Author Archives: Tanya

Bay Islands of Honduras

Picture this: a volcanic island covered with pine trees, sparsely settled, fringed by coral reefs, with a small round cay lying just offshore, covered, and I mean every available inch, with brightly-colored, multi-story buildings, some built on pilings out over the water. Shrimp boats with names like Flaming Arrow and Lucky Lady line the wharf along one side. A system of alleyways and canals crisscross the island, and water taxis buzz here and there, picking up and dropping off people going to the main island or through a channel to the north side, where there are sparkling sandy beaches and resorts, and one small settlement in a mangrove bay. At night, the taxis all retire, and country music begins to waft over the water from several bars. You might think to yourself, where am I? If you talk to anyone official, you will need some Spanish. If you meet someone on the street, you will speak English. The inhabitants of the island come in all shapes and colors, religious backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes. If you feel confused, this is part of the charm. You are in Guanaja, in the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Bonacca Waterfront, Guanaja, Bay Islands of Honduras

Bonacca, the Venice of the Caribbean

This place is full of seeming contradictions: a local who grew up in New Jersey and used to work in the New York Public Library returned to his island home to teach English to kids in the afternoons in a make-shift sidewalk-school. A Frenchman sails here every year on his way to or from Rio Dulce, Guatemala, but hates the water, so he comes only to hike in the pine forests. A German who settled here twenty years ago serves pizza in a palapa-on-stilts. A local couple who grew up in crowded Bonacca bought a hillside property on the main island and opened a first-class bar and restaurant which looks more like a chalet on a lake in Switzerland than a tropical island bar-and-grill.

Mi Casa Too, Guanaja

An Australian couple who have traveled the whole world by every conceivable conveyance house-sit on shore near where we are anchored (we met them in town on the day the supply boat came in). You never know what or whom you will encounter in the narrow streets of Bonacca.

Casa Sicaffy Storefront, Empanadas for Sale, Bonacca

Roatan is no less strange. Isla Barbareta, to the east, has virgin hardwood forest and good diving—it’s owned by a Texas tycoon. Mannie and Tita, originally from Mexico, run The Mango Creek Resort, a quiet getaway in Old Port Royal—yet another old pirate lair—with pastel-colored bungalows over the water, where people come for fishing vacations.

Mango Creek Resort, Old Port Royal, Roatan

Jonesville and Oakridge are local villages on bays lined with shrimping boats that ply the Cayman banks several months each year. The area looks and feels more like Louisiana than Latin America.

Shrimping Fleet, Roatan

French Harbor boasts Fantasty Island, an exclusive dive resort with a hotel, marina, dive shop, restaurant, and white-sand-lined lagoon—guarded by Hondurans with shotguns. In the same area, Little French Key brags that it is the “#1 Tourist Attraction in Honduras”—an island complex of beaches, restaurants, gift shops, swimming lagoons, and wild animals in cages, including lions and tigers and jaguars (Oh my!). We’ve never been anchored where we can hear lions roaring at sunset. It adds to the feeling that we have stepped into a Salvador Dali painting.

Horses On the Boat to Little French Key, Roatan

Coxen Hole, where the cruise ships come in to unload their thousands of passengers, has a reputation of being unsafe, and West Bay is the place said passengers go to play for the day—think parasail boats, jetskis, overloaded snorkel boats, and beaches lined with lounge chairs. West End is a little quieter—a small beach community with boutique hotels owned by North-Americans, open-air restaurants, cruising sailboats, and walls of coral to explore just offshore. A cruise around the island offers, if nothing else, variety. Each time we anchored, it felt like we’d arrived in a different country.

West Bay, Roatan

Utila is as different from Roatan as Roatan from Guanaja. A mere 17-mile sail takes you into a different weather pattern and social atmosphere. There are still palatial gringo-retiree houses with ocean views, still tin-roofed houses on stilts in town, but Utila is obviously a young diver’s mecca. Dive shops with palapas strung with hammocks line the waterfront, delicious after-dive lunches can be found for a reasonable price at lots of establishments, and the dance music starts at sunset and doesn’t finish until the wee hours. Young people from all over the world come here to get certified to dive and to become dive instructors themselves. Others come to swim with whale sharks, which are often found in the waters along the north side. Like Guanaja and Roatan, Utila has clear water, beautiful living reefs, lots of fish, and inexpensive dive-shops, which makes for phenomenal snorkeling and diving.

Swimming with a Whale Shark

The Bay Islands of Honduras have always been a crossroads. Mayan glyphs can still be found here—relics of a once-expansive population which had established trade routes throughout Central America. The first European explorers who came to get fresh food and water were welcomed by indigenous Paya in cayucos. The ubiquitous pirates of the Spanish Main lurked here. The Garifuna (Black Caribs) of St. Vincent were shipped here by English Colonizers during the wars between the intermarried “Black” Caribs and pure-blood “Yellow” Caribs of the Eastern Caribbean. The people from Africa, those whom “England left behind” have formed their own unique culture and language. Seafaring Caymanians sailed downwind from their islands to the East. Louisiana shrimpers seeking a new fishing grounds plied the nearby banks. The Hondurans who took over the islands brought Latin culture and cooking and Spanish language. The tourists seeking pristine reefs and beaches, the expats looking for cheap property in paradise, the sailors looking for a quiet anchorage—they have all come through the Bay Islands and left their mark. We too have come, made friends, formed impressions, created memories, and enjoyed the beautiful waters of the Honduran coast.

Sailing Away from Guanaja

Code Zero

When we bought Take Two, she was a lean, mean sailing machine. We tacked back and forth toward the mouth of the Manatee River and sailed across Tampa Bay on weekends and learned how to make her go fast. We used our spinnaker on calm days for a downwind run. We outran afternoon thunderstorms.

Sailing in 20 knots

And then we moved aboard.

