Happy Birthday to Me!

November 11, 2007
At Anchor, New Haven, Belize

Happy Birthday to me!!!

We left Texan Bay Marina yesterday morning at 9:45, aiming for New Haven in southern Belize. The weather wasn’t all that great, overcast with some showers, but it matched our mood at saying goodbye to the Rio Dulce.

The cruise downriver was a bit like a farewell parade, as some fish were running that brought out the Mayan cayucos by the dozen.

Crossing the corner of the Gulf of Honduras wasn’t too bad – certainly it wasn’t as placid as our arrival last March – and it came as a shock to the system of Mary Margaret von Stripenfurs, the seasick pussycat princess. Part of the securing for sea ritual is making a circuit of her “deposit” sites, trying to keep things tidy for obvious reasons. When we finally dropped anchor in New Haven at 2:45 in the afternoon and shut down the engines and generators, she glowered at us until the food dish was lowered at 5:30.

After the obligatory anchor dram and nap, Ole made me a birthday dinner featuring huge pork chops (from the Casa Guatemala orphanage store) braised in herbs and apple juice, with garlic mashed potatoes and fresh green beans – followed by a beautifully conceived Norwegian cream cake, caffe lattes made with the stovetop machine and cognac. Great celebration!

A Break Before Leaving Rio Dulce

November 8, 2007
Texan Bay, Rio Dulce

After a busy morning cleaning the dinghy, stowing provisions, washing down the boat, and otherwise organizing ourselves, we said our goodbyes and left Tijax for the Shell dock to fill our nearly empty tanks. Nestor, the security consultant at Tijax, had called ahead to the Shell station to ensure we could get our 700 gallons, but when we arrived, the proprietor told us the most we could have was 400. Luckily the Esso Station near Chiqui’s (Tienda Reed) was able to provide the last 300, so by 11:30, we set off down river for Texan Bay Marina, about seven miles from Livingston and the entrance to Rio Dulce. Emma Jo sure likes a full belly – she rides much lower and I swear, I can feel the difference her full tummy makes as we make our way over the lancha wakes.

Cruising downriver we were much more confident than we were coming upriver eight months ago. Revisiting Golfete, seeing the little homes and businesses, and the lanchas zooming back and forth between Fronteras and Livingston made us aware of what a very hospitable, friendly place the Rio is.

The proprietress of the marina gave us waypoints for Texan Bay over the radio – and we confess to struggling a bit trying to find just where in the vegetation those waypoints were – until we realized the waypoints pinpointed the marina itself, not the entrance! For the record, here they are: N 015°46.035’, W 088°49.640’. With a little bit of coaching by radio, we found our way in through a narrow dog-leg behind an island to one of the loveliest spots we’ve seen so far on our cruise. At one of the ten docks, we saw an old friend (or is it nemesis?) – the charter catamaran Legacy that we had waited for at the dock in Belize City last March!

Texan Bay Mike

Texan Bay Mike

Texan Bay Marina is the dream of Mike and Sherry, lifelong residents of Corpus Christi. Mike is a bulldog of a man – barrel chested, stocky, and bald – with a Texas accent you could spread on a biscuit. Sherry is a skinny little thing with more energy than three women twice her size. And they are the happiest people we’ve met in a long time.

They left Texas three years ago on their own catamaran, with the idea of making a living on the reefs of Belize. They came upriver to Fronteras that first hurricane season, and became so taken with the place they began looking around for property. And find it they did – 13 miles downriver from Fronteras, a stunning, protected bay with a stream and several channels through the mangroves — and enough water for just about any cruising boat that can make it over the Livingston Bar. There was an existing structure on top of a small hill at the head of the inlet, with a Mayan family living in it “informally”.

Now, buying property in Guatemala is not for the faint of heart or the short of patience. Mike and Sherry got themselves a lawyer and made several trips to Guatemala City to be sure of a clear and unencumbered title with faultless paperwork. Then they had to deal with INGUAT, the Guatemalan Tourist Agency, and it’s cadre of government ministers and bureaucrats, to file a business plan, get all of the permits they needed, and begin working on building their vision on Texan Bay. Mike proudly told us, that first afternoon we met, that he did not spend one dime on “mordida” (bribes) – didn’t believe in it – and wouldn’t hear of anything standing in his way. It took him two years, but this summer he finally got all the permits and paperwork to approve the serious, backbreaking manual labor his project requires.

