Sunday, August 24, 2014

Maiden Voyage on Synchronicity: The Ocean's Rite of Passage -November, 2009

 Like a freshman pledge, enduring the obnoxious initiation rituals of some fraternity, the North Atlantic wanted to see what I was truly made of…would I be tough enough for her sea? 

     As I look back over the video logs of each day, I laugh at the crap I was complaining about at the beginning of the voyage, like the pains of preparing breakfast in 5 foot seas.  What a pleasure it was to be able to make breakfast.  By the end of the trip, I was lucky to manage trail mix and beef jerky.

The beginning of the trip was promising.  Stephen caught two Dorado (mahi-mahi) a few hours apart and was excited to try out his new filet station.  We sailed with a pod of dolphins one night.  You could only see their shadows beneath the water in the moonlight, but inside the cabin you could hear their shrill squeaking calls outside the hull.  When waters were still calm at night, plankton lit up the surface like little glow worms, and flying fish landed on deck.  The moon would rise as a giant red sphere until it got high enough in the sky to illuminate the water, making night watches more tranquil and less ominous.

     Once past Cape Hatteras, notorious for being unsettled, I was getting used to the “motion of the ocean.”  Swelly seas began to flatten out as we cruised through the Gulf Stream and life was good.  The auto helm steered us under motor and the wind vane steered us under sail.  We would hang out in the cockpit or even on deck, just reading a magazine or watching the vast ocean go by – excited by the occasional sighting of a vessel –Thursday afternoon, the last time we would see another boat until Bermuda.    

     First thing to go was the auto helm.  All of a sudden the boat was going wildly off course and Stephen retrieved the parts that rattled inside – loose gears.  Not a huge concern.  We’re a sailboat and hoping to sail most of the way there.  Surely, if we need the motor again, we can manage to hand steer for a few hours…. 

     I remember the afternoon that Stephen caught his last Dorado.  I saw a dark wall behind us and questioned whether we should take time to filet and BBQ yet another meal of fish and instant potatoes or put up the storm jib to prepare for “building winds and seas” as forecasted.  The wall I had spotted was just the beginning.  Winds increasing to 22 knots soon subsided and it seemed as though a squall was just passing through.  I innocently or stupidly questioned whether the 30 knot winds would ever come. 

     Around midnight (now Friday am), while Stephen was on watch, the winds came back and with unpredictable brut force.  The wind vane (self-steering vane) had become disengaged and was dragging behind the boat. I cursed “Yves” that smug little French engineer who designed it, and flashed us his little penis in his homemade film that demonstrated how reliable it proved to be on his own circumnavigation.  “See how great my wind vane is…it will steer the boat while I bathe nude in the ocean.”  The wind vane was built to become easily disengaged should it hit something underwater.  The problem being, it was becoming disengaged at the mere pressure of the water.  Great design, Yves!  We haven’t even made it across the Atlantic yet.  I can’t trust it to keep our boat on course, forget about skinny dipping.  I clipped myself to the jack line and hung off the transom to retrieve the oar before we lost it entirely – a few hundred dollars easily. 

     The FRONT (which Stephen refers to as “The Full Frontal”) was definitely upon us now, as Stephen hand steered – a laborious, physically demanding task requiring upper body strength and quick hands to resist the forces of wind and waves that attempted to pull the boat off course.  The winds were all over the place.  25 knots, 35 knots, 40 knots – not building steadily but gusting at all speeds.  As night became early morning, the wind speed was 45 – 48 steady, with 50 knot gusts.  Before setting out of the bay, the forecast was calling for 30 knot winds with gusts up to 40 – uncomfortable but manageable.  Lesson 1) always add 10 knots to the forecast.  The winds were light for so long, that we never rigged the storm sails and doing so now was too risky.  Only sailing with a super reefed (shortened) headsail, the boat was still overpowered. 

     As the sun rose, we could now see the monstrosity that we were dealing with.  I sat up against the cabin top in the cockpit, watching in amazement as the waves actually grew steeper.  First, we estimated 20 – 25 feet.  We rode to the top of their crests then watched them fan out behind us as we coasted down to the trough, then up again.  We discussed what to do.  Stephen had been hand steering for over 6 hours.  How much longer could he keep this up?  The winds had been building since midnight; surely this had to be over soon.  Around 8 am, we decided to keep at it for another hour or so before considering “hove-to” (letting the headsail back fill with wind, thereby serving as an emergency brake for the boat).

     Within the hour, the waves grew steeper.  I was both in awe and shock as I estimated these new wave heights to be at about 30 – 35 feet.  I now regretted not believing our friend Len, when he claimed seas of 40 ft. on his last passage to the Azores.  At the top of these waves, I noticed patches of “ice blue,” the lightest shade of blue water I had ever seen.  And I thought to myself, that’s really beautiful and that’s not fair.  You’re not allowed to be pretty when you are scaring the crap out of me.     

     Suddenly the waves were so big they started breaking too close for comfort, dousing both of us with water.  The boat was now surfing, or careening down the waves sideways at 12 knots, double our average hull speed, as Stephen fought with all his might to keep the boat headed down weather.  Then the mother of all waves entered our world.  I had been the wave watchdog, warning Stephen when he was about to get sprayed.  I had refocused my attention on bracing myself in the cockpit when I met Stephen’s eyes and he said, “Hold on.”  Just then, I saw it barreling towards me, nothing but white foamy spray.  Everything went white and extremely quiet for about 10 seconds as I felt a rush of unusually warm water overtake me.  When it was clear again, I felt like someone had just taken the electric paddles to my heart, my adrenaline pumping.  Stephen was still standing behind the wheel.  “That was scary,” I said breathless.  Stephen confirmed. 

     In the next moment, we noticed the wave had filled our cockpit with over 2 feet of water – not bad considering a ton of water had just hit us – and things were beginning to float away.  I reacted just in time to grab everything except the red winch handle which was already on its way out to sea.  Now we had to start bailing.  I opened the main locker in the cockpit to pull out some buckets and water poured in.  The buckets were stuck together and it seemed like an eternity before we could pry them loose.  My greatest fear during these moments was that another wave would hit us before we could drain the cockpit. 

     Finally in the clear, we decided we could no longer manage the boat in these conditions and it was time to “hove-to.”  Having never done this in the middle of the ocean or in such conditions, we didn’t know how the boat would handle it, but we didn’t have much choice.  Stephen steered the boat through the wind until the sail was backed and locked the helm in place.  Then he finally sat down, joining me in the cockpit to finally see what I was seeing, take in the whole picture of what we had been sailing through.  “I’ve never seen seas this big,” he acknowledged they must have been at least 30 ft. or bigger.  Having made several passages across the Atlantic Ocean on deliveries, he had sailed through many storms, including a Nor’easter and still had nothing to compare it to.

     At this point, terror began to take over as I realized we no longer had control of the boat.  “Are we going to make it through this?” I asked, studying his face for the real answer.  “Yes, Taryn, we’re going to make it through,” he replied confidently, but I thought I noticed a tinge of uncertainty.  What did I expect, for him to say “No, I’m sorry, I’m afraid this is it?  Well babe, it’s been a good run.” 

