....more San Blas Islands!
We spent several more days in Coco Banderos after the sun finally came back out, snorkeling and fishing. Neil was disappointed with the spear-fishing; after the Venezuelan islands he was pretty spoiled, and the Kuna fish these reefs pretty well. There were a few large, VERY wily snappers and groupers, but not the bounty he was hoping for.
Our next stop was the eastern Hollandes Cays, in the anchorage known to cruisers as "The Swimming Pool". It's called that because you anchor in crystal clear water in 10 feet over sand, and it feels like you're anchored in a pool. We were a little wary of the spot, because of it's popularity and organized events like pot-lucks (not our cruising style) but, once again, our timing was great. The 20+ boats that had gathered for the Thanksgiving party began to disperse soon after we arrived, and soon there were only 4 or 5 boats in the big anchorage. It was very low-key. We had Stacey's birthday dinner with our friends Mike and Tina on Mandolin, but they, too, soon left. Without all the hustle and bustle, the Swimming Pool is a truly magical spot. A boat called Runner lives there pretty much full-time, and they've cleaned up a jewel-like little island for everyone to us. Of course, all the islands belong to the Kuna, but they've spoken with them and are very respectful of them: every day they gather the fallen coconuts and put them in a pile so they are easier for the Kuna to collect. Unlike the other islands which are often thick with underbrush beneath the palms, Runner has cleared away all of the debris and fallen palm fronds: beneath the palms is a soft, low grass "lawn" like a fancy island resort might have. There's a big fire pit for burning cruisers trash and palm fronds, a table for the pot-lucks, a place to deposit used engine oil when boats do oil changes, and a small freshwater "well", which we called "the most beautiful laundromat in the world!" It's truly a magical spot...
Here are some scenes from the Swimming Pool:
Liv loved the Swimming Pool: the whole island was like a playground for her, with beaches and trees to climb and shells to collect and -most important!- hermit crabs ("Hermies!") to catch. While we were there she met some Swiss boys, Jan and David, on a catamaran called Haxebase, and her friend Ian on Aquilla also showed up. They had a lot of fun!
After a few mediocre snorkeling trips, Neil finally found the good spear-fishing and snorkeling area, but he couldn't get the really big fish with his pole spear. Other sailors had spearguns and caught huge snappers; Neil really wished he had a spear gun! Nonetheless, we ate really well. Every day or so some Kuna fishermen would come by with crabs (enormous!) or lobster (mostly tiny!) to sell. Most of the time we paid a dollar per lobster and per crab. The really tiny lobsters we threw back into the sea to live and grow; the Kuna do not seem to have any concept of fisheries conservation, sadly. The crabs were spectacular, huge spider crabs (like Snow crab or King crab) with tons of succulent meat. Lots of crab cakes on Zora! Our friends Tim and Ian on Aquilla are super fishermen, and they shared a lot of their catch with us, too.
While at the Swimming Pool we were visited by the two most famous "master" mola makers. Venancio is a man (normally only the women make molas), although a very feminine one! His molas are extremely finely sewn. We bought several, as well as several from Lisa, probably the best-known mola seller. She acts and looks like a woman, although she was born a boy. Here's Lisa with one of her molas:
We finally felt rested and ready to go to a village, and we chose the Robeson island group on the advice of our friends on Mandolin. We arrived late in the day after a lovely sail, and found that the reefs and sand banks were not at all accurately charted. We ran pretty hard aground, and then had to creep along against the setting sun with no visibility.... a pretty stressful way to come into an anchorage. And then, before our anchor was even set, the ulus started out to meet us! They were already surrounding Mandolin, who'd arrived earlier:
We were wary, but it was actually pretty fun. Many of the Kuna were not even trying to sell anything, they were simply curious. Some had molas or beads to sell, but were polite when we said, "Maņana...." The next day we did visit the village, a fascinating place. On a tiny island nearly every square foot is crammed with palm huts; there are a few banana trees and a basketball court (every island has a basketball court! Funny how popular the sport is among these very short people!). The villagers got out molas to show us, and beautiful seashells that cost 50 cents or a dollar each. We bought some of the yummy Kuna bread ("kuna madu"), miniature baguette-shaped white loaves. The people were very friendly. Throughout the 2 days we were there, they'd stop by in their ulus to just say "hi", or to watch us, or to ask for something like magazines, antibiotics, powdered milk, or pens. Sometimes they brought something to sell. (Trading was never an option.) It got to be a little much, finally, even though it was fun, and we set sail again.