He’s rebuilt the foundation and repaired the original building and added a huge kitchen onto the back; he’s built a new home for the Mayan family on the property; he’s put in bathrooms and showers for the boaters; he’s built a reservoir to catch rainwater; he’s put in ten 50-foot docks, and has built the sweetest lancha/dinghy dock we’ve seen on the river; he’s brought in a generator, and runs it four hours in the morning and four hours in the evening, and has plans to extend power to the docks. All of this with building supplies hauled downriver by lancha from Fronteras and up the hill by himself and some hired hands.

Sherry told us that the Mayan family kind of “came with the property,” so they are currently supporting a family of 11 with the business. One of the men acts as guardian and resident muralist. The women help in the kitchen. The kids are learning English, and going to school. Sherry sponsors a medical clinic of sorts, with a doctor who visits once a month to look after the usual cuts, scrapes and bruises, as well as the general health of the kids and cruisers in the marina. While we sat in the bar enjoying a cold beer, she hit us up for a “small money contribution” as a graduation present for one of her “kids” who had just graduated high school. We were glad to offer 10 quetzales, as was everyone else in the place.

And they both cook. Coffee is free to boaters in the morning, and good old fashioned American breakfasts are cheap and home-cooked. Happy hour finds most of the boaters up in the bar enjoying a cold Brava or an improvised gin and tonic (Sherry will buy bottles from boaters when her bar stocks run low), with old time rock and roll via the Sirius satellite. And once in awhile dancing breaks out.

Mike offered to take us down to Livingston in his lancha on Friday morning to check out. The 7-mile trip took only about 20 minutes with his 4-stroke 50-horse outboard. He walked us up to Raoul the Agent, who collected our boat papers and passports, then suggested we wait at a local café for tapado, a spicy coconut fish stew unique to Livingston, complete with a whole mojarra (kind of river perch), a little swimming crab, and plenty of shrimp. By the time we finished lunch, Raoul had our boat papers ready for a November 11 checkout — and we zoomed back upriver to Texan Bay and a nap.

That night we opted for dinner at the marina — it was no kidding chicken fried steak with country milk gravy, just like mom used to make. After dinner, while daintily wiping his lips, Mike said, in a momentarily alarming dry drawl, “it always gets a might hard to breathe after a dinner like that.”

One of the highlights of our stay at Texan Bay Marina was a dinghy ride through the mangrove lagoons and channels that really put us in mind of the Tarzan movies of the 30s that were filmed in the Rio Dulce gorge. We were able to stalk a couple of egrets by rowing through the water lotus then just drifting to within 3 feet. And we heard the most amazing bird call, tracking it as it took flight to something called a Montezuma oropendola. (On the link is a flash of the call it makes…spooky!)

Leaving Marina Tijax

November 7, 2007
Hacienda Tijax

Well, we’ve completed most of the items on our “before we leave the dock” list, including a major jaunt into Puerto Barrios for some serious grocery shopping. But the weather doesn’t seem to want us to go quite yet. There’s a long front extending from the mid-Atlantic coast of the US all the way through the Bahamas and down through the Gulf of Honduras, making for 20-25 knots of wind and 6 to 9-foot seas. Sorry – been there, done that – getting t-shirts made. We’re using the time to knock off a few more items from the list and socialize a little bit as we watch everyone making ready to leave.

Friday night, we hosted another barbecue out by the pool. It was pouring rain, but damn if cruisers are anything, they’re intrepid. With enough kerosene on the grill, steaks and shrimps were plentiful, and cruiser-brought treats were sufficient to satisfy all of us.

We had barely enough time to recover for the barbecue lunch hosted by Eugenio up at his farmhouse the next afternoon. Nestor, his Israeli security consultant, did all of the cooking – from perfectly grilled steaks to homemade hummus, tahini and flan. Several of Eugene’s staff were on hand as well, and it was wonderful to be able to thank them for such a wonderful stay.

After about a 5-hour lunch up at the finca, we were not at all hungry for dinner. So we joined Sid and Tuve of Blue Moon, Ken and Patti of Novena, and camped out on Alianna’s back deck with Sim and Rosie for more beer. We had only been there about a half an hour when we heard a frantic call to turn on the radio: there had been a collision between two lanchas under the bridge and someone was thrown into the water, reported missing.

