Panama – From the Canal to the Kuna Indians of San Blas.

I am not really sure as to exactly what I was expecting of Panama….but I have been pleasantly surprised. I kept hearing that it was really Americanised or westernised, but thus far, I have not found that at all. What we have found however, is a multicultural metropolis in Panama City (where we have hooked up with an Alaskan called Robert, aka Paco, and are really enjoying his company) , and an Archipelago called San Blas which appeared to come out of a time machine .

Our first few days were spent in Panama City, just strolling around, and taking in the city sights. It is quite a big city, with lots of variety. The business district, with all of its commercial to-ing and fro-ing could well be Melbourne…..just more hectic! The Old City centre (Casco Antiguo) is a fascinating labrynth of cobbled streets and colonial places, many dilapidated, dating back hundreds of years. And the the Panama Canal is an engineering feat of mind blowing magnitude!

No trip to Panama could possibly be complete without visiting the Panama Canal. It is one thing to see it on television, but altogether another thing to see it “live”! The Panama Canal is 80 kilometres long from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was cut through one of the narrowest and lowest saddles of the long, mountainous Isthmus that joins the North and South American continents. Only keeping this information in mind, can one begin to appreciate what was really created here!

We went to the Miraflores locks, where we were able to see a variety of ships passing through; cruise ships, cargo ships, big, small, heavy, light. We stood transfixed whilst we watched for a few hours. The locks are quite close to the city centre, but buses come rather infrequently. Whilst waiting, we saw a linen truck stop in front of us and swing open its back doors whilst a couple of locals jumped in….with my finger always on the travel pulse, I called out and asked half-jokingly, if they had room for an extra couple of people. We were promptly told to jump in. As we sat, muffled and squashed amongst clothes in the back of a truck, going at a reasonable speed, with its back doors wide open….I could not help but feel a wave of excitement! It´s all part of the thrill, well the adventure at least! We later went to the Panama Canal Museum, which went into the knitty gritties of how, what , why, when. Check out their web site, www.sinfo.net/pcmuseum/

Always on the lookout for something different, unusual , or out of the ordinary (say I, after a ride in a linen truck!), we ended up doing a four day tour with an indigenous community in Kuna Yala (San Blas Archipelago), on the Caribbean side of Panama. I have done a few hilltribe and indigenous treks in my life, but nothing prepared me for this!

The Comarca de Kuna Yala, which includes the San Blas Archipelago, is a narrow strip on the Caribbean coast which runs all the way to the Colombian border. There are some 350 plus islands dotted off the coast line, and several of them, no bigger than a football field, are home to an indigenous group called the Kuna. Many islands are deserted, some have a solitary palm tree, another simply had two homes…..with the water’s edge as their fence.

Our trip began with a four wheel drive ride heading north east of Panama City, right through the guts of the jungle, and re-emerging on the Caribbean coast. The ride was…interesting…..bumpy, muddy, potholes, ravines with a drop of…..I did not look! Actually, the guide books do not even mention this road! Why? We found out that it was closed for years due to its appalling condition, and only reopened about a month ago! Adventure we wanted, adventure we were getting! When we “hit the end of the road” (aka, the bridge was recently destroyed by torrential rain), we had to get into a boat (hand made by the Kuna Indians) and actually make our way to the Caribbean. Nothing could prepare us, as we emerged into the Caribbean and saw a multitude of islands dotting the ocean.

Was I in a dream? Was I seeing Kuna Indians rowing in hand dug canoes? Was I seeing tiny islands with bamboo huts? Was I seeing deserted islands that looked like sets out of Fantasy Island? I had to pinch myself! Yes, I was seeing it, feeling it, experiencing it! It was not a show, or a put on for tourists, this is really how the other half live! And for me it was a moment of revelation, and the reason why an expensive car or mansion could and would never compare!

Our first stop was the island of Carti Yandupo, a small oasis about the size of two football ovals. And yes, we could clearly see the perimeter as the boat pulled up to the small but wooden pier. We were greeted by Nixia, who would be our (very modern!) Kuna guide and several other Kuna women. Their dress and style is very distinctive; beaded strands run the course of the bottom half of both legs, beads around both wrists, vibrantly coloured blouses with molas(traditional Kuna textiles), gold rings through their noses and black lines painted down their noses to ward off evil spirits. These women continue to dress as their ancestors did…..their world is real……and it could not possibly be any further removed from our own ¨real world¨.

