The San Blas islands weren’t really on our bucket list because we’re normally more pastry/cafe/museum people. So what are we doing sailing around the world, you ask? Good question. For one thing I have an unfathomable itch to push myself beyond my comfort zone. But still, the whole Margaret Mead thing generally interests me only in filmmaking terms, you know, how can I shoot this to a script?
We were on a mission to get a cell phone working. We had chosen wrong way back in Grenada and got a SIM card for Lime instead of Digicel, and we paid for that mistake all the way up island. Digicel is the more widely available network in the Caribbean and by the time we realized we should get a Digicel SIM card we were in Puerto Rico and they don’t have Digicel. So we arrived in Panama with no working cell phone and no access to data for email or blogging.
Ashore on Porvenir Island where we cleared into Panama we asked a man who said he was the administrator for the Kuna and he sold me a SIM card for $5 and said we should go to the next island over for prepaid cards to apply credit. The next island is Wichubwala and it is completely covered with thatched huts.
I was initially reluctant to go; the island is a small village. Would we be intruding into private spaces? Would we be instantly classified as walking wallets? Would we be set upon by aggressive vendors? We weren’t even sure where to dock a dinghy but we found a spot, tied up and entered another world.
The sandy paths between the rows of huts are neatly swept. What looked like a jumble of buildings from the perimeter of the island is an organized layout once we got to the middle.
There are basically two main “streets” with side paths that lead to the sea. The areas around the dwellings are neat and clean but each time we took a path back to the water we saw where the trash piles up.
There is no plumbing on the island but there are well-placed privies, and what electricity there is is produced by solar cells and stored in car batteries.
The residents watched us placidly with a look that told us they are used to being gawked at by tourists. We smiled and greeted people with our mangled Spanish which most of them don’t speak either, but they warmed up, especially when we admired their children. They are small people; Jack and I are easily a head taller than everyone.
Against all odds the Kuna have preserved their language and culture. The women still wear traditional dress featuring their beautiful molas on the front and back of their blouses. I know people buy piles of them but we are on a budget and I carefully selected two from what I assume to be a mother and daughter. Using sign language they indicated who made which ones and I chose a mola made by each. You’re not allowed to take photos of people but with permission you may photograph a craftsperson you purchase from.
We walked up and down the lanes between rows of huts. As we walked by women snapped to attention and brought out their wares. One woman led me into her hut where she laid out mola after mola, the representational kind they make for tourists, pretty but not authentic. I tried to indicate I was more interested in the traditional ones, and I pointed to the one on her own blouse. That prompted her to bring over blouse after blouse, with a mola on the front and back. The molas were beautiful but I couldn’t communicate that I only wanted one mola like that, not two and not a complete blouse. In the meantime, I could appreciate the hut. The space was very large with no furniture except hammocks hung from the ceiling. There were other hooks and high shelves but precious little else in the space. There was nothing on the floor at all. The Kuna live at sea level and the sea is rising.
We eventually came upon the little shop but there was no one minding the store.
We walked around back and found the proprietor and managed to convey that we wanted a “chip” and “saldo.” These words, in addition to “cerveza” and “cuenta” now constitute the sum total of my Spanish vocabulary. It’s pathetic, I know, but I have my priorities.
While we were waiting for the lady to get the cards out and do a little bookkeeping another artisan came up to show me her molas. I would like to have bought something from everyone but I couldn’t.
We strolled around the tiny island a little more until we circled back to the dock where we had left the dinghy only to find a wooden launch in its place. A few men and women were unloading food and supplies in no particular hurry and we stayed out of their way as we walked to the end of the dock to find Catnip safely tied to a different post. One of the men indicated they’d had to make room for the cargo boat, and I apologized for being in the way. No, no, he said, it’s ok, and he made it clear he had taken care of our dinghy and tied it well. We thanked them all and motored slowly away from Wichubwala.
We spent another day anchored beside the island, then spent a day at the less populated Lemon Group. When we sailed back to Porvenir to clear out we anchored close to Wichubwala again and it felt like coming home.
We wish we could stay longer in the San Blas and get to know the place, but we have promises to keep, and the canal waits.