Sunday, July 25, 2010

Highlights of the East Caribbean....


Dominica was one of our more exotic destinations in every sense of the experience. It’s an independent nation, struggling for a foothold in the second world. We were told Jugo Chavez is bringing economic opportunity in the form of oil refineries. If you are visiting the city of Portsmouth, you’re probably a sailor or a member of the Peace Corps. Whenever we went to the market, which starts hours before dawn, I was often mistaken for a Peace Corps worker. There is both appreciation and animosity towards them and “the students” at the local medical school just outside of town. They’ve built their own tiny city and have the chance to mingle with local Rastas on the weekends.

The Valley of Desolation

One such Rasta named “JC,” was our hiking guide on a day long trek through The Valley of Desolation to the Boiling Lake. “They (the students) don’t like to mix with our kind,” he informed us while giving us the back-story on Dominica’s diverse subcultures. JC explained what it meant to be a Rasta, living off the land and having a keen knowledge of how to use every bit of the environment for shelter, food and medicine. In JC’s case, being a Rasta also means trying to fly under the radar of the local park wardens, and anyone who may try to keep him an honest citizen.

Turns out our guide was “unofficial,” but not “unentertaining.” The moment we stepped out of the rental car to start our hike, I detected an herbal scent wafting from the back of the jeep. There stood JC with a mischievous smile. Dominican Rastas seem to be free to smoke provided they don’t try to share it or sell it to their foreign counterparts. JC rolled a spliff so big he didn’t need to “share it.” Inundated by the smoke, I pushed Stephen ahead of me on the trail. “You go first, or I’m going to be too high to make it to the boiling lake.”

You’d think JC’s habits and general demeanor would make him a slow hiker, but he put both of us to shame. He knew these trails like he could walk them in his sleep. He was unbelievably quick, even in his heavy boots that he shared were two sizes too big for him. As he belted out Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits, he’d stop dead in the middle of the chorus to point out a special type of tree, and pick up the beat exactly as he left it. He’d find time to bust a moonwalk or some other Michael dance move and still be way up ahead of us.

This trail was an unbelievable 8 hour trek through dense rainforest (where we got to swing from vines) and sulfur fields known as “The Valley of Desolation.” The descent into the steep valley was a little precarious with slippery mud below your feet and shifting rock overhead. “Move quickly,” were JC’s orders – but not too quickly or you’ll slide the whole way down.

The sulfur fields were neon greens, oranges and yellows depending on a combination of elements – heat and sulfuric content. We were literally stepping over lava flows. It bubbled in some places, and JC said you could boil an egg in it. Close to all this activity, the streams flowed in a variety of colors: orange, onyx and a pure white that reminded me of glacial waters – steaming instead of freezing.

Along the ridge of the forest, water flowed into natural pools that held the temperature of a hot tub. JC let us climb into one of these pools, hidden inside a cluster of trees. Hot water poured down the rock face and over a natural infinity edge into the next pool below. As we dug our toes into the dirt, the heat became more intense.

Our hike ended at a boiling lake. It was far bigger than Stephen imagined, a deep crater almost 100 yards in diameter and almost 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Each time the center started boiling up, it would roar and hiss, then blanket us with a thick cloud of steam. Sitting around this volcanic wonder stirred up talk of volcanoes which made JC uneasy. As we shared our knowledge of Yellowstone’s super volcano and scientific estimations that it’s overdue for an eruption, JC became upset with us. “No! Jah would never let that happen,” he insisted. As we made our case, he made his – one I’d never considered before. “Were humans around the last time it erupted?” he asked. “No,” we answered. “Well, now that humans are here, Jah won’t let the volcano erupt.” Sounds plausible.

Titou Gorge

Our epic hike ended at Titou Gorge, one of the film sites for Pirates of the Caribbean. The scene in which Johnny Depp is walking with those long sticks and then falls into a Gorge….you can actually go swimming in the bottom of the gorge in the coldest mountain water that flows between huge boulders that give you the feel of swimming inside caves. Very little light gets inside and the water varies from an ice blue to a deep emerald. In the last “cave,” a water fall rushes in and you can climb onto a ledge to sit behind it.

