The Dirt Dweller in Paradise

6/1/2011

Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands)
Panama

My sister Jane, two years my elder, just retired from a long career in nursing in the small British Columbian town of Quesnel. Her colleagues obviously like her because as a retirement gift they gave her a $1,000 gift certificate. Liz and I were honoured, shocked and apprehensive when she announced she was to use it to visit us in the San Blas Islands of Panama. Sure, we’ve been extending invitations to Liz’s and my families for roughly 25 years but distances, family responsibilities, fear of the sea, sea sickness and expense have kept a good number of them away. In fact, all of the above meant an invitation to Jane would be all but a polite formality. Wrong! She was coming to spend two weeks with her kid brother and sister-in-law. Yikes!

Now don’t get me wrong. I love my sister like a......... sister, but there are few that would better fit your image of a ‘landlubber’. The one time she was on the ocean was off the west coast of Vancouver Island in a big inflatable whale watching boat. She was sick the entire time. She’d never used a mask and snorkel in her life. She knew not the difference between a main sail and a main cabin. Her idea of heeling was seeing one of her patients get better. Then there were the health issues. Too many years of smoking (yeah, I know she was in the health care profession) means she occasionally suffers from shortness of breath.

A skiing accident left her with a knee ready to be traded in for one of the metallic type. Could she climb aboard our boat from the dinghy using our boarding ladder?

How would she react to life in the remote islands far from restaurants, grocery stores, telephones and internet access?

These were the concerns that ran through my mind as I waited for her twin otter to arrive on the runway which looked more like a driveway, in the village of Corazon de Jesus on a flight from Panama City.

My concerns were temporarily shelved when I saw her disembarking the plane. She was positively radiant. Her eyes shone with excitement. Was it getting away from minus 20 in Quesnel to 92 degrees in the San Blas, or the scores of traditionally dressed Kuna Indians that were awaiting the flight? No, it was probably the sight of her wonderful kid brother she hadn’t seen in four years. One thing was for certain- she was one happy camper, I mean sailor.

She passed her first test by successfully boarding Feel Free from the dinghy without ending in the drink, but when informed we don’t wear shoes on the boat, she immediately replied with a straight face “but I can’t walk in bare feet, haven’t been able to for years.” Oh boy.

The anchorage at Nargana is excellently handy for cruisers picking up or dropping off crew because it is within a couple of hundred yards of the air field. The downside is that it is one of the few anchorages in the islands that could ever be considered mildly rolly. Sister Jane was okay with the mild roll until she went below to put her stuff in her cabin. It only took 10 minutes below before we realized she hadn’t gotten her sea legs so we got her on the deck in the fresh air, weighed anchor and got out of town to sail to the uninhabited island of Esnasdup.

Once out of the harbour the jib was unfurled, engine switched off and Jane was a changed woman. The verdant mountain ridge of the isthmus of Panama to port, the countless coconut palm ladened, white sand fringed islands to starboard, local ulus sailing by nonchalantly, were enough to make her forget the incipient stages of mal de mer. She was so occupied with her new landscape, one so familiar to us yet so foreign to her, she could have been on another planet.

Then she realized “I don’t hear an engine. We’re sailing, aren’t we? We’re not even using the engine. This is amazing.” It was amazing for us too.

 To introduce this world of ours to a loved one who for so long heard about our lifetime of sailing, but until this moment never really had any idea what it was really like. Jane was finally getting the picture, and boy did she like what she saw. And we really liked watching her see what she saw. We were off to a good start.

Esnasdup, the first of the seven anchorages of her two week sojourn was the site of Jane’s first snorkelling lesson. Liz and I took her snorkel tuition as a ‘cause celebre’. We wanted Jane to experience the vibrant colours, exotic architecture and the proliferation of life of the coral reefs of the San Blas.

 When one’s snorkelling debut begins at 62, sticking your head under water with a mask on and breathing with mouth and nose under water does not come naturally. Day one was mask only for 15 minutes and then we introduced the snorkel.

All was well until the snorkel filled with water, then mouth filled with water and that was that for the day. Well it was progress, albeit less than hoped for, but we did have 13 more days.

