Monday, January 5, 2015

Breaking Free From Parguera

Though our engine rebuild was not totally successful, we owe our continued journey from Parguera to JBWeld.  This product may take us far and for years, or may give up at any port.  So we have ordered a new head from the Perkins’ folk in Tortola.  Meanwhile we cautiously edge further along as we wait for the 110 working days predicted for delivery.  Working days, a concept that causes concern when applied to island work.

Our first stop from Parguera was to Gilligan’s Island, more officially named Cayes de Cana Gorda. What a perfect first stop after a long stay.  Finally we were back with other cruisers, a concept we had not missed until we dinghied to Two Tickets to say “Hola”.  We were acquainted last March in Georgetown when we were scheming an approach to the Dominican Republic. Wow, people who get it.  People who recently navigated water, who understood why we live on a boat, whose approach to the next stop is all about the weather. Finally true birds of a feather!  Add to that scenario, a beautiful placid harbor with a lovely island to explore.  Gilligan’s is uninhabited and empty of people during the week.  We were able to enjoy not only the quiet of a weekday swim but the weekend camaraderie of the mangrove swimming channel as it filled in with ferry load after ferry load of local Puerto Ricans.  The channel is bordered by mangroves with a low current, 3 foot deep area for soaking, kayaking, snorkeling, simply communing with nature.  We soaked for hours, reviewing our adventures, projecting our future plans.

We were finally back to quiet days with nature, relying on our provisions, remembering what makes this a great lifestyle.  From Gilligan's we traversed to Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico.  We found the harbor excellent for anchoring.  The weekend noise from the malecon (like a boardwalk) was insignificant compared to docking at Parguera.  Best yet, more cruisers.  All of us back on the salt circuit after waiting out hurricane season, most at Luperon.  We were in mecca, with Tiger Direct, a full sized mall, a cinema, marine shop and a complete grocery store within walking distance.  The serious, over-the-top delight of Ponce-- my vision of attending dance classes while cruising was fulfilled with $3 Zumba at the malecon amphitheater, Mon-Thurs.  Zumba uses hand signals to designate number of repetitions, so my minimal Spanish was not a holdback.  Zumba to Latin beat, SO MUCH FUN.   Though I did have trouble walking on the weekend:).  Taxis, people willing and able to meet us partway with some English. A welcoming demeanor, priceless.  Our six months in southwestern Puerto Rico were the rural experience.  We were now experiencing a more open and generous population.  In hindsight I remember moving to a rural area of MD as an adolescence.  The difference between Parguera folk and Ponce folk was the difference between rural MD and suburban MD.  Our saving grace in Parguera was the gringo population.  Those who were originally from the states, but now residing in Parguera.  They took us under their wing, transported us when we needed supplies, befriended us.  We will always be grateful to them.

A day pass to the Ponce Yacht Club was delightful.  A pool to die for, excellent internet, affordable prices if dockage was needed.  A trip to historic Ponce was accommodated via taxi and trolley, transportation. . . so valuable.  We enjoyed art—finally seeing Flaming June, a favorite from a childhood game called Masterpiece.  Housed at the Ponce Museum of Art.  The celebration of Three Kings, a recurring artistic presence in Puerto Rico, was explained in a current exhibit. Epiphany, the day the kings arrived with gifts for the baby Jesus, was once the day that gifts were exchanged rather than the earlier gift exchange at Christmas.  We enjoyed a chocolate milkshake at Burger King, a treat we had not had since St Petersburg, 2.5 years ago.  We were awed by the beautiful Christmas decorations at the Ponce mall, a mall to rival Westfield in the states.  Bilingual taxi drivers were icing on the cake.

When the weather opened for movement, we left Ponce for the beauty of Coffin Island, Cayo de Muertes.  This harbor’s beauty, a mere 2 hour motor from Ponce, is pristine.  Swimming, hiking to the active lighthouse, visiting with the DRNA caretaker were all pleasures we relished.  I could totally imagine living on the hook in the Ponce harbor, retreating to weekday solitude on Cayo de Muerte.  Or going highbrow at the Ponce Yacht club.  

Next stop is where we currently embed our anchor . . . Salinas.  This was our original hurricane hang-out plan before we stopped for the engine rebuild.  It is a pleasant, protected harbor bordered by mangrove cays, and beautiful mountains whose demeanor remind me of a calendar back-drop. I have to remind myself as we dinghy to the marina that they are real.  Always remembering a young ministerial date of yore who said that mountains are God’s thumbprint.  Bill, I say they may well be God or Goddess’  thumbprint :).  Whomever is credited, they are magnificent.  What the Caribbean has lacked in white sand beaches, to date, it has made up for with the amazing mountains.