Screw’s Sulfur Spa

Another highlight of Dominica was “Screw’s Sulfur Spa.” A business savvy Rasta, “Screw” held onto a vision for years that a hot spring lie under his property in the village of Wotten Waven. For years, he dug with a shovel until one day hot mineral water seeped through the ground. Screw had built his home in the top of a very large tree that existed on the property. Soon, this tree would also become the bar and reception area for an elaborate resort. The resort grew from a few small basins into expansive pools of varying temperatures. The landscaping incorporates art and the natural rainforest. My favorite time to be here was at night when you can float on your back and gaze up at the stars through the trees. Screw was extremely generous, especially with his ganja rum. At the end of each visit, he gave Stephen a few shots of this “truth serum” and a bag of fruit from his property.


In Rouseau, we were anchored next to a big catamaran, “Hands Across the Sea.” The couple aboard ran a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing school supplies to children on the islands. Their cousin, a dancer trained in New York City, was also visiting to give workshops to the local dance schools. She invited me to join a Zumba session one day at a school auditorium in town. When I got there, the dancers were giving a recital to the local heads of ministries. When they were finished, a few of the girls welcomed me and pulled me up on stage to Zumba with them. Suddenly we were all performing for groups of uniform-clad school children funneling in. They were dancing in their seats, and some even ran up on stage.

Eating in Dominica was a great experience whether at the local market or in a restaurant perched in the treetops in Wotten Waven. Locals love to cook with “ground provisions,” meaning yams, tarot root, yucca, potatoes, and plantains – anything starchy. They’ll load your plate with fish, rice, ground provisions and “green salad” (lettuce & tomato), all prepared with local spices. They love to make fritters out of just about everything too – fish, potato, onion, meat.

Dominica is one of the poorer islands, and had one really bad incident of theft in the Portsmouth anchorage that earned it a bad reputation among cruisers. There was just one time that we felt “unsafe” while walking through a residential area back to the boat at night. In populated areas, it’s always best to take a cab after dark. After a few cat calls, I picked up the pace and looked straight ahead. It turns out one of the guys calling out to me was actually our “boat boy,” and was just trying to say hello to us. The local government has compensated for recent crime by organizing boat boys to look after yachts at anchor and connect them with services during their stay. We found most Dominicans to be very fun-loving, straightforward and generous. Dominica isn’t a beach resort-type destination, but it’s definitely worth a visit on a cruise ship.

St. Lucia

We spent a few weeks in St. Lucia, where Mom & Dad Toman came to visit over Easter. We spent a few weeks in Rodney Bay, home to a few resorts, including Sandals. We met a couple that has been sailing the Caribbean for about 30 years, part of the time for leisure and part of the time as a charter business. They were extremely friendly to us and invited us to a sunset happy hour at the yacht club they belonged to. Like most places, we appeared to be the youngest among the crowd. At times its fun, and at other times it gets lonely. We’re always grateful for those who “take us under their wing” and welcome us into the group.

We hooked back up with a couple we met, Russell and Annie, who have been sailing their catamaran all over the North Atlantic & Caribbean for a few years. Annie and Russell have about 30 more years of life experience than us, but are extremely youthful and seem more like our peers than most. We had the best time with them at the local Friday night street party. All the bars stay open and set up food stands on the street. A few roads are blocked off for a stage where either a DJ or band sets up. It is the best atmosphere, with locals and tourists mixing easily. This is partly because local men & women will pick visitors out of the crowd to dance.

We sailed down to Marigot Bay, a much quieter town, in preparation for Mom & Dad Toman’s arrival. They rented a beautiful condo overlooking the bay, and we got pampered with AC and hot showers all week. The pool had a swim up bar with the most delicious but overpriced tropical drinks. We spent a lot of time just lounging here, or snacking on hors d'oeuvres back at the condo. A couple of nights, we took the 30 second ferry ride across the bay to the only two restaurants.

