Written by Fidgit
Over the course of two weeks, I paddled 300 km along the length of the Guna Yala. Ilene joined me for most of it and brightened and enriched the whole trip.
I often woke with the birds and the sea breeze. Sometimes a dawn-light drizzle made me pull out a book instead of pulling up the stakes of my hammock. On this leg, only one morning was interrupted by three men in camo with AK-47s prowling into our camp and that was down around the border, where you all but would expect it.
They were SENAFRONT police, and once they checked our passports, they relaxed. Once the voice at the other end of the radio said it was fine for us to proceed, I too relaxed. They even gave some good data on how to approach Isla de Oro. We had only heard about it from a “backpacker boat” Captain who spoke of pristine white sand beaches, and the only confirmation of its existence came from a couple Guna fishermen who had gestured vaguely that it was quite a distance when we’d asked in passing at dusk the previous day. It was like being on a treasure hunt for an island.
On a different morning we had rounded a rocky outcropping between two bays, where the water pushed and pulled in every direction. Small waves crashed into the ubiquitous shallow reef. Sometimes when the water withdrew I could see the tops of the reef. A turtle head popped up among the surf. We picked our way along the channel to duck behind the island that protected the next bay, a Guna community. The tide pulled us in past the island packed with palm roof houses.
There are 51 Guna communities throughout the comarca and of the dozen or so that we passed or stopped in, each had its own feel, though they could be roughly grouped into 3 categories based on construction material: palm or grass thatched, wood, or brick.
Are we in “The Three Little Pigs”?
Almost every house had a flagpole flying the banner of a different politician. Every boat with a motor had a political flag. The most we counted on a single boat were 12 flags. Based on video rants posted to social media, and exchanges with other expats I had, I learned that it was important as a US Citizen to be indifferent to the Panamanian election which was fast approaching. In many regards, it is an all but nascent nation, having only shrugged off American, erm, “influence” in the year 2000.
One Guna gentleman we were chatting with mumbled that the Guna flag, which usually flew above the houses, was all but lost among the myriad of political pole-riding adverts. Sort of a, “are we Guna or are we Panamanian first?” reflection.
It was an identity question echoed in conversations I’d had around the world: Mallorca, Bahrain, the Langtang region of Nepal, Patagonia, The State of Jefferson. An identity tie to the landscape but how broad a swath?
As we rounded the back of the island, where the water was smooth and calm, a man awkwardly paddling his cayuco back from the mainland began calling at us.
“¡Sia Sipou!” [White Niece in Guna, the honorary name they have given to Ilene after years working in the Comarca.]
It was Lari, the son of the man who had been residing on the island from which we had first departed over a week ago. Ilene knew his kids and asked after his wife. He invited us to come visit. As we landed we got a first look at his wrist which he had casually mentioned he’d cut with machete. It was a deep gash and both Ilene and I grabbed our first aid kits and followed him along the footpaths which wound among the homes. We had picked up quite a crew of curious onlookers by the time we reached his front porch.
He was proud of his young sons and happily reported to Ilene that her presentiment of a few years ago, when she had first met the boy as a baby and predicted he would be a dancer, was true. He was already beginning to learn the traditional Guna dance. Music is the heartbeat of a culture. I had been fortunate to hear that rhythm back in Tigre.
The toddler manhandled a fat little puppy while we and some of the women from the community gave Lari water, triple antibiotic ointment, and bandages. I happened to have brought quite a few bandages in my “to gift” bag and gave those and the ointment to him with instructions to keep it clean.
I then asked some of the kids if they were in school. I had a few packs of pencils and some stickers also to give and began handing them out one by one. Suddenly I was crowded and jostled by outstretched hands. A boy was shouting “ESCUELA ESCUELA ESCUELA” over and over in my ear. Others were leaning in trying to see what I had in the bag. People began grabbing. I had two pencils left and a woman darted past and snatched them out of my closed hand. I was overwhelmed and quickly rolled my gift bag closed and in a fluster.