We were the only boat in Esnasdup until friends Michael and Barbara from the St. Petersburg based boat Astarte dropped the hook in front of us. Excellent news- we now had a group for sundowners on the beach. Like salmon returning upriver or Canada geese heading south for the winter, the crew on Feel Free, like most cruisers, appear to be responding to a near biological instinct to find friends in an anchorage and coerce them ashore to share nibblies and have drinks. I prefer to consider this behaviour an important form of socialization or networking if you will. Liz calls it ‘boozin’ on the beach.’ One way or another, Sis took to it like a natural born cruiser.

Next it was off to Canbombia, some four miles away. This tiny island could be circumnavigated on foot in 15 minutes. It was the temporary home of one delightful family who came from the town of Rio Sidra on the Panama mainland. This family owns many of the coconut trees on the island. Family members take turns living on the islands to harvest the nuts for one to six month periods.

 In addition to maintaining the coconut trees, the women make molas, the men fish. If there are kids in the family, they come too. This island would be Jane’s introduction to ‘mola fever.’

 In the next 13 days, Jane bought 11 molas, not quite one a day but close. And of course she couldn’t come all this way without being “braceletted” with custom fitted local bead ware.

While the women were making a valiant attempt at emptying their bank accounts on molas, I was buying three conch for dinner for a grand total of $3. Better yet, the vendor cleaned them on the spot. So it was conch fritters for dinner. On the subject of dinners, with the exception of two dinners, seafood was the mainstay of our diet. During Jane’s stay, she ate crab, conch, batfish, parrot fish, mackerel, tuna, snapper and lobster.

 She also saw a myriad of sea creatures like this triton she had never seen before.

Six of the aforementioned were firsts for her. She loved it all and ate heartily but best of all, she reported later that she lost five pounds while with us, making me think we should open a weight loss clinic on Feel Free.

 The sometimes twice daily snorkelling trips, hikes on the beach as well as the deep water exercises off the boat made getting fit a lot easier than it is in the ‘great white north.’

The timing of our relatively strenuous trip up the Rio Sidra with Lisa, the master mola maker and river guide (along with friends Jack and Zdenka of Kite) towards the end of Jane’s stay meant Jane was in pretty good shape for the trip. This involved a two hour hike up a jungle trail to a series of small waterfalls. The trip down consisted of wading and swimming down the sometimes fast moving river. Liz and I were both concerned if Jane’s lungs and legs were up for the trip. I had visions of either a heart attack (would have been her second) on the way upriver or drowning or breaking a bone on the way down. Half the way up the trail my fears of a heart attack appeared somewhat justified. Her rest stops were becoming increasingly frequent citing shortness of breath and weak legs. “I can’t believe it. I’m as weak as a cat” was the refrain and Liz and I were pushing her to the edge of her comfort zone.

 “30 more minutes” Lisa called out, then “15 minutes” and finally we were there showering under the falls, jumping off cliffs into deep pools.

 After lunch, Lisa asked about Jane’s swimming ability and suggested she return down the way we came up. “No way” Jane declared “I can manage the slippery boulders, slides and deep pools.”

And go she did, laughing and screeching with delight like she did when she was 10 years old. “What a trip! What a day!”

Jane’s 14 days with us passed very quickly for her as well as for Liz and me. During those 14 days she went from the woman who said “I can’t walk without shoes” to the woman who complained about having to put shoes on to go into town for dinner on her last night.

Of all the people who have joined Liz and me over the 26 years on Feel Free and Hoki Mai there was never anyone for whom the marine environment was so foreign. Perhaps for this reason there has never been a boat guest whose reaction to everyday events on the cruising grounds were such a joy to observe.

 What a kick it was to see my sister repeatedly shocked, thrilled, gobsmacked and blown away by the simple things like lying at anchor, watching the sun set, steering a sailboat, winching in a jib sheet, being approached by colourfully clad Kuna Indians in a one log dugout sailing ulu with fish, lobsters and molas for sale, seeing close up for the first time the beauty of a large coral formation complete with all its colourful inhabitants.

Yup, she was a real tonic and reminded us how fortunate we are to be able to appreciate these events daily and that we should never take them for granted.