Colombian contrasts

It’s a week now since we set sail from Cartagena in Colombia; it feels like it’s taken that long to gather the thoughts and reflections of our 3 and a bit months there, to filter out the noise, the intense heat, the gorging extravagance we felt trapped in the middle of in Cartagena and remember the beauty and earthiness we found on our travels inland.

There are not many times, outside of Europe, that I’ve crossed land borders (or in our case sailed around a headland from one bay to the next); crossing this imaginary fabricated line between what we now call Panama and Columbia and dropping anchor in Sapzuro was a fine example of cultural differences created by a different economy, history, world outlook and governance, which meant that gone were the simple thatched dwellings, earthen roads, dugout canoes – here was concrete, loud music, opulent holiday homes, lawns, restaurants, tourists (though very few) and modernity. Relatively speaking it was a tiny settlement of maybe a couple of 100, around a beautiful bay surrounded by jungle, howler monkeys and wilderness. It was not until a week later when there was a good weather window and getting to Cartagena 3 days sail later that we were literally dumbstruck by the contrast.

Anchoring in the brown waters of the inner harbor, sandwiched between a military naval base and their fleet of war craft and a marina rammed with plastic, over sized gin palaces and a panoramic backdrop of skyscrapers on 3 sides and a container terminal on the fourth, we took stock of this ‘other world’ – a world more representative of the Western consumer culture from where we originate. But a world away from the Guna Yala – a place and culture that we had allowed our hearts and minds to to be embraced by, and had swum in its humble smiles, crystal coral waters and tropical, colourful beauty.

This slow, immersive, gentle way of travel seems to make these contrasts all the more absorbing, stark and at times shocking.

We had big plans for Cartagena, to lift Lilly out in a yard and give her a big spruce up… These plans were somewhat thwarted however when we found that the only yard with a hoist big enough was a place we were warned not to go near, greedy, regulated, industrial and on visiting, this reputation was confirmed when we were told we were not allowed to work on our own boat, unless we payed them, or had to employ their staff…. No thanks!

So we put any valuables below, fitted a few barrel bolts to hatches, threw out a second anchor, dug out a padlock and left Lilly under the watchful eye of the friendly neighbours, and headed for the hills.

Jean-Marc went first – the furthest and fastest – back to France and fromage; Rowena took an overnight bus South to a rock climbing area, and Nick East to the Sierra Nevada. We followed a few days later to Minca, also in the Sierra Nevada, a mountain village in the foothills of the worlds highest coastal range of mountains; surrounded by forests, rivers, waterfalls and of course the mountains. The combination of its natural beauty, its proximity to the Caribbean coastal city of Santa Marta only 40 mins away, the intrigue of the Indigenous population in the vicinity, means it’s popular with tourists, daytrippers and backpackers, and also with city Columbians and foreigners who have settled in the area creating retreats, hostels, permaculture fincas and communities. Some of the accommodation places we stayed in were stunning as the pictures show…

After a week or so and after catching up with Nick for a couple of days and his Birthday, we family got itchy feet to explore some more of inland Colombia. Nono had been in touch with her close friend Lucia who she hadn’t seen for 10 years plus, who’d put us onto a doula friend of hers living in San Augustin, a town way down south, so that was decided, as good a reason as any, we had a destination!

Travelling with the girls is fantastic! They are up for the adventure, always excited to sleep in a new bed, get up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus, and take the rich variety of stimuli that travelling throws up with amazing ease. Plus of course we were always given an extra warm welcome in hostels, markets etc., their blue eyes attracting a lot of attention and admiration; sometimes ladies would grab them to look at their eyes and coo over them, “How old are you?” “Whats your name?” “Where are you from?” the girls could soon reel off the answers in perfect Spanish and it was presumed they were fluent.

Despite these great travelling abilities, we decided against days on a bus and took a plane to Cali and from there just half a day’s bus ride on to a small mountain town called Sylvia, where we’d heard there was a thriving indigenous population of ‘Misak’ in the area and surrounding mountains. This was an aspect of Colombia we were keen to learn more about, Nono had done some reading and researched a bit about the different groups of indigenous people and their history and current situation, with regard to their place in Colombian society, a lot of which is appalling and shocking! Now to try and meet and hear more of their culture and beliefs and how the relationship was with the other side of Colombia – those of European decent, tied into a system of growth, extraction and in a nutshell – capitalism.

Sure enough, distinctive for their traditional dress, Sylvia was a hub, especially on market day, and on a voting day (round one for the Colombian president in which left wing Petro won an impressive lead, we will know by the time we reach the Azores if he’s won overall) the town was busy with Misak in bowler hats, royal blue ponchos, brightly trimmed dresses, going about their business, often around the market or one of the many agricultural supply stores, or the main plaza.

Sylvia

The windows we found to get a peak into their culture was firstly a visit to what was called a ‘botanical garden’ but in reality was more a community garden and cultural centre to celebrate, encourage and teach the traditional indigenous ways of living with the land, to keep it alive amongst their own, but also to spread and share their knowledge with anyone interested. We were given a very warm welcome here, shown around the garden, and into their ceremonial roundhouse, splashing herb infused water with the left hand over ourselves to cleanse and prepare for open discussion within. Sitting around a little fire in the centre we got to hear a lot about their customs and ways, again the recurring theme seems to be this connection, respect, and gratitude for the natural world around them. It’s so not rocket science, but has become so buried in the quagmire of our Western cultures. Another opportunity was when Nono tracked down a traditional Misak midwife and visited her at her birth centre, she was welcoming and happy to chat but of course the time felt limited…

We had a memorable walk home after visiting the garden: we were directed down a path leading across some beautiful fields where small crops of yuka, banana, corn and more were growing, a grazing cow with its sagging camel hump and big droopy ears standing tethered in the rain, the odd child in school uniform and a smart young lady with a brolly; we on the other hand were trying to share a big plastic poncho, except Morla who’d been given a sheet of plastic into which she’d cut a head hole. Back on the dirt road leading down the valley to town, we stuck close to the verge as there were regular motorbikes laden with 2,3 or 4 people winding round the puddles and potholes. Soon we arrived at a kind of roadside market/food court/bus stop – a couple of high, tennis court sized bamboo shelters, in which were half a dozen fruit and veg stalls, and in a lean-to, a couple of wee kitchen setups where we installed our dripping selves. We were all served hot, very weak and sweet coffee and empenadas and sat to take in our surroundings. It was steamy and bustly in the kitchen where it appeared most the family were involved grating, chopping, frying, diverting the curtain of water streaming off the roof or attending to the toddler who seemed determined to pass the curtain and check up on the goings on in the neighbouring cafe. A ‘chiva’ bus sat idling nearby where the driver had the bonnet up and was tinkering with the massive engine; these buses are beautiful, wide enough to get a family along the bench seat next to the driver, are brightly painted, open sided with a substantial roof rack usually covered with a ridge tent arrangement to protect the cargo from the weather. Not going our way however we were obliged to wave a hopeful thumb which brought the first passing jeep to give us a lift home. A simple episode but with Seren and Morla, soaking it all up, (and being given grown up coffee) the attention we received in return, the beautiful bright clothes and faces, the stories and humble indigenous beliefs we had just heard of at the gardens, and the heavy rain all felt scrumptiously Colombian.

What we didn’t visit was a Misak run university in the valley which we were told focused on Colombian politics, history and law, this to educate the indigenous population and equip them to defend and fight for their rights against the hungry claws of capitalist colonisation.

After a week in and around Sylvia we were back on the bus, (usually a large minibus) in our beautiful new woolen poncho’s; a night stop by some hot springs then the last 150km to San Augustin, which on the unpaved mountain road took over 6 hours, not helped by the occasional need to squeeze past enormous mack trucks bumping along in the opposite direction.

On hearing that we were going to visit Amalia and Jaime in San Augustin, Lucia bought a ticket from Michigan and was there to meet us with her 3 year old daughter Willow, this was to be our home for the next 3 weeks. This pause at ‘Casa de Jaime’s’ was really ideal! A great house, built like most the rural dwellings in the area, of bamboo, surrounded by a lush, jungly forest garden, in which was our abode, aptly called the igloo. There was a table tennis table, a bread/pizza oven, our own separate wee kitchen where we made jams, preserves and dozens of jars of lacto-fermented veg., an abundance of tropical birds attracted by the endless supply of bananas Jaime would put out for them and the buzzy town was a 20min walk away. Maybe the best thing about the stay there was Shanty 8 and Zianna 11, Amalias kids, who along with Willow gave Seren and Morla a little posse to hang out with, they became firm friends. Shanty was quite the hero and Morla has since requested his haircut for herself, and picked up some great new mannerisms! It was a popular and socially welcoming house (so much so that in the past its social/jam nights were mentioned in the lonely planet) and though much lower key nowadays, musicians would still come and jam, and nighbours come to play table tennis and hang out. There seemed to be a very nice balance of local Colombians, expats, and backpackers in the area which gave a nice variety and zest – a Steiner school group, vegetarian restaurants, nice handicraft shops and a fantastic music venue we visited in a big bamboo covered area with a firepit, bar, sawdust, murals, sofas, cake and a brilliant all womens’ indigenous music band. Nono took the girls home before this band, which was a sadness, but no worries, it turned out the band came and stayed on the floor at ours and so we got to hang out and get a little concert over breakfast the next day.

