Before setting out on our kayak expedition to circumvent the Darien Gap, it was necessary for us to receive the blessings of the Kuna Yala congress. We would have to meet with the Central Indigenous leadership that presides over Tourist activity in the Kuna Territory – a section of Panamanian Caribbean Coast that stretches from the San Blas Island chain to the Frontier of Colombia.

Luckily we had befriended Nemesio: a native of the Kuna Yala, a veteran Kayak guide of the San Blas Islands, and a businessman accustomed to negotiating with the Kuna General Congress. Nemesio already had scheduled an appointment with the Congress to discuss matters relating to his Solar-panel installation business, and had no trouble coupling our petition onto the same visit.  

Our appointment was for one-o’clock sharp but we rolled into the secretarial offices a little after two.

“The Congress is at lunch.� Asserted a grave faced secretary.

I assumed from her tone that the legislative body suffered the burden of a bloated agenda and wouldn’t have time to reschedule. And yet within seconds we were summoned into an upstairs office to present our case.

It turned out that the office was that of another secretary. She would play no actual role in the consideration of our request, but sat listening intently while Nemesio related a summary of our plans.

She maintained a worried expression till the end of the story, when her face brightened and she exclaimed: “Ah, adventure! You know I had my own adventure a few days ago, taking this hike… My feet hurt so bad afterwards.�

J.J. and I sat smiling, politely affirming that we too hated hiking.

Within minutes we were ushered into another tiny office space that served as the Congressional chambers. On a couch sat Anibal Escala and Gilberto Arias; the two elders representing the interests of the Kuna Nation. Perched over a glowing computer monitor was the congressional scribe, and to his right sat another secretary of sorts, a man who dictated to the scribe what elders had deemed necessary to write. We all exchanged pleasantries, sat down and listened as Nemesio introduced our petition.

“These men have come from Alaska on bicycle and want to go all the way to Chile. They’ve decided to disassemble their bikes, stuff all the parts into Kayaks, and Paddle themselves to Colombia.�

Nobody looked particularly concerned or impressed, but Anibal offered a bit of Comic relief: “Can you take apart your bodies as well, to fit more easily in the kayaks?�

JJ and I sat smiling and politely asserted that we would never resort to such unnecessary carnage.

Nemesio described us accurately as spendthrift dirt-bags lacking the usual Gringo taste for decadent accommodations: “They’ve really been sleeping on the floor of my office their entire stay. I think they’ve been there for nearly a week.�

Gilberto laughed at this and said: “Yeah, so, this office is my home. I just shut off the lights and pass-out on this couch. What more do you need?�

Then the conversation took a more serious note for a minute as the secretary dictated to the scribe the inadequacies of the first draft our letter of safe passage. Momentarily the Secretary directed his attention to J.J. and me.

“It is imperative that you remember never to touch a coconut without asking permission beforehand. You might come across a coconut tree in the middle of nowhere and think it is wild and that nobody will care if you take a little for yourself. But the coconut serves as monetary value in the Kuna Comarca and every tree is claimed and cared for.�

After promising to never make the mistake of Coconut robbery, our papers were put in order and Gilberto and Anibal pried themselves from their seats to mark their signatures. During our audience with the Congress, they had both appeared bored and perhaps gripped with a spell of melancholy, even when joking about our trip. Then suddenly as the meeting was winding down, the female secretary from across the way entered the room. Her entry was greeted with boyish smiles on the faces of both elders. They grew animated as if shocked by lightning.  As far as J.J. or I could tell, nothing of consequence was exchanged between the elders and that secretary, yet it was evident that t hat brief encounter had been the highlight of their day.

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On our way out of the Congressional offices J.J. looked at some papers.

“Ten bucks! Not a bad deal.  We can check Anibal and Gilberto off our list of palms to be greased.�

“How many we’ve got left?� I asked.

We had at our disposal a list that had the names of every elder that holds authority over a Kuna community.

“Oh let’s see… Forty-seven. Forty-seven elders. Without Nemasio to act as broker, we certainly have our work cut out for us. “

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