Some experiences in life make you stop for a moment and think about the simple things, the things that are truly important, the things that really matter….
I just had one of those experiences.
The main objective of the trip was to try to discover waves in Guna Yala, an indigenous territory made up of 365 islands, bounded by the Caribbean Sea to the north and by Colombia to the east. I went there with no knowledge or expectations about the place, the people or the culture, and left completely enlightened by my experiences.
It was my first time in Panama, and when I landed there what I saw was a vibrant city, full of high rises and crazy traffic. After spending a couple of days in the city, surfing some breaks in the Pacific side of the country, we embarked on our journey to the archipelago of Guna Yala. We took a small airplane from Panama City to one of the few airstrips in the territory, specifically to the community of Playón Chico.
The plane ride was quite a thrill! It was a small airplane, for about 16 to 18 passengers, and we flew in bad weather, very close to the tree tops and between mountains. Nonetheless, the amazing view of the hundreds and hundreds of islands that awaited us helped us calm our nerves.
Right after we landed we took a dinghy ride to our island hotel where the local indigenous women welcomed us and helped us settle down. The living conditions were very simple. Our rooms were made out of fronds and other natural materials, no nails or metal was used at all. There was water and light when the generator decided to cooperate and a toilet that somewhat worked. And of course, there was no cellphone reception or Internet access. It was pretty rustic but pretty amazing.
After we settled down in the hotel, we went on our mission to discover the unsurfed waves of Guna Yala. We managed to discover a small beach break that we named Garichima after Gary, myself, Chelsea and Maleana. It’s pretty exciting to discover a wave and to be the first people to actually surf an unsurfed break! It was small, but it was a lot of fun!
Our first night in the island, after we ate a feast of lobster and fresh fish, we sat down and talked for hours, finally freed from the cellphone and Internet spell. Instead of looking down at our cellphones every two minutes, we were actually looking at each other, having deep and intriguing conversations. We brainstormed, shared ideas, laughed... It was quite refreshing.
A huge storm hit Guna Yala during our first night there. I thought our roof was going to blow away! Water was coming in through the roof, through the floor boards and through the walls. Needless to say, everything got soaked. It was quite hilarious actually!
The next day we took a helicopter ride over the islands and saw some nice reef formations that, with the right swell, could be potential for some really fun waves. There are 49 different villages in the archipelago. The territory is very well protected by the indigenous people of Guna Yala, and the access to the territory is only possible by plane or boat. That’s one of the main reasons the area is so unspoiled and undiscovered surf wise.
That day we visited one of the villages close by. There were approximately 3,000 people on an island that you could walk around in 20 minutes. I learned that people can only marry within their tribe, which of course causes inbreeding and the product is sometimes an albino skinned person. They call these albino kids “Children of the Moon."
One of the most amazing things I learned during my visit to the village is that the women are the leaders of the household because they bring in the majority of the income by selling fabrics.
The Gunas are known for their Molas, layers and layers of fabrics sewed together by hand to make intricate and beautiful designs. The Molas are part of the traditional dress of the Guna women. They wear very bright colored clothing and beaded bracelets from their elbows to their wrists as well as from their knees to their ankles.
For make-up, they wear a black line down their nose, as well as red stains on their cheeks made out of crushed annatto seeds. They look gorgeous.
On our last day in Guna Yala, the ladies from our hotel taught us how to make one of the traditional Guna Yala meals, the Tulemasi, a delicious coconut, fish and root vegetables soup. It was interesting to see how much work and effort they had to put into everything they did. Just to make one meal they have to set the fire, prepare all the vegetables, smoke the fish and milk the coconuts!
And making their make-up takes a lot of effort too! They crush the seeds, squeeze out the liquids and combine charcoal dust to make the ink that they use to draw a fine line down their nose. Not as easy as walking to the pharmacy and purchasing blush or eye liner.
It was again one of those experiences when I realize just how lucky I am to be living the life I’m living. I am so thankful for the simple luxuries of warm water, a solid roof and electricity.
I also realized that life is bigger than a surf contest and winning or losing. It is about the simple things and the people around you, the people that you love. It was refreshing to get rid of all the distractions of our complicated lives for a moment and just go back to the basics, to what is really important.
This experience also inspired me to ask more questions and learn more about the world. I usually travel to places to compete and don’t get to experience the cultures of the places that I go to, and from now on I want to take the time and learn more about how people live their lives.
The craziest part is to think that if it wasn’t for stepping on a surfboard when I was 4 years old, I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to travel to this unique and amazing place. I’m blessed.
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