Friday, May 22, 2009

Back to Jamaica – 22nd May

If I had to take root anywhere in the world this would probably not be my first choice, but here we are again. Our intended departure date was yesterday, and with all of the weather information we gathered we figured we would be alright – a few squalls to go through but in general not too bad, in fact for the next couple of days almost no wind according to one of the weather sites we check on the internet.
So we left at 11.00am, took a shit kicking for a couple of hours under dark menacing skies, in 30 – 35kn winds gusting over 40kn, rain so heavy we could only see a couple of hundred yards, so heavy that it was knocking the white caps off the 10 foot waves which were pummeling us abeam. We were sailing though under double reefed main and genoa for about half an hour, then we reefed the genoa a couple of times, kept going for about 10 miles, now down to just the reefed main, the occasional wave seemed to get up to about 15 feet, and neither of our steering systems was going to work. I was almost paralyzed by the prospect of having to hand steer on my watches in these conditions – and we still had the option of turning around knowing we would get back in to Port Antonio in the daylight, so that’s what we did. Tony asked if I wanted to turn around, and I said yes with no reservations. We got back in and were tied up by 3.00pm
Oh! I forgot that we were also sailing under the accompaniment of booming thunder and lightning right overhead.
Good news is that Tony and Hans (Guns) worked on our SSB radio and now have it working, which means that we can now subscribe to a weather router, which we did without hesitation this morning. It’s a bit expensive but we are hoping it will cut down on the wear and tear on the boat and our spirits.
According to Chris Parker the conditions between Jamaica and Hispaniola are very nasty right now and will improve in about a week. Then we should be able to get through the windward passage in light wind. We might have to hang out in Turks and Caicos for a bit waiting for the trade winds to fill in again to take us up to Bermuda.We’re alright with that – we really are sick of hard sailing, we want some easy stuff

Thursday, May 14, 2009

May 14th - Jamaica - Yeah Man

Jamaica – Yeah Man – May 14th

Pretty much the only words of patois we understand is ‘Yeah Man’, beyond that it could be Swahili for all we can tell.
We’ve been in Port Antonio for 2 weeks, still tied up in our original spot at the marina, where we have enjoyed a very lazy time.
It was great to have Hans and Roos’ company, but they left 2 days ago for Chesapeak, we await news on their Windward Passage passage. It seems there is always some daunting place that we have to go through to get to the other side – now doesn’t that just sound like life.
Hans and Roos have been renamed twice by us, Tony always called them Hans and Franz, as in ‘I pump you up’, you had to watch Saturday night live. Josie renamed them Guns, as in Guns and Roses. They didn’t seem to mind. Hans and Tony did some work on the SSB radio connections which seems to have improved our reception. Will not be able to tell properly until we are out of the marina where there is a lot of interference.

This marina is called the Errol Flynn Marina, and we hear stories from various people about Errol Flynn’s involvement in this part of the world. We usually respond by telling them that he died in Vancouver, and it doesn’t really seem to register. There is an island closeby called Navy Island, which used to house the Navy Island Marina and some private homes, one of which was Errol Flynn’s. We took a walk on the island a few days ago and looked at the buildings. Its interesting to see that they have not been scavenged. There’s still a lot of good wood and doors and many things that could improve the dwellings of some of the people who live in shacks closeby. There is evidence of the marina still being in operation in the late 80’s and we heard that hurricanes and financial difficulty repairing the damage basically caused the complete evacuation of the island. Too bad its really lovely. All of the landscaping has grown wild and the flowering shrubs and trees are very beautiful. We noticed a mango tree and some coconuts we are going to try to pick before leaving. They need a few more days to be ripe enough.

The rainy season has started and it is incredibly hot and humid, 85% humidity in our cabin right now. We have done a few touristy things; a couple of days ago we went by bus – a mini-bus holding 22 people – to Somerset Falls, a small resort built around pretty dramatic waterfalls. We were the only visitors until we left when another small group arrived. It was really nice to have that space to ourselves, and what was really great – it was cool. We walked around and hiked up above the falls to look down on them. We were also taken in a small panga like boat right up to the main part of the waterfall but could not go through as there had been a lot of rain the night before. It was a very nice place to be.

