Category Archives: General

Trip to Costa Rica, Part I

We seem to have formed a habit of taking overland trips. This time, it was the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It had been a while since we had gone on a family vacation, and we wanted something a little different. After seemingly endless weeks of planning, the Deciders eventually managed to get our transportation and lodging lined up. We decided on a week at a large rental house in the hills above San Juanillo, Guanacaste province, a detour at another rental house in Santa Elena, Monteverde, and a one-day layover each way at a hotel in San Jose. We looked forward to a week-and-a-half of surfing, nature trails, and a different country.

The first part of the journey was familiar:  water taxis to Bocas and Almirante, and a van to wherever we were going. This happened to be the border crossing. We had to disembark, check out of Panama, take our bags across the bridge to Costa Rica, and check in. Then it was another bus to Puerto Viejo for a lunch stop, and still another bus to San Jose.

The drive through Costa Rica was very different from Panama. We passed vast plantations of banana trees, acres of pineapple fields, forests of bamboo, and wide rivers. The buildings and towns we passed also seemed to be sturdier and more well-built than what we saw along the Panama road. The drive was very beautiful, and became even moreso once we entered the mountains. We busied ourselves with reading, attempting to sleep, and looking out the windows. I got out the computer and started writing this blog post, with Nirvana in my headphones and green farmland and rainforest flashing past my window.

We eventually arrived at the hotel in San Jose, after 10 hours of riding in the back of the van. We checked in, and went out for dinner. The next morning, we rented a car, and started driving out to San Juanillo. This drive was also different from the day before. After a long “quick stop” at a Walmart (a Walmart!) to get internet and some miscellaneous items, we left the snarled traffic and absurdly steep and swarming roads of San Jose for rolling green hills and mountains. We drove through forest, over wide, deep river gorges, and past verdant pasture-land.

We were supposed to arrive at the house at four, but of course we were very late. I don’t blame us. The house was out in the middle of nowhere, and the maze of dirt roads was nearly impossible as it grew darker. We eventually made it. The groundskeeper gave us a tour, we took a quick swim and had dinner, and flopped tiredly into bed.

The house was large and well-appointed, with three air-conditioned bedrooms, a deep pool, a widow’s walk, and a beautiful and unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean. It was located on a hill in the middle of the Los Sueños nature preserve, and the nearest neighbors, also on hills, were at least a three-minutes’ drive away.

Casa del Sol, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Casa del Sol, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Probably the best (and sometimes the worst) part about the house was its close proximity to nature. We regularly saw bands of howler monkeys in the trees around the house, and heard them hollering at each other in the late afternoon.

Howler Monkeys

Blue Morpho butterflies became commonplace, and we even saw a pack of coati in a tree on the last day at the house. At around 9 o’clock at night, frogs spontaneously appeared on the pool deck, and started croaking up a storm. Dozens of geckos also came out at night, and it was fun to watch them stalk bugs across the ceiling. There was a wasp nest the size of a grapefruit hanging from the eaves, and moths, crickets, and other insects became regular companions. It wasn’t that the house was unclean, just that it was surrounded by nature, and insects rule the earth.

On Sunday, our third day in Costa Rica, we went exploring in the car. We drove for miles, reconnoitering the local towns, forming an idea of what we wanted to do with our week, and generally getting the lay of the land. The network of dirt roads connecting San Juanillo, Nosara, and the other coastal towns could only be called dirt roads in the loosest sense of the term. They were more like mud roads, with a healthy dose of potholes, stream fords, and largish rocks. We decided, after much experimentation, that driving slowly in our Hyundai Santa Fe 4×4 over this type of uneven terrain only made the ride longer and rougher. No, the idea was to drive as fast as was safe, and only slow down when confronted with a deep trough, a turn, or a river. Then, we just had to hold on to our seatbelts like rodeo cowboys as the car bucked and shook around us. The degraded condition of the roads was not kind to the poor car. Over the course of the trip, we got it covered in mud, knocked loose a piece of plastic trim, and lost a license plate. On Saturday, we woke up to discover that one of the tires was flat, and Dad had to change it before we could go anywhere.

The next few days were all about surfing. Paul, the guy who rented us the house, recommended Cacho’s Surf School on Playa Guiones, Nosara, so we went over there. At least some of us had a little previous experience surfing, but we all needed lessons.

Surf Lessons

The Pacific waves ware rolling and green, and the shallow slope of the beach allowed for some very long rides. Playa Guiones is supposedly one of the best places for beginning surfers. We were certainly not disappointed. We started out on the white water, the waves that had already broken, but by Wednesday, we were surfing the green water (but not very well). We did meet Cacho, but we were taught by the surf instructors, Hector and Steven, who spoke very good English.

Aaron Surfing, Playa Guiones

Catch a Wave

Cacho gave us some sort of deal by which we would pay at the end of the week for all the lessons and board rentals, and get a discount. In addition to surfing, the Surf School also did river kayak tours that included hiking and waterfalls. Being semi-avid hikers and not-so-avid kayakers, but very enthusiastic waterfall-jumpers, we scheduled a hike/kayak for Thursday.

Unfortunately, the weather had different plans. It rained all Wednesday afternoon and night, and when we tried to drive to Nosara early Thursday morning, the first ford was swollen with water from the mountains. While we sat in the car deliberating about whether to proceed, a hapless pickup truck attempted the crossing and bogged down. After about a minute of watching them struggle, we decided that they needed help, and went out to lend a few hands. We waded out into the muddy stream, and after a couple minutes of pushing and shoving, we got the truck unstuck. It was unexpectedly fun, and everybody had a good laugh when the local man was sprayed with mud from the tire as the truck clambered its way to freedom. The good deed for the day accomplished, we turned back to enjoy a day of resting and doing nothing.

We tried again the next day, which was sunny and clear. We all (Dad included) drove over to Nosara, where we met Hector and Karel (who also works at Cacho’s). They loaded up the kayaks onto an ATV trailer, and we followed them out of town to the start of the hiking trail. While Dad followed Karel to a place where he could wait for us at the mouth of the river, Hector took us up to the mountain stream. It was more of a walk than a hike, through cow pastures and rainforest. The waterfalls were quite beautiful. We hiked upstream and played in the rushing water for a while. Then we went back downstream to where we would start the next part of the excursion.

The river was broad, shallow, and very muddy. After the recent rain, there was a good current. We had a quick snack, boarded the kayaks, and started off. River kayaking is different than ocean kayaking. You don’t have to paddle as much for propulsion, as the current generally carries you along. However, steering is extra-difficult because in addition to going where you want to go, you also have to counteract the kayak’s infuriating tendency to hit the riverbank, T-bone other kayaks, and take bends sideways. Another thing that I did not realize when I signed up was just how long we would be out on the river. I thought that we would be mostly hiking and swimming, and therefor neglected to put on sufficient sunscreen. As it turned out, we were on the river a rather long time, about three hours, and there weren’t many shady trees growing in the middle of the stream. Let us just say that I greatly improved my tan the hard way.

However, it wasn’t as bad as all that. It was actually quite nice, with the jungle on either side, or fields of cattle, and every now and then an island with small trees or bushes. The rapids were fun, even if we sometimes got hung up on tree branches. Even the occasional capsize was a refreshing break from the heat and relative monotony. We saw a number of blue herons fishing by the riverside, and occasionally a Jesus Lizard dashing for shore across the surface of the water. We even saw one or two small crocodiles lounging on the banks, though Hector assured us that there were bigger ones around. The river eventually dumped us out at the ocean near Ostional, and there was Dad waiting with the car.

On Friday, our last day in San Juanillo, we all went to Playa Guiones. We had another successful day of surfing the green waves with Hector and Steven, and Rachel caught some waves too.

Little Surfer Girl

Afterward, we went out to lunch, packed our bags, and cleaned the house in preparation to leave the next day for the mountains.

