march 3 2007 : rincon, puerto rico
A couple days ago we hit the road and headed for the west coast, Rincon to be exact. The drive from Salinas to Rincon is less than inspiring. It’s a rather flat, dry area, and the roads don’t travel anywhere near the coast so that there are none of the scenic overlooks you come to expect from island countries. Puerto Rico has embraced whole heartedly the use of strip malls and fast food franchises, which is just fine, but if you are looking for natural beauty and an exotic getaway, this doesn’t seem to be the area to find it. Fortunately we weren’t looking for these things, we were looking for a beach with surf on the water and a bar on the sand.
We made it to Rincon, an absolutely world class stretch of surf with a number of different breaks along a few miles worth of beach. But as soon as we caught a glimpse of the water it was obvious there wasn’t going to be any surfing going on. There was zero swell. In fact it was so calm that on the very reefs that the waves should have been breaking over, there were hundreds of snorkels bobbing around instead. All we could do was continue north, there had to be a swell somewhere on the island.
We eventually made it to the very northwest tip of the island where there were dozens of surf breaks listed on the map. The problem was that we couldn’t even find the water, much less any specific beach. We drove around and around but the roads never seemed to lead anywhere. We finally came across a surf shop, itself at least two miles from water, and went in to ask for some advice as it was starting to get late and we needed to find a place to stay. The owner of the place was awesome, he hooked us up with maps, magazines, brochures, and a tip on the only break, called Jobos, that would have any surf with conditions the way they were. We made our way down the road, quickly found a place to stay overlooking the beach, and got down to the water just in time for a few waves before dark.
The next morning I went out at first light and found just one other guy in the lineup. The surf was pretty small and the locals weren’t bothering with it, but I had a great time and found the conditions were about perfect for me. Later in the afternoon Ali and I went back to the beach and settled in. We surfed, drank Medallas, ate empanadillas, and met some pretty fun people.
Around dark we grabbed a table at a restaurant up the street overlooking the bay. As we were eating dinner a Coast Guard chopper started circling overhead. They hovered about a hundred yards behind the surf lineup for a few minutes before we finally figured out what they were doing. A big yellow kite (from a kiteboarder) was floating out in the water with the owner hanging on to it. He seemed to be floating parallel to the beach, not getting any closer to land. He must have been worn out by that point, because from where he was it should have been a relatively easy swim in, especially if he still had his board to help keep him afloat. The chopper finally lowered and a diver jumped in. They swam together for a few minutes and then the basket was lowered, the kiteboarder was loaded in and brought up, followed by the diver. I’m sure somewhere on the beach farther south today was a happy kid who found a kite washed up on shore. Anyway, that made for a fun show to watch while having dinner.
Today, after a quick sunrise surf, we left and pointed the car towards the mountains of the interior. We picked up the marked scenic drive that runs from one side of the island to the other, and started in. It was okay. We liked the big stands of bamboo trees, the periodic bursts of flowers over the bridges, and the occasional glimpses of the mountains through the forest. We also witnessed the apparent end of the dry spell when we got caught in some pretty heavy downpours.
march 4 2007 : old san juan, puerto rico
Our car was due back this morning at 11 o’clock so on our way there we swung by the público stand in Salinas to make sure we were going to have a ride to San Juan. Well apparently it is possible to get from Salinas to San Juan, just not on a Sunday. There wasn’t a single car/van at the station and therefore no way we were going to get to San Juan without a car. So instead of returning the car we reserved it for a few more days and headed north. We eventually found out that this was the right choice as there really is almost zero public transportation in all of Puerto Rico, it is a car only island.
The drive north through the center of the island was much more scenic than the southern and west coasts and also much less built up. It’s only about 35 miles from one side to the other so within an hour or so we found ourselves navigating through Old San Juan, the historic walled city within the city. We parked the car, grabbed our bags, and went looking for a place to stay. There aren’t a whole lot of choices in this area of the city and it took us quite a while to finally track down a room. Grossly overpriced but with an excellent location right on the Plaza de Armas.
We walked around the city for a while. It’s really a beautiful place filled with historic buildings, well kept homes with bright paint, blue cobblestone streets, and a ton of shops and restaurants. While walking along we passed by one place that immediately caught our eye. It was a locals drinking spot, meaning that the bar was housed in a section of a building just 8 feet wide, with nothing but a counter along one wall, a tiny bar in the back, and old torn out calendar pictures for decoration. We’ve become very adept at recognizing these places, they’ve always got the cheapest beer and no tourists.
The mariachi music was blaring and the beer, as the decor promised, was cheap. We managed to grab two bar stools right by the front door (actually there was no door, just two gates that close up at night) and settled in to watch the city life wander by. It was such a good place to do this from that we ended up staying for hours. In fact we stayed so long that eventually a friendly local guy came over with a round of beers for us and welcomed us to Puerto Rico.
march 5 2007 : old san juan
We left the hotel early this morning and started crisscrossing the city and taking in the sites. The city lies on a point of land that juts out at the opening to a large natural harbor, which of course means that it is protected by a huge fort. The Forte San Felipe del Morro has been here since 1539 but is still in remarkable condition. It’s six stories tall and has great views all around.
