Friday, October 26, 2012

The Value of $20 in Kuna Yala

The San Blas islands - locally called Kuna Yala - consists of hundreds of beautiful, exotic islands. Some of them are uninhabited and others have a few families living on them, in thatched huts. A few islands are packed with huts and concrete buildings, resembling a village. Not much in the way of provisions is to be found. Most cruising boats are stocked up with groceries and alcohol from Colombia or mainland Panama before they arrive in the San Blas islands, and their tanks are full.

The town of Nargana has a handful of “stores”, where one can find basics like flour, rice, eggs, cornflakes, a small selection of cans, chicken and – depending on your luck – some or little fresh produce. Bread, diesel and gasoline are sold here too. The small settlement of Banedup in the East Lemmon Cays has a few of these items for sale as well. Other than that, cruisers rely on their own stores and the veggie boat, which might come once a week, or not. In the winter time (high season) the arrival of these boats full of produce is more reliable.

Living in the San Blas islands is relatively cheap, especially after spending hundreds of dollars on provisioning elsewhere. All you basically need to obtain here are fresh vegetables and fruit, maybe some chicken, and seafood if you don’t catch it yourself. A $20 bill goes a long way towards survival… But, what exactly can you get in Kuna Yala for 20 dollars?

Here’s a selection:
-          A week’s worth of produce (most veggies sell for $1.50/lb)
-          6-7 medium lobsters
-          10 big crabs
-          3.5 gallons of gasoline
-          3.5 gallons of diesel
-          Propane to fill a 20 pound tank, with $4 change
-          A week’s worth of fish
-          133 Kuna breads, which are tiny
-          A decently made mola (intricately sewn handiwork)
-          Permit to stay 1 month in Kuna Yala
-          5-6 dozens of eggs
-          4-5 bracelets or strings of beads
-          Unlimited amount of drinking water for the boat in one stop
-          60 coconuts on Nlakalubirdup, or 20 elsewhere

Prices usually depend on who you buy things from, what time of the year it is and how well your bargaining skills are. Mark and I have managed to trade stuff for food, but the Kunas always want some money as part of the deal as well. On average, we spend between $120 and $150 a month in Kuna Yala. 

Buying gasoline in Nargana

The settlement of Banedup, East Lemmons

Friday, October 19, 2012

San Blas Crabs

There are two kinds of crabs in Mark and my life these days, while hanging about the San Blas islands. Neither plays a very important role, but they are present around us every day. The first one is a tiny crab of the grey kind. Every time we take a shower off Irie’s back step, we see them settled near the water’s edge of the step. They scurry away and try to hide when you come too close, but they are our permanent pets. We’ve been having some for months. They start out tiny and then grow to about an inch, which is really not that big. We tolerate them down there, but get a bit creeped out when they reach all the way in the cockpit.

The other kind of crab is of a bigger kind and of the color red. The Kuna Indians selling fish, lobster and undersize conch sometimes carry them in their dugout canoes when they sail or paddle from cruising boat to cruising boat. Until recently we have not bought any, because – honestly – we didn’t really know what to do with them and they seemed a lot of work. The only time we saw one while snorkeling was when they were out of season. We always said we would try one of those crabs one day and that moment came a few days ago, when Mark noticed a biggie in one of the passing canoes. We managed to buy this “giant” male for $2; a really good deal. Somehow, we also managed to get the creature with all its appendages in our pressure cooker, which is our biggest pot and “lobster steamer”. Then, it took Mark over an hour to get all the juicy meat out of the shell, legs and massive claws. He collected about a pound of lovely fresh crab meat, which was turned into two delicious dinners. I discovered I like the taste even better than lobster. What a spoil!

The crab was slightly too big for our pressure cooker, but was a perfect fit for our sink. Unfortunately, you can't steam a crab in a sink...

Mark needed to use a tool from his toolbox to conquer the big claws...

Tools for successful San Blas crab meat picking. And, the fruit of Mark's labor; lots of crab meat!

Final result (1/2 anyway): a lovely crab pasta dish - I couldn't resist posting another picture of food!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sleepless in San Blas

I wake up, bathing in sweat. I have no idea what time it is, but I sure know the wind has totally stopped. Otherwise, my pillow case and sheet wouldn’t be wet and sticky. I try to breathe, slowly. It would be easy enough to turn the little wall-mounted fan on, but we have a problem: Irie’s batteries are pretty low at the moment and we are out of gasoline for our portable generator. Despite a few requests for the veggie guy to bring us some gas (and eggs) – we are still out. So far, we have been able to bum some eggs from our friends on SV Reach and a neighboring boat, after realizing a certain recipe “unexpectedly” needed a non-existing egg. We don’t want to borrow gasoline, however; this is a precious good and we can always run our engines, if really, really, really needed. For now, I am thinking about our fridge and our computers; they have more need for electricity than our fan. Or, do they?

Onion rings (with egg needed batter) and hamburgers for dinner before another sleepless night.

Soon enough, the stagnant night air attracts hordes of no-see-ums from the closest shore, which is an island called “Bug Island”. Yeah, right! They attack our hot, un-sheeted bodies – we’ll have to suffer one way or another. Their bodies resemble the point of a needle and their bite the prick of one. Unfortunately, they are more abundant than the proverbial needle in a haystack. More sensory awareness follows, when our ears are filled with Spanish dance music from one of the power boats a mile away. “Sound travels well over water” is a more correct idiom than “There is always a breeze on the water”! The Panamanian rich must be having a party and we involuntarily partake. The mix of uncomfortable annoyances keeps us awake for a couple of hours, before we finally give in. The fan gains importance and by now, I gladly trade an hour of computer time for who-knows-how-many-hours-we-need of fan use.

