Sunday, October 24, 2010

Festival del Cristo Nazareno: Portobelo, Panama

At 6:30am, Oct. 21, the sun had just risen over the small town of Portobelo, already alive with music, singing and pilgrims flooding in on foot. It was the annual holiday celebrating the arrival of a mysterious statue of El Cristo Nazareno (Christ of Nazareth), also referred to as El Cristo Negro (The Black Christ) to Portobelo about three centuries ago. Actually, the music and festivities had been going strong all night and were ramping up by the hour. No wonder Gretchen woke me up so early, she loves a festival on shore, and probably never went to sleep. As soon as I fed her, she was back on deck.

Portobelo is along the Caribbean coast of Panama, about 50 to 60 miles WNW of where we were in Kuna Yala (San Blas). From the boat, the shoreline looks charming. It looked especially inviting after we made it into safe harbor following a squall that packed about 38 knots with lightning. The lightning was scariest to me, seeing as our boat is a giant lightning rod.

There is a lot of history in Portobelo, a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the 1600s, it was one of the richest cities in the world – hard to believe today when all that remains are the ruins of forts and tiny homes of corrugated metal. Colombus landed here at the end of his voyaging, and Sir Francis Drake lies somewhere on the bottom of this harbor (his body was thrown overboard when the plague claimed his life). Captain Morgan filtered countless treasures looted from all over Central America through Portobelo on their way to Europe.

The three main holidays celebrated in Portobelo each year are Independence Day (Nov. 3), Carnaval in January and El Cristo Nazareno in October. The Cristo Nazareno celebration begins a week before the 21st with food and rosary vendors, drumming, dancing and lots of drinking in the streets. We’ve been here since Saturday, Oct. 16 and have seen pilgrims making the journey on foot from Panama City, each time we've taken the bus to Sabanitas, about 40 minutes away. They're dressed in purple - many in purple robes trimmed in white, frilly lace and gold sequined crosses. Panama City is about 80 miles from Portobelo…a very long walk. They began trickling in at the beginning of the week, and by sunrise Oct. 21, you could see a steady stream flooding in on shore.

As we walked through the Church on the evening of the 20th, pilgrims were kneeling before the Cristo Nazareno in prayer. Policemen who are stationed here throughout the festival, removed their berets and bowed in reverence. In the background, people slept all throughout the Church, in pews and on slabs of cardboard or blankets in the aisles. Their purple robes hung from hangers on the walls behind them.
It was then that I came to the realization of what I had seen at the El Rey Supermarket in Sabanitas during our last shopping trip. There were several people reclining on slabs of cardboard just outside the grocery store, in front of the stacks of shopping carts. The El Rey also acts as an informal bus depot (covered in grime) but the people camped out on the ground, resting on their journey to Portobelo.

There are many versions of the legend behind the statue of the Cristo Negro/Cristo Nazareno that culminated into its current traditions. The most popular is that the Cristo Negro arrived on shore hundreds of years ago “in a black box from the ocean.” The people who lived back then “didn’t know what to do with it” so they sent it back out to sea. It appeared again, and the cholera epidemic suddenly disappeared. The people believed it to be a miracle associated with the statue, and kept it in a protected place within the Church of San Felipe (in the center of town), where he still resides today.

A less popular, but more likely version declares that a sinking ship dumped it along with the rest of its cargo to stay afloat, when a nearby boat of disapproving fishermen chose to salvage it. Soon after the townspeople began to venerate the statue, cholera was gone. And a third version simply asserts that the arrival of the Cristo Nazareno was a shipping error…it was in route to another part of Central America and mislabeled, “Portobelo.” All too familiar with the inefficiencies of Central American bureaucracy, I believe this to be the most likely scenario.

But without miracles, there wouldn’t be a festival of such magnitude. And participation in this festival proved to me that the belief in miracles is powerful enough to unite a culture that is otherwise disenfranchised. Stories of miracles in the years following the plague, include one about a “lottery ticket,” that was shared with us by fellow sailors. According to the story, a Panamanian made the pilgrimage, and upon reaching Cristo Nazareno, prayed to win the lottery. In prayer, he vowed to paint the Church in exchange for the miracle. After winning the lotto, he declared he “never intended to paint the Church,” and had the audacity to try his luck again in a later pilgrimage. Jesus granted the same miracle again, but with a high price for not staying true to his word. He died in a car accident – a winning lotto ticket found in his pocket.

Once the pilgrims make it to the entrance of Portobelo, the very devout crawl on their knees about a mile to San Felipe Church in the center of town, to intensify their suffering. On the evening of the 20th, we watched a young man crawl down the center of the main road, amidst dancing and loud music, while a young female poured wax from a burning candle on his back and another male swept the road in front of him with a cloth. The theory is: the greater the suffering, the greater the chances are that Jesus will forgive them for their sins when they finally reach him in the Church. Panamanians and spectators alike, share mixed emotions and opinions about this display of faith. The more open-minded say, "to each his own" and see it as a unique way of making sense of suffering or reconciling past sins. Many more see it as bad practice (or a "freak show" as some have called it) - that drawing attention to one's suffering is frowned upon by God. And others ask, "What kind of a God would require this for forgiveness?"

Despite opinion, people almost universally agree that it has stirred confusion emotions - often unexpected sadness. The man crawling on his knees (above) made the journey with the lady kneeling in the previous photo. As pilgrims crawled, the intensity and drama of each person's journey varied. Some were actually quite humble, crawling alone and masking their pain as they made their way over poorly paved streets littered with broken glass.
Some are disabled or sick, as I believed the man in the photo above may have been. He and his mate crawled with the encouragement of relatives who held miniature shrines of Cristo Nazareno for inspiration a few feet in front of them. This particular couple attracted the largest crowd as medics tended to their wounds along the way. When they made it to the steps of the Church, they collapsed in the street, holding hands while a ton of people hovered above them, snapping photos (see slide show). The Red Cross tried to hold a perimeter around them while they struggled to the foot of Cristo Nazareno, where they were quickly hauled out on stretchers. Stephen nominated them for "the most dramatic" award.

