Monthly Archives: October 2009

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…

Top 10 they say

After some not-so-interesting time in San Jose and in the skyscraper-heavy obviously-undergoing-explosive-growth and very large Panama City, we’re in the airport (after an early morning — 4:30 — rise) waiting for a flight to the San Blas islands to stay with the Kuna Yala Indians — the airport is full of people with heavy beadwork and large gold septum jewelry. From the photos it looks like we should expect Polynesian-style stick buildings perched on stilts on the ends of docks off tiny islands, a level of quiet defined only by our neighbors, all under a rich star-filled sky. There are 365 of them in all in the San Blas group, and if I’m to believe what I read online, they’re among the top ten snorkeling destinations in the world. Many of the islands are off-grid, with solar power and little to no communication, so I doubt I’ll be posting until I’m back in Toronto at week’s end unless plans change. After we land at the small regional airport, using a Dash-8 prop plane, we’ll travel by boat to our final destination. Wish us luck, as we’ve had some trouble getting these plans confirmed in advance and are hoping we won’t just be sleeping on the beach — not that such a fate would be all that bad!

Picture notes: These are my getting into Panama city pictures… The first photo is a creepy dude that was at the hotel with three VERY young prostitutes, one young boy and two young girls. Icky. I’d say 75% of the guys at the hotel were there for sex tourism.

Sloth Visit

Yesterday was a day of much driving… We went from La Fortuna all the way east through the kind of scummy port town of Limon and then forty minutes further to arrive after almost five hours of driving at the sloth rescue that Caitlin had so been looking forward to. We began that visit with a slow canoe trip up and down the surrounding river to do not much more than bask in the sun, and occasionally feel grateful for the shade of tall bamboo and other foliage, and bird watch. When we got back, we watched an informational video which was thankfully — no offense to education, but hands-on with sloths is better — cut short by a power failure.

Then we got to visit with (and pet) various supercute sloths, both the two-toed and three-toed variety, starting with a three limbed fellow who had come to the sanctuary after a mishap with an electrical cable necessitated an amputation. They also had a pair of twins, a rarity in the sloth world, and lots of funny slow-moving pop-eyed baby sloths being fed milk by syringe and then being taken out for crawls in the grass. “Queen Buttercup”, who had been at the sloth rescue for a decade and a half if I remember right, watched over the whole thing from her throne. I have lots of shots to post when I get back — although I did manage to both damage my camera and lose the charger, so I’m not sure what I’m going to do when I run out of battery!!!

After the sloth visit I really wanted to go swimming — I think that’s really my favorite thing to do and I could spend the whole day in the ocean if I was allowed — and we drove for about an hour (thanks to some mis-navigating) past Playa Negra and all the way down to Punta Uva where a reef meets the beach. The water was quite rough, so I couldn’t dive with the fish, which is what I’d been hoping for, but we did have a lot of fun swimming, playing in the waves, and building sand castles on the all-but-deserted beach.

Supper was small, at a little beach restaurant, and then I drove another three hours and a half hours, back to San Jose, since the car has to be returned today. Nefarious and I got up early for the hotel’s buffet breakfast of hash browns, pancakes, fresh fruit, and rice and beans, and then went for a walk around the downtown. My glasses should be waiting for me at the optician around the corner, so I guess I’ll do that, and then we’ll do some city stuff today and likely fly to Panama City in the next day or two.

A day of white water

Nefarious, Dave, and I went white water rafting today — on the Balsa River (I was wrong about yesterday, which was actually on the River Blanca) — for my and Nefarious’s first time, so I think the choice of class three rapids was about right. It was plenty bumpy with the occasional risk of falling overboard into the river or flipping the raft altogether, and lots of slides down mini-waterfalls with big crashes at the bottom with violent waves splashing over the side, and the more-than-occasional crashes into boulders in our path. The ride itself took two and a half hours and Nefarious did great, not just holding on tight, but listening to all the instructions from our guide on when to shift her weight around. She — and all of us — had lots of fun, and were completely drenched by the end of it. Well, not by the end of it. By the first five minutes, and then again, over and over and over! It sure was nice coming back to shore with fresh pineapple and watermellons waiting for us, and then a hot meal of rice, fish, veggies, beans, plantain, and goat cheese. Not that it was the focus, but on the smoother class two stretches we had time for some sightseeing, not just of egrets, herons, eagles, kingfishers, vultures, and other birds, but also the many bright green lizards skittering over the rocks along the shoreline. All in all a super adventure that I will remember fondly and I hope is one of Nefarious’s childhood highlights.

