Monday, 17 May 2010

Winter and Spring 2010. Travel report no 53.

Written by Diana in April in Panama and finished in Norway in May 2010.

A cold winter in Norway

Having left White Admiral safely on land in Cuba in late November, it was back to work for us both in our respective hospitals. Stein worked the whole period until the end of February, still enjoying his medicine as much as ever, and working longer hours than he is paid for. I took a period free around Christmas and New Year, as all the family came to visit. Three children, two partners, one grand-child and a great grand-mother were gathered for our usual shellfish feast on Christmas eve, then the other two grand-children came for Christmas day, where their biggest surprise was the unexpected visit of Santa Claus (our good friend and neighbour Christian). It was a very white Christmas, and kids big and small had snowball fights and built snow houses on the front lawn. The long snowy winter gave me little excuse not to make another effort at skiing, and again our neighbour Christian was sure he could teach me better technique. I did improve slightly with cross country, but the one attempt at downhill was a disaster; the nearest I have ever been to an acute panic attack! Stein was able to make more use of the good skiing tracks close to our new home, and had many moonlight trips, and also a memorable outing with colleagues in his medical department. He cycled back and forth to work every day in the snow, 10 kms each way, even in temperatures around -20 degrees centigrade! With skiing goggles, a balaclava, and two big pairs of mittens, he managed to keep warm enough, although he looked like the abominable snowman when he arrived home!

We had an enjoyable evening before Christmas at Martin and Tonje’s flat, meeting her family, including her mother, grand-father and aunt. This was an indication that they have now a serious relationship, which we are very happy about, Martin is a lucky man!

Before going back to work, I had a few days in London, staying with Elisabeth, Hugh and Finn, getting to know my little grandson a bit better, and also taking the chance to visit my Aunt Joyce and her husband Donald in Lincoln. Joyce is my mother’s youngest sister, and my last aunt alive. She and Donald are a cheerful couple in their late eighties, still with lots of zest for life, and were delighted that I came with Elisabeth and her little son.

Three months soon pass, and suddenly we were packing again for the tropics. Another good neighbour, Tore, drove us in falling snow to the train station in Drammen, we spent the night with Stein’s mother Eli in Sandefjord, and were off the next morning on KLM and Martinair to Amsterdam and Cuba.

Back in Cuba

The flight into Cuba on 28th February was full of Europeans, as Cubans generally have no money for travelling. We were met at the airport by Jhonny (that is how he spells his name), a worker at the boat-yard who will do anything for an extra dollar (or ’tourist peso’, which is 1.1 dollars). He took us to a private guest house, run by a woman he knew, actually a very attractive and reasonably priced place to stay. The next morning he collected us and we were taken to the boat-yard where White Admiral was sitting on land, looking good with her newly painted, i.e. antifouled bottom. René, the boat yard manager, had arranged to have her lifted into the water the same morning, the crane arrived as planned, and all went smoothly. Jhonny was supposed to have washed and polished the boat for us, but was not finished with the job, so we lay at the dockside for a couple of hours while this was done. My brother Jim was arriving from Canada the same day to join us, this delay meant that he had looked for us all over the huge Hemingway Marina, before eventually arriving at the right place. We paid the rest of our bill to the yard, which came to about kr 15000 (1500 pounds) for three months storage and the paint work (we had bought the paint in Mexico). This is the most expensive storage we have had in Latin America, so Cuba knows how to charge tourists, and we will not be leaving her there again. Then we were able to drive round into our place in the marina proper. We had already decided not to do any more sailing in Cuba, there are now too many rules and regulations, and very few places on the North Coast where pleasure crafts are allowed to visit. So the week Jim was with us was spent in the marina, and having a look at Cuba by land. We had arranged with Jhonny to hire a car from his uncle at about half the price of the care-hire companies, which is very high. However the uncle had got cold feet, this was obviously not legal, so we had to take Jhonny along with us as our guide on a two day trip to the south coast. Here we visited the lovely old town of Cienfuegos with its 19th century mainly French architecture, and the infamous Bay of Pigs, where the Americans invaded and were defeated in 1961. We stayed the night at a ’Casa Particular’, one of the private guest houses that are marked with an upside down anchor. These are homes where the owner is lucky enough to have a spare room or two, and gets a chance to earn some precious extra pesos. They are regulated by the government, one can only have up to 4 beds, there is a yearly charge for running a guest house, and one has to keep a record of every visit, with names and passport numbers. It is a good way to meet Cubans, and we had a very chatty, friendly hostess. On the drive home, Jhonny stopped to buy vegetables from workers in the fields. We bought a large bunch of green bananas, and about 20kg potatoes for next to nothing. Seeing the workers shove them quickly into the boot of the car, and look around worriedly, we realised that this was illegal, and that they were also just making a little extra.

