Haiti

We took a side trip to Haiti from the Turks & Caicos. New friends, Ben and Chloe, wonderful people we met in Providenciales, run Caicu Naniki travel agency and specialize in trips to Haiti. Earlier we debated sailing the boat to Haiti around its western edge and underneath to get to the Dominican Republic. Although it is said to be a calmer route, it is significantly longer than sailing directly from the Turks & Caicos to the northern shore of the Dominican Republic bypassing Haiti altogether. That, together with the fact that our boat would not be insured while in Haiti, drove us to choose the latter route. So we were really glad to get an opportunity to go to Haiti anyway. It was just a short trip for 3 nights but it felt like being transported to another world and time. 

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Living large in our private jet to Haiti, okay okay, so maybe it wasn’t a lear jet but we were the only passengers.

Haiti is a beautiful, mountainous country. It is little developed and as the plane swooped in we saw green hills as far as the eye could see. The people of Haiti are quite special, particularly given the hardships of their life.

Stunning to look at, they stand tall and look you in the eye when addressing you. They have a sweet, slightly shy personality and are always willing to help out. Every wave or “bonjour” is met with a smile and a return salutation. They speak a version of creole that is completely unintelligible to us, but also speak French and quite a few speak English. So communication was not really a problem, especially since Charlotte and James speak some French.

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Colorful loto kiosks everywhere

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Colorful dress

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Colorful music

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Colorful kids

We were picked up by Dominique, who served as our ever-patient guide and driver. She is a dentist by training and has many and varied interests, but took time out of her busy days to help us. She seems to know everything about Haiti and we couldn’t have done this trip without her.

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Dominique the only smart one who took a ride up the steep hill to the Citadel.

Their lives are very hard, however. The country is the poorest in the western hemisphere. There are none of the comforts that we take for granted back home. Refuse collection is a problem and the people live amidst appalling amounts of waste.

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The UN and various NGO’s are there, but it is not clear what they are doing. The locals call them “turistas” because they can most often be found at the nicer resorts having a grand time. We don’t know the facts, but did see UN soldiers staying, drinking and eating at our beach resort. However, we did see them patrolling the street also. We just think the country needs better aid in terms of major systems – water, sewer, garbage collection, security, etc. DSC_1770

We stayed around Cap Hatien, the northern capital. We did not travel to Port au Prince, the capital as it is quite a way south and west. We did travel to the Citadel, built by 20,000 laborers from 1804 to 1820. It’s quite impressive, considering that the sovereign “Republic of Haiti” was established on January 1, 1804 as the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, the second republic in the Americas, the only nation in the western hemisphere to have defeated three European superpowers (Britain, France and Spain), and the only nation in the world established as a result of a successful slave revolt. Henri Christophe, emperor of the newly free country’s northern half, decided it needed forts to defend itself from the French and enemies to the south, and the Citadel is the centerpiece of it. It’s a magnificent fort and seems truly impregnable. It is well preserved, including the many armaments scattered about.

DSC_1556Most of our pictures have a small caption embedded in them. But this simple picture has a story that we have to tell. There was smoke and the sound of drumming coming from this little settlement. Danny, our guide at the Citadel – well not really a guide, but a guy who attached himself to us and through persistence proved valuable to us – informed us that it is voodoo being practiced. He told us that one time a man brought his cow to the voodoo priest to be sacrificed. The priest told the man to do it himself. The man thought he was stabbing the cow with a machete but he was really stabbing himself. He was under a spell and thought he had a cow with him when he was actually alone. It was a creepy story.

 

Anyway, Cap Hatien is a feast for the eyes. We could not get enough of just looking around at the city, its citizens and scenery. We took about a billion photos and thought we’d share some with you.

We all need to learn how to balance like these lovely ladies.

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Cuba, So Close, Yet So Far Away

We wanted to travel to Cuba before the Americans started flooding in, so along with our pals Charlotte and James we embarked on a 10-day educational trip.

Bienvenido a Cuba Pedro, Jaime y Carlota.

We know that America-Cuba relations can be a hot button topic, so we used this trip to educate and not debate. The key for us was to take a cue from the Cuban people who separate politics from people.

I just love this lady enjoying the day in the park with her amigos

Anyone who can rock a turban is aces with me.

Excuse me, there is a chicken on your head.

Excuse me, there is a chicken on your head.

Initial Impressions.  Cubans love Americans and readily put politics aside to get to know you as a person.  In fact, politics does not even enter into a personal interaction with Cubans.  What a refreshing attitude.  And if indeed some political issues were discussed they were not met with the vitriol that always seems to bubble up in the States.  The people of Cuba are the heart and soul of the country.  They are warm and welcoming, intelligent, funny and delightful.

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Always greeted by waves and smiles.

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All the children were friendly, curious and full of giggles.

Hemingway house dog welcoming Mary and Charlotte.

Hemingway house dog welcoming Mary and Charlotte.

Honestly, we were not sure what to expect from a country that mainly has been presented to us as either the romanticized playground of the 1950s jet set or a repressed society full of people willing to risk their lives to achieve freedom.

Hotel National

Hotel Nacional De Cuba, host to everyone from Winston Churchill to Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt and Lucky Luciano.

