It was the mystery of the missing ñeque, I think, that made me realize the extent of the cultural leap I had taken. Before traveling to the San Blas Islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast, I did not even know that ñeques existed. A rodent indigenous to Central and South America, the animal is the size of a large squirrel, but hunched over and without the bushy tail.
Just that morning, the resident ñeque had been scampering among the dozen or so guests who were eating breakfast at wooden tables along the beach at Isla Diablo, one of more than 350 powdery-sand islets that are a part of the holdings of the native people of the Kuna Yala Comarca. A young Kuna boy scooped the ñeque off the table and carried him to the family hut, talking to him along the way.
By evening, however, there was no sign of the curious ñeque. And then, the shocking news: As they served our dinner, our Kuna Yala hosts happily announced that ñeque was on the menu that night. At first, my fellow guests and I were skeptical. But one look at the small slabs of jerky-like meat on our plates made us believers. It certainly was not beef or any other familiar meat. And as some of the guests tasted the meat, the consensus quickly formed that the friendly ñeque had indeed become our dinner.