I arrived in San Blas after spending a couple of sweaty days in Panama City. I had woken up at 4am on the day of the departure so I could make the 5am 4×4 that took us to the most beautiful place in Panama. San Blas – home to the independant Kuna Yala tribe, pristine beaches, peace and simplicity.
Our driver Luis was very informative and helpful. He told us how the 3h drive would go, the stops we were to make, the stuff we had to buy. The 3h drive of course took much longer. We were lucky however to get picked up by a lancha fairly quickly compared to others who had to wait for 2-3h.
We were on our way to Isla Robinson when soon after we left the harbour we stopped at this ugly, tightly populated island. There were no beaches there, let alone pristine.
– Is this IT?! – I aksed the tow Israeli girls with whom I shared a boat. They had the same confused, unbelieving expression on their faces. We were all relieved when Efrain (our captain) told we were just making a brief shopping detour on one of the community islands populated by the Kuna Yala.
While we waited I talked to Delio, the other Kuna man on the boat. I asked him about their daily life as as marriage customs. He told me some marriages were arranged but there were many based on love. This was later confirmed by Jesus and his wife who were the shop owners on Robinson´s island. The two of them were constantly all over each other.
At last we arrived at the island. I had chosen it because I was told it had more people on it compared to the quieter Isla Pelicano. I thoughtit better as I could enjoy the company or just desert to a secluded spot. It was a good decision as our camp (there were 3 on the island) turned out to be the quietest, attracting an interesting crowd. We each got our cabanas, mine boasting a double bed with a decent matress which I later found to be the best one in the camp after having peaked at the rest of the ´rooms´.
I didn´t waste any time getting into my bikini and headed to a shady hammock under a palm tree. 6 days later you could pretty much find me in the same position – spread on the hammock absorbed in a book.
The first person I saw soon after we arrived was Haim – an energetic, cheerful Israeli I had met in Boquete a few days earlier. He was focusing all his energy into smashing a coconut on a log the ocean had spit out. When I first met him I thought he was Latino and to the end I wasn´t 100% convinced he was Israeli. He just didn´t have that typical, burly look about him. He made me laugh with his silly jokes and comments, some of which didn´t make any sense at all – that´s when I laughed the most. He became our resident coconut cracker and religiously fed us the meat of the fruit everyday. While the rest of us rested he went looking for fallen coconuts. He couldn´t sit still for a minute, what an energy ball. I missed him when he left a couple of days later. Not only his coconut cracking skills but also his sunny personality.
Then came Sandra and Patrick – a Swiss couple I had met on the Quetzal Trail in Boquete (again!). I didn´t think much of them at first, even disliked Patrick but they turned out to be lovely people and we gradually became friends. Patrick and his Swiss Army knife took over the coconut business.
Then came Wendy, an Aussie film maker who told us stories from her countless travels and let us read her book (to be published). Then there was Brian, a calm Canadian currently working in Trinidad and Tobago. He taught us the art of ´slacking´, the most simple sport/fun activity that always attracted swamps of curious onlookers. This is the main idea of course, an excellent way of mixing with the locals. Who would have thought that a long, flat piece of belt, tight between trees would have such an effect.
Those of us spending more than 2 nights on the island became somewhat of a family and helped each other with small things. Patrick made sure we all got our daily serving of coconut, I handed out Sneakers bars in exchange of the use of headlamps at night when it was pitch black and disturbing.
Towards the end of my stay, an Argentinian couple joined the gang. Ittook me a while to figur out where they came from as I couldn’t understand a thing they were saying. I lay close to them on the beach or ‘casually’ walked by ears-dropping on their conversations trying to figure out what weird language they spoke. I was convinced it wasn’t Spanish. It didn’t even cross my mind! Eventually, I had to ask them where they came from. I knew about the different pronunciation in Buenos Aires but nevr thought it would be that different. To make things worse they spoke really fast, ‘ate’ letters, and combined words. They had to slow down for us.
Let me tell you about my first night on the island. I woke up in the middle of the night and as I said it was disturbingly dark. I was petrified of moving and stayed nailed to the bed for as long as my bladder would allow. Nature called and I gathered the courage to get up. I slowly made my way to the door, arms streched in front of me feeling the empty air for obstacles. I went out, my imagination running wild. I was hoping no bugs or scorpions will crawl on me from the thatched roof of the cabana, no monsters would jump on me from behind the trees, nothing would crawl up my legs while walking and of course I imagined being attacked by Colombian guerillas and drug trafficants. Imagination – a wicked thing! Let me explain why the drug trafficants and the guerillas. San Blas Archipelago is the waterway to Colombia and close to the Panamian Darien province, a secluded patch of jungle used to smuggle cocain from Colombia. The locals often find bags of the precious powder washed on the shores of San Blas, after being ditched by chased trafficants. A line of cocain sold for $1 on the island. Marihuana (or ´mas-tuhl´, the Israeli term for ´being high´) was also abundant and cheap. The locals have picked up the Israeli word for it and spoke to them in code.