We brought tools, spare parts, books, cast iron skillets, 5-gallon buckets of grain, scuba tanks—and, how could I forget? —five kids and all their clothes, toys, sporting equipment, and sundry items. “And sundry items” raised our water line 6 inches over time, and now our sleek sailboat is a fat cat. It takes a lot of wind to get her going. On passages, we don’t even bother to raise the main unless it’s blowing a steady 15 knots. Sure, we might be motor sailing with the jib out, but when the wind drops to 10 knots? Fuhgeddaboudit.

That all changed when we commissioned a Code Zero from Calvert Sails before we left for the Caribbean. We had added a crane to the top of the mast and a bowsprit to accommodate the new sail when we refurbished the rig in Fort Pierce (Spring 2015).

IMG_5341

We hoisted it for the first time on New Year’s Day 2016, and as it rolled out in all its glorious enormity, I heard angel choirs. We were hoping it would turn Take Two back into a sailboat, and we have not been disappointed. It is a reaching sail that fills the gap between our foresail (a genoa) and our spinnaker. We intended to use it for light upwind sailing and heavier downwind reaches.

Code Zero

We sailed across the Bahama banks in March in 15-20 knots of wind and fairly flew along the leeward coast of New Providence, seeing 10-11 knots of boat speed. When the wind started to pick up, we swapped it for the genny, not wanting to be overpowered. Good thing, too, because we saw nearly 40 knots on the banks that afternoon as we approached the anchorage at Highbourne Cay.

After that day, we wrestled it down into a locker (to protect it from the sun) and didn’t see it again for a long, long time as we bashed eastward toward the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands. Once we reached the Windwards, we discovered that the trade winds were too strong or too southerly to fly the Zero, so it stayed coiled away for another day while we sailed with reefed main and jib.

That all changed as we began the next leg of our Caribbean circle. Heading north from Grenada, we sailed fast beam reaches to St. Vincent and the Grenadines and St. Lucia, rolling out the Zero when the wind grew light, sometimes ghosting along at half-windspeed in 10 knots of breeze. Heading west from St. Lucia, it’s all downwind, so we expected to use the Zero a lot.

On our way to Bonaire in November 2016, we learned something important about that sail. We had raised, and then subsequently lowered, the mainsail after sloppy seas caused it to bang around too much. We hoisted the Zero without the main and seemed to have a lot of success. Until we hit some squally weather one night during my watch, when I decided to wake Jay to help me furl it. Without the main to blanket the huge sail, all the pressure of 25-30 knots of wind made it nearly impossible to furl. I was easing the sail as Jay furled the continuous line, but as the top and bottom of the sail rolled tightly, the middle caught the wind and bagged and ballooned. Jay was pulling as fast and hard as he could, but if he paused for even a moment, all ground was lost. Of course, it was night-time, he had been awakened from a dead sleep, and had never considered how hard the job would be, so he wasn’t even wearing gloves. We eventually got it sloppily rolled, and then dropped it onto the trampolines. As his hands blistered and bled, we learned a hard lesson—the Code Zero never goes up without the main (and, sailing gloves are not just for race crew).

We used the sail again heading west from San Blas during a period of light wind in January 2018, and, most recently, to sail from Guanaja to Roatan, Bay Islands of Honduras. The wind was directly behind us at about 10 knots. We considered using the spinnaker, but it shares a halyard with the Zero, which was still rigged since our sail from Grand Cayman. Though we swore never to fly the Zero without the main up, it seemed like the perfect light wind day to try it. And it was lovely—quietly swishing through indigo seas instead of listening to the drone of a motor or worrying about the spinnaker folding in on itself as it sometimes does in ocean swells. I went with the kids and lay on the trampolines in the shade and echo of that great sail and enjoyed a gorgeous day on the water. Though we’re still straightening out the proverbial (and sometimes literal) wrinkles, we have grown to love the Code Zero.

Sun Dog

San Andres and Providencia, Part II

While San Andres receives a million visitors each year (comparable to Costa Rica), very few of these visitors make it to Providencia, which has only a small airstrip and a little ferry, which runs the fifty miles between the two islands twice each day—there and back—in nice weather. Instead of multi-story hotel complexes, it has only a few bed-and-breakfast type places, privately-owned rentals, and small hostels. It is quiet and peaceful, and the residents like it that way. While there is some Colombian influence, the island remains much closer to its English roots—the locals still refer to it as Divine Old Providence, and most speak English. The contrast between the two islands couldn’t be more dramatic.

Santa Isabel, Providencia

We knew we would love it the moment we dropped the hook. No jet-skis, no traffic noise, no boats zooming around, a nearly-empty anchorage—just a beautiful, green, hilly island fringed with white beaches, turquoise water, and coral reefs. It reminded us of a volcanic island of the eastern Caribbean minus the cruise ship terminal. We called Mr. Bush, the agent for checking in with customs and immigration, who told us to come in the morning, poured ourselves a drink and settled in for one of the prettiest sunsets we’ve seen in a long time.

Sunset, Providenca

Two nights later, as the full moon rose, a rainstorm passed through the anchorage, causing a quick scuffle on deck as everyone battened down the hatches. The storm over almost as quickly as it had begun, we witnessed a phenomenon I have never before seen: a giant moon-bow—the colors of a night-rainbow clearly visible in the bright moonlight.  No camera could have properly captured that image, but I will never forget it.

Everything in Povidencia was like that—magical. We snorkeled in the lagoon near Crab Cay on a cloudless day in the clearest water I have ever seen. We drove around the island (it only takes 45 minutes!) and found Divino Niño, a beach restaurant with great food and atmosphere, that was recommended by friends. We walked around Santa Catalina on a nature trail and jumped off of a rocky overhang dubbed “Morgan’s Head” into the ocean (it looks a lot like a head, and is named for the pirate Henry Morgan, who is said to have buried treasure in this popular pirates’ lair.) We climbed the Peak, the tallest point on the island, and had a view of the famous “sea of seven colors.” And we made friends, which instantly transforms any place one visits.

