October 31, 2016

International Motherhood—finding a kindred spirit in Guna Yala

Maia exploring BBQ island
 Alma was sitting in the breezy shade of her palapa. She had agreed to sew a narrow mola to cover a tear on my favourite skirt. While we waited, Maia and I decided to walk the circumference of BBQ Island. BBQ Island is the ‘ultima’ island (last) in the Holandes Cays and Alma’s extended family takes turns living on the pretty outpost—running a casual restaurant and beer concession for cruisers and other tourists.

Alma sewing molas
Maia and I returned from our short walk just in time to see Alma’s son Manuel rescue our dinghy—we hadn’t tied it up, thinking we would only be a few steps away, but then the sweet island beckoned and our dinghy took a runner for the reef.

Manuel, Maia, Alma and Alma's mum
After tying up our dinghy for us, Manuel plunked himself down in a chair under the palapa and started to thumb through his phone. Alma asked if we wanted a cold drink—they have a ‘machina’ that makes electricity and keeps them cold. Knowing the only options were beer and a sweet strawberry pop, I asked for a coco pipa—a drinking coconut. Like teens everywhere, who have been asked to climb a tree and fetch a coconut after having just dived in warm tropical water to rescue a dingy, Manuel rolled his eyes.

BBQ Island seen from the anchorage
I knew the look—it was the same as one I’d later see when I suggested Maia might want to snorkel the gorgeous reef rather than watch bad TV. Alma caught my eye and we both laughed. This was why she and Manuel were on BBQ Island. Her three younger kids were on course in life—but Manuel, who never identified with the Guna culture (to the point where he’s refused to learn his family’s first language), also wasn’t thriving in the Spanish culture. He hadn’t made it through high school in Panama City before getting kicked out for fighting.

So Alma was embracing tradition by bringing him back to their land. Despite not being the most traditional Guna woman—Alma finds the mola (literally ‘clothes of the people’) too fussy for daily wear and has sent all her kids to Panama City for schooling and hopefully university. But now she was living in a thatched hut—a couple days’ cayuca ride from the nearest city and a half day’s paddle from her parents. Manuel, she hoped, would find his path on the island.

the daughters of our favourite fisherman
Most of us travel with the hope of encountering these small moments of connection: sitting under a thatched roof, with a woman from one of the world’s last remaining traditionally-living indigenous cultures, talking about the challenges of parenting in a rapidly changing world.

In truth, it was both precious and surreal. It’s easy to see people as little more than the colourful characters who make our travel photos look exotic. But with Alma we were lucky enough to share a second language (bad Spanish) and a universal moment of parenting angst. From there we got a window into the Guna culture.
the veggie boat--everything was $1 a pound

So once again we shifted our cruising plans. Rather than exploring more islands we stayed in the Holandes. Each day we’d snorkel a new section of the reef. Cayucas would stop by bringing lobster, conch, vegetables or molas. We’d buy from the same fishermen each day and then head in to see Alma and Manuel and play volleyball, swim, share snacks or just sit in the breezy shade and talk about life.

The Guna survived culturally intact and unconquered by adapting to the changing world, never giving up their core identity and by being a mean shot with a poisoned arrow. They number about 50,000 people—spread over 250 small islands and several mainland settlements. The women tend to only speak the Guna language while the men often learn Spanish in school.
Our visitor showing the traditional mola outfit. Many women still wear it daily while some just save it for celebrations
Local women visiting the boat--they only spoke enough Spanish to talk about molas. They really are this short btw, Guna people are the second shortest indigenous group in the world
 Like many indigenous and island cultures the Guna have the most to lose with climate change: Their reefs, which provide the lobster which make up a good part of their income, are showing stress from warming water and overfishing. The islands are barely above sea level, and though they are out of the hurricane zone, they have been subject to vicious storms, flooding and erosion.

On our last night off of BBQ Island Maia, Evan and I talked about what might become of Alma, Manuel and their family. Under the bright stars I watched as the ‘machina’ shut off and the island’s three lights went out. Manuel can’t wait for his time on the island to be done so he can return to his friends in the city. Alma hopes that by showing him something different she’ll plant the seeds that will allow him to survive and thrive in the world he inherits.

I hope that both she and I have gambled the right way with our children.

