Author Archives: Tanya

Tanya’s Travel Notes: Panama

As a favor to a few friends interested in traveling to Panama, I’m publishing some notes I made about our travels to supplement travel and cruising guides.

Bocas del Toro

Red Frog Marina

A scattered group of islands (some volcanic and rainforest, others mangrove islets) on the western side of Panama, Caribbean side. Great place to spend hurricane season, and surfing is good in the winter/spring (swell coming from Colombia breaks on reefs/beaches). A large expat community, as well as young backpackers/travelers from all over the world. We spent 9 months here and would come back. The main islands are Isla Colon, Christobal, Solarte, Bastimentos, and Isla Popa. Bocas Town is on Isla Colon, and can be noisy, busy, and unsafe. Water taxis can be caught all the time to the islands (prices vary based on distance). Lots of tours offered loudly by water taxi drivers. Check into the country with a team of people from Customs, Immigration and Port Captain—best done by anchoring off town, or calling ahead to Red Frog and the team will come to your boat at the dock.

Marinas

Red Frog Marina (IGY)—The dockmaster, DC, is an especial friend of mine (If you go there, tell him Tanya from Take Two says hi). We plugged in here for hurricane season and had a wonderful experience. Beach a 15-minute walk away through nature-preserve. We found red frogs, oropendola birds, hummingbirds, sloths, birds of paradise, and lots of other natural beauty. Marta (from Colombia) is the massage therapist at the spa and she is a treasure. Uchi does laundry for $6.50 per load, wash/dry/fold…cheaper than doing it yourself because the dryers require two runs. Good hiking/walking on resort roads. Zipline on property—get Amanda or DC to try and get you a good deal. Beach club open—and it has a pool! I heard Playa Tortuga was damaged in swells this past winter, but Red Frog Beach is also lovely. Good tacos at Nachyomama and good food/drinks at Palmar. Salina Hostel is on the Red Frog Property. The restaurant there is also decent. Good for happy hour drinks and ping pong! The marina runs a free shuttle to town for shopping, but also has a small market with a deli, ice cream, some produce and a wide variety of supplies. Less known is the Salina Hostel shuttle to town, which runs several times each day. You have to buy a ticket ($5) and get the schedule at Salina Red Frog or Salina Bocas, but it’s a lot cheaper than a water taxi, which can run between $10-$20 each way, depending on time of day, number of passengers, and mood of the driver.

Agua Dulce marina is run by our friends Bobby and Shirlene (they have 3 homeschooled kids). They have laundry, bathrooms/showers, water and power, and a workshop (complete with sail loft). Bobby is the Suzuki dealer for the area and he knows how to get things. Shirlene is a nurse, and besides homeschooling the kids, she helps take care of the Ngobe villagers who come to her for help, hosts volunteer groups, and teaches English in the village school. Ellie, their oldest daughter, often takes people kayaking or hiking to the bat caves.

Restaurants

Notoriously unpredictable…sometimes great and other times not great. Lots of staff turnover. Many inexpensive restaurants in Bocas Town for backpackers/surfers. Here are some of our faves.

Buena Vista has a nice spot on the water. Kelly, the owner, is a friend of mine, and it’s a really nice place for a cool drink and lunch (burgers and nachos are good). Also, it’s hard to find a place to park a dinghy in town, and Kelly will let you load groceries there as long as you stop in for a bite or drink.

El Ultimo Refugio is also typically very good. A little place across the street, Tutty and Fish has good ceviche, and also sells a wide variety of meats and sea foods.

Casbah has Mediterranean food and tapas. Also good.

La Pirata is predictably good Panamanian food.

Go to the Golden Corral for ice cream and try the Grape-Nut flavor—no joke—it’s the best!

Our favorite date night was at La Loma Jungle Lodge on Bastimentos. We recently heard that Henry and Margaret sold it, so we don’t know what it’s like now.

Don’t miss Ernie’s (Los Amigos) in Tierra Oscura (connected to Dolphin Bay)…really good fried chicken at lunchtime or eggs Benedict on Sunday mornings!

Shopping

Note: There is a storage room in the turquoise building by the taxi dock, but you have to ask about stashing something there. Sometimes they charged me a dollar or two to put bags there.

Isla Colon is the best grocery store in town, and not far from the water taxi dock. Felix, the Chinese guy who runs the store, can get you things that you might not see on the shelves, just ask!

Same goes for Lorelei at Super Gourmet, where prices are a little higher, but she carries specialty items and has the best deli in town. (And the best whole-bean Panamanian coffee—look for the package with the blue butterfly.) A perfect lunch stop, too, with fresh sandwiches, soups, and salads. Across from Super Gourmet is a good veggie stand.

Best bread in Panama is found at the Panaderia Allemana (German bakery)…it’s a misnomer, as the owner is Itailian, and carries a variety of breads and some imported Itialian pastas and specialty items. Two doors down from the bakery (which also serves breakfast and lunch), there’s a fruit and veggie stand run by a very sweet family from Chiriqui province (small green building). Ask Staci what day the truck is coming and you’ll get lots of fresh veggies and fruit at a good price.

Toto is like a Walmart–it has a little bit of everything.

Richard owns three stores: the 3R “Mall” has a wide variety of items and is air conditioned. Richard’s Ferreteria/Maderas  is nearby, and Richard can find you almost anything. He was just opening a new grocery store across the street when we left, with water access!

Things to do

Green Acres Chocolate Farm Tour

Horseback riding on Cristobal with Cowboy Dave’s Horseback Tours (highly recommended)

Jungle ziplines at Red Frog Resort

Surfing at Black Rock or Bluff Beach, classes, rentals, and tours at Bocas Surf School

Turtle Conservancy night tour on Bluff Beach

Snorkeling at Zapatillas Marine Conservancy, Hospital Point, or Coral Cay

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute visitor’s center

Beach day at Bluff Beach, Red Frog Beach, or Starfish Beach

Wildlife Boat Tours: birding at Isla Pajaros (nesting Tropic Birds), Sloth Island, Monkey island

ATV trails with Flying Pirates

Movie theater in town with private air-conditioned viewing rooms

Art or cooking classes for kids (Christin Fjeld) and sometimes a mom’s night out wine-and-paint

Shipping

Lots of expats means lots of things coming in from the US and Canada. You can ship things to the Mailboxes etc., order things from a guy named Bill Kruger who gets containers from the U.S., or go through David Pang in Panama City, who can send things by plane to the Bocas airport. You can also take a bus from Almirante to Changinola or David (you take a water taxi to Almirante) to get things. David has a Price Mart, Novey (household goods), Conway (like Target), and Do-It Center (like Home Depot). There are two sisters, Toby and Lola, who can get things sent from David to Bocas.

Cruising

Islands and anchorages everywhere and you feel like you have the place to yourself. Water mostly clean and clear (sometimes jellies, depends on how closed-in the area is). Holding good in sand or mud, but usually deep. We looked for 30-foot depths. Anything shallower, and you can see the water shoaling to just a few feet. (You’re anchoring in underwater valleys, trying to stay off the mountaintops.) Good snorkeling and kayaking in and around mangrove islands. Dolphin Bay, Tierra Oscura, Sloth Island, Monkey Island, Bastimentos (bays on the south side), Loma Partida (near Isla Popa), leeward side of Cristobal, Starfish beach (leeward side of Isla Colon…after the afternoon crowds leave and in the morning before they show up is best)…and many more to explore! You may occasionally get Ngobe Indians paddling up in cayucos (dugout canoes) and asking for rice or sugar. Sometimes they sell/trade coconuts, produce, or fish.

