An hour to remember
Faraway places with strange sounding names: names like the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of more than 350 tropical isles off the coast of Panama.
I’d never heard of these islands until a recent cruise when they were a shore stop. A “blurb” in the ship’s daily newspaper advised: “Your visit to the San Blas Islands will be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.”
A shore excursion such as that surely wasn’t to be missed, so bright and early on that day when our ship docked offshore the Island of Carti, we tourists were at the ready. Tenders took us to this Caribbean Island since it had no docking facilities.
Like school kids headed for the playground at recess, we travelers swarmed on to the island, slathered with sunscreen, some with shade hats to protect us from the tropical sun. We were garbed in flip-flops, pedal pushers, cut-offs, T-shirts from previously visited ports — with water bottles in hand.
We were advised that no public transport vehicles were available on the island. But there was no need for them. There was no reason to go farther than the area around the pier and that would probably take us only about an hour. But what an hour that was.
As we travelers clamber from the tender, there we are — smack-dab in the middle of their little village. Narrow, winding dirt streets no wider than a wagon trail. No sidewalks. Living quarters, made for the most of bamboo and reeds, crowded into the alleyway, as close together as books on a shelf. Doors and windows open, displaying living quarters within — and offering air conditioning.
In almost every doorway is an Indian woman and/ or child. The women wear gold nose rings and earrings, red and yellow headdresses, long skirts and “mola” blouses.
Mola is the renowned craft or art for which the Kunas are famous — a skill that has been passed down from generation to generation — the results of which are now proffered to us from almost every doorway. Mola means “blouse” and Kuna blouses typically display a panel of this skilled stitching. It is created by arranging fabric layers, cut in intricate patterns depicting designs of traditional legends, plants, animals, airplanes, even popular or controversial political figures. These appliques are sewn to the material underneath in tiny stitches, creating an almost 3-D effect.
As we tourists walk these narrow dirt thoroughfares, our cameras are at the ready. But we have been advised that these Kuna Indians charge $1 for us to take a photo of them. And the entrepreneurial Kuna feed the tourist camera-taking urge. Here beside a doorway sits a little 4- or 5-year-old with a live parakeet patiently perched atop his head. In the next doorway, a tiny girl with dark somber eyes cradles a small monkey. Few tourists resist shots such as that.
This archipelago of islands is an autonomous territory of Panama. Some of its islands are no bigger than a fly-speck. Only about half have permanent communities. Some islands are used for growing food. Some are “extremely remote and primitive.” Others offer facilities that would lure any June honeymooners.
Coral Lodge on Santa Isabel Island offers world-class diving at San Blas barrier reef, mangrove canal kayaking, horseback riding, fishing, king-sized beds with “romantic décor,” large spa baths, separate sitting areas, unique locally-made furniture and art, air conditioning and decks with chaise lounge chairs.
Or, honeymooners might opt for Kuna Lodge on the secluded, tranquil island of Guna Yala. It offers “spectacular landscape, two bars, large outdoor terraces, private cabins equipped with private bathrooms, wooden floors, composting toilets, hot water, 24-hour solar power, ceiling fans and balconies with hammocks.” Or how about a stay at Dolphin Lodge? It provides an Internet Coffee Shop with satellite internet service for sending home “Wish you were here” messages. This lodge, on a private island, has oceanfront bar and restaurant, private white sand beach, volleyball and football lawn court and bonfire area. The cabins are built atop wood beams and feature hardwood floors, private terraces furnished with wicker armchairs, ocean views, hammocks, wardrobes, solar panel generating power, and large, private bathrooms.
And perhaps best of all, for those apprehensive of travel in the tropics, these islands are said to be “completely absent of insects and snakes.”
San Blas long has been home to these Kuna Indians who are said to be the most sophisticated and politically organized of the three major Panamanian native groups. The San Blas inhabitants run their territory — virtually on their own terms — with internal autonomy. They send representatives to the National Assembly.
San Blas Indians are said to have greeted Columbus. Balboa, the discoverer of the Pacific Ocean, is said to have had his first glimpse of that body of water from a site in Panama. This was an area of wealth, wealth such as Yamhill County residents can scarcely imagine. The old City of Panama was especially famous for its riches.
The Spanish colony of Panama was an important stopover on the way to Peru — and the wealth of the Incas. This area was a rendezvous site for pirates and privateers. It offered a hiding place and privacy. Panama was attacked and burned by the British buccaneer, Sir Henry Morgan. Caribbean maritime routes became so dangerous that Spanish ships opted to go around Cape Horn rather than take the shorter pre-canal land route. The Kuna Indians were driven off Panama during the Spanish invasion and fled to the surrounding San Blas Islands — retreating in boats to these islands which were to become their permanent home.
Boats nowadays provide their public transport. Many tribal people work on the mainland, commuting in dug-out canoes or hand-carved boats. Many women and children make that trip daily. Boats are necessary for the many men who fish for a living, or who are engaged in trading for necessities on neighboring islands.
It is perhaps surprising that I did not bring back to McMinnville a mola blouse or even photos of the Kuna people. But I will not need them as a reminder of the San Blas Islands. Our ship newspaper was correct: “A visit to the San Blas is like nothing ever before experienced.”
And although our stay on that San Blas Island was for only about an hour, I shall remember always my visit to that tropical isle.
Elaine Rohse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.