October 27, 2016

Lovely San Blas

After the Mola saleswomen came the lobster sales canoe, the beer canoe and the veggie canoe. I think we like it here.

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October 24, 2016

The World is Round!

Turns out if you go west far enough you don't fall off. Arrived in San Blas and crossed the eastbound wake of little Ceilydh, 19 years after our first visit.

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San Blas Bound with a Hitchhiking Peeping Egret

Not our standard hitchhiker, but our most amusing. 'Gretel' joined us for 50 miles and left when we got her closer to land.

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October 22, 2016

Magical Cartagena

The clip-clop of our horse’s hooves, as they echoed off the cobbles of the unlit street, were almost enough to transport us back one hundred years—to a time when it would be normal to be transported by carriage on a street with no lights. In our case, there was a problem with the electricity, or the government, or both.

The reason half of the old-town was shrouded in darkness was lost between Spanish and English. But the fact remained, traveling by candlelight smoothes out the seedy bits, which keep the town authentic, and dims the veneer of tourism and gentrification, casting enough of a magical glow to last the evening.

A night out at the Teatro Adolfo Mejia for the International Guitar Festival
Night in Cartagena is filled with life. Storefronts we never notice during the day offer everything from tourist trinkets and Cuban cigars, to high end fashion and emerald jewellery, to discount groceries and hardware supplies. Our carriage guide pointed out some of the most famous shops, some lit some not, as well as historic buildings and squares.

Dancers in the squares around the town
We plodded past the home that once housed Garbriel Garcia Marquez then later walked back to Plaza Fernandez de Madrid—one of the settings from Love in the Time of Cholera—and watched as young couples strolled past, stealing kisses in the shadows of the almond trees.

People watching is the prime activity in Cartagena at night. Dancers weave their way into the city’s multicultural story by filling the street with folk dances, musicians play concerts for audiences as small as two and even the food vendors are on display—hawking their wares with the flair of an actor.
You can choose between fine dining or street food--arepas stuff with meat and egg cost about $1
For me, it’s the private moments that intrigue. Catching a quiet smile between a new bride and her groom or watching another couple, grey haired with years, dance an elegant salsa are enough blend the lines between reality and imagination. Enough to make this place magic.

Cruising Notes

The anchorage is busy with ferry traffic but holds several dozen international cruising boats. There are also a good number of boats running charters between here and Panama. We were able to get updated San Blas charts from one boat.
Club Nautico charges 70,000 pesos a week (about $25 US) for safe dinghy moorage, free wifi, showers, garbage drop off and laundry service. 
There's a good grocery store a five minute walk away and a large mall (Caribe Centre) with an excellent hardware store a 20-30 minute walk. The Basruto public market is near the mall.
We used the services of agent Manfred Alwardt to check in and out. His email: manfred.al@gmx.net
Taxis are cheap and plentiful and while we used them often we never felt unsafe walking in the neighbourhoods near the marinas. 
We did hear that a few dinghies have been stolen from boats--but nothing atypical for the Caribbean.

October 15, 2016

Loving Cartagena

Cartagena at Sunset
We entered Bahia de Cartagena through Boca Grande. During the exploring and conquering of the Americas, the Spanish impeded enemy access to the harbour by laying down coral blocks just under the surface of the wide entrance. If you didn’t know exactly where to go in, you’d rip the bottom off your boat.

Maia's first palata in years--the fresh-fruit popsicles are a Latin American favourite

flowering balconies line the streets
Happily, Cartagena now welcomes English speakers. We entered the bay with hulls intact and camera in hand—ready to shoot photos of the famous statue of the Virgin and Child which graces the inner bay. Oddly—the statue was missing. I wondered if the 60’ tall monument was off for cleaning or repair, but we soon learned the Virgin had been struck by lightning and had blown up.

fruit vendor in the old city
snacks of all types are available from hawkers
Our years in Latin American countries make this colourful and chaotic city feel familiar. It’s a place where shanties abut glossy high rises, yet everyone buys their breakfast arepa from the same street vendor and needs to navigate the same sea-flooded street.