The next few days proved to be amongst some of the most fascinating and thought provoking of my life! I felt like I had been transported to another world; a world so different to my own that at times it was hard to comprehend. They seemed to have so little, but yet they had so much! No cars, no TVs, no Play Station 3 ( I heard that in the USA, when this came out recently, a multitude of people had spent up to three days waiting outside the various stores to buy one??????), no Nike shoes. Where did we get it wrong? Another fascinating aspect about the Kuna is their honesty and gentle nature. We heard no fights, raising of voices or children fighting. They do not steal, and murder is rare.

The Kuna houses are basic, but distinctive bamboo huts, with thatched roofs, and floors made of sand. No wardrobes, no closets and no locks! And yes, we did keep our documents in our rooms, and no one dared touch what was not theirs. Theirs is a culture of respect, integrity and honour. This gave me a completely different take on ¨primitive cultures¨. Which one of us is actually living in an advanced culture, and whose exactly is primitive? Talk about food for thought!

The next four days involved eating home cooked food, sleeping in hammocks, watching spectacular sunrises and sunsets, and snorkelling on tiny islands that could only be reached by boat. Did I mention sunbaking on deserted beaches with only one or two palm trees as friends? On the island we called home for a few days, we walked around and played with the local children and watched the women make molas, traditional textiles (Please take a look at http://www.galenfrysinger.com/Kuna_women.htm). I bought two of these molas, and it was not only a pleasure to buy something and be given their meanings by the persons who actually made them, but also be able to give something back to the very comunity that the products came from. I gave my money freely and lovingly! I had a bracelet made for me – one long strand, which when wound around the wrist, forms a geometric design. Ingenious really. I also had a line painted down my nose by Edith, Nixia´s mum. The material used is natural and comes from a seed called jawa. They say this is used for protection and ward off evil spirits!

This mesmerising experience, like all others, had to come to an end, and on the last day, as I jumped into the boat and waved goodbye, I had a knot in my throat and my eyes welled up with tears. I felt overwhelmed…..and then out of the corner of my eye, I could see a boat with a group of children waving. They were coming back from school, which for them is on another island, a short distance away….and there was my little friend Senen, with a big grin on his face and waving wildly! He was the child who with his gentle nature and soulful eyes, had had the biggest impact on me. I will never forget him…I can only hope that he remembers my goodbye to him the night before, when I told him that on the whole island he was my favourite!

Dedication: Thank you to all the people of Kuna Yala, who touched my heart and helped change the way I view the world. Most of them will never know the long lasting impact they have had and will continue to make on my life! To Arquimedes, and his wife Edith who helped make our trip so special. And to their children Alejandro and Nixia who helped it come to fruition. Nixia, thanks for your friendship and for the portal into your world!

Ombi

Florida Getaway!

Travel is often go, go, go! Sometimes it’s also about being quiet, and in the moment, but it’s a big world out there with so many opportunities, feelings, sensations, cultural practices, and most importantly, people! The challenge for us, each day, is how we will tackle the way in which we wish to interpret what we see! There is no formula, or bar code, except to go with the heart. I believe that each day brings a plethora of opportunities, and our destiny helps with what we will “get out of ” that particular day! It has been a gift to be able to experience what we have thus far, and I feel overwhelmed with the knowledge that although we have a year of travel, we will barely scratch the surface!

The flight from Santo Domingo to Miami was pleasant, the wait in passport control was not! 1000 questions, fingerprints, and eyeball scanning! “The freaks” were asked if we had jobs, and how it was that we were travelling for a year…….our salvation was that we were Australian……”You Australians do have a reputation for going walkabout for long periods of time, don’t you!”, said the passport control officer. He was quite nice, if not obscenely meticulous, even having commented that Alex was from Ecuador (although he is travelling on an Australian passport, his birthplace is listed as Quito). “When was the last time you visited Quito”, he asked Alex.

We were picked up by Alex´s cousin Christian, and his partner Frankie. We had not seen Frankie in over two years, and the last time we saw Chris was in Ecuador, in January this year. As many of you know, Alex grew up with Chris and so they are like brothers. I adopted Christian too! When I lived in Ecuador, he was my salvation! He was my support and closest friend as I learned to live in a country so very different to my own.

We hit the popular and well known South Beach, for a walk and a hamburger …mine was a soy one, of course! After that it was a two hour and some drive back to Fort Myers, where the boys live with Charo, who we also know from Ecuador.

The week that we spent in Fort Myers was actually very relaxing, and we did not do anything overly strenuous. We took time out to spend with Chris and Frankie, who had both taken some time off work. We visited beaches, did some short walks in the mangrovy type parks for which Florida is famous, and on the night before we left we went to Sanibel beach, on a small private island close by, to watch a spectacular sunset….whilst swatting ¨nosee’ems¨ ……these horrendous, tiny little bugs that you cannot see and bite like crazy! I was not a happy camper! Not only are my scarred filled legs recovering from previous insect bites in the Caribbean and scars from falling on my walk up Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic not so long ago, but a few days ago I tripped over whilst going for a run near Chris´s house….and you guessed it, two nice big, crusty grazes, one on eack knee! As Kath and Kim would say……….NIIIIIIIIIIIICE!!!!!!!!!!

Alex and I also both had our hair cut. As Frankie is a hairdresser, and an excellent one at that, we thought this would be an ideal time for a ¨trim¨. Well, Alex went for the trim….and Ombi for the chop! My hair was pretty ratty and tattered on the ends, and I would have had to have taken off several inches. Nah, that´s not me…all or nothing…so I told Frankie to go for it. I think he was more shocked than I was! To use Nike´s slogan, but in a poitically correct way, I said, ¨Just Do It!¨ It´s very short and cropped, and hey, it´s only hair, and it will grow back!

Many of you would either know or have heard me speak about one of my closest and dearest friends, Rita Garcia. You would also probably know that Rita´s parents, Aida and Octavio and sisters, Maribel and Esther are like my second family. And I certainly love them as if they were my own family! Well, Rita´s Auntie Dora and Uncle Gilberto (Octavio´s brother) live in Miami, and we went to have lunch with them on our last day in Florida. What an absolute pleasure it was to meet them both, and Dora´s mother too, who has just turned 94. It was exactly like being with the Garcias in Australia…..warm, loving and spirited people! I really did not expect any different. And what a truly special feeling to meet the family of people that you love. They made us feel very welcome indeed.

To my special friends, the Garcias in Australia and Los Angeles (Maribel and family) : Thank you for being such a special and important part of my life for so many years. You have always loved and supported me like your own, and I feel proud to be the fourth, adopted ¨Garcia Girl¨. As all of our families have grown and expanded, that love has continued to flow! Each and every one of you have a very special place in my heart and I love you very much!

Ombi

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart”…Helen Keller

(Photos: 1. Christian, Franko, Ombi & Alex. 2.Christian, Franko, Ombi at Sanibell beach 3. Franko ready to chop. 4. After the big chop. 5. Dora, Alex, Ombi & Gilberto in Miami)

Recovery, Constanza and farewelling the DR!

When we woke up the day after the hike, we felt like we had been body-slammed and then run over by a semi-trailer…….which then hit reverse to run back over us to make sure that we were totally crushed! I can categorically say that I have never felt that kind of pain before in my life, and I have participated in several other walks and hikes. When I got up, the pain in my calves was unbearable, and it took a couple of days of R ‘n’ R (rest and relaxation) to start feeling human again. Needless to say, these two days, were filled with eating, watching TV and seriously short distance walking.

We lived to tell the tale, however, and on day 3, we felt human again, and capable of venturing out into the world! A couple of days earlier we had chatted to “Negro”a moto-concho (motor bike) driver who told us that he did tours to the local waterfalls, so we took him up on it. That day was pleasantly spent visiting Jimenoa Waterfall 1, Jimenoa Waterfall 2 and Baiguate Waterfall. They were all pretty, but our favourite was Jimenoa Waterfall 1, which was a bit of a walk to get to, but with rewarding views. We actually had to cross a series of suspension bridges to get to Jimenoa Waterfall 2, before the climb to the first one.

It was time to move on, so after our day of relaxing amongst several waterfalls, we made our way to Constanza, also in the country’s interior and not far from Jarabacoa. Here we stayed at a beautiful little hotel called “Vista del Valle” (View of the Valley) for a couple of days, and simply observed local life. We met a terrific Dominican in the hotel called Hugo, who was there for work, and we spent several hours sitting on the balcony chatting.