Travel

Flights leave Bocas several times a day, connecting to Panama City or San Jose, Costa Rica. Jay flew to Boston and made it in one day. When we traveled as a family, the boat was safe at Red Frog. It would be safe at Agua Dulce, too. It’s pretty easy to take bus trips, too, and the price includes the water taxi to the mainland. We took the Hola Panama shuttle to Boquete, (Volcan Baru area, near the cloud forest) and the Carib Shuttle to Costa Rica. Both experiences were very good. We recommend Mount Totumas if you want to see the cloud forest of Panama and do some hiking. We rented their cabin, bought groceries and cooked in several nights. But the food at the lodge is amazing, too. They grow a special variety of high-altitude coffee (and roast it themselves). It is the best coffee I have EVER tasted. Jeff will personally take you hiking and show you all kinds of things. We saw a dozen different kinds of hummingbirds alone. In Boquete, we like the suspended bridges hike at Tree Trek, and a field trip to Boquete Bees to learn about pollinators in Panama, taste honey, and to see the butterfly garden. The boys did some rock climbing with professionals on the basalt wall, and we also rented a car one day and went to Cangilones de Gualaca…google it—it was a memorable day! You can also do coffee tours in Boquete.

Downsides

The heat and the bugs (and sometimes the rain)! The mosquitos aren’t the problem, it’s the chitras or sand flies. They ate me alive, but I was just itchy and have no residual effects. On the windward side of the islands, it can be choppy and uncomfortable, but cooler; in the lee of the islands, it’s usually completely protected, but hotter and buggier. The rain is less predictable in the islands than on the mainland. Mainland Panama disappears for months beneath rain clouds, but Bocas doesn’t get regular rainy season. June and July are usually the rainiest months. Lots of overcast days, but then it’s not so hot! We loved it there, made friends, and found it hard to leave.

Shelter Bay/Colón

View from Car Ferry

Sailing from Bocas

Leaving Bocas to head to central Panama, you have a favorable current, which really helps.  You can take protected waters all the way to Bluefield and then go out at the entrance to the Laguna Chiriqui. The channel between the mainland and Isla Popa is wide and deep. A couple we know is building a castle/house on an isand near that channel…you might see it. A good stop on the way to Colon is an island called Veraguas. It has the most beautiful lagoon to snorkel in (Rachel calls it the mermaid lagoon) and a beach. Good in settled weather, but can be swelly. A great stop for a day or two. Another stop is a night or two in the Rio Chagres. Once you get past the shoals near the entrance (past Fort San Lorenzo on the hill), it’s very deep, and you have to look for a spot to anchor near a bend in the river where you might see 30s on the depth sounder. It is jungle and mirror-smooth water. We saw toucans, howler monkeys, caimans, and lots of wildlife. We kayaked in the little tributaries and loved it. We have been warned that sometimes they open the sluice gates on the dam when the Gatun lake level is too high, but we took the risk during sunny days and loved it.

Marinas

Shelter Bay Marina also has the nickname “Shelter Pay.” It has haulout/full-service boat yard, sail loft (although I just heard the sailmaker we knew was heading out to go cruising), workshop, mini-mart, laundry (expensive unless you do it yourself, but the machines are often busy), restaurant, pool, small hotel (handy if you haul out), boater’s lounge, palapa/picnic area, nature trails, free shuttle to Colon for shopping, and a good cruising community. It’s easy to find or become line-handlers for a canal transit. There’s a morning cruiser’s net for daily announcements, and there are always activities (like open-mic night, dominoes, etc.). Usually there are some kid boats there. The new manager, Juanjo, is a friend of ours from Puerto Rico, where he used to manage Las Palmas del Mar. He’s a good guy.

Restaurants

The restaurant at the marina It’s 5 o’clock Somewhere is pretty good. Nice spot for evening drinks and weekend events. We rarely went to town, and then only to shop at Quatro Altos. There are restaurants there, including a Dominoe’s pizza, but we were always focused on groceries and didn’t dawdle. Shelter Bay is a little isolated from everywhere else. A taxi to/from town runs $20-25, so I usually took the free bus (sign up sheet at the office).

Shopping

Quatro Altos has a large, well-stocked El Rey supermarket, a marine store, an electrical parts store, hardware store, shoe stores, and several department stores. El Rey had everything I needed, but the bus runs into Colon to another shopping area. Shopping trips take several hours because the bus has to cross the canal by ferry or over the locks, which means it has to wait for shipping traffic (can be as long as an hour each way). The first time, it’s amazing, but after a few times, it just means a long bus ride. The driver, Mauricio, is very prompt and cannot wait for late-comers (the bus is also the employee shuttle). He appreciates a tip occasionally.

Transportation to Panama City

Buses are cheap and good (take the express!) and often air-conditioned. Taxi or free shuttle (in the morning) will get you to the bus station. It takes about 2 hours. Sometimes the free shuttle will do a day trip to Panama City as well. A guy named Roger (Rogelio) will drive you in his van as well for about $100, and knows where to find all sorts of things. He often acts as translator as well as driver. He is now an agent for canal transit, too. Ask the marina for his number.

Downsides

We were there in November and the rain was unbelievable! I’ve never seen downpours like I saw there! There were some bugs, but it depends on the wind and location in the marina. The marina is isolated and there’s nowhere to go, but there are lots of cruiser-organized activities.

Panama City/Panama Canal

Panama City, Panama

Before you go: read David McCullough’s Path Between the Seas, a fabulous read about the people who built the canal. Not a dry history book!

Transportation

We tried a little of everything; took the bus, used taxis, used Uber, and hired a driver. We even took the Panama Railroad train back to the Caribbean side (totally worth the expense as the rail runs along the canal and through the jungle—best ride ever!) Sometimes taxi drivers have no idea where things are. Uber works well. Our guide/driver is a family friend, Luis, who Jay’s parents use when they are in the city. He did a city tour with us and it was wonderful. Nice, new van with A/C. He knows when ships are transitting the canal and takes you to the Miraflores locks at the right time. His contact is +507 6536-1179 and he speaks both English and Spanish.

Shopping

You can find everything in Panama City, as long as you have a driver who knows what you’re looking for. There’s a large mall (Allbrook), Discovery Center, Novey, Do-It Center, marine stores, a place that stocks all kinds of tools and stainless steel pieces and parts. Good grocery stores, too.

Things to do

The Museo de la Historia del Canal Interoceanico in the old city is very good, but mostly in Spanish. The visitor’s center at Miraflores also has a museum (not as good) but in English and Spanish. We did both. If you only have time for one, Miraflores will do.

Lots of museums, parks, and restaurants. A hike up Ancon Hill is a must, as is an exploration of Casco Antiguo (the old city was mostly burned by the pirate Henry Morgan, so Cartagena is a better, more-intact Spanish walled city to explore). Flamenco island is nice (there are lots of anchored boats near there, and an expensive marina). There are also beaches and fishing on the Pacific side of Panama.

Restaurants

El Congrejo area of the city has restaurants of every description. Pomodoro is one of our favorites for Italian/Pizza. Casco Antiguo also has many good restaurants. The Seafood market was recommended to us many times, but we didn’t make it there.

Downsides

It’s a large, dirty city, and you have to be careful in certain areas. Taxi drivers don’t really have a mental map, so you might need to help navigate to get somewhere.

Linton Bay (Porto Lindo)/ Portobelo

Fateful Trip

About 20 minutes from Portobelo, 45 minutes from Sabanitas, an hour from Colon, and 2 hours from Panama City. A day sail from Isla Grande to San Blas. Lots of people anchor in Linton Bay or Portobelo waiting for weather to San Blas, or for a canal transit. Rains a lot of the year. For check-in check-out—Port Captain is at Linton Bay (Porto Lindo), but the immigration office is in the yellow building in downtown Portobelo.

Marinas

Panamarina is a small marina owned by French people, and they store a lot of boats for hurricane season, as well as operating a boatyard and a French restaurant. You can get there from Linton Bay via a mangrove channel, but be careful of the coral heads near the entrance!

Linton Bay Marina—Much cheaper than Shelter Bay, but fewer amenities. Under construction, and things always in flux. There is a haulout/boatyard, but nowhere comfy to stay while you’re on the hard. Veggie trucks and bread truck comes several times each week. Free water! Wifi not so great on the docks. Note: people feed the monkeys on “Monkey island”—but don’t take kids ashore! Monkeys can be aggressive…just ask Rachel ☹. The good news is that medical care at the Portobelo clinic is free for tourists!  A lot of people anchor in Linton Bay, but it’s pretty rolly, with ocean swell coming into the bay.  A little more protection (depending on wind) in Portobelo.