Back to the original story. I had safely made it out of the hut and no scorpions were chasing me. The toilet was 50m away, hidden among the trees. Too far away, too dark, and too scary! There was no way I was going there. I opted for the sea instead. I know, I know…but I only had to pee! I walked in between the huts in complete darkness and silence. I could oly hear the occasional rustling of leaves. Freaky! Again I hope no sea monster would chop my head off while I was doing my business.
I was done, still had my head on my shoulders, and had to make my way back. I slowly walked back, my body tense in extreme alertness. I had almost made it to the hut when dogs started barking and gnarling at me. I screamed and my heart skipped a beat. Then it started pounding like crazy, trying to rip my chest off and get out. I was so scared my legs were shaking. I couldn´t see the dogs but I could hear them close in front of me, blocking the door to the hut. I stood still for a while, adrenaline rushing through my vains, waiting for them to calm down. I talked to them, hoping they would recognise my voice but it didn´t help. They gnarled again. I stood motionless for a few minutes until I could hear them snoring. They had fallen asleep. I didn´t want to think about what was behind my back or to the right of my head, hidden in the dry leaves of the roof. In one leap I made it into the hut and shut the door behind me. I lay down on the bed, trying to catch my breath (I had started breathing again) and calm myself down.
From that night on I never drunk anything in the evening and I knew I needed a torch. The following two night I slept in a hammock hung in the eating area, close to the sea. The distance was much shorter in case I needed a toilet and there were no dogs waiting for me in front of the door. The first night went well and I slept through it. I did have to get up on the following night though. AgainI lay down with my eyes wide open and a bursting bladder listening to my surroundings. I was considering my options. Why couldn´t I just fall asleep and not feel the need to pee. I got up thinking about the noise I had just heard coming from the trees behind the hammock and the sharks that came closer to shore at night. There was also the risk of having my bare arse pinched by the crabs that crawled on the shore. The moonlight reflected in the white sand didn´t help at all. The imense silence was still awfully disturbing.
The following night I spent in the cabana armed with a tead candle I had borrowed from Sandra and Patrick. I left it burning, carefully positioned in a place where the wind couldn´t put it out and it wouldn´t burn the house down. I still woke up that night after the candle had gone out but luckily I didn´t have to pee this time. I was relieved. This time I only worried about the bugs and the scorpions. It also rained that night and it dripped on me through the leaking roof. First it was my legs and I re-positioned. Then my arms and I moved again. Then it dripped again and I ended up sleeping spread accross the bed with my legs hanging off the edge. Good thing the bed was big and square so I could sleep vertically, horizontally, and diagonally depending on the lickage.
The last three nights Brian came to my rescue. He not only took the 2nd bed in the cabin but also had a torch which he kindly left on the table near the door for me to use in case I had another biological urge. It was comforting having another person in the big, dark cabin.
By now you have figure out how much I disliked the island nights. The days were bright and sunny, worry free, while the nights turned into hell for me. I didn´t look forward to them.
After a couple of days on the island I had developed a strange sense of propriety. I smirked at the newcomers and didn’t want them polluting my island with their presence. I particularly disliked large groups that brought noise with them. That’s also when the locals started charging for coconuts. We had to abstain for a couple of days not knowing whether we would have to pay for a fallen coconut. Civilization was a fact and it had ruined our idylic setting. Luckily, the intruders left only after one night and the piece was restored. The funny thing is that the arrival of new people was also the highlight of our day. I was curious to see who would the sea bring. It was a mixed feeling of expectation, curiosity and dislike.
We passed the days swinging in a hammock in between meals. Wendy and I read a lot. When we got hot or bored we would splash in the water, snorkel over the nearby reefs, or get Efrain to take us on a tour. One day we went to Isla Pero (Dog’s Island) and spent the afternoon snorkelling over and around a massive shipwreck. I still can’t figure out how it sunk. It looked like a load of stone fell from the sky and split it in half. How it got so close to the shore is also a mistery. It was fun exploring as I had never done anything like it before but my imaginationwouldn’t give me a break. As we swam over the ship I could see the inner dark chambers and thought of the sharks living there as described in ‘Finding Nemo’. It was a bit disturbing but also fascinating. We later joked about this: ‘Me friend, not food!’
