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I boarded the plane, a wobbly, achy looking prop jet which appeared to have been discarded by some American airline some time back. The seams that held the plane together were rusting and the tires could have used new treads. The plane actually reminded me of the ones I used to take when I was really young, from LAX to John Wayne Airport in Orange Countyâ€”but the key part being that I was really young, perhaps 15 years ago. This plane looked like it had been sleeping for the past century. It looked as unused as the shower cap in a hotel bathroom. Though when it was time, the take off was quick and relatively painlessâ€”as we flung off the runway like a slingshot and climbed several hundred feet before the airstrip even ended.
Soon thereafter, however, I sat clinging to my two broken seatbelt buckles as the turbulence hit, jostling everyone around a good bit. The cabin was crammed like sardines, my knees inevitably rubbing up against my neighbors'. About 40 minutes of pure hell later, the teetering jet hit the tarmac hard and tried to gain its balance like a kid on his new bike. I had made it.
I figured this trip would be like the TV show Survivor just without the suspiciously good looking women and crafty men with bristly beards. I had made it to San Blas, more specifically the island of Mamitupu: one of 365 islands in the Ocean off Panama's Northern Caribbean coast. The San Blas islands are home to one of Panama's oldest indigenous tribes the Kuna Indians. The Kunas have fiercely and aggressively defended themselves against British Colonials, Spanish Conquistadores, and modern day business men using pride, integrity, and in some cases violence. The Kunas speak their own language, â€œTuleâ€â€”which is almost linguistic evidence of all the influence and struggle that they facedâ€”with bits of Spanish, French, Swiss...etc.
The Mamitupu airport is more of a hut. I was met by Romelio, a 20 year-old Kuna who would be my host. He and I trekked through a large green pasture, the terminal if you will, to a dock where I boarded a dug-out canoe. A short boat ride delivered me to what I would call homeâ€”a small island, maybe the size of my old middle school.
Though the Kunas traditionally live in thatch-roofed huts, I was not by any means living in shambles at the Uaguinega Eco-Lodge (see photo). This was my kind of hotelâ€”no doors, no rules, the blow of a conch shell signaling mealsâ€”it was great. The cabanas were very tastefully done, with simple yet intricate Kuna design. When I asked about the key for my room, Romelio handed me a little wooden peg. The resort's 12 cabanas line the rim of the island and sit about 5 feet from the ocean's edgeâ€”each one's porch and hammock nearly kissing the Caribbean shore. I hit the water for some backyard snorkeling and saw one really cool clock-sized sheep head fish.
The Uaguinega Lodge was lovely. The Kunas in charge were more accommodating and considerate than any 5 star hotel I've ever stayed at. They were almost compulsive about cleanliness and could be seen at 4:00 AM sweeping the grass and handpicking stones from the beach. At meals, my server was kind of OCD in that she rarely let a perspiring water droplet from my glass hit the tablecloth. It became almost comical, as she swiped the table with a cloth around 50 times throughout the meal, no exaggeration.
At one point I did some island exploration, boating around the numerous helicopter pad-sized islands occupied only by palm trees and drift wood. I sat on a large tree stump and looked around me: revelatory introspection number oneâ€”what am I doing here? Hunched over below a giant loopy palm tree, baby blue skies and white cotton ball clouds, a virgin untouched coastline off in the distance, hundreds of island freckles and bumpy little breaking waves. Quiet Kuna Indians rowing around their islands in search of a catch. I was looking at the same view that Columbus enjoyed centuries ago. This completely natural and pure bit of life that we don't get to see that much anymore. A life void of the sounds of TV and car horns. A life without the worries of traffic and parking tickets. When life is reduced to its most basic elements, as is understood by the Kuna Indians, it somehow becomes more beautiful.
My stay at Mamitupu ended with a send-off dinner of crab and fish. It was followed by a â€œspecial presentationâ€ by the Kunas: a three-part dance routine with constant errors and discordant whistles. It seemed amusingly like a 5th grade school play and I have to admit, I snuck out before the third act like a rat out of a sinking ship, leaving the rest of the guests to represent the good manners and kind respect that is expected. I slung myself into my hammock and watched the sky fade to orange. While the soft ocean breeze blew whispers through my shirt, the sun set over Mamitupu. I was happy.
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