Transportation

The “chicken bus” runs along the coast (marked “Costa Arriba”) and is inexpensive. I did some ride-sharing with a friend using a taxi driver named Jack (+507 6727 8277). He lived in the U.S., so is totally bilingual. For about $100, he’ll take you to Panama City for the day and help you find things. He’s a great guy. For $40, you can go to Colon for the day, and for $20-25, to Sabanitas to grocery shop.

Restaurants

Captain Jack’s in Portobelo is very good and has a good atmosphere, excellent seafood, Asian fusion, and curry dishes

Rico Rico has the second best bread in Panama (also owned by an Italian!)

Congo Culture House in Portobelo which is part art gallery, part history museum, part local café. A great stop in Portobelo.

Shopping

Iin Sabanitas there is a new Super 99 and an El Rey grocery store. I found everything I needed there, and it wasn’t as far as Colon or Panama City.

Things to do

Explore the old fort in Portobelo, go to the Culture House museum, go to the museum and to the church of the Black Jesus. Go to the beach at Mame or Isla Grande. Surfing near Isla Grande (reef break) during swelly times of year.

Downsides

A bit far from shopping, but not hard to get to the city. The rain? The hills around there are called “La Sierra Llorada” or “crying hills.” Can be wet.

San Blas

Parting Shot, San Blas

Porvenir has immigration, but not a port captain. If you go there, you will be charged the cruising fee ($20 pp and $20 for the boat). There is a road to Panama City from Carti, but there’s a check-point on the road with officials checking paperwork. Check-in can be done in Obaldia (to the east) if arriving from/departing to Colombia, but can be expensive. Most people arrive from Colombia, hang out in San Blas for awhile, then check in once they get to Portobelo, Colon, or Bocas.

Information

San Blas Facebook group is a good source of up-to-date information. Last we heard, the road to Carti was closed and the Congreso had closed the isalnds to commercial sailing charters. A beautiful place, and nice cruising grounds, though weather (of course) always plays a factor when planning your stops. Sometimes it’s hard to find protection from wind and swell. Provision well before sailing. Anchoring fees are not expensive, and are collected by Guna officials who will give you a receipt.

Cruising

Coco Banderos are lovely, but not in swells. Coral everywhere, very beautiful (but somewhat touristy).

The Hollandes Cays are also popular, and the “Swimming Pool” is often crowded. And there’s a croc there on BBQ island.

Our favorite spots were in the West Lemmons (in the lagoon near Tiadup), where we could get internet (Moviestar) and good protection from Christmas winds, and in the Green Island Group, where there were nice beaches, excellent snorkeling, and veggie boats and fisherman coming by. Also close to Nargana, where you can get basic supplies and internet (Digicel). We avoided the crowded Green Island itself, and the local fishermen said there was still a croc in the area. They showed us places that were “safe” for our kids. We never saw a croc. Or a shark. We did catch some fish. Most of the Gunas are free-divers and are catching big fish in deeper water.

The rule is, the farther east you go, the more traditional the villages. We were welcomed in Rio Azucar by some fishermen we befriended (anyone who comes by in an ulu has been out in the hot sun for a long time and greatly appreciates a cool drink in a shady cockpit.) They sold us affordable fresh seafood and coconuts when we asked. In Rio Azucar, they have bamboo and thatch huts with satellite dishes fixed on top! We have friends who went east past all the popular island groups and said it was like stepping back in time.

The best molas are made in Machina. There are a brother-sister team that come around and speak English and Spanish. Their molas are beautiful. Venancio may welcome you to San Blas, and he markets molas from Machina (some made by him). They are of high quality, but very expensive. Lisa may also come by. She also has beautiful molas, and much more affordable. She is from Rio Sidra near the mainland, and is a popular tour guide—she can take you up a river and show you a traditional village, farms and burial grounds.

We avoided busy places and crowded anchorages and only went to deserted beaches. We stopped once in Carti to do a little shopping but didn’t enjoy the experience.

Downsides

Provisioning is not difficult, just limited to rice, beans, fish and produce. Perhaps this is not a downside…but if you like your butter and cheese, stock up! The mola vendors can be a little intense, knocking on the side of your boat and unloading all their wares in your cockpit, but I tried to buy gifts for people back home a little at a time and spread the purchases over many people. Some cruisers complain about anchoring fees, but we did not find them to be excessive. If you’re looking for an escape from civilization and tranquil, beautiful islands, San Blas is wonderful. If you need internet (for work or school, for example!) then San Blas will present some unique challenges.

Stop and Smell the Orchids

One thing I love about living in Central America is the everyday encounters with exotic flora and fauna. I know that what is “exotic” to me is normal to the people who live here in the same way that North American birds and flowers that are normal for me would be “exotic” to them. We used to laugh, for example, when people would take manatee tours in the Indian River Lagoon—we would hear the vacationers screaming, “Look! A manatee!” as they nearly tipped the boat in their eagerness to photograph a slow-moving sea cow. We saw these gentle animals in our back yard nearly every day and became inured to them. To be fair, my friends in Panama laughed when I would stop by the same tree every day to look up to see what the sloth was up to (usually sleeping in the same place as the day before, but sometimes, gasp, it was scratching!). I never got tired of looking at this strange animal, but this strangeness and newness is part of why we travel. Nature is full of surprises—even when you’re used to the surroundings, a closer look always inspires wonder and awe.

On the way home from an afternoon out with Jay here on the Rio Dulce, we stopped to take a closer look at a tree surrounded by a cloud of pink blossoms. We idled over in our dinghy and realized that the flowers were not part of the tree, but were growing attached to the trunk, that they were, in fact, orchids. They were beautiful—with ruffled pink/purple petals and a deep magenta throat. I snipped a small cluster to bring home and show the kids and to see if I could identify the type of orchid. Suddenly, ants were crawling all over my hand and down my arm—the orchids were teeming with them. I gave the flowers a quick dowsing in the river and brushed the ants off my arm. I felt bad for having so thoughtlessly disturbed the flowers and their residents and regretted not carrying the good camera so I could have captured a closeup of the flowers without taking them off the tree.

Myrmecophila orchid, Guatemala

My initial research made identification seem a difficult, if not impossible, task—there are over 1000 species of orchid in Guatemala, and there are several books and identification guides to enthrall the orchid-lover. There is even an annual orchid festival in Antigua, Guatemala every year, and many viveros which sell them to collectors and gardeners from around the world. I looked through pages and pages of images, and with a little patient digging, I was able to narrow down what kind of orchid I had. And it made perfect sense. The genus is myrmecophila: myrmex meaning “ant” and “philos,” love. These orchids and ants share a mutual affection for each other—they are, in fact, symbiotes.

Myrmecophila orchid, Guatemala  (closeup)

Myrmecophilia (exaltata?)

I found a lovely article written by Ivan Gabaldón, whose curiosity about this phenomenon led him to closer observation through macro-photography of ants and orchids. He had done his own research and interviewed conservationist Joann Andrews in Mexico. She describes the relationship thus: “the ants help the flower bloom, defend the plant from herbivores and take up residence in its bulbs, where they store dead insects that in turn provide protein for the orchid. The reward for the ants is to feed on the orchid’s nectar.”

Further reading reveals another mystery: the ants are not the primary pollinators for the orchids, rather, each species of orchid produces its own signature fragrance that attracts flying insects—a different kind of bee for each orchid.

How often do we zoom past such wonders in our hurry to get somewhere or to do something? A microcosm, mysterious and beautifully complex, lies within our reach, but unless we slow down and take the time to look, and to study what we see, we miss it entirely. Perhaps this is the best gift nature offers us: the chance to pause in our busy-ness and get a different perspective, to notice and appreciate something new and strange.

For more information on orchids in Guatemala:

Ivan Gabaldón’s article, “On the Miracle of Orchids and Their Love of Ants” from www.rideintobirdland.com.

