Onward, To Kuna Yala!

Miriadiadup, San Blas, Panama, 09o 35.35 N 78o 44.81 W

June 26, 2002

To cruisers, the weather is a fickle paramour. You want enough of her for a swift passage, but not so much that she scrambles your brains. As soon as you’ve had your fill of a place and are ready to move on, you begin pulling down all the wind-wave faxes, and watching her moods, hoping she’ll open her weather window so you can skeddadle through.

In San Andres for almost two weeks, after we’d enjoyed the voluptuous amusements of an island geared for tourists, we found ourselves spending a lot of time staring at the horizon. It was time to move on. We were fully provisioned, longing to get back to the reefs and to more primitive pleasures. Also, this next destination, the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama, was special for me; the beauty of the islands and the indigenous Kuna Indian population has tantalized me ever since I began dreaming about cruising many years ago. Now it was almost within our reach; between us and there remained only a three-day passage.

The steady 25-knot easterlies—perfect for our destination and a constant for weeks—evaporated as soon as we were ready to go, replaced by a mammoth high-pressure system that filled our days with light-to-nonexistent wind and thick humidity. We spent our time running boat errands, perspiring, doing all our dry provisioning for the next three months, and perspiring some more.


It was exciting to be on a Colombian island in the midst of a presidential election. All over town were posters of the candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez—clearly the local favorite, as there were no posters for any other candidates anywhere! The campaign slogan on his posters—”Mano firme, corazon grande” (a firm hand, a big heart)—was sometimes joked about by some of the locals we hung out with, who changed the slogan to “Mano duro, cabeza grande” (hard hand, big head), but that was all in fun. When push came to shove, they believed in him, went to the polls in record numbers, and voted Uribe in on a landslide of 53 percent of the vote, the first time in 12 years that no runoff election was needed. It’s well known here that Uribe’s father had been murdered by the guerillas, an experience that’s shaped his thinking and his political life ever since. He ran for the presidency promising he’d be tough on terrorists, would restore human rights, and would double the size of the army to do it.

| | Cade and Bernadette on San Andres * * *| In his dramatic victory speech from Bogota, which everyone listened to with rapt attention on their radios, he vowed that he would not, under any circumstances, negotiate with kidnappers until the kidnapping in Colombia stops. The Colombian paramilitary, which most people tell us is heavily involved in illegal drug trafficking, has a history of massacres against left wingers; Uribe vowed that fighting such terrorism is one of his highest priorities. He even directed his victory speech to current victims of kidnapping, saying he knew that captors often left the radios on so their victims would have something to listen to, and he hoped some might be hearing his message. Uribe ushers in an exciting time in Colombia, and the people we met, even on the sleepy remote islands of Providencia and San Andres, were filled with hope.

Finally, it appeared that the upcoming Tuesday offered us a weather window worth looking at; winds were forecast to pipe up again, not to their usual trade-wind strength, but to an acceptable 15 knots from the east. Sold! It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. Along with Lynda from Simba and Lisa from Sand Dollar, on Sunday and Monday we scurried to the fruit and vegetable markets, and loaded our boats with hard mangoes, firm peppers, green tomatoes, green bananas, hard melons, and all the other fresh foods we wouldn’t be seeing for a while—there are only rare villages in the San Blas, and those have few supplies. Finally, Ithaka was ready. Simba was ready. But Cade and Lisa on Sand Dollar decided they needed a few more days near hardware stores to finish some important boat projects, and they vowed to catch the next window. Tuesday, as soon as the sun was high enough to illuminate the reefs, the two boats waved good-bye-for-now to the third, and we pulled up our anchors.


| | Photo courtesy of Marty Baker| | The remote and beautiful San Blas, with their intact indigenous culture, have always captivated our imaginations. * * *|

Then, a setback. As I motored ahead to ease pressure on the chain, and Douglas was guiding the chain in, Ithaka‘s windlass made a sickening grinding noise that we knew only too well. The same windlass had given us the same grief back in Honduras. But this time the grinding went immediately into a death rattle. Here we were, about to leave the last place with services that we’d see for months. Douglas and I looked at each other and—oh, to hell with it!—without speaking, we agreed to carry on. We got the anchor aboard, and Ithaka set off down the long buoyed channel through the San Andres reefs. In light winds we raised our sails and gently began making our way southeast. All was well until later in the day, when what little wind we had veered from southwest to south, which was on our nose, and then, like the windlass, died altogether. We never saw the 10- to 15-knot east-northeasterlies that were predicted, so we fired up the engine. The weather, she was a’gonna be a problem.