     “I love you,” I started to cry and grabbed his hand.  How many times had I taken those three words for granted.  I felt more vulnerable with him than I had ever felt before.   

     We stayed out in the cockpit for about 20 minutes, becoming more terrified with each wave that broke against the hull of our boat and sent us coasting down each trough sideways until water gushed against the lee side like it was going to come pouring in, but never did.  Now my body started to tremble uncontrollably.  Trying to find humor in the situation, I told Stephen, “Well, I’ve done enough therapy with victims of trauma and now I finally get to experience it first hand.” 

     “I’m so sorry, Taryn.”  Stephen, so excited for me to have a positive first passage experience, was beyond disheartened.  “It wasn’t supposed to go this way.”  He suggested we go down below…to which I was reluctant at first.  As if going inside was giving up somehow.  I was holding on to hope that it would let up soon. 

     Inside the cabin was a disaster zone.  Almost paralyzed from fear, I could barely move.  The state of it was overwhelming.  Water had seeped in through the anchor locker and was flowing out the bottom of the V-berth, sloshing about the cabin in the state room (or as Stephen says “State of Disaster Room”) and the head.  Everything was wet.  Where to begin? Should we engage the sea anchor, get a weather report or start scooping up water? 

     We decided to rig the sea anchor but not engage it unless the boat came out of hove-to  or something worse happened.  The sea anchor is basically a huge parachute you throw off the bow to hold the boat steady, pointed into the waves and weather.  The only problem we could see with engaging it is that it would not be easy to retrieve or disengage should we not get it right the first time.  When Stephen opened the instruction manual, I got a true sense of how dire things were as SURVIVAL! in big bold letters emerged from page one.  Holy shit.  We’re screwed. 

     Sea anchor ready, and pushed to the point of exhaustion, we crawled around the cabin floor (it was impossible to stand without getting tossed from one side of the boat to the other) scooping water into buckets for bailing.  Stephen finally sat down at the laptop, pulling the latest weather grib files to see how much longer we had to endure this.  I had never seen him so tired as he laid his head down, almost falling asleep waiting for the files to download. 

     I tried to find some dry clothes and blankets to make us a bed on the sofa.  Not much dry, I settled for slightly damp sleeping bags.  The grib files were startling.  The page was filled with lines representing the wind direction.  Each line had short, perpendicular bars to indicate the wind speed, the more bars, the stronger the winds.  Plotting our course, it was apparent that our boat was positioned right on the boundary of hell, amidst lines with more bars than I wanted to count.  This image was much scarier than the one we had previewed three days ago.  We certainly wouldn’t have signed up for this.  And even worse, we had 12 more hours to go! 

     Stephen and I settled in to the sofa bed trying to figure out how we ended up here.  Stephen, overly apologetic for the experience, assured me he would have never intended for this to happen, especially on my first passage.  “This was supposed to be enjoyable for you.  After all of this is over, I will completely understand if you want to go back to life on land, go back to being a social worker, or never make another passage again.”  Feeling it was not the best time to make decisions about the future, I did not answer…but I was definitely weighing my options, should I be fortunate to still have options 24 hours from now.

     Stephen passed out, almost mid-sentence.  I was amazed at how he could sleep through all this, but then again how did he maintain his stamina for so long?  I was wide awake next to him.  Every single bang and thud of water against the hull, every lift and dip we took with each wave, every time the wind kicked back up, howling through and shaking the rigging, I felt my heart skip a beat.  I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, her house barreling through the center of the tornado.  But unlike her seemingly short trip to OZ, this one was never ending.  How in the hell was I going to sleep?  Besides, if one of us is passed out, shouldn’t the other be on guard?

     Gretchen, the biggest trooper, deserves “Cat of the Year” award for putting up with this shit.  She amazed me with her resilience and patience.  She stayed in her kitty carrier – in the shape of a miniature kitty house until we made it down below.  Then she wedged herself in between us, underneath the sleeping bags. 

     I remembered the box of charms that Angela had given me before the trip.  Her guardian angel charm and medals from Assunta (Stephen’s late grandmother).  I fingered through the box for the most comforting charms, taking turns with each.  I rubbed Grandma Assunta’s Blessed Mary medal which brought me some comfort.  I tried praying at first, but every prayer I knew scared me even more.  Especially the line that goes “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death...” 

     As the hours passed, I watched the sky through the portals change from dark gray to bright blue, then sadly to gray again.  The winds were gradually letting up, but not without a fight and I was becoming more accustomed to the noises and movements.  I started coaxing myself to get up periodically to go to the bathroom and pour a drink of water.  I finally started dozing off, first for 20 minutes at a time, and then eventually for an hour at a time.  I slept the best with Stephen’s arm around me.  Every now and then, a crashing sound slightly louder than the others would startle me out of my sleep.  I attributed this to acute stress.

     We awoke at midnight, 24 hours into the front to dying winds, but unsettled seas.  We decided to wait until dawn.  Stephen convinced me to eat, something easily forgotten.  We dipped saltines into a container of left over chicken salad and stuffed our face with cookies sent by Brigitte.  Finally, at 5 am Saturday morning, we awoke from the longest stretch of sleep we had to settled seas and winds of 15 knots.  I praised God for allowing me to see this day, and was eager to get underway and get the hell out Dodge.

     Happy to be alive, we tried to maintain perspective on the aftermath that was unfolding.  Not only were we without any type of self-steering device, but the inverter and refrigerator had stopped working.  We ate the second Dorado Steve caught before the front, grilled with Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce.  Life was good again and I was happy to hand steer the rest of the way to Bermuda.  After all, the worst of it had to be behind us.  

     Stephen went into troubleshooting mode.  He managed to get the inverter back up and running, but the refrigerator wasn’t so easy.  After managing to reconnect a broken circuit by wedging a screw in the middle of the circuit to complete it, the electronic control unit began smoking once running again.  The last thing we needed was an electrical fire at sea.  The problem was bigger than expected – the wave we took on must have shorted it.  We would keep the refrigerator closed for as long as possible, hoping to find the solution. 

     Stephen quickly refocused his energies on the wind vane.  Determined to make it better, he hammered and filed away at it, deepening the grooves, while I steered us on an average course heading of 120 degrees – the heading we would maintain most of the way to Bermuda.  Periodically, he would hang off the back of the transom, retesting it, only to re-emerge stating, “Just a little bit more.”  This went on for a couple of hours until finally he was satisfied.  Thank God for his handy work, the wind vane never came disengaged again and kept us on a steady course the rest of the way into Bermuda, through more heavy seas and winds that would have been exhausting to muscle through at the helm.  

     By Sunday, the winds and seas were building again, manageable but arduous as we were beating to windward at 18 – 22 knots of wind steady.  The winds were blowing directly from the East, exactly where we wanted to be, and our spirits were down as it looked like we wouldn’t be making it there by Monday.  The waves were 10 – 12 feet and seeping through the anchor locker and filling up the cabin again.  We were on a starboard tack, heeled significantly at 20 + degrees, and the water collected on the right side instead of emptying into the bilges.  I thought the worst of it was behind us, but I was beginning to wonder.  “This f*@ing sucks,” said Stephen.  “Affirmative.”