James Bateman’s book, Orchids of Mexico and Guatemala (updated by John A. Denson in 2010, Lulu.com).

Oakes Ames’ and Donovan Stewart Correll’s Orchids of Guatemala and Belize (1985, Dover).

 

Up the Rio

After much discussion of family goals, summer plans, boat projects, and seasonal weather, we made a decision while in Belize in June to head up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala instead of sailing back to Florida to haul out for hurricane season. This is a departure from our original plan, but for those who know us, this will not come as a surprise since all of our plans are written in wet sand at low tide.

Take Two Crew in the Rio Dulce 3

Crew of Take Two heading upriver

While some of the crew is ready to go back to the United States for good, others of us would like to spend more time in the Caribbean and Central America. The compromise is to spend a season in Guatemala, fly back to the US for a long visit, and eke out one more cruising season before sailing back to Florida. The cost of boat work and risk of hurricanes are both significantly reduced here as well.

View of Rio Dulce Guatemala

So far, we are loving it here–we’re plugged into a marina with a pool, and have met some new friends as well as connecting with some old ones. The day we pulled into the dock, Jacob and April and their two girls from s/v Lark were having lunch at our marina, and they formed a welcoming party.  One of the reasons we love this lifestyle is that boat-friendships, no matter how transient, are really special–the world is small and you never know when you’ll run into an old friend.

Shell Bay Waterfront Rio Dulce

For those land-lubber family members and friends we haven’t seen in a while, we look forward to seeing you sometime this summer or early fall when the crew of Take Two goes on the road!

Deep Thoughts

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am chicken-hearted. I look at danger and run for the hills. Eli says that I am the kind of person that can turn a perfectly-fun activity into a life-threatening situation. (Arguably, I could say the same about him!) I have an uncanny knack for imagining the worst possible scenario. I go straight there, do not pass go, do not collect $200. When one of the kids gets hurt, Jay has to remind me to stop planning the funeral. And it’s not just a “mom-thing;” I have always had a nervous disposition.

If I operated according to my natural instincts, we would still be living in a ranch-style house with a white picket fence in a quiet little suburb. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I would certainly not be pursuing my dreams. While my instincts are to live a small, safe life, my dreams are the opposite—I want to try everything, to go everywhere, to talk to everyone. I’m like Aladdin’s genie-in-a-lamp: “phenomenal cosmic powers, itty-bitty living space.” I have written about this dichotomy—and about my greatest fear: regret. This is what drives me to live despite my fear. And every time I experience something new, I have to confront that fear and decide whether to heed or ignore it.

For example, I climbed up, but decided not to jump from Morgan’s Head in Providencia. I don’t even like jumping from our high dive, where there is no rocky outcrop to surmount or coral heads to avoid upon landing. (The kids thought the 30-foot jump was great fun.)

Morgan's Head, Old Providence

But I did go ziplining in Panama because I wanted, just once, to know what it was like to jump out of a perfectly good tree and go screaming through the jungle. And, while I have enjoyed snorkeling or SCUBA diving (both of which involve breathing), I have never liked freediving (which involves not breathing). At the same time, I love to watch my kids take a deep breath, swim down into a sandy canyon between walls of coral, and glide comfortably at 10 meters/33 feet or more below the surface, for a minute or two. I sometimes follow them down, to take a closer look at something on the reef, but I get below the surface only a few feet before I begin to feel panicky, like I must get to the surface immediately to breath open air.

Sarah Freediving

So, when the opportunity arose to take an Apnea Total class at Freedive Utila, I signed up along with Jay, Eli, Sarah, and Sam. Aaron opted out (he’s not much of a water kid) and agreed to keep an eye on Rachel while we were in class for a couple of days. I had no depth goals, really, but wanted to conquer my fear of holding my breath underwater so I could enjoy adventure-snorkeling with my family more. Jay and Eli have good breath-holds and are comfortable at greater depths, but Jay had trouble equalizing the air space in his ears past 12 meters/40 feet, and Eli wanted to learn about practicing safely. Sarah and Sam both like to freedive and wanted to improve their skills.

Freediving is a sport with many faces. We recently watched Le Grand Bleu/The Big Blue, an 80s film by Luc Besson about two divers who practice no-limits freediving, an extreme sport where divers compete to go deeper and deeper, using whatever means available. (The current record-holder is Herbert Nitsch of Austria, who dove to 214 meters/702 feet.) The film is interesting because it explores two sides of freediving: the desire to go deeper and find the limits for the human body, and the equally strong desire to see and understand what life is like in the ocean and to get closer to our mammalian neighbors beneath the waves. But if you have seen that film, then you may have gotten the wrong idea about freediving.

Most freedivers are not ego-driven maniacs who risk everything to go deeper. Most are using only their breath, a descent line, and maybe a pair of fins to safely reach depths of 100 meters/330 feet or more. Often, freediving is a means to an end, to go underwater unencumbered by SCUBA gear and explore reefs and wrecks, to go spearfishing, or to experience the Zen calm of descent and the emotional rush of coming back to the surface. And, like any sport, there is the challenge of training one’s body and mind and the fun of doing something you couldn’t do before, always improving and besting your previous depth or breath-hold.

Initially, it seems counterintuitive to go down and down into the deep blue while holding one’s breath—after only a few seconds, the build-up of carbon dioxide signals your brain that it is time to exhale, and after that the diaphragm begins to spasm. We’re land mammals, after all, only distantly related to the whales, some of which can swim down thousands of feet and hold their breath for an hour or more. But we share some interesting adaptations with these cousins and have only discovered our potential by pushing the limits. The human body is a well-designed machine—capable of much more than we demand of it. With training and breathing exercises to improve relaxation and gas exchange, it is possible within only a few days to improve breath-hold, and to dive deeper and more comfortably than one thought possible. (If you’re interested in freediving, I can recommend a book we read: James Nestor’s Deep.)

Jay Ascending from 21m, Freedive Utila

Of course, there are risks, too. Hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) can cause loss of motor control (sambas) and blackouts—rarely at depths, but more often in shallow water as a diver ascends, or at the surface after a dive. Pressure can damage the ears if one doesn’t properly manage equalization of air spaces. This is one reason we took the freediving class—to better understand and mitigate the risks. I have been snorkeling with Eli and watched him go down (deeper than I can follow) and disappear into an underwater cave or tunnel, then waited for him nervously at the surface for what seems like forever. Invariably, he comes calmly gliding to the surface, unaware of my discomfort. Preventing accidents and learning what to do if things go wrong was one of the best parts of our 2 1/2-day class. Already we have changed the way we practice freediving so that we take better care of each other and enjoy safer, more-relaxed snorkeling adventures.

Time for School

Oddly enough, the biggest discovery in the class was that learning to hold one’s breath is, ironically, all about breathing. We spent a significant amount of time during class and in the water just breathing. Having practiced yoga in the past, I was familiar with some of the exercises, like belly-breathing or lengthened exhales, and with the benefits of certain kinds of breathing to the nervous system. When one practices a “breathe-up” at the surface before a dive, it is not hyperventilation, like you might imagine—this only increases tension and decreases safety. It is instead a pattern of deep, slow breaths which induce an almost meditative state that helps one prepare for a stress-free descent. Freediving is all about relaxation and the careful management of oxygen supply. Efficiency is everything; one wants to expend the least amount of energy so that one has more time underwater, either to reach a greater depth, or stay longer at a desired depth. And an anxious brain is a big oxygen-consumer, so learning to calm and quiet one’s thoughts and lower the heart rate makes a big difference. To some degree, it is all in your mind.

Watching my kids prepare for a dive was like watching them fall asleep as babies. Having spent their whole lives around and in the water, they have a comfort that I envy. Observing their dives was one of my favorite parts of the class.

