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"The dying process begins the minute we are born." -- Carol Matthau
|108--Panama: Santa Comes to San Blas|
Dec 24 2002 - 20:56 PST
cherie writes: I heard the children screaming first. What was the matter? What were they squealing about?
Greg with the Santa "Mola" mask and his reindeer finger-puppet. (Whenever Greg darned this mask the Kuna children would scream: "Santa! Santa!")
The Kuna Yala Santa cruising around the island in a canoe (sled?) Notice the Kuna hiding in the bag pretending to be "the presents".
The plastic Christmas-tree in the chief's hut.
Scirocco's dinghy "docked" at Sugtupu.
Greg hung our Christmas lights on the life-line and said look at how I decorated the boat! (I couldn't help but think...does he know he is supposed to take them out of the package?)
I'm holding a little bear (purchased in the US, made in China) that sings "We need a little Christmas, right this very minute..." Also notice the "Santa mola" on my bathing-suit!
Christmas in San Blas.
The holiday spirit is everywhere on earth, but when it comes down to it...there is no place like home. (I'd rather have a cold bum and a warm heart than the reverse!)
Then I saw him. We were anchored off Sugtupu (part of the Carti Islands.) It was a Kuna in a Santa-suit. In the balmy tropical heat, Santa--complete with signature hat, red suit and white beard--appeared in canoe. All the children ran to the water’s edge—“Santa! Santa!” the native children yelled. Santa, minus the reindeer, circled the island in his canoe-sled.
The Kuna Santa waved and the Kuna kids cheered. Santa’s “bag full of toys” was another Kuna acting as a lump of presents under a sheet. The Kuna’s Christmas presents would be simple ones. The ones that count. Long hugs and tender kisses. Maybe a new hammock for the wife? Did the kids need a new pair of underwear?
Like most of the world, the Kuna Yala natives start celebrating Christmas weeks before the actual day. The women make Christmas-themed “molas,” the men hang Santa posters and the chief puts a fake pine-tree in his hut.
Kuna children usually run around in nothing but their skivvies all day. They get their underwear (and hammocks) from the Columbians who come up to buy the Kuna’s coconuts. (Each coconut sells for anywhere between 15 and 25 cents.) We’ve bought some vegetables from the Columbians, but we couldn’t bring our selves to buy the chicken.
The Columbians sell poultry out of a dirty bucket, the chicken’s rubbery skin like gooseflesh, the neck crooked like a check mark, and the feet ridged and yellow. My favorite is when Greg delivers his famous line to people who sell chicken from buckets (far more common than one might expect): “Can I give you this plastic and foam and you make the chicken look like it comes from the grocery store?”
Greg’s question always gets the same strange look and then Greg says: “Cherie, will you translate that for me?” Then I say something like: “We’d only like to buy the chicken breasts,” and the chicken-seller is always shocked. Americans--we’re so wasteful! We just haven’t been raised properly and don’t appreciate the delicate flavor of chicken heads and feet.
Sometimes, when Greg and I are dying for protein, we’ll go to Hotel Porvenir and order up a chicken lunch. It usually takes over an hour to prepare, because they really start from scratch (a live chicken.) I realize I am a hypocrite writing this, but I am at a point in my life where I am able to pick my lobster dinner out of an aquarium, but I can’t choose my chicken lunch from somebody’s front yard.
Greg and I have caught the Kuna’s “Christmas spirit” even though the closest thing we’ll get to a “white Christmas” is a “white sand beach.” (We’re not complaining!) We’ve bought Santa molas and even a Santa mask. When Greg puts on the mask all the children yell “Santa! Santa!” and we give out chocolates. Greg even has a little reindeer finger-puppet. Scirocco also has a sequence of colored Christmas lights that we string up to look like a decorated tree. The Kunas come out of their huts at night and stare at the colorful glow with amazement. Most of the islands don’t have electricity. Greg will run the Scirocco’s engine (to charge the battery) just so we can put up these decorative lights for the Kunas. “We have to put the lights up tonight,” he’ll say “for the Kunas.”
At night, we fall asleep to the soft mummer of the Kuna children singing. The breeze lifts their voices and carries it over the water like a sweet scent. Kuna Christmas carols?
The Kunas have told us that Greg and I are like family to them. In fact, the phrase “Sugar Daddy” seems oddly appropriate since all Greg seems to dole out is chocolates. We share our food with them, and they share their water with us. It is very expensive to have water shipped in to the islands by plane (because water weighs about 8 lbs per gallon) so the Kunas have been giving us water from their well. We ran out of water a few weeks ago, and the Kunas have generously given us over 100 gallons of theirs. And on a typical day, you can see me and Greg at the well on Porvenir “showering” at the well with all the other local Kunas. Often they’ll invite us to hang out and have a coconut. We’re like natives!