    Conditions like these weren’t conducive for fixing the refrigerator, so we resorted to Plan B.  Use our ice maker to pack the coolers with to keep all of our food cold.  All of the food we spent hours stocking before the trip including 4 lbs of chicken from Costco, tons of cream cheese &  organic milk (the kind that doesn’t go bad for a long time), tons of salad dressings, fresh pesto and salsa, eggs, juices, cheeses... 

     Half an hour into the ice making process, we had about 15 ice cubes and realized 1) we were going to lose our food and 2) this ice maker was not a worthwhile investment.  Plan C: Stephen was determined to eat as much chicken as possible, and the shame of it was I didn’t feeling like eating.  I watched as he scarfed down a huge chicken breast with cheese on an everything bagel as I managed to force down a yogurt cup and half a lunch sized applesauce.

     We were further dismayed by progress made according to the chart plotter.  The last tack took us farther south of the island than we wanted to be.  We seemed to be getting nowhere and decided to start the engine to head straight for Bermuda, nose into the waves with no auto helm. Behind the helm, I felt like a surfer, bending at the knees over every crest as if my body was navigating the boat over the waves more gently.  I swear each time I stopped doing this – stood at the helm with locked knees and arms, she crashed down the waves instead.  This was no picnic, but I was feeling better about the progress we were making.  If we just kept motoring, we could make it there by early am Tuesday.  Stephen came out to the cockpit for a nap before his shift, and had just laid his head down when the engine alarm started beeping. 

     “What the f*@k!  I can’t get any rest,” Stephen reluctantly went into action mode once again.  I started to believe that my silent worry that the engine would somehow fail us had jinxed us, had made it real.  Of course, it had nothing to do with the huge wave we took on that seemingly fouled up everything of importance – anything with an electronic component.  It didn’t make sense.  The engine seemed to be running fine, the pressure and temperature were okay.  After much troubleshooting and dissecting the manual, Stephen’s final diagnosis: it could be a short, or it could be a problem with the oil pressure switch.  The former could be ignored by muffling the alarm, the latter not easily fixable.  It was not worth taking a chance and damaging the engine.  We were back to sailing, long endless tacks to Bermuda

     Monday and Tuesday was one endless blur.  As Tuesday approached, it was clear we weren’t going to make it to Bermuda until at least very early Wednesday morning.  The winds were still blowing strong at 20 – 25 knots.  The weather reports showed it continuing to blow steadily from the East and Northeast and we were approaching from the West, around the Southern tip of the island. 

     The cabin became more disastrous as water continued to pour in the anchor locker and we would take turns going down below to bail water, only to discover another pocket of the boat that had been drenched.  We hove-to once more, this time so that Stephen could go to the bow and try to fix the gaps where the water was getting in, using epoxy.  While he hung on at the bow, I was bailing out bucket after bucket of water – I counted almost 20.  Each time we turned the boat through the wind on another tack was an opportunity to drain the water into the bilge. 

     Going to the bathroom became a chore I dreaded.  It was almost impossible to do so without getting banged up inside the head.  It was tiring as I had to brace myself in some corner and fight against the forces just to get all my layers of pants down and back up again.  By the end of the trip, I started to pee in a bucket in the cockpit and then toss it overboard.  By the last day, I was squatting right over the cockpit drains – whichever one was on the lee side of the tack we were on.  Even this wasn’t easy. 

     Stephen’s fix helped tremendously, although most of the boat had already been penetrated and things were beginning to smell rank and grow a layer of gray, white or greenish fuzz.  Lesson 2) Store clothing in waterproof bags.  I had temporarily forgotten about how happy I was to be alive and was wondering again how much more I could take.  How much longer could this go on? 

     Shortly after Stephen fixed the leaks, the winds started gusting again to 28 – 30 at times.  Sailing downwind at these speeds is a completely different story than beating into it.  Everything sounds worse, feels worse.  The boat was taking an absolute thrashing and holding up gracefully.  We noticed the battens (inserts that help the sail keep its shape) were starting to slide out from all the pounding.  With winds increasing, we decided it was time to rig the storm trysail, so we hove-to once again (we’ve got this technique down).  Trysail rigged, the process of tacking was about to get more complicated, as we would have to sheet in both trysail and headsail each time, and almost simultaneously. 

     Each time we tacked, the wind vane had to be reset, which meant hand steering through the wind and long enough to keep us on a good course heading to re-engage the wind vane.  In winds and waves as powerful as these, this meant that Stephen had his hands full behind the helm and I would have to do the majority of the pulling and grinding.  This could probably be turned into a trendy new workout at Bally’s or Gold’s Gym.  Saturday’s roster:  Body Pump, Hip-Hop Abs and Tack and Grind.  

     I was all over the cockpit, from cabin top to primary winches.  I acquired both muscles and bruises, banging knees and elbows bracing myself as I fell from one side to the other, hugging winches with one arm while grinding with the other.  Earlier, I had enough endurance to muscle the helm on a steady course while Stephen set the wind vane.  Now, I had to opted to set the vane instead, climbing up the stern rail and hugging the pole, I would turn the turret with one hand while forcing the vane into the wind with the other.  Then I would have to jump down and quickly pull the lines as taut as I could before she blew off course.  Stephen helped me out with all of these tasks as best he could, always with one hand on the steering wheel. 

     This whole process was physically exhausting.  A few times, we would tack and the boat would lose speed, meaning we would have to start over again. Each time, we prayed we’d get it right, then we could clip our tethers back into the front and settle in, as each tack would last a few hours.  The winds were beginning to blow more steadily at 28 – 30 knots, gusts up to 35 and my body started to tremble again.  They were forecasting more serious weather for Thursday and I started to fear that it had come early.  It was late Tuesday night, with 55 miles left to go, and I was starting to wonder if we were ever going to make it to Bermuda

     I was exhausted and needed sleep but had no place to rest.  I dreaded the thought of going into the disaster zone to sleep.  For as loud and scary as things can be outside, they always sound worse down below.  That, coupled with the fact that you can’t see what is going on outside is unnerving.  But sitting out here in the cockpit was equally unnerving.  We were heeled so much, it took all of my energy to stay braced in, let alone sleep.  Stephen tried to make me more comfortable, pulling me close to him and telling me to rest my head against him, but this didn’t help.  I finally resigned to going down below.

     The bunk we had set up with the lee cloth to keep us from rolling across the cabin was absolutely drenched.  The blankets were either wet or smelly from our own funk since neither of us had a shower in days.  I rolled up a semi-damp blanket for a pillow and prayed for sleep as butterflies filled my belly each time the boat raised and dipped about 3 – 4 feet.  Sleep finally overtook me and then it was broken by the voice of some strange man named “Bermuda Radio.” 

     In the most polite British accent he said, “Good morning, sailing vessel Synchronicity, do you have an EPIRB on board?”  An EPIRB, why was he asking about our emergency beacon for the coast guard?  Then Stephen’s voice replied, “Yes, Bermuda Radio, registration number…. (a bunch of letters and numbers).”  Then Bermuda Radio asked, “Synchronicity, do you have a life raft on board?”  “Yes, Bermuda Radio, it is a Revere, 6 passenger life raft.”  Life raft!  Holy Shit!  This was finally it.  Less than 12 hours to go, and the Bermuda Coast Guard was going to have to save us.  “Stephen, are they giving us a tow in?”  I asked desperately.  He waved his hand at me to communicate silence.  I wondered to myself, what had happened?  Did something in the rigging come undone?  I held my breath for his reply.    “No!  I’m just calling ahead as required.”  Jesus Christ! At 2 am! At first came relief, then the realization that we were on our own again.  That was the end of sleeping down below for me.  I couldn’t take the suspense. 

     From 2 am to 6 am, after tacking the boat, Stephen decided to hand steer the duration of this tack, approximately 12 miles as he was able to keep the boat moving at a faster speed on this tack than the wind vane.  Amazingly, our Sirius satellite radio held up through the duration of the trip, and “Phish” came on at just the right time with live renditions of “Wilson,” and “Chalk dust Torture,” to keep Stephen pumped for this mission.  Then just before daybreak, we went through the process of tacking one last time.  This one took the last of the energy we had remaining.  

     As the sun rose, so did the winds as the sky became ominous again.  Winds actually started blowing more steadily at 35 knots, and waves grew to almost 20 feet with less than 20 miles into Bermuda.  “We can’t catch a fucking break,” said Stephen.  “It figures,” I said.  We sat opposite each other in the cockpit, shooting reassuring glances and managing as much smile for one another as we could.  Even close to shore, we didn’t see any other vessels, although we heard them communicating over the radio.  A commercial fisherman commented to a pilot boat about the seas being “a bit lumpy.” I was beginning to see what the travel guide meant about Bermuda being a “proper place big on manners.”  A bit lumpy?  How about miserable?

     It felt like we were getting down to the wire.  Would the winds and seas grow worse, or hold off long enough for us to make it into safe harbor?  We switched the satellite station to reggae to provide some calm and sat in quiet, marveling at how well the wind vane maneuvered us through these seas.  “A better job than I could have done,” said Stephen.  I praised the wind vane, now our guardian angel and Stephen for fixing her and making her right.  I wouldn’t even let myself entertain for an instant, any worry about her becoming disengaged for fear of jinxing us again. 

     Then finally, around 8 am, Stephen told me to look to port to see the houses on land.  As I sat up, I was amazed at how close we were to the island.  I had given up trying to sight land.  White and light pastel colored houses with Spanish tile roofs emerged with palm trees and I saw the stark contrast between a cobalt blue and turquoise sea.  I started crying tears of joy and relief, as now there was an end in sight.   

     Not completely in the clear yet, Stephen tried several times to start the engine before we accepted that we would have to clear the channel and drop anchor under sail.  We informed Bermuda Radio of our situation and they gave us instructions on where to anchor.  Fortunately, we were running downwind entering the harbor, much safer for passing through the infamous pass into St. George’s Harbor that is only 50 ft. wide.  Puffs of wind and 10 – 12 foot waves carried us through as we gazed up at the rocky bluffs that towered above us. 

     I imagined us dropping anchor and collapsing into each other in one long embrace, followed by opening a much deserved bottle of wine.  We continued to sail downwind into the harbor but had to turn upwind to anchor.  We had to pick a spot quick – one that placed us in front of a multi-million dollar mega yacht named “Freedom.”  Now that we were into the wind, we had little ability to sail away from this point, and ran the risk of dragging backwards into “Freedom,” which towered above us. 

     The next 15 minutes were panic stricken as we dropped anchor, and then quickly rushed below to stop from dragging.  Stephen called out to me to feed more anchor rode through the hatch, while he tried desperately to get the engine running.  Down below looked worse than I had ever seen it.  I became lost in a maze of anchor rode, fumbling to figure out which end was which.  We had plotted a fix on the chart plotting software that confirmed we weren’t dragging.  Stephen remembered he had rigged the fuel pump associated with the polishing system so that it could be easily diverted to the engine.  The engine started again, and our confidence was restored.  “It’s time to open that bottle of wine,” he said.  The best discovery of all – 3 cases of wine made it to Bermuda unharmed.  And I didn’t feel like drinking.  

  The first 2 weeks in Bermuda following our arrival has been spent putting our lives back together.  When we set out from the Chesapeake, something told me to take pictures of our boat, newly upholstered, so organized and cozy.  Now we were picking up clothing and other gear, separating it into garbage bags I labeled, “Damp,” and “Wet & Soiled” for laundering. 

     Everything had to be aired out.  Each day we lugged our tempurpedic mattress and cushions out on deck to get a little bit dryer – Bermuda is still humid.  The first night, we turned on our TV, deciding to watch an episode of “Worst Week” (only fitting), and watched as our TV slowly deteriorated from salt water that had managed to find its way in.  The next morning, we turned on our Sirius Satellite radio, which held up so faithfully until the very end, only to discover that it had also retired.  Lesson 3:  stow all electronics in waterproof cases.   

     And then there was the task of cleaning out the refrigerator.  We shuddered to imagine the stench that waited for us below.  Stephen got a whiff of what was to come a couple of days ago, when he accidentally started pumping water out of the fridge instead of the ice box, that we had turned into dry food storage. 

    Having a really weak gag reflex, Stephen suited up with rubber gloves and a clothespin over his nose.  Of all the things that did perish, we took a chance on the Smoked Gouda and were glad we did.  Not only did it survive, it was the best damn thing we had tasted in over a week.  We ate the whole block for dinner with two bottles of wine.

     On Thursday, we lugged about 4 huge duffel bags full of blankets, towels and clothing onto shore to “The Finish Line” laundromat.  Zeena, who ran the place, must have noticed the overwhelmed look on our faces, lost among stacks of laundry as we tried to interpret the “wash card” machine that took “Bermuda dollars only.”  She swooped in and rescued us, helping to sort and load the clothes, telling us which dryers were hotter, which machines were broken.  Inquiring about the size of our loads, we told her our story.  I started to say, “the conditions couldn’t have been worse,” but quickly caught myself.  “They could have been much worse,” we both said simultaneously.  “You’re still here,” she said.  She and the other local ladies began joking with me and Stephen, calling him a bad boy for throwing away his sweater which was beyond salvaging in our books.  I started to feel at home in Bermuda as one lady told us that “God is good,” and “Everything has a cause.”

      The ladies at the laundromat reminded us to thank God for each and every day which has helped to put this into perspective.  So much of our life is still intact.  Most of our clothing managed to survive.  We still have music, dry books and all of the DVDs that Chandra, Lynn, Kelly and Kelly gave us.  We had wine to drown out the memories and food from our friends to keep eating decent meals after the refrigerator went out.  We are in a beautiful place with perfect temperatures and gorgeous beaches.  We still have each other and our loving, supportive families, who may or may not decide to join us after reading this story. 

