Mount Totumas

We have spent several weeks in Bocas del Toro, Panama, and have decided that we like the place. However, Bocas Town seems a little small, and we were wanting a taste of the rest of the country. Chiefly, the mountains. Spurred on, no doubt, by the stunning success of the Cartagena Vacation, Mom, through a mixture of Spanglish phone calls, strategically-invited dinner guests, and magical powers, secured three days in a mountain eco-lodge, and three more days in the town of Boquete, at the house of a new friend of ours. She also managed to arrange transportation for seven people plus luggage all the way there and back.

Cabaña, Mount Totumas

The first few days of our trip would be spent at the cabaña at Mount Totumas. We would be living in a large cabin, hike all day on the trails, and enjoy cooler weather in the cloud forest biome. The second half of the week would be spent in a large apartment in Boquete, a nice little town with restaurants and hostels and tour companies offering everything from ziplining to hot springs to views of the Atlantic and Pacific from the top of 11,000-foot Volcan Barú.

The trip sounded pretty good, but the transportation did not. First, we had to take a water taxi to Bocas Town at 9:30 A.M., wait for half an hour, and then take another boat to the mainland. After another half-hour wait, we would have a four-hour bus ride to Boquete, on the other side of the isthmus of Panama. At 3:30 P.M., two drivers would meet us in a pick-up truck and taxi for the two-hour drive to Volcan, a small town up in the mountains, where we could buy a few groceries. At the turn-off to Mount Totumas, the taxi would turn back, and three of us would pile into the back of the 4×4 pickup truck, along with all our luggage, for the bumpy, hour-long ride to the cabaña, arriving just before dark.

Amazingly, it all went off without a hitch. The view from the road was quite extraordinary. We drove through the mountains, with a steep wooded slope on one side of the road, and the whole countryside spread out like a blanket on the other. Squinting in the right direction, I could almost make out the pale line of the Pacific Ocean. As the sky darkened, we arrived at the cabaña, rapidly unpacked our things, and headed to the Lodge for dinner.

Bellbird Lodge, Mount Totumas

The Bellbird Lodge is cozy, wooden, and warm. Sitting on one of the comfy sofas, I half-expected to see snow falling in the darkness outside the window. Sadly, there is no snow in the cloud forest. Dinner was excellent, cooked by Jeff’s wife, Alma, daughter, Karin, and helper, Hilda. Afterward, we walked back to the cabin along the dark track, pointing out lightning bugs, and admiring the stars. With practically no light pollution, night among the mountains is akin to being out at sea.

Back at the cabin, we explored our new digs. The cabin was made of wood, had two floors, a full kitchen, two bathrooms, and slept seven easily. And it had a bath tub! I haven’t seen a bath tub in forever! Tired after sitting in a car all day doing nothing, we all chose our beds, and went to sleep. We spent three days in the cabaña, hiking the trails, hanging out at the lodge, and enjoying the change of climate, not to mention scenery. We ate mainly at home, Mom cooking with the groceries from Volcan. We also spent a fair amount of time watching the hummingbirds.

Front Porch

There were two hummingbird feeders out on the porch, and they received constant business. Seventeen species of hummingbird have been seen at Mount Totumas, but we only observed about a dozen. There were hummingbirds of all colors and sizes, from the large Violet Sabrewing, to the green and yellow White-Throated Mountain Gem, not much larger than a bumblebee. During our stay, Sarah had to refill the hummingbird feeders twice. The activity was especially intense around the feeders at the back of the hostel. If you took all the feeders down, and held one up in your hand, the hummingbirds would buzz right up, and start chugging down sugar water right next to your face.

Bird Feeder

On the first day, Jeff took us on an introductory hike, on a trail called ‘Big Tree Loop.’ There certainly were some very big trees. The cabaña lies in a rare ‘cloud forest’ biome. This is a high-altitude, old-growth, tropical forest. It is very biodiverse, containing many different types of trees and plants within a small area. As we walked on the dirt trail among the trees, Jeff told us about some of the wildlife that lived in and around the property. These included pumas, ocelots, tapirs, and hundreds of species of birds. However, during our walk, we saw not a single animal on the ground. As in most tropical forests, the action is primarily in the canopy above. One of the most notable examples is the monkey.

Monkey Watching

Mount Totumas is home to three types of monkey: capuchin, spider, and howler. Halfway through the hike, we spotted a small community of howler monkeys. Jeff saw one first, then Aaron, then the rest of us: a little howler monkey-head poking out from behind a branch fifty feet up in the trees. Jeff set up a small telescope that he brought along a for spotting birds, and trained it on the monkey. After looking at the ugly little primate for a few minutes, we discovered that it was not alone. Altogether, there were about a dozen monkeys sitting in that one tree, just off the path. While we were watching them, we were careful to keep our distance. These monkeys had a reputation for urinating and defecating on trespassers to their territory.

Howler Monkey

The others seemed to be content to ogle the monkeys from a safe distance, but I soon became bored. I walked off the path a short way, to the base of a big, tall tree. Hanging next to the trunk, from a hefty branch up above, was a vine. And boy, what a vine! It was as thick as my wrist, and had another one just as thick spiraling around it. After testing to see if it was secure, I wasted no time in climbing up. The first branch of the tree was about fifty feet in the air. By the time I got up there, my arms were quite fatigued, so I scrambled into a sitting position on the branch, and looked around. The monkeys were only a few trees away, and from that distance I could smell them a little too clearly. Meanwhile, back on the ground, Jeff started making deep barking sounds, attempting to provoke the alpha male. Just exactly why he was doing this, I don’t know, but in any case, it worked. The monkeys went completely bananas, whooping and hollering, and zeroing in on my tree. Confronted with the prospect of getting pasted with primate poo, I wisely decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and beat a hasty retreat down the vine.

Monkeys

Aside from the monkeys, the rest of the hike was pretty uneventful. We saw tall trees, flowers, fungi, and a slime mold. The lack of wildlife sightings might possibly have been due to the rambunctious nature of the children on the hike. The afternoon was a little more interesting. Jeff took us down to the hydro-plant that supplies power to the entire facility. The water is piped from a nearby stream. Where the pipe meets the generator, it narrows, forcing a pressurized jet of water into the turbine. The turbine turns the generator to make 7500 watts of electricity, and the water flows back into the stream. The system provides more than enough clean, reliable energy to meet the demand of the lodge, hostel, and cabaña. We also saw the greenhouse, where most of the vegetables served at the lodge are grown. As people who generally prefer to be self-sufficient, we were very impressed with the self-reliance off Jeff’s little operation.

The next day, we got up early. This was made possible by an excited five-year-old stomping around creaky wooden flooring. After breakfast, Aaron and I packed a backpack with water and a map of the trails, and went out hiking. It was rather cold in the morning, but we hoped to see a little more action in the forest than the day before. We had studied the map before went out, and decided to do the one marked “Cascadas” first. The trail descended into the valley below the lodge. There was less wind down there, and we soon took off our unnecessary windbreakers. The canopy above was denser, casting the trail in green shadow. Water dripped from every leaf, and the dirt underfoot was damp. Unfamiliar and exotic bird calls filled the crisp air, and in the distance, we could hear the deep barking grunt of the howler monkeys. We passed two tall waterfalls, columns of white foam that gurgled, frothed, and went bubbling and swirling out beneath the trees, deeper into the valley.