Also on the ride (split across two rafts, as well as a rescue guy with stretched lobes sans-jewelry in the rescue raft) were a couple of adventure travel dudes from Hawaii, and some Bush-loving Christian Republicans from North Carolina, accent and all. We were talking to the guide about Costa Rica, and he was proudly speaking about how self-sufficient it is, with massive exports of all kinds including renewable power (they have wind, water, and geothermal generation, as well as lots of biofuels, with a real emphasis on sustainability and long-term health of the nation and environment) and food of all sorts, and how they have great free education and healthcare, and so on… He really started losing them when he talked about how in Costa Rica, people look not to the person who’s richer than them (and then live a life of envy and greed as they try and get rich themselves) but to the one who is poorer (both to remind them of the riches of the simple and stable life they already have, and to show them that they need to help those around them), but when he talked about how Costa Rica was a nearly two century old democracy that had dissolved their military sixty years ago, they couldn’t get it at all, blurting out, “but what will you do when you get invaded?!?!?”

As if!!!

He tried to explain to them that Costa Rica aims to spread peace, and that their nation’s leaders travel extensively throughout the world encouraging other nations to stop being so warlike, but they thought it was completely bizarre. I was about to get in an argument with them about healthcare — even though the guy’s job was in the bankruptcy industry and he agreed that healthcare (or as he put it, “it’s not the insurance companies fault, it’s just bad luck”) was the biggest cause of bankruptcy, he thought the current for-profit US system was the best they could get — but decided it wasn’t how I wanted to spend my day, so I had an interesting chat on the ride with his wife, who homeschools their four children. Now, I like homeschooling because I’m into unschooling and freerange kids, whereas I guess they have a problem with queer teachers and evolution, but still, we found plenty in common and avoided black eyes and it was quite pleasant chatting with people who are fairly alien to me in their life views.

And RIP to WWF surface piercing pioneer Captain Lou Albano, who almost always wore rubber bands through a piercing on the surface of his cheek, making him arguably the inventor of flexible jewelry (predating by a decade things like Tygon)… I wrote about him ages ago on BME at my friend Saira’s suggestion. I see these notes about how BME is looking for someone to take over running it and want to put up my hand and say “I’ll do it!” because I’d love to be blogging about bodmod again, but I’m quite certain that it wouldn’t be worth jumping through the legal hoops to achieve. I suppose I’ve had my turn, and am in a different line these days. But what good memories, even if I can’t turn back time!

Tomorrow morning it’s off to the sloth rescue!

A lazy river safari

We’re staying in La Fortuna right now, at the foot of Arenal volcano. This morning Nefarious and I were up early and it was clear and cloudless, so we watched the volcano spew ash into the sky before going for a morning swim. In about an hour we’ll be leaving to go white water rafting, and then probably spend the night here, and leave in the morning for a four hour or so drive to go to the sloth reserve. I’ve been getting a surprising amount of writing done as well.

Yesterday we went on a “river safari”, rafting down a very gentle river — Balsa River if I remember right (but I might not) — and when we got there, at our start point, was a big frilled lizard and two sloths up in the tree, a mother and a baby. As we went down the river, which was beautiful with the vegetation alone, lush trees and vines and plants of all sorts and huge grasses and massive bamboo stands and many logs to avoid from the previous day’s flooding, we saw a number of animals including more sloths, lots of birds, and a big turtle. We also saw a few trees full of howler monkeys that make a huge hooting racket as we shouted back at them with the alpha male shaking the tree to scare us off, and we also saw a big (well, a young ten foot long) crocodile basking on the river bed. The water was low, so the crocs felt vulnerable to humans, and we saw less than normal. We also passed under a low tree that was covered in little bats only a few feet over our heads… I took lots of photos and will post them on our return, but unfortunately I did not get one of macaque that I know is everyone’s favorite. Hahahaa…

At the end of the river journey we stopped at a farm for snacks of grilled plantain, which tasted like wonderful sweet pancakes, and fresh home made cheese, light with a sort of mozzarella essence, and Nefarious played with their puppy and together they chased a white rabbit around the grounds of the farm, amid goats, pigs, cows, and horses. That night in La Fortuna we went to an amazing restaurant and I had tilapia, presented whole and stuffed with vegetables and cheese, and possibly fished from the river we had just explored.

It’s been nice staying so online as well. I’m very impressed at Costa Rica’s infrastructure — the power and communication grid seems really thorough, and no matter how remote we get, there still seems to be a cell phone signal as well. Just outside town we drove through a massive wind farm, and the rivers here power hydroelectric stations as well. The roads also seem well maintained, which can’t be easy given how wet the country is.

Anyway… Off to the rapids!