Geography Report: Colombia

Basic Facts:

Capital: Bogotá

People/Customs: The population is mostly made up of ancestors of Spanish settlers, but there are also many descendants of the indigenous tribes of Colombia, some of which still inhabit their native lands. According to the most recent census, there are 48,786,100 people in Colombia. Most of the people in Colombia are Catholic.

Language: The official language is Spanish. Native languages are spoken by various tribes. Some people speak English.

Climate: There are several climate zones in Colombia, including Polar in the Nevada Ruiz, Alpine Tundra in the Sumapaz Paramo, Oceanic in Tota Lake Region, Mediterranean in Boyacá Department, Cold Desert near Villa de Leyva, Tropical Rainforest in the Amazon, Tropical Savannah in Los Llanos, Hot Desert in the Guajira Peninsula, and Tropical Wet and Dry in the St. Andrés and Providencia islands.

Food/Farming: Coffee plantations are numerous in Colombia, and some of the regions produce fruits and vegetables (Bananas, Mangoes, Pineapples, Cucumbers, Melons, etc.). Fish and seafood are plentiful along the coasts. Beef, pork, and poultry, and eggs are produced. A popular kind of food is Arepas, a thick corn tortilla, often with cheese or butter, and served with meat, ceviche, or vegetables.

Government: Colombia is a republic with a representative form of government not unlike the United States, with a constitution (1991) and three branches: legislative, judicial, and executive. It has a president, congress, and supreme court. The people participate in government by voting. Each department (state) has a governor which the people elect.
Currency: Colombia uses Colombian Pesos; about 3,000CP are equivalent to one U.S. dollar.

Art/Music/Culture: The people of Colombia are known for their dancing, like Salsa and Merengue. Public holidays include Año Nuevo (New Year’s Day), Día de los Reyes Magos (Epiphany), Día de San José (St. Joseph’s Day), Jueves Santo (Maundy Thursday) and Viernes Santo (Good Friday), Primero de Mayo (Labor Day), Ascensión del Señor (Ascension of Jesus), Corpus Christi, Sagrado Corazon (Sacred Heart), San Pedro y San Pablo (St Peter and St Paul), Declaración de la Independencia de Colombia (Independence Day), Battle of Boyacá, La Asunción (The Assumption of Mary), Día de la Raza (Columbus Day), Dia de los Santos (All Saints Day), Independencia de Cartagena (Independence of Cartagena), La Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculate Conception), and Navidad (Christmas Day). Each holiday has its special traditions.

History

Before the Spanish settled Colombia in 1525, there were numerous native peoples who lived along the coasts, and in the mountains and jungles. Native tribes that made the most advanced goldwork and pottery were the Calima, Muisca, Nariño, Quimbaya, San Augustin, Sinu, Tayrona, Tierradentro, Tolima and Tumaco. There are over 80 indigenous tribes left in Colombia, each with its own language and government. Here are some of the groups still existing: the Arhuaco, who are descendants of the Tayrona culture and make mochilas, a kind of woven bag used to store coca leaves, but are now sold as handbags for everyday objects. The Awa live in the Tumbes-Choco-Magdalena region, one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world, and are livestock keepers and vegetable farmers. The Kogi people, also called “Kagaba” which means Jaguar in their language, worship “Aluna” (Mother Nature) and live in stone and thatch huts like the Tayrona. The Muisca occupied about 18,000 square miles in Eastern Colombia before Spanish Conquest and are now active defenders of the country’s national resources. The Nukak are a small tribe of hunter-gatherers who remained undiscovered until the 1980s and are often called “the uncontacted people;” they use blow guns and darts covered in poison made from plants. The Wayuu are the nation’s largest tribe, numbering 450,000, but only a small part of them live in Colombia, the rest reside in Venezuela.

Alonso de Odeja named Colombia after his companion, Columbus, although Columbus never actually landed there. The Spanish explorers were predictably excited by the amount of gold the natives possessed, and from their stories of great wealth further inland grew the legend of El Dorado, a city of gold. When they couldn’t find it, they began to colonize instead. Santa Marta was colonized in 1525, and when Cartagena was established in 1533, it became the center of trade in Colombia. It was also the exclusive slave-trading port. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish shipped in so many slaves for work on the Pacific coast (in mines and on plantations) that they numbered more than the remaining indigenous people.

