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Posted on March 10, 2018 | 2 comments

Date Night

Date Night

Don’t judge a town by a guidebook cover. We climbed into the dinghy with just the clothes on our back and a little local EC currency. We left the cell phones and wallets locked on the boat. The guidebook told us that this was a sketchy town—a tourist had been held up at gunpoint a year ago. Nonetheless, the allure of a local fish fry drew us to shore. We were the only boat anchored in the bay amidst an array of brightly-colored local fishing boats. We pulled our dinghy up to the dock where local fisherman and children sat on fishing nets already celebrating the end of the school and work week.

Anse la Raye, named for the rays in its bay, is a small coastal fishing village on the west side of St. Lucia. It is home to about 200 inhabitants and the oldest chapel on the island, dating back to the middle of the 18th century. The waterfront Roman Catholic church, a magnificent combination of French and English colonial architecture, first caught our eye. Fundraising placards were still in place boasting a $500,000 local effort to refurbish the exquisite ceiling of beautiful dark wood beams. Hmmm…doesn’t seem so sketch to us.

The real claim to fame of this sleepy village, however, is a Friday night family fish fry that draws locals and tourists alike. The main street is closed to traffic and replaced with street vendors, tables and chairs, and a stereo that can blast to the other side of the island. When we arrived at the village around 6pm that Friday night, vendors were busily setting up stalls with barbecue grills or local crafts. Provisional bars were erected with the skill and ease of someone who’s been doing this every Friday night. Tables were stocked with different rums, liquors, bottles of grenadine, and a pile of juices—the basics for a St. Lucia happy hour. One stand boasted their access to electricity, featuring bright twinkling lights and the hum of a blender. This was enough to get our attention. Cindy and her husband had indeed been serving cocktails every Friday night since the event’s inception three years ago. On other days, they run a bar in a nearby town, which would explain their professional setup. We ordered a rum punch and a pina colada, which for the ladies, comes with a maraschino cherry and a pink umbrella.

With drinks in hand, we continued to wander the village. Wooden houses in a rainbow of colors lined the back roads. Some used their front room as a store front selling their own concoctions of rum punch or crates of daschine, the popular taro root vegetable. Clearly, the work week had ended as friends began congregating in doorways and on street curbs. A young couple, easily-identified as tourists by their fair skin and drinks in hand, approached us. Naturally, we stopped to hear their story. He, a Czech, and she, a German, were island hitchhiking as they explored the Caribbean. When asked where they were staying, they told us they were renting a room in town—fancy that, air bnb local style.

We returned to the dock to watch the sun set and to chat with a 9-year old boy with a big toothy grin who demonstrated how to navigate the dock’s bumpy uneven planks and gaps on a bicycle with training wheels.

At last, it was dinner time. Now which barbecue vendor to choose? We returned to Cindy’s bar for recommendations and she directed us to Nadia’s fish fry booth. Nadia offered grilled fish (red snapper in a foil packet), lambi (conch stew), accras (fish cakes), and local bread, which reminded us of Navajo fry bread. Great—we’ll take one of each! We took a seat at a nearby picnic table and Nadia served us the different pieces as they came hot off the grill. Our favorite? The accras.

As the night progressed, we enjoyed the relaxed social setting and the people it attracted. A Canadian youth church group of 15 or so teenagers was in St. Lucia doing volunteer work, an American family with their two teenagers. A local gentleman sat down next to us and, over the loud Caribbean music that was well underway by this point, gave us the inside scoop of town. The Carribean tunes, for example, included a few from the village’s own youth music groups. He knew everyone, of course, and introduced us to the various townspeople as they passed by. Yep, definitely a sketchy town:)

Eventually, the threat of our dinghy turning into a pumpkin beckoned us back to Gémeaux. Music boomed through the night and shook the hulls of our boat. Still, we reveled in our fun date night ashore.

