The Other Story Of O - July 19, 2002
By The Ithaka - Published July 19, 2002 - Viewed 878 times
By Douglas Bernon More articles by this author
Masochism plays a major role in cruising, and for those of us who weren’t suckled on Marvel Mystery Oil, this is especially true. An incomplete catalogue of the last couple weeks’ technohassles, all of which required our immediate attention, include: the shredding of the bearing that holds on our dinghy prop; the complete death of the windlass motor (nope, it doesn’t have a manual mode); and the untimely and repeated stalling of the ship’s engine as we entered a reef-surrounded anchorage on the south side of Kanildup. At moments like these I surrender to a loathing of boats, machinery, sailing, and cruising with a bone-deep totality.
|photo courtesy of Marty Baker|
|Kuna huts peek from the trees on many isolated cays
The other night, Bernadette and I anchored in the East Holandes Islands of the San Blas, at a spot known among cruisers as "The Swimming Pool"—because of its incredibly clear turquoise water. There, on a small cay nicknamed Potluck Island, every Monday night cruisers from all over the area gather to share dinner and make a bonfire to burn garbage. Once assembled on the beach, we all arranged our dishes on the teak foredeck of the Hallberg-Rassy; it had been hacked free and installed as a picnic table. Seeing boats on reefs makes me crazily frightened sometimes. I’d go bonkers if not for the compensatory delights of clear nights, moonrises, umbrellas of stars, giant eagle rays, hunting fish, and the love of my Commodore (in reverse order, of course!).
|The sunsets in the San Blas are dramatic, backlighting the pretty beaches and palm trees
|This hospitable Kuna girl showed us around her family’s cay, and while we were at it, she collected a bag of coconuts that had fallen from the trees overnight.
The San Blas Archipelago (in Kuna language, it’s Mulatupo) is made up of more than 360 tiny islands. Of these, about 50 are inhabited; a few bustle with busy Kuna settlements and trading centers, but most are temporary homes for a few Kuna families who live there while they guard, collect, and transport coconuts by sailing dugouts (called ulus) to central distribution points for purchase by Colombian traders. The Kuna Yala administer their own lands through a congreso, and they remain a fiercely traditional society. Each village has a nele (shaman, or medicine man or woman), as well as a saila. In some villages, the saila rules powerfully, for example requiring all women to dress in traditional garb. Men mostly fish and collect coconuts; women spend a great deal of time taking care of children, tending to the cooking and home, and doing beautiful needlework molas, which they peddle from boat to boat and on shore. You can’t sit at anchor for more than hour without a visit from an ulu full of colorfully dressed women with their big, white plastic buckets full of gorgeous work; molas sell for anywhere from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars, depending on intricacy and workmanship.
|The molas for which the Kuna women are famous are worn on the bodice of their traditional clothing, each representing the creativity of its wearer.
Kuna Yala and Panama have had a fractious relationship; the most recent Kuna revolt, of which folks still speak proudly, was in the early 1920s. Not surprisingly a small group of 5-foot-2-inch-tall men with machetes ran a distant second, and only the intervention of the an American warship helped prevent a grim massacre. In 1925, Panama granted the Kuna the right to limited home rule, but relations remain frosty today, and the Kuna who speak Spanish or a little English repeatedly excoriate Panama and tell us that the Panamanian government always gives them short change.
Several hours and two snorkeling trips after the first official’s visit, the local saila of the Holandes island group, with a couple of buddies, sailed alongside Ithaka in his ulu. He charged us another $5 (the money goes—we’re told—to help support the Kuna infrastructure, including their schools), and he invited us to visit his islands. He presented a waterlogged receipt book and pointed to the space where I should write our boat’s name. With ceremonial flourish he scribbled something (I’m not sure what), and sailed away. Later in the day, he sailed back to Ithaka, his ulu laden with golden mangoes, bananas, and firm avocados. For these, we traded some coffee, powdered milk, and an Interlux baseball cap. Everyone was pleased. He sailed away looking most spiffy—a man with considerable pluck and panache. Sure, he wore shredded duds, has only half his teeth, no motor, a tattered sail, and he has to chase yachties and trade fruit, but he’s still El Jefe, and maybe—as political chiefs everywhere know—the real pay is in what you can pilfer.
|Kuna woman are extremely shy about being photographed, unless you buy a mola from them or pay them a dollar!