Waterfall

We had just passed the second waterfall, when somebody caught up with us on the trail. He was a local boy, dressed in faded blue jeans and a red shirt. In broken English, he introduced himself as David. He was 14, and his family lived on the property. We introduced ourselves, and told him where we were going. He seemed content to hike along with us. His English was about as good as our Spanish, so we could generally understand each other. We didn’t talk much, just sort of walked together. Occasionally, one of us would ask what a word was in Spanish, or he would ask about an English word. David obviously knew a lot about the local flora and fauna, but was only able to communicate a little. He was astonished that we lived on a boat, and were home-schooled.

After about 30 minutes, we reached a fork in the trail. We still had several hours to kill, so instead of going back to the cabin, the three of us went on the other trail. In this manner, we went on to hike segments of every single trail on the property. We slowly moved out of the valleys, and up into the hills and meadows above the lodge. On the top of one of the hills was a large rock that jutted out over the valley. A sign nearby labeled it as ‘”The Thinking Rock.” It was not hard to see why. At about noon, we descended to the lodge and bid David farewell. We never got the chance to see him again, but I wish we had; in that friendship, at least, language wasn’t really a barrier.

David

The next day was our last at Mount Totumas. We packed up our various belongings, then it was off to the Bellbird Lodge for a breakfast of eggs and toast. We decided to do some last-minute hiking before the truck came to fetch us as noon. By popular demand, we settled on “Roble,” a relatively short trail that Aaron, David and I had hiked the day before. Part of the reason for choosing this trail was its proximity to “The Thinking Rock,” with which the others had become inordinately obsessed. The hike was just as beautiful as before. Due to the increased wind, we did not see any birds, and due to the chattering of small children, we did not see any beasts. After about thirty minutes of toil, we reached the object of out labors: “The Thinking Rock.” We all sat down on it, while Dad tried (and largely failed) to set up the camera for a time-delayed shot. After messing around on the rock for fifteen minutes, we continued down the trail. The one interesting thing that we saw on the way back was the intake for the hydro generator.

Front Runners

The truck arrived right on time, and we all piled our junk in the bed, then Aaron, Sam, and I piled ourselves in. The ride out of the property was just as bouncy as the ride in (what did I expect?). Halfway down the road, we made a minor detour to see “Los Pozos,” the hot springs. It was a small orange pool of water, about a meter across.  The only thing remarkable about it was that it was boiling. Hey, after hiking eight hours to see the boiling lake in Dominica, this little saucepan just wasn’t that impressive. Ironically, it was two feet from an icy cold stream. Mom put her finger into the pool, just to see if it was really boiling (smart woman). Apparently it was, or close to it, because the finger was retracted mighty fast.

Los Pozos

We lingered about five minutes, then we were on our bumpy way. We were met at the end of gravel road by the same rattletrap taxi which had carried us before. With all the seats in the truck taken, Aaron, Dad, and I got in to the taxi. We settled in for the two-hour ride, with Mount Totumas behind, and Boquete ahead. Our time on the mountain was a high point, in more ways than one, but there was still more to come…

FAQ: How Do You Provision for a Large Family (in the Caribbean)?

I know I have touched on this subject briefly before in previous posts. I have talked about grinding grain and making bread, taking the dinghy to get groceries, and storing freeze-dried food for long trips. This time I’d like to focus on what it’s like to shop at island “grocery stores,” some of which more closely resemble a closet than a market, to find food for growing children who eat like a pack of half-starved wild dogs. I’ll also cover the fun of learning to “eat like the locals,” and the joys of stumbling upon a beautiful, clean, well-provisioned store where you least expect it. If you’re on your way down-island, here’s what you might expect to find.

First, I want to mention that when we started out, we had a six-year-old, a five-year-old, a four-year-old and a nursing toddler. If I made a lasagna, for example, it would provide us with two dinners, or a dinner and two lunches. If I provisioned for a long trip, I could go two weeks to one month before I needed a grocery store for fresh food. In a pinch, eating only dried and canned food, we could have gone six months. We now have two teen-aged boys, 15 and 14, a 12-year-old daughter who is taller than I am, a 10-year-old boy who engages in competitive eating with his brothers, and a five-year-old who can’t afford to be picky. If I make a lasagna now, it’s gone before you can say “Mangiamo!” –-scarfed down with two loaves of garlic bread and two heads of broccoli. Leftovers are a thing of the past. We still store freeze-dried food, grains, and some canned goods, but what used to be a six-months’ supply now lasts three months. Meat is no longer something we have for the main course, but an ingredient in a one-pot meal. Provisioning has taken on a whole new look, requiring two carts at the big stores, a taxi ride,  a 13-foot RIB dinghy to cart it all home, and, sometimes, two trips per week.

Grocery Run

Second, a quick note on the Bahamas. Before I leave the U.S., I fill the freezer with meat, and order freeze-dried produce, much of which gets used on this leg of the trip. Nearly everything in the Bahamas must come in by boat. With the exception of Eleuthera/Spanish Wells, where you can find locally-grown mangoes, carrots and cabbage, most of the stores are expensive and stock only packaged foods, mystery meat, and anemic-looking produce from Canada. One thing I will say about the Bahamians: they are good bakers! Do not miss the coconut bread or johnny cakes (journey bread). Good cheese and butter from Ireland or New Zealand can often be found as well, but you’ll have to pay attention to when the mail-boat comes in, or there will be no eggs, milk, or produce to be found. For more information about freeze-dried food, see my previous post Don’t Just Survive—THRIVE.

After spending a month in the Bahamas last March, we skipped the Turks and Caicos and the Dominican Republic, opting for a long ocean passage to Puerto Rico instead, so by the time we arrived in the Caribbean, we had eaten all the snack-y things, the freezer was empty, all the fresh food was gone, and we had eaten into our freeze-dried supplies. But we knew Puerto Rico has a COSTCO, so we weren’t concerned about the loss of provisions we had bought for the Caribbean “trip.” So, we stocked up again, using a rental car and multiple trips to buy familiar items and things we like to have in bulk (like toilet paper!). Which brings me to a principle by which I always abide: if you find something you like in an island store, stock up—it may be a long time before you see it again! It may be expensive, or you may convince yourself that you don’t really need that much maple syrup, for example, but I guarantee that at some point, you will regret not having purchased more of your favorite items.

Finally, here is a shop-by-shop review of the island stores we have visited on our way down the Eastern Caribbean, and a few as we’ve headed west. Included in the list are a few of our favorite local dishes. I’ve labeled the islands with dollar-signs to indicate, roughly, whether the shopping was more or less expensive than I’m used to. ($=less expensive than Florida prices, $$=equivalent to Florida prices, and $$$=more expensive than Florida prices.) As always, I thank my friend Kimberly on s/v Ally Cat for her notes that helped me find some of these places on our way down.

Bahamas ($$$): Stock up for further travels in Georgetown, Exuma at the Save-Rite and Exuma Markets. Go on the afternoon of mail-boat day, or the morning after, to give the store some time to put out the new stock. We do not love conch, but if you do, try the conch salad or cracked conch in restaurants. Besides fresh-caught seafood and coconut bread, the food in the Bahamas is nothing to write home about.

