The story of the Kuna baby (San Blas)

At the tail end of November three friends came to visit and stay aboard Blue Pearl. A small aircraft took them from Panama city to Playon Chico, where they landed on a small and short airstrip just on the outskirts of the mangroves of mainland Panama. Right at the start of the landing strip a small busted, old white aircraft lays on its belly waiting to be overtaken by jungle vines and rust in years to pass. Maybe not the comforting view one is hoping for when coming in by plane, I’m sure. The tarmac is old and cracked and when no aircrafts are due to land or take off, used by the local soccerteam as their training grounds.

A long, narrow concrete bridge connects the mainland to the Kuna village Playon Chico, situated on a small roundish island with a hodgepodge of dwellings literally spilling over the sides. Scrap wood docks with traditional canoes -ulus- made from hollowed out trees and outhouses built on wooden poles in the water decorate a large portion of the edges.

Our friends were eager to explore the town and to give them a first look at the traditional lifestyle of the Kuna people we crossed the bridge and walked the sandy paths.

At the far end of the village we headed between the dwellings, going in a narrow path before we were being stopped by a couple of local women. “No caminar aqui” – No walking here, they said. We weren’t allowed to go further as this turned out to be their private living space. Oops!

Turning around again one of the women held up a baby just as our tallest friend Marc walked by. She held the baby in a somewhat strange manner, sideways, and my first -what later turned out the be erroneous- thought was that she simply wanted him to touch the baby. Based on my previous experiences the Kuna seemed to have different ideas on personal space and touching, as Lauren had already noticed intimately. On various occasions the Kuna would come up and touch her skin and hair.

As Marc walked on the woman now turned to me and held the baby upright, stretched her arms and handed it to me. Without thinking I took the baby in my arms and cradled her. At least I assume it was a baby girl because I could see her ears had been pierced as there were little pieces of white string still in it to keep them from closing up and I hadn’t seen any boys with pierced ears.

The Kuna are generally small people, the average woman usually coming up to somewhere around my shoulders or chin, but this baby was larger than I expected. Though it must have been a newborn still, as I felt she could not yet hold up her head.

As I looked at the infant the woman explained to me that the mother of the child had died in childbirth. Lauren was standing next to me and as she held on to my legs the women wanted to know if she was my daughter. “Si, es mi hija. Tengo dos hijas” I replied, and pointed off to the side to explain that my other daughter was there somewhere.

What followed next shook me to my core and will stay with me for the rest of my life.

In a “joking” way, the woman pointed to Lauren and asked me to trade. “Cambio? No!” Lauren understood the “joke” and not finding it amusing she hid behind my legs before later running off. Then, the woman who had handed me the baby once again said the mother had died in childbirth. I was a mother, no? Please take this child! Take her with you, you are a mother and this baby doesn’t have one!

Stunned I kissed the baby and as I handed her back said that, no, I wouldn’t take this baby. “Porque no?” The woman insisted. You are a mother, yes? Por favor!

Shook I managed to smile before I turned around and walked back to the main street.

There, Rene and Lauren stood. “They were being serious”, I said incredulous. “They wanted me to take the baby because the mother died in childbirth. Oh my god!”

I walked off to be alone for a bit to process while tears came up in my eyes and my heart started racing. What on earth? Waves of emotion washed over me. Sadness for the mother who had died. Compassion for the innocent baby left behind. Worry for her future. Compassion too for the woman desperate enough to be willing to give the baby to me – a Western woman she didn’t even know, just so it could have a chance of a future. Confusion for the clues I had missed. Anger at myself of taking the baby in my arms without understanding what was happening and possibly giving false hope to these women. Sadness again, for realising that we as tourists may think San Blas is an idyllic place when we visit, but reality for the people living here is much harsher. And anger again, at myself for being so incredibly naive.

It took me a long time to process what had happened and to be honest, even though it has been almost two months now, I don’t think I’m “over” it yet.

But maybe this is a good thing.

Sometimes certain events can be so impactful, it would be a waste to “get over it”.

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