Tag Archives: San Blas Islands

Life in San Blas

We were thinking of moving to one of the nice reef areas, about 15 miles east. But first Tim suggested that we visit the island/town behind us. I hesitated, wondering if “outsiders” would be welcome there. But one of the great things about traveling with Tim is his uninhibited interaction with everyone. I get to tag along and see where it leads.

The town consists mostly of houses with thatched roofs, plus some with metal roofs with water catchment systems. (There is no fresh water on the island — only rainwater or water brought from the mainland.) I had assumed that it was houses only, but there was a sign near where we landed the dinghy indicating crafts for sale. Then as we ventured further, along paths winding between closely-spaced houses, there were more signs…for stores, for the church, for the school, for a meeting house, for the medical clinic.

Enter Nestor, who speaks reasonably good English (slightly better than our Spanish), who introduces himself and adopts us. He answers dozens of questions; he has a cold beer with us (at our expense, of course); he guides us to the bakery, where the bread will be ready in 15 minutes. Ten minutes later, when it still will be ready in 15 minutes, he suggests we go to HIS island, Nalunega, just across a short stretch of water. We go, we visit the store there, we buy hot empanadas, we say no to many, many molas, we see the school (closed for vacation until March), and then he asks if we would like him to prepare a dinner for us I his house that evening Yes!

We go back to the first island, Wichubwala, to pick up our bread. Nestor takes his dugout canoe, and Tim rides with him. Bread in hand, we go a few yards to another island (or is it just some structures built over the water?) to buy lobsters for the meal Nestor will make. And finally we get back to the boat. This has been a much bigger outing than I had anticipated, and I’m hot and tired and thirsty. But what a great opportunity to learn how the Guna people live!

When we return in the evening to Nalunega, there is much more activity than earlier in the heat of the day. Lots of kids running around, lots more people on the paths among the houses. And a basketball game, complete with referee! I was going to ask if people played soccer, but I realized there was no space on the island for it. Nestor reports 700 people live on the island, which is a most a 3 minute walk from end to end.

Solar panels sprout between the thatched roofs. They attach to batteries, wired to LED light bulbs. And an occasional TV! There are even some satellite dishes, but Nestor says they don’t always work; his is primarily for DVD’s for the kids.

Dinner is lobster (the tropical kind has meat inn the tails only, no big claws) and coconut rice and breadfruit and beans. All is delicious! Nestor does the cooking. His wife helps with serving. His daughter minds the younger kids in a hammock. It is clear that all sleep in hammocks. They can be swung up into the rafter to make room during the day. Clothing is stored hanging from rafters. Most of the cooking is done next door, and the results are carried in to us.

Nestor shows us his passport, which has several stamps in it. He is proud of it, and he speaks of going to Columbia next, to work for a while and then return. He says that he goes to Panama City to work, but Panama City is “not good.” Tim asks about the city of Colon, and is it a dangerous place for “gringos.” Nester considers this for a moment and says, “For Gringos, si.”

We try to ask if the community has been affected by sea level rise, but he doesn’t exactly understand the question. Yes, he says, last November when the winds blew hard from the east, parts of the island were flooded. We ask about what the young adults aspire to — do they want to stay on the island. I couldn’t fully understand the answer. Many go to Panama City. At first I thought he said that the Guna customs are retained by them, but then I think he may have said the opposite.

There was traditional dancing that evening. We watched for a few minutes before we said we had to get back to the boat, as it was getting dark.

I must say that my impression of life on Nalunega changed dramatically during the course of the day. My predisposition was to think of the people as poor, and thus unhappy. But the people seem to be quite happy. The children are beautiful and playful and appear to be very healthy. My idea of “poor” morphed as I saw more of their lives. Were they lacking anything they needed? Would they trade places with any of us?

Porvenir, San Blas Islands, Panama

The last day of the passage was a delightful sailing day. We made about 200 miles in the last 24 hours. Arrived in San Blas Islands by 3pm, and for $100 apiece we got through immigrations. I’m surprised by the number of boats here, but I guess it has become a popular place, and of course our Odyssey is also swelling the ranks.

Before the anchor was even set we were visited by local people in boats ranging from outboard skiffs to dugout canoes, offering lobsters and molas (embroidered fabric designs). I sent the ladies in the dugout away, telling them to come back tomorrow. But they were still nearby later when we were settled, so I waved to them and they paddled over. They asked if they could come aboard. Of course. But I didn’t realize that the invitation was assumed to extend to another boat full of mostly teenage girls. No problem — they brought dozens (hundreds?) of molas aboard with them. I asked if I gave them their requested $20 for one, could I take their picture. No problem. Then the teenagers asked ME if they could take pictures of each other on the boat. That was unexpected, but out came the cell phone, and photos and giggles. I haven’t seen my own photos yet, but I hope I got one that juxtaposes the teenager-with-cell-phone and the dugout canoe!

About sea level rise…Yes, this community is going to be one of the first to feel the impact. The islands are sandy cays only a few feet above water. And that’s the high ground! There is an island/town behind us, where the whole cay is covered with houses, mostly on stilts. In the distance is the mountainous backdrop of mainland Panama, clearly a world apart. I supposed it is good that these people have cell phones, and the young people can probably integrate into the mainland society. But that’s also the shame of it, that a whole culture will disappear.

In any case, it is wonderful to be anchored, and anticipating a good night’s sleep. We have places to explore, anchorages to find, reefs to snorkel at. Panama! We’ve come a long way from Maine! I hear there was a blizzard yesterday back home; here it is hot, hot, hot.