Puerto Rico ($$): With a COSTCO and well-stocked grocery stores, provisioning is not a problem in Puerto Rico. We were at a marina and had a rental car, which made everything easier. As a former Spanish colony, you will still find things like imported chorizo, Manchego cheese, and Rioja wines from Spain, as well as  local produce, coffee, and rums (try the Bacardi 8 or the Don Q Anejo).

Tortola, BVI ($$$): In Road Harbor, you’ll find the RiteWay, a huge, well-stocked store not far from the Moorings/Sunsail charter boat docks, and a smaller one less than a block from TMM Yacht Charters/Doyle Sail Loft. I didn’t see another store like this until Antigua. The BVIs are full of tourists, so finding what you like isn’t a problem. Getting off the beaten path is a little more challenging. If you look for it in a restaurant where locals eat, you might be able to try Goatwater Soup—it sounds disgusting, but is actually quite delicious. Buy some Pusser’s rum while in the BVI’s and learn how to make a Painkiller. The name says it all.

Anguilla ($$)—From Sandy Ground, rent a car or take a taxi to the Best Buy (West), a nice, large store with a deli counter. Look for Ting soda, made from Caribbean grapefruit. It can be found on some islands, but not on others. It became a passage favorite among our crew. If you skip Anguilla, St. Martin/Sint Maarten has everything one could possibly want at reasonable prices. Many people stop there in order to re-provision.

Nevis ($$)—We didn’t have much use for bustling St. Kitts, so we headed to much-quieter Nevis. One can walk to the small Super Food or take a taxi to the larger Horsford’s Valu-Mart IGA. One thing I notice about all island grocery stores is that they smell like salted, smoked fish. I was given a recipe for a breakfast hash that includes said smoked fish. It has to be soaked, drained, and twice-cooked to make it edible. I could never bring myself to buy it.

Antigua ($$$)—In Jolly Harbor, the Epicurean store is an easy walk from the dinghy dock at the marina, and was well-stocked with things I hadn’t seen in a long time, like my favorite kosher teriyaki sauce, Soy Vey! If you are in Antigua at the right time (June/July), there will be a profusion of mangoes of all kinds, very inexpensive at roadside stands. A small-but-sweet local pineapple can be found there as well, called a black pineapple.

Dominica ($)—If you’re anchored in Porstmouth, you will be visited by boat boys selling local produce. Try some new things; Dominica grows the most amazing fruits and vegetables. Something called an “apricot” (a.k.a. zabrico, or mammee apple) grows in abundance there and is delicious. Also look for sugar apples, passion fruit, papaya, soursop, and canips (a.k.a. chin-ups or skin-ups). I’m sure there are big stores in Roseau, but we did most of our shopping at small, local markets in Portsmouth, where the selection of produce, eggs, bread, and fish was excellent. I had my first traditional “cocoa tea” in Dominica, a drink made from raw chocolate (with the cocoa butter intact) and brown sugar. Not to be missed.

Martinique ($)—I stopped at nearly every boulangerie I passed, enjoying the first real French bread and pastries I’ve had since Paris. The “8-á-Huit” chain (I shopped at one in St. Pierre and in St. Anne) is good, and posts hours, as you would expect, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There’s an upstairs, too—don’t miss it! The Leader-Price in Fort-de-France was an easy walk from the dinghy dock at the park, and had an excellent selection of VERY inexpensive French wine. (Oh, why did I not buy more?!) I have been told that there are excellent stores with dinghy docks in Le Marin. Stopping at a crêperie was a special treat in Martinique.

St. Lucia ($$)—Rodney Bay had a surprising number of supermarkets owned by Massey. By dinghy, you can walk a few blocks to the Massey Super J from the small dock near the tapas place. If I couldn’t find what I needed at the Super J, then the Massey Gourmet across the street would have it. A taxi ride away from the IGY Rodney Bay Marina, there’s a Mega J (like a Sam’s or COSTCO). Jay’s favorite sipping rum comes from St. Lucia, Admiral Rodney.

Bequia (Grenadines) ($$)—Port Elizabeth has lots of little shops and restaurants. I bought staples at Knight’s Trading, and excellent fresh produce from stalls/wagons on the street. Bread fruit is everywhere in the islands, but you may not know what to do with it. You can buy it fire-roasted or fresh, and find it fried in restaurants, where it looks and tastes similar to French fries.

Union (Grenadines) ($$)—The town of Clifton is small, but has a few stores, including a bakery. The produce is local and found at roadside stands. I first bought Christophene (a.k.a. chayote) here—an excellent alternative to broccoli or cauliflower, peeled, chopped, and sautéed with green onions and garlic.

Grenada ($$)—Head to the Spiceland Mall IGA (by bus) or Food Land near Port Louis (by dinghy). Also near Port Louis, there is an excellent bakery, the Merry Baker, and a restaurant, Patrick’s Local, which serves small plates for sharing (tapas style) of a dozen or so local dishes. It’s a fixed menu, but you must make a reservation so they know how much to prepare. This is an excellent introduction to island specialties, like stewed pumpkin, crayfish soup, and green banana salad. While in Grenada, don’t miss “Oildown,” a stew made with chicken, vegetables, coconut milk, “provision” (Irish potatoes, plantains, cassava, breadfruit, etc.), and very firm dumplings. And don’t forget to stock up on spices while on the Spice Island! Note that their “bay leaves” are not the flavor of bay laurel, but more like cloves (very nice in rice).

Bonaire ($$)—Heading west to the ABCs, you will find special items that come on ships straight from Europe (like Dutch Gouda and Danish butter). While arid Bonaire grows little but cactus (from which they make a spirit), they import an impressive selection of produce. You can walk to the Chinese grocery in town, or, if you’re on a mooring ball, the marina offers a free shuttle to the Van den Tweel. I walked into this lovely, clean, well-stocked store and literally wept tears of joy. It was the nicest grocery store I had been in since I-can’t-remember-when. For breakfast, I recommend pannenkoeken (thin pancakes) with eggs and gouda. We went straight to Colombia from Bonaire, but I’ve heard Curaçao and Aruba have good provisioning, as well.

Santa Marta, Colombia ($)—Two blocks from the IGY marina, there is a lovely grocery store, Carulla, with a super-friendly staff and an excellent selection of South American produce (try mangosteen or uchuvas for snacking, or lula for juicing). For a big provisioning trip, take an inexpensive taxi ride to the Jumbo (like a Super Target). If you’re looking for Colombian coffee, I can recommend the whole-bean, dark roast “Sierra Nevada” from Juan Valdez coffee shop. It used to be hard to find export-quality coffee inside Colombia, but Juan Valdez makes it possible. Other things to try in Colombia, arepas con ceviche de camarrones (thick tortillas with shrimp ceviche), or patacones con suero costeño (fried smashed green plantains with sour cream). Arepas can also be bought at the store and are good for breakfast with ham and eggs.

