#218 Many Thanks And Fair Winds
June 15, 2007

#217 It’s Off To Work We Go
June 1, 2007

#216 She Walks With An Attitude Of Freedom
May 15, 2007

#215 Mailbag From Portsmouth, Part 3 of 3
May 1, 2007

#214 Mailbag From Portsmouth, Part 2 of 3
April 15, 2007

#213 Mailbag From Portsmouth, Part 1 of 3
April 1, 2007

#212 Exhibits from Ithaka’s Collection of Cruising Wall Art
March 15, 2007

#211 Amphibious Challenges
March 1, 2007

#210 Going Home Is Such A Ride
February 15, 2007

#209 Night Passage Toward The Rest Of My Life
February 1, 2007

#208 The Springtime Of Cruising Romance
January 15, 2007

#207 Happy New Year From Ithaka
January 1, 2007

#206 A Windy Ride North December 15, 2006

#205 See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me
December 1, 2006

#204 A Friend Unlocks Key West
November 15, 2006

#203 A Momentous Landfall In Key West
November 1, 2006

#202 Mailbag: Underway Toward America
October 15, 2006

#201 Bits and Pieces
October 1, 2006

#200 The Light House
September 15, 2006

#199 Mr. Bing And The Water Pump
September 1, 2006

#198 Farewell To Dear Friends
August 15, 2006

#197 Have Ulu Will Travel: Part II—The Epilogue
August 1, 2006

#196 Slow Dancing Through The San Blas
July 15, 2006

#195 From Ithaka’s Galley – Our Daily Bread
July 1, 2006

#194 Ustupu Celebrates The Kuna Revolution
June 15, 2006

#193 The Sail’s Call
June 1, 2006

#192 Hugging The Coast Toward Kuna Yala
May 15, 2006

#191 A Strong Island For Memory Making
May 1, 2006

#190 Traveling Down the Colombian Coast
April 15, 2006

#189 The Cartagena Mailbag: Amoebas, Cookers, Books, and Cameras
April 1, 2006

#188 Let's Talk Toxins-Let's Talk Paint
March 15, 2006

#187 The English-Speaking Ladies Club
March 1, 2006

#186 Great Treasures In Foul Waters
February 15, 2006

#185 Viva Cartagena!
February 1, 2006

#184 Feliz Ano Nuevo, Cartegena!
January 15, 2006

#183 Tigre, the Tidy Town
January 1, 2006

#1 We're Going Sailing
Dec 17, 1999

The Complete Logbook

October 1, 2005
Tupsuit Dumat, Kuna Yala, San Blas
09° 31.24 North
079° 03.42 West

Island Villages Of The Robesons

By Bernadette Bernon

Just before dawn I awoke, quietly crept out of bed, and tiptoed outside to see the sunrise. Douglas so rarely slept late, that on the occasion that I awakened first, I hated to wake him. The striations of color in the sky were subtle at first, then grew more dramatic as the minutes went on. Ithaka is anchored in the Robeson Islands near the mainland. Around us was an arresting sight. Sailing ulus with their mainsails made of patchworks of sacks and fabric scraps drifted past in that first light of dawn, toward the mainland jungles, where the men would work their farm plots all day. Later, these same ulus, on their way back home from the fincas, stop at Ithaka, and these farmers offer us the fresh produce they’ve harvested -- beautiful pineapples, hundreds of little limes, nice fist-size mangoes, breadfruit, bananas, plantains. You can't go hungry out here.

An ulu with a colorful sail, made of an old piece of fabric once used for something else and probably discarded, now propels a Kuna ulu, and soars by Ithaka on its way to the jungle fincas.

