Freelance journalist Nick Boulos visits the Kuna indians in Panama
Christina couldn’t help but brag. “I have absolutely no stress in my life,” she boasted, flashing her toothless grin, then collapsing in a fit of giggles.
“I don’t even know how old I am but I know the island was very different back then. We have a few concrete buildings and a church now. But deep down we’re the same,” she added wistfully, looking out at the bamboo houses and breadfruit trees.
Living on a remote island on Panama’s untouched Caribbean coast it was easy to see why Christina and her fellow Kuna people remain so satisfied. Most of us can only dream of waking up every day to the sound of a sea breeze gently rustling the palms, feeling nothing but soft sand under our feet.
The majority of this indigenous tribe live on 49 of the almost 400 tropical San Blas Islands, which stretch for 226km towards the Colombian border. Known locally as Kuna Yala, this slither of heaven is largely unaffected by the modern world and free of government influence, having been granted independence in 1925. Here, the Kuna call the shots.
As a result, life is firmly in the slow lane. Unhindered by notions of wealth and materialism, the Kuna rank tradition, nature and community above all else. Their lives are rich in purpose and direction: there are houses to build, crabs to catch, baseball tournaments to play, card tricks to perform.
Panama is, officially, one of the happiest places on Earth. It scored highly on the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index, which measures human well-being. But I suspected that the Kuna, with their emphasis on kinship and culture, might be even more content than their countrymen. Only one way to find out...
Flying low over tiny coral islands sprinkled far and wide across a brilliantly turquoise sea, I descended from Panama City into paradise. Through the plane window I spied specks of land ringed with butter-yellow shores and bursting with wild green interiors. There were several that you could stroll around in half a minute at a leisurely pace. Then there was the heart-shaped isle so flawless it would have Richard Branson reaching for his chequebook.
But no amount of zeroes would be enough to stake a claim here. The Kuna, who have protected their culture to the death, have stringent policies in place to ensure its survival, one being that non-indians cannot live or own land in Kuna Yala. As a result many Kuna live much as they have done since the 16th century, when it’s thought they first settled here.
My plane landed at the developed island of Corazón de Jesús, and my Kuna guides, Nemesio and Igua, hurried me onto a boat bound for Isla Tigre. Home to just 900 people, Isla Tigre is one of the most traditional spots in the archipelago. It would be my base for the next few days, as the woes of modern life faded out along with the phone signal.
Across the street a woman stood in the shadows. She was dressed in full Kuna regalia: a bold skirt with an intricately patterned blouse known as a mola, a scarlet headscarf and small beads wrapped around her calves and forearms. Our eyes met and her curious glance evaporated into a broad smile. Nearby, a young boy sat on the dusty ground, a lime-green iguana resting in the palm of his hand.
Nobody was in a rush. In fact, nobody seemed to be doing much at all. It was all very leisurely. “We don’t pay taxes and we don’t have electricity bills to worry about, so there’s no real need for money here. The small amount that people do earn from tourism and selling coconuts to the Colombians goes towards buying sugar, clothes and material to make molas,” Igua explained.
One man who seemed to agree with this outlook was the island’s revered saila (chief). Aurelio Meza wasn’t working on official business when we stopped by, nor was he expecting visitors. Sat in a grubby vest with a collection of his grandson’s action figures at his bare feet, Aurelio welcomed me warmly into his home, rising to retrieve a shirt.
Sailas are often tasked with sorting out domestic disputes (a local man’s scandalous extra-marital escapades were the current talk of the island) but their main role is preserving the culture and keeping the community together.
“It’s a happy little island. There’s not much for me to do,” he said, rather honestly for a man in office.
The guides were keen to show me around. The mainland, home to other Kuna settlements, lay just 2km away, and Nemesio gestured towards a kayak. Soon we were gliding away from Isla Tigre across the clear jade sea. The seabed was a carpet of plants waving in the current, punctuated by bright-orange starfish. I lowered my paddle and dipped my fingers in the tepid water.
Then I took them out again: there, just a few metres ahead, lazing happily in the sunshine, was the unmistakable silhouette of a giant croc. “About 3m long, I’d say. Maybe four,” said Nemesio as we, for a reason unbeknown to me, drifted closer.
With a swoosh of its tail, the creature suddenly meandered back towards the mangroves and vanished behind the mesh of tangled vines and twisting roots.
We returned to Isla Tigre that evening, but more discoveries awaited the next morning. Nemesio loaded his ramshackle fishing boat, and we motored east into the rising sun, heading for other Kuna communities.
The heavens opened as we arrived at the island of Playón Chico. Heavy raindrops somersaulted from the sky. The sleepy streets came alive with euphoric children jumping in puddles and dancing in the rain, and women laden with toddlers and bananas rushed from the downpour, dashing past concrete buildings where the faded red paint continued to peel.
Next, backtracking west, we reached Aidirgandí, where men painted their boats on the beach and the aroma of roasting corn hung in the air. Every door in the village was wide open revealing large families swinging in their hammocks laughing and talking.
Back on Isla Tigre, the village came out in force that evening – the island is known for its shindigs and locals get together several times a week. Illuminated by two lanterns and a thousand shimmering stars, the dancers took their positions on the grassland by the cabañas. Men with bamboo windpipes faced women with maracas and began hopping from one foot to the other before skipping with speed in wide circles.
The crowd cheered wildly and the dancemaster, a little out of breath, beamed with pride. He cleared his throat: “The next dance is Weliguale – the Happy Dance.”
But, of course – what else would you expect?
By Nick Boulos, Freelance Journalist.