Q: What’s scarier than teaching your teenager to drive a car?
A: Teaching three teenagers to drive at the same time!
We’ve merged into the fast lane. Having arrived in the U.S. one month ago, we’ve made a lot of progress toward re-integration. Eli turned 18 and registered to vote. The three teenagers got phones and learner’s permits. At the end of the month, assuming they’ve jumped through all the right hoops, they’ll start their first dual enrollment classes at the local community college. Eli and Aaron are dipping their toes into the wide world of work this week as they join a construction crew with our friend Andrew (remember the captain of s/v Abby Singer?). Sarah sailed in her first regatta as crew on a Hobie 16. Sam is taking his Florida boater’s safety course to operate the dinghy solo. And Rachel checked out her first library books!
I’ve joined a Wednesday-morning Bible study, a yoga class, and committed to teaching high-school home-schoolers a U.S. Government class this fall. Jay has been fixing broken things on our boat now that we have access to parts and shipping, and working like crazy using unlimited high-speed internet. We’ve been having weekly date-nights to organize all these new adventures and support each other so that we’re ready for whatever comes our way.
“Far too often in seasons of transitions, we tend to do one of two things. Either we forestall the ending because we cannot face the grief of the conclusion of an era, or we leap over the finish line and bound headlong into the next race without pausing to reflect on where we have been on the road to where we are going. Transition– good, heartful transition– requires both. Experiences do not change us. Reflecting on our experiences changes us. For every shift between a then and a now, our task is to reflect on what was and, as a result, what can now be. We must digest our experience in order to [go into the future].”—Chris Bruno
When we bought Take Two in 2008, we talked of taking our kids down to the Caribbean, enjoying beautiful clear water, catching fish, seeing the world in the microcosm of islands, and maybe learning another language. On Tuesday, July 2, we finished that dream trip as we crossed our track and motored toward our mooring in Boot Key Harbor, a place we left over three years ago with our then 14-, 13-, 11-, 9-, and 4-year-old children. We left as coastal cruisers with kids, but we came back seasoned blue-water sailors with young adults. The world seems wider now, but the boat smaller. We came back because it’s time to let the kids begin their own journeys, and our family and support systems are here. We came back to the same place, but we are not the same people.
All of us are “digesting the experience” in different ways. It is wonderful, but weird, to be back in Florida. Some of us were excited to return to “the Land of Plenty” and familiar places and faces. Others of us are happy travelers, reluctant to rejoin the daily routines of land-life. Most of us won’t really understand what the travel has done to us until we gain some life experiences here in the U.S. and get a little perspective. The memories of the last three years, complete with the whole range of joy and misery, friendship and loneliness, excitement and boredom—are still too fresh. Even so, I asked everyone in the family to pause, if for only a moment, before a “new normal” sets in and we’re off exploring in different directions, and to reflect on their experiences as travelers.
Jay: I’m not really a cruiser. I’m just a guy who lives on a boat. I like the self-sufficiency: the boat is our house, it’s our office, it’s our school. We’ve just been doing “regular life” in foreign countries. In that way, coming back to the United States represents conveniences like easy shipping, good grocery stores, and fast internet, but doesn’t really change my day-to-day. There’s not a strong delineation between then and now.
For me the travel was really about the kids. It started as a way to show them the world, have some fun, and learn new things. We wanted our kids to see different cultures and get a broader picture of the world, but also to avoid being indoctrinated in the U.S. with negative things like materialism, promiscuity, entitlement, and instant gratification. While we had a lot of fun in the Eastern Caribbean, the trip really changed when we went west at the end of 2016. We had wanted our kids to learn Spanish, and what better place than Central America?
I think all our goals were met. Some of the results of the travel remain to be seen, but I’m happy with where our kids are right now. I would have liked some of them to step out of their comfort zones more often, but I think they saw enough and picked up enough because we were there so long. My comfort zone definitely grew. Things that would have freaked me out early on didn’t bother me later, and I realized I really like Central America. I can imagine traveling again, being nomadic, maybe spending more time in South America. Having done it once, leaving again would be easier.
Tanya: I’m struggling with this “conclusion of an era” part. This is likely the last big sailing trip we take with all seven of us. I knew it couldn’t last forever, but part of me secretly wanted the kids to stay small so we could just keep traveling around as a family. The other part wants to see the result of this experiment—parenting and homeschooling and traveling—to see what kind of interesting people my children will become as independent adults. Seeing your child transform into an adult is like giving birth in slow motion—it is painful, requires a long labor, and inspires curiosity—and I’m dying to meet the person emerging into the world.
Eli will be 18 this month, Aaron is 16, Sarah, 15, Sam, 12, and Rachel, 8. I am well on my way to becoming the shortest person in the family (even Sam is passing me up and Rachel shows no sign of slowing). There will be a steep learning curve as we rejoin our culture and the requirements of life in the U.S.—learning to drive, taking tests, figuring out educational options, meeting with old friends and new, and finding our places here (both literally and figuratively). I am sure we will continue to travel, as it is more who we are than what we do, but some of our trips will be by land, others by air, and the ones by sea might find us short a few hands.
Despite my sounding a little sad about the conclusion, the bottom line is that I have no regrets: we did what we set out to do. Take Two traveled around the world without having to cross an ocean—her crew met people from all over the globe, heard many languages spoken, experienced the cultures of the Old World while traveling in the New, lived in Central America long enough to understand and passably speak Spanish, made lifelong friends, gave back to the community, came into contact with indigenous peoples and remnants of their ancient civilizations, encountered incredible natural scenery and wildlife, and broadened horizons.
