June - July 2008

Panama Canal thru San Blas


General Overview - Leg V

One of our crazy dreams when we started building our boat some 8+ years ago was to transit the Panama Canal in our own boat - or as they say - on our own bottom! That part of our adventure finally came to pass and by mid June we were cruising a few of the colorful Caribbean Islands. Photos and our entire web site can be viewed at www.Dreamweaver-bigbear.com

We were elated the first of June, as we watched Jo & Adie (Wandering Star) and Les & Rose (Voyager) cruise into Panama City. We’d not seen each other since we headed south from Mazatlan last December so it was really cool to finally catch up with one another again! We all spent our first evening together on Wandering Star celebrating and swapping stories and lies until the wee hours - all the while it was pouring cats and dogs outside! Welcome to Panama!

The following week the Big Day finally came - it was our turn to transit the canal! We were even more excited when we learned that Dreamweaver, Wandering Star and Voyager would all be rafted together for the transit! You are generally lucky if you get to go thru on the same day, much less in the same lock – but to get to go thru rafted together, it doesn’t get any better than that! Loren Hafen came down to join us on our transit which added to our excitement. He and Ken prepped the boat for the transit – hanging old tires and buoys all around, running lines, loading the motorcycle back into the dinghy, which drew quite a crowd at the Flaminco fuel dock - not something they’d ever seen loaded into a dinghy before!

Each boat is required to have four line handlers and an advisor in addition to the captain for the trip thru the canal, which generally takes about 12 hours from the Pacific to the Atlantic. We were up cooking and lining up by 6 am and entered the first set of Locks at 9 am as hyped up as bunch of kindergarteners on their first day of school! We draped a large “Run Ryan Run” banner across the upper fly bridge (Ryan’s from our home town and is running in the Beijing Olympics) and proudly displayed Loren’s very large American flag (which was given to him by the Navy at his father’s funeral) across the solar panels on the top of Dreamweaver.

Wandering Star had a Ryan banner on their boat as well and Voyager had a “God Bless America” banner. There was no mistaking where we were from as we stood on our decks and waved to the Webcam that broadcasts pictures on the WEB for the world to see! Several friends and family watched as all three boats jubilantly passed thru our first set of locks. Even though we were 50 feet across and almost 60 feet long we were dwarfed by the gigantic container ships that were just ahead, behind and across from us as we passed thru the three sets of locks and ___ miles that make up the canal system.

Between us all knowing each other and most of the Panamanian crews and Advisors on each of our boats knowing each other, it was actually a party like atmosphere at times. At one point during a break between locks, the Panamanian blasted their music and began dancing on the back decks of the boats! We girls hopped from boat to boat and took a gazillion photos. This was a far cry from our first experience going thru the canal with our friends, Georgio and Irene, on Argo a few weeks prior. This was THE BEST! Unfortunately Argo’s was about the worst you could imagine! Both were memorable and wonderful experiences we will never forget!! “Argo” and “So Cal So Good” were there to catch our lines in Shelter Bay and welcome us to the Atlantic! As soon as things were secured, champagne began to flow as we celebrated our transit from one ocean to another:):)

After three years and 12,000 miles of cruising it was finally time to see a real Caribbean island on our own bottom…. so off to Bocus del Toro we all went. I suppose that between being in rather calm waters for a few weeks and the fact that we were so geared up about going to Bocus, explains why we’d forgotten to secure the boat before we left our slip. Soon after we left the protected waters of the canal area and we hit the rough waters, things started flying as Dreamweaver rocked from side to side. I ran to the top deck to secure a few things that had come loose. It didn’t take long for me to become a little woozy so I quickly went below into the cabin to secure that area. That’s where I found Ken clamoring to clean up the dozen eggs that came crashing out of the pantry shattering all over the rugs – not a pretty site! That one goes down as yet another lesson learned!

We anchored in Bocas del Toro, a chain of islands off the northwestern coast of Panama. When we girls checked out a little grocery store in town and found that it had several things we’d not been able to find elsewhere, we were elated. It might not sound like much but you can always tell a cruiser by the way they get excited wandering around a grocery store and saying “Ooo, look at this” or “how cool, they have this or that.” We were like little kids in this small but well stocked grocery store. As we wandered back to our boats we hit it just right because the yacht club was having a get together and great Caribbean music was playing so we all joined in the merriment. Ya Mon, when in the Caribbean....

We hired “Gabriel,” a local tour guide who picked us up in his ponga for a day of touring and snorkeling the islands surrounding Bocas del Toro. He was ours for the day and took us wherever we wanted to go. First he showed us some dirt cheep but beautiful island properties on the water, which was fun to dream about owning. There were several tiny settlements tucked in between little islands with kids rowing around in their tiny little dugout canoes. In this region all the women are the “chiefs” and rule the island tribes – as it should be?!? Garbriel took us to an island where we met their “chief.” I don’t believe there were many men that would have argued with her – she was not the petite little Pocahontas type if you know what I mean!