As we walked the paths and roads to the grocery, in Puerto Rico, I often reflect that this could be a highway, a road in PA; in western MD, in North Carolina.  The mountains on the horizon. Only the temperature, fauna and flora, and time of year distinguish the scene.  That thought gives me comfort and intrigues me at the same time.  It is a unifying concept.

Salinas continues to nurture our spirit with a friendly welcome from cruisers who frequent Facebook, introduced us to Mexican Train dominoes, new project ideas and routes through town.  A shared ride to the movies, a Christmas Eve potluck, a Seven Seas Cruising host, Jonso, and a Mexican restaurant, Pancho’s. . . the Salinas charm continues while the yearly Christmas wind howls.

Dock to hook

After almost five months at dock in La Parguera, we were able to motor with our re-built engine to anchor out.  For non-cruising boaters, that may seem as interesting a blog topic as one about moving your car from your driveway to the street.  But keep in mind, we live on our boat, it is our only home.

So after months of motorsailing the southern shores of Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, we found a mechanic to rebuild our diesel engine in the town of La Parguera.  With the help of good friends, we found an available dock.  Docking space in Parguera are at a premium regardless of season.  Little did we know that our entire hurricane season would be spent at this conveniently placed dock just outside the town plaza.

What we have come to love about dock life is the amazing shore access.  We simply stepped off the boat, and walked less than a block to a basically fully stocked grocery.  This rather than prepping the dinghy, and schlepping our water jugs, gas jugs, shopping bags for a sometimes wet ride to town. We put our watermaker on hold and used dock water, a welcome excess for the hot days of summer and fall.  When the summer heat became most brutal, we hooked into the dock electricity and used the window AC for night comfort.

We developed a semi-regular pattern of walking with good neighbors, traversing the hills and valleys of Parguera, catching up on the history and local knowledge.  We were intrigued with the friendly faces of local men working in the plaza.  All were very polite, working with our awkward Spanish.  Vincent, Ray, Eric each living life on their own terms, happy to share space, always ready to assist.  We were a stone’s throw from Carmen’s Shell shop, a delightful collection of boat wear, shells, souvenirs, cold cerveza (beer) and the best Capriccio Sangria ever---produced exclusively in Puerto Rico, we think by Coca Cola.  We quickly learned to buy the 8% alcohol liter over the 14% alcohol cans . . . I cannot hold my liquor well enough for 14%.

We breakfasted with NBC Today, enjoying Savannah’s baby, Roker’s marathon, Jenna’s promotion, .  . . we became more attuned to world news, as well as NY news.  We no longer could access our VHF radio weatherman or Coconut Telegraph net.  But we spent hours in NY every morning. We lunched daily on the fresh, warm Cuban bread available at the grocery.  We added hielo (ice) to our daily purchase as the days got warmer, a great treat having iced beverages.  And we deviated from our soda-free existence by adding Diet Coke and Sprite Free to the shopping list.

So we have enjoyed a different side of Parguera this last week.  The one we had a few days prior to engine work.  One we had almost forgotten.  At hook we have gotten our boat legs back, we rock with the current and the wind.  We have a level of silence we had forgotten as night falls.  The music of the plaza is distant but we are close enough to hear the roosters crow.  It’s so peaceful.  We have stars to see at night instead of the dock lights.  The town looks magical from our perspective.

I start each day with snorkel, flippers and sometimes a scraper, doing laps around Horizon, enjoying the silence, the occasional fish, the pelicans.  Getting in touch with my inner mermaid, the one that likes to peel mayonnaise jars and algae.  Our weather man comes on at 7, the marine SSB net at 8. Otherwise, peace and quiet as the tradewinds settle in around 9.

Now a week later at anchor, we are still buying ice and sodas, now schlepping it by dinghy.  As we plan to depart soon, I have purchased extra bread, sodas. We slowly say goodbye to friends and good acquaintances.  We look forward to meeting more cruising boaters further down the coast, yet unknown.

The Enchanted Isle - Puerto Rico

Note:  We are not even halfway across the south coast of PR yet so these ponderings may be enriched as we travel.

Mike and I are docked in La Parguera, Puerto Rico, a small town on the southwest end of the Enchanted Isle.  We have been at the dock for more than a month.  Docking vs anchoring or mooring is a very different experience.  With it comes all the freedom of walking easily to town, some television reception, free water for the tanks, and electricity when needed.  For me as a reluctant sailor, these freedoms translate into a desire to switch course, to not sail again, or to simply anchor nearby for short periods of time.  Or a magical transport to a slip beside Rhonda in St Pete.

Last summer’s stay on a mooring in Vero gave me just enough of a taste of land pleasures, free bus, air conditioning, walking possibilities, volunteer opportunity to make me question a return to sailing.  The same thing is happening this year.  To be clear, neither Vero or La Parguera look like a settle-in spot, but the land-based options are like a siren-call to return to liveaboard near a town and airport.  Throw in an impending grandbaby and wonderful friendships from the past . . . . Well, suffice it to say our cruising days are numbered.  But what number is still up for debate.

We are awaiting an engine re-build, so far all but two sets of parts are in.  Meanwhile we have been blessed with friendship from a boating couple, Jan and Terry, who have made La Parguera ever so much friendlier.  They have docked here for several years, know many locals, have a car and took us under their wings the minute we were introduced via Angel of Carmen’s Shell Shop.  Well-traveled, sailors turned power boaters, Jan and Terry have navigated much of our engine repair plan and just become great friends.  Without them, the enchantment of Puerto Rico would have been harder to label positive.

La Parguera is a town protected by a series of reefs providing many small cays to visit for snorkeling, beaching, or simply getting out of town.  Boat tours to a couple Bio-luminescent bays are a primary income for the town with a lively trade from Weds-Sun.  Each weekend night there is entertainment in the plaza, a mere 100 feet from the dock we are renting.  We have bright lights and music until
approximately 2am Thurs-Sun.

The town is backed up by amazing mountains, though mostly brown because the southwest does not get the rain that other regions do.  Our ride to the San Juan airport showed us the verdant mountains of central and northeast PR.  So far our exposure to San Juan was from a moving car, but it was stunning.  A must return for further investigation spot.  The people of Puerto Rico are friendly and ready to assist.

My paucity of Spanish has left me using my dementia training to respond to numerous citizens who converse rapidly and with feeling for many minutes with my only contribution being matching facial expression, body language and murmuring “Si”. I am still torn as to the ethics of interrupting and clarifying that I have no idea what they are saying or simply continuing to validate .. . .so far the validation seems to be better received.  Until we talk to the mechanic, then we seek interpreters, Jan and at least one or two locals. Puerto Rican Spanish is apparently fairly unique as affirmed by my seatmate on a flight from BWI.

Enchantment is a term that applies to both positive and negative magical qualities.  Our experience with a transplanted NY’er was a big setback for the cruising lifestyle, a large shadow that has been hard to push aside.  Mike has done an admirable job recounting that on our blog at  Perhaps the enchantment of the island allows the borderline personality to stay free of institutionalization.  Enough said, he was not Puerto Rican.

Our dock life has included several gastrointestinal disturbances for me. The first was probably a result of using a hose that has lived aboard since St Pete to load the water tank.  We have since been purchasing drinking water at the small but well-stocked store, a half block from the dock.  The second incident was probably food poisoning from a local restaurant, something we have been very lucky to have avoided thus far.  A miracle considering how many times I have used marginally fresh product when no other was available over the last 17 months.

Personally I had built PR up as a mecca, an adjunct to the states with all the advantages.  We based our healthcare insurance on PR access, a foolish idea.  Very few doctors are able to process American insurance, at least in this part of PR.  Spanning 3 hours and 15 minutes end to end, a car is a necessity from La Parguera.  There are no taxis, no bus services coming to town.  Car rental is 20 miles away. Thank God for friends Jan and Terry.

In my DR reflections I summarized the changes on the south coast of Hispaniola from Haiti to DR based on the people, and the animals.  In Boqueron, we knew we had traversed into a developed country because it was our first time seeing obesity since the Bahamas.  As for animals, PR has dogs on leashes, at least in some areas.  In La Parguera, the dogs run but are fed, cats still get the short end of life’s pleasures.  The work ethic we noted in Boca Chica and the DR is a less prevalent here.  No matter when you pass the mall, the lot is packed like it is at holidays in the states.  Word is that population exceeds jobs. US support bridges the gap.  That being said, there are many diligent people working long hours as mechanics, storeowners, etc.  Prevalence vs. incidence is the research topic that comes to mind.

My naiveté continues at the almost age of 56.  I often look the part of a stupid gringo without even realizing it.  This journey has broadened my awareness if not my understanding of how things work for those not raised in the states.  I now have a fierce response to anyone speaking poorly of my country of origin, especially US natives. Likewise I am vigilant in trying to be a good representative, sometimes a challenge when waiting in line.  You can tell a gringo by his/her hands on hips in the ubiquitous lines of PR commerce.   I also see how many things are done poorly regardless of a country’s development or its status, US included.  But without the journey, I would have never had the extra dimensional perspective.

I am grateful and looking forward.  We cannot return home without traversing the south coast, taking in the islands of Culebra and Vieques.  Then the US Virgins are only 15 miles further, and have an airport structure supportive of grandmother-status.  But for today, I am going to walk to the cliffs over the Caribbean, close to the enclosed beach.  Might even take a bathing suit.

One island at a time, one town at a time, one day at a time.