Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Summer 2007 and Back to San Blas (Kuna Yala)

Summer and back to San Blas (Kuna Yala).
Written aboard, October 31st, 2007 by Diana. For photos see Picture Gallery No 43.

Summer in Norway
South Norway has had one of its worst summers for many years, for us this was no big problem, as we had arranged hospital work, Stein for 4 months from 7th may, and I for 3 months from 1st June. We both enjoyed freshening up our clinical expertise, and getting that ‘Friday feeling’ again. Our free time was spent socializing with old friends and family. Our grandchildren Johan and Hedda are now 3 and 5 years old, maturing quickly, and it was good to have some time with them and see how they are developing. 17th May is Norwegian National Day, which we celebrated in Kristiansand, and a couple of days later we managed to attend the Ocean Rowing Society (ORS) Annual Dinner in London. A representative of Guinness Book of World Records granted diplomas to several rowers, including Diana and Stein. But a bigger family highlight was a week-end trip to Cambridge in August, with Stein’s mother Eli, to see Robert receive his post graduate Diploma in Computer Science. This was an interesting ceremony, not least as the diplomas are given out each year by Professor Sir Maurice Wilkes, one of the first people to make a computer in the early fifties. He is now 96, absolutely clear and interested in the proceedings. There were 11 students receiving the diploma, and he chatted to each, finding out what their plans were. We felt proud of Robert, who got very good marks, so it will be interesting to see what kind of job he can get now.
The best week-end weather-wise we had in early June, which was a stroke of luck as my brother, Jim, who lives in Canada, my Aunt Joyce and her husband Donald who live in England, as well as my cousin Stuart and wife Kathleen from Scotland all came for a five day visit. The tropical weather started and ended with their visit, and SE Norway showed itself at its very best. I also had an autumn week-end with Elisabeth and Hugh in London, (although shamefully not the one that Elisabeth had arranged, as I made a mistake with the dates!) and one with old school friends in France. Stein did some rowing as usual, and as is now his custom, took part in the Birkerbeiner cycle race in the mountains, this time the only one in the family to do so. He was a bit slower this year, hadn’t had much sleep the night before, so hopes for a better time next year. He also spent some time with his mother Eli at the summer cottage in Veierland, and in late September took her on a trip to visit Stein’s cousin, also a Stein, who has built a new cottage in the mountains near Trondheim. So never a dull moment - and before we knew it, it was time to return to White Admiral in Cartagena.

Back to Colombia
We left Norway on 29th September with our good friend Dagmar Platou who has been hoping to visit us aboard with her husband Christian for about 30 years…. He does not like the heat, so she finally gave him up, and decided to come with us on her own for 3 weeks. We spent two nights in London, sleeping at Elisabeth and Hugh’s photographic studio (Skin studio in Kensington). The first evening we had dinner at an excellent fish restaurant, Sheekey’s, toasting Hugh who had recently turned 50. Robert also joined us, and we went on to see Carmen at the English National Opera. This was a modern version, a good effort at destroying Carmen, but we still enjoyed the music! The next day we were typical London tourists, and drove round on the top of a double-decker bus, looking at the sights, then Elisabeth gave us a nice dinner at their flat.
We arrived in Cartagena at nearly midnight on 1st October, after a long day flying from London via Madrid and Bogota, and spirits were a bit low when Diana’s suitcase didn’t appear. A taxi took us to a cheap hotel for the night, then in the morning we were back at the airport waiting for flights from Bogota, and wonder of wonders, the missing suitcase turned up, and off we could go to White Admiral in the Ferroalquimar shipyard. She was looking good, if a bit dirty, and slightly paint spattered. We immediately got to work, getting ready for launching in two days. As we wanted to get Dagmar to a pleasanter place than a dirty shipyard, we hired our old friend Nilson and his team to do the antifouling, while we washed and polished and put all the sails and equipment in place. On 4th October, a large crane turned up on time (not always the case here!) and in two stages put White Admiral carefully into the water. It was lovely to drive out into the large bay south of Cartagena and be able to take our first swim in near-tepid water. Then we motored about one hour to Club Nautico in the township of Manga, and tied up to the dock with the help of dock-master John and his assistants. Having got the boat into the water, we could turn on the sea-water cooled fridge, and the day’s big disappointment was that it seemed to work, but did not cause any cooling! We immediately got in touch with two brothers who do refrigeration work, they came, did various tests and took away the compression unit with copper wiring and holding plate, returning the next day to set it up again with new filter and gas and re-soldered joins. And it cooled beautifully! After two busy days in Cartagena, getting ready, shopping loads of provisions and sightseeing in the old city, we were ready to leave for the San Blas islands. The prevailing winds here are the north-east trades, but we are now in the rainy season, when the winds are variable, and the two day sail was a mixture of good sailing, motoring in no wind and motor-sailing close-hauled. On the second day, we had a little invasion of small birds, looked like a kind of swift or swallow. There were several sitting around the cabin, even landing on us, and one also died. This sort of invasion of birds we have never experienced before; maybe they were migrating birds who were undernourished or had got another problem.

San Blas (Kuna Yala) revisited
We dropped anchor south of the little island of Banedup on 8th October. Back to paradise! The next eleven days were spent on different islands in the San Blas (Kuna Yala); white sand, palm trees, blue water and wonderful snorkeling the order of the day. For Dagmar who had not snorkeled before, this was a new experience; she became an expert snorkeler in about five minutes, and it opened up a new and exciting world for her. We always have a line trailing after the boat, had caught a big yellow-fin tuna fish on our way into the islands, but after that not much luck. Stein had an accident with one of his fingers when a huge fish took the lure. As he started to wind in the line, the fish jumped and tore away as the line raced out throwing Stein’s hand against a metal base holding the reel. It broke a finger nail, and tore a slice off the same finger – ouch!! This finger is still a bit swollen and blue; most of the nail has fallen off, but no permanent damage, fortunately. Apart from the natural beauty, the other feature of these islands is the interesting local Amero-indian culture. The Kuna Indians live here peacefully, with a large amount of control over the large area called in the Kuna language for Kuna Yala. They live on fishing and subsistence farming, living mainly on the islands off the coast, with their farming plots on the mainland. Coconuts are grown everywhere and an important income. They are best known for their art-work, a type of embroidery, making the famous molas, which they come round selling in their dug-out canoes. We had some interesting sessions in the cockpit looking at these little works of art, and Dagmar was tempted to buy a few, even though she had not intended to do so. The local men also come round, offering crab, lobster or fish, occasionally a bunch of bananas or limes. There is also a vegetable boat which comes about once a week from Miramar further west in Panama proper, with a good selection of fruit and vegetables, beverages and occasionally frozen chicken. We were very grateful for these additions to the larder, as our refrigerator friends in Cartagena had not done such a good job as we thought, and the fridge stopped cooling again after five days!
Days go quickly in paradise, and soon it was time to take Dagmar to Panama City to get her flight home, and meet our next guests. We anchored the boat between the twin islands of Nargana and Corazon de Jesus, the most modern of the islands, where there is also a nearby air-strip named after the latter town. This lies near the mainland, and we took the opportunity for a dinghy ride up the local river, the Rio Diablo, into the rain-forest. This is a bird-watchers dream, we saw kingfishers, herons, pelicans, and innumerable others which we couldn’t put a name to. But even more exciting was a 1½ m long cayman, a river alligator, lying sunning himself on the bank of the river. We managed to get quite close before he discovered us and rushed into the water where he remained motionless with only nostrils and two suspicious eyes showing.

