How many times have I written about “the small idyllic islands in San Blas with white sandy beaches and tall coconut palms, surrounded by crystal blue water and corral garden of exceptional beauty; where just a few Kuna families live in small huts near the shore fishing and collecting coconuts and wild mangoes”? How many times have I compared this place with “Paradise on Earth”? I dare anyone to find an article or a story or a blog post written by some other visitor in Kuna Yala who doesn’t think that these are the most beautiful of all Caribbean islands, and who doesn’t compare the place with “heaven”. A difficult task.
But one thing is visiting Paradise and enjoying its natural beauty for a short period of time, another thing is living in it, stuck for eternity with all sorts of problems which don’t exist back in the normal boring civilized world. Like nasty mosquitos and no-see-ums (which torture even the short-term visitors), lack of all sorts of facilities like hospitals, dentists, schools, banks, post offices, stores and shopping malls etc.; lack of electricity which means no TV, no computer, no refrigeration, not even lights in the evening. Can you imagine surviving without internet for a week? For a month? How about a year? Impossible! But even if you get used to this simplistic way of life, there is one thing that is missing and you, as well as the local Kuna Indians, will never learn to live without. Freshwater is not a commodity but a necessity, and it is a major problem in Kuna Yala Paradise.
But the indigenous people have learned to cope with the situation and the lack of freshwater on the majority of the islands has become something almost normal. Generation after generation they have gone to the mainland rivers with their ulus (dugout canoes) to bring back to their riverless islands freshwater for drinking and washing; precious water which they have learned to appreciate, conserve and use vary carefully.
Everywhere we go we see plastic containers, jerricans, buckets and bottles piled around houses for water storage.
All the time women and men are crisscrossing the waters between the islands and the many river deltas on mainland their ulus hauling loads of water supplies for their households.
One Saturday we jump in the kayak for another river expedition up Rio Diablo near the twin islands of Nargana and Corazon de Jesus, which are heavily populated, hoping to see monkeys and caimans again.
But instead we encounter lots and lots of Kuna families in their family ulus heading to the place where everyone is collecting water, taking a bath and washing their clothes directly in the river- a place that reminds us faintly of the Varanasi of the Ganges River in India. It is the weekend washing ritual.
The water situation in Kuna Yala is different from island to island, depending on their location. The large overpopulated island communities are generally within less than a mile from mainland and from a river delta, so that the inhabitants are closer to freshwater and getting it is faster and easier.
There is even one island where a pipe coming down from the river is supplying fresh river water to the islanders- Isla Rio Azucar (the Sugar River Island). They even sell water to cruisers who don’t have watermakers. You can go and fill up your boat’s tanks for 20$ at the dock.
But the smaller outer islands are many miles away from mainland and rivers, and for their inhabitants detting freshwater is a bigger problem.
For washing clothes, dishes and showering, they use the water from small waterholes dug in the sandy ground where seawater filters in and is less salty.
They also collect rainwater, even though we haven’t noticed any efficient rainwater collecting system, and regularly have to navigate great distances to collect river water which they boil for drinking back home.
Because of this situation, the Kuna’s drinking and cooking water is sometimes infested with bacteria and they often suffer from poor hygiene related diseases.
We become popular around these small island communities with our watermaker, and we give the Kuna Indians a few gallons of potable freshwater every time we have surplus. In exchange they give us mangos, avocados and bananas.
Modern technology has already made its way into the Kuna Indians’ lives, yet they have managed to preserve to a large extend their traditional ways. We notice solar panels here and there on the smaller islands, and on the bigger ones with hundreds of inhabitants electricity through diesel generators is present since decades. But nothing much has changed regarding water, except that now they are aware of the existence of reverse osmosis machines which can turn seawater into freshwater and they are beginning to inquire more about it. Maybe in the not-so -distant future every Kuna community will have their solar power installation feeding with energy a watermaker producing enough freshwater to satisfy their needs in a completely ecological, self-sufficient way.
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: