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Imagine a world where there are no grocery stores. I’m not talking about a world where there is no convenient Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, though there was a time I considered that a hardship. I’m talking about a place with no “real” food markets whatsoever- at least within an easy days’ travel.  

Imagine a world without any reliable Wifi or cell service.  

Imagine a world without Google, where you actually have to wonder about stuff.

Imagine a world, not just without roadside garbage pick up, but with no trash disposal facilities at all. 

And imagine thinking that this world is paradise.  

Mike and Ronna
Photo by Jeff Larason

Mike and I are sailing the San Blas islands (Islas Guna Yala), an island chain of approximately 380 islands, just north of Panama. The five weeks we have spent sailing the Guna Yala has been like nothing we have experienced so far, and I dare say if we did not have plans to visit family back in Boston, we would really love to stay a few weeks more. We will sail away in a few days time, but I know I will leave a piece of my heart here.

I keep changing what I want to write about this place. Should my focus be on how remote these islands are? How the Guna Indians live? How we, as people who are used to an endless supply of resources, are getting by? How we spend our days snorkeling, sailing, reading, cooking, and cleaning stainless? How it breaks my heart to see these gorgeous islands being inundated with plastic washed up from the mainland? How the islands are disappearing from rising sea levels at an alarming rate? I have rewritten and edited this piece more than any in recent memory.

Tropical fish under water
Photo by Shiera Brady

Not many of my friends have ever heard of the San Blas islands, which is not surprising, as the islands are not easy to get to. They are governed by the indigenous Guna Indians, a kind, friendly and sturdy people who inhabit about 40 of the islands.  The rest are uninhabited. Just palm trees and white sand surrounded by reefs and clear, gin-blue water. Magnificent. 

Guna Indian huts
Photo by Ronna Benjamin

The Guna live mostly in bamboo huts with palm fronds for roofs. They are fiercely proud of their people and way of life. Their reefs are full of sea life- eagle and sting rays, sharks, lobster, crab, bright blue parrot fish, puffer fish and a million other brightly-colored species. The men and women are short and hardworking. The women wear traditional, brightly colored mola blouses, a gold band in their nostrils, their legs and arms covered in beautifully colored intricate beads. The Guna govern themselves, with their own legal system, and crime is almost non-existent.  For now, they seem to welcome tourists to their island…but not too many, and with very few exceptions, not after dark. 

Manta Ray under water
Photo by Shiera Brady

It did not take long to embrace our San Blas cruising life.  The mornings are generally for projects. Mike fixes whatever broke while we were sleeping. I bake brownies because we ran out of cookies (bad planning).  I plan meals, crossing my fingers that our supplies will last.  We eat our main meal at mid day (mostly we grill fish or hamburgers or chicken), and the afternoons are for fun- snorkeling, paddle boarding, walking around a tropical island, swimming, napping, reading, an occasional trip down a river where we might see a crocodile or two.  Evenings are for cocktails (sundowners) usually with other boats, and for games with our friends—our favorites being Telestrations and Codenames. Every couple of days, we sail from one island to the next, throwing out a fishing line, though we never seem to catch anything. 

Traditional clothing
Photos by Shiera Brady and Ronna Benjamin

It is almost impossible to spend a lot of money here.  We buy two tiny, wilting iceberg lettuce, a few cucumbers, some onions, tomatoes, and a papaya from the veggie boat (a dugout canoe) that we have seen only twice in five weeks.  We buy Molas, intricately embroidered rectangular cloths, which the Guna women transform into traditional women’s blouses. I’ve purchased five molas so far, despite having no answer to the reasonable question Mike keeps asking me, “What in the world are you going to do with those?” (Unfortunately, we can’t eat them.)  Once, we bought dinner ashore prepared and served by a Guna family -lobsters, rice and beer, all for $12.00 a person.  

We have come to rely on trading with our friends on other cruising boats for whatever is in short supply.  Eggs in trade for baking powder, two onions and a head of garlic.  Ice in trade for flour.  I swear I’d trade a pound of coffee and a liter of rum for a stick of butter right now, but no one I know seems to be long on butter.  I am pretty sure Mike would trade my right arm for a bag of potato chips, so I am careful to make sure I keep up with my chores, especially the ones that require two arms. 

Kids in a boat
Photo by Ronna Benjamin

To our amazement, we have produced only two bags of garbage (compost goes overboard) in over a month.  We watch every single bit of aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and paper towel. We use and then reuse them. We scowl at extra packaging.  Plastic bags get washed out and saved. We have very few disposable products on board, and we have come to realize that plastic is the enemy of mankind.  

What we have learned from visiting these islands, and what we are continuing to learn, is how to make do with what we have, and how little you really need. We have learned just how important canned beans and almond butter are.  Mike has learned how to open a coconut with a machete (though the local children still laugh at our attempts). We have almost learned to be comfortable taking showers naked off the back of the boat. We have experienced the healing power of both nature and triple antibiotic cream. We have learned to respect the bounty of the ocean, and the importance of living green. 

And we have learned that when you can’t ask Google, it is really ok to wonder. 

Featured image credit to Shiera Brady  

Ronna Benjamin
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