College Girls

Our college girls, Maddie and Caitlin, came for a visit last week.  We don’t get to see them as much now that they are away at school and starting their own lives.  And this makes the times we get to spend together even more special.  It was so great to see their smiling faces, listen to their stories, and sneak of peek of them laying in their beds each night knowing that they were safe and sound.  You miss that feeling when your kids no longer live under your roof.  A lot.  It is a week I will cherish and that will bring a smile to my face on some dark and distant January night in Wisconsin.

Because of travel logistics, Maddie and Caitlin flew into Antigua.  This meant that Sarah, Jimmy and I got to play Charter boat Captain and Crew for the week, visiting many of the same places that we enjoyed with our friends the Pellinos the week before.  Another clockwise trip around Antigua and Barbuda.  Another series of daily adventures.  We loved every minute of it, especially that part where our UW Badger Basketball team beat Kentucky to advance to the Final Four.

We Missed These Faces!

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First Sunset

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Sleeping Outside Under the Moon in a Windstorm (notice the parents were not joining!)

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Walking to Uncle Roddy’s for Dinner

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Fun with the GoPro

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I’m a Lucky Dad

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Barbuda Caves

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Biking 

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Go Badgers!

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Hiking to Shirley Heights

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Blue and White

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I Love This Crew

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Adventure

Adventure travel is a fantastic way to bond your family.  We started adventure travel with our kids at a very young age and I think it is one of the reasons the five of us are so close (you can see another example here).  You face daily adventures and challenges.  You come together as a team and learn each others’ strengths and weaknesses.  You trust each other.  And you don’t watch T.V. or complain about being bored.  You learn that working hard and delaying instant gratification amounts to real accomplishment and lasting rewards.  You embrace life head on, especially when it gets hard or messy, which often happens on our trips, especially those involving boats.  I’d highly recommend it to any family out there.

Thanks Maddie and Caitlin.  I’m so proud of you and so happy to be your Dad!

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Clockwise Around Antigua

Another week of our adventure is in the books.  Last week found us on a clockwise loop of Antigua and Barbuda with our good friends the Pellinos.  Added bonus: the charter company I’m working with gave us a complimentary upgrade to a brand spanking new Lagoon 450 cat that just crossed the Atlantic.  The boat has a water maker, generator, two refrigerators and an ice machine.  It is basically a big party barge with sails.  Not a bad way to travel.

Giddy Up

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Antigua is a great cruising ground.  There are a half dozen cool anchorages and English Harbor has some of the best history in the Caribbean.  And as an added bonus, Barbuda is a beam reach 30 miles to the north, which makes for a great (and easy) passage up and back.  We couldn’t have picked a better spot (besides the BVI) to have the Pellinos fly in for a week of sun, salt and McGuire death marches.

It was so fun to see our good friends.  It made us realize how much we miss everyone back home.  Sarah told me that she feels like the world up north simply stopped when we left, but having friends visit confirmed that life is still happening, seasons are changing, and we are missing things.  I even had a craving for Culvers Frozen Custard yesterday.  Maybe it’s time to come home?

I picked up the Pellinos at the airport and we hit the ground running.   Sailing is sort of glorified camping, and Bill, Heather, Ellyse and Brennan fit right into boat life.  Jimmy in particular was absolutely thrilled to actually talk to someone other than his parents.  And we gave him a “spring break” from homeschool, which made the time with friends even more special.

Seven nights out.  1 bottle of rum, 23 naps, 2 blow holes, 1 turtle nest, 85 thousand sand flea bites, 2 big fish landed, 1 pig, 2 Badger victories, 1 drug dealer, 4 waterproof band aides and 1 hat lost to Davey Jones’s locker.  Thanks for coming Pellino Family.  We miss you already.

How Long is this Hike Again Mark?

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A (rare) Picture of the Three Amigos

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Dingy Trolling with My Boy-Great Bird Island

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Biking Barbuda Before the Beehive Incident

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Spelunking Barbuda

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Limin’ Barbuda

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Bye Barbuda

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Go Badgers!