While the results of our book-learning remain to be seen, the benefits of travel and real-life learning are evident: we can sail, tie knots, take a night watch, fish, cook, play musical instruments, solve problems, make art, wash dishes, converse intelligibly with people of all ages, perform in public, hail a taxi or catch a bus, fix broken things, weave baskets, teach a class, get lost and find the way back, express our thoughts in writing, freedive, speak another language, drive on the other side of the road, and make friends cross-culturally. Not all of us can do all of these things, of course, but a wide range of skills and talents are evident, and I believe we have all developed a kind of confidence and comfort in the world that only travel can impart. I am not minimizing the difficulty and discomfort of rejoining the flow of life in our own culture, but as citizens of the world, I think we have a leg up. Furthermore, I have memories to cherish (and write about) for a lifetime, and without a doubt, more adventures to anticipate.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” –Roy Batty (Blade Runner)
Eli: Now that we’re back, I’ve had some time to reflect on our grand voyage. So, what exactly did this whole trip mean to me? Well, my home was there, so it wasn’t really a “trip.” We only left people behind. We had all our stuff; we did chores; we did school. The only thing missing was the social environment in which we would have been immersed if we had stayed. But we didn’t stay. We went far away and had all sorts of awesome adventures instead of staying in the same place with the same people. We spent many years and months away from the United States. My “social development” basically stopped when we left our society, and barely advanced in all our time among the islands. I don’t have a phone, I don’t know how to pick up a check, I don’t know how to drive a car, I don’t have a job, I don’t even know very many people here. I’ve been left behind by all my friends, and I feel like I don’t fit in.
But I’m not sorry I missed out. Not at all. I don’t think I ever fit in, and I’ve never been very comfortable around other people. I like to travel. I liked seeing new places, and freediving and hiking and swimming and sailing every day. It was an amazing adventure. It was my life. But now that phase is over, and we’re here in the Keys, and I’m feeling both like I missed out on all my friends’ lives and like I would have regretted staying and missing out on the adventure. But I couldn’t have both. I’m happy with how things went, and I want to reconnect now. I want the relationships, but I also miss the cruising life. Technically speaking, our life now isn’t much different than it was in, say, Isla Mujeres or Guatemala. The real difference is that it’s not new. It’s an old place, with old memories associated very deeply. It feels totally different now than when we visited briefly here last year. It’s the end of an era, and that knowledge changes everything.
Our life didn’t radically change when we left “civilization,”
but it did change in small ways. I feel that we became closer as a family, we
became more conscious of our wealth in relation to others, and we learned to be
more comfortable around the foreign. I came to feel sure and confident in that
environment, and everything was good. Now, I don’t know what comes next, now
that we no longer swim and hike and climb every day. School is changing,
locations are changing. I miss the years spent on the ocean, if only because I
know they’re over.
Aaron: When we left the U.S., I was newly 13 and gave zero care to jobs, driving, college, and other related subjects, which was fine. Now that we’re back, I am almost 17 and still don’t care much about any of it, which isn’t so fine. I think I lost my motivation because I live on a boat, spend most of my time at home, and have next to no friends, so all of the aforementioned subjects seem far away and unimportant, while the opposite is true.
Aside from this almost complete lack of concern for untaken developmental steps and vacant area where “social status” ought to be, I think I’m basically the same person as I would have been if we’d never left. I grew my hair out, discovered new music, started working out, and started forming my outlook on life, regardless of location. I can understand the value of living in Central America for a couple of years, but it comes at a cost; it builds insulation from normalcy. I like being on the outside looking in, but I’m thinking that at some point I’m going to have to get in myself, and it won’t be any easier with such a late start. It’s a bit distressing to me to think that I could have been a licensed driver almost a year ago if we’d never left.
The most important things that I did while we were away were
working at Agua Dulce Marina, making local friends in Guatemala, volunteering
at Casa Agua Azul and the Rio Dulce summer camp, and climbing up the Acatenango
Volcano. While similar opportunities in the U.S. might have built skills and
self-confidence as effectively as the ones I had, I probably wouldn’t have been
interacting with my surroundings in a different language and culture in the way
that I was in Latin America. Also, our parents separating us from our peers was
successful in sparing us from any teen drama that there might otherwise have
In conclusion, the position in which I stand isn’t entirely
good or bad. I’m getting a late start in the flow of normal life, but I’m also
entering with an outsider’s perspective. And I think Mom and Dad were right
when they said, “trust us, when you look back on your life, you won’t regret
this part of it.”
Sarah: All good things must come to an end. Not all good things are all good. And while I didn’t have a good time all the time, I think the last 3 years, 5 months, and 8 days we spent as a family traveling around the Caribbean were spent well, and I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for anything. When we left the United States to begin our trip, I was 11 years old. When I was 11, I would think things like “Someday I’ll get a job” or “Someday I’ll learn to drive a car.” Well, now it’s “someday” and that is scary. I didn’t spend a lot of time preparing for “someday” while we were in the Caribbean, so now that we’re back in the States and about to be immersed in normal life (as normal as it gets for us anyway), I feel like I’m being hit in the face with responsibilities and choices that I’m not quite ready to take on. In a word: overwhelmed.
In a way, I feel like our trip back to the United States last summer
helped me prepare for what we’re facing now. Before our visit I had very little
idea of what was expected of someone in my age group, or how to accomplish
those goals. Now I feel like I have a better idea of what to do and how to do
it. It’s also great to be back in a place I can call home, to see familiar
faces, and to know where I fit in. Living on a boat has always been, and always
will be, a trade-off, and now we’re about to experience something completely different
than we’ve been used to; but then, fear of the unknown is normal.
Sam: Each country or island we visited is like an individual person; each has a personality, a culture, and a history. When we went on our three year “trip” we were not on vacation, hanging out on white sand beaches or relaxing somewhere in a resort. When we came to a new island or country, we met it and we made friends with the locals, and learned from it, if we could. So when we came back recently to the United States, I did not necessarily look different on the outside (besides growing taller) but I carry with me on the inside something from the places I went and people I met. I carry not only experiences, like swimming with whale sharks and jumping in waterfalls, but skills, like freediving and palm-weaving, for example, and lessons, like “never interfere with wild animals,” or, “the ocean is unpredictable.” We also came back to the U.S. with a knowledge of the history of the places we have been. I feel that I am a happier person when we are traveling and if I sit too long in one place, I tend to get bored with it.