Days passed pottering about at home til we realized we couldn’t stay forever, so in the last week, made an effort to be tourists and explore a little of the area, one day on horseback, another walking around the archaeological park – for which San Augustin is most famous. The local market was always fantastic with stalls of coffee, cacoa, second hand shoes and clothes, leatherworkers, handicrafts, chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs, yum yum and of course mountains of fruit and vegetables. Nono would walk down at the crack of dawn and return with baskets of goodies, and Panella, a raw, unrefined sugar of which we bought 120kg! This and the jars we’d done and any other paraphernalia we didn’t need we packed up and couriered back to Cartagena a few days before we followed via a couple of nights in the tiny, but impressive in its contrast, Tatacoa desert, sandwiched between two branches of the Andean mountain range, then on to Bogota and a plane back to Lilly.

These figures of which hundreds have been found buried around San Augustine, are estimated to be from somewhere between 3300 BC and 1350 AC when evidence of a culture existing in the area have been found! Not alot is known of them, these guard a tomb.

We had a better idea what to expect from Cartagena this time, but still the contrasts were once again stark and to be honest, depressing, (not helped by a bout of suspected covid on board)

From the rich tapestry of images, experiences and encounters we had in Colombia, it is this contrast that has provoked the most thought, discussion and contemplation. Once again the tastes and impressions we observed and got from the indigenous cultures gives hope – their connection and respect for the land seen in their agriculture, their ritual, beautiful Andean acoustic music, their knowledge and use of native plants in medicine, seeing multi generational families together and their modest homes, transport and lifestyles. They clearly have a respect for the nature and hold onto their traditions of treading lightly on the earth.

Fast track to Cartagena, party town! Every day a fleet of speed trip boats with up to 4 massive outboards would wind through the anchorage, their rows of speakers and subwoofers blaring out the latest Colombian hits. The morning flock would be lathering on sunscreen to their thong-clad, botoxed bodies or posing for selfies, before zooming out to the nearby Rosario islands. The daytime would be relatively peaceful, when there wasn’t a military helicopter arriving or taking off 200m away, or a drone buzzing around. If we weren’t working on Lilly, we’d visit the nicest parts of town – the old part and Getsemanie, with their cafes, fantastic murals, street performers, colourful narrow streets and parks with monkeys and sloths and the girls’ favourite, Pigeon Park! Or we’d be off stocking up or tracking down some boat part for Lilly – these forays would often take us to areas not in the tourist guides, into the less fortunate parts of town – extreme poverty, street sleepers, rubbish, corrugated shanty towns, dogs and more rubbish, is it really a lack of fortune or is it all connected? A wealth imbalance not exclusive to Cartagena of course! but very blatant here. Back on the water, 5 o’clock was rush hour as the flotilla of speed boats full of Colombian tourists returned, now whooping and dancing, arms aloft, most still clutching phones. But that wasn’t the end of it! That was just the daytrippers, the evening brought same big open boats but now with multi-coloured disco lights, louder music and more party pumped punters, whooping in hedonistic revelry til the early hours. We were told that Cartagena was where the rich Colombians came to holiday and party and I guess that’s what we were witnessing; how they got rich I couldn’t tell you but they didn’t look like bankers. If it wasn’t the party boats it was party buses and clubs, they were all loud – “Can you hear us…?”

Now clearly we’ll make our own variety of conclusions from these glimpses, and they are only glimpses and impressions that I have taken from our encounters and time spent amongst these different cultures, but as Nono put it: “I know which world I want our daughters to see, witness and experience!

The sadness and tragedy comes when we see that this individualistic, expensive, sexist, aggressive, exploitative, unequal world being so often the idealized one, the one capitalism advertises and aspires to, the world ‘progress‘ takes us to… but we only see the sugar coated icing, where most of us inhabit.

The indigenous culture on the other hand, in the small corners of the globe where it hasn’t been wiped out to varying degrees, is still suppressed, is under threat, even though they exist so much closer to nature, in sympathy with their surroundings and each other, yet they still have to fight and struggle to retain their culture, customs – and land, of course – against mining, deforestation, agriculture and tourism – business which exists to support our rampant consumerism. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ how the American first nation people presumed that the European arrivals were surely only visiting, and would go home before long, due to their extractive and exploitative relationship with the natural world – if they planned to stay then surely they’d take better care… I highly recommend this book on the subject of the relationship of the indigenous cultures with our modern day world!

Where I saw a glimmer of hope is that in Colombia and of course all through S. America, these indigenous cultures do exist, and from what we gathered are keen to share their knowledge with those who’ll listen, and some are listening, its just not that easy to hear their voices, especially at home in the UK where with the absence of such cultures, we are having to reinvent our roots and our relationship with Pacha Mama. Our experiences in Colombia have stoked this fire in me!

1st June 2022

1.6.22   31⁰37.5’N   61⁰17.7’W

Lilly reported her position to a passing ship who passed on the message to Tamsin (many thanks to 2nd officer Jonas of the MV Ince Point).

All well on board but progress slow (3 kts) due to light winds

Still some 2,000 nm to go, but should be picking up some winds soon.

7th May

(from Steve again)

Lilly puts out to sea again from Cartagena, Colombia.

The plan (as ever subject to modification on the way!) is for a single long passage to the Azores (some 5,000 miles away).  The first 900 nm or so will be heading a bit E of N and aiming to pass between Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba, thread through the Turks and Caicos Island, keep heading roughly NE until they pick up the more favourable winds with a bit of W in them to carry them towards the Azores.

For this first part of the passage the prevailing winds are the NE trades so they can expect to be fairly close hauled most of the way. But they set out with the wind a more favourable Easterly of around 15 kts – a much more comfortable direction. As ‘they’ say, you can choose the weather you depart in, but can only accept whatever follows.

Passing close to the islands, though they don’t plan to stop, they may get enough of a signal to send a message. Otherwise it may be 6 weeks (or so …) before we get news of their passage …

They crew sound entirely happy and positive as they settle into what has become the familiar routine of life at sea.

Guna Yala – A Sinking Paradise

By Nick

Visiting the Guna Yala (San Blas) has been a profound experience. The Guna Yala is a largely autonomous province of Panama stretching for 230 miles of the Caribbean coast until the border with Colombia where we spent two and a half months. It was a privilege to be amongst these indigenous people (‘The Guna’) who’s values towards nature and one another are rooted in a spirit of harmony, peace and co-operation. Attitudes towards community, sharing of resources and ‘work’ that are revolutionary to the western ear are second nature to the Guna.

It’s impossible not to constantly draw comparisons between The Guna and life at home. A commute for a Guna might involve a leisurely sail or paddle to the mainland in a dugout ‘Ulu’ in order to tend to vegetables or collect fire wood for a few hours. A world away from the archetypal frenzied rush to get to work involving packed trains that was the norm for me in my London days.

The Guna people live in an abundance of the important elements of life. Their natural environment (for now) is bountiful and they are able to self-sustain themselves well; but most strikingly the Guna are rich in time. Time for their family, time for community and time for just existing slowly. This is not to sugarcoat or fetishise their lives, they of course have problems and they are not perfect but there is something at the core of their culture that suggests powerfully that these are the type of people that our extractivist culture must learn from if we are to mitigate or slow the effects of the catastrophic climate breakdown we face.

It is the subject of dramatic climate change, specifically sea level rise, that ultimately landed the biggest emotional impact in relation to the Guna. As weeks passed and a love of the islands grew so did feelings of anger and sadness as the reality began to land that soon all the Guna will have to leave their islands for good. All but a small handful of the 300 odd low lying sandy islands are doomed (around 50 are inhabited often densely). Doomed because most of the rest of the world hasn’t shared their respect of nature. A global system that has exploited this planet under guiding principles of greed and accumulation has committed the Guna’s islands to watery graves due to sea level rise. Within a generation this paradisaical archipelago will be gone, vanished, washed away. Even knowing this it takes a while for the facts to sink in. Personally it felt like there was a cognitive reluctance to accept that, for example, my newly born niece will not be able to visit the Guna islands if she waits till she’s my age because they simply won’t exist. There is denial even within some of the Guna communities about their sinking islands. It’s possible that this new hyper impermanence of the natural world is just too hard to accept even if you are watching your islands shrink before your eyes.

