Sunday, August 4, 2013

Dreams Come True

The day after I was born, my dad drove me home in his beige 1974 VW pickup truck. Since then, I have been around cars my entire life. After Earthling's departure from Cartagena, Colombia, we didn't encounter a single motor driven vehicle for more than six weeks throughout the Colombian Islands and Kuna Yala (San Blas). This is the longest period of time I have not seen a car. In the entire region of San Blas, there is only one road. The road comes through the Darien forest to Carti Islands, where we sailed. As soon as the anchor was set, we see a silver Honda Element with Illinois plates honking and waving at us!
 Three months old in front of Freedom Square, Tehran, 1974, VW pickup in the background

A few years ago I was sailing with Johnny Wanda and first mate Kelly outside Chicago on Lake Michigan. I was telling Johnny about the dream of taking off and cruising around the world within the next couple of years. Consequently, he was telling me about his dream to drive to Alaska from Chicago and further through Americas all the way down to Argentina to Brazil. Our dreams sounded too good to be true,  we decided to meet somewhere along the path.

Rowing to shore excitedly
Earthling on the left and Wanda Honda on the right  

Dreams come true, and out of all the places in the world we met in the middle of the two America, far from civilization, at the dead end Pan-Am highway in Kuna Yala, Panama. It wasn't easy to arrange this meeting, and it almost didn't happen. However, Johnny and I were highly motivated to make this happen.
Katherine, Patrica, Johnny, and Eartling in Carti Tupile 

Earthling anchored in between the Carti Islands
Patricia contemplating between molas
Playing with the starfish
That mola dress looks good on Johnny :-)
Fresh Lobster for dinner
Kuna Women
Johnny joined the locals for some fun
Playing "Flip the Ulu"

Women offering their Molas for sale

Johnny and Patricia Wanda joined Katherine and I on Earthling for seven days. We cruised some of the beautiful islands of San Blas and the memories will remain forever.

Love from Dreams Come True 

Check out Wanda's blog:
View the entire Panama photo album here

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Kuna Yala

Sailing Ulu by Achutupu
Kuna Yala is the land of Native Kuna Indians, also known as San Blas. This area stretches around 150 miles along the South Eastern side of Panama. Kunas live very original, the most primitive I ever witnessed.  Their homes are made with bamboos from the jungle, majority don't have electricity or running water, and bathrooms are outhouses over water. The men paddle "Ulus" (Dugout canoes) toward the rivers on the main land early in the mornings and return with supplies throughout the day. They get their water from the rivers, vegetables and fruits from the main land in the Darien forest, and meat from the sea. The only signs of modern world are radio antennas, a few outboards, and mobile phones, which is more evident in the northern villages than southern. The first language is kuna and Spanish is widely practiced. There are around 360 islands in San Blas and most are not occupied. Villages are usually located close to the main land and well populated.
Supplies from the forest
Women paddling to the river to get water
Isla Tigre
Typical view of a village with Darien Jungle in the background
A school's bathroom in Ustupu
Homes out of bamboo
Kuna Yala is a woman dominant society. Women make most important decisions, they choose their husbands and manage financials. In Hollandes Cays, a gentleman came over to greet us. First thing he asked was if there was a woman aboard? Yes, and Katherine came out on deck. Thereafter, he talked to Katherine about anchorage fee and handed her a note in english. I'm standing there and watching and this guy doesn't even look at me till he got his $10 and gives a receipt, only then he turned around and started chatting with me.
Women dress in tradition clothing called Mola, which is the primary art Kunas offer.
They are sewn patterns of nature on different colors and layers of fabric. Molas are a famous hand craft of Panama. Some molas are definitely a piece of art and great souvenir and gift for friends and family. Usually Kuna women row up on their ulu to the cruising boats and offer the handcrafted molas for sale.
Estelfina invited us to her house to see her molas
Mola stand
Kunas like to give visitors gifts (Regalo). We have got seafood, fruits, molas as gifts from various locals. However, one experience has been making me a little cautious with taking gifts. In Ustupu, a happy person, Ricardo rowed on his ulu up to Earthling and sold us bananas & mangos. The following day he came by & offered fruits again but we already had some and were not interested. But Ricardo insisted to take some as Regalo because we were amigos. Ok, gracias amigo as I took four mangos. Ricardo said; De nada, Un Balboa($1)! I wasn't going to get into the definition of Regalo with Ricardo with my broken Spanish, so No problema, A dollar for you amigo :-)
Kind giving locals in Isla Tigre
Lobster or Lancoste
Ricardo brought fruits by every day
Kunas are peaceful and in harmony with nature and they would never hurt anyone. They don't lie, cheat, or steal. They are trusting and we never felt it was necessary to lock the boat. The Kunas in the southern islands have had little interaction with outsiders and seldom might not come across as friendly as others. Some individuals from previous generations might not really be excited to directly interact with visitors. And it makes sense, since Kuna Yala has been threaten by outsiders several times in the history. Originally the Spanish tried to rule it and then the Panamanians. Furthermore, people dug for gold in their rivers and the drug trafficking of rootless people have not left a good impression in Kuna's mind. Fortunately the only people that left better imprints are the sailors and cruisers and once they hear you are on a sailboat they soften up. They have been violent twice throughout the history, stood up for their land and fought first with the Spanish a few hundred years ago and second with Panamanians in the mid 1920's. Where they even massacred the interracial Kunas. Their new flag symbolizes both of the fights.