     Over the phone, a concerned Poppa (Stephen’s grandpa) who no doubt missed us, asked if we were going to spend a few weeks in Bermuda and then sail back home.  “There’s no fucking way I’m going back across that ocean.” I said to Stephen.  I’m probably not tough enough for the ocean, but I think I changed a little bit for the better after this passage.  Stephen and I had many heart-to-hearts about ways in which we were each perfectionists and sometimes controlling in own ways in our former life.  Dealing with the forces of nature brings to my awareness what little control we really have over life’s events.  The best you can really do is prepare and cope with whatever is dealt to you the best that you can.    

     There are things that used to stress me out that aren’t worth my time to think about anymore.  Like time.  Having enough time, being on time, racing against time.  Now I’m lucky if I know what day it is, abandoning expectations for any given day.  And organization.  Where the hell did that go?  Lots of things…anal retentive and too miniscule for me to recant managed to occupy too large a space inside my mind, within my life.

     There’s plenty I’m still afraid of, including the ocean.  Getting back to those options I’m still fortunate enough to have….to go back to land or continue sailing the ocean?  To say “to hell with passage making, I’m not a fish and don’t belong in the sea,” or give it another go?  I’m very aware of my limits, and have endured too much to discover them to throw in the towel.  Despite my fear of getting clobbered again, I can’t imagine stepping off of this boat to let someone else sail it with Stephen down to St. Maarten.  There may be nights on watch in the near future where I curse this decision, but I battled the Atlantic, and now that she’s behind me, I’m not looking back but looking ahead to discovering more beautiful places and people.  This was only the beginning of the next chapter in our lives.     

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro was a welcome culture shock following our stay in Kuna Yala. Another archipelago of islands, less than a mile off the western Caribbean coast of Panama, Bocas del Toro is more lagoon-like with an extensive maze of mangrove coves. After 6 months of being cut off from civilization as we know it, our solitude was broken. Maybe our creativity suffered as a result of having a plethora of options. Suddenly we had grocery stores, hardware stores, book stores and movie rentals. We had just about every type of food restaurant you could think of from Mexican to Lebanese. Our brains went into hibernate mode, as we no longer had to jury-rig things on the boat, or find yet more ways to cook with tuna.

Bocas del Toro is teeming with ex-pat, Hawaiian shirt wearing, guitar playing, Jimmy Buffet loving retirees, young American and European backpackers, serious surfers and a huge native population including many indigenous tribes. While still laid back compared to many parts of the Caribbean, there is a lot going on in Bocas if you surf, dive and party. Bocas can be a dead end, though, and many boats and crew “just passing through,” can still be found here a year later.

In our year and a half of bouncing around the Caribbean, we’ve learned that just because you own a sailboat, doesn’t mean you sail it. Individuals who comprise the sailing community are as diverse as any other in terms of goals, budget, lifestyle preferences, and comfort zones.

Our stage in life and pre-retirement budget is straightforward and as far as life style preferences go, those on a more open-ended plan, naturally crave more creature comforts to make life more enjoyable and some cases, even bearable. But amenities aside, it’s easy to get drawn in by the familiar and all that encompasses the cruising community. The social scene, the boat talk and boat maintenance that will never end, the potlucks and happy hours where you can go on sharing information and making plans forever, but soon forget how to sail your boat.

While the cruising community can be a source of support and valuable information, in some cases, naysayers will scare each other silly about potential passages and destinations. In these instances, misery loves company, and boaters have unnecessarily altered course before giving themselves a fair chance. Before we left the San Blas for Bocas del Toro (about 240 miles), a cruiser said to us “whoa, we wouldn’t want to take that passage right now…good luck.” Stephen and I looked at each other perplexed, as we had perfect conditions (winds and currents) and had a gorgeous passage with good winds, fair seas, pods of dolphins, and a lunar eclipse to boot. Hmm…no wonder this couple had been going on four years in San Blas. If these conditions were not ideal for them, there’s no way out of there.

Reaching beyond our comfort zones to accept the adventure, the consequences of stepping out into the unknown, of accepting the full spectrum of risks and rewards, of discomfort as well as elation, is perhaps the greatest challenge for most, myself included. A lot of things can happen to you and your boat, in both the physical and emotional sense. It will expose your strengths and your weaknesses, and it will definitely change you - all very scary propositions. To know your limitations is a good thing, but only if you’ve dared to reach them. It’s my observation and belief that most people made great sacrafices to dare to venture out aboard their vessel. They’re each seeking their own adventure, and some have found it while others have lost their way. One bad storm at sea is enough to shake your foundation.

But living a life on land can be equally filled with risk. Naturally, where there are more people, there are also more traffic accidents, communicable diseases, risk of food and water contamination, incidents of crime, and even weather-related disasters. But somehow this thought fails to register a blip on our cautionary radar, because either we’re familiar with these circumstances or haven’t had personal encounters of our own. Driving a vehicle is within our competency. We can wash our hands and sanitize incessantly, filter our drinking water, install security systems and carry pepper spray, and in the event of a tornado, we might just be screwed.

I often think about the horrible tragedy that happened on Ridge Ave. in my hometown of McSherrystown, not so long ago. A man who was watching TV in the comfort of his recliner, was suddenly bulldozed through the walls of his own home and into the backyard by a car that came crashing through his living room. He was in dire condition for a long time, but thankfully managed to pull through. This event was unbelievable and confusing to anyone who has grown up in such a steadfast and safe community to live in. The fact that something so inconceivable happened in McSherrystown, caused me and many others to rethink our notion of security, and how we would come to define it in changing times.

Metaphorically, I think we wear our life preservers and do our best to insulate ourselves from the dangerous unknowns, but life remains filled with unexpected occurrences. And sometimes the unexpected or long dreaded event happens anyway. And so we deploy our life raft and keep on surviving. We could lose our life waiting at the dock, or watch it pass us by at the very least.

While I stand on my soap box, I admit that I’m of the anxious ilk and have spent countless hours of my life trying to control things that I conjure up from my very active and often foreboding imagination. Stephen giggles, shakes his head and pulls me back into the present moment, for it is here in which the future is created. And as Tom Petty sings, “most things I worry about, never happen anyway.”

I admire Stephen for his courage in facing those things that aren’t within our control, with not wasting time in fooling himself into thinking he can prevent them, and instead placing well spent effort in fully equipping himself for things he can. In his home town of Strong Island, they call it “having balls,” and if it weren’t for him and his big balls, I wouldn’t have attempted something like this on my own. Some might view this as a negative thing, “dragging Taryn across treacherous oceans.” But this man has opened my world to things I had never experienced or considered. And in approaching these adventures together, I’ve learned to trust him with my life. Stepping out into the unknown with his support has enabled us to know ourselves better.

As others venture out to do the same, perhaps some have come to realize this wasn’t the adventure they wanted, an equally valuable experience, except when they feel stuck. Then it’s a dangerous recipe for stagnation. Aside from three storey tall waves, that ugly word is my greatest fear, and the best way to avoid it is to keep moving. Upon arriving in Bocas, a nice man greeted us with the following words…“Welcome to the Hotel California…haven’t you heard, everyone ends up staying here longer than they planned.” “That’s nice,” we said with a smile, as we privately vowed to each other that we didn’t make it this far to get cozy now.