There were also forts to see on the other end of the city, cathedrals scattered throughout, and a whole bunch of museums. We really liked the city, it was the perfect size to walk from one end to the other in just ten minutes and was packed with pretty much everything you could ever want. It’s funny that the cruise ship docks are only about a five minute walk away down the hill, but somehow not that many of the cruisers find their way up to Old San Juan and the city doesn’t have that overrun super touristy feel to it. There is a definite local vibe which is what makes the place so cool.
march 7 2007 : fajardo, puerto rico
Yesterday morning we met up with Paul and Heather, our good friends from Minnesota, who flew down to hang out for a few days. We were excited to be off the boat and experiencing a new place with friends. They were staying at an ultra posh resort in Fajardo on the east coast with its very own high speed catamaran that whisked us out to a private island a few miles offshore where we spent the afternoon lounging on the beach and catching up.
That night we decided to get out of the compound and head in to the little town of Fajardo in search of dinner. We took them on a tour of the town and eventually tracked down a tiny place that seemed to be in the restaurant business. Inside we found it was a brand new place, just open for business, and run by some Puerto Rican New Yorkers who had just moved home. They were kind enough to translate the entire menu for us and we had an awesome dinner with drinks, all for about the price of a single round of beers at their resort.
After leaving there we were driving down the street when I spotted a really rough looking bar that I thought would be perfect for introducing Paul and Heather to our new style of travel. And I was right, the place was great. We partied well into the night, talking with the locals, shooting pool, and laughing at Heather’s dance moves, all under the watchful eye of the local prostitutes across the street.
We were a bit slow getting moving this morning, but when we finally did we drove over to El Yunque, the rainforest just down the highway. We drove slowly through there enjoying the cool air until Paul decided that we should all hike down to the waterfall. Ali and I had sworn off hikes to waterfalls a while ago due to the invariably “unspectacular-ness” of them, but sucked one up for the team and went along. At the end of the trail we found the usual throng of tourists but were able to squeeze by them for a quick refreshing swim before the hike back up the hill. Back at the top Heather declared she’d had enough rainforest for one day, so we drove to San Juan where we’d all be staying for the next couple of nights. We ate and drank the rest of the afternoon, but still suffering from a hard night in Fajardo we called it an early night.
march 9 2007 : isla verde, san juan
After a beautiful afternoon by the pool spent working on turning some pasty white Minnesotans into Caribbean sun gods, we drove in to Old San Juan. We wandered the streets aimlessly, enjoying the scenery, eating, and quenching our thirst early and often. This city is perfect for partying. Doorways that you wouldn’t even notice during the day suddenly open up after dark to reveal one kind of drinking establishment after another. Because Paul and Heather have children and respectable careers back home I can’t go into details about the night, but suffice it to say we had a great time in Old San Juan.
Our friends left early this morning and left Ali and I to get on with business as usual, which meant a drive out to West Marine. Yes, that West Marine. It had been over three years since we’d been inside one of these stores, the likes of which make boat owners drop thousands of dollars when they thought they were just running in for a tube of caulk. They didn’t have what we needed so instead we ended up just buying a bunch of miscellaneous junk that will hopefully help us whittle away at our list of boat projects.
Then tonight we went out to dinner with a great guy who has been following the website for years now. Somehow by the end of dinner his wife had agreed with him that they should forget about the ranch they had been thinking about buying and instead get a boat and move aboard. And we’re afraid they might just do it, the poor suckers. We seem to be having this effect on people these days. It’s a curse.
march 10 2007 : salinas, puerto rico
One day we can’t stand the boat, and the next we can’t wait to be back on her. Today we were excited to be back. We had a great trip around Puerto Rico and met a ton of really fun and genuine people. Everybody here seems to be laid back and happy to help out any way they can. One thing we noticed while driving around was how considerate everybody was. Any time we needed to drive across a busy road all we had to do was start pulling out and cars would just stop and wait patiently until we could get across, no horn honking, no aggressive driving, nothing. It was sort of weird actually. I’d gotten so accustomed to honking the horn for everything from rounding blind corners to alerting somebody that I was passing them, that I had trouble breaking the habit.
march 12 2007 : salinas
Yesterday we got to work on a few boat projects. Ali hauled me up the mast and I installed the new battcars. Unfortunately when I was putting the final little pieces on to hook it to the mainsail I dropped one of the little clevis pins which promptly bounced into the water. Somebody doesn’t want us to finish that job.
Next up we attacked the problem of a leak that has been haunting us since we bought the boat. It’s been causing a water stain in the saloon and at least twice we thought we had found the source and fixed it for good. Lately though it has been getting worse. We came to the conclusion that it must be the cockpit drain thru-hull that is closest to that location. After much sawing and pounding we finally succeeded in removing it only to find that it was dry as a bone in there. With that ruled out I decided it had to be the next one over.
I started to go to town on that one and right away noticed that it was wiggling around as if nothing was holding it. With just a little bit of coaxing it broke loose and pulled out. Underneath it we found a gaping hole leading directly inside the boat. Nothing but a little caulk had been used to fill it. There seems to be no end to the shortcuts taken on this boat. I can’t even count how many of these types of things we have found and fixed in the last few years. Hopefully that’s the last. We were pretty excited to have finally found this one.
Today we became minor Puerto Rican celebrities. Our friend Danny that we had dinner with the other night appears to have a few connections and made some phone calls regarding us. Next thing we knew we had a news crew from Telemundo on the boat for an interview and a peak into our lives. They seemed thrilled with the fact that we had solar panels to give us energy. Apparently global warming is the big news item at the moment here and we’ll be touted as having done our part to combat it. We didn’t mention that we had motored probably halfway around the world. It’s always funny too when we have new people on the boat. They seem to come out to it thinking it’s going to be this tiny little nothing of a boat and every time without fail they seem amazed by it. “It’s so big,” and “It’s so clean,” are the two most common remarks we hear. We think everything went pretty well and it was fun to be on television again.
march 13 2007 : salinas
Ali and I just came back from a quick fifteen minute trip up to the bar. Not for a nightcap but instead to watch the television show No Te Duermas (Don’t Fall Asleep). It’s Puerto Rico’s #2 television show, sadly first place is taken by a gossip mongering puppet, and earlier this afternoon we were a part of it. Just one day after our news appearance our friend Danny, who does have some sort of real job in telecommunications but this week is acting as our Puerto Rican Talent Agent, hooked us up with the producer of No Te Duermas who was thrilled to bring us on. The show is sort of like the PR version of David Letterman, but with a whole lot of Howard Stern thrown in.
