one expects. On top of that, surrounding myself with so many entrepreneurs helped me see how much harder my projects are going to be than I initially anticipated. It only means it will take more work, which if you know me I can handle. Culture shock just kinda throws you for loops you aren’t expecting. Gratitude becomes masked by homesickness, and love clouded by things that wouldn’t typically annoy you. I hope you don’t mind me throwing my heart on my sleeve and being honest with you folks. Paradise, like any life, is not all bliss, but I am acknowledging the negative and instead of dwelling trying to grow from it, while also trying to focus on the many many good things. One of which I am actually experiencing as I write this blog post-- the incredible thunderstorms, it feels as though the entire island shakes! Being from Texas we definitely do not have these often, so I am really trying to soak in the memory of these bad boys.
My luxurious shower, toilet, sink, and washing machine. I also am thinking it is a breeding ground for the mosquitos that have started to bite me.
The moment you realize you are dwelling on absolute nothingness surrounded by real people experiencing real extreme poverty…
Another thing abruptly stopping me from dwelling on my personal struggles are my neighbors. As I wrote this blog post, the kiddos next door aka my fan club never left my side. These kiddos are so loving and they truly give me the warmth I need when I am most homesick. At the same time, my future kids will never be able to complain about what they don’t want to eat like so many American children do. I give my leftovers to these kiddos nearly every day and I have never seen children so happy for something as simple as rice or tea. They love all my material things and it is hard not to feel petty worrying about them using all my hand sanitizer or eating all my raisins when I think that might be their dinner. While I don’t think they will steal my stuff as that is not really the Kuna way, I do think like any child, they could very definitely break everything they so excitedly play with. The only difference here is that I don’t know how to be stern in Spanish, and more importantly it is difficult to not feel guilt worrying about silly material things while these kiddos have practically nothing. I have not seen a single toy. Their days are occupied with reading of a single raggedy book and hopscotch. Even feeling homesick, lonely, or any ounce of feeling other than gratitude for the gifts of my own privilege, including having this incredible opportunity, leaves me guilty. These kids are enamored by raisins, tea, and a first generation Iphone with a badly cracked screen. While I’d like to think my neighbors are the exception, they are very much a typical family in Kuna Yala. When I think about this and the fact that the luxury vacation I took earlier this week blocks this reality from tourist view, I am given so much motivation to work even harder on these programs to empower these families to provide more for themselves and their community. They have it in them to thrive within their own environment or they wouldn’t be smiling like they already do.
Italies (sp?) and I. Photo taken by anugy (sp?) on my iphone. They love taking photos so much. Per an idea sprouted by Teysha co-founder Sophie, I may do a community photo project of sorts with disposable cameras.
I leave you with this…
My new love: Ustupu, Kuna Yala! #nofilter (hehe)
Nuedi (Hola/Hello) Ani (Amigos/Friends)!
I have spent the past week and a half in the beautiful Kuna Yala island of Ustupu and am still in disbelief that it has only been that long and more importantly that this is my new home, complete with a sand floor hut and zero English, for the next 2 months. Each day feels like several have passed even though my schedule is not nearly as jam packed as I am accustomed to in the states. This place truly is paradise with beautiful caribbean water, mountains, hammocks everywhere, and many a passing smiles. While this week has been a roller coaster of emotions from initial extreme culture shock to uncontrollable laughter with children, it has also already been an incredible learning experience and displayed the abundance of opportunities present for empowering so many people literally waiting for a company like Teysha. Not only was this week the Nele Kantule Festival, but it also involved us giving away dozens of donated reading glasses from the Conroe Lions Club, a pig to a neighboring island for a breeding program, and the beginning of so many unbelievable programs in conjunction with our partner foundation, Fundacion de Luz y Fortaleza Indigena. I only hope my writing can do this incredible experience thus far justice!
Sunrise view of the bathroom….aka outdoor over the ocean port a johns.