Yesterday we went rafting on the Rio Grande River with a guide who was recommended called Rebo – licensed guide number 48, that’s what his t-shirt says and he did show us a license. He was a very good raft captain. We negotiated a price which he tried to change on the morning of the trip, but we stood our ground and said that we’ll pay the original price and if we have a good time we will pay a tip.

Like many of the experiences we white folk have in the ‘third world’ there were a few attempts made by other people ‘working’ the river. A person offered to take our picture with our camera and then wanted a donation. We were approached by a floating bar at about 10.30am which was a bit early even for us. Unfortunately saying no is not what they want to hear, so these meetings almost always end unpleasantly. We did enjoy a very good lunch halfway through our trip, which was cooked over a fire with large river rocks under the pots which glowed red. We had jerk chicken, rice and beans, bok choy and little Johnny cakes. Now we know what Johnny cakes are – kinda like a little deep fried doughnut but not sweet and quite doughy. Belinda, who cooked this wonderful food also makes her own hot sweet pickle which I had to buy a jar of. She didn’t have a spare one but said that for aboug $4 she would make me one up and Rebo would deliver it to me the next day. How’s that for service? She did exactly that and we now have Belinda’s pickles on board.

Rebo, as I said is a very good raft handler - see the pictures. These rafts are built by the men who drive them, and they are basically a few very large bamboo poles joined together with bend wire. Our trip included a bit of white water, not very much I’m glad to say. In a few weeks this river will become a raging torrent as it fills up during this season, and at that time, the rafting experience changes completely. Normally the tour takes about 3 hours. But on those days when the river is roaring on its way Rebo says it takes 45 minutes. Imagine that sitting on a few bamboo poles joined together with wire.

He also has the potential to be a good business man – but unfortunately he likes the cannabis a bit too much. He smokes during the trip and his manner changes as the day wears on and his pot consumption increases. A bit bolshi is the best description I can use and quite bossy, telling us what to do sometimes when we didn’t want to. Again the no answer is not a popular one. But it all went well, and he seemed to ‘straighten up’ towards the end of the day. We assured him that we would recommend him to our friends. And we have – no points against him for the pot – his peers probably all do it. I think that its illegal in Jamaica to smoke pot, but the concession stand selling souvenirs had joints for sale at the lunch stop.
Being docked at the marina means that it is much more convenient for us to come and go without having to be ferried around in the dinghy. The marina is in town, and the town has a good market. Fresh produce is available every day, so its not necessary to buy more than we need. Its nice to go into town and shop earlier in the day as everywhere becomes very chaotic after that, especially when school is out. Not much to choose from in the supermarket, but we do have the basics, and a couple of days ago Tony and I walked a few miles to another supermarket which has even less to choose from but we did find some frozen meat. Provisioning from here might be a challenge, but we pretty adaptable.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Leaving Dominican Republic/Arriving Jamaica May 6th

Leaving Dominican Republic – May 1st

After an incredible 10 days in the Dominican Republic we made our final attempt to round the point off Isla Beata this morning – and now we are headed for Jamaica.
We aren’t sure whether we will be able to continue with our plans to sail across the Atlantic this year to be in Malta in September, but we’ll work that out after we have a holiday with Josie – yes she is here safe and sound. I picked her up at the airport in Santo Domingo on the 29th on time, having spent the night at the airport attempting sleep on some metal wire chairs. That didn’t really matter after what it had taken to get there, and I didn’t really know how I was going to get back with her.

The above was written on the way back to Jamaica.

We are now in Jamaica, we arrived at 0730 on 4th May. We had a nice downwind run, something we have not experienced for a long time. The first day we had very big seas and Josie was not feeling too well, but she took Stugeron, enough to keep her asleep during the worst of it, and as we came closer to Jamaica the winds died down to the point of motoring the last day and night, and Josie was actually able to enjoy the journey, lying on the deck at times sunbathing.