This is a very nice family who accompanied the man in the middle on his journey. The father on the left told me he was "muy orgulloso" - very proud of his two sons who made the pilgrimage. His son in the middle wins the "best look alike" award. The father talked with me in Spanish about the importance of this day to them. Our vocabulary is steadily increasing, but I was only able to interpret in his message that "we are all family" and that "Jesus is always watching us from above." So many people and local journalists photographed this family, yet they had no camera to take a picture home with them. We found a sweet old man in a blue vest that said, "El Photographia," toting a polaroid camera. He looked like he could use some business, so we paid him to take a photo for the family to keep.

When they make it to the Church, the pilgrims are greeted by crowds of media - photographers and cameramen, and people who are cheering them on. Some continue through the Church at a steady pace, while others stop at the threshold of the Church, sobbing and shaking their heads. A little boy who accompanied his family members, watched in confusion as they paused in front of the Church, stricken with grief. These two men appeared to be suffering greater emotional pain than physical. It looked to me like they were hesitating because they felt they were not worthy to enter the Church. It left me wondering about the source of such feelings of unworthiness.

As we walked through town, we were surprised by this monkey who leaped out onto a porch between two vendors' stands. His owner told me it's a female that he found in the Darien region of Panama. She's attached to a collar and a long leash that gives her enough room to roam around the front porch that wraps around the front of the house and to swing from two wash lines. The monkey was amazingly good with people and especially gentle with little kids who stopped to let the monkey climb on them. She would approach them from the ground and pause to look up at them as if asking permission. Then she would carefully climb up the front of their legs and hug their waist.

As pilgrims began arriving to Portobelo this week, they set up tents in the middle of town, camping out until the holiday is over. If you saw how dirty the streets are, you would appreciate just how truly devout this is. Then again, this isn’t the first world, and concepts like cleanliness are relative. Under a pavilion outside of San Felipe Church, pilgrims strung hammocks and set up small grills for cooking. Down by the town dock, locals bathed in the sea and showered (in various stages of nudity) at the end of the pier by dumping buckets of water over their head.

We decided to do our provisioning on Monday and Tuesday, before the streets became flooded and overwhelmed with traffic. By Thursday, the entrance to Portobelo is baracaded and the taxis can only take you so far. We took the “party buses” to Sabanitas, and after the first trip back on this crazy bus line, opted to splurge for the taxi instead. The leftover American school buses pump Latin club music M - F and are airbrushed with murals honoring both voluptuous women and Jesus at the same time. “Sins in the rear and forgiveness in the front,” Stephen summed it best when while taking in the artwork on one of the buses. Inside, they distract your eyes from the torn up seats and chewing gum with hot pink feather boas and zebra striped paint. To us, it seems like a constant party, but around here it seems a way of life.

I love these buses and the general lack of concern for safety. As the buses fly around blind turns at top speed, Abuelas (grandmothers) hold their toddlers up to the open windows so they can feel the air on their faces and reach out with their arms to touch the passing trees.

At the end of our first shopping trip, we had a loaded backpack, huge shopping bag and a cardboard box stuffed with food. When the packed bus to Portobelo arrived in front of El Rey, people were standing in the aisles and we thought we might not make it on. But then two young guys who may or may not have worked with the buses were being extremely helpful and held up the bus to take us around the back for loading. When one of them opened the emergency exit (now painted over, as the concept of "emergency" is now irrelevant) there was barely enough room to squeeze in. Stephen attempted to find space for our groceries as I waited patiently outside with a growing awareness that the guys helping us wanted me to get on in a hurry – and for good reason. The bus driver couldn’t see, or maybe didn’t care whether we were on or not. Before I knew what was going on, I was being lifted in the air and placed gently on the bus. Before I could stand up straight, our friends were stuffing me inside and latching the door as the bus took off down the street. The greatest part about the back of the bus was that we were closest to the speakers. As we shouted to each other above the music while straddling our groceries and holding on for dear life, I was laughing to the point of tears. This was the most fun I ever had grocery shopping.

The taxi rides were less eventful, but we had to stop at several police checkpoints on the way back to Portobelo. The policemen here look intimidating in their camouflage with M-16s and bullet proof vests, but are extremely friendly and will be the first to smile at you in greeting. The police checkpoints are mainly set up to prevent people from bringing drugs and arms into the festival, but we were warned to carry our documents in case they tried to confiscate our liquor. Since we were restocking the boat with beer and wine, this was crucial information to have. At one stop along the way, a female police officer pointed to our case of wine on the front street and smiled as she tilted her imaginary bottle to her mouth and said, “Party.”

Another sailor who has been in the area for years gave us some really good advice. “Never speak to them in Spanish, if you speak English you are less suspicious to them and they’ll wave you on through. And never show them a map when asking for directions. They’ve never seen a map, but they sure like to look at one.”

While riding with him to Colon one morning, we saw his advice in action. He rolled down his window at a police checkpoint and said in his deepest Texan accent, “Howdy pardner!” The policia paused for one moment as a funny smile emerged on his face. Clearly he was deliberating over whether to exert effort in an attempt to communicate with this silly foreigner. In the next moment, he simply waved us on through.

The food vending tents are the most colorful part of the scenery and are stacked with bins of rotisserie and fried chicken, ribs, kebabs, spiraled sausages on a stick, yucca frites (fried yucca fries), patacones (fried plantains), rice, tamales, deep fried corn bread and coconut treats. The yucca fries and cocadas (coconut treats) are our favorite - and the potato salad that was colored purple with beet juice for the festival.

Latinos know how to do chicken, but otherwise roadside pork and beef throughout Central America usually looks better than it tastes. I am reminded of a time Stephen bought sausage from a family that ran a little market adjacent to their home. After a few bites, he tried to feed it to an emaciated dog that took off running in the other direction after one sniff. One of the best features of this festival is the 50 cent beer that can be purchased out of just about anyone’s home. We’ve been finding that there is often a “local price” and a “gringo price.” In Portobelo, we are less likely to be taken advantage of by the locals than by fellow expats who claim their beers are $1 because they are the “coldest in town.” That’s sooo like the white man. El Cristo Negro is “for all people,” with beer prices “for all people.”

The vendors were very warm, humble and happy to share their beliefs when asked. They sold beautiful handcrafted rosaries with multi-colored beads and designs unlike any I’ve seen in my Catholic upbringing. They sold necklaces and car ornaments with pictures of Cristo Nazareno and statues ranging in sizes no bigger than your thumb to 3 ft tall. People carried their Cristo Nazareno statues over their shoulders and mounted them in shrines used to motivate family members making the pilgrimage on their hands and knees. Worn out from hours of inspiring crawling pilgrims, the Cristo Nazareno (seen above) took a break in a plastic chair along the parade route.