First things first, let me apologize for my tardiness in writing this blog post. Unfortunately, the town centre wifi I was counting on for outside connection and blog posting is not as reliable as I initially gave it credit for. Luckily for me however the primary school has graciously allowed me to utilize their computer lab in order to complete various internet requiring tasks for my job. In exchange, I am at their disposal for any extra English practice I can provide their students. I plan on starting an ‘English Corner’ a few times a week to help the kiddos (and of course adults) with homework or just general practice. They love showing off the few phrases they know and I love having the opportunity to also practice my Spanish and the local Kuna language, Dulegaya .
First Kuna Lesson:: Nuedi is a phrase that encompasses so many emotions- Hello, goodbye, good, thank you, your welcome, and literally anything else you want to use it for.
There are 3 sections of Kuna Yala and Ustupu is located in the middle, about a 5 hour boat ride from mainland San Blas and a 45 minute plane ride from Panama City (PTY). If you do not book your plane in time you are stuck on the boat, as our large group was. To get to the boat we caught a carride with someone for $25 dollars from PTY, and man are those roads windey. For those who know me, you know how motion sick I can get, so I was absolutely ready to be out of that car. Luckily the boat ride was much smoothly on my estomago (stomach) and allowed me to see many of the 365 islands included in the Comarca. When we finally arrived to Ustupu there was a huge group waiting for us. I attribute it to our superstar guest, Michael Zaragov, or as many call him here, Guani. Guani means savior in Kuna and refers to an interesting story that takes us back to the early ‘90s. Guani had just returned from a trip to Kuna Yala when he attended a conference about opportunities in Latin America. He came upon a booth that had a Kuna Yala map with boxes drawn around it. He quickly learned these boxes were showing where future gold mining would take place. Immediately, he knew this was false. He thought back to Kuna Yala’s first supreme chief Nele Kantule’s final words and acted as fast as he could to alert the Kuna of these shenanigans. Turned out there were millions of dollars in bribe money among Panamanian officials and snakey stealing on the islands done to obtain the ‘proper’ permits for this to take place. To get these permits, the company was required to receive 49 official seals from the island’s chiefs, and in order to do so bought large amounts of molas and claimed they needed the seals to prove these were certified fair trade molas. GRRRRR. Long story short, Michael saved Kuna Yala and is an absolute hero here. He is double and sometimes triple the size of the average Kuna, so watching people swarm him as we walk is quite the comical adventure but obviously inspiring at the same time. I attribute me being seen with him the first half of the week to the level of warmth I have continued to receive everywhere since he left on Saturday. Teysha came to the island with 3 different groups: Geoparadise, an incredible organization that raises money for community projects in indigenous central America through huge tribal gathering festivals that unite tribes from around the world with the best of electronic dance fests; Que Que Que, a group that provides environmental education to kids in Panama through beach clean-up projects; and of course our partner foundation, Fundacion de la Luz y Forteza Indigena which Michael is an integral part of.
Our boat ride had the cutest puppy on board. The kunas not only have dogs and cats for pets, but also parrots! There is one that perches on the fence of a house on my route to school that always makes me giggle because I don’t think he has ever dared to even leave the vicinity of their yard.
Guani lives outside of Houston, TX with his mother who also has an intense love for the Kuna people. Since falling in love with the Kunas he has never stopped working to help in any way he can, even going as far as arranging reading glasses donations with the Conroe Lions Club to each time he visits. Below is a picture of guani being thanked during a donation session mentioned later in this blog post.
Diving right into Nele Kantule Festival and my new home of Ustupu
Once we were properly welcomed and settled in our hut for a short 10 minutes, we quickly joined the exciting Reina ceremony. . It was great to see most of the community all at once almost immediately upon arriving to the island and experience something such as this. A part of Carnaval, which is common throughout all of Latin America, the reina ceremony involves girls of all ages being crowned Queen and princesses each year. Each community celebrates in their own way, and Ustupu is no exception. The actual Queen (minimum of 16 years old) is the most competitive and important in the ceremony, and this year the royal court was selected based on who collected the most cans for recycling. Some of these families go crazy to get crowned and make their ceremonial outfits, and it turns into quite the awesome spectacle that I was beyond happy to see in the nick of time. In addition to the crowning, there was also a representation of an important piece of Kuna history when the Kunas fled Colombia for San Blas during the Spanish Inquisition. Don’t be alarmed by some of the pictures below, trust me this was completely a reenactment and there were plenty of smiles to prove these folks are just fantastic actors.
