Try to Imagine- Part One

boat ride looking at the operator and ahead in the river

Try to imagine a different universe. Or maybe a time-warp. No electricity. No plumbing. No telephones. No television. One-room huts. Little people mostly less than 5 feet tall.

We fly into this world in a small airplane that seems to be very old. We fly over the central hills of Panama from the Pacific side of the Isthmus to the Caribbean side, circling slowly over forest broken by plantations of palm trees. The plane is descending, but we see no airport, no landing strip. Then the plane slows even more and we finally see a small alley between trees, a dirt strip. The strip is bordered on either side by a low, flimsy bamboo fence, topped at intervals by white plastic bottles. I am glad we are landing in daylight. I can see through the pilot's window in front of me that the strip ends in the green sea. If the pilot doesn't stop the plane soon, we will all be in the green sea! But he does stop the plane right near the edge of the land. The pilot gets out and unfolds a few steps for us under the doorway of the plane, then opens a hatch where our bags were stowed. We jump out of the plane, grab our belongings, and turn to face what?

There is no airport, no official-looking people waiting, no one to check our papers. There's a roofed-over concrete platform, without sign or door, or anything. Our ticket says our destination is Achutupo, but we see no community. Two small people smile at us and collect all our bags, rushing down to a very old, large blue wooden canoe. We are wrapped in life jackets and helped over a rickety narrow dock and into the canoe. Our guide, Jasmina, stands on the bow of the canoe and waves to friends. We have arrived in the San Blas Islands, where we will be the guests of the Kuna community, where most people are not quite 5 feet tall, and the native dress is very colorful and distinctive.

The canoe's motor is started and we shove off from the dock, into the sea, pointed toward a group of small islands. As we approach the biggest island, we see many huts made of bamboo with thatched roofs. The huts are close together, and the island seems to be completely covered by huts, with coconut palm trees among them providing shade. A few large boats with laundry drying form additional housing at the edge of the island. Our canoe is steered past this island to a much smaller island where a sign says, "Dolphin Cabins Hotel." We are helped up out of the canoe and onto the island. At our hotel there are several cabins made of bamboo with concrete floors, beds, and not much else. A small alcove in each cabin contains a shower, flush toilet, and a sink. Later we learn that this is the only plumbing in a large area of many islands. On the other islands we notice little huts on the ends of short docks over the water. These turn out to be outhouses.

Out the back door of our cabin the deep blue Caribbean crashes gently against a low wall of broken bleached coral. A small porch with a hammock provides a lovely place for a nap. The wind blows off the water, cool and fresh-smelling. In the evening we also learn that the water is phosphorescent. This means that magically at night the waves sparkle and glow with bright little flashes of light wherever the waves start to break. The magic is actually a microorganism that lives in tropical waters, many millions of them, that are stimulated to produce their own light when they get extra oxygen at the mixing of water and air in the crashing waves. They use a cool, chemical source of light very much like fireflies and glow-worms, or what is put into "Cya-Lume" glowing light sticks for emergency use on roadways (not the ones that are like sparklers). Knowing what causes the phosphorescent waves does not reduce the sense of magic.

Our hotel is on an island that is among over 360 islands that were formed by small coral animals. The coral animals created reefs of rock-like material that shelter lagoons, and make a complex environment for fishes, crabs, lobsters, and other marine organisms. As old coral reefs broke down and crumbled in the surf, they formed coarse whitish sand that creates beaches at the edges of the islands. The living coral under the water surrounding the islands has grown into big hills and valleys where fish can live and raise their young. Sponges (the real, live ones), starfish, snails, conch, sea urchins, lobsters, crabs, and many other types of invertebrates live on the coral reefs. The corals themselves are small animals like anemones, with tentacles and stinging structures that they can use to catch even smaller prey. The water is teeming with microscopic life that forms the basis of the food web in this clear water. This is a very busy place!

The Kuna are small, mostly dark-haired, brown-skinned people who have lived in Panama for many generations: one of the several indigenous tribes. They used to live on the mainland, but about a hundred years ago they moved most of their sub-tribes onto the islands. They have maintained a government, language, and culture separate from the rest of Panama. Their population contains genes for albinism, the condition of having no brown skin pigmentation. Those who have two genes for albinism are pink-skinned, and have yellow-colored hair. They have to stay out of the sunlight because they burn easily, do not ever tan, and the bright light hurts their eyes. They are considered very special people in their society, with leadership potential. We will spend two days learning what we can about Kuna society and the ecology of the San Blas Islands.

Greg and I came to the San Blas, along with Anna Mazzaro, for a short vacation. Anna works with me at Montclair State University as a workshop presenter for science teaching, and has herself taught elementary school both in the US and in Uruguay. She has been our field assistant on this trip, as well as RFC Spanish translator, and has written some journal entries for you. Another entry will tell you a little more about life among the San Blas Islands.


cockpit of a plane
hills in Panama
at the zoo
flooded dock
woman on shoreline of the river
looking out at an island from the shore
hotel courtyard
inside the cabin
view outside from the doorway
palm tree on the beach
coral and sponge
person holding a hermit crab
Anna with a Gecko