Most of the other days were spent in and around Havana, enjoying more of this fascinating city with its huge boulevards and beautiful buildings in various states of disrepair. Highlights and lowlights include mojitos (Ernest Hemingway’s drink) at the famous Hotel Nacional, traffic lights with a countdown, crowded vegetable markets, dreadful toilets, vintage American cars and the ballet. This latter event was an unexpected huge highlight. We saw by chance an advertisement outside the Gran Teatro de Havana, that the national ballet school was having a graduation gala, and we got tickets for the next day, even for my sceptical brother. Seeing the wonderful old theatre was in itself an experience, but we were unprepared for the incredibly high standard of the ballet dancers, there seemed to be an endless number of future Fonteyns and Nurejevs leaping about the stage, and a beautiful corps of children of all ages, both boys and girls. Even my sceptical brother had to admit that it was superb.

We had the same impression of Cuba as on our previous visit; daily life is a struggle for most people to make ends meet. Everybody has a house of some kind, (few with running water), a basic food supply, and a small wage of about 20 dollars/month. Schooling and health care is free, so there is not such abject poverty as in most other Latin American countries, but everybody is poor by our standards. There are few luxuries, and seemingly no legal way to make a better life for oneself. Unfortunately, the only way for many young women (and a few men) to get a little luxury is to prostitute themselves for the tourists.

On our last day we had decided to invite René, the boat yard manager and his family, to lunch on the boat, but despite being in charge of the yard, the security staff would not give his wife and two children permission to come aboard. This is probably the worst thing about the Cuban society, that everything is controlled, there are security guards everywhere, your neighbour could be watching you and ready to report if you do anything that seems to be against communist principles and the revolutionary ideals. Viva la Revolucion! Anyway, we took René and his family to a nice restaurant, probably a much bigger experience for the children, who never otherwise have such a treat. We hope they will grow up into a freer and better society, and hopefully; that the Cubans can solve their massive problems peacefully.

Jim left us on the morning of the 8th March. Jhonny was supposed to drive him to the air-port, but came so late that Jim had taken another taxi 2 minutes before. Poor Jhonny, so desperate for work, but not very reliable!

We decided to leave the same day for Grand Cayman as the weather was looking good. We had heard that a south-easterly wind was on the way, although according to Kjell on the Swedish yacht Emma, this would not happen for three days, by which time we should be nearly there. The checking out process was thorough like all Cuban bureaucracy, with a search of the boat, including with a dog, to make sure we had no drugs or stowaways, although everybody is friendly and polite. As we motored out of Hemingway Marina, we did not think we would ever be back, certainly not with our own boat.

A rough sail to Grand Cayman

From Havana to the West Cape of Cuba is 136 nautical miles. The first couple of hours were sunny and windless as we motored along the coast, then a north easterly picked up and we had a good sail with winged genoas for most of the day, later with mainsail and a poled genoa. During the night when I was on duty, I suddenly saw that the echo sounder showed 2.5 metres. In a near panic I stopped the boat, got out Stein and the digital charts on, and found that there was a shallow which I hadn’t noticed sticking a long way out from the coast. We had to motor straight north, and soon were back in deep water. A scary lesson for the navigator!

The next day we motor sailed in a very light wind, enjoying the lobster tails which Jhonny had got for us (he managed to do some things right), but as soon as we rounded the west tip of Cuba at night, the wind freshened from south-east, much sooner than our weather forecast had predicted. Three miserable days of tacking back and forth followed, with a near gale right on the nose, only making about 50 nautical miles a day. The only ship we saw during this time was a U.S. coastguard vessel which came quite close, and over the VHF radio wanted all the details about who we were, where we had come from and where we were going. They were quite friendly about it, so I asked them to send an e-mail to Elisabeth, so nobody would worry that we would be slow getting to Grand Cayman, and this they did. What a relief when the wind turned first south west, then north west for the last hundred miles, and we could speed along at 7 knots in the right direction. It was lovely to see the silhouette of Grand Cayman appear on the horizon, and motor round to the south coast where we were directed by the port authorities to a place we could anchor. Not that we were impressed by their suggested anchorage, with high corals between the sand patches, but we did manage to find a safe place to put the anchor down. We were lucky to get in just before dark, and our glass of wine tasted good that evening!

