Friday, May 30, 2014

Dominica Republic

It was only a two day motor sail from Il a Vache to Bahia de las Aguilas (Bay of Eagles), Dominica Republic, a total of 120 miles. But what a difference that two days made. After the constant trash fire smoke of Haiti, the loamy earth smell of tilled soil was a most welcome change.

There is nothing at Bahia de las Aguilas, no stores or town, but it is well protected from the easterly trade winds and southwesterly swells; a welcomed calm anchorage.

After a night and day recovering we set off around Isla Beata and the point bound for Barahona. We arrived about 10 am and dropped the hook in the protected basin off the tiny marina, Club de Manatee. Within 30 minutes we had cleaned up and launched the dinghy to pick up the four government officials waiting on the dock to clear us into Dominica Republic – immigration, customs, M2 drug enforcement, and marine guard. It was one of the easiest times clearing in we could have. It took about 15 minutes with everyone in our cockpit and drinking Kalik Bahamian beer before the paperwork was completed. Then money changed hands ($83 required but all I had was a $100 US bill so we “donated” the rest) then they were done. As they were disembarking from our dinghy at the marina, the immigration official recommended Fernando as a local English speaking guide since we are obviously Spanglish challenged.

That afternoon we had Fernando walk with us into town to get pesos from the ATM at Banco Popular, a sim card and data plan for the phone from Claro (about $18USD total with a 1GB data plan), lunch ($19USD for 3 people including beer and sodas), and the mercado central (open market) for a huge bag of vegetables including tomatoes, onions, lettuce and potatoes for about $2.40USD.

Along the way we marveled at the waterfront park with skate boarding ramps, newly constructed kiosks and even exercise equipment. There was also a sizable crew doing maintenance and keeping everything clean. This was so different from most of what we had seen in quite a while.

At one point another boat had a diesel truck come in to top up their tanks so we put the 20 gallons of diesel we got at Great Inagua, Bahamas into our tank and refilled our jugs from the truck. In all we spent about a week and a half in Barahona before being rousted. It turns out that the tiny basin we were anchored in also had the quay for freighters collecting gypsum from the plant next door. We weighed anchor and moved outside the basin and waited. A behemoth loomed on the horizon and when I checked the AIS it turned out to be Doris, a 597 foot freighter. We looked at the dog leg turns to get into the basin and said No Way! I was enthralled ... over the next two hours one small tug helped the ship inch through a sea lane and around acute turns that left maybe 10 feet either side. It was truly an impressive feat and I will forever feel inadequate for my inability to back our comparatively tiny 41' Horizon into a slip.

We cleared out of Barahona that day bound for Salinas leaving the next morning. About 6AM we weighed anchor and started off. Around the sea buoy, about 1 mile out, the engine started surging so we headed back to anchor near where we had been to diagnose the problem. The Racor fuel filter was thoroughly clogged with dirt, probably from the Great Inagua fuel. We spent 3 hours flushing and cleaning the filter housing and replacing the filter before we felt comfortable heading off again.

Salinas is a somewhat pretty town, very quiet and low key compared to Barahona. It looks like a beach party town to us. We ate a couple meals at the hotel and wandered around town but didn't really find a good place to just sit and watch the world go by.

We are now in Boca Chica and have been for a couple weeks. We are on a mooring at Marina Zar Par, the marina part owned by Frank Virgintino, the author of the free Haiti and DR cruising guides we have been using. This town is well know for the party atmosphere, I think spring breakers frequent this area, and it has a reputation as a bit of a hook up place. Weekends especially but even during in the week, blasting music from shore bars and boats can make it hard to get to sleep before midnight.

We did find one more interesting thing about Boca Chica.  Remember the movie "My Blue Heaven"? This place reminds us of that movie - most of the downtown restaurants have Italian names and serve Hispanic versions of Italian food, even the deli is Italian!  

