Compassionate Tourism: Sharing sewing kits, eyeglasses and so much more in Guna Yala, Panama


“Loving Hands” mola

My last trip of the season in Guna Yala came as a serendipitous surprise. I wasn’t supposed to be a guide on this trip. However, at the last minute I was called to duty. With paddle in hand I sprung into action! This trip was in collaboration with a wonderful organization called Venture Outside, based in Maine. Check them out. With 11 inspiring women between the ages of 54-73 with varying degrees of experience in a sea kayak, and the tour organizer and fellow sea kayak guide, Dave, we set out for 4 days of Guna Yala fun and adventure. What an inspiring and memorable way to finish off my fourth season sea kayak guiding in tropical paradise.


Everybody in!

So why compassionate tourism? Stick with me here and I think you’ll understand what I’m getting at. I’m currently reading a book for the second time called “The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret & Science of Happiness,” by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a Nepalese Tibetan Buddhist master. I’m not a Buddhist, however I just happened to obtain this book in Panama and didn’t have another one to read after I finished it for the first time. He explains, “The Buddhist understanding of compassion is, in some ways, a bit different from the ordinary sense of the word. For Buddhists, compassion doesn’t simply mean feeling sorry for other people. The Tibetan term –nying-jay– implies an utterly direct expansion of the heart. Probably the closest English translation of nying-jay is “love”- but a type of love without attachment or any expectation of getting anything in return. Compassion, in Tibetan terms, is a spontaneous feeling of connection with all living things. What you feel, I feel; what I feel, you feel. There’s no difference between us.”


Donating clothing to the Guna family on Misdup


Wearing her brand new dress on Misdup

Now let me share a story from this trip. These 11 women (and one man; let’s not forget Dave) collected enough clothing and shoes to fill two huge suitcases to donate to the Guna, along with a dozen pairs of reading glasses and sewing kits for the women to help with their mola-sewing. Our third and final morning on Misdup (the island we stayed on) we gathered around the Guna family with one of the suitcases and the glasses. It just so happens that Nemesio’s (our lead Guna kayak guide) “day job” is at an eyeglass laboratory in Panama City, so he was able to help the women find the right pair of glasses. He crouched at one of the older woman’s feet with the pile of glasses, and one by one had her try them on. Upon putting on each pair she glanced down at the mola that she was currently working on. After a few pairs that didn’t seem to be quite right a huge grin spread across her face. She threw her arms up into the air and exclaimed “Nuedi!” which means “Good!”, followed by some other words in Guna. The crowd went wild! Cheers and laugher erupted. The joy that spread through us onlookers was almost palpable. I nearly broke down in tears. Later on Nemesio told me that what she had exclaimed afterwards, looking right at him, was “I can see your heart!” Now if that doesn’t pull at your heartstrings. . .


Showing off her new eyeglasses

So this is what I mean when I say compassionate tourism. Elisabeth, the woman who had brought the glasses and sewing kits, gave me very clear instructions with what to do with the remaining glasses at the end of our trip. “I want the glasses to go to women to help them sew their molas. As a woman who sews and wears glasses this is very important to me.” What Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche had written came to mind, “There’s no difference between us.” Once the group had left Nemesio and I continued on to a community called Nurdup for a visit. Not wanting to disobey Elisabeths’ wishes I distributed the remaining pairs of glasses and sewing kits to the older women on the island. I only wish that they could have been there to see the smiles spread across the faces of the women upon seeing more clearly the beautiful intricate designs they had sewn onto their molas.

Trips with Ileneinakayak are a lot more than sea kayaking excursions to beautiful Caribbean islands. We look within ourselves to discover how much we have to share with other people. The joy we experience from simple acts of giving and sharing become a part of us. They become beautiful memories that inspire us to keep looking, to keep discovering and to keep giving and sharing.

Here are some other highlights from this wonderful trip:

And to finish it off, everybody’s favorite little Guna dancer (he’s 7!)

Last one. . . everybody’s second favorite little dancer (she’s 32!)


Thanks for reading everybody! Come back for more:)

What’s it Like Guiding a Sea Kayak Trip With Only One Client? . . . Amazing!


This blog post is dedicated in celebration to my very first client as Ileneinakayak, Kerstin, who came from snowy Vermont to spend five days with me in Guna Yala, Panama! This winter (it’s actually summer here in sunny Panama) I launched Ileneinakayak, my own brand of adventure and cultural tourism, offering sea kayaking, yoga and cultural tours in Alaska and Panama. Although this is my 4th season sea kayak guiding in Panama (I’m about to go into my 6th in Alaska!) I am new to the world of marketing and promoting. Oh, the lessons that I have learned, and have yet to learn! What an adventure!


