Sunday, 28 February 2016

Panama, San blas, Carti village 2015-10-21

We’re still in the San Blas. We don't really want to leave! Luckily Becca and Dale left some cash with us (there aren't exactly any ATM’s out here), which means we can stay a bit longer. We don't need money for much, but some places charge anchorage fees and we’ve run out of fresh veges so we would have had to head back to Shelter Bay if they hadn't helped us out. Thank goodness for amazing friends!

One of the Carti islands

We visited our first village today. Most of the islands out here just have palm trees and maybe a few shacks on them, so there’s not really much to see. But a few of the bigger islands have little towns built on them, like Carti and Porvenir. The islands are still tiny so they have to use every inch of ground above water. I've examined a few of the more populated islands as we’ve sailed past - the little houses are practically built on top of each other and there's no room to move. Often their structures teeter dangerously over the water, as if they started off on land and then got blown up like balloons so they just don't quite fit on the island anymore.

Looking for the fuel dock

So we went ashore to one of the Carti islands. It was hard to tell where to go - we were anchored next to two islands that were obviously well populated. Houses threatened to fall off the islands into the water as the buildings behind almost pushed them further and further away. Whether global warming has just swallowed up some of the island or more buildings were erected when there was no more room, I don't know. We’d been told you could tie up at the fuel dock but with no idea where that was we just headed to shore in the direction that we thought it should be. After talking to somebody in really bad Spanish, we eventually found a spot for the dinghy. To the right was a concrete jetty leading out to the fuel dock, and to the left was somebody's backyard.

Space to park the dinghy

We turned left and found some friendly people sitting around chatting. Their yard was decorated with crisscrossing rows of washing hanging up and it was fenced in with lines of roughly cut bamboo lashed together. There was nowhere else to go. I tried to tell them that we needed fruit and vegetables, though I have no idea if that’s actually what I said. Either way they understood that we wanted to go somewhere, and we were led through their small house and directed to a long walkway. With no real instructions, we figured we were just supposed to wander through.

I very much felt like we were walking through people’s houses and over their property. Which I guess we were. I think the Kuna people are quite communal with things like property seeing as there’s so little of it, so I guess trespassing isn't really a thing. The houses were mostly made of bamboo and palm fronds, with a few tarps thrown in to keep out the rain. They were all very small, usually with a few hammocks strung around in the darkness. There were no lights and no windows, but the light from the open doorways (no doors) was usually enough to see by. Some of them had a table or chair, but for the most part there was very little furniture inside. Which makes sense considering what a mission it is just to get out to these islands and how little land there is here - lugging wood or furniture would be a huge mission. But hammocks fold up very small and are easy to make with a bit of rope.

There was a maze of walkways in between them all. The walls were sometimes there to separate the path from somebody's tiny yard, sometimes they were just the walls of houses, and sometimes there was no wall at all as the path led through the door of a tiny shack and out the other side. It was bizarre. But we followed the maze, asking directions from a few people along the way.

Eventually we found a kind of road. The ground was still compacted sand, just like in all the houses, but the space was much wider. There were a few actual buildings made from solid materials, and kids in school uniforms strolled past as they headed home for the day. A few of the buildings were little cafes of sorts, with very short menus out the front (‘Hungry? Rice. Fish. Beans. Here’). We even found a little store with a concrete floor that was selling dry goods, eggs, soap, beans and a few other things. Then we were directed further into the maze where we eventually found a lady in a house with a basket of limes and fresh bread. We filled up on her wares before being wandering further along towards the waterfront.

We walked past ladies sewing, and a pile of big barrels. They all had water in them, the emptier ones placed under a tarp on the roof to catch the water as it dripped down. Another tarp was tied to a few chairs, with a pool of water collecting in the middle. I knew fresh water was an issue in the San blas, but this really opened my eyes. None of the barrels were covered and as we were walking past a lady came over with a cup and dipped it into the water, drinking as she walked away. There wasn't enough water for all the people in the houses close by, and it was hardly hygienic. No wonder boats with water makers get put to use out here.

