February 9, 2015
If you have heard that the San Blas Islands (Kuna Yala is what the Kuna call the area – more on that later) are beautiful, isolated, unique, and populated by a largely unassimilated indigenous tribe – the Kuna – it’s all true. One of our first thoughts is that it’s too bad Hannah missed this. Even the sky is gorgeous, but the people, the reefs, the low flat islands graced with coconut palms, the dugout canoes, and the marine life are all extraordinary.
Swimming was great too. To our surprise, the water is cooler than on the Pacific side, probably as the result of the pretty constant Trade Winds that blow across the entire lower Caribbean – from east to west. Other surprises included seeing nautiluses (nautili?) glide easily by the boat. They are chubby cousins of squid and octopi, colorful and apparently curious. A three foot barracuda swam by the boat as well, loafing and not looking very fearsome. The water is crystal clear.
Kuna Indians routinely solicit the cruising boats, selling colorful hand-dyed cloths called molas, fruit and sometimes fish and lobsters. Sometimes they are in the fiberglass pangas that are so common in Mexico, but more often in decorated dugout canoes, paddled skillfully or powered by small outboards. One “mola master” came by with his wife (who drove the boat), and we tried first Spanish then English with him. He seemed more comfortable in English, and sighed, “So many people come by here speaking Spanish, and English, and even French – but no one speaks Kuna.”
Many of the canoes fly a red and yellow flag with a prominent black swastika in the center. I asked a Kuna woman about the flag (she was also driving the boat) and she said, “It is the flag of the Kuna Revolution. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Germans…” The flag arose from a 1923 war fought with Panama for Kuna independence – which started from a long history of such wars, beginning with the Conquistores.
We learned that Kuna Yala is actually an autonomous area within Panama, with its own constitution, established at the cost of many struggles and much Kuna blood. About 55,000 Kuna survive here, rising early in the morning to fish, make things and farm on the deserted mainland. By 2:00pm or so work is done, time for a rest and some food, followed every night by the local congreso and a bonfire. The congreso is a meeting of everyone on the island and is the basic unit of government. A meeting every night may sound a little unattractive (and one person is assigned to shout periodically to make sure everyone is awake) – but remember, they don’t have sports (or anything else) on television… Transvestism and homosexuality are not regarded as odd by the Kuna, but any Kuna who marries an outsider is expelled from Kuna Yala. It is an independent, peaceful culture, where the small-statured and nice-looking people live to a ripe old age.
Reefs are everywhere, and we had our first experience on this trip of running aground – not on coral, fortunately, but on a shallow sand bank in an unexpected location. We were able to get off by raising the sails and heeling the boat. It reminded us of how different this is from the Pacific. It’s shallow, where most of the Pacific Coast of North and Central America is deep, and it just feels different, especially at sea, where the wind is steady and less violent, and instead of long Pacific swells there is a short choppy sea stirred up by the almost constant 10 to 20 knot winds.
The one thing we haven’t experienced here is solitude. Maybe if we stayed longer and spent more time exploring we would, but we are probably 25 years too late to poke around the islands alone. In the age of GPS, watermakers, autopilots, and power sail reefing, anyone with enough money can come here – with or without much in the way of seafaring skills. And come they do. The anchorage we are in now has boats from France, Spain, Poland, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and Panama. None, other than us, from the US.
For some reason the French who have time and money on their hands seem attracted to huge catamarans, built like a big living room on the top of two regular sailboats. Some of them have very peculiar features (the boats, not the French) – like a picture window that can be opened a few inches above the waterline. Birgit thinks they look like a particularly large and ugly Citroen, but they certainly have nothing in common with the previous century’s boats.
The weather has turned on us, and we’ll be here a little longer than we planned. No problem… It has been interesting, and in the absence of family and friends, the boat feels big and roomy, and maybe a little lonely too. But we are reading and cooking, swimming and catching up on sleep, to be ready for the next long passage.