School and family life, island style: Competing at Tapa Tapa

A dance group prepares to perform at the Tapa Tapa competition. Marquesan children from different islands come together to be judged on how well they sing, dance, and recite legends.

A Marquesan boy performs a traditional dance.

The Tapa Tapa Competition brings together different island families to see their children compete in the art of ancient storytelling.  The kids dress up in their own island's traditional ceremonial attire, sing, dance, and recite legends in Marquesan.  

A Marquesan girl performs a traditional dance.

Forget fumbling around onstage dressed as George Washington, a vegetable, or the ugly duckling in a typically painful school play.  We managed to memorize all 50 States in the Union in alphabetical order for our fourth grade production (which I still win bar bets on to this day by the way), but try memorizing an entire 10 minute monologue that was to be projected at top volume by an ancient warrior, princess, or chief in your culture's native tongue, while dancing around covered in real bird feathers, fruit seeds, and animal bones.  Then add the pressure of representing your island in a competition with many other islands, before you've even reached the stage in life when you do not utter, "Ewwww," at the mention of the opposite sex.

Of course some of the kids were adorably awkward up there on stage, but there were a great few who absolutely blew our minds.  I get goosebumps just talking about it.  

The Tapa Tapa Competition was held in the park along the Taiohae Bay beach.  People set up food stalls, a stage, sound system, and lighting, for this unique and surprisingly-intense evening of entertainment.

Marquesan children practice their drumming.

Judges score the performances at the Tapa Tapa.

Posted on May 3, 2015 .

School and family life, island style: Competing at Tapa Tapa; part 2, more photos

Yes, the Nuku Hiva storyteller is wearing a goat skull on his body!

As the children perform, they are accompanied on multiple style drums by other kids of varying ages, all led by an adult.  And boy do these kids got rhythm!!    

We've seen and met many kids cruising with their families, who are often warmly welcomed by local children.  They teach the yachtie kids how to make leis.

flower girl
Posted on May 3, 2015 .

School and family life, island style: Why students fly to high school

A Nuku Hiva elementary school. Children on Nuku Hiva attend school on the island until high school when they fly to Tahiti for school.

Young children on Nuku Hiva grow up tending to farm animals and running free on the island until high school when they move to Tahiti and fly home for holidays.

Hey kids, here's one of several Nuku Hiva Elementary Schools!  How would you like to go to school here?  How would you like to have your own horses, pigs, goats, chickens, who roam the neighborhood at will?  How would you like to pick fruit off of your own fruit trees every morning?  How would you like to get into the truck every few days to go collect fresh drinking water from the running stream?  Below is a pic of Justin drinking fresh water from the stream out of a silly rum bottle.  We recycle glass bottles aboard so we don't have to drink out of plastic.  

Justin enjoys the fresh stream water that he drinks from a recycled rum bottle. Kids on Nuku Hiva help collect water from streams for their families.

We wondered why we hadn't seen any high school and college kids, and that's because the high schools and junior university are in Tahiti. The Polynesian government subsidizes the high school kids' airfare back to their home islands for holidays, but college kids must pay their own way. After one year in college in Tahiti, the students must compete for one of two scholarships offered, apply for university in France and secure a student loan, or enlist in the French Polynesian or French armies.

This is because there are few job opportunities and land ownership opportunities back on the home islands.  This has kept the islands pristine but also encourages younger generations to seek financial stability away from home.  Not until the Europeans came around was the concept of land ownership pertinent to island life.  Unfortunately, now many family lands and homes cannot be enjoyed by anyone because too many family members cannot agree on how to divide up the ownership rites.  Of a family of 100 relatives, who the heck gets the two bedroom house?!

Taking care of cows and horses is part of everyday life for children on Nuku Hiva.

Posted on May 3, 2015 .

Flags and a question about Dolphins

Students from the Frank M. Sokolowski school in Chelsea, Massachusetts, U.S.A,  are studying up on their flags and getting ready to make their own class flag to send to Coconut Woman to fly on her shrouds.

Here's a few of their creations and a question from one of the students.

Eric's flag

A Question

The Answer

Lesly, thanks for your question!  Yes, there are lots of dolphins in many places we sail.  Just for you, I will post a short video of our trip from Panama to Galapagos with a pod of 20 or more dolphins swimming alongside our boat!  The little ones like to play in our bow waves.  Every time we see a dolphin, I will let you know, Lesly! 


