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Posted on November 14, 2018 | 2 comments

Underwater Paradise: Bonaire

Underwater Paradise: Bonaire

I was born in Yellowstone National Park. As a park ranger’s daughter, my entire childhood was spent in America’s iconic parks like Yosemite and Grand Canyon. I can tell you more about how to tranquilize a bear than how to navigate a shopping mall. I love nature and the outdoors and all the critters on the planet. Except ticks. Yuck.

There are many many highlights that make up this journey but far and away are the opportunities to explore so much of our natural world. This week, the 5-mile island of Bonaire, north of Venezuela and outside the hurricane belt, moved to the top of that list. Essentially a coral reef pushed up from the sea, the entire island today is surrounded by a reef that starts just a few feet from shore and since 1962 has been protected by the Bonaire National Marine Park. Anchoring is not permitted anywhere on the island—you must dock at a marina or use a mooring ball to avoid damaging the coral. It is a diving and snorkeling mecca to see octopuses, turtles, stag horn coral, and more than 350 species of fish. On land, Washington Slagbaai National Park and a flamingo nesting sanctuary are credited as being the first nature preserves in the Caribbean.

After a long 3-day passage from Grenada, we arrived in Bonaire only to find there was no room at the inn—the highly-coveted mooring balls outside the capital city of Kralendijk were all taken. A slip in the Harbor Village Marina would have to be home for the next several days. We begin exploring—first on land to clear customs and to enjoy a celebratory piña colada, and then by sea to get our first glimpse of the underworld.

This island municipality of the Netherlands is easy to navigate—their currency is the US dollar and, in addition to Dutch and their local Creole language of Papimientu, nearly everyone speaks English. An easy ¼-mile morning walk from the marina lands us at Between Two Buns where we enjoy croissants and cappuccinos and mango cheesecake for breakfast—it’s going to be a great day:)


Gone Snorkeling

After any passage, there is always a long list of chores and projects. Today’s list features laundry (such a luxury to have a washing machine onboard) and fixing the clogged toilet in our berth. Superhuman handymen Allen and David spend a full day extracting and scrubbing the entire toilet tank, eventually discovering a buildup of urine calcifications—a chemical reaction between urine and the salt water used to flush our toilets. And you thought our days were just filled with pretty sunsets? Tired of dripping in sweat, Barbara and I finish laundry and abscond with the dinghy for the first of many snorkeling excursions.

Still refreshing at nearly 84 degrees, the  Caribbean water washes away our sweat and prunes our fingers and toes as we simply cannot get enough of these beautiful reefs. Water is so clear we spot a camouflaged Peacock flounder quietly scooting across the sand 20 feet below. Stoplight parrotfish display all their life stages of color from juvenile orange to the mature brilliant emerald green as they bang their parrot-like beak on coral for nutrients. We learn favorite hiding spots and behaviors and discover the shy fish when we peek under coral shelves—large porcupine puffers, lobster, and the red squirrel fish named for their large black squirrel-like eyes. We wave each other over when we catch a rare glimpse of a golden tail eel poking out his head or see a grey shirttail eel swimming like a snake on the bottom of the sea.

An occasional barracuda catches me by surprise as I happen to glance up from my constant downward gaze, notice him swimming above me, and wonder which one of us is more curious about the other. We have nicknames for everything we see until we can confirm their names in the fish book—the black and white honeycomb trunkfish with the large boxy head is the Star Wars fish, and the tiny, intricate colorful clusters of sea urchins covering brain coral are flower gardens. The small neon speckled blue Damselfish will always be the Courtney fish as I recall my friend’s absolute joy when she spotted them during a recent visit.

Back at the marina, we exchange stories of the stunning underworld with the boys’ toilet treasures—brown plaster-like chunks that they’ve scraped off the plumbing. We win the prize. We quickly change and catch the complimentary taxi that shuttles yachties, as the locals call us, to what would become our favorite supermarket. Van den Tweels—land of Dutch cheese, arugula, herbs, fresh beef and chicken, and…La Croix!

