Authenticity, with a few tweaks

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Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

The inbound operator came highly recommended. The PDF brochure for his Discover Kuna Culture Tour had great photos and, more importantly, his itinerary differed in ways we found attractive.

Although, like other San Blas island tours, most of the time would be spent on beaches and snorkeling, this tour also included "cultural activities" associated with the Kuna people who live on 300-plus islands off Panama's Caribbean coast.

In fact, the first cultural activity in the brochure referenced the one Kuna art form with which I was already familiar: creating molas, a distinctive form of local embroidery.

Day two would include a visit to a cultural museum and a local community.

A friend who had deep industry connections in Panama had heard good things about this operator. "And he's a Kuna, too," she said.

So my wife, my 12- and 14-year-old boys and I headed off to spend spring break in a somewhat remote and primitive part of Panama. The price looked a bit steep for a tour of a developing region: $650-plus per day. But it did include two nights' accommodations in two island "cabins," ground transfers to and from Panama City in four-wheel-drive vehicles, meals, snorkeling equipment and private boat transport to visit seven islands.

The morning the tour began, the operator met us in the lobby of our Panama City hotel.

"VIP treatment all the way," he said as I handed him cash. "Whatever you want, just tell my cousin, Elias."

Cousin? That gave me pause.

I had read reviews of our "cabins" on TripAdvisor, which ranked them 12 out of 14 accommodations on the islands. But I had concluded that the negative reviews were written by unforgiving critics who were perhaps inexperienced in traveling in underdeveloped areas. And, one of the outright positive reviews dubbed it "authentic." Even the negative comments had given Elias his due as a nice guy.

But now I wondered: Were we placed there as a favor to a relative?

Though "cousin" made me nervous, I was prepared to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, partly because of the strong recommendations I had received and partly because I wasn't sure I had enough time to make alternative arrangements.

Upon arrival at the Caribbean coast, we boarded a covered motorboat that could seat 15 people. Elias, two crew and the four of us bounced hard across waves toward small, beautiful, palm-lined Banedub Island. The clear waters were dotted with starfish, but we soon found that the promised snorkels were not available. They were being worn by a family from Panama City who would, we soon discovered, be joining us on our "private" boat to the next stop, a large sandbar with shallow water, about 2 feet deep.

We wished we had the snorkels and wished we had the private boat. But what we had here, we concluded, was a failure to communicate. It was clear that the operator had not informed his cousin just exactly what had been promised us. Still, we were having a good time and went with the flow. (Fresh yellowtail snapper for lunch and a few Balboa beers helped.)

We were dropped off on Needle Island while Elias brought the Panamanian family back to the mainland. Needle, and other islands we were brought to, were variations on the theme established by the first stop: small, sandy palm islands, some tents for overnight guests, perhaps a volleyball net and some hammocks, and a palapa-style bar/restaurant. On Needle Island, my older son and I made use of the hammocks while my wife and other son snorkeled with two masks that had suddenly become available.

Yes, going with the flow -- until we got to Corbisky Island and I saw our accommodations. My heart sank.

The island was rendered in stark contrast to the bits of paradise where we had been relaxing: It was a densely populated warren of thatched buildings that had the feel of a floating shantytown.

We were shown not to two cabins, but to a single room, built on pillars at the end of a pier. It had two bunk beds, a small table and a trash can. An unrelenting wind whistled through the cracks, and waves slapped noisily below.

A small porch on the building faced out to sea. "I can put up a hammock here," Elias said, perhaps reading disappointment on my face.

He showed us the overwater bathrooms in a building next door.

"May I see the other cabin?" I asked hopefully.

We walked back over the pier to the island and Elias showed us a long bunkhouse, subdivided into several rooms.

I told him we'd all sleep in the overwater bungalow.

My boys peppered me with questions about perceived deficiencies with our quarters. "What's this?" asked the younger, pointing to rust spots on the sheets. I told him perhaps they had been set out to dry over the rusty nails on the pier. "There's paint on this sheet," said the older, pointing to a small drip toward the foot of his bed.

"It's OK," I said. "It'll be like overnight camp."

"I can only wonder what No. 14 on TripAdvisor must be like," the older boy responded.