Would people speak to us, were they allowed to speak to us, did they have toilet paper?You laugh, but so many people told us to bring our own, so we did.  And then our Cuban friend laughed at us because they have TP.   LOL.

Pete and his new friend enjoying a Cuban coffee

Pete and Señora enjoying a Cuban coffee. No need to worry, everyone spoke to us and were patient with our Spanish and practiced their English.

Our new amigo Olexis.  Always happy to answer all our questions and laugh at us for bringing our own toilet paper

Our new amigo Olexis. Always happy to answer all our questions and laugh at us for bringing our own toilet paper.

So many of our preconceived notions were way off, while many were confirmed and some things never quite explained. We just took it all in, which is easy to do because everywhere you look the colors, the architecture, the people always are interesting.  Click here for even more photos.

Musicians on the streets of Trinidad

Musicians on the streets of the historic city of Trinidad. We must have heard the song “Guantanamera” a million times from every band, street musician and radio. But we did learn the song is about a girl from Guantánamo. Seems so obvious now.

Cigar lady

Who says ladies don’t smoke cigars.

Man and bike

Recycle, refurbish or restore is the name of the game.

Initiates in the Santería religion are required to wear white clothing for a year, and they always carry a white umbrella.

Initiates in the Santería religion are required to wear white clothing for a year, and they always carry a white umbrella.

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Dominoes is a way of life.

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You are not allowed to take photos of the cigar workers, but this is the lobby of one of the many working cigar factories in Havana. Workers train for 9 months to learn how to roll the perfect cigar. Most workers were in their twenties and thirties as older workers develop carpal tunnel from the repetitive motions.

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Souvenir shops with pro-Cuba items and images of Che abound.

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Just an interesting shot.

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Lovely pedestrian walkway in Havana.

If there is one thing the world seems to agree upon and that is Earnest Hemingway.  His home stays as is the day he left Havana.

If there is one personality the world seems to admire, that is Earnest Hemingway. His home is as the day he left Havana.

There are some 4 star hotels in Cuba’s larger cities that have the same luxuries as those you’d find anywhere else.  But they are completely disconnected from everyday life on the island.  Rich little tourist islands in a sea of poverty.

Iberostar Hotel

Iberostar Hotel

For example, we stayed in an Iberostar hotel our first two nights in Havana to acclimate a bit.  They had cable TV, including CNN, BBC, HBO and the other usual channels.  This caused us to be surprised that media consumption in Cuba was not that much different from our own.  Is there anywhere in the world that doesn’t have “The Big Bang Theory” on constantly?   It was only later we learned that these TV channels are limited to international hotels.  For everyday Cubans, the country offers two local TV news channels – both government owned – and one international news channel. Guess where that one is from? … Venezuela.

On line for media?  Food? To pay a bill?  Folks waiting on line is commonplace.

On line for media? Food? To pay a bill? Folks waiting on lines is commonplace.

Internet access is virtually non-existent. It exists in a few college areas and certain other designated spots, and is censored, expensive and slow.   But the people are resourceful. They know all the international pop culture references. We found out that this is due to one of the many ingenious black market practices that exist here. There is a service they call “The Package” or “The Terrabyte”. On a weekly basis copies of current popular TV shows, movies, magazines, etc. that have been accessed via satellite are made available to locals in kiosks around the country. Memory sticks and drives are filled a la carte with whatever media the customer desires.   So people in both the cities and countryside knew about “Breaking Bad”, “Game of Thrones” and those ubiquitous Kardashians.

Cuban countryside

Cuban countryside

Sierra del Escambray mountains

Sierra del Escambray mountains

Cuba is a country of contradictions.  The countryside is beautiful and largely undeveloped. But this is mainly due to the lack of investment funds available and red tape for development anywhere.  Refreshingly there is almost no litter along the roads, but we learned this is because everything that can be recycled is recycled.

Wide open undeveloped land.

Wide open undeveloped land.

Due to its expense there is very little disposable plastic waste.  Many items are still sold in glass and metal containers.

1950s car

Touring Havana in 1950’s convertible

Cubans are pros at making the best of what they have.  Just look at all those old American cars.  Yeah, they are here – lots of them.  They’ve kept these cars running and passed them down from generation to generation for 50 or 60 years.  We assumed they were kind of a tourist gimmick, preserved for some propaganda reason. But there are TONS of them all over the island in varying states of repair, from glistening perfection to hideous, smoking beasts with more bondo than sheet metal.

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Taxis lined up.

Along with all the classic 1950s American cars are lots of 19? motorcycles with sidecars

Along with all the classic 1950s American cars are lots of old motorcycles, most with sidecars.

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Cars on Paseo de Marti.

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Old Chevy now a taxi. The driver installed his own homebrew air conditioning.

Interestingly, the cars trace the historical ups and downs of Cuba. All those old American cars from the 50’s (none from the 60’s as the revolution happened in ’59 and that is the last model year present) represent the heyday of American involvement with Cuba and their abrupt end in 1959 tracks the end of the US presence here.

Blue Car

Then there are Russian cars, mostly Ladas; these are from the ‘70’ and ‘80s but they also abruptly disappear in the mid-1980’s when the fall of the Soviet Union caused Russia to drop Cuba like a hot potato.  They did not hold up as well as the old American cars, probably because the Cubans do not value them like those old US warhorses.  The Russian cars are taxis or just old beaters now.