Grand Cayman

Checking in here is easy; the immigration and customs officers came to the nearest jetty, and filled up the forms on the beach. It is very cheap during working hours, but unfortunately we had arrived on Saturday evening, and the check-in the morning after cost us 50 dollars more for overtime work…

After the poverty and lack of goods in Cuba, it was almost overwhelming to be in prosperous Grand Cayman, with its American-style supermarkets, restaurants, souvenir shops and especially banks, which seem to be on every corner, leaving no doubt we were back in the realm of capitalism! The atmosphere here is very Caribbean, the local accent reminded us of Barbados, and the people seemed relaxed and friendly. We did not have long to spend here, as we were anxious to get to San Blas in Panama well before our first guests. As the first day was Sunday, with most businesses shut, we had a hectic second day with a hired car, doing the biggest food shopping we had ever done, ordering air-tickets on Internet, getting the laundry done and even unsuccessfully looking for a couple of geo-caches! It was good to get our food cupboards well-stocked before our month in San Blas, as there is very little to buy there. On 16th March, after delivering the hired car, we were ready to unhook from the buoy we had been glad to get after it was vacated the previous day, and get on our way to El Porvenir in San Blas, a journey of 595 nautical miles.

Sail to San Blas

This time the weather forecast was correct, and we had five lovely days with a light north-east breeze sailing pleasantly often with winged genoas. We have begun the habit of keeping one engine idling at night so that we have unlimited electricity. This means we can watch films and use as much light as we want, much easier to stay awake. Martin had downloaded a number of films for us, and we both particularly enjoyed ’Invictus’ about Nelson Mandela and the Springboks Rugby Team.

We had our fishing line trolling behind most of the way during the day, but it was not until we were approaching El Porvenir on 21st March that we caught a nice mackerel, perfect for our first dinner at anchor.

Back in San Blas

It felt great to be back after two years, and we soon were out walking on the air-strip on El Porvenir and visiting the nearby island of Wichubhuala, with its Kuna Indian community. We shared our fish that evening with a young Englishman, Jonathan Williams, who had been left on the island that day as he had not confirmed his flight back to Panama, good to know for those who were going to visit us.

Our first guests, Martin with two kids Hedda and Johan, and partner Tonje were due to arrive on 26th March, so we had good time to get a few jobs done and the boat ship-shape. We had found out that our cockpit floor and benches had become too smooth, and were very slippy when wet, so we did a paint job with a scattering of sand between coats to make the surface rough, which worked very well. The local shop on Wichubhuala had as usual neither vegetables or chicken, so I was a little anxious about how to get enough fresh produce before they arrived, but like a miracle, the ’veggie boat’ appeared the day before they were due. The Kuna Indians themselves do not seem to have much business sense, and Panamanians are not allowed to set up permanent businesses in Kuna Yala, the Indian area, but the veggie boat is run by a couple of enterprising Panamanians who come along the coast about once a week, and visit yachts with a good supply of fruit, vegetables, chicken, beer, wine and so on. Now we were ready for our family to visit us, and were standing by the air-strip the next morning as the plane arrived from Panama City. After waving madly at the plane, it is a let-down when the expected guests do not appear, but the pilot could tell us that another was coming in half an hour, as there were too many passengers that day, and we finally were able to welcome them.

The children; Hedda (8) and Johan (5) soon discovered that the water temperature of 27-28 centigrade makes swimming a delight, and they could spend hours each day messing about in the water, and were both soon accomplished snorkelers. We had missed Heddas eighth birthday earlier in the month, so had a birthday lunch with treasure hunt to find her birthday present, a huge ring for playing in the water with, and a non-birthday present, a soft beech freesbe for Johan.

