three hulls, two people, one trip around the world…

Guna Yala – San Blas

We used our time back on the water to tidy up the boat properly and clean it thoroughly. This had become much more urgent due to the stay on land. After two days, we found ourselves in a state where we felt comfortable again. Mathias had hosed down the whole deck. When we tried to take the hose off again, water continued to flow out of the pipe. This problem could not be solved, not even by turning off the tap on the supply line. In the end we put a tap on the connection. It looks stupid now and sticks out, but is a solution. On the other hand, one of the outdoor showers doesn’t get any water at all. Well, at least it doesn’t get boring. We have to add to-do items to the list from time to time, otherwise we run the risk of having nothing to fix anymore.

Mathias didn’t quite like the state of the tidy boat and started to dig out the inflatable catamaran from the storage compartment at the back of the middle hull. In no time, our main room looked like our living room did, when we had misused it to build model boats. All surfaces were covered with the individual parts and we started to put the parts together. Now the catamaran is a big thing, it took us a whole day to get it ready to launch. The dinghy had to give way so that we had a slip ramp. On the water, the mast was set and the sails were hoisted. Mathias wanted to add an electric motor, but by then it would have been dark and there would have been no time to test sail. The catamaran sailed well and Mathias managed to reach the SAN again. Bringing the sails back in, laying the mast, UV cover over the cat. Honestly, just as much fiddly stuff as with the beach catamarans. That’s what we really wanted to avoid. At least there was a good wind and Mathias was able to sail with Bjarne for a day.

Equipped with such élan, we set about repairing the small Kayacat. Mathias still claimed that there was an inner tube in the hulls, but he didn’t look to see if anything could be pulled out. I had already looked several times and had come to the conclusion that nothing was coming out. As Mathias continued to complain, I was so annoyed that I just poked around a bit more brutally in the opening. It turned out that the front part was held in place by a strong Velcro fastener and there was a zip at the back of the float. And lo and behold, an inner tube could be pulled out after all. 1:0 for Mathias, well, actually more like 1:9 for me, because I’m usually right in such discussions, anyway he could have looked for the access himself a long time ago. But all’s well that ends well. So we could start looking for the hole. The problem was a valve that had not been inserted well. Difficult to repair. But it managed to hold the air again for much longer and I could use the Kayacat for a little snorkelling tour. There are enough reefs here and also many small to medium-sized fish. The corals, however, are not impressive. Most are brown or grey. Coral dieback is visible. 

The consequences of climate change are also evident above the water surface. Most of the islands here are uninhabited, or there are only one or two huts. Some islands, on the other hand, are completely overpopulated. There you can’t see any land in an aerial photograph because of all the huts. The population of one of these islands is to be resettled on the mainland in the course of the next few years. The tide has risen higher and higher in recent years, and now the water runs into a classroom of the school at high tide. It is predicted that by the end of the century, most of the islands will no longer be habitable due to rising sea levels. More such resettlement programmes are expected to take place by 2050. The Guna people also own land on the mainland. The province of Guna Yala belongs to Panama, but is largely administered independently. How much of the old traditions are still left is difficult to judge. Still in use are the “ulus”, boats hollowed out of a tree trunk, which are paddled, sometimes sailed. The women and some men sell “mola”, colourful embroidery work. 

We spent a few days off an idyllic little island until bad weather was announced. Then it was better to look for an anchorage that offered more protection from the new wind direction. Together with the Danes, we sailed to the Lemmon Cays. Here you can anchor in the middle of the archipelago, protected all around. But the entrance is quite shallow and our depth gauge is not working at the moment. So we preferred to stay outside the group. Wind and tippy waves meant that we couldn’t meet up with the Danes again. When they left for Shelter Bay, we looked for a quieter anchorage. We found one near the main island “El Porvenir”, the airfield island, where there is also a police station. When sailing through the reefs, we initially looked at the forward depth gauge, which was still working. But that doesn’t really help. Therefore, we preferred to rely on the classic method with the lookout on the mast, or in our case the lookout next to the mast. There, you are already quite elevated and can see the shallow spots by the colour of the water even when the sky is overcast. 

It is no longer rolly at our new anchorage. We were immediately besieged by three Ulus and had to buy a flag and molas. I write “had to” because people here live off it and you can’t totally refuse. Besides, the fabrics and bags are quite nice, even if the prices are questionable. Most of the time, the first price mentioned is 20 dollars. It’s just stupid that if you want to pay less, you have to have smaller notes, and only 20 dollar notes come out of the ATM’s. For smaller units, you have to pay for small purchases in cash several times, so it’s difficult.

The spelling can be Guna or Kuna.

We did the re-positioning on my birthday. It went quietly with phone calls, lots of congratulations and an apple pie. So it was really nice 🙂

On the second day here, we had another visitor.  This time it was an older Guna in his Ulu who could speak quite decent English. He pointed out to us that we had to register with the police and that we needed a special cruising permit for Guna Yala. At the same time, he offered his help with this and also offered to go shopping for us. That was a service we could use. He went shopping first, then came back and brought his daughter and two grandchildren to see the boat. He left them on board and drove over to the police station with Mathias in the Ulu. Must be a tippy thing to do. Mathias looked a bit nervous in the small narrow boat. Meanwhile, I had to entertain the children. I tried colouring and was successful, at least with the older one (4 years old). (Maybe I should have taken Duplo on board.) The boy tried to draw an ulu.

When Mathias and Nestor came back, we talked some more. Suddenly he asked if we had a spare sail that he could use for his Ulu. Mathias looked quite irritated. We do have a lot of sails on board, but they are still usable and of the size for our boat and not a mini boat. But – we are a houseboat and so I remembered that I had an old sail from the beach catamarans with me. I wanted to make sail bags out of it. However, this project has not been started for 3 years now. So the sail might as well be given away. So we could actually fulfil this unusual wish. We also gave him a needle, thread and tape. I hope he can use it to make something for his Ulu out of a (still too big) foil sail. How these things are sailed without a keel or Outrigger remains a mystery to us. But Nestor said that was no problem at all.

Nestor also told us a little about the supply situation of the islands and the medical care. There is a daily boat that brings food and fuel and takes away the rubbish. There is a doctor on the main island, but no hospital. The nearest hospital is on the mainland, two hours away by motorboat. That’s OK so far, but not exactly the best transport option for women in labour. If there are no relatives on the mainland, the sick person or the expectant mother can only be handed over. A stay for relatives is too expensive. A larger hospital is even further away, which must be approached for more complicated illnesses. Treatment in Panama City is probably too expensive. But that must be mainly due to the distance. The hospital’s shuttle boat is subsidised by Panama with fuel. Once this is used up, it only runs if the patients pay for the fuel. So at the end of the year, you shouldn’t get sick. There are a few plants on the islands, on one visit Nestor brought us freshly fried breadfruit. Mango and coconuts are also used. The main source of food is still fish and lobster fishing.

Mathias painstakingly sews a new seam on the mainsail tarpaulin. A job that can only be done when there is little sun.

From El Porvenir we sailed only a few miles further to the Chichime Cays. The entrance is easier there because it is wider and deeper. There are already about 15 yachts moored there. For the approach, the Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus says that you should orientate yourself on a tiny sand island off the main island with only 2 palm trees on it. This tip can no longer be followed, as this islet no longer exists. The rise in sea level is making itself felt. It is a strange feeling when you can experience these effects so closely.

At the Chichime Cays we met another Guna, Justino, who can also speak good English. He told us again about the life of the Guna. He has three children, the son is in Panama City and is probably doing well there. For his daughter, he wants her to marry someone from outside the Guna people. That was forbidden until 20 years ago. But nowadays the Guna are allowed to marry whoever they want. This Guna was looking for an old ship’s battery because his solar power system at home had broken down. Some probably have light for the evenings so that they can still work on the molas. We could not help with that. We found a sturdy plastic sheet on board with which he wanted to mend his sail.

