Setting Sail in the San Blas | AspenTimes.com
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Setting Sail in the San Blas

Paul Andersen

The old man sang in a quiet, melodic voice, his song floating on moist tropical air through the flimsy wall of a thatched palm frond hut. Enraptured, I stood listening on a narrow pathway that led to the sea, where our three-masted Windjammer sailing ship lay at anchor.Glancing through the door of the hut, I could see the old man swinging gently in his woven hammock. He continued singing as I moved toward the beach, where a dugout canoe carved from an immense mahogany log floated in a picturesque bay. Palm trees lined the shore of Red Snapper Island, a small coral atoll that is home to a village of the Kuna Yala, a tribe of Indians living off the remote Caribbean coast of Panama. I raised my camera for a picture of the bay and heard giggling behind me. I turned and saw several Kuna children lined up with big smiles on their dark faces. One child, the youngest, held a string attached to a tiny Marmoset monkey that sat on the childs shoulder. The child stepped toward me, urged by the others. One dollah, she intoned meekly, asking the standard fee for a picture.One dollah became a joke among the passengers, who were amused by the mercenary habits of the natives. But the humor dissipated when we met the dignified chief of this Kuna island of 600 in the village meeting house, where he held counsel from his sanctified hammock. The air was still and sweltering in the big thatched hut as we gathered on long wooden benches. Our guide, a short, stocky Kuna man named Gilberto described the tribal laws and traditions of his people. After introducing the chief, Gilberto called on our 10-year-old son, Tait, to make a presentation of school supplies to the village.Tait approached the wizened old man with a paper sack containing writing tablets, pens and crayons. The old man swung his legs across the hammock and sat up. He smiled at Tait, then offered his thin, black hand. Their hands joined in a moment that transformed an exotic sailing adventure into a rich cultural connection. Something magical happened in that hut that focused our thoughts on the Kuna Indians and will remain with us for many years.The Kuna Yala inhabit an archipelago called the San Blas Islands. This string of more than 360 islands stretches along the mountainous coast of Panama like a necklace of pearls set in sparkling emerald and azure water. Our ship, Mandalay, a three-masted bark, anchored beside a half-dozen of these islands over the course of a weeklong cruise. With the pitch and roll of the Mandalay, we explored seas that were once familiar to Christopher Columbus, Sir Francis Drake, Henry Morgan and hundreds of Spanish galleons laden with treasure and gold.Build me a shipThe S/V Mandalay was built in 1923 for financier E. F. Hutton and his wife, Merriwether Post. Huttons instructions to the Copenhagen shipbuilder Cox & Stevens were simple: Build me a ship, the finest private yacht in all the world.Christened Hussar, the 236-foot, steel-hulled sailing ship flew 22,000 square feet of sail and was appointed luxuriously with exotic wood paneling, marble, chandeliers, a grand piano, guest rooms, and a master suite. Hutton must have been somewhat miffed when his wife refused to sail on the Hussar because the ship was too small. Hutton sold Hussar to George Vetlesen, chairman of the Norwegian American Steamship Line, who renamed her Vema.After Vetlesens death, his wife donated Vema to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, where it served as a training ship during World War II. The Vema was then obtained by Columbia University, where she was used for oceanographic research in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. It was on the Vema that the theory of continental drift was confirmed.Windjammer Barefoot Cruises acquired the ship 20 years ago, spent $2 million on renovation, and put it into service with 30 crew members and 70 passengers. The ship was renamed Mandalay because the owner liked the way the name rolled off his tongue. She became the queen of a prestigious line of luxurious sailing vessels, fulfilling a reverence for tall ships that has possessed Windjammers visionary owner, Capt. Mike Burke, since he was a boy. Burke, now in his 80s, served on a submarine during World War II, then pursued, with unmatched passion, building a fleet of grand sailing ships that sail tropical waters today.Burke, who is characterized as a hard-drinking, hard-living, risk-taking old salt, parlayed his love for sailing into an increasingly popular alternative to the floating hotels of the huge cruise lines. Since the late 1950s, Windjammer has catered to adventure, partying and the experience of sailing before the mast through waters mostly inaccessible to the big cruise ships. Windjammer ships are small, informal (they call them barefoot cruises) and able to slip into shallow bays and coves historically known as pirate lairs.When we first saw the Mandalay, she lay at anchor in the rain-swept bay of Portobello, a placid redoubt hemmed in by jungle-clad mountains and old Spanish forts, the corroded cannons of which lie strewn beneath moss-covered stone ramparts. As we approached on small chugging launches, the ship displayed her character, charm and age.As soon as we climbed a shaky metal ladder onto the ships deck, a radiant young woman in a white uniform with brilliant eyes and dark black skin handed us a rum swizzle. Our son had pineapple juice. (Rum punch was the cocktail of choice on Mandalay and a Windjammer tradition that flowed from pitchers every evening at 5.) Reggae music pulsed from the ships sound system and the galley crew scurried about, preparing a welcome buffet on deck for an eclectic assortment of passengers, mostly Americans.After dinner, light breezes riffled the water in time for the raising of the sails, which was done at night to a bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace blaring over the PA system. All hands, including passengers, hauled on the lines. Soon the ship was in full regalia and heading out to sea. In our tiny, wood-paneled cabins belowdecks, with a single port hole at waterline, we felt the excitement of a long-awaited adventure. Rolling with the rising swell, Mandalay became our snug, seaworthy home.A new equilibriumThe inner ear has a long memory, and balance on a moving plane is no easy feat for landlubbers from rock-solid Colorado. The ship rolled and pitched when under way, but even at