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The Wise Old Grasshopper Wins Again!

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Safe Travels Pellino Family.  We Miss You 

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Thankfully our Sad Airport Trip to Drop Off the Pellinos Had a Happy Ending!

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Landfall Without a TSA Agent in Sight

There are different ways to travel.  By car, by plane, by foot, by bus.  You get the picture.  But one thing that I’ve discovered on this trip is that there is nothing quite like arriving in a new country on a sailboat.

Before I go any further here, let me start with a caveat: there are parts of traveling by boat that suck.  We get frustrated, feel stupid, and wish we were anywhere else besides sitting there alone and in charge of our own transport on the Ocean.  My friend Brittany over at Windtraveler captured this perfectly in her recent post about failing to get an anchor to set properly.  We’ve been there on this trip too more than once, although not with screaming toddlers in tow.  It can be very humbling.

But then you have moments like we did arriving in Bequia for the first time and it all seems worth it . . . .

Making Landfall-Bequia, Admiralty Bay

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Bequia is a really cool place.  The best term I can come up with to describe it is idyllic.  The island is only around 7 miles long.  It’s safe, sparsely developed, and you can walk everywhere.  It feels unspoiled.  In an age of giant cruise ships and all inclusive mega resorts with big fences, this place is different.  And what makes Bequia even better is its people.  Some islands we visit don’t seem to pay much attention to the Ocean that surrounds them.  It is almost an afterthought to local people, or a thing to fear during hurricane season.  But not Bequians.  These are Ocean people.  Boat people.  Many of them are descendants of the whalers that came to the Caribbean from Europe and America hundreds of years ago.  They still ride the Ocean and get their livelihoods from it.  It’s in their blood.

We traveled up to Bequia from the Tobago Keys, a distance of around 25 nautical miles.   We left around 8:00AM, motored out behind the keys after breakfast, hoisted sail and pointed our way north, on a close haul that would allow us to sail the entire way–even with the west setting current–without a single tack.  Jimmy fished, Sarah did laundry in our cooler (this was by choice mind you) and I sat at the helm and watched Bequia come into view on the horizon.  We hit some gusty wind on the way that ripped open our our main sail and caused a minor fire drill, but otherwise the sail was fantastic.  We set our own timetable for the day.  We could stop where we liked; point our boat any direction we wanted.  We were riding the ocean.

Sarah’s Laundromat

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Four hours later, we rounded the southwest point of Bequia, dropped our remaining sail and motored into Admiralty Bay.  Should we anchor off the big beach to the west of town, or right in close by the marina?  We dropped off the beach.  Jimmy dove the anchor and confirmed we were set.

Anchor Set and Boat Shipshape, Dad

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We ate a quick lunch bobbing there a few hundred yards off the beach and poured over our guidebook to decide what we wanted to do over the next three days.  Turtle sanctuary.  Whaling museum.  Hike to Industry Bay.  Pizza at Macs.  Callie’s Fruit & Veggie Stand.  Agenda set, we took the dingy into Jacks bar for our number one priority-Internet and reconnection with our family after four days sans the Interwebs.

As we stepped foot on shore, it struck me how cool it felt that my last footfall was on Baradal Island yesterday in the Tobago Keys.  And here I was stepping onto a new rock, full of exciting new things to do and see.

Getting Internet at Jacks

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Perspective in life is everything.  Bequia has a new airport.  We could travel here directly from our house in Waunakee.  It would be a long, crappy day.  Maybe two days.  We’d have multiple flights.  We’d be hot, thirsty and tired.  We’d be worried about what we forgot and sick of lugging our bags from taxis and through airports and custom lines.  We’d be impatient and anxious.  The day would feel like a necessary evil.

