Finding the Rocky Road to Paradise with the Indigenous Kuna People of Panama
Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations. (Unknown)
As an avid traveler, this phrase really resonates with me. Throughout the years, my travel fetish has led me to many exotic places, to dangerous hikes, to mysterious meals and to being put into downright scary situations sometimes. But, I have embraced every experience as simply being part of the journey. The bi-product of my wanderlust, however, is that very few places have the ability to ‘wow’ me and move me to the core of my being. That is, until my most recent trip to visit the indigenous Kuna people on the San Blas Islands in Panama.
Every time I connect with nature she has a new lesson to teach me and this journey was no exception. I thought I had finished the course on ‘expectations rarely coincide with reality,’ but Panama thought differently. As I set off for my adventure at 5 am, I had visions in my mind of an air conditioned tourist bus furnished with all the amenities my $150 excursion fee could buy for the two and a half hour journey.
Instead, I was greeted by a six passenger jeep with the only space left for me being the seat at the very back of the vehicle with no room to stretch and an intimate encounter with every single pothole that greeted us on the streets of Panama. And so the journey began.
At our first checkpoint on the journey, we were received by some fierce looking Panamanian police dressed in military garb from head to toe. Definitely was not on my checklist of things to expect on the journey and many different ideas started dancing around in my mind like- ‘You are travelling alone. You barely speak Spanish. Very few people know where you are. What were you thinking? Father take the wheel.’
At that point it was too late to turn back, so my only choice was to embrace what lay ahead. By our second check point I had assailed the fears in my head, and even managed to smile with the military when they demanded our passports…again. In my mind, we were almost to the end of the trip and a beautiful beach with blue waters and white sand was calling my name. There went those expectations again.
Truth was, the journey had only just begun. I barely had time to enjoy the majestic view of the hills before us, when the jeep started speeding around winding curves as we ascended into the hills. Think of the most challenging roller coast ride you have ever seen or been on , multiply that experience by 100 and then add sharp dangerous curves and multiple pot holes to the mix. Remember where I said I was sitting in the jeep. Let’s just say, my eyes were closed for the entire ride while I pulled everything from my survival arsenal to keep the contents of my stomach down.
By the time the jeep finally stopped, I was completely and utterly over it and just ready to return to the hotel room and curl up in the bed. But then, the most beautiful lady came to help me out of the jeep. She was dressed head to toe in traditional Kuna wear, had the kindest eyes and she just hugged me. My excitement was reignited.
The Kuna people of Panama, are an indigenous population that have established a politically autonomous way of life on the chain of North East islands known as the San Blas archipelago. They are a strongly knit tribal community who maintain the way of life established by their ancestors believed to be the native Carib Indians. They have established a simple yet self-sufficient lifestyle where they eat and live from the land and gain additional income from managing excursions to the islands and selling tourists ‘molas’ or traditional textile art.
Thankfully, the beauty that greeted me was about to be our tour guide as we set off on the next leg of the journey to the islands themselves. After working out logistics and payments, the group all jumped into a boat for our first stop at the main island to fill up on petrol. Our tour guide explained that this was the island where the Kuna people went to school, had a hospital and managed the main aspects of daily living.
After filling up our tank, we set off into a vast expanse of royal blue open waters before seeing hints of the islands we were about to visit. The tourist brochures do not do the islands justice. Our first stop was a tiny island that was lined with crystal clear warm waters. As the swaying coconut trees beckoned the boat closer to the shore, a thatched hut was the only evidence that humans occupied the island. Think of every pop culture reference you have ever heard to describe paradise and amalgamate it into one place.
Had this been the only stop we made for the day, I would have been more than content with my return on investment. However, there were three more islands on the itinerary, punctuated with a stop to a shallow transparent pool in the middle of the ocean. At each stop, we were privy to the simple but fulfilling life of the Kuna people. Their huts were large and sparse. Their mainly sea food diet was balanced with vegetables and platanos (plantains) . And, for them, their small 2*4 islands contained everything they needed to keep a smile on their face.
As I relaxed into the simplicity of just being in paradise, away from all the distractions of modern day living, everything around me seemed to take on a larger than life quality. The relaxing flow of the hammock complemented everything around me. The sounds of the birds on the islands were amplified , as was the gentle hum of the waves crashing on the shores while the warm Caribbean breeze blowing all around embraced me. It was everything I imagined paradise could ever be.
As we started our return journey, the boat suddenly started slowing down and my modern day cynic rared herself in my thoughts with …’here we go again, we ran out of gas in the middle of the ocean.’ But instead, to the delight of everyone, we actually were slowing down to witness an intricate dance of two wild dolphins around the boat as if wishing us a safe journey back home. It was the perfect end to the day.
Getting to the San Blas Islands was definitely a difficult journey, not meant for the faint of heart. But, the final destination was a reminder of the beauty in living simply, embracing life’s journeys and enjoying the wonder that surrounds us daily.
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