June 27, 2010
In the summer of 2008 I went to Panama for 2 weeks of exploring and photo taking. This trip was my first real taste for photographing wildlife and while I’ve always had the travel bug this trip really solidified my decision to go into travel and wildlife photography. We went all over Panama, starting in the city and then over to an Embera Village then to the San Blas Islands and then the Coche Mountains in the Cloud Forest. The San Blas Islands are starting to rise in popularity as a tourist destination. They are made up of a series of over 350 islands many completely deserted filled with sandy beaches and palm trees. It sounds like paradise, but there are some definite cons to the islands. Tourism is really in development stages there so don’t come looking here for luxury. We stayed at one of the nicer hotels, The Sapibenega, which was a small resort that was on its own little island only reachable by canoe (which is the main transport system for the islands). The hotel was made up of small individual cabins with balconies that were suspended over the ocean which allowed for amazing private views. As I mentioned tourism is still developing in the area and certain basics were very lacking. When we went to a deserted island to snorkel they brought a broken snorkel for me missing one eye piece and the piece that attaches the snorkel to the eye piece so i had to keep one eye closed and hold my snorkel up and they brought my dad a child size that barely fit over his head. One of the best parts of the hotel is the food. The hotel staff literally jumps right into the water and grabs langoustines, crabs, fish whatever you want and cook it up fresh in front of you. I get a little freaked out by lobster still in its shell (although I have gotten better since this trip) so I was a bit freaked out, but everyone else loved the food!
The islands are inhabited by the Kuna Yala Indians who have large communities on two islands and then live spread out on the other small islands. Visiting the main village was actually not a great experience it is a prime example of how irresponsible tourism can affect a beautiful culture. There is a law amongst the Kuna’s that if a tourist takes their photo they must pay $1. We were told this law comes from an incident when the chief saw a picture of his wife being sold on a postcard for $1 and felt that he should be earning the money and put in the dollar law. Unfortunately his law trying to stop exploitation seems to have furthered it. When we walked through the village we were crowded by children trying to push themselves on us screaming for us to take their picture and pay them money. The Kuna’s have one of the highest rates of inbreeding in the world and have many albinos in their community. They call them “Moon Children” and they tried to push them on us and demand we take their picture and pay. I don’t have any photos of that because I refused to participate, the whole thing just left me filling sick. The culture is at a difficult crossroads between ancient traditions and the modern world. The older women still dress traditionally in their molas and jewelry, but the younger women and kids wear modern knockoff clothing that say things like nikee and addidas. When they see you coming with the camera though they run and change and put on their more traditional clothes hoping to allure photographers. It all felt very exploitative and wrong. It would be great if someone could set up a better form of tourism where there is more cultural exchange like the models that are being put in place right now in parts of Africa and South East Asia. The tourism companies could help support the village instead of just the individual tourists handing out money creating a village of beggars. Nobody is benefiting from the current system.
The older Kuna woman are very proud of the culture and still wear their traditional clothes everyday. We had a private photo session with them where we spent time talking with them (they spoke very little english, but we made it work with hand motions) and taking pictures. The canoe driver was the son of one of the women who brought his daughter so there were three generations of the one family there. It was very hot and after we finished taking pictures I jumped in the water to cool down. The little girl came in with me and we played together. The older women were watching us and I was thinking it must be hard for them in their traditional clothes because they can’t swim in them, but then all three women made a dash for the water and jumped in fully dressed. It was a wonderful moment that I won’t soon forget swimming with the multiple generations of Kuna women on a beautiful stretch of deserted beach.