Danny picked us up around noon and took us out to lunch where we met his father and brother, who were great and were definitely big fans of the site too. It’s so much fun for us to meet people who have been following us along and really enjoyed reading about our trip. After lunch we went to the Telemundo studios where our names were on the list with security and we were waved through feeling like big stars being chauffeured around town. After signing our waivers, which were all in Spanish but still managed to make it clear that they weren’t going to pay us a dime, we were ushered in to make-up.
Ali came out first and I have to admit I was a little frightened. I’d never in my life seen her with so much make-up on. Obviously on camera it would look more natural, right? Besides, you have to trust a little old woman with a picture of herself and Ricky Martin on the table. In fact I trusted her so much that I didn’t think anything of it when, after she had covered my face in powder and blush, she started trimming my eyebrows. At first I thought she was going to trim one wild hair, but soon she was merrily clipping away and hair was flying everywhere. By the time she was done I had that seventy year old lady look going. You know the one where the eyebrows have completely disappeared only to be replaced by a thin line drawn on with eyeliner. Actually, I suppose it’s not quite that extreme, but it did feel like it.
After Ali and I finished laughing at each other we were brought in to the studio where the show was shot. Despite being big time television stars already we had never been on the set of a television show before. It was pretty cool watching them rush around and get all the lighting set up, the cue cards written, and our mikes loaded on.
Before we knew it we were on. They sat us down on the couch and the host ran over a few questions with us while the commercials were airing, and then we were on. It all went by so fast that afterwards we felt like we hadn’t said a thing. It was good though, sort of like pulling a band-aid off quickly, we hadn’t had time to be nervous about it, and everybody told us it went really well. We sat down to watch the rest of the show and after about ten minutes Ali turns to me and says, “We forgot to mention the website!” Damn! You can tell we’re new at this when we can’t even remember to promote our own website.
After the show Danny and his wife Nelly drove us back down south to the boat. It was great to make such amazing friends in such a short time here. We can’t thank them enough for being our agent, our chauffeur, our restaurant tab payer, and our friends this past week. We had a blast.
So tonight when the show aired at ten o’clock we raced in to the bar, caught the show and were elated when we saw www.bumfuzzle.com printed on the screen underneath our names. My new eyebrows didn’t look half bad either.
We recorded the television with our camera and clipped the five minute segment down a little bit to make a video for the blog.
march 15 2007 : salinas
We woke early this morning to the sound of thousands of roosters. Roosters crowing is sort of a standard background noise in the majority of countries we’ve visited the last few years, but nowhere can compete with Puerto Rico. Around 3 a.m. they start up and the hills and valleys are suddenly alive with the sound. On the boat we are far enough away from the neighborhoods for it to really drive us crazy, and normally we fall right back to sleep, but we honestly can’t imagine how anybody manages to sleep in the nearby neighborhoods. It’s truly amazing the amount of racket these birds can stir up. It goes on this way for about two hours and then dies down again around sunrise. It sort of debunks the whole notion of the rooster crowing to wake up the farmer when the sun comes up.
This afternoon a young Puerto Rican couple picked us up and took us out for lunch to pick our brains. They had seen us on the news the other night and the next morning had driven down from up north to the marina and hired a local fisherman to bring them out to Bumfuzzle. They caught us just as we were leaving for San Juan, so we made a date for today. They were a really nice couple with big dreams of sailing around the world themselves. Over a great lunch of mofongo, my latest addiction, we tried to answer as many questions as they could throw at us. At the end of the day we made plans to meet in Costa Rica to hang out and surf, them in a sailboat and us in a VW. They better be there.
march 16 2007 : salinas
Spent the day preparing to get on our way again. We were pleasantly surprised that our package from West Marine showed up right on time and we were able to replace the cockpit thru-hulls that we had pulled out, filled, and epoxied the other day. Topped off the gas tanks, did laundry, and walked up to town for “provisions,” as cruisers like to call them. That’s groceries for the rest of you. Never did figure out the difference between the two.
march 19 2007 : punta macao, dominican republic
Our first day back out we took a leisurely motor to nearby Coffin Island. You can tell the guidebook that I bought for this area before we left on this trip is becoming outdated pretty quickly. Coffin Island wasn’t supposed to have anything but a little rangers station on it, but now there was a full fledged resort. No matter, we just wanted a day off back in clean water.
We spent less than three weeks in Salinas but the bottom of the boat looked as if we hadn’t moved in years. It was truly the worst growth we’ve ever had. I spent a good portion of the afternoon scraping but still didn’t get it looking very good. At least I was able to clean the saildrives off and clear the water intake again. I had to kick a few full sized crabs out of their new homes, but the extra knot of speed we picked up was worth it.
This morning at 6:30 I found Ali drinking coffee and happily typing out emails, actually excited to get going. So we did. The thing about these early morning starts is that by the afternoon it starts to feel like the longest day ever, especially when we’re going overnight. By four o’clock our early morning enthusiasm for passage making had disappeared. But with nowhere nearby to drop anchor we didn’t have much choice so we continued on into the Mona Passage.