Beach Cleanup

It seems only fitting that as visitors to this piece of paradise we should give something back. We join the locals in their weekly beach cleanup. While families, school children, and a few other yachties board a school bus, we snag a ride with Muriel, a Dutch school teacher who delights in telling us about the island country she and her husband have called home for two years. “You don’t need to wear your seatbelts,” she announces as we pile into her Chevy truck, “In Bonaire, we like to be free!” We choose safety over freedom, buckle our seatbelts as we bounce through pot holes, and listen intently to our personal tour guide. We learn there is no seatbelt law in Bonaire, nor is there a law against drunk driving. And yes, there are serious traffic accidents every week. Public transportation is available but there is no schedule—everyone has the bus driver’s phone number and calls when they need a ride. The island’s population of 18,000 is comprised of 40% locals and 60% Dutch American, with a growing community of Chinese.

The landscape is covered with tall Yatu cactus as we cross to the eastern side of the island and Muriel points out the savannah fence, a beautiful and well, very effective, fence built from this plentiful crop. Huge wind mills come into view as we approach the rocky beach—20% of the island’s power is generated by wind (FYI Corda Solar: 10% of their power comes from solar in case you want to expand your business!) There’s no natural source of fresh water; an enormous desalination plant provides all the island’s water.

Nearly 100 people are already underway with large garbage bags picking up trash. As I grab a trash bag, I walk aimlessly, wondering wonder where in the world I should start and what trash is worth picking up. This cigarette butt? That can over there? A couple plastic bottle tops? Here’s some shredded pieces of blue rope. Before I know it, I’m standing in the middle of thousands of plastic water bottles and flip-flops—the most abundant type of trash that has drifted thousands of miles from the African coast. 

I sit on a piece of driftwood and completely fill my bag from this one seated position. I’m disgusted with the trash and saddened at the impact it has had on this beautiful beach. I vow to always use my refillable water bottle. What more can I do? What more should we all do to eliminate trash from our planet? And what’s up with the flip flops? Can’t someone invent biodegradable soles? We spend nearly three hours filling dump trucks and there are still miles and miles of beach to clean. But we have made a difference and it’s encouraging to see all the people who have come together and the enthusiasm of the younger generations to take action.

Snorkeling in an Aquarium

Allen’s nephew, Allen (who we call Little Allen) and his girlfriend, Shiera (just kidding, her name is Ruth) arrive and our party of 6 sets sail to explore more snorkeling hotspots.

Klein Bonaire, or Little Bonaire, is a small, flat, uninhabited island about ½ mile from Bonaire. Also under protection by Bonaire’s Marine Park system, it boasts remarkably clear water to view fish and coral. Snorkeling here is like being in one of those floor to ceiling viewing tanks in aquariums. It’s difficult to convey the utter beauty of it all—kind of like the difference between seeing a photo of the Grand Canyon and actually standing on the rim looking into that natural wonder. And while snorkeling allows me to see so much, I’m tempted to update my diving skills—the nearby ledge that drops off hundreds of feet is enticing.

Our next snorkeling destination is 1000 Steps, named for the number of steep limestone steps it feels like when you’re carrying your gear from atop the cliffs down to the beach. Lucky for us, we tie up to a mooring ball and simply jump of the boat and swim. Shallow turquoise waters make it easy to spot turtles and large schools of fish. The intricately-designed black and yellow French angelfish becomes one of my favorites.

Guest Perspective

“Barbara expands our definition of breakfast. We start the day off with passionfruit cheesecake (author’s note: see a trend?) at the bakery just down the road from the marina and attempt to corner the local market on croissants. After this, we all pile into a rental van and we head over to Lac Bay for more snorkeling. We swim out through shallow, aquamarine water to the reef at the inlet to the bay. Amazing biodiversity. We suck in hard as we float over coral that is sometimes just inches below water surface. After beers and snacks (fried balls of liquid meat, anyone?), we head to a food truck run by kite surfers from the Netherlands. During a hellacious squall, we consume our meal of tuna tartare burgers in the rental van, condensation dripping down the windows. We dry out and resupply on groceries and alcohol in town. We bring home the “bargain” large bottle of Cadushy, the local cactus liqueur which glows the seagreen color of antifreeze. The crew eagerly awaits Unky Al’s ship log entries documenting his future Cadushy cocktail concoctions.”