We were buying incense from an older man who spoke a little bit of English. He was delighted to learn that Stephen had the same name as him…”Esteban” in Espanol. Esteban had a big statue of Christ – the only one that was blanco (white) not negro. When we asked him why it was white, he answered, “We didn’t have time to paint it.” We found this quite funny and he laughed with us as we talked about the color of Jesus’s skin and the likelihood that a man from Jerusalem would be “white” not dark-skinned. “That’s why they killed him,” Esteban stated half teasing, but also with seriousness. “They were waiting for a man with white skin to save them.” “Isn’t that just like the white man?” I joked back, and we continued to laugh in the face of our cultural differences.

At first glance, the presence of alcohol appeared widely accepted. Like Carnaval, it seemed integral to the way the Caribbean celebrates its religious beliefs. As the celebration wore on, however, we noticed two very distinct factions of celebrators: its devout participants and its onlookers. Some of the devout went so far as to pass out pamphlets and preach the importance of abstaining. Some sipped beers while donning ostentacious purple robes, but clearly their wasn’t a lot of suffering going on. And then we witnessed the greatest paradox of all, a pilgrim who crawled through the streets toward forgiveness, while motivated by a can of Balboa (the national beer).

The photo above features an example of the miniature shrines created by pilgrims, to keep the faith, and remind them what they are crawling towards. This man pauses takes a break in the street, about a 1/4 mile left to go. Theatrical or humble, almost every pilgrim grabbed my attention. I admit that some tears crept up on me while watching "the most dramatic couple." Beneath their grandiosity or masochism was an undeniable void. I've always been a sucker for the Hollywood formula...cue music, cue tears. I hate to see anyone cry. But I was pretty embarressed when a group of adolescent Panamanian boys started laughing at me.

When the pilgrims make it to the Church, Cristo Nazareno awaits them atop an enormous platform, adorned with candles and flowers arranged to spell "Nazareno." The statue is brought out from behind the glass and placed on the platform on the evening of the 20th. The platform is so large, that it takes over 20 men to carry it through town during the procession that takes place from 8 PM on the evening of the 21st. The men sway in a fluid, dance-like movement at a pace of two steps forward, one step backward along the parade route through town. The men must make it back to the Church by midnight, when the Church bells ring, the fireworks go off and the festival goes wild. The firework display was unbelievable for the size and economy of this town. From the middle of the anchorage, the sounds echoed like canons. Bordered by forts on both sides, it was easy to imagine that you were amidst a battle scene that took place centuries ago.

The Jesus Nazareno is followed by a band of horns and trumpets and a procession of pilgrims holding lit candles. At midnight, the pilgrims make a mass exodus out of Portobelo, making the journey home. The devotion of the pilgrims and the beauty of the services adorned with flowers and glowing candles is an amazing sight, but the food and dancing are equally remarkable. Little girls and boys from toddlers to adolescents make rumba and salsa look as easy as tying your shoe laces. A little girl who couldn’t have been more than two years old was busting some dance video moves to some club music blasting from speakers five times her height.

This is Gretchen the day after the 21st. After a week of being on the prowl, Gretchen is worn out. It's hard work staying up all night hunting birds and watching fireworks. Gretchen caught two sweet little birds trying to catch a break on deck. We awoke twice this week to the sound of a shrill squeaking very early in the morning. She chased her second catch inside the cabin, where Stephen was able to pry it loose from her claws. the bird flew to the opposite side of the boat, and as he shooed it out of the companionway, Gretchen took an impressive leap across the boat, swatting it in midair. It's hard to beleive this cuddly furball is a vicious hunter.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Rediscovering Kuna Yala with Chuck & Jenny

I now refer to it as Kuna Yala instead of the San Blas, as we have been corrected by several Kuna who fought hard for emancipation from Panama. So now we fly both the Panamanian and Kuna Yala courtesy flags. The Panamanian flag resembles the U. S. flag with its red, white and blue stars. Venancio, master mola maker, handcrafted a Kuna flag for us, a backwards swastika that gives off an unfriendly air in the company of visitors who know just a little bit less about Kuna Yala than we do. It is written into Kuna history that this “sun” symbol has been amongst the native tribes for thousands of years before it was stolen by the Nazis for evildoing. We wanted to stay in good favor with the Kuna, but I don’t know if it is worth fielding all the questions from fellow sailors who want to know “what is up with your Nazi flag?”

The actual point of this blog is to share a little bit about Chuck & Jenny’s visit to Kuna Yala, and the recent discoveries we made together. I left McSherrystown at 11 am on a Saturday and arrived with Jenny in Kunaville around 7 am, Sunday morning. We traveled straight through the night with long layovers in Ft. Lauderdale and Panama City where we arrived around 2 am. I give Jenny a lot of credit for her bravery, mostly with the last leg on our little puddle jumper of a plane. It is quite a stretch for someone who isn’t the fondest of flying in general. And Stephen laughed about the fact that she was the first person off the plane. It was a nerve racking journey that began with us realizing our flight out of Reagan was an hour earlier than we had thought. So we rushed from Baltimore through DC traffic and wrong turns, still making it to our gate with time to spare. In the tiny airport of Ft. Lauderdale, there was nothing to do but get caught up with each other in the only bar/restaurant in the airport. After three glasses of wine and dinner of course, Jenny was feeling ready to conquer this leg. But we sat on the tarmac for an hour while maintenance crew “fixed” some part of the plane. Our buzz wore off and I passed out while Jenny remained wide-eyed despite her need for sleep.

We struggled to keep our eyes open at Panama International where we were letting time pass until we caught a taxi to Albrook Regional Airport, about 35 minutes away. Jenny, me and a group of three other Americans, were the first ones to arrive before the gates had opened at 5 am. We camped out on the steps, fighting to stay awake just a little while longer by reading a celeb gossip mag and eavesdropping on the yuppie-hippie couple across the way. “Our wedding was totally organic,” the recent bride told their female friend who they had just picked up in Panama. “All the food was fresh, from local farms, our wine produced from local vineyards, and our four flower girls were dressed to represent wind, earth, fire and water.” Jenny and I snickered then exchanged knowing glances with the friend now silent as the happy couple aired their differences quite audibly.