To be honest I hadn’t read about this little section of water and didn’t even know it had a name, but after a while I started to get curious about what was going on. There seemed to be at least three distinct wave directions at all times. We were encountering some of the sloppiest seas we’d ever had, and in only ten knots of wind.
I broke out the cruising guide and found that because of a number of different technical reasons this is generally not a very fun hundred mile stretch of water. Throughout the night the boat continued to be tossed about willy-nilly, making all sorts of noise, eventually even chafing through our reefing line. Yes, we had a reef in with just ten knots of wind. Not because of the wind though, but because we have a broken section of track at the top of the mast that we haven’t been able to find the parts needed to fix it with yet. It really wasn’t that bad though, just an uncomfortable night of bouncing around in a small sailboat.
By morning we were closing in on the Dominican Republic and around noon we had dropped anchor in Punta Macao. The aforementioned guidebook stated that we would not have seen a prettier cove since the Bahamas. That was far from true, but I suppose the author did write that thinking we would have come here straight from the Bahamas instead of the slightly roundabout way that we actually took. Honestly though, it is a very pretty little spot with nice clear water and mile upon mile of palm studded beach. When we arrived the beach was deserted except for a few local fishing boats that were pulled up to the high water line. Within an hour we started to hear engines in the distance though, and soon the beach was overtaken.
All along the coast we had seen these giant resorts, the kind that have like two thousand rooms and moving walkways to get you from the lobby to the pool. There were dozens of them. And it appears that while the squadrons of maids go about cleaning the rooms in the afternoons, the hotels send their guest out on ATV tours. No exaggeration, we watched at least 1000 ATVs, dune buggies, and giant sand trucks, come roaring up to this one tiny section of beach throughout the day. The thousands of tourists would each spend ten minutes admiring the beauty of the scene, take pictures of the pretty catamaran, and then race off again to make room for the next group. It was quite the well run production and was fun to watch. Not exactly what we had expected of DR, but then again we hadn’t exactly known what to expect.
march 20 2007 : punta macao
Today we had four guys in a boat come out to see us. One of them spoke perfect English and informed us that the authorities had sent him out to us for identification. He said we couldn’t be here because there was, “No protection for people who want to go from here to Puerto Rico.” Basically what he was saying was that they couldn’t stop their own people from hopping on our boat for an escape to Puerto Rico, and essentially the United States. We told him to tell the authorities that we weren’t staying and that we would be leaving in the afternoon for Samaná. It gradually became clear to him that we weren’t very easily frightened by threats of “authorities” on shore, so he just cut to the chase.
“Do you have anything to drink?”
“You don’t have any beer?”
“No, we don’t drink.” A little white lie, but ultimately an effective one as they turned the boat around and headed back to shore.
march 21 2007 : samaná, dominican republic
What a long twenty-four hours it’s been. When we woke up yesterday morning, a swell had developed and was making its way into the bay. By the afternoon it had officially become a problem.
The bay had a nice big entrance during calm weather, but in a swell this size the northern part of the entrance, which was between six and ten feet deep over coral, was now nothing but heaving mountains of breaking white water. The southern part of the entrance was a headland which the swell wrapped around before slamming into rocks and creating more nasty breaking waves.
This left us with a very narrow and very dangerous exit between the two. Also, we were anchored in just twelve feet of water and I was becoming concerned that if the swell grew much bigger we would suddenly find ourselves anchored on the inside of a beach break. Our plan had been to leave that night just before dark, but by three o’clock we knew we had to get out of there.
Fortunately this is one of those stories where all the drama is in the anticipation. The actual escape went flawlessly. A couple of the swells we rode out felt like they were just on the verge of building up on themselves and toppling over, but they never quite reached that point and we slid over them easily while holding our breath.
Immediately outside the reef in sixty feet of water everything felt better. Sometimes the safest spot to be is out in the open ocean. Just a few minutes later we were treated to a huge humpback whale spewing spray just a hundred yards in front of us, arching his back, and leaving an oil slick behind for us to drive the boat through. We’ve arrived right at the end of breeding season but we’re hoping that this won’t be our last encounter with these beasts.
Last night it was pitch black with no moon at all. As so often seems to be the case on nights like this, something was bound to go wrong. I was on watch when the autopilot started beeping, telling me that it couldn’t keep us on course. I knew immediately what the problem was. I grabbed the spotlight, shined it off the back of the boat, and saw what I’d expected. A line of fishing net buoys.
Having heard the commotion Ali came outside and we talked over our options. Truly there weren’t any options. The boat couldn’t move while the net was wrapped around the prop. I needed to get in the water and cut it. In normal conditions this wouldn’t be a big deal, but in the middle of the night with twenty knots of wind and a big swell there was a slight hesitation.
The biggest danger was getting separated from the boat. With no sails up we were still moving along at one and a half knots. We tied a couple of docklines together and I threw a loop over one arm before jumping in with my dive knife in hand. Ali was perched with the spotlight out over the edge of the boat as far as she could reach without falling in herself.
On my first dive I sliced half of the net loose. Now with just one line around the prop and the rest of the net trailing out the other side of the boat, came the tricky part. With the line in one hand, I had to grab the prop with the other, and spin it loose with the boat riding up and down in the swell. It was a good thing I had just scraped the barnacles off the prop a couple of days earlier.
