Kuna Yala: Paradise at The End of The Sea

Kuna Yala: Paradise at The End of The Sea

by Mira Nencheva

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It’s a beautiful sunny day in Kuna Yala. A few white clouds slowly sailing in the sky, the sea calm, transparent and sparkling in the sun. A wet blue landscape in every direction. Small islands of fine white-and-pink sand covered in tall coconut palms are scattered in the distance.

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Rodencio Garcia is paddling slowly in his old dugout “ulu”, after spending all morning diving in the sea spearfishing in the reefs, and collecting coconuts on one of the few uninhabited islands in the Cayos Holandes island group. He proudly shows us his harvest and his catch: a few coconuts, avocados and mangos, few conchs, and a few small fishes of all colors.

Kuna Yala

Kuna Yala

He takes two fishes from the sea each day for his wife and two for himself. He has no children, so all he needs is four fishes per day and a couple of avocados, coconuts, and plantains. Four fishes per day, that’s all, because he has no fridge to keep any extra fish. Rodencio Garcia has no fridge, because there is no electricity on his island. No one of the three families living on his island has a fridge, or a washing machine, or a television set.

Rodencio Garia

Rodencio Garia

Rodencio Garcia's catch

Rodencio Garcia’s catch

Kuna Yala, officially known as the San Blas Islands, is a vast archipelago in the Caribbean Sea stretching over 2,300 square kilometers and consisting of over 360 mostly small flat islands scattered among coral reefs off the eastern coast of Panama, of which only about 40 are inhabited, home of the indigenous Kuna people. The bigger inhabited islands are densely populated by organized communities, and on some of the smaller ones only two or three families reside.

A small island where only one Kuna family lives

A small island where only one Kuna family lives

This autonomous Kuna Yala territory within Panama has its own independent administrative, political, and social order kept very much unchanged for centuries, where the indigenous people have preserved, to a large extend, their way of life outside of the rest of modern civilization, and where foreigner are forbidden to own property, to settle, or to marry to Kunas and remain in the communities, and only recently (since about twenty years) outsiders are allowed to visit.

 

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

Rodencio Garcia invites us on his island. We arrive there paddling in our plastic orange kayak and are greeted by everyone, about a dozen of men, women and children. The women are dressed in traditional skirts and colorful blouses called molas with bright red scarfs loosely hanging over their short black hairs, long strings of colorful beads coiled around their ankles and wrists, and a gold ring under the nose. They immediately start taking out and showing us their molas for sale. Only one of about five women knows Spanish. The rest speak their native tongue- Dulegaya.

A Kuna woman

A Kuna woman

Molas are made of brightly colored fabrics collaged layer over layer, forming intricate abstract patterns. They are the most important part of the Kuna women’s traditional clothing, and since cruisers and tourists started visiting the islands, molas became an important source of income too.

A Kuna woman showing us her molas for sale

A Kuna woman showing us her molas for sale

We choose a few molas and beaded bracelets for which we give them rice, flower, beads, and other food products and things we have brought to exchange. This is one of the most isolated islands, and getting cooking oil, coffee, rice, even fresh drinkable water means a long journey by small improvised sailing “ulu” or a small motorboat to some of the bigger islands, where Colombian trading boats loaded with various goods like gas, clothes, plastic bins, food products, beer and coca-cola, as well as all sorts of other “indispensables”, arrive regularly to sell stuff and buy coconuts, the Kunas main source of income, which they export back to Colombia.

Trading with Kuna women

Trading with Kuna women

On most of the larger islands electricity has made appearance a few decades ago, providing the islanders with refrigeration and television through generators running on gas, or solar panels. Here there are local tiendas (small stores), panaderias (bakeries), small schools and clinics. It’s almost like any other town, only there are no paved roads and cars, and most of the houses are tiny, made of thin bamboo sticks or cane, with palm-leaf roofs and no running water.

 

Kuna women near the island of Porvenir- Kuna Yala's capital

Kuna women near the island of Porvenir- Kuna Yala’s capital

But on the smaller islands where only a few Kuna families reside in huts on the beach made of renewable materials among tall palms, there is not even electricity or grocery store. The only light in the evening is from the small fires of coconut peals, over which the Kuna women boil fish-and-plantain soup. Life here is still completely self-contained and off the grid.

 

A Kuna women boiling conch over slow fire

A Kuna women boiling conch over slow fire

After we choose our molas we walk around the island for a bit. Near the huts, between piles of coconuts for export, dogs and young children are running around, men are resting in hammocks strung between palm trees after a day of fishing and collecting coconuts, and women are busy boiling conchs.