The abuse of the Guna by the outside world is not a new phenomenon. After the country of Panama was created by America 100 years ago the Guna’s existence and territory was immediately under direct threat. For America the stealing of the land we now recognise as Panama from Colombia was a natural step in their explicitly racist imperialist project. In 1912 President William H Taft declared “the day is not distant when three stars and stripes at three equidistant points will mark our territory: one at the North Pole, one at the Panama Canal and the third at the South Pole. The whole hemisphere will be ours in fact as, by virtue of our superiority of race, is already ours morally”.

America’s interest in Panama of course centred around The Canal control of which represented power over a large proportion of global trade. It was however not just shipping but banking that was set to prosper. It has been described that “in 1903 the administration of Theodore Roosevelt created the country after bullying Colombia into handing over what was then the province of Panama. Roosevelt acted at the behest of various banking groups, particularly JP Morgan & Co, which was appointed the country’s ‘fiscal agent’.” Immediately the new country was used as a tax haven and to this day the trend has continued. Due to secretive banking laws the exact scale of sleaze and thievery hidden in Panamanian bank accounts remains a matter of speculation but it is known to be ‘one of the filthiest money laundering sinks in the world’.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner Roosevelt’s Panamanian project became a direct threat to the indigenous people’s way of life. The Gunas’ land and culture were set to disappear as a process of ‘westernisation’ was initiated. Whether through schooling, clothing, policing or land enclosures the Guna were oppressed as subjugation was attempted. This forced assimilation partly came through legislation. In 1919 Panamanian President Porras banned the Guna women from wearing traditional dress, nose rings and leg and arm bindings. There is an incredibly strong link between the Guna traditional dress and their culture. The Gunas rebelled in kind with an even greater number of Guna women than before the ban adopting the traditional dress.

Organised matriarchally, one aspect of Guna resistance took the form of lullabies. Sung exclusively by the women the lullabies were used to educate the children on behaviour and the importance of common sharing. This one just one of the tools along with a rich oral history that was used to educate and empower the youngest generation of Guna’s to resist the cultural assimilation programme.

In February 1925 the Guna Revolution began involving attacks on Guna islands that were under the control of the Panamanian government and police. The revolt lasted just four days but was formidable enough to force the Panamanian government into negotiations and by 4th March an historic peace agreement was signed followed by a treaty in 1938. The first indigenous people in Latin America to have their rights formally recognised, the Guna Yala was enshrined as a reserve. The fight however by no means ended and attempts to encroach on their land and their way of life have continued ever since. In the last 30 years tourism has presented new battles to fight for example in the form of foreign developers wanting to build hotels and also the more the subtle cultural threat that is presented by increased exposure to ‘westerners’. This has recently been exacerbated by the proliferation by mobile phones although some of the islands (they have a high level of autonomy) have approached this threat head on with bans on television and phones.

The fight for cultural integrity and health is an ongoing process and one fought on many fronts. Nono met up with Signora Antonia, a Guna feminist activist who had been the Guna representative at COP26 recently and discussed, amongst a range of topics, the experience of Guna women that birth in hospital in Panama City. The women are not allowed to be accompanied by traditional midwives, family or partners so they find themselves in an alien environment where the only language spoken is Spanish meaning that those who only speak Guna are completely unable to communicate and therefore disempowered. This is just one example but it’s representative of the second class citizen status they are subjected to by much of the wider Panamanian society.

Given the smiley, calm and humble disposition of almost all the Gunas we met it’s not always obvious at first glance the struggles that they face but some aspects are totally unignorable. One of these elements is the ubiquity of rubbish. This is not a problem of rubbish of their own creation but mountains of plastic that has washed up on their beaches or in their mangroves. It’s visceral to experience the juxtapose of idyllic islands littered with polluting rubbish that has been carelessly sent to the Gunas by winds and currents. As with sea level rise the plastic pollution is emblematic of a global system that cares not about the consequences of its actions. A system that, unlike indigenous beliefs, doesn’t consider it a duty to protect the environment for generations to come.

One thing for the Gunas that is sure is that the future will involve huge changes. They will leave their islands and return to their mountain roots. In this regards they are more fortunate than other vulnerable populations around the world. The Gunas have land, they have the ability and the knowledge to be self sufficient as they have been before but this will surely not diminish from the loss they will feel when they lose their islands. On a personal level it has made a strong impression and will provide easy access to a memory that demonstrates unequivocally the need for immediate radical change. Sometimes the urgency of addressing climate change can be diminished as it’s something that will effect other people first but having met some of those ‘other people’ and looked them in the eye and shared a smile it’s impossible to feel any emotional distance.

To the Gunas I would say simply thank you, we will take you in our hearts always.

Panama and the Guna Yala

Panama and the Guna Yala

By Kieran

We were all pretty excited to come to Panama, a place where none of us had been before, a country we didn’t know much about apart from it having a ruddy big canal, and that the San Blas region covered most the Caribbean coast, east of the canal.

We soon learnt that the San Blas was the Spanish name, the local indigenous name is the Guna Yala – land of the Indigenous Guna people.

Our first port of call was Linton Bay, an anchorage sheltered behind a jungle covered island, a small marina and boatyard and a small village with a shop and a couple of restaurants, half a mile away.

Here we were able to check in with immigration and the ‘port captain’ (all offices being converted containers!) and receive instructions that we were to get to Colon to apply for a cruising permit which could be collected a week later in return for 200 dollars, the US dollar is used when in note form, coins are Panamanian.

Linton Bay itself was a pretty nice place, a family of inquisitive spider monkeys lived on the nearby island and howler monkeys could be heard at dawn and dusk, in the jungle that fell down from the mountains behind, right to the coastal road. The sailing fraternity felt a bit more gruff than in the West Indies where there were lot of catamarans, and white plastic, here there were a few boats in various states of sinking, a couple of masts poking out the water, and a few boats that looked like they hadn’t moved for a while but often still inhabited! It was nice.

Colon was an eye opener – as is everything after much time out getting zen with the sea and the elements. It doesn’t feel right to be too rude about anyone’s home, but it kinda lived up to its name – we later learnt that the government wanted to pretty much rebuild the central part of town and had therefore neglected to give any investment towards its upkeep for what looked like the past 30 years, it was crumbling, the poverty was blatant, rubbish everywhere, and no sign of any rebuilding so far!

Mission accomplished however and pineapples were 50 cents! Plus the buses were a hoot – they’re the old yellow American school buses, brightly repainted and pimped to the max, dripping with chrome and tassels, belching out clouds of black smoke out of the huge twin chrome exhausts which run up the buses back end skyward. And blaring out poppy Salsa-ish djs mixes.

Next on our to do list was to apply for a new passport for Morla. Failing to understand anything concrete over the phone, Nono and I decided that to visit the embassy in Panama city would be prudent. So the two of us headed off for a city break, the girls happy to spend a few days with Nick, Rowena and Jean-Marc. Twas a treat, nice Hostel, complete conversations, cold beers, Halloumi burgers… though no luck with the embassy, we returned to Lilly in a hire car laden with canvas to remake all the sail covers and sun awnings, PVC to make a rain catcher, and merchandise from some of the biggest supermarkets I’ve ever seen! And a cruising permit.

Rowena, Nick and JM, keen to see some more of this diverse and varied country returned the hire car to Panama city, via a couple of nights as close to the jungle as was easily accessible, before we stocked up, fueled and watered and made ready to make the 40 miles West to The Guna Yala.

The Guna Yala we had heard a fair bit about – all good, and it was exciting to clap our eyes on the first palm covered, sandy, tropical island, but we had a smorgasbord from which to choose, an area of about 30 miles West to East and 15 miles North to South of 100’s of tropical islands, coral barrier reef, and an an indigenous culture autonomous from Panama, where to begin?