New Guests
Early the next morning we rowed over to the air-strip at 6 a.m. It was totally deserted, and we wondered if we had been given correct information, but half an hour later, others started to arrive. The ‘no-see-ums’ or chitras (a type of sand-fly) had already begun to wake up and were soon attacking us and the other poor passengers in the windless morning. One of the big canoes with an outboard engine took pity on us, and drove us all out onto the sea, where we waited another hour for our 20-seater plane. The bumpy ride with itchy ankles to Panama City took half an hour, and another hour was spent going through immigration, customs and police. This we had problems understanding, as it is supposedly the same country, and other travelers just walked right through! It may have helped if had we brought our ship’s papers... The day in Panama City was spent mostly shopping in very modern shopping malls and markets and trying to buy a small 12 v fridge – with no luck. Our next guests, Stein’s mother Eli and cousin Stein arrived the same evening from Norway, and we had just time for a brief sleep before going back to the national airport and another bumpy plane ride, stopping at two other small airports back to the boat. Dagmar left shortly after us for the international airport, and we know she had a safe trip home.
We didn’t give our new crew a good first impression, by touching the bottom with the port keel for the first time on our way out of Nargana… The depth sounder said 3 m, but it is located on the starboard hull! Fortunately it was a sand bottom, we reversed off easily and no damage done. Things got better when we got to our first anchorage two hours later; a lovely lagoon, surrounded by reefs and palm islands, with a friendly German couple in the only other boat, “Nautibear”. Near the anchorage are beautiful reefs and excellent snorkeling. In this anchorage we saw large rays, sea-turtles and for the first time ever in an anchorage a large sea crocodile swimming near the boat. Didn’t immediately tempt the guests into the water! (But no humans have apparently been harmed by this reptile in San Blas, although 2 years ago a dog was eating by a hungry croc.) After a couple of days in a new anchorage in East Holandaise Cays and still no fridge we decided that we would make an expedition to try to get it fixed. The nearest town to do this is Portobelo, about 50 nautical miles along the northern coast of Panama. The winds are still variable at this time of the year and we had a gentle night passage mostly motoring to get there. Portobelo is a historically interesting town. It was the main town for storing the riches the Spanish took from Central and South America and brought across the isthmus on mule trains before shipping tons of gold and silver back to Europe. Several old fortifications built between 16th and 18th centuries tell the stories of efforts of keeping out the pillaging Dutch, French and British! Famous buccaneer Sir Francis Drake successfully looted the place in the 1590’s but died after the effort and was buried at sea just outside the bay; an island off the north entrance being named after him. In addition to the interesting fortifications the town has a large church housing the famous Black Christ. It is a statue/effigy that supposedly floated in from the sea and caused several miracles. There is an annual celebration of this event when the statue is carried in processions by 20 men and thousands come on pilgrimage to the little town. Otherwise the place is, unfortunately mostly a dump, with many totally dilapidated houses in need of removal and the rest in need of paint.

Miracle Aboard!
A refrigeration engineer named Mario came to see the fridge. He measured and studied it, eventually giving us the bad news that the compressor was clogged up and gone, the sea-water heat-exchange unit probably corroded, and that we would need a new unit. He spent the next day driving to Panama City (1½ hr. driving each way) to try to find an air-cooled 12 volt compressor, but came back very sorry having found none. As the anchorage was rolling, filled with brown water, logs and other debris brought by the river in the torrential rain we had most of the time, we were now pretty discouraged, and decided to return immediately to the lovely islands of Kuna Yala. Mario wanted a very modest fee and was very happy when we gave him some extra dollars. We were lucky again with the night passage in a westerly breeze, and a strong current going our way, and could anchor in the flat lagoon of Chichime early the next morning. Then the miracle occurred! Cousin Stein told us to put on the refrigerator - and it worked! He had secretly taken a hammer the day before when we were ashore, and banged the compressor in different positions, switching it on and off about fifty times, hoping to unblock whatever was causing the problem! As we had visited the famous Black Christ statue in the church in Portobelo, we declared cousin Stein, who has had a childhood nickname of “Buster”, to be canonized, and he has now been renamed “Saint Buster of White Admiral”! The same day, a Panamanian power-boat cruiser asked us if we could charge an I-pod for them, which we did also thanks to St. Buster’s equipment, getting a bottle of pink Spanish champagne as thanks. So we even had something to celebrate our miracle with!
Since returning from Portobelo, we have been in two different anchorages, swimming, snorkeling, socializing with other crews, trading with the Kunas, and as always there is a constant list of things to be repaired, so Stein is always busy fixing something. In four days we shall take Eli and Saint Buster to the little airstrip on El Porvenir for the plane back to Panama City, and from there to Norway.
Stein and Diana have over a month to go before we leave the boat in Shelter Bay Marina near the Caribbean entrance of the Panama Canal. Our journey home will go via Toronto to see Diana’s brother, and London to see Elisabeth, Hugh and Robert. But now we are going snorkeling!

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Kuna Yala - Comarca de San Blas- Report No 42.

Kristiansand, 27th June, 2007 by Stein.
For corresponding pphotos see Picture Gallery No 42.