Spaniards were dominant in the New World for the entire Colonial period, and in 1717, Bogotá became the capital of the Kingdom of New Grenada, which comprised what is now Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. Colombian towns began to revolt against Spanish rule, and when Napoleon put is brother on the Spanish throne, the colonies would not recognize the new monarchy. Towns began to declare their independence, and a Venezuelan military leader, Simón Bolivar, won 6 consecutive battles against the Spanish, liberating whole regions. Spain eventually reconquered the areas it had lost, with full colonial rule reestablished in 1817. A charismatic leader, often called “the Liberator,” Simón Bolivar had retreated to Jamaica, but he again rallied troops to defeat the Spanish in battle after battle until the Battle of Boyacá, which was won by Bolivar in 1819 with the help of British reinforcements. Colombia was finally independent.

After independence, the leaders of the government created Gran Colombia, a state comprised of what is now Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and part of Peru, Guyana, and Brazil. Simón Bolivar was elected president of Gran Colombia, and his second-in-command, Francisco de Paula Santander, was elected Vice President. However, while Bolivar was away fighting for the independence of Ecuador and Peru, Gran Colombia disintegrated. By 1830, the state had split into 3 countries, and Bolivar’s dream of a united South America was undermined during his lifetime. Rivalry had sprung up between conservatives and liberals, and in the 19th century, Colombia experienced no less than 8 civil wars.  In 1899, the “War of One Thousand Days” was won by conservatives, leaving 100,000 people dead. In 1903, the United States of America took advantage of the internal division, and by sponsoring an independent republic, built the Panama Canal, which would eliminate the more costly and dangerous passage around Cape Horn. In 1921, Colombia recognized the sovereignty of Panama and ended the dispute with the United States. The conservative and liberal struggle recommenced in 1948 with the most destructive Colombian civil war, “La Violencia,” won by liberals and costing 300,000 lives.

While the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and ELN ( Ejército de Liberación Nacional) lost popular support as communism fell, they used illegal activities and cocaine trade to finance the war. As the world’s largest producer, Colombia controlled 80 to 90% of the cocaine trade. There were small mafias and cartels in the early ’70s that grew into large organizations in the 80’s which had their own plantations and transportation systems. In the boom years, the Medellín Cartel, led by Pablo Escobar, became the principle mafia, whose bosses established a new political party, newspapers , and public housing projects. By 1983, Escobar’s personal wealth was estimated to be around $2 billion, making him one of the richest criminals in the world. When the government gave a strong adverse response to cartel trade, the traders disappeared from the public sphere and proposed an uncharacteristic “peace treaty” to president Belisario Betancur, offering to pay off Colombia’s foreign debt. The government, suspecting something askew, refused, and conflict escalated between the government and the mafia. It took a 1500-man special unit 499 days to track down Escobar until they found and killed him in December 1993. The U.S. made trade agreements with the Andean Countries, and Colombia’s exports to the rose 50% between 2003 and 2007. Around 2009 the fighting started to abate, and today, despite the remaining problems with government corruption, Colombia is a more peaceful place, drawing visitors from around the world to enjoy its natural beauty and modern, urban areas.

Land forms/Flora and Fauna

There are two large mountain ranges in Colombia, the Sierra Nevada, and the Andes, the largest in South America. Colombia is the second most-Biodiverse country in the world, next to Brazil, a country approximately 7 times bigger (biodiversity is the ability for an area to sustain many different types of species). Colombia is home to about 10% of the species on earth. Animals you might find in Colombia include: Howler Monkeys, Toucans, Sloths, Parrots, Iguanas, Snakes, Poison Dart Frogs, Nine-banded Armadillos, many bat species, Tamarins, Jaguars, Agouti, Nutria, Capybaras and other Rodents Of Unusual Size. Because Columbia is so diverse, each habitat has different plants and animals. In desert regions, you might see cacti and succulents, while in the Amazon, you might see huge jungle trees draped in vines, and tropical plants at each layer of the canopy.