A hat vendor pedaling his wares ;) 
Why I love this place is hard to define. It’s full of unexpected moments: We wandered through the unmarked tunnels of Castillo San Felipe and followed one steep corridor as it narrowed and shrank, growing humid and close as it snaked downward. We considered turning back, but assumed the tunnel must go somewhere—otherwise why would it be open to the public? Eventually it leveled out—arriving at a t-junction which was partially flooded and home to an aggressive looking iguana.

exploring the tunnels in San Felipe
There are daily rhythms in Latin America which never fail to make me smile: bedlam on the streets, a languid siesta, and a night that pulsates. Music everywhere, always…

taking a break at the top of the fort
Apparently if it weren't for this fort Colombians would be speaking English

Mostly it’s the sheer exuberance that makes me happy. The new paint on old buildings is brighter, the flowers and fruit are bigger and the hawkers are louder than in other places. Our cab was in a slow-motion car accident complete with blaring horns and wildly gesticulating hands. Both drivers got out and argued about the resulting dent in rapid-fire Spanish. Passersby and witnesses joined in. With traffic backing up, the other driver offered ours a fistful of cash—about $10 US. With a satisfied grin, our driver drove on to our destination.

Our plan had been to only stop for a few days but with so much to see, do (and eat) we may stretch our visit to 10 or 12 days.

October 12, 2016

Landfall Colombia

Country #29 and as sweet as ever.

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October 11, 2016

The Passage so Far--Cartegena or bust

It seems Iridium and blogger aren't playing nice and posts with photos are hard to read. So you'll have to imagine the fifteen-year-old sitting on the bow patiently pointing out pooping spotted Atlantic dolphins, or the pod of mamas and teenie tiny babies (they were common dolphins), or the lightning that lit up last night's ocean to a bright steal-white or even that five-mile swath of garbage soup.

Passages always feel like suspended time. We're not where we were; we're not where we're going. There's the sameness; day after day of sea and sky. Except neither the sea nor sky are the same one moment to the next. Moments at sea range from sublime, to frightening, to forgettable. But unlike sublime moments on land; say when you sea a mountain at sunrise or catch sight of your first wild grizzly, there's no simple way to give someone directions so they can experience the same thing. The infant dolphins that came at dusk yesterday, when the seas were mirrored and pink and the breeze was like warm breath on my neck, aren't something I can tell you how to find. I can barely describe how the mamas escorted their wee offspring into our bow waves and then gently pushed them back in place as the tiny torpedoes caught back eddies and awkwardly somersaulted out of the flow.
It seemed mean to laugh.

We read lots on passage and watch the ocean. Yesterday, when the first pieces of garbage floated past, I recalled how 20-years-ago on little Ceilydh we'd alter our course to go inspect anything we found floating at sea. It so clearly didn't belong there--we'd check to see if it was a message in a bottle, lost cargo or wreckage. Now it's different. The first time we came across a garbage gyre I assumed it was flotsam and jetsam from a wrecked ship. It's so incongruous to be in the middle of the ocean and see debris across the horizon. Most of it's so small it's unrecognizable--but always there's flipflops, water bottles and coloured bits plastic that caught some consumer's eye. If it's calm, and I can look down into the water, I can see bits of plastic film. I call it soup because it's not a solid mass. It's the individual pieces of garbage caught by a current, swirled together and broken up by the power of the ocean. If we took a net and scooped up all the rubbish from yesterday's patch we could have collected enough plastic to fill our boat.

The miles are going slowly this passage. It's not just the light winds--the 460 miles are loaded with meaning. This is our last Atlantic passage. In the San Blas islands we'll cross little Ceilydh's long-ago wake. Soon enough we'll no longer be exploring, but revisiting. We'll have done more than turn the corner for home, we'll be headed home.

And so we savour sailing into the sunsets as we make our final purely westward miles.
At 11/10/2016 3:30 PM (utc) our position was 11°34.76'N 074°43.60'W

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October 10, 2016

Garbage Soup

We're sailing through plastic stew. The first time this happened we thought we'd come across debris from a wreck. But hours later we understood: currents concentrate the garbage and the ocean's power renders it unrecognizable. People ask if I'm ever afraid out here. This scares me.

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Passage to Cartagena day 3

Continued light winds and dolphins. When they breathe out their blowholes sometimes we see rainbows in the mist.

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October 9, 2016

Passage to Cartagena

Mellow light wind spinnaker passage populated by pilot whales and spotted dolphins. It took seven years of watching dolphins with a kid for me to spot one pooping.

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