In Kuna Yala Territory

When we got to our early morning flight and walked out onto the tarmac after drinking a 6am smoothy in the airport, the Dash-8 that I was expecting turned out to be a tiny little 20 seat De Havilland Twin Otter, which flew at an altitude of 20,000 feet across Panama to Kuna Yala territory — the sun had just risen and at the beginning of our journey the sea was filled with many tankers full of multi-coloured shipping containers and near the end they were replaced with a sea filled with many tiny islands, and a tiny little landing strip on the coast, connected to a Kuna village called Playa Chico by a long walking bridge. The plane was completely full of indigenous travelers, except for us and a couple of young American guys who got off with us. Since we had no idea where we were staying — having had no luck in reaching anyone the night before — let alone how to even find a place to stay, I asked them where they were staying and they said “Yandup”, which they described as huts over the water, which is what I’d been looking forward to.

We decided to wait for their boat ride and see if they had room for us as well at Yandup. While we waited, kids — including a badly burned albino child (they’re quite common here) — crowded around me, asking to see all of my tattoos, and I gave them the show-and-tell of my sleeve, my eye, and my tongue, which is always a hit. They were quite excited to see Dave as well, as he stands at seven feet tall, double the height of some of the adults. Many of the men had facial scarification, some of it rubbed with ink, on their cheeks. When the plane we had arrived in took off, the crowd around us lost interest and suddenly disappeared, running off to the airstrip which they quickly converted into a soccer field. A nine neighboring tribes had come to challenge each other in a round robin tournament, and it seemed to be of great importance that they be victorious — and the folks from Playa Chica were, bringing great pride and happiness that evening.

It took a lot of language-barrier-delayed discussion, but in the end we found that there was space, at least that night, at the Yandup Island Lodge, which we got to with a short five minute ride on a long and skinny outboard-powered canoe. The island is about ten acres I’m guessing, with short prickly grass and maybe a hundred and fifty palm trees (until the nineties, believe it or not, they used coconuts as currency, and while people could not own land privately, they could own trees — on which money literally did grow), as well as a number of large cabins built from sticks with palapa-style palm roofs, as well as a big building which serves as the dining hall. The power is solar, supplemented by a gas generator, and there are several water towers which are filled with rainwater periodically, sometimes via bucket. The island itself has a couple tiny beaches with most of the shore being coral.

After getting settled in, we were served a small breakfast, and then a little while after took a thirty minute boat ride to one of the many neighboring islands to swim and snorkel. The reef was fairly shallow, close to shore and going on endlessly, and most of the fish were small — it was hard to compete with Brasilita, which was the best beach of the vacation — but there were a large variety of coral of all types. We were the only people who took the opportunity to do much snorkeling to my surprise. The three oddest guests at the resort — two Russian guys and one Panamanian girl, in what I initially thought was a polyamorous relationship but soon realized was simply a prostitute they’d brought along (the sex trade is everywhere in Central America) — also staying on the island spent most of their time taking strange beefcake style photos of each other, often centred on the crotch, even though they did not have the physical to match the poses they enjoyed striking over and over. The guys were in bad shape, with skinny shoulders and thin limbs, but with bulging abs — which I suspect may have been carved in place with liposuction rather than excessive crunches. Later the Russians would listen to terrible europop out of the tinny speakers of a laptop, further decreasing any endearment I may have had with them. Oh, and they also had sex with their prostitute at the beach, in front of most of the other guests. Creepy, awkward jackasses!

On our return we were served a fresh fish lunch, caught that morning, and then Caitlin and Dave went for a rewarding tour of the Kuna village, and Nefarious and I stayed on the island, me to nap and her to play video games. The fishermen had returned earlier with a dugout canoe filled with more prizes from the ocean, a moray eel, an octopus, several lobsters and fish, which they tossed into a holding tank that already held four turtles, which I believe were pets. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they appear on a plate. Dreaming of supper, I was awakened from my nap on the hammock by a strong wind and rain nipping at my legs. The storm quickly picked up and soon it was quite dark, with the rain buckets around the island being filled to overflowing again and again by the deluge. A heavy wind tossed the downpour through the sky, and we were unable to see the village across the short gap between the islands. Every minute or two the sky would light up with intense pink lightning followed by booming thunder — I had been looking forward to the stars but this was much more exciting!