But instead, we got to step foot here in a completely different way.  On our own and using the power of the wind (at least most of the way).  It felt truly magical and set the tone for three wonderful days on Bequia, until we decided to pull up our anchor and point the boat north again to St. Vincent.  Another adventure awaiting us.   It makes all of the bad anchoring, boat problems, rip off artists, etc., all worth it.

I could get used to this . . . .

Landfall without the TSA

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Our First Walk into Admiralty Bay

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Bequia Bus Stop

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Turtle “Sanctuary”  I’m not sure whether this is a sanctuary or a zoo . . .

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We Liked the Goats Outside Better than the Turtles in Enclosures

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This Guy is a Whaleboat Captain-Yes, They Still Hunt Whales Unfortunately

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We Left Jimmy on the Boat One Afternoon to do Homework

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Sundowners with Dominos

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Goodnight Bequia

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Until We Meet Again

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Back in the Saddle

We are sailing again!  We departed Grenada on a Leopard 43 catamaran last week and made our way through the Grenadines and up to St. Vincent.  Grenada has been good to us, but boy did it feel good to put the island in our rear view mirror and start our long, slow trip northward.

Our stops thus far have included Carriacou, Union Island, the Tobago Keys and Bequia

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The British Virgin Islands This is Not

Sarah and I have done several “bareboat” sailing trips in the Virgin Islands previously.  The waters are relatively protected in the BVI, the seas generally calm, and the hops between islands can be made in an hour or two.  I feel like we have taken the training wheels off on this trip in the Windwards.  The passages here are much longer (4 to 6 hours is common), and you are much more exposed to wind and current here, which makes for a sometimes wet and wild ride.  We’ve encountered some really large and confused seas, especially as you enter or leave the wind shadow of an island.  The tide, equatorial current and wind effects can stir up and confuse the seas big time.  And to make things more interesting, we have had consistently strong winds, day and night during the trip (25 to 30 knot gusts are the norm).  One gust ripped our mainsail in half on the passage to Bequia, even with two reefs in it (for non-sailors this means we shortened the sail), although I think that episode had to do more with the age of the sail than with the squall winds we hit.  It’s hard to capture this experience, but Sarah tried to in this short video.

I’m really proud of Sarah, as she gets seasick.  She found that the best thing to do was either to take the helm or to stand behind the wind/water screen looking forward.  It’s always harder to take rough conditions in an unfamiliar boat.  Once you start to trust the boat, you can relax and enjoy the ride.  Overall, we loved the Grenadines and wouldn’t hesitate to sail here again, although the trip the other way from St Vincent to Grenada would have been at a much more favorable point of sail and wave angle.

Dad, Can I Fish Now?

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Union Island

We stayed in Chatham Bay on Union Island, and loved it.  We even convinced one of the local beach bar owners (Seckie) to drive us across to the other side of the Island to take in the full moon party and midnight kite board show our first night.  It was a classic trip for us.  Seckie and his wife were wonderful people, but we had to drive on a goat path in the dark with 6 people in a four seater Suzuki.  The road was so bad that we told Seckie on the return trip to drop us off at the top of the mountain road and we walked back down the goat path in the moonlight.  A nice man that lived in Chatham stayed by our dingy while we were gone to make sure it was safe (there was no place to lock it).  A night to remember.

View of Chatham Bay from my “Library”

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Kiteboarder Show (In a Light Suit Jumping a Bonfire)

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We read terrible things about the crime and so called “bad element” on Union Island before this trip.  Our experience couldn’t have been more positive.  Friendly people, amazing views, public transport and great hiking trails everywhere.  The island was fantastic.

Not a Bad School Yard View

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Hiking is Always Better with Friends

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The Tobago Keys

I’m not sure how to articulate how beautiful the water is in the Tobago Keys.  Every shade of blue is a good start.  The wind was howling again as we arrived here, so we grabbed one of the Park Service mooring balls (Jimmy still dove the mooring to ensure it was secure).  The small islands of the keys are sheltered by a huge reef that protects them from the open Atlantic.  It is a pretty cool feeling to sit out on the front of your boat and realize that there is nothing between you and Africa as you look out eastward at the rising moon.  The outer reef is called Worlds End, and it does feel like the edge (one of the keys is the island where Johnny Depp was stranded in the first Pirates movie).  The Ocean is clearly in charge in this place.  I told Sarah that I felt like a visitor here, only able to stay for a short time with the tacit approval of Calypso.

