Everyone is staring at us in our big group hug, half of us sobbing. But we aren’t sad. We just had the best nine days of our lives in the Caribbean paradise of the Kuna Yala Islands.
The Kuna Yala Islands are part of the San Blas Archipelago, located just off the coast of Panama. The Kuna Yala islands are very poor, yet very beautiful region. I traveled there with Rustic Pathways, a teen travel group. I thought I was going on a service trip to help the Kuna people by teaching in the school. I never imagined the people would actually change me, forever.
â–º Quarter Finalist 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
Our first two nights were spent in the quaint Hostel Amador in Panama City. We toured the ruins of Panama Viejo, founded in the year 1519 as the capital of Panama. We also visited the world-renowned Panama Canal, where giant cargo ships wait weeks to traverse.
The next day, we left modern civilization for the world of the Kuna culture. We stayed on Carti Yantupu, and island no bigger than a football field, in traditional Kuna huts and slept in traditional Kuna hammocks. Our meals were whatever delicious seafood was caught each day. With the crystal blue water of the Caribbean, the white beaches, and the laid-back lifestyle, it was paradise. Though we had amazing adventures, the people changed me more than anything, especially a young boy named Michael.
Michael was the sweetest, bravest, happiest six-year old. He loves to play catch. His favorite food is chocolate. He loves his dog Mickey. And he has a mental disorder.
Because of the lack of proper medical care in the rural Kuna Yala province, he is undiagnosed. His motor skills are slow and his vocabulary is roughly 5 words. But, Michael doesn’t need words to communicate. He can express his mind far better than many people I know with a simple look or touch. He is a magical little boy and it is impossible not to fall in love with him immediately.
When we arrived, some Kuna people dressed in traditional molas were a little timid seeing 12 American teenagers in t-shirts and sunglasses. The children gazed at us with curiosity from behind their mothers’ skirts, except Michael. He ran out of his hut wearing nothing but his tighty-whiteys and hugged each and every one of us. I was defenseless against the power of the love that this young child could have for a group of complete strangers.
I wasn’t the only one who was powerless against his infectious smile. The whole island loved him. All of the children treated him like their own brother. Michael was always included in games and treated like a normal child. Many people could learn from the unconditional acceptance of the Kuna people. They even welcomed us, strangers, into their home and into the big family that is the Kuna Community.
Too soon, it was time to say goodbye to my island family. We hugged, cried, and promised to return. I scooped Michael into my arms, my eyes blurry with tears, and I asked him to always remember me. He wrapped his arms around my neck, silently telling me that he understood. I will always remember the way he touched my heart and taught me to love everyone as family.
I arrived in Panama not knowing anyone. After just nine days, I learned I would always have a family with the Kuna people of Carti Yantupu. I am eternally grateful for the memories I made, and the people that changed me forever.
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