Bridging the gap / optimism
It was the worst road I have ever encountered, we are talking roads so steep that my brakes were literally smoking on a few of the downhill’s, I didn’t even think that it was physically possible, until it happened. It was the first time I ever pushed Montreal and also the first time I even considered hitching a ride, just because I was wasted, and the road baffled me. Loaded with a weeks supply of powdered oats, 6kg of water, a bunch of bananas and bread. I was a lot heavier than usual, and thus found myself lying in a pool of sweat, in the middle of the road, at the top of the first hill. You cannot be serious, I whispered to myself in a delirious state of exhausted confusion. Force feeding myself bananas and bread my mind drifted as far as it could from the challenge at hand. I had just rode almost the entire of Panama in 12 straight days, and thanks to insane mosquitoes, a crazy but nice drunk guy, and super loud music, I had only managed 4 hours sweaty sleep last night, if that, and then my ipod stopped working. The excuses, just like the sweat, would not stop coming no matter how hard I tried.
Then suddenly a Jeep pulls up, and out hops a guy, who then throws the contents of his stomach all over the floor, not a good sign of the road ahead I thought. Then the tour guide of the group, a chinese woman appropriately titled ‘la China’ filled me in. The road is crazy, up and down like you wouldn’t believe, even in a 4 by 4, the road turns into some serious jungle, you cant camp because of the wild animals, you know big cats like panthers. Also in the area you are entering it rains hard everyday and you have to pay to enter Kuna territory, that’s if they allow you in, just tell them you know ‘la china’. Hey, good luck, your gonna need it, heres some oreos. Mmm, oreos, things were looking up.
Hopping on a wooden long boat with an engine, I officially entered the world of the Kuna Yala people of the San Blas islands. I was welcomed to the first tiny island named Carti, by a kid taking a shit off the dock. I later learned that this is what everyone did, although behind the cover of a tin or wooden shack. The island was overpopulated and I was swarmed with kids within no time, all wanting to know what this or that was. I went for a slow walk around the island and less than 5 minutes later, I was done. Luckily I befriended a local guy who opened up his home and welcomed me to his family. I was given a hammock, in the most humble home I have ever been in. After asking around about any boats heading south, I soon found out that there was no sure thing or schedule, the boats turned up, when they turned up. This haiku I wrote sums up my feelings during the 3 days I spent waiting.
Its a waiting game
missing the road, bound by boats
Maybe today eh?
My new mother would come and find me waiting on the dock, and ask me if I wanted to eat rice, her hands were black from cooking with wood on a dirt floor, and after eating dad would order me to go and relax in the hammock. With a black lined tattoo from hairline to tip of nose, big pierced nose with huge gold jewellery, and traditional dress, it would at first appear that we were worlds apart, indeed in lifestyles we were. But through the basic needs like eating and washing, we would connect and I would share my dreams with the family. It is a humbling thing to be taken in and looked after in such a way, these experiences go deep into your core and leave seeds of a humanity united through differences. Even when grandma used to sit knitting things topless, bless her soul.
A cargo boat finally turned up, named Lya del Mar, crewed by a team of Colombians, for 50$ they would get me where I needed to be, and feed me enough to just keep me alive, I was in. ‘This is not a boat, its a bomb!’ Half of the boat was full of petrol and gas, the other half contained everything under the sun. The fact that I couldn’t swim was always lingering in the air, but for most of the time I couldn’t see it under my optimistic hat. The boat was packed full and with 16 people on board, space was at a premium. Day by day though, more space was created and with it, people started to relax just a touch more. Sleeping on top of a barrel of stinking petrol was not gonna happen for me so I braved the possible rain and took to the top deck. For most of the nights I was gifted with the stars, and often the shooting kind, rain only came once in the 7 days I spent on the water bound bomb. With so many people on the boat food portions were tight and only getting tighter, I was glad that I planned ahead and brought a small fortune of oats. I heard whispers of the boat having drugs on board, but paid it no mind.
After a while everything just fades to the back, and all you see is things to either lay or sit on, hey, you know your sat smoking on 50 gallons of petrol right? Oh shit!…But one thing that did not fade was the atrociously loud engine noise, when at full speed it was loud enough to not be able to hear someone speak. Luckily we did not actually cover much distance each day, the going was amazingly slow. The boat would dock on several island each day and we would all run off in search of something delicious, cheap bread was almost always the only good find. Luckily I was not alone on this venture across countries and with such close living conditions, a family that would still continue weeks after was developed.
The Kuna Yala have a very distinct culture, the language, dress, tattoo’s, even the shape of the bodies of the women is distinct. The law states that you will have to pay 500$ if any non Kuna takes a coconut or kisses a girl. All movement is done by boats which are carved by machete out of tree trunks and are in a constant intertwining cobweb, linking together the masses of tiny islands.
One day during a huge delivery of materials for a school, the boat tipped over half full of cement. They were putting an insane amount of weight in the boat, and throwing 50kg bags of cement around, they were obviously tired. Everyone jumped in and it was a real effort to tip it back over, using ropes and the lot. More surprising was the reaction of the Kuna, they were totally chill and content in losing what they said was 2 classrooms. The top dog paddled out in his boat to see what had happened and was just like oh well. One day, I peeped my head through a nice smelling window and asked if I could buy some food, the man was not selling anything, but we talked and he told me how he was the pastor of the village, he was wearing an obviously donated t shirt that had in big letters on the front: HUSTLER – hardcore since 74. We were invited to a ceremony of birth one night which was basically a glorified piss up, on home made corn alcohol. When the woman is ready to give birth she will come out and give birth in the middle of the room, to a huge village party. I asked, with the slow influence of the outside world, do you think you can preserve your unique culture. ‘It is 2011 and we still have it, this is a testament to the strength of the Kuna’. Indeed almost everyday I would see groups of kids practicing their traditional dance and music. The Kuna most definitely have an optimistic look for the future.
Tags: bananas - big cats - brakes - cargo boat to colombia - chinese woman - confusion - darien gap - drunk guy - good luck - hitching a ride - how to cross the darien gap - jeep - jungle - loud music - mosquitoes - oats - oreos - panthers - san blas islands - sleep last night - stomach - straight days - the kuna yala people - visit panama - visit the san blas islands - wild animals