The next morning we set off on our Kuna Yala round trip. We were going to pick up Elisabeth, Hugh and little Finn on 30th March at another small airport about 20 nautical miles away, Corazon de Jesus. We planned two stops on the way, Salardup and Esnasdup (dup being Kuna for island), both typical San Blas anchorages with azure water, coral reefs for snorkelling, palm trees, and white beaches! No problem entertaining people here! Johan began the first day with feeling ill and vomiting, but later the same day was swimming and snorkelling as if he had never been ill. At Salardup, we took an expedition to a deserted little palm island for a picnic, fried fish and salad followed by toasted marshmallows! At this anchorage as well as the usual reef fish, there are usually spotted eagle rays to be seen, and we were all lucky to have this extra thrill. At Esnasdup, Stein and Diana had seen a sea crocodile on a previous visit, but we were not lucky enough to have this repeated. Between islands Martin had the fishing line out, but just didn’t seem to have any fishing luck this year, disappointing after so easily fishing barracudas last year in Belize, maybe the waters here are more fished-out. Tonje spent most of the sailing time working on her tan, and quickly became very bronzed. On the way to the air-port we had to make an extra stop at the inhabited island of Azucer, to collect water, which was now getting low. We tied alongside the cement dock, where our tanks were filled up very slowly, Stein supervising this while we others had a walk ashore. Obviously the Kunas here were less used to foreigners, and were delighted to see white children. Hedda and Johan were a bit overwhelmed as lots of women and girls came up to look at us, and ask our names. A friendly local showed us around, and we managed to buy fresh bread and some bananas. With full water tanks we motored the last two miles to the air-port, where the others were expected the next morning.

More visitors in San Blas

The morning plane from Panama City is due about 6.30 a.m., so Stein, Hedda and I rowed over to the air-strip at this time. There was no sign of any plane or other human being, so we presumed it was delayed. We returned to the boat, kept our eyes open, and when we saw some people going to the air-strip an hour later, Stein rowed over again. After waving to the plane, he got another let-down as they did not appear. The pilot told Stein that another plane was coming an hour later, so back for a third visit, this time to see only military personnel descending! Where were they? Unfortunately our mobile phones didn’t work in this part of Kuna Yala and we had no contact with them. We then took a walk in Nargana, the local town on a nearby island, found a booth where a lady could phone their mobile phones, but got no reply. After shopping, we returned to try again, and by some miracle, Hugh phoned that number just as we walked up, and he could tell us that their plane from London was delayed, they had missed the connection to Panama, and were soon coming in a chartered plane! I couldn’t help asking if that cost a fortune, but in fact it was surprisingly reasonable, 490 dollars for the 40 minute flight from Panama City in a 4-seater Cessna aeroplane. On his fourth visit to the airstrip, Stein could at last welcome the family to San Blas, and we got them installed on White Admiral. Just to make their arrival even more bothersome, the rain was now coming down in buckets, and most of that day and the next we had frequent heavy squalls. But life soon improves, it was lovely to be together, and we were soon in wonderful San Blas islands in the sunshine. Our little one and a half year old grandson just loved the sandy beaches and warm water, during the visit he learned to run down the beach and throw himself into the surf, and lie with toes out of the water floating with his wings. We had now six adults and three children on board, quite a logistical problem when there are no shops! Fortunately, Elisabeth and family had brought a lot of fruit and vegetables from Panama, no weight limit being one of the advantages of the plane charter. So off we went to deserted islands, managing to feed everybody despite seeing no more veggie boats. Our round trip continued to Coco Banderas, one of the loveliest anchorages, with three perfect sandy, palm islands near each other with calm anchorages between them. Great for snorkelling, beach walking and swimming. Then we were off to what the Americans call the Swimming Pool, a big anchorage protected by a huge reef in the Holandaise group, where the yachties meet on BBQ island for a weekly cocktail party. We had not time to wait for this, but moved on to Dog Island, with it’s wreck covered with corals and sponges, and loads of reef fish, a super snorkelling experience for all, especially the children! We had to be back in El Porvenir on the 5th April for Martin and his group to leave the next morning. Winds had been very light during these days, and we had mostly motored with a little help from the genoa, but on our last sail together, we got up both main and genoa to remind everybody that we are indeed a sailing vessel! We spent the last evening having dinner at El Porvenir hotel, the most up-market of San Blas’s few restaurants. The menu was the same as before, chicken and chips, fish and chips or octopus and chips! Eaten on an open terrace, with the Caribbean lapping a few feet away and the evening temperature 28 degrees, it tasted wonderful!