We were lucky that day as there were no other people on the island and we had it all to ourselves. We observed the pelicans crashing into the water in an attempt to catch fish. It was surreal as I had just marvelled at it on TV a few days back.
One day I ate so much for lunch I could hardly move. I dragged myself back to the hut and slept through the afternoon. On another occasion we were all feeling extra lazy and even walking the 10m between the dining area and the hammock was too much exercise.
In the late afternoon when the sun had set we would prepare for the evening. Some of us would ‘shower’ (a bucket of river water) while others would just remain salty, their hair impossible to comb through. One night after the arrival of the Argentinians we had a night of music. The guy played the guitar and sang. Lost in the beauty of the guitar sounds we all surrendered to our thoughts. ‘Tomorrow a new person comes and brings with them new conversations, new experiences, new emotions and thoughts, new knowledge and new memories.’ We also celebrated Sandra’s Bday and went to the neighbouring ‘party’ camp where a rediculously noisy and rather annoying Belgian girl was celebrating her 23rd Bday around a bonfire on the beach.
One day Brian decided to sail and his idea of sailing consisted of taking one of the local canoes that had improvised sails (far from white!). So, me and Brian, our 8 year old captain and his 9 year old helper set out sailing around the island. At first we had doubts about the boys’ sailing abilities but soon they wiped out wiped out all doubt and proved more than capable. We were sailing in the San Blas Islands! You should have heard the boys talking to each other. If you closed your eyes you would think two grown up men were conversing.
The classical way of sailing is on a beautiful white yacht of course! Many people sailed from Panama to Colombia through San Blas which was my initial plan also before the Colombians refused to give me a visa. At the end I am glad I didn’t do it as many people complained about it desribing it as the ‘best and the worst’ part of their trip. The best being their stay on the islands and the worst everything else.
Efrain also took us to a nearby island where his Kuna community lived. The others had gone there also in search of chocolate and wine. Wendy was craving them and wanted somefor her island style Xmas. We wandered the dirt streets looking out for the Kuna women. I asked an old woman whether I could take a picture of her in exchange of the $1 they normally charged. She angrily waved her hand and hissed ‘No!’. I was taken aback as I didn’t see it coming. I thought they wouldn’t mind as long as one was paying. I was a bit disappointed as I had walked all over the village in search of the perfect Kuna woman. I was looking for a strong, characterful face and the traditional Kuna dress with everything it represented. This woman had it all except the willingness to be photographed. I was amazed by how thin her legs were, deformed by the decorative beads aimed at keeping them from growing. Model legs by Kuna standads. They were thinner than my arm and you know my arms are pretty thin. As we were wandering the streets I peaked into this house curious to see the women sitting on the patio. It turned out it was that same angry woman and she quickly came running, shooing us away from the house. Just my luck! She warmed up though and I think she even smiled when she saw the village children running after us, huge smiles on their faces, asking us to play with them. I guess she realised we weren’t that bad after all. I always feel bad asking people to take their photo but I elt particularly awkward asking the Kuna knowing their negative attitude towards picture taking.
The children on the island were so funny. A reminder of how little a child needs to be happy. We often played games with them and they were extatic when Brian put the slak line up. A funny habit of theirs was the pronunciation of my name just for the sake of it. I would walk by the shop where they seemed to gather and they would just start saying ‘Katerin! Katerin!’. All of them, even some grown up men. At first I’d ask them if they wanted something but after a while I just smiled and greeted. I don’t even remember telling them my name. I had only introduced myself to a couple of people. Unlike the grown women, the kids were very friendly and loved having their photos taken. I’d always be a bit cautious when they asked as I never knew whether they’d charge me or not. Some of them were well trained. It was funny to see a one year ld girl, barely standing on her eet, posing for a photo and then snatching the dollar bill with an expert look on her face.
The day of the Kuna visit was also my last day on the islands. After a week it was time to pack my bags and go back to Panama City. The morning came, I got my bags loadd on the lancha and we were off. I didn’t get the usual farewell from the others as most of them were still sleeping but that’s when I heard my name being shouted by the local kids. ‘ Katerin, Katerin!’ I turned around, utterly surprised, only to see them running along the coast, waving goodbye at me, I waved back or as long as I could see them and I heard them shouting my name until we lost sight of each other. You can’t imagine how I felt. It was so touching, one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. I was deeply moved.