Nightmares in Paradise
The San Blas archipelago of Panama, with its hundreds of small idyllic islands with white sand beaches and tall coconut palms, where the colorful Kuna Indians live in huts made of bamboo sticks and palm leafs, surrounded by crystal blue waters and coral gardens of exceptional beauty, are often portrait by visitors as “paradise on Earth”. That is how we saw them too- the most beautiful place we have ever been to after two years of cruising in the entire Caribbean region, to almost all the Caribbean islands and countries. San Blas is the crown jewel of the Caribbean.
But unfortunately it is not always bright and blue in San Blas. Sometimes Hell replaces Paradise, when the sun gets lost behind darkness, and the sky descends with terror upon the world bringing thunder and lightning, wind and pouring rain.
We are anchored near one uninhabited island, Isla Moron, famous for the abundance, diversity and beauty of the coral reefs around it, enjoying the exceptional snorkeling. But the anchorage is not very protected from the winds and waves and as the island is isolated, standing alone with no other islands nearby, cruisers rarely visit. For the five days we spend snorkeling in the reefs, we are the only boat.
It’s around 10 in the morning. Clouds begin to gather fast from east heading our way- grey heavy masses charged with electricity, filled with rain, coming to vomit their mess over us. The day turns into night. We start hearing mountains crumbling, buildings falling down like dominoes one after another, bombs exploding all around us. Yet there are no mountains, no cities and no war zone nearby, only sea. Wind howling, carrying sheets of rain, temperatures dropping- the nightmare begins. If a lightning hits the boat, some or all expensive electronics aboard- the GPS, the chart-plotter, the radar, the depth-finder, the AIS, the wind-vane, the computers and TV- everything can go to hell. If a lightning attracted by the tall metal mast sticking alone in the sea next to a low uninhabited island strikes, the boat may suffer structural damage and our trip around the world will come to a long halt… Worst case scenario- we’ll lose the boat.
It’s rainy season here which means lots of rain and thunderstorms between the months of June and November, when is hurricane season in the Caribbean. The San Blas islands have never been hit by hurricanes and are considered a safe cruising ground during the hurricane season, but then many boats get hit by lightning here each year. This year however is exceptional. A very strong El Niño phenomenon is causing an unusual drought- the worst in more than 100 years, and the rainy days are rare, which works perfectly for us. For the one month we spend in Kuna Yala we get only a couple of thunder storms and not more than five days with rain.
This one is the worst of the two storms with the most rain. We are terrified. We count the intervals between the bright electrical flashes and the loud roar of the thunders. Less and less seconds, until they merge and strike right next to us, thunder and lightning at once. In such moments, even if you don’t believe in God, you prey. Or you just leave it to faith and try not to care- if it happens it happens; fearing and praying will change nothing. But how can you not care? How can you ignore the thunders raging around you and not fear?
And then- a strange apocalyptic vision. Behind curtains of grey rain, thick and heavy, hiding the island and everything within a few meters from the boat emerge a dark ghostly silhouette- an ulu (a dugout canoe) with two soaked men heading our way, like two bugs hanging on to a stick in the water. One is paddling frantically with all his might, the other is scooping rainwater out of the ulu with the same great emergency. Two sorry fugitives from Hell hoping for salvation. And salvation they found in the form of a bright white catamaran, which to them looked, with no doubt, like a mirage or an optical illusion amidst the rain- a dry shelter from the storm, a Fata Morgana.
They come next to the boat, their heads down, their eyes blind form the rain, and without looking to see if there is anyone aboard, without hesitating and without asking permission, they tie their flooded ulu to the stern on the starboard side, climb aboard one after the other, take their soaked shirts off, and squeeze the water out. They remain on the steps, shivering, their backs turned to us, looking out at the storm. We are watching them from behind the glass door of the boat with amazement. And disbelief.
We go out of the saloon to greet our unexpected visitors and invite them in the cockpit which is completely dry, warm and cozy, protected from wind and rain by the full enclosure. I offer them hot coffee and sandwiches. They are glad. They are shy and very polite and answer all the questions we ask them, but don’t ask us anything in return. The older one is named Ubaldino, 44-years-old, and his wife’s name is Veti. The younger one is Edisio, 30-years-old, and his wife’s name is Seciliana. They are both from Isla Narascantubiti, which is not very far and is a small island with just a few Kuna families living on it. Ubaldino and Edisio were fishing in the reefs when the storm hit. I ask them if sometimes people die in the sea. Of course they do. They die when they dive too deep for fish, when their ulu sinks in the middle of nowhere, and one guy even got struck by a lightning once.
While making the coffee and the sandwiches, while talking to our guests, we forget all about the storm. Only the occasional thunder interrupts our conversation. From time to time Edisio who is sitting quietly in the corner sipping hot coffee, goes out in the pouring rain and into the ulu to scoop the rainwater out, so that the ulu won’t overfill and sink.
Thus the storm passes, the rain eases off and our guests leave us as quickly and unceremoniously as they have arrived.
-This one was not too bad, I tell Ivo and I mean the storm.
I even don’t remember the terror I just felt a few minutes ago. Only two wet apparitions who appeared and disappeared in time of deluge remain in my memory, Ubaldino and Edisio from Isla Narascantubiti in Kuna Yala.
Find previous stories from the blog about Kuna Yala:
About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page: