I recently sat in the cockpit and had a conversation with Brent Krizo of the Herd of Turtles. He contacted me through this blog and asked me to join him for a recorded interview about our life aboard Take Two. His podcasts cover a wide array of adventures, and you can listen to the Take Two episode at:
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.
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.
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…
Our parents have tried very hard to keep things like toys and games from becoming the center of our lives. We don’t have a big Christmas, and we don’t get birthday presents; instead, we go do something fun. This is generally a good practice, but it breaks down when we do get new things. Occasionally, we have a Stuff Day. It doesn’t come every year and it doesn’t come on a specific day, but when it does, we’ll be excitedly cutting packing tape and popping bubble wrap.
We made a big Amazon order recently because here in San Andres we can have things shipped to us duty-free in a container. The minimum cost is $80, which might seem expensive, but it’s measured in cubic feet, and when you order a bunch of stuff, it’s not that much. It only costs $130 to ship 40 cubic feet of cargo, which is obviously more than we were getting. All of our boxes but one made it onto the ship, and then we just had to wait for it come. It took four days to get to San Andres from Miami, all of which were filled with anticipation and speculation on our part. On the day of its arrival, we all watched, trying and failing to suppress grins and evil laughs, as the Jan Caribe, the ship bearing our goods, came into the channel.
This is what I’m talking about: we’re all excited and giddy about some stuff on a container ship. All right, it wasn’t just “some stuff,” that container held a waffle-maker, a five-by-eight-foot inflatable platform, four Wii controllers (we already had a Wii that someone had given us), and a 32” television (among other things like boat parts of course). The next day, we collected it all and got it onto the boat. Once it was all inside, the packages took up our entire living room space! Then we started unpacking. It took us an hour to open all the boxes, unpack them, and stow the loot. We got dock lines, a shore-power cord, orange cleaner, mail, a wind instrument, etc.; it was the biggest pile of new stuff we’ve ever had!
We inflated our new raft and played on it. We made waffles the next morning with our new waffle maker. We even got to play Mariokart on the new TV! It just shows that despite our best intentions not to become materialistic, there is no denying that new stuff makes us happy, at least for a short time.
The San Blas islands have been on the cruising list, or so I’m told, since before we bought the boat. They certainly do seem list-worthy, with clear blue-green water, miles of reef, picturesque palm-tree-studded islands, and friendly natives. We set out from Linton Bay Marina after about a month of stocking up and waiting for weather, and sailed east to spend a few weeks in the San Blas archipelago.
San Blas consists of hundreds of islands and islets on the eastern end of Panama’s Caribbean coast. They are quite beautiful, not hilly or mountainous like Bocas del Toro or the mainland, but flat spits of land covered in white sand and palm trees. Many of them have thatch huts, and dugout canoes, called ulus, pulled up on the beach.
The islands are part of the Comarca de Guna Yala, a large province that covers about a quarter of Panama’s land area. They and the surrounding jungles are home to the Guna Yala, a peaceful, independently-governed indigenous people that mostly live as they have lived for centuries (minus the TVs). They are best known for their molas (intricately embroidered, quilted handicrafts), which they are-all-too happy to sell to cruisers and tourists.
For the first few days, we moved around a lot. We would anchor in one place, stay there a day or two, and go somewhere else. On our second night, while in the Hollandes Cays, we turned on the underwater light. We saw large fish circling the light, and decided to take a night swim (well, those that were brave enough). I took along the spear gun, just in case. Spearfishing in the San Blas is not strictly legal for visitors, but the prohibition is not enforced. As it turns out, the circling fish were huge schools of permit. Shooting one would be easy. That didn’t stop me from missing on the first try, but after several false starts and five minutes of unwanted reloading practice, I got one. This was only the second time I had ever shot a fish, and the first time with our gun. It was a good shot too, right through the brain. I hauled my catch up the ladder, and Dad gutted it. We put it in the icebox whole for later consumption. (We later heard there’s a resident caiman in that same island group. )
There were two major problems with an extended stay in the San Blas: internet and food. The cell service we were able to get was sketchy at best, and nonexistent at worst. Dad needs copious amounts of data for his work, and if Dad can’t work, then we can’t stay. Simple as that. We went to Cartí, one of the more populated group of islands near the mainland, where Dad bought a sim card and Mom bought some groceries. As long as we stayed within range of a cell tower, internet wasn’t such a big problem, but it remained patchy.