Anyway, no sharks showed up to eat me, the boat never crashed down on my head, and with a little teamwork we managed to get ourselves untangled and back underway in fifteen minutes. To be honest I was kind of glad it happened. It was sort of a man-versus-sea kind of night, which surprisingly are few and far between out here. Sometimes this sailing business can get a little tedious and I can use the excitement.
We arrived in Samaná very early in the morning but still had visitors almost immediately. Three men arrived, one wearing some sort of official uniform, another acting as his sidekick, and a “translator.” They came on the boat to fill out some truly ridiculous paperwork.
At one point, one of them asked me the name of our boat. Instead of saying and then spelling it, I pointed it out to him on our boat registration paperwork so he could copy it down. A minute later I saw what he wrote and had to stifle a laugh. The spot I had pointed to said Vessel Name at the top and Bumfuzzle underneath it. So what did he write for our name? Yep, VESSEL NAME.
Next, leaving Ali at the boat, the rest of us went into town to finish up with the other offices. Gifts in DR are a natural and expected way of life. I gave the two officials, an unofficial, two bucks each which they seemed truly pleased with. The “translator” wasn’t letting me go though and wanted to lead me to the next office.
For a couple bucks I figured I’d go ahead and let him do his thing, so I followed him across the street. In the park we ran into his associate who, as it turns out, also deals in fine jewelry. Mr. Translator said he would send this guy to buy a DR flag for us. I declined the offer, which seemed to perplex him. “There is only one store that sells them though.” Uh, yeah, no thanks.
Still in the park we now ran across the very man that we were going to meet at the Port Authority office. And oh, lucky me, he could just do the paperwork right here on the park bench for me. The Port Authority guy whipped a receipt out of his pocket and began filling it out. These guys must have thought I was a real idiot, or that this was my first trip outside my country, to think that I was falling for any of this. It was all so transparent.
I let him fill out the receipt and he told me the total I owed was $24.50. I said, “Really, I thought it was supposed to be much cheaper than that?” To which they spoke some rapid fire Spanish between themselves and agreed that yes, twenty dollars would be fine. “You know what, I’d be more comfortable if we went up to the office,” I told them. A quick glance occurred between the two of them before they agreed and we all trudged across the street.
Inside was a lovely woman who was clearly in charge of the Port Authority office. A few words were exchanged before the announcement that, “Ahh, there has been a mistake with the calculations. This woman here will finish the paperwork for you.” And finally, after paying fifteen dollars, it was time to go see immigration.
On the way over there my new friend slash translator, Richard, told me his fee was separate from the payments to the various offices. I rolled my eyes and asked how much. “Thirty dollars,” he replied. It was hard not to laugh but I’d had about enough of Richard and his little scams so I peeled off four dollars and handed it to him, telling him, “Thanks for the help but I’ll take it from here.” He was none too pleased with this and let me know it. I told him that it might have been more had it not been for the ruse in the park. Now he was outraged. How could I possibly accuse him of conspiring to part me from my money in such an unsavory fashion? He went on like this for a few minutes before finally giving up and leaving me to finish my paperwork with immigration. It had been a comical morning.
march 24 2007 : luperón, dominican republic
We spent the next day hanging out around Samaná. It’s a small town and there wasn’t a lot happening. The local touts were eager to take us to the waterfalls, but Ali and I are about waterfalled out, and the idea of paying somebody else to show us waterfalls is totally out of the question. While sitting at lunch a group of men approached us. We recognized one of them as being one of the officials we had met before, and they told us they needed our passport numbers. Ali always carries a copy of our passports which seemed to please them very much and after a few more handshakes we were able to get back to our lunner.
The next morning we left Samaná after spending a couple of more hours with the local officials. Clearing in and out of every single port is a real treat. I arrived at the Comandante’s office before eight o’clock, around nine he had completed typing out our despacho and walked over to immigration who quickly stamped us out. Then four of us once again loaded into the dinghy and went out to the boat. This is where it got strange.
Two guys came on the boat, one was the boss, the other was sort of the office grunt. The grunt came aboard and began sniffing the boat. Literally sticking his nose up against the cabinets and sniffing. From one closet to the next, even throwing a couple of pillows up against his nose for a sniff test. And to think, in Australia they waste money on fancy machines to detect whether or not you are transporting drugs. Funny thing is they didn’t do this when we arrived. Like they don’t care if you bring drugs in to their country, just don’t take their drugs out when you leave. Nobody asked for any tips on this trip and by 9:30 we were on our way.
We had been hoping to find a bunch of whales on the trip up around the top of the island. The guidebooks all stated that whale mating season ran from January to March 15th, but we figured a few straglers wouldn’t have realized the date yet. But apparently we were wrong, they were all gone. We had a nice motorsail in light winds throughout the day. At night however the storms came thundering down from the mountains and poured lightning and rain down on us for hours. Not a lot of wind though so we just kept chugging away the miles. When the sun came up the water looked as if all of the garbage that had ever been produced on the island had been washed to sea. Everything was floating out there. We saw 55 gallon drums, 42 million water bottles, and quite a few full sized trees. We spent the rest of the morning keeping a pretty close eye on things.
Our charts for Luperón showed nothing but a giant gray blob. So with just an old sketch from a guidebook we proceeded into the mangrove lined bay. The entrance was easy, but once inside there were mud shoals everywhere. We proceeded forward as slowly as we could, at one point just missing running aground. We quickly backed away and made our way into the anchorage.
I knew this was a popular cruiser stop, but had no idea that so many boats would call this swamp home. There were around a hundred boats in the bay, most of which looked as if they had been there for a very long time. It didn’t take long for someone to come by and let us know about the cruisers net at eight every morning. Always a sure sign that the “cruising” lifers have turned a place into a retirement village.
