Monthly Archives: January 2016

“Answers to Life’s Persistent Questions” Part IV

Rumors abounded at Shelter Bay Marina before we embarked for the San Blas.  According to reports from cruisers already in the islands, the Gunas were planning to charge a monthly square foot vessel fee for being in Guna Yala beginning after the New Years.  The average fee would run in the thousands of dollars per month.  Panama requires all cruisers to buy a yearly cruising permit which entitles free passage in all Panamanian waters, including the San Blas.  Thus, in disregarding the national cruising permit, the Guna were reasserting the independence that marked their early relationship to Panama and were simultaneously targeting the visiting cruisers.   The rumors hinted at disquiet between the cruisers and the Guna.  Could this be the answer to the fourth question  posed in our January 12 blog?

By the time we arrived, the Guna Congreso had scrapped the fee proposal.  It is unclear what pressures led to dropping the proposal and none of our interactions with Gunas evidenced any animus or tension.  The mola makers, fishermen, and delivery launchas were only too happy to do business with us.

While cruisers undoubtedly present opportunity and frustrations to the locals, the cruisers are the least of the change agents in the islands.  With our without cruisers, cell phones, generators, satellite dishes, and small scale solar panels are providing information and comforts not previously attained.


The encroachment of the sea on a number of the smaller islands and their inhabitants presents a more sobering long term challenge to Guna Yala.  Photo credit: Max Friedman.

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“Answers to Life’s Persistent Questions” Part III

So how did Elizabeth Jean and her crew fare on remote cruising grounds?  First, let’s define our terms.  A number of factors define Guna Yala’s remoteness.  Some factors are physical; others are technological; yet others are psychological.

Physically, the winds, reefs, and distances all isolate the archipelago.  Beginning in late December, the trade winds set up.  Once the “Christmas winds” arrive, it can be a tough sail from the San Blas to anywhere.  Once in Guna Yala, fellow cruisers cautioned us we should plan to stay until spring.  Reefs fringe the San Blas; cruisers typically move within Guna Yala between 10:00 and 2:00 when the sun illuminates the reefs.  As for the distance, visitors joining us would drive by van and then catch a launcha, or power boat.

Technologically, the San Blas are connected with cell towers; however, some cruisers equipment connects better than others (i.e better than ours).  Our phones and lap top worked in some anchorages, but not others.  Not a big deal, but a source of low level frustration, especially when we were waiting to hear if our daughters were making their various connections.

The physical remoteness and spotty technological connectivity contributed to an underlying psychological sense of isolation.  While we came to the islands with plenty of food, water and fuel we were always wondering whether we would run out of something or have an equipment failure requiring a part or skill not available on Elizabeth Jean or elsewhere in Guna Yala.  As it turned out, everything we required we could find there and when we left we still had plenty of water, fuel and propane (although we were getting creative with our cooking).  Yet, having enough and knowing we have enough is not always the same thing.

The islands’ beauty is stark; the winds, as the palms’ arc attests, are an almost constant physical presence.  Photo credit: Max Friedman.


The reefs, which provided protecion from ocean swells, also were a barrier to movement among the islands.  The reefs are denoted by yellow.  The numbers at the top of the chart are waypoints through the reefs.


The launcha ride in and out to Elizabeth Jean was the final step in our daughters’ trips to visit their name sake

veggie boat

The vegetable boat was the best source of fresh food and rum.  It never arrived with same cargo two times in a row.  These variations added to our uncertainties regarding provisions.  Photo credit: Max Friedman.


As in the reality game “Survivor,” our goal was to outwit, outlast, and outplay our own apprehensions.


In the last analysis, none of Elizabeth Jean’s crew was voted off the island.  However, Guna Yala and its remoteness challenged each of us.


Photo credit: Max Friedman.

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“Life Persistent Questions” Part II

“Jean told me to make sure you didn’t buy any more molas,” our daughter Beth smiled as she passed on her sister’s command.  It appeared as if we were in the middle of an intervention, an intervention to save us from our perceived mola addiction.  At least in our daughters’ opinions we had exceeded our mola limit.

But, we are getting ahead of ourselves.  The second of Life’s Persistent Questions” identified in our January 12 blog, was “What’s a mola, and how many molas are too many molas?”  With all due respect to our daughters, one can hardly answer the second part of the question without answering the first.  So, here goes.

A mola, is a traditional Kuna craft consisting of fine needle work on colored fabric.  Molas depict animals, Kuna history, biblical stories, or abstract designs.  As was the case with the lobster, molas are typically sold in the anchorages by Kunas in ulus, some powered by paddle or motor.


There are three master mola makers in Guna Yala.


Venancio, one of the masters, motored beside Elizabeth Jean at 8:00 our first morning in the San Blas.    If there are worms to be caught in Guna Yala, Venancio is the early bird who will catch them.  After I explained that we were still waking up, he scheduled a return visit for 9:00.   Once aboard our vessel, Venancio began unloading his art from several large plastic garbage cans and spreading them around our cockpit.  For each mola he asked us to say whether it was a “no” or “maybe.”


