|This Ain’t the South Pacific?|
Part 2: The ladies spoke some English and smiled a lot.
By Capt. Bill Pike — July 2003
Did I say Portobello was strange? We dropped the hook in something like 30 feet of dark-green water on the north side of the harbor, not far from what’s left of Fort San Fernando, one of several Spanish ruins that date back hundreds of years. In the fort’s heyday, the riches that the Spanish plundered from South America came through Portobello, and its warehouses were sometimes so filled with gold and silver that ingots had to lay unguarded in the streets. Small wonder that buccaneers like Henry Morgan loved the place. And small wonder there were so many fortifications around, most of them crumbling into impecunious decay.
While Saunders fired up the BBQ in the cockpit of the 57, Shuler and I launched the Novurania and headed into town. What we found there were some interesting American expats, folks who were full-time Portobello-ites, except for periodic trips back to the States to renew relationships with niceties like electricity and plug-into-the-wall refrigeration. They’d arrived during the sailboat craze of the early 1980’s and had simply never left. Shuler and I envied their seemingly uncomplicated lives a bit, I think, as we strolled back to the sunset-red dinghy dock.
“You want to get away from it all,” Shuler remarked, gesturing toward the vast jungle all around, “this is the spot.”
We pulled the hook early the next morning. Then, after running an easterly course for a few hours, we dropped it again, but this time in an anchorage alongside a lush island that was as awash in color as it was mysterious. The water our Nordhavn floated in was aquamarine and crystal clear. The sand along the beach some 50 yards astern was brilliant white. The coconut palms that sighed softly beyond were lime green, and there was the faintest fragrance of wood smoke, from a campfire probably. According to the chart, much of the geography we could see around us was unnamed, at least officially. Were we just a couple of miles off the coast of Panama? Or smack-dab in the middle of some South Seas paradise?
The arrival of a couple of colorfully clad ladies paddling a dugout canoe—the Kuna Yala version of the Welcome Wagon, apparently—lent increased authority to the question. They were selling beads, baskets, lobsters, and most important, molas (exceptionally colorful, intricately designed works of reverse-appliqué art). Saunders said the molas, which Kuna women make and sell exclusively, are a major source of income for the matrilineal Kuna society. The ladies spoke some English and smiled a lot. Bargaining with them was fun, but the most memorable thing about the encounter was watching them depart. The stamina they displayed with their paddles and the speed this stamina imparted to their watercraft was stunning and evocative. For a moment I felt like I’d been magically transported back to the days before the Spanish conquistadors, probably because, in a sense, the Kuna Yala continue to inhabit those days.
This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.