We went out for our lesson on making molas; Elias introduced us to his wife, who was embroidering a mola, but she shyly declined to give a lesson. Several of her works were displayed against a thatched wall, and many were quite detailed and beautiful. We admired, and ultimately bought, one of them.

Determined to get some insight into Kuna culture, we asked Elias if he would give us a tour of the island. And it was at this point that things began to change for the better again.

Elias, we discovered, is a remarkable man. In addition to being a small hotelier and a local tour operator with his own boat, he is the local school principal and chief of the village.

At 39, he is a quietly ambitious. He applied for, and received, fellowships to attend conferences at universities in other Central American countries and won a competition to spend four months at the University of Texas' Institute of Latin American Studies. He later was offered a full scholarship to Georgetown University, but the timing was bad. His wife had recently given birth to their daughter, so he had to pass.

Because he is articulate and trilingual (Kuna, Spanish and English), he has worked as a freelance tour guide for, among other companies, Tauck, Lindblad Expeditions, Silversea Cruises and International Expeditions.

Over dinner that night and the next, he discussed his local community and Panamanian society. As school principal and village chief, he was trying hard to promote family planning.

And like business owners the world over, he complained that the government gave support that was not nearly in proportion to the taxes it collected.

After first seeing our room, I became envious of the travelers who had rented tents on small islands that seemed custom-designed for Western travelers.

But the tour Elias gave of Corbisky Island was the highlight of the trip, offering true insight into modern Kuna communities. We visited the three-room schoolhouse where he worked, and the sparely stocked stores. Naked children, chasing an inflated ball, ran through the dirt paths separating thatched huts.

On the other side of the island, a small ship from Colombia had tied up along a pier, and local women were sorting through what appeared to be plastic barrels of used clothing and other goods, while the Colombian merchant marines relaxed on deck.

An old man at the foot of the pier was flattening cans by raising and dropping the head of a sledge hammer on them.

The apparent poverty and slow pace on Corbisky made Elias' ambition and accomplishments seem all the more remarkable.

My sons, I confess, were initially less impressed than my wife and myself. The next morning, after complaining about a miserable night's sleep, my older boy gently reproached me: "You overhyped this vacation, Dad."

On the second night, Elias had to leave dinner early to preside over a community meeting, and we talked, as a family, about what we had experienced. After having spent another day on "paradise" islands, my wife and I had begun to find them repetitive, and the boys said they had begun to find them boring.

And I had discovered that the travelers who had rented tents on the islands were spending $150, per person, for that minimalist shelter. Whatever complaints we may have initially had, our bathrooms and showers were much cleaner than theirs, and they weren't having lobster dinners as we were, nor being ferried around to other islands, a cultural museum and even a (fascinating) local cemetery.

Nor, more to the point, were they learning about local culture from an insightful Kuna leader.

Elias, I discovered, had been inspired to build the cabin we stayed in after hearing about overwater bungalows in Bora Bora. After I told him we had stayed in one of those, he asked me to send him links with pictures. He had already sunk piers to build another.

At breakfast on our final morning, my younger boy said that he was sorry to be leaving; the place had grown on him.

"What changed your mind?" I asked.

"The vibe," he said.

In 48 hours, he had become an experiential traveler, and our time on Corbisky sparked many thoughts about the pursuit of authenticity.

We travelers want to have our cake and eat it too. We want authenticity packaged with comfort, even when comfort is not part of the local reality.

But even those willing to put up with authentic discomfort deserve to have expectations set accordingly. Had we been told what we were getting into more accurately, we would still have gone, but we wouldn't have had to overcome moments of disappointment.

And at breakfast on the final morning, I did something I regret. I wanted to pass along a few tips I thought would make it easier for the next guests.

"Just a few small things," I said, and began going down a list I had compiled in my head.

He looked as if I had shoved a knife into his chest. He knew I was a journalist, and I could see he was suddenly worried I was going to write bad things about his property. My intention was to be helpful, but I should have noticed he didn't ask for my help.

I'd always thought myself to be a proponent of authenticity, even before it became an industry buzzword. But in the end, I guess that I, too, want to steep in local reality but wouldn't mind tweaking it just a bit.

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