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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Serendipity

I admit it. I tend to over plan vacations. As my family can attest, I’m the guy that reads everything in the guidebooks and then sets a withering pace during our trips. Each day starts early and includes multiple pre-planned activities.  Think Clark Griswold and the world’s largest ball of twine and you won’t be far off from my vacation agenda.

As we enter week two of this trip (not a vacation), something cool is happening. My checklist is growing shorter and I’m slowing down and letting days unfold rather than attacking them.  And in that space, more serendipitous moments are happening.  Yesterday is a great example.

Hey where you going mon?”

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Maddie and I were out for a morning run yesterday and decided to explore a new road up the hill from our house.  As the road turned into a dirt trail, we bumped into Donnie.  He was sitting on the side of the road, spliff in hand.  We told Donnie we were just exploring.  He told us he was the caretaker for Pointe Baptiste and that Alan was away today, like we should know Alan as someone important.  “Follow me.”

Donnie is of Carib descent.  Born here in the only territory in the entire Caribbean that the Kalinago people were able to defend from the onslaught of disease, military technology and cruelty ushered in by Columbus and those that followed him across the Atlantic.  We followed Donnie down a narrow dirt path and into the opening of a large garden.

In many places, you would be crazy to follow some random guy smoking weed on the side of the road into the bushes.  But Dominica is not many places.  Sure there are risks here, but the vast majority of people that we have met are friendly, kind people that would seemingly drop whatever they were doing to ensure you are ok.  Donnie was one of those people.

Donnie proceeded to give us a tour of the property that lasted well over an hour.  He showed us each of the plants and trees in the garden and talked about their uses either as food or medicine.  He explained to us the history of the estate, which was purchased in 1932 by a family that wanted to drop out of London’s high society and live a more simple life.  That couple is buried on the property and their descendants, Alan included, still reside here, renting out a guest house and making chocolate that sells in the market in town.  He walked us out onto the red cliffs of the point, showing us where to step so as not to fall and pointing out fissures in the rock that were only a few feet wide but ran down 25 feet into the darkness.

We really liked Donnie.  It was refreshing to be around someone who seemed so peaceful and unconcerned by the things that keep me up at night when I’m home in Wisconsin.  One of the great things about travel is seeing the world through other people.  “Things that are natural and equal are good; things that are not are bad,” Donnie told us.  We found out later that Donnie doesn’t own a pair of shoes.  Yet he had no agenda and wanted nothing from us.  He was genuine.

 

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As we left Donnie and started running back to the house I said to Maddie, “that is exactly why I love Dominica.”  And I’m glad we made that unscheduled detour that wasn’t on my checklist.

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Yep, that is a Boiling Lake

Wow, that lake is actually boiling,” I said out loud, but mostly to myself.  The sight in front of me was so incongruous, so strange, that I needed to explain it to myself I guess.  Our family had just made it to the overlook of the Boiling Lake here on Dominica after a pretty muddy and challenging four-hour hike in the rain.  What a strange sight to look down at a +20 acre lake that was bubbling and rolling like a witches cauldron out of the sulfur mist . . .

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When we arrived on Dominica, we pulled together a “to-do” list, and the Boiling Lake was at the very top of that list.  Everyone in the family wanted to go, so our first week here we hired a local guide (Nigel George from Calibishie), and set out at 6AM for the town of Laudat on the south western side of the island.  Actually, we tried to leave at 6AM, but our car battery was dead and we had to wait until around 8:30AM for a replacement to arrive.  Nigel was worried we didn’t have enough time to get the hike in because of the delay, but the car came sooner than we expected, and we tracked Nigel down on the main road.  When we picked him up, he told me that he is building up his guiding business and that he can sometimes find a guiding job on the road when tourists pass by.  Hard work, I’m sure, and it made me think about always trying to be respectful to people I see offering services here (and elsewhere).

The Start of the Hike

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Dominica has nine active volcanoes, the most of any of the Eastern Caribbean islands, and the Boiling Lake hike takes you directly into one of them.  The hike starts at the Ti Tou Gorge, a narrow slot canyon that features prominently in the second Pirates of Caribbean movie.  It’s an eight mile trip in, and I think there was maybe one section of flat trail about 20 yards long.  The rest of the time, we were either going up or down.  I was worried about the kids, but by the end of the day, I was at the back of the pack with Jimmy, Maddie and Caitlin leading the way and me just trying to hang on.  It sucks getting old!  Nigel entertained the kids with stories about the Pirates of the Caribbean movie set, the stars from the movie that he knew, one of which drank like a sailor, and other various tidbits.  It certainly helped to keep their minds off the long hike.  Guides are licensed here, and Nigel had to go to a special school to get his license.  He was really knowledgable about the local flora and fauna, and took great pride in his country and the fact that you can live off the land here without much money.

The Valley of Desolation

After a few hours of hiking, we reached the highest spot on the trail, and which point we were supposed to be able to see amazing views of Roseau and the Caribbean sea to the West, Morne Micotrin to the North, and the Grande Soufriere Hills and the Atlantic Ocean far beyond to the East.  Unfortunately, all we saw was the inside of a cloud and felt the howling wind.  But it made the hike down into the Valley of Desolation even that much more mysterious and surreal.

The Valley of Desolation is well named.  It feels other worldly.  Sulfur hangs in the air, and the trail drops you steeply down off the ridge line into a volcanic caldera full of steam vents, fumaroles and hot muddy pools.  Some of the streams and rivers along the trail are scalding hot, others are cool.  I had a hard time telling which was which, and I was glad to have Nigel along.  One of the other guides there took a few raw eggs from his pack and boiled them in one of the hot pools.  It was truly bizarre, and we talked about the amazing power of nature–that we were feeling the energy and heat escaping from the magma layer deep below us.  And that these cracks were caused by the Atlantic tectonic plate colliding with the Caribbean tectonic plate at a rate of 1 to 2 inches each year.  In fact, this collision is what formed all of the islands we plan to visit on this trip.  Yes, it’s fun to homeschool your kid so you can trot out fun facts like Cliff Clavin.

Into the Valley-2015

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The First Recorded Exhibition into the Valley-1875

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After stopping to refill our water bottles at a spring, we made the last push up to the overlook of the lake, had a great lunch, and took about nine thousand pictures.  If this place was in the U.S., there would be hundreds of people here.  We had the place to ourselves, until a German couple and their guide showed up right before we left.  Pretty cool.

We Made It!

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We stopped on our way back through the Valley of Desolation for a rest in a hot river pool, complete with a waterfall.  It was like a hot tub, and my tired bones didn’t want to get out and face the hike back.

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But we rallied and pressed on.  As my daughter Caitlin said, it’s not a vacation until we get pushed to the point of exhaustion 🙂  We made the hike in a total trip time of 7.5 hours, and had just enough daylight for a fantastic swim in the river, complete with a hot springs shower before heading back home.

Hot Shower Dominican Style

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If you ever travel to Dominica, I’d highly recommend this hike.  It’s certainly possible to do without a guide, but we were very happy to have Nigel along as it allowed me to relax and not worry about safety, getting lost, falling into a boiling pit, etc.

It was well worth the trip!

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