Hitching a ride in a Guna cayuco

Professionals in the industry might think it unwise to publicly tout that my first trip as Ileneinakayak only had one client (there were others who regretfully had to bow out in the end). However, I feel that it was a huge success and a giant leap towards my dream of combining and sharing my passion for sea kayaking, cultural tourism, yoga, and adventure. Not to mention my “subpassion” (I know this is not a word, but I’m sticking with it!) for encouraging my guests to push themselves out of their comfort zone when it comes to cross-cultural interactions and the mental and physical (and often emotional) aspects of adventure travel and sea kayaking.


Guna guys fishing the little ones in order to catch the big ones!

This is what I love about the trips that I guide. Not only are we paddling in some of the most beautiful places in the world, we (myself included) are constantly presented with opportunities to tap into the strength and openness that we all possess to put ourselves out into the world and to share our experiences with another culture, Guna in this case.

So what made this trip with only one client so amazing? For starters. . . the client (Kerstin)! I could not have asked for someone with a more openminded and openhearted disposition, which is essential to making the most of the experience for this kind of adventure travel. (My next blog post I’ll be sharing with you my thoughts on what makes adventure travel, especially to Guna Yala, so amazing and transformative, so stay tuned!)

Kerstin has an attitude of curiosity, which allowed us to dive deeper into the experience of being amongst the Guna. We spent a lot of time with Nemesio and Orais, our Guna kayak guide and Guna chef extraordinaire, learning about and discussing fascinating aspects of Guna culture, much of which I was hearing about for the first time. It felt like Nemesio and Orais were having a friendly, albeit quite animated competition as to who could explain to us better the significance of dreams for the Guna (the presence of fish in a dream means very good luck!); or the medicinal uses of cacao seeds for healing; or how a Guna “medicine man” gives life to ritualistic objects before they can be used in the healing ritual; or the origins of the Guna traditional dance.


Practicing the traditional Guna Danza

Having only one client also gave us more of an opportunity to get to know one another. That is really special for a guide. It can be challenging on trips with many clients to feel like you’re actually making a connection with someone. Kerstin and I shared many conversations about life. . . about what it means to pursue happiness and avoid pain; about pushing oneself to face difficult situations with grace and deep breaths; about settling down while retaining a free spirit; about raising kids in Vermont (hers, not mine! No kids in my kayak.), as well as not-so-“deep” topics, like maple syrup preferences, chocolate combinations and stretches for kayakers. Side note: Kerstin was awesome enough to give out a few bottles of Vermont Maple Syrup to some very lucky Guna, including our chef, Orais, who will be trying it out the next time he makes his famous Sweet Plantain Temptation dessert, “Plátanos en Tentaciónes”, which everybody goes gaga over! He’s even willing to share his secret recipe with clients. . . but only in person!


Walking around Masargandup

Kerstin shared with us fascinating stories from her travels to distant places around the globe in search of cacao, especially drinks made from the rich and potent seed. She used to own a chocolate shop in Edmonton, Canada. In talking with Nemesio and Orais so extensively about the traditional use of the cacao seed for the Guna, we learned that cacao is a product that even though is still very commonly used in their everyday lives, the Guna have not been producing it for themselves as much as they used to. There are some initiatives currently going on in certain Guna communities to start producing cacao for themselves again.

One such community, called Nurdup, is where Kerstin and I spent our final two days in Guna Yala. Maybe by next year we can sample a traditional beverage made with cacao, corn and sugar cane juice, all grown in Guna Yala. The Guna have just as much of a “keep it local” attitude as is gaining momentum all over the world. However, they’re taking it one step further to “keep it Guna”!


The two happy kayak guides on Nurdup

And of course we went sea kayaking! This was, after all, a sea kayaking trip in the beautiful Caribbean. Kerstin hadn’t done much paddling prior to this trip and she truly did an incredible job handling her sea kayak in conditions that were not exactly beginner-friendly. We experienced some strong winds and choppy water, however, I had confidence that she could handle it! Orais was the only one to flip his kayak! Kerstin remained upright and (I’m hoping!) gained some confidence in herself to step out of her comfort zone and push herself. Maybe a new kayak is in her future (if she dreams about kayaks and fish!).

We also practiced yoga on the beach, sipped on coconuts, paddled in a beautiful river, did a lot of mola shopping on all the islands that we visited, practiced the Guna traditional Danza, went snorkeling, sampled Guna culinary delights, and spent time relaxing in hammocks and sitting on white sandy beaches. . .

Thank you, Kerstin, for a wonderful trip! I hope to see you again in Guna Yala with your family. And thank you readers for joining Ileneinakayak! More blog posts to come, including getting ramped up for Summer 2017 in Alaska!