24 March, 2011


Date: March 17, 2011
Position: N 09 35.059 W 078 41.092
Location: Naguarchirdup, Lemmon Cays, San Blas, Panama

We have traveled almost 14,000 miles on Rachel and have finally made it to paradise. The San Blas , Kuna Yala to the locals - is the one of the most amazing places we have been to date. There are over 300 islands in this archipelago. Some are just a spit of sand with a palm tree or two, while others are almost half a mile long. And then there are the other hundreds that are in between. All are beautiful with swaying palm trees, white sand, warm breezes, and lots of beach treasures, a beach comber's paradise.

A beautiful island

One more beautiful island

Another island - are these getting boring?

OK maybe just one more lovely island

Most of the time we get to sail in clear blue waters behind coral reefs which means great wind for sailing without big ocean waves. With winds between 10 and 15 knots for the most part, it's not hard work, and everything is close enough together that we don't have to be in a hurry , we've been sailing a lot down here. After a few hours underway we pick a spot to anchor, sometimes amid a cluster of other boats, but more often away from the pack on our own. Some nights we are the only boat in the anchorage with our own private little island to explore. Nights have been mostly clear with millions of stars above, a sailor's paradise.

The waters between the islands usually run from 50 to 150 feet deep and are a beautiful dark blue. As we approach the islands the depth can go from 100 feet to 10 feet in an instant, requiring us to be alert and have good light so we can see the reefs and sand bars. We nuzzle up to a beach or sand bar, drop the anchor, and drift back into maybe 60 feet of water. This was a bit disconcerting at first but after a week or so we got used to it. Now Rachel is just a few hundred feet from the beach allowing us to easily swim ashore and walk around the islands. Sometimes we have to anchor a little further out but it's still easy to dinghy in, explore, and cool off with a relaxing dip in the water. Each island and chain of islands is surrounded by coral reefs, and also quite a lot of shipwrecks. This means exploring fish and coral heads to your hearts content, a swimmer's, snorkeler's, and diver's paradise.

Dinghy trip into the jungle up the Rio Diablo with our visiting friends Shep and Deb

Many of the islands have one or two Kuna families living on them. They seem to rotate families on the islands, all seeming to come from villages on the mainland. We're not sure if this is work related, collecting coconuts, retaining ownership by habitation, or vacation for them. Whatever it is, they seem happy to be out here. At any rate, we're in the third world for sure - the Kuna live in dirt floor huts made from bamboo and palm fronds, and have very few possessions. Hammocks to sleep in, cooking and eating utensils, a few clothes, a machete, and usually a dugout canoe, called an ulu with paddles carved from boards and a sailing rig. Some very well-to-do Kunas have outboard motors for their ulus. So far we have found the Kuna to be honest, gentle, happy, and open, an anthropologist's paradise.

Isla Gerti, a very traditional island

Kuna settlement on Canbombia displaying molas for sale

Another Kuna settlement on Canbombia

Kuna settlement on the island of Tiadup

An old man carving a nuchu, a good luck statue displayed in many kuna huts

The standard mode of transportation in Kuna Yala is the ulu or dugout canoe. Sometimes they are paddled and sometimes they have homemade sails, often patchworked with any fabric they come across.

The men go out fishing every day and will often come around the cruising boats every afternoon selling their catch. Looking out from the boat we see them standing in their ulu wearing only underwear (their version of swimming shorts) with big grins on their faces, holding up a crab or lobster or fish, as if to say 'Look what I caught!'. We usually troll a fishing line when we move around so if we haven't managed to catch a fish we gladly buy from the locals at very reasonable prices - a seafood lover's paradise.

The women tend to stay on shore. They cook fish, bake bread, make molas, and bead. (Note: Google 'Kuna Yala mola' to learn more about molas). Whenever we go ashore on an island that's inhabited we politely ask permission to walk around. Permission is always granted. As the women see us approaching they scurry to get their bucket full of molas and arrange them for us to see. Julie had one of the women make her a beaded anklet, made to measure. It's one long string of beads that they wrap around and around and the beads line up to make a kuna design. Most of the local kuna women wear molas and sport these beads around their arms and legs. The molas and beads also make great gifts, a shopper's paradise.

Julie with Venancio 'Master Mola Maker'

Mola makers will paddle up to the boat and without a lot of encouragement they are on board showing their molas

Julie and our visiting friend Deb shopping for molas

The children sometimes get to go out fishing with the men or go out with women paddling an ulu around the cruising boats to sell molas or bread or they just play on the islands and in the water always laughing and enjoying life. Wherever we go the children appear around us smiling and saying "Hola!" (pronounced OH-la - Spanish for hello), and laughing and grinning when we say "Hola!" back to them. They almost always ask our names and will repeat them several times, we do the same with them. Sometimes we learn Kuna words from them like 'morbep' and teach them that it's 'conch' in English. Being so far from our grandchildren, we always enjoy spending time with the kids, a grandparent's paradise.

Some little boys on Canbombia 'helping' to sell molas

Anyway, it's time for us to get back to doing whatever it is we do. Today's a bit breezy so the wind generator is cranking out the amps. Thanks to the wind generator, the water maker is running, producing gallons of clear, fresh water from the sea without using any fuel. So it looks like we may get some reading done today. After lunch we just may take a nap. Or we might go snorkeling. 'Time and tide wait for no man' - no need for us to wait, we hardly ever know the time or the tide - the tide always seems to be less than a foot, anyway. You can tell we're really enjoying ourselves by this snippet of conversation from earlier this morning:

Julie: "What day is it today?"
Mark: "I dunno, maybe Wednesday or Thursday?"
Julie: "I'll turn on the computer. Oh! It's Thursday March 17th."
Julie, looking at the calendar: "Oh, it's St Patrick's Day"
Mark: "Happy St. Patrick's Day, sweetheart!"