One afternoon, we sailed with them to the Pitons. This was an impressive sight, but our plans were cut short when some dangerous cross currents made our ride less than relaxing. Mom Toman and I were enjoying the view from the bow when things started to get bumpy. “Hey girls, why don’t you make your way back to the cockpit,” Stephen called out. Suddenly, Dad Toman started heading towards us in a gesture of chivalry I feared might end in a man overboard drill. Fortunately, all passengers were secured. The wind and weather was great, but there was a southerly swell that induced a bit of seasickness.

On another day, we did some land travel with a personal driver. The sights we visited included “The Drive-In Volcano,” botanical gardens and a natural sulfur spring. The site of the volcano contained lava pools like those in Dominica’s “Valley of Desolation,” and were far more accessible with added protections for the public. You weren’t going to walk around lava pools here. The tour guide warned of the dangers, citing tragic accidents where the ground gave way and a man was severely burned. Another lost his pet dog who decided to jump the fence.

The drive up the windy roads was perhaps as adventurous as our sail. The van brought on a new wave of motion sickness as our driver boldly jerked around every turn. The gardens were a gorgeous reprieve with waterfalls and hundreds of species of tropical trees and plants like “crab claws,” bird of paradise and cattails.

St. Lucia’s natural sulfur springs did not meet the bar set high by Screw’s Sulfur Spa, but it was still a unique experience for Mom & Dad Toman. This was the first time we have ever spent a week alone with them, outside of Long Island. Free from typical distractions, we got to know them in a special new way - outside of their role as parents and grandparents. This was true quality time without agendas or time constraints. Marigot Bay is the perfect place for this type of family vacation.

The Grenadines


The Grenadines is the quintessential paradise of the Eastern Caribbean. We spent several weeks hopping through the islands of both the Northern and Southern Grenadines, two separate nations for purposes of customs and immigration. Here, there are less “excursions” as each island becomes the destination with their distinct beaches and cultures. Time actually moves slower than anywhere else in the Eastern Caribbean, more like the pace of molasses.

St. Vincent has an unsavory reputation, so we bypassed it and headed for Bequia. Stephen found a lot of great scuba diving opportunities here, and earned his advanced open water certification.

This island was small enough to tour by scooter in one day. The day we drove across the island was the day we visited the sea turtle reserve and happened upon “the whale.” We learned the importance of preserving one species, and drove down the road to bear witness to the endangerment of another.

The methods behind Old Brother Heg's turtle conservation were questionable, but he reports that his tracking proves better odds than natural survival rates. He has received criticism for feeding his turtles canned tuna, but he swears it has resulted in a breed of stronger, more determined tuna. “To them, I say bullshit!” he defended. He explained that the turtles have to fight there way to the bottom for the tuna much earlier than their bodies typically allow them to sink. My favorite turtle was Brother Heg’s family pet. Our cruising friends, Herb & Frank told us to look out for it. It was marked by two holes drilled in the ends of its shell. Heg put these holes here for his grandchildren to take the turtle to the beach. The poor turtle is restrained against his natural urges to head for the ocean!

The beaches of Bequia were gorgeous, and empty. The nightlife was shared equally among the restaurants in town, as each claimed their night of the week for lobster, reggae or two for one drink specials. Every bar had a waterfront view, and there was even a little resort complete with a dive center and spa.


We skipped Mustique, home to one of Mick Jagger’s McMansions. We were warned the prices would be too steep for us to set foot on the island. Our next stop was Mayreau, in the Southern Grenadines. The island of Mayreau had the best sunrises and sunsets because of the way the light would shine against the little spit of palm trees in Saltwhistle Bay.

We picked up a passenger in Bequia, Andy. He was a boat captain that Stephen met while diving and needed a lift down to Union Island. He’s the captain of a big mega yacht, owned by a pro-football player and was out of his element on our little sailboat. One thing he could do well, however, was set an anchor. That was crucial in this tiny bay where the edges could get shallow fast.

