1/27/09 Hanging in Chichime, San Blas Islands, Panama
We finally left Colon (Shelter Bay Marina) last Saturday, 1/24/09 after “most” of our chores were done! Funny thing about boats, the “honey-do” list still grows daily. There is always something to clean, fix, maintain… and then start all over again. We are traveling with Tom & Diane on Tasman, our pals from Seattle. Irene & Georgio on Argo are following in a couple of days. We are in Chichime, (“chi-cha-may”) a remarkable group of two small San Blas Islands. The San Blas Islands are a vast archipelago of hundreds of tiny islands that hug the Caribbean shore of Panama, for several hundred miles. We had a wonderful and easy trip from Colon, about 75 miles. Day one was a motor sail to Isla Linton with winds at 15 kts on the nose and waves to 6 feet, and on day two a great sail all the way to Chichime with similar conditions, however the winds were just off the nose for a nice close hauled sail. Big Beau enjoyed stretching her legs at 6.0 to 6.5 knots mostly except during some harder blows when we scooted along at over 8.0 knots.
It is absolutely gorgeous here... you wouldn't believe it. Paul says no need to go to the south pacific any more... it's the same here! We have been swarmed by the Kuna, the indigenous native people, since arrival. While technically Panamanians, they inhabit this chain of almost 400 little islands (and a portion of the coastline) but are allowed to "rule themselves", so to speak. Each island/village has three chiefs that hold the highest authority. Kunas are extremely friendly, non-aggressive and crime of any form is virtually unheard of. They cling fast to their tribal traditions – well, most of them, anyway…. The notable exception being that many, if not most of them carries cell phones. Go figure. The women dress in very traditional garb... they make these hand sewn, intricate, and quite colorful, reverse appliqué panels (about 10” x 10”) called molas that they use in blouses and other household items. The blouses have a mola panel inset on the front and back, with a print yoke and ruffled bottom and then big puffy sleeves sewn on. Often, the sleeve and yoke fabric are floral prints and don’t necessarily match the colors or the geometric designs on the molas. It’s a very distinct look. They wear their mola blouses, a fabric wrap skirt, and a bright red and yellow head wrap, worn similar to a nun’s head wrap. They also wear colorful beaded leg bracelets from their ankles all the way to their knees, so most of their legs are covered. The women have pierced noses and wear a solid gold ring in them, and often have gold bangles or beaded bracelets on both wrists. This is a matriarchal society, so the women are the head of (and the business people) of the families. When they marry, the man often moves into the wife’s family home, though we understand that custom is waning. Selling their molas mostly to tourists is the national industry – it’s their primary source of income - though they also harvest coconuts and trade those with the Columbian traders that frequent these waters - for sugar, flour, fuel and other necessities. Molas are very unique - colorful, intricate works of geometrics or animal life, and can be used for a variety of things: Cruisers make pillows for the salon, tote bags, purses, clothing, or they can even be framed as unique artwork.... most cruisers will buy a few of them. The smaller ones 4” x 4” can start at $3.00 (usually offered by the teen girls just starting to ply the trade) and the larger and most intricate ones with the best sewing can go for $100’s. There are a couple of “famous” master mola makers who do gorgeous work where you can hardly see the hand stitching unless you look at the underside. Interestingly enough, the two best master mola makers that we have heard of are both men (presumably homosexual) and one is also a transvestite who goes by the name of “Lisa” and dresses more like westerners. We saw another cruisers video of Lisa’s story and she was raised as a girl making molas her (his?) whole life. She (he?) continues to live as a woman and is somewhat of a hero and icon in the area.
It is here in Chichime, where we would receive our first “master” mola maker aboard. “Venancio” came to see us and we spent a good deal of time looking at his absolutely gorgeous molas. The best and most coveted molas are 3, 4 or 5 layers, and the mola maker uses tiny scissors to create the designs, by snipping the fabric to reveal the underlying layers color(2) and then tucks the fabric under and stitches it down with the teeniest of stitches. Sounds easy, except they do perfect circles, squares, zig-zags and curved lines that actually look like topically applied brick a brac, but are not. From these, they create incredible pictorals of birds, animals, sea life or just geometric designs. The quality and detail of Venancio’s work was amazing compared to what the pedestrian locals were bringing out to show us. Both Diane and I started our mola collections here. I bought some for gifts and some to make my salon pillows for the boat.
The usual arrival scenario goes like this: When a boat is on approach to an anchorage, they paddle out (usually the local women with small children) and will approach the anchorage in their ulus (“ew-lew-s”) (dug outs) and hover, even before you drop the hook! By the time we turned the engine off, there were 3 or 4 boats alongside us. Some had molas to sell, others have fish, fresh lobster (some the size of your forearm) and rock crab (think “King” crab so large it won’t fit in a pot!) Some want you to charge their cell phones (huh?), fill a water jug and they also ask for old magazines. A few came later to ask for milk, soda and beer... we declined those requests...we're holding on to supplies since we'll be here for several weeks. They speak their own language (Kuna) but, some speak/understand Spanish and yesterday we met a guy named Grimaldo who also speaks reasonable English. He asked if he could bring his family back later and could we take photos and then print them for them... we said ok. They are small, dark skinned people… only pygmies are smaller. The islands are low lying atolls with palm trees, crystal clear water, snow white beaches, friendly people and difficult anchorages due to the many, many reefs. The reefs provide excellent natural protection at anchor… no swells, no rolling – but can be very dangerous to safe navigation! The wind never stops, and even though you're facing the wind unabated, there is absolutely no roll due to the reef system directly in front of you. Wind and solar power keep the boat’s batteries at 13.0 volts, so there is no need to leave this island paradise until the beers run out!
Last night was dinner on board Big Beau with the Tasmanians - giant crab and good size lobsters, all for $15 for 4 persons with leftover crab for an omelet. Maybe crab cakes! Absolutely delicious! We’ll not want for protein, but our fresh fruit and veggie stores will probably not last our stay out here. We’re not sure of the re-provisioning opportunities before we leave here for Isla Providencia, however. No worries… we won’t starve! The captain just wants to be sure we have enough beer to last!