I am sitting in the airport in Guatemala City. It’s 3:30 in the morning and the McDonald’s in the food court is beginning to show signs of life, though it may be hours before the & Café opens (“bring home the sabor de Guatemala!”)and I can get a cup of locally-grown coffee. I have never been so early for a flight, but in order to get an extra day with friends in Rio Dulce and avoid the bus-hotel-taxi hassle in the city, I opted to hire a bus privado for a middle-of-the-night ride to the airport. During the day, with traffic or construction delays added in, it can take anywhere from 6 to 10 hours. Tonight, it took less than 5, though I don’t remember any of it, since I was asleep, sprawled out across a row of seats in the back. My flight doesn’t depart for another 8 hours but waiting to drive a few hours later would have meant a risk of missing the plane.
I just opened my friend Hagit’s kind parting gift, which made me cry, of course. It was a beautiful purse made from typical Guatemalan fabric, and inside, a folio of photographs—memories to take with me back to Florida.
Over the course of the last two weeks, she has folded me into her family, and I have become something more than the friend I was when I arrived. I came to help her with the birth of her fourth child, her first son, to stand in the place of her mother and sister who could not come from Israel. My last evening was spent celebrating Rosh Hoshana over apple crisp with the family and cruising friends while I held a sleeping newborn. It was a wonderful way to end the visit.
Planning a trip around the arrival of a baby, leaving my family for two weeks, and traveling from the Florida Keys to Rio Dulce, Guatemala: all these things are difficult. Without Jay’s willingness to take over school schedules and meal prep and drive me to and from Ft. Lauderdale, it would have been impossible. I arrived on the due date and then waited a week until little Cayo decided to join us. In between helping cook and clean, going to the doctor’s, and taking care of my sisterly duties (including being there for the birth), I was able to catch up with Wendel (and his sister Vivian), from my English class…
Go to Anna’s ukulele class—she is a Brazilian sailor who used to be in my ukulele class…
Shop in town and play dominoes with Darelle, my South African friend…
Go visit Jerry and Griselda and the 10 kids at Casa Agua Azul…
And hang out with Rudolph and Elisa of S/V Tulum III, cruising friends we met in Colombia a couple years ago. We also celebrated the 16th birthday of Hagit’s oldest daughter, Naomi, two days before her baby brother was born.
We went to the clinic in Morales a week after the due date. We took a colectivo, an inexpensive 45-minute ride on a mini-bus crammed full of people and air-conditioned by the wind. On the way, we noticed a slow-down as we passed through a village. Bystanders crowded both sides of the road, police were directing traffic, and there was a body lying on the sidewalk, half-covered by a sheet. We thought maybe there had been an accident. We proceeded to the clinic, where Doctora Ana Ruth checked the baby’s heartbeat, used the ultrasound to check amniotic fluid levels, and talked to Hagit about things she could do to speed the process along. I was there, in part, to translate. Dra. Ruth had good news: Hagit was dilated 5cm already, and the baby could arrive at any moment. She said she expected to see us again very soon, and we left. After lunch and cool drinks, we hopped back on a colectivo headed toward Rio Dulce.
Immediately, I knew this was going to be an adventure. Hagit
and I squished into the front seat, where there was room for her belly, but the
passenger door wouldn’t stay closed. Actually, I don’t think any door on that
ancient Toyota van closed properly. Hagit took one look at the driver and
whispered that she thought he had a crazy look in his eyes. And then I
overheard the chatter between driver and money-collector. The road was closed
because of a shooting (remember the dead guy?) and the bus was running
off-schedule because they had to take the long-way-round. He began to make a
series of rapid, jerky turns around sharp corners, bouncing over tumulos
(speed bumps), and passing cars in narrow lanes. We implored him in Spanish to
slow down—unless he wanted a baby born on his bus! When that didn’t help, we
asked to be let off at the next esquina. Not wanting to lose the fare,
he promised that we were almost out of the city and the ride would be smoother.
Against our better judgment, we stayed on.
I have been on a lot of beat-up buses in the Caribbean with
a lot of crazy drivers, but until that day, I had never really thought I might
die on one. I was praying like crazy, trying to do yoga breathing to stay calm,
and holding onto Hagit, who had a death-grip on the bar above the passenger
seat. I suddenly found the situation comical and started to laugh
hysterically—how did we get here, an American woman and her pregnant Israeli
friend, hurtling down a pot-holed road past cattle trucks in Guatemala? Hagit
joined me in my hysteria. And then something went clunk and fell onto
the road behind us. The driver was forced to slow down. The chatter changed
from how late they would be to la cruce (the turn to Rio) to how they
were going to get the passengers onto other buses, and where they should stop.
I breathed a prayer of thanks as the bus slowed dramatically. Thankfully, the
driver chose a place to stop where we could sit in the shade. We clambered out
of the front seat and waited for Peter to get out of the back. He had to climb
out over a guy who had slept through the whole thing.
