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April 18, 2013


Dear Friends and Family,

Suddenly, I am writing this last log from Panama.  It seems to have happened so quickly!  We said we would watch for a weather window starting about now but we figured we would have to wait awhile before we got good conditions to go.  Well, we looked and the window is open.  Of course you cannot predict more than a few days out but the expectation is that we will be able to have good weather all the way home.  Our only concern is having enough wind.  We are between the northerly blows and the summer tropical storm conditions.  Actually, it is the best time to go but also the best time to stay!

Rob is checking us out of the country as I start this log.  We motored the 2 hours here from Gerti.  The two teachers I worked with at the school there have a meeting at an island where we are.  There are several small islands close to each other.  We volunteered to bring them here on our boat and they were excited to do it as it is a dryer trip and their first on a big boat.  Trouble is we were in to the wind, so no sailing.  We had a nice visit with them on they way here and they stayed to have lunch which was baked underway.

I have made two loaves of banana bread, 2 of another fruit and nut breakfast bread, 7 meals of rolled sandwiches.  (I bake the filling right in to the bread, sort of like a savory jelly roll.)  Those are easy to heat up and eat underway, or eat cold.

I have homemade beef/vegetable soup and will make individual portions of tomato/sausage pasta and also a pork, rice and vegetable casserole which can be warmed up underway.  We have lots of canned soups, tortillas, crackers and cheeses and meats to put with them.  I also made two loaves of sandwich bread.  My freezer is full again!  If all else fails, we have peanut butter!

I have a lot of food to bring home with us but that will save a shopping trip when we return.  About all I will need are fresh produce and maybe yogurt.  My homemade efforts with that has not been good lately!

I emptied some of the groceries by giving things to a couple of the Kuna families we have gotten to know better.  Bradio, one of the men, is going to be building a new house.  Tonight he is feeding about 38 people who will help him do the work.  The party is tonight but the house won’t be built until May!  They shouldn’t forget the meal as I gave him some things that they don’t get here much.  Crackers and jelly is one example.  Also barbeque sauce, canned corn and canned green beans.  We had a lot of extra powdered milk so that went to the two families as well.  There was a lot more and so I hope it will help him feed his workers in style.  They two guys who work on boats and speak a little English have done well by our generosity and we have done well by their friendship.  Not seeing how life treats them will be a part of all this that we will miss.

Alberto is the older man we met 8 years ago and he was someone who always  helped us out with translations and friendship.  At the end, I went to his house to show them how to make banana bread.  I gave them my bread pans, measuring cups and spoons as well as some baking soda, baking powder and cinnamon.  I don’t know if they will make it again or not.  He is quite a guy.  I have one picture of him wearing a USA hat with flag and eagle and wearing a Punta Gorda, Florida T-shirt.  Could take him home with me!


His younger brother who lived in Panama City died and was brought back to the island for the funeral.  Another older man on the island died as well.  He was the medicine man I had hoped to talk to.  I would not say that his medicine didn’t work.  He was pretty old.  I am sorry we won’t be there to attend the burial because it would have been interesting.

We also sent a lot of things to the school.  I made many small jars with bubbles for blowing, popcorn, some prizes for the kids including many caps.  I had taken a lot of caps to pass out to the kuna.  The nicest ones, I saved for people to make mola caps.  I am coming back with 2 that were made for me and left some in case someone wanted to make more to sell but I don’t think they got the idea very well.  The school is having a celebration next Friday to celebrate 11 years since the school first came to the island.  They just got new desks for the kids and the teachers and will get more solar panels and batteries.   The funding comes from the Panamanian government.  Of course it helps that this is an election year.  They will be having games and competitions and kings and queens from the classes.  Our friend Jestino’s daughter is one of the queens.  We gave him balloons that Terri and Jon brought.  I think she was to provide them for the occasion as one of the queens.  Hate missing that too!

I finished teaching yesterday and this week’s lesson was pictures of our family.  I used a family picture from last summer with our kids and grandkids and also one of the whole big family at our reunion.  We learned the English terms for family names.  They found seeing the pictures the most interesting thing I have done.  I don’t really know that I made much of a difference but they do know a few more words than before, they got to hear English and they got comfortable with someone who is a stranger.  It wasn’t always easy for me but I know that I gained a great deal for myself!