He knew all the best places to snorkel – ones in the middle of nowhere that you’d never know were there. The coral was incredible – the best we’ve seen yet. J&A said they hadn’t seen coral with so much color and variety, since diving in the Great Barrier Reef! Purples, greens, yellows, - shaped like tall vases, large bowls, tall flutes, brain coral, you name it – it was beautiful!

Isla Zappata was like a fantasy island right out of the magazines. The turquoise colored water combined with the white sand beaches, palm trees, and wild surf that was breaking on the reefs that surround this little paradise island, made it magical. How hemanaged to skirt the reefs and breaking waves to get us into the small island was amazing – something none of us would have tried – it undeniably took local knowledge to land without flipping us and all our gear into the turbulent surf! Upon arrival we found a group of volunteers, including a husband and wife team of Zoologists, working with a giant leatherback turtle they had “rescued” from a net, doing tests and tagging the turtle so they could track its behavior. They actually had to do a laparoscopy to figure out whether it was a boy or girl all while we were there. What ever happened to just looking to see if it was an “innie” or an “outty” like in most species?? It was a girl and we watched as she happily wiggled herself back into the water and was off to join her friends within 30 minutes of the surgery. Wish I could bounce back that fast!

Bocas town was an awesome introduction to the Caribbean for us - small village with reggae music playing, cool little buildings on stilts right over the water, dirt streets, very casual and very laid back. It was the Caribbean we read about, complete with Palapa roofs, hammocks, clear water, bright colorful décor, and friendly Caribbean people all surrounded by beautiful turquoise blue water:)

We returned to our slip in Shelter Bay Marina, which is quite isolated however, it is the only safe place to leave the boat near Panama City on the Atlantic side of the canal. The closest town (Colon) is across the canal about a half hour away so the marina provides a courtesy bus to take cruisers to a shopping center in town once a day. If you want to go anywhere other than this one shopping area you must take a taxi - if you value your life that is!

We grabbed a taxi to go to the Customs, Immigration and Port Captains offices to do the necessary paperwork to officially check back into Colon after returning from Bocus. Abdul, our taxi driver, gave us a tour of the neighborhood, showing us both the poor and wealthy sections. It is not even close to safe to walk around most areas of Colon. Many areas are given names like “The Bermuda Triangle,” where people supposedly disappear never to be seen again, or “The Red Zone,” where even the locals won’t go. There are many burned and bombed out buildings where people are still living – definitely the worst poverty that we have ever been exposed to. They say there are killings there every night and even the police won’t patrol after 6 pm!!!

Less than a mile away there are beautiful homes and walled off developments where the wealthy live. The majority of the homes & businesses are owned by Arabs, followed by Asians and a then a small percentage of Americans and Panamanians. We found the demographics really surprising and the disparity between classes evident.

Mid-June was here before we knew it and Kim, (our oldest daughter) finally got to come for a visit along with our long time friends JoAnn and Gary (who are also like another set of parents to her.) This was going to be the big test ,,,,,, five people (one who gets seasick) in a 40 foot boat, in 85-95 degree humid weather, without air conditioning, for two weeks without killing each other?!

We pulled away from the dock and were finally on our way to the San Blas Islands where the Kuna Indians live. Luckily we had very mild seas for the first 3 hours and everyone did well. By early afternoon Gary became quite green and began feeding the fish as the seas built to 6-7 feet. We beefed up the throttle and headed for Isla Linton a half an hour away. It was a very calm and protected anchorage and we settled in nicely.

Now came the time to tour the island and try out our “new” used 25 hp Mercury we picked up in Colon and see how it would do carrying 5 adults. Jeeze, we went faster than our 8 hp went just carrying one person? Ken was grinning from ear to ear and driving like a kamikaze pilot ….or a man going thru a mid-life crisis who just bought an overpowered Harley... it moves so quick he almost tossed us right into the drink!

We came across a building and dock near our anchorage and saw what first appeared to be several little kids playing around the old abandoned place. As we drove closer we soon realized that they were not kids, but monkeys! Big ones! They were more like full grown chimpanzees walking around on their two hind legs. They quickly ran down to the dock to greet us and see what treats we were bringing them. Having nothing with us, we hurried back to the boat and grabbed some bread and bananas and returned. They had wandered away and at first just looked at us from afar, knowing that we hadn’t brought them anything on our first visit, but when I simply waved the bread at them, they came scurrying down to meet us. As we inched closer to the dock it was obvious that they were quite aggressive and wanted to jump right into the boat with us! Knowing how nasty they can get and how hard those little rascals bite, we kept our distance and threw them the bread and pieces of banana from a few feet away. It was quite entertaining watching how animated they were, running around with their arms in the air and jumping and tumbling around …. just like a barrel of monkeys are supposed!!