It’s Wednesday morning, 6th May and all of the trials and tribulations of being in the Dominican Republic already feel like history, but I would like to hark back a little, because it was right up there in the “are we doing everything wrong?” self questioning.

We were tied up alongside Brian’s boat for 5 days and Brian’s boat was tied up to the Heron, the Russian freighter which was taking on bauxite – the raw ore that becomes aluminum. The morning after our berthing Brian helped us to find a ride to Pedernales, the town on the Haitian border which was where I would be able to catch a bus to the airport in Santo Domingo. Brian’s friend named his price and we took it, he picked us up in a car which had seen better days together with one of Brian’s crew and took us to town. The deal was that he would take us to the supermarket and me to the bus. We introduced another destination which didn’t please him, and the explanation was difficult seeing as we don’t speak Spanish, but we need to get to an internet cafĂ© to post our blog and to phone Tony’s parents, as we had no contact with anyone for so long.

This was all done at breakneck speed and I was dropped off at the bus. It was actually a very nice little bus, kind of a mid-size bus in new condition with air conditioning and very comfortable seats, especially if you had the whole seat to yourself. I was an hour early, but what’s another hour of sitting on my ass. I knew that the trip would be 6 hours and that I’d be sitting on something all night at the airport so another hour was just to be enjoyed watching this corner of Pedernales.

Most of that hour I watched a big truck being filled from the diesel pump alongside the bus. As it was filling, the pipe which extended about 20 feet across a dirt forecourt was leaking a lot of fuel. So as not to waste good fuel a young Haitian man was crouched on the floor with a paper cup and a large coffee can scooping up the diesel to fill up the coffee can. And then every now and again the owner of the fuel pump came out and poured the fuel aswell as the dirt back into the 50 gallon drum. Glad to say we weren’t getting our diesel there.

So on the bus – by the time we left the bus stop we were almost full. We went a few blocks and pulled up to a big police station where we were all told to get off the bus. By now I had met a woman who spoke pretty good English so I asked her why and she told me it was because we are close to IT. Haiti. Oh, still didn’t get it until I noticed that some of the black people on the bus were being questioned and had to show ID. As we got back on the bus some people had to open their bags to be searched, but when I offered mine the person who was searching (not in uniform) waved me through.
For the rest of the trip we stopped several times and soldiers got on the bus, had a look around, mostly were very friendly and polite, everyone of them took an ID card from a young Haitian man sitting near the front, and then they left.

The bus stopped a couple of times for food breaks and pee breaks. We also stopped in some places where vendors would come alongside the bus and we would open our windows to buy things from them. The small towns along the coast were mostly very pretty, no evidence of foreign money as in Costa Rica. Many little houses were lovingly built and though they were not much more than a concrete box some were adorned with decorative balustrades along the front porch. The first big town we came to was Barahona, this was to be our first destination when we rounded Punta Beata, so I was interested to see what the harbour looked like on the way through. Wide open to the north easters with surfable breakers coming up on the beach. In fact every time I looked towards the ocean on this trip my stomach churned with anxiety knowing that we would probably be in those huge white capping waves that I could see right out in the dark blue water.

So – got to Santo Domingo at 2100 in the dark, and it was pouring with rain. Santo Domingo is a big city with freeways running through it, and looked pretty much like any other city on a dark rainy night. The lady who spoke English on the bus had very kindly offered to have their friend drive me to the airport as she didn’t think I would be safe on the street looking for a cab in the area where the buses stop. I was very grateful to her when I stepped off the bus. Being a local privately owned bus it did not come into a big depot, just the corner of a very grim looking street. I would have been terrified if left there alone.

A night at the airport – which bears a remarkable resemblance to Vancouver Airport (must be the same designer) – nothing to say about that, I read a lot, nodded off some, walked around sometimes saying hello to the security guards. I wasn’t the only person sleeping at the airport. The guards verified that I had a legitimate reason for being there and left me alone. In the morning I spruced myself up as best I could.

