Maritime Merchants

Dugout canoes are the mode of local transportation in Panama’s Kuna Yala (aka Guna Yala and San Blas Islands). They also become floating markets to sell wares to foreigners sailing in the area. My new bride and I were on one such chartered sailboat, which led to a special encounter.

Throughout our honeymoon, we were visited by merchants known by the boat’s owners, Swedish couple Christina and Ulf. Items for sale included lobsters (a local specialty), the catch of the day, mangoes, coconuts, and molas, which are embroidered works of art traditionally worn as vibrant panels on a Kuna woman’s blouse. Most Kuna don’t have electricity, so Ulf often charged cell phones overnight.

One transaction led to an invitation by Kuna couple Pricilliano and Adelaida to visit their family island. Known as Gunboat Island, the entire speck of Caribbean paradise was roughly the diameter of a quarter-mile track. Three generations (more than 10 family members) live in two huts with thatched roofs and sand floors. During the day, clothes hang from the ceiling where hammocks drape at night. Meals are prepared over an open flame. An outhouse sits on a pier.

But cultural differences only run so deep. Over several hours, we bonded with two young girls, Elaida and A., who played in the water and sand and climbed palm trees with us. I let them shoot photos and see them in my viewfinder, and they squealed with delight. It was the perfect encounter for a young couple with dreams of starting a family.

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