Coastal navigation on board is done using a chunky old toughbook laptop, on which we have files of the worlds charts in moderate detail – better in well trodden areas, not so good in more remote, we read that these charts were not good at all in the San Blas, similar story with a system called Navionics which Nick has on his phone, uncharted coral heads are a scary prospect! A cruiser, Eric Bauhaus however has devoted a number of years to accurately charting all of Panama, using techy GPS gear and writing a cruising guide, full of drone images of anchorages. With his digital charts on the computer, a GPS connected showing our exact position on said charts and the cruising guide book, navigating around the numerous reefs, islands and shallows becomes relatively easy. But, while on the topic – therein lie negatives too. As it’s easy, anyone can do it and I’m sure the Guna Yala is becoming more and more popular with sailors and charterers. On a more personal level, having such a good cruising guide means one tends to stick to the suggested anchorages, along with everyone else, like having a lonely planet guide, which certainly makes the planet a lot less lonely, but it becomes harder to think of going into the ‘unknown’ which so often can be more rewarding, but a little more challenging. Lastly on the topic is a point about technology on the whole – With the passing of time come more and more gadgets which make, what was once a hazardous and challenging thing to do, relatively easy, Engines on board, GPS, Autohelms, Electric winches which roll sails up around a stay or inside the mast. We spoke to some folk on a palatial Catamaran (complete with watermakers, freezers, washing machine etc.) who described how they would input a route on the computer system (waypoint to waypoint) and press go on the autohelm (electric steering) which would simply take the boat to their destination – like a driverless car without any safety features like sensors for other boats for example. To a far lesser degree, we are also victim to this modernisation, though Lilly is very traditional in her rig and we proudly do without the majority of gadgets, (she’d be an old landrover of the motoring world) we still rely on our motor and GPS which means we wind through tricky reef passages where we wouldn’t otherwise go, and maybe in less than ideal light conditions, (sun high and from behind). So it’s a fine balance – using the tools we have to explore beautiful anchorages but retaining our senses, keeping a keen look-out from up the mast where shallows are most easily seen from.

So it was that we spent the next 7 weeks hopping from bays to islands, winding through clusters of jewel like islands, perched in turquoise lagoons, sheltered behind expansive fringing coral reefs.

Snorkeling, dinghy sailing, beachtime, reading, spearfishing, pottering on boat jobs was the order of the day. The coral here was in great condition which was nice to see after previous experiences in the Pacific and Indian Oceans which even 10 years ago was seriously suffering, with bleaching and mass dieback; and so it was that snorkeling was fantastic especially with the girls, seeing sharks, rays, and every kind of reef fish… For the rest of us it was usually with a speargun, which more often than not put fish on the menu. Most common would be the Jacks – classic silver fish that would cruise the reefs to feed on the shoals of sardines, similar were rainbow runners or spanish mackerel, your best chance with these was to dive down and hang on to a rock in the hope they’d pass, Horse eye jacks seemed more territorial and favoured the deeper patches at 10 to 20 metres, 10 is comfortable, 20 is pushing the limits… Hunting snapper is different, they have a definite territory and a cave system and are shy, you get to know where they live then try and creep up on the cave entrance or dive down hiding behind a coral head and wait for them to emerge… you can spend an hour stalking one of these… Nick, JM and Rowena would sail off in Plumbob and be gone for 7 hours sometimes… you can get utterly immersed in this underwater wonderland.

Plumbob must of done hundreds of sea miles by now – sometimes Lilly would go on to the next anchorage and a couple of folk would do the trip in Plumbob… other times we’d go off and explore neighboring islands with a picnic, she’s become a much loved runabout!

There are blemishes to this paradise – on any visit to the beach one was confronted by a mass of rubbish; plastic bottles, shoes, nappies etc. The winds and currents carry the vast majority of this detritus from anywhere East – Colombia, the West Indies, Europe… it was obviously hard to ignore, so a beach walk was mixed with emotions of anger, frustration and helplessness, ‘When are we gonna stop producing all this sh*te?’ and what are the locals supposed to do with it?

Another more subtle worry was that of sea level rise, these islands are barely above sea level. One Island we anchored behind was shown in the cruising guide (and on the front cover in fact) to be covered in a forest of coconut palms but now had only 5 trees left, when we asked the fisherman, they spoke of a particularly big tide…. its not just the literal rise in sea level but also the waves – with slightly deeper water over the protective fringing reefs, the destructive waves are carving away the sandy islands – a lot of the windward shores were a tangle of fallen palm trees and water lapped over the beach to form pools on the island… Plans are now afoot for a couple of the village islands to relocate back to the mainland. Its interesting to note that climate change is not a clearcut phenomenon to the Guna – some that we spoke to saw it as a western fabricated notion… they wouldn’t or couldn’t believe that their mother nature would fail them!

It really felt like the front line of sea level rise, and results of our wasteful culture, and seeing the victims of that being amongst some of the least deserving… grrrrrr!!! I did some wee videos to document these points, not sure if I’ll publish them here or on faceache or something…

We were regularly visited by the locals in their ‘Ulu’s’ – dugout canoes – either to sell fish or lobsters, or Mola’s: these are their local handicraft – incredibly intricately sewn designs which the women sew onto their blouses, the traditional designs originate from bodypaints when they were forest people and needed less clothing. Its only in the last few hundred years that they moved out to the islands where they found life to be better – less insects, snakes, predators. I’m sure there are other reasons, like the fresh air, fishing, flat land, coconuts which is one of their biggest exports even today. Their permanent homes are on densely populated village islands closer to the mainland, the men will then spend the mornings tending to crops on the mainland, sometimes hours of walking from the coast or up beautiful rivers, others may go out fishing. Out on the tropical islands where our favoured anchorages were, there would often be families who would be staying days or weeks to harvest the coconuts – collecting and de-husking them ready to travel… or to be used at home of course, as they are a staple part of their diet (and ours!) Some of these island huts under the palm trees, simple palm thatched shelters with space for a fireplace and room to hang a few hammocks, were eye-wateringly idyllic.

The festive season was mildly ceremonious but barely Christmassy, the girls were heartwarmingly delighted and excited and appreciative of our efforts however, confirming our beliefs that we don’t need ‘stuff’ to have a special time.

After a lot of boring phone calls, scanned letters, a few tears, Morlas passport was sent to the Embassy in Panama early January. So it was that we made our way to Carti, which lay at the end of the only road into the Guna Yala; here was where all the supplies came through – gas, petrol, and tourists. Everything by 4WD, as was necessary for the windy broken, once paved, road to Panama. It was in a slight state of bewilderment at all the activity and vehicles, that we family jumped into the back of a 4WD, early one morning and made the 3 hour drive to Panama City once more. The jungle drive, being with Seren and Morla as they viewed their first massive skyscrapers and experienced a large city for the first time, with all its modernity, noise, traffic, variety of people, from desperately poor to overly rich, shopping malls bigger than the villages we had recently visited in Guna Yala, was a privilege and of course striking in its contrast. It was also enough distraction to barely give a thought that Lilly was off navigating for one of a very few times without me – Nick, JM and Rowena took charge, I imagine 3 days peace felt too short for them!

That was then, this is now – as I write we have left the area most trodden and the 30 mile stretch previously mentioned, and started down the coast of the Darien peninsular, still Guna Yala, towards the border with Colombia, due to the lay of the land and the predominant winds, it is not so suited to Island ambling, so there are no yachts here – The Island village we have been at the past days said we were the 3rd sailing boat this season. It makes for a whole different feeling – rewarding exploration, welcoming locals, a deeper immersion in the country. Having said that, the nature of this travel – being so self contained in our comfortable cocoon means our immersion is limited, days might pass without going ashore and our focus is life onboard. A few islands have waved us away – or asked us to stay in the dinghy while they shop for our provisions – that’s about the extent that Covid has affected us so far.

The past days anchored off the village island of Mamitupu have been a highlight, here we were warmly welcomed. A dugout was being built or rather sculpted under the palms, a gaggle of children for Seren and Morla to play with, a coconut press setup making coconut oil run by a gent who spoke English and we were able to quiz on some of the Guna customs. It is a matrilineal society, the women control the money and the husbands move into the women’s family compound. Its been noticeable as visitors that the women have a healthy degree of authority in the household and a general confidence. Its also noticeable that the men seem very humble, respectful, smiley, and there isn’t that chin up, chest thumping, bravado so prevalent in our society, or sexual attention towards the women which became nauseating, intimidating and rude for the women amongst us in the West Indies, but of course exists in varying degrees in so much of the world. Whether that’s due to the matriarchal nature of the Guna society or just the lack of exposure to the patriarchal and male dominated, sexualized nature of so much of our media, I can’t say but its refreshing and warming to be around.

Each Island seems pretty autonomous and unique, with their own ‘Saila’ or Chiefs making up the Congresso, who meet at least weekly to discuss the communities affairs, often attendance from the whole village is compulsory, It seems that it will be dependant on these Chiefs as to the degree of tradition that is adhered to, some ban television for example. Other villages are more westernised – more tin and concrete, and denim and leggings replace the traditional beaded legs, sarongs, molas and red headscarfs Then villages are grouped into six and the chiefs from each village will meet monthly. Once a year all Sailas from the 49 communities meet to discuss more national affairs. Alternatives to our top heavy, financially driven, self benefiting, egotistical, political systems are out there, if we were only interested to look and demand!

These photos are from a mothers day celebration we were invited to, generally the Guna aren’t keen on being photographed but were very happy on this occasion, so they are the only few we have of the people. The day was hilarious – sack races, climb the greasy pole to win the pigs head at the top, Ulu races, thread the needle races etc.

