Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Paradise Found!

In my opinion – I am a traveler more than a sailor - the main reason to have a sailboat is to visit out of the way places that are interesting, attractive and only accessible by boat. The San Blas islands in Panama surely fit that description. The culture and lifestyle of the Kuna Indians is unique and the uninhabited islands are picture perfect with tons of healthy palm trees, white sand beaches and clear water away from mainland Panama. There are hundreds of places to explore, above and under water and even though one might think “If you’ve seen a couple of these pretty islands, you’ve seen them all”, Mark and I are certainly not sick of the view from our cockpit yet!

Apart from the usual chores and little jobs, our days are filled with reading, swimming, snorkeling, walking around little islands, relaxing and sailing the flat waters between destinations. The distances are as short or as long as we want and the wind has been steady every day. Most days are sunny with a temperature of around 82°F (28°C), ideal for visitors, but a bit chilly for us, actually. We usually sit in the sun for a bit, before diving into the sea for a shower or a swim. All around us, we see monohulls and catamarans with charter guests, family and friends. The San Blas is sure a great area for a vacation of exotic bliss!

How does one get water, food or power in this primitive area of the world? There is a town called Rio Azucar, where faucets “on the street” have running water 24 hours a day (which the villagers are very proud of) and where cruisers can bring their boat or jerrycans to the dock to buy potable water. Or, you can take your dinghy three miles up the Rio Diablo near Nargana/Corazon de Jesus to catch clean upriver water in jerrycans and jugs. Chicken, eggs, fruit (like pineapples, limes and sometimes bananas and apples), and vegetables (like cabbage, tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers, onions, potatoes, carrots and sometimes celery, christophene, breadfruit, zucchini and eggplant) are available in Nargana. In the diverse anchorages, Kunas sail, motor or paddle by in their ulus with the catch of the day (lobster, crabs or fish) or other staples like beer, coke, milk, wine in boxes or eggs. If you are very lucky, the “veggie boat” pays you a visit with a wealth of healthy produce. Unfortunately, this delightful sight has only appeared once to us in a month.

Mark and I got lucky in a different way, with the arrival of Matt (an old friend from St. Martin) and Hilary on the catamaran Mojomo. Hilary, a chef on mega yachts, needed to “practice” her cooking skills and we were totally out of food, so that was a great combination and coincidence. A couple of fun and tasty evenings lasted till the wee hours! We are still catching up on rest and therefore will not be able to do much more than relax and sleep the coming days…

Brain coral under water (photo courtesy of Axel Busch)

Mark and Liesbet on tiny "Two Palm" island

Kunas getting ready to sail back to their village from the off lying islands

Coco Bandero

Caribbean BBQ lobster dish on Irie

Succulent steak dinner with Matt and Hilary on Mojomo

Egg and milk delivery...

New York Style pizzas - with a skimpy ingredient list - on Irie

Monday, January 23, 2012

Meeting up with SV Gudrun

Green Island lacks a nice beach, but it is filled to the brim with healthy palm trees and looks very picturesque. It is a popular anchorage in the San Blas, with its protection from the swell, constant breeze, small tropical sister island to the south and its close proximity to Rio Azucar, where one can fill up with water and to Nargana, the village with fresh produce. Mark and I had parked Irie well away from all the other cruisers for some privacy and peace, but soon enough our area filled up as well. From the moment one boat “claims” a piece of water, others follow.

About a week ago, we were watching the movement of sailboats heading between islands and arriving in Green Island. It was the day we wanted to re-anchor half a mile south at Waisaladup, but we decided to wait a bit until the commotion was over. When yet another boat approached Green Island, Mark took out the binoculars and gave a broad smile. It was Gudrun, arriving from Santa Marta (Colombia) after a long and bumpy voyage. Mark guided them in and soon enough, we caught up with our friends Axel and Liz. Axel is from Germany and he was the photographer at our wedding in St. Martin, last April, and his fiancée Liz was born in New Zealand, which is where Gudrun is headed. The four of us moved to exotic Waisaladup for a few wonderful days, before sailing to Coco Bandero for a change of scenery.

The week that followed had us eat big amounts of delicious food and had us talk and hang out for hours on end, whether it was on one of our boats or on a deserted island. Fresh lobster and leftover dinners on Irie, followed by a big brunch the next day, scrumptious home-made New York style pizzas on Gudrun, a variety of goodies for lunch and a healthy pasta dish and fried garlic potatoes for dinner on Irie, a wonderfully made curry on Gudrun, hand-made vegetarian samosas and a tasty mayonnaise free coleslaw on Irie, a massive pasta salad with a big selection of chopped up vegetables on Gudrun… All of the meals, of course, were accompanied with cocktails, wine or beer and more than not a baked dessert or fresh pineapple for dessert. That New Year’s resolution of “losing weight” will have to wait just a bit longer, while all of us have certainly gained many pounds!

Brunch on Irie: mango juice, tea, home-made bread, scrambled eggs, fried breadfruit, chorizo and a canned peach!

Quickly assembled lunch on Irie with contributions from both boats.

Drinks and snacks on a tiny, sandy island with two palm trees near the coco Bandero archipelago.