Eventually the weather calmed enough for the boat to return from the village, but they were completely soaked. I’m sure they were happy that they were greeted not just by Nefarious and I, but by a hot supper. Everyone had something a little different, as the day’s catch was diverse. I got lucky and had lobster, which was probably the best of the bunch. We slept wonderfully, with not just the calming sounds of the rain, but a regular heartbeat of waves splashing up against the shore as well as the stilts that held up our hut.

In the morning we had to move out of our room, because there were guests arriving on the morning flight that had reservations — the place was full with eight Dutch tourists, a very nice solo American (who had spent much of her vacation apologizing for the various Repugs and “ugly Americans” that give travelers from her country a bad name), and a young couple from France. The Russians stayed, but were also kicked out of their cabin and later stayed in Dave’s, and the two Americans who’d recommended Yandup went back to Panama City. The day was much like that before, with breakfast followed by a trip to a neighboring island for snorkeling — this reef was in some ways nicer than the first, with many small colorful fish, and again a rich foliage of coral and anemones that I enjoyed teasing into closure. The Russians continued taking bizarre pinup photos of each other as we swam. When we got back, lunch was a squash soup from the island’s garden, huge fish steak and vegetables, as well as fresh papaya for desert.

Since we were without a room, Beatrice, the owner of the island lodge, offered us her home in the village to sleep in, along with the Russians. However, once she got to see how creepy they were, the offer to them was rescinded and they ended up in Dave’s old cabin. I recently watched Eastern Promises so I spent the afternoon hoping that I would have the opportunity to make the menacing gesture I saw Nikolai do where he jabs to fingers into his throat and then points at his future victim, but I did not see them again. The day’s supper, for which the Russians did not join us, was a pair of small lobsters for each of us along with rice and vegetables. It rained again that afternoon, but by the time we were to take the boat to the island, the clouds had mostly cleared, and even partially obscured, the sky was full of a million stars. Better yet, as the boat powered across to the Kuna village, in our wake was much phosphorescent plankton, and one of the guys on the boat told us the waters here contained many glowing creatures, including fish and squid as well as the plankton.

After a walk through the tiny yet bustling with life village — three thousand people, most of them kids, lived there — largely built with open concept stick and palm huts, we slept well at Beatrice’s comparative mansion, and then in the morning rode back to Yandup for our last day there, seeing three hundred kids trekking across the bridge to the mainland in their school uniforms — education is important to the Kuna, and one of them recently went to university at McGill in Montreal. Breakfast included a traditional Kuna drink, a hot plantain smoothie that the waitresses giggled when they handed it to us, knowing how hard it was on the Western palette. Of course, that waitress seemed the giggly sort, and when I showed her my split tongue, she said “why?”, and her boyfriend said something which I assume was a little kinky, and she laughed so hard that her headscarf fell into the turtle enclosure.

We then took a slow boat ride through the mangrove patches, which is what many of the buildings here are constructed of (along with the palm roof). We went back to the beach at Aridup (in the Kuna language, “ari” is “iguana”, and “dup” is “island”) and snorkeled again, and this time I swam out much farther — the reef really went on and on and on — and saw many new kinds of coral and gorgeous glowing anemonae as well as lots of new critters like baby needlefish, and our guide dived and brought up several very large orange hard-shelled starfish, a sea cucumber, and an urchin — these are taboo for the Kuna to eat, but they sell lots of them to the Japanese who I suppose will eat anything… I have tried them and personally I agree they’re indeible. Our own lunch was again fresh fish, which I can’t get enough of, and what I think was probably octopus for supper. I seem to be the only papaya fan, so everyone has been giving me their papaya desert and I’ve been gladly stuffing myself.