Happy St. Patrick's Day from paradise,

03 March, 2011

Isla Tigre

Position: N 09 35.059 W 078 41.092
Location: Isla Tigre, Kuna Yala, Panama

The local indigenous people call themselves the Kuna. Their name for the San Blas Islands is Kuna Yala. Kuna Yala, while a part of Panama, is ruled independently by the Kuna general congresso. Recognized as an official reserve in 1938, Kuna Yala was granted full administrative and judicial autonomy in 1953.

No Kuna is allowed to marry a non-Kuna. If they do, they are expelled from Kuna Yala. While ensuring cultural integrity, it has also generated some genetic issues including albinos. They are a matrilineal society, the women control the money and the husband moves in with the wife and her family. Often, a woman will choose her husband rather than vice-versa.

Isla Tigre (pronounced EES-la TEE-gray) is an island, in Kuna Yala, a few miles off the Panamanian coast. On February 26, 1925, they, along with 6 other islands, rebelled against the Panamanian government. We are visiting the island to view and participate in their annual rebellion re-enactment and festival.

The first act takes place in the congresso (or town hall) with the Sailas (chiefs) swinging in their hammocks and chanting and the Argar (interpreter) translating the wisdom and putting it into perspective for the people who sit on hard wooden benches. Before the reenactment begins, we are given a brief history in English. In brief it goes like this:

The Kuna were happy living their traditional lives on Isla Tigre. One day a Panamanian school teacher approached them to ask about starting a school on the island. The sailas (chiefs) declined permission and the teacher was asked to leave. Some time later he returned with several Panamanian police. Using force, they imposed their will upon the people. They began a program to stamp out Kuna traditions that form the very heart of the people. Many traditions were outlawed and the participants were beaten and put in jail. They forced Kuna women to dance with them, this angered the men. They forced the children to go to their school.

The police celebrated carnival on February 25th. The rebellion was scheduled for the 25th because the police would be drunk making them easier to attack. During the rebellion two men were killed. One was a Panamanian police officer and one was a Kuna police officer who was viewed as having betrayed his people. After the rebellion the Panamanian government mounted a military campaign, and only intervention by the US Navy prevented bloody retaliation.

As the narration continues, the congresso slowly fills. The sailas lie in their hammocks, singing and greeting the people who arrive in ones and twos. Everyone is happy. Everyone is wearing traditional clothes. Then the school teacher arrives. There is discord in the congresso. The school teacher leaves, then returns with the police who start pushing people around and beating them. That's the end of act one. We are told there will be an intermission before the start of act two.

We go outside to the square. Several men in traditional dress begin to play a tune on bamboo pipes similar to Peruvian pipe music. The musicians and some women, also in traditional dress and playing calabash gourd rattles - begin to dance. The music is haunting, beautiful, and repetitive. Surprisingly the dance reminds us a bit of a New England contra dance - not so much the steps as the patterns the dancers make as they dance. One cruiser tells us some dances follow the same patterns as the traditional molas the women wear. Several minutes later the dancers finish and leave the square, now it's time for act two.

The police are on a rampage. They grab and beat the men who are involved in Kuna traditions ? the medicine man mixing his herbs, the young man accompanying the young woman during her puberty rite, the men who are brewing chicha for the chicha ceremony, the sailas. They have truncheons made of foam rubber and beat their victims mercilessly. Some have bags of red dye they squeeze at an opportune moment, spraying ?blood? everywhere. Women try to hang onto their men, wailing and crying, but the policemen shove them away roughly and continue to beat the men, finally putting them into the jail.

It all seems a bit on the brutal side to us, but, as we look around at the rapt audience we begin to see the sense of it. Young and old alike are enthralled by the action. What better way to keep the revolution alive than to impress upon everyone present what was escaped through rebellion? The sense of shock, sadness, and anger at the oppression is palpable.

Finally act two is over and the musicians and dancers return for another intermission. This time, however, during the traditional music and dancing, young men begin ?sneaking? around the perimeter of the square. Carrying paddles, a foam axe, a pole, they begin stalking one of the policemen. Whenever he stops and turns around, they are not paying attention to him, looking elsewhere, lying down for a nap, chatting, looking innocent. He resumes his patrol and they resume stalking him.

The dancers and pipers finish and exit the square. Suddenly it's Carnival night complete with loud music and dancing! Women, including visiting cruisers are pulled out of the audience onto the dance floor by off-duty policemen. Suddenly, away from the dancing, the policeman in uniform who is on duty is attacked. Beaten to the ground, he is poked, prodded, kicked, hacked, and eventually killed. A second policeman is also attacked and brutally killed. The music and dancing stop to close out the third act. One of the sailas makes several closing remarks we don't understand and the reenactment is finished.

We thank the people for allowing us to attend and for giving us free reign to take photographs, something not normally allowed.

The people of Isla Tigre welcomed us, asked our names (and actually remembered them!), and really seemed to appreciate and enjoy our presence at their festival. They and their reenactment remain a high point in our visit to Kuna Yala.