An armed guard man stood outside the whole time, observing all of us until an attendant from Air Panama came out to collect us from the steps. Jenny & I were the first to check in, as the yuppie-hippie couple didn’t even know what airline they were flying. We were soon shuttled into the smaller waiting area where Jenny would scan the yard and I would reluctantly explain to her that the smallest plane was the one that we would be taking. Fortunately, she didn’t have a lot of time to think about it, because Albrook Airport has really stepped it up in the last four years. Their process has become quite efficient, and now includes a roll call before boarding the plane. The typical one to four hour delays have been reduced to 30 minutes. Better than you could hope for in Central America.

We were on the type of plane where you could see into the cockpit and watch your pilot fly the plane. I now understood the reason for the strict weight limit on the baggage as they piled our bags in small compartments at both the front and tail ends of the plane. We headed over barren mountains to the edge of the Caribbean coastline, and as the plane circled the small island of El Porviner, Jenny came to realize that we were about to descend there. Its little airstrip was just 10 yards wide and maybe the length of three football fields.

On the ground, I peered through the windows to scan the crowd for Stephen. He and Chuck sported island shirts and full beards. “Hmmm…” I thought to myself. The werewolf facial hair was going to have to grow on me. Regardless, I couldn’t wait to see him. Apparently, like Jenny, no one could wait another second to get off this plane and I just had to wait as people kept filing past me in a steady stream despite my proximity to the door. I nearly toppled Stephen over, stepping on his toes just to get to him. Behind me, I heard a woman say to her friend, “Is this the right place?” her tone contained a hint of lowered expectations.

We had our first Kuna style breakfast for a grand total of $8 for the four of us, in the newly renovated hut known as the airport restaurant. Kuna breakfast consists of homemade, fried bread, fried eggs, fried packaged deli ham, fried plantains and a slice of packaged queso (cheese) if you ask for it. Si, and there is also fresh coffee instead of Nescafe.

Jenny and I got caught up on sleep while Stephen and Chuck sailed us to our first anchorage off the lovely island of Solardup. The water surrounding its shores was lagoon like and filled with starfish. We enjoyed sundowners on the beach and dinner aboard before spending the next day just lounging here. Steve hooked up a hammock and we played Frisbee in the water while a group of workers clearing the island for an upcoming “resort” stopped to watch. They were no doubt entertained by my highly dramatized attempts at catching and throwing the frisbee.

An older man on the crew kept stopping to chat with us, as best as we could in Spanish. What I gathered from him is that he is not happy about all of the recent development of the islands. “Mas turistas, no esta bien.” He repeated over and over. We later learned that a new road has been paved in Carti, a town on the mainland that is receiving waves of backpackers now that access has been created for the first time ever between Kuna Yala and Panama City.

The owner of the island led the work crew and boasted the development of the new hotel next year, before shaking us down for four U.S. dollars – our fee for visiting his island. We didn’t have any cash on us, so the group shuttled Stephen over to our boat in their motorized dugout canoe, on their way back to the mainland. “Stephen looks like their sacrifice,” Jenny pointed to Stephen cross-legged and placid in the middle of the crew. Cash secured, they offered to transport Stephen back to the island but he insisted on swimming. For some reason they thought this was “peligro!” (dangerous). Perhaps the Kuna aren’t the best swimmers, but this is Stephen’s main form of exercise aside from hoisting the anchor. If they’d known that Stephen had also weighted himself down with four beers, they would have never forged on without him.

There are Kuna resorts, Kuna hotels and Kuna hostels. The Kuna resorts are “rustic cabanas,” translation: bamboo hut with thatched roof, windows, sand floor and two stacked mattresses. The Kuanidup Resort has added cabanas and a generator to the island since we were last here. There is now a pool table and flat screen TV in the main “office” where you can usually find the Kuna gathered. One evening, Stephen went searching for our waiter, only to find him glued to the scene of a high speed car chase with the rest of the staff. “How do the Kuna even relate to that?” Stephen shook his head in disbelief while sharing his findings with us. “The Kuna don’t even have cars.”

The Kuanidup Resort now has plumbing in their main bathrooms, which they might be better without. During a visit to the island, Jenny and I had an adventure using these bathrooms, permanently flooded since you have to bucket in your own water to fill the toilet for flushing when it runs dry. There is a huge tub of water just outside the bathrooms for this occurrence.

The Kuna hotels, on the main islands, actually have concrete floors and plumbed bathrooms that seem to work efficiently, but there are no frills. These are stacked with beds, usually four to a room and are more akin to hostels. The Kuna hostels, a recent addition with the influx of backpackers, go for $15 a night and are huts far less desirable than one built for a Kuna family. There are no windows, just one makeshift door for privacy. I’m pretty sure guests sleep in hammocks.

When we arrived to Kuna Yala, it was rainy season, yet the weather was beautiful for the duration of Chuck & Jenny’s stay. It was like Mother Nature knew they were visiting, because the day they left it was overcast and rainy for days. While they were aboard, we were visited by many Kuna, who paddled alongside our boat in their dugout canoes, selling their molas and other crafts. Lisa, a notorious transvestite master mola-maker and entrepreneur who we had come to know in 2006, had arranged a tour with Chuck & Stephen prior to our arrival. Lisa came with her assistant, Noriega to pick us up from our boat one morning and shuttle us in her motorized canoe to the mainland for a nature hike to a waterfall.

The sights on the trip over were amazing. The water is always so tranquil and smooth, reflecting the skies above like a giant mirror. The clouds had dissipated from the mountains and their greens contours shone brightly in the morning sun. When we arrived at the mouth of the Rio Sidra (the river), the boys had to get out and navigate the kayak through silt and sandbars. We were told that the river was ceremonial, a place where the Kuna come to bury their dead. Lisa also asked us not to take pictures since it was a sacred site.

The banks were lined with hibiscus, mango and palm trees. Schools of fish swam alongside our canoe. At the end of the river, we hiked in past a cemetery, where several Kuna were attending to the gravesites. Each family site is separated by a thatched roof sheltering mounds of earth. Each site looks freshly dug, the sides molded into a point, an acute angle pointing in the direction of heaven. The graves are marked with hand painted wooden signs. Some have plastic crosses and artificial flowers. All of them have at least one coffee mug if not several vessels for eating and drinking along the journey through the afterlife. It was remarkable how the Kuna honored their dead. Families maintain the graves regularly and Lisa showed us the site of her family she claims to visit at least once a week.