Once we escaped early morning from the marina (after settling up our bill of course), we set our sights on less traveled islands within the Bocas chain. Our first stop was Isla Popa II (there’s a number I and II), which is home to the Ngobe Bugle, another indigenous tribe of Panama. We found this tribe especially friendly and hospitable. We were anchored in a beautiful mangrove-enclosed lagoon on the edge of the hillsides on which they had built their community.

The setting was a maze of mangrove that shone emerald green in the light of dusk or dawn. We were tucked up into a mangrove cove that bordered the edge of a forest, packed with tall, skinny, limbless trees that reached the same heights where they suddenly fanned out to form a dense canopy. The break in the forest revealed rolling hills dotted with complex huts and palm trees.

It wasn't long after we anchored, that a man paddling from across inlet offered us lobster for a fair price before returning to the village. The next morning, a lady who paddled up with her family in the rain, invited us to come ashore to see their community. Comparing our experience to the Kuna of San Blas, we were pleasantly surprised, as it was a rare invitation we would receive from the Kuna, generally suspicious of visitors.

The children, too innocent to doubt the good intentions of people, greeted us just as sweetly as the Kuna. I instantly made a little friend before being officially welcomed by a fellow American. What a surprise! Kate Douglass, from Virginia, was on assignment with the Peace Corps, and only five months into her two year commitment. She has been working on a number of large tasks, teaching English, assisting the women in forming a cooperative and finding ways to generate tourism. She was impressed that we were formally invited by a woman she had known to be quite shy.

It just happened that Kate’s mother and a friend were visiting, and awaiting an official tour of the community. So we walked and talked together, Kate being very informative and obviously passionate about the Ngobe Bugle and their culture.

The children adore Kate and instantly trusted anyone that was with her. A few little boys especially fond of the ladies, held our hands for the entire tour. When we came upon a hiabicus tree, the youngest boy clad in a white onesie pajama, picked flowers for all of the ladies.

The tour began in the community hall, an open air structure where all major celebrations, including school graduations take place. Kate showed us the typical crops and vegetation: cocoa (above, root veggies like yucca, and bananas and platanos that are picked far before they are ready. Stephen and I have wondered why the local tribes are not able to grow tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables with so much rainfall and such hillsides. The locals have simply explained that the “earth” is no bueno (no good) for growing it, and without having a better aptitude for speaking the language, we haven’t been able to question it further.

Kate discussed family arrangements where large families live together under one roof, and often just one or two rooms. Stephen and I have become used to people from the indigenous communities paddling right up to our boats without saying a word and just peeking in until we notice them. Sometimes they’ll grab things right off of the boat, not to take them but to examine them and question them. Quite alarming at first, we understand that the major cultural differences in terms of personal space, property and boundaries. They have no privacy. They’re used to sharing among and between other households, so that don’t have attachments to things the way we do – so friendly curiosity is easily mistaken for disrespect.

As we passed a home in the village, Kate shared that one of the eldest sons was moving out from under his mother’s roof, and the beginnings of a dwelling that seemed to be just feet from the homestead was his new home. We giggled for a while at this interpretation of independence.

While there is a rotation of Panamanian teachers that stay for brief periods in the village, Kate lives with the Ngobe full time. She showed us the house that she lives in and the wooden, open range for cooking on the front porch. It was here that the boys also charmed us with a traditional dance they had just learned.

Kate talked about the water supply and pointed out the huge tubs in which families catch rain water for bathing, washing, drinking – everything. While this community seems to be thriving, parasites and waterborne illnesses remains a problem among indigenous populations.

We ended the tour inside her classroom, where she and local teachers recently painted an impressive mural of a very colorful and accurate world map across the wall. Seeing her posed in front of it was symbolic of the ways in which individuals like her dare to extend themselves far and wide to shape this big Earth into a global community.

The difference she’s made was evident in the cooperative, where the women have been empowered to organize and run their own business. They sell the traditional clothing, crafts and jewelry: handbags, skirts, hair bands, bracelets and necklaces. Attached to each, is a tag with a price and the name of the artist, so that the money is set aside for them. In some cases, no artist is mentioned and the money goes to the cooperative.

We were used to paying $5 to the Kuna of San Blas for simply anchoring near their island but were always disappointed when the Kuna weren’t interested in showing us their village or telling us something about their way of life. Perhaps they were at one time, but since they have been inundated with tourists and yachties, a piece of that pride has been lost in a new money based economy. We were pleasantly surprised and impressed with the initiative and authenticity of the Ngobe of Popa II. We travel to admire the Earth and to take in the fullness of its beauty. In the absence of cultural diversity, the aesthetics of your surroundings quickly lose their luster and the experience takes on a superficial quality. The kindness of the Ngobe truly enhanced the landscape, and I hope that they are able to generate more tourism, reaping more of the benefits than the ill effects of increased exposure.

The Zapatilla Cays lie in the outermost part of the chain, before re-entering open sea. It consists of two islands, dedicated as national marine park. Although we didn’t go snorkeling, we were later told that the reefs are teeming with lobsters, rays and large fish that are overhunted elsewhere.

We preferred Zapatilla II, more abundant with thick groves of palm trees, where columns of hearty green, Dr. Seuss-like plants grow all along the length of the trunk. Far less tourists are brought to this island even though there is a well-maintained trail that leads to the windward shore. We loved this part sand, part boardwalk trail that wound through a surprisingly swampy center. At last we had an expanse of land to run on when we weren’t hanging our hammocks in a desolate patch of palm trees.

We had the occasional visitor from the family living on the anchorage side of the island. First, the youngest boy (no older than 5), was being extremely helpful and offering to help Stephen drag the dinghy up on shore. He always ran out to say hello, and eventually his father came out to meet us too. On the second afternoon, Stephen brought his drum onshore, and soon we were being followed by a curious older brother (about 7) donning nothing but his underpants and a machete almost as tall as him. He shyly tailed us at a close distance until we turned around to greet him and Stephen invited him to learn how to play the drum.

This little boy was like a sponge, captivated by our every word and movement. Proud of his machete, he taught us how to say “chopiando,” (his word to describe cutting or chopping the undergrowth) and he picked up several English words from us. As it was getting late, we had to coax him to go home for dinner. As I hugged him goodbye, Stephen said, “Careful Taryn, you’re going to get yourself killed,” laughing at the absurdity of me injuring myself while embracing a harmless little boy toting his dangerous tool as if it were his favorite teddy bear.

The island had a few inhabitants that consisted of a few families of one of the local indigenous tribes and a handful of rangers stationed on both shores. Still, we enjoyed endless privacy and had the beach to ourselves at night. One evening, we set up for sunset in the shadiest part of the trail, where the sun went down between thick-trunked trees with gnarly roots that twisted into animated patterns. A perfect mirror image of the forest was reflected in the still swamp waters below the pier.

