When sailing in between bounty islands with five palm trees in Guna Yala (San Blas), you feel like you’re in a cartoon, and that a Robinson Crusoe-like bearded man will appear on the sandy beach any moment. What you instead meet is a family of Guna Yala Indians, who live in a straw hut, catching fish and lobster on the reef and taking care of their little island. In Nuinudup, one of the women had just washed herself in a water hole and was wandering around topless, her smile filling all of her face, although we were “trespassing” her property. Still topless, she presented the family production of molas and pearl bracelets, which are sold to visitors, in addition to being used as clothing. Her husband asked for a two-dollar contribution – money to be used for cleaning the beaches from garbage washing in from the sea – an everyday task for him.
On the jungle and river walk with Lisa, we crossed some cemeteries, which are of great importance to the Guna Yala people. They visit their departed every 5 days, burning cocoa beans for the spirits of the dead. If Lisa does not come at the expected time, her 96-year-old mother appears to her in her dreams and asks why. Lisa showed us plants against all kinds of diseases: arthritis, insomnia, cough, intelligence (!). The river we swam in was sacred, being the birth place of the grandmother of all mermaids.
When anchored in Snug Harbor, Arkín came out to us every day, majestically and peacefully rowing/sailing his 30-year-old “ulu” canoe. We traded empty cans for a coconut and some small, sweet, tasty bananas from his plantation inland, cans that he would further trade for chocolate for his kids from the Colombian trade boats. These were sailing to Guna Yala with supplies of different kinds and back to Colombia with coconut, lobster, crab, fish and octopus. We donated matches, a skipping rope and some color pencils for his children. Arkín would also have liked batteries, a cap, a T-shirt and some fishing lures, but we bought bananas and limes from him instead. We had a Sunday walk together and visited his home in Playon Chico.
On the way to the Playon Chico airport in Onja, we passed a father and two sons, paddling in their canoe with the same destination as us. We found out that they had been underway a couple of hours in the dark in order to deliver a package that would be sent by plane to the daughter/sister in Panama City – and they now had a couple of hours of paddling back home again.
We quickly baptized Niadup the “children’s island”, because of the hordes of kids following us when we strolled through the village, showing us how good they were at walking on their hands and high-fiving with Henrik. But that was nothing compared to the response when Anja and Jannick’s 7-months-old daughter Emilie entered the island – she was escorted by the whole village!
In the morning, the port of Cartí bustles with activity, when the Gunas arrive by 4×4 cars from Panama City, where they have stocked up what is not available on the islands. The “lanchas” (water taxis) bringing them back home are loaded with everything from flatscreen TVs to new stoves, while the vans fill up with a new group of Gunas, ready to shop in the big city. The women are colorfully dressed with bracelets on arms and legs, color combinations which in Denmark would have been horrendous, but which are perfectly apt here.
It’s 5 to 12 in Guna Yala. Because the Gunas have been good at protecting their land against commercialism (only Gunas can own land in Guna Yala), it is still not very touristy. The only accommodation available is a simple hut on the beach, but the enormous potential lying in these pristine waters is being discovered by charter boats, and with the development in the populated islands going towards a more “western style”, one might fear that the romantic image of straw huts on the beach will be overtaken by big hotels and resorts. Under any circumstances, we are happy that we had the chance to visit an “unspoiled” version of Guna Yala.
When travelling as we do with Ella, one easily becomes spoilt with wonderful experiences. It is then very healthy to share the beauties we encounter on our way with friends, family and crew members, whose eagerness and astonishment reminds us to appreciate these adventures. The comment of Henrik’s sister and brother-in-law, Karen and Asbjørn, when in Guna Yala, says it all: “When do we leave this backdrop to get back to the museum parking lot?”