Thursday, 30 April 2015

Navigating the San Blas

PS pix added on May 3

A boat called Fantasy in the West Holandes Cays

We've given ourselves 10 days to "fatten up" in the San Blas islands. In years past, half that time in the tropics would have done us nicely. We're not so far gone that we don't remember how tightly time is accounted for when you've got a job to go back to (and that's not a "boat job"). But ahead of us, all going according to plan, is the Panama canal transit, and then the Very Long Passage to the Marqesas. Four lean weeks, maybe more, at sea. So we'll take the full 10 days.

A cool wind comes through the cut

In the high season, up to 40 boats have been counted in this anchorage

Derelict huts - or are they? Gone fishing? 

It's hot out here in the eastern Holandes cays. Oh my lord is it hot. And damp. The sun has gone, and the rain has arrived, along with the bugs. I'm covered in tiny bites. Am I putting you off?

Lemon lime and bitters made in Trinidad - with ice

Enki's big shade saves the day - again

The season is changing. A few days ago the wind was blowing from the north-east, as it does consistently from November to April. The sky was clear, and even from a dinghy or a kayak, you could see the magnificent coral banks and indigo fish as clearly as if you were in an aquarium. Then yesterday the wind dropped off and swung indolently around the clock, big banks of heavy grey cloud lowered themselves onto the horizon, the sea turned pearly-grey and as night fell the thunder and lightning show began.

NZ-made and registered - Exit Strategy in the East Holandes cays

In the mangroves, the bugs read the shift in the weather. They didn't announce their intentions but the old hands knew. Yesterday morning, there was an exodus of boats from the shallow, gin-clear anchorage known as the Swimming Pool out into deeper waters. Bug alert. By then, I was a goner, bitten all over. Excited by the lack of wind, I'd taken the kayak out very early in the morning for a couple of hours. The paddling was easy, and I nosed my way through the island channels, close to the mangroves - what a fine meal I made for those no-see-ums.

The vege men
We're eating well too though. The vege boat, an outboard-powered dugout loaded with fruit, vegetables, eggs, even cask wine, trawls regularly through the most popular anchorages. It's manned by three Kuna Indian adults, typically short and well-muscled men. Their tools of trade are simple - a set of manual scales, a notebook and a pencil, a pouch of small change, and a sweet-faced child. There's usually a child, or several, on any dugout which approaches our boat. The produce - pineapples and mangoes, tomatoes and potatoes, passionfruit and peppers - comes from the mainland, mostly Colombia, we're told. Nothing grows on the islands except coconuts, but we're not eating those since they're not for sale. Nor are we eating fish or lobster which strictly speaking are off limits, this being the breeding season. But the Kuna know a diminishing market when they see one, so they're still fishing while there are boats around which will buy.

The vege men came with family and friends one day

Much is made of the Kuna having resisted the modern world, and living in the traditional way and no doubt there are many people who are happy to do so, either in their crowded villages or in solitary, on a water-less palm island of their own. Their customary sources of income have been trading coconuts and selling molas (the gorgeous hand-sewn applique squares which, as Panamanian souvenirs, are almost as famous as woven hats). But the modern world is breathing down the Kunas' necks and there's a suspicion of seduction in the air. The Kuna girls who checked us into Porvenir were giggling over their smartphones. There's internet in the islands now (we didn't know till tonight). Minutes have to be paid for, as does petrol for outboards. There's flexibility in the traditional ways, for sure.

The morning after we dropped anchor here, a small bony man called Victor paddled cross from his island to let us know that we owed him $10 (we don't share a language, but some things are always clear). He gave us a receipt which was good for a month. A day later, another boat called on us to ask for anchorage money. They looked at Victor's receipt, and went away. Who were they? Things are a bit murky in the San Blas out of the water.

Molas are an important part of the Kuna economy - Venancia is a shrewd dealer

Venancio reels me in - I didn't offer much resistance

The trip out has been more than worth their while 

The charge for anchoring amongst these idyllic coral atolls and sandbars, small though it is, comes on top of the fee you pay the Kuna Yala (nation) when you arrive in the San Blas islands, which is on top of the hefty non-negotiable annual cruising permit you pay the Panamanian government. It's the cost of doing business, Alex always says, and he's right, but we've found along the way that there's a certain give and take between yachts and those who provide services to them (sorry to smash the romance of cruising, but that's the reality in every place we've been to thus far on Enki - we'd love to be surprised by another kind of human interaction). Get the balance wrong, and the yachts go somewhere else. We've seen that happen in the Med.

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

No comments:

Post a Comment