Monday, May 28, 2012

Internet in the San Blas

While sailing in the Eastern Caribbean, we found wireless internet (WiFi) in most places. Our product The Wirie helped us with that and – running a business – Irie turned into an office most days. We would either find decent internet or nothing at all. If not, we took the day (or a couple of days) off, or more likely, we would move to a different anchorage to get back online. It isn’t the most fun way to cruise around in the Caribbean, but we had our priorities and this arrangement worked; random frustrations aside.

The San Blas islands are another cup of tea. WiFi is non-existent and we had heard from friends that the 2G service, through cell phone towers, worked adequately at some times of the day. Mark and I wanted to slow down the work anyway and put our minds towards taking the internet situation as it came. That was the plan… We had bought a dongle in Colombia and upon arriving in Kuna Yala, the search for a SIM-card and a phone to activate Digicel internet plans started. We were successful with the SIM-card early on and borrowed the phone of a Panamanian police officer to get started. Whenever we were “in reach” of a phone tower, we could s-l-o-w-l-y access the internet. When out of reach, we spent one or two days enjoying the area and moved on. Once again, we found ourselves in search of “the internet”.

We picked up a second hand phone in Nargana and the following five weeks, we managed to get in tune with the internet availability and “speed”. For every four hours Mark spent online, he’d get one hour of work done. I would give up after two hours of trying or when my computer battery was empty. It was infuriating at times, but hey, we were in paradise, so we would take some inconvenience with that. During our month long stay near mainland Panama, we expected great things to happen, but once again, the Digicel tower disappointed and (free) WiFi was unavailable.  Speaking of underdeveloped countries; we are in the prime example (for more reasons than internet availability alone). We struggled on and I went to Captain Jack’s one day to get the more serious stuff (read: things needing more bandwidth) done. Upon returning to the San Blas, we had temporarily caught up with our online chores.

For the first month back in paradise, things went “smoothly”, albeit VERY slowly, but the internet did its job and about half the day was spent on it. Then, one day in April – the day on which winter turned into summer without warning – it started to rain, the wind dropped and the bugs joined us. After that fateful day, nothing was the same anymore. The change in the weather caused a change in the internet availability. Why? Who knows. The cell phone tower in Nargana had problems and we found ourselves moving closer and closer towards it with little prevail. Mark was online most of the day to do what he had to do. In Nargana, we visited the “internet cafĂ©”, a classroom with laptops, available to the public every weekday from 5pm to 6:30pm for $1 an hour. It works a little bit better than we are used to. Sending one high resolution picture (for articles) takes about 20 minutes, but it is possible! During that time, all the computers are taken by teenagers checking Facebook – Yes, even in Kuna Yala, Facebook is popular. It explains why the connection totally drops when trying to use it from the boat.

After weeks of frustration, we decided to move to the western part of Kuna Yala. We’ve had better luck with the Porvenir tower and hoped for the best. By now we have to motor everywhere, because the wind has disappeared. Summer time! Back in this neck of the woods – it is very pretty here – the struggle continues. While, near Nargana, the nights would bring “decent” internet from around 11pm until 6am, here nothing makes sense. The tower breaks down for a few days and restores itself to offer excruciatingly slow internet again, sometimes. It is tedious, it is tiring, it is annoying, it is frustrating, it is unbearable. But… we are out of options. Elephante Bar in the West Lemmons offers satellite internet for $3 an hour, if it works. Not really convenient for Mark who has to get on several times a day for an indefinite amount of time. Is it time to leave the San Blas islands? Unfortunately, we DO need the internet, more than any other cruiser…