Overlook to Worlds End.  Our Boat is Just in Front of the Big Black Sail 

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Snorkeling from the Dingy

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Lunch Break

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Blue

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Amazingly, this place was owned by a U.S. corporation until quite recently.  Major kudos to the St Vincent government for buying it back and protecting it as the national treasure that it is.

In my next post, Bequia and beyond . . . .

Dad, Can I Fish Now?

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A Sunday Night with the Southern Cross

Well, the boat is not sinking,” my friend Chris Rundlett yelled to me over the noise and hiss of the wind and waves. It was 11:30pm and we were a few miles off the west coast of St. Vincent. We were delivering “the boat” in question—a Catana 47 sailing catamaran—from Port Louis, Grenada to Rodney Bay, St. Lucia. Chris was the paid Captain; I was the volunteer crew. And things were getting interesting.

Leaving the Dock

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Boat deliveries are very common in the sailing world. Charter companies and boat owners often reposition boats for numerous reasons. In my case, a charter company in Grenada booked a one-way charter for a group on this Catana from St. Lucia to Grenada. Thus, our boat had to get from its base in Grenada to St. Lucia for the start of the trip. The customers were set to arrive on Monday, February 21st. Chris and I left Port Louis on Saturday evening, the 19th. The plan was to sail to Carriacou that first evening and anchor until daylight, at which point we could clear out of Grenada at the Customs Office in Tyrell Bay. After that, the plan got a bit fuzzy. Sail the rest of the way straight through? Anchor off the Pitons in St Lucia to grab a few hours of sleep the next night? We’d see how things went.

We motor sailed up the west coast of Grenada in the dark Saturday night and bashed our way across the Carriacou passage. Two hours on—sailing the boat—two hours off—trying to rest, eat, etc. Every boat is a compromise, and I learned quickly that this Catana was built with sailing performance in mind rather than comfort or convenience. For example, the boat has twin helms that sit way out on the far back edges of the boat. The helms are a fantastic place from which to see the sail trim in the daylight, but not so comfortable or secure in the middle of the night. They also make it a bitch to maneuver the boat in close quarters, as there is a HUGE blind spot from your position at the wheel and the Chartplotter (GPS) is located inside the boat at the nav station.

This was my first experience sailing at night. It was amazingly different. Everything felt more mysterious and strange, especially without having a Chartplotter from which to verify that I wasn’t about to sail directly into a huge cliff or jagged shore. The distances were disorienting. The sounds of waves breaking and the crashing of boat into the waves as we pushed upwind in the passage were really impressive. It was pretty awesome to sit out there on the back edge and watch the boat violently take on whatever came up and around her. Always leaping ahead, I felt like I was on an amusement park ride. And it was a bit scary to look behind you into the churning water and realize that if you go over the side, you are likely never going to be seen again. It gets your full attention.

We pulled into Tyrell Bay, Carriacou, around 2:30am. Chris drove and I tried to spot boats, buoys, fish traps and other obstacles in our path. The lights on shore made it really tough to see what was in front of us in the water, but I got the feeling Chris had done this before and we dropped the hook at his favorite spot right along the shore without incident.

Dawn Breaks–Carriacou

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After a few hours sleep, we made coffee, checked the boat over, cleared Grenada Customs, and headed back out. Two hours on and two hours off for the next 22 hours. We sailed without incident all day through the Grenadines and into the night. The boat sailed really fast, reaching +10 knots a few times in the wind between islands. I went off my shift at 10:00pm Sunday evening, excited to see the Pitons of St Lucia on my next shift. Then things got more interesting.