 Some villages are like a labrynth, we got lost in Achutupu, Earthling's mast is visible in the middle of the pic, but how do we get there
Ustupu, largest Kuna island
Kunas are known to take care of the nature and maintain it clean. Nowadays one can't go by without noticing plastic, metal cans, and glass floating on the water around villages and stacked up along the shores, a sad scene in paradise. The other day we payed attention to a person that walked up to the sea and threw all the trash in the water (it's common). Many of the trash was food rest and degradable, in addition there were plastic soda bottles and thin cans. It's not really the person's fault, she has been throwing rubbish into the sea for 70 years and it always disappeared but today it doesn't just go away and it could be because of the evil spirit. Could the evil spirit be the corporations that mass produce & export cheap products around the world? That is a political discussion for itself. In a perfect world if we are producing materials that would not disappear in nature, then it's our responsibility to educate our peer. I think most if not all packaging materials should be degradable.
There are many deserted islands in Kuna Yala. Before getting back on the more common cruising route north of Rio Diablo, Katherine and I got to spend an amazing evening totally secluded on Farewell Island. This little island was resided by 100s of palm trees of different sizes. The hammock was set up in between two of the trees on the beach with a Bonfire next to it under the full moon. Every time we set up a fire, our trash gets burned, in addition we try to clean up the surrounding of all plastic materials and burn them as well. In the Farewell island we burned tons of plastic bottles that were floating on the beach and in the water.
Since the first bonfire in Chub Cay, Bahamas, I learned from Ali to have a clean bonfire without leaving any evidence. First dig a deep hole in the sand on the beach, create the fire and when it's over, put it out with water, and then cover it totally with sand without leaving any kind of foot print. That way the nature is back to its original shape and beauty!

Farewell Island

Trash collected on the beach
If you are depended on Internet and planning to cruise the remote islands of Kuna Yala, plan a head for some other solution since it is more or less impossible to find Internet. I must add that all the schools in the populated islands have Internet but it might be difficult to access it at all times. We have gone to schools and tried to use the Internet, sometimes the weather has been cloudy and the solar panels couldn't put out enough energy to turn the modem on, other times there are so many kids with their small laptops that the speed can be slower than dial up, another time we had to go to school director's house and see if he could let us use the Internet, he said in half hour, after half hour we were informed that Internet wasn't working that day.
In Ustupu, you can find wireless Internet by the the airport at the power plant, additionally there is a wireless Panamanian network that occasionally works on a very low speed in some islands like Nargana by Rio Diablo. In other islands like Achitupu there should be Internet at the Hostels but the hostel was closed. The only reliable wifi is on Elephant island in West Lemmon Cays.
This is the path to the electricity plant by the airport in Ustupu, in search for wifi
One rewarding adventure has been rowing up and down the rivers. There are tons of rivers in Kuna Yala. The mouth to most of the rivers is shallow since debris, and tree logs get stock there, making it difficult for dinghies with outboards to enter. Once up the rivers you can find mango trees and load up with mangos. furthermore, the Kunas have their cemeteries on land by the rivers.
Cooling down and towing the dinghy in Rio Diablo
 Local teenagers we met on the river
Kuna graves
Large tree trunks in the water, always keep an outlook to avoid them
Earthling cruised in San Blas for five weeks and anchored in seventeen different places from Isla Pinot on the South to Provenir on the North. 

Love from Kuna Yala

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Colombia-Panama Passage

The last overnight passage for this season brought Earthling from Isla Fuerte, Colombia to Isla Pinot, San Blas, Panama. I have to admit it was the least tranquil passage this year. Earthling departed Isla Fuerte with very little winds & waves at 11 in the morning.

