Life on the Isla -- settling in to Ustupu!

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.”

El Congreso

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! 



I envy your lives and your photos!! So beautiful and so inspiring! I am so proud to call you my friends!

Hillary Hall March 19, 2014

Someone essentially help to make significantly articles I would state. That is the very first time I frequented your web page and to this point? I surprised with the research you made to create this actual post incredible. Fantastic job!

Juliet February 27, 2014

What an adventure for you! Keep up the good work!!!

Lisa Genecov October 07, 2013

LOVE the editors note in the end. Keep up the good work Jackie!! I’ll be living vicariously through you ;)

Abbey Spychala September 18, 2013

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