Our second day here, Dan and Rose from Exit Strategy who we had met in Il a Vache invited us to join them in a day trip to the waterfalls at El Limon. It turned into quite an interesting trek. We headed off in their rental car in the morning. We were talking too much and ended up in Santo Domingo the capitol city, obviously missing a major turn. An hour later we tried what we thought was the correct exit but soon found ourselves in the middle of small towns and dwindling pavement.

The small scale map we had with us was little help so I suggested we try to let Google Maps navigate us towards our destination. Wrong! The voice would tell us “Turn right in 50 meters” … but there was a concrete wall ... then “Turn right in 50 meters: … still more wall … finally she said turn right and there was a road! We took it and this is what we saw:

We continued to try to follow Google Maps navigation ending up in narrower and more rutted dirt tracks until the voice took us directly into a town dump. We turned around and tried to find our own way out. About 30 minutes later she started giving useful directions but meanwhile we had seen a side of Dominica Republic that few gringos have been likely to see. I think I can mark that one off my bucket list.

Once again on main highways we crossed the country towards the north going over hills tall enough to make ears pop, past towering mesa-like embankments, and through the central valley filled with miles and miles of palm trees.

We did make it to El Limon and stopped at the first place advertising the waterfalls. The owner energetically explained the process of hiring horses with individual guides to get us to the waterfalls. He also said his wife was a very good cook and suggested we opt to have lunch at their establishment after wards. We did.

So Dan, Rose and Cate got horses, Mike got a mule. Okay, I was corrected several times as “mula” since my mule was a she!

I would write about the falls and the trip there and back but I was too terrified of falling off my mula :) Okay, there were trails, a river to ford, mountains with extreme vertical slopes to ride (YIKES!), and finally a water fall. My mule, um, mula grumbled and snorted the entire way. I know she was saying “get this damned gordo gringo off my back!”, “can't he go on a diet?”, or other such whinnies to that effect.

A couple days later Exit Strategy sailed off for Curacao for the summer and we were left to our own devices. The harbor master of the marina, Rico, is really helpful. We wanted to have a day trip to Santo Domingo and were terrified of driving ourselves after watching what Dan had to put up with. Rico hooked us up with a local driver and guide for a day trip to the capitol. It was $150USD but well worth it for us. We went to old town and toured many of the buildings, some of which dated back to the 1500's. We strolled through downtown parks and the mile-long pedestrian market street. Santo Domingo advertises being the oldest city in the Americas, having the oldest street, oldest cathedral, and the oldest university (Santo Tomas de Aquino, 1538). During our tour we saw most every bastion of US influence including Taco Bell, Krispy Kreme, Burger King, and Payless Shoes. Unfortunately I saw no indication of true civilization: White Castle burgers. Sigh.

Our day trip ended with smoked chicken dinner and lots of wine at our guide's house in Boca Chica. He did try to get us interested in a $500/mo 3 bedroom apartment in his house about ½ mile from the beach. That included water, power, cable TV, internet and rooftop access for laundry and parties. As the wine flowed, the $500 came all the way down to $350 per month. He did say that $1000 USD per month lets one live like a king here. Hmmmmm.....

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Il A Vache, An Existential Crisis