Rachel: We live full-time on the boat. I can’t really explain what that’s like because it’s normal for me, but I can tell you some of the places we have been. We went to the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean. Then we went west to Bonaire, Colombia, Panama, Grand Cayman, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and back to Florida. I loved our adventures. I am a little sad that the trip is over (except for the times when I was seasick.)
One of the things I love about a traveling life is how
things come full circle—sometimes literally. We are one passage (a mere 400
nautical miles as the crow flies) away from crossing our outbound March 2016
track in our circumnavigation of the Caribbean Sea. In another sense, because
we keep meeting up with old friends, we complete circles in
relationships—sometimes a friend to whom we’ve offered assistance ends up
We arrived in Isla Mujeres, Mexico in early May. A year ago, we were on the Western side of Roatan, anchored conveniently near the reef where we were freediving every day in clear water. One day, a youngish guy dinghied over and introduced himself. Originally from Argentina, Joaquin is a traveler, a sailing and SCUBA instructor, a musician—and now, a friend.
After introductions and polite conversation, he asked if he could borrow a SCUBA tank. He was taking a friend diving, and the local dive shops would not rent him gear unless he was going out diving (read “paying to go out diving”) with their outfit. We lent him the tank.
When he returned it, we had another good conversation and
parted, as we often do, by saying “until next time.” Next time happened to be about
9 months later in Rio Dulce, Guatemala. The boat Joaquin had been sailing on,
owned by his friends, was on the hard at our marina, where he was working on it
and getting it ready for sale. He had spent much of the time since we saw him
last working on a wooden ship-building project in Costa Rica (a
conservation-minded program called CEIBA, find it at www.sailcargo.org). We got to catch up a
bit, swap travel stories, and even share some music (he’s a great harmonica
When we headed up to Antigua, Guatemala, at the end of March, we ran into Joaquin again. We invited him over for dinner and shared a lovely evening. He had shown us pictures of his trip up the Acatenango volcano and recommended Walter, the guide we chose for Eli and Aaron’s hike. He even (coincidentally) showed up to play live music at the restaurant where Jay and I were celebrating Jay’s 44th birthday later that week. When he mentioned he’d be heading to Mexico soon, we were pretty sure we would see him again. As it turns out, he was staying in Morelos, a small town near Cancún, and when I asked for advice about a field trip I was planning (to visit cenotes), he made a generous offer to help me plan—and even act as guide for—our outing.
We were about a dozen people from three boats coming over on the ferry for the day. Joaquin met us with a van and driver and we drove through Cancún, past all the beach hotels, and out into the wilds of the Yucatán. When Jay and I honeymooned here twenty years ago, this place was all about the beach. Sure, we went to Chichen Itzá and did some horseback riding in the jungle, but cenotes were not even “on the map.” Now, due in part to the hostile takeover of the beach by persistent Sargasso seaweed, people are looking for other ways to stay cool, and swimming in cenotes is big business.
A cenote (derived from the Mayan word for “well”) is
basically a place where rainwater has dissolved limestone bedrock to expose
groundwater—in Florida we would call it a sinkhole. In Mexico, it is a sacred
watering hole that sustained the people and the animals of the Yucatán
for thousands of years. The water is cold and clear, purified as it trickles
though porous rock or runs through underground channels. Cenotes were believed to
be an opening to the underworld, and there is archeological evidence that sacrifices
were made in some of them to the Mayan rain God, Chaac. Some of them are “open”
so that you can see the wide circular opening and others are “closed,” meaning
a cave with water in it, often accessible through a small opening. There are
thousands of them in Mexico. Some are still quiet little places in the middle
of the jungle, but the ones near Cancun are popular with tourists. The
wilderness has a paved road now, with good signage, and entrance fees.
So, given that ours would be a day-trip, we drove about an hour away, down the “Ruta de Los Cenotes” and went for a swim. Joaquin, ever the thoughtful guide, wanted to make sure we got something from—and gave something back to—the experience. As a community of long-term travelers, we are more than tourists with a vacation mentality; we are visitors and observers, aware of our impact on fragile environments and communities. Instead of buying plastic-packaged snacks, for example, we stopped at a local fruit-vendor to buy natural goodies. And conversations throughout the day centered on the history of these sacred places, the pros and cons of development, the economic and cultural impact of tourism, the thoughtless destruction of nature, and what we can do about it during our short lives on earth. Of course, in addition to these more serious thoughts, there was plenty of monkeying around, both figuratively and literally.
We arrived early to Cenote Verde Lucero, nearly the only visitors in this quiet place. The spider monkeys were still out and about, and we were warned not to leave snacks where they could be snatched. It was a beautiful place—it was easy to ignore the deck, the stairs, the picnic tables, and other signs of tourism—and see only the mirror of sky in a fresh water pool fringed by trees in the littoral forest. After the initial quiet of observation, the kids made the most of the cool water—shattering the surface of the mirror by jumping in from the top of the steep sides, dropping in from the zipline, and shaking each other off the rope suspended across the cenote.
With masks and fins, some of the kids explored the cenote and discovered that the middle was shallower than the sides (evidence of roof-material from a cave-in) and that there were small fish hiding among the rocky ledges and tree roots. I paddled around, taking pictures, laughing at the kids’ antics, and admiring the trees, which were thirstily reaching down the steep sides of the cenote for a drink of water.
After swimming, we came up for snacks. We had carefully hidden all our fruit and drinks, but it turns out the monkeys had grown bold with all the tourists, and they weren’t merely reaching into bags—they would come up to the table and snatch whatever they could find, right in front of us. They caught us by surprise while we were snacking, and we lost a bunch of small bananas before we scrambled to hide the rest. Rachel, having had a bad experience with spider monkeys (see “When Monkeys Attack,” December 2017), quickly retreated to a safe distance.