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This is a Lada.

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Ladas look like they are from the 60’s but are really from the 80’s.

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Cool looking Skoda – from Czechoslovakia, when there was a Czechoslovakia.

The exit of the Russians ushered in a decade of extreme hardship for the Cuban people.  We were told horrible stories about people eating potatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner; going without shoes for an entire year, and other tales of desperation.  And that, too, is evidenced in the Cuban cars – there are generally none from the ’90s to be found anywhere in the country.   Now, there is a steady trickle of unfamiliar Chinese and Korean cars showing up in Cuba, as those countries seek a toehold in this potentially lucrative market.

The people are poor.  I mean, we saw these kids in the city of Cienfuegos playing baseball in the street with a stick as a bat and a rock wrapped in a sock as the ball. This is right out of a Hollywood script.  How we wish we had a bag of baseballs to hand them.

Cienfuegos baseball game.

Cienfuegos baseball game – he missed; that thing behind him is the ball – a rock wrapped in a sock.

They had to call timeout whenever the “ball” unraveled. But they were having a grand time. In most of the rural villages there were more people getting around by horse and cart or just horse and saddle than by cars or trucks.  Yet you sensed no resentment, envy or covetousness.

Family on horse and cart

Family on horse and cart.

Man on horse and cart

Man on horse and cart.

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Parking lot.

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No horse, so he walks.

men on cartDespite the hardships caused by US government policies, the people unanimously welcome Americans and are eagerly looking forward to renewed relations. Even though Cuba was a Soviet client state for decades, most people will scoff at Russians and readily align themselves with the US. When Barack Obama first announced thawing relations with Cuba, we, and I think a lot of Americans, thought – “Oh, well that’s a surprise. OK, the sanctions regime didn’t seem to work so lets give this a shot” and then went about our day. In Cuba, despite the government’s cool negotiations with the Americans, it is a day of national celebration for ordinary people, sort of an unsanctioned holiday.   It’s so prominent that it has its own nickname – D17, for December 17 – the day of Obama’s announcement.

One has to admit that the communist regime in some respects has performed well for its citizens. Free education for all has resulted in an astoundingly high literacy rate. Subsidized healthcare means people are healthy and treated well.   And racism seems to be non-existent.  Although skin shades are as diverse as in the US, it never seems to make the slightest difference.

All school children wear uniforms

Everyone is given a free education pre-school to university.

Campus of the University of Havana

Campus of the University of Havana – stunningly beautiful grounds and buildings.

As mentioned above, somehow the population seems in general to be a happy lot despite the fact that they are well aware of their poverty.

Havana's Malecón is a hang out place for all.

Havana’s Malecón is a free hang out place for all.

Cubans love to dance.

Cubans love to dance and always welcome everyone to bust a move.

It’s very unlike some other Caribbean countries where tourists seem envied and can be treated badly. Cubans greet each other with hellos and jokes all day long, whether they know each other or not.   However, in other regards, communism has clearly failed its people. man in windowCuba has lagged far behind the rest of the developed world in the past 50 years. This is plain from the obvious longing of the everyday Cubans for some of the comforts of life in the more developed world. Cuba was clearly a thriving country in the first half of the 20th century, evidenced by gorgeous architecture all over Havana and other cities.

Cruising the streets of Havana

Cruising the streets of Havana.

Some homes look like they could be in Miami

Some homes look like they could be in Miami.

Others look like New Orleans

Others look like New Orleans.

Cienfuegos shopping promenade

Cienfuegos shopping promenade, said to be the Paris of Cuba.

colorful sidestreet

Rooftops of Trinidad

Rooftops of Trinidad

Yet many of these buildings are now crumbling ruins due to neglect from a lack of money to preserve them. And architecture from the period after the revolution (what little there is) is stark, forbidding and cheerless – it reminds one of Soviet buildings from the Cold War era.  There seems to be very little economic progress that occurred after 1959.  Food items are still rationed.  Commerce is tightly controlled and anemic.  The nonchalant acceptance of the lack of basic freedoms, like free speech, freedom of religion, travel and association surprises the Westerner.  Yet there are signs that slow progress is being made.

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People live in these crumbling buildings

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patched house torn up street

Propaganda.  One of the interesting things about communist countries is the prevalence of propaganda.  It seems so foreign to those of us steeped in commercial advertising (although it is becoming more prevalent at home these days).  There are few if any billboards on the roads of Cuba, but this is only because they are not allowed. The billboards you do see are typically government propaganda praising the heroism of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Raoul Castro (in that order – Che is much more popular than Fidel, I guess it is true what they say, “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse!”).

Cienfuegos, Fidel and Che

Cienfuegos, Fidel and Che

Che monument

Che monument

Che billboard

Roughly translated, “Knight without reproach and without fear”.

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“The Revolution will move ahead”

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“Socialism or death”

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“Until Victory, Always!”

Endless supply of books on Che and the revolution

Endless supply of books on Che and the revolution

The Museum of the Revolution is a striking example of this.  Its a fascinating collection of artifacts and information about the revolution.  We weren’t aware just how long and hard Fidel and his cohorts toiled to bring about change. Peter Cuban flag

“US leaders and their lackeys” LOL

Revolution Museum

Revolution Museum appropriately housed in the former presidential palace.

However, the museum is not sparing in its condemnation of “imperialists aggressors” who conspired to stunt the heroic revolution.

Rincón de los cretinos

Rincón de los cretinos “cretin corner”.

Propaganda is not limited to the players of the revolution though.  Jose Marti, who was a writer and symbol for Cuba’s independence from Spain in the 19th century, is always referred to by the honorific “Our National Hero Jose Marti”, never just Jose Marti.

Jose Marti

Cuban National Hero Jose Marti

It sounds so odd but flows so easily from Cubans that you guess it had to be drilled into everyone during schooling.  Anyway, the propaganda is all very amusing but of little importance to Cubans, who seem to want to look forward instead of dwell on the past.  It seems that with the government’s slow weakening, people express their opinions fairly freely (although there is the odd, suspicious look around for eavesdroppers before criticisms are delivered) and the general outlook is to get on with life.  Cubans don’t want to condemn the revolution; they seem to want it to just slide quietly into history.

Don’t they all want to defect?  Not anymore. We would say that the majority of people we spoke to would want to immigrate to the US, but the desire to do so is not so desperate anymore. Most would prefer more economic opportunities in Cuba so they could live a more comfortable life at home.  Cuba has softened its travel restrictions a bit lately and some people are able to go abroad.  However, due to historical restrictions, there are nearly no boats on the water and Cubans have generally lost their maritime heritage.

Derelict fishing boat in Cienfuegos harbor

Derelict fishing boat in Cienfuegos harbor.

It’s odd to look out over a beautiful bay and not see boats zipping around because Cubans are still not allowed to own, or even go on, a boat.

We went diving in the Bay of Pigs,  no dive boats here, just stepped off the end of this dock.

We went diving in “Bahía de Cochinos” or Bay of Pigs, yes that Bay of Pigs. No dive boats here, just stepped off the end of this dock and were met by thousand of fish and pristine coral reef. The most fish we have seen in all the Caribbean.

Diving

Dive center was a repurposed bus.  Our dive guide was a Cuban special forces commando and one of the best guides we've ever had

Dive center was a repurposed bus. Our dive guide was a Cuban special forces commando and one of the best guides we’ve ever had

When we visited an old yacht club with foreign boats moored at the dock, our guide stopped at the edge of the dock and said he could go no further. He is not allowed to go anywhere near boats. In fact he said this was the closest he had ever been to a boat in his life.

Old Yacht Club

Old Yacht Club

Charter boats for foreign visitors

Charter boats for foreign visitors

CUCs and CUPs, Paladars and Casa Particulars. They have a strange monetary system where locals use CUP (cuban peso)  and foreigners use CUC (convertible peso). A CUC is worth about 24 CUPs, yet this is not reflected in prices. Cubans pay a lot less for items than a foreigner does.  For example, we went to a baseball game (they are just as fanatic about it as the most die-hard fans in the US), and we paid 3 CUCs for a ticket while our Cuban friend paid 3 CUPs – 24 times less.  (So that is $3 for us and 13¢ for locals – for a playoff game non the less).

We were thrilled to take Olexis' to his first professional baseball game.  The  Havana Industrials  in the playoffs (they lost)

We were thrilled to take Olexis to his first professional baseball game. The Havana Industriales in the playoffs (they lost).

Not everything is priced as 1 CUP to 1 CUC, however, and sometimes there does not seem to be any relationship between the two prices for the same good.

One day we decided to go to Coppelia, Cuba’s famous ice cream parlor.

Locals waiting on line for ice cream at Coppelia.

Locals waiting on line for ice cream at Coppelia.

We were told that the lines could be long and were prepared to wait. However, when we got on the line, people from the ice cream store rushed over to us, confirmed that we were not Cubans and immediately took us to a special room for foreigners. We were the only ones in the room and were quickly served while many locals continued to wait on line.

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Getting ready for ice cream in exile.

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Coppelia was opened by the Cuban government in 1966 so Cubans could enjoy an ice cream treat.

I am sure our prices were a multiple of what the Cubans paid, but we didn’t care about that. We regretted not being able to enjoy the ice cream among the local crowd.  It was odd to be sequestered in a private room and treated differently than everyone else.

Pete thought he was getting a bargain $8 haircut, but as he walked out noticed the price list for locals as 83¢   LOL

Pete paid $8 for this haircut, but as he walked out noticed the price for locals was 83¢. LOL

Like their money, commercial life in Cuba runs on two tracks.  There are government run hotels, restaurants and shops.  These are usually clean, poorly stocked and bereft of customers.  Then there are private versions of the same (even private businesses have to give 51% profit to the government, except private shops, because those are not legal yet). Casa Particulars are private hotels and inns that started as black market places to stay and have recently been permitted by the government.

Exterior of Cienfuegos casa particular

Exterior of Cienfuegos casa particular.

Interior common room of  Cienfuegos casa particular

Interior common room of Cienfuegos casa particular.

Exterior of Havana casa particular

Exterior of Havana casa particular.

Pete enjoying the view with our casa particular host Skylar

Pete enjoying the view with our casa particular host Skylar.