We eventually made it to the vegetable store. It was an open area next to the water, and not a little shack like I had been expecting. There were shelves stacked high with fruit and vegetables, and pineapples and bananas were strung from ropes which lined the perimeter. Everything we could have wanted was here! I was surprised, because I had nothing to compare these islands to other than the Perlas Islands on the other side of Panama. We found nothing fresh there aside from bananas, plantains and limes. But their little stores had things like soda, potato chips, rice and beans. The bigger towns even had (very expensive) wine, butter and plastic cheese. The “stores” in Carti seemed to have a much smaller variety of foods for sale so I was expecting a much smaller range of fresh food, if that’s even possible. But we hit the jackpot! I got excited and we filled our bags with fruit and veges.

I wanted to explore the town a little more, but it really felt like we were trespassing. So back through the maze we went. A young girl came running after us as we were walking towards the waterfront… We had passed her on the way in. I thought she was just being friendly, but she was trying to direct us back through a doorway we had passed. It led through her house and into her backyard where our boat was tied up.

So that was Carti. At least everybody was friendly!

Xxx Monique

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Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Panama, San Blas, Carti (More Visitors) - 2015-10-19

After days of lazing around in a random spot between the mainland and Carti island, we finally motored the extra five minutes to the two islands that most people think of as Carti. We'd only been here for a few minutes when an older Kuna gentleman pulled up alongside us in his Ulu. Sweat pouring off him, he had nothing to sell and seemed to want nothing more than shade.

We have a bamboo trunk on deck that we fished out of the water whilst snorkeling a while ago. It still has all the stumps on it where branches have been cut off, and looks quite out of place. It will eventually become the boom for our sailing dinghy. Our visitor kept pointing to it and talking very fast - the only words I managed to make out were 'not allowed.' He was talking about the Kuna people and coconuts, so perhaps he thought we had taken it from the shore. You're not allowed to interfere with the coconut trees here, as coconut farming is the main source of income for the Kuna people. Perhaps they use bamboo to reach up into the coconut trees. I explained that it was in the water when we found it, which seemed to satisfy him. Before long he was clambering aboard, and from his exasperated Spanish I wasn't sure if he wanted to be friends or if we were in trouble.

It was the former. Once he was sitting in the shade with a cold beer and a fan pointed at him, his English improved greatly (we don't drink alcohol very often, so there's usually cold beer sitting in the bottom of the fridge but hardly ever cold water!) He was Germain's father, our drunken friend from yesterday. His son had told him to stop by when we arrived. So we all cowered under the shade together, dripping in sweat and praying for a breeze.

He told us about Kuna Yala, which is what the locals call these islands. He glared at the tourist boats zipping back and forth, and we got the impression that he didn't approve of the tourist industry here at all. "The tourists bring money," he lamented. "The boys have beer and they have food. They don't need to work in the jungle anymore. There is nobody to work. I work and it is good. The tourists make things bad." Germain works for a backpacker hostel, giving tours daily. I'm sure this tough old man wished Germain would work with him in the jungle instead, but the tourism industry was making him much more money. I could see it was a tricky situation. Nobody would turn away money, but at the same time the Kuna people need their boys to farm and fish in order to support the villages.

Our new friend told us that he gets through 50 coconuts in a day, drying them so they are ready to sell. It's hard work. The Kuna people operate as a society and everybody pulls their weight. Everybody has a job to do each day and if they choose not to do it, they receive a small fine of a few dollars. So if boys like Germain are making money doing something else, they can just pay the fine and skip out on their assigned task. The land and the farms belong to everybody, even though each individual will look after their own section. The Kuna people need to continue farming to support themselves, but the tourism industry is slowly causing a shift between the hard working Kuna people and the ones taking advantage of the opportunity for more money by catering to tourists.