Santa Marta

Bocas del Toro, Panama ($)—Provisioning here proves a bit of a challenge, as there aren’t many places to dock a dinghy. We are staying at the Red Frog Marina on Isla Bastimento, and they have a small market at the marina and a free water shuttle to Bocas Town four times each week. Water taxis, if you don’t want to use the free shuttle, cost $7-10/pp each way. There are plenty of stores and excellent fresh produce, including locally-grown bananas and pineapples. Pick-up truck taxis in town cost $0.65/pp and you flag one down and load your groceries in the back to head to the waterfront. Walking distance from the water taxi dock, you can find produce, Christina Supermarket, Isla Colon Market, and The Super Gourmet, the last of which has items you might not find elsewhere (for a price!). A little farther away, the Panaderia Alemana has very good bread. A dairy truck arrives on Tuesdays, and you can buy fresh milk (not UHT!) right out of the truck. A note on meat: the chicken and eggs are excellent and easy to find, but the beef is pretty tough, so I buy ground hamburger, primero with less fat, and secundo with more fat. Chorizo is easy to find, and the smoked pork chops, chuletas, are a Panamanian specialty and delicious. Shopping is said to be great in David, a bus-ride away, or can be done remotely with the help of Toby and Lola.

I’m still draggin’ my wagon all over the place to shop for food, and will continue to do so in the rest of Central America. After we complete our Caribbean circuit, I’ll write a second installment to let you know what else I find!

Geography Report: Colombia

Basic Facts:

Capital: Bogotá

People/Customs: The population is mostly made up of ancestors of Spanish settlers, but there are also many descendants of the indigenous tribes of Colombia, some of which still inhabit their native lands. According to the most recent census, there are 48,786,100 people in Colombia. Most of the people in Colombia are Catholic.

Language: The official language is Spanish. Native languages are spoken by various tribes. Some people speak English.

Climate: There are several climate zones in Colombia, including Polar in the Nevada Ruiz, Alpine Tundra in the Sumapaz Paramo, Oceanic in Tota Lake Region, Mediterranean in Boyacá Department, Cold Desert near Villa de Leyva, Tropical Rainforest in the Amazon, Tropical Savannah in Los Llanos, Hot Desert in the Guajira Peninsula, and Tropical Wet and Dry in the St. Andrés and Providencia islands.

Food/Farming: Coffee plantations are numerous in Colombia, and some of the regions produce fruits and vegetables (Bananas, Mangoes, Pineapples, Cucumbers, Melons, etc.). Fish and seafood are plentiful along the coasts. Beef, pork, and poultry, and eggs are produced. A popular kind of food is Arepas, a thick corn tortilla, often with cheese or butter, and served with meat, ceviche, or vegetables.

Government: Colombia is a republic with a representative form of government not unlike the United States, with a constitution (1991) and three branches: legislative, judicial, and executive. It has a president, congress, and supreme court. The people participate in government by voting. Each department (state) has a governor which the people elect.
Currency: Colombia uses Colombian Pesos; about 3,000CP are equivalent to one U.S. dollar.

Art/Music/Culture: The people of Colombia are known for their dancing, like Salsa and Merengue. Public holidays include Año Nuevo (New Year’s Day), Día de los Reyes Magos (Epiphany), Día de San José (St. Joseph’s Day), Jueves Santo (Maundy Thursday) and Viernes Santo (Good Friday), Primero de Mayo (Labor Day), Ascensión del Señor (Ascension of Jesus), Corpus Christi, Sagrado Corazon (Sacred Heart), San Pedro y San Pablo (St Peter and St Paul), Declaración de la Independencia de Colombia (Independence Day), Battle of Boyacá, La Asunción (The Assumption of Mary), Día de la Raza (Columbus Day), Dia de los Santos (All Saints Day), Independencia de Cartagena (Independence of Cartagena), La Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculate Conception), and Navidad (Christmas Day). Each holiday has its special traditions.

History

Before the Spanish settled Colombia in 1525, there were numerous native peoples who lived along the coasts, and in the mountains and jungles. Native tribes that made the most advanced goldwork and pottery were the Calima, Muisca, Nariño, Quimbaya, San Augustin, Sinu, Tayrona, Tierradentro, Tolima and Tumaco. There are over 80 indigenous tribes left in Colombia, each with its own language and government. Here are some of the groups still existing: the Arhuaco, who are descendants of the Tayrona culture and make mochilas, a kind of woven bag used to store coca leaves, but are now sold as handbags for everyday objects. The Awa live in the Tumbes-Choco-Magdalena region, one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world, and are livestock keepers and vegetable farmers. The Kogi people, also called “Kagaba” which means Jaguar in their language, worship “Aluna” (Mother Nature) and live in stone and thatch huts like the Tayrona. The Muisca occupied about 18,000 square miles in Eastern Colombia before Spanish Conquest and are now active defenders of the country’s national resources. The Nukak are a small tribe of hunter-gatherers who remained undiscovered until the 1980s and are often called “the uncontacted people;” they use blow guns and darts covered in poison made from plants. The Wayuu are the nation’s largest tribe, numbering 450,000, but only a small part of them live in Colombia, the rest reside in Venezuela.

Alonso de Odeja named Colombia after his companion, Columbus, although Columbus never actually landed there. The Spanish explorers were predictably excited by the amount of gold the natives possessed, and from their stories of great wealth further inland grew the legend of El Dorado, a city of gold. When they couldn’t find it, they began to colonize instead. Santa Marta was colonized in 1525, and when Cartagena was established in 1533, it became the center of trade in Colombia. It was also the exclusive slave-trading port. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish shipped in so many slaves for work on the Pacific coast (in mines and on plantations) that they numbered more than the remaining indigenous people.

Spaniards were dominant in the New World for the entire Colonial period, and in 1717, Bogotá became the capital of the Kingdom of New Grenada, which comprised what is now Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. Colombian towns began to revolt against Spanish rule, and when Napoleon put is brother on the Spanish throne, the colonies would not recognize the new monarchy. Towns began to declare their independence, and a Venezuelan military leader, Simón Bolivar, won 6 consecutive battles against the Spanish, liberating whole regions. Spain eventually reconquered the areas it had lost, with full colonial rule reestablished in 1817. A charismatic leader, often called “the Liberator,” Simón Bolivar had retreated to Jamaica, but he again rallied troops to defeat the Spanish in battle after battle until the Battle of Boyacá, which was won by Bolivar in 1819 with the help of British reinforcements. Colombia was finally independent.

After independence, the leaders of the government created Gran Colombia, a state comprised of what is now Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and part of Peru, Guyana, and Brazil. Simón Bolivar was elected president of Gran Colombia, and his second-in-command, Francisco de Paula Santander, was elected Vice President. However, while Bolivar was away fighting for the independence of Ecuador and Peru, Gran Colombia disintegrated. By 1830, the state had split into 3 countries, and Bolivar’s dream of a united South America was undermined during his lifetime. Rivalry had sprung up between conservatives and liberals, and in the 19th century, Colombia experienced no less than 8 civil wars.  In 1899, the “War of One Thousand Days” was won by conservatives, leaving 100,000 people dead. In 1903, the United States of America took advantage of the internal division, and by sponsoring an independent republic, built the Panama Canal, which would eliminate the more costly and dangerous passage around Cape Horn. In 1921, Colombia recognized the sovereignty of Panama and ended the dispute with the United States. The conservative and liberal struggle recommenced in 1948 with the most destructive Colombian civil war, “La Violencia,” won by liberals and costing 300,000 lives.