The hike into the mountain was gorgeous with a clearing at one point for us to look across the water to the islands we had just come from. When we arrived at the waterfall, we were told we could jump in and even swim the stream back to the kayak instead of hiking. Seemed like a great idea until I jumped in, only to be attacked by fish moments later. Lisa forgot to mention the hungry fish in the stream that like to nibble on humans. Totally taken off guard, I screamed at the first peck, making a made dash for the boulders. Lisa was giddy with delight at my reaction. “Don’t worry, they’re not pirranah, just hungry,” she reassured. “Oh, well that makes it okay then.” Even Steve was startled by the tiny bites after jumping in again with full knowledge. Neither Jenny nor I were having this. There was no way we were “swimming” back to the kayak.

We had some great reefs to snorkel around the islands of Little Kuanidup and Wassaladup which we renamed “Wassonladup” for Chuck & Jenny Wasson-to-be. The reefs here are great to snorkel because of the calm, bathtub temperature water with minor currents. Below the surface is teeming with all kinds of tropical fish: angel fish, parrot fish, squid, eels, rays, sea anenomae, sea cucumbers, urchin, sand dollars, starfish, barracuda and even the occasional benign shark.

We swam to a wreck just off Dog Island, which is one of the most beautiful snorkeling spots I’ve enjoyed. When the afternoon sun is uninhibited by clouds, all of the colors of the rainbow: purples, pinks, blues, mustards, rusts, and scarlet sparkle from the resulting coral, fish and plant life that has covered the wreck. Schools of larger fish hide in the underbelly of the ship while tons of smaller fish feed along the sides.

One evening, anchored off of Green Island, we went ashore to collect wood for a fire we built after dinner. We returned, covered in bug spray for the bonfire/trash burning event. Trash is a problem for San Blas, as there is no place for it to go. Rather than collect it and deliver it to the main islands where they could charge you to let it sit until it is eventually burned or drifts out to sea, we try to burn most of it ourselves. Many Kunas collect it in large heaps on their private islands for burning as well - a temporary eyesore hidden among palm trees. A faint glow from Panama City over the mountains is the only source of light pollution here, and barely noticeable, so the stars are abundant. We would look away from the glow of the fire from time to time to notice a new constellation of stars that became more visible in the night sky.

The rest of Chuck & Jenny’s trip was spent sailing, swimming, lounging, eating great Kuna meals and having mas cervezas y vino. One afternoon, Stephen and Chuck caught an enormous tuna that resulted in afternoon food coma compounded by the blistering sun. In retrospect, we agreed the tuna could have fed us two lunches. We troll for fish almost every time we move anchorages, and Stephen has recently tried out his spear guns. We have found that the best way to hook a fish is to wait for a Kuna kayuko to paddle up next to you, waving their fresh catch high above their heads. The greatest effort expended by using this method is the negotiation. “Dos langostas (lobsters), quince (15),” a Kuna fisherman requested. “Hmm…diez (10),” replied Stephen. “Okay,” responded the fisherman. No blood and guts. No scrapes from brushing against the reef. Easy.

We had two dinners ashore, one at the Kuanidup Restaurant (a sheltered picnic area) after the most amazing sunset, and our last on El Porviner at the “hotel.” Our lobster dinner on Kuanidup was $8 a person and our last meal of Baracuda (very tender), bottled Coca-colas and cervezas was just $6 a person. I am happy to report that Kuna fare is fabulous and very filling, contrary to what their very skinny frames might lead you to believe. Everything is usually served with rice, beans or lentils and ensalada which is lettuce and tomato on the main islands, but cabbage & carrots (like a slaw) on the outer islands. El Porviner makes some damn good French fries. Ah, but I still long for all things dairy…fresh milk and ice cream. And it would be nice to get some fresh veggies more than just once every two to three weeks. The veggie boat makes its rounds to the more popular anchorages unexpectedly. Sometimes you can find out about anticipated stops through the Cruiser radio net, but you have to be up pretty early in the morning to catch it, as Stephen and I learned the hard way.

Sometimes Kuna will peddle loaves of fresh bread (more like bread sticks) and huevos (eggs) early in the morning. Just when Stephen and I think we’ve found a private anchorage, we are reminded that we are never alone. The Kuna are always close at hand, even before 7 am, and will shout “Hola!” at the first sign of stirring inside the boat. One morning, as we lay in the V-berth we suddenly heard a sneeze, only it didn’t come from me, him or Gretchen. “Unbelievable!” I started laughing. They had quietly made their way out to us and were lurking just outside the bow. “Hola!” was the next thing I heard. “Molas!” “Tenemos muchas molas!” I shouted. (We have a ton of molas). “No necessito mas molas.” (I don’t need any more molas). “Hay magazinos?” they ask in reply. When we don’t have a need for whatever they’re peddling, they will often ask us for magazines, chocolate, towels, sunglasses, bug spray. If they don’t have something we can use, we find ourselves handing out pens, old magazines, and hotel size soaps and lotions.

After a full week of immersion in Kuna culture, we hugged Chuck and Jenny goodbye outside the Airport Restaurant early on a Friday morning. It was a pleasure to have them aboard my first week back. They were great guests and sharing Kunaville with them was even more fantastic than imagined. Our faces became long as I realized I didn’t know when I would see them again, and whether they would be Mr. & Mrs. Wasson in our next reunion. We stood along the side of the runway, waving to them as they peered through the window of the plane. I felt a pang of anxiety for Jenny as the plane took off, the most exciting event on the island that day. Soon they would be checking into a resort in Panama City to enjoy luxuries I have traded in to be here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Highlights of the East Caribbean....


Dominica was one of our more exotic destinations in every sense of the experience. It’s an independent nation, struggling for a foothold in the second world. We were told Jugo Chavez is bringing economic opportunity in the form of oil refineries. If you are visiting the city of Portsmouth, you’re probably a sailor or a member of the Peace Corps. Whenever we went to the market, which starts hours before dawn, I was often mistaken for a Peace Corps worker. There is both appreciation and animosity towards them and “the students” at the local medical school just outside of town. They’ve built their own tiny city and have the chance to mingle with local Rastas on the weekends.