Though part of Panama, the lovely Guna Yala is a world away, I hope it stays that way – they have so much to show us, to inspire and teach; as seeing their beautiful way of life, its minimal consumption, its connection to the natural world around them, their clear healthiness both physical and mental, makes the lunacy and destruction of so much of our ‘developed’ consumer world, all the more glaringly obvious.

St Vincent to Panama: Diary of a passage

This is slightly old news now. It’s scribblings from our 1,050 mile 12 Day passage from St Vincent and the Grenadines to Puerto Lindon, Panama. We arrived in Panama 1st November 2021. by Nick

Day 2

It’s 2pm scorching hot and we are cruising along at a steady 5 knots plus a knot or two of current. We have been sailing for two days now and the ocean swell is growing as we put more distance between us and land. A lolloping 3 metre swell creeps up the stern lifting Lilly from behind and we surf down the waves as the water overtakes us. It’s generally pretty comfortable until the odd wave hits us at a funny angle sending the boat into a big lazy pitch and roll.

I’m on watch for the next couple of hours which, in conditions like this, means plenty of time for reading and writing. A scan of the horizon every few minutes to check for boats and half an eye on the compass to check that the wind vane self-steering is keeping on course is the extent of responsibilities for now.
We caught two Mahi Mahi this morning, our first fish of the passage. They are beautiful fish that mate for life so we were happy to catch both the male and female. They are creatures from a fantasy, iridescent greens and blues continually changing until sadly the colour drains out of them and they turn grey within half an hour of being caught. They make for incredible eating. We flash fried the fillets which are tender beyond belief andmade a broth with the bones and head plus bread fruit and cooking bananas (staples of the Caribbean).
On the subject of wildlife we have a stowaway in the form of a Blackpoll Warbler (like a tit) that found sanctuary on Lilly when we were about 30 miles West of St Vincent. It seemed lost offshore but over the last two days she has become entirely comfortable with the boat and us. She’s currently sat 1 foot away from me sat on the compass looking for more scraps of avocado. The children (Seren and Morla) have been hunting spiders which has served to befriend the bird so much that she will come and sit on our shoulders making us looking like camp pirates.

Day 4 (4pm)

We have had 3 beautiful moon-bathed nights so far and only one squall to interrupt the consistent wind and sea state. Another fish this morning, this time a beautiful chunky Albacore Tuna around 8kg. Too much meat for us in one day (we have no fridge) so with the pressure cooker we have seasoned and jarred a load of meat. It should be good for months like that, even improving as time passes.
The only real disturbance today was coming closer than is comfortable to a 150 metre long LPG tanker. As it got closer it appeared we were close to being on a collision course and it was only after finally reaching them on the radio did they change course but still passed 0.3 mile across our bow. Far closer than you want to be with these roaring behemoths. It was never a real stress being as it was in daylight and good conditions but we will see more traffic now as shipping funnels into towards the Panama Canal. It’s an entirely different experience when you see these ships at night. Distances are very hard to judge in the dark and it’s an art to get a good sighting squinting through binoculars with the boat moving always under your feet. Tonight my watches are 7-10pm and 4-7am. The sunrise watch is normally a joy.
Experiencing the first signs of dawn on the horizon and relishing the slow transition to daylight with its change in atmosphere is engaging and time flies subduing fatigue. This is also the moment to set the fishing lines so there’s the added interest of a potential dawn catch. I’m on watch in two hours so time for my bunk and hopefully a couple of hours valuable rest

Day 5

Exhausted today after not sleeping well last night. I had stayed on after my first watch to hang out with Kieran and extraordinarily, for the third time in 24 hours, we had a massive ship heading towards us. Again we radioed to request a change of course as it was not obvious that they’d seen us despite us putting on our bright deck lights. We sat and watched all 250 metres of container ship pass 0.5 miles ahead. Their silhouette looks incredibly menacing at night. Hopefully we have had our share of close interactions like this, it’s far more normal to see ships sighted passing miles away on the horizon.
My second watch at 4am started with a splash. I arrived on deck bleary eyed with my cup of tea to be promptly drenched by a sloppy wave that slapped the side of Lilly. Back down below to put dry clothes on and start again. These moments are far more manageable here in the warm waters of the tropics than they are, say, in The Irish Sea when it’s a much sterner test of your sense of humour.
After that it was much more steady sailing with a firm wind from behind and manageable sea state. Interactions with wildlife are especially treasured off shore as there are less and less birds around so it made my night when a Petrel (about the size of a pigeon but infinitely more athletic) landed right next to my head on the life line. They seem to like human contact because the night before one landed on Kieran’s head and started fluffing his hair. Curious beasts!
Update on our stowaway Warbler is that she is now firmly part of the crew, always around us and now sleeping next to the chart table despite nearly breaking her back when a jar rolled on top of her yesterday. It’s possible her name is Daffodil but the girls debate it regularly so this is subject to updates.
Again caught two Mahi today and we will eat most for dinner, salting the excess to eat another day. Just finished reading my book (The Art of Joy by Sapienza, recommend highly!) and moved onto a non-fiction account of a family that had to abandon their boatin the Pacific and drifted for over 30 days in their life raft and dinghy before rescue. It’s slightly morbid but also important for us to discuss and plan, as we did last night, what we would do in case of a similar emergency. Hitting a sleeping whale or semi-submerged shipping container could be possible causes. I’ve put 40 Marlboro Reds in the grab bag so feeling relaxed about our prospects.
We are approaching half way in terms of distance, heading now more SW as we have passed the Venezuelan/Colombian border. We have sailed mostly in the middle of Caribbean Sea so far to avoid potential bad weather off the Colombian Peninsular , which has a reputation, but also to be far from the Venezuelan coast to eliminate the slim chance of piracy.
We picked up a weather fax last night and nothing to worry about for now. The slight concern is that we will have not enough wind as get a few hundred miles from Panama which could make for a teasingly slow and drawn out end to the passage. My guess is itwill take us 12 days in total.

Day 7

It’s late morning and for now we still have plenty of wind. Yesterday we even had to start reducing sail area as the wind increased and we are now running down impressive ocean swell. Generally comfortable save for one wave every half an hour that drenches those that are sat on deck on the windward side.
I was having a shower this morning and it’s worth a few words to describe this comedy process when it’s rough. Generally an undignified scene, you grab a bucket of limited fresh water and head to the foredeck where the movement of boat is most exaggerated. Then, legs apart for balance, the game is to not face plant while the bow lurches up and down waves. It can be similarly exhilarating taking a shit which is also rudimentary (bucket and water on the foredeck) but the stakes are that much higher if you fall over!
While writing this there was a shout of ‘Dolphins!’ from on deck and I paused to spend 15 minutes captivated with the pleasure of watching a large pod play around the bow of the boat. The most energetically performing dolphins we have seen since leaving Wales they acted like surfers waiting for the biggest waves to then leap clean out of the water.
Sometimes executing elegant arcs but often, and more entertainingly, shooting vertically out of the water and landing with a phenomenal belly flop. Speaking of their bellies they had pink undersides adding to the richness of the scene.
We’ve had a nice morning for wildlife with a huge Osprey at dawn coming to view us just above the masts. Took a day off fishing yesterday but back to it this morning but only had a small Barracuda on the line which we sniffed at and put back. With the superior meats of Tuna and Mahi around we felt justified in being picky.
Time for a strong coffee and to take the bread out of the oven. I’m on watch this afternoon and we have seen a few big logs float passed today so we have to be extra vigilant. Not a nice thought that we could crash into one of these at speed.
Update on our stowaway Daffodil is that she’s has abandoned us after making an ambitious bolt for land flapping furiously in the direction of Colombia. We hope she makes it.

Day 7

It’s incredible how sailing can feel so different in such a short space of time when the weather changes like it has in the last hours. Late afternoon yesterday I was dozing on a dinghy on deck in the calmest conditions of the passage so far then nightfall brought with it brilliant flashes of lightning from a big weather system in the direction of Colombia. We gybed to sail further offshore partly to improve our course also to move away from the weather which might be associated with the land.
The sea state was beginning to pick up as was the wind. By 10 pm there was distant lightning on the horizon all around us but still we stayed dry and I went to bed wondering how conditions would be when I got up again at 4am.
Jean-Marc and I began our early morning vigil and the drama was cranking up and soon we were in a theatre of lightning storms all around us, closer than before. Every few seconds the sky, the sea and the boat were momentarily and brilliantly illuminated with repetitive flashes. Fork lightning was beginning to be a regular feature of the show, some staying in the sky and reaching from cloud to cloud and others crashing down and connecting with the horizon. Its gets the heart going but counting the seconds to the booming thunder we guessed the storms were between 15 to 25 miles away and not getting much closer so it was easy to sit back and absorb the drama without anxiety. There is a part of me that really wants to experience being in an electrical storm at sea but
equally I don’t want to wish it up on us so no problem if it doesn’t arrive!!!
12:10pm: It arrived!! I’m writing this in the middle of a phenomenal electrical storm with fork lightning FAR too close for comfort with thunder shuddering what seems like a split second later. It’s windier now and we have taken down more sail area, racing down the waves with just a reefed foresail and headsails. You feel like such an obvious target for a lightning strike with two great masts sticking 15 metres up towards the weather. We have put the handheld GPS, VHF and mobile phones in the oven as a precaution. I’ve no idea why it works but apparently it can protect them from an electrical surge if we do get hit and they would be vital if we lost our other instruments.
It’s very hard to describe this atmosphere. It’s so intense, so powerful being in the middle of all this. Utterly exhilarating! Amusingly the kids are here down below playing with their toys, completely chilled and unfazed as if it’s just another day. Where’s the fuss?

