We want to introduce the first member of our unconditionally loving four footed, super sailor crew. Olly Olly Oxen Free.
Three and a half years ago I got it into my head that I wanted a black cat, so we went on the hunt for a little back kitten. I once read that black cats have a history in sailing lore. It is said that the wives of old time sailors would put a black cat on their lover’s ship to ensure they made it home again. We put the word out and instantly had many friends keeping an eye out for the fabled black kitten.
After a few short weeks we got word that a kitten had been born in the near by town of Portobelo. We bought all the necessary cat things, litter box, toys, food, even seeds for cat grass. Once the wind was in our favor we were able to make the trip from the San Blas/Guna Yala (here after referred to as Guna Yala or the Gunas in reference to the people. Pronounced Kuna in English) Islands to Portobelo where the owners of the black kitten lived. Sadly it turned out they had fallen in love with her and she was no longer up for grabs. We left with heavy hearts and started the search again.
A few months passed and the cat box became our favorite foot washing bin and sadly there didn’t seem to be any more black cats around. We now take that as a sign because it seems that one cannot step foot on a Guna island without encountering a kitten or ten. Not to be discouraged the search continued as I was totally set on having the luck of the black kitten aboard.
On one of our days off we went ashore to one of our favorite islands Chichime Pequeña, a small island in the archipelago of approximately 365 islands in Guna Yalla. When we are not with guests we anchor near our favorite spots to do work on the boat and relax island style. We look for islands with great beaches, friends, amazing snorkeling and easy access to whatever supplies we need. On this particular visit, and to our surprise, the family living on the island had a dog who just had puppies! It was love at first sight for me, specifically for one day yellow puppy. Full of parasites he was eating out of the families kitchen pots near the cook fire.
The puppies were still too young to take from their mom so we asked the family if we could adopt one of the seven puppies when they were old enough. Happy to have homes for them the matriarch of the family said yes! We arranged to be back in a month to collect our new puppy. On the next trip to the city to reprovision (boat lingo for buying food and supplies) I bought all the necessary puppy things. Food, parasite meds, bowls, toys, collar and a squishy bed. A month passed, excited, we went back to the island this time with charter guests onboard and to our surprise and dismay the family was gone! They had packed up and moved. This is not uncommon in Guna Yala as all the islands are shared by the community and they frequently trade islands depending on the family’s needs. I was heartbroken but not discouraged and we asked the new family where the woman with the puppies had gone. We got the name of the matriarch of the previous family; Luciana and the name of the island she moved to, Wichiwalla “It’s only 4 miles away!” I exclaimed with enthusiasm when we returned empty handed. Our guests were as much involved in the puppy hunt as we were at this point and they helped us ready the boat to pull anchor to make the trip with the remaining daylight. The next island Wichiwalla it turned out to be another dead end. No one knew who we were talking about or where the seven puppies were. Our spirits were dwindling and after asking everyone we could about this family we were led to Lucianas sister! She told us they were living on the neighboring island.
Fantastic! Ariel and I explained to the guests that we would stay anchored where we were and we would zip over in our dinghy (small tender boat to One World) and be back in a jiffy with the puppy.
We went with a blanket to wrap the new pup in for the ride home. It was an easy ride over in the daylight with clear visibility of the reefs to avoid. This was our first visit to Korbiski. Upon arrival at the dock we started asking everyone where we could find Luciana and her seven puppies. We got a lot of blank stares. Then one man went into his hut and started talking in Guna to others inside. After what seemed like forever a very old, 4 foot tall woman, dressed in the full traditional Guna outfit with beads wrapped around her legs and arms and a scarf over her head walked out of the hut. No one spoke to us and the old woman started walking down the sand paved road. I looked at Ariel and said “I think we should follow her” She was skeptical but we started walking. The old woman never spoke to us, never looked back and we just kept following. At first it seemed like we were on the right track weaving through the tiny streets of the town, with huts built out of palms sometimes so small that we would have to duck beneath the overhangs. Then she turned in to what was clearly someone’s court yard. We looked at each other with questioning expressions and just kept going. Through one house, then another, passing kids playing, women doing laundry and cooking, we felt a little like intruders. After three or four houses like this we were about to turn back. We rounded one more corner and the very same fat yellow puppy came bounding out of a house followed by three of his brothers! We had found them! The old woman finally turned to us said something in Guna and smiled. Luciana emerged from the hut recognizing us with, admittedly a look of surprise that we had found her here on this new island and welcomed us into her hut.
Inside was a lovely, lively family of many generations mostly women and many children excitedly playing with the puppies. We explained how we had met her sister who told us how to find her here and that we were here to pick up our promised puppy. That’s when the debate began amongst them. Most of it was in Guna (which we did not understand) some in Spanish. I explained to Ariel that it seemed like they did not want to give up the puppy any longer. I knew my face looked heartbroken again. In our broken Spanish we explained how we would be amazing puppy owners and that we would bring the puppy every time we visited the island.we assured them that he would be happy and healthy and would have plenty of food and toys and a warm place to sleep. I explained that in our culture it was customary to trade for pets. We told them we could pay $50 (all we had at the time) for the puppy. With the light fading and our ride back to One World becoming more difficult as the minutes ticked, I asked the family if they needed anything specific from the city. One woman replied “leche” (milk). “We have milk on the boat!” we exclaimed. Then they told us that there was one more problem… the kids had fallen in love with all the puppies and then told us that if we came back after dark when they are all asleep you can have the fat yellow puppy.
Ahhhh another hitch in our plans. We agreed and made our way back to One World. Ariel took carful notes this time where the reefs were in relation to the islands and the lights that would be illuminated after dark so we could find our way back.
When we got back to the boat we explained to our guests why we again returned without a puppy. We all spent the early evening preparing a bag of gifts including several boxes of milk for the children.
Ariel and I made our way back in the dark through the reefs to the island, through the courtyard and the houses only to find that all the children were still awake and full of energy. Another discussion ensued and we thought for sure we were going to go home empty handed for the third time. I presented the bag of gifts for everyone and they all started talking in Guna again. As I watcheS, a small girl, maybe six years old, struggled to pick up the fat yellow puppy by the waist, his legs sticking out in all directions. She walked over to me as I was crouching on the sand floor and passed the puppy into my arms. This tiny girl gave us both the biggest hug I have ever known a small child to give. Later I told Ariel, she whispered “this puppy is for you” as she passed him into my arms.
Where was your camera I exclaimed to Ariel?! Arggggg
Finally we had the fat yellow puppy, traded for milk and crayons and I will never forget the feeling I had when I walked out of the Guna hut with my new puppy. Weeks later I named him Olly Olly Oxen Free (Olly for short) because he kept hiding in tiny spaces on board, which he still does to this day.