The Valley of Desolation

One such Rasta named “JC,” was our hiking guide on a day long trek through The Valley of Desolation to the Boiling Lake. “They (the students) don’t like to mix with our kind,” he informed us while giving us the back-story on Dominica’s diverse subcultures. JC explained what it meant to be a Rasta, living off the land and having a keen knowledge of how to use every bit of the environment for shelter, food and medicine. In JC’s case, being a Rasta also means trying to fly under the radar of the local park wardens, and anyone who may try to keep him an honest citizen.

Turns out our guide was “unofficial,” but not “unentertaining.” The moment we stepped out of the rental car to start our hike, I detected an herbal scent wafting from the back of the jeep. There stood JC with a mischievous smile. Dominican Rastas seem to be free to smoke provided they don’t try to share it or sell it to their foreign counterparts. JC rolled a spliff so big he didn’t need to “share it.” Inundated by the smoke, I pushed Stephen ahead of me on the trail. “You go first, or I’m going to be too high to make it to the boiling lake.”

You’d think JC’s habits and general demeanor would make him a slow hiker, but he put both of us to shame. He knew these trails like he could walk them in his sleep. He was unbelievably quick, even in his heavy boots that he shared were two sizes too big for him. As he belted out Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits, he’d stop dead in the middle of the chorus to point out a special type of tree, and pick up the beat exactly as he left it. He’d find time to bust a moonwalk or some other Michael dance move and still be way up ahead of us.

This trail was an unbelievable 8 hour trek through dense rainforest (where we got to swing from vines) and sulfur fields known as “The Valley of Desolation.” The descent into the steep valley was a little precarious with slippery mud below your feet and shifting rock overhead. “Move quickly,” were JC’s orders – but not too quickly or you’ll slide the whole way down.

The sulfur fields were neon greens, oranges and yellows depending on a combination of elements – heat and sulfuric content. We were literally stepping over lava flows. It bubbled in some places, and JC said you could boil an egg in it. Close to all this activity, the streams flowed in a variety of colors: orange, onyx and a pure white that reminded me of glacial waters – steaming instead of freezing.

Along the ridge of the forest, water flowed into natural pools that held the temperature of a hot tub. JC let us climb into one of these pools, hidden inside a cluster of trees. Hot water poured down the rock face and over a natural infinity edge into the next pool below. As we dug our toes into the dirt, the heat became more intense.

Our hike ended at a boiling lake. It was far bigger than Stephen imagined, a deep crater almost 100 yards in diameter and almost 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Each time the center started boiling up, it would roar and hiss, then blanket us with a thick cloud of steam. Sitting around this volcanic wonder stirred up talk of volcanoes which made JC uneasy. As we shared our knowledge of Yellowstone’s super volcano and scientific estimations that it’s overdue for an eruption, JC became upset with us. “No! Jah would never let that happen,” he insisted. As we made our case, he made his – one I’d never considered before. “Were humans around the last time it erupted?” he asked. “No,” we answered. “Well, now that humans are here, Jah won’t let the volcano erupt.” Sounds plausible.

Titou Gorge

Our epic hike ended at Titou Gorge, one of the film sites for Pirates of the Caribbean. The scene in which Johnny Depp is walking with those long sticks and then falls into a Gorge….you can actually go swimming in the bottom of the gorge in the coldest mountain water that flows between huge boulders that give you the feel of swimming inside caves. Very little light gets inside and the water varies from an ice blue to a deep emerald. In the last “cave,” a water fall rushes in and you can climb onto a ledge to sit behind it.

Screw’s Sulfur Spa

Another highlight of Dominica was “Screw’s Sulfur Spa.” A business savvy Rasta, “Screw” held onto a vision for years that a hot spring lie under his property in the village of Wotten Waven. For years, he dug with a shovel until one day hot mineral water seeped through the ground. Screw had built his home in the top of a very large tree that existed on the property. Soon, this tree would also become the bar and reception area for an elaborate resort. The resort grew from a few small basins into expansive pools of varying temperatures. The landscaping incorporates art and the natural rainforest. My favorite time to be here was at night when you can float on your back and gaze up at the stars through the trees. Screw was extremely generous, especially with his ganja rum. At the end of each visit, he gave Stephen a few shots of this “truth serum” and a bag of fruit from his property.


In Rouseau, we were anchored next to a big catamaran, “Hands Across the Sea.” The couple aboard ran a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing school supplies to children on the islands. Their cousin, a dancer trained in New York City, was also visiting to give workshops to the local dance schools. She invited me to join a Zumba session one day at a school auditorium in town. When I got there, the dancers were giving a recital to the local heads of ministries. When they were finished, a few of the girls welcomed me and pulled me up on stage to Zumba with them. Suddenly we were all performing for groups of uniform-clad school children funneling in. They were dancing in their seats, and some even ran up on stage.

Eating in Dominica was a great experience whether at the local market or in a restaurant perched in the treetops in Wotten Waven. Locals love to cook with “ground provisions,” meaning yams, tarot root, yucca, potatoes, and plantains – anything starchy. They’ll load your plate with fish, rice, ground provisions and “green salad” (lettuce & tomato), all prepared with local spices. They love to make fritters out of just about everything too – fish, potato, onion, meat.

Dominica is one of the poorer islands, and had one really bad incident of theft in the Portsmouth anchorage that earned it a bad reputation among cruisers. There was just one time that we felt “unsafe” while walking through a residential area back to the boat at night. In populated areas, it’s always best to take a cab after dark. After a few cat calls, I picked up the pace and looked straight ahead. It turns out one of the guys calling out to me was actually our “boat boy,” and was just trying to say hello to us. The local government has compensated for recent crime by organizing boat boys to look after yachts at anchor and connect them with services during their stay. We found most Dominicans to be very fun-loving, straightforward and generous. Dominica isn’t a beach resort-type destination, but it’s definitely worth a visit on a cruise ship.

St. Lucia

We spent a few weeks in St. Lucia, where Mom & Dad Toman came to visit over Easter. We spent a few weeks in Rodney Bay, home to a few resorts, including Sandals. We met a couple that has been sailing the Caribbean for about 30 years, part of the time for leisure and part of the time as a charter business. They were extremely friendly to us and invited us to a sunset happy hour at the yacht club they belonged to. Like most places, we appeared to be the youngest among the crowd. At times its fun, and at other times it gets lonely. We’re always grateful for those who “take us under their wing” and welcome us into the group.