Kuna Yala - Comarca de San Blas

The South-Western part of the Caribbean continues to give us pleasant surprises, and our visit to the archipelago of San Blas in March-April 2007 was a real delight. Diana and I have now for more than 30 years had the privilege to sail many seas and oceans and to visit some fine places on this amazing Earth, but our recent trip to San Blas is up there in our select list of favourites!
The official name is Comaraca de San Blas. It is an autonomous region of the Central American republic of Panama, but the 60.000 Kuna Indians who live here prefer to call it Kuna Yala.
The Kuna Indians originally lived mainly along the coastal mainland, using the 360-or so small islands dotted along their territory for fishing and cultivating coconuts. However, natural disasters like mainland flooding and earthquakes made them move out to the bigger of these small islands. The added attraction was less insects and a healthier environment. Today only their cemeteries, farming plots and a couple of villages in the south-east region remain on the coastal mainland.
Back in the 1500’s the Kunas managed to resist the invasion of Spanish Conquistadores better than any other coastal, indigenous population in the Americas. This was possible partly because they were fierce warriors, and partly because the Spanish thought the Kunas were poor and not worth bothering about. So today they are not as mixed-up with European and African blood as the rest on that huge continent.
Panama as a country was masterminded by USA in 1903. Before that Panama was part of Colombia, but USA wanted full control of the canal the French had unsuccessfully tried to build, and which they took over and completed eleven years later. When the canal opened in 1914 the Yankees were firmly in control in the area they named the Panama Canal Zone from Cristobal/Colon on the Caribbean side to Balboa/Panama City on the Pacific side. (USA and their large military bases only left Panama in 1999.)

Kuna revolution
In the early part of last century the Kunas felt increasingly threatened by outsiders wanting to exploit their land and people. In 1925 the Kunas again organized a bloody revolt against the intruders, i.e. the rulers in Panama City and, amazingly enough, defeated the army sent to suppress them. The subsequent negotiations resulted in borders and laws that created the San Blas of today. Here they have a large degree of self-government and strictly protect their land, traditions, ethnic and cultural integrity. No outsiders can own Kuna land, which is inherited from mother to daughters. The hilly, dense, tropical rainforest on their part of the Darien peninsula is to them sacred (like it is to most indigenous peoples of tropical forests), which in effect means that lumbering, large scale agriculture and hunting, building of roads, hotels and resorts is all forbidden. Every village has a Congreso where issues of communal importance are decided in public. If you want to fell a tree in order to build a dug-out canoe, the Congreso first has to give permission. Communal issues to be discussed and decided in this way may also include when people may leave or return to the village, how much to charge yachts for anchoring nearby, if one is allowed to go out to visit yachts and when to have a party! The main party or celebration is when girls reach puberty. This is marked by rituals, dances and celebration for three to four days. Main nutrition seems to be large quantities of weak beer brewed from sugar cane. Even when intoxicated, apparently nobody gets angry or violent. Aggression, crime and violence are almost unknown among the Kunas. The reason may be partly genetic, but if their lifestyle is the main reason the recipe appears to be a life in large families in tiny houses, have enough food, no privacy, be very tolerant and own little more than a hammock and the clothes you were, a canoe and have a public committee decide almost all important issues!
These amazing facts alone makes the Kunas worth a study, add that they have all these incredibly beautiful, palm-covered islands and no hurricanes, and you know why a visit has been on our agenda for a long time.

A rough trip to a beautiful spot

Our two visitors, Anne and Jim had returned to Norway and Canada respectively a couple of days earlier when at 10 a.m., Monday 19th March we left Club Nautico in Cartagena (position N10°21,75’ W 075°30,6’). We motored across the bay to Todomar Marina to get some fuel and a last glimpse of the proud Naval School Ship Patria in front of the Old City wall. A couple of hours later we were between the two forts of Boca Chico and heading for the Caribbean Sea. Here we left the protected waters of the extended Cartagena Bay and received the full force of the fresh trade-winds. With only a reefed genoa we shot off towards El Porvenir at the NW corner of San Blas, 204 n. miles ahead. Another catamaran in front of us was apparently not prepared for the rough conditions and struggled to get their main-sail down in the big seas before heading back again to still waters…
The sail was rough, bumpy and uncomfortable, but Otto, our faithful aoutopilot (Autohelm 4000) coped with the movements, we averaged 7 knots and at noon the next day realized that we could reach a good anchorage in the East Holandaise Cays of San Blas before dark. But the Caobos Channel we entered was scary with breaking seas even over 7-10 m shallows. High up on the foaming reef to starboard loomed the wreck of a large yacht; a solemn warning. But I did not get a heart attack and we did not hit breakers or reefs and could happily arrive in flat, calm water behind a cluster of amazingly beautiful islands. Our electronic charts were not very accurate, but our copied pages from the Barhouse guide were, and at 6 p.m., 30 minutes before sunset, we anchored off Banedup Island. What wonderful bliss!


We knew that the authorities are quite relaxed and do not mind if yachts spend a few days before officially entering the country either at El Porvenir in NW or Puerto Obaldi in SE (by the Colombian border), as long as you follow local rules and regulations. So we spent nearly a week visiting some of the many anchorages on the way. From Banedup it was just a short dinghy-ride to the popular anchorages known among yachts as the Swimming Pool and the Hot Tub. Here 15-25 yachts can be found at anchor most of the year. There is no permanent village nearby, but a few Kunas usually stay on the outer islands for periods of 2-3 months to attend to the important production of coconuts. Also locals from further away will come mostly in their dug-outs which they paddle or sail. They may offer crops, fish and shellfish and molas. The mola is the San Blas “trade-mark” more than any other item. It is a square or rectangular form of textile art of intricate patterns cut and sewn with fine stitches on several layers of cloth. Molas are worn on the dresses of women and serve not only as decoration but often have symbolic meaning like fending off evil spirits. Price varies depending on the quality and the business-sense of the trader, but for US$ 10-15 one can get very decorative molas.
Especially at The Swimming Pool in the East Holandaise, the international yachts form a small community, and some yachties like it so much that they more or less settle, only going back to Cartagena or up to Colon for fuel, stores, antifouling or essential maintenance. Staying for many months and returning annually is quite common, but S/Y “Runner” with Debbie and Reginald from USA has the current record of more than 7 years!
En route to the officials in El Porvenir we anchored at Waisladup and Lemon Cays. Waisladup is a difficult anchorage with small sand-patches between coral heads. We had the place for ourselves. The snorkelling here was particularly good, and we saw some large sting-rays. At Lemon Cays we met our first mola-traders. Most of them are women who paddle about in their dug-outs, often with children. But two of the best mola-traders are men and are known as Master Mola Makers; Vanuncio and Lisa. Both are obviously well-off and travel around with an assistant in a more modern boat with outboard engine, have mobile phones and wrist-watches, items not commonly seen in Kuna Yala. Both are effeminate, Lisa in fact is a male transvestite dressed as a woman. Kunas do not appear to have typical Western prejudices and are liberal regarding sexual orientation, so being a homosexual or a transvestite does not carry a negative social stigma.