After waving goodbye to those leaving on the morning plane, Elisabeth, Hugh and Finn had one last day with us. This was spent mainly on the island of Wichubhuala, experiencing the Kuna indians and how they live. We are used to this from previous visits, but it is still impressive to see how the ladies dress with their orange and red headscarves, beautiful molas on their blouses, and beadwork along their arms and legs. Elisabeth is a photographer, and had to get a good supply of single dollars to be able to take some proper portraits.

Last visitors

The next morning as Elisabeth and family got onto the plane, they had just time to say hello and goodbye to my sister Linda and her Norwegian partner Rune, who were arriving for a week. They had fortunately also managed to get some fruit and vegetables with them, as our cupboards were now almost out of fresh produce, but it was still necessary to get more. So our first stop was at the West Lemmon Cays, a popular anchorage where we heard the veggie boat was coming in two days. Here there was really a surprise, a little Internet cafe has been installed! It is run by Kunas, a small thatched hut with three machines, and a little bar beside it, slow reception, but great to get our mail after being out of touch since Grand Cayman three weeks earlier. The veggie boat did come as expected, a great relief to get our shelves and nets full of bananas, papaya, tomatoes, avocado and so on. They also had fresh chicken, and a Kuna shortly after sold us a huge red snapper fish, we felt rich! Linda is the first proper vegetarian we have had aboard, but she is easy going, takes what we have apart from the meat and fish, and she had some soy mixes with her to eat instead. Our round trip included Salardup, where we had picnicked with Martin and kids, and here Linda was also able to see the spotted eagle ray as well as the usual reef fish, then the Swimming Pool. This time we were there on a Monday, so took part in the weekly party, meeting some of the crowd we knew from two years earlier, particularly Hans and Susanne on NautiBear, who ate dinner with us one evening, and had a hilarious game of Perudo.

Our last stop was again at Dog Island and its fun snorkelling, before sailing back to El Porvenir and waving them off on 14th April.

Little did we know that a volcano in Iceland was now erupting, and that it would be a week before Linda and Rune could get a plane back to Europe. They spent a couple of days in a hotel in Panama City, courtesy of KLM, then moved to a jungle resort where they enjoyed the wild-life, hopefully courtesy of their insurance company, so not a bad exchange for being at work!

Back to Shelter Bay Marina

At last we were alone on White Admiral. We had enjoyed our three weeks with guests, but it is also nice to relax alone. We motored in a calm over to Chichime, another San Blas paradise to enjoy a last couple of days of white sand and 27 degree water, before the journey to Shelter Bay Marina at the entrance to Panama Canal. A calm day’s motor sailing took us to Portobelo, which we know from earlier, the port where the Spanish took incredible amounts of gold out of the continent. To look at the poor town today, it doesn’t seem that they left much! Portobelo is

just 15 nautical miles from Panama Canal, and it took us about three hours of motoring, again on an almost calm sea, to arrive at Shelter Bay Marina. Now we were back in civilisation, with electricity, fresh water and hot showers. The marina is on the edge of a nature reserve, and on our pre-breakfast morning walks, there were lots of howler monkeys to be seen as well a a rich bird life. On 22nd April, White Admiral was professionally lifted onto land and into a high security storage area.

After the usual rush to get the last jobs done, including varnishing the floor, we were off by bus to panama City, and got our plane next morning to Houstion and London. Unfortunately the flight into London was delayed, and we missed our Ryanair flight to Norway by just a few minutes. Surprisingly we met an obliging Ryanair employee who rebooked us with no charge for the next morning. This gave us a night in London and a chance for some time with Elisabeth and Finn, Hugh was away on business.

We arrived safely the next morning in Norway, had a couple of hours with Stein’s mother Eli, before taking the train home.

It was altogether a long, tiring journey, and it felt great to be back home. Now it is work for us both over the summer, before going back to White Admiral and Panama at the beginning of October.

From 100504 Winter & Spring 2010 report

1 comment:

  1. Ja! Superhyggelig å komme på besøk som alltid. Gleder oss til neste gang.

    Martin & Tonje :)