Day 8

Over the late afternoon yesterday and through the night the clouds cleared, the wind dropped and the swell calmed steadily until now where we enter a different paradigm.  We are becalmed and it’s bliss. Mainsail down, sunshade up and time for swimming. We are 160 miles from Panama and there is a small low pressure ahead which we anticipate will not move so soon we will decide whether to use the engine a bit to help our onward progress. It’s a real shame to consider using diesel but we could be here over a week trying to pass a hundred miles if we are to be purists about it. For now we are just enjoying the tranquility.
This morning we had a very special moment. We were sailing very slowly and over 20 dolphins came to visit Jean-Marc and Seren who were hanging off the bobstay under the bowsprit to have a dip. We ‘hove to’ (stopped the boat), put snorkel masks on and jumped in to swim with them. We were incredibly lucky because they were not spooked, instead they swam underneath us to watch us with interest at a safe distance. I was unprepared for how emotional it would be to swim with these incredible animals. The visibility was almost perfect and diving down towards them listening to their distinctive clicking and squeaking provoked an instant lump in the throat.
We came crashing back to reality moments later however when one of Jean-Marc’s swim fins was dropped overboard and neither Kieran or I could dive quickly enough to grab it as it rapidly sank. We are bloody clowns compared to the dolphins! An extra point of interest is that dolphins mainly seem to visit us when we have loud music on. Party animals.

Day 9

We decided to motor through the night to clock off a few miles and after a snooze I came on deck to meet our latest and most eccentric stowaway to date. Clumsily perched on the hatch above the companionway was a massive heron. At least a foot and a half tall it was described to have the air of an undertaker about it with its hunched stance, gangly limbs and long pointed beak. Every time you went down below you would find yourself at eye level with our funereal friend less than a metre away. It added a totally surreal aspect to the nights trundlings.
It’s the afternoon now and only 80 miles to go. We motored again this morning and then stopped for lunch and a swim before a squall sent us charging at 7 knots in the right direction. Feels good to sail again and landfall will be possible in the next couple of days.

Day 10

Confronted by a headwind last night we scrapped the idea of trying to push to arrive today and we are just sailing the best course we can. This morning we got our first glimpse of Panama 35 miles away and can at times smell the forest. Morla (5) literally jumping for joy!
The night time breeze has dissipated so we are becalmed again but the sea is flat and this situation has provided for some more beautiful moments. I put fins on and went swimming an hour ago. Free diving off shore is very special. The colour of the water and perfect visibility makes the experience utterly expansive. When in the water there was a cry of ‘fish!’ from on deck and Jean-Marc and I swam over to meet an excitable school of small tuna. I dived on them to get closer but I found not just tuna but also a bloody shark below them! Annoyingly I didn’t fight my instinct to get sharply out of the water but I did fulfill an ambition to shout ‘SHARK!’. Jean-Marc stayed to look on until we saw there was more than one shark and he found his comfort limit there.
We were back in the water shortly after hoping to see them again as the tuna continued to school not far from the boat but they never came close enough again. It was back to simply enjoying the mesmerising experiencing of free diving in incredibly deep water. It elicits an infantile joy, trying to push boundaries and diving deeper and longer as you relax more into it.
It’s a very nice moment of the passage to be slow after mostly brisk sailing. No rush to get there and a time to unwind before land which will be overstimulating after being at sea.

Day 11

I had a preconceived image of arriving in Panama in lush sunshine but it was much more like a typical Welsh wet day. Completely grey skies and rain intensity rising and falling.  We were soaked through when we dropped anchor but the setting is staggering. Surrounded by lush jungle and waters visibly busy with fish. That afternoon as we unwound and drank rum we watched eagles soaring overhead, spotted spider monkeys on the beach and at dusk listened to distant howler monkeys noisily moving through the jungle. It’s a very promising start to watch promises to be an incredible part of the world to explore.

Getting Greasy in the Grenadines

Sailing Plumbob in the Tobago Cays

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is made up of the main island of St Vincent and a cluster of islands trailing off to the South – the Grenadines, including amongst others, Bequia, Mustique, Balicaux, Canouan, Union and the marine reserve of the Tobago Cays. These islands are a variety of lushly forested volcanic mountains, sandy cays, turquoise lagoons, and picture perfect beaches, Its a bit of a sailors paradise.

We left Dominica at the beginning of June, laden with friendly Rasta produce, cocoa beans, plantain by the hundreds… and having received our negative covid test results, we spent just one day sailing down to the most northerly bay of Martinique, a nights rest with our yellow quarantine flag flying, then an early start to sail south down the coast, a wee channel hop to be in the lee of St Lucia for a night sail, arriving at dawn under the still smoking, recently erupted volcano of St Vincent. Our destination was at the south end of the island near the capital Kingston, where, once we had managed to make contact with anyone interested in our presence (not easy without a working mobile these days), we were cleared in and free to roam.

After burying our anchor for so long in Dominica it was a treat to have plenty of islands and anchorages to explore. In the three and a half months there we’ve visited most of the islands, returned to our favourite spots at least once and got to know a couple of spots well – in particular Bequia!

Our first island was Balicaux, rarely visited, and we were alone, it’s uninhabited by humans but has a healthy population of Tortoise! It felt a kind of edgy place, maybe the rolly anchorage, the occasional gunfire of visiting goat hunters, and we learnt of a rather morbid history as it was also a prison island where thousands of Carib Indians were left marooned, and perished. The torrid history of the Caribbean and European’s vulgar impact, was often referred to in our observations of its culture, our conclusions only naive guess work of course…

A short sail took us to Petit Nevis, where we found 3 boats already anchored – all with young children on board, Hallelujah! This fact was to determine our movements for the coming weeks. From there to Bequia, to Tobago Cays, to Chatham Bay on Union, kids came and went, beach fires, snorkeling trips, play dates, beach days, and even sleep overs. The kids made lovely friends from Canada, France, and even NZ/Wales!

Happiness is Pasta with friends!

It was now hurricane season, which meant Jean-Marc and Nick kept a close eye on internet weather sites, a blip in the pressure would show up over western Africa and then over the following week or so it would track Westward over the Atlantic towards us, then it was a matter of watching to what degree and at what rate it would develop and then where it would go… more often that not they would veer off to to the North and fizzle out in the North Atlantic, some would clip the Northern Caribbean Islands – Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti… others would pass over the West Indies and develop later, maybe hitting America, and some of course developed faster and stayed South; generally speaking the further South one was the less likely you were to get nailed. So it was when Storm Elsa approached, it was forecast to pass over the Grenadines, so 3 days before, we sailed with friends on ‘Rajac’ South, through rainy squally conditions to a cosy little bay on the South coast of Grenada. A slightly legal grey area we felt we were hiding from officials as well as the weather! A couple of very wet days on board later we scuttled back North, back to our tropical playground.

The next fact to determine our movements, or rather non-movements was that one day having just weighed anchor the engine puttered to a halt… returning, under sail to our anchorage, we found the engine to have no oil, and on closer inspection that the culprit was the pipe leading to the pressure gauge had broken! So it slowly dawned that this was a major problem, (as are most problems on a Fordson Major!!!), and would involve removing the engine and dismantling to inspect its big end – bearings and crankshaft…

We chose Bequia to get greasy: it’s a good secure anchorage, has good boating and mechanical facilities, chandleries, a nice beach, plenty of potential for social interaction and is the main base for ferries both between the Grenadines and even to Trinidad where we ended up sending the crankshaft to be reground.