Beautiful corridor to the rooms of Casa Habana

Beautiful corridor to the rooms of Casa Habana.

Room at  Casa Habana, just love that old tile

Room at Casa Habana, just love that old tile.

Roof deck

Roof deck “secret bar” at Casa Habana one of our casa particulars.

They run the gamut from Grandma Luisa’s old room in the back of the house to clean, well-run multiple room inns.  They all come with breakfast – oddly always the same breakfast no matter where you are. And can range from luxurious to bring-your-own-toilet-seat.  Its the same with restaurants.

Private restaurant in back of owner's home

Private restaurant in back of owner’s home

Cafe Laurent

Cafe Laurent in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana

countryside restaurant

countryside paladar

Outdoor kitchen

Outdoor kitchen

Paladars started as secret private places to buy a meal.  Now they are permitted, and regulated of course, and can be found everywhere.  They range from home cooking in someone’s house to trendy eateries with Cuba’s version of hipsters running around.

O'Reilly 304 (street address) could easily be in San Francisco

“O’Reilly 304” paladar could easily be in San Francisco

For restaurants, think of the government-run versions as old, expensive big-city eateries that are resting on their laurels and paladars as the new little restaurant that everyone is talking about.  We went to the paladars the majority of the time.  For shops its a little different.  From what we could learn, private shops are not yet permitted and, indeed, are still cracked down upon.  However, there are ration shops where things are quite cheap and people can buy their ration of subsidized egg, milk, bread, etc.  Then there are government-run shops that are not ration shops where people can spend their excess cash for other things.

Ummm, I don't think this is a government run gas station

Ummm, I don’t think this is a government run gas station

Finally, there are clandestine shops and black markets where you can get some things that you just must have.  Pete was ushered through a family’s living room, a bedroom, the kitchen where a daughter was peeling beets, and finally to another bedroom to be shown a duffel bag of cigars for sale.  Its all very confusing but shows how ingenuity squeezes through somehow no matter what the government does.

Pete and James enjoying their Cuban cigars

Pete and James enjoying their Cuban cigars

That’s it.  CUBA, we loved it!  With relations with the US thawing at a rapid rate, Cubans have a real task on their hands to grasp the benefits of an improved economy without spoiling the unique and timeless beauty that 50 years of communism have, inadvertently or not, preserved.  Note there is not a single KFC, McDonalds or CVS in any of the pictures we posted.  We hope the country can manage the coming change in a manner that allows people improved lives but that also keeps it that way.  They have a delicate and graceful culture that we can all benefit from.  We have so many photos from our trip. If you’d like to see more click here.

aerial Havana

Here is to a bright future for Cuba.

You say you haven’t seen enough Cuban dog photos? Ok, ok, click here for more.     And thanks Charlotte and James for sharing some of your photos.

Time to Reflect

One year ago we officially left the States to begin our adventure at sea.

Away we go

Away we go

We wish we could say that “dropping out” for a year has given us the secret to the meaning of life which we would now share with you, but alas it has not.  Give us another year and we will have it all figured out (LOL).

Plenty of time for selfies

Plenty of time for selfies

It HAS given us the one thing we always wished we had and that is time.  It is odd, time has flown by and inched forward simultaneously, becoming both a blessing and a curse.   We have time together which was a rare treat during the working years, we have time to reflect on the wonders of life while staring at hundreds of dolphins swimming and jumping next to the boat, we have time to read, time to really listen to music like when you were a kid devouring an album alone in your room, and we have time to spend with great new friends.  It seems a bit like camp or college or combat; friendships are accelerated, days = weeks and strong bonds form quickly over shared stories, travel, hardships and thrills and of course cocktails.  It is one of the best parts.  Honestly when is the last time you made a dozen+ solid friendships in a year.

On the other hand time sometimes becomes the enemy, as we wait for repairs, we wait for packages of parts to make those repairs, we wait for good weather windows, we wait for dial-up internet to sweep in our emails and we wait for our night watch shift to end so we can get some sleep.  At home our culture has perfected instant gratification.  If you want something, just go get it or do it.  Here, and maybe in most of the world, it doesn’t work that way.  So we are learning to go with the flow and not flip out when things don’t happen immediately, but it is harder than you think.  For me one of the things I’ve found hardest to learn is that every second doesn’t have to be part of a mind blowing event.  This is our life and sometimes life is, well, just life and not a blockbuster movie or glossy travel magazine or even blog worthy ;-).  Before we left I said I was 91.8% ready for boat life and I can now honestly up that to 96.5% 😉

So let’s turn up the lights and see if there are any questions out there…write them in the comment section and we will gladly answer your queries about our first year.

Year #2, here we come…

Victory Smooch

Victory Smooch

2 Oceans, 1 Day

The Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean in 10 hours – not too bad for a days work.

When preparing for our transit we read a lot and we heard a lot of tales of transits from hell to partying through the locks.  Half the sailors you talk to say you have to hire a Canal agent (someone to do all the admin) and the other half say there is no need, you can do the paperwork yourself.  Some say you won’t make it through in 1 day, it will definitely take 2.  Your boat has to go 8 knots or you’ll bring global shipping to a screeching halt.   And on and on it goes.   So to all our pals who are planning to go through, listen to all the stories, file away all the information, keep your head straight and enjoy the passage.   Because, the truth is that every transit is different and you never know what you are going to get until you do it.  We chose not to use an agent and found it quite straightforward and if you want that information, email us and I’m happy to walk you through the steps.