Wichub Huala

In El Porvinir 26th March (anchored at N 09° 3,42’ W 078°56,87’) we had to wait a day for the Harbour Master to return from business in Panama City, but finally on 27th we were officially entered and received a valid cruising permit. It cost us US$ 60. (Like in Ecuador US$ is now the official currency.) The cruising permit is valid for 3 months. In addition you normally pay $5 to the local chief (Sahila) if you anchor near a village, so the Kunas have indeed discovered how to make an income from the many yachts that visit their islands. Apart from about 2000 yachts/year a couple of small cruise-ships make regular calls and a handful of back-packers travel there on coconut-traders from Colombia, hitch-hike a lift on a yacht or come by small planes. El Porvinir has only 11 permanent inhabitants, but has one of several small airstrips dotted along the coast of San Blas. Often in the mornings we could see these twin-engined, small propeller-planes landing and taking off. Two airlines provide this service and at a price of $39 for the 30 min ride to Panama City it is a relatively cheap and popular way of transport, so booking is often necessary weeks ahead
South of El Porvinir is a cluster of six little islands densely covered with houses. The nearest is named Wichub Huala and is only 5 min from Porvenir by dinghy. 306 people inhabit this island. Life here is quite civilized by Kuna standard. Here are a couple of shops, a generator provides electricity for a few hours each evening, there is a school and even a clinic staffed by a nurse from Panama; Carlota Alvarez. She gave us a little tour and outlined the main health problems among the 1181 souls she looks after. We returned to Wichub Huala the next day to collect a Panama courtesy-flag we had ordered from a seamstress. Luck had it that this was cruise-ship day. The ship’s capacity is 100 passengers, but it was only half full. Even so the whole village was transformed in order to entertain the visitors, display some of their traditions, trade molas and other souvenirs. So Diana and I happily trotted along with the other visiting gringos admiring the various sights and handicrafts. We also witnessed typical Kuna folk-dancing: The men in orange shirts, black pants and straw hats, women in headbands, mola blouses, wrap-around skirts and arms and legs decorated with stings of glass-pearls forming yellow, geometrical patterns. While dancing the men play pan-flutes and the women beat the rhythm with calabashes.
In Wichub Huala we also learned another way the Kunas make a small income: To photograph a Kuna you have to pay $1,- (Unless you have just bought a souvenir or made another type of financial deal, in which case you may freely take pictures.) The man at the Bible School who let us tie our dinghy to their jetty was one such example. He did not want anything for the use of the jetty, but was pleased to have his one dollar for the picture taken.
(This North American bible school and a few other Christian missionary organisations acquired land in San Blas before 1925, and it has proved difficult to get rid of them. Kunas have their own religion and the majority are not interested in missionaries)

No see-ems and Tupsuit Dumat

After Porvinir we travelled south and did the mistake of anchoring in the beautiful, mainland bay of Nalia. The guide wrote about its quiet beauty, its abundant bird-life, its easy access to farming plots, and recommended a nice path to another bay for keen walkers like us. But there was no mention of the insects that invaded us when the sun and the wind disappeared… Diana wrapped herself in a sheet and had a mosquito-coil smoking next to her in our cabin and slept OK, but I thought a new mosquito-net erected in our portside, stern cabin combined with chemical repellents would be good protection. It was to be a sort of test for future visitors. What I did not realize until it was too late was that the tiny blood-suckers are so small they crawl through the mesh! Indeed I found out why these nats are known as “No-see-ems”! So I had the worst night I can remember and was covered in itchy spots for two days afterwards. Never more shall we anchor close to land in a windless, mangrove-covered bay! Ashore we met two Kunas working on their plantain fields, we saw lots of birds and a stick insect, but we never found the picturesque path. Needlessly to add, we moved away from the mangroves long before sunset!
Tupsuit Dumat in the Robinson group was free from insects, but instead of nats and mosquitos we were invaded by cheerful children wanting sweets and extrovert adults wanting printed photographs. We also saw several albinos known as White Kunas. For reasons unknown the frequency of albinos is high among Kunas. These white-skinned locals have skins and eyes badly suited for the tropics.
The friendly invasion was partly our own fault; we were a little too friendly when we first anchored. But it also was a lot of fun and opened doors ashore. We did a couple of medical consultations among the tiny huts, met Alberto, Sahila (chief) for all the Robinson islands and gave reading glasses to an 84 year old woman struggling with her needle-work.
Alberto impressed us. He was a lean, fit-looking 76 year old man, who spoke good Spanish and English in addition to his native Kuna. English he had learned from working for an American family in the Canal Zone in his youth. He was very friendly in typical Kuna style, very patient with all the children that always swarmed around us, and he was clearly both knowledgeable and tolerant. When we went to pay our $5,- anchor-fee he was busy teaching himself Italian. He explained that among his many jobs he worked as a guide for an Italian cruise-ship that visited at infrequent intervals. But he did not have a good photograph of himself until we gave him one.

