Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Panama, San Blas, Carti (More Visitors) - 2015-10-19

After days of lazing around in a random spot between the mainland and Carti island, we finally motored the extra five minutes to the two islands that most people think of as Carti. We'd only been here for a few minutes when an older Kuna gentleman pulled up alongside us in his Ulu. Sweat pouring off him, he had nothing to sell and seemed to want nothing more than shade.

We have a bamboo trunk on deck that we fished out of the water whilst snorkeling a while ago. It still has all the stumps on it where branches have been cut off, and looks quite out of place. It will eventually become the boom for our sailing dinghy. Our visitor kept pointing to it and talking very fast - the only words I managed to make out were 'not allowed.' He was talking about the Kuna people and coconuts, so perhaps he thought we had taken it from the shore. You're not allowed to interfere with the coconut trees here, as coconut farming is the main source of income for the Kuna people. Perhaps they use bamboo to reach up into the coconut trees. I explained that it was in the water when we found it, which seemed to satisfy him. Before long he was clambering aboard, and from his exasperated Spanish I wasn't sure if he wanted to be friends or if we were in trouble.

It was the former. Once he was sitting in the shade with a cold beer and a fan pointed at him, his English improved greatly (we don't drink alcohol very often, so there's usually cold beer sitting in the bottom of the fridge but hardly ever cold water!) He was Germain's father, our drunken friend from yesterday. His son had told him to stop by when we arrived. So we all cowered under the shade together, dripping in sweat and praying for a breeze.

He told us about Kuna Yala, which is what the locals call these islands. He glared at the tourist boats zipping back and forth, and we got the impression that he didn't approve of the tourist industry here at all. "The tourists bring money," he lamented. "The boys have beer and they have food. They don't need to work in the jungle anymore. There is nobody to work. I work and it is good. The tourists make things bad." Germain works for a backpacker hostel, giving tours daily. I'm sure this tough old man wished Germain would work with him in the jungle instead, but the tourism industry was making him much more money. I could see it was a tricky situation. Nobody would turn away money, but at the same time the Kuna people need their boys to farm and fish in order to support the villages.

Our new friend told us that he gets through 50 coconuts in a day, drying them so they are ready to sell. It's hard work. The Kuna people operate as a society and everybody pulls their weight. Everybody has a job to do each day and if they choose not to do it, they receive a small fine of a few dollars. So if boys like Germain are making money doing something else, they can just pay the fine and skip out on their assigned task. The land and the farms belong to everybody, even though each individual will look after their own section. The Kuna people need to continue farming to support themselves, but the tourism industry is slowly causing a shift between the hard working Kuna people and the ones taking advantage of the opportunity for more money by catering to tourists.

German's father splits his time between living in Panama city with his wife, and living out here with his people. They have a car and his wife will pick him up in 15 days time when he has finished working here. It's easy to see why he has so much contempt for the tourists and for his son. It is as if by operating tours he is taking the easy way out. This man lives apart from his wife and works hard in order to help out his community and do what needs to be done. Germain runs around on a tour boat, drinking beer and living it up. It's hard to pass judgement on him though, because I'm sure if I were in the same situation I would take the fast boat and fun tourists over slaving away in the jungle. Either way, the more money that comes into these villages, the more trouble it will bring. I think we will be more careful about buying things from now on, instead offering things for trade. While we were all talking, another Ulu came by with some octopus and tiny lobsters to sell. I told them that the lobsters were too small. They were still alive and hiding in the shade, and I suspect that these boys gathered them specifically to sell to us. The Kuna people are frightened about tourists overfishing their waters, so I hope that they wouldn't be silly enough to eat lobsters when they are so small. There are plenty of fish for the kunas, but the lobsters bring in the most money. With no other boats around, I hope that these babies will be put back into the water. But that’s probably just wishful thinking…

If we didn't know know any better, by buying them off these boys we would be encouraging them to keep selling baby lobsters and they would quickly be fished out. The Kuna people would go hungry in the long run. So I think I agree with this tired old man, who paddled so far to us in the sun just to be friendly. There's no way that having so many tourists around could help these beautiful people preserve their traditional lifestyle. But at the same time I’m very grateful that they let us share this patch of paradise with them.

Xxx Monique


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