When burning trash or doing a project on Bug Island, one can only escape the no-see-ums while hiding in the water.

The evening before, all the cruisers of the anchorage were awakened with a start, when a massive search light shone into their portholes and cockpit and a grinding, deafening, out of the blue sound penetrated the walls of the boats. It was 11pm in an otherwise tranquil bay. Two of the luxurious power boats that come en masse to this area over the weekends (during settled “summer” weather), decided to move a mile and join their brethren, gathered in a power boat village – based on the amount of lights in the distance. In the middle of the night! This was a first. Normally, they only pass Irie at a hair’s distance, passengers gazing into our cockpit and windows, during the day. They go back and forth a few times, using bow thrusters, almost touching our bow or stern, crew and passengers happily waving. 

Motorboats outnumber sailboats over the summer/fall weekends.

They are a friendly bunch, all right. They tie up alongside one of the pretty, palm fringed beaches and buzz around the place in high powered tenders, sometimes slowly plowing through the water and creating massive wake (hold on!), sometimes pulling a toy with kids on it. They have fun, all right. Their owners are dropped off and picked up by helicopter, which is quite a sight to behold on these primitive, indigenous and quiet islands. Imagine a remote tropical island getting  a make-over and turning into a people littered beach, volleyball playing Panamanians, white tent erected on the sand, string of boats tied together and … a helicopter between the palm trees. 

 A peaceful island turned into chaos: people, tents, helicopter!

After another sleepless night – if it’s not the thunder and lightning storms, there are plenty of other reasons to wake up and stay awake during the San Blas summer/fall nights – the sun comes out and the solar panels are used to their biggest potential, for a few hours. The wind generator tries, but fails, due to lack of wind. Mark and I bite the bullet. We grab our empty 2.5 gallon jerry can and my wallet, and we head over to the prettiest, fanciest power yacht; the one that has the friendliest and waviest crew. We talk to the captain, he talks to the owner, we talk to the owner – who is very interested in us “yachties” -and 15 minutes later, our jerry can is filled, while my wallet remains unopened. They refuse money in exchange and are happy to help. With renewed appreciation for Panama’s rich and famous, we return home. Now, we have fuel for our generator. The same amount they use for a fast ten minute dinghy ride with guests will last us up to a month! And, we can liberally use our fan tonight! 

The tranquil "Swimming Pool" anchorage in the East Holandes Cays during summer weekdays.

One of the helicopters dropping off or picking up powerboat guests on BBQ island.

How the scenery changes over the weekend.

Powerboats (yachts much bigger than Irie) tied together alongside the beach.

The tasty (and heavy) food and alcoholic drinks do not guarantee a good night's sleep!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Settled Back onto Irie and into the San Blas

Mark and I have been back on our floating home and in the beautiful San Blas islands for six weeks already. Time flies! We’ve gotten used to the climate, the routine and the daily chores of our cruising lifestyle. Not that there is much cruising going on right now. We’ll be in this piece of paradise again for a total of two to three months. We try to be productive in the mornings – yoga, writing, internet, boat chores – and to enjoy ourselves in the afternoons – reading or fun in the water - with some social times in the evenings once in a while. That’s the goal, but reality is pretty far from that.

It is still raining and storming a lot, especially at night. This means a lack of sleep (Is everything OK? Wow, did you see that lightning strike hit the island? It was orange, looking like fire on the bottom!), and tired days. A lot of our neighbors take naps, but I can’t get myself to lose half of the day and feel groggy afterwards. There is always so much to do! Weather permitting I try to do an hour of yoga under the palm trees with a friend, first thing in the morning. Then it is computer time and before we know it, the day is half gone. Most of the time, there is more important stuff to do than sitting behind my laptop, like making and baking bread, helping Mark with a boat project, doing some cleaning, laundry or washing up, dealing with the vegetable boat, and so on. 

In between rainstorms, when the sun peaks out, it is the perfect time to go snorkeling. Unfortunately, by the time the afternoon swings by, the clouds have gathered already again. But, on an ideal afternoon, my friend Michele and I go snorkeling on one of the pretty reefs and the men (Mark and Mark) go fishing on the outer reef. My Mark is still practicing a lot, and sometimes comes home with a little fish or a lobster. Michele’s Mark is a very experienced and accomplished fisherman and only settles for the biggies. Since their fridge is full from their recent provisioning session on the mainland, we are the lucky ones receiving half of the catch!

On rainy days, we just hang about our boat, doing a little chore here and there, baking desserts and cooking yummy meals, and reading up about the Pacific islands. We are collecting loads of rainwater and don’t have to be skimpy with our use of water for a change. Electricity is a bit harder to get by, with those cloudy skies and lack of wind. All in all, life is good on Irie and every beautiful, sunny day is embraced and cherished by all. I am looking forward to that ideal day again, with clear skies to sleep well at night and to enjoy yoga and snorkeling during the day. Oh, and to do some “loads” of laundry. Maybe tomorrow is that day?