Only after we had a hefty stack of “maybes” would Venancio talk price.  The total for the stack would blow a big hole in the cruising kitty.  So began the slow and painful process of turning “maybes” into “nos.”  Three hours later, we were the proud owners of 9 of the master’s molas.  Although we had greatly reduced the hole in the cruising kitty, we emailed our daughters a short message, “bring more cash.”


Lisa, another of the masters, motored up to us when we were anchored at Salardup, a pretty island a couple of hours sail from the East Lemons, our San Blas base.  The quality of her ulu and her attire evidenced her financial success and attention to detail.  Max and Jean acquired several smaller panels as gifts for Max’s mother.


Lisa was gracious and personable, traits that help in her other business, guiding trips up the River Sidra near her home on the mainland.


In addition of these two masters, we became regular customers of Hermelinda and her daughter, who paddled their ulu through the Banedup anchorage every day regardless of how hard the trade winds blew.   We were fortunate to be able to visit Hermelinda and her family at their home and conclude our shopping.


Hermilinda’s mother, the matriarch on their little island.  When Eulalie asked if she could take a picture, the matriarch allowed this one.

“What of the third master?” you ask.  The third master does not come to the anchorages.  Interested buyers, as is the case with the mountain and Mohammed, must come to the master.  Even without our daughters’ intervention this trip was not on our to-do-list.

At 8:00 on our last morning in the San Blas, a tapping on our hull surprised us.  Climbing up into the cockpit we saw Venancio, his slight figure peering over Elizabeth Jean’s cap rail.  We politely informed him that we had all the molas we would be getting.  When we told him we would be departing Guna Yala, he sounded surprised and a bid sad as he repeated aloud the words of our departure.

So, how many molas are too many?  As is the case with the lobster, our mola consumption was robust, but not excessive.  Our encounters with the mola masters and other mola makers enriched our San Blas experience and are sure to bring back powerful memories once we have swallowed the anchor.



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“Answers to life’s persistent questions” Guy Noir

Our January 12 post, noted that our San Blas sojourn afforded us the opportunity to begin to answer a number of life’s persistent questions.  Here we humbly share the answer to question 1: Is it possible to eat too much lobster?  Before entering Guna Yala we heard tales that Caribbean lobsters were so plentiful in Guna Yala that one could tire of it.  Thus, the question persisted as we explored the San Blas, would the spiny delicacy eventually bore us.


Our effort to answer this question began our first morning as a local fisherman cruised through the anchorage in his motor driven ulu (canoe) holding aloft a fine specimen.  We beckoned him over to Elizabeth Jean and soon had three aboard, ranging from small to large for $20.00.  We repeated this ritual with minor variations throughout our stay.


Lobsters welcomed Jean and her boy friend Max the day they arrived.  Photo credit: Max Friedman


For Christmas dinner we bought one monstrous critter that handily fed Beth, and the two of us.


 Sometimes the fisherman arrived under sail, rather than by motor.


For New Years we bought two lobsters and two pan sized Bonita for $10.00.

Sometimes, we actually turned down the fisherman and declined to dine on lobster (variety after all . . . ).

But tire of lobster?  No, we never tired of lobster.  The delicacy, whether grilled, sauteed in garlic and butter, or steamed au naturel, richly flavored our Guna Yala visit.

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“A People Who Would Not Kneel” James Howe

Anthropologist James Howe documents in detail the 20th Century history of the Kuna or Guna Indians, inhabitants of Panama’s San Blas Islands (Guna Yala to the locals).  Howe describes the Guna’s struggle to maintain their independence in the remote San Blas in the face of missionary and other outside influences.  Fellow cruisers’ intriguing descriptions of the Guna’s traditional and simple lives lured us to begin our 2016 cruising season in the San Blas.  Equally enticing was the opportunity to explore uninhabited islands, snorkel reefs bursting with colorful fish, and to sail in trade winds in waters protected from the swells by outer reefs.  The holiday season would allow our daughters to join us, adding the final element to what promised to be a special time.  A month in Guna Yala has allowed us to begin to answer a number of life’s persistent questions, including: is it possible to eat too much lobster, what’s a mola and how many molas are too many molas, how does Elizabeth Jean and her crew fare in more remote locales, and–perhaps most importantly–how are the Guna’s adapting their traditional lives to cruisers and other tourists, as well as cell phones, solar panels and other technology?

san blas chart 2

The green area locates Guna Yala on Panama’s Isthmus.

san Blas chart1

Our explorations focused on the area between El Porvenir (upper left) to Nargana/Corazon de Jesus (left of center); areas further to the east are more remote and more traditional than those we visited.


The ulu (dug out canoe) is still a widely used transportation mode; Dog Island in the background provided the scene for adventures with our guests.  I wish I knew to whom to attribute this photo.  It nicely summarizes Guna Yala’s cultural and environmental characteristics.

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“Silence is is the element in which great things fashion themselves together” Thomas Carlyle

Silence, may also mean that one has been without fast wifi connection.  Whatever the reason, we are once again ready and able to update Elizabeth Jean’s blog.  Stand by for more posts.


Silence is Golden by EreSaW

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