Having established that cell phones and wallets were safe ashore, we ventured back to town the next day to photograph this picturesque town. This turned into a bigger adventure when we discovered a back street where women were selling fresh vegetables from their gardens. A local fisherman sold us fish at the dock on the honor system—just pay me when you get into town. That turned into a town-wide search party as we looked high and low to settle our debt. “Oh, that guy—he lives down the street,” said one man. “I just saw him—he’s down at the dock,” said another. And then, “Follow me, I’ll take you to his house.”  That was a real experience winding down alleyways and through backyards to locate the vanished fisherman. We finally gave our money to one person who promised to give it to another who would be sure to give it to the fisherman. Yep, definitely a sketchy town.

“Are you coming back?” the kids asked as we pulled away in our dinghy. Yep, definitely.

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Posted on February 10, 2018 | 1 comment

Îles de la Petite Terre

Îles de la Petite Terre

The French Carribean island of Guadaloupe is shaped like a butterfly. About 10 miles off the bottom of its right wing lies a piece of heaven. The two Islands of the Small Land were declared a nature reserve in 1998, protecting the Lesser Antillean iguana and several species of sea turtles. Once home to cotton planters and their slaves and later to cattle ranchers and fishermen, the islands are now uninhabited.

Of course, this is on our must-see list and we put it on our itinerary for when our friends, Gary and Courtney Corda, visit.

On this early morning as we approach the islands, the weather is good and promises a day of blue skies and sunshine. The guidebook tells us there is a calm, protected anchorage between the two islands that boasts some of the best snorkeling in the Carribean. The book also warns us that the depths just outside the anchorage are only 12-15 feet, followed by a bar of dead coral with an average depth of just 8 feet. Sails are down and we are under power, taking in this rather inhospitable entrance to paradise. A 6-foot surf breaking on the shore runs the width of the entrance. Hmmm, how to do this without ending up on the beach or upside-down? And once in, can we get out?

Just then, one of the many large day-charter catamarans who visit positions itself for entry. Their Captain whistles to us and signals to follow just behind him. This is our opportunity for entry—our destiny is in the hands of a party boat. Our own Captain secures a position just behind the day-charter and we both close in on the entry, just behind the breaking waves. We pause momentarily for the next surge and then in an instant, we throttle up the engines and surf along the top of the rolling wave. It’s exhilarating and the passengers (who are not responsible for the safety of the vessel) hoot and holler and revel in the e-ticket ride. Just as the wave begins to crest, this catamaran-turned-surfboard begins the downward climb into the lagoon as the swell continues to shore and crashes on the beach. We’re in. 

Several more day-charters arrive but we know they will all depart by the end of the day, leaving us alone in this beautiful bay. The water is amazingly clear and a spectacular turquoise color. We grab our snorkeling gear and plunge in to explore. We spend the day swimming with turtles and eagle rays and spying an abundance of reef fish, conchs and sea stars in this healthy, protected marine paradise. There is no end to our excitement and we snorkel for hours.

By late afternoon, all the day visitors have left so we explore the island of Terre de Bas. (The other island, Terre de Haut, is not accessible as it is a protected nesting area.) The white sand beach is heavily planted with palm trees and there is a maze of trails leading to all sides of the island. Gary, the avid runner in the group, sets off to create his own running course. The rest of us wander the path leading to the 108-foot tall brick lighthouse. The island is arid and desert-like but littered with small bushes and trees, including the Guaiac, a small tree nearing extinction. It is the perfect habitat for the Lesser Antillean iguana, sadly also in decline. Two male iguanas grandstand as they fight for territory across our trail. If we’re still and look carefully, we can spot several other iguanas handsomely camouflaged on branches.

We’re surprised to find a lone ranger in the lighthouse, who tells us the last inhabitant of the island was a lighthouse keeper who left in 1974. Today, a part-time ranger is stationed in the lighthouse to oversee the reserve. Past the lighthouse, we reach the rocky eastern side of the island where Atlantic trade winds first strike land, sending waves crashing against the shoreline and forming tall, 40-foot cliffs. When the surf subsides, tidal pools expose their sharp round edges below the cliffs.

Long shadows and an infinite stretch of sunset bring a close to this remarkable day. Tomorrow, we will fight the surf to exit. For now, we’ll enjoy a star-filled sky in this exquisite piece of the planet.

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Posted on January 26, 2018 | 3 comments

Cat on Cat: Rough Seas

Cat on Cat: Rough Seas

I do not like rough seas
I do not like them one bit at all
I do not like to pitch and roll
Dang! I hit my head on that stupid pole
I’m a scaredy cat, can’t you see?
A princess is what I was meant to be
I should be lying on the sun deck
Perfecting my tan from toes to neck

Rough seas are very bad
It makes me angry with my dad
He promised me sailing bliss
So tell me-why does he sail like this?
I’ve been misled about this life at sea
Help Coast Guard come rescue me!

I do not like rough seas today
I do not like them any day
It makes my tummy woozy and sore
Batten down the hatches and close each door
Ouch! That’s my tail that just got caught
I can’t believe you ruined my favorite spot

I must be quick and find a hole
Hunker down and be like a mole
I do not like the crashing wave
The only dry spot is in my cave
It seems the safest spot to be
At least until I have to pee

I do not like rough seas at all
They make me wobble, tip and fall
These waves are fierce and push us around
Crash! Bang! Boom! is the only sound
It’s frightening I can tell you that
It’s certainly no place for a princess cat

Finally, the storm has passed
The sun is shining–Yay, at last!
I take a peek from my safe cocoon
Gingerly I step and not a moment too soon
A rogue wave may strike so stay close to the floor
Hurry mom open the door!

I’m almost there I can hardly wait
Oh my gosh I hope I’m not late
And there it is just next to the mast
My litter box, thank goodness at last.

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Posted on January 21, 2018 | 2 comments

Hurricane Wrath

Hurricane Wrath

The allure of Barbuda was calling. The guidebook says it’s the perfect destination for the into-the-heart-of-nature diehard. Perfect, my kind of place. Of course, the guidebook was written before Category 5 Hurricane Irma struck last September and devastated this little island of 68 acres.

Little information was available on the current state of Barbuda. Even if you were well-provisioned to be self-sustainable on an island with no resources, it was questionable how much the navigation around Barbuda had changed. Many speculated so much sand had shifted in the storm that navigation could vary greatly from current charts and might indeed land you aground. The local sailing community was anxious to learn more about the state of international aid and perhaps provide assistance ourselves, either labor or supplies. We even had the chance to visit with Antigua’s Minister of Tourism at a sailing reception who was reported to know the state of affairs in Barbuda. Sadly, nobody had any information. We decided to investigate for ourselves.

In 1988, lightening struck a tree in Yellowstone National Park, igniting a series of fires that torched over a million acres. The park’s sacred log pole pine forests were destroyed, leaving behind a charred, black desert of tree carcasses. Visitors were saddened at the devastation of their national park and outraged at the fire policy of the National Park Service to allow a natural fire to burn. Less than five years later, however, black turned to green and seedlings took root. The highly-adaptable lodge pole pine forests began to regenerate. Not only did they begin to grow again, the seedling density was eight times as large as the original forests. Turns out the only way the cones from lodge pole pines can release their seeds is through exposure to high heat, i.e., fire. The irony of Mother Nature.

I though of that irony as I sat quietly perched at the front of the boat as a spotter for any new reefs or rocks not marked on our charts. In the distance, I could see the island littered with broken concrete, homes without roofs, and twisted palm trees. A devastation like the island had just been bombed. Yet, the beaches were pristine and perfect—just as the guidebook promised. Gentle waves broke softly on the shoreline, bright white with freshly-carved crystals of sand. No driftwood, trash, or ugly remnants of civilization, as though the beach was made just yesterday and had yet to be discovered. The water around us was incredibly clear, a vibrant turquoise that allowed you to see through to the bottom. Turtles popped their heads on the surface. Even with all the devastation ashore, the sea was healthy and in some cases, fresh with new life.

