Knowing we had less than a week left to explore this magnificent archipelago of the San Blas Islands, we headed off westward, toward Ensenada Mandinga, deep in the Gulf of the San Blas, the most western of the islands. With howling winds and an 8 foot swell, we flew along with only a reefed jib (our most forward sail was partially rolled up to make it small). As we rounded Ubicandup, our planned destination, we marveled at this beautiful island, almost submerged by the breaking waves. All of the homes, made of reeds and palm fronds, were getting slashed with salt water. These are hardy people.
Not feeling as hardy as the Guna here, we decided that the anchorage would be far too rolly for comfort, so we carried on past a few more islands to find a completely protected spot to settle for the next few days. Only two boats were in sight, other than the dozens of ulus: one catamaran resting at anchor while the owners were traveling inland, and another sailboat which left soon after we arrived, leaving us the only cruisers in the whole bay.
Within an hour, we had five visitors, coming by ulus. Armando offered us bananas, Barna passed us a juicy papaya, Breddio came to offer us a guided trip into the forest, another guy offered us fish, and a sweet young girl paddled up for curiosity. The fresh food cost less than five dollars, and would last us many days.
Breddio and his ten year old son, Freddie, had been sailing about the harbor, with Freddie hiked out on a trapeze made of a piece of strapping attached to the top of his mast made of a tree branch. They were traveling at very high speeds, tacking expertly in their leaky dugout canoe. Gunas could win any sailing competition, I am convinced. And the curious girl shyly paddled toward us, but didn’t grab onto our boat the way all of the others had. I tried to speak to her in Guna and Spanish, but she barely responded. When I asked if the two babies in the front of her ulu could swim, she shook her head “No!” I offered them a Solo cup of milk “leche” and the older of the two, gleefully nodded approvingly. Since the paddling girl (Mom?) was too far back to reach them without tipping the canoe, I climbed into the water with the cup, and passed it to the outstretched arms of the two year old. She took a huge gulp before carefully pressing the cup to the lips of the one year old. She adeptly braced the younger baby with a hand on her back as she held the cup with her other hand. Both babies shared happily as the girl smiled and paddled away. I wanted with all my heart to take a photo of this lovely scene, but I respected the Gunas’ desire to have no photos, and left my camera in its case.
We were welcomed ashore by many community members who helped us tie up the dinghy. On the water’s edge, they were preparing a fruit press that would begin operation the following day. A Coming of Age ceremony was planned for a girl, and the beverage would be a large part of this celebration. The pressing and fermenting process takes more than a week. Women came out of their huts to offer their molas and other beaded artwork. Bill caved and bought me a bracelet. He has a harder time saying no than I do sometimes!
Construction of a building on stilts seemed out of place: the man working on it was very well dressed, unlike any other Guna I have met, the materials were of sturdy lumber, not branches chopped in the forest by machetes, and chain linked fences lined the deck. Progress! And Who is ruining this island?! Bantered back and forth in my head. We introduced ourselves to the gentleman builder and he explained that he was a Guna from another island and was building a school for young children. The chain link fence would keep the youngsters from falling into the water! This construction had some religious affiliation, but our limited language proficiency prevented us from understanding much more.
Breddio seemed to approve of the project, so I let go any judgements. How dare I claim to know what is best for the Gunas. They are the inhabitants here, so they should be the ones to judge. Breddio seemed to be well informed about all historical progress and future plans for this island group. Mark my words: he will be a Saila (Chief/Island leader) someday. For now, though, he is focusing on his family, two boys and a girl with albinism. We have met many people in the San Blas who have this condition, which some say is caused by too much inbreeding. Regardless, the individuals seem to be treated just like everyone else, despite their white hair, pink skin, and pale eyes.
Our forest tour was informative; Breddio shared his knowledge of Guna culture and farming habits while pointing out the names of every tree and wild creature we saw. He is such a generous man, truly embracing all cultures as he meets so many foreigners. And foreigners have embraced him in return, even paying his way for a flight and two week stay in France! I tried to imagine this small indigenous man strolling the streets of Paris and dining at fine restaurants. He is the epitome of willingness to embrace all humanity.
Breddio’s wife washed our clothes. Washing clothes aboard Alembic is a challenge with our limited water and crazy clothes lines strung up in the rigging. Employing the Gunas helps them inch along. Unfortunately, the clothes were not exactly clean when we picked them up. The entire island had a haze of woodsmoke from all of the families trying to dry their sea-sprayed homes, and our clothes, hanging on the line, collected this aroma. We will be reminded of this sweet family and their lovely community as we sniff our still-smokey clothes for weeks to come!
After bringing sunscreen for Breddio’s daughter, we reluctantly said our goodbyes, and dinghied back to Alembic to prepare for departure. The wind was still blowing a near gale, but we had to get back to the Lemmon Cays for a party and to bring our starter motor to Projection, a boat which was stranded with minimal hope of getting out of the San Blas. While everyone loves the lovely people and scenery, we all recognize that we might as well be in outer space, with the lack of any banks, groceries or nautical supplies. All you can find in the San Blas is locally grown or caught food, and oodles of molas. So, we raised anchor, crawled between the islands and reefs until we were back in the open sea, then crashed our way through wind and waves back to the delightful anchorage at Banedup.
Mark and Lilly on Projection we very happy to see us sail into the anchorage and dinghied over to collect our spare starter. Within a few minutes they called back on the VHF to say “can you hear that sweet sound of the engine running?!” Replacing a starter is one of the simplest tasks and such a critical item to have as a spare. I must admit that I felt we had a 50/50 chance of ever seeing our spare again, but Bill was sure we would meet them again in Shelter Bay Marina in a few weeks and they would return our part, having arrived safely where they could buy their own spare. My doubts revolved around the ridiculous expense of this part. Clever Bill found this starter as an aftermarket part for only $67, but a new one at a Yanmar dealer costs closer to $600, and in Panama?? Who knows?
After preparing a seafood dish with the lobster and crab we bought from the Saila the previous day, we cleaned up, donned some of our smokey clothes, and headed for shore for a Valentine’s Party with the rally. The potluck meal was marvelous but the hilarious games and dances prepared by members of our rally were even more remarkable. Celebrating Valentine’s Day, appreciating our last day in the San Blas, and playing these crazy games, all made me recognize that this journey is so packed full of amazing experiences and emotions, I could hardly contain my own thoughts.