Peace, Love, and Kunas in the San Blas

On Sunday, January 15, Zach Johnson joined the crew of Audentes. Only a week into his visit, he was provided with his first real test: to take care of the boat while I returned to the U.S. for seven days to attend the memorial service for my Grandfather. Although Zach has previously accompanied me on a passage from Virgin Gorda to St. Martin, his sailing experience is limited. To prepare for the boatsitting stint, he endured a crash course in all things cruising related: running the refrigerator, sending e-mail, plugging a leak, monitoring the water tanks, and an assortment of other basic skills necessary to negotiate the day-to-day activities of living on a boat. To prepare for the possibility of being told to move the boat, we planned for him first to apologetically inform the interlocutor that he couldn’t reset the anchor. If this didn’t work, his fallback was to become indignant and order the interloper to leave. Failing this, he would ask for assistance from other cruisers.

Fortunately, these desperate measures proved unnecessary. The timing of Zach’s arrival could not have worked out better. His e-mails notifying me that the boat was still afloat served to relieve my anxiety throughout the week. Although the circumstances surrounding my return to Cape Cod were extremely sad, it was nice to be surrounded by family during the difficult time. Through our shared sense of grief, we continually expressed shock and sadness at my Grandfather’s sudden passing, laughed over happy memories, and helped my Grandmother attend to the arrangements for the burial and memorial service. The outpouring of support from the community was overwhelming and was an incredible testament to the impact that my Grandfather had on those around him. Returning to Onset, it was easy to see why he was so attached to the place. With snow falling (the first snow I have seen in two years) and his friends and family turned out in mass to pay tribute, I think Grandpa would have greatly enjoyed the gathering.

Following a memorable and emotional week, I returned to Panama on Sunday, January 29. Fortunately, travel to Panama is fairly simple and after a short layover in Newark and a 4.5 hour flight south, I was back in Panama. Even the time zone is the same, so jet lag is not a factor (surprisingly, the San Blas Islands are east of Miami). Arriving at the international airport at 10:30 PM with the daily flight to the San Blas Islands departing the national airport at 6:00 AM, I decided to save some money by waiting at the national airport overnight. After a cross-town taxi ride, I arrived at the airport to be informed by an incredulous police officer that the airport was closed and that it would be unsafe to wait outside for seven hours. Instead, I found a hotel that provided a room for $22. For those readers wondering what a $22 hotel room entails, the short answer is: not much. The slightly longer answer is a twin bed with barely enough room on either side to stand up, a one-off-clean bathroom, and a TV with half the channels offering porn (which, ironically, has a better production value than any of the other Spanish television shows). What the room did not include was a window, an air conditioner, or a shower faucet with enough pressure to be of any help. I’m nearly certain that I stayed in this exact hotel in Calcutta a few years ago. Luckily, my stay in this hovel was brief.

Arriving in San Blas, I was pleased to see Audentes still floating where I left her. During my absence, Zach got to know the residents and guests of Porvenir. My earlier belief that the islands of San Blas are an undiscovered paradise has proved to be not entirely true. In fact, the islands have been discovered by hippies and seem to be a fixture on the South American backpacking circuit. Strangely, these hippies are not the lovable tree-hugging, drug-experimenting hippies of the 60’s. Whereas the hippies in the great state of Washington retreat to living in trees to become one with nature, these European hippies seem more interested in smoking and littering their way through indigenous communities. Not to be confused with the hipsters found swilling PBR and searching for irony in Brooklyn while living off their parents, the world-weary hippies of the San Blas seem to share only a general disregard for good hygiene, even by sailing standards. In any case, for those aspiring hippies, it appears that the San Blas Islands are the new Kathmandu.

Tiring of the same three Kuna families and the steady flow of surly, smelly, and entirely too sober hippies, we moved southwest to the Tupsuit Islands. These islands lie within a protected bay, surrounded on three sides by the mainland. The tiny village receives fewer visitors and has preserved a more traditional way of life than the tourist-oriented islands with airplane service. Whether it was to enjoy our music from a distance or just to stare at the silly gringos, dugout canoes full of Kuna children would loiter near our boat for hours on end. On Friday, a local Kuna rowed us in his dugout canoe, called an uli, a couple of miles across the bay and down a scenic river. A friendly Kuna man, Justino, had just finished building a new uli on the mainland and enlisted our help in carrying the roughly 15-foot, 500-pound uli a few miles through the woods to the river. The cutting down of a tree and the hollowing out of the uli took Justino two weeks to complete with the assistance of his brother-in-law. After a rigorous 30 minute hike through lush forest surrounded by bucolic hills, we arrived at our destination to find that the 20 or so friends that were supposed to help had not arrived. Apparently, they had attended a celebration on a neighboring island on Thursday night and consumed too much chicha, which is a mix of corn, sugar, and coffee that ferments to become a popular Kuna alcoholic beverage. Admitting defeat, we trudged back through the woods and paddled back to our boat. In the next few days, we plan to depart the San Blas Islands and head west towards the eastern entrance of the Panama Canal. Likely, we will stop along the way, in an attempt to delay our transit to the Pacific Ocean, since typhoon season continues there until March.

Before going through the canal, I hope to repair the asymmetrical spinnaker and address a few other maintenance issues on the boat. Thus far, having Zach on board has worked well, which is a relief since a 40-foot boat can feel pretty small at times. Despite his lack of sailing expertise, he is a relatively quiet eater, which is vastly more important to me in maintaining a peaceful coexistence in close quarters. Although our personalities are very different, we share a desire to see new places, meet interesting people, and seek out memorable experiences.

This year, in lieu of watching the Super Bowl, we plan to attend a Kuna festival to celebrate a 12-year-old girls’ birthday. From what our limited Spanish allows us to gather, the girl will now be considered a woman, she will be given a name, her hair will be cut, and the hunt for an acceptable suitor will begin in earnest. We have been told that the chicha will flow freely and we are both eager to experience the festival and nervous that too much chicha might corrupt our innocence. By the time Seattle lifts their first Vince Lombardi trophy on Sunday night, one of us might have a Kuna bride, be chased out of town by a fleet of unfriendly uli’s, or both. Go Seahawks!

Leave a Reply