“WHY YOU GO?” You asked in the only English sentence I’d ever heard you speak.
You made a fist and pretended to hit yourself in the eye, eyebrows arched and reaching as if to say, is this why, because I punched you in the face?
I grinned, shook my head. “No.”
“Por qué?” You implored.
Because, Ariel, there are Chilean and Argentinian women on the next island over. Because Nicaragua is calling. Because this is what travelers do.
“Because… yo necesito.” I said curtly in Spanglish. I need to.
Not a good enough reason was the squinty-eyed, pursed-lip look you gave me, as if you’d caught me in a lie. You were eight years old, living on your family’s tiny, remote Panamanian island of nine. I didn’t expect you to understand.
A part of me did feel guilty for leaving. Maybe I deserved the punch to the face. Foreigners. Travelers. We’re always appearing in places, making new friends, enriching our lives, leaving. Over one billion of us a year.
Some people believe that travellers should never go to places like your family’s island, Ariel. That we should be emotionally removed from village encounters out of respect for traditional culture and environment.
In some cases, maybe, yes, in many others, no.
Was your little fist in my face saying fuck you for coming into your family’s life? For convincing your dad to let you and your brother come along on our snorkelling trip even though you’re usually not allowed to because you’re too young? For showing you photos of my life back in Canada? For being los blancos, white guys, which your mom was actually starting to like? For being nice? Fun? For all of this…then leaving so soon? Fuck you because you’ll miss us?
It’s years later. I’m writing you from Vancouver. My home. The shiny city you saw on my laptop computer.
I watch the video of me and my travel companion, Dawson, play-fighting with you and your older brother. In it I can hear dogs barking alongside your mother, herself barking what sound like commands to your father; she speaks Guna, a lively, expressive language that could be a forgotten Mediterranean dialect.
I scan the scene for some semblance of remorse from you: I’m in a low, about-to-wrestle stance. You make a hardy little fist, you cock the little fist, then take two confident steps forward and throw a 1–2 combo to my face.
Didn’t see that coming. Head rocks back. The jab stings. I cup my eye.
I remember a hot sun directly overhead, a light Caribbean breeze drifting down from the San Blas Mountains on the mainland, cooling us ever so slightly, barely dispersing the dust we’d been kicking up in the courtyard. I jokingly wobble over to the camera and shut it off. My feelings are a little hurt. But nowhere do you show remorse.
In fact, Ariel, you beam with pride, which, I’m sure, flows through your blood like an unyielding river.
You are Guna after all–one of Latin America’s most independent and politically active indigenous peoples. Guna Yala, Guna Land, is your home; over 360 coral islands and a 230 km strip of jungle on the Caribbean coast of Panama from El Porvenir to Colombia.
Your ancestors rebelled against Spanish conquistadors for hundreds of years, and in 1925 led a successful revolt against the Panamanian government for the right to rule your land. But, Ariel, you probably already know this. The Saila, your spiritual leaders, have sung Guna history to you right from the beginning–down the line to your grandparents, from your grandparents to your parents, from your parents to you.
I wonder, do the Saila sing of the latest struggles?
Dawson and I were in need of supplies — canned goods, water, beer. Your father agreed to take us to the nearest island village, a 7-minute trip in his motorized dugout canoe. You were bummed you couldn’t come. Remember?
But your father had his reasons.
Nearing the village we cut the outboard and quietly sliced through light chop. A pack of ruffians passing around a bottle of rum sat with their legs dangling off the dock, staring stone-faced as we approached. Barefoot, baggy jeans, bandanas and Tupac tees; they gave it their gangster best.
We clambered onto the wood slats. The young men demanded $5 each from Dawson and me in order to pass, and eye-stabbed us when we refused to cough it up. In an act of petty defiance they lobbed their empty rum bottle into the turquoise sea as we walked by. Tourists hate litter, after all. The bottle joined plenty of other flotsam lapping at the shore.
The neglected village was only marginally friendlier. We quickly bought our supplies and retreated back to the canoe. This time the dock posse were standing and waiting for us. They spoke Guna at your father, Ariel, in what sounded like a disrespectful tone. He stopped and slowly turned around. The lines on his face darkened as he recalled what could only be described as bad blood. He returned verbal fire, silencing them, causing them to look down.
Other Guna islands we’d been to were friendly and welcoming.
“What happened here?” Dawson asked in Spanish.
“Drogas,” he replied. Drugs.
“What did you say to them?” Dawson further inquired.
Your father just shook his head. “The Guna are in trouble,” he declared in Spanish.
According to him, the young Guna have no interest in becoming fishermen, or farming on the mainland; they either want to move to the city or sit around and do nothing like the boys on the dock. They listen for low flying planes and rumbling speedboats on route from Colombia under cover of the night. Then at first light the hunt is on for bales of cocaine and marijuana abandoned in the sea during a mission gone wrong. Easy money in a place where money isn’t easy to come by.