Now as I write this, I reflect with some sadness that it is our last night here, and our second last of the vacation. Tomorrow will be spent at a plush and overpriced hotel in Panama city, with as close to a Vegas buffet as you’ll find down here. It will be both very hard, and very nice, to go back to our home in Canada. Tonight I am writing this in a hammock on the beach, and assuming the weather stays nice, I intend to sleep here in the hammock tonight as well. It’s quite wonderful, and Caitlin bought a couple of hammocks for $18 off the back of a Colombian supply boat (they’re not made locally), and she says that one day we will find a place to hang them on our own boat, so I hope that this vacation has helped to move her a step closer to that dream as well.

Note: This is when my camera broke, so the pictures are a bit lacking…


  1. Andrew wrote:

    Sounds like you’re all having a great time.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  2. Elizabeth wrote:

    Had a dream just this morning involving a girl with a split tongue. I remember nothing else which makes me think again that I should keep a notebook nearby as I do know that that was a very small and relatively unimportant aspect of dreamland.
    I wonder why there are many albinos? What genetic differences would account for that.
    I really hate that you missed the opportunity to gesture to the Russians. Really. But speaking of Russians I wholly understand the American girl apologizing for the repugs. Ugly does seem to be the “look” here. Apparently the melting pot isnt such a great idea, aesthetically.
    Glad you all had such a wonderful trip and cant wait for photos!

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  3. Shannon wrote:

    There was a big group of Dutch tourists too. They didn’t bring any prostitutes, but they sure were pushy, and avoided the other guests rather rudely. When we came back from the beach, they refused to get on the boat for some reason, just standing dumbly on the beach. I stood in the water and held the boat steady so it would be easier for them to get on, and told them that the tour guide was asking everyone to get on the boat… As they begrudgingly got on, one of the guys muttered “oh, so the dutch have to get on first?” under his breath. No idea what was up with that. Maybe it’s bad luck to get on a boat first in Holland or something…

    When we flew out, they took a bizarre number of close up photos of parts of the plane’s cockpit. Way way way more than made sense. I mean, are they going to look back at a dozen pictures of the altimeter with fond reminiscence? Weird stuff. I think I might report them as terrorists for that.

    They also kept trying to take pictures of me when I wasn’t looking at them, and then when I’d see them, they’d point their camera at something else and pretend that was their target. A really odd, cold, rude group that in some ways made me miss the kookiness of the Russians! At least those guys were funny.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  4. nikk wrote:

    sounds like a fun time, those dutch must have been a bit of a bummer though.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
  5. starbadger wrote:

    you are a wonderful observer and reporter. thank you.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 3:50 am | Permalink
  6. Shannon wrote:

    Nikk, you know, I shouldn’t complain about them and it’s petty for me to do so… but when you’re in such a serene, perfect place, even the slightest imperfection really stands out. Objectively they were completely tolerable neighbors.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 4:05 am | Permalink
  7. DIYer wrote:

    Wow, crazy Dutch terrorists … next thing ya know, they’ll be trying to advise the Corps of Engineers on protecting New Orleans.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 8:05 am | Permalink
  8. Danielle wrote:

    I’ve got a lot of Dutch heritage in me and it’s unfortunate that what you’ve written about the Dutch is true. They’re a bit standoffish and a stubborn lot of people and I can’t really say why…

    I can’t wait to see your photos from this trip, Shannon. You’ve documented it well in words but I really want to see what you have through your lens.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 6:39 pm | Permalink
  9. Indebted wrote:

    Just wanted to say thanks so much for sharing your holiday pics and stories.

    Friday, October 23, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
Wow Shannon, that's really annoying! What is it, 1997 on Geocities? Retroweb is NOT cool!

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