03/23/2012, Palenque, DR
Our friend and new crew member João Paulo spent 10 days aboard Rodeo with us, enjoying all the benefits and discomforts afforded by our vagabond life style.
We bounced around a few anchorages, slowly making our way toward Boca Chica, where we planned to rent a car for a trip to the interior of the country.
The first place out of Salinas we anchored was Bahia de Ocoa. A nice enough spot with a small settlement at the heart of it and upscale villas lining the bay. We played around there for a few days, taking in the local flavor and enjoying the company of our friends on Pura Vida and Katarina. Katarina had guests on board as well. Kathryn's daughter Ashley and her partner Alex came to visit for a week. John and Kathryn hosted a pot luck dinner on our last evening in Ocoa, to get everybody together before we moved on. Our contribution was a delicious Spanish Mackerel, done in a passion fruit marinade, prepared by João and Gabe. In keeping with the Brazilian theme the boys also mixed incredible rum and passion fruit cocktails we couldn't get enough of. After supper Ashley and Alex treated us to a serenade in the cockpit. They sang in harmony while Alex played guitar and João occasionally accompanied on a harmonica. With a star riddled sky above and phosphorescent waters splashing about beneath us, we went on, some singing some humming along, all the while relishing the moment. It is a tremendous blessing to have been conned into this life at sea by the one I love, and now to be able to share it with others I've come to cherish.
Later the following day Rodeo and Pura Vida were under way once more, bearing for Puerto Palenque. Having picked up our guest, we were no longer on a schedule and we had more flexibility in terms of weather windows. We allowed ourselves the luxury of waiting for the seas to settle and the winds to lay down before we pulled anchor and headed east this time. We arrived in Palenque just as the local fishermen were gathering enormous nets strewn right across the bay. With four men per boat, one rowed along the buoyed edge of the net, while the rest pulled and piled it inside the vessel. Upon seeing us approach toward their bread and butter they waved and screamed for us to stay back. We no more wanted to get tangled up in the net than they wanted it ripped to shreds by our propeller, so we hung outside the bay until their work was done. We watched in amazement as dozens of fishermen walked the ends of the nets along the beach, pulling it ever so tighter and closer together, until its contents were scooped out ashore to be shared among all the workers. After being allowed to enter the bay we anchored near Playa Palenque, where we spent a few restless days awaiting favorable winds and a despacho from Marina de Guerra (Dominican Coast Guard). We're required to get a despacho, a stamped and signed document of permission for every new port we intent to visit. Legally this document should be provided at no charge, but Marina de Guerra has been happily accepting administrative fees from cruisers everywhere, and we had a hard time convincing the branch at Palenque that they should cough it up for free. But Gabe finally smooth talked them into giving in, and at last we were able to plan our escape. By now we have seen quite a few tourist traps, restaurants with overpriced menus, dirty, garbage strewn beaches and roads, working girls on the prowl. Though we heard good things about Palenque and we hoped to find it to be one of those pristine locations, like Bahia de las Aguilas, it wasn't. It was less than alluring and we couldn't wait to get going toward our next port of call, Boca Chica.
03/20/2012, Salinas, DR
After a few restful days in Aguilas we were ready to take on Cabo Beata. Leaving with us were Jim and Diana on Pura Vida, while Clint and Reina on Karma decided to stay behind another couple of days, waiting for a better weather window.
We wanted to press on despite imperfect weather conditions because Gabriel's friend João Paulo was arriving from Brazil that very day and we wanted to make it to Salinas as soon as possible so as not to make him wait too long. He was in good hands for the time being. Our friends John and Kathryn were looking after him while we played catch up.
Having left the anchorage at first light we were in the Beata passage for most of the morning, struggling against churned up seas and opposing winds. Nothing new, we were anticipating slow and painful, but what we got was ridiculous. To make the most of the wind we had to tack back and away from our destination. The two steps forward, one step back wasn't working for us and we opted to turn back for another night on anchor in the bay, hoping for calmer seas the next day.
Our patience was rewarded and we made Salinas two days later after a long, but uneventful passage from Cabo Beata. We arrived in Salinas harbor around 2 AM, guided in by sounds of live music and bright city lights coming off the land. It's a tricky piece of water to navigate through because the lights on shore obstruct view of any other boats or markers that lay like obstacles ahead of us. We dodged a few of them as we pulled in closer towards the anchorage, where our friends on Katarina were shining a strobe light in our direction, helping us find the spot.
