Welcome back to the wonderful adventures of Alisop!
(My Kuna name= Alisop, means one who brings children into the world)
I am currently re-adjusting to a new found culture shock upon returning to life on the island after I took a mini ‘work’ trip last week. I’ll give you a ride through the incredible trip that brought me to the jungle of Panama, a private luxury island in Kuna Yala, and back to the nitty gritty Panama City life before I end with a gratitude inducing dose of the reality of Kuna Yala’s extreme poverty. This week’s vacation was all provided by a mutual friend of Teysha, Jimmy Stice. He is the CEO of Kalu Yala, a sustainable community development and entrepreneurial study abroad program that Travis, co-founder of Teysha, actually participated in a few years ago!
My trip began with an unbelievable plane ride over Kuna Yala that invigorated my love for this community on a whole new level. I had been getting down about all the trash in Ustupu, so seeing the respect they have for this land as a whole as I flew over the never-ending broccoli looking mountains among hundreds of islands scattered in exquisite clear blue water was extremely refreshing.
I could continue, but a picture really is worth a thousand words.
Kalu Yala: Changing the way we think about communities one student intern at a time
Once I landed, Jimmy and I ventured to the jungle to check out Kalu Yala. As soon as we left the hustle and bustle of the city, I was in a state of arbol (tree) bliss and could not believe we were only 45 minutes away from downtown. I was immediately impressed with the program they have going with the students and know this has and will continue to change people’s lives. The best part all this is that the student program was created as a side thought of the original sustainable real estate development, which in itself is a whole other mind-blowing accomplishment. Check out Jimmy's TedX talk concerning the thoughts behind their town 2.0 There were several other social entrepreneurs staying there at the same time and being among so many like minded individuals in general was beyond inspiring. We ate gourmet camping food, enjoyed a bonfire party, swam in fresh water rivers surrounded by awe-inspiring mountains, and I reveled in the ability to speak nonstop English.
Now, back to the Kuna, but this time as an actual tourist!
Jimmy decided to show me a side of Kuna Yala I had not yet seen. I crashed a boy’s trip to a private island near Carti with 5 of Jimmy’s amigos and was blown away by the beauty of relaxation in the Comarca. Comarca de Kuna Yala encompasses a long strip of mainland San Blas and 365 islands stretching all the way down to the border of Colombia. My island of Ustupu is in the middle about halfway to Colombia with not nearly as many tourists as the nearby Carti islands, which are the most touristic due to their close proximity a quick 2.5 hour drive from PTY. Carti is a bit more developed with rows and rows of upright bamboo fences and women pushing sales far more than I experience on Ustupu. I immediately noticed how different the Kuna reacted to me as a tourist, and honestly I missed the smiles I am given from the children and joy the elderly women express when I say Nuedi on Ustupu. However, I could imagine the need for this reaction on Carti when you have the high number of tourists rolling through your hood as they do.
Mainland Comarca de Kuna Yala
We were picked up in Carti by our host, Eulogio, who actually knows Sophie and Travis from a previous trip. You can read about their time on the island in a previous post on the Teysha blog! The island we stayed on was absolute paradise. Ustupu is the most populated island in Kuna Yala, so I was not even close to prepared for the complete solitude nor front row sparkling clear water I was blessed with on our private island getaway.
The next day we awoke to a conch signaling breakfast of cold eggs and bread with nutella. The boys weren’t too thrilled, but I didn’t have the heart to tell them how fancy this breakfast is for Kuna Yala. My daily regimen of oatmeal or bread with peanut butter may never look the same. While I can get eggs on Ustupu, they cost a whopping .75 cents each! Later that morning we set out in one of Eulogio’s 3 boats to a snorkel in the middle of the ocean with starfish. It was unreal. I had never seen starfish before, or snorkeled for that matter, so I was really excited! The small world coincidences this crazy universe is known for brought Michal and Victor from QQQ, the beach clean up org mentioned in last weeks post, to the EXACT SAME snorkeling spot as us. It blew me away that right as I was climbing into our boat to leave I spotted Michal’s unique hair in the middle of the Caribbean Sea just 2 weeks after we parted ways in Ustupu. After we hugged several times, I hopped in our boat for more snorkeling on a shipwreck off a nearby island. It was fantastic! It was my first time really snorkeling and I was thoroughly impressed with the awesomeness of it all. For the number of tourists who have likely accidentally touched the coral attached to the ship, we were impressed with how much it was still thriving with life. Ah, I absolutely loved it and upon returning to our island I continued to spend a number of hours lost underwater.
The rest of the trip was packed with lots of hammock laying and me realizing how much I don’t like being the only woman on a boy’s trip of 5 businessmen and social entrepreneurs. While I am one to handle most situations with grace, I was definitely ready to get back to some feminine energy to match the heavy testosterone levels I was surrounded by those past few days. I spent the following days in the city soaking in the air conditioning and steady WIFI, but was ready to get back to Ustupu, animar (my friends), and more importantly to continue working on my projects.
Culture shock is no joke my friends.
While the relaxation and beautiful sights were a true gift, the culture shock it brought back upon my return to the island was not. Losing that regular and easy connection to English speakers and more importantly a standup shower is harder than one expects. On top of that, surrounding myself with so many entrepreneurs helped me see how much harder my projects are going to be than I initially anticipated. It only means it will take more work, which if you know me I can handle. Culture shock just kinda throws you for loops you aren’t expecting. Gratitude becomes masked by homesickness, and love clouded by things that wouldn’t typically annoy you. I hope you don’t mind me throwing my heart on my sleeve and being honest with you folks. Paradise, like any life, is not all bliss, but I am acknowledging the negative and instead of dwelling trying to grow from it, while also trying to focus on the many many good things. One of which I am actually experiencing as I write this blog post-- the incredible thunderstorms, it feels as though the entire island shakes! Being from Texas we definitely do not have these often, so I am really trying to soak in the memory of these bad boys.
The moment you realize you are dwelling on absolute nothingness surrounded by real people experiencing real extreme poverty…
Another thing abruptly stopping me from dwelling on my personal struggles are my neighbors. As I wrote this blog post, the kiddos next door aka my fan club never left my side. These kiddos are so loving and they truly give me the warmth I need when I am most homesick. At the same time, my future kids will never be able to complain about what they don’t want to eat like so many American children do. I give my leftovers to these kiddos nearly every day and I have never seen children so happy for something as simple as rice or tea. They love all my material things and it is hard not to feel petty worrying about them using all my hand sanitizer or eating all my raisins when I think that might be their dinner. While I don’t think they will steal my stuff as that is not really the Kuna way, I do think like any child, they could very definitely break everything they so excitedly play with. The only difference here is that I don’t know how to be stern in Spanish, and more importantly it is difficult to not feel guilt worrying about silly material things while these kiddos have practically nothing. I have not seen a single toy. Their days are occupied with reading of a single raggedy book and hopscotch. Even feeling homesick, lonely, or any ounce of feeling other than gratitude for the gifts of my own privilege, including having this incredible opportunity, leaves me guilty. These kids are enamored by raisins, tea, and a first generation Iphone with a badly cracked screen. While I’d like to think my neighbors are the exception, they are very much a typical family in Kuna Yala. When I think about this and the fact that the luxury vacation I took earlier this week blocks this reality from tourist view, I am given so much motivation to work even harder on these programs to empower these families to provide more for themselves and their community. They have it in them to thrive within their own environment or they wouldn’t be smiling like they already do.
I leave you with this…