From Providencia it was a short day hop to San Andres, another Columbian owned island and a holiday destination for Columbians as well as Americans and Europeans. It is know for is excellent scuba diving, friendly people, and miles of beaches. It was the biggest city we have seen since Guatemala City and a bit of a shock after the solitude of the other islands we had recently been to. Complete with noisy traffic jams, stop lights, and crowded streets. But the shopping was excellent and we were able to obtain supplies not available else where. We only stayed a week before heading South to an area known as the Albuquerque keys. Two small islands in the middle of know where. One a military base and off limits, the other a Spartan fishing camp. We stopped for the excellent snorkeling reported to be there and were not disappointed. We wanted to stay longer but a tropical depression was threatening to develop near us and we needed to "run" for cover....so Panama here we come.
We have been in Panama for a month now and really are enjoying it. We are along the Western end of the Caribbean coastline near Bocas del Toro. Over the last decade Bocas has become a backpackers 'must see' destination and youth hostels are plentiful and can be as cheap as $8/night for a dorm style room. There is a large population of expatriates from the US as well as Germany, Canada, and England. The Panamanian government provides free emergency medical treatment for your first 30 days in the country. It also encourages immigration by providing generous tax incentives to move here. Retirees by law get discounts on movies, health care, local transportation, food, restaurants, etc. These discounts can be as high as 40~50% for some items. English is widely spoken and health care is excellent. You could live here comfortably for less than $2000/month and that could include a live in maid/cook.
The indigenous people in the area we are in are from the Ngobe Indian people. Most of them choose to live their traditional life styles away from the cities and towns. It is a subsistence living and most have no electricity, indoor plumbing, or modern conveniences. They live in the hills or on the mangrove islands that dot the area. Paddling their hand hewn dugout canoes for miles is a daily routine for many of them. A fishing line towed behind will hopefully bring in some food for the family. It is not uncommon to see a canoe full of children as young as 7 or 8 out fishing without adult supervision.
With our freezer full of lobsters, conch, and fish we sailed 190 miles SE to the Columbian island of Providencia in company with our friends on Interlude. It was a very pleasant 31 hour passage with just the right amount of wind for sailing. The main island is approximately 4 x 2 miles in size and is home to 6000 people, the main road only 20 km long. A much smaller island, Santa Catalina, is connected by a colorful foot bridge called Lovers Lane. S Catalina is about ½ mile in diameter and has no motorized vehicles. Providencia has the reputation as being one of the friendliest islands in the Caribbean and we concur. The islanders go out of their way to assist you if they can, most speak English, and the island is very safe. They do not get a lot of tourists here, and most of those are either cruisers or come from mainland Columbia. Prices are slightly higher than Roatan do to the greater distances for cargo. Supplies generally go from the mainland to San Andreas, 60 miles S, and what ever is left over gets sent here.
There are relatively few cars on the island but everyone seems to own a scooter or small motorcycle, which are perfect for getting around. The locals are proud of their island and work hard to keep it clean and attractive. Most public buildings are freshly painted and in good repair. The islanders value the simple but peaceful lifestyle they have. Various local politicians have tried to convince them to bring in offshore oil exploration, cargo container transfer ports, cruise ship docks, etc. All ideas being overwhelmingly rejected by the islanders. They realize that those things will bring in crime, pollution, and change their way of life forever. Most have seen what "progress" has done for San Andres and are not willing to give up what they have for more money. there is even a ruling that if you were not born here, or have family from here, you cannot stay more than 90 days. The owner of a local business told us the island had a problem with mainlanders from Columbia, Nicaragua, and other nearby countries moving in and the result was increasing crime rates, more drain on the infrastructure, and more people looking for a free handout. The 90 day rule seems to have solved that problem.
It is pretty easy to feel at home here and it will be hard to leave the beautiful island and the friends we have made here. Orville and his wife Rel own a small bar/restaurant on Santa Catalina called Bamboo Bar, where the cruisers can safely leave their dinghies and meet for happy hour. They provide free WIFI and make you feel more like family friends than customers. They even gave one cruiser a key to the place so he could open it for happy hours if the owners were not around.
Our last blog said we were heading for the Hobbies/Vivarillos, 180 miles E of the Bay Islands. We sailed to Guanaja, 30 miles E of Roatan to wait for a good weather window (meaning little or no Easterly winds and seas, not common this time of year). Guanaja is unique in that most of the 8-9000 people live on a smaller island known as Banaka Town, a ¼ mile or so off the mainland. The main island is very buggy and has only one short road connecting 2 small villages. Banaka Town has no streets or roads, only sidewalks, mostly narrow except for the main one along the area of small shops and businesses. The supply boat comes in once weekly and it is fun to watch the flurry of activity as everything is unloaded and transported in wheel barrows, hand carts, or carried on their backs. Shoppers must hurry to get any fresh produce before it quickly sells out. The locals are very friendly and there are many expatriates living in Guanaja. The pace is more laid back than in Roatan and serious crime is almost unheard of.