And, in the end, we did not die in a mini-bus on the road to Rio Dulce, and I did not have to help deliver a baby on said bus, or on the side of the road either (with nothing but hand sanitizer, a bottle of water, a clean shirt, and a pocket knife). We had time to make it home on another passing colectivo, take a shower, have something to eat, and pack a bag before heading back to the clinic that night. Perhaps that nerve-wracking ride was the straw that broke the camel’s back— a healthy 8-lb boy named Cayo was born at 2:30 in the morning after a 3-hour natural labor.
Having done it myself a few times, I can say with authority that Hagit is a childbirth champion. I accompanied the nurse when the tiny new human got his first bath and had the privilege of handing him to his happy mama. It was all well worth the wait.
The sky is beginning to pale behind the volcano, the coffee shop is opening, and in a few hours I will be returning to my home and family, heartful and happy.
“It was nearly dark, for the dull November twilight had
fallen around Green Gables, and the only light came from the dancing red flames
in the stove. Anne was curled up Turk-fashion on the hearthrug, gazing into that
joyous glow where the sunshine of a hundred summers was being distilled from
the maple cordwood.” L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
As we have traveled and discovered what the world has to offer, sometimes literally eating and drinking our experiences up, we have become a bit spoiled. For example, after swimming in the crystal-clear turquoise waters of the Bahamas and enjoying pristine powdered-sugar beaches (often on an island we didn’t have to share with anyone else), coming back to Florida feels a bit disappointing. God forbid we express these sentiments—looking down our noses—to someone who just moved here from Wisconsin, for instance, who thinks the waters of Boot Key Harbor are mesmerizing. What boorish snobs!
How do we come back from experiences like we’ve had—a three-and-a-half-year Caribbean odyssey, for example—where the brilliance of our memories makes daily routines look dull and humdrum? How do we integrate the unforgettable moments from our journey into our daily lives and talk about them (when they come up in conversation) without sounding boastful? (“I swam with whale sharks…”) Rather than using comparison, which makes the day-to-day look dim, we must allow memory to enrich and inform new sensory input. And we can express gratitude for a cool experience instead of bragging.
Let me explain: I can’t taste a cup of coffee without thinking of the elixir that bears that name which I drank in the Panamanian cloud forest. But instead of bemoaning the poor imitation in my cup, I can taste that morning brew and glow for a moment in the light of my memory, like enjoying the firelight that offers the warmth of a hundred summers. I can relive that time-and-place, that taste of Geisha coffee beans—grown, dried, roasted, ground, and brewed on the side of that volcano in that forest where I hiked with my family and first saw howler monkeys up-close and witnessed a dozen varieties of hummingbird in a single afternoon. Heaven knows I won’t be trying to actually recapture the experience by brewing a cup of Geisha here and now—even if I went to Amazon.com and ordered the 6.7-oz. box of beans for $80, ground, and brewed them at home! Better to drink a cheap cup of coffee with cream and sugar and add a dash of memory. And savor it quietly, without needing to talk about it. Or, alternately, talk about it: maybe everyone has a favorite-cup-of-coffee memory, and that could be a springboard for a great conversation.
And, maybe, that is a good reason to travel: to “collect verbs instead of nouns” (thank you for that quote, Davina, wherever you are). We do it, not just to say we’ve been there and done that, but because we want to enrich our lives now and broaden our horizons here. Every sunset for me now contains the sunset from the top of a Mayan pyramid, and is consequently made more beautiful by it.
We are so fortunate to have these memories. We had a few short years while our kids were still at home to make them, and now they will keep us warm for years to come, long after all the small people have grown up and moved on to their own adventures.
It’s summer in Florida, and that means heat and humidity. Most (normal) people survive by turning on their air conditioners and hiding from the great outdoors. I don’t blame them…it is HOT! But here on a boat in a mooring field in the Florida Keys, we are intentionally living a little more simply, a little less expensively, and a little more closely to Nature.
In the summer of 2010, we spent our first season in Marathon, and didn’t have the boat set up to handle the heat. Boot Key Harbor is notoriously murkey, warm, and full of moving dinghies and fishing boats, making it unswimmable. Afternoon thunderstorms meant that we couldn’t always have the boat open, so it would get downright steamy inside. That summer was particularly bad for mosquitoes as well. We quickly developed some coping strategies.
We had a large blue canvas rectangle, which we tied tent-style over the trampolines, ice, and a blender. I would make frozen lemonade every afternoon, take a good read-aloud selection, corral the kids, and we would have a siesta out under the tent until the heat abated. Every night, we’d give the kids a cool-down shower in the cockpit and send them to bed wet, with a fan over each bed. We would seek cool places, like local restaurants with pools, the beach for a swim, or the air-conditioned library. Jay made some Velcro-on bug screens, and we bought wind-scoops and better fans. By the next season we spent in the Keys, we had shade awnings for the decks and cockpit.
The summer of 2015, before leaving for the Caribbean, we got really smart: we stayed at Marathon Marina and plugged in and turned on the new air conditioners Jay had installed. We were there between May and November, the hottest part of the year, but that was expensive, and we felt a little trapped, both inside the boat, and tied to a dock.