We hooked back up with a couple we met, Russell and Annie, who have been sailing their catamaran all over the North Atlantic & Caribbean for a few years. Annie and Russell have about 30 more years of life experience than us, but are extremely youthful and seem more like our peers than most. We had the best time with them at the local Friday night street party. All the bars stay open and set up food stands on the street. A few roads are blocked off for a stage where either a DJ or band sets up. It is the best atmosphere, with locals and tourists mixing easily. This is partly because local men & women will pick visitors out of the crowd to dance.

We sailed down to Marigot Bay, a much quieter town, in preparation for Mom & Dad Toman’s arrival. They rented a beautiful condo overlooking the bay, and we got pampered with AC and hot showers all week. The pool had a swim up bar with the most delicious but overpriced tropical drinks. We spent a lot of time just lounging here, or snacking on hors d'oeuvres back at the condo. A couple of nights, we took the 30 second ferry ride across the bay to the only two restaurants.

One afternoon, we sailed with them to the Pitons. This was an impressive sight, but our plans were cut short when some dangerous cross currents made our ride less than relaxing. Mom Toman and I were enjoying the view from the bow when things started to get bumpy. “Hey girls, why don’t you make your way back to the cockpit,” Stephen called out. Suddenly, Dad Toman started heading towards us in a gesture of chivalry I feared might end in a man overboard drill. Fortunately, all passengers were secured. The wind and weather was great, but there was a southerly swell that induced a bit of seasickness.

On another day, we did some land travel with a personal driver. The sights we visited included “The Drive-In Volcano,” botanical gardens and a natural sulfur spring. The site of the volcano contained lava pools like those in Dominica’s “Valley of Desolation,” and were far more accessible with added protections for the public. You weren’t going to walk around lava pools here. The tour guide warned of the dangers, citing tragic accidents where the ground gave way and a man was severely burned. Another lost his pet dog who decided to jump the fence.

The drive up the windy roads was perhaps as adventurous as our sail. The van brought on a new wave of motion sickness as our driver boldly jerked around every turn. The gardens were a gorgeous reprieve with waterfalls and hundreds of species of tropical trees and plants like “crab claws,” bird of paradise and cattails.

St. Lucia’s natural sulfur springs did not meet the bar set high by Screw’s Sulfur Spa, but it was still a unique experience for Mom & Dad Toman. This was the first time we have ever spent a week alone with them, outside of Long Island. Free from typical distractions, we got to know them in a special new way - outside of their role as parents and grandparents. This was true quality time without agendas or time constraints. Marigot Bay is the perfect place for this type of family vacation.

The Grenadines


The Grenadines is the quintessential paradise of the Eastern Caribbean. We spent several weeks hopping through the islands of both the Northern and Southern Grenadines, two separate nations for purposes of customs and immigration. Here, there are less “excursions” as each island becomes the destination with their distinct beaches and cultures. Time actually moves slower than anywhere else in the Eastern Caribbean, more like the pace of molasses.

St. Vincent has an unsavory reputation, so we bypassed it and headed for Bequia. Stephen found a lot of great scuba diving opportunities here, and earned his advanced open water certification.

This island was small enough to tour by scooter in one day. The day we drove across the island was the day we visited the sea turtle reserve and happened upon “the whale.” We learned the importance of preserving one species, and drove down the road to bear witness to the endangerment of another.

The methods behind Old Brother Heg's turtle conservation were questionable, but he reports that his tracking proves better odds than natural survival rates. He has received criticism for feeding his turtles canned tuna, but he swears it has resulted in a breed of stronger, more determined tuna. “To them, I say bullshit!” he defended. He explained that the turtles have to fight there way to the bottom for the tuna much earlier than their bodies typically allow them to sink. My favorite turtle was Brother Heg’s family pet. Our cruising friends, Herb & Frank told us to look out for it. It was marked by two holes drilled in the ends of its shell. Heg put these holes here for his grandchildren to take the turtle to the beach. The poor turtle is restrained against his natural urges to head for the ocean!

The beaches of Bequia were gorgeous, and empty. The nightlife was shared equally among the restaurants in town, as each claimed their night of the week for lobster, reggae or two for one drink specials. Every bar had a waterfront view, and there was even a little resort complete with a dive center and spa.


We skipped Mustique, home to one of Mick Jagger’s McMansions. We were warned the prices would be too steep for us to set foot on the island. Our next stop was Mayreau, in the Southern Grenadines. The island of Mayreau had the best sunrises and sunsets because of the way the light would shine against the little spit of palm trees in Saltwhistle Bay.

We picked up a passenger in Bequia, Andy. He was a boat captain that Stephen met while diving and needed a lift down to Union Island. He’s the captain of a big mega yacht, owned by a pro-football player and was out of his element on our little sailboat. One thing he could do well, however, was set an anchor. That was crucial in this tiny bay where the edges could get shallow fast.

Andy joined us on shore for a lobster cookout prepared by local fishermen. This was almost the last night of lobster season, and lobster was not as abundant in the East Caribbean as we had hoped. Our lobster dinner came with a complimentary hand-rolled spliff. For digestion, of course.

The next day, Steve & Andy went for another dive, and the dive boat dropped him off on Union Island. We pretty much laid on this picture perfect beach for two days in a row. We toured the island in one morning, stopping for groceries at a convenient store run out of a woman’s home, and for breakfast at a little Rasta diner, “Righteous and de Youths.” Righteous was not so righteous when it came to the fair price he promised. We gave him the benefit of the doubt, and didn’t insist on nailing down a dollar amount when he failed to produce a menu. How much could a plate of eggs and a dinner roll cost? Try $30 US. I don’t think so. He must have mistaken us for tourists. We were quick to let him know that we had been around the block and knew the price of eggs. And so our breakfast dropped to $15.

We spotted a little stone Church with goats in the yard, containing statues and altars adorned with sea shells. It was a very inviting, cozy Church with one of the best ocean views. Imagine stepping out of mass onto a cliff that overlooks the Grenadines.

Tobago Cays

From Mayreau, we headed to the Tobago Cays, the most spectacular snorkeling grounds I had ever encountered. When Brigitte came to visit, we took her here for her first snorkeling lessons. There were several tiny islands in this cluster that makes up the Cays. These islands were mainly rock with short but steep hikes to the top for sunrise & sunset views.

