San Blas aka Kuna Yala March 13 2007

Here we are in the San Blas, Panama - home of the Kuna Indians.  The ancestors of the Kuna came from Asia across the Bering Strait and settled on what would be later called the American continent.  The San Blas  (formally known as Kuna Yala) became a Carta Organica of Panama in 1953.  Today, the Kuna rule themselves through Congreso General de Kuna Yala and have elected representatives to the General Assembly of Panama.  The Kuna are the only Amerindians who have gained real autonomy over their territory in addition to preserving their traditions and their culture.  No small feat as they managed to resist five centuries of invasions (Spanish, French, English and others) as well as religious proselytizing by many different religions and sects.  Kuna Yala includes a strip of land along the coast of Panama as well as 122 miles of islands. 


Land ho!!  Time to stretch the legs and see if we can walk a straight line after several bumpy days on the ocean.  We went ashore in the Western Holandes (3/2) onto a tiny island covered with coconut palms...with coconut caretakers as the sole inhabitants.  These 20 people live in a collection of four bamboo and palm frond constructed huts.  They watch over the coconut palms...coconuts are the currency of Kuna Yala.  Each palm is owned and it is forbidden to collect coconuts or even pick them up off of the ground.  We were helped ashore by several women wearing traditional dress; colorful fabrics, mola paneled blouses, beads wrapped around wrists and legs (uini, pronounced wini) who showed us the best place to put the dinghy...then immediately whisked us off to the huts for a tour and an invitation to buy molas.  Erin has been eagerly anticipating these textile works of art since we started planning the trip...and we were not disappointed.  We entered the "living room" hut where numerous molas were laid out on the sand floor for inspection.  The molas are reverse applique fabric pieces which depict geometric shapes, plant and animal life or traditions of the Kuna...and generally take two to five weeks to complete.  Molas are made by women and reinforce the matriarchal society structure because they are a major income source for every family (green backs supplement the coconut economy). 


It was a hard decision but we finally selected a pelican mola...a theme seems to be developing for us.  We did not negotiate (but later learned we should have tried) because we felt the price ($15) was fair.  The Kuna may have disagreed because they also gave us a yuca (a root much like a potato)  The Kuna are camera shy but I was able to get a photograph of my mola with its maker (Indira).  The albino child in the photo with Indira is a result of limited inter-community contacts and resulting marriages within the same blood line.  We all chatted together thanks to Chris and his Spanish (since we do not speak Kuna) and we brought the girls of the island back to the boat for a look around...the ride in Trouble was especially enjoyed.  Then it was off to Porvenir to officially check-in...documents, passports and the courtesy flag.


We anchored and went to check-in in Porvenir (3/2)...the buildings of officialdom are the three concrete numbers below the palm trees.  Only one trip back to the boat for a missing piece of paper work...not bad.  Immigration first for passport stamping and then onto boat check-in.  All went well with payments made and paper work completed in triplicate.  We hoisted the courtesy flag of Panama and we are official!!  Now it's off to Eastern Holandes for a few days of resting and boat is really packed in here (40 boats)...more like a weekend in Block Island than a deserted spot in paradise.  That was explained later as we were invited ashore for a farewell party for an Italian fellow who has been in the San Blas for seven years but will now head off through the canal and beyond.  It seems the entire Italian cruising community has arrived to see him off in grand style.  It looked to be quite a party...but beginning at 8:30pm (our midnight)...that was going to be tough for us.


Thankfully, we passed the time before the party boiling our yuca for dinner.  It is supposed to be similar to a potato...peel, boil, mash and serve...aside black beans flavored with green peppers and lime juice...or whatever is handy.  Well, one...two...three cocktails later we finally decided to stop the boiling and just eat the darn yuca.  Not bad but like a potato - not too exciting until mixed with something else.  Full bellies and we were off to the party.  Wow - what a party it was!  Several folks helped everyone land their dinghies (one complete with a head lamp) in the dark.  There was a generator to power lights strung from the palms, music, lots of cakes and sweets and even a tango contest...complete with a paper rose for authenticity. 


There is more exploring to do here and we hopped into Trouble and ventured around the corner from our anchorage in the "swimming pool" to potluck island.  This is an island meticulously maintained by a Canadian ex-pat and is complete with grass and a fresh-water well where cruisers do laundry.  We came up to speed on the cruiser community; everyone monitors channel 72 on the VHF and tunes in on the SSB (8107 USB) at 8:30am for weather, announcements and check-ins on the Panama connection cruiser's net.  Another great piece of info is the weekly trash burning/book swap/finger food potluck every Monday night.  We brought our trash (3/5) for the glass or metal please...and had some wonderful snacks and more info sharing.  Everyone stayed until after dark to be sure the trash was completely burned.  This is a great service and certainly makes our Barefeet a bit tidier.


