¡Hola a todos!
It was an early wake-up call indeed the morning of my journey to the San Blas islands. I gathered my day-pack and boarded a fearsome-looking 4x4, driven by Alex who sported an assured American twang whenever he spoke in English. We hurtled through the near-deserted 5am streets of the down-town area as I rubbed sleep from my eyes and grew a little more accustomed to the sight of a quiet city centre. Our route out of town took us past Panama Viejo, the scant remains of which remind those who visit of Panama's long and violent past conflicts with pirates operating along these shores. In this case the remains are those of the original city of Panama, destroyed by the English pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. Of what little of the ruins is still standing, the rather impressive bell-tower of the city's cathedral has become a popular and important symbol of identity to most Panamanians.
The journey to Carti on the northern coast of Panama was short in comparison to many previous routes covered on this trip: of course, the width of Panama is very narrow, particularly in this region to the north of the capital (hence one reason for the canal being constructed in this location). The first half of the journey to Carti took us down a paved, much-used highway. After that we turned off onto a dirt track and the fun began, with sweeping, buffed bends, sharp hairpins, sudden ascents and swooping falls: one moment we were enjoying panoramic views out over tree-tops, the next we had dived back into the abundant undergrowth of Panama's forested interior. Alex even halted completely at one point, so that we could fully appreciate the spectacular view out over the remainder of the forest to the Caribbean Sea beyond and, with it, our end destination of the archipelago.
Panama has thus-far proven to be rather more expensive than the countries of South America and this indulgent expedition was no exception. The cost of the 4x4 transportation aside, we were further asked to pay entrances fees for traversing the interior forested area whence we passed into the region owned by the Kuna community and later a "harbour fee" for embarking upon boats to the islands from a particularly humble riverbank near to the river's mouth out into the sea. These additional costs were enough to irk me at the time but, the trip transpired to be well worth the cost: as ever, it was the perceived dishonesty of the situation that most annoyed me. In any case, I paid the entrance fees on both occasions and we continued uninhibited upon our way.
The payments are enforced by the Kuna community, under whose ownership the San Blas archipelago and a narrow strip of the Caribbean coastline of mainland Panama fall. The Kuna are an indigenous tribe who live predominantly upon a handful of the islands and on this area of the mainland as well. They are perhaps the most independent indigenous tribe in all of Latin America: they continue to speak their own language, they were never conquered by the Spanish and even now they remain aloof of much that passes in the rest of the state of Panama. The Kuna have their own legal assembly, recognized by the national authorities based in Panama City, that enacts laws and follows its own constitution: it is this assembly that regulates the San Blas islands and the tourism upon them. Besides being a fiercely proud, stubborn community, the Kuna remain largely suspicious of perceived outsiders, despite the extensive exposure to these people - predominantly travellers - afforded by the opening up of the islands to limited forms of tourism. Many of the Kuna still do not speak Spanish and while I was a resident upon one of the inhabited islands, very little effort was made by any of the locals to interact with me, even after I had done my best to provoke such opportunities. So far as I can tell, outsiders are seen by the Kuna as a potentially lucrative form of income and little more. Large numbers of backpackers pass through the islands on a daily basis, either visiting and residing upon one such island for a number of days, as was my situation, or else visiting the islands from a vessel transporting the backpacker to or from Panama from nearby Colombia. The Kuna of an island might offer rustic accommodation to the former type of traveller and, to both, simple meals, the right to explore the islands and waters surrounding them and the opportunity to buy authentic, traditional Kuna handicrafts, in particular finely-woven fabrics, sometimes two or three sheets deep that have been skilfully knitted together by means of complex, colourful patterns laid over the base sheets. All of these services are expensive, for what they are, and delivered with such surly disinterest as to wholly discourage me from purchasing anything - it was enough to be paying for my bed and board.
In spite of the limited interaction afforded between myself and my hosts, nonetheless I enjoyed a restive, peaceful break upon my chosen island. I must remember that the history of the Kuna, especially where outside influence has been concerned, is one of complexity and much violence that I am sure lingers on in many an islander's mind even now: after all, some of this is relatively recent history and historians estimate that the Kuna have inhabited the islands for as little as the past two centuries only. Furthermore, I headed to the San Blas islands seeking peace and quiet, a restorative period of repose in a place of sun, sea and, possibly, solitude. It made little difference to me if I was unable to glean much by way of communication and cultural crossover with this specific ethnic group: there had been many previous, successful endeavours in this field, when the specific, idyllic physical setting of the scene was not quite so important. So it was that I settled down to two full, sleepy days upon the island, with little to hold me beyond the abundant natural beauty of my surroundings, snorkelling opportunities in the encompassing waters, meal-times, one book, my music and one or two fellow guests within my specific community (it transpired, belatedly, that my island was split between three Kuna families, each with their own individual accommodation, each targeting a slightly different type of traveller).