Recently the editor of the Rio Dulce Chisme Vindicator, the online “newspaper” for gringos in the area, compared this area to the Wild West of the 1880s. That’s about the level of emergency service here. Coast guard? EMTs? Rescue divers? Fuggedaboudit. Lights on the river? Dream on. A local missionary who lives aboard a trawler and is fluent in English and Spanish was contacted by the Navy station a few miles up the lake, to see if he could coordinate a volunteer search. Sim and Ken, armed with as many flashlights as they could collect, along with our gas tank joined the searchers. There may have been 10-20 dinghies on the water, along with the navy lancha, who searched in the dark for about 90 minutes. The current under the bridge usually boils a bit, and creates whirlpools under certain conditions. And at 20 miles up from the ocean, there is not much tidal influence. The navy overestimated the flow, and the search was concentrated about a quarter to a half mile downriver from the bridge.

Needless to say, they did not find the man that night, and after about an hour, they knew if he hadn’t swum to shore and walked to a local bar for a drink, it was now a recovery rather than rescue mission.

We heard this morning that he had been found under the bridge. And that his fiancée, also in the lancha with him, had been thrown out of the boat as well, suffering propeller damage enough to kill her.

As a developing nation, Guatemala does have laws. Like running lights, speed limits and licences for lanchas. But they don’t have the manpower or resources for enforcement. The driver of the lancha responsible for the accident leapt into the water, swam ashore, and ran away. The locals probably know who he is, but he’ll never be caught, much less prosecuted.

I’ve been out in the dinghy at night, and have experienced narrow misses. The lancha drivers have this “more is better” attitude to engine size and speed. They think it’s cool that the bigger the engine, the higher up their bow goes. They operate solo, with nobody on the lookout up forward. When we’re out at night, we madly wave a flashlight around, hoping that the lancheros will at least notice us.

The river community is all abuzz about this incident, coupled with recent dinghy thefts. All it does is remind us that while we are relaxed and comfortable here, we can’t afford to be careless or complacent.

Goodbye Girls: Rosie, Tuve, Patty, Ans, and Me

Goodbye Girls: Rosie, Tuve, Patty, Ans, and Me

We went out for a last shout with Ken and Patti of Novena, Sim and Rosie of Alianna, and Gerald and Ans of Spirit, to partake of the Sundog Happy Hour and dinner at Rosita’s. What wonderful luck we’ve had this year, with these fine folks as neighbors. We can only hope that our future is full of kindness and community like we’ve had here.

At the end of the day, it looks like we may head out of here on Thursday, November 8, sail downriver to “Texan Bay,” at the upstream edge of the gorge, and wait a day or two for the weather to calm down.

October Brings a Change of Plans…

Hacienda Tijax

This month saw many of our neighbors flying back up north to visit friends and family before moving their boats– Ans and Gerald back to Holland – Rosie back to England – and many others doing the “grand tour” of Guatemala, to Tikal, Chichicastenango, Antigua and the like.

The cats and I simply stayed home, trying to busy ourselves with painting the deck furniture, varnishing the teak table before Ole got home, and project-managing the construction and canvas projects we had contracted out to local craftsmen. Added to that were a bi-weekly zip across the river for happy hour at the Sundog Café (TWO gin and tonics for the hefty price of one – 75 cents!), a restaurant visit once a week or so, and the odd visit by our buddy Spiff, I was kept entertained.

But ten weeks is quite a long time to be alone on the boat without Ole, and the prospect of keeping the boat here another seven or eight months during Ole’s transition to a new ship made my feet (fins?) itchy. So at about one in the morning, a week before Ole got home, we decided just to use this upcoming vacation period to head further south to Panama.

The first highlight of the month was Ole getting back at about 3:00 am on the 27th. We rested up for a day or so, then started our “before we leave the dock” list. Thankfully, there were no huge projects – just a lot of piddly ones (current count is 38), including finishing the carpentry that our contractor had not, changing a few gaskets in the engine room, installing red lights in the instrument panel to eliminate glare at night, and bandaging up the boo-boo we got while bashing into Spiff out on the Lake.

Another highlight was the Halloween party at the Sundog, apparently an annual tradition (this is the second annual). Sundog is unique on the river, catering more to the European crowd than some of the other, more Americano-concentrated spots. It’s run by Babette and her boyfriend Jurin (pronounced “Yuri”) a 30-something Dutch couple with looks crying out to be discovered by Hollywood. Both of them are charming, cheerful, and fluent in about 5 languages, right down to the joking and swearing. Their party started at 3:00 in the afternoon, and was reputed to have gone on until sometime after 2:00 a.m. – though we couldn’t attest to anything later than about 10:30, getting way too old for very much heavy partying. The apex for us was the Macarena – it was all downhill after that!

