Inmate Update #13: San Blas Islands - Cartagena - San Blas
14 April 2004 | Lemon Keys, San Blas Islands
We've just finished doing my least favorite chore on the boat: laundry in buckets. (Jim may disagree with this designation having just spent the better part of the last 2 days pretzeled into the cockpit lazarette trying to coax the refrigeration system back into operation.) Doing sheets and towels in a bucket is a drag, even if it is a cruiser social event--this time there were 3 couples doing their wash using water from a well on an uninhabited San Blas island. Back on the boat, we gave everything another rinse (the well water, though fresh, was a little green today) and hung it on the life lines and anyplace else we could drape it and pin it. Now the sun has disappeared (read the dryer is broken) and there's rumbling overhead (read everything will get a second freshwater rinse). It is once again rainy season in the San Blas.
Since the last Update (July '03), we've mostly been in the San Blas islands, with a 6-week interlude in the States in the fall and an unplanned return to Cartagena over the holidays. When we came back to the boat from the States in late October we hadn't fully decided whether to go to Cartagena, but the coaxing of friends, the need to tackle a few boat projects, and the lure of the city itself convinced us to go. We managed to pick a good weather window and headed east once again--something Caribbean sailors vow never to do. But we were lucky and had an easy, 31-hour motor sail all the way, which is about the best you can hope for going that direction. (Friends who went to Cartagena a couple of weeks ago didn't pick their window quite so well: they said they rolled gunwhale to gunwhale for most of the trip. Bleah. Even the staunchest of stomachs would revolt with that ride.)
We arrived there to an open-arm reception from our friends at the Club de Pesca marina and immediately set to getting the projects organized. One was to replace the galley counter top because the plywood beneath had disintegrated to a soggy pulp around the sink. Another was to re-gelcoat the cockpit and cabin top and another to re-paint the interior. And strip and re-varnish all the exterior teak... And while we're at it, we might as well re-gel the hull too... Cartagena is a great place to do these types of projects because the labor is very cheap and these are all labor-intensive projects. Cartagena is NOT a great place to do these types of projects because the labor, while cheap and mostly willing, is not always up to the perfectionist standards we bring to such tasks. But everything in life is a trade-off and so we set the wheels in motion.
The eager painting crew assured us there would be no problem doing the interior paint job with a sprayer. Are you sure you can work down there and get to all the little corners? Si! No hay problema! They just tape everything off with plastic and paper... We'd have to move off the boat for a couple of days, but that was ok; there was a fabulous new B&B in the old city we would treat ourselves to. The WHOLE BOAT, inside and out, was quickly covered with newspaper, tape and plastic by eager young kids who needed constant supervision (and didn't get it). We moved out while one of the two boss guys sprayed the interior, only to return and find that we'd wasted 3 day's hotel costs because the job had to be re-done. With a brush. There were entire areas that had either no paint at all or the surface looked like lizard skin. When we pointed them out to him, he sorta shrugged and said that, well, he couldn't see very well down there when he was spraying or he couldn't get the sprayer into those areas very well... What were we thinking?? Not wanting to throw good money after bad, we lived the rest of the time on the boat, slinking in and out under plastic sheets, weakened and speckled newspaper, and powerful paint fumes while they did the job again, this time with brushes. It became clear, however, that trying to finish this paint job was going to be like trying to get to infinity: you can approach it but never get there. After an endless series of fixes and touch ups we finally just declared it done (even tho it still isn't). I became known as "ojo de aguila" (eagle eye) to the crew.
The outside paint jobs seemed equally meandering and endless but at least they were outside. There were days of tension, whining, begging, pleading, wheeling, dealing, stealth maneuvering, and probably downright lying when the marina suddenly started enforcing a long-ignored rule about not doing paint jobs there. Here we were, covered in newspaper, everything on the boat dismantled and covered, all the rigging undone, and they started talking about our having to move to one of the haul-out facilities to finish the job. We finally cut a deal with the dock master that as long as our crew did their painting over the lunch hour, when the marina manager wasn't there to see it, he wouldn't see anything either. Finally, several weeks after the promised completion date, we declared the outside done too. Shiny new boat! Not perfect, but at about 10% of what it would have cost to do in the States, we could live with a few imperfections. And we knew that once back in the San Blas we would be rammed by an eager mola-seller in a ratty old ulu, which is exactly what happened, so now we don't have to worry about the first ding any more.
