Matthew and Nielson arrived the afternoon that Joanna left, the perfect buffer to the inevitable joy hangover from a blissful week of love. The four of us – Matthew, Nielson, Tripp, and I – spent a few mildly eventful days in Cartagena while we waited for the winds to calm down for our passage to Guna Yala. The same weather system that had threatened our lives on the way to Cartagena was still blowing strong, over a week after we had arrived, and we had no interest visiting with it again. We provisioned well, planning feast after feast for a short passage with culinary minded friends. It was special to have these two friends, both married with children, have the opportunity to join us. Both of them assured me this was a testament to their wives more than anything else, and so we were grateful to Lauren and Gayle. To add to the excitement, it was Matthew’s first ocean passage of any sort and he has a contagious way about him. We set sail with our sights set on an archipelago with hundreds of islands. Up until starting our journey I had never heard of these islands but every time that people learned what we were doing they’ve always insisted that we go to San Blas Islands. The San Blas are flat, low-lying islands, dominated by coconut palms and not much else. If you were asked to draw a tropical island in elementary school, you would draw exactly these islands. That’s how archetypal they are, quintessentially tropical, the ideal of paradise. The islands are inhabited by an indigenous people known as the Guna (alternatively seen as Kuna in some places but Guna seems to be more correct). They refer to the islands as Guna Yala because they see the name San Blas as imperialist, so I will refer to them as Guna Yala from here on out. There are 365 islands in Guna Yala, one for each day of the year, 50 of these islands are inhabited. In addition, the Guna hold the coast of the Panama mainland that is adjacent to the islands. The Guna are short, strong people who’s trade is based mostly on tourism and coconuts. Each coconut palm in Guna Yala is owned by a tribe member and every coconut that fall from that tree is theirs. They use these coconuts to trade with Colombian vessels carrying food and other necessities. Victor a Guna elder told me they get an exchange rate of about $0.45 per coconut and sell as many as 1000 at a time. As for tourism – there is a fee to pay to sailas (Guna chiefs) to cruise the islands and most of the islands have small bars where you can hang and have a Balboa. The real source of tourist income, however, are the molas that the women have for sale. Molas are bright and intricately stitched textiles that are a traditional Guna craft. The original molas had only geometric patterns but modern molas typically have animals, people, and sometimes even sailboats. Every island you come to, you will be approached shortly after arriving with molas for sale. They’re beautiful and our boat sailed away with quite a few of them. They make perfect boat decor and souvenirs for the families back home. Some we boughtt from a boat that pulled along side us at anchor, they told us that they were from an island nearby pretty openly, and we didn’t think much of it. Later we made our way to the island that we were anchored nearby, that’s when we spoke with Victor. He seemed upset that we had bought from what he referred to as strangers. Luckily Matthew hadn’t bought anything yet so he was able to buy from Victor’s wife and all was well. His reaction was illustrative of how local the mindset is in Guna Yala. Even though all of these islands are nearby and the “strangers” are of the same tribe and same nation, Victor considered them outsiders and competition when it came to mola sales.
Perhaps the most striking thing about these islands was how low they were. Being from the Lowcountry I’m used to flat and low lying lands, these were an all new low. From only 200 yards out it looks as if there’s no land at all, just palm trees rising out of the sea. Surely these islands would be among the first casualties of sea level rise, it seemed like it wouldn’t take more than a six inch rise to swallow them all up. Interestingly the threat of this is in the consciousness of the Guna and one punishment from tribe leaders involves taking coral debris and other rocks from the sea and buttressing the perimeters of the islands with them. If only we could make our criminal offenders help protect us from the effects of climate change. We spent four lazy, lovely days in Guna Yala — cut off from cell service with nothing to do but admire the beauty of a coconut palm or take a swim. On the fourth day we began our sail to the mouth of the Panama Canal, our last sail in the Caribbean Sea.