Food was another issue. We have vast stores of mixed grain, beans, and freeze-dried goodies and ingredients, so we didn’t starve, but luxuries such as cheese and lunch meat quickly disappeared. Mom made bread every day (which was great), and we ate a lot of peanut butter and rice-and-beans (which was not great). We received a partial re-supply when our friends on Jubilee arrived, bringing with them various rare foodstuffs, like butter and cream. Once or twice, Mom and Dad took the dinghy to a nearby town to buy food. The selections at the various “grocery stores” that we encountered were limited, apparently, to flour, onions, chicken, and eggs. On one shopping excursion, Mom returned with a chicken, which had been thoughtfully plucked, and 90 eggs. We had to remove the head and feet of the chicken, and about half of the eggs were bad. Mom was always trying to sift the weevils and their larvae out of the flour. I told her that it wouldn’t matter once it was in the bread, but she wouldn’t listen.
We stayed in the West Lemon cays for a week or so, at a place where Dad could get internet, and we could wait out the Christmas winds. We didn’t do much beyond school, chores, and the daily jump-n-swim. It was wonderfully boring. Almost every day, Gunas came up to the boat, selling molas, fish, or lobster.
When the Christmas winds ended, we sailed around aimlessly for a while, before settling near Green Island. The swimming was much better, despite there reputedly being a crocodile in the island group. There were several good reefs nearby, with deep coral walls. On sunny afternoons, Dad and I would go out to the reef and clean out all the lionfish with a pole spear. We got 11, enough for a meal.
A week before we were to leave, we were pleasantly surprised when our friends on Nakamakula arrived and anchored ‘next door.’ We had met them in Shelter Bay, and their three small girls were ecstatic at the prospect of seeing Rachel again. We hung out with them for a few days, then headed west to get ready to sail back to Linton Bay.
The next day, we left the San Blas. After a short but miserable passage, we arrived back at Linton Bay Marina. With the A/C running and sandwich meat in the fridge, it’s hard to miss being anchored in an exotic location with no modern conveniences, but I managed it somehow.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
Gülcin, Sam, and I were kayaking a few weeks ago near the island where the spider monkeys live. Sam asked if we could go on the island. Gulcin said yes. There were two monkeys nearby. Sometimes people feed the monkeys on the island, but we did not have any food. Suddenly, the two monkeys came towards us. Sam and Gulcin went back toward the water, and I was trying to run, too, but the two monkeys blocked me. Two more monkeys came up behind me. I felt afraid, and so I screamed. In an instant, the four monkeys and others which came running, attacked me, grabbing and scratching me. I curled up in a little ball, trying to hide my head and face with my arms. Then, Gulcin ran back to me and started pulling the monkeys off of me. She jumped on top of them and picked me up. She threw me in the water and fought to get away from the monkeys, who were dragging her back. I was terrified and hurt—a monkey had scratched me badly on the arm, and I was bleeding like crazy. Sam wrapped his tee-shirt around my arm. Gulcin screamed for help, and a man came in a dinghy and took us to the town. A taxi driver drove me and Gulcin to Portobelo to the clinic, while Sam went back to the boat by dinghy to tell Mom and Dad what had happened. Mom came in another taxi to the clinic. First, they cleaned me up. Then, they gave me a pain shot. Next, they stitched my arm. And finally, they bandaged it. I also had to get a tetanus shot, but I didn’t even cry about it because I wasn’t afraid like I had been before. I came home and told everyone what had happened. They all thought I had been very brave since I didn’t even cry.
All healed up!
We had been planning to go to Panama City for a long time, and we were finally able to make the trip in November. We took a taxi to the train station in Colón, but it turned out that it was a Panamanian holiday and the train did not run that day, so we had to take the bus. When I heard this news, I imagined a “chicken bus,” crammed full of people and animals, speeding down winding mountain roads. But the bus was not at all what I had imagined. It was big, with comfortable, spacious seats, so that even though the bus filled up, you couldn’t really tell. It was air-conditioned—a little too air-conditioned, actually, and the road and driver were reasonably good. It took about 2 1/2 hours to get to Le Meridien, our hotel, including traffic and taxi rides. When we checked in it was about 6:00 p.m. and already dark. We went up to our adjoining rooms on the fourth floor and decided to have Papa John’s deliver pizza. After we ate the pizza on the sixth-floor terrace, we went back to our rooms, called the day a success (other than the not-train-ride) and went to bed.
The next morning, we decided to go downstairs and across the street to a small café for breakfast. After we ate, a taxi driver named Ariel took us to the museum of the History of the Panama Canal in Casco Antiguo, the old city. When we left the museum, it was about 11:00 or 12:00 o’clock, so we walked around town to just look around and see what’s what. We stopped for cold drinks, then found the Iglesia de La Merced, a 17th century Catholic church which had been moved stone by stone to its present location (it had not been burned when the pirate Henry Morgan set fire to Panama City). Then we walked around for another half hour or so, and found a restaurant called Pip’s. The food was good, but the service was not great (as in not getting exactly what we ordered). We called Ariel to take us back to the hotel. It was about 5:30 when we got back. Mom and Dad went out on a date while we kids watched a movie and went to bed.
The next morning, we called a driver named Luis (a very nice guy) to take us in his van on a city tour. He took us to breakfast at a local place, called El Trapiche, then to see the canal locks, Ancon Hill, Flamenco Island, and the Baha’i Temple. At the Mira Flores Locks, we went to the visitor’s center and the observation deck to see a container ship exit the locks on the Pacific side. In the visitor’s center, there are exhibits and artifacts about the history of the canal.
Ancon Hill was the site of the old Canal Hospital, but now it is a nature hike with a great view. It was a 45-minute hike to the top, but the view was more than worth it.
As we were walking down, we found an injured sloth that had fallen out of a tree. Luis picked it up and carried it, until a family with a toddler let us borrow their stroller. The little boy gladly gave up his stroller to save the sloth! At the bottom of the hill, we loaded the sloth into the van and gave the stroller back to the family. Next, Luis drove to the Smithsonian Institute on Flamenco Island to see if they could take care of the sloth. They sent us to the National Park, where we dropped it off.
We stopped for lunch, then Luis took us to the Ba’hai temple outside of the city on a tall hill, where we got another great view of the city. We returned to the hotel around 5 o’clock to rest before dinner. We then took two taxis to Pomodoro, an Italian restaurant. We had been told to watch out for Panamanian taxi drivers because they always get lost, and both drivers had to stop for directions to find our restaurant! It all ended well, and the next day would be our last in the city.
We all woke up the next morning to the sun shining through the big glass windows around 7:00 a.m. We called Luis to take us to the mall to do some shopping before we left the city. We were planning to stay for several hours to find what we needed, so we wandered around until we found a Conway department store. We spent a couple of hours there, looking for clothes and shoes, then headed toward the food court. We found a music store, then had some lunch (Wendy’s and Subway). After lunch, Dad, Rachel, and I took a taxi back to the hotel because we had what we needed and didn’t want to wander around all day.
I cannot tell you about any of the other events that day because I was not there, so I will skip right to dinner. We walked around the city near our hotel (in the rain) until we found a restaurant called “The Ozone Café,” which served dishes from many countries of the world. It was very interesting and delicious. When we got back to the hotel, we packed our bags and prepared for the return trip in the morning.
The next morning, we got up at 5:30 a.m. to meet Luis, who drove us to the train station and we got there just in time for the morning train to Colón. We boarded the train and were on our way. We sat in the observation car, which had a glass dome, and had snacks. As the train moved along, we got glimpses of the canal locks, and ships in Lake Gatun. When we got back to Colón we took a taxi back to the marina and got there around 9 o’clock. I think the trip was a success and that we made some good memories.