Lemon Cays and Carti

Two days later we were back in the relative peace of Lemon Cays – first the West group we knew from before, then the East group. With another couple from an Australian yacht we hired a fast boat for a day. The boat was an old speed-boat, gutted for all instruments, badly maintained and falling slowly apart, but the manually started, 40 HP Yamaha outboard engine was brand new and cost a fortune by any 3rd world standard. The Kuna driver spoke only a few words in Spanish, but we understood that the boat belonged to Alberto!
A bumpy ride brought us to Carti, a large island village of about 2000 inhabitants. Like in all the villages we visited, the areas between the houses were tidy and free of garbage, but the windward shore in Carti was a smelly mess with plastic and debris of all kind. Piglets and chicken made an effort to recycle anything edible. A typical Kuna toilet is a small shed on stilts in the water just by the beach, often on the windward side. Carti has lots of them. I need not say more…
Our main reason for visiting Carti was its small museum. Here we were given a long lecture on almost every aspect of Kuna life by a small, energetic man who spoke reasonable English. He is also the main collector of the artefacts in the museum and the artist behind many drawings explaining Kuna history and traditions. Definitely worth the trip. Afterwards we motored up a river, admired the vegetation and the birds while eating our sandwiches in the drizzle, and on the way home visited a Kuna cemetery (always on the coast) as well as the island of Nalunega, where our driver introduced us to his family. Here we took a $1,- picture of the only Kuna we ever saw smoking, an old woman with a big golden nose-ring and a crooked pipe!

From Nuinudup to Ailigandi

For the last 16 days of our stay in San Blas we slowly moved SE towards Obaldia anchoring at Nuinudup, Rio Sidra, Salardup, Nargana, Snug Harbour, Ailigandi, Islandia, Isla Pinos and Carreto. We alternated anchoring by uninhabited and inhabited islands and this way we could chose whenever we just wanted to be on our own or with other yachties. There was a period of about 10 days when the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) moved further north than normal and belted us with heavy showers. But we still had clear skies nearly every day, we never had strong wind, and we collected a lot of clean water!
No two anchorages were identical. We snorkelled a lot and saw a large variety of marine life – several large barracudas and different types of rays, even a couple of nurse sharks.
And we ended up with a lot of molas! Some of the female traders that visited us in their dug-out canoes (locally known as ulus) were so charming and their needle-work so impressive and reasonably priced that we could not resist them. (When writing this back in Kristiansand I can report that thanks to Diana’s own needle-work many of these molas now decorate pillows and dresses!)

Nargana had a bridge connecting it to a neighbouring village, and together they have a fairly large and modern community. We found a small hotel, a telephone booth, a sort of supermarket and a tiny post office. But in this village a lot of Kunas dress more like mainland Panamanians and they do not practice Kuna rites.
Ailigandi has a hospital staffed by two doctors and a solemn-looking statue of the most famous freedom-fighting politician from the 1925 revolt; Simral Colman (locally known as Ulokindibipilele). He lived from 1840-1929.

Isla Pinos

The large island of Isla Pinos was the last island we visited. It is mountainous and very unlike the flat coral islands we were used to further north. From a distance the island looks like a sperm-whale. The lee of this island was a popular hiding place for buccaneers and pirates in times of yesterday, now Colombian cocaine traders use its shelter instead.
The Pinos village with its 150 inhabitants is very traditional. Here the Sahila and the Congreso have decided that nobody may visit yachts unless specifically invited. And they also have rules that prohibit visitors to take walks outside the village unaccompanied… So when we wanted to walk around this lush island we had to pay old Horatio, Congreso Secretary to “guide” us. And of course tagging behind was a long tail of children, two of which were too small for the 90 minute trip, but the bigger children and I took turns in carrying them. In typical Kuna fashion Horatio was not the least worried by either the large number of kids or the noise they made. That one of his flip-flop sandals broke did not worry him either. - The children quickly found him other, single sandals that had floated in on the beach – in fact he returned with a spare, unmatched pair of flip-flops!

Carreto and Anachucuna, mainland villages.

South of Isla Pinos are only a couple of villages and these are on the mainland, like Carreto. It is an old community at the mouth of a small river and a place we liked a lot. This village was the cleanest we have seen so far, no garbage even on the beach. And people were extremely friendly. As we passed one house we were invited in and served avocado, freshly boiled land-crabs and coffee. We later repaid them with a photographic print and bought a couple of molas. We were now quite close to the Colombian border, evident by the small police station and its two policemen and their machine-guns. One was a Kuna from Ailigandi. He introduced us to the assistant Sahila where we paid our $5 and were given juice and several avocados to take to the boat. This man had an abdominal problem, so next day the police-man and a young helper paddled him out to White Admiral for a check-up. I examined the man in the cockpit with the machine-gun resting beside him... I could not find anything serious, and with renewed optimism in the future the old chap discovered that Diana’s flippers fitted him perfectly - so she let him have them. Later we also gave him a photograph from his visit aboard.
Anther memorable incident in Carreto Bay was the freshly caught, huge sea-bass we bought from a cheerful fisherman for $10. He had just caught it using live bait while paddling close to the shore in his ulu. The fish fed us well for three days!

From the beach opposite Carreto we had a most memorable rain forest walk of about 1½ hours each way to Anachucuna village. A lot of the path winds its way through plots of farmed land of yucca, bananas, plantains, sugarcane, pineapple, avocado and mangos and more. The various crops seemed scattered at random, and there are no fences. We never met anybody, but we saw smoldering fires and other signs of recent farm-work. People obviously trust each other. We also saw the remains of an ancient tractor, built from clinked plates of steel. – A memory of several failed attempts, usually by missionaries, to mechanize and industrialize Kuna agriculture. And we saw lots of birds and butterflies, a small black frog with brilliant emerald spots and heard the strange rumble of distant howler monkeys. On the beach near the start of the path were tracks of cayman alligators.
From Anachucuna we returned with muddy feet and more molas…

From Obaldia via Isle Fuerte to Cartagena and home

Obaldia was a bit of an anticlimax. It rained, the town and its shores are a dump, and it took us a long time to check out and get the stamps and papers known as “zarpa” from the various officials. The shops had hardly any fresh vegetables and no cheese. But they do have an airstip built on a hillside up from the beach and when the planes land or take off they pass very close to a camouflaged bunker with soldiers and a canon. – Another reminder of the proximity of Colombia, its unwanted guerrillas and drug trafficking.