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Inside, the huts are dark. Typically, one family has two huts. A smaller hut serves as the kitchen, where fish is being smoked in one corner over a slow fire. The bigger hut is where the entire extended family, sometimes 10-12 people, sleeps in rows of small hammocks; there is no other furniture. We constantly have to bend our heads and be careful not to bump on doors and beams, as we are considerably taller than all the Kuna Indians. Most barely reach to our shoulders.

Smoking fish in the "kitchen" hut.

Smoking fish in the “kitchen” hut.

A Kuna man is having lunch- fish sop- on the compacted sand floor of the kitchen hut.

A Kuna man is having lunch- fish soup- on the compacted sand floor of the kitchen hut.

The "bedroom" hut

The “bedroom” hut

The Kuna Indians are the second shortest people on earth after the pigmies.

Mira (176 cm tall) with a Kuna woman

Mira (176 cm tall) with a Kuna woman

They also have a long tradition of matriarchy, where women rule. The Kunas total about 50-60 thousand and are one of the most peaceful nations on earth, where crime is extremely rare, homosexuality is accepted as something perfectly normal, and albinism has one of the planet’s highest rate. The only two times the Kunas fought in a war was, first when they rose against the Spanish after numerous invasions in 1750 and slaughtered the invaders. This led to a treaty between Kuna Yala and Gran Colombia and the Kunas were left alone. The second time was in 1925 when they organized a successful full-scale revolution against the Panamanian authorities on the islands who were oppressing them and threatening their culture, and consequently, the Kunas were granted autonomy within Panama. Centuries later, the Kunas are still resisting Hispanic assimilation and are still very much concerned with preserving their indigenous rights and ways, even though they are aware of the rapidly changing civilized world beyond their isolated scattered islands.

The Kuna Yala flag. It was created during the Revolution in 1925 and has nothing to do with Hitler and the Nazi swastika.

The Kuna Yala flag. It was created during the Revolution in 1925 and has nothing to do with Hitler and the Nazi swastika.

“Do you like it, living here, so far away from the cities?” I ask Rodencio Garcia.

“This is my island and I like living here. I have been in Panama City a few times. I wouldn’t live there. I like this place, the sea, and my island. My family lives here. I fish for a few hours in the morning and I spend the rest of the day with my family. Sometimes I catch lobster and octopus, but we don’t eat them, we sell them to tourists. We only eat fish and conch, which we cook with plantains and grated coconut. First, you boil the plantains for 20-30 minutes with the coconut. Then you add the fish but you don’t boil it too much; when the eyes pop out, it’s ready.” He says.

Kuna Yala Image Gallery

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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:

 Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

Maya, Ivo and Mira

Maya, Ivo and Mira

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Easter Beach Camping in Aruba

Easter Camping in Aruba

or Los Locos Felices (The Happy Crazies)

by Mira Nencheva

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Palm Beach, Aruba

We sailed to Aruba in the middle of March and dropped anchor in front of Palm Beach, Aruba’s most popular white sand beach with tall palm trees and a strip of big sparkling hotels all lined up along the west coast, facing the Caribbean Sea and the spectacular sunsets. Radisson, Holiday Inn, Marriott’s, Global Suite, The Ritz, and the all-inclusive Riu Palace- the Caribbean Taj Mahal. With marble floors and crystal chandeliers, infinity swimming pools, artificial waterfalls and tropical gardens, restaurants surrounded by goldfish ponds with black swans, beach bars and every comfort and luxury the tourist might dream for, these resorts offer the ultimate beach experience for somewhere between 200 and 500 dollars per person per night. Maybe even more.

Hotel Riu, Aruba

Hotel Riu Palace, Aruba

Aruba is a world famous vacation destination for the rich and tourism is the country’s main industry. It is “Heaven on Earth” for those who can afford it…

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But imagine if you can fly to Aruba and pitch a tent on the beach, next to Marriott’s Resort, at a very low cost. Wouldn’t that be something! If you are a backpacker or a student, or anyone with limited financial means traveling on a budget and you still want to enjoy the same island, the same beach, and the same sun and sea as the rich and the privileged, why not camping for a week or two in Aruba? You just have to time it well and plan your Arubian camping trip around Easter.

Tents in front of Marriott Hotel, Palm Beach, Aruba

Tents in front of Marriott Hotel, Palm Beach, Aruba

Actually, camping in Aruba is a very popular activity among the locals. It is a decade old tradition which transforms the coastline of the island, especially the western side, into a huge camping ground but only for a couple of weeks in March or April, whenever Easter happens to be that year.

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Easter is among the most important holidays for the Arubans and “Easter Beach Camping” is a highly anticipated and very well organized event taking place every year since forever, even since before the first hotel in Aruba was built. Families gather on previously determined big camping sites on one of Aruba’s many beaches during the kids’ Easter vacation and pitch their tents and tarpaulins. But first, they have to apply for a special camping permit -one for one camping site which may include many tents, issued by the local police for 5 $US per tent. The biggest camping site I saw this year included 11 brothers and sisters and their families- about 70 people in total, of which 30% were children. The permit holder becomes the “president” of the camping site and has to ensure that everyone respects the strict rules, otherwise he might lose the permit: no excessive noise after 10 p.m., no littering, no fire, no BBQ, no driving and no animals on the beach.