Well, here we are, back in the saddle again. Not literally, obviously. After almost exactly nine months at the dock, we are finally moving again. Of course, saying good-bye to all our new friends was hard, but we’ll probably come back… someday. Aaron and I got paid for all those months at Agua Dulce, and it amounted to quite a lot. The Woods had known that we were leaving soon, and threw us a see-you-later party a few days before, so we got all our farewells in. Leaving a place where you have made friends is always tough, but it was time.
(View of Red Frog Marina from the Wood’s house at Agua Dulce)
We first went out to Isla Popa, and had a goodbye dinner with some more friends. We spent the night, then motored all day to Escudo de Veraguas, a crinkly-edged island to the east. We went snorkeling the next morning at the “mermaid lagoon,” in the words of a certain small crew member.
Then we took an over-night passage to the canal zone. We motored up the Rio Chagres as far as the spillway, and spent the day kayaking, fishing, and trying to spot crocodiles.
The next morning, we picked up the hook and motored past anchored container ships to Shelter Bay Marina. It is a popular hangout for cruisers getting ready for the canal transit, and there were plenty of other kids. We went there because of its proximity to the canal and Panama City.
(Port of Colon, Caribbean side of the Panama Canal)
Next up: we take another overland field trip to the capital, visit some museums, do some shopping, and see the famous Panama Canal before moving on to Linton Bay in time to meet friends for Thanksgiving…
Capital: San Jose
People/Customs: Population is about 4.9 million. Most Costa Ricans, or “Ticos,” are mestizo, descended from Spanish settlers and natives, but Costa Rica is a multi-ethnic country. There are still some indigenous tribes living in Costa Rica.
Language: Spanish is the official language; local dialects are also spoken, like Bribri, Patois, and Mekatelyu.
Climate: Costa Rica has a tropical climate with two distinct seasons: dry season (December to April), and rainy season (May to November), temperature and precipitation are affected by elevation and two bodies of water, the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
Food/Farming: Costa Rica’s most important crop is coffee. There are also large rice, banana, and sugarcane plantations. Costa Rica also produces cattle for beef and dairy, poultry and eggs, teak wood, beans, palm oil, oranges, mangoes, pineapples, and other fruits and vegetables. A typical Costa Rican meal, or “casada tipica,” consists of meat or chicken, rice and beans, tortillas, salad or roasted vegetable, and fried plantains.
Government: Costa Rica is a democratic republic with a constitution defining three branches of government. The current president is Luis Guillermo Solis.
Currency: Costa Rican Colόn, or CRC. It takes 573 CRCs to make $1 USD.
Art/Music/Culture: Costa Ricans usually learn to dance at an early age. Merengue, salsa, cumbia and dub are the four main Costa Rican dances in addition to traditional folk dancing with costumes. Over time, Spanish beats mixed with the indigenous tunes and made a new kind of music special to Costa Rica. Local artisans produce crafts like decorative oxcarts, wooden carvings, pottery, leather work, and jewelry. Holidays celebrated in Costa Rica include: Christmas, New Year’s Day, Easter and Holy Week, Fiesta de Los Diablitos, Independence Day on September 15, and Labor Day on May 1.
Before Christopher Columbus came to Costa Rica in 1502, there were hundreds of thousands of natives from different tribes. There is archaeological evidence that they traded with other tribes in the lands of North Central America and South America. When Columbus “discovered” Costa Rica, he was on his fourth trip to the New World. He confronted a hurricane, was blown off course, and landed in Costa Rica. He traded with the natives and claimed to see more gold in 2 days than he had in 4 years on Hispaniola–that is how Costa Rica, or “Rich Coast,” got is lasting name. It became a Spanish Colony in the 1560s, but San Jose was not established until 1737. By then, the Indian population had been all but destroyed by disease and hard labor, and only a few tribes survived in the jungle.
For the Spanish, Costa Rica did not live up to its name because its wealth is in the cultivation of the rich volcanic soil and not in mined minerals. Costa Rica’s history is also unique in the Caribbean because it never had a slave-based economy. Instead, smaller self-sufficient farms of the Central Valley became the precursor to a rural democracy. However, as in all the other Spanish colonies, society was ruled by men, with power being held by white landowners and the Catholic Church.
