Friday, 29 February 2008

More Kuna Yala. Visit from Ilse and Near Disaster

Written by Stein, Kristiansand, Norway, 29th feb. 2008. For photos see Picture Gallery No 44.

More Kuna Yala. Visit from Ilse, Rio Gangandi and a close call in Porvenir.

Dog Island, East Lemmon Cays
Since Diana last reported 31st October we had another few days before my mother Eli and my name-sake cousin Stein (now officially “St. Buster of WhiteAdmiral”!) flew back to Norway. A new anchorage for us between the East Holandaise islands and the air strip of Porvenir was the tiny Dog Island. Years ago a small ship that developed a serious leak was run aground here. The rusting bow of the ship sticking out of the water near the beach does not look pretty, even with the customary brown pelican perched on top, but if you snorkel over the submerged parts it becomes a truly amazing adventure! Thousands of fish obviously love this wreck for shelter, feeding, breeding and just socializing. A lot of the ship is covered with marine growth, including colourful corals and wavy anemones, creating a concentration of living things that is hard to beat even on the best reef. It is only about 4 m down to the deepest part of the hull, so it is very easy to skin dive outside and inside the wreck. But there is also quite a current running, so while admiring butterfly fish, tangs and sergeant majors, one has to be careful not to drift into something sharp, abrasive or poisonous.
The Dog Island wreck and an ulu in the foreground
Ashore a family from the large island of Carti who owns the island, take turns in serving visitors and keeping it immaculate. You pay a small fee for going ashore. There are two clusters of small huts, one is the living-quarters for themselves and one is a shelter for visitors where one can buy molas, cold soft drinks, beer and drinking coconuts. Eli also managed to come ashore here, but when returning to White Admiral in the dingy in a choppy sea got drenched while getting back onto White Admiral. She didn’t complain though, good going for somebody about to turn 92!

Sunday 4th November Eli and Buster entered the small Air Panama plane in Porvenir and started their long journey home. The plane was delayed by two hours due to squalls with heavy rain, which also flooded the half-finished shed where we were waiting. We were luckier the night before when we had a farewell dinner at the Porvenir Hotel, a very simple but friendly establishment close to the south beach. The metal chairs are rusty and permanent wax cloth covers the tables, but the outdoor restaurant has a splendid view and is sheltered from sun and rain by a large roof of palm fronds. They have a rather limited menu, a choice of fish, chicken or squid, served with a salad. Tastes good and is very cheap! After sunset you have to endure the noise of a generator which provides electricity for the fridge, in order to serve ice cold beer and wine, including cold red wine! Also in San Blas it is never far to the nearest mola-seller, and both St. Buster and Eli were happy to make some last-minute bargains before we rowed home and finished dinner with tea and biscuits and another glass of wine aboard.

Bredio Villalobos
Alone again, Diana and I did some shopping in the tiny store of Whichubhuala next to Porvenir, where Diana even managed to find a couple of tomatoes and paprikas. Then we sailed south to Isla Gertie in the Robson Group, a group of islands close to the mainland in the south-west part of the Gulf of San Blas. Close to shore, outside the tiny Rio Torti the navigation is tricky with sand banks and reefs and, due to the heavy rain, brownish water with poor visibility. But with our Bowhouse Guide, a reliable echo sounder and some patience we found a reasonable anchorage at 11 m. depth. We even had time for a ride up the river to wash clothes and fill some cans of water. Coming back just before sunset we saw white and red ibises landing in the mangroves. Especially the red ones are such a spectacular sight.
Next day among other visitors to offer molas and vegetables we met Bredio Villalobos, who offered his services. He is a short and muscular man with an infectious smile. He is in his mid thirties, originally a Kuna born in the Robsons, but has spent nearly 20 years in Panama City before returning to his roots to marry a single mother and have his own family. Kuna males also love children, and a girl with a child is no hindrance for a permanent bond. Girls with property are of course especially popular; in Kuna Yala land is inherited from mother to daughter. Because Bredio speaks good Spanish and understands that he must speak slowly, he is popular with the yachties that infrequently visit this part of the archipelago. The bunch of bananas he brought us was cheap and of excellent quality, so we arranged to employ him for a day when we returned with our next visitor, Ilse from Canada.

With Ilse to Rio Gangandi
Ilse Cloer we met first on our strenuous and memorable trek to Cuidad Perdida, Colombia in late February. We were impressed with this extrovert, adventurous and very fit lady in her late 60’s, wanted to get to know her better, and offered her a sail on White Admiral. True to her spirit she immediately accepted and duly arrived in Porvenir 7th November. She brought us some unusual and practical gifts, like Tilley scarves of micropellets that when wet swell up and can either be cooled or warmed depending on the effect wanted. She also did some shopping for us bringing goodies like lettuce and cheese.
After introducing Ilse to the lively village of Wichubhuala and the peaceful shores of Chichime, we returned to Isla Gertie. On Nov. 10th, with Bredio as our guide, we rented a local big dug-out canoe (known as an ulu) with a 15 HP outboard and a driver to get us part of the way to the village of Gangandi. It is one of only two of the many Kuna villages not situated either on an island or along the coast, but by a river inland in the Darien. Few tourists travel her, so it was an opportunity to see a more isolated way of living, a lot of rain forest and birds, maybe some reptiles and monkeys, and get some exercise.
The boat trip was about 30 minutes first going south along the coast and then up a biggish river. At the right entrance of the river we were surprised to see the tops of big wooden piles, obviously the remains of a large quay. Bredio explained that the Chiquita Banana Company operated plantations here in the 1920s, even building a small railway. But the turn-over was disappointing; bananas were not produced or delivered in the amounts they had anticipated, and the operation was closed down only after a few years.
Our driver took us up the river for a few miles, and while he returned to the sea to fish we walked for about two hours along a narrow and mostly muddy path up to Rio Gangandi. We waded across the river in quite a strong current before finding the village of Gangandi behind a field of big elephant-ear like leaves of yams and a thicket of banana trees.

Bredio has an older sister living in the village. She served us sweet oranges straight from the tree overhanging a bench and a table (shaking the tree made them drop in your lap!), and was happy to introduce us to her house and large family. Promising to make some printed copies in return, they were also happy to be photographed. Bredio then took us for a walk through the village to the local Congreso, to meet the saila (chief) and pay our visitors’ fee of $2 each. The chief was leading an informal meeting while lying in a hammock in the middle of this huge, wooden hall, but did not seem the least worried by our interruption. He spoke good Spanish, wished us welcome and explained in a friendly manner the many rules affecting visitors: No video filming, and photographs of people only by prior arrangement. The chief proved to be a retired teacher in his early 70s, had a chiselled, square face with dark skin, broad cheekbones and the slightly slanted, humorous eyes of the Amerindian. And he knew about Norway and its capital Oslo! Afterwards we regretted not having asked permission for a photograph, as with long-sleeved yellow shirt, pink tie, black trousers and black round-rimmed hat he was a colourful and unexpected sight in this simple village in the steaming forests of Darien.
Crops of yam, oranges, plantanas and bananas provide income for the 300 or so villagers of Gangandi. And the women here as elsewhere in the Kuna Yala are almost always working on molas for their own decoration and as an extra source of income.

Judging from the many rows of white jaw bones hanging outside some huts, the villagers also enjoy the meat of the large tapir mammal. But their numbers are dwindling even in the Darien and the occasional hunting parties now have to wander far from the village for their prey.
A tall tower built from bamboo and covered with a few leaves had children playing in it, they shouted the now familiar “Photo one dollar! Photo one dollar!” Is this a hunting tower? I asked Bredio, or for bird watching? No, Bredio explained, people climb up to get better cellular phone cover! So the modern world of solar panels and mobile phones is also entering the village of Gangandi. But we only saw two houses of concrete and tinned roof and no TV antennas.
We had been lucky with the weather so far, and only while waiting for our boat back at the head of the first river did the heavens open up. The rain filled the ulu so fast that one man had to work hard to bail out faster than it came in. Soaked to the skin in spite of our oil skins, it was good to get back aboard and we were grateful for our diesel cabin heater and a cup of hot cocoa. But with all this rain and more to come, there was at least no more need for collecting brownish river water…
At the Gunboat anchorage the next day we introduced Ilse to her first snorkelling, and like Dagmar she also learnt it in record time. With so much to see on these reefs it’s a wonderful feedback to learners of all ages. Then we bought two large crabs and several big crayfish from some young men in an ulu before sailing out to the Swimming Pool in time for the Monday sunset socializing with other yachties on Barbeque Island.