While the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and ELN ( Ejército de Liberación Nacional) lost popular support as communism fell, they used illegal activities and cocaine trade to finance the war. As the world’s largest producer, Colombia controlled 80 to 90% of the cocaine trade. There were small mafias and cartels in the early ’70s that grew into large organizations in the 80’s which had their own plantations and transportation systems. In the boom years, the Medellín Cartel, led by Pablo Escobar, became the principle mafia, whose bosses established a new political party, newspapers , and public housing projects. By 1983, Escobar’s personal wealth was estimated to be around $2 billion, making him one of the richest criminals in the world. When the government gave a strong adverse response to cartel trade, the traders disappeared from the public sphere and proposed an uncharacteristic “peace treaty” to president Belisario Betancur, offering to pay off Colombia’s foreign debt. The government, suspecting something askew, refused, and conflict escalated between the government and the mafia. It took a 1500-man special unit 499 days to track down Escobar until they found and killed him in December 1993. The U.S. made trade agreements with the Andean Countries, and Colombia’s exports to the rose 50% between 2003 and 2007. Around 2009 the fighting started to abate, and today, despite the remaining problems with government corruption, Colombia is a more peaceful place, drawing visitors from around the world to enjoy its natural beauty and modern, urban areas.

Land forms/Flora and Fauna

There are two large mountain ranges in Colombia, the Sierra Nevada, and the Andes, the largest in South America. Colombia is the second most-Biodiverse country in the world, next to Brazil, a country approximately 7 times bigger (biodiversity is the ability for an area to sustain many different types of species). Colombia is home to about 10% of the species on earth. Animals you might find in Colombia include: Howler Monkeys, Toucans, Sloths, Parrots, Iguanas, Snakes, Poison Dart Frogs, Nine-banded Armadillos, many bat species, Tamarins, Jaguars, Agouti, Nutria, Capybaras and other Rodents Of Unusual Size. Because Columbia is so diverse, each habitat has different plants and animals. In desert regions, you might see cacti and succulents, while in the Amazon, you might see huge jungle trees draped in vines, and tropical plants at each layer of the canopy.

Things to do

Hike to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in the Sierra Nevada, go to the beaches on the Caribbean coast, tour coffee or cacao plantations in the mountains, hike or camp in Tayrona National Park, see the Old Walled City of Cartagena, go on a tour of the Amazon rainforest or of the Guajira desert, enjoy theaters and museums in large cities like Medallin or Bogotá, or visit the islands of Providencia and San Andres.

Bibliography

“Colombia.” https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colombia, January 2017.

“Colombia History.” Lonely Planet Travel Information, http://www.lonelyplanet.com/colombia/history, January 2017.

Cartagena Vacation

Our family had a few hundred dollars’ worth of ‘Fun Money’ (Christmas money donated by generous relatives for the creation of memories rather than the purchase of stuff) burning a hole in our pockets, and we decided that it would be best used to take a three-day trip to Cartagena, Colombia. To say the least, I was not completely psyched about this new proposition. Not at all. In fact, I was not even remotely psyched (even though, as we shall see, it turned out well). It seemed to me to be one of Mom’s hair-brained schemes that by some unhappy twist of fate made it past the planning stages. It looked suspiciously like an attempt to broaden our horizons, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

Despite my loudly-voiced misgivings, Mom and Dad purchased bus tickets to Cartagena and back, but failed to decide which of two rental houses we wanted. When, on the morning of our departure they did finally decide on a house, we discovered that it might take up to 24 hours to validate the booking. After a few tense hours of talking Spanglish on the phone with various help-desk agents, they finally got the booking issue sorted out. Only when I was sure that we were actually going did I pack. We all double-checked our stuff, went to the bathroom one or two last times, and went up to the curb at 12 to wait for a bus that might not arrive until 1. The bus eventually arrived, and we all settled in for the 5-hour ride to Cartagena.

It was much like an airplane ride, only on the ground. Thankfully, the bus had a competent air conditioner, not one of those second-rate clunkers that occasionally farts out lukewarm air every few minutes that one comes to expect in third-world countries. We read books, looked out the window at the Colombian landscape, and stared down the other passengers. Aaron, Sam, and I grabbed the three back seats, and watched Iron Man 2, on a computer that we had brought for that very purpose. When the movie ended, we still had a few hours to go, so we read our books for the remainder of the journey.

Cartagena

The supposedly 5-hour ride turned out to be only about 4 hours (Sarah timed it), but it was getting dark when we arrived in Cartagena. Cartagena is a large, modern city full of skyscrapers, taxis, and parking garages. However, the part that concerns us was the old walled city. This is full of small shops, restaurants, and four-hundred-year-old houses that overhang the narrow streets. Because we had not decided on a house when we bought the bus tickets, the driver didn’t know where to drop us off. So, we and all our luggage were dumped somewhere near the clock tower, without a clue in which direction our house lay. So, we wandered around the crowded streets of Cartagena for an hour, searching for our elusive house. We eventually found it, with the help of a friendly local. We got the key from the restaurant on the ground floor, opened the door, went up the stairs, and took a look at our new digs.

Cartagena

They were nice. Real nice. The house was huge, with four bedrooms with three beds each, four bathrooms, and a pool (without any water). It had a balcony overlooking the street in a quaint, historic neighborhood. We chose bedrooms, dumped our stuff, and headed back out the door in search of dinner. We went down the street toward the plaza, and sat down at one of the many restaurants lining the avenue. Our table was outside, in the middle of the street, which only hours before had been clogged with taxis, motorcycles, and delivery trucks. There were no cars, but plenty of foot traffic. Street vendors carrying boxes of homemade jewelry, art, or cigars walked up and down, hawking their wares to restaurant patrons who had unsuspectingly taken seats outside. As we waited for our food, ate our dinner, and waited for the check, we were approached by at least 6 different guys, all with something to offer. One crew of jewelry salesmen was particularly persistent, coming repeatedly to our table and telling us, in no-doubt very eloquent Spanish, just why we needed their black coral necklaces, pearl bracelets, etc.

This was just a taste of the Cartagena street life. Over the next few days, we were approached by all manner of vendors, selling all manner of oddments. There were guys selling sketches, guys selling sunglasses (during the day) and guys selling little glazed-paper animal magnets.

Fruit Lady

There was also a wide variety of street performers. We witnessed guys with acoustic guitars that would ride up to your table on rusty bicycles, and start playing, guys that walked around with a boom box and mic, and sang you a personalized rap song, and even a Michael Jackson impersonator. He was good, too. However, we soon became acutely aware that the entertainment wasn’t free–even more so because Mom happens to be somewhat overgenerous, if there is such a thing. We also saw a gang of break-dancers in action, which as kind of cool, because I always thought that break-dancing was something that happened in large northern cities in the 1980’s. Even though their performance wasn’t exactly free either, I think whatever money we parted with was well-deserved.

Lunch

Mom claimed (repeatedly) that for her whole life, she had wanted to go to Cartagena. She did not specify exactly why this was so, or what she expected us to accomplish while we were there, but…Whatever. Moms. She seemed content to spend our time eating out at local restaurants, walking around the walls, and generally hanging out and getting to know the place. Surprisingly enough, we were only dragged into one museum. This happened to be the ‘Museum of the Spanish Inquisition and History of Cartagena’, elected by unanimous vote because it supposedly contained several instruments of torture. While the torture devices were a little disappointing, our tour guide was very helpful in explaining some of Cartagena’s history.