To be continued…



That’s right, folks, that wee little strip of land connecting good ole’ North and South America. Home of the Panama Canal, Manuel Noriega, and Chiquita Bananas. We’ve been living in the expat republic for several months now, and it’s pretty good. Panama seems like your typical Central American third-world country. The jungle is green, the sun is hot, and the rain is wet. Take Two is situated at Red Frog Beach Resort and Marina, on Isla Bastimentos. Bocas Town, the primary settlement, lies on Isla Colon, another large island a few miles to the north.

Bocas Waterfront

Aesthetically speaking, Bocas del Toro is a cool place. The islands are very different from the low limestone Cays in the Bahamas, or the rocky desert of Bonaire. They are rolling and hilly, rimmed with mangroves and covered with lush green jungle. Dotting the coasts of the islands are indigenous villages and gringo houses. The sides facing the Caribbean Sea have beautiful white-sand beaches lined with coconut palms.

San Cristobal

There are five basic types of people in Bocas. First, you have the Panameños, the Spanish-speaking Panamanians, that live in Bocas town and the surrounding area. Then there are the indigenous peoples. They live in small villages spread around the islands, paddle around in dugout cayucos, fish, and sell coconuts. There are also many people of African descent, as well as Chinese people. And last, but certainly not least, there are the gringos, the white people not born in Latin America. This category can be further sorted into to two sub-categories, with a few exceptions. In the first are the expat retirees, people generally over 50, who spend all or some of the year in Bocas. In the second, you have the backpackers, young singles or couples that migrate through Central and South America in an unending river with nothing but their flip-flops and the contents of their ever-present backpacks.

The preferred mode of transport for the non-indigenous people is the panga. A panga is a medium-sized fiberglass fishing/work boat, with a fabric sun-shade and oversize outboard. They are used by Panameños and gringos alike, and most of them seem to be in a perpetual state of disrepair. The closest equivalent land vehicle is the minibus.

Panga Ride

Since we arrived at Red Frog, we have made a few friends. The most notable is the family that owns Agua Dulce, the other marina on Isla Bastimentos. In addition to running a marina, they house volunteers, do panga and boat repair, and run a small medical clinic for the indigenous people. They have three kids who are home-schooled, fluent in Spanish, and reasonably good at ping-pong.

Rachel's Sixth

On weekdays, Aaron and I take the dinghy over and work at the shop from 1:00-5:00. The work varies from grinding metal and sanding boats, to cutting fiberglass and polishing T-tops. Once, I made a handle for a spigot that had rusted off. Despite the lack of pay (we are often referred to as ‘the interns’), the difficulty/danger of the work, and the fact that we frequently come home looking like chimney sweeps, it beats sitting around doing nothing and we get credit for high school “shop class.”

Every Tuesday, Mom and one lucky volunteer catch the free marina water taxi to Bocas town for groceries and packages. This involves hauling the Red Wagon all over town, in and out of five or six separate stores of varying degrees of cleanliness, and somehow dragging a weeks’ worth of food back to the taxi dock before one o’clock. The main duty of the lucky volunteer is to assist in the portage of the goods. He or she is also usually rewarded with a special treat of some kind. The weekly grocery haul sometimes lasts us less than a week, so further resupply excursions to the small marina store may be required.

On many weekends, we take the boat out of the marina and spend a night or two at anchor. This is the first place we have been able to do this easily. There are innumerable mangrove islands and coral reefs to explore in Bocas, and very few other boats, so it feels like we have the place to ourselves. We spend the weekend swimming, climbing the rigging, wake-boarding, and just generally remembering what it feels like to cruise on a sailboat.


The water is pretty clear around here, but the snorkeling is not so great. There are a few good spots that we know about, but most of the coral is patchy and not very interesting. Of course, we are a bit spoiled in that department; compared to the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, or Bonaire, poor Panama just is not that impressive. One thing it seems to have in abundance is lion-fish. One time while we were anchored out, Sam, Dad, and I speared over eight of the nasty little buggers in one afternoon. Unfortunately, they were too small to be worth the effort of filleting.

All the insects are extremely numerous and virile, from the army ants that will carry you off, too the Hercules beetles that will knock you over. The chitras, the local brand of biting no-see-um, are particularly irritating… or they would be, if we didn’t run the AC all night (and all day, as we are doing disturbingly more and more often). Mosquitos are less of a problem then we had originally anticipated, although rainy season has yet to start. I am very glad of this fact, given the quantity of readily available parasites just waiting for the opportunity to infect and permanently maim you (go Google Leishmaniasis or botfly to see what I mean).

Male Hercules Beetle

Aside from a trip to the interior to see the mountains and cloud forests, we have not done a lot of overland travel while we’ve been here. Our proximity to Costa Rica and the Pacific Coast of Central America makes those tempting destinations for future family outings. We’d also like to cruise back toward the islands of San Blas, and to central Panama to see the Panama Canal. For now, since Panama is south of the hurricane belt, we’ve decided to stick around and enjoy what this place has to offer.

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.

Trip to Boquete

Note: This is part two of our mountain adventure, continued from the March 25th Mount Totumas post.

Our small caravan arrived at our Boquete residence, dumped us and our luggage on the front porch, and sped off. The house was large, and divided into four units. Ours was the biggest, with three bedrooms. We all picked rooms, and plopped our stuff in them. Then we turned our attention to a more-pressing matter: food. We called a taxi, and went into town. We walked around for a while, searching for a restaurant. We eventually found a sandwich place, Señor Gyros, where we ate lunch. Afterward, we went to the store to buy meals for the week, and, toting our loot, made the 2-kilometer walk home, where we had family movie night.

The next day, the first order of business was to do laundry. After all the hiking up at Totumas, we were running out of clothes. Mom also took a taxi into town to pick up a rental car from Cowboy Dave. Dave, one of many U.S. ex-pats living in Boquete, recommended that we check out Los Cangilones de Gualaca. (Yeah, I couldn’t pronounce that on my first try, either.) It was a section of a river that had carved a canyon through a low hill, about 45 minutes away. It was apparently a favorite swimming hole for locals, rather than the ordinary tourist attraction. Mom ran it by us, and it sounded interesting. We would have to swim in our clothes, and bring some dry ones to change into, having neglected to take our swimsuits along on the trip (not many beaches in Boquete).

Cangilones de Gualaca

After lunch, we loaded up in the car, and drove straight there without delay. At least, that’s what should have happened, had mom brought a map or phone along, instead of studying an internet picture back at the house. We became lost, and had to ask for directions from passing motorists. We eventually found it, at the end of a side road just outside the center of a small town. We parked the car, grabbed our stuff, and got out.

Cangilones de Gualaca

The river was just as cool as it had looked on the internet pictures, even with the all the people. The gorge was about ten feet wide, and rose above the water just as high. It was only about 200 feet long, and broadened and shallowed out at either end. The river was moving very slowly, but I imagine it would be quite something to see in the rainy season. Swimming about in the broad area downstream were a number of families, while hanging around the gorge were several local teenage boys.

Rachel, Cangilones de Gualaca

Cangilones de Gualaca

I went up to the edge of the gorge, and looked down. The water was slow-moving, and darkish green. I shrugged, and jumped in. Ironically, I wasn’t all that worried that it would be shallow, so much as I was worried that it would be cold. Happily, it was quite deep, and not nearly as frigid as one comes to expect from mountain rivers. Once they saw that I had failed to freeze to death or break my legs, the other kids soon followed my lead. It was quite nice, swimming in the shade of the gorge walls, after I got over the initial creep-factor. Of course, swimming wasn’t the reason we were there, it was jumping.

