Kuna pull their fishing boat ashore after a day at work

Limon Cays, San Blas Islands, Panama

The San Blas Islands is the perfect place to slow down, take it easy, read a book, ponder things, and refresh yourself. Given the fairly fast pace of our voyage so far, we’ve found ourselves doing less of this than we’d hoped, but that’s starting to change, and for that we’re grateful. The book we’re reading now is the famous philosophy book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and if you ever get the chance to read this book while cruising through a tropical island archipelago habited by indigenous people like the Kuna Indians here in San Blas, we highly recommend it.

After a week in the San Blas, we feel we’ve come to know the Kuna. We admire their simple living and respect their one-ness with their surroundings. … they don’t need to read books about Zen because it seems they’ve already found it on their own. The simple living of the Kuna Indians, and the obvious contrast to our western lifestyles we’re used to has really got our philosophical brain juices flowing. They’re another example of people stuck in a rut by western standards and have achieved very little from a modern perspective. But perhaps surprisingly, this does not make us question the Kuna, but it does again make us question the western way of life, our definition of “progress”, and possibly even the sanity of western civilization. An interesting passage from Motorcycle Maintenance forces some thought on the subject:

It’s sometimes argued that there’s no real progress; that a civilization that kills multitudes in mass warfare, that pollutes the land and oceans with ever larger quantities of debris, that destroys the dignity of individuals by subjecting them to a forced mechanized existence can hardly be called an advance over the simple hunting and gathering and agricultural existence of prehistoric times.

Surely the Kuna must recognize, and we should admit, that our “progress” is at least partially illusory. The embarrassing volumes of garbage left on the uninhabited islands by passing sailboats, or perhaps drifting across from the eastern Caribbean, must baffle the Kuna even more than it baffles us – why do we disrespect the land in this way and what are we leaving for the future? Our expensive obsession with technology and its rapid obsolescence must make them wonder what the purpose of our innovation really is – have we become enslaved by our own consumption? The existence of our “developed” world has become totally dependent on burning vast quantities of fossil fuels which are finite and rapidly depleting, and which now launch us onto an endless path of violent resource-based conflict – are we blind to the future when those resources expire, and is there no limit to our tolerance for violence in pursuing them? If the Kuna looked at our western way of life and concluded we’ve gone completely insane, would they be wrong?

Like most of the time we start thinking philosophically, we don’t find the answers…. we barely even have time to think up the questions. And although we wouldn’t mind another few months in the San Blas figuring all this out, we lack the luxury of time. We’ve reached the far west end of the San Blas which means it’s now time for us to say goodbye to our new Kuna friends, their simple lifestyle, the gorgeous tropical island views, and the stunning nightly electrical storms that this area is known for. We now need to become briefly re-acquainted with life in the developed world, and there’s no more fitting way to do this than by transiting through one of man’s largest and most expensive machines, and perhaps its greatest symbol of technological “progress” (whatever that means). I am talking, of course, about the Panama Canal just one day’s sail away. And so the Kuna, we fear, might have a point about our sanity, but we can’t deny that we’ve drunk the western Kool Aid and are too deep to turn back now. If a little insanity is the price of admission for life in the modern world and for enjoying shortcuts like we’re about to take, it’s a price we’re willing to pay (we think).

2 Comments

  1. Mom

    Working on Zen, finding nautical friends, hammocks, hidden bars with lobsters and cervezas … does life get any better? Lifestyles of simple unspoilt people give food for thought and your philosophizing is inspiring.
    Liked the photo of the hidden bar and traditional embroidered molas.
    Mom xx

  2. Dannie

    Well said. I think there are many people who feel as I do– that I belong in a past time where time had little meaning and the wind is all the power I need.

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