Once we had the boat settled in we turned in to catch up on some much needed sleep, but it just wouldn't come. Perhaps we were too wired from the trip. Perhaps it was the festivities taking place in town, the sounds of which could be heard all throughout the night and into the following day. It turned out that we had arrived in Salinas during a week long festival that was just beginning. Once we ventured on shore we found that a large plot of land on the outskirts of the town was designated for that purpose. A large stage was set up for live bands, some booths served drinks others offered attractions for kids. An air of revelry engulfed the town and you could see it seeping out of every doorway, lurking around every corner. Music was coming from every direction, people singing and dancing about in the streets. We got the feeling that Salinas takes their partying very seriously when we popped into local convenience stores. Supplying essentials to the towns people by day, each store had a low, long counter laid out across it, that would serve as a bar at night, or whenever necessary. Shelves behind it were stocked with most coveted brands of alcohol, as well as cans of beans, cartons of eggs and packs of diapers. Each of the stores boasted a lighting and a sound system worthy of Studio 54, and for the duration of the festival each blasted music louder than their neighbor at all hours of the day. As we travel Dominican Republic we've come to learn that when Dominicans celebrate, be it a festival, the Holy Week or just the weekend, they do it with a roar. A roar that, on occasion, shook our bodies into motion, as we swayed to the rhythms of Bachata and Merengue.
03/16/2012, Bahia de las Augilas, DR
The first place we visited in Dominican Republic was Bahia de las Aguilas. A wide, calm bay on the southwest coast of the country. It took nearly 24 hours of beating against the wind (again) to get there from Ile à Vache, and we were hoping to continue on toward Isla Beata and around Cabo Beata toward Salinas, but we needed to recharge our batteries first. Our friends from Katarina and Pura Vida were at least 6 hours ahead of us and by the time we got to Aguilas they were already rounding Cabo Beata, or so we thought. After anchoring in the bay and catching a short nap we began to prepare to press forward when we heard from our friends on Karma. They left Ile a Vache a day after us and were now pulling into the same anchorage, only hours behind us. They also had news of Pura Vida, who had turned back from the cape and were now making their way over to our anchorage. The seas proved too rough and the going too challenging for their liking so they decided to wait in Aguilas for a better weather window. We were only too happy to hear that they were on their way back and concluded that it would be best to stay put with them, and enjoy this beautiful new coast stretching out in front of us. Bahia de las Aguilas is part of Jaragua National Park with desert steppe like terrain, dry forests, volcanic cliffs and lots of caves. The beach itself is secluded, best accessed by boat as the trail leading to it is rough and not often braved by tourists. A local boating cooperative set up a water taxi service that brings people to the beach on weekends, but the area is otherwise quiet and we had it to ourselves most of the time. We met some of these boat owners and arranged to have one bring the 6 of us around to their cooperative restaurant, where we could catch a ride into Pedernales, a neighboring town, to do provisioning in. What we didn't realize is that the most common mode of transportation in DR is a motorbike and Ruvem, our guide, had every intention of getting the lot of us on 2 bikes to ride into town on. That wasn't going to work. It's not uncommon here to see 3 or 4 people piled onto a motorbike, but we weren't quite up for that kind of adventure. Ruvem promised to bring a truck the next morning so that we could give this excursion another try. There was nothing left to do but grab a beer and enjoy the rest of the day on the water.
The following morning Ruvem showed up an hour late. He had engine problems and had to go back to swap boats before he came to pick us up. With everyone collected from their respective boats we made our way towards the water taxi dock where a small pick up truck was waiting for us. The driver's cabin had a bench seat, so Reina, Diana and myself squeezed into it, leaving the open flat bed in the back for the boys to enjoy. The hour ride into town was as bumpy and uncomfortable as some of our passages. But Ruvem had the radio blasting Dominican tunes, and we couldn't help but get into the rhythm of it. The road leading out of the park was unpaved clay, eroded by floods in rainy season and lacerated by tires of vehicles coming and going in and out of the park. The truck rocked from side to side and jerked front to back as Ruvem flew across the dried up ridges and welts on the road. We had a good laugh about it up front, in the safety of the cabin, but the boys arrived in town battered and sore from getting bounced around in the back.
First stop in town was at the bank. Once we finished there Ruvem was to take us to the market, but when we squeezed back into the truck it wouldn't start. We clambered back out into the street. The boys and a few passersby helped Ruvem push start the truck, but it wouldn't budge. He had to go get help. Poor guy, this was the second time an engine failed him in one day.
We moped around the streets and visited an internet cafe while our guide got the truck sorted out. Within an hour we had wheels again and were headed for the market after which we treated Ruvem to lunch and had him drive us back to Aguilas. They say disasters come in threes and Ruvem was due for another one, considering his luck that day. He got the final blow on our way back when a tire blew on the truck, which we found out he had borrowed from a friend just to get us around. We felt horrible. Our boys got to work and with the help of a few locals who came to our rescue, the truck was in ship shape in no time. Not knowing how to be of service in any other way Reina and I cracked open a couple of cold beers we had sitting in a cooler, and passed them around. Now back in the truck Ruvem was taking long swigs out of the jumbo size Presidente bottle, giving us control of the car that bounced along the dirt road leading back into the National Park. Bachata rhythms filled the air once more when Ruvem turned the radio up. We bobbed up and down in the cabin as the truck danced in and out of its dusty tracks, Reina exclaiming in spanish: "El camion es una discoteca!"