We took a short walk through the littoral forest, remarking how similar the flora looks to that of south Florida, and then turned back toward the cenote. A large group had arrived and was noisily entering the cenote—a couple dozen people in orange life jackets. We beat a hasty retreat.
On the way out, we noted, off to the side, a clearing in the
center of which lay a “temazcal”—a Lakota sweat lodge where people can come for
purification ceremonies. The spiritual significance of the cenote may have
changed in the last five hundred years, but there is still a sense that the
place is sacred, and an acknowledgment that fresh water in a hot place is
life-giving and precious.
We went next to a closed cenote, La Noria. It was removed from the main road by a long and bumpy dirt path, a promising sign that things hard-to-get-to are less-frequented. It was nearly noon when we got there, and the sun was directly overhead, perfect timing for the light in the cave. Once again, we were nearly the only people there, and after we arrived, the other small group left and we had the place to ourselves. There were two entrances, one a small tunnel into which descended a spiral staircase, and another bigger opening in the cave roof.
Inside, it was beautiful, with its reflections of stalagtites in the water, bats flitting around, and clear, cold water lit only by a column of sunlight from the narrow entrance. It was a stark contrast to the wide, sunlit swim of the morning.
Once again, some of the kids donned masks and fins and explored beneath the surface, and several of them jumped into the water through the skylight. I was interested again by the appearance of tree roots—some reaching through twenty-five feet of limestone in search of moisture. Without sun exposure, the water was cold, and we swam until our teeth chattered.
Afterwards, we went to Morelos for lunch—Joaquin knew a local place with good food. It always makes me happy to hear my kids ordering confidently in Spanish. We then went for a short walk on the beach—noting the rafts of sargassum that clog the shoreline and rot in the sun. More conversations ensued—what kinds of change we can and cannot control, the growing awareness among young people of a need to take care of the environment, but also our own joy and gratitude in the face of these difficulties. It had been a wonderful day—perfect weather, good friends, cool, clear water, food, and fun. We parted, as always, with the acknowledgment that our lives are transient, and though goodbyes are frequent, so are the serendipitous reunions.
I took some pictures today of what our boat REALLY looks
like. Usually we clean up or hide the mess before we take photos to post. But this
morning, I took a closer look at our clutter, and before griping about it or
demanding the kids tidy up, I took the opportunity to let it tell me something
about the stage of life we’re in.
Rachel left some Play-doh out, and her plastic dishes (on which she had made me pancakes and bacon). This reminds me that we are nearing the end of the Play-doh years. Soon, there will be no little bits of blue or pink goo ground into rugs or stuck on the rear-end of my shorts, but also no little girl to clean up after.
School books, which are supposed to be put away at the end of every weekday, were left out over the weekend. We have two boys nearing graduation, and I am reminded that my work with them as a teacher/academic advisor is nearing completion.
The desk/guitar practice area is kept pretty organized by the musicians who play there, but it’s still a lot of stuff in a small area. How quiet it will be when Aaron moves off the boat, taking his beat-up guitar and all the coils of cable and electronic equipment with him.
The kitchen stove is disgusting. We went out for dinner (just grownups!) last night and left the kids in charge of cooking for themselves. The spaghetti explosion is the result. Instead of waking someone up to take care of the mess, I reflected on the fact that I got to go out without kids last night, and that I have capable kids who can cook for themselves.
The bar, or catch-all, sports a grocery list, school-work to grade, a computer, an SAT prep-book, camera, sunglasses, a Mexico travel guide, and other detritus from our busy life. A lot goes into organizing school, meals, laundry, boat repairs, and travel for a family of seven. As the kids grow up, I will have a lot more time to keep the boat clean, but I will really miss them and their messes.
None of this is earth-shattering. Lots of moms have come to the same logical conclusion. If mess=family and family=love, then mess=love. My prayer this morning: Forgive me, Lord, for complaining about that for which I should be grateful. Let me serve this family without grumbling and nagging,and appreciate what I’ve got before it’s gone.
Life here in the Rio Dulce has settled into a daily rhythm, and things have begun to move in a sedate and predictable manner. Life is steady, possibly even monotonous. Weekdays, for the most part, follow this general pattern: get up early, do school for five hours in the tropical heat, call it quits and play basketball in the afternoon, go for a swim, take a shower, play video games or watch an episode of Star Trek before dinner, eat, go to bed. Weekends are a little different, but are still predictable. On Saturdays, Aaron and I go volunteer at an orphanage, and work our butts off for most of the day. We are often accompanied by Deon, a friend of ours from South Africa. We work in the dirt until the afternoon, when Jerry (the house father) drives us home. Then we swim and play for the rest of the day. Sundays, we have a pancake breakfast and goof off in the afternoon; sometimes Dad takes us wakeboarding on Lake Izabal.
Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with a repetitive week, but for people who are used to changing locations every few months, it can get a little dull. So we leap at any opportunity to break the trend, get out of the boat (and school) for a day, and do something awesome. Our marina in the Rio Dulce is in the shadow of a national park on a large mountain covered by lush rainforest. Our friend Jerry from the orphanage where we volunteer is often lovingly referred to as “Jungle Jerry” because he leads rainforest hikes on occasion. We asked him to take us into the jungle and he agreed to take a day off and show us a part of Guatemala we might not otherwise experience.
I didn’t quite know beforehand what it would be like. All I knew was the general area where we would be hiking (in the hills further down the river), how we would get there (in Jerry’s little SUV), and what time I had to wake up (7 a.m.). The early hour was possibly the least pleasant aspect of the outing, but it was well worth it. We packed lunches, snacks, spare articles of clothing, a camera, and water bottles in two backpacks. We put on sturdy shoes and hopped in the dinghy. Dad drove us over to the restaurant where Jerry would be picking us up. On the way, we grabbed Deon. Jerry was waiting for us; Mom, Aaron, Deon and I piled into his vehicle and drove off.