Through the Grenadines

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Night Approaches

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Chris woke me up a bit before midnight, yelling for me to come out and take the wheel. The batteries were not charging for some reason, the auto-pilot had just shut down, and he needed me to hand steer the boat while he investigated. I jumped up, crab walked out to the back, and grabbed the wheel. Off he went into the darkness. The moon was almost down and it was extremely difficult to see the sails. I quickly found that the best way for me to keep the boat on course was to steer just a bit off the big dipper hanging in there in front of me and to focus on keeping the wind directly on my cheek. I sat thinking how cool it was to be navigating by this famous constellation that I use to find the North Star when I’m at home.

Chris came back about 10 minutes later to tell me that although the boat wasn’t currently sinking, we had taken on “a lot” of water in the port engine compartment. That engine wouldn’t start and the other engine wasn’t charging the batteries. We decided that the best course of action was to tack back towards St Vincent and the Pitons, but once in the calm lee of the island, we would carry on slowly motor sailing all the way up the West coast overnight until we reached Rodney Bay in the north of the island at dawn. Going into a strange harbor at night isn’t a great idea, especially with only one engine on a catamaran that is difficult to maneuver with two. The Pitons would have to wait for another day.

Chris verified our position and a bit later we tacked the boat across the wind on a new heading that took us South East towards the St Vincent shore. Chris went off to grab some sleep with instructions to wake him when we got close to land. I began dutifully hand steering on our new course, searching for a point of reference by which to steer and then I saw it—the Southern Cross, the equally famous constellation of the Southern Hemisphere. It was right out there in front of me. I had never seen it before, and to do so right after leaving the Big Dipper behind was amazing. To make the experience even more spectacular, as I looked down into the water off the side of the boat, I could see bioluminescence streaking by in our wake. It looked like stars drifting by—another universe down there in the depths reflecting the one above us. I was mesmerized.

A Sunday Night to Remember

When I was younger, I would get very anxious and depressed on Sunday nights. I vividly remember going to bed feeling so boringly normal in Wisconsin and thinking about all of the amazing places and adventures that were out there, somewhere, in the world. As I sat there by myself that Sunday night, I couldn’t help but smile and think back to those nights. This was a different Sunday night. This was a reason I wanted so badly to come on a trip like this one. It was an experience I will remember for a long, long time.

Mission Accomplished

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On The Hard–Stuck in Paradise

We are back on dry land.  “On the hard,” as sailors say to confuse the landlubbers.

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After a great sail from Grenada up to Carriacou and Petit St Vincent, we have now retreated back to the SE Coast of Grenada.  Stuck in paradise–otherwise known as the Grenada Marine Boatyard in St David’s Harbour.

Every boat is slowly disintegrating in the water, and La Bella Vita is no exception.  She decided to pick this time to start leaking.  Alarms went off, routes were changed, mechanics visited, and a giant boat sling picked us up and deposited us gently onto the hard ground.  The charter company arranged the repairs, but the date of our departure continued to slip further and further into oblivion.

Out She Comes

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In the meantime, Jimmy, Sarah and I made the best of things.  We rented a car to explore Grenada, we found a great hiking trail for sunsets, and we enjoyed getting to know lots of folks sitting on the hard there with us.  Boatyards are filled with stories everywhere you look.

A Good Story.  Mike and Rebecca Sweeney’s Zero to Cruising blog was the 1st sailing blog I started reading many moons ago.  

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Our Sunset Trail Complete with Canine Friends

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Exploring Grenada

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I was also lucky enough to get the opportunity over this past weekend to help deliver a very fast catamaran (Catana 47) from Port Louis in Grenada to Rodney Bay on St. Lucia with our friend Chris Rundlett from LTD Sailing.  Chris got paid for the delivery and I got some valuable experience and a free flight back to Grenada.  I’ll write a separate post about that experience soon.  We had a leak on that boat too (I’m seeing a trend here), which made it quite interesting.

