We’re up without sleep on a jet plane soaring over this plastic world. I’m gazing out the porthole with wrinkled eyes over a Panama city skyline that’s bleeding sunshine across a now extinct paradise.
But never mind them, we're on to something different, something new.
It's as if time flipped and left us out staring at ourselves in old skin. The coast is long, mountains gash up from a native earth and nestle wild over a crashing turquoise coastline.
The pilot’s aiming steadfast toward a sliver of a runway which stretches over a bone thin hundred yards and spills into Carribean.
A fat-faced white baby sleeps on the shoulder of a bob-haired British woman and our six man jet smashes down on top of patchy concrete.
Simple faces emerge from rundown cement shells with old cracked paint leaving the past with the mystery that it is. The other filmmaker and I have no idea where we’re going and know only that her name is Celina Lopez.
A stout man with a crew cut smiles because he knows exactly who she is, his black shirt reads ‘Paradise’. Our bags are swept from the mud-puddled runway and he’s off jogging across a jagged rainbow land bridge into the community of Playon Chico.
They are the Kuna Yala, some of the only indigenous peoples to never be taken over taken. They are one of the world’s last matriarchal societies and some of the first climate change refugees.
According to Scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, ‘sea levels around the islands are rising,.. and that the islands will be underwater in the next 20 to 30 years.”
Most of the island doesn’t know this, and most of them won’t until it’s too late, some things hurt too much to hear.
Lazy waves lap up on the wavering shoreline and I traverse the rainbow land bridge into the community. Sandy alleyways wind a matrix through the thatch hut bungalows that hold home to the islands 1,849 residents. Each family has on average, 7 children because they are a farming culture, were a farming culture. A grandmother who is beyond the age to remember her own years is wielding a machete and tells us, “These days the weather is different. Our food isn’t growing.”
As I fall deeper into this web of life I realize there are no trees. On occasion there is the backyard banana tree which peaks over the bamboo-built fence line. I look in, a feeding mother sits with two chicos on her lap and the other 5 spin circles in the sand. Next door another young mother threads burgundy fabric into the shape of an angel fish and her daughter hangs by playing with nothing and laughs anyway.
“Hola!” they shout.
We smile, our eyes freeze in the wake of a culture shock we don’t put words to and we move on.
It’s lunch time by now and our house is a home. The grandmother Celina sits like a queen in her and she is dangling over dust atop an old beat up white chair. Rainbows of beads run up her calfs and she wears a red bandana wraps her head and is traced with golden patterns and a shark that sits over her left eye. Her eyes are serious and sweet and her son-in-law tells us a villager has just hunted a wild boar off from the nearby mountain.
I’m vegetarian and he asks me with the sun in his eyes “Queras?!” (You want?).
With regret and respect, I nod, “Si amigo, gracias.”
I let honor surmount righteousness. The plate swings out from the street steaming and black hairs wave out from the muddled hunk of flesh as I gulp and smile into the thirsty eyes of my new mom who is waiting approval. I fake it and were both happy in our own ways.
It’s time to explore and we hit the dirt road, kids run, grandma’s laugh, and a green parrot on a thatch roof screams ‘Hola’. A 4 year old girl rips by me on a push along pink pick up truck circa 1997. Another batch of kids shoot marbles in the dust and giggle because it’s life their living. I look up to a dozen men that hoist high a long red ribbon that will hang over the street and watch over.
“It’s to celebrate the revolution!” our guide says.
I did not fully understand then, but I would learn.
We’re here to film and took our cameras to the people. Our angle is to ask these kids what they love most about their sinking home, a tragedy. We are planning to really guilt trip the west with this one, you know, big sappy eyes protesting the expiring beauty of a land that will soon be no more.
That assumption was murdered abruptly.
We round up 12 ninos and a brave lad named Roddi steps up to the shiny lens. We ask the question, “Que te encanta mas de tu pueblo?” (What do you love most about home?)
His brown eyes lock, he’s frozen, a dozen kids stare into him from the background and suddenly it’s work. Finally, we squeeze out the word pescar (to fish) and the interview is finished. With a blind confidence we ask who our next robot will be and they’re gone, all of them.
With our heads in the sand, we trudge back over the land bridge and look out onto the sea towards the dilapidated patch of runway which has now evolved into an amusement park. A hundred kids are swirling around nothing and everything and laugh with eyes so loud that I’m deaf.
We drop our gear and I’m running and everything makes more sense than it did. Because kids don’t have to do anything, they don’t have to pretend to be something they're not, they just are, and it’s as simple as that.
I’m a walking paradox, kids dangle off my boney frame and I have no mind left to be tired. We can’t speak past the dumb smiles pasted to our faces and its all we need for now, all we’ll ever need.
A boy named Carlos catches an eye of the Cannon on the ground and asks to see it, in a moment he’s Speilberg, frames flash and his eyes beam. He's in a territory he’s never known, he’s in the new, he’s playing.
A wave of curiosity roars across the field and kids now swarm Carlos. With a collected cool he corrals the crowd into pose and we’re in the midst of a photo exhibition. Apple eyed minions with a Hollywood swagger hurl charisma into the camera. Suddenly the mic is grabbed with gusto. A young Ricky Martin with a jet black fade and three shaved lines for what I assume to be aerodynamics stands before me. He is four foot two and is now roaring vocals into the camera.
There is no script but spontaneity and we’re laughing deep inside a place that holds no words. Kids are stacked on my back like Jenga and we tumble into the footage of another new artist behind the lens. There are no means to ends here, no target markets or potential investors, there is only life and the pursuit of whatever; because they never cared to talk, they wanted to play, because play is who they are.
We walk back over the same land-bridge that once upon a time broke my scripted soul.
This time it’s different.
The sun’s crashing over the sea and we’re running. A’Celine, a little girl who just an hour ago was too shy to look at me is now yanking on my Hawaiian shirt and demanding “Avion!” (Airplane!).
The button is ripped clear off my shirt and I can’t help but not care; she’s three and shoeless and happier than I’ll ever be.
I’m swinging her through air and everything washes away in this crystal backdrop except for her wild brown eyes and one lonely buck tooth. Sometimes laughter sounds like crying and maybe it’s in these extremes that we mean the most.
I place her down dizzy and twenty other kids flock me for more. The whole town is outside in ecstasy, old codgers sit and chat looking off at horizons they'll never meet, new parents smack volleyballs over one broken net, and a million kids zip by playing a game that could never end. A sophisticated school boy in red shorts sits on the rooftop of a decaying concrete home. He is doing handstands and making penis jokes and somehow all of this is beginning to make sense.
It’s beautiful and I’m staring at a graveyard.
The life is dead.
Soon enough this island and it’s indigenous ancestors whose spilled blood runs ruins through this old sand will be erased by ocean.
Soon enough they'll be forced to trade paradise for a city life.
They will be washed into the sweeping tides of consumer conformity and jammed into the sardine boxes they hate for food that they need.
All of this because life is changing, the world is changing, the seas are rising and this culture is vanishing.
I walk off to catch a breath from all this, a plastic bag washes in and finds ‘away’,
it reads in red: