If you where to close your eyes and imagine a tropical paradise it would look something like the San Blas Islands. Coconut palms and golden beaches, all surrounded by coral reefs and transparent water. Everywhere you look the sea is the most beautiful colours, shades of blue and green. The reefs are alive with fish, sponges and coral of all shapes, sizes and colour. Life under the waves is so rich it positively makes the Eastern Caribbean look dead.
The Indians that live here, the Kuna, are friendly and still not too spoiled by our western capitalism (even though the cruise ship operator have discovered the San Blas and occasionally send in ships larger than the islands that they visit) Only a few of the 400 or so islands are inhabited, but many are used as coconut plantations. Now and then the Kunas come out in their dug-out canoes to collect the coconuts and take them to the market. This trade was so important for the Indians that the Coconut used to be their main currency for trade. That is a few years ago now and the "almighty" dollar has taken its place. The Kuna often visit the boats and offer their handcraft. Mostly they try to sell Molas, a sort of reverse appliqué. It’s very colourful and very beautifully done. They also offer vegetables and fish sometimes. We bought three lobsters today for USD 10. Quite a bargain. The Kuna are willing to barter and glossy magazines are valued highly. The younger girls especially love a good glossy magazine it being a trashy scandal mag, Vogue or a Better homes and garden. I do wonder what they think of us and our way of life after being exposed to this. Do they think this is how we westerners live? The Kuna also love having their picture taken and if you can print it out and give it to them your are in vogue. Luckily we have a colour printer onboard which has landed us a few good contacts and an invitation to a Kuna ceremony at a small island. In their colourful costumes they make perfect subjects for your lens.
Through active resistance against Panama, and some help from USA, the Kuna has managed to achieve quite an independent status versus Panama. Kuna Yala consists of more mountains and jungle than islands and occupies the whole eastern part of Panama. The Indians on the other hand mostly live on the islands and only do some subsistent farming inland up the rivers. Their independence means that all their land is very well preserved. To explore this part of Kuna Yala (Kuna Land) we went for an expedition into the interior. As most Kuna live out in the islands the interior is unspoiled where people are very few and far apart. Our expedition (or hike to be less pompous) went in to see a group of Indians that lived quite far inland. The trip started off with a 2,5 hour trip in a dough dug- out canoe with an outboard engine and then a 2 hour hike and a short swim across the river. Back again we borrowed two horses, one for the kids and one for Lesley. We all felt very "Indiana Jones" like. The boat trip took us not only into the jungle but also made a brief stop at one of the more populated islands. 900 people lived in an island not much larger that a couple of football fields! They shared the island with pigs, a couple of monkeys kept as pets and as many dough out canoes as people. Of cause there where no modern sanitation and the toilet was a seat on top of a bamboo platform.
When we arrived at the jungle village we where welcomed by the chief (Silo) and shown around. The village was nearly impossible to see until you where inside it. The vegetation was so dense. The houses where spread out and all of the same type as the houses on the islands, made from bamboo with coconut palm leafs as roof. There was a dirt floor and strong beams to hang your hammock from. All Kuna sleep in hammocks and all together in the same house. Not much privacy. The Kuna also always have a separate house for cooking and outside bamboo pens for the pigs and the chickens. It is all rather like an old Viking village in some ways so we felt right at home. The Panamanian government had built a school for the children in this village, a small concrete building with three small rooms. The Silo received us in the community house which was very large and with two hammocks. Only the Silo and his helper were allowed to lie down, the rest had to sit on the wooden benches. Here the Kuna in the village meet every afternoon to discuss and to voice any concerns. Apparently it is so boring sometimes that the Silo has appointed a couple of people to make loud noises every now and then to wake everyone up.
The Silo was a man of authority and presence. We did feel quite honoured to meet him as he thanked us for coming to see him and his people. Apparently they do not get many visitors, we where the first they had seen this year. Last year they had two groups. A terrible flood had washed away many of the villagers clothes and other belongings. The Silo asked us to tell the "world" about this and ask for some help. We donated some money and promised to get more help. A week later a big party was held for the village where money and old clothes was collected.
Moving through the San Blas was a joy. Just as we thought we had found the prettiest place ever we found another that is even more spectacular. And the snorkelling is fabulous everywhere! Tom on Magic Roundabout and I had re-discovered hunting and went off with a spear gun in the afternoons and sometimes early in the morning. It did not matter that we where pretty poor at it. It was fun anyway and we did get to swim with sharks and rays and see some amazing fish. One afternoon a large basking shark made its way into the anchorage and swam around the boats and we all jumped into the water even Camilla. So she got to swim with a shark at the age of 10!
The Hollandaise Cays where stunning and we got to spend a few days there. In fact it is so nice that many choose to spend a long time there; one boat a full 10 years! They did go on an airplane into the pacific to have a look but decided that they had found their paradise and did not need to venture further. So how do you spend 10 years in an anchorage? One way is to claim an island as your garden and devote your time to keeping it clean like this yachtie had. We where all very welcome to use the island how ever. So we had BBQ's on the beach and school in the shade of the palm trees. Camilla and Colin decided this was not good enough. They wanted a proper school building as well as other kids and went off to build one out of palm leaves.
A seasonal crab fisherman was also living on this garden island. He actually owned it but did not seem to mind that others where using it, or taking care of the "garden". He went out every morning to catch crabs and lobster that he sold to the yachts and to buyers from Panama City. One morning we got to go with him and caught some monster crabs as well as several lobster. It was my job to hold on to the catch. I can tell you that it is very hard to hold a 5 kg crab with your bare hands, especially when your other hand is holding on to a net with two lobsters in it that would rather like to be somewhere else.
Time just flew and suddenly our two weeks where up. Magnus was to arrive from Norway and join us in Porvenir, the main island, and sail with us to Panama and the Galapagos. He arrived early one morning on an island barely larger than the very minimal airstrip. We then set sail to the Panama Canal via Porto Bello, but that is another story...
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