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Four of the guy students came by the boat and got a tour of the whole thing.  They had brought a gift of two really wonderful shells.  They told me that Rob’s was the bigger one!  Wish we could have developed the opportunity for more conversation with some of them.  These guys had come once before and visited with Rob while I was ashore.  They were eager to get the dictionary out and did some communication though their English is very minimal.  We would have also been taxed to improve our Spanish.  This kind of interaction takes years though and we didn’t have that time.

What was the best part of teaching though, was getting to know the teachers.  Jollie is the woman teacher.  She is 30 and her husband is with her on the island.  They are both Kuna.  He has Civil Engineering and Architecture  degrees.  He is 35.  Both have studied English and thanks to our time together, they now understand and speak it better though it is still a struggle.  We met once for conversation at the school in the late afternoon but later moved it to dinner on the boat.


They were over last night.  Even with the difficulty, we managed to never tire of the conversation or run out of things to discuss.  Of course it takes longer than when both are fluent in the same language.  The training from my old life as a teacher of foreign students kicked in and my speech is clear and slow.  My vocabulary is challenged to find a way to say things that I think will be clear to them.  I always enjoyed that and it was fun to have that kind of mix again.  Rob has been great with this too and his better Spanish helps us out a lot as well.  My Spanish is certainly limited but I can get a lot accomplished with it so I am happy that I can do more than ask for the bathroom!

Todd, the principal of the school also joined in but his level of English is very low, still didn’t seem to feel left out.  He possibly came for the food!  I know it was a treat for them.  We made pizza one night.


They don’t get that on the island!  A boat came by in the day selling things and I bought a long bean that when open has a white, almost cotton candy like coating around a shiny black bean.  Todd opened it for me and inside the fruit is sectioned around each bean so it is like individual candies in a row.  You chew the coating off of the bean  but don’t eat it.  It looked like cotton candy and tasted a little like it too.  It didn’t quite dissolve in your mouth like that but it was sweet and good to eat.


I hope life continues to give us new things to try.  We hope to become more world travelers, only not just by boat anymore.  I have always thought about foreign travel but in spending some time making a “what next” list, we realize that our own country and Canada is probably the biggest draw.  Certainly spending time with friends and family, near us and not so near, are big on the list.

I said that I would write more about the Kuna people but the longer I have known them, the more I realize I don’t know much at all.  They are generally a warm and welcoming people.  They live a very close life, not only to family but in physical proximity.  There is little that they don’t know about each other.  Our country style is so private that it is difficult to think about having no privacy or alone time.  Maybe that is why the kids were so interested in our family.

On the surface, they seem not to have much in the way of modern conveniences but once you go inside their houses  you often see a refrigerator or a stove.  Often both are run on gas, not electricity.  I saw many TV antennas so there are TVs.  There is only just one room inside with only hammocks for furniture so clothes are hung from the rafters and the houses look like big closets.  Sometimes you will find a roughly made table or some plastic yard chairs but no place to actually store things.  Of course every family seems to have a cell phone but don’t plan on getting through to them because they may be out of minutes or not have the battery charged!

The water supply is now outside each house.  They have had running water from the river on the mainland for about 6 months.  That is a big thing for them.  Many places now have their own solar panels with batteries.  The government is planning to give a panel and battery to each family, I think next week.  Trouble is that no one knows how to use them without ruining the batteries.  They try to run too much on the one battery and run it out of charge completely.  That ruins them quickly.  Batteries like we are talking about are about $250 each so replacing them frequently is out of the question.  They don’t have the devices to monitor usage and control the kind of voltage either.

All these changes seem like progress, and many already have these things already so I  guess it is a good thing.  The trouble with it is that now they work to buy things like TV, radios, generators, fuel, new batteries, etc. instead of feeding their families.  The kids are sitting watching mindless TV for hours and the commercials build a new group of consumers.  It won’t be long until traditional life is no longer!

Of course, that may not be all bad.  The culture is so colorful and unique to us visitors that we would like to continue access to it but it is not always easy either.  There are a lot of health issues that are left unattended.  People from the clinic come but don’t have medicine to give out.  The adults don’t understand how germs spread so things once started are contracted by everyone.  Conjunctivitis is very common along with skin rashes, babies with stomach problems and of course dental problems.   What they don’t have a lot of is the illnesses caused by stress and obesity.  That may change as well since they are drinking sodas and eating things that have no health value but are pure sugar.  Getting enough money to keep one in electricity and all the “stuff” it charges will cause stress.  We are seeing that already.