The captain was convinced we needed to go beyond the Bahamas, to experience true island cruising. The admiral agreed simply to get it over with, get it out of his system, and see what she might be missing. The process of deciding the north coast of Hispaniola or the south coast took several months of comparing others’ experience, reading Frank Virgintino’s cruising guides, conferring with him via email, and finally buying into the idea that the Caribbean Sea is gentler than the Atlantic. So windward passage, past Cuba, with the only tenable first rest stop being Il A Vache, a small island off the coast of Haiti. Technically not Haiti proper. It was 218 miles from the last Bahamian island to Il A Vache, for us, a 50 hour passage. The weather was supposed to be windless with almost non-existent swell . . . but the weather is a bit like the daily horoscope, rarely resembling reality.
Our first hours were pleasant, sailing at 6 knots in 12-15 knots of wind. But pleasant switched to unpleasant as we turned the corner out of the passage and into the Caribbean. The swell was 3-5 feet from the southeast, meaning Horizon was smacked on her starboard bow repeatedly. Sails were useless, so full motor with all the noise and discomfort that accompanies that. The cats were no longer open to snacks, it was every being for him or herself between watches. I prefer dead of night watch because I am not able to see the size of waves heading my way. The only seat tenable in our cockpit for a three hour stint is starboard, so the action was a bit close for comfort in the light of day.
As we turned into the harbor towards Il A Vache, we felt hopeful even as the waves continued to buffet us and the fishing buoys threatened to tangle our prop. It was quite the juxtaposition, a 41 foot sailboat with all sails down, motor running as the Batiments of Haiti were sailing out for the day’s catch. These wooden boats are sailed with the minimum of crew, no power, steering only by the positioning of crew and boom. I imagined their man overboard protocol, one less mouth to feed. As we turned into Baie de Feret, the anchorage at Ile a Vache, we were greeted by a dugout canoe being rowed by Pepe who sidled up to our hull and presented a letter of recommendation from another cruiser, in a ziplock baggie. We thanked him and told him we had read of him in blogs. Little did we know that Pepe was the first of way too many assistants looking for work and or food . . . depending on age. We had the dubious honor of having no less than 20 canoe-sized boats with villagers hanging off our safety lines while we anchored. Of course it took 5 attempts to anchor successfully. The admiral and captain were hard pressed to attend to the task with so many requests in English, Creole and French. We politely explained we were tired, and we would be available demain, tomorrow. Big mistake!
Post anchoring and feeding the crew, we slept for five hours, awoken by the sound of youthful voices swimming near the stern. Our bed is athwart the stern, with portholes on either side. I came to full consciousness when a brown haunch was tangling from the lowest rung of the not- yet-extended swim ladder. This is when the existential crisis started burbling. I felt violated, yet ridiculous knowing that I was living in a palace, and someone had simply tried to cross my moat . . .
I have never dealt well with people approaching me unawares. I also have never felt comfortable responding to need that seems much larger than my ability to respond. Sounds non-Christian, lame even. Jesus’ admonishment, I was hungry, and you did not feed me, reverberated in my head.
So began seven days of an experience we were unprepared for. We had gotten together school supplies to donate to the local orphanage, as suggested by the guide book. We had small treats to offer children as well. We had read of another boat leaving Il A Vache quickly because of the boat boys. We had even queried Frank Virgintino specifically about the boat visitors. He assured us that no one was hungry in Il A Vache, and confirmed that the children were no problem, would not harm us. They were gentle but persistent. The older the visitor, the less gracious the response was to our negative response. There was no violence, simply a bitter face. The children moved on the easiest, the adults were more persistent, one even hanging on the boat whistling for us for some time.
We were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of visitors to Horizon, any hour from sun up to sundown.
We hired many workers to do work we ourselves would not have otherwise done. Of the 60 visits the first two days, I divvied up labor to those who had been most appealing, kindest, stood out of the crowd. Pepe was our guide for the market; Ashley, who had stuck to the admiral’s side during anchoring, had much English and smelled better than both crew members, (criteria) was given the job of boat cushion washing. McKindree and Beethoven gave a coconut to us the first day, they were given exterior porthole washing. Vildo, who had told the captain he preferred dealing with men . . . was given the deck and topside salt wash. Each was paid well. Each came back many times for more work despite being told we were finished. While aboard, each expressed interest in some item that was needed, Captain, you have two anchors and use only one. I can use this one, etc. Mike clarified the need for a second in hurricane, high winds . . . but language and need complicated the exchange. It was embarrassing to have so much, and yet obligatory to have boundaries for our safety.