After getting the boat settled Ali and I headed into town. We stopped at the immigration office to check in again first. He looked long and hard at our passports and announced all was well. Then he pointed us out to the Navy. He looked over our despacho and then said, “Okay, let’s go have a look at the boat.” Only in Spanish. So we walked back down to the dinghy, drove back to the boat, and for the third time in as many days had a DR officer aboard the boat. He stood inside doing nothing, asked if we had any guns, asked if the picture of the kids were ours, and then said everything was okay. We loaded in the dinghy again and drove back to town where we were told the port authority would need to see us next but that they were closed until Monday. Can’t wait.
Finally free we went for a walk around town. It was Saturday and everybody was out and about. We exchanged many smiles, waves, and holas. For such a ramshackle town there were a surprising number of nice restaurants, seemingly all run by expats with Dominican wives. We pulled up chairs at one which overlooked the busiest intersection in town, where dozens of motoconchos waited for their next customer. Everybody seemed to gather there, to say hi and discuss their plans for the weekend. There would be no big weekend plans for us though. Like a couple of old fogies we were home and in bed by eight o’clock. Those overnight passages wipe us out.
march 25 2007 : santo domingo, dominican republic
This afternoon we caught a bus to Santo Domingo, the capital on the south coast. It was a five hour ride through pretty mountain scenery. Sundays are busy days in DR, everybody is out and about, and there are pigs everywhere. Seriously, on Sundays it is traditional here to roast pigs. So lining the highway from top to bottom were little stands with a pig on the barbeque where locals had pulled over for a snack. Something else we noticed was that it seemed that the people in about every third car that went by us were drinking beer. They all had small plastic cups and were sharing a grande bottle of beer.
In Santo Domingo the celebration continued. On every corner was a bar where the party was spilling out on to the street and the music was pumping. We took a wrong turn out of the bus station and felt like we had wandered in to a pretty sketchy neighborhood. It was kind of funny actually how out of place we must have looked wandering around the area, but as soon as we started asking for directions every single person eagerly helped us out and before long we were back on track.
We found a hotel just before dark, dropped off our bags, and went for a walk around the Zona Colonial area. The parks here were jam packed with people, there wasn’t a table open at the bars, and every kid had a balloon animal on his head. It always strikes us how different Sundays are in the States compared to most of the world. Sunday is such a quiet, boring day back home, but everybody else uses it as just another fun weekend day and night, as if it were Saturday all over again. It’s great for people like us who couldn’t give a toss less what day it is anyway.
march 26 2007 : santo domingo
We spent the day walking around town and seeing the sites of Santo Domingo. Right across from our hotel was the Parque Colón, complete with a large statue of Colombus looking shockingly similar to myself in my mustache stance from the Atlantic crossing. It must have something to do with crossing that body of water that makes Captains want to stand and point knowingly into the distance.
The park was also the central hub for tourists and made for great people watching. Ali and I sat down on a park bench and settled in to watch the show. We were entertained chiefly by the fact that not one tourist was without a guide. Never before have we seen so many guides in one place. Each guide took his turn standing his two tourists in front of the statue, having them point just like Columbus, and snapping their picture. Around this time we met “Dirty,” our new canine friend for the day. Dirty was an absolutely filthy animal, but she was about the most loving dog we’d ever met. No doubt the locals thought we were mad for petting the mutt but she was irresistible.
Next to the park was the Cathedral Primada de América, the oldest cathedral still being used in the Americas at around 500 years old. Then on to the Fortoleza Ozama, the oldest military edifice in the New World, built in 1502. The Dominican Republic is full of this sort of thing, the oldest this, the oldest that. On our way out a young guy told us we had to pay for our entrance to the site. We went with him to a little room and handed over our 30 pesos, about a buck. He said thank you and told us we could go, but I decided to play with him a little bit and asked for my tickets. He froze for a minute, beads of sweat breaking out across his forehead, before regaining his composure and fumbling through the desk drawers. Inside it he found an old packet of postcards. He tore two out and handed them over to me with a hopeful smile on his face. I had to give the kid some credit for not panicking, so I took the postcards and thanked him.
Wandering around town a bit more we came to a large park along the river where dozens of high school kids were building big goofy looking kites. As we were walking across the park Dirty came bounding towards us from the other side, just about knocking over anybody in her way. We played with her for a while before finding a café at the edge of the park where we could bathe ourselves and get a beer. Watching the kids in the park you could really witness the class differences that exist here. The school kids were all dressed nice and were busily snapping pictures of themselves with their digital cameras and cell phones. Meanwhile other barefooted kids who were holding their shoeshine buckets stood on the outskirts watching them, or picked up the discarded kites to play with themselves.
We walked around the city a bit more and took in some more historical sites before the rains came and we retreated to our hotel room. The rain has been pretty much constant since we arrived in DR.
march 28 2007 : luperón, dominican republic
Back in Luperón today continuing to enjoy the torrential downpours, we decided to head to the yacht club. While there, two things happened to remind us yet again that we simply don’t fit in with the “real” cruisers of the world. The first incident happened while Ali and I were eating lunch overlooking the boats anchored in the harbor. An old guy proudly wearing his standard issue gray beard approached us and asked, “Do you work here?” We both realized at that point, we had reached a new low. Not only was this guy positive that we weren’t cruisers, he had also determined that we must work at this rundown Dominican Republic marina where employees earn somewhere quite a bit south of a buck an hour. It may be time for us to buy some new clothes.