Fishing has been poor in the last few years and that makes having enough to feed your family and issue.  I think they are blaming the boaters for spear fishing, and that does have a small impact but a few years ago, the Kuna were catching lobster by spraying them underwater with clorox.  That killed the lobster and the surrounding reef as well.  Now they are dragging nets over the reef and that doesn’t help either.  There is a 4 month ban on lobster, conch, crab and octopus but while the boaters who are aware of this don’t fish for them or buy them from the kuna, the kuna continue to harvest them against their own law.  Boating friends, who have been here for many seasons say that the reefs don’t look as good and the fishing is not what it was, even for them.  Still, it is beautiful to us in so many of the places we saw.

So much is that this behavior is considering present need weighed against future supply.  I don’t see that they have been taught to think in terms of future needs.  Certainly, money runs through their fingers.  Maybe that is living in the present, I don’t know.  Hard for me though!

They certainly are not the only people to be facing these challenges.  It is an opportunity for a better life or a more difficult one.  I wonder some times if there is ever an indigenous population that benefited from autonomy.  From what we understand from our conversation with the teachers is that about half of the people on the island receive welfare of $100 per month, paid every two months.  There is no banking here, only cash, so they come every 2 months to hand it out in person.  Most are already in debt to the food stores on the islands so just turn the money over when they receive it.

Drugs have reached this area too.  Of course not the kind that can be of medical help.  There is a lot of traffic through from Colombia and for that reason the relationship between Colombia and Panama is difficult.  When boats look like they are going to be stopped, they toss the bales of drugs over board.  On the outer islands, some of the kuna walk the beaches each day to see if any of the drugs have washed up.  Sometimes they use the stuff themselves and sometimes they have a number they know to call so the “owners” of the drugs come and pay a reward.  Consequently, it has become a way to earn big money here!  Seeing how they are exerting more efforts to earn money has made it confusing and a little less fun to be here.  The cruisers are seen as a big cash cow.  Of course that was true everywhere we went but here they don’t yet milk you as much as other places.

Still, with all the changes and complications, I don’t think this destination can be beat for beauty, ease of sailing, good snorkel options, fishing and great people in both the Kuna and the boaters.

I will be thinking of this life for a long time.  It drew us back after only a month experience in 2005.  If we are compelled to come to the Caribbean in our boat again, this will be the place that will do it!  At least now, I have some contacts here so I can get a little caught up with some of the people we met and came to call friends.

Rob just got back as I finished writing this log.  We are check out and will seek fuel at a marina about 30 miles west of here.  We will leave in the morning for an afternoon arrival and may just get fuel and leave.  We hope to sail straight through to Florida if the weather allows.  We will stop if the weather looks iffy.  Right now it is predicted to be light in both seas and winds but still enough to sail.  I like the seas part!!!!!

We are rushing to get extra food made and the boat ready for secure travel for days on end.  We even rushed a last bit of clothes washing at 4:30 and we are hoping that things will dry before bedtime.  At least the wind is blowing even if the sun is not out.

Birds are sure unhappy we are leaving.  In Gerti, some were always trying to build a nest in our sail cover.  Now in this new place, some of the same kind are doing it now!  On one of our trips to the out islands, we left our door open and a bird flew in and started to eat our bananas.  It would spend time in the cockpit with it’s friends so we had a mess to clean up.

We won’t be using our Embarqmail account unless we stop someplace with internet access but we will be using our winlink account.  We will be sending regular location reports so you can check our progress on our blog site.  If not on the blog go there by entering http://www.catalystlog@wordpress.com.  At the top of the page there is a link to follow Catalyst’s voyage.  Click on that to find the most recent update of our progress.  Rob will update it at least twice a day.  Check on the position balloon to read any comments from us.

We will send out a log or two underway so you can see how things are going but there will be no pictures.  Our final thoughts will come once we have reached home.  Might even still be April when we get there!

As hard as it is to leave, our hearts are already turning toward being back in our home in Florida.  While life for us here has been easier than for many boaters because of the comfort of our boat, we are already looking forward to the creature comforts afforded by living on land.  Being there for the birth of our newest grandchild is also primary on our minds and maybe being able to spend time with the older ones before their sister arrives will also be great.  It will be wonderful to empty the boat and give it a good scrubbing.  Wish we could get our Kuna guys here to help for $20 a day!  Can’t wait for a washer and dryer again!


Keep us in your prayers for a calm and uneventful passage.  We will be home soon!

Fair Winds,
Sue and Rob
Aboard Catalyst
Kuna Yala, Panama

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