We drove over the bridge and soon left the noise, chaos, and urban squalor of Fronteras behind in favor of the tranquil scenes of pastoral squalor that comprise much of Guatemala. Jerry told us entertaining stories about his childhood in Guatemala and his life in the U.S., including his time in the Marines. Suddenly we turned off the highway and became off-road explorers. Such radical changes in terrain are quite common here. One minute, you can be driving down a well-paved road with flat pasture-land on either side, and the next, through dense hilly rainforest on a muddy track, rattling your teeth out as the road dips and bumps over rocks. Jerry’s vehicle is a hardy off-roader, an Isuzu Amigo, the sort of car you get when you cross a jeep wrangler with a pickup truck and drive it around for a few years on bad roads. It has seats for five, but by Jerry’s count, it can carry up to ten people (an assertion we put to the test on one occasion). It has little in the way of comfort, but she’s got it where it counts.
We drove for almost an hour on prodigiously bad roads, through two shallow rivers, and deep into the hills. The land near Rio Bonito was verdant and cultivated with palm oil plantations which rose up on either side, covering the road with a green arched roof, with the overgrown trunks forming ranks of shaggy green pillars. We stopped and disembarked. Jerry took his vehicle a ways down the road to park, and came back with two local guides and a few scrawny dogs. In single file, we followed the guides (and dogs) off the road.
At first the path went through the palm plantation, and the ground was muddy and dotted with cow manure. Then the orderly rows of palm trees ended, and we began to ascend. The path became narrower, and the guides up ahead hacked away at the encroaching vegetation with machetes. The dogs ran off into the woods to hunt. Sounds of their chase would echo back to us from time to time. The trees were very thick, and covered with vines and moss. The slowly-rising ground was split by roots and covered with fallen leaves. The air was humid and heavy, but not too hot as the day was mercifully overcast. But the path snaked ever onward and upward, and it wasn’t long before we were perspiring like professionals.
The trail went up and up. It was often very narrow, cutting into the side of the wooded hills. The sound of insects filled the air. Aaron and I traded off the big backpack every now and then; Mom, puffing behind us like the Little Blue Engine, carried her own small pack. After about an hour of trudging upward, enveloped in our own personal banks of fog, we reached the top of the hill. We waited for Mom to catch up, then we trudged down the other side. The other side was lot steeper, and we found ourselves stumbling and sliding as often as walking.
Before long, we reached a broad, shallow, and fast-moving stream. We took off our shoes and waded across, then continued upstream. I didn’t catch on to the fact that this was a waterfall hike until I could see the waterfall (although the name “Rio Bonito” should have cued me in). And what a waterfall! It rushed out from a wide gap between two great piers of black rock thrust out from the sides of the valley, and tumbled into a series of deep pools, each turquoise pool hidden from the next. We took off all unnecessary clothing items and began the exploration of the falls.
The water was frigid and fast-moving. Diving into the turbulent pools, we discovered tunnels that ran under the rock. We scaled the rock faces, swam and climbed up the curved canyon, and found more pools and falls. It was otherworldly—like something from a movie set. Mom followed us up the first canyon, then swam back to relax and eat lunch. One of our Mayan guides hunted snails by the rocky pools, his faithful dogs following him around, leaping from rock to rock over swift-moving water.
Climbing up icy waterfalls in your underwear may be fun, but it gets pretty tiring after a while. So we swam over to the small rock island downstream where we had dumped all our stuff. We opened our weighty backpacks and lightened them a little. After a delicious lunch of sandwiches and carrot sticks, we donned our clothes and shoes, and plunged back into the jungle. The way back seemed easier, probably because all that uphill we did at the beginning was now mostly downhill. Now that we weren’t straining to get up the hill, we were free to enjoy the surrounding wilderness in relative comfort. As an added plus, the sun had finally come out, bathing the forest in a pleasant, green, leaf-filtered light and warming us after our brisk swim.
The trail ended, but we continued down the road toward the village where Jerry had parked his vehicle. The palm plantation dissolved abruptly into rolling sun-drenched cow pasture. The walk to the village was long, and we talked while we ambled, with the dogs barking and chasing cows in the background.
The village was small and indigenous, something I usually associate with grime and poverty, but this place was immaculately clean. Most of the buildings were elevated on stilts, with hand-cut board walls and palm-thatched roofs. Colorful blankets fluttered from clothes lines. Hammocks hung on porches. Women washed clothes down at the river. It was very National Geographic. Jerry told us that when he first visited the village, the children were afraid of Gringos eating them (a threat parents made to get good behavior). Apparently, they were still afraid, because there were none in sight. Just tiny Mayan eyes peeping out at us from window cracks. We reached the car. The guides produced coconuts and speedily lopped the tops off with machetes, then handed them out as refreshments. We sipped the coconuts, tipped the guides, and drove home.
The hike showed us a Guatemala we had not seen before; long ago, the entire country must have been like this, blanketed completely by trees and undergrowth. Now, the landscape is a patchwork of cattle-strewn grassland, dense groves of banana trees, and orderly ranks of rubber-trees or palm-oil plantations, the rainforest held back by machetes and a few feeble strands of barbed wire. But the jungle remains, thick, dark, and lush, lurking just beyond the property lines.
We had been back in Guatemala for a few weeks after our trip to the United States when we decided the Mayan ruins nearby sounded like an interesting and educational way to pass some time while our boat was hauled out. The house on the Rio we had rented was reserved by another group for three days in the middle of our stay, so we had to find somewhere to go. Why not Tikal? And that is how I found myself climbing into another bus privado with only my backpack and a good book. For a sailing blog, I spend an awful lot of time writing about being on a bus.
We drove for several hours, at last alighting in the town of El Remate. We had rented another Airbnb house, a well-appointed affair that was part of a nearby hotel. We got our tours to Yaxhá (another ruin in the Petén region) and Tikal lined up for the next two days and were just sitting down to a relaxing lunch at the hotel restaurant when disaster struck. Dad had asked a friend to go check on his batteries while we were gone, and he discovered a serious problem. This was very bad news. Dad had to return to the Rio early the next day to work on the battery bank. The good news was that the rest of us would stay to see the ruins.