As it turned out he was from SoCal and was considering coming here next season with his fifty-eight footer and needed some information on a berth. After we pointed out the lovely Spanish speaking dark skinned girl behind the bar he seemed to decide that this wasn’t the place for his yacht, and left. I guess Ali and I blend in better with the locals than we do with the cruisers.
Next we were on the internet where we found out that the chat rooms have banned Bumfuzzle. The cruisers forum website where I am proud to say, the Bumfuzzle topic holds the record for the most discussed ever, has locked allBumfuzzle threads from further discussion and apparently is now even deleting new threads that mention us. The thing that gets me is that this site’s tagline reads, “Discussion board and photo gallery for cruising sailors and wannabes.” And here I thought that our website was a pretty good resource for those very people. Guess not, as the “real” cruisers that run the site have concluded that our story is irrelevant to those wannabe cruisers and needn’t be discussed any further.
So with the evidence piling up it appears we’ve failed in our quest to become “real” cruisers and join their mighty ranks. Perhaps we’ll reach that pinnacle the next time around when we’re a little older and wiser. Fingers crossed.
march 30 2007 : cap-haitien, haiti
As tends to happen with us occasionally, we start to go a little stir crazy after just a day or two on the boat. We wanted to rent a motorcycle but the rain kept us from doing that, and car rental prices would have us believe we were actually in New York City. So, needing something to do, I announced to Ali we were leaving in the morning for Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country. It was sure to be an adventure, something that has been sorely missing in the tame Caribbean.
This morning we packed a small bag with a couple of shirts and jumped in a shared taxi. It took us a total of four taxis and buses to get to the border. At one point a bus dropped us off seemingly in the middle of nowhere and told us that the next one we wanted would be along shortly. True to their word a bus going our way came by within seconds. We hadn’t waited more than two minutes between modes of transportation the whole morning on the DR side of the border.
When we arrived in Dajabón, the DR border town, it felt as if we’d landed on another planet. The streets were packed with people and we had no idea which way to go. We figured finding a border crossing in a small town shouldn’t be too complicated but nobody we asked for help had any clue what we were talking about. We eventually came across a couple of United Nations soldiers who were full of smiles and pointed us in the right direction. As soon as we were on the right street the mass of humanity swept us along to the border.
This border crossing was like nothing we had ever experienced before. Our minds were on overload taking in all of the sights around us. It seemed as if the entire town had been turned into a market where anything and everything was for sale. Skewers of miscellaneous meat cooked over drums, plastic lawn chairs were piled two stories high, women carried live chickens by the feet while balancing racks filled with dozens of eggs on their heads, boys pushed wooden-wheeled wagons full of fresh produce, and on and on. There was a different feeling in the air as well. We saw two fist fights break out, and the laid back friendly DR suddenly felt like it had a much grittier edge.
This was all before we had even passed through the gates to the border crossing itself. We went up to the immigration window where we had the honor of paying $25 USD each in order to leave their country. Nothing gets me more worked up than exit fees, and the fact that even here, on the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti; we have to pay them in U.S. dollars.
We proceeded across the bridge over the appropriately named Massacre River. Here the police seemed angry and were using a bit of abuse in order to keep everyone moving in a single file line. We were quickly singled out and asked to produce our passports. After which we were pointed to the Haitian immigration office. Crossing the bridge and looking at the other side was an eye opening experience. On the Haitian side of the border were thousands of people, trucks loaded down with goods of all sorts, and mud everywhere. It had been raining for fifteen days straight and the ground had turned to soup.
The Haitian officials stamped us in easily and after exchanging some U.S. dollars for the Haitian gourde, pronouncedgoo, Ali and I jumped on a motorcycle and headed for the bus station. How a guy can steer one of these little motorcycles with three adults on it, in mud six inches deep, is beyond me. Ali was sure that at any second we were going over, but we made it to the station no problem and began asking around for a tap-tap to O’Cap.
This is about the time we started to feel a little uncomfortable. It wasn’t as though we felt threatened, but we just weren’t getting much of a reaction from the locals at all. Eventually a guy pointed us onto his bus and we climbed in. It was absolutely the scariest mode of transportation we’d ever been in. The bus was really some sort of truck with a heavy duty roof on it, just high enough to clear my head while sitting down. Inside the back were bench seats along each side and one right down the middle. We sat down on the middle bench all the way towards the front. It was clear that in an accident there would be no escape for us. That point would be driven home once the truck had thirty bodies packed inside so tightly that we couldn’t move our legs.
The menacing looking guy who had put us on the truck, now hung in the window demanding his money. I handed him 200 goo, which from watching the others was a more than fair price. He made it clear that wasn’t enough. The language in Haiti is Creole/French, which is simply the most complicated language ever to hit our ears. So we were more or less communicating by sign language. He said 600. I told him 200. Then get out, he told us.
Well Ali and I weren’t really liking the looks of this bus depot, and we weren’t about to get off a bus we knew was going to the city we wanted. We stayed put. He got angrier and I showed him that I only had 350 goo total, ten dollars. Finally a girl sitting across from us tried to speak up on our behalf. The guy was having none of it though and demanded the 600 goo, which was four times the local rate. The truck was packed now and we were holding things up, so we finally gave in, exchanged more money, and settled in for the wonderful ride.
Already by this point we would have liked to have taken a thousand photographs. Unfortunately this wasn’t exactly the kind of place to pull out a camera. Not because we were worried about it being stolen, but because it just felt awkward, and sort of disrespectful.