The presence of visitors was announced by the sound of the wooden canoe hulls bumping against Horizon’s hull as the villager was saying Hello, my friend, hello. Not Neil Diamond, but certainly an intro. The introduction was humorous when we met another American couple at anchor. They too had given away many treats, and warded off many offers of help. They had not hired any work, but maintained as many visits.
We said no many, many times, feeling guilty, feeling bothered, watching for a fair wind to leave. The second day we had 40 visitors to the boat, most saying “you said yesterday . . . “. As we hired men to scrub the boat, clean the portholes of salt, mend a sail, more came. In seven days we had at least 15 people asking for work or food on all but the last day. Some came three times in one day despite the “no, finish, no more work”.
Children were not in school. When queried, “school costs $25 US dollars a quarter, can you give me work, buy my almonds, my mangoes?”A fellow named Henry gave us two days of security for $5 a day, including free trash disposal. His strength was his receipt book. We jokingly called him the mafia, nice dinghy, several youngsters as collectors. Jean Jean, known for his restaurant, excelled at sail repair, hand sewing the entire foot seam of our mainsail. We gave him a surplus outboard in payment, along with fuel and maintenance supplies. He was back a day later for shoes. We ate at his restaurant, a simple dirt floor porch, an excellent meal of grilled lobster, fried plantain, salad, peas and rice. His youngest, Kathy, took my heart as she flirted and crawled into my lap to braid my hair. Jean Jean placed the outboard in their bedroom, also open air with a simple bed on the ground.
We would try to tend to above deck chores quickly predawn or post sunset, if a head emerged, the dugout canoes paddled as quickly as possible to speak with you. Sadly by day three, we hid below decks unwilling to engage in the hopeless exchange. To no avail, one fellow hung on the safety lines whistling for us to come forth. The youngsters would come, hang on the life lines, and whisper when you did not come up.
The encounters could be enlightening. One boy asked for headphones, using hands to express the need, when I said I had none he offered to bring me a chicken. I told him his mother may not like this trade, one can eat a chicken, not headphones. Another wanted spaghetti, for school lunch. I was surprised at the specificity of his need. Granola bars and chips were accepted.
Pepe was a most excellent guide on a 4+ mile walk to the town of Madame Bernard, for the local market. We were very glad we choose to venture off the boat because we were amazed at the vivid color and culture we witnessed. The trip helped us see why we had visitors so frequently and reinforced our own abundance. This is understatement. There is no politically correct way to divulge just how much we took in on our trip with Pepe. The pride, the colors, the adaptability, the determination, the livestock, the lifestyle.
The supplies we had for the orphanage were consumed by the village when Pepe released them to one of his friends. He said they would be well used here, the orphanage being five or more miles away.
Yasmin came late the second day, after I had divided all the jobs. He was convincing and intense. I could not say no, so instead decided as a student needing money for school books, I would have him write in a journal. He said he could only write in French which I accepted. I gave him five topics to write for my grandchildren, should I have some one day. His journal was short, his dreams specific, he wants to finish school so he can be an asset to his family. Because family is the most important thing. It was a good commentary on the sights we had seen in Madame Bernard’s. Many children, many pregnant women, few resources . . . spread very thin.
Lingering questions: How is it that a fair and just creator has one culture so desperately needing and another so ridiculously wealthy? I can’t see it as karma. I could not respond as I thought I should. As I gave out treats to the children, I felt I was perpetuating a problem. Who would pay to send a child to school when his begging reaps food for his belly?
What kind of government does not provide education? Is this the parable of the talents in the Bible? What faith can respond to this? Mike and I did the mitzvahs we could, but it was not enough. We felt exhausted by the continuous violation of home space, even though they were gentle and friendly.
We left the harbor as soon as the wind was tenable, willing to face nature’s quirks rather than continue to cringe in our home. I am not sure that the impact of the Mona Passage on the north route would have been as profound. I do think we may have been better prepared.
We will research the Canadian non-profit, Friends of Il A Vache, even though a cistern they had put into work at one village lay broken and mis-used.
There are rumors of moorings being put into the harbor. Could the money generated meet the need? No answers.

We entered the Dominican Republic pessimistically hopeful that it was in better shape. My daughter tells me there are only two categories of countries now, Developing and Developed. There are severe gradients in those two categories. Our DR guide tells us that the Haitians try to cross the mountains, many are shot. He speaks disparaging of Haitians. If I lived there, I would cross the mountain with my family for a better life, as would he.