One night there was a heavy storm, lots of rain paired with good gusts of wind. Although we didn’t use much chain by our standards, because the anchorage was quite narrow, the anchor held well. There is hardly any swell in the sheltered bay. The Guna on the island showed a fit of gallows humour. They had a music system and played “Highway to Hell” and “Knock on Heavens Door” during the stormy weather. But luckily none of the yachts in the bay came to any harm. The next morning, our new guna friend paddled into the bay completely excited and told us that the roof of his cabin had blown off and his family was now running around completely frantically. He had paddled off to collect new palm leaves for the roof and get tape from the yachts. We didn’t have anything suitable, but gave him rolls of wire, which should be even easier for lacing the leaves together, and bread and my home-baked biscuits to appease the children. Again a few days later he visited us and thanked us. He brought a pretty bracelet for me. We talked some more, again about the long distances he paddled because his family lived further away but his mother had a cottage around here. The patching of his sail had not worked. Spontaneously, we decided to give him the sail that belonged to the Kayacat. It never sailed very well and because now the connectors are rusted, we probably won’t convert it into a sailing cat again. I hope he can use it well, at least the sail is the right size. 

The Guna also ask if they should take away the rubbish for a fee. We always said no, because we didn’t know what would happen to it. Now we learned that the rubbish is collected and then burnt in the evening. We prefer to take the bags back to Linton Bay. Most of it is packaging and therefore plastic waste. Will it burn completely in a campfire? I don’t know where the rubbish goes from Linton Bay either, but there is hope that things are better regulated on the mainland.

It was time to get moving again. We sailed to an anchorage south of Banderup, but it didn’t really appeal to us. So the next day we went back to the area of El Porvenir, where there is at least passable internet. We were immediately welcomed back by Nestor. 

This time Nestor invited us to visit his island. He wanted to cook for us and then show us around the island. We accepted. He came a few more times to arrange everything and to always get some money for shopping. Once he also asked for our rubbish, but we wanted to take it back with us. Then he asked for aluminium beverage cans. The school organised a competition to see which women could collect the most cans over the year. The collection was then to be sent to Panama City for recycling. Well, I could serve with that. Although we don’t use many beverage cans, I had collected them separately from the other rubbish. Always in the hope of finding a place where they could be handed in for recycling. So I was able to give him a whole bag full. 

The visit to the island was short but interesting. We were entertained alone, the family probably eats at other times. Nestor’s youngest son and his grandson, almost the same age, were clowning around us. When Mathias had finished eating, they were quite disappointed that he hadn’t left anything. Luckily, I hadn’t finished yet and was able to give them something. That’s when the German politeness of eating up everything proved to be wrong. I wonder if the boys are only ever allowed to eat the leftovers. Or if this is the only way to get something extra? Nestor at least said it was not easy to serve enough rice for his whole clan every day. After all, 9 people live in the two small huts all the time: Nestor, his wife, his mother-in-law, two daughters, two young sons and two grandsons. In total, he has 7 children. 

Walking around the island, we saw the community house where meetings are held. It had plywood doors locked with small padlocks. Not quite so communal? There is one for the men and one for the women. The women were preparing some festival with plantains. Some were seen in the house wearing the traditional colourful clothes of the Guna. Nestor’s mother-in-law is also dressed similarly and has jewellery across her nose. The younger women look more western. There is a basketball court and various breadfruit trees on the island. Small areas look like small gardens. At one end of the island is the school, where the older children had lessons in the afternoon. There were also three pangas, two of them with outboard motors. These larger boats belong to the community. There are three small shops on the island selling goods from Panama City. And one hut had a veranda with a TV. There was a public viewing of the World Cup from Qatar. 🙂

Most of the Guna paid no attention to us. One woman whose house we passed wanted to sell us her molas. When we declined with thanks, she was quite annoyed. 

After the little tour, we had the impression that Nestor’s huts are in a poorer part of the island. The ground here was already partly under water after a downpour. The family has one hut that serves as a kitchen and a slightly larger one that is the sleeping and living area. It is filled with beds and hammocks. There is a place to put something like a radio and a power strip to charge mobile phones where available. The electricity for this is generated by a solar panel. The solar panels were provided to the Guna by the Panamanian state, as development aid, so to speak. We have now given away the sailing knives here, which Mathias had taken as guest gifts for remote South Sea islands.

The way back to the SAN was again in the tippy Ulu. Nestor had borrowed a bigger one ($5 rental fee paid by us). 

Life for the Guna on the crowded islands is certainly not easy. The idyll that may have once existed here no longer exists.

From Nalunega we drove back to Linton Bay. Here we want to do some big shopping again and clear out of Panama. In the next few days we will set off for St. Martin. That means many days of sailing across the open sea. Follow us on the satellite tracker, we can only report again when we arrive there.

Like this Post? Share it with your friends!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.