Sam, Constant Weight to 17m, Freedive Utila

Going down myself was more challenging. Even at the end of the first day (when I managed to get down to 6 meters/20 feet), I still felt my heart rate accelerate before the dive, experienced discomfort during the dive, and was ready to come up before I’d reached half-way down the line, the bottom of which was at 12 meters/40 feet. When our instructor, Mariano, asked how I felt, I said, “Happy to reach the surface and breathe again.” He was incredibly encouraging and positive, and offered helpful advice after every dive. And he said the next day would be better.

He was right. The second day, I ignored the goal entirely (the end of the line was at 21 meters/70 feet, which Jay reached easily) and focused on quieting my thoughts and relaxing in the water. Having worked through my fear and learned that I could safely ignore my body’s message to “Breathe now!” for at least a minute, I was able to pull myself down the line, relaxed with eyes closed, to 10 meters/33 feet. Most importantly, I was able to do this without that familiar feeling of panic. Coming back to the surface, as my lungs expanded, I experienced euphoria. I began to understand why people say freediving can be addictive.

Class completed, we got in the dinghy the next afternoon and took our new skills out to the reef. The weather was calm, the sunshine bright, and the water crystal-clear. I love that feeling at the surface when I first get in the water with my mask on, like I’m flying, looking down on coral canyons, rays swimming along the sandy patches, fish darting in and out of rocky caves, the water gradually changing from turquoise to violet-blue as the reef drops off into the inky depths. First one, and then another, of our family dropped down to glide along the bottom of a trench, or down along the reef wall at the drop-off. Each person had a partner at the surface, watching to make sure he was safe, and each took the careful steps of a breathe-up at the surface to make going to depths more comfortable. I also dove down, gliding along a sandy canyon-bottom, like an airplane flying low, looking at the ripples in the sand and getting a close-up of colorful fish at home in forests of coral. I came to the surface, happy to take some recovery breaths, but no longer afraid.

 

What follows is what I wrote in my journal about fear as I mentally prepared for diving the second day.

Fear

Warns me of danger.

Keeps me from repeating bad experiences.

Makes me aware of risks and consequences.

Helps me to stay on the straight and narrow.

Keeps me alive.

But fear

Can cripple me

Can keep me from experiencing

Adventure, discovery, friendship, love.

Is the enemy of faith, the destroyer of hope.

Prevents me

From making progress,

From achieving my goals,

From fulfilling my potential.

Keeps me from really living.

Fear:

What should I do with it?

Name it:

What exactly am I afraid of?

Look at it from all sides:

Is it legitimate?

Is it keeping me from danger or preventing progress?

Should I listen to the warning, or silence the alarm?

Pray about it:

What does the Spirit tell me?

Do not let your heart be troubled.

I am with you always.

Perfect love casts out fear.

If I speak to God about my fears,

He can quiet my thoughts or confirm a warning.

Make a choice:

Allow it to keep me away or proceed with caution.

Keep it in bounds.

Do not be ruled by it.

Make decisions using logic, comparing risks and rewards.

Do not live each day under its shadow.

Do not listen to the thousand whispers,

but search for the one clear voice of reason.

Fear

If I do not master it, it will master me.

 

Final thoughts, from Psalm 139

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast… Search me O God, and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Bay Islands of Honduras

Picture this: a volcanic island covered with pine trees, sparsely settled, fringed by coral reefs, with a small round cay lying just offshore, covered, and I mean every available inch, with brightly-colored, multi-story buildings, some built on pilings out over the water. Shrimp boats with names like Flaming Arrow and Lucky Lady line the wharf along one side. A system of alleyways and canals crisscross the island, and water taxis buzz here and there, picking up and dropping off people going to the main island or through a channel to the north side, where there are sparkling sandy beaches and resorts, and one small settlement in a mangrove bay. At night, the taxis all retire, and country music begins to waft over the water from several bars. You might think to yourself, where am I? If you talk to anyone official, you will need some Spanish. If you meet someone on the street, you will speak English. The inhabitants of the island come in all shapes and colors, religious backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes. If you feel confused, this is part of the charm. You are in Guanaja, in the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Bonacca Waterfront, Guanaja, Bay Islands of Honduras

Bonacca, the Venice of the Caribbean

This place is full of seeming contradictions: a local who grew up in New Jersey and used to work in the New York Public Library returned to his island home to teach English to kids in the afternoons in a make-shift sidewalk-school. A Frenchman sails here every year on his way to or from Rio Dulce, Guatemala, but hates the water, so he comes only to hike in the pine forests. A German who settled here twenty years ago serves pizza in a palapa-on-stilts. A local couple who grew up in crowded Bonacca bought a hillside property on the main island and opened a first-class bar and restaurant which looks more like a chalet on a lake in Switzerland than a tropical island bar-and-grill.

Mi Casa Too, Guanaja

An Australian couple who have traveled the whole world by every conceivable conveyance house-sit on shore near where we are anchored (we met them in town on the day the supply boat came in). You never know what or whom you will encounter in the narrow streets of Bonacca.

Casa Sicaffy Storefront, Empanadas for Sale, Bonacca

Roatan is no less strange. Isla Barbareta, to the east, has virgin hardwood forest and good diving—it’s owned by a Texas tycoon. Mannie and Tita, originally from Mexico, run The Mango Creek Resort, a quiet getaway in Old Port Royal—yet another old pirate lair—with pastel-colored bungalows over the water, where people come for fishing vacations.

Mango Creek Resort, Old Port Royal, Roatan

Jonesville and Oakridge are local villages on bays lined with shrimping boats that ply the Cayman banks several months each year. The area looks and feels more like Louisiana than Latin America.

Shrimping Fleet, Roatan

French Harbor boasts Fantasty Island, an exclusive dive resort with a hotel, marina, dive shop, restaurant, and white-sand-lined lagoon—guarded by Hondurans with shotguns. In the same area, Little French Key brags that it is the “#1 Tourist Attraction in Honduras”—an island complex of beaches, restaurants, gift shops, swimming lagoons, and wild animals in cages, including lions and tigers and jaguars (Oh my!). We’ve never been anchored where we can hear lions roaring at sunset. It adds to the feeling that we have stepped into a Salvador Dali painting.

Horses On the Boat to Little French Key, Roatan

Coxen Hole, where the cruise ships come in to unload their thousands of passengers, has a reputation of being unsafe, and West Bay is the place said passengers go to play for the day—think parasail boats, jetskis, overloaded snorkel boats, and beaches lined with lounge chairs. West End is a little quieter—a small beach community with boutique hotels owned by North-Americans, open-air restaurants, cruising sailboats, and walls of coral to explore just offshore. A cruise around the island offers, if nothing else, variety. Each time we anchored, it felt like we’d arrived in a different country.

West Bay, Roatan

Utila is as different from Roatan as Roatan from Guanaja. A mere 17-mile sail takes you into a different weather pattern and social atmosphere. There are still palatial gringo-retiree houses with ocean views, still tin-roofed houses on stilts in town, but Utila is obviously a young diver’s mecca. Dive shops with palapas strung with hammocks line the waterfront, delicious after-dive lunches can be found for a reasonable price at lots of establishments, and the dance music starts at sunset and doesn’t finish until the wee hours. Young people from all over the world come here to get certified to dive and to become dive instructors themselves. Others come to swim with whale sharks, which are often found in the waters along the north side. Like Guanaja and Roatan, Utila has clear water, beautiful living reefs, lots of fish, and inexpensive dive-shops, which makes for phenomenal snorkeling and diving.

Swimming with a Whale Shark

The Bay Islands of Honduras have always been a crossroads. Mayan glyphs can still be found here—relics of a once-expansive population which had established trade routes throughout Central America. The first European explorers who came to get fresh food and water were welcomed by indigenous Paya in cayucos. The ubiquitous pirates of the Spanish Main lurked here. The Garifuna (Black Caribs) of St. Vincent were shipped here by English Colonizers during the wars between the intermarried “Black” Caribs and pure-blood “Yellow” Caribs of the Eastern Caribbean. The people from Africa, those whom “England left behind” have formed their own unique culture and language. Seafaring Caymanians sailed downwind from their islands to the East. Louisiana shrimpers seeking a new fishing grounds plied the nearby banks. The Hondurans who took over the islands brought Latin culture and cooking and Spanish language. The tourists seeking pristine reefs and beaches, the expats looking for cheap property in paradise, the sailors looking for a quiet anchorage—they have all come through the Bay Islands and left their mark. We too have come, made friends, formed impressions, created memories, and enjoyed the beautiful waters of the Honduran coast.