The royal court welcoming the reigning Queen.
Uh oh, the Colombians!
After the ‘rampage’. In the background is a Nele Kantule quote that most of the children on the island can recite by heart.
Don’t worry, here come the Kuna to save the day!
I told you they were great actors! The Kuna doing the ‘harm’ actually is a very flamboyant gay man. I was pleasantly surprised to learn how accepted homosexuality is on the island. Typically, if a man is selling a mola that means he is gay, and they are known to be some of the most intricate and beautiful molas around.
After the initial celebration ended and we had some delicious boiled fish with patacones (fried plantain chips), we met with the congreso. These are a group of Sailas (chiefs) that typically lie in hammocks in the middle of a large hut in the middle of town known as the congreso and hold meetings, chant, honor guests, etc. The Saila Dumad (Great Chief) represents 1 vote in the general congress that is the political organization of this semi-autonomous region. After a speech was made by another distinguished guest, Native American chief Phil Lane Jr from Canada, our large group presented gifts to the Saila Dumad, including a community sewing machine, speaker system for their community events, school supplies, and favorite gifts of the sailas: ties and fedoras. It made me extremely happy to learn how welcome I am on the island and to provide a beautiful collection of ties given to me from my 90 year old grandfather for this special occasion. Adding to this, I met several English speaking older gentlemen. They picked up their English when they worked in kitchens on the American base in PTY. Nele Kantule signed a treaty in the 30s opening up many opportunities for work that allowed Kunas to work on several American endeavors. Almost everyone I have met was a cook in the kitchens and loved to tell me about their knowledge of meatloaf and mashed potatoes with brown gravy. It warms my heart and only leaves me slightly homesick. Others also have experience in English because of the extensive traveling so many have done. For every person who has travelled the world though, there is someone who has never even left the island. Still, Kunas are extremely open to people and races of all backgrounds and believe that they can learn from everyone with a motto of, “take the good parts, and leave the bad.”
Sailas with fedoras and ties
Continuing Nele Kantule Festival shenanigans with a beach clean-up on the side
The following day the festival continued with communal breakfasts and lunches in which the entire community is spread around different homes of various shop owners who cook meals ranging from the Kuna version of a cheese sandwich to chicken with rice and beans to more traditional foods like Dule Massi, a plantain soup with grated coconut water. More representations of important Kuna culture took place in between breakfast and lunch, and in the afternoon we also had our beach clean-up. It is extremely disheartening to see so much litter on these islands, and I immediately noticed floating plastic when we were boating in. However, this is simply attributed to a lack of knowledge at the harm this causes and inadequate access to reliable trash services. Thus, the education we provided was a step in the right direction and I hope to continue these clean ups every week. Seeing how hard these kids were working gave me immense hope, and in only an hour we collected 5 huge bags!
Most adorable kiddos ever participating in a traditional dance. Ahh! I could not take that one smiling in the front- she was giggling the whole time!
One of the gentlemen involved in the Panama clean-up project, Victor, works hard with los ninos.
They were shocked at how much trash they found!
Our group with all our trash!
The things you can make with recycled objects! An entire bag was filled with old flip flops and shoes and the fishy’s eye is made with an old bottle cap. Me-how (Michael in polish I think), is the other companion with the Panama clean-up project. His Spanish is impeccable, and he sure knows how to work his magic on those kiddos.
Our group taking part in the Nele Kantule Fest parade the day after the beach cleanup. Here is Sophie, Teysha co-founder, dressed in traditional Kuna garb. The man with the camera is Jason, otherwise known as Jungle Boy, from Geoparadise. He creates films to spread cultural awareness of different indigenous tribes in addition to planning and executing many community service projects that are funded through his organizing the large tribal gathering dance festivals.
More parade pictures….
Red is a very important color in Kuna culture, and on special occasions especially!
Striking a pose in front of the Nele Kantule memorial permanently in the middle of town. Nele Kantule Fest is actually a remembrance of the supreme chief’s death 69 years ago. Added note: the roof you see directly behind the memorial is actually the congreso.