So life in paradise was still fun, but it was also getting pretty annoying sitting on the dirt in a boat.  For example, our bathroom didn’t work, so a middle of the night trip to the potty involved a ladder and a fairly long walk.  You can read Jimmy’s blog for his take on life in the boatyard here.  This wasn’t what we signed up for.  One thing led to another and we decided to part ways with La Bella Vita and collect a refund of our charter fee.  Buh bye LBV.  It’s been fun, not.    

Trip to the Bathroom Anyone?

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We Left the Boatyard in the Vehicle that Actually Works in this Picture

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What’s Next

Cut loose from our non-floating boat, we were in a bit of shock. We hauled all of our stuff off the boat two days ago and rented a place on Grand Anse beach from which I plotted my revenge, err, I mean from which I set out to find a new boat to rent.  After a fun couple of days, I am happy to say that we were successful in arranging a new floating home.  We are now set to depart Grenada next week and will soon be sailing again.

Grand Anse beach is turning out to be a VERY good place to wait for our departure.  The beach is almost 2 miles of beautiful sand and there are great restaurants, hotels and dive shops spread along the shore.  Sarah and I are running the beach every morning.  Jimmy’s 13th b-day was yesterday and I took him on his first scuba dive.  He is also making plans to start rigging lines from the shore at night with chicken meat to see what he can catch.  We are back to having fun again.

So there you have it.  We wanted an adventure on this trip and so far the trip hasn’t disappointed.  We will keep you updated.

Making Friends at the Boatyard

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Walking to Dinner for Jimmy’s 13th Birthday

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Jimmy’s First Splash into the Deep-Happy Birthday

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Until Next Time Dominica

The second phase of our adventure starts tonight.  We are leaving Dominica, flying to Grenada and moving onto a sailboat, which is waiting for us in the Port Louis Marina.  The catamaran La Bella Vita will be our floating home for the next +3 months.  That sounds very strange to say.  In fact, as I laid my head down last night, I said to Sarah, “It’s going to be a long time before we lay down to go to sleep on dry land again . . . .

Dominica has been everything we hoped for and more.  The wonderful people, the hiking, the fresh fruit, the waterfalls, the ocean, the adventures we had with our children here . . . .  I could go on and on–and I plan to do a wrap up post soon as time permits.  For now, let’s just say that we hope this is not our last trip to this beautiful island.  Thank you Dominica.  Until next time.

Home Away from Home

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Favorite Beach

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Drive-In Movie Theater

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Morning Walk

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Sundowners (non-alcoholic variety)

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Up Next

We spend the next several days getting an overview of our boat and doing a few shakedown sails and our first passage between islands.  All three of us are anxious and excited, a good sign that we have more adventures in store for us on this trip!

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Bush Rum & Grandma in the Bathtub

Friday night.  If we were back in Wisconsin, Sarah and I would likely be out with friends having a traditional Wisconsin fish fry and a Brandy Old Fashioned.  But we’re in Dominica, so instead we spent last night drinking Bush Rum and playing Dominos at Toto’s Rum Shop.

Toto’s–The Reason I Slept in Today

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Every Dominican village comes alive Friday night, with folks walking the streets, cooking fish and chicken at roadside stands, smoking/drinking, and generally having a great time.  Sarah, Jimmy and I walked down from our house into Calibishie last night to join in the fun.  We ate at a stand (Ms. Linda’s) and then wandered into Toto’s Bar.  I’m glad we stopped.

The local Rum Shop is sort of an institution here.  Part bar/part market, the rum shop is where the locals hang out, have a drink and maybe join a game of dominos.  And one of the coolest things about the Rum Shop is that each one makes its own brand of rum which is infused with all kinds of things such as bay leaves, cinnamon, ginger, and even the bark of the Bois bande tree which is alleged to be a natural viagra.

I avoided the bois bande variety last night, and instead tried Toto’s most popular bush rum flavor.  I know it had cinnamon and bay leaves in it, but I’m a little hazy on the rest of the ingredients.  It had a nice kick, sort of like a Caribbean Manhattan.