This summer, in addition to all those stay-cool strategies, I made a list of menu items that don’t involve heating up the galley of Take Two. We’re also testing a single-burner induction plate that works with our cast-iron skillets, Oxo teakettle, and Kuhn-Rikon pressure cooker. It takes electric power, but doesn’t create as much heat as cooking over gas. And because it’s portable, we can cook in the breezy cockpit.
Even with these coping mechanisms, we sweat. If there’s a breeze, it’s more comfortable. But when the wind dies, the perceived temperature goes up and we find it hard to concentrate on school and work. Sleep is disrupted and tempers flare. Unless we decide to head to a marina, our only option is to start up the generator and run the air conditioner. This is a real luxury, as many boats have neither. On hot, still evenings, we can close up, run the air full-bore, then turn everything off just before bed. If we wake up hot, we open the hatches above the beds and usually it’s cooled down outside. The exception, of course, is when it’s raining. Not much we can do about that, but I guess that’s what it means to live closer to Nature!
Seven strategies for staying cool
Shade awnings: Phoenix Square Sun Shade, from Amazon
Q: What’s scarier than teaching your teenager to drive a car?
A: Teaching three teenagers to drive at the same time!
We’ve merged into the fast lane. Having arrived in the U.S. one month ago, we’ve made a lot of progress toward re-integration. Eli turned 18 and registered to vote. The three teenagers got phones and learner’s permits. At the end of the month, assuming they’ve jumped through all the right hoops, they’ll start their first dual enrollment classes at the local community college. Eli and Aaron are dipping their toes into the wide world of work this week as they join a construction crew with our friend Andrew (remember the captain of s/v Abby Singer?). Sarah sailed in her first regatta as crew on a Hobie 16. Sam is taking his Florida boater’s safety course to operate the dinghy solo. And Rachel checked out her first library books!
I’ve joined a Wednesday-morning Bible study, a yoga class, and committed to teaching high-school home-schoolers a U.S. Government class this fall. Jay has been fixing broken things on our boat now that we have access to parts and shipping, and working like crazy using unlimited high-speed internet. We’ve been having weekly date-nights to organize all these new adventures and support each other so that we’re ready for whatever comes our way.
“Far too often in seasons of transitions, we tend to do one of two things. Either we forestall the ending because we cannot face the grief of the conclusion of an era, or we leap over the finish line and bound headlong into the next race without pausing to reflect on where we have been on the road to where we are going. Transition– good, heartful transition– requires both. Experiences do not change us. Reflecting on our experiences changes us. For every shift between a then and a now, our task is to reflect on what was and, as a result, what can now be. We must digest our experience in order to [go into the future].”—Chris Bruno
When we bought Take Two in 2008, we talked of taking our kids down to the Caribbean, enjoying beautiful clear water, catching fish, seeing the world in the microcosm of islands, and maybe learning another language. On Tuesday, July 2, we finished that dream trip as we crossed our track and motored toward our mooring in Boot Key Harbor, a place we left over three years ago with our then 14-, 13-, 11-, 9-, and 4-year-old children. We left as coastal cruisers with kids, but we came back seasoned blue-water sailors with young adults. The world seems wider now, but the boat smaller. We came back because it’s time to let the kids begin their own journeys, and our family and support systems are here. We came back to the same place, but we are not the same people.
All of us are “digesting the experience” in different ways. It is wonderful, but weird, to be back in Florida. Some of us were excited to return to “the Land of Plenty” and familiar places and faces. Others of us are happy travelers, reluctant to rejoin the daily routines of land-life. Most of us won’t really understand what the travel has done to us until we gain some life experiences here in the U.S. and get a little perspective. The memories of the last three years, complete with the whole range of joy and misery, friendship and loneliness, excitement and boredom—are still too fresh. Even so, I asked everyone in the family to pause, if for only a moment, before a “new normal” sets in and we’re off exploring in different directions, and to reflect on their experiences as travelers.
Jay: I’m not really a cruiser. I’m just a guy who lives on a boat. I like the self-sufficiency: the boat is our house, it’s our office, it’s our school. We’ve just been doing “regular life” in foreign countries. In that way, coming back to the United States represents conveniences like easy shipping, good grocery stores, and fast internet, but doesn’t really change my day-to-day. There’s not a strong delineation between then and now.
For me the travel was really about the kids. It started as a way to show them the world, have some fun, and learn new things. We wanted our kids to see different cultures and get a broader picture of the world, but also to avoid being indoctrinated in the U.S. with negative things like materialism, promiscuity, entitlement, and instant gratification. While we had a lot of fun in the Eastern Caribbean, the trip really changed when we went west at the end of 2016. We had wanted our kids to learn Spanish, and what better place than Central America?
I think all our goals were met. Some of the results of the travel remain to be seen, but I’m happy with where our kids are right now. I would have liked some of them to step out of their comfort zones more often, but I think they saw enough and picked up enough because we were there so long. My comfort zone definitely grew. Things that would have freaked me out early on didn’t bother me later, and I realized I really like Central America. I can imagine traveling again, being nomadic, maybe spending more time in South America. Having done it once, leaving again would be easier.