The sun set on a breathless night of kaleidoscopic colors. We saw no ships, and no Simba; the two boats had separated enough during the day that we were no longer within sight of one another by darkness. Douglas and I alternated our two-hour watches throughout the night while the engine droned on languidly, our undeviating wake stretching out astern, and Ithaka‘s bow wave tossing back massive cascades of bioluminescence. That, and a good traveling moon, seemed to give us otherworldly light from above and below.


| | We provisioned with all the basics in San Andres, as well as the odd treats, such as the amazing find of a few ripe artichokes, which had been grown outside of Bogota* * *| The next day brought more of the same. Whenever the breeze piped up a bit, we rolled the genny out, shut down the iron wind, trimmed the main, and sailed. Meanwhile, a phenomenon: in the heat, I watched the fruits and vegetables hanging in our nets and stored in baskets below—green and hard when we left San Andres—ripening before my very eyes. Our leeks grew four inches in three days. As we reached the latitude of the Panama Canal, a parade of six ships chugged across the horizon from west to east at over 20 knots. Then, for hours, nothing. Later in the day, another parade funneled out of the Canal, again from west to east. We enjoyed talking to the men on the bridge and finding out where they were going after transiting the famous “path between the seas.”

| | Although all our veggies and fruit began ripening too quickly in the heat, we’re counting on this pumpkin, bought back in Providencia, to stay fresh for a good long time. * * *| That afternoon, Douglas sat on the foredeck with the windlass, disassembled it, and checked all the seals, worried that perhaps seawater had again gotten into the motor somehow and damaged it. It was tight and dry. He put it back together and came back to tell me that the problem is with the motor: It was frozen solid. I looked up the warranty; it was for a year, and the little beast is a year and a half old, an expensive disappointment.

To cheer up our spirits, a mahi mahi, more than three feet long, sacrificed itself on our trolling line, and we muscled it aboard together. Times have changed. It used to be that I winced when Douglas caught something, as I dreaded killing it. I still do a little, but now I also help land it. Douglas spent the next hour perched happily on the side deck with cutting board, bucket, fillet knife and sharpening stone, forgetting mechanical hassles and humming away: cleaning and filleting the fish, and filling our freezer with many days’ worth of meal-size Ziplocks full of dinners to come.


| | Photo courtesy of Lisa Johnson| | Ithaka under sail * * *| That night, again, alternated between breathlessness and zephyrs, bringing us a little light sailing, and then more motor sailing. It was so peaceful that for my watch I had to set the egg timer for every 10 minutes, just so that I wouldn’t fall fast asleep in the cockpit. All day and night we kept the forward hatch completely open, which gives an idea of how calm the seas were; not even a drop wet the deck. The next morning became more exciting, as we knew sometime after lunch we’d make landfall. As the winds finally increased, and filled our sails, Douglas and I couldn’t help peering ahead, squinting through our polarized glasses, searching for that telltale little smudge on the horizon that indicates land.

Finally, there it was! One slight smudge! Then, yes, two smudges! Land! Whoa, these were low islands, and then we realized we also could see in the further distance the faint outline of the Panamanian mountains on the mainland. We reviewed the charts for the 20th time and watched the water color changing from deep blue to the telltale turquoise of the shallows, and our depth sounder moving from off soundings to 60 feet. All our frustrations from the fickle wind and the ornery windlass fell away as we made our approach toward the deep and wide Hollandes Channel through the reef surrounding the San Blas archipelago. By God, we’d made it. It hadn’t been a long voyage, nor adrenalin-filled, but it was momentous for the destination it was bringing us.

