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The Land of Plenty

 

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

Sunset Bocas

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

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

Mattapoisett Light

Heather and Tanya at Texas Falls

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

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

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

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

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

Student Center, Middlebury, VT

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

See Turtles

The van rumbles to a stop, and you get out onto the deserted sandy road. You hear the crashing of the surf in the darkness. Behind you, the other members of your group exit the transporte colectivo. There is excited chatter from the kids. The guide leads the small group of eight into the pitch-black interior of the beach shack. There, using only a dim reddish light, he tells you all about the turtles. It is a little after 8 PM and you have just taken a rough taxi ride across Isla Colon to Bluff Beach, to see the sea turtles.

For a few short months, both the hawksbill and leatherback species lay their eggs on the beaches of Panamá. The eggs laid in April are also hatching this month. However, the guide does not guarantee that you will see anything at all. He sends out two guys, also from the Turtle Conservancy, to run ahead, and signal with a red flashlight if they find any turtles. At last, you all step out onto the beach, and start walking.

You quickly draw ahead of the others. It is very dark, with no moon and no artificial light. The only illumination comes from the stars overhead. In front of you, the big dipper is low on the horizon, reminding you of escaped slaves on the underground railroad, following the drinking gourd to freedom.

The sand is damp and uneven beneath your feet. When you step down, tiny flashes of green appear between your toes. You’ve never seen bioluminescence in the sand before.

On your left is the jungle, dark and brooding, alive with the sounds of frogs, insects, and other creatures. Occasionally, a light from a house or passing car stabs out through the trees, before being swallowed by the dense foliage.

On your right is the ocean. The black lumps of eight-foot swells break and crash in a never-ending thunderous cacophony. The white foam appears luminous in the starlight as it rushes to swallow your feet.

There is a very dreamlike quality to the night. You feel as if you could walk on forever, impervious to fatigue. All sense of time and distance are lost. The Milky Way arches above, like a thin band of clouds. Behind you, dimly heard, the rest of the group chatters away.

A small child runs on her short legs to catch up with you. She walks with you for a while, and asks, “How many stars are there?” “Billions,” you answer. “OK,” she says, and runs back to her friends, no doubt to resolve some trivial dispute. You are disappointed that she can’t appreciate the contemplation of the universe in silence.

You have been walking for maybe an hour when the guide spots the red signal lights of the runners. They have found something. You all hurry to see what they have found.

It is a leatherback turtle, digging a nest in the sand. She is by far the largest turtle you have ever seen, with a shell over five feet long. Careful to stay out of her field of view, you all kneel in the damp sand behind her to watch as she uses her back flippers to scoop the sand from her three-foot-deep hole. Presently, she stops digging. One of the runners produces a plastic bag, and places it in the hole. The guide explains that the turtle chose a bad place for her nest, and that the eggs will not hatch if they are laid in the water in the bottom. They will be reburied in a dry hole to increase the chances of survival.

A few minutes later, the first white baseball-sized egg rolls into the bag. You all sit enthralled, as if in front of a movie, as the huge turtle lays about a hundred eggs. Then, the first runner reaches into the hole, and deftly pulls the bulging bag back out without disrupting the mother, who begins the laborious task of filling the hole, completely unaware that it is empty.

The guide checks his watch, and says that it’s time to go. You stand up, sweep the sand from your clothes, and start the long walk back to the taxi. You have witnessed something rare and almost magical: a leatherback, probably the last of the season, laying her eggs on a starlit beach.

Swarming at Sunset

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

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

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

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

Cooking with David

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

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

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

Arroz con Coco with David

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

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

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

Hallaca ingredients

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

Washing banana leaves with David

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

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

Hallaca filling

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

Hallaca ingredients

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

Making the Masa

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

Hallacas with David

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

Hallacas with David

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

Hallacas on the boil

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

Hallacas with David

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

Mount Totumas

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

Cabaña, Mount Totumas

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

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

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

Bellbird Lodge, Mount Totumas

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

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

Front Porch

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

Bird Feeder

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

Monkey Watching

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

Howler Monkey

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

Monkeys

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

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

Waterfall

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

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

David

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

Front Runners

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

Los Pozos

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

Cartagena Vacation

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

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

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

Cartagena

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

Cartagena

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

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

Fruit Lady

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

Lunch

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

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

Castillo Tunnel

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

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

Making Chocolate

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

Waiting for the Bus

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

Outside the Comfort Zone

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

Cartagena Traffic

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

Juan Valdez

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

Rachel and Maria Alejandra

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

Simon Bolivar

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

Cocao

Coffee

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

Cartagena

Castillo San Felipe

Making Chocolate

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

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

Cuatro

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

Beach Tents

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

Tayrona, Santa Marta

Underwater Bonaire

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

Flamingos

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

Dropoff

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

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

Pete

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

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

Salt Pier, Bonaire

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

Underwater Bonaire

Living La Brisa Loca

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

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

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

Fun in Bonaire

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

Caving in Bonaire

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

Caving in Bonaire

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

Caving in Bonaire

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

Windsurfing in Bonaire

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

Big Papa with Sky

Cliff “Big Papa” with Sky