Spain ruled Costa Rica until September 15, 1821, when they became independent. Costa Rica separated from Spain peacefully, but without Spanish control, conflicts inside the country arose, leading to a short civil war. The Liberals gained control, moved the capital to San Jose, and joined the CAF, Central American Federation. In 1824, the Nicoya-Guanacaste province left Nicaragua and joined Costa Rica. While other Central American countries struggled with long, bloody civil wars, Costa Rica remained relatively peaceful and was able to focus on agriculture and infrastructure.
When it was discovered that the highlands of the Central Valley were perfect for growing coffee, the government subsidized the planting of saplings. By the mid-1800s, Costa Rica was growing and processing coffee for European markets. By the century’s end, coffee represented 90% of the country’s exports. The coffee processors, rather than plantation owners, became the country’s ruling elite.
In 1890, the first railroad was completed by an American railroad man, Minor Keith, in order to transport coffee to the coast. He planted banana plants along the tracks, which he eventually began export to the United States. The fruit became so popular that by the end of the 1900s, banana exports surpassed coffee, and Costa Rica became the world’s top banana producer. Banana money bought power—the United Fruit company controlled local politics and communications. But in 1913 a disease struck the banana plantations and ended the powerful monopoly.
Despite following the normal Central American pattern of dictatorship and civil war in the first half of the 20th century, Costa Rican leader Jose Figueres Ferrar established the world’s first unarmed democracy (meaning Costa Rica has no military) in 1949. Costa Rica got dragged into the conflicts with the United States and Nicaragua in the 1970s, but the elections of 1984 reaffirmed their commitment to peace. President Oscar Arias later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating a peace plan which ended the conflicts.
After the rise and fall of coffee and bananas, the most valuable resource of Costa Rica turned out to be the wilderness itself. Starting with a nature conservation area in 1963, the “Green Economic Revolution” began with a few tourists coming to see the rainforest, but now about one-third of Costa Rica’s land is preserved as nature reserves, wildlife refuges, and national parks. It has a successful tourism-based economy, with people coming from all around the world to enjoy the natural beauty the country has to offer.
Land forms/Flora and Fauna
Costa Rica is bordered by Nicaragua to the north, Panama to the southeast, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Caribbean Sea to the east. Costa Rica has 51,060 square kilometers (19,714 square miles). It has cloud forests, mangrove wetland, rain forests, desert, beaches, pastureland, volcanic mountains, and coastal farmland (banana and pineapple plantations). It is known for its diverse flora and fauna. Native birds include: the Scarlet Macaw, toucans, hummingbirds, Magpie Jays, Quetzals, Blue-crowned Motmots, and Northern Jacanas. Some of the mammals are Spider monkeys, Howler monkeys, Squirrel monkeys, sloths, Pacific Spotted Dolphins, Pumas, Margays, Pygmy Anteaters, Capuchin monkeys, Tapirs, Jaguars, many species of bats, Humpback whales, and Coati. There are also Caimans, Jesus Lizards, Leatherback turtles, Eyelash Viper snakes, boa constrictors, and many species of frogs, as well as insects and arachnids like scorpions, tarantulas, Blue Morpho butterflies, stick bugs, and fireflies, to name a few.
Things to do
Surfing on the Pacific side (Guanacaste Province), ficus tree climbing in Monteverde, night walk in Monteverde Cloud Forest (Curicancha Reserve), white water rafting, kayaking in rivers or mangroves, coffee tour in the mountains, Arenal Volcano National Park (hanging bridges, hot springs, and ziplining), Bat Jungle in Monteverde, waterfall tours, horseback riding, nature hikes in Manuel Antonio National Park or Corcorvado National Park, and other wildlife tours and refuges.
McCarthy, Carolyn, and G. Benchwich, J. S. Brown, J. Hecht, T. Spurling, I. Stewart, L.Vidgen, and M. Voorhees. “Costa Rica,” Central America on a Shoestring. Lonely Planet Publications, 2013.