The place we pulled into at Ile à Vache was something out of a post card. Sheer, high-rising cliffs we approached from the south dwindled into soft rolling hills at the north shore, easing gradually back into the ocean by way of palm lined beaches. There, as we rounded the north-west point of the island, we found complete shelter from the raging waters of the open Caribbean and followed our friends into a crescent shaped bay at the heart of the village. We were astonished. Largely because most of the main land of Haiti has been stripped off trees leaving it barren, spotted with bald areas of eroded soil. Wood is the main source of fuel for Haiti and we could smell it long before it came into view from under the constant cover of fire smoke. But at Ile à Vache the vegetation at shore and juicy green meadows creeping up the hills beyond was a stark contrast to the parched terrain that we've seen thus far.
Immediately upon arrival Rodeo was greeted by a convoy of young Haitian boys, paddling toward us in dug out canoes made of large mangrove trees. Holding onto the hull of our boat they welcomed us and offered their services. Some spoke French and some tried English to win attention. We were in the midst of dropping anchor, and over an unfamiliar bottom it can be a procedure that requires some finesse, so one could say that we were otherwise engaged. None of the boys seemed phased. They bobbed around swinging back and forth with our boat as it settled into position. It took a while to persuade them that what we needed the most was a bit of rest and that we'd be more than happy to take advantage of their services the following day. With time they began to push off from our boat until only one canoe remained. Ashley and Colby were in it. These two boys, and later a man named Carma became our guides and our help during our stay there. They helped with groceries, laundry and showed us around the island. Watching these guys work among the visiting sail boats anchored in the bay gave us the first glimpse into the quality of life on the island. Their rustic, hand dug canoes required constant bailing. They would lay down their ores and pick up whatever plastic container they had sitting on the bottom of the permeable shell, and start dumping the water overboard.
Ile à Vache is a place suspended between two eras. Homes are laid out in concrete or stone with thatched or corrugated steel roofs. The construction is rudimentary, but it is obvious that the residents put a lot of love and pride in their humble abodes. Almost every home is painted in bright, cheerful colors, making each unique. Many of the islanders live and work in a simple, traditional way, under conditions that date back to 19th century. Farmers till soil using plows drawn by bulls. Women carry water in jugs from a central pump at the heart of the settlement and cook every meal over an open flame. Girls ready their school uniforms with coal heated irons and tend to goats and chickens roaming about the colorful homesteads. These sprawl along the crescent shaped beach, with many of the homes tucked away and out of view, on the slope of the hill, among the rich vegetation. As we meandered through the development, following winding foot paths we discovered that some homes had small solar panels mounted to rooftops. This is the paradox of life on Ile à Vache. There are no cars, no street names or home numbers, let alone a postal service, but residents have access to internet at a local resort. There is no land line telephone service, but some residents have cell phones. The village has no infrastructure and no power grid, yet some homes can generate their own electricity. It seems like the island skipped a century altogether and is now mending the gap between a place form long time ago and that of the future. Ile à Vache doesn't appear to be in a hurry to get there, however, and we're glad for it as we enjoy the warm, peaceful atmosphere of a place lost in time and the friendly reception of those who dwell within it.