Cangilones de Gualaca

We swam out of the gorge into the sunlight, and scrambled out onto the rocks. The wall was only ten feet off the water, about the same as the high dive on our boat. That meant that all the favorite jumps could be performed without having to compensate for altitude change, and the minor psychological barrier of cracking your head on a rock. Knowing this, I confidently went to an overhang, where there was less risk of hitting the edge, and back-flipped into the river. This immediately got the attention of the local teenage boys. Suddenly, their nice afternoon hangout was shattered by some gringo kid jumping into their river, and they weren’t about to be outdone.

What followed was a sort of jumping competition, with each boy, Aaron and Sam included, trying to outdo the others. I am pleased to say that I held my own, only surpassed when one guy pulled off a gainer. A few minutes before we left, I dove down to the bottom of the river. It was 22 feet deep according to my dive watch, and I had to swim with my eyes closed. I brought up a handful of mud to prove I had been there.  Just as we were walking away, I saw several boys come up with handfuls of bottom mud. More evidence that boys are the same everywhere.

Boys, Cangilones de Gualaca

Anyway, we all had a great time, despite having to change into long pants in the hot car. On the way back, we took some photos of the mountains in the distance, and stopped for ice cream in town. When we got home, we were presented with yet another load of laundry to do. Mom also hunted around for more interesting things to do and see.

Volcan Baru

The next morning, Friday, I was awakened at the ungodly hour of 6:30. I was most unhappy, even if it was for a good reason. We were going hiking (again) at Tree Trek, an eco-lodge with cabins, zip lines, and canopy bridges. We ate a hurried breakfast, and drove over to the tour office in town. From there, we took the Tree Trek off-road truck up into the mountains above Boquete. The eco-lodge was much like Mt. Totumas, only more touristy. After disembarking, we were met by a Tree Trek guide who led us into the forest.

It was about 8 A.M., so it was a bit chilly in those woods. No doubt due to a sleep-addled brain, I neglected to take along my fleece. This was a mistake. I was very cold in nothing but shorts and a t-shirt with a light windbreaker. The hike was similar to the Cascadas trail at Mt. Totumas. The trees were larger, the trunks stained black by the damp. Sam caught several tiny frogs in the undergrowth, and our guide showed us a number of plants and flowers. But what really made the trip worth-while were the canopy bridges.

Tree Trek, Boquete

At various points along the trail, hundred-foot-long, steel-cable-and-plank bridges had been strung, spanning the gulf over a deep ravine or connecting the tops of trees. The floors of the bridges were transparent, so you could see, for example, the river running over 100 feet below. It was very cool. Spitting over the edge was my favorite part.

Tree Trek, Boquete

Tree Trek, Boquete

We also had the chance to glimpse the elusive quetzals. The Resplendent Quetzal is a tiny bird with bright green plumage, and a red breast. It is the national bird of Guatemala, but migrates to Panama for mating season in the spring. We were hiking along the last kilometer of the trail, when the guide pointed out one of them, perched on a branch. It was instantly recognizable as a male, because of the two ludicrously-long feathers extending from the bird’s tail. It soon saw us, and flew away, but not before we all saw it and attempted photographs. We later saw a pair.

Pair of Quetzals

The trail, and the guide, dumped us off at the lodge, and with nothing to do until the truck came to get us, we went in. Mom ordered some mocha cappuccinos for us all, and we sat sipping until the truck showed up. We arrived back home at about noon, had lunch, and got ready to go out again. Aaron, Sam, and I had signed up for rock climbing that afternoon.

Mom drove us back to the tour center, paid up, and took off. The two guides introduced themselves, and found us harnesses and climbing shoes. Not long after we had gotten all of our gear sorted out, a taxi pulled up. The five of us squeezed in, and off we went. Our climbing destination was a basalt wall 60 feet high, just outside of town. It looked nothing like the Giant’s Causeway in Scotland that Mom had shown us when she googled “basalt rock formations,” but it was still pretty cool. It looked like a huge stack of gray French fries, covered with graffiti. Drilled into the rock at various heights were anchor points for belaying. We put on our gear, while our guide, Cesar, free-climbed up the wall to set up the belaying line.

We spent three hours there, and had fun every minute. Despite my reputation for climbing stuff, this was my first time climbing actual, real rock, outdoors, and not concrete inside a climbing gym. It was a bit tougher than I expected, and by the end of the three hours, my grip was almost completely shot. Because there was only Cesar and his buddy, (hence only two belaying lines) only two of us could be climbing at any one time. This was just fine by us, because after making it to the top of the wall and back, you needed a break. When we weren’t actively climbing, we spent the time resting, taking photos, or talking to the guides. They were both professional climbers who had been climbing all around the world, but returned to Panama to start a business.

Basalt Wall, Boquete

In addition to climbing up, we also spent some time traversing the wall sideways, without touching the ground. Cesar was especially good at this. We had all done about six climbs each when the taxi pulled up. We packed up our stuff, the two guides coiled up the belaying lines, and we got in. Mom was waiting back at the tour center. After thanking the guides, we got in the car and went back to the house for some much-needed rest. Mom had taken Rachel to Boquete Bees on a field trip while we were climbing, so there was also a sweet treat waiting.

It rained all day the next day. Daunted by the miserable weather, we proceeded to do nothing of great importance on Saturday. We lounged around, played games, and performed other unimpressive feats of imagination, like reading Clive Cussler novels that we found on a shelf. Mom and Dad went for a walk in the rain, but came back in time to make spaghetti, finish laundry, and start to pack up.

We returned home on Sunday, exactly one week after we had left. We packed up our stuff, had breakfast, and waited for the taxi. Mom had returned the car the previous day, so there wasn’t much to do. The taxi arrived and half of us got in. The others had to wait for a second pass. Somehow, we all ended up at the bus stop. Like before, we handed off our junk to be packed on the roof of one of the buses, and sat down for the long ride.

Four hours later, we pulled into Almirante, got out, claimed our luggage, and then it was into the water taxi bound for Bocas. In Bocas, we had lunch at a local restaurant, and enjoyed the change of climate for about 20 minutes before the heat got too oppressive. After lunch, we got in a water taxi for the last leg of our journey. Back at the boat, we turned on the AC, and started the arduous task of unpacking. It had been a great week, crammed with new and fun experiences, but we were happy to be home.

Boat Boys

Picture this: you’re sailing into a harbor of an island nation you’ve never visited before, after a rough day at sea, furling sails, starting engines, and preparing bridles for anchoring or mooring, and a small, multi-colored, wooden fishing boat comes roaring towards you. He comes alarmingly close, does a swift U-turn, then starts shouting at you in heavily-accented English. The first time this happens, you feel a little freaked out…are these the famous Pirates of the Caribbean? But by your third or fourth island with a welcoming committee, you begin to grow savvy, then you get a little jaded. Eventually, you learn to wave, ask the name of the captain, and tell him to come back after you’re anchored, and no, you do not need assistance. Really, no. No, thank you. (No, dammit!)

These are the Boat Boys. Enterprising, opportunistic, and insistent, they are like humane-society pets: one look at those sad eyes and you can’t figure out which one to take home and which one to leave behind. It doesn’t matter how many carved-coconut bracelets you have bought, how many soursops, sugar-apples, and bananas you already have going soft in your fruit bowl, there will always be one more Boat Boy calling your name: “Hey, lady! Nice lady!” “Madame, I have something for you.” “My friend, take a look at what I brought you today!” “Fresh fish!” “Fresh fruit!” “Fresh bread!”

Tropical Fruit

They come in crafts of all sizes and materials: cast-off paddleboards, patched inflatables, locally-built pirogues with fast outboards, leaky rowboats with two-by-fours for oars. Some of them are Rastafari, and go by names like “Warrior” and “Culture.” Others have nicknames like “Beans” (as in “full of”) and “Skipper.” Others are regular guys, just trying to survive and support themselves and their families, like Justin, who works the charter boats to earn enough money to buy his daughters’ school uniforms. Some of them, like Titus, have traveled the world and come back to their island-homes, and others have never been to the island a stone’s throw away. Some of them, like “Lawrence of Arabia,” are part of a boat-boy association, a way of sharing the wealth and taking turns welcoming boats. Occasionally, they are obnoxious and get in the way while you are trying to anchor, or actually bump into your boat, or continue their sales pitch after you’ve said “no thank you.” A few are little better than beggars.

Indian River, Dominica

You pay them too much and they throw in extra produce “as a gift” and they invariably ask for a cold drink, a beer if you have one, or soda or juice if you don’t. They’ll take your garbage for a small fee (you should refuse because you don’t know where that trash will end up), and they’ll sometimes ask if you have used items you’re ready to part with, clothes in good condition, shoes, or household goods.  All of them are trying to make an honest living, something that can be hard on an island in the tourist off-season, or a place hard-hit by a natural disaster, or a village with a high-unemployment rate. They are often relying on multiple revenue streams—picking up odd jobs, fishing, or operating as a water-taxi in addition to selling fruit or hand-made crafts. It is what they are not doing that strikes me as important: stealing, begging, or selling drugs.

You can send them away, and they will reluctantly paddle or motor to the next boat, or you can look at their wares. But if you seem even slightly sympathetic, watch out! They can smell a sucker from the next harbor. There is another thing you can do: sit down on your stern, hold their dock lines, and talk. You will often find them to be floating philosophers.

Some of them are at the beginning of their careers, like Ivan and Derrick. These two half-brothers are seventeen, just graduated from high school in Soufriere, St. Lucia. They come in their older brother’s boat, offering to help us with our mooring lines, asking if we need fish or a taxi or a hiking guide. We tell them we are interested in hiking the Pitons, but we need to discuss it with the kids, to come back in an hour. (This strategy works well with pushy salesmen.) In the meantime, we ask the park ranger who comes to take our mooring-ball fee, what does he think about these two boat boys? Are they ok? Is the price they are asking too high? He says they’re good kids, and we might pay more to hire an official park guide because we would also have to pay a driver to get to the trailhead, instead of going by boat and starting on the beach. They seem perfect for our plan: Derrick can take Eli and Aaron up Petit Piton and Ivan can hike Gros with the rest of us. We arrange it when they come back, bearing fresh bread.

They come the next morning at seven to fetch us. They hike in bare feet. They’re quiet, and seem a little shy around our family. I ask lots of questions as I huff and puff up the mountain, curious about their life on the island. Ivan had a chance to go to university, but isn’t ready to go yet. He would rather get paid to hike than go to school, or fish, or farm. After the hike, we offer frozen lemonade and agree to buy some fish their older brother has caught, and invite them to come for fish tacos. We are surprised when they agree. Dinner is subdued, nothing revelatory, but companionable. We talk about career options on the island, because we just can’t believe these two young guys have no other options than to be boat boys. By paying them, we are supporting this idea. I ask what a “good job” on the island would be. Derrick says, predictably, “Doctor.”  I ask if they could travel, where would they go? Ivan says, unpredictably, “Miami.” They leave our family dinner to go to a Carnival celebration somewhere on the island, and we leave the next morning.

A couple weeks later, while anchored in Tyrell Bay, Carriacou, a man in an ancient rowboat knocks on the side of our boat. Despite the fact that I am the family sucker, I also happen to be the family ambassador, so I always get sent out to talk to the boat boys. And I always come back in with fruits or vegetables, or bracelets, or fish, or bread, or wine, and always a new story. I had just bought limes from a produce stand in Clifton (Union Island in the Grenadines), but Warrior has a bucket of limes and nothing else. He has dark skin, gray hair, and the clearest blue eyes I’ve ever seen on a black man. It gives him an otherworldly look. He offers to take our garbage, but I say no. I bring him a cold drink and buy some limes anyway. I sit down to talk with him. He is incredulous that we have five children on a boat. He says in forty years as a boat boy, he has never met someone traveling with five children. I drag all five kids out on deck and introduce them, and give him a boat card with all our names on it.

I ask him about his years visiting boats. He tells me about the first boat he paddled out to, when he was just fourteen, and its recent return to Carriacou. He tells me about what he does to earn a living, and how he has traveled in years when the money was good, most recently to Grenada for Carnival. I tell him about leaving Atlanta, about rejecting suburban American life for a simpler life on a boat. He asks me what I think about life. I say every day is a gift to unwrap. He says a woman told him once that “life is what you make it.” But he completely rejects this philosophy as he understands it. He says you don’t have power to make anything, but to find it and then do with it what you can. Perhaps it is just semantics, but I think I understand what he is saying. He insists, “Life is not what you make it…it’s how you get it.” He gives examples of historical figures who tried to bend things to their wills but in the end were unsuccessful, like Maurice Bishop in the Grenada Revolution. Ultimately, we don’t have control over circumstances (in Maurice’s case, the treachery of comrades), but over our attitudes, and our willingness to work.

He has more to say, but the sun is sinking into the sea, and he sees that I need to get back to my family. He offers to stop by again, with more produce, and I say I would be happy to talk again if we are still here. I ask if I can take his picture, and shake his weathered hand. As he paddles away, I suddenly think of Ivan and Derrick, and wonder if they will still be doing this in forty years. And I am in no place to judge—maybe this is as good a life as any, taking each day as you find it, interacting with people, offering a service, giving and receiving, and getting out of it what you can.

Warrior, Carriacou

Our Trip in a Nutshell: the Log of Take Two

Following the wise advice of my friend Kimberly (s/v Ally Cat), I have been keeping a good record of our trip on my calendar. For those who know me, you know this means actually writing with a pencil on a paper calendar in an old-fashioned Day-Timer. The self-same Day-Timer I accidentally dropped overboard about a month ago and had to swim after. I then used a fan and the tropical sun to dry the pages. I can see you shaking your heads right now! But I managed to save it all, including the names and addresses of every person I have ever met, and my entire boat- and business-card collection. So, before any more drowning accidents can occur, I have decided to digitize and save this record for posterity in the Eternal Cloud. You may not care about every day of our voyage, but now that we sit in a safe harbor in St. George’s, Grenada, I’m enjoying a look back at every mile! Somehow, even with all the sailing days and outings, we managed to get some school and work done, too, though, looking at the calendar, I’m not sure how.

March in the Bahamas

3 Take Two leaves Marathon.
4 Sail from Florida Keys to Chub Cay, Berry Islands.
5 Check into the Bahamas at Chub Cay.
6 Sail from Chub Cay to Highbourne Cay, Exumas. Saw 11.5 kts speed using Code Zero.
7 Anchored in Allen’s Cay, picked up internet from Highbourne cell tower for Jay’s work.
8 Leaf Cay Beach Day (with a zillion iguanas).
9 Cold Front, lots of wind. Anchorage rolly.
10 Lunch date and groceries with Jay at Exuma Café in Highbourne Cay Marina.
11 Allen’s Cay, waiting for weather.
12 Allen’s Cay to Norman’s Cay. Beach Fire and S’Mores.
13 Met up with Jeff and Kelly on s/v Tiger Sea. Drinks/snacks on Take Two.
14 Snorkel Wax Cay Cut.
15 Land and Sea Park, Shroud Cay. Kayak to the beach with Rachel and Sarah.
16 Hike on Hawksbill Cay.
17 Hike on Warderick Wells. Met the crew of s/v Abby Singer.
18 Snorkel near Warderick Wells. Giant lobster—protected in Land and Sea Park.
19 Snake Island near Cambridge Cay. Beautiful sunset kayak.
20 Compass Cay. Swam in Rachel’s Bubble Bath, snorkeled Rocky Dundas.
21 Pipe Creek, Thomas and Joe Cays.
22 Pipe Creek, waiting for weather. Eli gets giant lobster.
23 Anchor at Robinson Island, near Sampson Cay.
24 Lunch date with Jay at Staniel Cay Yacht Club and groceries at Isle’s General.
25 Motor-sail to Black Point, Great Guana. Pizza at Lorraine’s with s/v Abby Singer.
26 Laundry and haircut at Ida’s. Swimming with Paige and Sky from Abby Singer.
27 Easter Sunday, Gethsemane Baptist with crew of Abby Singer. Lunch and swim.
28 Easter Monday, beach party with locals from Black Point Settlement.
29 Sail to Little Farmer’s. Drinks at Ty’s Sunset Bar and Grill.
30 Lunch date with Jay at Ocean Cabin and groceries.
31 Rudder Cay. Snorkel with mermaid and piano, and staghorn reef at Musha Cay.

April in Puerto Rico

1 Sail to Georgetown. Sam catches Mahi!
2 Meet up with s/v Ally Cat. Fish tacos on Take Two.
3 Hike up Monument Hill with Andrew and Sky. Rachel on Ally Cat with Kimberly.
4 Beach Fire with s/v Ally Cat and s/v Abby Singer.
5 Mom’s morning out at Exuma Market.
6 Notes on Caribbean, s/v Ally Cat. Music @ St. Francis. Jay’s birthday—burgers & brownies.
7 Set sail for Puerto Rico, pass Rum Cay.
8 Passage to Puerto Rico.
9 Passage to Puerto Rico.
10 Passage to Puerto Rico.
11 Passage to Puerto Rico—rough night, sailing south using cold front.
12 Passage to Puerto Rico—bioluminescence and calm seas.
13 Last day of passage, motoring over calm seas. Anchor near Fajardo.
14 Check in at Palmas del Mar Yacht Club and Customs and Immigration.
15 Mary flies into San Juan for a visit. Rent car and go to COSTCO in Caguas.
16 Hike in El Yunque National Park, swim in La Mina river falls.
17 Casa Bacardi tour, San Juan.
18 Shopping in Caguas.
19 Visit to Old San Juan with Mary, El Morro fort and tram tour. Lunch at Barrachina.
20 Rio Camuy Cave Park tour. Drive over Cordillera Central.
21 Mary flies out of San Juan. Lunch date with Jay at El Pescadero.
22 COSTCO (again).
23 Pool day at the Yacht Club.
24 Palmas del Mar. Catch up on school and work.
25 Palmas del Mar. Laundry day.
26 Palmas del Mar. Dinner with s/v Renewal.
27 Palmas del Mar. Date night with Jay at Italian Café.
28 Palmas del Mar. Catch up on school and work.
29 Palmas del Mar. Rain.
30 Palmas del Mar. Rain. Met Lara and Jaime, engineer at Arecibo.
31 Palmas del Mar. Rain.

May in the Virgin Islands

1 Palmas del Mar. Rain.
2 Rachel’s birthday. Cake with crew of s/v Dingo d’Isles.
3 Sarah’s birthday. Date with just Sarah at the Italian Café.
4 Rent a car to drive to Fajardo to meet up with girls from Abby Singer & Renewal.
5 Left Palmas del Mar. Motor upwind to Vieques. Kayak in Bio-Bay after sunset.
6 Sail to St. Thomas. Anchor near Charlotte Amalie.
7 Sail to St. John. Hawksnest Bay.
8 Hawksnest Bay, St. John.
9 Beach day with s/v Abby Singer at Hawksnest Bay. Dinner on Take Two.
10 Sail to Jost Van Dyke. Check in to BVI.
11 Met up with Ralph and Kathy from s/v Simplicity.
12 Little Jost Van Dyke, Bubbly Pool and Sandy Spit.
13 Cane Garden Bay, Tortola. Painkillers at Tony’s Welcome Bar and ice cream for kids.
14 Sail to Privateer Bay, Norman Island. Kayak, snorkel caves.
15 Norman Island. Snorkel at the Indians. Dinner with s/v Abby Singer on Take Two.
16 Great Harbor, Peter Island. Deep anchorage—used 150 ft. of chain + 100 ft. of rode.
17 Road Harbor, Tortola. Groceries, Digicel, and talk to Doyle Sailmakers.
18 Sail to Little Harbor, Peter Island. Wake boarding.
19 Jib to Doyle for repairs. Motor to Salt Island.
20 Hike on Salt Island. Snorkel wreck of the RMS Rhone w s/v Abby Singer.
21 Motor to Virgin Gorda. Anchor near the Baths.
22 Breakfast on Take Two and fun at the Baths with s/v Abby Singer.
23 Savannah Bay, Virgin Gorda. Nudists! Hang out with s/v Abby Singer.
24 Beach in the AM, downwind sail to Brandywine Bay, Tortola in the PM.
25 Road Town, Tortola. Doyle Sailmakers measure cockpit for enclosure and return jib.
26 Sail to North Sound Virgin Gorda, Prickly Pear Island. More nudists.
27 Dinner on Take Two with s/v Abby Singer. Cuban night!
28 Sail to Anegada. Saw 10 kts of boat speed with reefed main and jib.
29 Beach day on Anegada. Parents’ night out at Neptune’s Treasure w/ Abby Singer.
30 Anegada Beach Club with s/v Abby Singer.
31 Anegada Beach Club. Andrew gives Eli and Aaron kiteboard lessons.

June in the Leeward Islands

1 Sail from Anegada to Road Town for dodger install. Jay broke pinky toe.
2 Sail from Brandywine Bay, Tortola to Gorda Sound.
3 Virgin Gorda safari truck with s/v Abby Singer. Dinner at Rada’s (roti).
4 Leverick Bay, dinner with s/v Abby Singer. Thai night!
5 Sail to Tortola. Dinner date with Jay at the Last Resort, Trellis Bay.
6 Road Bay to finish cockpit enclosure installation. Night in Benure’s Bay, Norman Island.
8 Lee Bay, Camanoe Island to Gorda Sound. Parent’s night at Saba Rock/Bitter End.
9 Check out of BVI in Gun Creek. Fuel at Leverick Bay and sunset drinks at Jumbie’s.
10 Anegada passage. Motorsail in the afternoon.
11 Arrive Anguilla 8AM. Check in at customs and immigration. Ray’s Beach Bar in the PM.
12 Took Rachel to the beach at Sandy Ground. Johnno’s for drinks.
13 Drive around Anguilla by rental car. Family dinner out at Ripples.
14 Meads Bay beach day. Lunch at Blanchard’s Beach Shack. Groceries. Dinner at Veya.
15 Sail from Anguilla to Statia.
16 Check in at Statia. Hike the Quill with the kids. Ice cream at Mazinga’s.
17 Sail to St. Kitts and Nevis. Check in at Basse-Terre. Sail to Nevis.
18 Tour of Nevis by taxi.
19 Beach day. Meet crew of s/v Katta3.
20 Turtle Time with Jay, Nevis. Dinner on Take Two with s/v Katta3.
21 Down day, rain. Sunset on the beach with Anders and Katta and ukulele.
22 Check out of Nevis. Lunch date with Jay at Golden Rock. Groceries. Dinner on Katta3.
23 Attempted sail to Montserrat. Turned around. Back in Nevis.
24 Swedish Midsummer with Anders and Katta.
25 Family dinner with crew s/v of Katta3 at Turtle Time.
26 Sail to Montserrat.
27 Meet up with s/v Abby Singer and s/v Vidorra. Taxi tour with Moose. Burger night.
28 Sail around Montserrat to Five Islands, Antigua.
29 Check in at Jolly Harbour. Groceries. Burgers on Take Two with s/v Abby Singer.
30 Jolly Harbour. Sunset drinks and appetizers with s/v Abby Singer.

July in the Windward Islands

1 Jolly Harbour. Dessert and game night with s/v Abby Singer.
2 Rent a car. Devil’s Bridge and Betty’s Hope Sugar Mill.
3 Tour Nelson’s Dockyard with s/v Abby Singer.
4 Beach Day: Carlisle, Turner’s and Darkwood. Floating Island of Fun.
5 Jolly Harbour. Afternoon swim & snacks with s/v Abby Singer. Date night at Al Porto.
6 Kids at sailing camp with crew of Abby Singer.
7 Sail to Pigeon Island, Guadeloupe.
8 Sail to Dominica. Check in.
9 Indian River Tour with Lawrence. Snorkel near Cabrits.
10 Hike to Fort Shirley, Cabrits National Park. Meet s/v Masim’s.
11 Hike to Boiling Lake, Morne Trois Pitons National Park, Dominica.
12 Groceries AM. Snorkel in Soufriere, Champagne Reef, Bubble Beach Bar PM.
13 Sail to Martinique. Check in at St. Pierre. Digicel.
14 Anchor at Le Carbet. Sea glass beach hunt.
15 Field trip to St. Pierre. Petit Train Tour, Volcano Museum. Groceries. Letibonum date.
16 Fort de France. Meet up with s/v Masim’s. Rachel jumps from high dive!
17 Fort de France. Shopping. Sailbaot races. Swimming. Appetizers/wine w/ Eric and Magalie.
18 St. Anne. Family lunch at Le Paille Coco. Floating Island of fun.
19 St. Anne. Groceries AM. Beach day (by dinghy). Sunset drinks with Jay at La Dunette.
20 Sail to St. Lucia, Rodney Bay.
21 Check in. Hardware store& Digicel AM. Marigot Bay PM. Rainforest Hideaway date.
22 Pool day and lunch at Capella resort with Rachel and Sarah. Haircut. Move to Pitons.
23 Between the Pitons. Hike up Gros. Eli & Aaron up Petit. Ivan and Derrick for dinner.
24 Snorkel Ratchet Point. Check out in Soufriere. Sugar Beach Resort, Hobie sailing.
25 Sail from St. Lucia to Bequia, skipping St. Vincent.
26 Check in. Groceries AM. Taxi tour/whaling museum PM. Drinks on s/v Marlin del Ray.
27 Eli’s birthday. Dive Bequia AM. Tony Gibbons Beach PM. Dinner w/ Eli at L’Auberge.
28 Downwind sail to Tobago Cays. Snorkeling and Beach @ Jamesby. Greg & Maribel PM.
29 Union Island. Check out of Grenadines. Lunch Date with Jay at Big City Grill. Produce.
30 Carriacou, check in to Grenada. Afternoon sail to Moliniere Bay.
31 Snorkel Underwater Sculpture Garden. Check in to Port Louis Marina PM.

August in Grenada

1 Port Louis, St. George’s, Grenada. Drinks with Jay at Victory Bar.
2 19th Anniversary, dinner with Jay at YOLO sushi bar.
3 Walk to FoodLand for Groceries and Merry Baker for bread. Pool in the PM.
4 Port Louis, St. George’s, Grenada. School and pool.
5 Port Louis, St. George’s, Grenada. FoodLand for Groceries.
6 Port Louis, St. George’s, Grenada. School and pool.
7 Port Louis, St. George’s, Grenada. Work on blog…
8 CARNIVAL! Jay leaves for Atlanta 4:30AM.

Boiling Lake, Dominica

One of the reasons we stopped in Dominica, “the Nature Island,” was to do some hiking. We knew that Dominica had a boiling lake up in the volcanic mountains, and thought it sounded cool. However, it could only be reached by a steep 16-mile hike over rough terrain. Despite this, and the six-hour time limit, Mom, Aaron, Sarah, and I still wanted to go. Dad stayed home to work and keep an eye on Sam and Rachel, whose legs are too short for such a long hike.

Several days before, Mom had purchased a National Parks Pass, which was required to go hiking anywhere in Dominica. We also required a guide to help us navigate the somewhat-confusing paths, a driver to take us to the capital city of Roseau and up to the beginning of the hike, and an alarm clock to help us get up at 6 o’clock in the morning to start the day-long journey. I am typically a late-riser, so hauling my butt out of bed at such an early hour was tortuous. We then ate a quick breakfast and packed lunch, snacks, and water into three backpacks. We were then picked up and ferried ashore by a ‘boat boy’.

The boat boys are a gang of local men in small dinghies and paddle boards, armed to the teeth with fresh produce, and whose only purpose in life seems to be to cater to cruisers. They, among other things, brought fresh fruit to your boat, helped get you around town and plan expeditions, and also gave good river tours. They also served as a water taxi.

We were met at the dock by two local guys: our driver for the day, Anselm, and our trail guide, Francis. We got into the van, and took off. The drive to Roseau was a little over an hour long, and Anselm was apparently very comfortable at high speed, even on the twisty mountain roads. And all the while, Francis gave a running commentary on the history of the surrounding scenery.

The road ended where the hike began: at Titou Gorge. Titou Gorge is, well, a gorge. It sits right next to the beginning of the path, and the Trois Pitons River runs out of the mouth. Before it flows on down the valley, it forms a large shallow pool. Francis told us that it was possible to swim over a hundred feet back into the gorge to a waterfall, whose waters come from a fresh mountain lake several miles away. It sounded fun, even though the water was bitter cold and the average depth was 15 feet. After a short potty break, we hefted our packs, and set off after the guide into the jungle.

Boiling Lake Hike, Dominica

Each leg of the hike was entirely different. The first few miles were through lush, wet jungle. The slope was gentle, and water constantly dripped from the leafy canopy overhead, turning the dirt between the stair steps to mud. Everything was either green, like the leaves, or brown, like the mud. Occasionally, we had to cross cold mountain streams that ran across the path. We took the opportunity to refill our water bottles at a mountain spring bubbling out of the rock.

And then there were the stairs. More stairs than you can count. All up and down the mountains, somebody (or more likely several hundred somebodies) had secured split logs across the trail to form crude stair-steps. Francis assured us that the muddy and sometimes slippery steps were a considerable improvement over past years before the trail was maintained by the national parks system. Judging by the difficulty of some parts of hike, even with the stairs, the steeper areas must have been all but impassable.

The next part of the trek was much steeper. The trail wandered up the side of the second-tallest peak in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, and so did we. Even on a nice day, the Pitons are usually blanketed in clouds, and this was not a nice day. As we hiked along a narrow ridge, I drew ahead of the others. Off to either side, the no-doubt astounding view was obscured by blowing clouds. Occasionally, as I took a short rest between flights of stairs, I could see snatches of another mountainside off to my left. The blowing mist had another effect: to fog up my glasses. Q: What do you get when you try and clean foggy glasses on a dirty shirt? A: Muddy glasses.

We took a break to eat some snacks at the top of the mountain (we assumed that it was the top of the mountain, because there were no more stairs leading up). Frances said that you could see the entire island from this vantage point, but all we could see was white, white, white. We were half way to the boiling lake, and we were a bit behind schedule. Francis had brought a thermos of ‘cocoa tea’, tea made from roasted cacao beans, sugar, and milk; in other words, home-made hot chocolate. He shared some with us.

Step three of the journey led us down the other side of the peak, and into the Valley of Desolation. It was very desolate. The rocks wore an odd mixture of colors, from white to yellow, and even green. As we carefully clambered down the rocky trail, we passed a cold spring, a hot spring, and a really hot spring. In several places, steam jetted out of invisible cracks in the rocks, adding to the freakishness of the landscape.

Valley of Desolation, Dominica

Francis found some white clay, and painted all of our faces (including his own) with intricate patterns. We spotted some lost French tourists that had apparently been too cheap to hire a guide. They asked Francis for directions to the Boiling Lake. Francis said that they could travel with us if they each paid him $50EC (about $20US). They grudgingly paid the bill, and we moved on.

Francis, Boiling Lake Hike, Dominica

Boiling Lake Hike, Dominica

The next and last leg of the expedition was somewhere between a hike and a climb. We gasped our way up several flights of stairs through more jungle, and scrambled up short cliffs and across lukewarm rivers trying not to get any more water in our already-soggy hiking shoes. We also passed a series of warm waterfalls and pools that our guide said we would go swimming in on our way back. Sarah, Aaron, and I drew ahead of everyone else, and so, after climbing up one last hillside, we reached the boiling lake first.

We were standing at the top of a cliff, with mountain behind us, and boiling lake before us. We wearily set our packs down by a rock, and went over to the edge to finally glimpse our objective. We heard faint bubbling noises coming from below, but we could see absolutely nothing through thick layer of mist–or was that steam? Several minutes later, Mom and the French people caught up, with Francis bringing up the rear. We sat on some handy rocks and ate our lunches. Francis was just making himself a special cigarette with “all natural smoking weed” when a soft breeze wafted away the steam cloud, revealing the lake in all its glory.

Boiling Lake, Dominica

It was surrounded on all sides by cliffs, except where a small stream ran out. The lake was about a hundred feet across, and an eerie milky bluish-gray color. And it actually was boiling. Right in the middle of the lake, the water bubbled and frothed like a pot on a stove, and steam rose from the surface of the water. A couple from Martinique, who had reached the lake before us, asked Francis if it was possible to go swimming in it. Francis asked them if they were out of their minds. We stayed by the lake for almost 45 minutes, enjoying the view and eating the last of the snacks, but when the fog rolled back in, we shouldered our packs, and started the long way back.

Boiling Lake Hike, Dominica

After about thirty minutes of steep jungle, we arrived at the hot waterfalls. We had been hiking in our bathing suits, so we just set down our packs, took off our muddy shoes, and climbed down into the pool at the base of the fall. It was so relaxing to sit in the warm rush of water cascading down the yellow rock after a long, damp hike. We washed off our war paint in the water, and generally enjoyed ourselves. But all good things must come to an end, and this was no exception. After ten minutes of sitting in the waterfall, we had to climb back out and put our shoes and packs back on, and get moving. And boy, was that wind cold.

The hike back through the Valley of Desolation was just as cool as the first time. If you listened closely, you could hear bubbling and boiling noises coming from underneath your feet. If the climb down from the peak was tough on the way down, the climb up was agonizing. Mom and the French people soon lagged far behind, with Francis staying with the stragglers. Aaron, Sarah and I waited up at the top for them, and when they eventually caught up, we started down. The trek through the jungle was longer than I remembered, but again, on the way up we weren’t extremely tired. About halfway down, it started to rain, but we didn’t mind. We stomped in the mud puddles that formed between the steps, trying to splash each other’s legs.

Tired, wet, and muddy, we eventually reached the bottom of the trail. We laid down our packs, and sat on a bench to wait for Mom and Francis. When they arrived, Mom joined us on the bench, and Francis went over to a small café. We went for a brisk swim in the ice-cold water of Titou Gorge, then we wearily lugged our packs for the last time the short distance to the van, where we were joined by Francis. I was so tired that I almost fell asleep on the way home, despite Anselm’s erratic driving. Back in Portsmouth, a boat boy ferried us back to Take Two. We were immediately accosted by the kids that had stayed home, asking all about our adventure. The day ended with warm showers, hot soup, and a good sleep.

Making Lemonade in Montserrat

On the morning of August 3, 1997, Jay and I left the Miami airport for our honeymoon in Mexico. That afternoon, unbeknownst to us, across the Caribbean Sea, a disaster was unfolding on the small volcanic island of Montserrat. Positioned between Nevis to the north and Guadeloupe to the south, it was a vacation paradise, a place where famous musicians like Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney came to record music and relax. It had a picturesque seaside capital. It had 15,000 inhabitants, a medical school, bustling businesses, and farms that exported tropical produce. It also had an awakening giant.

Plymouth, Montserrat

Standing on the hillside above the exclusion zone, it is hard to imagine what Plymouth looked like before the Soufriere Hills volcano eruptions. What little is left between the scars of pyroclastic flow and lahar is buried waist-deep in ash. The skeletal remains of buildings can be seen above the surface of the wasteland, and the hillsides around the old capital are covered in houses slowly rotting as nature takes over in danger zones that were evacuated after a series of eruptions, the most recent in 2010. A hardened crust of new earth fills in the gap where a half-moon beach once curved along the southwestern side of Montserrat. Today the mountain resembles a sleeping dragon with smoke slowly curling from its nostrils and an acrid haze creeping down its back.

Soufriere Hills, Montserrat

Still standing, like lone sentinels, are two sugar mills from plantation days, reminiscent of the faros of Sardinia, ancient stone markers of a history slowly being effaced by powerful erosive and, ironically, creative, forces. A hotel stands on the outskirts, its pool filled with ash and lush growth, only the tiles and a ladder to remind one what it once was. The lobby of the hotel is filled with ash as well, and the roof is caving in, its supports rusting in the sulfurous rain and wind.

Hotel Lobby

Beside us stand two men who look with different eyes—eyes that remember what this place once was. “Here is the dining room,” says Moose, our taxi driver and tour guide. “This was a very popular spot. They used to have barbecues on the weekends.” Cecil had a successful business (he is still a master leather-worker), but now they make a living taking visitors like us on taxi-tours into the zones surrounding the volcano’s exclusion zone, or selling burgers and beers to people who take a day to explore the island. As much as we would like to gawk at this act of God close-up, the two men remind us of the unseen dangers. Entire houses were buried under the pyroclastic flow, and the roofs have dissolved, leaving a crust of ash one might fall through if he went snooping. There are also hefty fines for entering Plymouth, the old capital.

Cecil and Moose

Moose has to drive by his old place every time he takes people to this side of the island. He doesn’t say anything at the time, but later he talks about what if feels like to see his building. It was built to replace his original business in the old city. At the time, the volcano was quiet, and the exclusion zone was small. He was set to open on a Friday, but Wednesday, there was a government announcement, redrawing the lines to protect people, and his property was inside that new line. The village he grew up in no longer exists, wiped off the face of the earth by the volcanic eruptions. To talk to Moose or Cecil, you wouldn’t be able to tell that they are sad about these losses. Moose says the words “positive” and “no problem” so often that I begin to believe them. These are people who lost everything—sometimes twice—and did not flee the island. They continue to rebuild, to smile, and to welcome visitors. It made me feel insensitive to take pictures of their ruined city, but there is another way to look at the situation: if life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. And that is just what Montserrat is trying to do. “We cannot focus on the past,” insists Moose. “We must look to the future.”

That’s a difficult task for an island that lost two-thirds of its usable land to a volcano, ten thousand inhabitants who resettled elsewhere (mostly England and other Caribbean islands), its capital and both the agricultural and tourism segments of its economy, all virtually overnight. Only 19 people died in the eruptions, but the island lost a whole generation; as schools closed or became temporary shelters, families with children left the island to find jobs and stability elsewhere.

But the phoenix rises: Moose has a new restaurant, not far from the government dock where visitors check in with customs and immigration. Cecil pointed out places where the government is preparing to build geothermal power stations. A group of caring recording artists (including such names as Elton John, Sting, Phil Collins, and Mark Knopfler) held a benefit concert in England and the proceeds built a new cultural center, where their handprints, cast in bronze, are on display. A new town is being built in a part of the island that used to be wilderness, and boats are coming back to visit, anchoring in Little Bay to the northwest. And a big draw for the island is the volcano that both put it on and took it off the map.

