The Kuna Yala is the name of the autonomous Kuna area along the North Eastern Panamanian coast. It is made up of over 300 islands, some house whole villages while others, a lone coconut palm. They are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people.
Over one hundred years ago, after being thoroughly shafted by the Spanish, Scottish, British and Americans, they declared themselves independent from the Panamanian Government and have maintained a traditional way of life. Think dug out canoes, thatched huts, traditional dress, no intermarriage with non Kuna, no tv, no radio, and a very real belief in the spirit world. To look at, they are dark skinned with large wide set eyes, incredible cheek bones, kick arse attitudes and the best fashion sense this side of the equator. They are also very short. For the first time in my life I am tall….
Getting to this ‘almost paradise’ was a three day slog beat to windward ( trying to sail into a head wind ). If any of you have ridden your bicycle along Pioneer Highway in Palmerston North in a howling head wind, you are close to understanding the frustration of three days beating to windward. I think it pertinent to add at this point, most other yachts whiz down here from Cartegena laden with backpackers in 1 and a half days.
Not our boat, as a steel ketch of uncertain parentage, ( all 16 ton of her), she needs a nice breeze blowing on her stern to reach the dizzying speed of 6 knots. We trundle about doing an average of 3 knots. (Only slightly faster than walking and at this rate it will take another 8 months to get to Fiji.)
Luckily I am enjoying being out at sea. I like the way we live during these passages. We leave at night, I take the first watch and as the seasickness comes on I pass over the tiller to Ross who then spends the next eight hours on watch. He usually gets her to sail her self and hunkers down in the cockpit with the egg timer. Every 15 minutes he wakes up, checks the horizon for ships, checks our course and then if we have fallen off the wind or a big old tanker is heading our way, he makes the necessary adjustments and hits the cushions again for another 15 minutes of shut eye. Meanwhile I slide around the stern cabin with Dash.
It is however, very aging… my Oil of Ulay has never worked so hard.
Nor have my guts. This seasickness business is a real bitch. If it had a name I reckon she would be called Chundara Biggy Time Time. She’d be very fat and eat tacos with heaps of sauce that drips all over her spray-on bejeweled top. She’d pour her huge bulk into tiny faded denim short shorts creating a camel toe of epic proportions. Chundara Biggy Time Time would always get what she wants and she’d get it NOW.
As you can see, one of the things that seasickness does is make me hallucinate. I know it is time to call Ross when I am scanning the horizon and dark loomy clouds become the puffy checks of a heavenly alcoholic. At times I have seen St Teresa standing next to me on the deck (weird or what?)
During these trippy times I often start blinking hard and thinking of the packets of NoDoze my sisters and I would fine in the glove box Dad’s Ford Falcons. The packets were white with pink, purple and yellow dots that looked promisingly like lollies. Not so, us Meyer girls learnt from an early age that life is full of disappointments. There are no stray Macintoshes. I once popped the sliver pack and put one of the little white NoDoze pills into my gob. It fizzed and foamed and tasted like licking the bench of the poison shed.
Hallucinating about Nodoze is a common problem on board.
Anyway, we slowly made our way into Porto Escosi. And there, was paradise minus the city.
Huge iridescent blue, black, yellow and orange butterflies greeted us as we turned in the bay. After days at sea these beautiful creature heralded of a new phase of our voyage. We were no longer in Cartegena, living in a diesel workshop- we were sailing!
I had my Kuna Colada (new hit drink made of rum, lime and fresh coconut juice purchased from a Kuna man in a dug out canoe for $1 for 4 and macheteed opened by my own fair hands) as I sat on the foredeck and watched as the sunset shoot pastel peach fingers across the sky. Grey clouds hung low and the ebbing blue light created a vision of an 1980s water colour, the kind you’d find now in a second hand store, but that once would have graced the lobby of an advertising agency. Bliss.
To our left were nine thatched huts, three were built on stilts over the water , and in front of us barely discernable from the jungle, were the three hundred year old remains of an ill fated Scottish attempt at establishing a base called Darien.
Apparently over the course of 20 years 3000 Scotsmen were sent here, 1000 returned, the rest died a pretty nasty death of yellow fever. I am not surprised it failed… how pasty gingers had a hope of surviving here is a total mystery to me. It is 35 degrees! The jungle is a jungle not a rolling Scottish hillside. Ah colonization….you destruction thing you. Leave it to the professionals…. cue Francis Drake.
“ Look a welcoming canoe” said Ross just as the anchor bite into the mud. As they were still a far way off I leapt into the clearest, bluest, warmest water I have ever had the privilege of plunging into. I splashed around, did a cursory freshen up of my pits and bits and hauled myself up the boarding ladder before they were too close to be offended by seeing my in a bikini.
“Hola” we called (our pilot book had the Kuna word for ‘lipstick’ but not for ‘hello’.)
Magnificent cheekbones looked up at us from a dug out canoe laden with bananas, coconuts and plump, delicious looking fish. “ Hola” they said. “ HO…la” I breathed unable to take my eyes of the planes of his face. From there on in the conversation was a curious mixture of English, Kuna and Spanish, somehow we all managed to understandeach other. We were to pay the chief $10 for saying in the bay, coconuts were for sale, we were not Americans and to have a nice time.
And we did, the next day we woke to find dolphins jumping next to us; instead of the usual avian dawn chorus we had the terrifying calls of the howler monkeys. Dash did a fantastic impression of them over his porridge.
Our neighbors were up and at ‘em at 5 30am. By the time I put my head out of the cockpit at 6:10am the cooking fires were lit, and the men and boys were in their canoes paddling across the bay to check their banana plots.
We mucked around and rowed to shore as an outboard seemed gauche.
This is where is gets ugly. And this is where I get mad. Strewn along the entire shore were plastic bottles, plastic shoes, bits of broken plastic, plastic children toys, plastic lunch boxes… anything you can think of made of plastic… it was there.
I mean what is going on? It ain’t the Kuna’s rubbish ‘cos these guys are living in thatched huts, cooking fish over a fish. This is rubbish that our western culture generates, tons and tons of every day and it washes up on their beaches. I was ashamed. Really ashamed. ( Expect more on this at a later date… I think there is a crusade brewing.)
“ Mama Starfish! Look, shallow water, starfish” Dashkin’s excited little voice pulled me out of my dark mood. Our dingy drifted over stunning coral and we spotted spectacularly colored fish, slick stingrays and Dash’s new favorite creature, starfish.
‘One, two, one, two” his pointy little finger counted them as he leaned right over the dingy.
We made our way back to the yacht, ate a coconut and, as we have about 8 000 miles to go before we get home, we hauled up the anchor, flicked on the depth sounder and headed out of the bay.