Things to do

Hike to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in the Sierra Nevada, go to the beaches on the Caribbean coast, tour coffee or cacao plantations in the mountains, hike or camp in Tayrona National Park, see the Old Walled City of Cartagena, go on a tour of the Amazon rainforest or of the Guajira desert, enjoy theaters and museums in large cities like Medallin or Bogotá, or visit the islands of Providencia and San Andres.

Bibliography

“Colombia.” https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colombia, January 2017.

“Colombia History.” Lonely Planet Travel Information, http://www.lonelyplanet.com/colombia/history, January 2017.

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

Christmas Traditions

*Spoiler Alert! Do not read if you believe in Santa!*

In the U.S., as in much of the rest of the western world, Christmas is the largest holiday of the year. Each year, millions upon millions of dollars are spent on Christmas gifts, and millions more on air travel, evergreen trees, and candy. And the star of the show is, of course, Santa Claus. Yes, that mysterious bearded and red-robed fat guy, who, with the help of hundreds of elvish henchmen, breaks into every house in the world via the chimney, and gives presents to good little children.

Sinterklaas

Almost every country that has even remotely Christian beginnings celebrates some form of this holiday. In Bonaire, an old Dutch colony, they worship Sinterklaas, rather than Santa. Sinterklaas is more closely related to St. Nicholas, the root of all Santa incarnations, than his American counterpart. He wears red bishop’s duds, has a white beard, and delivers presents to nice children on December 5th, the eve of his supposed death-day (343 A.D.). Rather than use a sleigh as his preferred mode of transportation, he takes a steam boat, and drops goodies into shoes, not freakishly large stockings.

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However, instead of being accompanied by hordes of elves in pointed hats, Sinterklaas is served by Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, a short black person who is either: A) a freed slave, B) a tamed devil, C) a Spanish Moor, or D) a chimney sweep. Whichever one you choose, Sinterklaas’ little toady listens at chimneys, to find out which children are good, and which are bad. And upon discovery of such a rotten egg, he carries them off in a burlap sack to Spain, where he and Sinterklass dwell off-season. Also, in some traditions, Zwarte Piet has gold skin, rather than black. Does this make him Black-Gold Pete? I don’t know. What I do know is that he is probably a holdover from pre-Christian religious practices, chiefly in relation to the Wild Hunt of Odin, in which blackbirds accompanied Odin and listened at the chimney to see how the mortals were getting along.

Zwarte Piet

This is true of a lot of Christmas traditions, where old pagan rituals were changed to fit Christianity in the early centuries A.D. Some of the more bizarre traditions cheerfully celebrated by thousands of Americans and Europeans during the holiday season have their roots in Germanic Paganism. Who among you likes to burn the Yule Log? That there is an interesting piece of Norse mythology, I can tell you. It all depends on how deep you want to dig into the dirty secrets (and there are many) of your favorite holiday rituals.

It is also totally normal to go out caroling (wassailing), decorate your Christmas tree (Yggdrasil?), and eat your Christmas Ham (Yule Hog), by the flickering light of your merrily burning Yule Log. In short, you should celebrate the Christmas season without thinking too much about its roots, and just enjoy your time-honored traditions with people you love.

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Geography Report: Bonaire

Basic Facts

Capital: Kralendijk
People/Customs: The population of Bonaire comes from a mixture of European and South American people, and their culture reflects this. They also have a lot of English-speaking tourists and expatriates. Holidays include New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, Labour Day, Ascension Day, Whit Sunday, Emancipation Day, Sinterklaas’ birthday (December 5-6) Christmas Day, Boxing Day.
Language: Dutch is the official language but English and Spanish are commonly spoken. The locals use a dialect called Papiamento, a mixture of Dutch, English, French, and Spanish.
Climate: Average yearly temperature is 82°F. Average yearly rainfall is less than 22”, falling mostly between October and January.
Food/Farming: Salt is one of the main exports on Bonaire. The Cadushy cactus is edible and its juice is distilled to make alcohol. A kind of maize (corn) is grown in years with enough rainfall.
Government: Bonaire is a special municipality of the Netherlands since the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in 2010, and as such, has a mayor, alderman, and municipal council.
Currency: The US Dollar is used here to accommodate incoming tourists.
Art/Music/Culture: Colonists from Africa, Portugal, Spain, England, and Holland have contributed to the culture, music, and poetry found on Bonaire.