Sailing Away from Guanaja

Code Zero

When we bought Take Two, she was a lean, mean sailing machine. We tacked back and forth toward the mouth of the Manatee River and sailed across Tampa Bay on weekends and learned how to make her go fast. We used our spinnaker on calm days for a downwind run. We outran afternoon thunderstorms.

Sailing in 20 knots

And then we moved aboard.

We brought tools, spare parts, books, cast iron skillets, 5-gallon buckets of grain, scuba tanks—and, how could I forget? —five kids and all their clothes, toys, sporting equipment, and sundry items. “And sundry items” raised our water line 6 inches over time, and now our sleek sailboat is a fat cat. It takes a lot of wind to get her going. On passages, we don’t even bother to raise the main unless it’s blowing a steady 15 knots. Sure, we might be motor sailing with the jib out, but when the wind drops to 10 knots? Fuhgeddaboudit.

That all changed when we commissioned a Code Zero from Calvert Sails before we left for the Caribbean. We had added a crane to the top of the mast and a bowsprit to accommodate the new sail when we refurbished the rig in Fort Pierce (Spring 2015).

IMG_5341

We hoisted it for the first time on New Year’s Day 2016, and as it rolled out in all its glorious enormity, I heard angel choirs. We were hoping it would turn Take Two back into a sailboat, and we have not been disappointed. It is a reaching sail that fills the gap between our foresail (a genoa) and our spinnaker. We intended to use it for light upwind sailing and heavier downwind reaches.

Code Zero

We sailed across the Bahama banks in March in 15-20 knots of wind and fairly flew along the leeward coast of New Providence, seeing 10-11 knots of boat speed. When the wind started to pick up, we swapped it for the genny, not wanting to be overpowered. Good thing, too, because we saw nearly 40 knots on the banks that afternoon as we approached the anchorage at Highbourne Cay.

After that day, we wrestled it down into a locker (to protect it from the sun) and didn’t see it again for a long, long time as we bashed eastward toward the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands. Once we reached the Windwards, we discovered that the trade winds were too strong or too southerly to fly the Zero, so it stayed coiled away for another day while we sailed with reefed main and jib.

That all changed as we began the next leg of our Caribbean circle. Heading north from Grenada, we sailed fast beam reaches to St. Vincent and the Grenadines and St. Lucia, rolling out the Zero when the wind grew light, sometimes ghosting along at half-windspeed in 10 knots of breeze. Heading west from St. Lucia, it’s all downwind, so we expected to use the Zero a lot.

On our way to Bonaire in November 2016, we learned something important about that sail. We had raised, and then subsequently lowered, the mainsail after sloppy seas caused it to bang around too much. We hoisted the Zero without the main and seemed to have a lot of success. Until we hit some squally weather one night during my watch, when I decided to wake Jay to help me furl it. Without the main to blanket the huge sail, all the pressure of 25-30 knots of wind made it nearly impossible to furl. I was easing the sail as Jay furled the continuous line, but as the top and bottom of the sail rolled tightly, the middle caught the wind and bagged and ballooned. Jay was pulling as fast and hard as he could, but if he paused for even a moment, all ground was lost. Of course, it was night-time, he had been awakened from a dead sleep, and had never considered how hard the job would be, so he wasn’t even wearing gloves. We eventually got it sloppily rolled, and then dropped it onto the trampolines. As his hands blistered and bled, we learned a hard lesson—the Code Zero never goes up without the main (and, sailing gloves are not just for race crew).

We used the sail again heading west from San Blas during a period of light wind in January 2018, and, most recently, to sail from Guanaja to Roatan, Bay Islands of Honduras. The wind was directly behind us at about 10 knots. We considered using the spinnaker, but it shares a halyard with the Zero, which was still rigged since our sail from Grand Cayman. Though we swore never to fly the Zero without the main up, it seemed like the perfect light wind day to try it. And it was lovely—quietly swishing through indigo seas instead of listening to the drone of a motor or worrying about the spinnaker folding in on itself as it sometimes does in ocean swells. I went with the kids and lay on the trampolines in the shade and echo of that great sail and enjoyed a gorgeous day on the water. Though we’re still straightening out the proverbial (and sometimes literal) wrinkles, we have grown to love the Code Zero.

Sun Dog

San Andres and Providencia, Part II

While San Andres receives a million visitors each year (comparable to Costa Rica), very few of these visitors make it to Providencia, which has only a small airstrip and a little ferry, which runs the fifty miles between the two islands twice each day—there and back—in nice weather. Instead of multi-story hotel complexes, it has only a few bed-and-breakfast type places, privately-owned rentals, and small hostels. It is quiet and peaceful, and the residents like it that way. While there is some Colombian influence, the island remains much closer to its English roots—the locals still refer to it as Divine Old Providence, and most speak English. The contrast between the two islands couldn’t be more dramatic.

Santa Isabel, Providencia

We knew we would love it the moment we dropped the hook. No jet-skis, no traffic noise, no boats zooming around, a nearly-empty anchorage—just a beautiful, green, hilly island fringed with white beaches, turquoise water, and coral reefs. It reminded us of a volcanic island of the eastern Caribbean minus the cruise ship terminal. We called Mr. Bush, the agent for checking in with customs and immigration, who told us to come in the morning, poured ourselves a drink and settled in for one of the prettiest sunsets we’ve seen in a long time.

Sunset, Providenca

Two nights later, as the full moon rose, a rainstorm passed through the anchorage, causing a quick scuffle on deck as everyone battened down the hatches. The storm over almost as quickly as it had begun, we witnessed a phenomenon I have never before seen: a giant moon-bow—the colors of a night-rainbow clearly visible in the bright moonlight.  No camera could have properly captured that image, but I will never forget it.

Everything in Povidencia was like that—magical. We snorkeled in the lagoon near Crab Cay on a cloudless day in the clearest water I have ever seen. We drove around the island (it only takes 45 minutes!) and found Divino Niño, a beach restaurant with great food and atmosphere, that was recommended by friends. We walked around Santa Catalina on a nature trail and jumped off of a rocky overhang dubbed “Morgan’s Head” into the ocean (it looks a lot like a head, and is named for the pirate Henry Morgan, who is said to have buried treasure in this popular pirates’ lair.) We climbed the Peak, the tallest point on the island, and had a view of the famous “sea of seven colors.” And we made friends, which instantly transforms any place one visits.

Morgan's Head, Old Providence

Three boats came in while we were anchored in Providencia—Aqua Lobo of New Zealand with twin ten-year-olds aboard (insta-friends for our younger crew), a young couple on Soul Rebel (Aaron discovered a fellow guitar-player, Joe, with similar musical interests), and Sea Horse, with a crew of three, one a teenage girl who plays the ukulele! We were at a crossroads—they were heading south to Panama, and we were heading north towards Cayman, but for a brief span of time, they were the best friends you can imagine. We went out for fried chicken together, toured the island on gas-powered mules, swam, raced sailing dinghies, watched green-flash sunsets over drinks and laughter, shared pie on my new favorite holiday, Pi Day (3/14, of course!), and generally had a wonderful time in a beautiful place.

Hike to the Peak

One afternoon, we were relaxing in the cockpit, and a kayak with four local young people came by. They had been out fishing and stopped by because they liked our boat. They seemed friendly, and it was a hot afternoon, so I invited them into the cockpit for some shade and a cool drink.  They introduced themselves (Luis, Tachi, Dashaina, and Jose), I introduced the kids, and within moments, we discovered a common interest in music, and I lent Luis a guitar and he began to play reggae and calypso and sing. I pulled out a ukulele and an impromptu jam session began. They stayed all afternoon, and promised to visit again. We got to hang out a few more times, and a friendship began, which culminated a couple weeks later in a spearfishing trip and an evening beach-barbecue-extravaganza with the other boat-friends joining us for amazing fire-roasted fish and pot-luck side dishes.