Our tour to Yaxhá was slated for the afternoon and evening. We filled the intervening time by reading about Mayan history, playing video games, and eating at a nearby restaurant. Then it was time to go. Our driver and tour guide were waiting for us at the hotel reception desk, along with a turismo van. Our guide’s name was Nathaniel, a young guy who used to play soccer (futbol) on the national team. He and Mom talked continuously during the hour-long ride to Yaxhá. The road ran through the Guatemalan countryside: fields, dwellings, roadside produce stands, cow pastures, and jungle.
The city of Yaxhá is located at the end of a loooong dirt road stretching through the hilly wilderness. At the end of the road is a pyramid. It is one of the smaller ones, only about fifty feet high. The stone was weathered, and plants were growing on its stepped sides. That looked like all there was; there was no ruined city in evidence, only thick, hilly jungle. Thick, exceptionally steep hilly, jungle. Wait a minute. Nathaniel informed us that the suspiciously steep hills were the ruins. But they were covered with trees! Our guide explained that the pyramids and temples were extremely overgrown, but there was definitely a city buried under the forest. Over 500 structures’ worth. Excavation and restoration had begun in the 1950s and was still underway. Nathaniel showed us around.
The path wound through the invisible city, skirting the buried pyramids. Howler and spider monkeys swung in the trees above. It seemed like a typical rainforest hike. Then we would come around a corner, and a cluster of stone buildings would emerge. Nathanial told us they were palaces. The ruins looked like sets from an Indiana Jones movie. The city was built near a large lake that provided transportation to the other nearby cities. There was even a temple on an island in the lake.
The Mayan empire once stretched from the Yucatán peninsula in southern Mexico to northern Honduras and El Salvador, completely encompassing Guatemala. Which is why Guatemala is home to some of the most spectacular Mayan ruins in the world (in addition to quite a large population of Mayans, who are still around despite efforts by the Spanish conquistadors to obliterate them).
Some of the buildings we were looking at dated from as early as 600 B.C., the middle of the Mayan Pre-classic period, though structures were often built in layers, pyramids becoming larger with each successive renovation. The Mayan civilization lasted from around 2000 B.C. to well into the sixteenth century, and thrived from around 750 B.C to 900 A.D. Not long after, the civilization went into decline, and collapsed in the following centuries for reasons unknown. The last vestiges of any organized civilization were systematically destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors after their arrival in the 1500s, however, there remains to this day a large number of people of Mayan descent that inhabit Guatemala, Mexico and Belize, and still carry on many of the traditions.
During their multi-millenial dominance of Mesoamerica, the Mayans developed an advanced system of writing, mathematics, and astronomy, in some areas predating and surpassing all other early civilizations. Their mathematical skill was far ahead of contemporary peoples, and their hieroglyphic writing was the most complex of any pre-Columbian civilization. Their polytheistic belief system had much in common with other Mesoamerican peoples, including complicated rituals, sacred basketball games, and human sacrifice. Despite efforts by Spanish settlers to convert the people to Catholicism and destroy the original traditions and practices, Mayans still come to worship and make offerings at sacred places. The ashes of their recent fires can be seen in front of many of the pyramids (like the altars in the main plaza at Tikal).
We wandered around Yaxhá for several hours. Most of the structures were still buried, but we could see what once had been there. The sheer number of pyramids was surprising. You would expect that constructing something so large would be an expensive, laborious, and time-consuming endeavor, but there seemed to have been no shortage of cheap labor in the ancient city, because the ponderous edifices were liberally planted throughout the area. Basically, every hill was made of cut stone blocks under all the dirt and trees. I still have trouble believing it. Many of the excavated structures had wooden stairs running up the side, put in place by the national park system so that people could ascend to the tops, and a brisk climb afforded wonderful views of the surrounding jungle, punctuated with the tops of other pyramids.
The (literal) high point of the tour was when we climbed up a temple that towered 100 feet above the city. It was late evening by then, and the sun was hidden behind a thick layer of clouds. We were joined by several other tour groups, all eagerly awaiting the imminent sunset. It was, after all, a sunset tour. We were not disappointed. The sun sank through the grey clouds, and for a few moments illuminated the jungle, sky, and stone with its ruddy brilliance. Then it slipped behind the mountains, leaving only the lava-colored clouds above to mark its passage.
We walked back to the bus in the dusky shade of the forest canopy, listening to the eerie roars of the howler monkeys in the distance. So that was Yaxhá. The Mayan ruins were cool. They were remarkably well-preserved; except for the fact that they were often still half-way inside of a hill. It was hard to believe that they were the oldest man-made things I’ve ever seen.
Tikal, which we toured early the next day, was basically more of the same, only on a grander scale. We were pretty tired from the evening hike the day before, and I had a very pleasant sleep… only to be rudely awakened at the ungodly hour of 5:30 to get ready to go to. The van had arrived by the time we were all packed up and semi-conscious. It was the same van, in fact, and our guide was Nathaniel again. I confess to sleeping on the ride to Tikal, an incredibly difficult feat considering the bumpiness of the road. Tikal is a much larger and more well-known city, much more frequented by tourists. As such, there is more tourist-related infrastructure, like a large parking lot, museum, bathrooms, and trinket-vendors. Fortunately, this was only around the visitor center. Once we started walking into the jungle, all of that disappeared.
Once the most powerful city in the Petén basin, Tikal was abandoned in the 10th century. At its height in the Late Classic period, the city was home to possibly millions of people, and its suburbs, satellite cities, and fortifications extend miles and miles into the jungle. Only a tiny fraction of Tikal’s hundreds of buildings have been excavated, but even that is impressive. The vast majority of the city is still immersed in the forest. Recent technological advances have allowed archaeologists to discover that the Mayan infrastructure and population in the Petén region was much more extensive than previously thought. Using LIDAR technology (Light Detection And Ranging, basically like radar with lasers), archaeologists have been able to analyze the earth’s surface beneath tree cover, virtually peeling away the jungle to see what lies underneath. Recent LIDAR surveys of the area have revealed thousands of buildings, roadways, pyramids, and terraces, indicating that many of the scattered ruins were actually part of a vast urban sprawl that covered the Guatemalan lowlands.