A snap-shot of one scene upon the island might serve to portray my entire two-day stay... I awoke upon the morning of my first full day upon the island to a meagre breakfast of one fried egg and two small, coarse, white bread tubes (not rolls, tubes - that is how they were shaped). This scant meal swiftly demolished, I settled down to read a few short stories in my recently swapped new book (I had been left a Rose Tremain novel by my friend Cam when he realized that he had too many books to carry home with him to England from Peru - this new effort is a collection of shorter narratives by the same authoress). I sat at a small, wooden table beneath a softly swaying palm tree. The tree provided shade from the already strong early morning rays of the sun. A lively breeze rustles through the island, sweeping in from the water. It ruffles my hair, much longer these days than ever previously (sorry Mum) and it ruffles the huge palm leaves above me. The leaves rustle, the noise oddly therapeutic and calming. Exotic birds caw to one another from these tree-tops and from the sand around my feet and both these noises, so removed from my daily routine, are mingled with a third, the reassuring sound of the swell of the sea, as is rushes in and out along the shimmering, golden shore. Occasionally, a loud thump punctuates this tropical soundtrack; a coconut, ripe and burdened, has just plunged to earth. I see none of these things and yet, I do see them: I hear them, I feel them. I allow my breathing to fall into time with that of the sea and slowly I let myself drift away. I move in my mind into a more tranquil, stiller place. The move is mirrored physically: my muscles relax from their unconscious tension. Sometimes, when I was a boy, my Gran would visit me before I fell into dreamland. If I was having difficulty emptying my mind, preparing for the onslaught of night, she would speak to me of a gentle place, a beach-scene filled with these sights and sounds that I have just described. The journey to San Blas was worth it if only to be reminded of this happy memory and, clearly, they succeeded in relaxing me, in reminding me of more than that alone.
Later that evening, my fellow travellers and I enjoyed a sumptuous meal of crab, accompanied by fried plantains (a firm favourite), potatoes, carrots and broccoli (yes, broccoli!). The crab was fresh from that day's catch and cooked plainly, the shells already partially cracked. There was quite a pile and I was reminded of statements I had read claiming that the Kuna are wildly over-fishing their waters, to dangerous levels. I consoled myself that now is not the mating season, surely the worst time to be eating such crustaceans, and that it is rare indeed that I have the opportunity to eat crab at such a reasonable, inclusive price. Drawing out the tender, white flesh from the crevasses of the hard shells was at least half the fun during this meal and we just about succeeded in finishing the platter between four of us. Picking at my star-sign beneath a clear and full moon, the scene illuminated round-about; scenes do not come much more idyllic.
On my second and final day upon the island, the head of my 'host family' of sorts returned to the island after a brief excursion to Panama City and I was able to meet him for the first time. Iron ("e-ron") was a perfectly friendly, accommodating fellow and ample reward for enduring such apparent coldness from the other islanders hitherto. He wanted to know from where I came, to where I was going, whether I liked the island and if I needed anything: a veritable breath of fresh air! Through Iron's kindness, I secured an afternoon trip out in a motor-launch to visit a distance uninhabited island. The voyage, a two-hour round trip, was worth it, definitely. The view of passing islands from the launch and finally of our destination, replete with welcoming sandy beach and warm water, was fabulous. After paying the by now expected one dollar fee to "use" the island, I donned snorkelling gear and took to the water, where I enjoyed a remarkable swim around a long-since sunken ship and some of the best coral reef I have ever seen. The boat was interesting certainly, home to an array of colourful, exotic fish - I recognized some from my sessions among the Galapagos Islands. The reef was brilliant, a complex though delicate expanse revealing a large school of sizeable and strikingly patterned fish as they fed from the fragile structure. I followed these fascinating creatures until they dived down the side of the coral, into the dark of deeper water: the coral marked the edge of a very steep marine shelf and, experiencing the familiar sense of unease that visits whenever I am swimming over such deep, impenetrable water, I turned back toward the shore and shallower seas. In a note similar to that regarding over-fishing, the coral reefs around San Blas have been the victim of widespread destruction, much of it at the hands of these ignorant fisher-folk, though thoughtless captains of the many sailing ships passing this way must also should some blame. I was fortunate indeed to stumble, quite by chance, upon some pristine coral still surviving (perhaps due to the nearby island being uninhabited).
I returned one final time to my host island and passed an easy last evening (alas, the food could not compare to the previous night - fried chicken and vegetables). I awoke early the following morning, with the first tentative rays of the sun and re-packed my bag in preparation for the coming ride back into civilization. Before departing the island, I innocently asked Iron whether I could try coconut milk, fresh from a recently fallen fruit. He acquiesced and I found myself enjoying my first experience of just such a drink and in a thoroughly appropriate setting. Shortly thereafter, I boarded the motor-launch one final time for the journey back to Carti, a voyage of a little over one hour. My time in Panama already drawing near to its closure, I returned to the capital restored and looking forward to a few final days of sightseeing and a little more time with my good friend Seb, before the inevitable, much anticipated flight north into my final country for this trip, the USA.
¡Saludos a todos!