Soufriere Hills, Montserrat

First stop on the tour is the MVO—Montserrat Volcano Observatory. Here, the volcano is closely watched by scientists, and anyone interested is educated. Every six months, vulcanologists from around the world meet here to discuss the state of volcanic activity and consult with local officials. At a meeting in 2010, the scientists were met with an ash plume as the dozing giant awakened again. Seismographs monitor activity in the earth, and GPS is used to show any subtle changes that may be taking place as the earth expands or contracts over the hot spot beneath the island. The before-and-after photographs on the walls of the MVO leave one breathless and wordless. The only thing more remarkable is seeing the devastation firsthand.

Plymouth, Montserrat

On Statia, one can hike into an extinct volcano, and on Nevis, one can bathe in springs heated by geothermal vents, but Montserrat has a living, breathing volcano, and it is a sight to behold. The island is often overlooked, written off since the disaster, but visitors have both something to offer and to learn. While tourist dollars help rebuild the island and a view of the exclusion zone reveals the destructive power of nature, talking to the locals uncovers an even more amazing phenomenon: the power of a positive attitude.

Bitter(sweet) End

We spent a full month in the British Virgin Islands, and explored as many nooks and crannies as we could. We spent more time sailing our boat in that one month than we usually do in a year, as we crossed and re-crossed the Sir Francis Drake Channel, hopping from one island to another. Our last week was spent in Gorda Sound, where we enjoyed a safari truck excursion all over Virgin Gorda, an adults-only evening out with drinks at Saba Rock and pizza at the Pub at the Bitter End Yacht Club, and Hobie catamaran rentals with the crew of Abby Singer.  We checked out quite easily at Gun Creek and crossed the Anegada passage overnight to Anguilla, where we rest at anchor near Sandy Ground waiting to move south again.

Photo: View from Gorda Peak

Photo: Take Two + Abby Singer on Safari truck tour

Before we move on, I’ll take this opportunity to share our impressions of the Virgin Islands cruising grounds. If you have ever considered taking a sailing vacation, this seems to be the perfect place for either a crewed or bareboat charter. The place is swarming with Sunsail and Moorings boats, and it’s easy to see why. That said, I think we would have enjoyed the islands more if the anchorages had been populated with cruising boats instead of with vacationing novice-sailors. We are always looking for the quiet anchorage and the private beach, and that was difficult to find (though not impossible) in the Virgin Islands, especially if one cruises in the off-season.

We were also able to complete a couple of major boat projects: a full cockpit enclosure, jib repair, and a new stack-pack for the mainsail, thanks to Bob and Linda Phillips at Doyle Caribbean in Road Town, Tortola. When they said, “It will be done in three weeks,” they meant it! No need to readjust for “island time.” We had been told that Doyle was more expensive, but if time is money, then their punctuality is worth any extra expense. The only minor inconvenience was that we were required to go into Road Town every week for measuring, fitting, and installation, but it gave us an opportunity to re-provision and explore new anchorages. Bob and Linda are sailors and live-aboards themselves, experts who’ve been in the industry for 40 years, and really nice people. If you ever need any work done on sails or canvas, we highly recommend them for their reliability and workmanship.

USVI: St.Thomas and St. John

We stopped for only one night in the rolly anchorage near Charlotte-Amalie, St. Thomas, and then spent several days exploring the little bays on the northwest side of St. John, paying $30/night on National Park mooring balls (no anchoring within park boundaries). Our favorite beach was in Hawksnest Bay, but the quietest, calmest place was Francis Bay, where we had the pleasure of catching up with old friends Ralph and Kathy on s/v Simplicity. One can also hike to an old sugar mill and plantation from there.

Photo: Entering St.Thomas

BVI: Jost Van Dyke, Little Jost Van Dyke

We checked in at Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands and had lunch at Foxy’s, before moving around to Little Jost Van Dyke and anchoring near Sandy Spit. We hiked to the Bubbly Pool, where the ocean comes through a crack in the rocks to make a foaming swimming hole, but found that we came at the wrong time. The tide was low, the seas calm, and the bugs out. After swimming in Rachel’s Bubble Bath in Compass Cay in the Bahamas, the Bubbly Pool failed to impress. We did enjoy the one-palm-tree island of Sandy Spit because we had the beach to ourselves at the end of the day.

Photo: Andrew kiteboarding near Sandy Spit

Tortola: Cane Garden Bay, Road Town, Brandywine Bay, Trellis Bay, and Great Camanoe

We did not find Tortola to be the charming place we had hoped. After a night in Cane Garden Bay, where the beach is lined with bars and literally a thousand beach chairs (for cruise ship patrons), we sailed around to Road Town Harbor, where we were able to buy groceries at the Rite Way, get a sim card at Digicel, and talk to Doyle about our torn jib. We had no desire to spend a night in the commercial, loud harbor of Road Town, so we anchored in a small, quiet place called Brandywine Bay. There is supposed to be a lovely French restaurant on the hill above the bay, but we never made it. On our other two stops in Road Town to visit Doyle, we spent one night in Trellis Bay, where we enjoyed an evening at the Island Last Resort, and one in Lee Bay in Great Camanoe, a beautiful and quiet place we would visit again.

Photo: Cane Garden Bay

Photo: Brandywine Bay–goat in a boat!

Channel Islands: Norman, Peter, and Salt

These were easily my favorite part of the BVIs. Norman Island has Privateer Bay, with caves you can swim or kayak in, excellent snorkeling at the Indians, and a beautiful quiet place called Benure’s Bay. Peter Island has two deep bays with good snorkeling and a resort with a gorgeous beach. Salt Island is populated only by goats, but has excellent hiking with breathtaking views and the wreck of the RMS Rhone for a good dive site (see Eli’s post). We spent the night there and had the place to ourselves. We did not stop at Cooper or Ginger Islands.

Photo: Hiking on Salt Island

Virgin Gorda: the Baths, Savannah Bay, Prickly Pear, Gorda Sound

This is a place we could visit again and again. The Baths, with Devil’s Bay to the East and Spring Bay to the West, with their unique boulders and lovely beaches, never grow old. We stopped there three times and would go again. We loved climbing on, jumping off, swimming in the caves made by the gaps in between, and kayaking around and among the giant boulders. We also had lunch at the Top of the Baths, with its swimming pool and great view. Savannah Bay to the West, and Eustacia Sound at the far side of Prickly Pear Island in Gorda Sound are probably our favorite off-the-beaten path anchorages, though we have discovered that deserted places in the BVIs attract clothing-optional charters (see Sam’s post). Gorda Sound is a great place for a date night, small-boat sailing, or hiking to the summit of Gorda Peak for an amazing view. Rada’s restaurant above Leverick Bay is a great local place with reasonably priced food (the home-made Rotis are the best I’ve had).

Photo: At the Baths with (left to right) Sky, Aaron, Paige, Sarah, Eli, Sam


The sail to and from Anegada was brisk and fun; with a steady breeze of 20-30 knots, we were making 9-10 knots of speed with the jib and reefed main. We found low-lying Anegada to be very similar to the islands of the Bahamas, with its casuarinas, family-run places (Neptune’s Treasure), low scrubby interior, and deserted beaches. Our boys got a chance to do some kiteboarding for the first time, thanks to the patient instruction of our friend Andrew. We spent a couple of afternoons at the Anegada Beach Club (a shuttle ride from the Lobster Trap), a very-cool resort at the end of everything, and well worth the trek.

Photo: Anegada Beach Club

Photo: Eli learning to Kite

El Yunque National Forest

El Yunque

Last week we hiked on El Yunque Mountain on the eastern side of Puerto Rico. El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. park system. We hiked down La Mina River trail and climbed on rocks and fallen logs in the river. At the end of the trail we swam in the pools of the waterfall, which were surprisingly cold. Then we hiked back up the hundreds of stairs to the road that led to the car. It was a great day and I highly suggest visiting the park if you are ever in Puerto Rico.

La Mina Falls

Photo by Mary