Playing dominos

Playing dominos

Normally, they apply for a permit by filling in a form and paying the fee at the local police station a month before the event, to make sure they will get the desired spot on one of the many beaches all around Aruba: Arashi Beach, Eagle Beach, Baby Beach, and Palm Beach among others.

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The camping is perfectly organized with portable toilets and small open kitchens. Every compound includes many tents and a large common area where everyone gathers to eat and celebrate together. Every meal for the next two weeks is transformed into a party.

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I met and talked to a few of the campers. They were super welcoming and happy to share a beer and a nice meal with me, while telling me all about Easter camping in Aruba. And I must say, the chicken was fabulous!

We are “locos felices” (happy crazies), they said proudly. We have been getting together every year for Easter in this same spot for twenty years now. We are a big family, about 30-40 people. The children love it, and this activity is mainly for them! The little cousins play together on the beach all day long and sleep in the tents at night. On Easter morning we do Egg Hunt on the beach. The grown-ups, we don’t sleep in the tents, they are for the kids. We sleep all under this tarpaulin in hammocks, all together, in open air. It’s all about spending time together, as a family, living as one with the peaceful nature.

Maria, 85 with four of her children

Maria, 85 (right) with her three daughters and a son

At age 85 Maria is the oldest camper. She only spends the days in the camp and returns to sleep in her house at night. But in her younger days, 20 years ago when she was only 65, she used to stay overnight as well.

This year, she has four out of five of her children, as well as many of her grand and great-grandchildren camping together just north of hotel Marriott on Palm Beach. Her son is the “president”, or the “chief”.

 

Maria and her daughters in the common area. Behind Maria is the area where the adults spread their hammocks and sleep at night together.

Maria and two of her daughters in the common area. Behind Maria is the area where the adults spread their hammocks and sleep at night together.

Marriott is the newest hotel on Palm Beach and was finished just months ago. Before, the campers used the beach area which is now reserved for the hotel, and they got pushed away. Their grounds are becoming smaller because of the large resorts which are taking over.

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When I asked them if visitors to the island can also apply for a permit and camp in Aruba on Easter, some told me sure, but others replied it is just for the locals.

And even if it was permitted, they said, we wouldn’t like it for tourists to do it. Imagine everyone instead of going in the hotels, pitching a tent on the beach. There wouldn’t be space left for us!

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Yet, as confirmed by VisitAuba.com, everyone is allowed to apply for a camping permit from the local Police Station in Noord (Call+297 587-0009) for two week around Holy Week on Easter, locals and tourists alike, and as long as there is space available and the permit is granted 10 days in advance, you can camp in Aruba! The cost of the permit is $5 per tent for the entire period (1-2 weeks).

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The problem is, you have to apply for a permit in person in the police station and preferably one month in advance… So I guess, Easter camping in Aruba will remain predominantly a local tradition.

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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 their Facebook page Facebook/The Life Nomadik where Mira is publishing stories and pictures.

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Off The Grid

Off The Grid

by Mira Nencheva

This article has been published in OffGridQuest.com

The English word ‘free’ has two meanings. The goal of our adventures around the world by sailboat are to prove that if you are determined and crazy enough you can enjoy life, learn, and travel free.

Such unusual goal is achievable only by unusual means. In order to imagine how it is possible for a family to live and travel for an extended period of time across long distances on a very minimal budget and almost without participating in the so called ‘system’ you really have to forget about all those things which until now you considered ‘normal’ or ‘mandatory’ because they are neither. Some of these things for which you have to imagine alternatives are: school, permanent job, fixed income, monthly expenses, insurance and retirement. Today’s system is organized around these and other imposed conditions. But humanity existed long before they were forced upon us. Our quest is to defy borders, physical and metaphorical, to be independent, self-sufficient and free.

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One day we decided to buy a boat and sail around the world.

We left work, we left school, we sold our car, our house in Canada and everything in it, and in April 2013 we bought a 2001, 38-foot Leopard catamaran which we named Fata Morgana. She became our home, school, and vehicle.

Fata Morgana

Fata Morgana

Of all means of long distance travel and transportation, sailing is the only one that doesn’t require fuel, only wind, and thus doesn’t pollute. We thought: „Тhe idea to travel between continents, to cross oceans and see the world using only nature’s elements is fantastic!“ And even though our boat has not one but two engines, we decided right at the start that we would only use them in emergency situations. Since then, we learned to sail tacking against the wind, lifting and dropping anchor on sail, and even pulling the boat with our kayak (we don’t have a dinghy anymore) with 0.5 knots per hour when the wind dies. But no engines.

