Category Archives: General

Stop and Smell the Orchids

One thing I love about living in Central America is the everyday encounters with exotic flora and fauna. I know that what is “exotic” to me is normal to the people who live here in the same way that North American birds and flowers that are normal for me would be “exotic” to them. We used to laugh, for example, when people would take manatee tours in the Indian River Lagoon—we would hear the vacationers screaming, “Look! A manatee!” as they nearly tipped the boat in their eagerness to photograph a slow-moving sea cow. We saw these gentle animals in our back yard nearly every day and became inured to them. To be fair, my friends in Panama laughed when I would stop by the same tree every day to look up to see what the sloth was up to (usually sleeping in the same place as the day before, but sometimes, gasp, it was scratching!). I never got tired of looking at this strange animal, but this strangeness and newness is part of why we travel. Nature is full of surprises—even when you’re used to the surroundings, a closer look always inspires wonder and awe.

On the way home from an afternoon out with Jay here on the Rio Dulce, we stopped to take a closer look at a tree surrounded by a cloud of pink blossoms. We idled over in our dinghy and realized that the flowers were not part of the tree, but were growing attached to the trunk, that they were, in fact, orchids. They were beautiful—with ruffled pink/purple petals and a deep magenta throat. I snipped a small cluster to bring home and show the kids and to see if I could identify the type of orchid. Suddenly, ants were crawling all over my hand and down my arm—the orchids were teeming with them. I gave the flowers a quick dowsing in the river and brushed the ants off my arm. I felt bad for having so thoughtlessly disturbed the flowers and their residents and regretted not carrying the good camera so I could have captured a closeup of the flowers without taking them off the tree.

Myrmecophila orchid, Guatemala

My initial research made identification seem a difficult, if not impossible, task—there are over 1000 species of orchid in Guatemala, and there are several books and identification guides to enthrall the orchid-lover. There is even an annual orchid festival in Antigua, Guatemala every year, and many viveros which sell them to collectors and gardeners from around the world. I looked through pages and pages of images, and with a little patient digging, I was able to narrow down what kind of orchid I had. And it made perfect sense. The genus is myrmecophila: myrmex meaning “ant” and “philos,” love. These orchids and ants share a mutual affection for each other—they are, in fact, symbiotes.

Myrmecophila orchid, Guatemala  (closeup)

Myrmecophilia (exaltata?)

I found a lovely article written by Ivan Gabaldón, whose curiosity about this phenomenon led him to closer observation through macro-photography of ants and orchids. He had done his own research and interviewed conservationist Joann Andrews in Mexico. She describes the relationship thus: “the ants help the flower bloom, defend the plant from herbivores and take up residence in its bulbs, where they store dead insects that in turn provide protein for the orchid. The reward for the ants is to feed on the orchid’s nectar.”

Further reading reveals another mystery: the ants are not the primary pollinators for the orchids, rather, each species of orchid produces its own signature fragrance that attracts flying insects—a different kind of bee for each orchid.

How often do we zoom past such wonders in our hurry to get somewhere or to do something? A microcosm, mysterious and beautifully complex, lies within our reach, but unless we slow down and take the time to look, and to study what we see, we miss it entirely. Perhaps this is the best gift nature offers us: the chance to pause in our busy-ness and get a different perspective, to notice and appreciate something new and strange.

For more information on orchids in Guatemala:

Ivan Gabaldón’s article, “On the Miracle of Orchids and Their Love of Ants” from www.rideintobirdland.com.

James Bateman’s book, Orchids of Mexico and Guatemala (updated by John A. Denson in 2010, Lulu.com).

Oakes Ames’ and Donovan Stewart Correll’s Orchids of Guatemala and Belize (1985, Dover).

 

Bunches of Fun

How do bananas grow? I learned the answer to this question at the Bunches of Fun Banana Farm Tour in Belize.

Well, first the farmer plants seeds or small banana plants. It works both ways. They require a lot of water because their trunks are made of channels full of water. Banana plants need good soil, so farmers re-use old tree trunks, bananas, and leaves chopped up to make a mulch. They need warmth and sunlight, which is why they grow well in Central America.

Banana Blossom 3

The plant grows rapidly. A banana flower begins to grow. What is growing under each petal? A hand of bananas! Each banana is called a finger, and many hands make a bunch. Each plant produces only one bunch during its life.

Baby Bananas]

The farmer protects the bananas from bugs. The two small bananas at the bottom are sacrificial bananas that protect the rest of the bunch from fungus.

Banana Harvest 2

After the bananas are full grown, the bunch is harvested. The farmer uses paper and plastic to protect the bananas from latex, a gooey brown sap that stains the bananas and makes them hard to sell. The bananas ride a kind of zip-line or cable to a large building where they are washed, cut, and sorted, then packed very tightly in boxes. Then they get loaded into containers and go by truck to a big ship. They are stored at 58 degrees Fahrenheit to keep them from ripening too quickly.

Banana Plant Stump

Once a banana plant has produced a bunch of bananas, they chop it down. However, a daughter plant is already growing right next to the old stem, starting a new cycle of life.

My favorite part of the tour was at the end, when we got to eat some fried green bananas, which are better than potato chips!

Up the Rio

After much discussion of family goals, summer plans, boat projects, and seasonal weather, we made a decision while in Belize in June to head up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala instead of sailing back to Florida to haul out for hurricane season. This is a departure from our original plan, but for those who know us, this will not come as a surprise since all of our plans are written in wet sand at low tide.

Take Two Crew in the Rio Dulce 3

Crew of Take Two heading upriver

While some of the crew is ready to go back to the United States for good, others of us would like to spend more time in the Caribbean and Central America. The compromise is to spend a season in Guatemala, fly back to the US for a long visit, and eke out one more cruising season before sailing back to Florida. The cost of boat work and risk of hurricanes are both significantly reduced here as well.

View of Rio Dulce Guatemala

So far, we are loving it here–we’re plugged into a marina with a pool, and have met some new friends as well as connecting with some old ones. The day we pulled into the dock, Jacob and April and their two girls from s/v Lark were having lunch at our marina, and they formed a welcoming party.  One of the reasons we love this lifestyle is that boat-friendships, no matter how transient, are really special–the world is small and you never know when you’ll run into an old friend.

Shell Bay Waterfront Rio Dulce

For those land-lubber family members and friends we haven’t seen in a while, we look forward to seeing you sometime this summer or early fall when the crew of Take Two goes on the road!

Go Big or Go Home

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. Weighing around 20 tons and reaching lengths of over 40 feet, they are bigger than any other currently-living species of fish or non-mammalian vertebrate. They are slow-moving filter feeders, eating krill, plankton, and other tiny sea creatures. Their gentle nature, graceful movements, and tremendous size make whale sharks one of the more majestic creatures on the planet. We swam with some.

Swimming with a Whale Shark

We had been in Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, for a little over a week, enjoying the excellent diving, and were making plans to leave for Utila. Mom mentioned that there were whale sharks in Utila, and would we be interested in taking a tour to see them while we were there? Would we?! I should think so! It sounded just like the sort of incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience that we try to collect.

Utila is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks can not only be found year-round, but can be found easily, as their migratory route takes them past the Bay Islands. Whale sharks are very rare, secretive, and shy, and as a result, very little is known about their life cycle, breeding patterns, or migrations.

We arrived in Utila a few days later, after a short half-day passage. The weather would be calm and sunny for only a few more days, so one of the first things we did was to sign up the whole family for a tour the next morning with Bush’s Bay Island Charters. The trip would start at eight, and we would be out “whale-sharking” for several hours.

We had just finished breakfast when our captain came by in a dive boat. His name was Denny, a local guy whose family had originally come from Louisiana and the Cayman Islands. We got our snorkeling gear and cameras together, and loaded up. After a quick fuel stop, Denny took us around to the north side of the island, along the edge of the drop-off. The sharp peaks of the Honduras mainland were clearly visible to the south, while in the north, we could see the hills of Roatan low on the horizon.

Denny and Jay, Looking for Whale Sharks

On the way, he told us a little bit about finding whale sharks. Whale sharks eat plankton, an extremally abundant commodity in this area of the ocean, so they should be able to go wherever they want. But they don’t. For some unknown reason, whale sharks follow the schools of tuna, which feast on the bait-fish, which, in turn, feast on the plankton. Whale sharks can almost always be found near a tuna boil, a place where a school of tuna feeds near the surface. Then it is a simple matter of locating the shark, and jumping in on top of it. There were already several dive boats out looking for tuna boils when we got around to the north side of the island.

We soon found such a boil, and Denny told us to jump. We pitched ourselves over the side. The water was deep, disappearing into inky blue-blackness far below us. Tuna swam around in the upper few feet, snapping up bait-fish. Then we saw the whale shark. It was huge, maybe twenty feet long, greyish-blue and covered with white spots. It was most definitely a shark, and not a whale. It wasn’t just the fin alignment, the gills, or the vertical tail, there was something distinctly un-mammalian about it. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the least bit frightening. Maybe it was the knowledge that they had no teeth. The shark seemed shy, and soon ghosted off into the depths.

Whale Shark

We got back in the boat, to look for the next boil. The sharks always seemed to be near the surface in the middle of a boil. Denny said that later in the afternoon, when the tide rose, they would become less skittish, sometimes letting snorkelers swim with them for 30 minutes or more.

By this time, the other dive boats had caught on, and were beginning to arrive. At the next boil, we were joined by a half-dozen other snorkelers. We didn’t mind; the pool was big enough for all. In total, we made five dives, with about 15 minutes in between. We saw a whale shark on each dive, sometimes two at a time. A few were over 30 feet long. They seemed more annoyed than scared at our presence. They would swim around for a few minutes, then go deep. We brought along a couple of cameras, and I got lots of video footage of whale sharks swimming majestically away from the obnoxious snorkelers.

Whale Shark Tail

Eventually, it was time to go. We climbed back into the boat, and Denny headed us for home. Rachel, justifiably a little leery of swimming in ridiculously-deep water with ridiculously-large fish, had elected to stay in the dive boat the whole time, but had still seen some from the surface. As for me, I’m happy I took the plunge. It will stand out as one of the highlights of our trip. If I’m going to swim with sharks, they might as well be 30 feet long.

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

Stingray City

We came to the Cayman Islands to haul the boat out for an insurance survey, and also for the supposedly-stunning underwater landscape. We got the survey sorted out the first week. and broke out of the marina to experience the rest of the island. One thing many people strongly recommended we check out was Stingray City.

We did a little research, read through sickeningly-cheesy articles in tourist brochures, and talked to other people. Apparently, it all started as a bunch of fishermen in the early 1900s, who always cleaned their catch in the same place every day. Before long, the local stingrays caught on, and began showing up for the daily banquet. Not long after that, the local tourist industry caught on, and began running tours to see the stingrays.

Sting Ray

There are two sites: The Sandbar, which is shallow enough for non-swimmers, and the actual Stingray City, which lies in 12 feet of water and is hailed as the #1 shallow diving spot in the world. Both are frequented by dozens of “gentle giants” in search of an easy meal. Dive masters and tour guides throw squid in the water, and when the “lovable creatures” show up, the tourists throw themselves in to “cozy up”. Supposedly, stingrays only sting when under attack, but I would think that getting lifted out of the water, kissed, or ridden would register as attack. But apparently, not enough people have been stung to ruin the fun for everyone else.

From our anchorage, we couldn’t see the famous place, but we could see the mass of boats anchored on top of it (and almost, it seemed, each other). It looked awfully crowded, and we generally avoid large crowds. But Grandma Mary flew down for a week, and we were going to be sailing around anyway, so we figured, what the heck, and went. It was early evening when we anchored nearby, and all but a couple speedboats were left. We swam over.

Sarah Swimming with Stingray

There certainly were heaps of stingrays, some of the largest I’ve ever seen. The stingrays would get close enough to touch, but didn’t hang around after they realized you didn’t have any squid. It was still pretty cool, but not “magical” and we were not “mesmerized by the antics and charm of these fascinating creatures” as advertised. It seemed like just a bunch of ordinary stingrays. Of course, I doubt that the average tourist has ever seen a stingray, so the chance to touch a wild one must seem exotic and “unforgettable.” The stingrays themselves were a diverse lot. One of them, a particularly large black one, had no tail. Another had a gash that split its face almost to its eye. Most of them were buried in sand, trying to sleep.

The sun went down, and I swam home. I enjoyed it about as much as I normally enjoy an early-evening swim. It seemed to me that the whole stingray thing was hugely overrated.

Stingray City at Sunset

The next day, we returned. It was quite a beautiful day, with cloudless skies. The Sandbar was thickly-coated with tour boats and their camera-wielding cargo. Mom, Rachel, and Mary swam over to look at the stingrays, and the rest of us (except for Aaron, who stayed on the boat) swam over to the reef. The coral, for the most part, was bleached, but there were quite a lot of fish. We saw a number of ridiculously large snapper, which were so docile, I could easily have shot one with a short pole spear (which is totally illegal, of course). We returned to the boat. Mom, Mary, and Rachel were still off playing with the stingrays, so we just swam around the boat, reluctant to mix with the throngs of tourists. I absently began stacking rocks and lumps of dead coral into a big heap. Sam and Sarah joined in the fun, and the heap soon turned into a cairn, and the cairn into a tower. We decided it was done when it was as tall as I was.

Eli's Underwater Cairn

Mom, Rachel, and Mary had since come back, with lots of photos. We picked up the hook, and left the zoo behind us. So much for Stingray City, the island’s premier underwater attraction.

Mary, Adventure Grandma

Adventure Grandma!

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

 

 

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.

Blood, Sweat, and Gasoline

Located on Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro, Panama, Agua Dulce is a small, privately-owned marina run by a guy named Bobby and his family, who have been living in the area for years. We heard about them from some friends we had met in the Keys who used to work there. When we got to Bocas, we looked them up. They have a reasonably long dock, a workshop with metal-working, canvas, and fiberglass sections, a guest house, and a medical clinic, in addition to their own house and large multi-purpose building. They have three home-schooled kids, a boy and two girls, ages 6, 10, and 14, respectively, so at least there are some other kids nearby with which to play.

Previous to our acquaintance, I had been consistently finishing my school work before noon, and had a surplus of free time, so the idea of getting a job sounded pretty good. I started driving the dinghy the two-and-a-half miles to Agua Dulce every day at around 1:00, to volunteer until 5:00. I basically did clean-up/sorting chores or helped a guy named Ben who works there, with whatever he was doing. A lot of the stuff there is related to panga work (local fiberglass motorboats), such as welded stainless tops, painting, motor work and replacement, wood floor pieces, and fiberglass, though they also do boat storage and other things. Ben does all the welding and metalworking, from door handles to tops for pangas, and taught me how to sand down and polish the welds to make them smooth and shiny. I also stripped things like cleats, lights, D-rings, and steering systems off of boats that needed to be sanded and painted. The sanding and fiberglass is handled by “the guys,” a group of indigenous workers hired from the two adjacent villages, led by Felipe, the most experienced of them.

Aaron at Work

Ever since I started working there, I noticed that the guys watched me a lot. One day I needed an extra hand, and asked one of them for help. Though my Spanish was not very good, I was able to tell him what I wanted, and it worked out fine. A couple of days later, now that they knew we could communicate, they asked me what my name was, so I told them. A week later, though I was sure that they knew my name, they started calling me “Crosh.” I didn’t find out what that meant for another couple of months, and as it turns out, the English equivalent in their native dialect is “skinny guy.”

There are several funny anecdotes about the guys, like one time when Ben, Bobby, and I were working on a boat and using the Sawzall. Michael (one of the guys) walked up and asked (in Spanish, of course) “Do you need the Jiggy-Jiggy?” and pointed to the Sawzall. We gave it to him, and when he was gone we all started laughing. The Inspiration for the name of this blog post came one especially hot day when I spent two-and-a-half hours pumping mixed gas out of a boat that was getting a four-stroke motor. I ended up soaked in sweat and fuel, and getting a cut on my hand, hence the blood, sweat, and gasoline.

Bucket Wall, by Eli

After a month or so, Eli began joining me every day, taking over most of my cleaning and organizing jobs, so I leveled up to tasks like preparing motors for removal and installing steering systems on boats. We got to know the place, where all the tools were kept, the names of most of the workers, and got into a regular routine. When a customer wants his boat totally sanded down and repainted, it is taken up the canal and pulled up onto the bank. It is then stripped (my job), sanded down (the guys), and whatever fiber-glassing is needed is done before it is painted. When it is ready, Felipe paints the exterior whatever color the customer wants, then paints the interior gray with black-and-white speckles, and then paints the bottom. Then we reassemble it and make a couple of improvements. If he wants a welded top, then Ben makes it, installs it, and then we give the boat back to him.

The canvas guy, Geoff, had to leave Panama for a month this past summer, and was later followed by Ben. While they were gone, it was just Bobby, the new addition, Zack, and us, working. Until then, we were referred to as “the Interns,” but after we took over some of Ben’s jobs, Bobby started paying us $3 an hour to do what we had been doing for nothing. When Ben got back, Bobby left for his first vacation in three years, leaving Ben to keep things under control until he got back, and nothing went horribly wrong.

I’d like to say that my performance is flawless, but I really can’t, because I still make mistakes now and then, like drilling a hole too big, or breaking off a screw. But that’s another thing I like about Agua Dulce: it’s a good learning environment. Bobby accepts that mistakes are made, and that everyone is still learning, so when someone messes up, we just try to find a solution, and learn from the mistake. The whole experience has been a good way to: (A) fill a couple of empty hours every day, (B) learn some good skills that I’ll use for the rest of my life, (C) hang out with some cool people, and (D) earn a couple of bucks.

Rock and Roll

I just turned 15, and in accordance with family tradition, we did something fun and memorable. I had been wanting to go four-wheeling for a while, and this seemed like a good opportunity. There are miles of jungle and beach trails on Isla Colon, and you can rent an ATV for a half- or full-day. So we made a reservation for 10:00 AM for Eli, Dad, and me on the 21st of September (my birthday).

Flying Pirates, Bocas

When we got there, we had to sign some paperwork, then they showed us where to go on a map, showed us how to use the quads (gear shifting, brakes, etc.), and sent us on our way. The first part was a stretch of road, and we used the easy terrain to get used to the vehicles. At the end of the road, we reached the Flying Pirates property, and turned onto a trail that led off into the jungle. The trees and bushes turned to scrub, and the trail to sand. This is when it started to become difficult.

The trail was somewhat compacted, but it was littered with chunks of rock and other debris, then it sloped down to water on the right. We each got stuck at least once on this stretch, and needed each other’s help to get unstuck. Then came the mud pit: it was about 1 foot deep, 30 feet long, and very uneven. It was actually just a short stretch of really bumpy ground submerged in water. The guy who gave us the quads had warned us about this; he said you had to keep up momentum to prevent from flooding the engine. They had even put up a sign that said, “You can do it,” and we did. Eli went first, and gunned the throttle, bouncing and getting thrown around the whole way. I wasn’t any better; I also used too much throttle, lost control, and ran up on the bank, nearly rolling over. Dad went through without a problem. On the other side, we had to stop and get off, because the engines got wet and were steaming like crazy.

Next up was the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is one of the places you can reach on the trails, and is like a giant limestone tide-pool in which you can swim. We were hot, so we jumped in and went for a blessedly cool swim. The next segment of the trail was fairly difficult, and we each got stuck a couple of times. Most notably, there was a mud pit with a deceptively dry crust into which Eli plunged headlong. It created a typical scene with someone bogged down in the mud, spinning their wheels like crazy. Luckily, each of our vehicles was equipped with a rope on a bracket on the front, and Dad hooked Eli’s around his differential, and hauled him out of there.

We also got lost once, and went ahead on foot to scope out the trail. When we got back, my quad wouldn’t start. We thought it was a dead battery, and were pretty worried, until we figured out that the starter was jammed. After banging on it a couple of times, we got it going again. We then encountered a hill that might be considered hard for some people to hike up, let alone drive up on ATVs! Dad, of course, went up with no problem (he always makes it on the first try!), then Eli tried. He went right up, lost control, and began rolling down the side, off the trail. He quickly got off the ATV, and it rolled a little farther before hitting a tree. We then worked together to lift it up and roll it back to the bottom of the hill to try again. There were other times like these, when we just had to gas it, hold on tight, and try to stay on the trail.

On the way back, now that we were familiar with the vehicles we could go much faster—and are those things fast! Fast enough that when my helmet began to blow off of my head, I decided to slow down. When we got back, we had cold sodas (or in Dad’s case, cold beers), watched the parrot-mascot, “Maestro,” climb up the wall, and checked out the shop. Flying Pirates has a good number of ATVs, some of which are being repaired, and they run a pretty big operation, modifying, and even building their own vehicles. The people were also super-friendly and relaxed, which made us feel even more comfortable. To sum up, it was a loud, fast, dangerous activity, and pretty much the best birthday I’ve ever had.