One day, we took a walk outside the walls of the old city to the nearby Castillo de san Felipe, a large fortification that overshadows the eastern entrance. We spent the first half of the day walking around the fort, watching an animated history video (in Spanish), and running through the maze of arched tunnels that wound under the battlements.

Castillo Tunnel

So, what did we do when we weren’t traipsing all over the city? We mostly spent our time lounging around the rental house. We often engaged in raucous pillow fights, just because we had the space. Aaron had somehow crammed Settlers of Catan in his backpack, and we played that once while Mom and Dad went out for a dinner date in an old convent-turned-fancy-restaurant.

On the last full day that we were there, we found a small chocolate shop/museum a few blocks away, and Mom secured ‘chocolate workshop’ sessions for five of us, Rachel, oddly enough, electing to forgo this great opportunity to consume chocolate and hang out with Dad instead. We learned all about the history and cultivation of cacao, the transformation of the purplish seeds of the tropical fruit into the silky brown substance familiar to chocolate-lovers everywhere, the preparation of a traditional native beverage (unsweetened and spiced with chili peppers), and, lastly, how to make our own confectionery delights, some of which survived long enough take home for later consumption.

Making Chocolate

To say the least, our departure the next day was a bit harried. The geniuses among us had packed the previous day, but there is always a last-minute scramble as people hunt down their various odds and ends and try to get out the door. We were told to be at the bus station at three o’clock to catch the bus, which might not arrive for another hour. Between going out for breakfast, packing up, tidying the house, and getting sandwiches-to-go, our morning soon disappeared, leaving us only fifteen minutes to make the twenty-five-minute walk to the bus station. We must have looked hilarious to the other pedestrians, overloaded and dragging a whiny five-year-old, as we sped past, leaving a dust cloud that lingered in the afternoon heat. But when the man at the ticket counter in a foreign country tells you to be at the bus station at a certain time, you be there, even if the bus is late. A classic case of hurry up and wait.

Waiting for the Bus

The ride home to Santa Marta was much like the ride there, only slightly longer. It was very late when we staggered through the front door, ate a few sandwiches, and collapsed in our beds. Though I had been very skeptical of the whole operation in the beginning, the trip to Cartagena turned out to be a great experience, and an excellent use of the Christmas money. To those who helped fund our Cartagena Vacation, thank you.

Outside the Comfort Zone

2016 was a year that saw us stretching the borders of our comfort zone, both as sailors and as people. Our first stop after our weeklong passage from the familiar waters of the Bahamas was Puerto Rico—a place that definitely felt different. It was a nice way to ease us into Spanish-speaking places because everyone there is bilingual. If you struggle in Spanish, you can always switch to English, but your brain begins to get accustomed to hearing another language and picking up new words. After nine months of island-hopping, speaking mostly English, we find ourselves celebrating the New Year in South America, where it’s more of a sink-or-swim situation. Every place we go, every person we meet, every item on a menu or in a shop, requires us to speak a language in which we are only marginally proficient. It requires a lot of time and energy to do the simplest things, and we have officially left our comfort zone.

Cartagena Traffic

We did not know what to expect of Colombia. Growing up in the 1980s, Colombia meant three things: Juan Valdez coffee, latin dancing, and cocaine. Now that we’re here, we are getting a much richer picture of the history and culture of this place. (Actually, Juan Valdez is a chain of coffee shops, people do dance in the streets, and the native people of the Sierra Nevada do chew the coca leaf). What we have discovered is that it would take years, not months, to explore the nooks and crannies of this diverse and multi-faceted country, and even that would be just an introduction to a whole different continent. We realized quickly that we would just be scratching the surface here.

Juan Valdez

Thanks to an old friend, we were introduced to a local family who helped us ease our way into Colombian life. Leo and Silvana spent a weekend showing us around, taking us to one of their favorite beaches, Playa Tortuga, and hiking with us into Parque Tayrona (where a monkey threw nuts at me from a tree). We had them over on our boat for an afternoon cookout, and I had the pleasure of sharing coffee with Silvana on several occasions while her 7-year-old daughter Maria-Alejandra played happily with Rachel. They are bilingual, and I learned so many new words and expressions in Spanish as they answered my many questions. Making friends can make all the difference in a new place—like a doorway to understanding language, local customs, music, history, and culture.

Rachel and Maria Alejandra

We also ventured out on our own to do some exploring. We went to Santa Marta’s Museo de Oro, with displays of pre-Columbian gold and pottery, along with rooms dedicated to local history and culture, including the customs of the indigenous tribes that still inhabit the Sierra Nevada mountains above Santa Marta. We piled into a tiny taxi to go visit La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the hacienda where Simon Bolivar spent his last days, now a museum and memorial to the heroic South American “Liberator,” amid botanical gardens and sculptures.

Simon Bolivar

We went up the mountain to the small town of Minca, hiked to a waterfall, and got to see how coffee and chocolate are grown and processed (and how some people have an itchy reaction to the biting flies, jejenes).

Cocao

Coffee

We spent a long weekend in the old walled city of Cartagena, living in a refurbished colonial house, going to the museum of the Spanish Inquisition and History of Cartagena, eating in great restaurants (one a cloistered convent built in 1621), exploring the labyrinthine tunnels of the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a 17th-century Spanish fort, and taking a chocolate-making workshop at the Museo de Cacao. And that’s just one little corner of Colombia!

Cartagena

Castillo San Felipe

Making Chocolate

But culturally speaking, the most important outings we’ve had are also the most ordinary. We’ve been going for long walks all over Santa Marta, looking for the Claro store to buy a sim card, or to the bank for cash, to the hardware store, or to try a restaurant someone has recommended. I go to the grocery store around the corner every few days, and have befriended Gustavo, the produce guy, and he sends me home each time with some new south American fruit we have never tasted. Ever heard of Uchuvas? Lulo? Zapote? How about a tomate de árbol—that’s right, tree tomato? Neither had I. Invariably, even when we don’t completely understand each other, the Colombianos are some of the most friendly and helpful people we have ever met.

On the streets the vendors are selling limonada from large acrylic tanks-on-wheels, coffee from thermoses in bicycle baskets, helados from carts with generators mounted underneath, sausages cooked on a mobile grill, and fruit smoothies made on the spot. There are people everywhere, tourists, street musicians, do-gooders looking for donations for children’s homes, candy-sellers, hat salesmen with stacks of fedoras on their heads, and break dancers who put on a show while you’re having dinner at an outdoor café. In the restaurants, you can buy arepas (a thick corn tortilla with different toppings), bunuelos (fried dough balls), shrimp ceviche, and fried, smashed green plantains with suéro (sour cream). Music with a salsa beat blares from under beach umbrellas and out of bars. Old men wearing straw hats sit on park benches and greet you cordially as you walk by, mothers push babies in strollers, and sleeping dogs are everywhere. It is a feast for the senses.

Cuatro

Santa Marta is a tourist destination, but not the kind we’re used to. It’s a place Colombianos come for the holidays, to soak up some sunshine and buy souvenirs. It’s a mecca for hikers and nature-lovers, people who stay in hostels and go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains, looking for the Ciudad Perdida and exotic birds. There aren’t very many gringos around here, and that is part of what makes the place charming. At the same time, we understand why birds of a feather flock together, and sometimes we just want to hide out at the marina or on our boat and busy ourselves with normal life because everything else seems so different, so foreign.