History

In 1499 Amerigo Vespucci claimed Bonaire for Spain. In 1636 the Dutch took the island, and slaves were imported to work on the salt flats in the late 1600s. The Spanish, Dutch, and English fought over Bonaire but it was conquered by the Dutch in 1816. In 1834 slavery was abolished and the salt industry faltered while the newly freed people became accustomed to the new way of life. Many immigrated to Venezuela for jobs while the island settled into its stride. In the 20th century, telephones connected Bonaire to the outside world and cars and trucks made transportation and delivery possible. Oil refineries opened on Aruba, and gave people from Bonaire better paying jobs closer to family and home. The first airport was built on the island while American troops were stationed there during World War II. After the war, tourism was brought to Bonaire and the island began to thrive. Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten became the Netherlands Antilles in 1954, and in 2010 they became part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, sometimes referred to as the Dutch Caribbean.

Land forms/Flora and Fauna

Bonaire is not volcanic, but has a coral limestone foundation, and there are several salt flats on the island. It is dry and rocky with desert scrub and cacti. Common trees seen here are Brazil Wood, Divi divi, and Mesquite Acacia. The Lora and Prikichi Parakeet can be seen here, and the wild flamingos like the salt pans. The Yellow-shouldered Amazon parrot is an endangered indigenous species. Underwater, the entire coastline is lined with coral reefs and has plentiful sea creatures, including tropical fish, turtles, and marine invertebrates.

Things to do

Diving, snorkeling, kiteboarding, and windsurfing are popular water sports and you can also visit the wild flamingos and donkey colonies on the island. Washington Slagbaai National Park has miles of trails and includes Mount Branderis, the highest point on the island at 785 feet.

Bibliography

“About Bonaire.” December 7, 2016, The Bonaire Official Site, www.tourismbonaire.com. Digital Marketing by Tambourine.

Mal de Mer

Here we have a sweet little expression that sounds so much nicer in French than English, and translates even better, as “Bad (or Sick) of Sea.” That about sums it up. It’s a subject you will not read much about in glossy cruising magazines, but a crucial one that must be addressed.

Sugar Seasick

What’s black and white and green all over? A seasick “Sugar” (2010)

People assume that if we live on a boat, we all love boating and feel comfortable with the motion of boats. It’s simply not true. Jay—the captain, for heaven’s sake—has only to look at waves the wrong way to feel queasy. Our littlest, who has lived on the boat her whole life, gets sick almost every time we set sail. Sarah and Sam frequently feel sick, though Sam seems to get over his queasiness after a day or so. Aaron gets motion sick riding his skateboard on the half-pipe, so he’s pretty much hopeless on the boat. Before they left for the happy hunting grounds, even our cats got seasick. Eli was lucky enough to get the genes for my stomach-of-steel, meaning that it takes pretty severe conditions to make us feel ill. I can be on watch, sitting at the helm, reading or writing, in 6-8 foot ocean swells, in the dark. No problem. Eli can use his flight simulator to fly airplanes while we sail.

Once, Sam asked me if he could play video games, too, and I thought it might be a way to fill a few dull hours on a passage, but he ended up at the rail. Jay asked what he was doing and was incredulous that I would let him sit in front of a screen. It never occurred to me that it would cause a problem, since the seas (in my opinion) were relatively calm. That means I am not very sensitive to the conditions that cause 70% of our crew discomfort.  Of course, I am aware of their misery, and often get the lovely job of holding hair, cleaning up, and fetching water and towels.

Over the years, we have found many ways to deal with this recurring problem. At first, we tried natural remedies, like Sea Bands, which use the secrets of accu-pressure to alleviate suffering. Supposedly. We have tried ginger everything—ginger pills, ginger tea, ginger ale, ginger drops, ginger snaps, crystallized ginger, and ginger-based “queasy pops” (that looked and worked a lot like dum-dums). We have specially-blended essential oil drops (branded as Motionease) to place behind the ears. We have the Cuban fisherman remedy: Coke and Snickers.