We sailed off in light wind from the north in the afternoon. The sea was flat and were just able to hold our course overnight towards Isla Fuerte off the Colombian coast. Here we met more friendly locals, had a long walk and bought the tomatoes and cucumbers we had not see for so long.
We also had a visit from the Colombian navy. We were not officially checked back into Colombia, so we had a few nervous moment as we watched a boatload of fully armed, uniformed officials approach us. However, they cheerfully checked our papers, telling us there was ‘no problema’, admired the photos of our family on the wall, and even gave us a present of a mug with the navy’s logo!
A long day of mostly motoring brought us to familiar territory in Rosario, and the following morning, 21st April, a final 5 hours up to Club Nautico and to Cartagena. At the Ferrroalquimar yard a few days later Jorge Blanco and his men safely lifted our floating home on land. Some hard work followed, before boarding an Avianca plane to Madrid 30th April. Diana’s birthday the following day was celebrated with good food and good singers in the Opera Café. Finally Ryan Air brought us on the last leg to Norway- to family, friends and a job and some welcome income at Sørlandets sykehus, Kristiansand..
Plans for October are already definite: Another sail to that fascinating land known as San Blas or Kuna Yala!

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Islas del Rosarias. Report 41.

By Stein, Kristiansand, 2nd June 2007.
For Photos see Picture Gallery No 41.

Islas del Rosario, Colombia.

Suddenly it is Saturday, 2nd June and finally time to sit down and recall two pleasant sails we made to the Rosario Islands in March, nearly three months ago.
When we last reported on the exciting, inland trip to Cuidad Perdida we were in Cartagena in early March and honestly believing that we would do more writing just a few days later.
But what happened? Too much, I suppose - and sometimes too little... I admit that there have been days when Diana and I needed to just be idle on a white beach, snorkel slowly over colourful reefs, or just relax with a good book in the cockpit. There were, in fact, quite a few such wonderfully inefficient, lazy and enjoyable days in San Blas. The intended reporting kept being postponed “just another day”.
And another day. And another day.
We have now been back in Norway for more than a month, and although very busy at the local Dept of Cardiology, Kristiansand, today I have no more excuses.
Our friend Anne Holst Torgersen flew from Oslo to Cartagena March 5th to stay with us for nearly two weeks. Just as when she sailed with us in Red Admiral many years ago, she quickly adapted to life on White Admiral and the shimmering heat of midday Cartagena.
Visitors mean opportunity to see more of the local landmarks. From the beautifully restored monastery of La Popa we had the best view of Cartagena and surrounding waters. Just below this highest hill of the area live the poorest inhabitants of the city. At least they can enjoy the best views!
Another famous sight is the meat- and fish market. It is a huge area with a lot of good, fresh food, but also lots of garbage, dirt, dogs, vultures, pocket thieves and pungent smells. When animals are slaughtered practically everything is utilized. Ophthalmologist Diana was intrigued to see a tray of cows’ eyes offered for sail – “full of good protein and very cheap”!
Islas del Rosario are a group of islands just 20 n. miles SW of Cartagena. Navigation can be difficult due to a lot of reefs and small islands, so in the morning of March 7th we trailed behind a couple of other yachts going the same way.
It was wonderful again to swim in clean, clear water, snorkel and get to know some locals. About 2000 people live on these islands; most of them are fairly poor, always hoping to make a buck from the visiting yachts. So we had a regular trail of visitors in dug-outs and other simple crafts offering fish, lobster, papaya, coconuts etc.
Some inhabitants work on the many private holiday homes on the islands and the two tourist attractions; The Oceanarium and The Aviary. But as we heard from Norwegian Finn Martin Mjelde, owner of Kokomo Hotel near our anchorage, they prefer importing workers from Cartagena. The reason is apparently that the locals are not so hard-working and less honest, having a tendency to help themselves to items, probably pressurized by large families nearby. Finn is known locally just as Fin. He has been in Colombia for 30 years, retains his Norwegian passport and proudly flies the flag outside his little hotel, but has no intention of returning to his roots in Oslo. He is married to Yolanda, who takes care of the finances. From an earlier marriage he has children who now live mainly in Norway with their mother.
Fin is a real character, an overweight, rum-swilling extrovert who seems to have met or known everybody who is anybody in Colombia, including politicians and drug lords like the late Pablo Escobar. So a beer or a rum punch at his bar is a guarantee for a good story. Fin and Kokomo is deservedly listed in the Lonely Planet guide on Colombia.
Early morning 10th March we motored back to Club Nautico in slight headwind and long swells; took about 5 hours. Here we stocked up before receiving another visitor, Diana’s brother Jim from Canada. Next morning we were off again, could raise the genoa off the coast and sail most of the way, catching a large dorado (dolphin fish) en route. This time we knew our way through the treacherous reefs of the Rosarios.
With Anne and Jim we went back to the Aviary, a most amazing collection of birds. The owner, Rafael Vieria, is the enterprising naturalist who first created the successful Oceanarium ( ) , a large aquarium/dolphinarium on a neighbouring island 20 years ago, and then invested the profit in this aviary about 7 years ago. Admission to see the birds so far is free!
Another Rosario attraction is a tiny mangrove island where hundreds of birds come to nest. The most spectacular is the Magnificent Frigate bird. In the mating season the male inflates a red pouch on his throat. Sometimes this red balloon becomes really big. - Amazing what some boys will do to attract a bird!
Grand Rosario is where most of the locals live. We had a long walk in and around the village, visiting the small, but attractive school and some tiny shops. We could not help noticing the many small children and the public notice offering advice on family planning. The cost to the patient should not be prohibitive: For either an intrauterine device (IUD), sterilizing for the ladies or vasectomy for the men the price is the same, 3.000 pesos; about NOK 10 or US$ 1,5!
We also saw the small, fenced-in arenas used for cock-fighting, a big sport among locals of the Rosarios. These week-end fights involve a lot of betting and drinking. We decided to give cock-fighting a miss and headed back to Club Nautico 13th March, catching a nice barracuda on the way.
Jim is not a person to overstay his welcome, and after a quick look at The Old City and a restaurant headed back to Toronto and Oakville. A couple of days later Anne also took us out for a meal before she headed for wintry Norway. She had a deep tan and was pleasantly impressed with Colombia and Colombians.
Two days later was the start of our next adventure: four weeks of sailing through the San Blas Islands, Panama. Something we had been looking forward to a long time.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Cartagena and Cuidad Perdida. Report 40.

(by Stein, written in Cartagena March 18th)
For corresponding photos see Picture Gallery No 40.