Bequia

We got to really like Bequia; Rowena volunteered at a local sail loft run by Alec and his son, I believe Rowena will expand on this experience in her post… Alec and his family became good friends, one highlight was getting out sailing and even racing in his ‘Two Bow’ a 28′ wooden open sailing boat, based on the traditional whaling boats of the island – Bequia is still licensed to catch a handful of whales by traditional methods – it seems a little more acceptable when the risks are so much higher – a small open sailing boat, a hand harpoon, but it sounds like an element of the tradition and ceremony are under threat from greed and selfishness and a catch can create a furore of whale hungry locals after a cut…

Bequia’s inhabitants come from a broad palette of backgrounds – those of black African descent make up the majority, but there is also Carib Indian blood and a number of fair skinned locals of mostly Scottish descent and all the tones in between, It felt our whitey tourist status was a little less obvious…

After about a month with the engine on deck, it was rebuilt, repainted along with the gearbox and replaced into a clean and painted bilge, along with a few bells, whistles and improvements and we were once again able to move with ease. We do endeavour to do as much maneuvering as possible under sail as it is great fun (and we like to think impresses any onlookers!) but having the engine on call is a great added security and permits risks one wouldn’t otherwise take, like tacking through a busy anchorage and dropping anchor. Amanda, keen to get on to Central America, found another boat heading West and we waved her off during this period in Bequia.

Though all ship shape again, we did not make a dash for the Western horizon, though we could have. We hadn’t planned to stay this long in the West Indies; indeed our original plan was to pass straight through and head to Colombia and Panama. But it became hard to leave – the familiarity, the good anchorages, the easy inter island trade-wind sailing, snorkeling, spearfishing even a couple of days windsurfing with a great French guys kit. We met a handful of really nice folk, mostly with kids, on other boats, the excuses to stay just a little longer were always easy to find.

Back in Wales on rainy days it was largely this that I longed for – to muck about with the girls on the beach, collect coconuts, snorkel with amazing wildlife like turtles, eagle rays and abundant tropical fish, and they seemed to love it – learning to dive off Lilly, sail alone in the Dinghy, Seren can pick up star fish from 5 metres depth! Go to shore in search of fresh mangoes, passionfruit or maybe a fresh local juice…

And time to discuss and to write – there’s something liberating about the detachment we have from media and social influence… Any news we read is what Nick and Jean–Marc read and share from independent news sources so it feels like views and opinions come from a relatively uncorrupted, heartfelt perspective. If you read The Times every day or watch the BBC news then surely it becomes hard not to see the world through that lens…discuss…!!

Despite this paradise, there are questions: where next? What’s the purpose? Missing family, timing… and what’s the state of the rest of the world – do we need to get busy doing something more productive to save it? Is it a good time to travel? Which countries are open…? The days where I felt I was just hanging around in the exhausting heat were frustrating – In Wales I would chop wood on those days (though to keep off the chill not trying to search it out)

As I write most of the Pacific countries are closed; French Polynesia though open is experiencing a backlog of yachties with nowhere to go and the relationship between locals and yachties sounds to be getting a little fractious in places, and currently New Zealand our ultimate destination is not accepting visitors.

So some big questions: we are now approaching Panama and excited to visit the indigenous people of the Kuna Yala or San Blas islands; in the next months we will have to decide whether to continue through the canal to the Pacific or head North and East back towards Europe.

Dominica: An island craving progress

by Nick

Seven weeks in Dominica left much to reflect on.  A beautiful and inspiring island in so many ways but nonetheless a tainted paradise with a worrying future.  Dominica is known as ‘The Nature Island’ and appears at least largely unspoiled.  Its dense forest and steep mountains meant it was less fought over during initial colonisation by Europeans.  The land lent itself less well to large scale plantations and was easier to defend by native Carib tribes.  It even became a stronghold for escaped slaves until a massive hurricane in 1813 stripped the forest revealing the hideouts to European invaders.

The lack of suitability for monoculture farming has been a blessing and a culture of subsistence farming has prevailed albeit this way of life is increasingly challenged by evolving tastes and habits.  A big dietary favourite on the island, for example, is chicken which almost exclusively comes in the form of tortured, chemically polluted poultry from America.

Using any financial metrics Dominica is a poor country but it’s natural wealth is hard to beat.  It has hundreds of stunning rivers and this abundance of water combined with incredibly fertile volcanic top soil means food is found everywhere.  No one goes hungry.  From mangoes, papayas and bananas to all manner of ground vegetables, everything grows and grows well.  Discard your passion fruit in your garden and a year later more than likely you’ll have an abundant vine dripping in fruit.  It is demonstrably possible for those living on and from the land to have a very high quality of life in Dominica with little money and the traditional diet has provided for long lives as well. The island boasted the most centenarians relative to population size anyway in the world. Whilst food is plentiful in Dominica it would be wrong to suggest that life is easy for all. Many people live financially precarious existences and support from the government is patchy and contingent on voting habits. Access to land is also a big issue. Whilst squatting rights are relatively sympathetic the option of owning land is out of reach to most and common land is virtually non existent.

The island is under pressure culturally and economically as a shrinking minority of inhabitants are seeking to continue to live within the islands bountiful means.  The majority of rhetoric we encountered about Dominica’s future centred around wanting ‘progress’, seeking development and economic growth.  The lack of an international airport has protected Dominica from Covid but more broadly it has prevented the island from being spoiled by overdevelopment for the sake of tourism.  Look at a satellite image of St Martin to see how devastating this kind of ‘progress’ can be for a tropical paradise.

A regular theme in conversations with Dominicans was that they felt the island and its people needed to make more money and grow its economy, whether it be from larger scale agriculture, exploiting natural resources or the attraction of more tourists.  It’s always interesting to ask in these instances why they feel they need to make more money because often the strength of the mantra of wanting more is not mirrored with a thoughtful understanding of why.  The need for money is clearly understandable when one’s basic needs are unaffordable but this is very rarely the case in Dominica.

Whilst not entirely polluted by consumerism the trend towards this on Dominica, particularly with the young, is strong and surely accelerated with mobile phone proliferation.  On the subject to phones it was a shame that we missed out on meeting so many young people because in the moment their screen took priority.  None of these observations are of course unique to Dominica but there’s something about a tropical garden of Eden setting that makes them harder to stomach!  Being relatively more financially secure it might be perceived as an uncomfortable position to take; challenging those that have less on why they should want more, but it feels an important question to interrogate given the great costs that more ‘progress’ and money will inevitably bring. It’s easy for us to point to examples of this at home of course.

Most Dominicans live in very simple self-built houses with family close by but the government is building more and more modern housing developments.  These developments are the result of cosy deals with foreign investors, often Chinese, that line the pockets of the elite of The Island.  Foreign Aid and investment deals have helped the Prime Minister of Dominica become the richest leader in the Caribbean whilst residing over one of the poorest islands.  These bland housing developments consist of tedious concrete boxes that in the words of one resident ‘just make people more selfish’, the inevitable effect of atomising a population and breaking up community living patterns.  These projects are also entirely without the flair and character that the old organically created villages hold and represents an attempt to flatten and tame the culture.  No music allowed after 8pm and magnolia walls feel like they do a disservice to the vibrancy of the place and its people.

With our interest in food and growing we became friends with and encountered a range of farmers from Cocoa, the rasta living in a shack growing just more than he needs, through to the business motivated farmers like Jeffrey who was a man so busy it was incredibly hard to spend as much time with him as we would have liked.  Jeffrey had lived abroad (New York & Sweden) and fully embraced the idea of work like crazy now to build a relaxing future.  It’s unclear if that future will ever arrive for him however given the scale of his ambitions and propensity to take on goals by himself and for himself.  Inspite of a work dominated lifestyle we were able to share some very nice moments with Jeffrey and he was incredibly generous for which we were extremely grateful.  The fact we liked him so much made it all the more frustrating to see him existing in such a stressed and pre-occupied mode.

Cocoa however retains a more humble and slower approach.  What Cocoa has less of in terms of things he makes up for with time in the present.  He has the time to welcome new friends whole heartedly without distraction and to appreciate intimately his garden and be connected to the natural environment around him.

This is not to say that Cocoa represented a flawless model for agriculture.  Even on his small farm there was an area that had been treated with Glyphosate, the deadly cancer causing herbicide.  The use of chemical herbicides and pesticides was one of the hidden dark sides of Dominica.  Bottles of Paraquat, a herbicide banned in the EU that is so deadly that 3 undiluted drops will kill a human, can be found littering banana fields.  This poison is big business for the government which openly dismisses organic farming as being unviable whilst monopolising the import of Paraquat and other agri-chemical imports.  An inspiring couple called Aubrey and Lulu with a permaculture farm (who we were sad to meet so late during our visit) told us that tomatoes from Dominica sent to America for testing were found to contain hundreds of times over the typical legal limit of certain chemicals.  Whilst the market in Portsmouth was a feast of stunning fruit and vegetables it’s heartbreaking to consider that much of it is poisonous and not only that it’s poisonous because the government encourages it to be that way for example by promoting Paraquat.