Path Between the Seas

If you want to know about the history of the Canal, read David McCullough’s excellent “The Path Between the Seas”.

Fortunately the stars aligned just right and we had an awesome (and not the overused, unnecessary “awesome”, I mean “inspiring joyful awe“ “we went through the Panama Canal on our sailboat” awesome) experience.

Every boat going through the Canal has to have a Canal advisor onboard to, you guessed it, advise you throughout the trip.   The canal is run like an airport with the signal station acting as air traffic control.  Your advisor is your communications link to central control.  The name of the game for the Canal is the huge cargo ships, that is where the big money is, so a 50’ sailboat is more of a nuisance and they don’t want you slowing down their 24/7 operation.   But their treatment of yachts is professional and efficient.  We were told to pick up our advisor at 8:00 am and after he promptly boarded at 10:00 am (ok, maybe not so efficient, but the canal schedule seems subject to the whim of the gods) we were on our way, with Captain Pete at the helm,

Captain Pete

Captain Pete

2 experienced hired line handlers Raymond & Marcos,

Raymond & Marcos

Raymond & Marcos, expert line handlers and snappy dressers

2 volunteer line handlers and sailors, Axel and Stephen ready to work the lines in the locks,

Axel & Stephen

Axel & Stephen, rounded out our international crew of 2 Americans, 3 Panamanians, 1 German, 1 Brit and 1 Belizean dog on our French boat.

me ready to sub in at the helm or lines and feed this motley crew, and Lucy milling about keeping tabs on everyone and making sure no food was sloppily left lying around, we started out.

Lucy on the bow wow wow

Lucy on the bow wow wow

It quickly became clear that our advisor, Astro (his real name), knew his stuff and, importantly, worked seamlessly with the line handlers and was hands on and not just a dictator.  He was a font of knowledge about the Canal and felt like our own personal tour guide.

With Astro our Canal advisor

with Astro our fabulous Canal advisor

The Canal consists of six locks – 3 to get up into Gatun Lake, which is in the center and was created when they dammed up the Chagres River – and 3 to go back down on the other side.  Each lock is a massive, medieval-seeming concrete tub with giant heavy riveted steel doors that swing open and closed like the entrance to some fortified castle.  They are supreme feats of engineering operating nearly identically to the way they did when first opened exactly 100 years ago.

Lock doors closing

Lock doors closing

Outside the first of these, we waited for the giant container ship ahead of us to secure to the “mules” (heavy electric trains that hold ships’ lines) before we were ordered in to tie up to the ship’s tugboat, which went in just ahead of us.

Orient Spirit

Oriental Spirit, the cargo ship ahead of us in the locks.  Note the “mules” and the lines running down to keeping it steady.

As you approach the lock is empty and the rough walls tower up on each side.  Mystery currents in the lock buffet the boat back and forth and Pete was working the throttles and the wheel to keep the boat off the wall.

Pete worked the hardest of us all

Pete worked the hardest of us all

Boats in the locks have lines going to the top of the locks to hold them in place.  As the water rises, the line handlers on the boat have to quickly and in unison pull the lines in to keep the boat in position.  We had heard horror stories of lines not being handled properly with boats swinging around into the walls or the ship, etc.  In addition to great embarrassment, this can cost money since the canal fines you for causing any delay.

Tying up to tug

Marcos tossing line to tie to the tug, Pequení, our lock buddy

We, however, were lucky in that we tied up next to the tugboat and it handled the lines to go up and down.  All we had to do was tie up to it and hold on tight.  Once all were secure, the locks are flooded and all boats rise up.  The water in the lock becomes an insane cauldron of swirling eddies from the water rushing in through the underwater channels.

Water filling up the locks

Water filling up the locks

Aerial view of Neko in the locks.  See how the cargo ship dwarfs Neko. (Thanks Angie for the photo)

Aerial view of Neko (lower left) in the locks. See how the cargo ship dwarfs Neko. (Thanks Angie for the photo)

photo

You tie tires to the side of your boat to act as fenders against the walls and other boats

This photo was taken by our friend Holly Scott from the observation platform at Miraflores Locks

This photo was taken by our friend Holly Scott from the observation platform at Miraflores Locks

You can see the tight fight between Neko and our pal Penquin the tug.

You can see the tight fit between Neko and our pal Penquin the tug.

After it’s all over, we simply toss off the lines and proceed to the next lock and do it all over again.   Well, maybe not so simply.  The ship is moving out and to let the tug out we have to move backwards and closer to the wall.  The tug is a small boat of enormous power and when it moves its propwash (water being pushed around by its propellers) can push a yacht around like a bathtub toy.  However, taking the good advice of some other boaters, we befriended the tug crew and gave them a tray of cookies with the unspoken hope that they would pull away from us gently.  And it worked!  They were extreme gentlemen and slowly idled away from us when it was their turn to leave.