Posted on March 6, 2015 .

The Culture of the Kuna People

The head of a Kuna family allows Meredith to take her photo for a small price. The Kuna are known to be camera shy.

Our experience with the Kuna tribespeople runs parallel to Eric Bauhaus' excellent guide to the area and culture. Out of respect for the culture's preferences concerning photographs, we took very few. We also think Eric's guide says it best, so I've included many excerpts and paraphrases from it, and our website manager, Matt, has added photos he's found online. We cherished meeting and visiting with the Kuna people and found them to be warm and welcoming souls who fight a losing battle to keep the long held beliefs and traditions of their culture above the rising waters of both climate change and modernization. We're lucky and honored to have met and learned more about them.

Except for a few islands, the only way to find much of this remote community is by snaking your way through reefs on your own boat. As many as 6 boats have washed up on reefs in the last month here. The Kuna strip the yachts of valuables after they have been abandoned by their owners. We saw many items such as cockpit benches, a binnacle, and random bits of boat gear decorating Kuna huts. Suffice to say, Kuna Yala would be one of the worst possible bareboat charter bases!

The schools are on holiday this time of year.

About the Kuna of KUNA YALA, (Spanish name: San Blas Islands)

All quotations are taken from Eric Bauhaus' “The Panama Cruising Guide”

“Comprised of 340 picturesque islands, Kunas have best preserved the culture and traditions out of all the tribes in the Americas.”

Until a few years ago, coconuts were used as the main form of exchange. And every single coconut in Kuna Yala has an owner.

“The mainstay of the Kuna economy is coconuts which grow en masse on the outlying islands, with every coconut palm owned by a tribal member, even on offshore islands.” You may receive one as payment for allowing a Kuna to charge his cellphone on your yacht's battery power though!

The coconut palms of the Coco Banderas family island sway in the trade winds.

The coconut palms of the Coco Banderas family island sway in the trade winds.

“Kuna Yala is officially part of Panama, but is ruled autonomously by the Kuna general Congreso. On March, 1925, the Kunas agreed to be part of the Republic of Panama under the condition thatthe Panamanian government respect their tribal laws, traditions and culture in the Comarca de Kuna Yala.”

“The whole communication infrastructure is totally self­ contained and powered by solar panels with data transmitted via microwave link to repeater stations. “

“The majority of rivers in Kuna Yala are totally pure. In order to keep it this way, it is not allowed to use outboard motors in some of the rivers, especially near populated villages.”

Did you know riverways in Kuna Yala are rich with gold?! But not even the Kunas are permitted to extract it, as per Panamanian law.

“Since the revolution of 1925 no Kuna is allowed to intermarry with non­ Kunas, upon penalty of exclusion.' The resulting genetic insulation has led to a number of albinos in the Kuna tribe.

“Kunas don't like the name San Blas since it was given by the Spanish invaders. They prefer 'Kuna Yala.'” 

“Kuna Yala is a matrilineal society. The women control the money and the husbands move into the women's family compound. Kunas do not marry at a fixed age but rather when they are considered mature enough, often with the women choosing the husbands.” This does not mean Kuna culture is matriarchal. It is the men, the chiefs, who rule and govern the islands.

“The land is not divided into individual properties, and fences are absent. Tribe members can pass through and benefit, but do not claim possession by industrial development. That is why the landscape still looks much the same as when Vasco Nunex de Balboa first arrived. Foreigners cannot settle here or buy land, but are welcome to visit.”

A Kuna man smiles at Coconut Woman from his ulu boat.

“Kunas are physically small, rivaled in tribal shortness only by the pygmies. They are peaceful and non­aggressive, and crime of any form is extremely rare in Kuna Yala.”

“The Kunas number around 55,000 or about ten percent of what they were before the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors. They are a determined nation, organized and united within a strict hierarchy of tribal leaders.”

“Each village has three “Sailas” (chiefs) who hold the highest authority at the village lever. Three “Caciques” or high chiefs rule the nation as a whole, each one representing his part of the land.

Of these, one will be elected supreme leader of the Kuna Nation. Sailas are much more than political leaders. They are also holders of the Kuna spiritualism, poesy, medicinal knowledge and history.”

“Although normally indulgent of their children, the tribe employs certain branches from a special plant that burn and sting upon contact to control unruly children.”