The Kuna Indians of San Blas are the only Indians who have preserved their traditions and cultures and have managed to remain independent. They’re right out of National Geographic - literally! Neither the men, nor the women grow much taller than 5 feet- max. Most of the 50,000 Kunas live on the very small San Blas islands that stretch over 100 miles just northeast of the Panama Canal; still others scattered around a few small communities on the mainland. Most of the women still dress in their traditional clothing, covering their heads with red and yellow scarf’s, wearing colorful skirts and blouses with puffy sleeves with the bodice made from Molas, which they are known for. They’re often draped in gold jewelry including a gold nose ring. It is obvious that many of the young girls are moving away from that tradition, which is a little sad to see. Mola making is one of their main sources of income so there is a lot of friendly competition as one tries to outdo another with design and prices.

As we pulled up to each island, almost before we could get our boat anchored, the Kuna’s paddled out in their dugout canoes (called “Ulu’s”) to greet us and sell us their wares. Most were women, including one lady with 3 kids and a nursing baby and still others that brought their whole families with them or men and their children looking to sell us lobster, crab, snapper, etc. We must have had “target” written on our boat as we purchased, molas, lobster, fresh fish, smoked fish, shells, bracelets, etc. We also gave them school notebooks, magazines (which they all ask for,) gasoline, pencils, milk and cookies, fishing rods, hooks, line, etc.

JoAnn Cecil speaks Spanish and did a great job of communicating with them which made it really fun! Most of the women had a great sense of humor and being the crazy person she is, could really get them going and playing off one another!? Even though we do have to admit it did get a little old after the 20th ulu, it was a treat for us and an especially a great experience for Kim to take back to her classroom!

One of the highlights was meeting a young man at a makeshift museum that offered to take us to a village where his family lived, where there was also a puberty ceremony going on …. which apparently goes on for days and days! The village consisted of small huts built from waters edge to waters edge, one built almost literally right on top of the other with small undersized doorways. The floors are dirt, the walls made from sticks banded together, and the roofs are built with palm fronds – which are surprisingly sturdy. The outhouses are built out over the waters edge, as are the pig pens… easy for cleaning. Now we’re trying to decide if we can mount a toilet seat on the back rail – sure would make for easy cleaning as the waves just wash over the decks!

When the six of us arrived at the village in our dinghy, kids ran to greet us, or rather I should say to stare at us, as it was obvious that not many visitors, especially white ones, came to that particular island. They allowed us to look around but wouldn’t let us take pictures or go beyond the doorway of their gathering hall where the ceremony was taking place?! It felt like a time warp where you go back a 100 years… living off the land, simple pleasures and little to no electricity on most islands. The Kuna’s seem happy and content living the way they do; however, there is evidence of the modern world starting to creep in…. many now have cell phones and TV antennas are even beginning to spring up here and there! Wonder what they watch?

We were able to do a little snorkeling while we were in the clear waters of San Blas and on Kim’s birthday she and I dove a wreck which was covered in beautiful corals and surrounded by fish which was a highlight for both of us!

Gary got tired of feeding the fish so he and JoAnn flew from San Blas back to the mainland and the mountain town of Boquete. The only place they could fly out of was Porvenier, a small island where the runway begins and ends on either end of the island… one of those where if you land too early, or take off a moment to late, you are in the drink! They flew out in a small plane in a torrential downpour so we figured poor Gary was doomed to have motion sickness either way but it would be over faster in the plane than it would be on the boat. Ken, Kim & I “sailed” back to Shelter Bay where we rejoined G&J later that week. We toured Portobello, the Canal’s Gatun Locks, Fort Sherman, San Lorenzo, saw the monkeys, had pot lucks at the marina, spent time with Voyager, Argo and Rapture and enjoyed our time with Kim, JoAnn & Gary before they had to return home. Two weeks and we all still love each other at the end – pretty good huh?!!

By the first of July it began raining quite regularly and it was becoming more evident by the day that we were into Panama’s rainy season – time to head for dryer ground! After traveling for 14,000 miles we finally realized we can actually live without a lot of the “stuff” we once thought we just had to bring with us! “Stuff” we didn’t really want to haul around for another 14,000 miles! What kind of stuff you might ask? Let’s see, we don’t really need jackets, shoes or socks, blankets and we especially don’t need our fur lined undies in the Caribbean! We packed up four 50 pound bags of “stuff” which means that we have whittled it down to a mere 20,000 pounds of “stuff” we simply can't live without!

After ten days of getting Dreamweaver buttoned up, and trying to mildew proof her along the way, we headed home to Big Bear for two months. Two buses, three taxi’s, two airplanes, and 48 hours later we were back in California after being away for 8 months. No matter how much we enjoy traveling, it is always great to get back to Big Bear and visit family and friends! Until next time....

Love & Dreams,

Ken & Dottie

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