Current plans are to leave the 8th of November – my passport stamp expires then – and head north to pick up some of the places we missed while cruising Belize. We’ll then turn south toward the Bay Islands of Honduras (Utila, Roatan, and Guanaja), then turn the corner of Nicaragua, stopping at Providencia and San Andres before running south to Bocas del Toro. As we cruise, updates and photos will be more frequent.

By the way – Maggie the cat is still going strong, though thin as a wire. Alianna, the sailboat across from us with Sim and Rosie aboard, has a young cat named “Ali” who has not yet learned the finer feline social graces. She comes aboard and challenges our two, and little Maggie is the one who routinely kicks ass. Fortunately, nobody’s been in the water of late – but that could change!

September on the Rio

Hacienda Tijax

The good news is that the repair to our boat is costing next to nothing by US standards — only $100 for the fiberglass work, and a total of about $200 for the wood repairs, which began early this month.
Oscar was also kind enough to recommend a canvas guy, Luis to help us reconstruct a new bridge cover and recover the flybridge cushions. Although he used the old one as a pattern, when he brought the new one over, it didn’t fit. Undaunted, he came back with his sewing machine, and sat on the dock fitting, cutting, and refitting until it worked. Unfortunately, he was a few snaps short (sounds like a mental condition, but it’s not) of a full bridge cover, so he has to make a special trip to Guatemala City for more. I’m so impressed with his work that we’re having a dinghy cover made to match.

We were also fortunate enough to get hooked up with an American woman married to a beef rancher who is willing to supply American-cut steaks, chops and roasts. She’s from Wisconsin, apparent in the way she spoke to me about homemade “saaaasages” — so we gave her a try. Four of us boaters ordered filet mignon, New York and sirloin steaks, and talked Eugene and the staff into making us a barbecue pit out by the pool — needless to say, a good time was had by all. There’s a little palm-covered outdoor bar with refrigerator, bar stools in the pool that sit against the bar — and all of it was put to good use, with each of us bringing pot luck. The hit of the evening was an impromptu invention of men-vs-women water polo that had us all laughing our sides off and feeling like little kids. Really — how long has it been since YOU got to engage in physical, rough-and-tumble honest-to-goodness play!

Our game was observed in drunken amusement by about 15 Dutch students, who stayed at their end of the pool stacking up empty beer cans six-deep and wondering why they couldn’t cut loose like we did.

Even the staff had fun, peering out from the kitchen on occasion, and gratefully accepting tips of ice cream sundaes.

Maggie continues to get thinner by the day, and by the end of the month, she’s just about half her normal weight. Thankfully she’s eating (we’re now supplementing with canned sardines) and drinking plenty of water, and still fairly cheerful, thanks to the more frequent use of air conditioning. If I were to anthropomorphize, it’s almost as if she knows her little days are drawing to an end. I’m still sad, but talking to other boaters about how they celebrate the passing of their pets. I think we can do her honor when her time comes.

August Back on the Rio Dulce

August, 2007
Hacienda Tijax

The work on the Norway property continued at full steam during the first week of August. Ole needed to get back to the Sovereign to take a break from his working vacation!

After a very long trip home from Norway (Gjaeroy to Bodo; overnight Bodo; Bodo to Oslo to Newark to Houston to Guatemala City; overnight; bus to Fronteras — total time 3 days), we arrived back at Emma Jo to find her in good shape, and the cats excited to have us home. The only fatality was what our boat sitter Lucy referred to as a “broken water thingy” — turned out to be the main water pump. Fortunately we had a new one onboard, which was lovingly installed by our neighbor Sim, on the s/v Alianna. He’s a great guy and fellow chief engineer — he works as chief on a British tall ship used to train sailors and rehabilitate youth at risk. Cool project.

Oscar, our varnish guy, had nearly finished some very good work on the teak — varnishing the cap rails and rub rail to a faretheewell. We were so proud, and eager to remember boating, that we decided to take the last weekend before Ole’s return to the Sovereign and travel with Spiff aboard Ruthy L, a 46-foot Fisher motor sailor, for a short trip on Lake Izabal.