A Near Disaster
Sailing slowly back to Porvenir we revisited Nuinudup and neighbouring Banadup, where we found to our delight a small store were they bake Kuna bread. Now we understood the meaning of the tall flagpole beside this hut: A raised flag is a fresh-bread-signal to passing boats!
At Nuinudup we met again a family with a small albino boy, gave them prints of photos and bought some fish. More snorkling at Dog Island before sailing to Porvenir, catching a mackerel on the way and anchoring in slightly choppy conditions. The three of us had agreed to do one hour of brisk walking on the air strip before dinner, and as we dropped the hook just before 5 pm I broke my golden rule of skin-diving to check the anchor. But we had a really fast walk, discovering that 69 year old Ilse was impossible to keep up with. Afterwards she explained; she used to compete in speed –walking!
The wind picked up at night, but we thought we were safe as we fell asleep about 10 pm, tired from all the exercise. The awning was as usual spread across the stern to protect the cockpit area from rain, we did not worry about the fact that it also is a bit of a wind catcher.
At midnight I woke up with the most awful grinding noise going through the hull followed by the sound of surf nearby. I ran outside with a torch and lit up jagged corals beneath the port hull and not much depth on starboard side either. The portside keel was scraping a ledge of a reef and the surface breakers were only a few metres away; our anchor must have dragged! Diana and Ilse were also out in a few seconds; we got the awning bunched up and the engines on and started motoring off the reef while winching in 50 m of 10 mm chain manually, the electric winch having broken a few weeks earlier. At this point we did not know the extent of damage to the port keel, rudder and propeller, but we did not think the hull could have hit, certainly there were no leaks on portside, and with hearts pounding and arms aching we slowly moved off the reef bringing chain and anchor aboard in the relative safety of a 13 m deep channel just outside the reef.
To find a good anchorage in Porvenir in daylight is not easy, the bottom being an undulating surface of small patches of good sand separated by areas of dense grass and poor-holding corals. I knew we had not anchored on coral, as that makes a lot of noise when dragging, so most likely the plough anchor had hooked the edge of a grassy patch. With the rising wind and harder pull we would probably had broken off a piece of grass which would have stuck like a cork on the tip of the hook, effectively preventing it imbedding again. And reefs are never far away in this dangerous anchorage. In the middle of a windy night safe anchoring is much trickier than during the day. But with our strongest torch we located the sheltered, white sandy beach off the south-west corner of the island. Slowly we moved in till we were very close to the beach, and in a couple of metres dropped the anchor followed by lots of chain while the wind blow us back to deeper water. Finally at rest and feeling shaky, but safe a man ashore shone a light at us and shouted something we could not make out above the wind. He kept shouting for a while, but we ignored him, thinking he was probably drunk.
After Diana and Ilse were back in their bunks, I stayed at the chart table watching the movements of the boat on the GPS for a long time. Finally I was convinced that the wind was from a stable direction and new disasters were not imminent, and got a couple of hours of sleep before sunrise - and the prospects of a morning dive to inspect the damage.
At 06.15 there was hard banging on the hull and the same voice shouting again, now very loudly from a small boat alongside. It was the Immigration Officer: “¡Mueva, pronto, aeroplano llega 15 minutos!”
Now we understood. We had anchored in line with the air strip! If we did not want the top of the mast torn off by the 06.30 plane coming in for landing, we’d better move quickly!
Having re-anchored yet again I was quite nervous before I could finally jump in with mask and snorkel. But it was with happy amazement I found only superficial abrasions on the aft part of the keel and two small scratches on the rudder. No serious damage! After breakfast we anchored the dingy near the reef of our nocturnal adventure and found a fan-shaped area of broken finger-corals, many of the small pieces bearing blue spots of our bottom paint!
As sailors, Diana and I together have a fair amount of skill and experience, but occasionally we also make mistakes.
Everybody needs a little luck sometimes!

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