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Once, when we were sailing along the remote shores of Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s biggest lake, the wind died completely and Ivo deployed the kayak and started pulling the boat, as he always does. An old indigenous fisherman saw us and with his dugout cayuco came to the rescue. “Do you have problem with the engine? Did you finish the fuel? Do you need help” he asked worried. “No, the engines are fine, we have plenty of fuel, and you can’t help a crazy person. Loco…”, I told him and pointed in the direction of Ivo, paddling, Fata Morgana looming behind him.

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It’s not just a question to save on fuel; it’s a sort of a principal enforced by law aboard Fata Morgana: not to turn the engines on, which sometimes drives everyone crazy. But it’s a fact: last time we fueled was 14 months ago, in November 2013 in Florida. Since then we sailed for many nautical miles, south to the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and all of the Caribbean Islands down to Trinidad and Tobago, and back to Puerto Rico with our fuel tanks still full.

And we not only travel for free, but we liveaboard comfortably with no monthly bills. Before we left Florida we transformed Fata Morgana in a unique off-the-grid vessel.

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Two of the main problems cruisers have are electricity and fresh water. We solved these problems by investing in solar panels and a reverse osmosis desalinating machine (or a ‘watermaker’) which we installed and service ourselves. We built a fiberglass hard top above the cockpit and there we placed a field of Kyocera solar panels producing a total of 1 500 Watts pure solar electricity, which we store in 4 lithium batteries total of 700 A. By 9 a.m. our battery bank is usually full. We have more power than we can use. (We don’t have a generator aboard and we don’t turn on the engines to produce electricity.)

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The biggest electricity consumer aboard is the fridge and freezer using 12-15 A/h 24/7. When sailing, all the navigational electronics: the GPS, radar, VHF radio, AIS etc. use 15-20 A/h. All lights aboard are LED and consume very little electricity. The two electrical toilets take 16 A/h only while in use. The watermaker sucks 16 A/h and produces 16 gallons of pure drinkable freshwater per hour. We keep the 800-litters water tanks full at all times by turning on the watermaker for a few hours every 3-4 days. When it’s raining, we collect rainwater with a very efficient system of hoses coming down the sides of the hard top. We use the rainwater for laundry, which we do in buckets, by hand. Good thing in the Tropics we don’t wear too many clothes.

Maya did her laundry Мая простира прането

Maya did her laundry
Мая простира прането

Thus, we can drop anchor in the most remote lagoon for a week or a month or a year or two without having to visit the docks for fuel or water. We have never been more independent, enjoying some of the most pristine beautiful places of the world, spending money mostly for beer and ice cream.

Fata Morgana in Barbuda Фата Моргана в Барбуда

Fata Morgana in Barbuda
Фата Моргана в Барбуда

We never go to marinas, as anchorages everywhere are free. We have a sewing machine to mend the sails and all sorts of tools for all sorts of repairs. When visiting places, we walk sometimes great distances, as unfortunately we don’t have space for bicycles on the boat. Sometimes we hitchhike or take the bus. We catch and eat lots of fish and we cook aboard and make our own bread. We still have to spend money when something on the boat breaks and needs to be fixed or replaced, when a line snaps or the hulls need painting. Maintaining a boat can be very expensive, especially the first year, but we try to do even this as cheaply as possible, fixing everything we can ourselves. But besides this we don’t have much of the daily, weekly and monthly bills and expenses we used to have on land.

Ivo the fisherman Иво е голям рибач...

Ivo the fisherman
Иво е голям рибач…

But this way of life took some adjustment. We had to learn to do without a dishwasher, a washing machine, AC, TV, and Wi-Fi here and there now and then. The fridge is a box and in order to get to the stuff on the bottom, you first have to take out everything on the top. Ice is luxury, so is hot water. We take very quick cold water showers, unless we use one of those black plastic bags heated by the sun, which are great. We have reduced our consumption of everything, and we have cut most ties to the grid. We don’t even have a phone or a permanent address. Once, someone in an institution who tried unsuccessfully to fill up a form for us, told us: “It looks like you don’t exist!”

Ivo chilling on a palm tree

Ivo chilling on a palm tree

But we like it like this and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

We are constantly learning. Living aboard a boat, traveling and seeing the world, using the energy of the wind in ordper to move across vast distances, harvesting the power of the sun to make electricity and with it freshwater, are some of the most valuable lessons for our 11-years-old daughter Maya educated outside of the school system. She knows a lot about clean renewable energy and conservation of natural resources, and her respect for the natural environment and our connection to it is profound. With the ties to the grid cut off we have come much closer to nature than ever before.

Maya Мая

Maya
Мая

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