Morgan's Head, Old Providence

Three boats came in while we were anchored in Providencia—Aqua Lobo of New Zealand with twin ten-year-olds aboard (insta-friends for our younger crew), a young couple on Soul Rebel (Aaron discovered a fellow guitar-player, Joe, with similar musical interests), and Sea Horse, with a crew of three, one a teenage girl who plays the ukulele! We were at a crossroads—they were heading south to Panama, and we were heading north towards Cayman, but for a brief span of time, they were the best friends you can imagine. We went out for fried chicken together, toured the island on gas-powered mules, swam, raced sailing dinghies, watched green-flash sunsets over drinks and laughter, shared pie on my new favorite holiday, Pi Day (3/14, of course!), and generally had a wonderful time in a beautiful place.

Hike to the Peak

One afternoon, we were relaxing in the cockpit, and a kayak with four local young people came by. They had been out fishing and stopped by because they liked our boat. They seemed friendly, and it was a hot afternoon, so I invited them into the cockpit for some shade and a cool drink.  They introduced themselves (Luis, Tachi, Dashaina, and Jose), I introduced the kids, and within moments, we discovered a common interest in music, and I lent Luis a guitar and he began to play reggae and calypso and sing. I pulled out a ukulele and an impromptu jam session began. They stayed all afternoon, and promised to visit again. We got to hang out a few more times, and a friendship began, which culminated a couple weeks later in a spearfishing trip and an evening beach-barbecue-extravaganza with the other boat-friends joining us for amazing fire-roasted fish and pot-luck side dishes.

Little Luis with Uke

Little Luis playing the ukulele

Old Fort Beach Fire

We even got to go see Luis practice with his band before they left for mainland Colombia for a competition. I dinghied over to the shore where Luis and Tachi picked me and the three boys up. We piled onto the back of two motorbikes and zoomed to the community center where the other band members were gathering for the last practice before their departure the next morning. I loved every minute—but especially enjoyed seeing the horse jaw-bone used as a percussion instrument!  My favorite song is called “Coconut Woman,” about a woman who sells coconuts every day, and lists all the benefits of that amazing nut. (Luis began to teach me how to play it before we sailed away.)

Luis and the band

As is always the case with a place one grows to love, it was hard to leave. With an insurance deadline looming (we needed a survey by April 1), we felt pressure to head north as soon as a weather window appeared. We sadly went to check out with Mr. Bush and spend our last Colombian pesos. The next morning, after a terrible night’s sleep and a very strange dream, we knew we should pull a “Take Two.” We are famous for these do-overs, not because we are indecisive, but because we prefer to travel at the right time and recognize when something doesn’t feel right. We went back to see Mr. Bush and he straightened everything out. We were lucky enough to spend another week in lovely Providencia and have a good-bye pizza dinner with the other boat-friends.

On our last day, I paddled over in my kayak to see Tachi and to give little Luis a hug good-bye. We sat on the beach under a shade tree laughing, talking, and watching 4-year-old Luis and the other the kids play with my kayak in the shallow water. It is hard to describe the kindship I felt—it didn’t matter that I live on a boat and she on an island, or that I am 15 years older than she is, or that our skin isn’t the same color, or that we speak differently—the mysterious bond that connected us was strong enough to surpass these differences, and to make my imminent departure seem insignificant. Somewhere on an island in the middle of a turquoise sea, I have a sister. Like a rainbow in the moonlight, that is a rare and beautiful thing.

I love Providence

 

 

San Andres and Providencia, Part I

Before heading into the Caribbean, we had never even heard of these two little islands. They are hundreds of miles from Colombia, which governs them, and the local population, being of English or African descent, bears very little resemblance to the Spanish or Mestizos of Latin America. But several sailors we met along the way told us not to miss them—Providencia especially, or as the English dubbed it, Divine Old Providence. We spent nearly a month in San Andres—about three weeks longer than we had planned—because it was an unusually windy February and we weren’t interested in getting our butts kicked again. Our passage from Panama to San Andres was about 240 nautical miles, and we sailed it in 30 hours, with a reefed main and partially furled jib in strong winds and rough seas. Nobody moved except to get a drink and go to the bathroom. So, despite the jet skis, the nearly-constant tour-boat wakes, and the noise of the port of San Andres, we stayed. And we stayed long enough to get beneath what Jay calls the veneer of “Duty-free Disney,” with its crowded streets lined with liquor stores, restaurants, tee-shirt shops, and all-inclusive resorts.

As is always the case, the people make the place. Even a pretty place is just a location until you make a friend. Our agent, Julian, was very welcoming and helpful, and his 13-year-old son, Keiram, came out to the boat to swim and play with our kids every weekend.

Kids with Keiram, San Andres

Through Julian, we met Sky, or as he likes to be called, “Brother Sky” (as a reminder that we are all a part of the same human family). At 73, he is tall, lean, and surprisingly muscular and energetic, with blue-green eyes and graying hair and beard. He wears a hand-woven hat and speaks with a West-Indian lilt. He led us on a guided tour of the island and explained its history and politics. We ended up at Star’s Kitchen, a little beach restaurant on the south end of the island near the town of San Luis.

Star’s place is charming, and the food is good—she uses fresh fish and produce to create simple, yet delicious dishes, served in hand-woven palm baskets on tables in the sand under the shade of coconut trees. As we sat sipping freshly-made fruit juices in the sea breeze, Sky talked about the “coconut culture” which once pervaded the island, but has now all but vanished. Young and old alike worked the coconut plantations: the children rode donkeys laden with ripe coconuts for export, which had been gathered by men wearing iron-spiked climbing shoes, while those too old to climb kept the books. It was a community enterprise from which everyone benefitted, and nothing from the coconut tree was wasted. While he talked of his youth in the 1950s, a time before the tourism boom, he wove coconut fronds into fish and birds. He had made all of the baskets at the restaurant, having learned the craft from someone in the Virgin Islands while traveling and working as the photographer on a cruise ship. I asked if he would be willing to teach me, and we set a date to meet again at Star’s Kitchen.