We were anchored in Zapatilla just after a full moon, and as the sun faded, watched it rise over the tops of the palm trees behind us. This was a first for us, as usually the beach is too buggy to remain even before the sun is setting. But for some reason, maybe the temperature or the breeze, the bugs were kept at bay. The palm fronds swaying in the first light of the moon is lovely, and something to be admired fully in the brief hour that it lasts. As the moon’s light sweeps the beach, the sand is a brilliant white and the water a pale green through which you can see clear to the bottom – to the continuous ridges of sand that have formed without human feet to disturb them.

Our favorite anchorages were off of Isla Bastimentos, where you have a little bit of development, a little bit of rainforest, some local flavor and a lot of gorgeous beach. The Red Frog Beach resort was a new project when we were here 5 years ago, and like every other story lately, it all but tanked when the investors lost their money. It has since been sold and development of these "Florida-like" condos continues, but not without controversy. Initially there was a lot of concern for the endemic species of red frog that inhabits the island. You can still spot an occasional little red frog jumping along the beach, but they are being handled by tourists -probably not good. Most of them have migrated further into the rain forest.

I liked the red frog beach resort only for the yoga classes. It was nice to balance on one leg on solid ground for a change. Most of the controversy surrounding this project is over the lack of consideration for the environment in terms of waste management, fresh water contamination, depletion of rainforest and non-sustainability. When trees are cut down, sloths like this little guy above run out of trees to forage and sleep in.

There is a noticeable difference between establishments that make good use of the natural environment and those that don't. Our favorite example is the the Thai restaurant "Up on the hill" that sits high in the canopy. It is tucked into the rainforest, its structure built around the natural topography - the front supported by stilts. Wildlife abounds and the restaurant relies on the filtered rain water it collects to keep turning out plates. So when there is a shortage of rain, the restaurant is closed for business. The unreliability might be too frustrating for most, but each time we were able to get a reservation, it became a special event - perhaps more appreciated.

Aside from the Red Frog Resort & Marina, there is Bocas Bound - the nicest hostel I have ever seen. We were finally "plugged in" again, with a great Internet connection, cheap meals, cold beers and a "help yourself" supply of endless coffee. The rooms looked really nice for just 12 a night, and there was a huge, open air great room with hammocks, computer stations, TVs, and a bar. When we had our fill of connectivity, we hiked a trail or escaped to Turtle Beach - the one that is less traveled by tourists. This beach, adjacent to "Red Frog Beach" but walled off by massive boulders, was covered with sea grape trees that reached to the edge of the water.

One day, Stephen hung a hammock from one of these bowing limbs. Hovering just above the water, it was the perfect setup and apparently two backpackers thought so. I sat on the embankment watching Stephen duck under waves and these two guys that stopped to take pictures of our hammock. Once they noticed me sitting there, they asked for permission to pose inside of it. As they lay awkwardly in the hammock, it occurred to me that relaxation is an art to be mastered.

Speaking of art...above is an impromptu sculpture made by Charlie, owner of Fin Art in Fells Point, Baltimore. We jmetCharlie and Cherise, from Maryland when we went ashore for happy hour on Isla Bastimentos. They had been backpacking Central America for a few months and just happened to be in Bocas del Toro, and more specifically - on Bastimentos at the same time as us. And as small worlds go, they were friends of a social worker I once worked with back in Baltimore. For the next few days, we went to the beach, had drinks and dinner with Charlie, Cherise and another couple they had met from Denmark. Charlie made this out of wood and things that had washed up on shore. He is an amazing artist who paints public murals and other installations, usually featuring fish or a nautical theme. Cherise calls him the fish whisperer, as he has an exceptional understanding of all kinds of fish and their nature. While in Bocas, he caught a fish a commercial fisherman said was not possible to find in those waters.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cahuita, Costa Rica

In Cahuita, Costa Rica, we’ve never had a need for an alarm clock. You can rely on the Howler monkeys to wake you every morning at dawn. Cahuita’s national park and the forest that surrounds it are filled with large families of howler and white-faced monkeys, like the one above, whose deep guttural sounds are intimidating the first morning you awake to them. When you finally spot the source of it - these cute, and even friendly little buggers - you are amazed that they can emit such deep, gorilla-like sounds. The howler monkeys are just one of the many reasons we keep coming back to Cahuita, rich in multiculturalism and biodiversity.

Earthy, crunchy….natural, charming, quaint and Caribbean, are all good words to describe Cahuita, which is a nice blend of Latino, rasta-fari and European culture. Its popular among surfers and big on ecotourism. The region has its own distinct Caribbean flavor, influenced by an influx of Jamaican laborers who worked the banana fields at the beginning of the 20th century, following the construction of the Atlantic Railroad. The dependency on the unreliable, if not exploitative banana trade has recently been overcome by government investment in sustainable tourism.

The main village of Cahuita consists of two main dirt roads without a town center – the main road ending at the National Park. The atmosphere is relaxed, with a great mix of tourists and locals of all ages, and the lingering scent of ganja in the air. There are coffee shops, a handful of small grocery stores and restaurants. There’s also a European influence seen and felt in the Italian and international gourmet eateries, surf shops and cabanas.

The local flavor is a blend of Latino and Caribbean influences – where rice, beans and plantains meet Caribbean curries. When you first glance at a menu, the choices seem overwhelming, but have no fear - you’ll eat whatever meat or seafood is available. My favorite dish was the pulpo (octopus) in coconut curry, served up on New Year’s Eve with a funny story.

A cute frog hopped along the edge of the wall next to our table in a packed restaurant. He came from the roof, and it seemed he was quite lost, high atop this balcony eatery. He was no small frog – wide-mouthed, tan & green and four inches in length. Stephen dared me to try to catch him and carry him to safety. I couldn’t resist, and almost had him in my grip before the slippery little sucker launched forward and landed smack in the middle of a lady’s back, seated at the next table.

I let out a gasp before covering my mouth in hysterics. Stephen thought this scene was terrific, but also felt the need to inform the lady which initiated a string of events. He tapped her on the shoulder, and upon receiving the news, jumped, causing the frog to jump into her hair. As she began flailing around, the rest of her party jumped to her aid, knocking over beer bottles. The frog leaped to the next table, which subsequently jumped and shrieked and now the whole restaurant was involved, including the servers who were trying to capture the frog. We couldn’t stop laughing at the mayhem I started, if only they knew.

The main attraction is Parque Nacional Cahuita, a huge expanse of both natural rainforest (2,711 acres) and the adjacent shoreline that includes 600 acres of coral reefs. Preserved by the government. It’s well-maintained, with beautiful sand, boardwalk and a 4 mile forest trail that winds right along the beach.

In the forest, you can spot sloths sleeping in the trees. During our second trip to Cahuita, we visited the Avarios Sloth Reserve, where we saw many cuties like the one above, who were rescued when they fell prey to disease or development. One had lost an arm when electrocuted on some telephone wires. A baby born with a central nervous disorder, was unable to cling to its mother and abandoned at the base of the tree. Avarios was featured on Jack Hannah’s Animal Kingdom, which spurred our second trip to Cahuita in 2006.