Plate of cookies = happy tug boat crew

Plate of cookies = happy tug boat crew

After the three up locks it’s a race through the Gaillard Cut (a narrow channel cut into the rocky hillside that claimed many lives and years of digging during the construction of the Canal) and Gatun Lake to get to the final set of locks in time to make it through in one day.

Heading through Lake Gatun

Heading through Lake Gatun

Our GPS track through the Canal

Our GPS track through the Canal and into Gatun Lake

Slow boats are required to take two days and spend a night anchored in the lake.  Due to our late start there was a real chance that we might have to spend a night in the lake.  It might have been fun to do so, but we soldiered on.  Astro kept checking in with mission control and they said proceed, so we put the pedal to the metal and Neko zipped through the lake enjoying its fresh water bath to rinse the salt from her underside.  We saw our lock mate, a large cargo ship, heading to the entrance when we were still about five miles away.  So Pete gave it a full throttle and got to the entrance of the lock just in time to … wait.  The ship had some problem getting secured and we waited outside turning circles in a thundering Panamanian rainstorm while they figured it out.

Neko wasn't the only one who got a fresh water rinse.

Neko wasn’t the only one who got a fresh water rinse.

This time we were to tie to a ferry boat that takes passengers through the canal so they can check it off their bucket list.  We were definitely a curiosity to these sightseers and posed for many pictures and answered many questions about our trip.  Lucy was the star of the show.

Pull up to ferry boat in the Gatun Locks

Pulling up to the ferry boat in the Gatun Locks

Neko Gatun

Nerve wracking to have that giant ship just a few feet behind

Neko in Gatun locks

Neko in Gatun locks

After three more locks, this time going down, the last door opened and we at long last got a glimpse of the Caribbean Sea, our goal for so long.  It was a milestone completed and a huge relief to get through unscathed.

Welcome to the Caribbean

Welcome to the Caribbean

We dropped Astro off and powered into the Shelter Bay Marina in the dark of night for a quick celebration and a well-earned snooze.

Popping the victory champagne

Popping the victory champagne

Cheers to our fantastic crew

Cheers to our fantastic crew

Here is what remains of the initial French effort at a sea-level canal to the extent it was not incorporated into the final design.  Isn’t it cute?

The original French Canal

The original French Canal

As you may know the French first insisted on building a canal at sea level without locks.  This was ultimately their undoing as it proved impossible.  Remember, tides on the Pacific side can reach 18 feet while tides on the Atlantic side are rarely more than 2 feet.  After decades of futile effort, the French finally threw in the towel and Teddy Roosevelt saw an opportunity and took it (not without much controversy, as it involved fomenting a revolution leading to Panama’s secession from Colombia).  It’s really quite impressive that the final canal was built large enough to handle freighters for 100 years.  However, now demands of shipping have rendered the canal insufficient.  Panama is embarking on the construction of a larger parallel set of locks to allow even larger ships to transit.  It is a technological wonder, that will use much, much less precious water than the original canal.  It will use sliding lock doors (like pocket doors) instead of swinging gates.  Here are the lock doors.  They are massive.

New Canal gates

No those aren’t buildings they are the new Canal lock doors

Our Canal transit was twice as nice knowing we had so many family and friends watching us go through via the live web cam and thank you for the photos, videos and moral support.   We loved having you along for one of the best legs of this journey.

Click here to see a video Andre and Tom made of us going through the Miraflores locks.

Victory Smooch

Victory Smooch

done and done! (Thanks Rob & Rose)

Done and done!
(Thanks Rob & Rose for the image)

Sometimes You Feel Like A Nut

I’ve always wanted to know what to do with a coconut.  They literally litter the ground down here.  So weren’t we luck when Trudy of Casa Orquideas, an American ex-pat who lives on an orchid and tropical plant farm in Costa Rica, showed us how to open one during a tour of her beautiful property.

Casa Orqueideas

Casa Orquideas near Golfito, Costa Rica

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Trudy uses a rail spike to quickly split the husk of the coconut

Thanks to Trudy, I now know what to do with the brown ones.  You have to shake it to hear for liquid inside to be sure it is good to eat.

First, remove the husk.  This can be done in any number of ways.  I use the trusty machete, third world wonder tool.  You have to peel it off in slices.

DSCN3129

DSCN3130 DSCN3135This leaves you with the round brown nut we are all familiar with.

Then, using the back of the machete, give it a few good hard whacks on a line around the circumference, holding the coconut upright.

Soon, it will crack all way round and you can pluck the top right off.

DSCN3138Then, drink the delicious fresh coconut water inside.  Who knew dogs were absolutely CRAZY about coconuts?  Lucy will drink off a whole coconut and then seems to have renewed energy.  She’ll even try to gnaw the white meat out of it.

DSCN3145You can pry out the white meat after drinking the water.  Press a knife into it and pry pieces of it out.

If you are extra lucky and find a coconut that is sending up a new shoot, you will find a little round sponge-like object in it.  This tastes like coconut but is soft and airy with a little crunch.  I am surprised this thing has not found its way onto Manhattan menus yet.

coconut-sponge
I still don’t know what to do with the green ones, ok, maybe I do LOL

IMG_0362 I think with those you only drink the milk inside.  Locals chop the top off, add a straw and perhaps some rum and you have nature’s Solo cup.