And then we have some things that actually work. Despite our desire not to drug our children, their reluctance to put to sea and repeated requests to sell the boat made us rethink our position. On board we now have chewable children’s Dramamine, once-a-day chewable Bonine, Stugeron, and, for the desperate situation, Scopolamine patches (just for fun, look up the side effects on that one). Jay medicates preventatively, as do Aaron and Sarah. We can’t have the captain incapacitated. The two younger children can sometimes be coerced into taking the chewables, although they now associate that flavor with throwing up, so good luck on that one. They usually hang out with a bucket for a day or two and then get their sea legs the old fashioned way. And Eli and I, as the only vertical members of the crew, fetch and carry for the others.

Keep in mind we are on a catamaran. My galley is in the main cabin, with a 360° view of the horizon through the windows. We are not heeled over at all and we don’t “roll”, though the movement is often jerky as the “righting moment” of a catamaran is faster than that of a mono-hull. Some prefer the smoother motion of a deep-keeled, traditional boat, but even with my strong stomach, going down into the hulls to clean something up or dig out supplies has me feeling a bit green, so I can’t really imagine the whole mono-hull-cave experience.

Occasionally, when the conditions are right (usually when someone near me is sick), I can succumb to mal de mer. And what I can say about the experience is that the psychological component cannot be overstated. As long as I go outside and stare at the horizon and get some fresh air, I can overcome the initial queasiness, but if I have to go below for some reason, or if I’m trying to cook in rough seas and can’t step away, or if I’m doing a particularly nasty clean-up job, I begin to wish that someone had invented teleportation so that I could just “beam” off of the boat. It is then that I recognize the hardships that we have imposed on our family, and feel empathy for my children (read “mother guilt”).

We have been sailing as a family for more than ten years (before Take Two we had a little day-sailer in Tampa Bay), and our recent passage to Bonaire marks the first time that no one felt sick. It wasn’t a particularly calm passage—though we tend to pick our weather windows to minimize discomfort rather than for fast sailing—but we did have one night in an uncomfortable anchorage to prepare us, and between acclimation and medication, we seem to have struck the right balance. That does not mean, of course, that we are “cured,” since there is no cure for wind and waves, but we will enjoy that success and cross the next sea when we come to it.

On the Road Again

It’s been almost a month since we left our summer refuge in Grenada. One last stock-up trip to the store in St. Georges, one last afternoon at the pool/bar, one last trip to the Lightship, and we were off. Most of our friends and acquaintances had already left for other lands, so it wasn’t as if we were leaving anyone behind, never to see them again (mom’s bartender friends excluded).

Le Phare Bleu Marina

The leg from our marina in the south of Grenada to Carriacou was our first day-long passage in a very long time. We sailed most of the way, and got there before dark. We spent the night at Sandy Island, and after a short swim the next morning, we left for the Tobago Cays. We spent two nights in the Tobago Cays looking at turtles, and then moved on to Bequia, where we spent two nights. From there, we went to Marigot Bay in St. Lucia. We stayed on a mooring ball owned by the Capella resort for a few days, so we got almost all the benefits of a resort guest, such as free internet, swimming pool (with swim-up bar), restaurants, exercise room, shops, etc. We stayed for a week, before moving on to Rodney Bay, a little further to the north.

Tobago Cays Squall

Marigot Bay

Pool Day, Marigot Bay

We spent almost two weeks in Rodney Bay, where it rained almost every day, but on the few sunny days we had, we went hiking on the laughably tiny mountains on nearby Pigeon island, or snorkeling in their shadow. There was also a large inflatable splash park anchored off the beach where we injured ourselves and had a great time.

Perch

Floating Playground

On the rainy days, we entertained ourselves with Legos, video games, and school; while Mom entertained herself by going to the nearby Rodney Bay Mall and the gourmet grocery store. When the moon was full and the weather was calm, we set out for Bonaire, the first stop on the next leg of our 2016-17 Caribbean Tour.

Lego War

Grocery Run