Step 2 in getting to Panama (the hard part): Nausea-inducing island hopping (Kuna Yala/San Blas) with the tuberculosis researchers

kuna yala molaAfter arriving in Puerto Olbaldia (for the first part of the trip from Colombia to Panama click here), the first port on the Panamanian side and a fairly depressing, lifeless, and beachless village, I realized I had only about 20 dollars in my pocket and zero access to banks until getting to Panama City. Since all of the towns are so isolated in the Darien region there are no ATMs, something I hadn't really bothered to research before leaving from Colombia. I needed to make it a long distance up the coast to the nearest town that had a road connection to Panama City (apparently a 5-14 hr boat ride depending on who you talked to) that would cost me at least forty dollars. When I arrived at Puerto Olbaldia I got my entry stamp in my passport to Panama from an incredibly rude immigration officer and walked down to the dock to figure something out. There were a few ships in the harbor going in the right direction over the next few days, but most of them weren't permitted to carry passengers. In terms of the small boats that were allowed to carry passengers, I was informed that they might come, they might not, they might be full, they might not, they might be willing to take me for the cash that I had, they might not...basically a lot of information that was totally...

...useless and meant that I would be sitting at the heavily-littered dock area for a while waiting for boats.

Later in the afternoon I was told no more boats were coming and started heading back to town to find somewhere to put my tent when a doctor came to grab something from the local medical post's boat. He was struggling with the cover, so I asked him if he needed help and we started chatting for a little bit. I told him my situation and he said there was supposed to be a tuberculosis survey team coming from Panama City in boat tomorrow and that I might be able to ride along with them. It was encouraging news, and we ended up chatting for a long while. He treated me to some soup since he saw I was a bit hungry from trying to conserve money and gave me some great advice on things to see in Panama (time permitting). Jacob was Jewish and grew up in Panama City, and his English was superb with hardly an accent and better at colloquialisms than I was (he attributed it to Seinfeld). I thanked him for his help later that night and pitched my tent near the water on some grass, and falling asleep to the ocean grumble was a nice counter to the mild anxiety I was feeling about how I was supposed to get out of an isolated jungle town on the border of Panama.

I got up early the next day to make sure I would be able to catch any boats coming through, and at around 8am the research team arrived. I asked them about carrying an extra passenger and the lead doctor said it would be fine. I asked about the price, and he just said "tranquilo", the Spanish equivalent of "no worries". I wasn't sure about what that meant, but happy because it probably meant they could accomodate my meager budget. Around 10am we set off in a tiny boat with 6 people including me and all of their supplies. The boat wasn't really that small, maybe around 20 feet, but with 3 meter swells and getting drenched every wave made the boat feel quite small. The team was basically in charge of going from village to village and gathering data on case rate of tuberculosis, a rising problem in the area. I was excited to be able to tag along and see the villages and learn about the work they were doing, and the sore butt and constant wetness were worth the tradeoff. Plus, after repeated attempts to get a price out of Dr. Lopez, the head doctor, and explaining my financial situation, his reluctance to give a price indicated that he probably was going to let me come along for free.

He said the trip was going to take two days, and I was more than happy to have the opportunity to island hop in the outrageously beautiful Kuna Yala islands (formerly known as San Blas). There are 300 some odd islands, only a fraction of which are inhabited, and essentially all look like those surreal islands you see in magazines and television. I was taken aback by the first village we stopped in, Carreto (aka Armila), where the women had ornate leg beads, nose piercings, and clothing. All of the houses were made out of sticks and palm leaves, a bit shaky looking but adequate for the tropical paradise they were the original inhabitants of. After a few more villages like that the shock value wore away but was equally intriguing, and with names like Yansiptiwar, Ailigandi, and Ganirdup I had to repeatedly ask the names of the places we were stopping. We spent all the first day and second day doing the same, which with the strong sun, rough seas, and helping with carrying equipment and dropping off medical supplies left me exhausted. Doctor Lopez was incredibly fun to talk to and quite interesting; after spending 12 years in The Ukraine and traveling extensively, he had some interesting perspectives on his home country of Panama and its relation with the world. I studied Microbiology in the university and even taught a mini-course in which we covered modern tuberculosis, so we had a pretty large base of esoteric common ground to carry us along in long conversations.

When we got to Carti, the port with a connection to Panama City, he told me he had to give a presentation on tuberculosis on a nearby island called Porvenir and invited me to come along. I was tired and just wanted to get going, but out of politeness I said yes. Although initially reluctant, I was glad I went along when I saw the island's picture-perfect blue-green waters, elegant palm trees, and the fact that it was about a kilometer in circumference gave it that charming-as-hell private island feel. There was hardly anyone on the island, and I couldn't help but relax as soon as I got there. He gave his presentation later that day (quite interesting) to crowd of about 20, basically the only people on the island minus local inhabitants that numbered around 10. I set up my tent on the beach and crashed for the night after eating a bit, and the next morning we headed to Carti and grabbed a jeep to Panama City. Arriving I couldn't thank Doctor Lopez enough for his kindness, and traded up contact info. I still had more than 10 dollars in my pocket.

My tent on the coast in Puerto Olbaldia, in basically the only nice place in the whole town.
The yellow boat in the back is one I took with the researchers.
Typical Kuna architecture in the first village we stopped off in.
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The famed Kuna mola, ornate piece of cloth artwork.
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Dr. Lopez giving his talk on tuberculosis.
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My tent on the coast in Puerto Olbaldia, in basically the only nice place in the whole town.
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