One day there was a group of men experimenting with this crazy flying machine. It was a parachute attached to huge circular fan powered by lawn mower engine. They strapped themselves into the seat, gave it some juice, and soared above the Cays. To coast back down, they would simply let off the gas. We climbed to the top of the island they were taking off from to watch this experience akin to the Wright Brothers sampling their first flying machines.

The Cays is a marine park with special protections for both the reefs and a preserve where you can snorkel & swim with sea turtles. We would happen upon two or three turtles at a time, often two adults and a baby feeding on sea grass. Underneath the water, you could hear them chomping. They seemed unafraid and would linger as long as you kept a safe distance.


Carriacou was the last island in the Grenadines that we stopped at before heading for Grenada. There wasn’t much happening on this island. It was pretty much a place to clear out of customs and make use of the Internet. We noticed there was a lot more nudity going on in this anchorage and couldn’t figure out why. One morning, a naked couple practiced some sort of calisthenics routine in their cockpit.

The most fun we had in Carriacou was at Lady D’s Hallelujah bar, a fishing barge docked in the middle of the anchorage. We stopped for happy hour on our way back from town and ended up staying for dinner, listening to Jo’s whole life story. She was in a panic when we arrived; worried she had just made a bad investment by taking over the business. Her dinghy engine had cut out on her on her way to work and she was adrift until she radioed a friend who gave her a tow. She was frazzled as she tried to get the place in order, but we were in no rush. She made us a huge meal for practically nothing and told us how she had left the island to work in London as a seamstress for top designers years ago. They paid her a pretty low salary, but she saved her money until she could afford to return to Carriacou as a landowner. When she announced her plans to leave, she said they reacted with jealousy. They commented that they must have paid her “too much” for her to be able to afford a home in the Caribbean. She explained that if they hadn’t spent all their money on Prada and martinis that they could have afforded the same and more.

The morning that we cleared out of customs, we had breakfast on a little patio just yards away from Synchronicity. As I sipped my coffee, waiting for Stephen, a high speed ferry filled with school kids in uniform pulled up to the dock. They filed off the boat in maroon jackets with navy blue ties and pleated skirts and pants. Not a bad way to get to school.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Headed for Panama!

After two short, but eventful months spent stateside, I am heading back to the Caribbean this evening. Jenny and I will be flying out of Reagan Intl. into Panama city and then catching a commuter flight into the San Blas tomorrow morning. Stephen and Chuck will be waiting for us at "el aeropuerto," a conglomeration of huts built around a tiny airstrip on the main island of El Porvenir.

They promised to bring coffee, which will be needed after two late nights with the Sanders' family and a third night of travel. I don't know if the Kuna are big on coffee, but Stephen happily reported Balboas (the national beer) are still $1 as in 2006. This is good news for our budget.

I'm looking forward to traveling back with Jenny, who is sometimes nervous about flying. Good thing I didn't show her the picture of our commuter plane before we left! Our arrival into San Blas marks the beginning of the second half of our journey - the Western Caribbean. Stephen and Chuck arrived in San Blas last weekend after a week long passage from Curacao.

Jenny and Chuck will be our first guests on this leg of the trip and I am excited to spend some quality time with them here. The last time they were both aboard Synchronicity was Fall of 2008 when we arrived in Annapolis after our trip up the Northeastern coast to Maine. Chuck gave us our first boat, the "L Phin L." It's come full circle as we now get to share with him, the dream he inspired - a major ocean passage and its payoff.
We plan to travel through the San Blas islands until October, when the squalls hit. By this time we'll be near Playon Chico, towards the eastern most end of the island chain where we can sail on to Cartegena, Columbia. From there, we hope to travel through Panama again, onto Honduras and Belize. At that point, our course will be determined by the status of the oil spill, hurricane season, and/or other opportunities to replenish funds. In our life of unknowns, at least one thing remains certain - we will need to work again!
Brigitte and Moncie will be our second guests, arriving in the San Blas the first week in September. Sharing San Blas will be like watching the expressions on a kid's face at Christmas. You wish for something like this, see it in the movies and magazines, but is it as real as the picture? And would you ever get to have it for yourself?
An archipelago of over 300 islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama, the San Blas is about as surreal as it gets. It is home to the Kuna Yala, an indigenous indian tribe still practicing a very traditional way of life, making the best of their natural resources.

In the 1930s, the U.S. helped the Kuna negotiate terms with Panama on this reserve that now belongs solely to them. They are considered citizens of Panama and often send family to live in Panama City for months and years at a time for work and a public school education. The Kuna seem to have the best of both worlds without the tax burden. They continue to fish in hand-built canoes with make-shift sails, yet carry cel phones.

J.C., our charter captain in 2006 informed us, "Don't let them (the Kuna) fool you. They are not poor, but very rich." He explained how tourists come to the island feeling sympathetic for the Kuna and are ready to give them top dollar for their fish and crafts. They perceive the Kuna as an isolated and perhaps desperate group, as they hustle out to your boat in their dug-out canoes, inundating you with their wares and making the saddest puppy dog faces when you don't buy from them equally. "The Kuna are the richest people I know," JC explained as he kept them honest in their negotiations with us.

Kuna are smart, and very entrepreneurial. They may not be rich by U. S. standards, but they have an abudance of wisdom and contentment. They measure their wealth through their ability to provide for every need while maintaining a life free of daily stressors common to the modern world - the ones that can lead to a general unhappiness most of us get comfortable with. And they get to do it in a paradise many are eager to devleop.
Another interesting aspect of their lifestyle is the culture of making "molas." Molas are pictorial patterns embroidered onto pieces of fabric for the purpose of sharing Kuna tradition. The art is passed on in every family, usually to daughters unless there are only sons. In that case, the youngest son is often raised as a female for the purpose of carrying on the tradition. There are "Master Mola Makers" and then there are those that mass produce the patterns of the "artists." We met two such artists, Valencio and Lisa (above).
The patterns made by a Master Mola Maker are more intricate and therefore more expensive. Lisa is known as the "Donna Karan" of the Kuna, since she makes clothing as well. Stephen bought one of his favorite shirts (his "Camisa de Lisa") from her in 2006. He ran into her this week, adding another camisa to his wardrobe. It will be interesting to stay in the San Blas for such an extended period, making the transition from tourist to neighbor. I'm pretty sure life without internet is key to preserving the Kuna way of life. Bottom line, don't expect to hear from us for a while. On days with good frequencies, we'll send some messages from the boat, and we'll talk to everyone in October!!