The galley countertops were also an exercise in frustration. We hired Sigfredo, who came highly recommended, to do the job. No problema, says he. Three days. But there was a problema: Sigfredo was his own circus disappearing act. He'd stop by the boat in the morning, say he'd be right back (getting his tools, or something), and then we wouldn't see him for days. Everybody in the marina was on the lookout for him. Once I told him that next time he showed up I was going to tie him to the boat. He laughed, but still disappeared. So we sat for days and days covered in newspaper on the outside and sink-less and counter-less on the inside. Fortunately Cartagena's abundance of good cheap restaurants kept us well fed and what few dishes we did generate we washed in a bucket on the dock. He finally, uh, finished the job, tho the fiddles didn't go back on exactly how they came off, the teak trim isn't the same size or color, and the board that fits over the stove top no longer does. A few days later, one of the new pieces of formica tore and we had to start all over again. First we couldn't find Sigfredo, then he couldn't find the same formica, then he disappeared for a few more days. Barely a day before we were to leave Cartagena, already extended on Immigration get-out-of-jail-free cards, he materialized and finished a second time. Sort of. Once we left, we began to notice great rippling buckles in our new countertops. Good thing we're not still there or he really would disappear.
Never mind. We still love Cartagena. And if you don't look too closely, the boat work is pretty good. Sometimes it's better to be blind as a bat than to have the eye of an eagle.
At the end of January we headed back to the San Blas. By the time we leave this wonderful spot in a few days we will have spent more than 10 of the last 17 months here. Since the last Update, we've acquired many more molas, become better fishermen, been walloped by some mighty weather, attended two Kuna funerals and a puberty ceremony, explored more islands, made more Kuna friends, and generally tried to soak up the magic of this place.
On the fishing scene, I decided to take up the spear gun along with Jim and a couple of my (girl)friends, although I'm really more of a sightseer at heart. I have a small, lightweight gun that at first I could hardly re-arm once I'd shot it. If nothing else, stretching those rubbers is great upper arm exercise. Its small size requires that I be pretty close to the fish to get a good shot, but when that spear hits, they're nailed. Most of the time I just annoy fish rather than kill them, but I am getting better at it, especially when I find a school of particularly dumb ones that even I can hit. I figure I'm improving their gene pool. Jim, on the other hand, is becoming quite a successful hunter. For a while the score was terribly lopsided in the favor of the fish, but he's had increasing good luck lately (er, make that skill), landing a big ocean trigger (with skin that you could make shoes of) and an even bigger dog snapper a few days ago. We were both hot one day last week when he got a nice grouper and I got a jack. We've also had more success trolling, landing many mackerel and even a small shark! That might have been another case of cleaning the gene pool since the shark was caught on the lure, not by it. We can't tell if he lunged for it and missed or just happened to be swimming by and ran into it, but the lure was caught under his fin and he was none too happy about it. We tried to jiggle it loose with him in the water, but it was firmly stuck. We managed to raise him to the back deck to try to dislodge the lure and get him back in the water, but he was flailing around so violently that Jim couldn't get hold of the lure to remove it. I was gloving up to hold him down when he jerked himself free and overboard (the shark, that is, not Jim). We've also had some luck trolling from the dinghy. One day recently we'd just made a wide turn along a reef and the line zinged. There was so much tug as we tried to reel it in that I figured we'd caught a rock along the edge of the reef so imagine our surprise and delight when we landed a great big horse eye jack! When we don't catch anything, the Kuna do, and we're regularly visited by fisherman who want to sell a fish for a quarter or two or trade for some rice.