| | Photo courtesy of Marty Baker| | Most of the islands of Kuna Yala are uninhabited. Occasionally, though, you’ll notice little huts tucked into the trees. These are used by Kuna who come to the island from their settlements for two or three months at a time to collect coconuts. * * *| We cleared the channel between the cays named—ready for this?—Nasargandup-Icaco and Acuakargana. We turned west, and sailed toward Miriatup, leaving it to port. Then, we doused the sails, skirted a nasty-looking brown reef, and tucked into the lee of Miriadiadup. At 3 p.m., we dropped our anchor in 25 feet of the best sand we’d found in two years. To save Douglas’s back, however, we used our 45-pound Bruce, attached to 50 feet of chain, and hundreds of feet of rode, instead of using our usual set-up, the CQR attached to all chain, which would’ve been a bear to haul back up by hand. We know this is only the first chapter in yet another technosaga.

| | Photo courtesy of Marty Baker| | Kuna women dress in traditional costumes consisting of a wrap skirt, head scarf, and puffy-sleeved blouse decorated on front and back with beautifully-designed molas—intricately hand-sewn reverse-appliqued designs of wonderful Kuna imagery. They adorn their ankles and wrists with beads. * * *| The charts call this large archipelago the San Blas Islands. However, the Kunas, who rule themselves and remain culturally and politically apart from mainland Panama, have always called it Kuna Yala, the Kuna Nation. Fiercely proud and independent, the 55,000 Kunas have their own language, their own government, their own congress and laws, their own standards of environmentalism, and their own tribal customs—most unchanged for many generations. Kuna Yala. Even the name is captivating.

Around Ithaka was a wonderland. Little cays packed with nodding coconut palms and fringed with ribbons of blinding white beach. Tiny palm-frond Kuna huts were tucked into the trees here and there on a couple of the islands, but most of the cays that we passed seemed uninhabited. The turquoise water was so clear that we could see our anchor rode stretched out along the bottom. We settled Ithaka, opened everything up to the fresh air, dragged out the sun awning, and as we set it up we took in the awesome scene around us. We could hear all kinds of animal noises and bird songs. A sailing dugout, called an ulu in Kuna, containing a man, a woman holding an umbrella against the sun, and a little boy drifted by on the breeze toward Miriatup. They waved shyly to us, we waved back, and they altered course slightly to come closer.

| | Photo courtesy of Marty Baker| | The San Blas water is so clear that sometimes it seems to disappear altogether, making everything on the bottom visible, such as this sea-urchin carapace. * * *| The mother was wearing a beautifully intricate mola dress, which is traditional for all women here, and her ankles and wrists were circled by what seemed like hundreds of beaded bracelets and anklets, also the custom. All three people were tiny and barefoot, and the sail on their _ulu_ was pretty tattered, but the father sailed it with precision, sitting astern and using a paddle as rudder. The family greeted us with smiles and waves, and pointed to Miriatup, which we presumed to be their home, and pointed to us, trying, I think, to tell us we were welcome there. We had a comical time trying to talk to them, as Kuna is a language unique in the world, and we didn’t have our Kuna vocabulary of pleasantries quite worked out yet.

| | Photo courtesy of Marty Baker| | Kunas are known as great navigators and sailors. They carve these thin dugouts, called ulus, and sail them every day over the reefs, looking for ripe spearfishing and net-fishing spots * * *| “_Tele maki_!” I called to them as they steered away toward home. They looked momentarily confused, then they smiled and waved. I thought I was saying goodbye in Kuna, but when I looked it up later, I found that goodbye is “_teki malo_.” _Tele maki_ is a type of sushi that I’d liked to order back home. No matter. They seemed to have sensed our good will, as we did theirs. I took in their dark skin, and their attractive features—already so familiar to me from books and articles I’d read over the years, and I couldn’t wait to get ashore, to explore, to see everything with my own eyes. As the family bore off toward Miriatup, leaving _Ithaka_ in her pool of liquid turquoise, I stripped off and jumped into the cool water, rinsing off three days of sweat and sea-grime—a baptism that, for me, is always one of the most refreshing moments of making landfall. Ah, we’re really here!

e-mail the Bernons: [email protected]


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