The challenges of paradise

On this journey by wind, trust, and faith, I have been swept away by the kindness of the Kuna villages I have had the pleasure and good fortune of visiting. There is something that universally touches the human soul and spirit about the way they choose to live: in thatch huts in small villages, in close family units, as farmers and fisherman and seamstresses.
They are in constant relation to the Earth as the provider of their daily sustenance and move slowly over her lands and waters by foot, paddle, or sail. The societies are matriarchal and the Kuna are not permitted to marry outside of their culture. There is an overall feeling of tranquility and gentleness prevalent and a lack of crime, as seen clearly by their simple bamboo-walled huts and open windows and doors. 

Often as I wandered the sand streets of these villages with no cars, bicycles, golf carts or mopeds, I was warmly welcomed to stop, sit, and chat or come into homes to look at family photos, meet relatives, and share life stories. Many times I was asked the same questions: what country did I come from, which state, what was the relationship to the man I was with, how old was I, where was my husband, and did I have children. Now that I think about it, no one asked my profession, not even once. Framing me in the context of my hometown, family unit, and human relationships were what they were most interested in.  The repeated focus on the importance of family and where we came from was very refreshing. Some Kunas were also interested to know where we had sailed from and where we would be going next. Placement on the Earth and in relationship to the humans we loved and surrounded ourselves with was consistently paramount to anything else we discussed.

But alas, the duality of the many aspects of life exist here as well. For most foreigners, there are standards that must be lowered and things that must be negated in order to be here. Even as a person who has traveled extensively in Latin America, I still find my edges in adjusting my own cultural or personal standards of living.

I lean on my upbringing in the Deep South when I need to tolerate mildew and bugs. In my formative years there were numerous creepy crawlies to contend with, the worst being ticks, leeches, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, and the large cockroaches that would emerge from drainpipes or fly out of the cupboards at your head.

Today I uncovered a proliferation of tiny grubs infesting the spare trash bags below our hanging net of fruits and veggies. The straps of my backpack grew a strange garden of tiny trees from the spores of mold. Even a pair of my clean underwear was found growing mold on the shelf. My feet and hands seem to have stopped molting, as they always shed several layers of skin when I go from my very dry climate to this state of constant moisture. The sand-fly bites on my butt have finally stopped blistering and itching and I can sit without so much discomfort now.

The fumes of burning plastic, blaring music, dogs barking through the night until the roosters take over, the litter in mounds along roadsides or washed up on beaches, mangy cats and dogs scavenging in trash cans, and the general chaos and filth that permeates Latin America is commonplace and I have come to expect nothing less. I arrive prepared to accept this change in the standard of hygiene, aesthetic beauty, cleanliness and quality of food and water available, yet still in my travels I find moments where my edges of comfort are tested.

 To dock in our dinghy where we could tie up to enjoy the sweetness of the village on a densely-populated, small island where we spent New Years, we were met with a string of ramshackle shitters pieced together with worn-out lumber and corrugated metal hanging off rickety docks over the sea. The backyard of our local friend’s home was strewn with trash on the ground, spilling over into the sea, as one of his professions was collecting and burning trash for the sailboat cruisers. As we slowly motored in, avoiding the metal frame of a discarded stroller just below the surface of the water, I’d try not to have to touch the posts that extended from the shitter into the sea. I cringed and said out loud to myself, “try not to think about it,” as our line to tie the little raft dropped into the mucky water of this island’s shoreline dotted with shitters.    

In the larger village I spent time in before sailing to Guna Yala, I would sometimes buy veggies from the Chinese grocery when I couldn’t find a veggie truck passing through town. The same scale that is used to weigh the raw chicken that has been hacked apart with a cleaver is also used to weigh the veggies in plastic bags, suspended from a hook above the slimy tray. Trying to reduce my impact, I’d bring my own bags and ask for no bolsa de plastico. In this case, the option was to take the plastic bag or choose to have my veggies put in the raw chicken part of the scale. Either way the person handling my precious vegetables likely was just handling a gooey mass of hacked raw chicken. Most of the time I’d ignore the proper procedure and take my veggies to the front counter and let them guess on their weight and price. I’m not a prude when it comes to sanitation and cleanliness, but this often pushed me up against my edge of cultural comfort.