Andy joined us on shore for a lobster cookout prepared by local fishermen. This was almost the last night of lobster season, and lobster was not as abundant in the East Caribbean as we had hoped. Our lobster dinner came with a complimentary hand-rolled spliff. For digestion, of course.

The next day, Steve & Andy went for another dive, and the dive boat dropped him off on Union Island. We pretty much laid on this picture perfect beach for two days in a row. We toured the island in one morning, stopping for groceries at a convenient store run out of a woman’s home, and for breakfast at a little Rasta diner, “Righteous and de Youths.” Righteous was not so righteous when it came to the fair price he promised. We gave him the benefit of the doubt, and didn’t insist on nailing down a dollar amount when he failed to produce a menu. How much could a plate of eggs and a dinner roll cost? Try $30 US. I don’t think so. He must have mistaken us for tourists. We were quick to let him know that we had been around the block and knew the price of eggs. And so our breakfast dropped to $15.

We spotted a little stone Church with goats in the yard, containing statues and altars adorned with sea shells. It was a very inviting, cozy Church with one of the best ocean views. Imagine stepping out of mass onto a cliff that overlooks the Grenadines.

Tobago Cays

From Mayreau, we headed to the Tobago Cays, the most spectacular snorkeling grounds I had ever encountered. When Brigitte came to visit, we took her here for her first snorkeling lessons. There were several tiny islands in this cluster that makes up the Cays. These islands were mainly rock with short but steep hikes to the top for sunrise & sunset views.

One day there was a group of men experimenting with this crazy flying machine. It was a parachute attached to huge circular fan powered by lawn mower engine. They strapped themselves into the seat, gave it some juice, and soared above the Cays. To coast back down, they would simply let off the gas. We climbed to the top of the island they were taking off from to watch this experience akin to the Wright Brothers sampling their first flying machines.

The Cays is a marine park with special protections for both the reefs and a preserve where you can snorkel & swim with sea turtles. We would happen upon two or three turtles at a time, often two adults and a baby feeding on sea grass. Underneath the water, you could hear them chomping. They seemed unafraid and would linger as long as you kept a safe distance.


Carriacou was the last island in the Grenadines that we stopped at before heading for Grenada. There wasn’t much happening on this island. It was pretty much a place to clear out of customs and make use of the Internet. We noticed there was a lot more nudity going on in this anchorage and couldn’t figure out why. One morning, a naked couple practiced some sort of calisthenics routine in their cockpit.

The most fun we had in Carriacou was at Lady D’s Hallelujah bar, a fishing barge docked in the middle of the anchorage. We stopped for happy hour on our way back from town and ended up staying for dinner, listening to Jo’s whole life story. She was in a panic when we arrived; worried she had just made a bad investment by taking over the business. Her dinghy engine had cut out on her on her way to work and she was adrift until she radioed a friend who gave her a tow. She was frazzled as she tried to get the place in order, but we were in no rush. She made us a huge meal for practically nothing and told us how she had left the island to work in London as a seamstress for top designers years ago. They paid her a pretty low salary, but she saved her money until she could afford to return to Carriacou as a landowner. When she announced her plans to leave, she said they reacted with jealousy. They commented that they must have paid her “too much” for her to be able to afford a home in the Caribbean. She explained that if they hadn’t spent all their money on Prada and martinis that they could have afforded the same and more.

The morning that we cleared out of customs, we had breakfast on a little patio just yards away from Synchronicity. As I sipped my coffee, waiting for Stephen, a high speed ferry filled with school kids in uniform pulled up to the dock. They filed off the boat in maroon jackets with navy blue ties and pleated skirts and pants. Not a bad way to get to school.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Headed for Panama!

After two short, but eventful months spent stateside, I am heading back to the Caribbean this evening. Jenny and I will be flying out of Reagan Intl. into Panama city and then catching a commuter flight into the San Blas tomorrow morning. Stephen and Chuck will be waiting for us at "el aeropuerto," a conglomeration of huts built around a tiny airstrip on the main island of El Porvenir.

