In Search of San Blas
So we arrived into Panama City from Miami at one in the morning. Our friend, Estella, had arranged a taxi to pick us up… It was an interesting drive – blasting salsa music whilst driving through what looked like some of Panama City’s sketchiest neighbourhoods, and then out of nowhere our driver decided to replace his tires at his friends garage at two in the morning … had Estella not arranged the ride, this would probably have been the moment to start freaking out – but after helping him with his tires we finally arrived at hostel Mamallena to wait for our pick up to San Blas. Between dealing with our respective banks who wouldn’t let us withdraw any cash, and then realising that the padlocks we bought for the lockers were too big for the locks and so we would have to cart all our crap to San Blas, it was a pretty stressful three hours. But then at six am our shuttle to paradise arrived.
Ahhh San Blas. In fact, if you Google “paradise” it is highly likely an image of the San Blas islands will come up – it is the typical desert island fantasy – yellow sand, turquoise waters, a grove of Palm trees and a hammock.
Our dessert island was exactly that… Except we also had rain.
Stranded on an island for three days in the rain got pretty boozy; but as Rafal happily discovered, just because we were on an island with no electricity in the middle of the Caribbean, this did not mean that we had to miss any of the World Cup matches. And so on day three, we watched the USA play Germany on a flat screen powered by a generator, with 15 locals and 1 Pole supporting ze Germans and a lone star Texas ranger supporting, well, the US. Quite entrepreneurial this Texan – for $2000 a week, he gives American teenagers the opportunity to travel to San Blas and volunteer their services to local projects, such as teaching or building. We didn’t ask how much of that $2000 he keeps as commission, through judging by the total lack of local support for the US national team, it’s probably a little more than 10%.
The San Blas Isles, or Guna Yala as it is now officially called, is a cluster of 400 tiny little islets in the Caribbean and home to the indigenous group known as the Guna’s. They own all the land and control all flow of traffic into this area, and fought hard to make it so, the only indigenous community in the world who have managed to assert their rights so successfully. They have their own economics, governance and flag and pay no Panamanian tax. They even have their own border control – you cannot enter the region without a valid passport. It is because of the Guna’s rigid control over resources that the integrity and beauty of these group of islands has been maintained. As such, everything is locally sourced owned and operated, with sustainability of the local community at the centre of it. Even the so called road that runs through the jungle from Panama City to the Caribbean Coast of Guna Yala is controlled by the Guna, not that anybody else would be able to navigate that rollercoaster of a route! However, despite the control and autonomy of the community, we found that they still cannot escape some of the endemic issues that effect the rest of Panama’s low income groups – in particular access to healthcare, safe sanitation and apparently an escalating HIV crisis, with limited resources available to solution through these issues.
However tourism is central to their way of life – walking past the local primary school on the main Guna island the timetable displayed on the wall suggests that hours are spent every day on Spanish, English and French tutorials, as well as lessons in tourism and hospitality. Yet judging by the strong words written across the ceiling in the local “Congresso” which read “to lose your tradition is to lose your soul” the values of culture and community is the heart of the Gunapeople.
However, what was most striking about this community was the one celebration that the Guna seem to take as seriously as the Tamil community (for those of you who are new to the blog, Khalyani is of Sri Lankan Tamil origin). One of the Guna’s major festivals is the age attending ceremony of the girl. Once the girl of the house experiences her first period, the whole island celebrates in big party with gifts of coffee made to the celebrating family. Small compensation for standing up in front of the world announcing that you finally know the meaning of the words menstrual cramps – I wonder if young Guna women feel the same way as most Tamil women do about this festival …
Sadly there wasn’t much opportunity to explore this topic with the women of the island, though judging by the conversations in the school yard it would appear that “boys and dating” were the main topics of discussion – in the words of Confucius “no matter where you go, there you are” – teenage girls are the same everywhere.
For a more in depth view on life in the Guna community, the article below makes for pretty interesting reading: