The Kuna Yala

Dicky was a remedy for all those who, like me, quickly judge people based on first impressions.

Preoccupied with squeezing ourselves into the back of the rickety 4x4, we at first didn't notice the guy in the front passenger seat. When I did, I saw a backwards baseball cap covering greasy, curly hair, and an enormous shark tattoo peeking its face out from beneath the strap of a surf vest. Combine this with a terrible Spanish accent, and the guy did not seem like my cup of tea.

Ten minutes down the dirt track, which wound up and down and side to side, Dicky ceased joking with the driver, and turned to us.

"Have you guys just been on a sail boat tour around the San Blas?" He guessed correctly.

"Do you guys know much about the Kuna?"

Not much, was the short answer, despite having spend three days in the San Blas islands, which belong to them. They'd passed our boat by in small wooden canoes, hawking lobsters, plantain, and fabrics decorated with beautiful, intricate needlework, which a toothless granny had painstakingly shown to us, item by item.

Dicky, on the other hand, spent the most part of the year with the Kuna. "I have a flat in Panama City, and a room in Bocas, but I mostly just stay on the islands." He owned a tour company running sail boat trips - one of the few authorised by the Kuna. "I'm friends with one of the caciques", he explained. "There are four caciques - they're like the chiefs of chiefs - and they're head of making decisions in the comarca." As for the islands, "there are three types. Corn islands, coconut islands, and tourist islands."

The community islands of Carti, where we'd left our boat and met Dicky, look like they're spilling over into the sea. Piers and stilted houses tumble right up to and into the water. These islands are the most populated; some have schools, shops, bars and restaurants.

"Legally, to step onto any of the San Blas islands you have to pay the Kuna. 'One dollar, one dollar!'", he called out, echoing their cries. This is hard to put into practice though; most coconut islands are populated only by their namesake. Dense undergrowth weaves beneath the palm trees towards the white sand. Even Robinson Crusoe would have struggled on these.

However, they certainly do appear like the vision of a tropical paradise. At weekends, the tourist islands close to the coast spill over with Panamanians; the rest of the week there's barely a soul in sight.

Before tourism, the Kuna sold coconuts. Before coconuts, the Kuna lived in Colombia. "They moved here years ago, because they kept having their land taken away from them. And they still had to fight over it. Until they got independence in the war of 1925. Now it's an autonomous region. Kind of a one-way street. They get schools and money from the Panamanian government, but they make their own laws, can do what they like with the land."

"All this" - he gestured out of the window at the thick, endless forest around us, extending far into the distance - "is part of Kuna Yala. They own the land 20km in from the coast, and all the way from here to the Darién." That's a big bit of Panama.

"I heard there's an island up for sale", he went on. "$16,000."

Why hadn't someone snapped it up?

"Catch is, you can only buy it if you're Kuna." He uttered his girly, high-pitched laugh. "If not, I would find that 16 thousand so fast!"

"Could you marry a Kuna?" speculated Flor.

"Yeah, I guess so..." Dicky looked momentarily thoughtful. Was a new business plan in the works?

"There are some gringos who've married Kuna girls. There's this German guy I know. He speaks Kuna, lives here, has Kuna kids."

"There's so much wealth disparity here though", he went on. "Some Kuna own islands, businesses, have houses in Panama City. Others just sell coconuts."

Paradise was not free from its problems. "Some Kuna are stupid. They overfish, they dump rubbish. They don't think about the future."

Tangled in amongst the undergrowth of many of the empty islands are plastic bags, bottles, crisp packets.

"It costs $1-5 to dump a bag of trash. So loads of the private boats just pay the Kuna $1 to get rid of their garbage, and the Kuna just throw it in the sea. Problem is, you don't know for sure that if you pay $5 they'll dispose of it properly either."

"I have a truck come collect my trash once a week - I pay the guy $30 for the whole van - and I know it goes where it's supposed to go."

Paradise isn't lost yet though. Innovator Dicky had a plan.

"I'm thinking of starting a not-for-profit branch of my business. I was thinking, what if there was a boat that went between all the islands and collected trash for free? I could get loads of big waste producing companies in Panama to sponsor it, if they wanna improve their image. They could put pictures of San Blas on their marketing and shit." He laughed.

Drawing up to Dicky's apartment block in Panama City, Denise asked him whether he'd ever thought about going back to California and running tours there.

"You know what, people say that to me a lot. But there are loads of Californian dudes running tour companies in the states. I'm the only Californian dude running tours in San Blas."


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