The older kids, despite being offered a day off from high-school, didn’t fancy sitting under a palm tree all day weaving baskets, so they stayed home, while Rachel and Sam and I met Sky at the bus stop mid-morning and took a local bus to the other end of the island. The bus to the beach was crammed full of Colombian tourists, so we took the bus that passes through Barrack—the hilly neighborhood where the local islanders live (as opposed to the city on the north end of the island, where the Colombian immigrants live and work). Riding the bus is the same everywhere in the Caribbean; the people hop on and off the bus and chat with each other in the local dialect—here it bears a strong resemblance to the patois of the Eastern Caribbean. The bus passed the First Baptist church at the crest of the hill; with its white clapboard sides, colored glass windows, and steeple, it looks like a church plucked from a small town in the southern United States and dropped where it could be closest to heaven—and with an overlook of the famous “sea of seven blues,” its view is awe-inspiring. The road curves down, past half-finished mansions built by drug lords and corrupt government officials, and we got off near the beach and walked to Star’s Kitchen to begin our day of weaving.

The weaving required a lot of concentration and patience, and Sky is part teacher-part guru, his mantra, “Take what you have to make what you need.” Rachel played happily in the sand and hammock all day, and Sam wove fish after fish until the motion became automatic. (Later, Sky came for pizza night on Take Two, and taught Sam to make little birds in flight.) I completed a hanging basket and learned the steps for a bowl. We paused for lunch and then wove all afternoon. As the light began to fade, we packed up my “homework,” partially-finished baskets to complete on my own. We rode home, feeling sleepy in the warmth and rocking of the bus. That night, with Sky’s words fresh in my mind, I composed a song, which I sang for him when he visited later in the week. He offered more wisdom about life and happiness and learning—”knowledge is power, but only when it is shared.” When we sailed away the next week, we had the satisfaction of having shared in his knowledge, and we took a little piece of that place with us, and left a bit of ourselves there—the exchange that forms the backbone of our travelling life.

Sam weaving coconut palm

 

Not So Long Ago (in San Andres)     

Not so long ago

On this little island

Fish filled the seas, coconuts grew on trees

People were happy, they could live as they pleased

We’ll never forget what it was like

Not so long ago

 

Not so long ago

The people of this island

Helped each other like sisters and brothers

Worked together in all kinds of weather

Kept the traditions passed onto us

Not so long ago

 

Not so long ago

Things changed on this island

New people came and changed all the names,

Chopped down the trees, killed the fish in the seas

They erased the place that used to be

Not so long ago

 

Now the people come and go

On this little island

Eight flights a day, from far away

On boats and jet-skis, they do whatever they please

They never see what used to be

Not so long ago

 

No so long ago

I left the little island

I couldn’t stay, so I sailed away

But the wind in the trees and the turquoise seas

Called to me in my dreams

Not so long ago

 

Not so long ago

I came back to the island

Though things have changed, some things remain

They can’t take from our hearts the most important parts:

We sing and we dance, we pray and we love,

Just like long ago,

Just like long ago…

To Give or Not to Give, that is the Question

I thought that this blog was going to be about the indigenous tribes of Panama, but I have discovered in the writing of it that a much larger topic lies beneath.

One of the reasons we left our suburban neighborhood to take our kids traveling was to show them how other people live. We wanted them to learn to speak another language and to become “well rounded.” We did not want them to take their place in the world—born into a relatively wealthy, well-educated family—for granted, but to appreciate every gift, and learn how to share those gifts someday as adults. This sounds like a noble goal, but in the midst of accomplishing it, we are having to rethink our preconceived notions of “wealth” and “education.”

Allow me to illustrate: in the San Blas islands of Panama live the Guna Yala people, an indigenous tribe which numbered in the hundreds of thousands before the conquistadors arrived, and now consist of about 50,000 people, spread over an area which encompasses about a quarter of Panama. They are self-governing, and have their own language. They make a living by fishing, sewing molas (beautifully sewn handicrafts), and growing coconuts.

Cayos Coco Banderos, San Blas

Recently, tourism has become another source of income, and one can see pangas with outboard motors zooming from place to place picking up and dropping off visitors from the mainland (now connected to Cartí by road). Obviously, this brush with the “civilized world” has changed their way of life—instead of paddling ulus, some Gunas have motors, and instead of meeting in the hut for a daily congreso, many have televisions.  Nearly everyone has a cell phone, so the outside world comes streaming in. The islands and surrounding waters are littered with plastic garbage from packages of imported food and drinks. Now, I don’t intend to invoke the myth of the Noble Savage, but in conversations with Gunas and with our kids, we are learning that as the Guna gain what we might consider “wealth,” they are losing their traditional culture, and as they become “educated” in government-run schools, they are losing the knowledge of how to live off the land. One might argue that these trade-offs do not really enrich their lives.

Carti, San Blas

This is the dilemma of development everywhere. In the eastern Caribbean, islands with cruise ship ports have thriving seaside quays with jewelry shops, souvenir stands, restaurants, casinos, and clothing stores. Of course, the locals may not actually shop in the places where they work, but still, tourism is big business and brings a lot of money to the islands that in years past survived on subsistence farming, exporting sugar and tropical fruit, and rum, fishing, and harvesting salt. But with the influx of money comes an increase in pickpockets, drug dealers, swindlers, and beggars, too.

We spent a season at Red Frog Marina in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. Nowhere was the gap between Have and Have Not more readily apparent: multi-million dollar yachts moored a hundred yards from mangrove huts where the indigenous Ngöbe-Bugle cooked over open fires. It is easy to look at the externals and say that the owner of the mega-yacht, because he has a generator and a washer/dryer is “rich” and the man in the hut “poor” because his clothes are hanging on a line between two trees, but that’s a very simplistic view of human life, and demonstrates how we often confuse “money” with “wealth.” Unfortunately, the attractiveness of this sleek lifestyle changes the way the native views himself, and perhaps this is the greatest loss.