Here is a picture of an ulu that visited us when we were anchored at uninhabited Gunboat Island. A father and two sons were out fishing and stopped to see if we wanted anything. They had crabs and dozens of little Spiny and Spotted lobsters, as well as a bucket of random shellfish and a little Tunny:
The ulus are hand carved out of one tree trunk and steered by hand carved paddles. The sail rigs are unsupported and furled in the boat when at rest. Underway, one guy holds a line to spill the wind and steady the rig; another guy uses his paddle as rudder and daggerboard. They go out in all sorts of weather and pretty big choppy seas: incredible seamen!
By now we were getting ready for Christmas and were on a hunt for cooking gas, which we were almost out of. The Kuna gas tanks have different fittings than US tanks, and some cruisers have made adapters to fill US tanks by a gravity feed. We'd bought a tank and tried it using Runner's gear, with no luck. We thought that perhaps it was because of our new-style valves, and tried to hunt down a Kuna regulator to jury-rig something. No luck. Now we were getting desperate. My mom and brother were due in 2 days for Christmas; we NEEDED propane to cook with! Finally we sailed all the way to back to the Hollandes and tried Runner's tank: it worked!! (Thanks, Reggie!!) ...then all the way to the store in Nargana to exchange the bad tank. We were also hoping to buy some fresh vegetables, but there were none to be had. We did get some Kuna bread, diesel fuel, and Neil got a great haircut from a Kuna lady for $2. Finally we were all ready for our guests, and sailed to the tiny island of Kuanidup to meet them. Kuanidup has a small, rustic, Kuna-run "hotel" where my Mom was staying; Uncle Chris stayed on board with us:
Despite their lost luggage (Mom's clothes and presents didn't arrive until Christmas eve, our box of presents not until they'd gone home!) we had a great time. We roamed the beaches on the little islands collecting tiny sea urchin shells which we slid over the lights on our little silver Christmas tree, to great effect! Granny and Liv sand lots of Christmas carols...
...and we did a lot of just hanging around and relaxing. You can just make out Granny reading on the porch of her little palm hut:
Too soon it was time for them to go home, and for us to start thinking about heading north as well. After we finally tracked down our missing box (containing Neil's special Christmas gift: a SPEARGUN!) we were ready for some down time. First, though, we stopped at the friendly village of Rio Dulce to fill up on fresh water. They have a deepwater concrete pier to tie to and a spigot nearby. Also lots of very friendly kids!
We went to Green Island, and had a very tranquil few days there. It had been blowing and a bit chilly over Christmas, but suddenly it was flat calm and balmy again. In the anchorage we watched dolphins play around the boat and a resident crocodile swim by. Neil tried his spear gun without much luck; mostly we just chilled out.
We went back to the Hollandes for New Year's Eve, an impromptu gathering on the beach with fireworks consisting of expired safety flares!
We had hoped to spend a week or so relaxing at the Swimming Pool before heading north, but one morning when we listened to the weather we realized that it was the day to go. If we missed this opportunity it looked like we might be stuck in Panama until Neil needed to fly back to work at the end of the month. So we scrambled over to Porvenir to check out, had a stressful afternoon trying to convince the customs guy to sign us out even though the immigration guy was away and couldn't stamp our passports.... but finally, with barely enough light to work our way around the reefs, we left Kuna Yala. We will definitely miss it!!!