Finally, it was time to go back to Santo Domingo, as we had a plane to catch to Miami. We spent a night in the capital before flying out. Hugo, the guy we met in Constanza, had a few days work in the capital, so he swung by with his family to say hello! Luckily our flight was at 2.40pm in the afternoon, so we were able to look for an alternative to the USD $26.00 – $30.00 taxi ride to the airport. After a bit of investigation, we were able to catch two local buses and a moto -concho each! The Ombi and Alex total coming to about USD $5.50, and that was including tipping the moto- concho drivers! OK so we were a little crammed in the bus, a little sweaty too, and they really made far too many stops. But what a feeling to ride a motorbike, with back packs on our backs, hair blowing in the wind, ocean views surrounding us……. and then pull into the airport like this! Ahhhhh, this is the simple life! Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton got it all wrong!

Until next time, Ombi.

“Falling in love with the Earth is one of life´s geatest adventures”…….Steve Van Matre

(Photos: 1. View of Jarabacoa 2. “Negro”, Ombi & Alex riding towards the falls 3. Jimenoa Waterfall No.One 4. Our ride towards Abanico, going back to Santo Domingo 5. Hugo with wife Fatima, and children Chantal & Hugo in Santo Domingo.)

Climbing Pico Duarte, the Dominican Republic’s highest peak!

After an amazing few sun drenched days on the coast of Samana, relaxing on some of the Caribbean’s most beautiful beaches, we decided that we would go to the country’s interior. Indeed the Dominican Republic is known for its beaches, but we wanted to also experience the Republic’s less famous but, as we would later find out, equally beautiful sites.

So, we decided on Jarabacoa. At 88 metres above sea level, it has a mountain setting, and coolish climate….well certainly cool compared to the rest of the country, which is decidedly hot and humid!

As usual, we had to take a couple of local mini-vans (gua-guas) to get to our final destintion. Although this usually consists of being crammed in with other people and objects, it truly is the perfect way to experience the local people and culture. I cannot reiterate how affable and warm Dominicans are, and although we have usually been the only foreigners on the local transport, they are always willing to chat.

As we neared our final destination, really only hours away from our original starting point, we could see the topography changing: more trees, lusher, and (I thought I would never hear myself saying this!) cooler! Upon arrival, we did the usual hotel search, and finally found one close to the city centre, with sweeping balcony views of the mountains!

Our intention was to chill out for a few days, see a couple of waterfalls and make our way back to the capital. Somehow, in a matter of hours we had organised to climb the country’s highest peak leaving the very next day! A man had approached us and told us that he was leaving the next day with a couple of Spaniards, and as a last minute deal he would give us a good price, USD $125.00 each for two days including food, water, transport to the beginning of the trail, accommodation in a refuge, tour guide, and mules (used for carrying both provisions, and people when necessary). The deal was to pay 50% upfront and the other 50% upon our return. Seeing that the other two had paid considerably more (we know that for a fact, as we would later ask them), we felt that this was not only a good deal…..but a challenge! Hey, this is what our trip’s all about!

And so, at 5.00am the next morning the adventure began. We were driven to the starting point, where we would begin our ascent with a young “guide”, an older local guide, whose main job really was to look after the mules, and the mules themselves.

What would you say to hiking 48 kilometres in 2 days! The walk was spectacular, the final view rewarding, and the feeling of accomplishment immense, but (there is always a but!!!)………it was badly organised, not enough food or water, and the guide really was not a guide, in that he provided no information at all on the surrounding area. I must say that it was really hard work, and we are fit! Alex walked it all, and I walked almost all of it….upon our descent, I spent an hour on a mule….and I must say that it felt good!

We almost did not make it to the top, as the conditions were not that great, and the surface very muddy and slippery in places. But we were all determined….despite our night being spent in a rat-infested refuge! Well, perhaps not infested, but I certainly was not going to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor, and took advantage of a dome tent that we popped up inside the refuge! Yes, that at least was provided!

After climbing some 19 kilometres the first day, on the second day, we got up early to climb the last 5 kilometres to the peak….to later only have to climb a total of 29 kilometres back to the base on that very same day! At 3175 metres Pico Duarte is the highest point in the Caribbean! We later found out that it would have been better done in 3 days than 2, but we did it! Upon reaching the summit (not that cold, I was in shorts), it was quite cloudy and foggy, but we did get a very brief glimpse of the surrounding mountains. They say that on a clear day both the Atlantic and Caribbean are visible.

Mission accomplished! It was hard yakka on the way back down, and we did not get back until a little after 7.00pm. Although the guide had been useless, the local guide, Chan, was very helpful and resourceful, so we gave him a good tip.

In a nutshell, the hike was tiring but worth it! When we were picked up by the guy who had originally offered us the tour, I basically told him what I thought and explained why we were unable to pay the ensuing 50% for services not rendered! Needless to say, on reaching our hotel room, we showered and went to bed….hungry but too exhausted to eat!