Two young Gunas came by selling molas the other day. They differed significantly from the older Guna ladies I had met, most of whom wear traditional clothes, gold nose-rings, short hair, and beads wrapped in wide bands with intricate patterns around their wrists and ankles. A girl in her late teens, with long hair and chipped nail polish came with her brother, her driver and translator (from Guna to Spanish). They wished us a Merry Christmas and wanted to know about our traditions (and also if we would be buying gifts…) and I explained that we had traded our house-full of stuff for a simpler life on a boat, and we do not participate in Christmas or buy gifts because we choose to make memories instead. (Just that morning, when I had jokingly asked Jay what he got me for my birthday, he said, “an island paradise.”) I said we believed that relationships, not things, make people happy. He nodded vigorously and said he believed the same.

When I asked whether the next generation of Gunas was keeping the traditions of their elders, he said he is teaching his two young sons to free-dive and to fish, and the girls in his family are still learning to sew. Otherwise, he asked, how would they make a living someday? But he also admitted that with the influx of media and with the building of schools, things had changed. Electronic entertainment has replaced storytelling and singing, and young children that used to go into the mountains to tend farms with their parents now go to school, and food is brought in by boat from Colombia and by road from Panama City. He said that the Guna often eat canned tuna instead of fresh-caught fish!

Tres Pescadores, Rio Azucar, San Blas

During some particularly heavy wind (which makes paddling ulus island-to-island impossible), I was visited repeatedly by Morales, a Guna lady who tried to sell me the same molas and beads every day. I usually offered her a cold drink and a chance to rest in my shady cockpit, and she told me over the course of several days that she and her husband were raising their two grandchildren because their parents had died and between fishing and selling molas, they provided food and clothes for the four of them, but that things were difficult when she couldn’t get out to sell, or when her husband couldn’t find fish. The grandson had a medical emergency and had to go to the hospital, which complicated matters. She never begged for money outright, but always asked me to buy something. When we made gifts of some school supplies, kids’ clothes, and used snorkel gear, she offered me something in exchange. We had no way of knowing whether her story was true or not, but we helped her as much as we felt we should.

Mola by Morales

This raised many a dinner-time conversation about giving. When should a person share what they have? What are the motives of the person asking for help and the person deciding whether to help or not? When is giving money or material things not helpful? We could think of many examples where tourists giving handouts to locals creates more problems than it solves. We recounted instances in the last year or two when we had unknowingly contributed to a problem by “helping” someone, and other instances when it would have been wrong not to help.

Sometimes helping involves more than a handout. I took over my friend Shirlene’s English classes at a Ngöbe village school this past summer when she and her family went back to the United States for a visit. Eli and Sam each came with me a few times to help out. That kind of giving—of time and energy, seems to satisfy a need without creating a negative cycle, and often results in the giver receiving a blessing as well. Another strategy is to trade instead of giving things away, helping to retain the dignity of the receiver and not contributing to the economy of begging. We also donate things like school supplies and clothes to a local charity or church, because they usually better understand the need in the community.

Bahia Honda English Class

I knew we would see poverty as well as wealth in our travels, and that they would often be juxtaposed, but I didn’t realize how we would be confronted almost daily with the dilemma about whether and how to help a “poor” person who sees us as wealthy patrons. Discerning what the “haves” should or should not do for the “have-nots” is difficult—there is no formula, and humans are not always motivated by altruism; they often act out of guilt or pride or pity. As a result, some people simply refuse to participate, turning every needy person away without consideration for individual circumstances. Others give liberally without thinking of the consequences: generous to a fault.

We are looking for the happy medium: we recognize that though our boat feels like a modest dwelling to us, it represents a life of luxury to those we encounter. Furthermore, our faith in the ultimate Giver compels us to act with compassion toward fellow creatures. The scriptures by which we live are clear on giving: if I have two shirts, and my brother has none, I ought to give him my extra. We believe that “to whom much is given, much will be expected” and “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” To love God is to show love to our fellow man.*

On the other hand, the kids say I have “sucker” written across my forehead, that I would listen to every “Sally Sob-story and Harry Hard-luck” that makes an appeal. I bought limes and bananas (whether I needed them or not) up and down the Eastern Caribbean from every boat-boy who stopped by. I felt I was supporting the local economy in legal goods, but other people might argue that I’m taking business from the markets ashore, or raising the prices of produce, or even “feeding a stray dog” that will return again and again. I don’t know.

Warrior, Carriacou

Furthermore, when someone does ask for help, I often have no way of knowing whether he or she is telling me the truth. I have opted to err on the side of compassion. A dishonest person will eventually suffer the consequences of his lies, but I will also be held accountable for whether I cared for my neighbor. I guess I would rather be foolhardy than hard-hearted.

Life was much easier in suburbia. We belonged to a church, we gave regularly, and we seldom encountered abject poverty and desperation. I once heard a fellow sailor say that he was tired of traveling to third-world countries because “poverty looks the same everywhere,” but now that I have seen it, I have to say that it isn’t true. Yes, a blue tarp constitutes a “roof” in many places, but beneath that roof, the people are individuals, with thoughts and feelings and needs. How to meet those needs is a complex question, and though we can’t help every poor person in the world, when someone crosses our path in a place of need, we owe it to him as a fellow human to listen to his story with an open mind, and to treat him the way we would want to be treated.

*Verses from the Bible: Luke 3:11, Luke 12:47-48, James 1:27, Matthew 22:36-40

 

Full Circle: Ten Years of Take Two

Before we were sailors, we were dreamers. Since we were teenagers, we had talked about buying a boat and sailing around the world. Even when we were young professionals in Atlanta, buying our first house and having our first child, we never forgot this dream. Jay satisfied his need to be on the water by crewing on a race boat on Lake Lanier, and I read books and magazine articles that kept the dream alive.