-Allen and Ruth from the Gémeaux logbook

Shoes Required

Well since we have a rental car, let’s explore more of the island! I’m ambivalent because 1) I almost always prefer to be in the water, and 2) the day requires shoes…ouch. However, this Park Service brat would never pass up the chance to wander through a national park so I squeeze into my hiking shoes and climb into our van.

Along our way, we spot the island’s national bird, the Caribbean Flamingo. Who knew? Such a treat to see a flamingo in the wild. Turns out Bonaire’s protected salt ponds make the island one of the Caribbean’s few breeding grounds for the thousands of flamingos here. Not to be outdone by silly, long-necked birds with their beaks in the mud, the brown-throated parakeet and a yellow-headed caracara! grace us with their striking colors. I’m still trying to wrap my head around tropical parakeets flying among cactus:)

On the other side of an exuberant blow hole, we plunge into a small eddy of calm water, unusual to find on this windward side of the island, and enjoy unsanctioned skinny dipping before beginning our hike. Mt. Brandaris claims the highest point on the island at 790 feet above sea level. For those of you mocking the term hike, let me remind you that it’s 88 degrees with about the same amount of humidity. These are mandatory conditions in which eating cheesecake for breakfast is allowed.

Panoramic views at the summit give us a distant glimpse of Curaçao and even the Venezuelan mainland. The sun is blazing but we relish the breeze and the consequential evacuation of mosquitoes. As the terrain flattens at the end of our hike, we dodge blue whip-tail lizards scurrying across the trail and marvel at iguanas drinking from puddles.

It has been a spectacular day on land, driving in the luxury of an air-conditioned van, but we are children of the water and are happiest when we trade our sneakers for fins and plunge back into the quiet of Bonaire’s underwater paradise. I’ll return to this island some day to see that octopus I never could find.

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Posted on November 11, 2018 | 5 comments

We’re Back! Passage to Bonaire

We’re Back! Passage to Bonaire

It’s 400 miles from Grenada to Bonaire, or about three days and three nights of nonstop sailing—a passage. I have a love/hate relationship with passages. I love being far far away from civilization, surrounded by a blank canvas of sea that clears my mind and rekindles my soul. Occasionally, a school of playful dolphins perform a private show in our boat wake or we hook a beautiful yellow mahi mahi for dinner.  Deep black night skies display constellations I’ve never managed to make out. And then, magically and ever so quietly, the eastern sky awakens, painting the tips of clouds in a kaleidoscope of purple and orange. The sunrise marks the beginning of another day at sea.

Passages require night shifts—someone constantly at the helm so we can sail continuously. This is the hate part of the relationship for me. For this passage, we decide to do couple shifts. Allen and I take the first shift beginning at 8pm while David and Barbara, our good friends onboard for this journey, catch two hours of shuteye. Surprisingly, already at 10pm I can hardly keep my eyes open and I welcome our first shift change. I fall into bed, put in my earplugs, and immediately begin dreaming. Allen sleeps like a cat—one eye closed and the other fixed on any unusual shift in wind or sails. The alarm sounds at 2am—we brush our teeth, put on life jackets, and grab a cup of hot tea pretending it’s the start of just another ordinary day. A short hushed conversation relates any unusual activity as David and Barbara stumble into their next phase of slumber and we take over at the helm.

Reflection comes easily in this near state of subconsciousness and my mind wanders back to just one week ago when we arrived in Grenada after a long red-eye flight. Notice a pattern between sleeplessness and sailing? Returning to Grenada after a busy summer of visiting doctors, catching up with friends, moving kids to college, moving me out of my rental home, and many summer adventures, was a welcome sight. That was until I realized instead of going straight to the lovely La Luna resort to settle in, we would go directly to Gémeaux at the dusty Clarke’s Court boatyard to begin the arduous task of unpacking, repacking, cleaning, and prepping the boat for her splash back into the water.