The 200+ winds of Hurricane Irma wiped the tiny island of Barbuda off the map. Houses were flattened, palm trees were uprooted and naked without their fronds. Once a popular resort, Coco Point on the southwest side of the island lay in a rubble of concrete. Full industrial-sized jars of olives and stacks of dinner plates still in tact lay in the sand—remnants of what was once a busy kitchen. Individual bottles of mustard and catsup still clung together as pairs, marking where each dinner table once stood. And then, as if Mother Nature plays favorites, a patio table with a potted plant and coffee cup remained unscathed.

We spot feral donkeys, once an integral part of the island’s sugar industry, grazing in scattered patches of green, seemingly oblivious to the destruction around them. A hog meanders between piles of scrap, lucky to have escaped both a hurricane and the butcher.

In the main town of Codrington, there are two relief organizations offering aid, but no apparent triage for individual volunteer efforts.

We notice signs of residents trying to get back on their feet—repairing roofs, one power line up, and cell service. I was touched by one home whose roof was in disrepair, yet the landscaping in the front yard proudly presented a fresh tidy look.

We met a young man making his way through town on his bike, delivering freshly-desalinated water to his neighbor. “I’m a taxi driver,” he told us. “Just waiting to have my car repaired in Antigua and then I’ll be back in business.” This level of optimism makes me smile and confident that the fortitude of the Barbuda people is what will rebuild the island.

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Posted on January 11, 2018 | 2 comments

Bus #17

Bus #17

Bus #17 is what the locals take to get to their jobs in the capital of St. John’s on the island of Antigua. Groups of students dressed in their blue or pink uniforms take bus #17 to get to school. Mamas take their babies and laborers take their tools. Young men with their long braided hair neatly piled high on their heads take bus #17. Other men with their long braided hair piled not so neatly  take bus #17. On this hot, humid day when we needed, of all things, a new cat litter box, we took bus #17.

We start our journey at the beginning of the bus route outside the popular tourist destination of Nelsons Dockyard in English Harbor. As visitors boarded their luxury air conditioned tour busses, we hop into a minivan recognizable only as public transportation by the yellow #17 sticker on the windshield. The 30-minute ride costs $1.50.

The driver navigates between pedestrians and parked cars, and those cars simply stopped in the middle of the road so drivers can say hello to one another. Along the way, we make quick stops to pick up riders until all 10 seats are filled with 12 passengers.

We’re pretty pessimistic about finding a litter box in this land of many stray cats so we’re surprised when we discover there’s an actual pet store in town. Once we arrive at the transportation center in downtown St. John’s, Google Maps leads us through a residential area and up a hill, guaranteeing that a pet store will indeed be our destination. Just as we’re ready to abandon hope, we land at Glenn’s Pet Paradise. Of course, they do not carry litter boxes but they do in fact have quite a selection of pet products in their tiny store and we enjoy sharing cat stories with Glenn. And yes, they are the only pet store in town.

We’re in a shopping mecca so naturally we add to our shopping list. Allen’s flip-flops recently suffered a fatality and since these are critical footwear in our tropical beach environment, we set out to replace them. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Allen, he is 6’4”, towering over many and certainly a head above almost everyone on this Carribean island. He wears a size 17 shoe. You think finding a litter box is difficult? We pop into every shoe store in downtown St. John’s hoping to find surfboard-size flip flops. While we never come even close to finding a replacement pair, we do enjoy the incredulous looks of disbelief and laughter we get from storekeepers as they take in the largest feet that have ever walked through their doors.

The search for a new litter box, however, is a success. While pet stores are scarce, home supply stores are plentiful and the assortment of colorful plastic tubs even more so. Dot now has a nice, deep-sided plastic container that she can call her own. With litter box in hand, we continue to wander the streets of St. John’s. We find respite at a shaded sidewalk cafe where cold wine and humidity stand off in a display of nonstop condensation. A stop at a local farmer’s market completes our day in the city. 

When it’s time to return, bus #17 is waiting for us. We climb in with the students and the mamas and the laborers, and all those braids. We have completed our day in the city and head back to the countryside we call home, where some have slept away the entire day.

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