Like many people who dream of sailing away, our favorite periodical at the time was Cruising World Magazine. Jay would sit out on our back deck on a breezy day, angle his chair so that he could get a view clear of neighboring houses, and imagine he was reading on the deck of his boat. (In reality, better training would have been to get down on his hands and knees and use a sander, but I digress…) One column that was particularly memorable for me was Bernadette Bernon’s Log of Ithaca. Once the editor of Cruising World, she and her husband had bought a boat, quit their jobs, and gone cruising. Her articles inspired me, and I remember reading about the San Blas archipelago and going vicariously with her to the remote coconut islands and meeting the indigenous Guna Yala in their dugout ulus. At the time it seemed like an impossible dream, but here I am, 15 years later, sitting in the cockpit of my own boat, nestled behind a reef in the Lemon Cays, getting a daily visit from a Guna woman named Morales, who shows me her molas and drinks cool drinks while answering my questions.

San Blas

On our first day here, a woman in a large dugout powered by a motor came by to welcome us to San Blas. She introduced herself as Lisa—the very same Lisa I had read about so long ago while living in suburbia! Of course, I had to buy some of her beautifully-crafted molas and tell her how happy I was to finally meet such a famous person! Tomorrow, we celebrate ten years since we first laid eyes on Take Two, the day we drove as a family to Fort Lauderdale to begin what has become an incredible journey of discovery about ourselves and our world. Perhaps I wax nostalgic, but who could blame me? Here we are: doing the very thing we had read about, and finding that it is exponentially harder, yet more rewarding, than we had dreamed from our back porch.

The Land of Plenty

 

Things are quiet in Panamá right now, a time of the year when it rains quite a bit and ex-pats tend to head north to visit friends and family during the North American summer. We decided to stay here, despite our fears of getting cabin fever during “rainy season.” As it turns out, the islands in the Bocas archipelago have weather patterns that are less predictable than on the mainland. Somewhere on mainland Panama, it rains every day during this season, but here where we are, you might have two or three rainy days in a row, then a sunny one. Or a rainy night and an overcast day. One month might be rainier than another, but there really are no “seasons” at all—one big happy summer day after another. Gray days, while they may seem drearier than sunny ones, provide a respite from the intense heat of the sun, so I don’t mind them so much.

Sunset Bocas

For the remaining residents at the marina, we had a 4th of July potluck (several Brits were participants, but we decided against a re-enactment), but even there, with friends wearing stars and stripes, I felt no pang of nostalgia or longing to “go home.” It seems that all I miss of my mother country are the people I love there, and the ease with which one can get what one wants.

I have only been back to the United States (a.k.a. the Land of Plenty) one time in the last 15 months. I took a trip in June to see a couple of my best friends and go to my 20th college reunion in Middlebury, Vermont. It was a 6-day-girlfriend-extravaganza, starting with a midnight road trip from Boston to Portland, Maine (thank you, Kimberly!) and continuing with shopping, chatting, a second road trip to and from Vermont (thank you, Heather!), the sharing of bottles of wine, eating, laughing, more shopping, and finishing with late-night packing, and early morning coffee on the way to the airport. It was the perfect get-away.

Mattapoisett Light

Heather and Tanya at Texas Falls

I loved seeing the aerial view of where we live in Panama and the whole Canal system. It’s easy to get tunnel-vision here and forget about the outside world, so getting out of Bocas was like a breath of fresh air. On the other hand, after being away for just a few days, I began to miss my tribe, my tropical-jungle-island home, and hearing Spanish on a daily basis.

I had a bit of reverse culture shock in the U.S. First, the speed at which everything moves is dizzying.  “Island time” is a very real thing, and I’ve been on it for a long time. I felt something similar to the dread I have of driving into Miami from the Florida Keys, only magnified. Everyone seems so harried and stressed out, and not just in the Boston airport, either.

Also, I underestimated the stormy political climate of the United States right now. I get my news when I want it from the internet, and rarely see a television, so I don’t have to be inundated with images and headlines repeated ad nauseum.  When I do see a TV, it’s usually in Spanish and often headlining not some stupid thing the new U.S. President has said or done, but what’s going on in Venezuela.

Finally, I had forgotten how wonderful it is to go into a store, be surrounded by people speaking English, and find almost anything I didn’t even know I needed. I had ordered some things to get shipped to Heather’s, but I did a little shopping as well, and I was overwhelmed by all the shiny stuff! I was paralyzed in the stores and had to be rescued (more than once). I had brought a duffle stuffed with gifts, thinking I could use it to bring back a few things. Ha! I had to borrow a giant duffle from Kimberly (one she had used for the self-same purpose). I lugged it home like Santa Claus, and my little helpers happily unpacked all those goodies from the Land of Plenty!

The contrast of My Life on a Boat and the lives of my Middlebury classmates was startling, and not just to me. I was afraid of the old inferiority-complex, having gone to a prestigious institution whose classmates are among the influential movers-and-shakers in the world. And what did I do with my over-priced New England education? Got married, quit my career just as I was getting good at it, had five kids, and left suburbia for the Simple Life. That doesn’t sound very impressive. But it all depends on how you measure success—more than a few times, I was met by startled admiration from people I would never have guessed think that I’m living the proverbial dream.

Student Center, Middlebury, VT

In truth, going back to America cured me of wanting to go back to America. Thrown into relief, I was reminded why my life is beautiful—the life of my own choosing, with a career in education and home management, and all in a location and at a pace where I can really enjoy it. Sure, I miss my family and friends more than I like to admit, and ordering things online and paying for shipping to Central America is pricey, but I wouldn’t trade the experiences we’ve had for the convenience of staying Stateside.