Then one day Greg and I were playing chess in a hut on Porvenir, when I saw a Kuna standing in the very well that we’d been getting our water from. I had immediate sanitation anxiety. (Usually, everyone takes the water from the well with a bucket and bathes to the side.) So I walked over to the Kuna and asked him if the well-water was safe to drink.
“Of course!” he replied in Spanish. Then he climbed out of the hole and poured a random amount of Clorox bleach inside the well. “It should be fine in a few hours,” he added.
Imagine my face at that moment. “Greg, I have bad news for us. I don’t want to drink any of that well-water that we spent three days jerry-jugging to the boat.”
“Why?” Greg asked. (Can you believe he asked “why”?)
“Because I don’t want to swallow bleached Kuna-germ water.”
“You are over-reacting.” Greg stated. “The water is fine. Let’s just fill up these jugs and bring them back to the boat.”
“If I took a bath in a tub of water and then poured bleach in it, would you want to drink it a few hours later?” I asked.
“Okay,” Greg said, “you have a point.” (Greg will admit that I have a “point” much easier than he will admit that I am “right.”) “Let’s come back tomorrow and see how the water looks.” Greg offered.
“I don’t care how it looks! For all we know those germs are going to have an all-night-sex-party and triple their population by tomorrow! The bleach probably just cleans them off and makes them more attractive to each other!” I was over-reacting. I was just a little grossed-out at the thought of drinking water that the Kunas have been hanging out in. What if all the Kuna teenagers came to the well at midnight and peed in it? What if I was drinking bleached pee?
Greg and I finally compromised. We bought bottled water to drink (a huge waste of $2 a gallon in Greg’s opinion) and we used the Kuna well water for showers and dishes.
But I’ve realized that Greg and I wouldn’t make good Kunas. First, I wouldn’t want to eat coconuts the rest of my life. Second, the average Kuna family has eight kids (down from twelve tots a few years back.) Third, Greg has never caught a fish (which is how the Kuna men “bring home the bananas”) so we’d be living in the “poor hut.” Fourth, every time you want to visit another island (and you might have guessed that I like to travel) the Kunas have to pay a fee to their own government. And fifth, I just don’t see myself sewing molas all day long while Greg farts around sailing his little hand-dug canoe.
The things I could get used to are eating lots of lobster and hanging out in hammocks. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stay a tourist.
And what do tourists do in the San Blas Islands? We snorkel! So we traveled to the Western Holandes Cays (which is probably the best diving in the San Blas Islands). Just below the surface (in only a few feet of water) was a cacophony of color. The sea fans were purple. Bright, magnificent purple, as if it had invented the color. Orange star-fish, yellow coral, red crabs and blue fish. Because of the shallow depth, the colors were as intense as a 16-year-old boy’s first love.
After a full day of snorkeling, Greg and I slept like worn out children. But oddly, I woke up with a strange feeling. Greg felt it first; he was already in the cockpit.
“Are we moving?” I asked.
“Aren’t we supposed to be anchored?” When I’m sleepy I have a tendency to ask the obvious.
“Isn’t that a problem?” I asked rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.
“What should we do?” I was more confused than scared.
“Figure out which way we are drifting. Look on the map, see if we are going to run into anything.” Greg is always composed in emergency situations. It’s a good balance, because I usually need to be calmed down.
Greg was pulling up the anchor and I looked at the GPS. Then I got out the map. Since we had snorkeled around the boat earlier that day we were both keenly aware of the coral that littered the surrounding seafloor. The last thing we needed to do at 2:48 am was fowl the anchor on a lumpy bed of marine life. The second-to-last thing we needed to do was smash into another island. (And there are 365 palm-infested San Blas Islands to crash your boat on.)
After careful GPS and map-analysis I informed Greg: “We’re drifting north.”
“No we’re not. We’re heading south.”
“Why’d you ask me if you already knew?” I asked. “The arrow on the GPS is pointing north!” I supported my statement with electronic information.
“That’s the way we SHOULD be going. We’re actually drifting south. Check the map; see if we’re going to hit something.” (So we could brace ourselves?)
It was a moonless night and it felt like we floating in a mass of India ink. If we were going to hit something, surely we’d feel it before we ever saw it.
Some may call it luck, other’s may say it was divine intervention, but with a tangles mess of reefs and islands surrounding us—we were floating in the one direction of deep safe water. We had a whole three hours of “float time” before we were going to collide into another island. So Greg leisurely pulled up the anchor, we motored back to our original spot, and re-anchored. (This time with an extra 75 feet of chain on the floor.)
After that, Greg and I really slept like babies. Which (as my sister Michelle always says) means you wake up every three hours.
Click on each picture to see it full size.
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