The people of Dominica invited us so warmly into their stunning island that we left having made some incredibly positive memories and feeling enriched. The hope is that the type of progress that is sought in the future is one that breaks away from the exploitative global norm and instead puts a primacy on respect for the natural environment and providing for all the people. On an island as bountiful as Dominica it seems so evident that if this natural wealth was treated under a different paradigm, where the resources are treated as common and there to be used and not abused, it would be very possible for all to live extremely well in a long term sustainable way.

Luscious Dominica

Luscious Dominica

by Kieran

 With the arrival of June we left Dominica, Covid tests done, we checked out with customs and immigration, bid our farewells and then with a 1 night stopover at anchor in a Martinique bay followed by a 24 hour jump south, we picked up a mooring at the Southern end of St Vincent. Now, awaiting entry instructions, which it seems, with no phone credit, is a tad tricky, there is an opportunity to pause and reflect on our lovely 7 weeks on the nature isle.

 Its hard to put our experiences of Dominica in a nutshell, we met many people from across the island from many walks of life.

 It is financially the second poorest country in the Caribbean after Haiti, but we were told has the richest Prime minister, it is mountainous, the highest peak being over 1400m, largely forested, and claims a river for every day of the year, there is plenty of evidence of its volcanic activity with boiling lakes, sulphur vents and hot springs. Its rugged landscape meant it largely escaped the colonialists sugar plantations and their enslaved labour force, and the resilience of the native Caribs saw off many of the violent invaders. It lacks the picture postcard white beaches which has largely kept away the sprawl of tourist hotels so all in all has remained one of the least spoilt of the West Indies.

Portsmouth harbour

 Day 1 (out of quarantine)

 You may think after 24 days at sea, that another 7 stuck on board would be torture – it wasn’t! During a long passage like that, providing all has gone smoothly, one finds a very cool, calm, peaceful state of mind with life’s simple routines, and to prolong that a little isn’t so bad, plus it provided an opportunity to give Lilly some love and acclimatize to our new surroundings.

 However, our first day of freedom ashore was a great one, with our newly decluttered senses on full alert, we ambled through Portsmouth, soaking up all the new sounds, smells and sights of this colourful wee Caribbean town, we were on a mission! Seren and Morla having not stepped foot on dry land for over a month, deserved a wish, their top request was for an ice-cream! This meant a 10 minute ride in a bus – usually a Toyota Hi-ace or similar and could be anything from a clapped out bonerattler with its squeaks and crunches, to a swish new leather upholstered beast, more often that not, pimped to the max with wide alloys, tinted windows, basebins blaring; Morla asked one day – “Why is it always a banging party in the buses here?”

 Satisfied with ice cream we now went in search of a cool, fresh dip and found it on a short walk to the Picard river, a spot we remembered from previous visits. On the track we met Coco who Nono had met years before and he accompanied us to a perfect spot with tumbling waterfalls, deep pools and shaded by lush jungle, Coco was happy to stay and chat, lighting a little fire to roast some plantain, then disapearing only to reappear with Papaya for dessert, along with armfuls of leaves – of glory cedar, basil, and papaya leaf. These with help from Seren and Morla he mashed up on a rock and threw into a washing up bowl – this was our bathwater squeezing out the juices over our heads and bodies was heavenly, after so much sun, sea, salt, wind and blue, to be rubbing this subtly sweet fresh greenery into our bodies then rinsing in a cool bubbling natural jacuzzi was the perfect antidote and celebration of arrival to this lush isle.

 Fully cleansed and refreshed, we went with Coco back to his simple dwelling where we helped to water his garden before grinding up some cacoa beans he’d grown and dried; on a later occasion we gave him some of our palm syrup from La Gomera which he mixed with the cocoa powder – you can guess the sweet chewy result…

 Coco remained one of the nicest people we met in Dominica, a laid back, content rasta with plenty of garden, his son and family living next door, a vast knowledge of medicinal plants, a simple and beautiful home, with little but the essentials (including a drum kit someone had given him) an outdoor kitchen with just an open fire and the river tumbling by. He was happy to have our company and asked for nothing, which of course gave us the feeling to want to help – Nono had had the foresight to bring seeds from home and we were happy to plant out plenty at Coco’s.

 Day 32

 We; Nono, Seren, Morla and I woke before 6 with the very inconsiderate cockerel just outside the window, we’d been sleeping on the hard wooden floor of Wilmers newly built, mostly fresh painted, relatively plush chapel. (shed agreed to have it on her land if she could keep the building after they moved on in a year or so)  We weren’t the first awake though, as well as the villages large population of cockerels, Wilmers indoor/outdoor kitchen/washroom/dining room/verandah, was a buzz of activity – children’s hair being brushed, plantain being both roasted and fried on the open fire, chickens pecking over the washing up, water butts being refilled, toddlers being scrubbed behind the washroom curtain and then mugs of porridgey, sweet slightly spicy, delicious gruel.

Wilmers living area

 We were staying with a family in the Carib or Karlinago territory, a region of Dominica reserved for the last few thousand native Caribbeans. A culture originating from S. America and more specifically, Venezuela, that inhabited all these islands before Europeans with their murderous ways  and the slaves they brought with them, arrived. Sometimes I think it very kind and gracious that we Europeans with any links to our colonial past (like by being white for example) aren’t spat on in the streets, we sure have a lot to answer for round abouts!

 It was great fun to walk the kids down the hill to their schools and buses with ‘Sister’ (funny name as we met only her children and her mother, Wilmer)and see all their impeccably dressed schoolmates, and fascinating for Seren and Morla to the witness the more common school kids morning routine, they must be intrigued by this school place! But show no desire to venture any closer than the gates.

 Back in Wilmer’s garden we were commenting on how every tree and plant had a use and was usually edible, mango trees, avocado’s, papaya, breadfruit, passionfruit, sugarcane, kalalu, herbs, coconuts, bamboo, castor, cacoa, and in case we thought any plants were weeds Wilmer told us the masses of plants with medicinal qualities. The Karlinago people are known for their basket making , and the reeds used grew in abundance in the garden. I asked Wilmer about how they were made so she proceeded to show us and the next few hours, instead of finding a bus as planned, were spent making a beautiful basket. There was always someone doing something towards the baskets whether it was stripping the reeds into an even thickness, putting them out to try or dying them in huge vats of turmeric.

 We were late trying to catch a bus and a couple of hours on the roadside was unfruitful so turned into a social round, visiting neighbours, only to return with a bag of gifts – passionfruit, plantain, calabash bowls…

 A lovely aspect of this place and people was the community and family, which were hard to separate as 3 of Wilmer’s sisters and 2 brothers lived within a stones throw, not to mention cousins, nephews and nieces etc. Care for children, the elderly and each other was clearly shared, as was a lot else, whether it was time, help with day to day jobs, or garden produce, most meals we’d meet a new family member, just passing, often with a bag of something, one cousin brought us a handful of jelly coconuts just cos he’d heard we were staying! We were made to feel very welcome here and left with bags of herbs, fruit, a basket, clothes for the kids and  warm hearts.

 The smoking of Cannabis in Dominica is pretty prevalent, primarily amongst the rastas of course, to some degree, maybe its harmless, even positive, what could be wrong with a calm reflective, chillaxed, happy state of mind? Don’t many of the worlds problems come from an over zealous focus on efficiency, productivity, profit, exploitation etc., maybe swinging in a hammock with a joint is a healthy antidote to this… However, the quantity did seem excessive and a justification that the more stoned one was the closer you were to ‘Jah’ I found worrying, and whenever we raised the matter there seemed to be very little acknowledgement of its negative effects or the implications of a teenager smoking unlimited amounts, I found the division of smokers and non smokers noticeable in the population, moderation being a rare attribute, it was refreshing to stay with Wilmer’s family – she was aware of its negative sides and embraced good mind and body health.

 Any account of Dominica wouldn’t be complete without mention of Kish, cafe/bar owner, minibus driver, sassy, funny Kish; she helped us heaps with transport, covid appointments, her bar became a base, she took us around the island with blaring music, introduced us to her family, took us night land crab hunting, took us to her fruit laden trees and was all in all a great laugh, she will remember us for the ‘Puckit’ board we made her!

 There were others we met – having our large crew group, different people would go off on adventures and return with new stories, friends and contacts, and as visitors we came with no or at least pretty mild preconceived cultural judgements, so one day we’d be helping a group of rastas deconstruct a mashed up tin hanger, the next we’d be replanting 1500 cacoa pods for an entrepreneurial business minded farmer, (who also became a good friend and showered us with fruit and veg and whose lovely mountain farm we camped on) and then another day wondering around a permaculture plot of a young American, Dominican couple.

 We couldn’t help but observe, analyze and ponder this culture, I’m sure Nick will expand on our deductions and how we saw their socio-economic aspects and aspirations, but for now I hope you’ve enjoyed this little window into Dominica.