Returning to Cartagena

Our flight back to Cartagena was not as straight-forward as when we went home in late November. We then flew directly from Cartagena to Madrid with Air Madrid, a budget airline of about three years’ standing. The plane was delayed by ten hours, was only half-full when it finally left, the in-flight food was awful and there were many broken and dysfunctioning items aboard. And we heard of lots more problems when we finally got to Madrid and were too late for our connection to London. I suppose we should have suspected that the airline was heading for trouble…
Our return flight was due on February 20th, but it was only by chance, when checking if a friend could use the same direct service to visit us, that we in January discovered that Air Madrid had gone bankrupt and been forced to seize all activities! This became a big scandal, about 200.000 were stranded in South America and had to be helped home by the Spanish authorities. But our insurance was not willing to cover our loss, so instead we became passengers on Colombia’s own Avianca from Madrid to Cartagena via the capital, Bogota. This meant a much longer journey, and we only arrived after midnight. It was not possible to get into the yard where White Admiral was stored on land at this time of the night, so instead we got the taxi-driver to find us a cheap hotel in El Centro. It felt like the mattresses in Hotel Monte Carlo were stuffed with concrete, but we still managed to get a little sleep!
So we got up with the birds and walked to Club Nautico in Manga, met our old friend Dockmaster John and had breakfast at the nearby Carulla supermarket.
At the yard “Ferroalquimar” Nilson Arizal and his men had washed the boat regularly and made a beautiful, white cockpit bimini of GRP instead of the original dirty, sagging and leaking canvas cover.
We were also thankful that we had made the arrangement to clean the boat as the yard is very dusty and dirty at this time of the year, when there is no rain and the trade-winds blow briskly. Also they were doing major work on ships next to us, including cutting up two old hulks less than 50 m away…
There were major worries regarding a mobile crane and how the yard should launch us with a big ship next to us, but Pedro de la Hoz Adarragio and the rest of the management sorted it out and to our relief had us safely launched before noon on Friday 23rd. Nilson & Co finished their washing and waxing, helped to push us off the quay in the rising wind and we motored an hour or so around to Club Nautico were John had a berth waiting for us. This meant that White Admiral was in safe hands and we could go away as hoped for a trip to Cuidad Perdida; “The Forgotten City”.

The Forgotten City

Cuidad Perdida is a pre-Colombian settlement situated on the northern slopes of the
Sierra Nevada Mountains in the Tayrona National Park. This amazingly well preserved city was never known to the Spanish explorers and was only discovered by grave-robbers in 1975. It is hidden in the dense rain-forest at about 1300 m elevation and can only be reached by foot. Until five years ago it was also possible to fly here with helicopter, but the Kogi-indians who live in the Tayrona area and the para-militaries that have invested interest in the local cocaine-production objected strongly. (Helicopters are used for locating them and the cocaine laboratories.) Also the archaeologists had objected to these flights due to the repeated stealing of artefacts.
The trip – more like an expedition – took us six and a half days. It started at 05.30 24th February with a four hours’ bus trip to Santa Marta, which in 1525 became the first European settlement in South America. There we joined our guide and the eight other participants: A fit, elderly lady (69) from Canada, a middle-aged couple from Denmark, two young ladies from Spain (actually Basque) and France, and three young men from New York, California and Australia.
In Santa Marta we all got into a large, vintage jeep and drove for two hours, the last hour on uneven, windy dirt roads into the mountains. In the tiny village of El Mamey three mules were loaded with food and hammocks, we got our backpacks on and followed our quick-legged, Spanish-speaking guide, Isidro and his son Victor.
The path is only about 18 km each way, but the path is uneven, narrow and winding and steep up and down through ever thickening rain-forest. Riverbeds are crossed or followed several times. The walk takes three days up and two days down. The last day up the mules have to be left behind, and instead a Kogi-indian comes as an extra carrier.
Sleeping was first on a small farm, then in primitive shelters built for the purpose. At night the hammocks are slung between rafters and covered with mosquito netting and with sleeping-bags were surprisingly comfortable. Victor made us meals three times a day, simple and rich in calories – but nobody put on any weight during this expedition! For drinks we had local water or juice made from powder, and – of course – Colombian coffee and cocoa. Everything was prepared over an open fire.

The last part of the trip is on a narrow, stone stairway from the river bed and almost straight up a mountain-side. Even being quite close to it is difficult to see where the steps begin. After 1200 steps, sweat pouring and thighs and calves aching, one is rewarded by reaching the first terrace and can sit down for a rest. Another 1400 steps brings you to the top of the city and near our home for the next two nights.
The view and the impressions were quite overwhelming. Deep valleys and undulating, palm-covered mountain ridges surround the area. Within a diameter of about two km we could visit about 150 terraces so far uncovered. Birds and insects provide most of the sounds, the river hums away softly in the distance. Here are no engines, no radios and no mobile phones that work, no other communication to the outside world than the same, strenuous path down. The nearest Kogi village is about two hours away, so it is not a good idea to become seriously ill up here!
And to this enchanted world about 10 tourists come on some days, while to its famous big cousin Machu Picchu in Peru about 500 people travel daily…
For 24 hours we had Cuidad Perdida to ourselves and could learn more about the way of life centuries ago.
Their circular houses were supposedly like the ones the Kogis live in today with vertical walls either of clay or wooden sticks and a roof of straw and leaves. It is estimated that about 3000 persons lived here from about 800 a.d.- 1600 a.d. Excavations bear witness of a well organized people of skilled engineers, farmers and artists. They must have been very hard workers and they enjoyed a high level of civilization. But wars with the Spanish and the introduced, new infectious diseases like measles and flu killed them swiftly. The legend of El Dorado has its roots in the Santa Marta area and was a major reason why the Spanish penetrated the forest so ruthlessly in their insatiable lust for gold.