Close to Josie’s arrival time I moved down to the arrivals area and watched all of the happy people hugging and laughing and kissing; it’s a lovely place to people watch. A young woman sat down with me. Jessica is a young American fluent in Spanish and living in a small village in the interior of DR. She is with the American Peace Corps and has been in DR one and a half years already – 6 months to go. She told me that the peace corps are all over DR working on projects which are funded by private US people and then built by the local volunteers from DR. Jessica’s project was building a playground park in the middle of her village. She lived in the same conditions as any of the poor people in her village, a small wooden plank house raised off the ground without electricity or plumbing, frequent visits from tarantula spiders and many biting insects. She was very honest about her frustrations with getting the job done, Dominican Republicans do not earn much money and the concept of volunteerism is difficult for them to get into. But in 18 months she had got her village to clear the land for the park and she was at the airport to pick up her Dad and a friend who were going to head up the crew to build the playground. She was excited about that, and that she was nearing the completion of her work so that she could go home.

Josie arrived – she looked so lovely and cool and fashionable, and like a young woman who is looking forward to having a good holiday. We hugged and laughed and cried and even though we still had so much to do before the holiday could start I felt such relief that I had finally got her with me and some of the tension I had been living with for the past week or so was falling away.

The bus trip back was horrible, I picked the wrong bus because I didn’t want to be on the street where the taxi left us. This bus was filthy, falling apart, holes in the floor where you could see the road going by, the driver stopped to pick up cargo which he filled the font few seats of the bus with; total disregard for the passengers waiting while they loaded on the boxes. This bus stopped and let the vendors in – they swarmed into the bus and leaned right over the seats pushing whatever they were trying to sell into our faces. One many tried to intimidate Josie into buying something from her which really upset her, and because she was so tired she started to cry. The passengers around us could see what happened and became very quiet, whereas before they had been having fun bargaining with the vendors. This was the wrong bus because it did not go all the way to Pedernales, it stopped at Barahona, where we were unceremoniously dumped on the highway where we were told a bus would come to take us to Pedernales.

We waited a while at the bus stop – asked a couple of women if a Pedernales bus would come, but couldn’t understand their answer. To find a hotel we would have to walk back to Barahona where I had seen hotels. We walked to a gas station to buy bottles of water, and passed a car with all of its doors open surrounded by men who were all enjoying each other’s company. As we walked by they gave the customary wolf whistles and general sounds of appreciation which I remember from my youth when it was ok to do that in our part of the world. Then one of them called out to see if we wanted a taxi. Of course I said no as I didn’t trust that this would even be a taxi. Then we got our water and got back to the bus stop, saw a couple of mini-van busses go by, who were trying to convince us that the town they were going to would be alright for us. Well maybe it would be on the way, but then what, we are now stuck in an even smaller place. So I went up to the wolf whistling group of men, found out who owned the car and negotiated a ride to Cabo Rojo. $3000 pesos, about $100. Not bad for a 3 hour drive I suppose.

Immediately after we got in the car the driver turned away from the main highway and I started to yell that he was going the wrong way and was preparing to jump out of the car. He calmed me down and told me he was just going to buy gas, which he needed me to pay for as he didn’t have any money. I used Josie’s cell phone to phone Brian and had Brian speak to our driver, Nito. I wanted Nito and his sidekick to know that we were expected back at our boat by the Dominican Republic Navy Officer – just trying to add a bit of security.

Once we had got through the first hour or so we warmed up and chatted as much as is possible when we don’t speak their language. Nito seemed to know so many people in the villages we passed through. He slowed down to call hello and wave, it seemed that he wanted his friends to see that he was working and had some customers in his car.
He stopped to buy water and local fresh cheese and crackers which he shared with us. It was very good and nice of him to do so. We arrived in the general area of Cabo Rojo in the dark, the road is just a dirt track at this point and the only things at Cabo Rojo are the mine – inland and conveyor belt where we were tied up to Brian’s boat, this being behind locked gates. So Nito got us home – thank God we were safe.