Among our most memorable San Blas experiences was attending two Kuna funerals. From what we understand, it's a rare outsider who's been to a funeral, so we felt quite honored to be allowed to be there. Kuna cemeteries are usually on a hill overlooking the island village. If the village is near the mainland, the cemetery is usually located a short (paddle-able) distance up a small river, on a hill with a good view of the coastal area and village. The grave area is covered by an A-frame building with a thatched roof and open sides. Under the roof are the village graves, each a small mound of earth with a few belongings sitting on top--usually a clay incense burner, a few dishes, and maybe some other small remembrance of the person buried there. When someone dies, the body is wrapped in a hammock (where all Kunas sleep) and carried by ulu up the river and then up the hill to the cemetery, where it hangs between two posts while the local grave digger prepares the grave. This task can take the better part of the day as he digs thru hard, clay-like dirt with little more than a pick and bowl. The grave itself is a precision hole, a certain depth, with contoured sides and a notch in one end where a lighted lantern will be left to help guide the soul to the next world.
While the grave digger works, the family and friends hold vigil around the body. Suspended in the hammock, it's covered with some of her personal items and clothing, including her mola blouses. Under the body there were small bowls of food and other items that would be placed in the grave with her. Incense burned in crude clay pots near by. One of the most charming customs, that we actually took part in, was sending a message to somebody already deceased. To do this, you take a small piece of a special kind of leaf, place a few grains of cooked rice on the leaf, fold it up and tie the little bundle with a little piece of string. Under the body was a basket full of these little messages, and when you put yours in the basket, you send a message that will be carried to the spirit world with this new arrival. The families seemed quite touched that we took part in this ritual with them. The first time I did it, one of the women didn't like the piece of leaf I was using so took it and gave me a better one. It was mostly women sitting vigil around the body, all of them dressed in their full Kuna best. The color was dazzling. They smoked pipes, chatted among themselves, nursed or fed kids who were running around, tended pots of rice, laughed, and gossiped and waited while the grave digger worked. As he got close to finishing, however, the ritual chanting began, and it was a cultural sight to behold and hear. One woman started with a regular, if mostly tuneless, chant-like song, talking about how much they would miss the deceased, what a great mother she'd been, sister, wife... what good molas she made, what a good cook she'd been, all the things you'd say about someone who'd died. Then someone else would join the chant until the whole crowd of women was singing, moaning, wailing, and crying together. When the grave was ready, the items under the hammock, including the basket of messages, were put in the bottom of the grave and the lighted lantern placed in the notch in its wall. Then the body was carried by the grave digger and his assistant and suspended, still in the hammock, between two posts that had been driven into the hard earth at either end of the grave. After that, the personal effects, including many of her clothes, were added to the grave. A row of split cedar logs was placed over the body, along a small ledge that had been dug into the side of the grave. Blankets were laid on top of the logs and dirt was then pushed onto the blankets and mounded to mark the site. By that time it was almost dark and everyone climbed into their ulus and paddled back down the river to home. We carried many of the mourners back to the village in our dinghies. Our friends the Caspers attended one of the funerals on the very day they arrived for their San Blas visit and as they said, it was an experience right out of National Geographic.
Another memorable San Blas experience, this one more from the weather channel than National Geographic, was the night the chocosano blew through. A chocosano is a mighty wind that starts brewing in the Colombian province of Choco and then churns its way along the coast up thru the San Blas. They come on fast, with no warning, packing serious wind, serious rain, and really serious lightning. With any luck they move thru as fast as they arrive. Our first was blissfully brief; the second one seriously overstayed its welcome. We were anchored in the same place for both--thank god we weren't under way. The first one arrived in the middle of the day and we actually had a little warning that something was coming, though we didn't know what. Friends in an anchorage a few miles away called on the radio to warn everyone that heavy weather was headed our way. It moved in so fast, though, that other friends doing a short hop between two San Blas islands had their foresail shredded in the 50+ knots of wind that descended seemingly out nowhere, going from 0 to 50 before they could even think about getting the sail down. We just held on while this angry little tempest roared through the anchorage. Fortunately our anchor held on too. It was all over in about 15 minutes.