While sloths spend most of their lives in the tree tops and are harder to spot, the 4 mile long park trail is teeming with monkeys, iguanas, raccoons, birds, butterflies and other reptiles. We’ve seen the occasional armadillo or anteater scurry across the paths. The raccoons tend to linger, knowing that where there are humans, there is also junkfood.

Birdlife abounds in the canopies and tropical streams: herons, toucans, parrots, and macaws. All kinds of sea turtles nest near Punta Vargas, where according to our National Geographic Costa Rica guide, “the waves help bring them in at high tide.”

In past trips, Stephen and I have walked right into spider webs spanning less traveled parts of the trail, deep into the forest. It was the first time I’ve ever seen anything startle Stephen as he forged ahead, smack into a web stretching from one side of the path to the other. In the middle of these huge webs were gnarly looking spiders that span the length of an adult hand. This enduring image combined with my malaria medication, invoked vivid dreams in which the mosquito net above our bed became the web I found myself entangled in. The dark shadows of the room turned into long, hairy spindly legs that startled me right out of my sleep. I flew out of that bed like a bolt of lightning, screaming, “spider, spider!” as Stephen flicked on the lights and began searching under the bed for the monster that was about to eat me.

On this trip, we packed a lunch one day and hiked to a more remote part of the beach, where we spread out our blanket and dozed off. We awoke to a masked bandit, far more plump (and apparently more skillful) than the one above, attempting to open our bag of goodies. He was so damn cute, it was hard to be cross with him, and he casually strolled away (obviously a Caribbean raccoon) when Stephen yelled at him to get lost.

Costa Rica abounds with reptiles, including over 160 types of snakes. We found this little guy, whom we think is either a common arboreal snake or the “chunk-headed” snake that preys on amphibians. He was casually hanging out in full view, along the edge of the trail. Stephen, being a snake lover, had no problem getting up close and personal for a photo. While the shape of his head looks threatening, we believe he is one of the more harmless types. We once passed a huge boa, crushed when attempting to cross the highway. Reminded of Lucy, who couldn’t come on the boat, but is finally living a fulfilled life as a new mama, Stephen immediately turned the car around to try to help him along, but it was too late.

Before leaving the park, we encountered un mono loco who was both engaging and frightening trail walkers. He was exceptionally friendly until the moment you wanted to walk away. He walked upright far more than scampering along on all fours, as though he believed himself to be human too. There are signs in the park that forbid the feeding of monkeys, and I wondered if he had landed some sugary junk food. As I snapped away with the camera, he walked right over to a spider web, plucked the gangly thing right out of the center, popped it in his mouth and crunched away. As Stephen began to turn his back on him, he crinkled up his little forehead and bared his teeth to show his displeasure. Unsure as to whether he might pounce, we slowly slinked away until we saw a new group of tourists approaching. Then we made a break for it to leave them discover just how cute this monkey was.

Stephen and I continue to stay at Siami Lodge at the quiet end of town. Sia Tami is down a dirt road, and is teeming with wildlife, since the property is at the edge of the park. There are several identical houses – all two bedroom, that go for $50 a night. The houses are cozy and airy, with beautifully landscaped yards: banana plants, coconut trees, huge fan palms, wildflowers and tropical plants that line the walkways. I could spend a month renting a place on this tranquilo property, where we had a howler monkey living amongst the trees in our front yard.

A French pastry chef and his children were actually renting the house across from us on a long term basis. We got well-acquainted with them the first night we made dinner and our kitchen utensils started breaking. I made my introduction with a half opened can and a second visit when our wine opener broke off mid-cork. When the final instrument broke, I told Stephen it was his turn, and he returned with a full box of ├ęclairs for dessert!

We bought a lot of groceries in town to make use of the huge kitchen, but had sticker shock when we discovered the high taxes factored into the cost of everything, particularly wine and beer. After reading about how much Costa Rica typically invests in education, healthcare and the preservation of its climate, I wanted to believe that high taxes resulted in an improved state of well-being for all. But a local businessman shared his viewpoint on a top-heavy government, rife with corruption. Hmm….wherever you go, there you are. Or, same shit, different country.

Just the same, we were enjoying a vacation away from the boat and made good use of the house with hours spent on the front porch. Since we had seen much of Cahuita in the previous two years, I enjoyed doing a lot of nothing, like: rocking in a hammock with a good book, watching the sporadic rain fall and add color to all the landscaping, and sipping on coffee while observing our resident monkey in his tree.

One evening, I took a stroll down the lane, and encountered the monkey on the ground. He had just come down from the tree, and the family dog from across the way came galloping towards him. The monkey froze, upright in mid-stride. The dog froze too, and they locked eyes for a second before the monkey took off to join his family in the big tree at the end of the drive. For a moment, I worried what might happen if the dog caught him, but as the monkey reached the base of the next tree, the dog had a clear shot and let him get ahead before nipping playfully at his tail. The dog clearly just wanted to play.

On New Year’s Eve, the most popular local reggae and latino bar was overflowing with gringos, latinos and rastas, and was playing music for everyone. Up until midnight, locals paired off – some of the Latino men grabbing gringas to show them how to salsa. Then came the fireworks. Rewind the tape to early that afternoon, when Stephen wondered aloud what kind of a homegrown display we were in for. “I’m sure it will be somewhat official,” I answered, adding something about “Costa Rica seems especially interested in the safety of its people.” Fast forward to midnight: locals are launching small rockets of TNT in the middle of the street.

As they exploded just above our heads, I was trying to admire them while also ducking for cover. The embers and debris were raining down on the tin roofs and in the street around us, with a sound akin to hail. Less than 15 feet from where we stood, a man lit a firework while holding a baby on his hip. A band of rastas began a serious drumming session inside the bar to commence the mayhem. The fireworks were never ending, sporadically erupting well into the following afternoon. The walk home was precarious, like walking through a landmine of explosives combusting at street level.

The climate is so diverse, that within hours you can travel from tropical beaches to dense cloud forest in the Central highlands where most of the population lives. There’s a volcanic chain of mountains, including the still active Arenal, where resorts have been set up around the resulting hot springs. The entire landscape spans 12 “ecological zones” that include: “tidal mangroves, dry deciduous forest, tropical rain forest, subalpine grassland, and cactus covered, desert-dry savanna, (National Geographic guide).” Of all the places we’ve been thus far, Cahuita remains at the top of our favorite places to escape to. At every turn, there is amazing vegetation and wildlife. The beach is gorgeous. The culture respects the land, with 25 percent protected in wildlife reserves or national parks.”

The free and relaxed atmosphere of this town is the reason we keep coming back and even fantasizing about buying a plot later in life. The main highway was recently paved and we’ve noticed a huge difference in traffic just over the past few years. The increased accessibility is both good and concerning, but so far the growth seems positive and controlled. We love it here because it’s unpretentious and has a colorful populatin with virtually no class distinction or animosity between races. The people are good-natured and the whole town has a raw, natural beauty – but is developed with enough creature comforts that you don’t have to feel like you’re roughing it to enjoy it.