A group of boys accompanied us back to our boats and delighted in helping us to push off just as the boat equivalent of a taxi was motoring out. It was full of women with umbrellas, and kids. The driver motored over and gave each of us a fat banana and a smile. He trolled away slowly before opening up his engine so as not to toss us in his wake.
As a walker and a kayaker, I particularly appreciate courteous drivers.
8 km and another outcropping later, we paddled in to the multi-island city of Ustupo. This is one of the main communities in the comarca and was one of the primary fighting grounds in the Guna Revolution of 1925. A building painted in bright color and with a mural to commemorate the native leaders stood next to the SENAFRONT base near where we pulled up our boats among the trash on a rocky bank beneath a water tower.
We walked past a plaza and a bank of phone booths surrounded by chicken wire fencing around which lines of people waited to place calls. Digicel won the contract to have cell towers in the Comarca but despite seeing the towers often, reception was rare. “Sometimes for a few minutes around dawn you can get a message out on Whatsapp,” one young businesswoman had told me of her island.
There was a restaurant near the dock, and it even had plastic tablecloths. We flopped down gratefully in the shade of the building and a young woman got up from sewing a mola to tell us what was for lunch. Chicken and rice. We were delighted and she called to the kitchen, “dos almuerzos.”
A white cat with yellow spots began to weave around our chair legs. That one cat became two cats. And then it was three cats. Was this the Cheshire Cat? It/they were too interested in swatting and grabbing scraps to answer the inquiry.
The other patrons were locals who maintained the Latin manner of wishing “buen provecho” upon entering, and those who spoke English, be it one word or several sentences, came over to our table to formally greet us and practice their command. The food and the people filled me up. We learned yesterday had been the waitresses 16th birthday. Like many Guna youth, she went to school in Panama City and came home to the islands in her free time. In the city she lived with an aunt and had cell phone reception. Out here she said things were, “mas tranquilo.” We invited her to pick a snack, our treat, for her birthday present. She chose a can of juice and bag of chips.
We loaded back up and paddled another 5 km to an island which, to our despair too late we learned was called “Mosquito Island.” Ilene and I did what we do every time we get to camp and waded into the crystal waters to bob around and stretch and chat. Then we walked along the beach in search of a camping spot.
You see, there is such thing as a perfect beach camp spot, and Ilene is a pro at this. You want enough wind to keep the bugs away, but not so much that you can’t cook. Enough sand of a particular grain to make it comfy but not to stick to everything, trees to provide shade and from which to hang my hammock but without coconuts to fall on our heads.
Where the white sand ended, we kept on, but the rough coral stone began to slow us down and hurt our feet. Having left our sandals with our boats, and being already almost half way around the island (or so I told myself), we appropriated shoes which washed up on the shore. Interestingly, there seems to be a disproportionate number of left to right footed shoes; mostly crocs. We ambled along, upgrading our footwear at each opportunity, watching the crabs and limpets.
Two hours later, as we made it back to our boats, we realized that indeed, the best camping option had been 10 m from where we’d landed. A little The Alchemist life lesson as we settled in to build our shelters and had a small fire. We popped popcorn, crunched on Frito-Lays Munchies Mix and Ilene read aloud from The Sun.
That night a boat of three young men who had been out lobster hunting stopped back by our island to again offer us their company. This sort of thing has happened a handful of times along the journey: nocturnal, uninvited guests in camp. But ever since the first time I have always slept with pepper spray at easy access from my sleeping bag. We were able to get them to go away by the same manner we’d try to get any other critters out of camp: make a lot of noise.
Everything felt as if I was in some sort of fairy tale adventure; the clouds, beaches, people, were all so colorful. Clouds closed over the starry night sky. I made sure my tarp lines were taut and rocked back to sleep. The better to meet whatever adventure awaited on the far side of dawn.