I sat and watched the slow drama unfolding in the sky, barely illuminating the pretty ulus, and listened to the roosters crowing on the little island off our bow. We like it here. It’s quiet, and off the cruising track, so no other boats have passed through except our friends on Mesqua Ukee and Macy. When we arrived a few days ago, we were greeted by dozens of little ulus paddled by children. They came out to welcome us, hung on the side of the boat singing “Hola, hola!” – the Spanish for “Hi there, hi there!” And when we go ashore to visit the islands dotted around us, they rush up to hold our hands, utterly fascinated with us. Some of the smaller children, when they first see us round a corner of their village and walk toward them, burst into screaming tears of fright and and rush to their mother’s arms – it’s not too often they see these giant white people lumbering through their island, and we scare the bejesus out of them.

This mola plays with the old question, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg." Ciabebe Mendez, a mola maker from Soledad Mandinga. The mola at right depicts medicine plants, one of the staples of Kuna life.

Every day, Douglas and I, or Lyette and I, take the dinghy to some other small little island to walk around, visit, look at the molas. These islands are more primitive. They don’t get many visitors. Their traditions are more preserved here. The women remain topless, unless they see Douglas or Tom or Dave, and then they rush to cover themselves with a towel or a piece of cloth. If it’s just Lyette and me walking through the village, the older women don’t bat an eye, and stay topless. The younger women, however, often wear pretty lace bras in different colors. When there’s any cause for ceremony, however, the molas are worn with pride.

This region of the San Blas is known for it’s talented mola-makers, especially on Soledad Mandingo, where we spent two full days visiting people in their huts, admiring the spectacular molas they offered for sale, and talking with the people. To my surprise, on the first day we were there, I heard someone call my name -- “BB? BB!” -- a woman’s voice. I spun around to see a familiar face. Loida Campos, who we’d met two years ago out at the Lemon Cays. We’d taken photos of her and her family, and mailed them to her when we’d gotten home to the States, never dreaming that they’d arrive here at the back of the beyond. Well, they had! The photos were proudly displayed in her hut, each one in a ziplock bag.

The quiet little streets of Soledad Mandinga, in the Robeson archipelago.

Also, on Soledad Mandinga, we were invited to visit the school, a three-room concrete building packed with well-behaved children in white shirts and navy-blue shorts. The Kuna teacher asked us in enunciated Spanish to show the students where we came from on a large world map that hung on the wall of the classroom. As each of the four of us pointed to different places, the children repeated the names, big smiles on their faces. On Soledad Mandinga, the “maestro” told us, children attend school for three years. We carry a large cache of school supplies aboard Ithaka, and later on we brought the little school a gift of boxes of crayons, notebooks, pens, markers, scissors, and a pile of past issues of National Geographic For Children.

On one island in the Robeson chain, we found two huge nuchus standing like five-foot totem poles outside a hut. We stopped to admire them, never having seen a nuchu larger than eight inches. nuchus possess powerful spirits that medicine men and medicine women use to heal illnesses. Every family has a collection just for the purpose. They’re both treasured and feared, as it’s widely known that a mistreated nuchu will become malevolent against its Kuna owner. A man came out of the hut, noticed our interest, and asked us if we’d like to buy the pair. Normally, real nuchus are not for sale at any price, unless they’ve been damaged, which releases the spirit. This pair was slightly damaged, through age; he showed us that the bottom of the feet on both were chipped. So, supposedly, they were harmless.

“How much?” I asked, somewhat intrigued, yet not taking the idea seriously, as we had no place on little Ithaka to store two such humongous objects.

“Tree dalla,” said the Kuna.

Other than when they're in school, children run around naked and uninhibited, diving from rocks into the water, paddling ulus, playing tag, watching out for their little brothers and sisters. The big green ulu was the vehicle that took us part way up the river.

“OK!” Douglas and I said in unison, and the pair is now scrubbed clean of all their years of dirt and smoke, and strapped down on our deck. The freaked-out look we get from any Kunas who paddle up to Ithaka now, and notice our nuchus , is rather comical.

We soaked our giant nuchus for a couple of days, scrubbed them clean, then strapped them on Ithaka's deck, where they spooked every Kuna who paddled up to us.