Tanya: I’m struggling with this “conclusion of an era” part. This is likely the last big sailing trip we take with all seven of us. I knew it couldn’t last forever, but part of me secretly wanted the kids to stay small so we could just keep traveling around as a family. The other part wants to see the result of this experiment—parenting and homeschooling and traveling—to see what kind of interesting people my children will become as independent adults. Seeing your child transform into an adult is like giving birth in slow motion—it is painful, requires a long labor, and inspires curiosity—and I’m dying to meet the person emerging into the world.
Eli will be 18 this month, Aaron is 16, Sarah, 15, Sam, 12, and Rachel, 8. I am well on my way to becoming the shortest person in the family (even Sam is passing me up and Rachel shows no sign of slowing). There will be a steep learning curve as we rejoin our culture and the requirements of life in the U.S.—learning to drive, taking tests, figuring out educational options, meeting with old friends and new, and finding our places here (both literally and figuratively). I am sure we will continue to travel, as it is more who we are than what we do, but some of our trips will be by land, others by air, and the ones by sea might find us short a few hands.
Despite my sounding a little sad about the conclusion, the bottom line is that I have no regrets: we did what we set out to do. Take Two traveled around the world without having to cross an ocean—her crew met people from all over the globe, heard many languages spoken, experienced the cultures of the Old World while traveling in the New, lived in Central America long enough to understand and passably speak Spanish, made lifelong friends, gave back to the community, came into contact with indigenous peoples and remnants of their ancient civilizations, encountered incredible natural scenery and wildlife, and broadened horizons.
While the results of our book-learning remain to be seen, the benefits of travel and real-life learning are evident: we can sail, tie knots, take a night watch, fish, cook, play musical instruments, solve problems, make art, wash dishes, converse intelligibly with people of all ages, perform in public, hail a taxi or catch a bus, fix broken things, weave baskets, teach a class, get lost and find the way back, express our thoughts in writing, freedive, speak another language, drive on the other side of the road, and make friends cross-culturally. Not all of us can do all of these things, of course, but a wide range of skills and talents are evident, and I believe we have all developed a kind of confidence and comfort in the world that only travel can impart. I am not minimizing the difficulty and discomfort of rejoining the flow of life in our own culture, but as citizens of the world, I think we have a leg up. Furthermore, I have memories to cherish (and write about) for a lifetime, and without a doubt, more adventures to anticipate.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” –Roy Batty (Blade Runner)
Eli: Now that we’re back, I’ve had some time to reflect on our grand voyage. So, what exactly did this whole trip mean to me? Well, my home was there, so it wasn’t really a “trip.” We only left people behind. We had all our stuff; we did chores; we did school. The only thing missing was the social environment in which we would have been immersed if we had stayed. But we didn’t stay. We went far away and had all sorts of awesome adventures instead of staying in the same place with the same people. We spent many years and months away from the United States. My “social development” basically stopped when we left our society, and barely advanced in all our time among the islands. I don’t have a phone, I don’t know how to pick up a check, I don’t know how to drive a car, I don’t have a job, I don’t even know very many people here. I’ve been left behind by all my friends, and I feel like I don’t fit in.
But I’m not sorry I missed out. Not at all. I don’t think I ever fit in, and I’ve never been very comfortable around other people. I like to travel. I liked seeing new places, and freediving and hiking and swimming and sailing every day. It was an amazing adventure. It was my life. But now that phase is over, and we’re here in the Keys, and I’m feeling both like I missed out on all my friends’ lives and like I would have regretted staying and missing out on the adventure. But I couldn’t have both. I’m happy with how things went, and I want to reconnect now. I want the relationships, but I also miss the cruising life. Technically speaking, our life now isn’t much different than it was in, say, Isla Mujeres or Guatemala. The real difference is that it’s not new. It’s an old place, with old memories associated very deeply. It feels totally different now than when we visited briefly here last year. It’s the end of an era, and that knowledge changes everything.
Our life didn’t radically change when we left “civilization,”
but it did change in small ways. I feel that we became closer as a family, we
became more conscious of our wealth in relation to others, and we learned to be
more comfortable around the foreign. I came to feel sure and confident in that
environment, and everything was good. Now, I don’t know what comes next, now
that we no longer swim and hike and climb every day. School is changing,
locations are changing. I miss the years spent on the ocean, if only because I
know they’re over.
Aaron: When we left the U.S., I was newly 13 and gave zero care to jobs, driving, college, and other related subjects, which was fine. Now that we’re back, I am almost 17 and still don’t care much about any of it, which isn’t so fine. I think I lost my motivation because I live on a boat, spend most of my time at home, and have next to no friends, so all of the aforementioned subjects seem far away and unimportant, while the opposite is true.
Aside from this almost complete lack of concern for untaken developmental steps and vacant area where “social status” ought to be, I think I’m basically the same person as I would have been if we’d never left. I grew my hair out, discovered new music, started working out, and started forming my outlook on life, regardless of location. I can understand the value of living in Central America for a couple of years, but it comes at a cost; it builds insulation from normalcy. I like being on the outside looking in, but I’m thinking that at some point I’m going to have to get in myself, and it won’t be any easier with such a late start. It’s a bit distressing to me to think that I could have been a licensed driver almost a year ago if we’d never left.