Little Luis with Uke

Little Luis playing the ukulele

Old Fort Beach Fire

We even got to go see Luis practice with his band before they left for mainland Colombia for a competition. I dinghied over to the shore where Luis and Tachi picked me and the three boys up. We piled onto the back of two motorbikes and zoomed to the community center where the other band members were gathering for the last practice before their departure the next morning. I loved every minute—but especially enjoyed seeing the horse jaw-bone used as a percussion instrument!  My favorite song is called “Coconut Woman,” about a woman who sells coconuts every day, and lists all the benefits of that amazing nut. (Luis began to teach me how to play it before we sailed away.)

Luis and the band

As is always the case with a place one grows to love, it was hard to leave. With an insurance deadline looming (we needed a survey by April 1), we felt pressure to head north as soon as a weather window appeared. We sadly went to check out with Mr. Bush and spend our last Colombian pesos. The next morning, after a terrible night’s sleep and a very strange dream, we knew we should pull a “Take Two.” We are famous for these do-overs, not because we are indecisive, but because we prefer to travel at the right time and recognize when something doesn’t feel right. We went back to see Mr. Bush and he straightened everything out. We were lucky enough to spend another week in lovely Providencia and have a good-bye pizza dinner with the other boat-friends.

On our last day, I paddled over in my kayak to see Tachi and to give little Luis a hug good-bye. We sat on the beach under a shade tree laughing, talking, and watching 4-year-old Luis and the other the kids play with my kayak in the shallow water. It is hard to describe the kindship I felt—it didn’t matter that I live on a boat and she on an island, or that I am 15 years older than she is, or that our skin isn’t the same color, or that we speak differently—the mysterious bond that connected us was strong enough to surpass these differences, and to make my imminent departure seem insignificant. Somewhere on an island in the middle of a turquoise sea, I have a sister. Like a rainbow in the moonlight, that is a rare and beautiful thing.

I love Providence

 

 

San Andres and Providencia, Part I

Before heading into the Caribbean, we had never even heard of these two little islands. They are hundreds of miles from Colombia, which governs them, and the local population, being of English or African descent, bears very little resemblance to the Spanish or Mestizos of Latin America. But several sailors we met along the way told us not to miss them—Providencia especially, or as the English dubbed it, Divine Old Providence. We spent nearly a month in San Andres—about three weeks longer than we had planned—because it was an unusually windy February and we weren’t interested in getting our butts kicked again. Our passage from Panama to San Andres was about 240 nautical miles, and we sailed it in 30 hours, with a reefed main and partially furled jib in strong winds and rough seas. Nobody moved except to get a drink and go to the bathroom. So, despite the jet skis, the nearly-constant tour-boat wakes, and the noise of the port of San Andres, we stayed. And we stayed long enough to get beneath what Jay calls the veneer of “Duty-free Disney,” with its crowded streets lined with liquor stores, restaurants, tee-shirt shops, and all-inclusive resorts.

As is always the case, the people make the place. Even a pretty place is just a location until you make a friend. Our agent, Julian, was very welcoming and helpful, and his 13-year-old son, Keiram, came out to the boat to swim and play with our kids every weekend.

Kids with Keiram, San Andres

Through Julian, we met Sky, or as he likes to be called, “Brother Sky” (as a reminder that we are all a part of the same human family). At 73, he is tall, lean, and surprisingly muscular and energetic, with blue-green eyes and graying hair and beard. He wears a hand-woven hat and speaks with a West-Indian lilt. He led us on a guided tour of the island and explained its history and politics. We ended up at Star’s Kitchen, a little beach restaurant on the south end of the island near the town of San Luis.

Star’s place is charming, and the food is good—she uses fresh fish and produce to create simple, yet delicious dishes, served in hand-woven palm baskets on tables in the sand under the shade of coconut trees. As we sat sipping freshly-made fruit juices in the sea breeze, Sky talked about the “coconut culture” which once pervaded the island, but has now all but vanished. Young and old alike worked the coconut plantations: the children rode donkeys laden with ripe coconuts for export, which had been gathered by men wearing iron-spiked climbing shoes, while those too old to climb kept the books. It was a community enterprise from which everyone benefitted, and nothing from the coconut tree was wasted. While he talked of his youth in the 1950s, a time before the tourism boom, he wove coconut fronds into fish and birds. He had made all of the baskets at the restaurant, having learned the craft from someone in the Virgin Islands while traveling and working as the photographer on a cruise ship. I asked if he would be willing to teach me, and we set a date to meet again at Star’s Kitchen.

The older kids, despite being offered a day off from high-school, didn’t fancy sitting under a palm tree all day weaving baskets, so they stayed home, while Rachel and Sam and I met Sky at the bus stop mid-morning and took a local bus to the other end of the island. The bus to the beach was crammed full of Colombian tourists, so we took the bus that passes through Barrack—the hilly neighborhood where the local islanders live (as opposed to the city on the north end of the island, where the Colombian immigrants live and work). Riding the bus is the same everywhere in the Caribbean; the people hop on and off the bus and chat with each other in the local dialect—here it bears a strong resemblance to the patois of the Eastern Caribbean. The bus passed the First Baptist church at the crest of the hill; with its white clapboard sides, colored glass windows, and steeple, it looks like a church plucked from a small town in the southern United States and dropped where it could be closest to heaven—and with an overlook of the famous “sea of seven blues,” its view is awe-inspiring. The road curves down, past half-finished mansions built by drug lords and corrupt government officials, and we got off near the beach and walked to Star’s Kitchen to begin our day of weaving.

The weaving required a lot of concentration and patience, and Sky is part teacher-part guru, his mantra, “Take what you have to make what you need.” Rachel played happily in the sand and hammock all day, and Sam wove fish after fish until the motion became automatic. (Later, Sky came for pizza night on Take Two, and taught Sam to make little birds in flight.) I completed a hanging basket and learned the steps for a bowl. We paused for lunch and then wove all afternoon. As the light began to fade, we packed up my “homework,” partially-finished baskets to complete on my own. We rode home, feeling sleepy in the warmth and rocking of the bus. That night, with Sky’s words fresh in my mind, I composed a song, which I sang for him when he visited later in the week. He offered more wisdom about life and happiness and learning—”knowledge is power, but only when it is shared.” When we sailed away the next week, we had the satisfaction of having shared in his knowledge, and we took a little piece of that place with us, and left a bit of ourselves there—the exchange that forms the backbone of our travelling life.

Sam weaving coconut palm

 

Not So Long Ago (in San Andres)     

Not so long ago

On this little island

Fish filled the seas, coconuts grew on trees

People were happy, they could live as they pleased

We’ll never forget what it was like

Not so long ago

 

Not so long ago

The people of this island

Helped each other like sisters and brothers

Worked together in all kinds of weather

Kept the traditions passed onto us

Not so long ago

 

Not so long ago

Things changed on this island

New people came and changed all the names,

Chopped down the trees, killed the fish in the seas

They erased the place that used to be

Not so long ago

 

Now the people come and go

On this little island

Eight flights a day, from far away

On boats and jet-skis, they do whatever they please

They never see what used to be

Not so long ago

 

No so long ago

I left the little island

I couldn’t stay, so I sailed away

But the wind in the trees and the turquoise seas

Called to me in my dreams

Not so long ago

 

Not so long ago

I came back to the island

Though things have changed, some things remain

They can’t take from our hearts the most important parts:

We sing and we dance, we pray and we love,

Just like long ago,

Just like long ago…

To Give or Not to Give, that is the Question

I thought that this blog was going to be about the indigenous tribes of Panama, but I have discovered in the writing of it that a much larger topic lies beneath.