A handsome, smiling fellow named Braedeo paddled out to Ithaka one day from Tupsuit Dumat. When he saw Ma and Pa Kettle tied to the handholds -- which is what we’ve temporarily named our nuchus – he backed off quickly, and his smile faded. Once we’d assured him the nuchus were harmless, he came up on Ithaka’s other side, and handed us a notebook. Inside was a note from another cruising boat named Australia 31, whom we’d met. It said they’d gone hiking with Braedeo, and done a river trip with him up the Mandinga, up to some remote mountain villages. They wrote that they highly recommended his services as a guide.

We liked Braedeo right away, and the next day we set out at 8:00 a.m. with him. He picked us up in a big dugout ulu and headed for the river. When we’d gone as far as we could go in the ulu, and the canopy of vegetation closed in around us, we got out, waded ashore, and began hiking. The trail was a well-walked one; Braedeo said that it was the main Kuna trail into Panama City, a rugged walk that would take five hours.

Bernadette sits in Braedeo’s big ulu with Lyette and Tom from Mesqua Ukee, after our hike up the mountain.

Three hours later, we arrived at a tiny village up in the mountains where the people rushed out to see the visitors. Almost all the small children were naked. The women quickly threw on something to cover themselves. There were very few men around; all of them were out in the jungle fincas, working on their crops. Everyone greeted us, and invited us to sit down, to visit. We met the Saila, and visited the school, and (of course) looked at the molas that were brought out for us to admire. And then, after we were rested up, we checked our watches, and realized that we’d better get started on the three-hour hike all the way back through the jungle toward the sea.

The children of the islands were always smiling, always welcoming to us. This extraordinary mola from Soledad Mandingo depicts Noah's Ark. An old woman sits outside her hut, working on creating a mola.

On the way, at just a moment of tiredness from all the walking, we came across the only people we’d met on the trail: An old man carrying a stick on his shoulder with a sack of clothes and pots and pans and shoes tied to it. With him were a woman that looked as though she could be his wife, dressed in a traditional mola outfit, and their daughter, who looked to be about 20. In the younger woman’s arms was a newborn baby.

Braedeo spoke to them in Kuna, and then told us that the baby had been born the previous week in the clinic in Carti, a Kuna island about 20 miles from the mouth of the Mandinga river. When she was ready to give birth, the girl and her parents had walked from the mountain village through the jungle to the sea, taken their ulu to Carti, she’d had the baby, and now they were walking back, to her husband, who’d needed to stay to care for the farm and their other child.

A pineapple grows along the path into the mountains. This mola shows a Kuna spirit house, the mythological place where their deceased ancestors live. Bernadette forges along the trail

We looked into this proud little mother’s bundle and saw the small sleeping baby in her arms. I was awed to imagine this woman, fully pregnant, hiking the rough trail for all the hours it had taken us to walk today – fording the streams, crawling up the hills, wading across the almost waist-high river – then, with her parents, paddling a wet ulu for five hours all the way to the clinic in Carti, delivering her baby, and repeating the outward journey all the way back up the mountain to her village. We wished the mother well, and carried on, chagrinned, a few less complaints about the trail heard from our sweaty little group of trekkers.

The Robesons are located near the mainland mountains, so there are frequent downpours, plenty of freshwater for washing clothes, and many opportunities to enjoy the drama of a rainbow.

Our time at the Robesons was one of many such moments of wonder and welcome. Braedeo would stop by every day or so to give us mangoes, or tell us things he thought we should know. Whenever we heard a loud clanging sound from the island, for instance, it meant someone had caught fish, and wanted to sell them. We awoke one Sunday morning to hear the sweet voices of hymns sung in beautiful unison. Another day, during a heavy rainfall, we watched all the men in the village run inside their huts, and at the same moment all the women run out – to wash the family clothes in the downpour from the tin roof of the little school. A fellow named Justino, who was trying to learn English, came out every day or so to ask us how to translate something, and to practice speaking with us. “My grandmother is good, how is your grandmother?” he said proudly one day. A child paddled out one afternoon to show us her little pet iguana, which she kept tied to a string. We would leave the Robesons reluctantly, and with many gentle memories, hoping to return one day.