28 January 2014 | Snug Harbor, Guna Yala, Panama
We've spent the last five weeks in the gorgeous, popular and easier-to-reach areas of Guna Yala, Panama. This week we are heading east to more remote regions. I sit in the cockpit at dawn and watch the sun rise, the sea gently lapping the boat. In the background I hear the roar of crashing waves on the distant reefs. The sun is coming up over a tiny island of pure white sand holding more palm trees than it appears should be able to thrive. There are two layers of trees: tall, full, majestic palms, and underneath small, young palms looking like offspring stretching their branches in all directions.
The welcoming breeze kisses the boat. She slowly swings south exposing the large, lush mountains, the "Yala," covered in rainforest. The mountains too comprise a layered view with varying shades of green and grey, the interplay of golden light, dark shade, and even darker rain where the mountains recede into the clouds. To the west, not far away, are mangroves, where very large crocodiles are rumored to live. I look across the bay carefully scanning the still surface but cannot detect any eyes returning my gaze.
In the distance I see a man paddling an "ulu" or dugout canoe. He slowly and quietly glides towards the boat. As he approaches I watch and marvel at how adept he is at turning and maneuvering his canoe. I see that he is quite old with weathered skin and thin, boney arms and legs. He smiles a large smile and I see that he has only two teeth left. I greet him in the Guna language, "Nuedi," and he returns my greeting with an even larger smile. I tell him my name and ask for his. "An nuga Heidi" I say. "Igui nuga". "Gonzales" he replies. He has come to register our boat and collect our $10 anchoring fee. He has paddled for perhaps an hour at the crack of dawn to complete this task. I offer him some pineapple and breakfast cake for which he seems grateful. He tells me I can stay as long as I like.
The Guna people seem to work hard to feed their families. They fish on both sides of the reef, sometimes in large waves that seem daunting to me given the small size of their canoes and the tiny freeboard. They also hunt for lobster, crab, conch and octopus. When they're not gathering food from the sea they are working at their farms or "fincas" in the rainforest where they harvest bananas, plantains, coconuts, mangoes and avocados. They live on islands and make daily paddles into the finca. While it seems to be much work to gather food, the people seem very healthy and happy. Everywhere we go we see lovely laughing children and smiling adults. It is the closest I have ever been to paradise.