“The Kunas have an elaborate system of penalties and fines, strictly enforced by the Congreso. A favorite penalty is to collect coral rubble from the sea and deposit it in a barrel to be used as landfill.” This is to combat erosion and sea level rise.

Kuna culture does not stigmatize homosexuality. In fact, some Kunas dress and behave as women, right down to wearing Molas and wini beads on their arms and legs. 

Kuna Nuchu dolls from

Kuna Nuchu dolls from

Kunas have three branches of Shamanism. They often use mind­altering herbs to achieve connection with the divine. The branch of shamans, or “Nele,” who chant at funerals, sing for often entire days, in order to guide the spirit of the deceased on the correct path to the Kuna afterlife and to avoid the tempting evil spirits along the way. Another branch of shamanism includes men who are successful fishermen and hunters, essentially men who are the best at what they do and are who are good providers.

“Nuchu” are small sacred hard wooden statuettes, usually about 15 inches tall that act as a link between the spiritual and the physical world of the Kunas. “The statues are believed to be alive and every Kuna owns one. There are many different types, some having a stronger spirit while others are weaker. Some are good and others bad. The Nuchu plays a central role in Kuna spirituality, medicine, and religion.” For example, Nuchu are used by shamans to diagnose illnesses.

“Chicha is an intoxicating drink brewed from sugarcane and other special ingredients that is used for spiritual events. The chicha ritual is held once or twice a year and requires at least one month of preparation. It starts with harvesting cane from the mainland and extracting the juice with a special press.”

Cane, and tagua palm leaves proved the materials to artfully construct thatched roofs of the village huts. The huts are held together with jungle creepers, and the roofs provide 15­ years of watertight shelter from the rainy season. They use compacted sand for floors.

Due to climate change and rising waters, several Kuna islands have been abandoned and more are soon to come. As Bauhaus writes, “Every time I do a survey after being away for some time, I have to take islands off the maps that are now nothing but shoals.”

Kuna women are famous throughout the world for their unique applique embroideries called “Molas.” The laborious process involves multiple layers of colorful fabrics and days of hand-stitching images of animals, tribal symbolism, and abstract forms. Molas range in quality by the amount of work that goes into them. Some of the best and most expensive ones having taken three months to craft.


A a typcial Kuna day begins with rising before dawn and paddling their dugout canoes, called “ulus,” to the mainland, a distance of 1⁄2 to as much as 3 miles. Then, they continue onward by foot to the farms where they harvest fruits, sugarcane, and firewood until about midday, when they return to their islands. The afternoon is spent fishing, sailing the ulu, lounging with family, making crafts, or in recent years, paddling around to visiting boats selling lobster, fruit, beer, and Molas. Early evening is spent in the Congreso, the central meeting hut, where any manner of topic can be discussed by any Kuna. Then it's to bed for an early night of hammock­ swinging.

The Congreso is the largest hut in the village, and is where villagers gather each night for the evening meeting. Presided over by the head chief, or “Saila,” and his two lesser Sailas, who sit swinging on hammocks in the center of the gathering space, they serve as the guardians of the Kuna culture and history. The Sailas communicate to the people through Argars, who are the translators/interpreters of the Sailas' wisdom. Often, the Sailas will sing long songs of their ancestors, past exploits, battles, and other aspects of the Kuna oral history as passed down through generations.

The villagers sit on wooden pew­ style benches situated in a circle around the Sailas and Argars, with the women and children in the innermost ring and the men behind. During these meetings, every Kuna has the right to express any issue of note­ an idea, a story, a concern. Apparently, these meetings can be many hours and are sometimes boring for the villagers, so there are designated adults who yell out piercing screeches at random intervals to keep everyone from nodding off!!


Due to flooding and competition from other tribes, the Kuna forefathers migrated from the Darian Mountains to what they now call Kuna Yala. These islands presented them with fewer bugs, predators, and disease, and offered waters rich in lobster, fish, and crab. Plus coconuts of course!

The Spanish conquistadores invaded Kuna Yala beginning in the Seventeenth Century, bringing disease which wiped out much of the Kuna population. Pirates and privateers took hold of the islands for use as a home base from which they could launch attacks on nearby rich ports.

Eventually, the Kuna fought back, killing many of these intruders, which necessitated the Treaty of 1785, and a declaration that the Kunas were to be left in peace. During this time, the Kuna coconut trade flourished, as it still does today. Around this same period, modern textiles were brought to Kuna Yala, replacing the natural fiber-­based fabrics of Kuna molas. Until 1964, Mola designs were purely abstract designs when foreign influence encouraged the introduction of forms such as animals, plants, and objects.

