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:)

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

  1. Ilene, I just found this and heard the end of the story! Thank you so SO much for sharing out the glasses. Brought tears to my eyes as I read it.


    • Hi Elisabeth,
      I’m so happy that this finally reached you. I wish that you could’ve been there to see the looks on the Guna women’s faces when they realized that their sight was improved! You (and the other women) have also inspired me to collect more glasses and sewing materials to distribute. I hope you’re well and still paddling. Would love to have you on a trip in Alaska!


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