Trick or Treat?

Back in early October, when we were staying with Alex’s auntie in Chicago, we noticed a lot of Halloween preparation going on! Although Halloween is celebrated on the 31st of October, preparations start early!

As we strolled through the streets surrounding the area we were staying in, we took the opportunity to observe, interact with, and take photos of the “street art”!

Have a laugh and enjoy!

Ombi


Dominican Republic please, with no resorts on the side thanks!

Cabarete? Sosua? Puerto Plata? Las Terrenas? Punta Cana? No thanks, no thanks and no thanks again! All the above mentioned places are highly touristy, and mostly filled with resorts. As Alex once said to me not long after arriving in Australia, “It’s not your cup of coffee, is it Ombs?” No, it isn’t actually! Lets say that neither of us are into resorts and hanging out with our own, on the other side of the world. It kind of defeats the traveller’s motto of experiencing the country and it’s people!

Our first point of call after Santo Domingo was the Samana Peninsula, in the north-east of the country. We arrived there via Caribe Tours, one of the country’s two national and public bus systems. After finding a place to sleep……Alex guards the backpacks whilst I go and “explore”, we were free to wander around. I should mention the two “must haves” in any room we choose – a clean bathroom, and a bed which is comfortable and has clean sheets!

The town of Samana is quite tranquil, yet dotted with either bright or pastel coloured wooden houses……a look which has so definitely come to depict anything Caribbean. It is mostly and justafiably famous as it is one of the top places in the world to observe humpback whales. They visit the region, between January and March of each year. We did not get to see the whales, as we were a little early, but we did get to see the Los Haitises National Park.

In the language of the Taino Indians (sorry, none left, eradicated by the Spaniards!), the primitive settlers of the islands, the word Haiti meant high or mountainous earth. The park is reached by boat, and rather than being a solid land mass, it is dotted with several jungly type islands and thick mangrove forests. The entire park is of coralline origin, having emerged from the sea millions of years ago as the earth’s plates thrust them upwards. What an exciting place to explore………we stopped at several of the islands, and wandered through caves, saw stalagmites, as well as some of the paintings, or pictographs, left by the Taino Indians. I felt like an extra on “Gilligan’s Island”!

Although we only stayed a couple of nights, we managed to get to a very non-touristy nightclub called ” El Cielito” (The Little Sky), thanks to a local we met. Here, we were very much the only tourists, and I must say that as I watched those women slowly move and gyrate to the beat of bachata, I felt very inadequate! Not only were they brilliant dancers….I must admit to feeling a little jealous…. I want to come back in my next life with one of those butts!

Next was Las Galeras, only a 45 minute “gua-gua” ride away. A gua-gua is effectively a minivan, in which the aim seems to be to cram in as many persons as humanely possible! No….actually, more!

The ride took us through lush rainforest, and several small “pueblitos”, or towns, where the people obviously live very simple lives. Everyone had a big smile on their face and many waved, in the fashion that I now know to be so Dominican. And of course the road side was dotted with those brightly painted houses! Las Galeras is indeed small, but it has a multitude of mind-blowingly spectacular beaches. We hung out with Mel Gibson (aka John) the yank and Audrey from France, who were managing Paradise Bungalows. both had been to Australia, so I suppose I was aptly named “Sheila”. An extremely friendly couple who made sure that I had good coffee and plenty of “mamahuana”, the local brew. Another beautiful family was Wolfgang (originally from Germany), his gorgeous Dominican wife Yanett, and their delightful daughter Camilla. C’mon, look at that photo and tell me she isn’t stunning! May I add with a personality to match!

We spent a few days here, just resting and exploring the beaches, including La Playita and Playa Rincon. The latter has been named one of the best beaches in the Caribbean, and with its multihued water, gorgeous stretch of white sand, and fringed by continuous rows of white sand, I can totally understand why!

Add fresh sea food on the beach (that’s forAlex!), and locals cracking open coconuts for us, I am sure that you can understand how we could be forgiven for assuming that we had found paradise!

Next: Our grueling ascent of Pico Duarte, the nation’s highest peak.

(Photos: 1. Ombi & Alex , Haitises National Park 2. Playa Rincon (Rincon Beach) 3. Caribbean home 4. Haitis National Park. 5. The locals. 6. Ombi, Camila & Yanett. 6. La Playita. 7. The locals with the photographer.)