In 1903, the establishment of the Republic of Panama brought Latino police posts to Kuna Yala. Soon followed the arrival of a government­ elected Latino Governor/dictator who then took up residence on Porvenir.

Because the Kuna resented the Panamanian police and officials, and had maintained a loyal relationship with Colombia after independence, tension continued to mount until a rebellion broke out against the Panamanian government and non­genetically pure Kuna in 1925. The “Holcausto de las Razas” flew a flag with a swastika on it, but the symbol had nothing to do with the later Nazi flag.

You can still see this flag flown by the launcha taxis today.

The Kuna declared their independence from Panama, so the Panamanian government immediately began building a military campaign. In the end, it was the Unities States Naval Ship, the U.S.S. Cleveland, that prevented another bloody battle.

Since that time, the Kuna relationship with Panama has been stable, but the Kuna have expressed continued resentment and distrust of them to the crew of Coconut Woman.

Posted on February 16, 2015 .

Go Jets!!

The crew of SV Coconut Woman welcomes Dallas' San Jacinto Elementary to the journey.

Posted on February 13, 2015 .

Things that make you go “Oooo/Ewwww!”

Tastes of different cultures : Vegemite and Marmite

I'll never forget my first shocking experience with Marmite. A few years ago, I was crew on a sailboat racing team named Girls for Sail. 

Racing means you have your lunch out on the rail. The galley passes paper bags up to the first person nearest the cockpit and then everyone passes the bag down to the last person out on the rail who is closest to the bow until everyone has a sandwich.

Vegemite and Marmite are regular parts of the British and Australian diets, but they can taste strange to Americans.

I received mine, hungrily took a big shark bite out of it, then immediately spat it into the ocean. Yuck! 

These racers decided a sandwich should be made of a slice of bologna, a slice of American cheese, and two pieces of Wonder bread with one side generously buttered with cold margarine and the other side slathered in Marmite! Crikey! 

Being the only American on the boat, my British crew hadn't thought to warn me. After all, they had grown up on this stuff. 

The Australians have a similar spread called Vegemite.

For the record, Marmite and Vegemite taste like you're eating a highly­ fermented salty bouillon cube, forget the water for the soup broth! Who needs it! We've been told Aussie and English sailors will actually barter for this stuff, so it's a nice idea to have a stash aboard. No refrigeration is required.

But which one is the better of the two? Brits claim Marmite is superior, whereas Aussies swear by Vegemite.

Australian skipper, Fiona, introduced Meredith and Justin to Vegemite

I will also never forget the first time I tasted Vegemite. A fabulous Aussie skipper friend of mine prepared a Vegemite tasting aboard for 8 or so of us Americans one afternoon. She lovingly toasted slices of multi­grain bread, melted a little butter on them, then spread on a very very thin layer of Vegemite.

Having been forewarned (and previously mildly traumatized), we Americans were skeptical, so it was with reticence that we took our first baby bites. “Wow. Ok, now we get it!” It was great.

But regardless of preparation style, how are these spreads really different from one another? Again, our beloved skipper friend, Fiona, set up an official tasting, using the same preparation technique she had used for our first tasting. Here's our boat's particular very­ opinionated rundown:

Marmite is more gelatinous and tastes sweeter. Vegemite isn't gooey or sweet. Both of them are fermented and extremely salty. Marmite has an aftertaste of molasses and weird preservatives. Vegemite just tastes like a straightforward spreadable version of veggie bouillon. The ingredients on the jars convey as much. So whereas they are similar spreads, they do have noticeable differences. 

There is enough of a differing taste for a newby­ American taste tester to easily develop an opinion.

Verdict? We'll barter with the Marmite, and save the Vegemite for ourselves.

Hey kids, can anyone send me any ideas on things various American cultures grow up on that other cultures might find strange? I'd love to share with people that we meet from other countries and see if we can't create the same looks of surprise!

Send Meredith and Justin a message

Posted on February 7, 2015 .

Education partnerships announced

The crew of SV Coconut Woman is happy to announce that they will be sharing their findings and observations through interactions with Boston's Frank M. Sokolowski School and Dallas' San Jacinto Elementary.

Posted on January 12, 2015 .