Unplanned Stop in the San Blas Islands

January 7, 2015

San Blas Islands, Panama,

I have to revise my first impression of some of the people who have been on multiple cruises.  On San Blas we ran into the “been on 80 cruises” couple who were wandering the island with apparent joy and wonder.   That joys was more than being in sheltered waters.  This is a neat place.  Entering the Gulf of San Blas was a real relief to a lot of the people on the ship.  Our breakfast companion had had a rough night because of the seas.  The Captain came on the PA at breakfast and told us that at 10:30 we would enter sheltered waters and, he hoped we had seen the worst seas of the trip.  With the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica ahead that may be wishful thinking, or perhaps Captain Tim is thinking of his vacation which starts when we get to Lima and the Staff Captain takes the con.  We dropped anchor at noon.   We couldn’t get into our Costa Rican port of call because 10 foot waves were pounding the wharf, so we didn’t try, we rode out some of the storm at sea and pulled in for an unscheduled visit to these islands in a sheltered gulf.

San Blas Islands are billed, on their website, as an ecological paradise where the local Kuna indigenous people control an autonomous region of Panama and take care of the land, where visitors stay in Eco lodges, sailing yachts can find safe harbor, the men fish, the woman make intricate “Mola” cloth work and there are few cruise ships.   Mola is intricate stitching using layers of different cloths.  At first glance from the tender people are impressed with all the solar panels mounted on poles outside a  mix of palm thatch, and corrugated steel  houses.  One of the bits of shoreline that looks picturesque at first glance are the palm frond screens at the end of short piers.  They’re ocean toilets similar to ones I saw long ago in Tenakee Springs;  except that the tide range here is about a foot.  I’m not sure I would want to swim at an eco-lodge too close to the villages on these islands.  The waters around the island are loaded with floating plastic.

And while the Kuna people may not have many cruise ship visitors, they sure know what to do when they come.  Women line the streets with their beautiful mola work.  Women from neighboring islands are lined up in the school yard selling.   The visiting vendors and the tourists overwhelm the town.  Some people carry on traditional work activities like sewing and sugar cane pressing, which you can photograph for picture baksheesh.  Kids in elaborate costume sit with kittens on their laps, parrots on their hands or a sloth (a slow monkey, as one person put it) and ask for a dollar a picture.  When you give the dollar they strike a pose, often a bored pose, although the little kids do smile.   This all  reminds me of the time when Brian took our malamute Skiff to where the tourists come off the ships and brought home picture baksheesh.  Skiff is the only dog I know of who obeyed the command “pose” although she didn’t seem to know any other commands, like, for instance “come” or “stay.”   I was taking a picture of boats with a telephoto lens and a woman accused me of photographing her pig.  Rather than I argue I gave her a dollar and took a picture of that same pig.  I still have Liam’s cold and wonder if handing a dollar to someone for a picture is spreading it.  It gives pause to think about how germs can spread widely and quickly from Minnesota to Alaska to Panama.   In the old days it took longer but history shows the affect was devastating.   A young man named Kevin invited us into his home and we saw where his family slept on hammocks under palm thatch.  Wandering the island I shared the senior cruiser’s sense of surprise, and wonder.

And unlike Providencia the local shop keepers know to pull out the cold beer and soft drinks for the cruisers. “cheaper than on the ship.”  Indeed they were.   As we tendered back to the shop we were flanked by canoes with young boys holding up crabs for us to admire.  I assume that was the reason because no one returning to a cruise ship was buying.

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