Quick trip to Mulatupu with a pig and bags full of donated glasses in tow
A few days later we ventured to a neighboring island about an hour and a half away called Mulatupu to deliver a pig the foundation was donating for a breeding program. Everyone was loving these gringas walking in with a squealing puercito (baby pig), and by coincidence the woman who was supposed to receive the pig was actually wearing a mola with pigs all over it! The welcome to the island was slightly different, which really showed me the strength and importance of Teysha’s association with Fundacion Luz y Fortaleza and how respected they are on Ustupu. This could also be attributed to the even fewer tourists that visit Mulutapu than Ustupu. It just so happened that we were there at the same time as a large annual conference in which 14 chiefs from varying islands meet to keep traditional chants alive and ensure they are being sung correctly. It was unbelievable to distribute glasses to them and watching them pass around the various prescriptions was absolutely adorable. I was cheesing from ear to ear. We attended the congreso and heard these traditional chants before settling into the hut we were staying in for the night. Sleeping on the water was fantastic and I thoroughly enjoyed falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing. The next morning we left bright and early because we needed to get back to Ustupu for the real festivities of the Nele Kantule Festival—Chicha Fuerte!!! (read on for translation ;])
Jungle Boy with el puercito!
Sailas switching around glasses.
Saila loving his new stylish pair of donated sunglasses!
Many people heard what we were doing and quickly joined the sailas for their own pair of glasses. The mujeres (women) especially need the glasses as they spend hours upon hours staring at the intricate threads of their molas, even at night by the light of only a headlamp.
The moment we had all been waiting for: Chiiiccchhaa Fueerrtteee!
When we arrived back on Ustupu it was evident that many had already participated in the early drunken celebration known as Chicha Fuerte. This traditional fermented sugar cane drink used to be the only time Kunas drank alcohol and occurred 3-4 times a year during festivals like this and upon a young girls puberty rites festival. However, now cervezas (beers) are widely available due to importing from Colombian and Panamanian boats, but nonetheless is still very culturally significant; plus, people aren’t drunk on cervezas at 7am. The hut was packed with people and it was quite the time. We entered and were immediately lined up to receive our first drinks. It tasted like a sweeter version of the Japanese rice wine, Sake, and I obviously stayed in line with several others for a second round. All around there were people celebrating. A group of older women were dancing around, and there was a stick of traditional tobacco lit on fire with the smoke blown into people’s faces. More and more drinking commenced, and by 11am I was using up my precious cell phone minutes to drunk dial my mother before we all took a very necessary nap. That afternoon we swam in the ocean for several hours and reflected on how fantastic of a day it had been. Then commenced the beginning of my 8-9pm island bedtimes. As it gets dark at 7pm and most huts do not have electricity, there is not much else to do but go to sleep early. Moreover, it gets so hot during the day that the early morning is the only time you want to really get things done. Most of my work the past week has taken place on the computer working on program proposals and in brief conversations with people on the island, but in the afternoon I enjoy best to be in the shade of my hut curled up in my hammock reading one of the many many books I downloaded for this exact reason.
The blurriness of this photo is only appropriate… Chicha Fuerte is fermented in vats in the ground for a certain amount of time, and then a large container is brought around the room with individual scoops handed out in old coconut shells. Not for the germ-o-phobe in the least.
Not only was there singing and dancing, but somewhere in that circle was also a harmonica.
These ladies were the life of the party!
And so, the real work begins!
Friday was a day of many meetings. We woke up bright and early again to visit a nearby nuinamar (mainland farm) owned by our friend Cooper. Cooper is one of our newest partners and is extremely passionate about educating youngsters about the ancient plants, both medicinal and for food, central to Kuna culture. He also wants to bring tourists to his farm to help spread knowledge about Kuna culture to travelers from around the world, as well as create an avenue to increase the profit off his many cacao and fruit trees. We are extremely excited to work with him and thoroughly enjoyed him showing us the mountains. Teysha came to Ustupu this fall to investigate the current uses of cacao, and Cooper has been of great help in that department. Currently they mostly only use it as incense, so we are hoping to help expand their uses while I am here and maybe even eventually start our own Kuna chocolate company!
