April 1, 2006
Cartagena, Colombia
10° 23.35 North
075° 31.54 West

The Cartagena Mailbag: Amoebas, Cookers, Books, and Cameras

Ithaka is back in the water now, sparkling and looking pretty, and we're checking off last-minute things to do before we depart Cartagena. One of the items on our list is to check our emails from you, our readers, and answer a few of your questions. As always, thank you for the feedback, and for the questions. They inspire us to think of new topics to share with you, especially with those of you preparing to set off on your own cruising adventures, no matter how near or far.

Waterworks, Amoebas, and Doctors

Sherwin L. of Ft. Lauderdale wrote to us asking about how we keep our water pure aboard Ithaka, and how we keep our foods free from contaminants as we travel through the Third World.

Dr. Cordoba's list of services includes everything from heart and respiratory problems, to immunizations. My friend Lisa, from Sand Dollar, is treated for an ear infection.

FROM BERNADETTE: The question is aptly timed, as I just spent a week from hell trying to rid myself of amoebic dysentery, brought on by something I ate in Cartagena, probably in one of the street stalls which neithr of us seem able to resist. Normally, when Douglas and I eat aboard, I wash all our fresh veggies and fruits in a bath of clean water mixed with iodine. We have a watermaker, so our drinking water is pure. But we also get water from shore, when it's easily available. When we do, while it's still in the jerry jugs, we always treat it with water-purification tablets (or one table spoon of bleach per five gallons or two tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide per five gallons). We let it sit for an hour or so, then pour it in the tanks. From the tanks to the faucets, the water has to go through two charcoal filters. With these precautions, we've never had a problem with contaminated food or water on the boat. Ashore, we usually take with us our own water and avoid uncooked vegetables, but there are times when temptation overtakes us, as it did this month.


Lisa, Dr. Cordoba, and Bernadette, outside the clinic

Over the past week, I had a high fever, chills, cramps, and a close relationship with the nearest plumbing fixtures. This was more than a normal case of tourista, so I went to the clinic of Dr. Juana Cordoba Cuero here in Cartagena. For a total of $12, I had three office visits, including all lab work, so that she could determine the types of amoeba I was housing. A week of two simultaneous prescriptions, as well as a full day of drinking Pedialyte - Dr. Cordoba was afraid I was getting dehydrated -- and finally I was back in business. My encounter with Dr. Cordoba was a delight; she's a beautiful, impressive, smart young doctor who has her own clinic in a poor barrio near where we hauled Ithaka out. Her office hours were 6:30 in the morning till 7:00 at night, six days a week, first come, first served - unless you're a child, or you're in acute distress, in which case she sees you immediately. She has a staff of two, both of whom are her family members, and both of whom are trained nurses with paramedic certificates. Dr. Cordoba impressed me, and reminded me that good - and very cheap -- medical care can be found almost anywhere you travel in Central and South America.


Beautiful Cartagena

Kuna Books

Peter B. wrote to us from San Diego, "We've followed you guys all through the San Blas and we'd love to find some good books to read about the area. Any that you'd suggest for reading more about the Kuna Indians?"

FROM DOUGLAS: We have several favorites. Each of these has a different voice and perspective:

The Art of Being Kuna, Layers of Meaning Among the Kuna of Panama (Edited by Mari Lyn Salvador, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1997, ISBN: 0-930741-61-7) This is one of those exquisite books that always surprises and inspires me with yet another tidbit. Using the mola as a means of examining the Kuna and their life style, Salvador, who knows the Indians well and has traveled extensively in Kuna Yala, offers sweet and thoughtful discussions of the complexity of their art-filled lives. Gorgeously printed, this paperback, coffee-table edition is full of color and black and white photos of the Kuna Indians. Bernadette and I turn to this book as a reference guide, but also for pure pleasure. Open it to any page and get lost in the Kuna's world

Stories, Myths, Chants, and Songs of the Kuna Indians (Compiled, edited and translated by Joe Sherzer, Illustrated by Olokwagdi de Akwanusadup, University of Texas Press, 2003, ISBN: 0-292-70237-X) This is a terrific book -- droll, informative, chock full of insights that only the oral tradition can provide. For anyone who loved the Brothers Grimm, who rejoices in humorous lore, and finds tall tales and myths the best way to know the world, this is a great find. Occasionally a tad more academic than I might choose, this is a very readable book that brought back to me my favorite childhood fairy tales as well as stories my grandmother told me. For anyone going to the San Blas, this will make the trip much richer.


Molas are the art of the Kuna

Kuna Crafts, Gender and the Global Economy (Karen Tice, University of Texas Press, 1995, ISBN: 0-292-78137-7) Much more academic than Sherzer's work, Tice's thesis offers a panoramic window into the lives of women in the San Blas, especially with regard to their mola making which, in recent decades, has become the driving economic force for many communities. She studies three different villages, exploring the Kuna world with great respect. Her work is a tribute to the Kuna women whom she clearly loves.


Kuna women dress traditionally, with a vibrant sense of color

Cameras and Photos

We've received several emails over the past few months asking us about the photography in our "Log Of Ithaka" BoatUS web stories. Those readers are complimentary about the photos, and would like to know what kind of camera and digital photo programs we use.