Spiders and monkeys and birds, oh my!

Our first stop in Costa Rica was in the tranquil bay of Santa Elena.  We were exhausted and ready for a break from the high winds.  Once the anchor was down, we relaxed with a sunset cocktail and to enjoy the deserted scenery surrounding us.

Santa Elena, Costa Rica

Santa Elena, Costa Rica

The tranquility soon was broken by this sound

Had we entered Jurassic Park?  Are there gorillas in the mist?  No, just the local howler monkey troop welcoming us to Costa Rica.   We were certain they were going to be giant, gorillas even, but when we finally saw them they were basic-monkey sized.   This country had me at first grunt.

Howler monkeys all over the place

Howler monkeys all over the place

What's cuter than a baby monkey?!!

What’s cuter than a baby monkey?!!

Eager to see more of Costa Rica, we left the boat safely at Marina Papagayo and rented a car with pals, Robin and Mike from Mermaid and spent a few days up in the very wet inland mountains and the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

Of course we didn't forget Lucy.

Of course we didn’t forget Lucy.

Driving in Costa Rica is a combination of well paved roads and pot hole filled dirt trails where interesting obstacles are par for the course.

Horses have the right away.

Modern day cowboy.

We spent a fascinating day touring the Monteverde Cloud Forest, which was made even better by our knowledgeable guide, Javier.  Its protective reach extends over 35,000 acres  atop the Continental Divide.  There are over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, and 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles living within its bounds.

Javier leading us through the Cloud Forest.  And yes we are styling in those rain jackets

Javier leading us through the Cloud Forest. And yes we are styling in those rain jackets

It is well worth having a guide to help you spot the local flora and fauna and explain the fascinating ecosystem found in this lush forest.    We had just started the tour when a spider monkey quietly swung overhead.  Unlike the Howlers, they don’t make a peep because as Javier explained: in this wild preserve full of predators (mainly wild cats, who actually prefer to hunt in the trees), “monkey cry, monkey die”.   Sorry to say I didn’t have the camera out in time for the spider monkey, but we did for the resplendent Quetzal.  What is this you ask?  I did too after the 100th person in Central America talked about this colorful, yet elusive bird.  It is the official bird of Guatemala, even their money is named after it, but they are rare, almost non-existent in Guatemala.  However, good ol’ Javier (aka the Quetzal whisperer) with his bird calls and years of experience spotted this majestic creature for us.  And wow was it a treat, this bird’s colors are so brilliant he looks like a cartoon.  Javier was ingenious enough to help us take this picture through his scope with our phone.

quetzel bird

We took this photo through a scope, which doesn’t do it justice, but proof we saw the resplendent Quetzal!

Later in the tour, Javier calls us over to a small crack in the hillside, shines his flashlight  and with a devilish smile tells us to look inside.  Eeek, I believe is the word you are looking for…

tarantula

tarantula

This Millipede smelled like almonds.  And no he didn't smack Pete in the face.

This Millipede smelled like almonds. And no he didn’t smack Pete in the face.

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

Stylish hanging bird's nest built from moss.  This bird must work for Dwell magazine.

Stylish hanging bird’s nest built from moss. This bird must work for Dwell magazine.

Cloud Forest living up to its name.

Cloud Forest living up to its name.

Feed me, Seymour!  Plants that look like they want to reach out and grab you

DSCN2816

Jack ass on the canopy bridge

After a few days of R&R in Monteverde, which included delicious meals, cool weather and an earthquake.  Yes, 5 years in San Francisco without an earthquake and 5 days in CR and we were rockin and rollin’,  we headed back to our marina along the coast.

Great meal at Trio restaurant.  Moments after this photo was my first earthquake!

Great meal at Trio restaurant. Moments after this photo was my first earthquake!

We had a lovely stop in Playa Avellanas and enjoyed lunch at Lola’s watching an international crowd of surfers in this remote spot.  (Good lord all we do is eat.)

Lunch at Lola's

Lunch at Lola’s

Lola

Lola (yes, this is Lola and no we didn’t order the spare ribs)

We came to Costa Rica 20 years ago and it is amazing how much it has changed.  A LOT more expensive, but still as beautiful.  We’ll tell you more of our adventure in Part II of the CR post.

Flying Chicken

Hello, my name is Mary and I am a chicken.   I’m afraid of a lot of things; first and foremost moving fast and being out of control.  Skiing, motorcycles, boat racing, you name it.  Peter wants to do and does all these high adrenaline activities and my response 99% of the time is “no way”.   Then the next thing I know, I’m snapping skis on my feet, zipping down the highway on the back of a Ducati or racing JY15’s on a frozen Hudson River – bitchin’ and cryin’ the whole way.   So when Peter and a group of boating friends said, “let’s go zip lining through the El Salvadorian jungle”, I gave my pat answer.   I’ll let you guess what happened next…

At least we will fall to our deaths looking stylish

At least we will fall to our deaths looking stylish. Peter and his chick(en), Julie and Ken (Kia Ora) and Janet and Paul (Talos IV)

Why oh why?

Why oh why

Flying chicken

Flying chicken

Peter zip

Here we go

DSCN2254 DSCN2211

We survived

We survived

Don’t tell Peter that I loved ever second 😉