Our tour guide, Cooper!
A grave with an offering on top that we saw when we began our mountain hike.
[above] Cooper and Sophie with a beautiful ancient arbol (tree), [below] cooper on our bosque (forest) trail
Cooper told me the inside of this plant (edible part in hand) is used to treat ‘sangre dulce’, sweet blood, it tasted like a more sour refreshing cucumber. I presumed sweet blood was referring to diabetes, where the body is either unable to produce insulin or is unresponsive to insulin, the signal to your cells to accept glucose (sugar) from the blood.
Sophie munchin on some corn (purple kernel corn cob that is absolutely delicious raw or cooked) at the maize plot of Cooper’s finca (farm)
We also met with a group of women to bring up the idea of our women’s cooperative, Madres de la luz. They helped us to discover what services we were able to offer and we are extremely excited to get it rolling while I am on the island. We are looking into a virtual consignment shop in which we will post more expensive molas that they can sell on our website. Also, we are looking into a pop-up shop in which we offer a set amount of money for headbands and molas for our Kuna Kicks, with a portion of each sale going to the foundation. The foundation will then use these funds within their many community projects, mostly notably a comedor. A comedor is a cafeteria and will basically be a breakfast program for hungry children. Augustine, the grandson of Nele Kantule and leader of the foundation, has had this dream for decades, and this exact type of project is where my passion actually lies. Forming the comedor will allow children to stop attending school hungry, so they will be able to truly excel in school and life and help ease the pressure off so many struggling families here. I am beyond excited for how much of a reality this truly is.
My Kuna papa, Augustine! He not only graciously let us all stay in his home, but also offered to stay with me for the 2 months I will be on the island. You have no idea how much of a relief this was and how much his presence has already helped further our projects along. A kuna phrase that has become a favorite of mine is to say, “Anbaba Augustine Kantule!” an=My/I/Mine, baba=Father
Augustine sporting a Teysha tee while he presents some of his dreams to another foundation on the island. In the background is the Kuna flag. Before you jump to conclusions about the swastika, know that this symbol actually means peace. The Nazi version is a slanted backwards version that gives this such an unfortunate connotation. The photo in front of it is of the great Nele Kantule.
Kaduk Tours of Ustupu
The comedor will also be funded by another new endeavor of ours that continues to help Cooper and many other business owners and families. We are in the process of creating an Ecotourism part of our company that will offer varying price leveled packages to bring more tourists to the island. By the request of Augustine it will be named after a Kuna Ina (medicine) that can be remedy all sorts of illnesses. Karduk Tours will hopefully be a reality in the near future. Planning began on Saturday after our large group of friends left us for PTY, when Augustine and I met with the owner of Ustupu’s beautiful Hotel Kosnega. He expressed his needs for something exactly like what we are bringing to fruition and displayed a well thought out all-inclusive trip to be offered by his hotel. We will provide the publicity through our packages and use of the internet, and he will be able to finally fill his hotel. There is also a hostel on the island that could use the company’s benefit, so this will be our much cheaper backpacker option. The kicker is our traditional package where guests will be able to choose homestays in which they are providing an income to these families while experiencing a real Kuna experience sleeping in a hammock in with the family in their hut. A variety of activities will be available such as, trips to the beaches of neighboring islands, tours of farms like Coopers, the opportunity to fish in an ulu (dug out canoe) with a kuna fisherman, plus much much more. We are also looking into this as an option for Alternative Breaks with Universities in which various community projects can be done in between tours. Similar to the comedor, I envision this endeavor also being a reality in the near future and am beyond excited to see what these next 2 months brings me.
Degemalo Animar! (See you later my friends)
***Editors note from Teysha Founders- We could not be MORE proud of Jackie and the light and fire that she has brought to the catalyst program. Can you imagine being dropped off on an island where you don't really speak either of the languages, in a part of the world you've never been to, to live in a place that is so incredibly different than you are used to?.... Jackie makes it look easy with her grace, love, and warmth for the people of Ustupu. The world is certainly lucky to have someone like Jackie!