The Cocaine Story

”The gold” in this area today is cocaine. Adult, male Kogi-indians we met all chewed cocaine-leaves, and around their houses we saw the bushes side by side with vegetables and bananas. Chewing leaves and using leaves in hot water as tea is a weak and apparently harmless stimulant compared to the refined products of cocaine paste and cocaine powder. We were told that “all” the farmers in the lower areas augmented their income from cattle and tobacco-farming with production of cocaine paste. The paste is delivered to two, large and “secret” jungle-laboratories in the area. Here they do the final stages of refinement to produce the white cocaine powder. This is transported to the demanding markets in USA and Europe in almost every imaginable and unimaginable way...
The Government has military outposts in the area and officially there is supposed to be a large, continuous, USA-supported campaign to stop the production, but various means of corruption controls this effectively.
Given a small fee one of the young farmers gave us a guided tour to a hidden laboratory erected for demonstration. It was interesting to see how relatively easy it was to produce the cocaine paste. (It can be mixed with tobacco and smoked.) If the young man is caught he risks extradition to USA and 40 years imprisonment, but nobody from the 40-50 farms in the area have been caught so far. The simple life-style of the farm where we stayed illustrated that others get most of the profit. And he claimed that had the pay for coffee been a bit higher, then he would much rather grow coffee…

Back on our boat for the next few days we pampered our slightly sore muscles and joints, and removed a total of seven blood-sucking ticks. I was also a bit bothered by a reaction to ant-bites and a mild gastroenteritis. But after a couple of days we were back to normal and only left with some amazing memories of The Forgotten City.
And also with a new and slightly depressing insight into the origins of cocaine…

The Rosario Islands and The San Blas Islands, Panama.

After the Cuidad Perdida experience we received a visit from our friend Anne in Oslo, and a few days later also from Diana’s brother Jim in Canada. This gave us good reasons for two sails back and forth to Islas del Rosario; 20 n.miles SW of Cartagena. We stayed there for two nights each time, saw some dolphins and a lot of birds, caught dorado and barracuda fish, met a displaced, but contented Norwegian, and a lot of other islanders, and altogether had two interesting trips which will be reported soon. But the pictures from those trips will have to wait until we are back from visiting the San Blas Islands - no Internet Cafes there, we are told. (We can only transmit text via the satellite telephone.) The plan is to sail for Porvenir in San Blas, Panama, tomorrow, Monday 19th March. The trip should take less than two days, and we hope to stay in this archipelago for one month while we slowly make our way back here. (Flight back to Norway is April 30th.) Through ignorance of the San Blas Islands we sailed past them in “Red Admiral” on our way to Panama and the Pacific in 1979. This time we are better informed, and are very much looking forward to meeting the friendly and artistic Kuna Indians and their beautiful islands.
So please, do keep checking our web-site for reports and pictures. And if you find the time, do also write a greeting in our Guestbook, we appreciate it very much.
Regarding the section called Voyage where we mean to have charts and positions posted, we apologise for lack of up-to date information. But do not give us up, you lovers of geographical information, we will get around to it!

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Norwegian Winter Interlude. Report No 39.

(By Stein, Cartagena, 17th March 2007)
For corresponding photos see Picture Gallery No 39.
As has been our routine since 2004, we were again back in Norway in early December. We wanted to see family and friends, look after our house a little and we needed to work for a couple of months. I was back at the Dept. of Cardiology, Sørlandets sykehus for my sixth time – again a most enjoyable period, not least because of the chance again of working with young, enthusiastic medical colleagues. Diana did some locum work for an Ophthalmologist colleague in private practice in Søgne south of Kristiansand. She did not get quite as many sessions as she had wished, but seemed very happy to have more time to study Spanish and to visit our two grandchildren in Oslo. Robert joined us for Christmas and New Year. He is doing a diploma-course in Computer Science in Cambridge. Doing the same course is girlfriend Olga from Russia, so she also joined us for the festive season. My mother Eli also came, of course, and so did Martin and his family from Oslo for a couple of days.
Early winter in Norway this year was unusually mild; I was able to ride my bike to work daily. Only after we left middle of February did we hear that the country was hit by massive snow-falls!
So no skiing near home for me this year, but we did have two weekends in the mountains, the last one a family gathering in Trysil early February. Robert was too busy to get away from Cambridge, but Elisabeth & Hugh came over from London. My best winter memory this time is cross-country skiing with Elisabeth. Hugh preferred joining Martin in the steepest down-hill slopes they could find! The apartment we rented up in the mountain-side included a sauna-bath that proved popular with Hedda & Johan, and they insisted that their cuddly toys also enjoy saunas – please see the picture section!
Before leaving Norway I spent a couple of days making myself useful at Eli’s house in Sandefjord and also drove her to Gardermoen Airport for a charter plane to Alicante, south Spain. She loves her winter weeks away from the cold.and at Reuma-Sol she finds therapy for body and soul…

Cambridge, London and Madrid

En route to Colombia we stopped off in Cambridge and London. Robert is affiliated to Fitzwilliam College, one of the relatively younger colleges of this 800 year old university. Olga, however, stays at Trinity College, famous for its history dating back to Henry VIII and its long line of academic and royal scholars. It is also popular for its formal dinners, and Olga invited us to such an event on Friday 16th February. The pre-dinner sherries were sipped in a room decorated with paintings of illustrious forefathers before entering the huge dining-room. Dark, wooden rafters criss-crossed the white walls high above us. Here we sat benched alongside scholars from all corners of the globe, many in their academic robes. (I did not observe any ghosts, otherwise the scene reminded me of the dining-hall in the Harry Potter pictures!) While the Dons (teachers and important guests) are seated along the top table underneath the image of Henry VIII things are fairly formal, but when they leave shortly after the pudding, everybody standing respectfully to attention, the sound level increases noticeably and one is allowed to take photographs. Robert agreed to pose with me in front of Sir Isaac Newton…
In London next day all four of us met up with Elisabeth & Hugh in Earls Court and could witness how “Skin Studios” and “GloLondon” is going from strength to strength. And we were treated to a nice dinner at The Abingdon.
Next morning found us on a plane to Madrid. I have been to this great city on a medical conference years ago, but this was Diana’s first visit to the Spanish capital. We had crisp spring weather, crocci and daffodils were already blooming. Here we visited Teatro Real for an operatic evening (“Cavalleria Rusticana” combined with “I Pagliacci”) and the next night a recital by Italian soprano Barbara Fritolli. Our seats were not the best, but the music was!
To our dismay we discovered that the famous Prada Museum was closed on Mondays, so that day instead we did a lot of walking, admired some of the buildings and the parks and saw the film “Little Miss Sunshine”. But we managed a couple of hours at The Prada before our flight to Colombia Tuesday morning. So Goya, Velazquez, Tizian, El Greco, Rafael and Reubens gave us a wonderful tour of Europe back in the times when they were alive and recorded it all on canvas.