The winds are still up a bit so we kayaked to a nearby island (3/6) for some walking along the shore and later swam from Barefeet to a reef for some underwater exploring.  The breeze has kept to biting bugs down (awesome) and the humidity for being too oppressive (yippee).  A few more boats have come into the anchorage and it is about time we checked out other areas of the San Blas. 


3/7 and off to Nargana.  It was a smooth 6-8 knot screecher sail in 15 knots of wind between islands that largely kept the ocean swell to a minimum.  We anchored off Nargana and headed into town.  This is a big city - complete with airstrip, medical clinic, stores, restaurant(s) and a bank.  The bank gave us the chance to get smaller bills...afterall, how well can we negotiate for lower prices if a $20 bill is pulled out at the end of it all?!  We explored the town; a combination of concrete dwellings scattered between tradition bamboo frame and palm frond covered huts.  All are pridefully maintained with flowers and beautifully painted identifications of the family in residence.  There is no stink of garbage and the dirt streets are very clean.  We decided to have lunch at a restaurant - wow - a small spot right on the water (not so rare, it is an island) with a cool breeze and shaded area for tables.  Language was  tough so we asked if we could see the food in order to make our choice...that went very well and Chris decided on the chicken while Erin chose octopus.  Lunch was delicious and complete with slices of tomato and french fries.  On the way back to Barefeet we noticed some friends are now in the anchorage...s/v invitation was given and accepted for drinks and bits.  Both our larders are pretty low so nothing extravagant...cheese and crackers, olives, peanuts...and Chris' famous margaritas.  We all had a great time and agreed to meet at 8am the next day to explore the Rio Diablo river together. 


The river was better than Disney...a winding ribbon of water through lush mangrove and palm shorelines with herons and egrets...and maybe a hoot from an elusive white faced monkey off in the distance?!  Several schools of fish ambled past and ulus were parked along the way.  The water became more clear the further along we went (and made it more comfortable when a bit of portage was needed through shallow spots).  We all meandered along to a wide spot in the shore for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some water.  Thank goodness for bug spray (and malaria pills) because there are lots of biting flyers at this moist spot.  The return ride down river was almost solely via paddle...the quiet and awe just kept coming.  Back towards the mouth we passed two Belgian cruisers having a shower and doing some laundry (sorry, no photos of that).  A quick trip into town to check out the "supermarket" but just a case of coca-light (diet coke) purchased...we will wait until later for food shopping.  Nargana was fun to see but we would like to swim...and on the banks of a big city is never a first choice.  3/8 off we go to find a protected little anchorage spot for some swimming...a little motor and sail later we were anchored in the Western Naguargandup Cays...completely uninhabited except for one hut of coconut caretakers.


It was a record time from anchor set to in the water swimming!  Holy cow - the night sky is filled with stars almost as much as the sand shallows here are filled with bright orange cushion sea stars!  And moss covered crabs scampering between the grass and rays flying then fluttering beneath the sand (as well as the occasional flip and tumble out of the water) and a fish ball at least four feet wide of small, silvery fish.  Wow - quite a seashore spectacle.  A restful evening and a pizza dinner completed the day.  We have been told that you do not need to search out molas because they will find you...ulus paddling right up to the boat.  Well, this seems to be our experience, too.  Lisa (quite a well-known he/she molas artist) arrived via ulu to Barefeet with an amazing collection of her artwork.  We purchased two molas and learned more about the mythology behind them.  Later in the day ulus stopped by with more molas and uinis (beaded bracelets) then huge crabs and finally lobsters.  Yikes - we really need to get over this crustacean aversion...but tonight it is chicken curry a la Chris...always a hit!  In between the drive-by ulu shopping (kinda like internet shopping a la Kuna Yala) we managed to get some boat projects done; a canvas sun cover for the glass above the cockpit and the courtesy flag for French Polynesia.  


3/10 and we are off to the Chichime Cays...a protected anchorage and a perfect jumping off spot for making our way to Colon.  There was more shopping a la ulus (yes, another mola) and more exploring ashore.  Ashore we learned there is a baker on the island and for $1 we got ten hot dog bun type breads.  They have a smoky flavor from being baked on the fire and were great for a breakfast of dropped eggs on toast...but Chris's bread is better.  The overcast days continue and the mountains on the mainland are kept well hidden...when will they materialize?!  Also while ashore we went "beaning."  There are beans that wash up in the surf that have come from South America or Africa...quite pretty and in different shapes.  We have been focusing on the hamburger beans...honest...that is their name (the picture shows exactly why).  We find a few a day and have been saving them...with some polishing they can be made into jewelry.  We had sundowners with some new friends on s/v Serai, a British couple on their way to New Zealand.  Good conversation lasted well after dark with the periodic big splash out in the black night...seems to be jumping rays.  We are both on the same path and hope to see eachother along the way to and in the Pacific.