Liz and I look at molas on one of the pretty Coco Bandero islands.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Up the Rio Diablo

The “double” town of Rio Diablo consists of the villages Nargana and Corazon de Jesus, connected to each other with a stone bridge. Both towns have abandoned their Kuna traditions and many thatched huts have been replaced by concrete structures. Nargana has a few stores with fresh vegetables and fruits, a bank, post office and laundry lady, which makes it a decent stop for cruisers to stock up on food and money. Even though the towns are relatively modern (they have a huge generator producing electricity 24/7, a cell phone tower and satellite TV), running water and plumbing are absent. The usual outhouses dot the waterfront and for water, locals take their boats – dugout canoes or motorized pangas – up the Rio Diablo to an area where further traffic is prohibited and fill jugs, buckets and barrels with clean river water. Women take their laundry near the same area and it is also a great place for a bath.

One day, Mark and I took our dinghy up this river and arrived in a pretty and different world. Following the river for about three miles, we saw it turn from brown to clear, from salty to fresh. Kuna men in ulus were paddling up and down to collect water or their usual crops. Once in a while, a bigger wooden boat with outboards would pass us on its way to the “water reserve”, carrying massive barrels to be filled. All around us big mangrove trees, green jungle and picturesque palm trees protruded from the banks and stretched way inland. Wading birds and kingfishers went about their business, Kuna Indians worked their lands and small cemeteries were hidden in the foliage. We enjoyed a slow ride upriver, once in a while dodging shallower areas and fallen trees, while taking in the amazing scenery.

When we arrived at the “end of the road”, a barrier spanned across the river, indicating that no one is allowed any further up river. This was where people tied off their boats and filled their containers with fresh water. We met an old man, Donaldo, who just came back from his “finca” and offered us bananas, VERY spicy seeds and another sweet/sour fruit. We took a bunch of green bananas for $2, but since he didn’t have change on him, he would come by Irie later to collect his money. This point is also the place where one can take a hike inland, following a white PVC pipe. The path is well worn and used by Kunas on their way to and from their fields. It is supposed to end at a pretty lake with a waterfall, about three hours down the trail. Since it was already noon, Mark and I decided to follow it just for a bit.

We embarked on an easy hike through the jungle, hoping to see monkeys, but instead watching colonies of leaf cutter ants, a couple of woodpeckers, and on the way back a colorfully beaked toucan. About an hour into the Panamanian interior, we saw the river again to our right and decided to have our lunch on a little sandy island in the middle. I went for a refreshing swim afterwards scaring a bunch of lizards, who funnily ran away over the water’s surface. We turned back to our dinghy along the same flat trail, discovering a couple of graves in the underbrush and greeting friendly Kunas cutting a new path with their machetes.

The leisurely dinghy ride back to Nargana was not boring at all, since different vistas opened up facing down river. Mark and I had filled a five gallon water jug before returning and took a nice bath together with some locals. It sure feels good to wash in fresh water for a change! Next time we go back up the Rio Diablo, we hope to follow the trail all the way to the waterfall and fill plenty more jugs with water.

Kuna Indian going to get water upriver in his ulu.

The "modern" way to collect water up the Rio Diablo.

 Our lunch spot along the hike/river.

Having a fresh water bath in the Rio Diablo.

Small Kuna cemetery along the river.

White egret along the Diablo River.

Massive mangrove trees with enormous roots.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Life in Kuna Yala

Mark and I have been in Kuna Yala (the Comarca de San Blas) for over two weeks now and we are enjoying it, just like every other cruiser who has spent time here. Of course it sounds promising when people rave about a place, but more often than not, we have then arrived at that place and been disappointed, because we expected too much or because what is fabulous for some people is just blah for others.

By starting our San Blas adventures in the eastern end, we had a chance to stop at the most primitive and interesting villages of the Kuna Indians. From the moment we would anchor, an ulu (dugout canoe) would paddle by to charge us $10 to be in that certain area (which allowed us to go ashore and explore their island) or to offer us some of the vegetables or fruits gathered on the mainland. Every morning, the Kuna men leave the village early, to row to the mainland (up to about a mile away) and collect coconuts, sticks to build, bananas, plantains, yucca or other fruits off their plots of land on that side. The women would sew their colorful molas and the kids play on the dusty streets, concrete basketball courts or dilapidated soccer fields. School is out for three months. We noticed the boys play basketball and soccer, while the girls play volleyball. In the afternoons, the families spend some time together and rest.

The small villages are relatively crowded with thatched hut next to hut and small alleys or wider dirt roads in between. While the first villages we visited didn’t have electricity, running water or sewage, the last few towns we stopped at did have electricity and satellite TV. Some have running water. Toilets are non-existent and outhouses at the end of a rickety dock are used for that business. Strolling through these towns is a very interesting experience, especially when you are the only two white people around. Sometimes we would be followed by hordes of curious kids, other times, nobody would respond to our ¡Hola! Most locals speak Spanish. Kunas don’t like their picture taken, but with the kids it depends. They either run away or cover their face, or they smile and make funny faces and compositions. I have only been yelled at once when I took a picture of a bridge… :-)

The off lying and uninhabited islands are another part of the San Blas picture! Never have we seen so many palm trees… Visitors are not allowed to take any coconuts; Kuna rule #1. They are used for export and to trade for goods with Colombian trading boats. Near these tropical islands, the water is cleaner and clearer and swimming is very nice. We haven’t had a chance to go snorkeling yet. The anchorages are surprisingly deep, very different than in the Bahamas, but that’s a small price to pay. Our biggest price to pay is the inconsistency and excruciatingly slow internet over cell phone service (1G), but we manage.

