These ladies are donned in their traditional costumes and appear to be on display every where they go. And we especially get a kick out of seeing them in the malls shopping in full costume attire. It's funny to see a Kuna woman shopping for lingerie at Victoria's Secret in Albrook Mall. Do they really wear lingerie to entice their men? Or perhaps she's picking up a thong so her panty lines don't show through her native garb. Whenever I see one eating at the food court I wonder if this REALLY is their native heritage or if they dress this way just for show to sell molas to tourists. Not that I mean ANY disrespect to the Kuna or the mola ladies but it is a contrast of the old with the new that I find ironic. When not in the public eye do mola ladies wear Levi jeans and Croc's? One just has to wonder about how "normal" their lives really are behind closed doors.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, let me explain a bit about the mola. Molas are squares of fabric entirely hand-crafted from several layers of fabric (usually 2-7) that are sewn together. A design is then cut into the square by cutting off different parts of each layer of fabric. Molas vary in price depending on their complexity. The more layers of fabric the higher the quality as well as how fine the stitches are. A mola can take anywhere from a few weeks to six months to completion. Although these squares are made to embellish their blouses, Kuna women spend lots of time making them just to sell to tourists. And during our first trip to Panama we certainly spent a good chunk of change buying some to take back to everyone for souvenirs. Molas range in price from $8.00 and up.
As for the Kuna themselves, no one seems to know when they arrived in Panama but by the 16th century they had already occupied 360 islands in what's known today as the San Blas Archipelago. The Kuna are a nation within a nation who struggled for centuries to keep alive their traditions and culture. Today in Panama the Kuna's live on three comarca's (autonomous territory) and the Panamanian authorities rarely interfere with their government. The Kuna are of very small stature with Pygmies the only race being shorter. They prefer to only marry other Kuna, although we have read one such story of a gringo marrying into a Kuna tribe. While women adorn themselves in elaborate garments, the men and children wear normal street clothes. The men fill their days by farming, fishing and hunting while women and teenage girls make molas to sell for money. They also allow a certain number of tourists to visit their comarcas for an inside look at Kuna life, an experience we have not had yet.
Stop and visit with a mola lady next time you're in Panama. They are always willing to show off their molas and will even allow you to snap a picture along with a purchase. The Kuna are a mysterious culture that balance their need for tourism with their need for privacy. And just one of these days our trail will lead us into a comarca for the experience of a lifetime.... along the gringo trail.