Getting to the Comarca de Guna Yala isn’t that difficult, if you’re loaded and can charter a plane. Sadly, we had to take the slow road – hours tearing across the poorly kept road that slices through the mountainous Panamanian rainforest. The air was hot and moist and smelled like burning brakes. On the other side of the forest was a tiny, super funky port/airport with a row of terrifying little toilets manned by a Guna woman trading toilet paper for coins.
“number one or number two?”
Then it’s onto a boat the size of a Honda Civic for the rest of the journey, the length of which depends on which of the three hundred some odd islands you’ll be staying at. I apparently chose the farthest island, because the boat trip took about three hours across choppy – albeit crystal clear – seas past island after palm tree studded island, ranging in size from cartoon desert island to Walmart. When the thunderstorm began, I resigned myself to being trapped on one of the empty islands, playing my own version of castaway until some friendly kayakers visited.
But we made it. It was…an interesting experience. The tourist half of the island was cut off from the rest of the town by a fence and a soccer field. When we arrived, scads of barefoot children were kicking a ball around in the rain.
Our huts were on stilts, a few yards from the waterline, like little propped up shacks full of those free mattresses you sometimes see on the side of the road. We all opted to sleep in the hammocks on the porch.
Our first (and only) night in town, my celebrity chef Terry French got to go out spear fishing with these twenty year old dolphin men and try to catch dinner. This was after getting up at 4am (I’m not gonna say we were ALL hungover, but I was pretty hungover. Panama City, man.) and going on this six hour jungle/sea voyage. Not only that, but the poor bastard has to cook the food on the beach, in the rain, Survivor style – basically digging a hole in the sand and trying to light wet wood. The locals helpfully offered to pour gasoline on the fire, if it would move things along, but Terry’s a pro. And a glutton for punishment. Anyway, he pulled this whole feast together for the men and some of the women came over to watch the kids would couldn’t be kept away.
It became clear quite quickly that, while the guys in charge had stumbled upon a great way to make a little money for the tribe (hooray for tourism) the women were all pretty sure this was a shit idea and the guys had their heads up their asses as usual. My crew had nicknamed me unicef because half my bag was packed with treats for kids, instead of actual clothes/gear, but here is where I was sure it would pay off. I started doling out crayons and notepads to the kids who were there, then gave the mom in charge a bag full of the stuff (my favorite bag, which she kept, which I’m not bummed about at all) to hand out or give to the school. I’d also brought some lady prizes, and I gave the moms all flavored chapsticks. They were pretty stoked. And then they never spoke to me again. Seriously.
I figured this would earn me a little good will but alas, no. Well, not with the moms. The kids were all cool with me after that. I walked around the village the next day and did sketches for some of the little girls, turning them into superheroes, before leaving my sketchbook and some pens behind with some older girls. I saw a little girl “reading” a tattered pamphlet to her babydoll and it made me wish I’d been able to bring books, as well.
The adult women, though, wouldn’t even look me in the eye. They guys were all pretty friendly, but the cold shoulder I was getting from females was straight arctic. It was like last year in my mom’s group all over again. I kept trying. I admired and bought some traditional artwork. Nothing.
So then we had to pack up and leave. It was a difficult trip in a lot of ways, and one I probably wouldn’t repeat despite all the abundant natural beauty. On the way back, I started talking to our guide a bit about the laws of the land. I was curious about what rules were important in such a small, autonomous village – you could walk the entire town in just a few minutes, and I didn’t see a jail. His English was not great and my Spanish was worse, so it was a difficult conversation to have. The gist I got was, first rule – you don’t sleep with someone else’s wife/husband.
I laughed. That made sense. “So what…how do you punish, for this?” I’m picturing a scarlet A, of course.
He looks embarrassed. “We shave their heads,” he says.
Well shit. No wonder the women wouldn’t talk to me. I look like half an adulteress.