Swarming at Sunset

Yesterday we witnessed a natural phenomenon that had us scratching our heads and mildly worried. Zillions of insects with helicopter-like wings rose up out of the jungle after a heavy rain into the calm evening air. After a brief-but-frantic flight, they landed, dropped their wings and disappeared. Most of them landed ashore, some of them landed on the surface of the water or the docks, and a few hundred landed on our boat. This morning, we went looking for the survivors, but all we found were hundreds of black wings. What were they?

If you guessed termites, you would be correct. There are two common types of termites: subterranean and dry-wood or “powderpost.” The West Indian Powderpost might infest a wooden boat, boring into the wood, making a nest inside it, and slowly eating away at and weakening it. The subterranean variety, after the nuptial flight, dig a hole in the ground, mate, and lay eggs, creating a nest underground and mud-tunnels up to wooden structures. So which ones did we find on Take Two?

Turns out the easiest way to differentiate one type from the other is by looking at the wings. Using our microscope and a very helpful University of Florida website, I was able to identify exactly which species left wings all over the cockpit and decks of our boat. Thankfully, they were the subterranean variety, having taken flight from their jungle homes on Isla Bastimentos, looking for deadwood in the rain forest, not cedar, mahogany, teak, or cold-molded marine plywood, all of which are part of Take Two’s construction. One mystery remains, though: where did all the termites go? We dug around in some cockpit lockers and failed to find a single bug.

Add that to the other mysterious visitors we’ve had on Take Two recently, like the fruit bat that nibbled bananas in our fruit bowl in the middle of the night, or the little brown beetles we picked up in Colombia that attracted our new “pet” geckos. Despite our living in a floating home, we get a surprising number of critters aboard, not all of them welcome.

Cooking with David

We have a new friend in Panama, though he isn’t Panameño. Every afternoon when we finish our school and chores, we head over to the other side of the island (through the mangroves, over the hill with the “monkey crossing” sign, past the sloth tree) to go to Playa Tortuga and cool off and play in the waves. There are two guys who work there, raking the beach to keep it free of seaweed, serving Coco Locos to thirsty tourists, and acting as lifeguards to swimmers: Humberto and David. Humberto has been working for Red Frog for a long time, something like 9 years, but the other guy, David, is relatively new to the job. I discover all this in casual conversations in both Spanish and English.

David, as it turns out, is Venezuelan, working in Panama for a couple of years and sending money back to family while his home country is busy falling apart. He has a wife and two sons, brothers and sisters, aging parents—all of whom he helps by raking beaches in paradise. In our conversations, he helps me with my limited Spanish, and I help him with his limited English. He is surprised to learn that our family of seven lives on a boat, and I am surprised to discover that he is a medical doctor in Venezuela. He’s on-call for emergencies at Red Frog, but can’t afford the outlandish license fees to practice in Panama. I used to encounter this kind of thing when I taught elementary school in Atlanta. A refugee family would arrive in the neighborhood, and the dad would be working three jobs, dishwashing or construction or day-labor, and it would turn out he had been a college professor in his home country.

David, aside from having a great sense of humor, is a sort of Jack-of-all-trades, a “utilíto,” who can do just about anything. After his parents’ separation when he was a child, he basically raised himself, becoming completely independent by the age of 14. One of his many talents is Venezuelan cooking. On his day off, David often comes over to cook and share the meal with our family. One night, he teaches me how to make a Venezuelan empanada, which is made with corn masa rolled into a thick tortilla, folded around a filling (usually meat and cheese) and cooked slowly on a griddle. Eli and Sarah learn how to make hallacas–similar to tamales, but using banana leaves instead of corn husks, and including some very surprising ingredients. Sam is becoming our expert on arroz con coco–a delightful desert, slightly reminiscent of rice pudding. What follows is a recipe, of sorts, though I’m not sure you could repeat it at home. I’m not even sure we can repeat the experience without our Venezuelan chef!

Arroz con Coco with David

Making hallacas is an all-day, whole-family affair, a holiday meal often served at Christmas and New Year’s. The only thing comparable in the U.S. might be the preparation of turkey-and-trimmings at Thanksgiving. For this cooking class, David is the chef, and Eli the sous-chef. Sarah offers some assistance as well as making dessert (a coconut flan with lime-caramel sauce), but Aaron is out all day working at a neighboring marina, and Sam and Rachel have some new boat friends to play with so they stay out of the way. I take photographs and clean up after the cooks.

The day starts with a shopping trip in Bocas Town to buy supplies for two dozen hallacas:

2 lb. beef (steak or stir-fry strips)
1 lb. pork (chops)
2 lb. chicken (breast)
1 large jar green olives
1 small jar capers
2 large onions
2 large bell peppers
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1+ tablespoon soy sauce
1+ tablespoon Worcestershire
8 cloves garlic
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1/3 cup chopped hierba Buena (a very mild mint) or celery leaves
1+ tablespoon Adobo con pimiento
Salt and pepper to taste
5 eggs
4 large potatoes
1 cup raisins
2 large carrots
2-3 lbs. corn flour for masa (Doñarepa extrafina)
4 cups water
1/3 cup olive oil
3 teaspoons salt, divided
1 ball of cooking twine

Hallaca ingredients

When we return home, the first step is to trim the stems off of, and wipe down, a dozen large banana leaves. Using a clean cloth and bowl of water, they clean both sides of each leaf. After they are dry, we fold them gently and set them aside for later. It is possible to buy prepared banana leaves, and David says they have been passed through fire so that they impart a different flavor, but since he couldn’t buy them here, fresh will do.

Washing banana leaves with David

Now the frenzy begins. Eli and David trim the fat and bones off of the meat and begin to chop it into small bite-size pieces, keeping the chicken dices in a separate bowl, since they cook more quickly and are added at a different time. Sarah peels and chops garlic. Eli chops finely one of the onions and one of the peppers. David minces the green herbs.