Out here on the islands it’s a bit of a food desert. An assortment of fruit and veggies in vastly varying states of decomposition can usually be found. The tiny tiendas inside villagers’ homes carry a sad array of processed foods, such as hot dogs, mayonnaise, processed cheese slices, crackers, chips, and cookies. Spam, pork n beans, and sweetened condensed milk seem to always be available. On a mission to seek out whole foods withminimal packaging and preservatives, I consistently find beans, rice, eggs, and corn meal.  In the larger villages I can often find peanuts and oats. Besides those things, I usually wander stores looking for the occasional local product and read labels to see how far this bizarre array of packed foods has traveled to land here in a region with year-round agriculture and an abundant sea.

It’s hard to grock the harsh reality of how much the things from my culture have changed these that I visit for the worse. Red and blue satellite dishes dot the thatch roofs of the village; children can be seen huddling together outside an open door of a hut with a dirt floor to watch a soap opera or game show on a flat screen TV mounted precariously on the bamboo wall. Fisherman hustle their lobster, conch, and catch of the day to earn dollars to buy data cards for their cell phones. Plastic waste from products loaded with preservatives and sugar line the streets and seashores. The fumes from the burning plastics brought to this land of natural packaging in the form of leaves and twine, foul the air and fill the lungs of those who live here.

It’s one of the many conundrums of the duality of life on this planet at this time: witnessing the way our advances in technology and convenience have degraded the quality of food, the environment, community connections, and the quality of family time. The most “developed” countries are really some of the most undeveloped. We’ve lost our sense of placement on this Earth, our connection to it, the impact our choices of consumption make, and the true value of family and human relationships. We are the washout of our mother cultures. More rapidly now than ever before we are able to spread our worldwide influence by the means of TV, cell phones, and personal contact with indigenous cultures to our gadgets destined for a slow death in a burn pile, landfill, or the sea. The technological and economic roots of our cultures have extended far and wide and are creating devastating change to this planet’s ecosystems and indigenous cultures and their rich cultural heritages.

I pray for the good people of Guna Yala and other autonomous indigenous populations to hold strong to their customs, beliefs, mother tongues, songs, myths, ancestry, and family values. More than ever, our world needs these examples of how to live a simple life closer to nature, with customs, rituals, stories, and traditions passed on through the generations held in the safety net of family and community.

And for those of us walking this planet without connection to our ancestor’s ways, may we find threads that lead us back to the unraveling tapestries of our mother cultures and a sustainable and balanced way to exist in harmony within the rhythms of the natural world.


  1. Todd Cory on January 21, 2019 at 9:09 pm

    “We’ve lost our sense of placement on this Earth, our connection to it, the impact our choices of consumption make, and the true value of family and human relationships. ”

    yes, and as our unsustainable behavior collapses, we will be forced to rediscover the value of those lost connections.

  2. Jill Gardner on January 22, 2019 at 5:28 am

    Wow, thank you Kelly for such an articulate sharing of what you are witnessing. Powerful and artful writing, with a clear eye and a deep heart. I feel awakened by your eyes and your words.

  3. Andrew on January 22, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    You are a beautiful window. Thanks for opening up for us to look through you.

  4. Kari on January 22, 2019 at 4:59 pm

    You write so eloquently, and your descriptions are so complete I feel like I’m there with you! The shitters on the beach sound pretty gross, that’s taking the ‘ocean is a toilet a little too literally! Maybe they should burn their waste instead of/along with the plastic. Love you dear, can’t wait to read more from your adventures abroad.

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