Required internet times (if available):
-          Loading Outlook: 30 minutes; loading “all” the emails: another 30 minutes; sometimes never
-          Loading Yahoo Mail: 30 minutes
-          Sending an email: 20 minutes after it’s written; resending three or four times (and waiting) might be needed
-          Loading Google: 15 minutes
-          Loading Facebook: 10 minutes - eternity
-          Posting a blog (with resized pictures): 2 hours or never
-          Sending/ posting full size pictures: impossible
-          CNN home page: 10 minutes
-          Getting into our bank accounts: 40 minutes
-          Using our bank accounts: up to 2 hours or never
-          Surfing the web: from 30 minutes per page to impossible
-          Booking flights or transportation: impossible
-          Running the business: ALL day

We haul our dongle up the flag halyard (with two active extension cables) to hopefully get better reception. Even though the electronic part is in a plastic baggie, every time it rains, we have to drop it back down and take it inside. And... it rains a lot during the rainy season!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rio Diablo: An Abundance of Fresh Water

The summer season in the San Blas Islands has started, more than a month too early. It means: no wind, massive storms with lots of rain, bugs near the mangrove islands and … no more sailing. Even in the anchorages, whatever breeze might be present is often overpowered by the current, which in turn decides how the boats are positioned; not into the “wind”. This phenomenon causes sweaty nights, followed by another hot and humid day. Our found paradise is lost and we hope it will return one day. Maybe in six months? Maybe in eight. The good news is that Mark and I don’t have to worry about our freshwater supply anymore. No more trips to Rio Azucar to buy drinking water and no more visits to crappy wells for shower water. We are home free and could even splurge with a pressurized shower on deck, if we choose so!

Collecting water not only means there’s enough to drink and cook, but also to keep up with the dirty laundry. Most of that is now done on Irie by hand. Except for a few specialty items… Mark and I have been “looking forward” to another visit up the magnificent Rio Diablo river to wash the cushion covers of our dinette area. The thought of an unending supply of wash and rinse water urged us upriver while back in Nargana, Kuna Yala’s biggest “city”. Daily, many Kuna men row up the river in their dugout canoes to fetch a week’s worth of water. It is a never ending scene: paddlers going upriver with empty buckets and barrels along the banks where there is less “flow” and returning with almost submerging ulus, in the middle of the river, where the water pushes them back towards the mouth and their house.

Just like the last time we did this trip by dinghy, Mark and I thoroughly enjoyed the green scenery and waved to every Indian we passed. Once we reached the best laundry spot, we went to work for a few hours on one of the nicer, sunnier days. When the sweat started coming, we just made a few steps towards the middle of the river and had a refreshing dunk. We finished the chore with a long, fresh (!) water shower and returned home to have the hot sun finish up the laundry task we had started. By nightfall, we had “shiny” 13 year old cushion covers again. Guests to Irie will now not only have to wipe their feet when they enter, but also their bums! :-)

From Irie we see Kuna men come and go to fetch water upriver.

The river entrance is a bit tricky and shallow.

Time for some long planned laundry in the Rio Diablo.

Kuna woman filling barrels with water; a heavy chore, mostly done by men.

This Kuna is poling his way through the shallows to get to the fresh water "source".

Monday, May 7, 2012

Swimming with Sharks

Apparently, the beautiful Central Holandes area – where Irie recently anchored for almost a month – is teeming with sharks. From the moment we first dropped anchor and Mark took a look underwater, he saw one sleeping near a coral head. Our male friends, who often go fishing near the outer reefs, always see a whole bunch of reef and nurse sharks. The sharks’ attention is on high alert when they hear the sound of the spear gun and they’ve come to expect an easy catch. From the moment an edible fish is speared, these fishermen have to rush back to their dinghy as to avoid losing their dinner to the sharks, something that happens regularly.

There was a small patch of coral behind SV Reach, the sailboat of our friends Michele and Mark. Among other interesting things, the area is inhabited by a giant nurse shark. Michele had noticed him before, but one day, he surprised her when she was taking underwater pictures. This little scare made her more apprehensive about snorkeling around the reefs by herself. Another day, our German friend Stefan was fishing behind Reach, when all of a sudden Michele heard a male voice whimper: “Hey, get off, get off; leave my fish alone!” Stefan tried to push the shark away, but it was too late. This nurse shark had ripped the freshly caught fish off his spear. Another vegetarian dinner that night … for the human species!