The most important things that I did while we were away were
working at Agua Dulce Marina, making local friends in Guatemala, volunteering
at Casa Agua Azul and the Rio Dulce summer camp, and climbing up the Acatenango
Volcano. While similar opportunities in the U.S. might have built skills and
self-confidence as effectively as the ones I had, I probably wouldn’t have been
interacting with my surroundings in a different language and culture in the way
that I was in Latin America. Also, our parents separating us from our peers was
successful in sparing us from any teen drama that there might otherwise have
In conclusion, the position in which I stand isn’t entirely
good or bad. I’m getting a late start in the flow of normal life, but I’m also
entering with an outsider’s perspective. And I think Mom and Dad were right
when they said, “trust us, when you look back on your life, you won’t regret
this part of it.”
Sarah: All good things must come to an end. Not all good things are all good. And while I didn’t have a good time all the time, I think the last 3 years, 5 months, and 8 days we spent as a family traveling around the Caribbean were spent well, and I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for anything. When we left the United States to begin our trip, I was 11 years old. When I was 11, I would think things like “Someday I’ll get a job” or “Someday I’ll learn to drive a car.” Well, now it’s “someday” and that is scary. I didn’t spend a lot of time preparing for “someday” while we were in the Caribbean, so now that we’re back in the States and about to be immersed in normal life (as normal as it gets for us anyway), I feel like I’m being hit in the face with responsibilities and choices that I’m not quite ready to take on. In a word: overwhelmed.
In a way, I feel like our trip back to the United States last summer
helped me prepare for what we’re facing now. Before our visit I had very little
idea of what was expected of someone in my age group, or how to accomplish
those goals. Now I feel like I have a better idea of what to do and how to do
it. It’s also great to be back in a place I can call home, to see familiar
faces, and to know where I fit in. Living on a boat has always been, and always
will be, a trade-off, and now we’re about to experience something completely different
than we’ve been used to; but then, fear of the unknown is normal.
Sam: Each country or island we visited is like an individual person; each has a personality, a culture, and a history. When we went on our three year “trip” we were not on vacation, hanging out on white sand beaches or relaxing somewhere in a resort. When we came to a new island or country, we met it and we made friends with the locals, and learned from it, if we could. So when we came back recently to the United States, I did not necessarily look different on the outside (besides growing taller) but I carry with me on the inside something from the places I went and people I met. I carry not only experiences, like swimming with whale sharks and jumping in waterfalls, but skills, like freediving and palm-weaving, for example, and lessons, like “never interfere with wild animals,” or, “the ocean is unpredictable.” We also came back to the U.S. with a knowledge of the history of the places we have been. I feel that I am a happier person when we are traveling and if I sit too long in one place, I tend to get bored with it.
Rachel: We live full-time on the boat. I can’t really explain what that’s like because it’s normal for me, but I can tell you some of the places we have been. We went to the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean. Then we went west to Bonaire, Colombia, Panama, Grand Cayman, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and back to Florida. I loved our adventures. I am a little sad that the trip is over (except for the times when I was seasick.)
One of the things I love about a traveling life is how
things come full circle—sometimes literally. We are one passage (a mere 400
nautical miles as the crow flies) away from crossing our outbound March 2016
track in our circumnavigation of the Caribbean Sea. In another sense, because
we keep meeting up with old friends, we complete circles in
relationships—sometimes a friend to whom we’ve offered assistance ends up
We arrived in Isla Mujeres, Mexico in early May. A year ago, we were on the Western side of Roatan, anchored conveniently near the reef where we were freediving every day in clear water. One day, a youngish guy dinghied over and introduced himself. Originally from Argentina, Joaquin is a traveler, a sailing and SCUBA instructor, a musician—and now, a friend.
After introductions and polite conversation, he asked if he could borrow a SCUBA tank. He was taking a friend diving, and the local dive shops would not rent him gear unless he was going out diving (read “paying to go out diving”) with their outfit. We lent him the tank.
When he returned it, we had another good conversation and
parted, as we often do, by saying “until next time.” Next time happened to be about
9 months later in Rio Dulce, Guatemala. The boat Joaquin had been sailing on,
owned by his friends, was on the hard at our marina, where he was working on it
and getting it ready for sale. He had spent much of the time since we saw him
last working on a wooden ship-building project in Costa Rica (a
conservation-minded program called CEIBA, find it at www.sailcargo.org). We got to catch up a
bit, swap travel stories, and even share some music (he’s a great harmonica
When we headed up to Antigua, Guatemala, at the end of March, we ran into Joaquin again. We invited him over for dinner and shared a lovely evening. He had shown us pictures of his trip up the Acatenango volcano and recommended Walter, the guide we chose for Eli and Aaron’s hike. He even (coincidentally) showed up to play live music at the restaurant where Jay and I were celebrating Jay’s 44th birthday later that week. When he mentioned he’d be heading to Mexico soon, we were pretty sure we would see him again. As it turns out, he was staying in Morelos, a small town near Cancún, and when I asked for advice about a field trip I was planning (to visit cenotes), he made a generous offer to help me plan—and even act as guide for—our outing.