Beach Tents

Getting here through 400 miles of wind and waves was challenging and, at times, uncomfortable. Staying here is not easy, either—with the language barrier, daily tasks seem to take double the time, and there is a dearth of other kids to play with and safe places to play outside. Getting out of here will probably be uncomfortable, too, as the Colombian customs and immigration process seems to take forever and the wind this time of year is crazy and difficult to predict. Even with all that discomfort, exploring a new place is fun—to use a Colombian expression, “vale la pena” (it’s worth it). We have long wanted our children to be bilingual, to see how other people live, and to expand their horizons figuratively and literally, and that is happening, at the cost of “normal,” “familiar” and “comfortable.” To paraphrase the ineffable Stanley Schmidt (author of the Life of Fred books), “any discomfort we might be feeling is ignorance leaving our brains.”  As we head to Panama to visit with Jay’s parents in Bocas del Toro, we will take these experiences with us, an introduction to Latin America that has left a good first impression.

Tayrona, Santa Marta

Underwater Bonaire

Out of all the many islands that we have visited over the course of our little cruise, my favorite (so far) has to be Bonaire. Bonaire is the easternmost island in the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao), a chain of Dutch islands just north of the coast of Venezuela. All the Caribbean islands that we have previously visited are giant, volcanic affairs with towering mountains and steamy jungles. Not Bonaire. Bonaire is flat, arid, and prickly. It could have been Arizona, with red dirt, wild donkeys, and large spiky cacti. There are a few largish hills at the north end, vast flamingo-infested salt flats at the south end, and cactussy desert in the middle. The capital city, Kralendijk, abounds with good restaurants and bars, good shops, and good ice cream parlors. Right before we arrived from St. Lucia, a wave of uncharacteristically wet weather hit Bonaire, and it rained on and off for the duration of our three-week stay.

Flamingos

As great as the island is, the main attraction is the water. Bonaire is not called a diver’s paradise for nothing. The water is crystal clear and relatively shallow close to shore, but after about two hundred feet, it slopes gently downward and then suddenly drops off into the deep, empty blue. The boat was moored just on the edge of the drop-off, with 15-foot sandy bottom under the bow, and 30-foot coral slope under the swim ladder at the stern. We went swimming almost every day. We were usually joined by our friends on s/v Abby Singer (henceforth to be referred to as “our esteemed neighbors”), who were anchored next door. Often, I would go into the ‘front yard,’ and practice my breath-hold at the mooring-block. I would hang there, motionless, my foot hooked under the loop of metal to keep myself from floating away. I achieved my longest submerged breath-hold while doing this, at 1 minute, 45 seconds.

Dropoff

The good snorkeling, unsurprisingly, was not limited to the area directly under the boat. In fact, it was good snorkeling pretty much everywhere. Coral grew plentifully along the slope, and there were fish everywhere. It was great for free-diving. The coral just keeps going down and down. Generally, the deeper you go, the better it is. We often took the dinghy, sometimes accompanied by our esteemed neighbors, to Klein (or “little”) Bonaire, a long flat island a mile to the west rising out of thousands of feet of water. On the north side is a white sandy beach frequented by ‘pirate’ ships, constantly belching out pasty white tourists and re-ingesting pink ones. The snorkeling off the beach was only mediocre (for Bonaire). The good stuff was on the south and east sides.

Aaron and I were SCUBA-certified in Marathon before we left. While we were in Bonaire, I had the opportunity to practice this skill. One day, Andrew on Abby Singer, Pete on Penny Lane, and I decided to go diving. Everybody already had the proper gear, except me. Our dive tanks were five years old, Andrew’s spare was empty, and Pete’s extra was too small. In the end, I had to use a tank rented from one of the numerous dive shops, a BCD and regulator borrowed from Andrew, a mismatched collection of weights borrowed from everybody, and my own mask and fins. We took Penny Lane to the south side of Klein Bonaire, and grabbed a ball. It was a pretty good dive. We generally stayed at around 45 feet, and just cruised along the drop-off. Early on, Andrew’s regulator developed a leak, and he had to head back. We saw a bunch of cool stuff, and returned to the boat an hour later.

Pete

As much as I like SCUBA diving, I would almost always rather be free-diving. Tank diving allows you to stay down longer, and see things in more detail, but at the cost of having to rent and wear cumbersome gear, and the added risk of nitrogen narcosis and decompression sickness. Free-diving is not without risk, but I find it to be more rewarding. For my 15th birthday, I received a free-diving watch. It functions like a normal digital watch, except that it displays and records the depth, time, date, and temperature of any dive over five feet. While in Bonaire, I broke my record for depth and dive-time twice. The first time, I was diving right off the back of the boat. Wearing fins, I swam down 67.2 feet below the surface, with a dive-time of 1 minute, 4 seconds; more than ten feet past my previous record.  The second time, Andrew and I were trading dives off Klein Bonaire. He went down to 50 feet (his record), and came back up. I finished breathing up, took a gulp of air, and descended to 73.4 feet. I returned to the surface 1 minute, 5 seconds later, without suffering any ill effects.

During our last week in Bonaire, we took Take Two, and our esteemed neighbors, down to the south of the island, where the salt flats are. We took a mooring ball, and dinghied to the salt pier (a prime diving destination), where big ships take on their cargoes of salt. We tied up the dinghy, and jumped in. The mass of coral-encrusted pilings were tilted at different angles to improve support. Diving down and swimming among them through the green light was like swimming in a shady forest. Unfortunately, someone (me) forgot to bring the GoPro, so we have no pictures of this great experience.

Salt Pier, Bonaire

Although there is excellent free-diving all over the Caribbean, nowhere else have I seen such a concentration of pristine reefs and flourishing coral. As you may have guessed by now, I greatly enjoyed our time in Bonaire, and hope to return one day.

Underwater Bonaire

Living La Brisa Loca

We broke a few records here on Take Two during our passage west this week from Bonaire to Santa Marta, Colombia. We did a 382-mile passage in 54 hours, averaging just over 7 knots. On the last day, approaching Santa Marta, we saw our biggest gust of wind at sea: 52 knots, according to our instruments!  We also saw the fastest speed ever: 15 knots over ground on a wave surf, per GPS. We left Bonaire to arrive just before the first wave of “Christmas Winds” begin, but here in Colombia, they have a different term: “La Brisa Loca.” We would agree that it’s crazy to try and dock a catamaran in that breeze!

We sailed into port on a different continent for the first time, and had to change our clocks as we crossed a time zone, the first time we’ve ever had to do that (going east to the Caribbean last April didn’t count because of daylight savings). We ordered dinner in a restaurant using our limited Spanish, and Aaron even negotiated for a pair of sunglasses with a street vendor! Jay, who works all day while the kids practice Spanish on Duolingo, compensates by speaking Speedy-Gonzoles-accented English. Thankfully, he knows the one phrase necessary to surviving in a Spanish-speaking country: una cerveza mas, por favor!