The ride from the border to O’Cap took over two hours on horrendous roads. Signs of the roads destructive powers were everywhere as huge trucks rotted on the roadside, most with snapped axles. The scenery along this stretch was pretty amazing. One second we’d see a baby naked and covered in mud, the next would be a young girl wearing a pristine white dress. However the homes were always the same, nothing but sticks rising out of the mud to form four walls.
Finally arriving in Cap-Haitien, our friendly girl from the truck helped us get a taxi. She first told us the price the driver wanted, 700 goo for a five minute drive, which was more than the robbery we had just endured for a two hour bus from the border. We laughed that off and he immediately dropped his asking price by 400%. We quickly learned that the people of Haiti are mighty poor, but it isn’t due to a lack of trying.
By the time we checked into the hotel, which was also priced about three times too high, our system was in a state of overload. We washed away the dirt of the day with a blessedly hot shower and then washed the rest of it down with an ice cold Prestige beer at the hotel bar.
march 31 2007 : cap-haitien
I’ll be honest, yesterday when we arrived at the hotel we were both a little shell shocked. Even with all of the traveling we’ve done we were still unprepared for Haiti. Seething mass of humanity is an overused saying, but that is exactly what we found ourselves in. The filth was shocking, the living conditions were shocking, the roads were shocking, and the sheer amount of people all around us was shocking. But we regrouped.
After having escaped to our hotel for a night of rest, we were ready to venture back out. We wanted to see the great sites of the Sans-Souci Palace and the Citadelle Laferrière. The hotel receptionist was a tough nut to crack. She spoke English but would give us no information beyond answering our questions with a yes or no. After dozens of questions like this we finally determined that we could hire a taxi to drive us around for the day. It was either that or take a tap-tap, but we hadn’t quite recovered that much from the previous day yet.
The taxi driver started our negotiations with an astronomical price. Where they come up with these numbers I can’t imagine. His first price would have put him on par with a Fortune 500 CEOs salary. The numbers tumble rather quickly though, and soon we had him down to a very reasonable McDonald’s junior manager salary. A number which, after witnessing the condition of the road and the beating his car took, we felt compelled to raise.
It was only a twelve mile drive to Sans-Souci, but it took over an hour to negotiate the roads and the checkpoints. Watching rural life go on outside our taxi cab window was worth the trip all by itself. It felt like we had been transplanted inside a National Geographic magazine. The poverty was intense. But so were the colors, the beautiful faces of the people, and the smiles and laughter of the children.
San-Souci is a palace that was built in 1810 to rival Versailles in France. The fall of the ruler it was built for, along with an earthquake, ruined the place within just thirty years. The palace walls still stand largely intact however, and we got a definite feel for what the place must have been like in its heyday.
The ruins were beautiful and the grounds that they sat on were incredibly picturesque. We shook off a few guides there, and then started up the hill for the Citadelle. The Citadelle Laferrière is a mountaintop fortress built to defend against the French. The guidebook said it was a three mile walk, and we knew it was perched on a mountaintop, but neither of those two facts really settled in our minds until a bit later. For now we were content to continue saying no to the people who asked us to ride their horses up the mountain. One look at the poor skinny creatures with open sores on their backs and we knew there was no way that we could be a part of that.
The walk up the mountain, as with everywhere else in Haiti, left us speechless. The living conditions were mere squalor. But yet again we marveled at the people. The children were giggling, playing, and eager to say bonjour. And the numerous women with huge buckets of laundry balanced on top of their heads were amazing.
One lady had us feeling as if we were characters in the story of the turtle and the hare. We passed her early on, only to find ourselves exhausted shortly after. We sat down for a break and watched as she steadily climbed towards us. Before she’d reach us we’d take off again. We repeated this at least half a dozen times over the next two hours. Yes, the three mile climb actually took us two and a half hours. It was grueling, and yet at the top there were still small homes tucked in along the path and little old ladies walking up and down as if they’d done the trip twice a day for the past seventy years. The women here are tough, no doubt about that.
We were honestly starting to wonder if we would make it to the top when the Citadelle finally came into view. It really was a marvelous sight to behold. Peeking out of the clouds high above us we could see it framed between the banana trees.
Before we could get there we had to negotiate one last area full of very persistent guides who looked at us quizzically before asking, “Where is your guide?” Obviously a little stunned to see us by ourselves. The guides tried the old Egyptian scam of getting us to hand over our tickets to them. They didn’t like it too much when we just held the tickets out for them to see but wouldn’t let them have them.
By this point Ali was really hurting and probably contemplated pushing me off once we reached the top. This last stretch was a mile straight up but upon reaching the Citadelle it was worth it. The thick walls and steep mountain cliffs make the place feel truly impenetrable. Luckily for us the gate was open and we could wander right in.
Inside, the walls were dripping with moss, blazing green and orange. And there were row upon row of two hundred year old cannons, all etched with elaborate carvings. Even huge piles of cannonballs still sat at the ready beside them. This fact most impressed me because I just couldn’t believe that a group of kids hadn’t discovered the fun of launching the cannonballs over the wall and watching them smash down the mountainside. At twelve years old I would have found that irresistible, and even now had a hard time refraining. We climbed up to the top overlooking the entire valley. If we would have had a clear day the views would have been spectacular. As it was we had another gray overcast day, which did add a sort of eeriness to the place.
It had taken us close to three hours to make the climb up the mountain and it took half as long again to make the hike back down. We were long overdue by the time we reached our taxi, but our driver seemed unsurprised as we loaded in for the long drive back to the hotel. A little extra pay at the end of the day brought big smiles to all of our faces, as Ali and I were exhausted and sore but thrilled at having just visited one of the most amazing and most inaccessible places we’re ever likely to visit.