We always troll a fishing line during the day. A fish was following and nibbling on the lewer on and off. But this fish was different, it was of a dark color with its top fin sticking out of water. Could it be a shark? After an hour of her following us, suddenly the reel started to spin really fast, 40ft of fishing line went out in no time. The fish jumped up in the air twirling and twisting around and boom snapped a favorite lewer. Indeed, it was a shark and there is no way we would bring a shark aboard. There are many horror stories of people trying to reel in sharks, their meat is delicious but not worth the work for us. Afterward, two more bait were put out, one of which sprayed with WD-40 (WD-40 contains fish oil). Within a short period of time both of the lines got something on them, one snapped off again by another large cold blooded aquatic creature and the one with WD-40 brought in a good size yellow fin Tuna. The tuna was cleaned and we had a few fillets for dinner right before sunset.

Winds started picking up as the sky was turning dark. Not so many boats are encountered in these waters.  However, we saw a large vessel in distance, Colombian Coast Guard. Shortly after we sight them, they contacted us on the VHF radio and asked the normal questions; flag, boat name, number of crew, last port of call, next port of call, nationalities and so forth. They thanked us for the cooperation and we were clear to continue.

The autopilot is steering the boat and unexpectedly starts making some strange sounds and had to be disengaged. Now the boat has to be steered manually overnight. Winds are stronger, we are on the second reef and still doing speeds between 6-7 knots on a beam reach with occasional ten-footers clashing on the starboard side. Katherine is motion sick in these conditions! Around eight o'clock at night, in the middle of nowhere, we realized a boat is trying to catch up to us in a fast speed. All kinds of thoughts are in mind, primarily pirates! As the boat got closer, its blue bright sirens went on! We contacted the coastguard right away and was wondering what their intentions were? It took several slow minutes before we heard back from them; it's an inspection procedure, reduce speed and get ready to be boarded. It's a little scary to have people come aboard your boat under way at night. But we cooperated, furled in the genoa and started the engine. There were five men dressed in uniform on the speed boat. They tried to come to port side and board Earthling, but these waves were not making it possible. After a few attempts, they end up taking pictures of the boat as we tried to have a sense of humor and smile. They informed us that everything is sound and there is no need to come aboard, thanking again for cooperating and noting they are here if we need any assistance.

Attempts were made to fix the autopilot under way but it seemed like the belt inside was broken. I had to be behind helm the entire moon less cloudy night as heat lightnings were striking in the skies over the ocean. The boat was washed over several times as of which once the cockpit got filled with water. While starring at the compass to keep the course on 262, I'm thinking, why in the whole world am I putting my self through this? I can't wait to see the day again and arrive at a new land.
It's 5.15am, we are five miles off Isla Pinot (Tupbak) and it's still dark. After 40 min of drifting with minimum sails, the sky starts to brighten up. We see land, the best sight one can imagine!
And here we are anchored by the Darien tropical rainforest in the land of Kunas. Perhaps this is why you have to go through difficulties in order to get somewhere rewarding, once again we found ourselves in paradise.

The untouched dense green mountains are on one side and the Kuna village on the other side of the anchorage. It looks like nothing has changed here for a long time. These earthlings are the most primitive ever witnessed. Isla Pinot or Tupak is a small Kuna village on a large island. It's significant since it has the highest elevation out of all the islands.

Katherine in front of the Village of Tupak
Earthling anchored between the Darien forest and Tupak
Prudentio brought us Kuna bread
Typiacl Kuna houses

Love from San Blas

Monday, May 13, 2013

Islands of Colombia

Before setting sail to San Blas, Panama, we explored more of the Colombian Islands. A picture update is better than thousands words. After Cartagena, Earthling anchored off Isla Grande, Isla Tintipan, and Isla Fuerte. These Islands are part of the Islas Rosario and and Islas San Bernardo Archipelago. We did not encounter any cruisers in any of these islands!     

Isla Grande, Del Rosarios

It’s fascinating how these houses are built on top of reefs

Palmar in Isla Grande has several hundred different species of birds. Lots of parrots are roaming free on the Island.

This dog followed us around Isla Grande and became very attached to us and vice versa. When we left back to the boat on the dinghy, it didn’t take long before she jumped in the water and swam to Earthling. We put her in the dinghy and fed her, but I had to take her back to shore and with a firm voice tell her to go home. I love dogs but don't have the space for one! 
Pacha sleeping in the Dinghy
Isla Tintipan is the most quiet, calm, and deserted anchorage with the least amount of souls around

Isla Islote Santa Cruz is the world’s most populated Island per square foot. 1250 ppl live in 90 houses on one acre of land

In Isla Fuerte they build their own paddle boats from logs of big trees. The nature is tropical with many fruit trees.

Typical House in Isla Fuerte
He was happy to give us some mangos
Home Made Canoe
Anybody looking for a boat to Cruise on :-)
Love from the Islands in Colombia