There are people whose boats never leave the dock. They are perfectly content where they are, and I don’t fault them for that. But we have always wanted to stretch our sea-legs and go to far-flung places and give the kids (and ourselves) a dose of something besides modern American “culture.” We have no regrets about leaving familiar waters, though it certainly has not made things like work and provisioning easier. We are having the time of our lives doing the things we always hoped we would do with Take Two. For the chance to do this, we are so grateful, and we can’t stop ourselves from doing a little happy dance every time we realize how far we’ve come!

Fun in Bonaire

On December 5th, our new friend Cliff took us to explore some caves on Bonaire to celebrate Sky’s 11th birthday (s/v Abby Singer). For the first cave, we had to climb down a ladder, crawl through a tunnel, and then we could stand up. It was hot, and the oxygen was low because it was so far back in the cave. You could go back even further, but we were not allowed to. When we turned all the lights off it felt like we were blind, then when we climbed out, it seemed so bright!

Caving in Bonaire

Before we got in the truck, we saw a wild parrot; it was very pretty. The next cave was a tunnel with bats and a very small exit.

Caving in Bonaire

The third cave was the cave with the swimming. We climbed down into the cave, but when we got to the water we could barely see it, it was so still and clear. We snorkeled into the first chamber using dive flashlights to see, but to get to the other chamber in the cave, we had to swim about 4 ft. down and 12 ft. forward. When we got to the other side, there were more rocks and stalactites, and there was an underwater pit that we could swim down into.

Caving in Bonaire

After the caves, we went to the windsurfing beach at Lac Bay. We got burgers at the beach bar, then rented windsurf boards.

Windsurfing in Bonaire

The day ended with panini and gelato at Luciano’s. It was a lot of fun and I had a great day.

Big Papa with Sky

Cliff “Big Papa” with Sky

Christmas Traditions

*Spoiler Alert! Do not read if you believe in Santa!*

In the U.S., as in much of the rest of the western world, Christmas is the largest holiday of the year. Each year, millions upon millions of dollars are spent on Christmas gifts, and millions more on air travel, evergreen trees, and candy. And the star of the show is, of course, Santa Claus. Yes, that mysterious bearded and red-robed fat guy, who, with the help of hundreds of elvish henchmen, breaks into every house in the world via the chimney, and gives presents to good little children.

Sinterklaas

Almost every country that has even remotely Christian beginnings celebrates some form of this holiday. In Bonaire, an old Dutch colony, they worship Sinterklaas, rather than Santa. Sinterklaas is more closely related to St. Nicholas, the root of all Santa incarnations, than his American counterpart. He wears red bishop’s duds, has a white beard, and delivers presents to nice children on December 5th, the eve of his supposed death-day (343 A.D.). Rather than use a sleigh as his preferred mode of transportation, he takes a steam boat, and drops goodies into shoes, not freakishly large stockings.

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However, instead of being accompanied by hordes of elves in pointed hats, Sinterklaas is served by Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, a short black person who is either: A) a freed slave, B) a tamed devil, C) a Spanish Moor, or D) a chimney sweep. Whichever one you choose, Sinterklaas’ little toady listens at chimneys, to find out which children are good, and which are bad. And upon discovery of such a rotten egg, he carries them off in a burlap sack to Spain, where he and Sinterklass dwell off-season. Also, in some traditions, Zwarte Piet has gold skin, rather than black. Does this make him Black-Gold Pete? I don’t know. What I do know is that he is probably a holdover from pre-Christian religious practices, chiefly in relation to the Wild Hunt of Odin, in which blackbirds accompanied Odin and listened at the chimney to see how the mortals were getting along.

Zwarte Piet

This is true of a lot of Christmas traditions, where old pagan rituals were changed to fit Christianity in the early centuries A.D. Some of the more bizarre traditions cheerfully celebrated by thousands of Americans and Europeans during the holiday season have their roots in Germanic Paganism. Who among you likes to burn the Yule Log? That there is an interesting piece of Norse mythology, I can tell you. It all depends on how deep you want to dig into the dirty secrets (and there are many) of your favorite holiday rituals.

It is also totally normal to go out caroling (wassailing), decorate your Christmas tree (Yggdrasil?), and eat your Christmas Ham (Yule Hog), by the flickering light of your merrily burning Yule Log. In short, you should celebrate the Christmas season without thinking too much about its roots, and just enjoy your time-honored traditions with people you love.

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Geography Report: Bonaire

Basic Facts

Capital: Kralendijk
People/Customs: The population of Bonaire comes from a mixture of European and South American people, and their culture reflects this. They also have a lot of English-speaking tourists and expatriates. Holidays include New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, Labour Day, Ascension Day, Whit Sunday, Emancipation Day, Sinterklaas’ birthday (December 5-6) Christmas Day, Boxing Day.
Language: Dutch is the official language but English and Spanish are commonly spoken. The locals use a dialect called Papiamento, a mixture of Dutch, English, French, and Spanish.
Climate: Average yearly temperature is 82°F. Average yearly rainfall is less than 22”, falling mostly between October and January.
Food/Farming: Salt is one of the main exports on Bonaire. The Cadushy cactus is edible and its juice is distilled to make alcohol. A kind of maize (corn) is grown in years with enough rainfall.
Government: Bonaire is a special municipality of the Netherlands since the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in 2010, and as such, has a mayor, alderman, and municipal council.
Currency: The US Dollar is used here to accommodate incoming tourists.
Art/Music/Culture: Colonists from Africa, Portugal, Spain, England, and Holland have contributed to the culture, music, and poetry found on Bonaire.

History

In 1499 Amerigo Vespucci claimed Bonaire for Spain. In 1636 the Dutch took the island, and slaves were imported to work on the salt flats in the late 1600s. The Spanish, Dutch, and English fought over Bonaire but it was conquered by the Dutch in 1816. In 1834 slavery was abolished and the salt industry faltered while the newly freed people became accustomed to the new way of life. Many immigrated to Venezuela for jobs while the island settled into its stride. In the 20th century, telephones connected Bonaire to the outside world and cars and trucks made transportation and delivery possible. Oil refineries opened on Aruba, and gave people from Bonaire better paying jobs closer to family and home. The first airport was built on the island while American troops were stationed there during World War II. After the war, tourism was brought to Bonaire and the island began to thrive. Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten became the Netherlands Antilles in 1954, and in 2010 they became part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, sometimes referred to as the Dutch Caribbean.

Land forms/Flora and Fauna

Bonaire is not volcanic, but has a coral limestone foundation, and there are several salt flats on the island. It is dry and rocky with desert scrub and cacti. Common trees seen here are Brazil Wood, Divi divi, and Mesquite Acacia. The Lora and Prikichi Parakeet can be seen here, and the wild flamingos like the salt pans. The Yellow-shouldered Amazon parrot is an endangered indigenous species. Underwater, the entire coastline is lined with coral reefs and has plentiful sea creatures, including tropical fish, turtles, and marine invertebrates.

Things to do

Diving, snorkeling, kiteboarding, and windsurfing are popular water sports and you can also visit the wild flamingos and donkey colonies on the island. Washington Slagbaai National Park has miles of trails and includes Mount Branderis, the highest point on the island at 785 feet.

Bibliography

“About Bonaire.” December 7, 2016, The Bonaire Official Site, www.tourismbonaire.com. Digital Marketing by Tambourine.