Cheers!

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Locals we are not, but everyone at Toto’s welcomed us and made us feel at home.  The Dominican people are so friendly, and most people seem genuinely happy to see tourists join in.  Before long, Sarah and Jimmy were invited to the table for a Domino lesson from George, one of the local farmers here and a genuinely nice man.  George took it easy on them, but Sarah was able to win a game or two.

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Jimmy didn’t fare as well, even with advice from this nice man in the window

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After Toto’s, we stopped on our way home at a local bar up the hill called The Hot Spot where a younger crowd hangs out.  After another bush rum variety, we had a great conversation with the bar owner Primus, his girlfriend Kelani (not sure on the spelling) and their young son and daughter*.  Their house is attached to the bar and the place is certainly a family affair.  Even Grandma lives there and helps out in the bar.  Unfortunately, Jimmy may be scarred for life after he went into the house to play some video games with Primus’s son and stumbled upon Grandma taking her Friday evening bath!

Before leaving for the night, Primus asked if we could take a picture of them so that “next time you come back you can show us how much our daughter has grown.”  We are already looking forward to showing him this picture on our next visit

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I hope your Friday night, minus Grandma in the bathtub, was as much fun as ours.

*This little girl was a great example of how much responsibility given to Dominican kids.  She is only 14 months old, but was given free reign to walk back and forth between the bar and their home, which she navigated like a much older kid.  It was a really interesting contrast to our helicopter parental practices in the U.S.

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The Jacko Steps

Between 1600 and 1870 approximately 4 million West African people were imported to the Caribbean as slaves.  A mind boggling number.  Many of these people fought against and escaped their captors.  These escaped slaves, known as Maroons, often set up their own communities out of the reach of the planters and European powers of the day.

Because of its mountainous, difficult terrain,* Dominica became a Maroon stronghold.  By 1785, there were 13 major Maroon camps spread out over the interior of the island, populated by men, women and children.  These communities cultivated crops, erected buildings and carried on their own organized societies.  They also developed defenses and waged guerrilla warfare on the plantations, oftentimes with stunning success.

The locations of the Maroon Camps

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This past week, we visited one of these Maroon encampments, a placed called the Jacko Flats.  As you might expect, it wasn’t easy to get to.  But it was well worth the trip.  We brought along our guide for the Boiling Lake, Nigel George, as he has never been to the Flats and wanted to learn the area for future clients.

The Start of our Hike

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The Jacko Flats is a natural fortress.  The Maroon leader Jacko and his followers must have been thrilled to find it.  A high, beautiful plateau, it is surrounded on three sides by huge cliffs, making it an almost perfect refuge.

At the start of our hike, we met a modern day gatekeeper.  A woman named Roberta informed us that the area was treacherous and that we needed a guide.  And lucky for us, she happened to be one.  $50EC later, we were on our way.  “A guide leading a guide,” as she phrased it.  Her teenaged daughter also came along, although she spent most of the grueling hike head down texting on her phone even on the cliff edge.  Teenagers are the same wherever you go.

We Paid a Small Toll to Cross this Rasta Family Farm–Drying Cacao for Chocolate

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Roberta was quiet (perhaps because we had the competition along?), but we were glad to have her help.  She led us up the steep hillside and onto the flats, which we crossed to the edge of two cliffs.  And there, cut into the hillside we saw the main attraction of this hike–The Jacko Steps.  Descending down the sheer cliff side were a long series of 100’s of steps, each about 3.5ft in height.  Jacko’s front entryway.

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I would not have wanted to be one of the local militia members tasked with finding this place and capturing its inhabitants.   These people must have been remarkably strong, fierce and industrious.  They had to be, I’m sure.  As I jumped down each step, I thought of the work it must have taken, and the struggle and fear mixing with the peace and beauty of this place.