I thought of you, Ariel, as we headed back to the safe haven of your home. You have a mean right hook and a convincing scowl. Does this indicate a penchant for thuggery? Have you already started to follow in these boys’ footsteps? Little brother, I truly hope not.
We docked back on your island and your father looked back, pointing. “That is why I moved my whole family from there to here” he said in Spanish.
At the dinner table you were silent and pouty. We had taken you on all our other excursions, why not this one?
I asked Dawson to translate. “Ariel, you didn’t miss anything,” I said. “Sad people live on that island.” You stopped pouting and looked at me. “One day you’ll understand.” I continued. “For now, listen to your father when he tells you to stay away from the strung out village and its wannabe gangsters. Steer clear of the drogas and the tourists looking to get high…okay?”
You looked at your father. “Okaaaay.” You said in English as you nodded.
After a week on the island, the decision was made to head north to Costa Rica and then Nicaragua. I placed my bags on the balcony next to Dawson who was snapping a few final photographs. The smell of fish stew and wood smoke wafted up from your grandmother’s cooking hut.
I looked down into the courtyard to see you and your brother watching us from below. You both looked thoroughly dejected, as though Rob and Dawson were an engaging and humorous television program about to be switched off, just as it started to get good.
“They don’t look impressed, eh?” I asked Dawson.
He turned away from his camera, looked at you. “Nope,” he said.
“What are we supposed to do, stay here forever?” I wondered aloud. Not have come at all?
Ariel, if I believed as some people do, that travellers like Dawson and me should never have visited your island out of respect for your culture, I never would have met you and your family. I never would’ve watched your mother stitch colourful, psychedelic mola patterns into a traditional blouse. I wouldn’t have helped your grandfather clean fish as he reminisced about Panama City in the 1970s. I never would’ve tried the fire-roasted meat of an animal I’ve never heard of, or squatted over a gaping, bamboo hatch and pooped straight into the ocean.
I’m not interested in continuing the frat party wherever I go. Nor am I oblivious to my footprint. I’m not into the staged authenticity of a “traditional Guna village” like that which is offered on other more touristy islands. And I’m not hell-bent on witnessing what no one else on Earth has.
But I confess, I don’t know how to be more removed. I relish in meeting people, listening to their stories, discovering the idiosyncrasies that make their culture so different from mine.
Had I suppressed my urge to connect with you and your family, perhaps I would not have been reminded of how people living simply, in rhythm with their natural surroundings and their close-knit community, are often more content and at peace than where I come from.
One day when I was sharing a beer with your grandfather I asked him if he ever wished he could have raised his family in Panama City, or even somewhere in the US or Canada. He shook his head.
“No”, he said in English, “You pay us money to be here!” He chuckled.
“Look around.” He pointed to the mainland, to the islands dotting the horizon. “Beautiful.”
We have all we need…right here,” he said, jabbing his finger at the ground.
If I had been removed emotionally from your family, Ariel, I wouldn’t have been reminded of this simple fact. I would not have bonded with your family and you wouldn’t have been sad to see me leave and I wouldn’t have caught your little fist with my face. But I did.
Culture and identity is our expression of our place in the world. As a guest in someone’s country, someone’s home, I carry awareness with me of who I am and where I come from. When I encounter a new friend, shake their hand, engage in conversation, share stories over drinks, teach them English swear words, something new always emerges. It’s discovery and interconnectedness and identity. For me, as the world takes increasingly more leave of its senses with each passing year, the need to identify with what and who is at hand becomes desperately important, especially if we’re all to coexist in a reasonably harmonious manner.
Dawson and I gave a round of hugs and handshakes to your family before we stepped into the bobbing dugout canoe. The clouds had parted and the late morning sun was already hot on our backs.
I knelt down to face you, Ariel. Remember? You scrunched your face into tough-guy look, then made a fist with your right hand and punched it into your palm. I shielded my eye socket with my hand. You held your scowl for a few seconds, until your lips began to quiver. When you couldn’t hold it any longer you cracked a smile, then burst into laughter. We hugged and hi-fived.
“You come back?” You asked.
I nodded, yes.
“Be good.” I said.
As the canoe puttered away from your island, and with your whole family waving to us, your father echoed your sentiment. “Come back anytime!” He yelled in Spanish. “We are Guna! We will always be here!”
All images by the author, Rob Chursinoff, unless stated as being by Dawson Simmonds.
Best Travel Credit Cards
Top offers from our partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
100,000 bonus points
The Platinum Card®
100,000 bonus points
American Express® Gold Card
60,000 bonus points