Of course, we were excited to see her. Right away we noticed her beautiful new black bottom paint job and sparkly gold propellers. We were grateful she had escaped all the planet’s hurricanes while she was out of the water, supported by heavy rebar braces on the hard. But that’s kind of where shiny new stopped. We also noticed a dinghy yellow film of dirt plastered the once white trampoline and window coverings. Inside, pillows, linens, even upholstery had a tinge of yellow dust. We took out the vinegar and began the long process of wiping down everything again and sending everything that had been laundered in June back to the laundry. For four days, we cleaned and scrubbed and completed repairs. We recharged fire extinguishers, filled propane, oiled and lubed, replaced a toilet…and on and on goes the list. For two nights, we treated ourselves to a respite of La Luna. When the sun fell below the horizon, Donald, cab driver extraordinaire, fetched our tired stinky bodies from the boatyard and deposited us at our favorite seaside resort for cool showers, yummy food, and a dreamy bed.

Days later, Gémeaux was deemed fit for the sea. A skillful crew attached large straps on Gémeaux’s belly, hoisted her off the rebar braces, drove her a few hundred yards through the dockyard, and gently splashed her back into the water. We were nearly ready to sail again. We motored a few miles to Port Louis Marina with lovely air-conditioned restrooms and neighbors like Venus aka Steve Jobs’ yacht:) We spent another several days putting up sails and ticking off more items on the never-ending repair list.

It wasn’t all work and no play in Grenada. While the boys were busily and happily conquering all remaining repairs, Barbara and I absconded with the dinghy to explore the island’s capital of St Georges. Old forts, museums, open markets, and all the urban civilization in between. Barbara shares my curiosity about our planet and a passion for adventure. What a treat to wander tirelessly and engage with the people we met along the way. On this day following Grenada’s Thanksgiving on October 25th, which celebrates the 1983 U.S. invasion of the island, we sat with two local ladies as they shared how to prepare their national dish Oil Down—a combination of breadfruit, coconut milk, and turmeric.

My mind snaps back to the present as Allen points out bright lights on the southern horizon and speculates that they are large nighttime Venezuela fishing operations. We have carefully charted a course to stay 100 miles from this less-than-friendly country but still I can’t help wonder what we would do if those bright lights turned out to be a modern version of the Black Pearl and Jack Sparrow approached us. Soon the dawn of a new day and the prospect of sleep rids all pirates from my imagination.

The thing about night watches, I’ve decided, is that I’m in a constant state of slumber. During the days that follow night shifts, I nap constantly trying to replenish my sleep reserves. But I never quite get to the point of replenishment. Every time I sit down, my body slides slowly into a supine position and before I know it, I’m asleep again. When I’m awake, my brain is foggy and I stumble around in a zombie state. This is fitting. Today is Halloween. Costume not necessary. I’m the walking dead. Trick or treat.

P.S. And yes, we miss Dot:(

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Posted on May 19, 2018 | 8 comments

The Life of Dot

The Life of Dot

When your beloved pet is sick, those Caribbean sunsets stop taking your breath away and simply mark the end of another day of hurt. “Mon chat est très malade,” I explained in broken French, “Elle ne mange pas.” My head spun as I tried to form the words that could explain to the vet that Dot had stopped eating and was deteriorating fast. Emotions and heartache suffocated words en route from my brain to my mouth. The contradiction in my body flooded me with memories of trying to comprehend the doctor’s treatment plan while still digesting the words, “You have cancer.”

When I first noticed Dot wasn’t eating, I thought her food had gone rancid, not unlike many foods do in this salty, humid environment. As the dish of fresh food and her favorite treats stood untouched, I began considering other possibilities. Was she nauseous from drinking salt water off the decks? Had she been bitten by a bug or spider? One of our guests had arrived from South America sporting a large, swollen wound on his shin from a spider bite.  And then another of our guests got a spider bite. We’re on a boat for heaven’s sakes—spiders aren’t supposed to be here! Maybe a spider stowed away in the luggage of our South American guest and is now spreading his venom onboard. Or maybe our sweet girl has cancer?

Dot’s appetite continued to wane as she declined even a can of fresh tuna. She would approach the food with genuine curiosity and then turn away as though to say, “I wish I could, but frankly it would ruin my diet.”  We tried it all—different cat foods and cat treats, milk and chicken, even French delicacies like smoked jambon and paté. We were encouraged when Dot would eat a few pieces of ham but the next day, the ham was snubbed and placed on the growing list of failed foods. At just 9 pounds when she’s healthy, it didn’t take long before Dot’s black pelt started to hang on her thinning body. She began spending less time cuddling and having her tummy petted and more time sitting quietly alone. Was this just the beginning of the end for our 14-year old cat? Or, was it something else? Where was Dr. Doolittle when I so badly wanted my kitty to tell me what was wrong? Thousands of miles away from our vet in California, I set out to find a vetèrinaire in this French-speaking part of the world.