We were about a dozen people from three boats coming over on the ferry for the day. Joaquin met us with a van and driver and we drove through Cancún, past all the beach hotels, and out into the wilds of the Yucatán. When Jay and I honeymooned here twenty years ago, this place was all about the beach. Sure, we went to Chichen Itzá and did some horseback riding in the jungle, but cenotes were not even “on the map.” Now, due in part to the hostile takeover of the beach by persistent Sargasso seaweed, people are looking for other ways to stay cool, and swimming in cenotes is big business.
A cenote (derived from the Mayan word for “well”) is
basically a place where rainwater has dissolved limestone bedrock to expose
groundwater—in Florida we would call it a sinkhole. In Mexico, it is a sacred
watering hole that sustained the people and the animals of the Yucatán
for thousands of years. The water is cold and clear, purified as it trickles
though porous rock or runs through underground channels. Cenotes were believed to
be an opening to the underworld, and there is archeological evidence that sacrifices
were made in some of them to the Mayan rain God, Chaac. Some of them are “open”
so that you can see the wide circular opening and others are “closed,” meaning
a cave with water in it, often accessible through a small opening. There are
thousands of them in Mexico. Some are still quiet little places in the middle
of the jungle, but the ones near Cancun are popular with tourists. The
wilderness has a paved road now, with good signage, and entrance fees.
So, given that ours would be a day-trip, we drove about an hour away, down the “Ruta de Los Cenotes” and went for a swim. Joaquin, ever the thoughtful guide, wanted to make sure we got something from—and gave something back to—the experience. As a community of long-term travelers, we are more than tourists with a vacation mentality; we are visitors and observers, aware of our impact on fragile environments and communities. Instead of buying plastic-packaged snacks, for example, we stopped at a local fruit-vendor to buy natural goodies. And conversations throughout the day centered on the history of these sacred places, the pros and cons of development, the economic and cultural impact of tourism, the thoughtless destruction of nature, and what we can do about it during our short lives on earth. Of course, in addition to these more serious thoughts, there was plenty of monkeying around, both figuratively and literally.
We arrived early to Cenote Verde Lucero, nearly the only visitors in this quiet place. The spider monkeys were still out and about, and we were warned not to leave snacks where they could be snatched. It was a beautiful place—it was easy to ignore the deck, the stairs, the picnic tables, and other signs of tourism—and see only the mirror of sky in a fresh water pool fringed by trees in the littoral forest. After the initial quiet of observation, the kids made the most of the cool water—shattering the surface of the mirror by jumping in from the top of the steep sides, dropping in from the zipline, and shaking each other off the rope suspended across the cenote.
With masks and fins, some of the kids explored the cenote and discovered that the middle was shallower than the sides (evidence of roof-material from a cave-in) and that there were small fish hiding among the rocky ledges and tree roots. I paddled around, taking pictures, laughing at the kids’ antics, and admiring the trees, which were thirstily reaching down the steep sides of the cenote for a drink of water.
After swimming, we came up for snacks. We had carefully hidden all our fruit and drinks, but it turns out the monkeys had grown bold with all the tourists, and they weren’t merely reaching into bags—they would come up to the table and snatch whatever they could find, right in front of us. They caught us by surprise while we were snacking, and we lost a bunch of small bananas before we scrambled to hide the rest. Rachel, having had a bad experience with spider monkeys (see “When Monkeys Attack,” December 2017), quickly retreated to a safe distance.
We took a short walk through the littoral forest, remarking how similar the flora looks to that of south Florida, and then turned back toward the cenote. A large group had arrived and was noisily entering the cenote—a couple dozen people in orange life jackets. We beat a hasty retreat.
On the way out, we noted, off to the side, a clearing in the
center of which lay a “temazcal”—a Lakota sweat lodge where people can come for
purification ceremonies. The spiritual significance of the cenote may have
changed in the last five hundred years, but there is still a sense that the
place is sacred, and an acknowledgment that fresh water in a hot place is
life-giving and precious.
We went next to a closed cenote, La Noria. It was removed from the main road by a long and bumpy dirt path, a promising sign that things hard-to-get-to are less-frequented. It was nearly noon when we got there, and the sun was directly overhead, perfect timing for the light in the cave. Once again, we were nearly the only people there, and after we arrived, the other small group left and we had the place to ourselves. There were two entrances, one a small tunnel into which descended a spiral staircase, and another bigger opening in the cave roof.
Inside, it was beautiful, with its reflections of stalagtites in the water, bats flitting around, and clear, cold water lit only by a column of sunlight from the narrow entrance. It was a stark contrast to the wide, sunlit swim of the morning.
Once again, some of the kids donned masks and fins and explored beneath the surface, and several of them jumped into the water through the skylight. I was interested again by the appearance of tree roots—some reaching through twenty-five feet of limestone in search of moisture. Without sun exposure, the water was cold, and we swam until our teeth chattered.
