Journal 21; San Blas, Panama
June 18 - July 9, 2009
The San Blas Islands are an autonomous governed region within Panama controlled by the Kuna Indians. The Kunas have their own rules and regulations which includes the mandate that they may only marry within their tribe and not with outsiders. They also do not like to be referred to as ĎSan Blasí (from the European conquerors). They perfer the traditional Indian name, Kuna Yala (Yala = mountains, from where they once lived). The islands, and the shoreline, are like an Indian reservation. The villages are on tiny islands with houses made of vertical sticks and palm leaves for roofs (its amazing they donít leak water). The houses are sparse with virtually no furniture, just hammocks to sleep. The houses all have rainwater collection systems for drinking, washing, etc., and public outhouses have been built over the ocean.
Most of the women still dress in the traditional Kuna style. They have long skirts and shawls that are bright red; they wear beaded leg and arm bracelets and have one large gold ring pierced in their nose. Both men and women are quite small in stature. By contrast, Panamanians are either the skin color of most of Latin America or they have distinct African features.
The San Blas Archipelago is mostly uninhabited. There are dense villages on a few small islands, maybe a shack or two on other islands with a fisherman and family. The rest of the numerous tiny islands have no residents.
Fishing in small dugout canoes, ulus, is the main occupation. The fishermen rig up crude sails while more prosperous fishermen have Yamaha engines mounted on their dugouts. They use a big chunk of coral for an anchor. As a sign of the global changes, several Kunas paddled their ulus up to El Regalo and asked for us to charge their cell phones (which we did). Good grief, it seems you canít get too far from cellular towers. Women come alongside to sell molas, a traditional hand stitched cloth suitable for making pillows. They are always polite and shy and itís difficult to say Ďnoí but a few molas are sufficient. Some children have asked for sweets, which we donít have, but we give them pencils. One old man asked if I had any old Playboy magazines and another simply asked if we had an onion to share.
Small supply boats irregularly travel throughout the islands selling fresh vegetables, meat, eggs, beer, gasoline, diesel, phone cards, etc. Itís amazing how many items can be found inside their pangas (small craft). This was a very pleasant surprise for us as we didn't expect to get fresh vegetables until we got to the mainland.
Kuna Yala is attractive to cruisers due to the safety and serenity of the environment. Every island could be part of a Corona beer ad. Panama has never experienced a hurricane, itís too far south. The shores are protected by a series of barrier reefs that create flat seas and crystal clear water (we can see our anchor in 40í of water). If you wish to go to Panama City by road it is by 4-wheel drive, but there are small, daily commuter flights. There is virtually no crime, which few places in the world can make that claim. Another attraction is the cost. On our first day of arriving, I bought a huge king crab for US$3 and it was delicious. A few nights later I bought lobster for $6.
San Blas cruisers regularly get together for pot luck suppers, Monday Happy Hours ashore and special celebrations like Fatherís Day & 4th of July. Often grandchildren are visiting and they always find ways of entertaining themselves. Soccer, crab hunting and conch blowing seem to be the favorites.
The downside is there is no internet service. We listen to NPR News via the Armed Forces Radio network on SSB to keep us informed. There are no laundry services but we discovered ten washing machines on board; five are located on each of JoDonís hands. JoDon was hand washing a load of laundry last week, and she rhetorically asked, ďAnd I went to college for this?Ē It was one of the few times in my life that I had enough sense to keep my mouth shut and not then mention the value of a University of Oklahoma education.
We have left Kuna Yala now and are heading to Colůn, Panama for haul out. At that time we will fly home to be with friends and family. We will be returning to Panama in early August. In the meantime, as they say, ďThe party continues, just the locations change.Ē
Fair winds to all,
Brian and JoDon
One of the regularly approaching storms off Dog Island, San Blas, Panama.