At the time, we were in Les Saintes—a small archipelago off the main island of Guadaloupe. It’s one of the most picturesque places you’ll ever visit with quaint boutiques lining the front street and restaurants that serve haute cuisine while you sit with your feet in the sand. Homes and shops boast their individuality with bright Caribbean colors and uniquely-styled front doors, but unite in symmetry under those famous red roofs that dot their ancestral European villages.

All this nestled below the historic Fort Napoléon on one side and one of our favorite hiking destinations, Le Chameau, on the other. Thousands of tourists from around the world arrive each day in this little paradise on an early morning ferry. They shop, they eat, they sightsee on their rented mopeds, they eat some more, and then they depart on the 4pm ferry, returning the little town to its homeowners and lucky people like us who are anchored in the bay. Les Saintes has it all, except for a veterinarian.

I’ve mastered ordering croissants and a baguette in French, but I had to really dig deep in the language lobe of my brain to find a vetèrinaire, explain le problème, and make an rendez-vous. During our many trips in and around Guadaloupe, we had befriended a taxi driver. Françoise was much more than a driver, helping us provision at grocery stores, delivering guests from the airport and then returning them, and always always arriving with a smile. “De rien,” she would say when we thanked her. And she genuinely meant it was nothing at all to provide the service. Naturally, Françoise was my go-to person in our pet crisis. Over the course of several Franglais texts, Françoise found a veterinarian in mainland Guadaloupe, arranged a Saturday appointment, and promised to shuttle us from the 7:15am ferry to the vet. I am forever grateful for her help and compassion.

Morning arrived quickly after a sleepless night. We prepared the dinghy, our usual transportation from anchor to shore, and Dot took the first of what would be many ambulance dinghy rides. With cat carrier in hand, I purchased a ferry ticket, bid Allen farewell, and boarded the passenger ferry to Trois Rivières in Guadaloupe. Dot would have said it felt like another airplane flight back to California where she would be confined to her carrier under the seat without food or a litter box for about 20 hours. Truly, she was an extraordinary cat and I hoped with all my heart that this mere 30-minute passage would provide answers and return her to good health. As we departed the bay in our motorized vessel, I took comfort in seeing Allen under sail on Gémeaux with his two visiting brothers. Dot’s declining health had dictated a new itinerary where Allen would undertake the slower 4-hour sail with his brothers and we would all eventually meet in Guadaloupe.

As promised, Françoise met us at the ferry station. Usually a jovial ride with French lessons and questions about local culture, we drove in silence during the 45-minute drive. Dot’s condition weighed heavily on my mind. Every now and again from our shoreline highway, I would catch a faint glimpse of Gémeaux making her way to me from the distant horizon. As Françoise’s taxi approached the tattered building of the local veterinary clinic, I had to remind myself not to judge a book by its cover. As Americans, we’ve become so used to shiny new markets and manicured landscaping, ne’er a blade of grass out of place. How often do we allow the outside of the business or the school or the home to dictate its quality and never step inside? This neighborhood veterinary clinic had given a complete stranger, not even from its own community, a highly-coveted Saturday appointment just hours earlier. Today, the cover certainly didn’t matter.

Blood results showed elevated enzymes in her foie…as in foie gras? I know that word. But why? And was the compromised liver causing the anorexie, or was the lack of eating compromising the foie? We left with a handful of medicines and specialized cat food, touted as a food that tous les chats adorent, and made another dinghy crossing to our new anchorage. The next day was Sunday, when all of Guadaloupe would close. If there still was no improvement we would return to the vet on Monday for intravenous fluids. Dot did not adore the specialized cat food and when Monday came, she returned to the vet.