One of the reasons we left our suburban neighborhood to take our kids traveling was to show them how other people live. We wanted them to learn to speak another language and to become “well rounded.” We did not want them to take their place in the world—born into a relatively wealthy, well-educated family—for granted, but to appreciate every gift, and learn how to share those gifts someday as adults. This sounds like a noble goal, but in the midst of accomplishing it, we are having to rethink our preconceived notions of “wealth” and “education.”

Allow me to illustrate: in the San Blas islands of Panama live the Guna Yala people, an indigenous tribe which numbered in the hundreds of thousands before the conquistadors arrived, and now consist of about 50,000 people, spread over an area which encompasses about a quarter of Panama. They are self-governing, and have their own language. They make a living by fishing, sewing molas (beautifully sewn handicrafts), and growing coconuts.

Cayos Coco Banderos, San Blas

Recently, tourism has become another source of income, and one can see pangas with outboard motors zooming from place to place picking up and dropping off visitors from the mainland (now connected to Cartí by road). Obviously, this brush with the “civilized world” has changed their way of life—instead of paddling ulus, some Gunas have motors, and instead of meeting in the hut for a daily congreso, many have televisions.  Nearly everyone has a cell phone, so the outside world comes streaming in. The islands and surrounding waters are littered with plastic garbage from packages of imported food and drinks. Now, I don’t intend to invoke the myth of the Noble Savage, but in conversations with Gunas and with our kids, we are learning that as the Guna gain what we might consider “wealth,” they are losing their traditional culture, and as they become “educated” in government-run schools, they are losing the knowledge of how to live off the land. One might argue that these trade-offs do not really enrich their lives.

Carti, San Blas

This is the dilemma of development everywhere. In the eastern Caribbean, islands with cruise ship ports have thriving seaside quays with jewelry shops, souvenir stands, restaurants, casinos, and clothing stores. Of course, the locals may not actually shop in the places where they work, but still, tourism is big business and brings a lot of money to the islands that in years past survived on subsistence farming, exporting sugar and tropical fruit, and rum, fishing, and harvesting salt. But with the influx of money comes an increase in pickpockets, drug dealers, swindlers, and beggars, too.

We spent a season at Red Frog Marina in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. Nowhere was the gap between Have and Have Not more readily apparent: multi-million dollar yachts moored a hundred yards from mangrove huts where the indigenous Ngöbe-Bugle cooked over open fires. It is easy to look at the externals and say that the owner of the mega-yacht, because he has a generator and a washer/dryer is “rich” and the man in the hut “poor” because his clothes are hanging on a line between two trees, but that’s a very simplistic view of human life, and demonstrates how we often confuse “money” with “wealth.” Unfortunately, the attractiveness of this sleek lifestyle changes the way the native views himself, and perhaps this is the greatest loss.

Two young Gunas came by selling molas the other day. They differed significantly from the older Guna ladies I had met, most of whom wear traditional clothes, gold nose-rings, short hair, and beads wrapped in wide bands with intricate patterns around their wrists and ankles. A girl in her late teens, with long hair and chipped nail polish came with her brother, her driver and translator (from Guna to Spanish). They wished us a Merry Christmas and wanted to know about our traditions (and also if we would be buying gifts…) and I explained that we had traded our house-full of stuff for a simpler life on a boat, and we do not participate in Christmas or buy gifts because we choose to make memories instead. (Just that morning, when I had jokingly asked Jay what he got me for my birthday, he said, “an island paradise.”) I said we believed that relationships, not things, make people happy. He nodded vigorously and said he believed the same.

When I asked whether the next generation of Gunas was keeping the traditions of their elders, he said he is teaching his two young sons to free-dive and to fish, and the girls in his family are still learning to sew. Otherwise, he asked, how would they make a living someday? But he also admitted that with the influx of media and with the building of schools, things had changed. Electronic entertainment has replaced storytelling and singing, and young children that used to go into the mountains to tend farms with their parents now go to school, and food is brought in by boat from Colombia and by road from Panama City. He said that the Guna often eat canned tuna instead of fresh-caught fish!

Tres Pescadores, Rio Azucar, San Blas

During some particularly heavy wind (which makes paddling ulus island-to-island impossible), I was visited repeatedly by Morales, a Guna lady who tried to sell me the same molas and beads every day. I usually offered her a cold drink and a chance to rest in my shady cockpit, and she told me over the course of several days that she and her husband were raising their two grandchildren because their parents had died and between fishing and selling molas, they provided food and clothes for the four of them, but that things were difficult when she couldn’t get out to sell, or when her husband couldn’t find fish. The grandson had a medical emergency and had to go to the hospital, which complicated matters. She never begged for money outright, but always asked me to buy something. When we made gifts of some school supplies, kids’ clothes, and used snorkel gear, she offered me something in exchange. We had no way of knowing whether her story was true or not, but we helped her as much as we felt we should.

Mola by Morales

This raised many a dinner-time conversation about giving. When should a person share what they have? What are the motives of the person asking for help and the person deciding whether to help or not? When is giving money or material things not helpful? We could think of many examples where tourists giving handouts to locals creates more problems than it solves. We recounted instances in the last year or two when we had unknowingly contributed to a problem by “helping” someone, and other instances when it would have been wrong not to help.

Sometimes helping involves more than a handout. I took over my friend Shirlene’s English classes at a Ngöbe village school this past summer when she and her family went back to the United States for a visit. Eli and Sam each came with me a few times to help out. That kind of giving—of time and energy, seems to satisfy a need without creating a negative cycle, and often results in the giver receiving a blessing as well. Another strategy is to trade instead of giving things away, helping to retain the dignity of the receiver and not contributing to the economy of begging. We also donate things like school supplies and clothes to a local charity or church, because they usually better understand the need in the community.

Bahia Honda English Class

I knew we would see poverty as well as wealth in our travels, and that they would often be juxtaposed, but I didn’t realize how we would be confronted almost daily with the dilemma about whether and how to help a “poor” person who sees us as wealthy patrons. Discerning what the “haves” should or should not do for the “have-nots” is difficult—there is no formula, and humans are not always motivated by altruism; they often act out of guilt or pride or pity. As a result, some people simply refuse to participate, turning every needy person away without consideration for individual circumstances. Others give liberally without thinking of the consequences: generous to a fault.

We are looking for the happy medium: we recognize that though our boat feels like a modest dwelling to us, it represents a life of luxury to those we encounter. Furthermore, our faith in the ultimate Giver compels us to act with compassion toward fellow creatures. The scriptures by which we live are clear on giving: if I have two shirts, and my brother has none, I ought to give him my extra. We believe that “to whom much is given, much will be expected” and “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” To love God is to show love to our fellow man.*

On the other hand, the kids say I have “sucker” written across my forehead, that I would listen to every “Sally Sob-story and Harry Hard-luck” that makes an appeal. I bought limes and bananas (whether I needed them or not) up and down the Eastern Caribbean from every boat-boy who stopped by. I felt I was supporting the local economy in legal goods, but other people might argue that I’m taking business from the markets ashore, or raising the prices of produce, or even “feeding a stray dog” that will return again and again. I don’t know.

Warrior, Carriacou

Furthermore, when someone does ask for help, I often have no way of knowing whether he or she is telling me the truth. I have opted to err on the side of compassion. A dishonest person will eventually suffer the consequences of his lies, but I will also be held accountable for whether I cared for my neighbor. I guess I would rather be foolhardy than hard-hearted.

Life was much easier in suburbia. We belonged to a church, we gave regularly, and we seldom encountered abject poverty and desperation. I once heard a fellow sailor say that he was tired of traveling to third-world countries because “poverty looks the same everywhere,” but now that I have seen it, I have to say that it isn’t true. Yes, a blue tarp constitutes a “roof” in many places, but beneath that roof, the people are individuals, with thoughts and feelings and needs. How to meet those needs is a complex question, and though we can’t help every poor person in the world, when someone crosses our path in a place of need, we owe it to him as a fellow human to listen to his story with an open mind, and to treat him the way we would want to be treated.

*Verses from the Bible: Luke 3:11, Luke 12:47-48, James 1:27, Matthew 22:36-40