||VAWN HIMMELSBACH, Chic Savvy Travels
A few weeks ago I thought I had discovered paradise. I was on an island, one of about 400 tiny islands that make up the semi-autonomous region of San Blas off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Here, the indigenous Kuna Yala have managed to retain control of their land and resist development, at least in the form of hotels and resorts (though there’s a few yachts floating around).
It’s a bit of a pain to get to, requiring a three-hour motion-sickness-inducing drive from Panama City, several passport checkpoints and another hour or so by boat on the open sea. But it’s an extraordinary sight, passing postage-stamp-sized islands of white sand and palm trees in turquoise water, with the jungle-covered mountains of the Darien in the distance.
While the Darien Gap might evoke visions of drug trafficking and FARC guerillas, the islands are peaceful. There are no cars or scooters or even bicycles. There’s no need — you can walk around most islands in a few minutes.
Of the few inhabited islands, only a handful have electricity; in my case, only a few hours a night, courtesy of a generator that cut out around 10 p.m. And there’s certainly no Wi-Fi or even an outlet to charge a phone or camera battery. Accommodation is simple — thatched-roof huts, a mattress and mosquito net, like the locals.
In fact, there really isn’t much to do, except lie on the beach, swim, snorkel, lie in a hammock, read, eat and sleep. There isn’t a lot of noise, except for a few crying babies and the occasional radio — but mainly the soundtrack is wind and waves. At first, the silence and slowness is uncomfortable, but then it becomes hard to imagine the craziness of life back home and how on earth we keep up that pace.
One night, as the sun was setting, I headed over to the opposite side of the island (which, really, was only about 30 seconds away) to watch the sunset. As I was about to step into the water, I saw it — a dirty diaper, lapping up against the shore.
Slowly, I turned my head and saw, a few feet away, a pile of rubbish — dried palm leaves mixed in with beer cans and empty Pringles canisters and more dirty diapers. And then I noticed more rubbish piles, extending the entire length of the beach. I snapped some photos of the sunset, trying not to get the dirty diaper in the frame. The problem is, the dirty diapers are a part of the picture, like it or not.
Even though the Kuna Yala strictly control tourism, the outside world is still having an effect, for better or worse. And while tourists are probably responsible for the Balboa beer cans, they’re likely not to blame for the dirty diapers.
I’ve seen the same problem in other remote parts of the world — there’s just nowhere to dispose of all this modern-day packaging and synthetic material. I remember a few years ago on a jeep trip through Western Tibet seeing huge piles of garbage sitting in the middle of nowhere. The frozen Himalayan ground doesn’t make burying garbage a practical option.
I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s made me more conscious of the garbage that I create when I’m traveling. That dirty diaper was like a call to action — so I made sure to collect my garbage and take it with me when I left. There’s still a lot more I could do, such as using water purification tablets instead of buying bottled water, or using natural sunscreen that doesn’t leave a film of chemicals floating on the surface of the water.
There are times when it feels a bit pointless, packing up a few beer cans when you’re surrounded by heaps of rubbish, but I have to believe every bit counts.
Date Added: September 18, 2011 | Comments (1)
That’s a great article about San Blas. I really enjoyed reading it and reflecting the truth. I love Panama too and i have backpacked it a lot of times too. For more information about San Blas (Guna Yala) i can recommend the website http://en.travelpanama.eu ! The website is available in german and english! Or find them on http://www.facebook.com/www.travelpanama.eu !!!
Comment by Panama — February 23, 2013 @ 8:16 pm