German's father splits his time between living in Panama city with his wife, and living out here with his people. They have a car and his wife will pick him up in 15 days time when he has finished working here. It's easy to see why he has so much contempt for the tourists and for his son. It is as if by operating tours he is taking the easy way out. This man lives apart from his wife and works hard in order to help out his community and do what needs to be done. Germain runs around on a tour boat, drinking beer and living it up. It's hard to pass judgement on him though, because I'm sure if I were in the same situation I would take the fast boat and fun tourists over slaving away in the jungle. Either way, the more money that comes into these villages, the more trouble it will bring. I think we will be more careful about buying things from now on, instead offering things for trade. While we were all talking, another Ulu came by with some octopus and tiny lobsters to sell. I told them that the lobsters were too small. They were still alive and hiding in the shade, and I suspect that these boys gathered them specifically to sell to us. The Kuna people are frightened about tourists overfishing their waters, so I hope that they wouldn't be silly enough to eat lobsters when they are so small. There are plenty of fish for the kunas, but the lobsters bring in the most money. With no other boats around, I hope that these babies will be put back into the water. But that’s probably just wishful thinking…

If we didn't know know any better, by buying them off these boys we would be encouraging them to keep selling baby lobsters and they would quickly be fished out. The Kuna people would go hungry in the long run. So I think I agree with this tired old man, who paddled so far to us in the sun just to be friendly. There's no way that having so many tourists around could help these beautiful people preserve their traditional lifestyle. But at the same time I’m very grateful that they let us share this patch of paradise with them.

Xxx Monique

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Panama, San Blas, Carti (Unexpected Visitors) 2015-10-18

This afternoon we got an unexpected surprise.

Dale and Becca only just left yesterday, so we've just been sulking around the boat not doing much. We're nearly out of food and water though, so we know we have to head over to Carti village soon to refill the stores. The plan was to lie around all day and then pull up the anchor, but then a storm rolled past. Finally we had some decent rain! We started catching water and showering out on the deck. Our headsail is down at the moment, awaiting repairs. It makes an amazing water catcher. I gathered it up to form a giant bath and started washing my hair for the first time since we left Shelter Bay. The water was coming out brown…

Boats zipping past

We're parked in between the Carti islands and the Carti port attached to the mainland, so little water taxis have been zipping back and forth past us all day. One went past us as I was standing on deck in a bikini and underwear, lathering up in the rain. When they dropped off their passangers and came back past again, I was wringing out my hair on deck. They must have been wondering why there were crazy yacht people showering in the rain, anchored in the middle of nowhere. So they pulled up alongside and pretty soon we had three locals onboard with us - one slightly drunk adult and two younger guys. Germain was the name of the older guy, who would never forget what he was called because he had his name tattooed along his right arm. For when he had drunk too much, he said. He hopped onto our boat with more beer and rum than he could carry - the boys had to keep passing it to us. So we had a party in the rain, cowering under our shade cloth which was bowing down just over our heads from the weight of all the water it was collecting.

Very blurry shot me me and Germain as he shows off his tattoo

The rain was warm and it wasn't windy, so we all had a great time sitting outside drinking rum straight from the bottle. Germain was a tour boat operator and he had many stories about drunken passengers throwing up everywhere and hitting on the laps of his crew, all attractive young kuna boys. The reason for all the alcohol was quickly made clear - they had spent the day entertaining 10 very loud, very drunk women and it seemed that a lot of them had passed out or thrown up. One of the perks seemed to be that they kept any alcohol left behind by their customers. There was a neverending supply!

While I was chatting to Germain in the cockpit, the boys quickly got bored and went to explore the deck. They took one look around our plain little boat and decided to climb the mast. The older guy had been drinking too, and was sensible enough to want a harness. He wasn't visibly drunk, but I was expecting him to just zip up the steps like Garth normally does and I'm glad he didn't! He made it to the first spreader before getting scared and begged to down again. Then the younger boy went up higher, and the competition began. They went up one after another until the older guy didn't want to climb any higher and the younger one was victorious.

The older boy goes up

Let me down!

Eventually they got sick of the mast and started nagging Germain about going home to find some food. I put out nibbles for them, but because we were sitting outside in the rain they had to be gobbled down immediately to avoid getting soaked in water. The boys eventually won, and they dragged their boss back onto the brightly coloured tour boat to head home. They left us the rum and beers, but somehow sharing a bottle of rum in the rain immediately lost its charm without a cockpit full of happy locals.

Xxx Monique

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Panama, San Blas - East Lemmons (Dale and Becca) 2015-10-17

Dale and Becca are gone :( We got 10 days with them though, which was awesome. They left with a lot less than they came with as well… they were amazing enough to fill all their bags with stuff for us, leaving just their carry ons for clothes and snorkeling gear. It was like Christmas every day, as they stretched our gifts out over the duration of their stay. Licorice, candy and lots of other foods we haven't seen in a long time kept getting pulled out of bags. They even brought VEGEMITE!! Though the sneaky buggers swapped it into a marmite jar just to mess with me. Among other things we also scored a new drill, a working clock mechanism, dive torches and new luci lights (one of my favourite things on the whole boat! The old one went for a long swim in the dark and decided to go to sleep afterwards). So aside from being MAXIMUM excited about seeing them, it was really nice of them to cart all of our crap all the way from the UK. Getting things like a new drill is really, really important and really, really hard for us - our boat is on 240v power and everything here is 120v. Ie, useless to us.

We spent our last few days hanging out in the East Lemmon island group, where we continued to snorkel at least once a day. We even went swimming at night in the phospherescense, which I haven't done in a while. I've never swum at night with my snorkel mask on before - my whole world was just filled with sparkly lights and silvery trails as we moved through the water. It was really amazing.

Becca enjoying the water

On our way over from the Holandes Cays we stopped at Dog Island for the afternoon. There’s a shallow wreck there next to a gorgeous island made up of not much more than palm trees and white sand. The wreck is one of the more touristy things to do in the San Blas, but we decided to swing by anyway. I'm so glad we did!

We swam to shore from the boat and spent a long time exploring in amongst the rusty columns of metal jutting out from the sand. There were even sections that you could swim through, which Garth and Dale did. A lot. They went in one end and swam through the whole ship, popping back up through a hole in the bow.

Me swimming alongside the wreck (Taken by Becca)

Holes to swim through (Taken by Becca)

Aside from it being a giant playground, the colours underneath the water were incredible. There was lots of coral I'd never seen before, along with fluorescent orange and green algae-like stuff everywhere. Throw in a rainbow of different coloured Christmas tree worms and the snorkeling was incredible. It was colourful in a really different way to the reefs we saw in Fiji and in the Great Barrier Reef In Australia. Further west, It’s the multi-coloured hard coral that makes the world underneath the surface so magical. Here, It’s the soft organisms and plant life that are bright.

The reef on the wreck had a lot of different things growing on it than on all the other reefs we’ve seen as well. I'm not sure if it's just because it's in a different area or because it's formed on top of steel instead of the ocean floor, but we all loved it.

There were lots of tubes of coral growing up everywhere. I'm not sure if they were soft or hard coral because I (obviously) didn't poke them, but they were really interesting. There were cones growing along the side of the wreck as well, and a lot of them seemed to have the same kind of fish living in them. They must have been like nests, because the fish did not want us there at all. They would chase us with angry eyes, and in one of our gopro videos you can actually hear a thump and see the camera shake from where one attacked it! So they were clearly not interested in making friends.

He’s eyeing us up...

When angry fish attack! (Taken by Becca)

Cone coral

We had to clear out pretty quickly once we emerged from the water, because we were just in a day anchorage and yet another squall was coming past. Thanks to El NiƱo we’ve hardly had any rain during the whole time we’ve been in Panama, and most of the squalls just pass us by. But we still don't want to risk getting stuck in them! We ducked around the corner and anchored there for a few days, sandwiched in between a handful of beautiful islands.

The islands here are really interesting. They're all tiny and very narrow, with not much room to spare. Some have a shack or two made from palm fronds and tarps, and others have little communities with several houses built on top of each other and crammed into a tiny space. You see an occasional solar panel on those islands, but most just have little solar lanterns or no power at all.

We tried snorkeling, but there wasn't that much to see. We went out to the barrier reef which didn’t have great coral thanks to all the breaking waves. It was still interesting though, with lots of tunnels and caves everywhere. We disturbed a huge nurse shark when when we swam through one of the passageways, which freaked me out. Nurse sharks like sleeping on the bottom in dark places, and they are like dopey puppies. They’re naturally very curious and will come right up to you to see what's happening. A friend told us that he just pushes them away when he's spear-fishing, because otherwise they’ll steal his fish. But in a quiet dopey way rather than the flesh tearing, angry manner that you picture when you think of sharks eating. Unfortunately I didn't know all this at the time, so all I saw was a shark much bigger than me coming right up to my face to see what I was doing. I was displeased! Becca on the other hand followed the silly bugger for ages, getting as close as she possibly could. Eep!

Eventually Becca and Dale ran out of time. We reluctantly took our visitors back to Carti, where they jumped on a 4WD and headed back to Panama City. The boat was suddenly very empty with them gone, and this is one of the few times after we’ve had visitors leave that we weren't at least a bit grateful for the extra space and extra peace and quiet. We miss them already!

Many drinks were had! (Taken by Becca)

Xxx Monique

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Friday, 5 February 2016

Panama, San Blas - East Holandes Cays (with Becca and Dale) 2015-10-15

The last week has been super fun. Dale and Becca are still here, and we’ve been having a blast together. Our first sail wasn't all sunshine and lollipops though, and a big squall blew over us as we were trying to race it to our anchorage. The squall won. Garth started the engine in an attempt to get us there faster, but it promptly died. The little bits of silicone from the Las Perlas strike again (If you haven’t been following our dramas), we had to take the top off our fuel tank. When we resealed it and screwed all the screws in, tiny bits of silicone hung off the ends of each screw and eventually made it into our fuel tank. They're just big enough to block our fuel intake pipe, so the engine keeps cutting out at inappropriate times).

Garth went downstairs to try and fix the engine, and the seas got rough as the wind picked up. We were not prepared for big weather sailing. We were prepared for a few hours of being slightly heeled over on a beam reach. There are reefs everywhere and it's hard to tell where - we’re using a combination of different charts because lots of the electronic ones are wrong. And there's no gps signal flashing up on the pages of our Bauhaus guide to Panama. It has perfect charts for everything but they're hard to figure out when the boat is overpowered, we’re heading very quickly towards little islands and our solar panels are getting blown around in strong winds. Luckily we had Dale to steer for us while I tried to hold onto the panels (they kept flipping up on the high side). We tacked back and forth for maybe an hour while we waited for the squall to pass and for Garth to fix the engine. We finally had everything under control, but it was the most dangerous situation we’ve been in for quite a while. Luckily we had some friendly dolphins jumping alongside us for a while to distract Becca from getting too seasick. So I guess our efforts to drain the fuel tank and filter it back in while we were in shelter Bay were for nothing …

So happy to have our friends back!

We anchored by a little island in the West Holandes island group for a day. More snorkelling, more relaxing. The boys found lots of tunnels to swim through and we all all had a great time. After being on the boat for over a week, we had lots of rubbish we had to get rid of so we had a beach day on the island to burn it all. Becca and Dale had brought a hammock with them, so we put up both our hammocks and relaxed on the beach. We bought our hammock for our honeymoon three years ago and this was the first time we actually got to use it. It was really lovely lying around in the shade all day - we'll have to do it more often! The boys entertained themselves by trying to climb the coconut trees (even though it was a bit pointless seeing as you're not allowed to take coconuts off any trees in the San blas).

Man make fire!

Becca tries to open a coconut she found on on the ground

I live here now (Taken by Becca)

So beach day was a success. Over the next few days we just anchored next to little islands and enjoyed life. We went to a spot commonly referred to as the ‘Hot Tub’ which is a small area in the East Holandes cays around the corner from the ‘Swimming Pool.' As we were coming in we were quickly losing light and couldn't see the bottom very well. The reefs are well marked on our charts (though you never know if one is going to pop up in front of you somewhere!), but the sand banks weren't. We knew there were shallow patches everywhere so it was my job to stand on the bow and keep watch as normal. Except I'm beginning to doubt if there's any point in me always standing out in the hot sun at all. Normally I panic when there's coral underneath, and Garth just ignores me and keeps going wherever he wants to go. This time it was rapidly getting shallower so I told him to stop… to his credit he did slow down, but we hit the bottom in time with me yelling ‘you're seriously not going to fit through here!’ So lesson learned - if there's somebody on the bow watching that we don't hit anything, you should probably listen to them!

Beach fun

We managed to find a nice spot to anchor and went swimming near the outer reef the next day. The snorkeling was good but not amazing. We had a lot of fun playing around in the dinghy though, and found our first orange starfish. If you Google image search ‘starfish,’ it's pictures of these guys that will flood the first few pages of results. That's because we’re close to the USA now and it’s the orange ones that are in these waters. That's when it really hit home that we’ve crossed an entire ocean and are in a really new place. The starfish in the South Pacific are blue.

Bye Becca!

Dale found a conch when we were swimming. We’ve found lots of them before, but I remember Liesbet telling me in French Polynesia that it wasn't worth eating them unless you had a few. Getting them out of their shells is a mission. We only had one, but it was huge. Dale was adamant that he was going to prepare dinner for us, so he brought it back to the boat and set about getting it out of the shell. Conch are essentially giant snails with a huge claw. I wasn't sure about it all, but he smashed the flesh with a hammer until it was wafer thin, left it in lime juice for a few hours and then battered and fried the fritters. It was absolutely delicious! I thought it would be tough and snaily, but Dale’s conch was the best thing we’d eaten in awhile. He brought me a book called ‘An embarrassment of mangoes,’ which is a lovely story centered around food in the Carribean. It's filled with recipes, which is how we learned what to do with our giant snail sans Internet. I even made aioli to dip it in, which went back in the fridge. Lime juice and salt were the only extra flavours it needed.


Extracting the conch

When we were done with that anchorage, we headed back out to where we’d gotten stuck on the San banks. A bit further along was a tiny sand island in the middle of nowhere, which we happily anchored next to. Our own little island! On the charts it’s marked as ‘Palm Island,’ but I'm guessing the palm tree got blown away. Somebody has brought a coconut over and placed it in between a barrier of driftwood, and it's slowly growing into a new tree. Hopefully one day it will fit it’s name again!

Loving our tiny, private island

It was really nice having our own island. Dale woke up early and paddled over to the beach, where he found a gazillion crabs going wild all over the sand. The view from our cockpit wasn't bad either, and we could have stayed for a lot longer if there weren't so many other things to see.

Snorkeling around the sand cay was amazing. It was one of my favourite spots in the whole of the San Blas, and one of the only places we could swim out straight from the boat. In between us and the island it was mostly sand, but all around the other side there was a huge reef that stretched out forever. The coral was both beautiful and healthy, and we found huge soft fans everywhere as well as spiraling towers of bright orange coral dotted throughout the reef.

Lots of coral (Taken by Becca)

Many fish (Taken by Becca)

There were so many fish! And so many of them were camouflaged. We kept finding huge lobsters hiding under rocks, and the trumpet fish were hiding vertically next to reedy soft coral because they blend in perfectly. I was staring down into some hard coral trying to chase one of my favourites (a bright blue fluorescent fish), when I noticed a tiny little spider looking thing hiding on one side of the coral. If the spiders have figured out how to chase me in the water as well as on land, we’re all doomed.

Scary spider crab

Sneaky lobster

Trumpet fish

Xxx Monique

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