The sky has been very grey so far, even though the rainy season is finished. The mountainous mainland of Panama is constantly shrouded in clouds. We have been lucky to receive just enough sunlight at times we have to navigate the tricky reefs to arrive in a secure anchorage. Irie has reached the more popular and populated central San Blas now and that means: more cruising boats and more exotic islands!

Traditional Kuna village.

Playful and happy Kuna children in one of the "big" towns.

Kuna Indians keep their pigs in separate structures above land or water.

Stored ulus and a rickety bridge connecting two parts of land in Ustupu.

Outhouses in Ustupu.

Colorfully dressed Kuna woman in Mamitupu.

One of the many Kuna men coming back from his mainland chores in his ulu.

Four children and their dog rowed by Irie for a friendly visit in Snug Harbor.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

New Year in Mamitupu

Mark and I briefly stopped at two villages in Kuna Yala (the San Blas islands; the area where the autonomous Kuna Indians live and still keep many of their traditions alive) before stopping in Mamitupu, the most traditional of them all. We figured this would be as good a place as any to celebrate the New Year in peace. The afternoon of our arrival on December 31st, we were taken into the village by an older man who just returned in his ulu (wooden canoe) and led to the Sahili (chief) to introduce ourselves. Pablo, the only man who spoke English, was out of town, so we conversed through an “interpreter” in broken Spanish. By the sounds of it, the chief invited us to the New Year’s Eve celebrations that night and it would involve food and drinks. We were expected to pay a contribution to the village in exchange for joining the party. Mark and I accepted the offer, strolled around the village for a bit and looked forward to a traditional Kuna party… 

Around 6pm we gathered with many of the villagers in the congreso, the biggest hut in town, for what we thought would be a very interesting party and experience. Pablo was still nowhere to be found. We hoped for a clarification of the events, but since that didn’t happen, we took the evening as it came. Even in the dark hut, the kids couldn’t keep their eyes of us and were curious to check us out. While everywhere else, just a little head (covered in red if it was a female’s) stuck above the back rest of the wooden benches, Mark and I peered above them with part of our backs, shoulders and “funny looking” heads. We couldn’t hide… and waited with the hundreds of Kunas – dressed up for the event - to see what the evening would bring, with the difference that they actually knew and we were literally in the dark.

Every evening in Mamitupu, the villagers congregate in the congreso to hear what the leaders and respective department heads have to say and we thought this evening would start the same way, when four men took turns talking about something in the center of the hut, where two chiefs rested in their hammocks. It seemed that nobody was really listening. Some of the Kuna women had brought flashlights and worked on a mola, their traditional handwork – and part of their colorful clothing - which sells for good money abroad, on the mainland of Panama and to tourists. When the four men said what they had to say, the main chief started a monotonous song, interrupted/complemented by the short sounds of his colleague. Initially it sounded very interesting, until after an hour his monotonous tones still continued. By now, many Kunas had actually fallen asleep on the wooden benches. The women kept sewing, undisturbed.

An hour later, nothing had changed except for the fact that the one oil lamp received more oil and some people had left and came back later. Each time a woman left the hut, she walked over to the chief’s wife to pay her respect. Kids were running around the congreso unrestricted and played with the three other hammocks which were tied higher to the ceiling. Sometimes one of the chief’s grandkids joined him in his hammock. The songs went on… and on. I joked that the people who left, probably went home, cooked a meal, ate with their family and came back… Mark thought it “rude” that locals joined this service (we learned tonight was a celebration of the gods), just to sew molas or take a nap. Although after a while this started to make sense. We had been there for over two hours, just sitting still on our hard benches, looking into the dark, listening to the songs. Mark said “What if he does this until midnight?” When I gave him a worried look, he said he was joking…

The songs stopped once in a while. Each time, we thought the chief was done, but he only took a sip of water before continuing. Mark and I lasted about three hours, before we realized the signs pointed towards the singing being an all-night event. Some men had been handing out lollipops to the kids and now, they came around again, with candy for the adults. Is this the food we were supposed to get? Mark and I were starving by now, our butts were numb, and finally we decided to leave the “party”. On our way out of the village with our flashlight, a man sent us off (they usually don’t like foreigners in their village at night). I wanted an explanation of what was happening and this time, we learned that the singing would continue until midnight. I asked “And then what?” to which he answered “Then it is the New Year (Nuevo Aňo)!” Dah! The people would go to sleep afterwards and celebrate the New Year the following morning at 7am with food and drinks. Mark and I returned to Irie to cook a nice dinner around 9pm and made a promise to practice our Spanish!