A Different History

It is easy to find the legacy of European colonization in the Caribbean.  There are crumbling plantation works and fortifications spread across the land.  This is history written as it usually is–by the conquerers.  But here on these steps I was seeing and feeling something very rare and different–history made by an enslaved people at their direction and for their own use.  I was honored to use Jacko’s steps and I silently thanked him as I hopped off the last step and into the Layou River.  Jacko and his people built an enduring legacy here, hidden deep in the forest.

Wading and Swimming our Way Back up the Layou River

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The Jacko Flats are above the Cliffs in the Background

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*Christopher Columbus is said to have used a crumpled up a piece of paper to help describe the mountainous terrain of Dominica to the Spanish King and Queen.  It is hard to drive it even today with modern roads.

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Your Boy Fell Down

Going to church in a foreign country is a great way to meet folks—especially if your son gets over-heated and passes out in the entryway.  More on that below.

This past Sunday we accepted an invitation from Isalene George to attend Catholic Mass in Calibishie, the town where we are staying.

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A Three-Hour Mass

This was not your typical Catholic Mass in the U.S. For starters, we didn’t start. Punctuality is not a priority here.* The service started about 15 minutes late, and people were still arriving more than an hour later. But once we got rolling, we really got rolling. I immediately leaned over to Sarah and whispered, “these people can sing.” There was a small choir, but the entire congregation belted out each song in perfect harmony. Several people even brought their own tambourines, and lots of folks were clapping and dancing. And what made this all the more interesting was that the songs were traditional hymnals that I remembered as a child listening to at Catholic Mass. It was awesome.

At least, I thought it was awesome, but I also like marathon running. What the congregation lacked in punctuality, they more than made up for in endurance. The Mass lasted a wee bit over three hours. And it was hot and crowded. About an hour in, Jimmy told Sarah that he needed some air and left to go outside. A few minutes later, a couple of boys came to our pew and whispered to Sarah, “your boy fell down.” Sarah scrambled outside to see an ashen faced Jimmy. He had passed out and the boys had helped him back to his feet. After a bit of reviving, he declared that he was good to go, and returned to his pew. As you might expect, we are now known in town by this event. Maybe Jimmy will like marathons like I do.

A parish Deacon led the Mass rather than a Priest since they are in short supply. The message had a lot that was familiar to my Catholic upbringing, but it was also very different in many respects. He talked about not having food to eat, about needing more male leaders (attendance was probably 90% female), and of Boko Haram in Nigeria, something that isn’t even on the radar for most people in the U.S. even though thousands have died there in religious clashes. Contrast that with the horrible attack in Paris that killed twelve.

The end of the Mass was also quite different. The parish bulletin was handed out to those that wanted it, and a man then read aloud each and every word of the bulletin to the congregation. I believe this was done because some members could not read it themselves. Every child goes to school now, but I don’t believe this was always the case. It made me appreciate our education system and teachers in the U.S.

 A Warm Welcome

At the very end of the Mass, we were invited to stand as visitors and the congregation sang a song welcoming us. And we then filed out into the busy street along the bay. Everyone was in his or her Sunday best.

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Lots of people gather for a drink or meal after church, and we were invited up the hill to Isalene’s home for post-church refreshments. Isalene walks everywhere, as many in the village go without a car. The drive went up, up, up the hill above town. I was tired just driving the narrow winding road. Isalene walks it everyday, unless she is able to hitch a ride, which is very common.

We met her husband and brother and more of the extended George family that all lives close together up on the hillside. We had coconut milk and a tour of the neighborhood. And as we were getting ready to leave, we recognized two or three elderly (+70) people from church that had walked up the hill and were just arriving back home. No wonder Dominicans live so long and look so young.

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Neighborhood Tour & Trail to Town

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It was a great way to start our visit here, as we now recognize many people in town and they recognize us and say hello and chat. One thing I’ve realized from traveling is how welcoming people can be if you simply make an effort to learn and respect the way they live rather than try to dictate your own. A little respect goes a long way, especially on Dominica.

*I struggle with punctuality, so I’m not casting stones.

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