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.