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Go Big or Go Home

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. Weighing around 20 tons and reaching lengths of over 40 feet, they are bigger than any other currently-living species of fish or non-mammalian vertebrate. They are slow-moving filter feeders, eating krill, plankton, and other tiny sea creatures. Their gentle nature, graceful movements, and tremendous size make whale sharks one of the more majestic creatures on the planet. We swam with some.

Swimming with a Whale Shark

We had been in Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, for a little over a week, enjoying the excellent diving, and were making plans to leave for Utila. Mom mentioned that there were whale sharks in Utila, and would we be interested in taking a tour to see them while we were there? Would we?! I should think so! It sounded just like the sort of incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience that we try to collect.

Utila is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks can not only be found year-round, but can be found easily, as their migratory route takes them past the Bay Islands. Whale sharks are very rare, secretive, and shy, and as a result, very little is known about their life cycle, breeding patterns, or migrations.

We arrived in Utila a few days later, after a short half-day passage. The weather would be calm and sunny for only a few more days, so one of the first things we did was to sign up the whole family for a tour the next morning with Bush’s Bay Island Charters. The trip would start at eight, and we would be out “whale-sharking” for several hours.

We had just finished breakfast when our captain came by in a dive boat. His name was Denny, a local guy whose family had originally come from Louisiana and the Cayman Islands. We got our snorkeling gear and cameras together, and loaded up. After a quick fuel stop, Denny took us around to the north side of the island, along the edge of the drop-off. The sharp peaks of the Honduras mainland were clearly visible to the south, while in the north, we could see the hills of Roatan low on the horizon.

Denny and Jay, Looking for Whale Sharks

On the way, he told us a little bit about finding whale sharks. Whale sharks eat plankton, an extremally abundant commodity in this area of the ocean, so they should be able to go wherever they want. But they don’t. For some unknown reason, whale sharks follow the schools of tuna, which feast on the bait-fish, which, in turn, feast on the plankton. Whale sharks can almost always be found near a tuna boil, a place where a school of tuna feeds near the surface. Then it is a simple matter of locating the shark, and jumping in on top of it. There were already several dive boats out looking for tuna boils when we got around to the north side of the island.

We soon found such a boil, and Denny told us to jump. We pitched ourselves over the side. The water was deep, disappearing into inky blue-blackness far below us. Tuna swam around in the upper few feet, snapping up bait-fish. Then we saw the whale shark. It was huge, maybe twenty feet long, greyish-blue and covered with white spots. It was most definitely a shark, and not a whale. It wasn’t just the fin alignment, the gills, or the vertical tail, there was something distinctly un-mammalian about it. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the least bit frightening. Maybe it was the knowledge that they had no teeth. The shark seemed shy, and soon ghosted off into the depths.

Whale Shark

We got back in the boat, to look for the next boil. The sharks always seemed to be near the surface in the middle of a boil. Denny said that later in the afternoon, when the tide rose, they would become less skittish, sometimes letting snorkelers swim with them for 30 minutes or more.

By this time, the other dive boats had caught on, and were beginning to arrive. At the next boil, we were joined by a half-dozen other snorkelers. We didn’t mind; the pool was big enough for all. In total, we made five dives, with about 15 minutes in between. We saw a whale shark on each dive, sometimes two at a time. A few were over 30 feet long. They seemed more annoyed than scared at our presence. They would swim around for a few minutes, then go deep. We brought along a couple of cameras, and I got lots of video footage of whale sharks swimming majestically away from the obnoxious snorkelers.

Whale Shark Tail

Eventually, it was time to go. We climbed back into the boat, and Denny headed us for home. Rachel, justifiably a little leery of swimming in ridiculously-deep water with ridiculously-large fish, had elected to stay in the dive boat the whole time, but had still seen some from the surface. As for me, I’m happy I took the plunge. It will stand out as one of the highlights of our trip. If I’m going to swim with sharks, they might as well be 30 feet long.

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

Geography Report: Cayman Islands

Basic Facts

Capital: George Town, Grand Cayman.

People/Customs: The population is about 61,000.  At the beginning of the 19th century, the Cayman Islands had a population of only 900 people, most of which were slaves. Today, there are still many descendants of those slaves, as well as an international community brought here by the banking and tourism industries.

Language: The official language is English.

Climate: There is a dry season (winter/spring) and a wet season (summer/fall) and is in the hurricane belt (hurricane season is June 1 to November 30). Temperatures average in the mid-80s (Fahrenheit) all year.

Food/Farming: The Cayman Islands’ traditional foods are fish and other seafood, turtle meat, goat stew, a fish stew called “rundown,” rice-and-beans, and gingerbread. They grow many topical fruits and vegetables: tomatoes, peppers, squash, callaloo, bananas, pineapples, breadfruit, papaya, and mango.

Government: The Cayman Islands have a Governor appointed by Great Britain and a local government of elected lawmakers. They are a British Overseas Territory under the rule of the Crown.

Currency: The currency is the CI Dollar, about 20 cents more than a U.S. Dollar.

Art/Music/Culture: The Cayman culture is always changing because of the influx of people from all around the world, however, one thing remains constant: everyone spends time in and around the water. On Easter weekend it’s traditional to camp on the beach, on November 8th the Caymanians celebrate Pirates’ Week to commemorate the pirates in their history, and there are many fishing tournaments throughout the year. On the Island there are Baptist, Catholic, Church of God, Presbyterian and Seventh-Day Adventist churches. Everything is closed on Sunday in observance of the Sabbath. Local artisans carve jewelry out of a special stone called Caymanite, which is only found in the Cayman Islands. The music has both African and European roots, with heavy influence from Jamaica and Cuba.

History

The Cayman Islands were found by Christopher Columbus in 1503 on his way to Hispaniola from Panama. His ships were blown off course and landed in the Cayman Islands. For centuries, the Cayman Islands were used as a supply-stop for Spanish sailors, explorers, and English privateers (and other pirates), looking for fresh water and turtle meat. The islands went through many name changes, but finally came to be known for the crocodiles which lived there, called “caymanas” by the Caribs. The Cayman Islands were not largely inhabited until the 17th   century, when they came under British control. In 1655, Jamaica was taken from the Spanish by Oliver Cromwell’s army, but the Caymans were not officially British until a treaty was signed in 1670. Slaves were imported and settlements thrived. In the 1700s, Sir Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, and other pirates are said to have buried Spanish gold on the islands, but it has not been found.

By the beginning of the 19th century, sailors started to venture to Jamaica for trading in Cayman-built ships. After the slaves were freed by the English in 1834, they settled in Grand Cayman and fished and turtled for a living. For the next one hundred years the islands stayed relatively isolated, though annexed to Jamaica. By the 20th century, the Cayman Islands were mostly settled, and the first cruise ship came to Grand Cayman in 1937, the same year the first booklet for tourists was published. In the 1950s and 60s, the first major hotels, resorts, and an airport were built, and the islands became known as a diving and beach destination. Jamaica became independent in 1962, but the Cayman Islands decided to remain a Crown Colony.

Throughout Cayman’s history, the islands have experienced many tropical storms, but on September 11, 2004, when hurricane Ivan hit the Cayman Islands, it was devastating. The winds gusted up to 200 mph and created a storm surge of 30 feet. Much of Grand Cayman was submerged, but Cayman Brac and Little Cayman escaped with little damage. The islands have recovered, and they are still known as an international banking center and a beautiful vacation destination.

 Land forms/Flora and Fauna

The Cayman Islands are made of coral limestone, part of the Cayman ridge at the edge of the Cayman trench, located in the northwest Caribbean just south of Cuba. Cayman also has two sister islands, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, both of which are made of coral and are mostly flat other than Cayman Brac’s east bluff which rises to 141 feet. The total land area is about 100 square miles. Plants on the island include tropical hardwoods, fruit trees, orchids, thatch palms, coconut palms, casuarina pines, tropical flowers, and mangroves. Blue iguanas and the Grand Cayman parrots are indigenous to the islands. They also have green iguanas, sea turtles, tropical fish, and sting rays. Despite the name of the islands, the caimans that once lived here were hunted to extinction.

 Things to Do

Swim with stingrays at Stingray Ciity, dive the Kittiwake wreck, go horseback riding on the beach,  skate at the Black Pearl (the largest skate park in the Western Hemisphere), go to Star Fish Beach or Seven Mile Beach, hike the Mastic Trail, walk around the Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Garden and see the blue iguanas, snorkel with turtles at the Cayman Turtle Center, go deep-sea fishing, and take a night kayak tour in bioluminescent bays.

Bibliography:

Boxall, Joanna and Charles Grover, editors. Explore Cayman. Acorn Publishing, 2018.

Pavlidis, Stephen J.  A Cruising Guide to The Northwest Caribbean. Seaworthy Publications, 2014.

More Information about the Cayman Islands can be found at https://www.cayman.com.ky

 

 

 

 

Stingray City

We came to the Cayman Islands to haul the boat out for an insurance survey, and also for the supposedly-stunning underwater landscape. We got the survey sorted out the first week. and broke out of the marina to experience the rest of the island. One thing many people strongly recommended we check out was Stingray City.

We did a little research, read through sickeningly-cheesy articles in tourist brochures, and talked to other people. Apparently, it all started as a bunch of fishermen in the early 1900s, who always cleaned their catch in the same place every day. Before long, the local stingrays caught on, and began showing up for the daily banquet. Not long after that, the local tourist industry caught on, and began running tours to see the stingrays.

Sting Ray

There are two sites: The Sandbar, which is shallow enough for non-swimmers, and the actual Stingray City, which lies in 12 feet of water and is hailed as the #1 shallow diving spot in the world. Both are frequented by dozens of “gentle giants” in search of an easy meal. Dive masters and tour guides throw squid in the water, and when the “lovable creatures” show up, the tourists throw themselves in to “cozy up”. Supposedly, stingrays only sting when under attack, but I would think that getting lifted out of the water, kissed, or ridden would register as attack. But apparently, not enough people have been stung to ruin the fun for everyone else.

From our anchorage, we couldn’t see the famous place, but we could see the mass of boats anchored on top of it (and almost, it seemed, each other). It looked awfully crowded, and we generally avoid large crowds. But Grandma Mary flew down for a week, and we were going to be sailing around anyway, so we figured, what the heck, and went. It was early evening when we anchored nearby, and all but a couple speedboats were left. We swam over.

Sarah Swimming with Stingray

There certainly were heaps of stingrays, some of the largest I’ve ever seen. The stingrays would get close enough to touch, but didn’t hang around after they realized you didn’t have any squid. It was still pretty cool, but not “magical” and we were not “mesmerized by the antics and charm of these fascinating creatures” as advertised. It seemed like just a bunch of ordinary stingrays. Of course, I doubt that the average tourist has ever seen a stingray, so the chance to touch a wild one must seem exotic and “unforgettable.” The stingrays themselves were a diverse lot. One of them, a particularly large black one, had no tail. Another had a gash that split its face almost to its eye. Most of them were buried in sand, trying to sleep.

The sun went down, and I swam home. I enjoyed it about as much as I normally enjoy an early-evening swim. It seemed to me that the whole stingray thing was hugely overrated.

Stingray City at Sunset

The next day, we returned. It was quite a beautiful day, with cloudless skies. The Sandbar was thickly-coated with tour boats and their camera-wielding cargo. Mom, Rachel, and Mary swam over to look at the stingrays, and the rest of us (except for Aaron, who stayed on the boat) swam over to the reef. The coral, for the most part, was bleached, but there were quite a lot of fish. We saw a number of ridiculously large snapper, which were so docile, I could easily have shot one with a short pole spear (which is totally illegal, of course). We returned to the boat. Mom, Mary, and Rachel were still off playing with the stingrays, so we just swam around the boat, reluctant to mix with the throngs of tourists. I absently began stacking rocks and lumps of dead coral into a big heap. Sam and Sarah joined in the fun, and the heap soon turned into a cairn, and the cairn into a tower. We decided it was done when it was as tall as I was.

Eli's Underwater Cairn

Mom, Rachel, and Mary had since come back, with lots of photos. We picked up the hook, and left the zoo behind us. So much for Stingray City, the island’s premier underwater attraction.

Mary, Adventure Grandma

Adventure Grandma!

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…

Stuff Day

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.

Our Ship Coming In

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!

Waffles

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.

Floating Island of Fun

 

San Blas

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.

Parting Shot, San Blas

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. )

Eli Fish Killer

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.

Sailing Ulus

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.

San Blas

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

 

When Monkeys Attack!

Fateful Trip

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.

Monkey Scar

All healed up!

A Trip to Panama City

Panama City, Panama

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.

Casco Antiguo

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.

Casco Antiguo

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.

Panama Canal

Panama 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.

Panama Canal

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.

Sloth Rescue Squad

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.

Panama Canal Railway

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.

Panama Canal Railway