Assuming, that is, we have a motor, which brings me back to sado-masochism and "The (Other) Story of O" (with apologies to Pauline Reage!). On our way to Ukupsuit Tupu, motoring through rolling, windless swells, we heard Señor Yanmar start to gasp and then choke to dead quiet. In the two years we’ve been cruising, this was the first time the engine quit when it wasn’t the down-line sequel to my having effected some "repair." Damn! In these moments, I admit, I’m not the essence of cool. I raced below and tore the engine cover off with my teeth. Bernadette soothed me by reminded me that the depth sounder showed us in 60 feet of water—plenty—and that there were no reefs in the immediate neighborhood. She was right, of course, but still...
|The dramatic turquoise waters and craggy reefs are everywhere you look in the San Blas.
The temperature alarm hadn’t gone on, so I assumed the engine wasn’t overheating due to a shredded impeller or a broken belt. Nonetheless, I could feel my gut churning. The next assumption was that there was air in the fuel line somewhere. (Diesels loathe air.) So I purged the line and we started up again, still not sure where the air had come from. Bernadette turned the key and Señor Y roared to life—for about 10 minutes—until we were within spitting distances of reefs, then it died again. I bled air again, and Bernadette got us started. Then, with the Commodore at the wheel and me below, every few minutes, while still putt-putting along, just to be on the safe side, I opened a bleed screw and prophylactically let out more air so that we could get into the anchorage without becoming another San Blas picnic table.
|Lynda and Frank from Simba, with Douglas and Bernadette
Frank and I had sweated in Ithaka’s cabin for three hours looking for the answer to the problem, and despite the heat, I must admit they were pleasant hours. Ithaka was anchored securely, winds were light, and when I’m working on anything with Frank, I learn a lot, which is a joy. Cruising is like that; it often offers up sublime pleasures from pain, and that’s part of the masochism.
|Kunas are strong sailors. They step the masts for their ulus in a brace, like the one shown, then unroll their tattered sails, sit in a seat at the back of the dugout, and use a paddle as a rudder. In this way, most Kuna men travel many miles from their huts each day to fish and trade.
Still, engines are small potatoes—not life and death—and this past week we were reminded of the difference. For several days, we’d been hearing snippets of VHF conversations between two boats anchored in a San Blas island group not far from us. The woman on one boat wasn’t feeling well and thought she had the flu or bronchitis. She’d tried a variety of antibiotics, sometimes thought she felt a bit better, would snorkel for half an hour and then sleep the rest of the day. One morning, her husband radioed his friend on the other boat, a retired physician, and asked him to stop over after breakfast. His wife, he said, was "having a little trouble breathing." His friend raced over and less than an hour later, on the morning net at 0830, the physician asked where to find the nearest medical facility. By the next day, they’d taken their two boats to a small town on the mainland where there’s a daily flight to Panama City and its array of good hospitals. A couple days went by; we wondered what happened. Then we found out.
Three days ago, we sailed Ithaka to Nargana, a scruffy little Kuna settlement on the mainland, to pick up some fresh vegetables and fruit. Already anchored there, to our surprise, were the two boats from the radio. The physician’s wife was looking after both boats alone. She dinghied over to say hello and poured out her heart. Her husband had accompanied their friends to Panama City and, there, discovered what he’d most feared. Their friend had been diagnosed with an advanced cancer and was air-evacuated home immediately. Her time remaining, unlike her courage, is severely limited. Before she left Panama, she told her husband and friends that, had she been forced to choose how and where she’d spend her last active week of life, she would’ve chosen snorkeling in the San Blas with her husband.
|Venado, "deer" in Spanish, and the product of a creative Kuna mind
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