Afterwards, we went to Morelos for lunch—Joaquin knew a local place with good food. It always makes me happy to hear my kids ordering confidently in Spanish. We then went for a short walk on the beach—noting the rafts of sargassum that clog the shoreline and rot in the sun. More conversations ensued—what kinds of change we can and cannot control, the growing awareness among young people of a need to take care of the environment, but also our own joy and gratitude in the face of these difficulties. It had been a wonderful day—perfect weather, good friends, cool, clear water, food, and fun. We parted, as always, with the acknowledgment that our lives are transient, and though goodbyes are frequent, so are the serendipitous reunions.
I took some pictures today of what our boat REALLY looks
like. Usually we clean up or hide the mess before we take photos to post. But this
morning, I took a closer look at our clutter, and before griping about it or
demanding the kids tidy up, I took the opportunity to let it tell me something
about the stage of life we’re in.
Rachel left some Play-doh out, and her plastic dishes (on which she had made me pancakes and bacon). This reminds me that we are nearing the end of the Play-doh years. Soon, there will be no little bits of blue or pink goo ground into rugs or stuck on the rear-end of my shorts, but also no little girl to clean up after.
School books, which are supposed to be put away at the end of every weekday, were left out over the weekend. We have two boys nearing graduation, and I am reminded that my work with them as a teacher/academic advisor is nearing completion.
The desk/guitar practice area is kept pretty organized by the musicians who play there, but it’s still a lot of stuff in a small area. How quiet it will be when Aaron moves off the boat, taking his beat-up guitar and all the coils of cable and electronic equipment with him.
The kitchen stove is disgusting. We went out for dinner (just grownups!) last night and left the kids in charge of cooking for themselves. The spaghetti explosion is the result. Instead of waking someone up to take care of the mess, I reflected on the fact that I got to go out without kids last night, and that I have capable kids who can cook for themselves.
The bar, or catch-all, sports a grocery list, school-work to grade, a computer, an SAT prep-book, camera, sunglasses, a Mexico travel guide, and other detritus from our busy life. A lot goes into organizing school, meals, laundry, boat repairs, and travel for a family of seven. As the kids grow up, I will have a lot more time to keep the boat clean, but I will really miss them and their messes.
None of this is earth-shattering. Lots of moms have come to the same logical conclusion. If mess=family and family=love, then mess=love. My prayer this morning: Forgive me, Lord, for complaining about that for which I should be grateful. Let me serve this family without grumbling and nagging,and appreciate what I’ve got before it’s gone.
We’ve noticed a pattern when we travel to a new place: for the first couple of months, we feel like strangers, after three months things begin to feel familiar, after six we’ve made friends with locals, and after nine we feel at home. Beyond that, it gets hard to leave and the place keeps a little piece of our hearts. Places are like onions—you have to peel back the layers. And a lot of the places we visit have a skin of tourism that puts us off initially, but once peeled away, reveals something fresh and interesting.
Little by little, we have begun to dig beneath the surface here in Guatemala, both literally and figuratively. Through a friend in the Keys who is starting an orphanage on Lake Izabal for abandoned and abused children, we met the Guatemalan guy who will be the house father, who also works for an organization that runs a high school for indigenous villagers with an itinerant teacher, and who helps organize a week-long kids’ camp in January before school starts (the equivalent of a Vacaction Bible School in the U.S.).
After visiting the orphanage in October, I knew there was something special happening there, and that I wanted to be a part of it. Our boys began to go on weekends to do work at the property— building a privacy fence, digging a pit at the edge of the lake that will eventually be a slip for the orphanage’s lancha, moving rocks, and doing anything else boys with lots of energy can do.
By the first week of of January (the last week before school starts here), we were excited to help with the Campamento Rio Dulce. If you didn’t grow up in an evangelical church in the United States, you may not know what a Vacation Bible School is: it is a week of camp, organized by a local church, geared toward introducing kids to the Bible in a fun and engaging way. Kids do arts and crafts, play sports and games, sing songs, and learn Bible stories. In Rio Dulce, the camp was started five years ago by a missions team from a church in Texas that wanted to give the local churches an opportunity to reach out to the children in the indigenous villages along the river. These villages originated as Mayan refugee camps during the civil war, and the people are survivors of an attempt at ethnic cleansing. Some of the kids who come to camp from the 17 villages represented speak only Q’eqchi’. The local churches have taken responsibility for the camp (still funded by an organization in the U.S.) and it is an impressive community effort.
We rode a large lancha every morning full of screaming and singing children, teenage camp counselors, and volunteers to a remote place on the river, up a mangrove creek through the jungle to the campsite. The fast lancha with the cocineras, the cooks, got a head start so the ladies could light the fires and begin cooking lunch for more than 300 people.
This is not a peanut-butter-and-jelly operation. These are ladies who volunteer to chop vegetables, make tortillas, and cook rice, beans, and chicken soup in enormous pots over open fires in a thatch-covered hut, then hand-wash the 300 plates and cups outdoors—every day for a week.