The hours ticked by slowly as we remained hopeful that fluids would jump start Dot’s appetite and outweigh the stress of an 10-hour stay à l’hôpital. It was nearly 7pm when the busy veterinary office slowed down and we could discuss Dot’s condition with the vet. An ultrasound showed that Dot had indeed a fois abnormal but still we had no diagnosis. We left again with a handful of new medicines and made the dinghy crossing in the dark of night. There would be no return the following day. Tuesday was a jour férié celebrating France’s end of WW2. Not only was Tuesday a public holiday, but Thursday all businesses would close again to observe Ascension Day. It was a bad week to need medical care.

Once back to Gémeaux, Dot appeared alert and feeling better, although admittedly our glasses were a bit rose colored. After thoughtful deliberation and hopeful that Dot was beginning to heal, we decided to continue our sail south. The vet in Guadaloupe had done all she thought she could do and furthermore wouldn’t be available the next day. By Wednesday, we would be in Martinique where, if Dot needed more medical care, a different vet on a more populated island might have a diagnosis. At this point, I reached out to our long-time vet in California by email and phone. She was compassionate yet direct, and offered what I needed most—just to talk in English about Dot’s worrisome condition and validate our treatment plan.

Eating continued to be a problem but apart from shedding a vast amount of weight, Dot seemed normal. She wandered the boat and continued to drink water from the faucet and use her litter box. This is always the difficulty in assessing how to handle a pet’s declining health and to know if indeed the end is near, or if all she really needs is a little more food and medicine to swing the pendulum the other way. Many people would say that giving milk and baby food through a syringe was going too far. Others, who know the absolute love of animals that Allen and I share, understand completely. When Savannah, Allen’s standard poodle and the love of his life, was in the final days of her life, he sat with her day and night, lovingly feeding her bits of a hotdog that a friend had brought to sustain Allen. Once we arrived in Martinique, we sought the local vetèrinaire in the town of Case-Pilote and decided to give Dot one more round of treatment. She would stay à l’hôpital for the weekend to receive fluids and a nasal feeding tube.

Dot’s a tough girl. She was born 14 years ago into a litter of feral cats near my home in California. Having the Brady gene to save all furry critters large and small, weak and sick, I set out to trap and neuter Dot’s feral colony of 18 cats. It was an arduous process that required great patience and perseverance—after all, it only works if you neuter them all. Neighborhood cat lovers and my long-time vet (yep, the same one) collaborated to end this reproductive cycle. We would trap a cat, transport it to the vet to spay/neuter, and then keep it in one of four dog crates in my garage until all cats were trapped. Ultimately, we would release them back to their outdoor home, but only after they were all trapped; otherwise, we would repeatedly trap the same cats. Boy were those cats fierce—they would hiss and claw, spit in your face, and lunge at you when you reached in with gloves and a pair of tongs to refill their food and water.

Some of the cats were young and could be tamed. I confined these cats to a spare room and each day my children and I would feed them and talk to them, hold them and play with them. Eventually, we would domesticate the cats to the point where they could be adopted by weak-hearted and generous friends. Dot was one of the young ones that I tamed. I knew from the beginning that she was a special cat. She didn’t even require a trap. Unlike most of the feral cats who would scamper when I approached their forested home during feeding time, Dot would stay put—one eye on her food and one eye on me. She would actually purr while she was eating. One day, with great apprehension, she allowed me to get close enough where I could touch her while she ate. In a decisive moment, I scruffed the back of her neck, held firmly while she kicked and wailed, and finally thrust her little body into a pet carrier before she could bite my hand off. Some day she would be a cat who liked to have her belly rubbed; today, she was mad as hell.

Once this angry kitty relented from her ceiling perch on the bathroom light in the spare room, she slowly came around. We named the little tuxedo kitten Dot because of the white dot on her nose. She learned her name quickly and I discovered right away that she would come when I called her. She was the last of the cats to be adopted; unbeknownst to me, she would never leave. Each time a potential adoptive family would visit, Dot would lay those ears back with a frown and cantankerous look and then delight in her devious triumph as frightened families cowered away. It was then I knew Dot had forgiven me for that evil scruff and claimed me as her mama forever.