This is not evident at ground-level. The excavated sites are isolated from each other by the ever-present Guatemalan jungle. Nathaniel led us on a hike to the first cluster of buildings. The buildings in Tikal fall into three basic categories: there are the palaces, which are stone apartment blocks with fantastically tiny recesses for sleeping, and then there are the giant pyramids, with either a temple or platform for making astronomical observations on top, and there are the other buildings serving various, sometimes-undiscernible purposes.
The most impressive area was the Grand Plaza, the beautifully-restored heart of the city. It was a vast green courtyard with two towering temples facing each other, bordered by the North and Central Acropolis. The entire area was well-maintained and accessible. The two pyramids were unsafe to climb on, but the rest of the nearby ruins were free game. We ran around and explored the two acropolises. I was disappointed to find graffiti etched into the stone walls inside many of the palaces.
Nathaniel showed us something cool: when you stand in the center of the plaza and clap your hands, the echo from the pyramid stairsteps sounds exactly like the call of the Quetzal. The Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, was considered to be sacred in many indigenous traditions, and the pyramid stairs were constructed intentionally to make that noise. Now how did they figure out how to do that?
Moving on, we saw several more complexes and climbed several more pyramids. It was like a repeat of the day before. Jungle trails. Giant stone buildings emerging from a hillside. Heck, we even recognized a number of tour groups we saw at Yaxhá. Also like at Yaxhá, our tour ended with a pyramid climb and a nice view. This final pyramid, Templo IV, was a little different, though. It is the tallest pyramid in all of Mesoamerica. We made the long climb up a wooden staircase to the top. The vista of the treetops and surrounding city was astounding, but also familiar: it was where George Lucas filmed the scene from Star Wars: Episode IV, when the Millennium Falcon flies in for a landing on Yavin 4. We spent some time up there, took some pictures, and climbed down. We stopped for a typical Guatemalan lunch (chicken, rice, beans, and tortillas) and went home soon after.
Our trip to the Mayan ruins was very interesting, and probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Other people told us that the ruins in Mexico and elsewhere in Guatemala were inferior to Yaxhá and Tikal, and that those two cities were the most impressive and pristine. Of the two, I think Yaxhá was my favorite, both because of its remoteness, and because of its natural beauty. I like the idea of there being an entire city lost under the creep of nature and time. But of course, being able to see it all, and to imagine what it was like when it was new is also pretty cool.
We returned to El Remate and spent the rest of the day at the house, playing games and eating pizza. We took the bus home the next morning. On the long drive back to the Rio, I wondered just how many of the hills by the side of the road concealed ancient temples, and how many of the people we passed were descended from their builders.
What follows is a series of what we call “Tanya’s famous out-the-window pictures” from our road trip in August, September, and October. I would like to thank all the wonderful folks who hosted our family, made us feel loved, and made all that driving well worth the effort!
Leaving the Florida Keys, August 12
Across the Everglades, August 12
North Carolina in the Rain, September 5
New York to New Jersey, September 7
Acadia National Park, September 27
Self-Portrait, Maine, October 2
Fall Colors, Leaving Maine, October 2
South of the Border, October 3
Causeway to St. Simon’s Island, October 3
Leaving Georgia, October 8
Sunset, Florida West Coast, October 15
Family Road Trip in the Burb. Total Miles driven: 4,325
In the last nine weeks, I have held my day-old niece, celebrated my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday, laughed and cried with old friends, taken in some of our country’s most beautiful scenery at Acadia National Park, and seen the first colors of fall in the northern climes. I have hugged everyone in my extended family, driven by my childhood home, and visited the storage unit which houses the time capsule of our youth—wedding albums, baby photos, homemade quilts—and begun the process of saying goodbye to our older kids’ childhoods and welcoming them to the complicated and exciting world of adulthood. The seasons are changing, both literally and figuratively, and I am thrown a bit off-balance: I’m feeling decidedly autumnal.
Solomon said that God has “set eternity in the human heart” and I’ve been contemplating what that means. It means we always want more—more life, more time, more beauty—it is never enough. I am watching my parents age, my children grow into adults, my own hair turning gray. These things are little by little, but also sudden. I am the same age as Jay’s mom was the summer we fell in love. So soon, it seems, I will be in her shoes again—looking back at a life I have lived, surrounded by adult children and grandchildren. It goes so fast.
My newborn niece who I held just a month ago is now making eye contact and smiling and cooing when you talk to her. My older nephews, who I also held as newborns (just yesterday, it seems) drive cars and have girlfriends and go to the homecoming dance. How is that possible? I remember rolling my eyes at my grandparents when they started to talk this way. I guess that means I’m old. Does that mean I’m wise, too? All this waxing nostalgic points to one conclusion. In the words of the immortal Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” The lesson in every season is to enjoy it.
Joy in this fleeting world is tied inextricably to longing. Seeing the child from the baby photos become a man induces a kind of grief-delight. C.S. Lewis defines it as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” He says joy “must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
This kind of enjoying your life, stopping to look around, can cause an almost unbearable contradiction—I miss my children as babies, I wish I could see my mom as she was when I was a child, I long for my highschool sweetheart (who happens to be in the room)—but I also love them right now as they are. He has set eternity in my heart and I want all of it to last forever.
The Spanish word for enjoy is disfruta, closely related to the word for “fruit.” I say, disfruta your life—pick it, eat it, let the juice drip down your chin. Solomon agrees with me (so I must be wise); his conclusion in Ecclesiastes 3, since life is fleeting, is to “eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all [your] toil—this is the gift of God.”
As you may (or may not) have gathered, we are no longer in Guatemala. We flew to the United States more than a month ago and have slowly been making our rounds among people we have missed on our long voyage. After hanging out with friends and family in Marathon, Naples, and Clearwater, we headed north. We worked our way up the east coast towards Maine, staying with various friends and relations along the way.
We were staying in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, at the home of some old cruising pals from s/v Ally Cat. We were at their house for about a week, and Massachusetts is a pretty interesting state from a tourist/field-tripper point of view. Mattapoisett is only a few minutes away from New Bedford, the old whaling town where Herman Melville wrote his famous novel, Moby Dick. Mattapoisett is also only a few minutes away from Cape Cod, home of our family favorite: Cape Cod Potato Chips.
A little research revealed that the factory tour was completely free, and that small bags of potato chips (also completely free) were available at the end. This, apparently, was enough to win the support of the crew, and we set out.
Driving through New England in September was, for obvious reasons, a totally different experience than driving through the summer jungles of Central America. It was sunny and a bit chilly, a novel combination for us, and we drove the Suburban with the sun-roof open. Some of the trees were beginning to change color. We drove over the Cape Cod Canal, which connects Cape Cod Bay with Buzzard’s Bay.
We eventually reached the factory. It wasn’t as large as I was expecting, only employing about 80 people. We signed in at the visitor’s desk, and put a little pin in Guatemala on the world map hanging on the wall. Then we were free to take the tour.
The tour consisted of a long hallway with a number of large windows along one wall looking into the factory, affording spectacular vistas of large oily machinery, much of it inactive, and the occasional plume of steam in the background. Several plaques were spaced along the walls, offering insights into the various processes of chip-making.
There are only three ingredients in your original Cape Cod chip: salt, oil, and potatoes. Because potatoes are mostly water, it takes four pounds of potatoes to make one pound of crispy goodness. First, the potatoes are divested of their skins with a brush peeler, and inspected by hand. Then they are tossed into a slicing machine with a bunch of rapidly-spinning blades that slice the potatoes into thin rounds. They are then dumped into he fry-vats. Once thoroughly cooked, the chips are put into a centrifuge and spun at high temperatures to remove fat. The higher the temperature, the more fat is spun out. Then the chips are piped to the bagging machine, and sealed in their iconic bags. The bags are then pressure-tested. It was during this phase that we saw one of the bags violently explode, sprinkling its contents across the floor. Judging by the amount of chips already on the floor, this was not an entirely uncommon occurrence.
The hallway soon terminated at the shop, where we were given our complimentary bags of chips, each stamped with the time they were made that very morning. And of course, we bought a few extra party-size bags, including a brand-new flavor: Fresh Jalapeno-Infused. So all in all, it wasn’t a bad experience, though I personally was a little underwhelmed. But the day wasn’t over yet.
We drove to the National Seashore, home of the Nauset Light, which just happens to be the lighthouse featured on the Cape Cod bags. We parked in a crowded and sunny parking lot perched above the dunes, with the famous lighthouse looming nearby. We took the obligatory tourist pictures with the lighthouse in the background, and then went to look at the ocean. The waves were large Atlantic rollers breaking just off the beach, perfect for body surfing, we thought. Except that the water looked icy-cold, and the wind was none-too-warm either. This didn’t stop many people; we observed a number of children playing in the sand or water, and some half-naked adults, who didn’t seem to know better, were sitting in beach chairs like it was a warm day in the tropics.
We did, however, see one thing that we would never have seen in the tropics: seals. Actual, honest-to-goodness seals. Two of them were swimming in the surf just off the beach. It was very interesting. Seals are also particularly interesting to Great White Sharks, which typically follow the seals south in the fall and winter.
For lunch, we went to a seafood restaurant aptly named “The Lobster Shanty”. We ate seafood typical of the area: fried clams, lobster rolls, fish n’ chips, and fish sandwiches. A rowboat filled with water was used for the storage of live Maine lobster. They looked smooth and drab compared to the Spiny Lobster we had been hunting just a few short weeks before.
It was a good field trip. It was a nice drive, and a very pretty day, with good food involved. And now every time I eat Cape Cod Potato Chips, I’ll have a killer boast.
We’ve been in the United States for two weeks now, long enough for the disorientation and reverse culture shock to take its full effect. We landed in Fort Lauderdale and spent a few days in the Florida Keys, a great place to transition slowly back—good friends, familiar scenery, and fun on lobster boats. And then we drove to Naples. In a sense, it is still the town Jay and I grew up in. On a date night, we drove down to the Ben & Jerry’s we used to frequent, tossed a coin in the fountain like we did in days of yore, and walked on the beach we remember so well. But other things have changed so that they are unrecognizable. Everything moves so fast. The place is so clean. And the people are so busy.
I knew we would be gone long enough to miss our boat and our traveling life, but I didn’t know how quickly I would miss it. That said, I am gorging myself on time spent with family and old friends–storing memories for later. I have been so happy to see relationships pick up where they left off, even though there have been a lot of changes, too. We came back to see friends and cousins who seemingly grew up overnight. They, of course, felt the same way about us—most of my kids are taller than I am now. Our parents have aged, of course, and we ourselves came back with gray in our hair and new wrinkles. These are the little things we might not have noticed if we had been here all along. It’s a bit of a rip-van-winkle experience.
On our boat, we live in slow motion. We got off the fast track a few years ago and chose to live more simply and to take our own sweet time—raising our kids, working, playing, eating—all of these things are done at a more-leisurely pace. We feel a sense of accomplishment if we can get one thing done during the day. Here, I can stick a load of wash in one machine and dishes in another, hop in the car, run to the grocery store, and still have time for a visit with a friend in the afternoon. That’s American efficiency. But it feels a lot more rushed and less satisfying. I can feel the pull of “civilization” and I know we may need to spend some time in the U.S. while our kids are transitioning to independent lives, but my heart is anchored in the lee of a quiet island in turquoise water. Like the poet John Masefield says, “I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide/ is a wild call and a clear call, that may not be denied.”