While all this excitement was going on, I still hadn’t seen my first shark up close. Sure, Michele and I were walking on a chest deep sandbank one afternoon and we saw a dark, shark-shaped figure circle us ten feet away and then disappear, but I didn’t have a snorkel mask on to have a good look at this amazing creature, so the encounter didn’t count. That “girl time of the month” arrived and disappeared with a few very quick and worried showers off the back of the boat and then, I was ready for them. Almost every day, I went for a snorkel in “our garden” underneath Irie and every time I saw one or two nurse sharks lay on the bottom, resting. It was easy enough to observe them from safely above and spotting nurse sharks became a daily event, close by or further afield on other interesting reefs.

By now, I had gotten used to being around these sharks and most of the time when they were not sleeping and they saw me swim towards them, they took off.  One day, however, when nobody was around, I explored our garden again. The smaller shark was resting near a rock and the bigger one was just “strolling” about. I dove down to pick up a bandana I had dropped the previous day and when I emerged again, the big nurse shark was alert. He swam towards me – how exciting – and kept coming… all the way, until he almost touched my snorkel mask. I am not the scared type, but that was a tad too close for comfort; good photo opportunity or not! I said “booh” and waved my hand towards him. With a quick jerk, he turned and swam away. Then, he circled underneath me for a while and I considered hanging around to see what would happen next. He was probably just curious and I felt bad being afraid and intimidated before. Realizing that he was the same size as me, or bigger, and that Mark was not around to offer any help if needed, I decided this had been enough excitement for one day and got out of the water. After taking a very quick shower first!

Stefan diving down to have a better look at this nurse shark.

Sleeping nurse shark during a snorkel trip in the lagoon with Michele.

This curious nurse shark near Irie kept coming closer...

... and closer, while I was alone in the water!

After I "shooed" him off, he briskly turned around and stayed at a safe(r) distance.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

“Negatives” about the San Blas Islands

A few weeks ago, a reader of my blog posted a rather “negative” comment to my “Why We Don’t Like Curacao” (December 2011) entry. She pointed out that I shouldn’t be so negative when I write and that I should move on when something disappointing or bad happens and not let “the whole world” read about those less than wonderful experiences and thoughts. Ha! Since this is my blog and I like to share the good and the bad and put things in perspective, instead of always raving about all things awesome, turning my life into an unrealistic tourism brochure, I don’t agree with her. So… here are some of the less nice or less appealing things about the San Blas islands. Just to keep the “perfect paradise” seekers at bay. After my last few blog entries (and the next), one might think Kuna Yala is paradise, and that all I write about are positive things! :-)

As I started writing about the different San Blas characteristics that might put people off from visiting with their boat or make them think twice, my blog became longer and longer up to the point where it was no longer a blog, but more like an article. It will be published in the Caribbean Compass magazine later this year. Just to give a little insight, the topics mentioned are: the difficulty to navigate reefs, dangerous lightning bolts and storms - like the one last week, and like the one that hit our friends Michele and Mark’s home last year. They were out of commission (read: stuck in a marina in Panama for repairs) for five months! - annoying biting insects (no-see-ums), the inconveniences of being here in regards to food and necessities, the cost for permits, the tricky anchorages, the many mola vendors, the lack of social activities and going out scene, the crowdedness of certain areas, and the difficulty of communication with the outside world. And, I didn’t even mention the stubborn sharks hanging around our boats and fishing grounds!

Of course, the positives in the San Blas islands surpass the negatives by a lot; otherwise, Mark and I would not be here for so long! More about that in future blogs…

Pretty beaches are not so attractive anymore when you are eaten alive by no-see-ums

Charging the cell phone of a Kuna Indian on Irie

Kuna Yala congreso members collect the fees for being in their territory