For more information, look at these websites:
Located on Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro, Panama, Agua Dulce is a small, privately-owned marina run by a guy named Bobby and his family, who have been living in the area for years. We heard about them from some friends we had met in the Keys who used to work there. When we got to Bocas, we looked them up. They have a reasonably long dock, a workshop with metal-working, canvas, and fiberglass sections, a guest house, and a medical clinic, in addition to their own house and large multi-purpose building. They have three home-schooled kids, a boy and two girls, ages 6, 10, and 14, respectively, so at least there are some other kids nearby with which to play.
Previous to our acquaintance, I had been consistently finishing my school work before noon, and had a surplus of free time, so the idea of getting a job sounded pretty good. I started driving the dinghy the two-and-a-half miles to Agua Dulce every day at around 1:00, to volunteer until 5:00. I basically did clean-up/sorting chores or helped a guy named Ben who works there, with whatever he was doing. A lot of the stuff there is related to panga work (local fiberglass motorboats), such as welded stainless tops, painting, motor work and replacement, wood floor pieces, and fiberglass, though they also do boat storage and other things. Ben does all the welding and metalworking, from door handles to tops for pangas, and taught me how to sand down and polish the welds to make them smooth and shiny. I also stripped things like cleats, lights, D-rings, and steering systems off of boats that needed to be sanded and painted. The sanding and fiberglass is handled by “the guys,” a group of indigenous workers hired from the two adjacent villages, led by Felipe, the most experienced of them.
Ever since I started working there, I noticed that the guys watched me a lot. One day I needed an extra hand, and asked one of them for help. Though my Spanish was not very good, I was able to tell him what I wanted, and it worked out fine. A couple of days later, now that they knew we could communicate, they asked me what my name was, so I told them. A week later, though I was sure that they knew my name, they started calling me “Crosh.” I didn’t find out what that meant for another couple of months, and as it turns out, the English equivalent in their native dialect is “skinny guy.”
There are several funny anecdotes about the guys, like one time when Ben, Bobby, and I were working on a boat and using the Sawzall. Michael (one of the guys) walked up and asked (in Spanish, of course) “Do you need the Jiggy-Jiggy?” and pointed to the Sawzall. We gave it to him, and when he was gone we all started laughing. The Inspiration for the name of this blog post came one especially hot day when I spent two-and-a-half hours pumping mixed gas out of a boat that was getting a four-stroke motor. I ended up soaked in sweat and fuel, and getting a cut on my hand, hence the blood, sweat, and gasoline.
After a month or so, Eli began joining me every day, taking over most of my cleaning and organizing jobs, so I leveled up to tasks like preparing motors for removal and installing steering systems on boats. We got to know the place, where all the tools were kept, the names of most of the workers, and got into a regular routine. When a customer wants his boat totally sanded down and repainted, it is taken up the canal and pulled up onto the bank. It is then stripped (my job), sanded down (the guys), and whatever fiber-glassing is needed is done before it is painted. When it is ready, Felipe paints the exterior whatever color the customer wants, then paints the interior gray with black-and-white speckles, and then paints the bottom. Then we reassemble it and make a couple of improvements. If he wants a welded top, then Ben makes it, installs it, and then we give the boat back to him.
The canvas guy, Geoff, had to leave Panama for a month this past summer, and was later followed by Ben. While they were gone, it was just Bobby, the new addition, Zack, and us, working. Until then, we were referred to as “the Interns,” but after we took over some of Ben’s jobs, Bobby started paying us $3 an hour to do what we had been doing for nothing. When Ben got back, Bobby left for his first vacation in three years, leaving Ben to keep things under control until he got back, and nothing went horribly wrong.
I’d like to say that my performance is flawless, but I really can’t, because I still make mistakes now and then, like drilling a hole too big, or breaking off a screw. But that’s another thing I like about Agua Dulce: it’s a good learning environment. Bobby accepts that mistakes are made, and that everyone is still learning, so when someone messes up, we just try to find a solution, and learn from the mistake. The whole experience has been a good way to: (A) fill a couple of empty hours every day, (B) learn some good skills that I’ll use for the rest of my life, (C) hang out with some cool people, and (D) earn a couple of bucks.