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San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas is an archipelago of 378 smallish islands, home of the indigenous Kuna people, who were driven from the mainland during the Spanish invasion hundreds of years ago. In 1925 the Kuna fought Panama and won their autonomy; the entire province is now exempt from national taxes.

Due to the limited gene pool on the islands, the Kuna are among the highest in the world in rates of albinism. But rather than being seen as outcasts, albino children are considered "moon children," touched by divinity, and often end up becoming chiefs or other upper-rung officials.

We docked on a larger island covered in palm-thatched huts and ate a breakfast of bread and instant coffee. Hammocks were strewn everywhere. I later learned that, while most of us enjoy the leisurely function of a good hammock, the Kuna take it to the next level – they are born, sleep, and are buried in hammocks.

Their cultural arte-de-force is the mola, a bright and colorful style of patterning worn as clothing or on small rectangles of fabric depicting items of food and nature. The women wore brightly colored headscarves, intense blouses and vibrant beads that snaked about their dark calves. The overall effect was clown/ninja/lollipop, island style – short, broad-shouldered and easy, easygoing.

After an hour ride, we were deposited on a deserted island about half the size of a football field (American) and left for the day. I laid in the sand and tried to sleep. Ricky napped in his hammock. Froste read a book. Kaj met everybody on the island, alternately joking loudly in French, Spanish, German and a few languages I couldn´t recognize. Later, when the spice of life returned, Ricky and Kaj initiated a coconut-tossing contest while I constructed a make-shift Tiki god from debris. Just before sunset, a couple canoe-things buzzed over the horizon and took us back to the main island.

The next day we were taken with about ten others to a more distant plot of sand, called by the locals "Dog Island" for an unapparent reason. We snorkled around an old shipwreck and drank coconut juice. I found some shells and made a hemp necklace for a friend. Others joined me. We all sat around in the shade of a palm, weaving away. It was pleasant – there was absolutely nothing to do. Eventually the boats buzzed back and we loaded up.

Back on the big island we met a few Kunas about our age and had some drinks with them on an overturned canoe. The island had electricity from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., so when it finally sputtered out, Ricky produced two small Mag-Lites and spun them around in a wild raving dance. The natives thought he was god. They fed us shots of a local moonshine and chided us to teach them how to do the light thing.

Around three in the morning, one of them insisted that I meet his family. So off we went, around the corner, into an open thatched doorway. Several people slept around the small room in hammocks and he woke them all, introducing his mother, his sister, his aunt. Aunt had a small child suckling from her breast. We exchanged an awkward "hola" and I left, wondering why the young Kuna had taken me there in the first place.

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San Blas is an archipelago of 378 smallish islands, home of the indigenous Kuna people, who were driven from the mainland during the Spanish invasion hundreds of years ago. In 1925 the Kuna fought Panama and won their autonomy; the entire province is now exempt from national taxes.

Due to the limited gene pool on the islands, the Kuna are among the highest in the world in rates of albinism. But rather than being seen as outcasts, albino children are considered "moon children," touched by divinity, and often end up becoming chiefs or other upper-rung officials.

We docked on a larger island covered in palm-thatched huts and ate a breakfast of bread and instant coffee. Hammocks were strewn everywhere. I later learned that, while most of us enjoy the leisurely function of a good hammock, the Kuna take it to the next level – they are born, sleep, and are buried in hammocks.

Their cultural arte-de-force is the mola, a bright and colorful style of patterning worn as clothing or on small rectangles of fabric depicting items of food and nature. The women wore brightly colored headscarves, intense blouses and vibrant beads that snaked about their dark calves. The overall effect was clown/ninja/lollipop, island style – short, broad-shouldered and easy, easygoing.

After an hour ride, we were deposited on a deserted island about half the size of a football field (American) and left for the day. I laid in the sand and tried to sleep. Ricky napped in his hammock. Froste read a book. Kaj met everybody on the island, alternately joking loudly in French, Spanish, German and a few languages I couldn´t recognize. Later, when the spice of life returned, Ricky and Kaj initiated a coconut-tossing contest while I constructed a make-shift Tiki god from debris. Just before sunset, a couple canoe-things buzzed over the horizon and took us back to the main island.

The next day we were taken with about ten others to a more distant plot of sand, called by the locals "Dog Island" for an unapparent reason. We snorkled around an old shipwreck and drank coconut juice. I found some shells and made a hemp necklace for a friend. Others joined me. We all sat around in the shade of a palm, weaving away. It was pleasant – there was absolutely nothing to do. Eventually the boats buzzed back and we loaded up.

Back on the big island we met a few Kunas about our age and had some drinks with them on an overturned canoe. The island had electricity from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., so when it finally sputtered out, Ricky produced two small Mag-Lites and spun them around in a wild raving dance. The natives thought he was god. They fed us shots of a local moonshine and chided us to teach them how to do the light thing.

Around three in the morning, one of them insisted that I meet his family. So off we went, around the corner, into an open thatched doorway. Several people slept around the small room in hammocks and he woke them all, introducing his mother, his sister, his aunt. Aunt had a small child suckling from her breast. We exchanged an awkward "hola" and I left, wondering why the young Kuna had taken me there in the first place.

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