The MET Meet the Guna

By Elliot Blumberg 25 February, 2015

The largest group of outsiders to ever visit the mainland Guna village of Cangandi made its way there this month. A group of 40+ made up of MET students, teachers, and Earth Train team-members hiked over rainforest and abandoned asphalt for a day of back-breaking work, connecting with Guna children through art, a breathtaking dip in the nearby river, and culminating in the renewal of Earth Train’s official agreement of collaboration with the village and local Sahilas.

This visit was part of the Metropolitan School of Panama’s visit to Guna Yala as hosted and coordinated by Earth Train. The crew embarked on a 4-day adventure that exposed them to many facets of Guna Yala - some of which are rarely, if ever, experienced by tourists.

Guna Yala is undeniably beautiful, but signs of climate change marr the landscape and remind us of our impact on the environment. We stayed for three nights on Asserdup, a miniscule Guna island that is showing signs of erosion on the sea-facing side. The nearby Gardí Islands get inundated with floods due to rising sea levels; many communities face a difficult decision of whether or not to move to the mainland. Students discussed climate issues and took part in cleaning the island on which we stayed.

In addition to environmental and biological messages, MET students witnessed some of the most outstanding aspects of Guna culture - the celebration of the Guna revolution in 1925, and a coming-of-age ceremony in full swing, among other things. On the Gardí island we visited, murals of famous Guna leaders of the revolution plastered the walls along with paintings announcing “LONG LIVE KUNA YALA” and “90 YEARS OF FIGHTING.” Children performed dances, played indigenous flutes, and shook maracas. Local students dressed up as colonial police in a dramatic and outlandish reenactment of the cultural and physical oppression that the Guna endured, leading to their revolution. The crew even toured a local museum and learned how to make winni - beaded Guna bracelets.

On the mainland, students saw firsthand the difficulty of living in a remote location. Cangandi is at the top of a precipice with incredible vistas of the valley below, but what they have in beauty, they lack in resources - most notably potable water. The easiest access is to ride a boat through a canal left from American occupation and then hike for over an hour across an abandoned airport tarmac and through the rainforest. Suffice it to say that the village’s location doesn’t lend well to importation. Despite these speed-bumps in logistics, the hospitality could not have been more thorough. In anticipation of the students' arrival, the village prepared dozens of smoked fish and piles of boiled yucca. We enjoyed a bit of Guna singing and spent time with the students coloring, building chairs and preparing classrooms for the upcoming school year. Finally, the kids played in the river, jumping from banks into the deep water.

Some of the most important questions asked on the trip are too complex to answer in a single blog post: as a society, what can we learn from the Guna and vice versa? How do their lives and ours differ? How can the Guna improve their quality of life without sacrificing their indigenous roots? Students pondered this and more as Earth Train staff charged them with finding the answers over the course of their careers and lifetime.

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