Monday, June 25, 2012

Diving for Conch in the Kuna Yala

The San Blas archipelago has 365 palm dotted islands sleepily spread out in the flat Caribbean sea off the northern coast of Panama. That's exactly one island for every day of the year. I say San Blas, but the indigenous Kuna people remind me frustratedly that this government given Christian name means nothing to them. It is the Kuna Yala, or the land of the Kuna, that lulls me into a happy and simple existence of swinging idly in hammocks under palm trees and lounging in the crystal clear blue waters for hours. 

My experience on Tony's island was idyllic. The beautiful weather and water purified my body of the blistered marks and smog filled lungs I collected in Panama City. Our hosts told me the starfish are their sisters and the sharks the guardians of the sea. Coconuts are currency. The Kuna run their own government and represent themselves in the government of Panama. They are fierce in the struggle to maintain their independence and laid back way of life. 
The stay at Tony and Nali's cost $26 per night and this included three meals per day and a bed in a palm thatched hut with a floor of sand. We gathered in the shade at meal times and were met with a variety of different dishes ranging from delicious to unidentifiable, but the most memorable meal was one we provided for ourselves. One afternoon Em and I headed out into the open water with two of the men and snorkel gear in search of dinner. We spent more than an hour diving in the blue and gathering conch of all sizes. Our white sack was heavy upon our return, and one of the women turned our catch into fried plantains (or tostones) stuffed with conch, crab and calamari. The yellowing canned veg didn't leave my plate, but nothing else stayed for long.
Two days here wasn't enough. We heard from many others that boredom lurks around the corner after any longer than two days, but I think three would have been perfect. Saying goodbye here was one of the most woeful parts of our three weeks in Central America. The 4x4 drive back to Panama City passed as we quietly reflected that this, only the second place we had been, was most likely going to remain the climax of the trip. It wasn't long, however, until we found out that the others in our jeep were all headed in the same direction as us. We were all Bocas del Toro bound.

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