The following is a guest blog post by my brother, multimedia artist Terrill Mast, who came to pick me up from Guna Yala in December. Follow the link to see Terrill's paintings, writing, and music.
I left Chicago no sooner than the fall semester had ended, driving east for twelve hours straight towards Washington D.C. where I spent two nights at my parents’ home in Virginia before boarding a plane to Panama City, Panama. Dad had been waiting for two hours in the baggage claim before I finally passed through immigration. Together we found a place to stay in a barrio called Casco Viejo. After dropping off our bags at the hostel we walked to a nearby bar recommended to us by my older brother, Morrison, called La Rana Dorada, where we sat eating pizza and drinking pale ales, plotting our next move.
Our mission was to get to Armila, the southern-most village in Kuna Yala, an indigenous community located on the Caribbean coast of Panama where the Kuna people have been living for centuries on a network of islands, clinging onto their traditional way of life. My father and I hoped to be there before the end of the following night to find Morrison, who had already been living there for several months working as a Fulbright scholar, building community support for the continued protection of the town’s nesting sea turtles. I myself had lived there several years ago on the island of Narganá filming a documentary for a non-profit organization called Ocean Revolution. This would be my fourth visit.
We waited for a man named Felix, a native of Armila who would help us arrange passage to Cartí, the northern entrance of Kuna Yala. From there we could catch a boat that would take us down the north coast as far as Puerto Obaldia, near the Colombian frontier, where one could proceed on foot to Armila. That night Felix called a friend to pick us up at in a car that would take us to Cartí.
I awoke at and dressed in orange flip-flops, a pair of jorts, and a t-shirt. Dad wore long pants and a safari shirt. We had almost missed our ride to Cartí because we had no phone to call the driver and confirm our transfer. It was thanks to the hotel manager, who happened to be awake at that early hour, that we contacted the driver who, despite our directions, had no idea where we were. It seemed that luck was already on our side, and that was always valuable, if not necessary, when trying to get anywhere in Kuna Yala.
There were seven of us crammed inside the SUV which drove us out of the city, through the outskirts, and over the rolling green mountains, stopping only briefly for breakfast. I practiced sleeping in transit when I could, conserving energy for when I would need it most, and when we arrived in Cartí I was rested and ready for the next leg of our journey. The beach was a long strip comprised of many concrete and wooden docks. A small navy of assorted boats bobbed in the waters before us and in the distance I could see an island much like the one where I had lived, covered in shacks and palm-leaf huts and a cell phone tower. A stiff breeze blew from the east.
We left port around in a panga seating 14 or so passengers, mostly travelers like ourselves. I sat near the back of the boat between a French man (who had already made his way from Canada and was headed to Argentina with his girlfriend) and a cute, portly Kuna woman dressed in her mola blouse and patterned green skirt, with beads covering her arms and legs. She and I frequently smiled at each other silently while huddled underneath a plastic tarp to shield us from the splashing waters that completely drenched those sitting ahead of us, including Dad. He was more aggravated by the rough seas that sent us slamming down, wave after wave, hurting his back. There was a moment when I was almost sick from the scraps of cold, flavorless food I had consumed earlier when we stopped in Narganá, where for ten minutes I ran around the dirt paths looking for people I recognized and would remember me.
I was relatively dry compared to Dad when we briefly stepped out in Caledonia to switch transports, downgrading from a panga with two 75 horsepower engines to a canoe with a single 40. The remaining ride to Puerto Obaldia was more unforgiving than that leading to Caledonia. We were soaked to the bone, with our bladders on the brink of bursting and our stomachs rolling with the swells. There was nothing to avail us of these discomforts except our own laughter and the prospect of reaching land. The sight of the harbor was an ineffable relief, as was that of my brother standing by the dock next to two Panamanian border patrol soldiers, wearing his boots and gym clothes from high school.
The instant we made landfall Morrison urged us to hurry. The final leg of the trip was over a mountain and the border patrol forbade anyone from making the climb after ... We quickly went through the military customs: unpacking our bags, repacking, and having the dogs sniff for drugs. Cornelio, an aging Kuna who still had few yellow teeth to his smile, arrived just as we finished and changed into our boots, then the four of us set off. Morrison persuaded the reluctant border guard to let us pass by turning back the hands of his watch to .
We marched along the beach to the mountainside and began our ascent. I was out of shape, carrying two cumbersome bags that weighed a total of 40 pounds. My heart was pounding through my skin as we hiked the muddy and rocky trail. Halfway up it began raining and I asked Cornelio to take one of my bags, for which I am still incredibly grateful. By the time we reached the top to pause for rest and water we were immersed in a darkness magnified by the thick canopy. Morrison, who on average made the climb three times a week for the past two months, had led the way with ease and went back down to help Cornelio with my bag while Dad and I sat exhausted on a boulder.
Before we started the latter half of the climb I switched bags with Morrison so that Cornelio wouldn’t have to carry mine anymore. The descent, however less strenuous, was significantly more dangerous. Without rocks for good footing we moved carefully through the mud, slipping now and then. Once we were out of the forest and could finally see the lights of Armila we found ourselves beside a steep drop that led to certain injury. We clutched desperately onto branches and leaves that cut into our hands, and as we arrived on the beach with our clothes and bags caked in mud Morrison said what Dad and I had been thinking all day: “How lucky are we to be together and do this kind of shit?”