anchor in a calm harbor, there was motion. Our sea legs came with time, but there was a period of uncertainty when we felt like lurching drunks. The reverse was true when we returned home, and for several days felt like our house was riding a steady swell.Our first morning found us in the Gulf of San Blas, the sun rising over numerous palm-studded islands. The mountains of the mainland stood green and undulant along the rugged coast. The water was a crystalline blue, streaked by filtering rays of sunshine. The air was sweet and moist, and our every pore soaked up the humidity like a sponge. When the sun hit, it brought equatorial swelter.Once our inner ears were adjusted to the fluidity of the ship, our psyches needed to adjust to island time, a tempo and rhythm designed to exorcise the demons of Western life. It took about one minute of standing on deck, sniffing the breeze, and surveying the southernmost reaches of Central America to become totally immersed in our new environment.As soon as the anchor chain rumbled to the floor of the bay, three canoes materialized around the ship. Some of the passengers were surprised by dark faces peering through portholes into their cabins from bobbing dugout canoes tethered alongside. The Kuna attached themselves like remoras to our huge whale of a ship. Several women in the long, narrow canoes were dressed in colorful scarves and skirts. They displayed their traditional fabric artwork the mola and held up five fingers. These Kuna were looking for a sale, and not the kind that goes up a mast.A few hundred yards across a coral reef was a small island where Kuna women had set up an impromptu gallery of their molas, which flapped like pennants on lines strung beneath sheltering palms. A five-minute shuttle in the launch brought my wife, son and me to a white sand beach where we donned snorkel gear and swam to an old shipwreck where we ogled brightly colored coral and innumerable varieties of tropical fish. It was like swimming in a vast aquarium.That night at a sit-down dinner we got to know some of our fellow passengers: Steve, a rancher from Nebraska; Dennis, a retired public health official; and Richard, an attorney from New York City who later told us that he had watched the Twin Towers collapse from his apartment four blocks away. During the week, we gravitated to those with whom we shared something, whether a bottle of wine, philosophical musings, or life histories. Tropical nights came alive with strobes of lightning issuing from massive, booming thunderheads. Most mornings, a light rain wet the decks.Tait was the only child on board, and the crew, mostly from Guyana, played with him, as did passengers who saw in him the children or grandchildren they had left at home. When the captain allowed us to jump off the ship while at anchor, Tait was the first to go in and the last to come out. On one island, he snorkeled past a 6-foot shark, picked up huge starfish, and became one with the water. From the deck of Mandalay, he watched pods of dolphins, hauled on ropes to raise the sails and joined in all the deck games.Lessons from the Kuna YalaOn our second morning among the San Blas Islands, we visited Red Snapper Island, where we saw our first Kuna village and were blitzed by the ubiquitous mola salesmen and the one dollah photo models. The next afternoon, I was invited to visit Gilbertos village on Needle Island, a nontourist village where hundreds of palm huts are packed close together and include schools, cafes, stores and the Kuna museum, where artifacts are displayed in a tiny, dirt-floor hut.Gilberto, an amicable fount of information, happily discoursed on any topic we raised. He painted the picture of a people who live in equilibrium with nature, the Panamanian government and each other. The Kuna people rely on a coconut currency where men barter with the harvest of their personal coconut palms, and also with the fish, crab and lobsters they catch.There is no scuba diving allowed in the waters of the San Blas Islands, a mandate of the Kuna to fend off the impacts of industrial diving. They reason if you cant reach it with the breath in your lungs, you dont deserve to get there. The culture is mostly organic and reflects Thoreaus credo of voluntary simplicity. The contrast between them in their dugout canoes and us on our robber baron yacht was profound. I often felt like an interloper, polluting the purity of their traditional values with the almighty dollar. Their fit, strong, sleek bodies spoke for the healthy, active lives they lead, granting the Kuna longevity into their 90s. And when asked about the Kunas mental health, Gilberto shook his head as if the issue were moot.By weeks end, the brilliance of the clear, blue waters and the searing hot sun melted away our often contrived cares with a simpler way of life on idyllic islands where community life comes before individual desires, and native tradition holds the Kuna together.The experience was summed up ironically by a young girl in the Peace Corps whom we met on an island in the company of her host Kuna family. The girl had been in the San Blas for four months and complained to us of boredom. She confessed that she had little interest in learning their language, exploring their coral reefs, or making a mola. Her job, she said with resignation, was to teach the Kuna how to manage their economy.How like an American, we thought ready to instill our values, but unwilling to hear, see, or feel the values of another culture. This young woman was duty-bound to teach with missionary zeal, but not to learn. Her boredom was her own failing.The Kuna have a lot to teach Americans, not only with their art and by sharing the natural beauty of their islands, but by holding to a way of life that honors women, respects nature and celebrates simplicity. One can only hope they are able to maintain their island sanctuaries amid an onslaught of souvenir seekers on sailing yachts, unscrupulous gold-mining companies, and the rising of the oceans from global warming.When the week was over and we sailed back toward Panama, the song of the old Kuna man swinging lazily in his hammock became like a hymn for his people and their way of life. When Amazing Grace was played for the last sail raising, it seemed to celebrate the memorable pitch and roll of a tall sailing ship. It also summed up the amazing grace of the Kuna Yala and their enlivening spirit.Paul Andersen is a freelance travel writer and columnist for The Aspen Times.


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