Is there a ‘Man Friday’?

Reflections on Isla Pinos.

30th October 2022

Mordup, San Blas, Panama – Isla Pinos, San Blas, Panama via Mulatupu, San Blas, Panama

When Daniel Defoe penned Robinson Crusoe he spoke about friendly natives, palm fringed beaches and the isolation that that Robinson found on his island. He made this sound like a jolly old caper with few challenges, few complexities of life and no downside to the isolation. As we have sailed the San Blas islands we’ve found Daniel Defoe’s islands, but have also found that they contain so much more than he ever could have imagined.

We were experiencing all the joys that Defoe penned but we were about to find one of his unwritten challenges. We anchored deep in the mangroves, protected from wind and waves and all was serene, no man-made light disturbed the peace and all around us nature prevailed. Just as the sun set the nature that had been far from Ruffian suddenly invaded us. Bugs of all descriptions fluttered against our nets as we luxuriated inside. As time wore on our defences were breached as the smaller bugs made their way through the cockpit netting, through the companionway mesh and feasted on our sweet sweet blood.

Come morning Ruffian was like the scene from a war. Bloodied bodies were everywhere, caught in the nets and piled up high on the deck, while we looked like we’d been in an unfair fight. Red sores covered our arms, legs and nether regions, itched like crazy and gave us a constant reminder of the previous evening’s onslaught.

Leaving the scene of the battle we move to a village where we found thriving community a long way away from Defoe’s ‘simple’ natives and as we toured the village we were invited to the evenings ‘Congresso’. Within the Congresso everything of any substance is discussed, decided upon and actioned in this bastion of democracy and if the men folk* are not concerning themselves with the ongoing struggles of facilities, finance and paperwork, they are used to keep their heritage alive and the customs real.

As light was fading, we walked into the huge communal building and we were as much interest as everything the Sahila (the elected leader) said. The walls were lined with men watching the proceedings while others prowled the perimeter armed with sticks to keep order, and if they spied someone taking a snooze, they would howl loudly to waken them and ensure everyone focussed on the activity of the evening. In the centre of these assembled crowds, in low melodic tones, the Sahila sang the history of the culture, the heritage of the island and myths of their being. The timelessness of the scene was added to by the gentle wafting of smoke from fires and the sounds of children playing in the darkness outside.  

Moving to Isla Pinos we were very much in Robinson Crusoe’s world. We’d anchored in the most perfect bay where palm trees kissed the water’s edge and little wavelets broken on the soft white sand. The backdrop to this was a hill covered in verdant green with a village at its base where smoke floated in the air and the bustle of daily life amounted to harvesting plantain and coconuts.

Sure, that the hill in front of Ruffian wasn’t as impenetrable as it looked, we set off, hiking poles in hands and walking boots under foot, hoping to scale the high point. Nosing our way through the village, past swathes of dugout canoes and around the local ‘baths’ we slowly made our way up. The forest was alive as the smell of howler monkeys hung in the air and huge trees towered over us. Finally, with no more up to go we hoped to be rewarded with a view of bays and beaches, the forest had other ideas and gave a view of more impenetrable forest where razor grass was waiting to cut our legs and stones threated to twist our ankles. At we had the consolation that we’d made it to the top.

The splendid isolation that we’d found in Isla Pinos and Mr Crusoe had found on his island was above to prove to be a double-edged sword. The isolation allows special places to be more special but at the same time there is no support and we are very much on our own. Worryingly while doing all the usual routine maintenance tasks that Ruffian requires, we found water in the engine bilge, and this water was leaking from a pump that cooled the engine. Far from yachting support we now that had the challenge of what to do. To try to fix the pump** and maybe make it worse, or nurse the engine until we escape the isolation.?

Daniel Defoe’s world was a simple one, and so far we have found that the San Blas islands have all the majesty that he imagined but also an underlying culture that is infinitely more complicated and interested than he ever could have imagined.

* We’re not sure if all decisions are made by men as we’re in a matriarchal society where men take the names of their wives and move in with his wife’s family.

** In true Ruffian form we have a spare pump sitting waiting to be installed but need some special tools (a massive hammer and a big vice) to get it commissioned.

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Author: Iain & Fiona Lewis

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