The diced pork and beef are placed in a large pot over low heat and begin to cook in their own fat. The minced vegetables, garlic, and herbs are added. When the adobo, Worcestershire (a.k.a. salsa Inglesa), soy sauce, capers and green olives (drained and rinsed), and tomato paste are added, the smell it begins to generate is tantalizing. The top goes on the pot so the meat can stew in its own juices for about twenty minutes. Then the chicken is stirred in. After another twenty minutes, David tastes the mixture, adds salt and pepper, and declares it delicious. It stews a little longer until all the flavors have melded. After about an hour total cooking time, the heat is turned off and the top is placed on the pot. Time for the next step.

Hallaca filling

In another pot, we bring two quarts of water to boil. We add the potatoes and carrots, unpeeled and whole, and the eggs. After about 15 minutes, we will remove the eggs, test the root veggies with a fork, and continue to boil them until they are tender. Meanwhile, under David’s tutelage, Eli is thinly slicing the remaining onion and bell pepper. When the potatoes are done, they are peeled carefully under cold water. When cool to the touch, the potatoes, carrots, and eggs are also sliced thinly. At this point, I am wondering how all these things are going to come together. This recipe is like nothing in my repertoire.

Hallaca ingredients

David makes a masa with the fine yellow cornmeal. When I make tortillas, I add warm water to salted cornmeal, but when David makes a masa, he starts with cool, salted water and adds the cornmeal. I’m not sure about the science here, but his dough is softer and smoother than mine, and a little wetter than when I’m making tortillas. He adds a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, and continues to massage the dough until it forms a smooth, silky ball, adding cornmeal or water until the texture is just right (about like play-dough).

Making the Masa

When the masa is ready, it’s time for assembly. At this point, all the ingredients are laid out on our salon table: banana leaves, a small bowl with water and oil, a large bowl of corn masa, a pot of meat, bowls of cooked and sliced carrots, potatoes, and eggs, sliced fresh onions and peppers, a bowl of raisins, and a ball of string. My largest pot, a 20-quart pressure cooker, is two-thirds full with water over medium heat. By the time it comes to a boil, the first hallacas will be ready to cook.

Hallacas with David

The magic begins like this: David tears a banana leave into squares, which he overlaps to make a larger rectangle. He dips his fingertips in the water-and-oil, and wets the surface of the leaves. He takes a handful of masa and rolls it into a ball, which he places in the center of the leaves. With oiled fingertips, he flattens the dough and presses the edges outward until it is a disk about 1/4 of an inch thick and eight inches across. He spoons some of the meat mixture into the center. On top he places a few disks of potato, carrot, and egg, and a few long, thin pieces of onion and pepper. He sprinkles on some raisins, then carefully begins to fold the whole thing into a tightly-closed packet. No recipe could explain how to do this—it’s the sort of thing that must be seen and done to be learned. He has a special way of tying it up with string which he is teaching to Eli. If we ever make this recipe on our own, we will probably have to watch a video to remind ourselves how to do it.

Hallacas with David

In the end, we have a perfectly-wrapped, soon-to-be-enjoyed gift. It is placed on a platter and the whole process is repeated. After about a dozen are done, they go into the boiling water for twenty to thirty minutes, doneness being determined by lifting the packet out of the water, and tapping on it until it sounds done (the same way empanadas are tested). While the first batch of hallacas are cooking, the second batch is in assembly. Eli is watching and learning, tying the finished packets. Soon, a distinctive smell rises from the pot. It is unlike anything we have ever cooked, and once the banana leaves are unwrapped and the golden hallacas are steaming on the plates, I am incredibly hungry. I can’t see how 24 will be enough for the eight of us.

Hallacas on the boil

But our eyes are bigger than our stomachs—though delicious, the hallacas are very filling. We eat just over half of them, send David home with leftovers, and keep some for our lunch the next day. David instructs us to reheat them in boiling water, though Eli discovers they’re pretty good cold, pulled out of the fridge, unwrapped, and eaten on the spot. Teenage boys.

Hallacas with David

To David, we are so grateful. These are more than cooking classes—they are part of a cultural exchange, a language lesson, and a friendship. It is emblematic of something I love about a traveling life: meeting new people and forming symbiotic relationships. David teaches us to cook Venezuelan food and gives us an opportunity to speak Spanish, and we provide a family atmosphere and give him a chance to practice English. It’s an experience that leaves everyone feeling satisfied.

Song for My Dad

I’ve taken to doing some songwriting recently, and here is my latest effort. I’m not quite ready to upload video of me singing it and accompanying myself on the ukulele, but here are the lyrics, anyway.

I Never Can Stay

When I was a kid, you took me on long trips
To see our vast country from the back of a car.
We crossed mountains and deserts and saw the big cities;
We meandered on roadways like a wandering star.

Looking out the back window and over the prairie,
My heart would long for things far away.
The stars overhead were the only thing constant–
I knew at that moment I never could stay.

This feeling of moving took hold of my spirit;
I crave open sky and the wind in my hair.
It’s not a question about discontentment;
I wander because I am happy out there.

Looking back at my childhood and all our adventures,
My heart is longing for things far away.
The stars overhead are the only thing constant–
And home is the place where I am today.

So I sail from this harbor in search of another;
Saying goodbye’s a part of my lifestyle.
The boat is my home, the ocean my mother.
If I find a nice place, I might stay for a while.

Looking back at my travels and all my adventures,
My heart is longing for things far away.
The stars overhead are the only thing constant–
And when I find a nice place, I never can stay.

There is always a new place on the horizon;
My new friends become like family.
The old sailors I meet remind me of you, Dad,
And it keeps me from feeling too lonely.

Looking back at the islands and over the sea,
My heart is longing for things far away.
The stars overhead are the only thing constant–
I know that this moment never can stay.

Oh, Daddy, did you know when we drove cross-country
That someday I’d sail for points far away?
My children are growing up far from their grandpa–
I miss you, but you know, you made me this way.

Looking back at my memories and my family,
My heart is longing for things far away.
The stars overhead are the only thing constant–
I’m happy to see you, but I never can stay.