While we were there the owners of Manatee restaurant celebrated the 50th birthday of Annette, the owners wife, with a free pig roast for any and all. The 150 lb pig was completely gone by nights end. The owners are German and his old band members flew in from Europe to help celebrate. At least a 100 guests attended and a great time was had by all.
After 3 weeks of waiting for weather than did not seem like it was going to come we sailed back to Roatan, and a week later finally got the weather we needed and motor sailed E to the Hobbies.
The Hobbies are nothing more than 3 tiny islands along a coral reef. The primary anchorage is named Booby Rock after the nesting colony of Booby birds. Two fisherman live on this island, which is less than 100 yards in diameter, for 8 months of the year before going home. Their main job is to guard the many thousands of lobster traps stored on the island during the off season, and protect them from poachers during the fishing season. On the larger island named Hobbies lives a lone caretaker for 9 months at a time. The fishermen are given sparse provisions and accommodations and live mainly off what they catch, lobster, conch, and fish, and they are very good at it. Water is often in short supply and they are always grateful for any passing cruisers to offer them some. We had heard they needed simple medical supplies like bandages, antibiotic creams, etc. as well as canned fruits, veggies, meats, old clothes, and what ever you had handy and could do without. Of course a cold beer was always welcomed by Jose, the only one that spoke a little English, and the only one who drank it. Over the 3 weeks we stayed there, snorkeling and "hunting" almost every day, we got to be good friends and they were always stopping by the boat to bring us seafood. I'm sure they gave us at least 20 lobsters and even more conch, as well as several fish. They invited me to their hut for a seafood soup lunch one afternoon. Ahnhill had cooked up a large pot of seafood soup containing whole small fish, lobster tails, numerous veggies and spices, delicious. They sent a large bowl back to the boat for Michelle, who had gone out hunting with Cheryl & Karen off of Interlude. When I asked what to do with the lobster shells and fish remains they took them and fed them to their 3 dogs. The dogs ate the fish, bones and all, as well as the lobster shells. These dogs actually prowl the shallows and catch fish as long a 4 feet, eating them fresh, quite a site to watch.
We left Guatemala in company of 2 other sailboats, Interlude and High States, arriving the following day, Thanksgiving, in the Bay Islands of Honduras. West End, Roatan, was our first port and we celebrated with dinner at the Rotisserie Chicken Shack along the beach. Roatan is know as a major scuba diving destination in this part of the world, sitting along the second largest barrier reef in the world, as does Belize. The road through West End is littered with dive shops, small restaurants, bars, and very few souvenir shops. The road itself is just hard packed sand in constant state of being repaired, always water filled potholes, and also filled with friendly locals. Diving is very cheap and the reef is only a hundred yards from where we anchored.
After a month there we sailed 20 miles to Cayos Cachinos, a small island group in the middle of a marine park. Only a few hundred people populate the islands so few things are available but the diving was excellent. The crew of Interlude and Jumbie have friends that live on the island and we, along with High Sates, were all invited to have Christmas dinner at Greg and Judith's beach house. An excellent time was had by all, the food lasted for 4 days and we still had leftovers.
From there we sailed to Port Royal, back on Roatan, in time for a pot luck dinner and New Years eve party at the Mango Creek resort, more friends of Interlude and Jumbie. In true cruiser fashion we declared "cruisers midnight" to actually be 9pm, when most of us are ready to call it a day. The snorkeling along the reef in this bay was excellent.
Next stop was French Cay Harbor, 8 miles to the West. There was a new marina~yacht club that just opened and the owners go out of their way to help the cruisers. It has become the local cruiser hangout and they treat you like family there. We made friends with an avid diver named Joyce who has been here a year. She dives almost every day and she became our unofficial guide to all the dive sites in the area. She has become such good friends of the local dive resort that they gave us big discounts on renting tanks or going out on their dive boats.
We had only planned on stopping for a few days and 3 months have now passed. Our next stop will be the island of Guanaja, 30 miles East of here, to clear out with customs and immigration. Due to prevailing wind and seas from the East we have to time the passage for calmer winds than the norm of 15-20 knots. From there we will be making a 150 mile overnight passage to a small group of island known as the Hobbies and Vivarillos. Sitting in the middle of nowhere these unspoiled small islands are uninhabited except for a small fishing camp where a few local fisherman stay. The diving and fishing is supposed to be excellent and it is not uncommon for the fisherman to trade you a half dozen lobsters for a pack of cigarettes, matches, a few beers, magazines, cans of Vienna sausages or Spam. We expect to spend 3~4 weeks there and will be out of communication except for our ham radio. Our friends on Interlude and Pavo Rial will join us there at some point before we all head S toward Panama.
We had our last party in the marina on Holloween, the last time we would see many of the other cruisers that have become our friends. Most cruisers start leaving after Nov 1st, the end of hurricane season. We left just a few days ago for Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras, about 130 miles east of Guatemala. We sailed in company of 2 other boats we have become good friends with, and as I write this we are anchored 200 yards behind the reef as a cold front is passing. Cold fronts bring rain and wind, lots of it. Steady wind speeds of 25-28mph with gusts near 40mph have been slamming us most of the night and will continue until tomorrow. Waves are crashing over the reef where we were peacefully snorkeling 2 days ago, pretty neat actually.
