This blog, if it can be described as a blog yet, is predominantly about places and people. I was lucky enough a few days ago to meet a man from somewhere I’d never heard of: Playon Chico, one of the islands in Guna Yala, Panama, (or, as he wrote it, Kuna Yala). Although we were conversing in Spanish – slowly, on my part – he told me that his first language is the Kuna language, his second Spanish. He spoke very clearly, and with many illustrative hand gestures that made him easy to understand. Occasionally, he would practice the odd English phrase, and said that his father learned to speak it fluently from listening to tourists’ conversations while working as a mechanic near the Panama Canal. It became clear after a few minutes that he was extremely intelligent, perceptive, and interested in much of the world; particularly in the histories of ancient civilisations in Europe and the Americas.
We discussed as best we could our respective cultures and this region of Central America; how capitalism and material greed encourage values to be compromised. He mentioned how his mother looks very traditional, with a nose ring; how the males in his community wear stretched piercings in their ear lobes, (he pointed out his own, which are small and neat); and how the younger generations sometimes cut or shave their hair in styles to fit in with other Spanish influences. His hair is beautiful: thick, straight, shining black and very long. He also spoke about the racism he experiences within Panama, from some groups more than others, and tried to explain to me about which words were better to use to describe the Kuna people. I think he said aborigen and nativo are preferable to indígena, possibly the latter is offensive, but my Spanish was not up to the translation.
It was the most stimulating talk I’ve had in a while, and unexpected considering the amount of Panamanian beer I was serving at the bar that evening. It’s so strange: the more I’ve been planning different areas to visit, the more I feel like I am learning about the geography of this continent. And yet there is such a vast number of places that I’ve never even heard named, let alone had any perception of their inhabitants – the ones far away from tourist destinations, or simply overlooked with Western ignorance. As someone, maybe Socrates, claimed, “the more I learn, the more I learn how little I know”. In crossing the relatively short distance from Costa Rica to the west of Panama the difference was palpable, so the thought of much larger and more diverse countries to come is at once daunting and exciting. I am starting to obtain a clearer view of where I’d like to aim for: I love the proximity of mountains, and rivers or the ocean are close to a necessity, especially since remaining in the Central Valley for so long. The movement of water is calming and sublime in equal measure; as is the experience of looking down from a cliff or a mountain’s summit, feeling the rush of air across your face steal your breath and imagining you are at the end of the world. I’m looking at you, Colorado.
I think the smaller things are the reminders of being away from the UK. Fireflies, miniscule and glowing, tracked by eyes from the dreamy reclines of hammocks at night. Flowers on trees: why do we never talk about flowers on trees? I don’t mean cherry blossom, which, don’t get me wrong, is one of the planet’s great beauties, but rather the huge, vibrant ones that spring at you from branches and spill out to the roads. Hibiscus, everywhere; and tiny red flowers with four petals that come in clusters, the ones I love the most. The colours are intensified with rain; as plants scream that they are scarlet, orange and violet, and the ground saturates as the sound crescendos to a roar. It’s raining now, tropical rain, and the smell is earthy and fresh, the world turning darker and green: the first I’ve seen in weeks, with the last being only a brief shower after a fortnight of none. It wakes up the senses – there is so much to see, and so much to see again with new eyes. On that note, the first thing I noticed on making an internet search for ‘Kuna Yala’ was the image on the side of a related web page: an orange flag marked with the swastika symbol. A second glance showed the arms to be oriented in the opposite direction to that which many of us are accustomed to seeing, and necessitated some further reading. I had never come across any of the other significances of the shape before, with a different name or when the branches turn anti-clockwise, some of which are in Hinduism, Buddhism, and many more pre-20th century. It can represent goodness, luck, creation, the Sun. It still makes me uneasy to look at, but is just one more subject of which I have much to find out.
The man from the bar is restless, and likes to move around. He was back here yesterday, playing Jenga and talking about the drug trade and how cocaine has affected the traditional areas of Panama. The subject reminded me of Island, by Aldous Huxley: “here and now, boys, here and now”, and its devastating final pages. And since his island is somewhere I’m unlikely to go to in the near future, it also brought back the words of one particular Tico who worked and lived at the finca. He explained how, since he is unable to travel, he likes to talk to foreigners because that is the closest he can come to experiencing their ways of life. This also meant he had a tendency to ask fairly personal questions at inappropriate moments: he wanted to gather as much information as he could. It was an interesting viewpoint and a profound one. Relationships in short spaces of time, shared conversations, shared memories – sometimes they hurt. There is a saying that “sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down”; but sometimes they are just there to steady your fall.