A few nights later, we were visited again. Both of us were awake around 4:30 and I remember asking Jim if there was much wind. Not much, says he; only about 15 knots. We crawled back in bed, and it was barely a minute before we were sucker punched by a wall of wind. We flew out of bed, flipped on the instruments and raced out to see what was going on. I watched the wind speed climb through the 40s and saw 52 knots on the wind speed indicator. After that I stopped looking. At that point we were too busy to care what the wind speed was. Because we'd been sitting in the same warm, wind-less anchorage for some time, we had our full boat awning up. It does fine in 25 knots, but not 52. We still don't know if the wind caught the awning (which is sort of like having a sail up parallel to the water) and caused us to heel over and pop the anchor free or whether the anchor broke free and let the wind catch us broadside. Either way, it wasn't good. The anchor was no longer hooked and we were dragging at a rapid clip across the (fortunately) large anchorage. Jim had the engine on trying to keep the boat into the wind, but with that virtual sail up (and no way to get it down or control it), the boat was being pushed around and heeling over. And, because we'd been sitting for a while in a calm place, I had the sewing machine sitting on the salon table with all the paraphernalia of sewing strewn around it. In a sudden roll, our heavy Sailrite machine and all the stuff around it went sliding down the table and to the floor--just like a scene from your best disaster-at-sea movie. We were probably heeled over 30 degrees. I stumbled around to gather everything up (including loose pins, of course) and get the sewing machine off the floor (where it had landed on its head and left a big dent in the cabin sole). I picked it up and put it on the settee just as the boat lurched in the other direction, heeled over again, and heaved the machine back onto its head on the floor, leaving another ugly gouge in the wood. Outside, Jim was trying to keep us upright, into the wind, and off the reef, all in total darkness and rain so torrential that he couldn't see 5 feet off the beam. Parts of the awning had shredded and were flapping violently in the wind. We discovered later that one of the bronze clips that holds it to the backstay had sheared off, letting fly clip and awning into the rotor-like blades of the wind generator with a godawful racket. It's never been the same since...
This time the chocosano stayed for over an hour. Meanwhile, down in the south end of the anchorage where a number of our friends were anchored, the only power boat in the fleet (a 40' trawler) took off on its own walkabout. We could hear the distraught owners calling for help on the radio, but there was nothing anybody could do. Everyone was managing their own on-board dramas. The trawler dragged onto a sand bar on a nearby island, incredibly lucky that it was sand and not a coral reef that it landed on. At first light, there were 12 Kuna men out there trying to push the boat off the bar. Later they literally dug a trench in the sand, under water, to swing the rudder around so they could re-float the boat. Talk about and endless task... shoveling sand under water. Those guys worked all day to help re-float that boat.
But all's well that ends well. Everyone spent the next couple of days licking their wounds and telling their stories. If all our projects went smoothly and all our weather was perfect and all our equipment worked the way it should (don't get me going on that topic), what would we ever talk about!?
We're leaving the San Blas in the next couple of days, probably not to return. It's been a wonderful place to spend so many months, but now we have new (short-term) adventure up our sleeves. A couple of months ago we received an out-of-the-blue invitation from cruising buddies headed to England to help them take their boat from the Azores to England in June. Since we haven't been able to decide on our own plans, we decided to go with theirs, so we're leaving the boat in a marina in Panama, flying to the States in early June to pack our wellies and our woolies and then heading to the Azores. They're expecting an 8 - 10 day passage and told us to plan on at least one gale on the way. After we arrive in England they've invited us to stay aboard for some cruising along the English and Irish coasts, so as long as they haven't poisoned our food or pushed us overboard by then, that's what we're gonna do. We're very excited about it and getting ready even as I type. Jim is taking things apart to store or repair, we're washing stuff in vinegar to prevent mildew while we're gone, trying to figure out what to pack, and making lists of lists.
The end of the page is here and I promised this would be brief. Everyone have a great summer! We'll tell you all about this next adventure in the next Update. And be sure to vote, even if it's for the wrong guy!!