They promised to bring coffee, which will be needed after two late nights with the Sanders' family and a third night of travel. I don't know if the Kuna are big on coffee, but Stephen happily reported Balboas (the national beer) are still $1 as in 2006. This is good news for our budget.

I'm looking forward to traveling back with Jenny, who is sometimes nervous about flying. Good thing I didn't show her the picture of our commuter plane before we left! Our arrival into San Blas marks the beginning of the second half of our journey - the Western Caribbean. Stephen and Chuck arrived in San Blas last weekend after a week long passage from Curacao.

Jenny and Chuck will be our first guests on this leg of the trip and I am excited to spend some quality time with them here. The last time they were both aboard Synchronicity was Fall of 2008 when we arrived in Annapolis after our trip up the Northeastern coast to Maine. Chuck gave us our first boat, the "L Phin L." It's come full circle as we now get to share with him, the dream he inspired - a major ocean passage and its payoff.
We plan to travel through the San Blas islands until October, when the squalls hit. By this time we'll be near Playon Chico, towards the eastern most end of the island chain where we can sail on to Cartegena, Columbia. From there, we hope to travel through Panama again, onto Honduras and Belize. At that point, our course will be determined by the status of the oil spill, hurricane season, and/or other opportunities to replenish funds. In our life of unknowns, at least one thing remains certain - we will need to work again!
Brigitte and Moncie will be our second guests, arriving in the San Blas the first week in September. Sharing San Blas will be like watching the expressions on a kid's face at Christmas. You wish for something like this, see it in the movies and magazines, but is it as real as the picture? And would you ever get to have it for yourself?
An archipelago of over 300 islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama, the San Blas is about as surreal as it gets. It is home to the Kuna Yala, an indigenous indian tribe still practicing a very traditional way of life, making the best of their natural resources.

In the 1930s, the U.S. helped the Kuna negotiate terms with Panama on this reserve that now belongs solely to them. They are considered citizens of Panama and often send family to live in Panama City for months and years at a time for work and a public school education. The Kuna seem to have the best of both worlds without the tax burden. They continue to fish in hand-built canoes with make-shift sails, yet carry cel phones.

J.C., our charter captain in 2006 informed us, "Don't let them (the Kuna) fool you. They are not poor, but very rich." He explained how tourists come to the island feeling sympathetic for the Kuna and are ready to give them top dollar for their fish and crafts. They perceive the Kuna as an isolated and perhaps desperate group, as they hustle out to your boat in their dug-out canoes, inundating you with their wares and making the saddest puppy dog faces when you don't buy from them equally. "The Kuna are the richest people I know," JC explained as he kept them honest in their negotiations with us.

Kuna are smart, and very entrepreneurial. They may not be rich by U. S. standards, but they have an abudance of wisdom and contentment. They measure their wealth through their ability to provide for every need while maintaining a life free of daily stressors common to the modern world - the ones that can lead to a general unhappiness most of us get comfortable with. And they get to do it in a paradise many are eager to devleop.
Another interesting aspect of their lifestyle is the culture of making "molas." Molas are pictorial patterns embroidered onto pieces of fabric for the purpose of sharing Kuna tradition. The art is passed on in every family, usually to daughters unless there are only sons. In that case, the youngest son is often raised as a female for the purpose of carrying on the tradition. There are "Master Mola Makers" and then there are those that mass produce the patterns of the "artists." We met two such artists, Valencio and Lisa (above).
The patterns made by a Master Mola Maker are more intricate and therefore more expensive. Lisa is known as the "Donna Karan" of the Kuna, since she makes clothing as well. Stephen bought one of his favorite shirts (his "Camisa de Lisa") from her in 2006. He ran into her this week, adding another camisa to his wardrobe. It will be interesting to stay in the San Blas for such an extended period, making the transition from tourist to neighbor. I'm pretty sure life without internet is key to preserving the Kuna way of life. Bottom line, don't expect to hear from us for a while. On days with good frequencies, we'll send some messages from the boat, and we'll talk to everyone in October!!