The last big thing we did before leaving Guatemala was to go to a kite fest held in the village of Sumpango. For hundreds of years it has been a tradition to fly kites over the cemetary on All Saints Day as a way to send your love and prayers to your departed friends and family, and as a means to fend off evil spirits that may want to harm them. A general theme is given each year and teams begin to design and build their kites 6 months in advance. Kites range in size from 8 feet to 40 feet in diameter and are constructed of bamboo, rope, paper, glue and tape. Only the smaller ones up to about 12 feet ever make it off the ground and most of those crash before becoming "permanently" airborne. It was a fantastic festival and one of the most colorful we have seen.
In the cemetary itself families decorated the graves as modestly or elegantly as their means allowed. Instead of the somber feeling I've had in American cemetaries and funerals this seemed more like a celebration of the lives of their loved ones. People were having picnics and socializing with friends and enjoying the day.
Casa Guatemala is an orphanage located along the river in the jungle. They are very poor and funded only by donations and volunteers. 100 full time children live there and another 100-150 come to school there from the 3 outlying villages, ages 2-16. There is no electricity during the day, I'm not sure at night, and generally all they can afford to feed the children and volunteers is rice and beans, occasionally vegetables or fruit, sometimes they have meat donated to them on Fridays. There is a medical clinic on site but rarely does it have any trained staff, occasionally an MD will volunteer for a few weeks but that is rare. Last month we started working the clinic 2 days a week, we are all they have, and the villagers also come in. They have no other access to health care, most have little or no income and live at barely a subsistence level, it is very sad.
The clinic has some very basic equipment and a large variety of drugs donated to them, very little of what we use the most of, topical antibiotics, steroid creams, and anti itch medicines. We have an assortment of oral antibiotics but we are only nurses not trained to diagnose and prescribe and hesitant to do so. On the other hand we are all they have and they are very grateful for what ever we may be able to do for them.
Everything they have has been donated but unfortunately almost every medication name is in Spanish. All the brand names are in Spanish as well as the generic names, so I've been spending a lot of time on the computer translating their names to English and making a chart for us and who ever follows after us. The most common things we see are cuts, scrapes, skin infections, lacerations, and lots of head lice. They even asked us if we knew how to set broken bones. We may be in way over our heads. We won't give anybody injections without a doctors order, which we won't be able to get in any case. Nearest doctor is 6 miles away by boat.
Our second day at the orphanage we did see one boy Michelle thought had possible strep throat, and had been running a 102 fever on and off for days. We checked our reference books and what was recommended for an anti biotic was not in the clinic. It is something that needs refrigeration so there is no way they could keep in anyway. The disease can lead to scarlet fever if untreated so we took the child, along with one of the instructors, to the free clinic in town when we were finished for the day. I went with them hoping to speak with an English speaking doctor to see if something we had at the clinic would have been appropriate. Of course no doctor was on duty that day, but the nurse that saw him ended up giving him an injection of Penicillin, which is what our book said, then he got another injection of a different medication. I also went because I wanted to make sure he got an anti-biotic. Apparently one of the volunteers went to the free clinic for a possible eye infection and all they gave him was Visine. A few days later he went to a hospital in another town and was diagnosed with conjunctivitis and give anti-biotic eye drops. So the orphanage people aren't too confident in the care available at the free clinic.
While we were at the orphanage one of the older boys carried in a large trash bag full of various medications, mostly anti-biotics or anti-parasitics. They have tons of that kind of stuff but very short of topical medications, which we seem to be using the most. Creams and ointments like Benadryl (Benadryl pills too), triple anti-biotics creams, hydrocortisone, anti fungal creams and powders/sprays for athletes foot. If it gets to be too frustrating for me I can always make use of the large supply of codeine, valium, tranxene, and assortment of other benzodiazepines I am still translating. Why they even have these medications there I cannot guess. We are not very comfortable playing doctor but at least we know when to call for one.
Last week a True North medical mission team arrived at our marina, the director had heard of our work at the orphanage and came to our boat for introductions. His organization has been coming to the area for a decade and his first visit this trip was to be the orphanage. He brought a team of 5 doctors, 2 pediatricians, 2 anesthesiologists, and 1 ER doctor. They saw 185+ children and each child received medicine to de-worm them. Alan, the mission director, told us that every child they see gets the medication because intestinal parasites are very common among these people. The mission spent the next 4 days visiting remote villages before they sailed to Belize to give the volunteer docs some well earned R&R.
We were relieved to learn that we had been doing an effective job treating the few things that we thought did require antibiotics. We only have a few days left to work at the clinic and we have not heard of anyone taking our place anytime in the near future.
I have added a link to the Casa Guatemala web site but much of the information is out of date.
I'm not sure what happened to the farming, fish farm, or chicken ranch but they no longer exist. They still raise pigs which are sold in their shop in town to help support the orphanage.