Book Review: An Embarrassment of Mangoes

Jay thoughtfully bought me a new book recently. At first, I didn’t think I was going to like it. It looked like another sailing saga about middle-aged Canadians who escape the frozen North to “find themselves” in warmer climes and bluer waters (which it was) but it also possessed that rare and genuine quality that I like in a cruising story: a willingness to really explore native cultures and make friends with locals along the way. A bonus: the author loves to cook and includes recipes at the end of each chapter which use local ingredients.

In An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude by Ann Vanderhoof, the author traces her journey from stressed-out big-city editor to relaxed world traveler and confident sailor. She takes her passion for cooking and eating to all the local markets along the way, meeting islanders who take her under their wings and show her how to use local produce and seafood to create recipes that really reflect the cultures in which she and her husband Steve immerse themselves. By contrast, I asked a cruiser recently returned from Panama about his provisioning experiences, and about what the locals eat. Much to my disappointment, he only shopped at the American-style grocery and had no idea or interest in what the locals eat.

One of our criticisms of the cruising community at large is that they don’t mix with locals. We understand the tourist/local dichotomy (being raised in a vacationland ourselves), but what we don’t understand is going half-way around the world so you can spend all your time with people who look and speak just like you, eat the same things you always did, and listen to the same music you always did. That seems strange to us. A quote from the book sums up this observation: “To our surprise, though, we’ve discovered that not all cruisers are as determined to get involved in island culture. Some aren’t only ignoring local events and music, they’re still eating much as they did back home. ‘They’ve got bigger freezers and more money than we have,’ Steve says, ‘but I’ll bet they’re not having as much fun.” The book inspires me to dig even further into local culture while we are traveling—especially with young, impressionable children who really should see what the rest of the world is like.

Along the way from Toronto to the Caribbean, the author makes several discoveries about herself and about life in general. For example, that thing called “island time” really exists in tropical climes. When Ann and Steve show up at the advertised time for a concert they are told it will start “jus’ now,” a phrase which Steve translates literally as “jus’ throw away the schedule.” It is the perfect island phrase—they adopt it wholeheartedly, and it reflects a new awareness of time for two people who had lived religiously by Daytimers and deadlines. They learn to slow down, to appreciate every moment, and to simplify. They realize at Christmas, for instance, that “only by sailing a couple thousand miles away had we succeeded in gracefully escaping the usual competitive celebrating.” They left the rush and stress and stuff behind, as we did this past winter, using holidays to really focus on what is important, and to just be with each other.

I felt a real kinship with Ann as she made another similar discovery about life aboard and a connection to the natural world. She, like me, loves the night watch for the peace and beauty it offers, and she, also like me, “realized how disconnected my daily life had been from the natural world. The weather, the wind, the moon, even the seasons—and the attendant plants, insects, birds and animals—came and went. But I was removed, at a distance.” The natural world, she writes, “is so much more immediate now. It forces me to pay attention.”

It is heart-wrenching when they have to turn north, to head back to their home in Canada. They meet folks coming south for the first time, people who don’t realize yet how “life-changing” their own “grand adventure” will be. She feels envious and doesn’t know how she’ll cope with going back to the “real world.” Steve has to remind her that their life aboard is the
real world. Aboard Take Two we have just gotten our feet wet in the “real world,” but reading books like this helps us keep our eye on the prize: to get back out there, to take the necessary risks and make the necessary sacrifices so that we can travel with our family and experience the world in all its breathtaking beauty and the colorful human family with all its joys and heartbreaks.