03/13/2012, Ile a Vache
Monday is market day on Ile à Vache and we couldn't possibly pass up the opportunity to experience it. Our friendly guides assured us it was going to be no more than a 45 minute walk over the hill, through the island's interior and over to the other coast. We started off at the resort, a beautifully constructed complex very much in harmony with its surroundings, laid out high up on the far point of the crescent bay where our boats were anchored. There were 10 of us, 4 couples from Katarina, Pura Vida, Karma and Rodeo. Plus our guides Carma and Ashley. We took soggy foot paths along the rolling hills of the uplands, climbing up and down among fields and farm houses. Air was filled with the crisp scent of fresh tilled soil and sweet smell of tropical plants. As we made our way further inland we met more and more Haitians on their way to the market. Women with bundles on their heads and men on horseback with hand woven baskets slung over their rumps (the horse, not the men), were quickly making their way forward. We kept getting distracted by the scenery, stopping to take pictures, pausing to smell the eucalyptus. After 45 minutes of meandering it became clear that we were nowhere near the market, and that our progress was painfully slow. Especially to our guides. These guys are used to walking these trails and they kept a pace that was putting all of us out of breath. Among the 8 of us, 4 are seniors and this marathon we found our selves on was shaping up to go on for at least another 2 hours. By the time we got to the open, sun scorched grounds of the market we were spent. It was hard to imagine how people from the other side of the island make this trip twice a week to pick up essentials not available in the bay. Getting around the market and shopping was an endurance test in itself. Small open stalls made of wood posts, topped with corrugated steal or leaves lined the market pathways. Any space unoccupied by a stall vendor was flooded with merchants squatting on the ground with their goods sprawled around them. Narrow paths directed swarms of people through the chaos and we found ourselves floating through the crowds as if in a tidal swell. It was hot, crowded and loud. We couldn't do any of our shopping because vendors would come up with astronomical prices at the site of tourists. So Carma and Ashley had to do our bargaining. With bunches of bananas in hand and bags of fresh fruits and vegetables we made our way to the outskirts of the market, getting a much needed breather from the bustle of it all. Hiking for 3 hours to get back to the bay was out of the question, so we hired a local fisherman to take us back on his wooden sloop. The lot of us ungracefully piled into a boat that can safely probably only hold 8 people. There were 18 of us in it altogether. Two other tourists, some Haitians and a goat were also hitching a ride. We just had to laugh. As we pulled away from shore our captain could barely maneuver his vessel with all of us in it. We had to manually help bring the boom over everyone's heads and across for tacking, but once balanced the boat glided smoothly over the surface. Hand sewn sails, a patchwork of miss matched fabric, quietly puffing up in the warm breeze. Half hour later we were safely back on land. Hungry, but full of verve we made our way over to Jean Jean's restaurant/shack for a fabulous dinner of grilled lobster and conch saus, all the while reliving the events of the day.
03/11/2012, Baia de las Aguilas, Dominican Republic
Forgive me readers for I've slacked. It has been over a month since my last entry.
It's hard to tell how I could let that happen. We get so wrapped up in our day to day that time just slips away, and going for weeks without internet doesn't help the process. But that's no excuse. I should be documenting our journey regardless of having the ability to post it, and I have neglected to even do that. Now that I'm trying to recollect events of the weeks gone by memories escape me and I beat myself up over my lack of discipline.
What's a girl to do? I will have to bring you up to speed on current affairs and dole out the interesting tidbits of last month's adventures as we go.
We have made it as far as Dominican Republic now and are currently waiting for a weather window to pass Punta Beata, moving on to Santo Domingo and Boca Chica. At some point while still in the Bahamas, we decided to forego the north coast of the Dominican for the path less followed, along the south coast of Hispaniola. Instead of coming across through Turks and Caicos and down to Luperon, we sailed the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti. It was a rather difficult decision to make and we didn't arrive at it without giving much consideration to where we could make our first landfall. Gabe, myself and the 3 other boats we've been traveling with were apprehensive about having to stop in Haiti, but in the end that's what we did and we have shared an experience of a lifetime as a result.
Getting there was tough, to say the least. It was a 49 hour, 270 Nm slug that nearly broke my spirit and my desire to go on. A two day passage can be tiring and taxing under best of conditions. When weather doesn't cooperate the journey becomes grueling, overwhelming even. We left Great Inagua Island in the Bahamas with a good 2 day window to make our passage south, and got a beautiful sail all the way down the west coast of Haiti. But contrary to the forecast, we found big seas and gale force winds once we turned the corner at the south-west point of Hispaniola. The stronger than predicted winds were coming on the nose and with a small motor like ours we couldn't make much headway against the opposing swell. We had no choice but to tack our way forward. We carried on for nearly 24 hours, making long tacks away from the southern coast and back towards it, gaining slow and painful ground toward Ile à Vache, our next port of call. Battling 15 foot waves and relentless strong winds took a toll on us. Our autopilot can't handle all that action so we were forced to stay at the helm, 2 hour shifts at a time. As the winds picked up and the seas built, however, it became increasingly difficult for me to drive the boat, and as I began to feel helpless I began to get frightened. The more scared I got, the more difficult it was to function, until I froze completely. After that it was up to Gabe to handle the boat. With images of our ordeal in the "perfect storm" off the coast of Maine fresh in my mind I became paralyzed and could do very little but sit there, strapped to the boat by a jack line on my life vest and pray for some relief. It didn't come for another 12 hours, until we turned into the hill bound confines of Ile à Vache. This large island just off the coast of Haiti was reported to offer a breathtaking anchorage and a safe harbor to cruisers making their way east towards the Dominican. It is far enough from main land to have been spared by the earthquake and remains unaffected by the plight of the rest of the country. Guided by advice from other cruisers we felt comfortable with the idea of spending some time there. Truthfully, after getting through the churned up waters off shore we were glad just to have a place to rest. What we found at Ile à Vache was an experience beyond what we could ever expect or hope for.