In the small Caribbean islands of San Blas off the Panamanian coast, jewelry and colors can ward off evil spirits.
Guna Yala, a tiny autonomous archipelago in the Caribbean sea, is a world full of wonders. Here, women make all the decisions, and being transgender is completely normal. Traditional ways of living merge effortlessly with the modern realities: ancient beliefs mix with contemporary education, and traditional medicine men use both nutchu spirit dolls and Ibuprofen to treat sickness.
In Guna Yala, women and transgender people make molas: intricately embroidered pieces of clothing, said to ward off evil spirits.
“The molas are our ancient heritage from the stars. Both the patterns of the molas and their colors have special powers”, – Lisa, a transgender woman and a mola artist, explained.
According to Lisa, molas can induce dreams and protect the wearer. The colorful molas representing birds, animals, and fish, she said, should be placed on pillows: these images will make you dream of the jungle and the sea.
But it is the abstract mola patterns that are truly powerful. According to the Guna creation myth, four sisters had descended from the stars and gave birth to the Guna tribe. It’s these four original sisters that brought the knowledge of ancient medicinal plants to the islands. “A lot of our mola patterns represent these medicinal plants. They can be very strong and potent, and protect the wearer from evil spirits”, – she said.
In these small Caribbean islands, even jewelry has meaning. All Guna women wear golden nose rings: when a girl reaches puberty, her septum is pierced and she is given a golden ring. Gold is said to have been brought from the stars, too, and has a special value in Guna Yala. “Women wear gold to show how precious they are”, – the local women explained proudly.
And if that wasn’t enough, Guna women also adorn themselves with winis – magical arm and leg bracelets made from tiny glass beads. Winis, much like the molas, represent abstract medicinal plant patterns and can also help with keeping the wearer safe.
And it’s not just the patterns, but also the colors that matter. “Yellow and orange are the strongest colors of them all”, – local girls and women told me. “They can protect you the best”.
Are these small Caribbean islands a quirky undiscovered paradise? Yes, I couldn’t help but think as our sailboat glided off into the blue horizon.
Yes. And I know I’ll be back someday.
Words: Egle Gerulaityte