Joining me, Eli, and Aaron were three teenage friends from other boats—two girls from Israel and a boy from South Africa. I was helping with arts and crafts, up to my ears in scissors, crayons, glue, and googly eyes. After standing around much of the first day trying to figure out what they could do, the teenagers ended up helping Josue with sports and games. Our kids’ time in Homeschool P.E. in Marathon came in handy, as they knew lots of big-group games. The language barrier was the biggest obstacle, but once that was overcome (with the help of a kind translator who speaks flawless Spanish with a North Carolina accent), there was no stopping them.
I loved helping with arts and crafts and felt at home in a roomful of little people jabbering in Spanish, as it reminded me of my teaching days in Atlanta, where I taught Kindergarten in a school that was 80% Spanish-speaking immigrants. Even the groups with big kids, who didn’t need help with the crafts, were a joy—they were practicing their limited English with me, and I was attempting to learn to count to 10 in Q’eqchi’.
Some of my favorite memories from the week of camp come from the assembly time at the beginning and end of the day. Aaron brought his electric guitar and wowed the kids with his rock riffs, and I filled dead time (while he set up) teaching a song I knew in both English and Spanish. I met a guy from Rio Frio named Franklin, and he helped me learn the word for “Hallelujah” in Q’eqchi’. On the last day of camp, we sang a two-part song, one part in English, the other in Q’eqchi’. To me, it was a beautiful illustration of how bridging language gaps draws people together and helps us find common ground.
After a week of camp, I had made friends with a group of young people (the camp counselors), all of whom were interested in learning English. I decided to start a free weekly English class and the pastor of the local church offered us a space. If it goes well, I hope the class will be the first plank in a language bridge between the locals and the English-speaking cruisers who live here for part of the year. As of this posting, I’ve had two great classes, and had other cruisers ask how they can get involved.
Photo: The crew of Take Two with camp counselors, Deon from s/v Dreamcatcher (far left), the crew of s/v Rothim (Hagit in the middle with Naomi and Adi to her right, Zoe next to Rachel), and our friends from Maine, Owen and Zuber (back row next to Aaron and far right).
One of my students, a guy we met at camp, plays guitar and drums and made friends with Aaron. They have gotten together already to practice music. Eli went along too and it makes me happy to see our kids using their Spanish to reach out to locals.
As we’ve peeled back the layers, I have begun to view my surroundings with different eyes. What first appeared as only a loud, dirty, and crowded town, Fronteras has become a place where I see familiar faces, occasionally hear my name called, and feel at home browsing in the produce stalls, waiting in line for fresh tortillas, or chatting in Spanish at the Dispensa Familiar. By the end of April, when our visas expire, we will have been here for more than six months. When we move on and approach the completion of our circle of the Caribbean Sea, Rio Dulce will be out of sight, but not out of mind. It is a place we know now, and love, and to which we may return for a future hurricane season.
We have been back in Guatemala one month, but not back on Take Two! We returned to supervise the bottom job (a one-week process) and decided to do more work. We rented a beautiful house on the Rio Dulce and have been zooming back and forth each day to work on the boat, socialize, or provision in town. This is a snapshot of our daily routine for the month of November.
6:00 am. Jay and Tanya up early for morning quiet time, coffee, and yoga in the rancho overlooking the water.
7:30 am. Breakfast prep, kids start getting up to do school, Jay goes to the boat to work on projects.
8:30 am. Breakfast, morning devotions, school work.
12:00 pm. Lunch, Jay returns in the dinghy to work from home for the afternoon. Finish school day after lunch.
2:00 pm. Tanya goes with Sam and Rachel to the marina to hang out with other boat families or to town to buy produce and get dinner supplies. Big kids finish school and practice music.
5:00 pm Tanya returns as the sun begins to set over the Rio. If there’s time, Jay and Tanya have a chat over sunset drinks in the rancho.
6:00 pm. Dinner prep with one of the kids. Free time for everyone else.
8:00 pm. Story time for Rachel while big kids finish dishes/evening chores.
9:00 pm Jay and Tanya head to bed to read until they pass out. Rachel and Sam to bed. Big kids watch a movie, send emails, or read until their bedtimes.
The boat is supposed to go back in the water at the end of the week, when we’ll begin the process of moving back home, cleaning the boat, and readjusting to the space. I’m hoping to get back to a daily ukulele practice and to find more down time to read or write. Jay is hoping to get the boat back in good condition. The kids are looking forward to sleeping in their own beds again. We’ll all begin thinking and talking about what comes next for Take Two, probably a trip north to Mexico.
What follows is a series of what we call “Tanya’s famous out-the-window pictures” from our road trip in August, September, and October. I would like to thank all the wonderful folks who hosted our family, made us feel loved, and made all that driving well worth the effort!
Leaving the Florida Keys, August 12
Across the Everglades, August 12
North Carolina in the Rain, September 5
New York to New Jersey, September 7
Acadia National Park, September 27
Self-Portrait, Maine, October 2
Fall Colors, Leaving Maine, October 2
South of the Border, October 3
Causeway to St. Simon’s Island, October 3
Leaving Georgia, October 8
Sunset, Florida West Coast, October 15
Family Road Trip in the Burb. Total Miles driven: 4,325