The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Gringo trails and indigenous wilderness

Since rejoining land back in January we have enjoyed blissfully untainted independent travel. With no guide book to lure us towards the crowds and traveling through lands with no backpacker trail it has felt like our own little adventure. On leaving Colombia for Panama this all changed. To avoid ending up in the midst of a narcotic run and the guerrilla ridden Darien Gap, we decided to pay the extra to join a tourist boat from Cartagena to Panama.

So we were bundled onto a 40ft boat with 10 other gringos clutching Lonely Planets and exchanging traveling tales. Most people on board had traveled up South America and suddenly I was transported back 3 years, chatting through the highs and lows of Bolivian protests and Argentinian steaks. This was nice at first but quickly grew tiresome. Gradually voices raise as everyone competes for their say and the pleasant exchange of tales becomes a subtle contest for centre stage. As the conversation progresses the constant referral to and dependence on the Lonely Planet becomes alarmingly apparent. Traveling on the gringo trial seems to revolve around this gospel. Is it right or wrong, have the prices changed, whose ticked off the most number of places, what's the best thing to do in the next five countries, where's dangerous, cheap or off the beaten track? At this point I pick up a book and pretend to read it, desperately holding my tongue. Guidebooks are the death of independent travel, ironic given that they were created with exactly that audience in mind. Written by one person who had the luxury of discovering places before they were put in a guidebook for the world and his dog to visit and with all expenses paid for, their situation is somewhat far removed from that of their readers. Before joining this gringo trail we too had fallen for the book and marked off places we wanted to visit. After 5 days of gringo chat all we now want to do was burn the thing and buy a good old fashioned map to go by. Rant over.

The crossing from Colombia to Panama itself takes 2 days but our trip had the added bonus of going via the San Blas Islands for 3 extra days. After all the crewing and cargo boats we were pretty excited to be getting on a boat where we could sit back and do as little as we wanted. So we thought... It turns out that this 'tourist friendly sailing boat' was not entirely in keeping with tourist standards. We were fortunate enough to get a cabin, but half of the passengers on board spent the first two nights of their trip sleeping on deck, being simultaneously drenched with sea water and vomit. Knowing that this stretch of water is one of the roughest in the world we were slightly alarmed by the lack of life jackets, harnesses and life rafts. In true 'day skipper' style we ended up poking our noises through every compartment to work out where it all was, just in case. To add to the frustration of everyone on board Captain Hernando motored the entire crossing, refusing to put up the sails despite good wind and meals were provided in 8 hour intervals. Not a great start to our luxury cruise.

Given the chaos on deck, Nick and I decided to go to bed early to fight off the hunger pains. At the outset of the voyage Hernando had mentioned that we would all share the night watches but as he downed his eighth can of beer details became vague. After an hour's kip I decided to check out on deck, just in case the reputable Hernando was not so sober. I returned to our cabin with a sigh, 'Er Nick, Hernando has passed out and everyone else is asleep. There's been no one on watch for the last hour.' This was slightly alarming, given the number of freighters alongside us on leaving Colombia. Nick, forever the hero, jumps into action devising a watch plan for the night. Dreading it at first, it was a joy to be back on sea at night, especially since a pod of dolphins danced in the moonlight alongside the boat for my hour. So all in all not exactly what we had in mind, but it turned out to be a fascinating trip that was worth the drama.

After 48 hours at sea we woke at 6am to see the sun rising over a turquoise sea littered with palm tree filled islands, fringed with white sand beaches. Beyond the islands a reef weathers the crashing waves of the Atlantic so that the water that laps the islands is calm and crystal clear. The San Blas is home to 365 remote and windswept islands, just one meter above sea level, filled with coconuts, drift wood and starfish. It is a picture postcard stunning place, just a few miles off the coast of Panama. The Islands are inhabited and run autonomously by the Kuna. With a population of 40,000 this indigenous group is considered to be hugely successful in fighting off external influence and control. The majority of the islands are home to a couple of huts housing a Kuna family for 3 months before they move onto the next. However the real base of the tribe are on a few islands nearest the mainland, which are littered with as many huts as can fit on them with a ring of toilets jutting out into the sea.

At first sight the San Blas and their Kuna resemble paradise on earth; a humble tribe living in harmony with their stunning and remote world. But on learning more about these islands through our captain and his wife, Hernando and Maria, our perception shifted. With a complete absence of the word 'thank you' in their language and a system of governance that revolves entirely around the exchange of money, Maria is adamant that this community is void of moral fabric. And she has a point. Relationships on the islands are based on sex and the transfer of money alone. Once a girl has her first period her father holds a huge party to celebrate the fact she is ready to breed. During this gathering she chooses a man or boy of her liking. If the father approves then he hands them the family bed for 5 nights and if she is happy with the boy's/man's performance then he stays. If not he goes and she looks elsewhere. Fair enough I suppose, the girl gets her say even if it does mean by the time she's 20 she's likely to have over 5 children. But then we learned about the prostitution that goes hand in hand with this process. If a man (not necessarily Kuna) wants to have sex with a Kuna girl then a price is agreed between him and her father and him and the government. This whole process is lawful. To put this in context Maria told us about the time when Hernando, 56, told a Kuna man that his 12 year old daughter was very pretty. The man replied, 'Yeh you think so, ok how much?'. Money is so important to the Kuna that many now prostitute their children to outsiders and send them off to Panama City to earn money. Due to the lack of contraception and the acceptance of any and all sexual relations AIDS is spreading around the community fast. Inbreeding also means that a large number of the Kuna population are albinos. If this wasn't enough for us to start questioning this paradise on earth we then learnt that due to rising sea levels the islands are likely to disappear by 2012. A fact we can well believe, given the volume of island surrendered to the sea after a storm one night we were there.

Suddenly paradise on earth resembles more of a living nightmare. But then maybe it is not our place to judge? Or maybe we are victims of political correctness and should be more eager to judge? Maybe, if coconuts could produce fuel we would bomb these islands for 'humanitarian' reasons? The 180 degree shift in what we thought about the Kuna before and after talking to Maria and Hernando made us realise the importance of asking questions throughout our trip.

After examining this trip to the remote we were thrown into the kaleidescope of Panama City for a couple of days. High rise blocks and fancy condos line the modern city whilst crumbling colonial buildings occupied by gangs and squatters lie next to fancy restaurants in the old town. Highs were visiting the Gatun locks, the biggest of the Panama Canal, where Nick almost wet himself with excitement. Lows were food poisoning from the cheapest deal in town and the gang war gun fight outside our apartment. Consequently we have retreated to a small mountain town called Santa Fe. There are only three other gringos in the whole town, we have a terrace that is surrounded by sun drenched mountains and the river is filled with cold, fresh water perfect for swimming. After nearly five months of hugging coastlines, we are pretty content to be entrenched in the land.

1 comment:

Cornelius said...

I like your rant about the travel story competition- people trying to outdo each other with travel knowledge or stories of danger. A bit to get away from when you are stuck on a sailboat. I am going to steal your idea of pulling out a book when I do the same trip next week. Take care on your travels...