In many ways, Dot’s relationship with me was like that of a loyal dog. She was always by my side. The more trust I built with her through patience and affection, the more Dot gave to me. She was my tummy pillow during my long recovery from a hysterectomy. When I discovered my husband at that time was having multiple affairs and I spent many many days under the covers in deep despair, Dot cuddled with me. Anytime I called for her, she came, jumped onto my lap and basked in the affection. I mastered the technique of stroking her back so after a few seconds, she would simply collapse onto her side giving me permission to pet her tummy—the ultimate testament in trust. Often, we would fall asleep like this and I would awake to find her still curled around my hand.

When I left Dot, however, she was forlorn. House sitters would tell me that while I was out-of-town Dot was nowhere to be seen. Upon my return, I’d wander outside in the quiet darkness after everyone in the house had gone to bed, and call Dot in my sing-songy voice. Sometimes it took a few calls but eventually, I’d hear that faint meow reply. We continued the conversation until Dot returned home, confident that her safe environment had been restored. As years passed, Dot developed a shrewd technique guaranteed to keep me at home—she would leave her gift of urine on everything while I was gone. This tactic eventually earned Dot a place on Gémeaux. She’s a sly one.

Having Dot with us on the boat has been an adventure. Rough seas, loud boat noises, airplane travel to and from foreign countries, constant exams—the list is long but Dot has persevered and even flourished as a boat cat. Once a frightened cat stowed away in the closet, she now claims the 44 feet of fiberglass as her domain. Creaks and crashes hardly make her flinch. She rides in her carrier with us at the helm, whiskers whipping in the wind. She jumps through open hatches like they are cat doors and prowls the boat at night. Life on a boat with a pet is complicated, but we couldn’t imagine life without her.

It’s Saturday now. Our other sick cat(amaran), Gémeaux, has been revived and her port engine is as good as new. We are ready to continue sailing south to Grenada so we can return to California at the end of the month. We remain tied to the Volvo Diesel repair dock in Case-Pilote, however, anxious and hopeful that Dot heals. She’s been on a feeding tube and intravenous fluids for nearly 48 hours. Just writing those words sounds awful and wreaks havoc with my heart as I try to balance hanging on and letting go. The vet is kind and compassionate, soft-spoken and gentle as she examines Dot. She speaks little English but our mutual love for animals bridges the gap. She allows us to visit after their practice closes on Friday and then again on Saturday morning. We poke our heads into Dot’s crate and talk to her. The look on her face reminds me of that long ago day when I snatched her from the wild. I hope she is indeed angry—that would be a sign of recovery. When she flicks her tail and inches slowly onto her back, we know she’s glad we’re there and we haven’t abandoned her in a French torture chamber.

Dot died two days later. The vet had let us take Dot home on Saturday night, after showing us how to administer liquid food in a feeding tube and give injections of medicine. At bedtime, Dot purred when she curled up next to me—a sure sign, I thought, that she was on the mend after food got into her belly. We spent Mother’s Day doing what only parents would do—feed their sick baby through a syringe every two hours. With each feeding I could see her belly grow and fill with nutrients. And then, before day broke the next morning, Dot vomited every precious little ounce we had fed her. She just couldn’t digest the very thing she needed to sustain her life. There was no more purring, just a look that every mother knows when their baby hurts. My heart ached. Tears streamed down my face as emotions once again stifled my ability to find the French words. There was no mincing words, no elegant prose to tell the vet it was time to let Dot go. Dot had a maladie en phase terminale and I blubbered out the need for euthanasie.

Ensconced in a little cardboard casket inside her pet carrier, Dot continued sailing with us for a few more days. It was comforting knowing in some ways she was still there and I was grateful for a little more time to process the loss. We bid farewell to Case-Pilote, a town that will forever hold a special place in our hearts, and continued our journey south. Sails flapped and waves crashed but the helm was quiet as we let the monotony of an endless sea carry away our grief. At the base of St. Lucia’s majestic Pitons deep in the sea below, we said a final goodbye and laid Dot to rest.

I have loved and lost many pets in my life. The more I love them, the more it hurts when I lose them. I loved Dot deeply. We shared an amazing journey that started with a frown and grew with trust. She brightened many of my days and kept me standing tall on others. She was a great pet, friend, and shipmate. She remains forever in our hearts and I will smile each time I find one of those little black hairs aboard Gémeaux. Her carrier remains onboard with us…just in case another frowning kitty crosses my path.


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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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