Once on the boat Brian came over for a beer and a chat, Josie unpacked her bags to find that we had left her cell phone in Nito’s car which was a real bummer. But we knew we would be able to cancel that with Rogers and not pay for all the numerous calls which were bound to be made after it was found.

Our plan was to leave Brian’s boat the next morning and go to anchor back in Bahia de las Aguilas to prepare to round Punta Beata. The Commandancier came down to the boat and issued a Despacho, clearing out paper and we took off in the moderate breeze, which quickly blew up again to 25 – 30 knots. We reached the anchorage and hoped for less and the predicted change to south easterly rather than north easterly. While at anchor we did a little snorkeling and prepared for the next couple of days at sea. I gave Josie a dose of Stugeron as its recommended to take it 24 hours before travel. I was dreading taking her out into the seas we had been encountering before her arrival. I told her what it might be like and she said she’ take whatever came just to get away from where we were.

At mid-night that night we woke up to lights around the boat and mens voices calling us. I did hear the word amigo a few times. We were all shocked out of our sleep. Tony ran up into the cockpit starkers, I quickly pulled on my clothes and followed him. A civilian boat had pulled alongside with 5 men and their machine guns. The one who seemed to be the boss kept asking us questions in Spanish and a bit of English. Why are we here? when are we leaving? Is this your boat? What are your names? We thought they may take us for Haitian smugglers as we had been here before, left and had come back a couple of times. Fortunately we had the Despacho, which we brought to show them. On a scrap of paper someone found in their pocket and a pen borrowed from us they took down some details from the Despacho. They wanted to know exactly what time we were leaving the next day. We told them about 0630 and they left.

We did leave early the next morning. Tony and I had already started to talk about a contingency plan if we still couldn’t get around the point. With the same wind direction and strength it was pretty clear it wasn’t going to happen. Maybe if we went offshore 50 miles or so the wind might change, but what if it didn’t – we just tack right back 50 miles of Punta Beata. By now I hated the sight of the place and just wanted this to be over.
About 3 miles before the point the seas were big, the north easterly was blowing over 20 and looked like it wouldn’t improve at all, Moondancer was starting to slam through the waves and Tony said – ‘so what do you want to do?’ – my answer came pretty fast – to turn downwind to Jamaica. At that point I was willing to forget about going to Europe, sail to Jamaica, have a holiday with Josie and then sail down to Cartegena for the hurricane season.

We ran with the wind, surfing down the waves with Mr. Chubbs doing his work and even though everything was well with the boat, Josie was feeling seasick when awake (the Stugeron keep you asleep mostly) and our hearts were torn between the relief and exhilaration of sailing at 6 knots with no effort and disappointment that perhaps our plans to be in Europe in a couple of months had to change. Most of the day I felt guilty at having dashed Tony’s dreams. But after Tony had spent some time with C-map and weather information we could probably still do it.

When we pulled into Port Antonio we could see the boats at anchor in the harbour – and who should we see but The Wind Cries, Hans a Roos, our Dutch friends who we met first in San Francisco and then Zehuatenejo. It was so nice to see them, and reaffirming that they also would use Port Antonio as their jumping off point to cross the Atlantic.
We have since met several other boats anchored here who have also chosen this as their departure point.
So – why the hell did we go to the Dominican Republic? Because we had to meet Brian who was a true friend to us when we needed one most, and the man on the beach who let me use his cell phone to phone my daughter because he loved his own daughter so much and understood my anguish. And so that we could see how life can be for people, that they can live in such apparent poverty and yet all still have a cell phone. Many kids drop into fast food restaurants after school and the people who live in the shacks in the fishing village still love their children and laugh and play. That 2 fishermen who would rather have stayed on shore put their boat in the water in Pedernales to see if we were ok and to give us the benefit of their experience. And I suppose to make a small contribution to their economy, and maybe Nito passed Josie’s phone around for everyone to call a friend long distance at Roger’s expense.