FROM BERNADETTE: We're happy you like our photography, and we appreciate the nice comments. We have two cameras right now. Both are digital. Our primary camera is a little palm-size Sony Cybershot DSC-P150 with 7.2 megapixels (there are versions out today that offer even more megapixels). We keep this camera in a small waterproof Otter Box (about 4 x 6 x 2.5 inches). It has a soft lining that makes it impact-resistant, and we bring it everywhere. We also bought an underwater casing for the camera, so that we can take it in the dinghy, take pictures in the rain, and take it snorkeling. It works great.


The camera is always at the ready

Our second camera is a larger-body digital Canon EOS, on which we can use all our lenses from our old single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera. This is the camera we use for all long-distance work. Unfortunately, this is the larger of the two cameras, so we don't always bring it with us when we go ashore, unless it's a "photo excursion." It's definitely an optically superior system, but more cumbersome and less versatile.

After we review our photos on the computer, we immediately and ruthlessly delete all but the most promising. Then Douglas uses a program called "Photoshop" to crop the photos, and then enhance their color balance and contrast, if needed. In the olden days, he loved working in a black-and-white darkroom and has found real pleasure in working with digital images now. He can spend many hours happily playing away.


Our underwater housing makes photography while snorkeling a new hobby.

What's Cooking On Ithaka?

Jill from Michigan asks us if we use a pressure cooker. "They intimidate me," she writes in her email. "But I know they're useful on a cruising boat. What kind would you recommend?"

FROM DOUGLAS: Sometimes I think there wasn't much I wasn't nervous about when we first left to go cruising. Add to that list the pressure cooker, about which I knew nothing except that as a little kid my mother told me they explode sometimes and could blind a boy who wasn't paying attention. This was one of two warnings she issued about behaviors that can blind. Neither proved true. Having conquered that fear, we now use our pressure cooker several times a week. They really are safe and they cook food with less propane and galley heat than anything else we can think of.

When you're looking to buy a pressure cooker, buy the biggest one you can store comfortably, because they're also wonderful for stews and curries and sometimes a whole chicken. Little ones can't handle the entire bird. Whatever brand you buy - and this is not an item you need to go hog wild on - make sure you also purchase an extra gasket for where the top and bottom seat together. They do wear out, and without that seal, you've just got a pot with a lid.


The subtleties of buying a chicken in Kuna Yala

On Ithaka we eat a lot of brown rice and red or black beans. When I was in graduate school, one of my best advisors, Lili McGee, a dear friend who'd grown up in Mexico, taught me how wonderful beans could be. Today, Bernadette and I almost always have a Tupperware full of beans ready in the fridge. Likewise the rice. These dishes are in my department, and I always cook enough so that we can have several meals worth. They're a perfect combination. Here are a few of my favorite bean-and-rice recipes.

Brown Rice in the Pressure Cooker

Put 2 cups of brown rice and 3.5 cups of water in the pressure cooker. Drizzle in two tablespoons of olive oil. Toss in two tablespoons of black cardamom seeds and a pinch of saffron threads. Stir it up and close the lid. That's it.

Cook at high pressure (that's when the steam is coming out the top) for 15 minutes. (You don't need high flame for high pressure, so keep the gas on low.) Turn off the heat and let it sit for 10 minutes. Release the little remaining pressure through the vent. Then take off the lid. Let it sit for five more minutes. You should have firm, not gloppy rice with a nice nutty flavor.


The valve of the pressure cooker lid, shown here up close, spins and hisses when the pot has reached pressure.

Risotto in the Pressure Cooker

We also use the pressure cooker to make Risotto. Foody friends who have labored many hours over hot stoves lovingly stirring their Arborio rices have turned up their noses at this when I told them about it, but they also have to admit, after tasting this recipe, that it's pretty darn good.

Put several teaspoons of olive oil in the pressure cooker. Heat it slightly and coat 1.5 cups of risotto with the oil. Add 3.5 cups of liquid and whatever dry herbs you'd like to flavor your risotto. Sometimes we also put in cut-up dried mushrooms. When we have fish or lobster stock we use that as our liquid. If none is around we put in a very small amount of bullion-less than most recipes call for, because bullion is generally so salty. Plus the pressure cooker does a highly efficient job of infusing flavors.

Bring the pressure cooker to high pressure. Leave it there for six minutes. Turn off the pressure. Let it sit for another 10 minutes. Open the steam vent. Allow the remaining steam to escape and then take off the lid. You're ready to go.


Bernadette shops at the Basurto - Cartagena's open market on the outskirts of town.

Black or Red Beans in the Pressure Cooker

Pick through the beans for rocks. We always find some. Toss the squirrelly looking stuff away and rinse the beans. Put three cups of beans in the pressure cooker. I use four cups of water for one cup of beans for the first cup, and then two and cups of liquid for each cup of beans after that, so for three cups of beans it is 9.25 cups, the last of which is orange juice.

I also add the following items, depending on what's on board: -3/4 of a pound of cut-up smoked pork, fresh pork or bacon; 3 tablespoons of anise seeds, 2 tablespoons of cumin, a touch of haberno powder, four tablespoons of olive oil, six tablespoons of rum or sweet sherry, two oranges (seeded and cut into quarters).


Bernadette shops at the Basurto - Cartagena's open market on the outskirts of town.

Cook this at high pressure for 35 minutes. Turn off the heat and let it sit for 15 minutes. Then release the remaining heat and remove the lid. The beans should be swimming in lots of good juice but still be firm. If you like them softer, put in whatever liquid you need and bring it back to pressure for a few more minutes. If we want to add other vegetables, onions or garlic, we saut them now and add them after the beans have cooked under pressure. Buen Provecho!