We visited Denny’s Beach, a small but beautiful Canadian-owned resort, rafting up on our anchor in flat-calm water and dinghying ashore for lunch. What a lovely spot — with a white sand beach, walking trails through the jungle, and deluxe accomodations for the rich Salvadorans and Guatemalans who come down for vacation. After lunch was the obligatory nap, then a weighing of anchor for a trip further west along the north shore of the lake. We dropped anchor, rafted up again (on our anchor), and prepared for the sundown ritual of cocktails on the “back porch.” We had just settled in, admiring the squall line approaching on the mirror-flat water, when it all went horribly wrong.

The wind went from zero to 25 knots in a heartbeat — then the chop followed, causing Emma Jo and Ruthy L to buck the chop in tandem. The bucking lasted about 10 minutes, and then the wind stopped — unfortunately the chop increased — then turned to hit us directly on the side. The tandem bucking turned in to side to side bashing, bending the horns of our through-hull bow cleats, snapping Spiff’s bow line, and aiming the pointy end of his sailboat right at our bridge. It took about 5 minutes to cut each other loose, and for Spiff to circle around and drop his own anchor.

A morning assessment showed that all of Oscar’s good work was in vain — we had six feet of chewed up rubrail, a huge gouge in the bow caprail, and a 2-foot tear in the fiberglass of the Portuguese bridge. Spiff, though 10 tons heavier, fared a bit worse, having the caprail split and lifted clean off the starboard bow of his boat, and the turnbuckles holding up his main shroud bent beyond recognition.

We are still speaking to each other. Lesson Learned: when you see the squall line coming toward you, don’t just sit there…DO SOMETHING!

Maggie (the fat orange cat) had lost some weight, and was beginning to look really bothered by the heat, panting heavily and acting lethargic. There’s a veterinarian who comes downriver once a month for shots and health papers, who was kind enough to stop by the boat for a look at her — and he seemed to think there was something dreadfully wrong, probably thoracic. Unfortunately, there is no veterinary clinic or laboratory on the river — the nearest full service clinic is in Guatemala City. There began the grief. If the cat is ill, then putting her in the carrier in the heat, going by boat to the bus stop, waiting for a 6 hour bus that may or may not have air conditioning, getting in a taxi, finding the clinic, then overnighting in a hotel only to return the same way would only add to her stress.

Eugene (the owner of Tijax) offered to take me to his vet in Puerto Barrios, about an hour away, as he and his wife and child needed to do some shopping there. So I drugged the cat, put ice in baggies in her carrier, and trudged her over the Tarzan bridges to the parking lot.

Maggie started panting in the parking lot, and by the time we were halfway to Morales, the poor cat was panting so hard I thought she was going to have heart failure right there on the spot. But with the AC going full blast, after about 20 minutes on the road she calmed down. About 5 miles outside Puerto Barrios, traffic came to a screeching halt for over an hour – there had been an accident that was in the process of being cleared. The backup went all the way into town – so the one hour trip lended up to be a 3 hour trip by the time we got in to see the “vet”. Although he used to run a zoo, the vet now owns a pet store. No clinic, no lab, no x-rays. Just haul the cat out of the carrier onto his sales counter for a perfunctory exam. No temperature; no fluid in the lungs; tachycardia (irregular heartbeat). He asked me how old she was, I said “13” and he said “she’s getting old. Give her some vitamins.” Period. Nice man, but clearly not curious about what was causing the irregular heartbeat, and no press to offer more help other than to give her vitamins and keep her from losing weight by making sure she has enough to eat (!) Total time: 10 minutes. There were customers in the shop. So veterinary care here is a reflection of the culture, and cats are pretty low on the food chain.

By the time the shopping was finished, the 3 hour trip had taken about 8 and a half hours, and I know no more than when I left. After this experience, I’m really not willing to subject her to any more travel stress, and will have to figure out how to keep her comfortable and happy until the end. It makes me sad that I can’t do more for her.

Along with the cat drama came word of Hurricane Dean, which looked like it was going to make a direct hit on us. There was some minor scurrying around the marina to remove canvas and secure lines, but the Rio Dulce’s reputation as a hurricane hole stood. We got winds of about 5 knots, and 12 hours of rain — making the river rise about a foot here. They don’t call it a hurricane hole for nothing!

And thank goodness for good neighbors. Shortly after Ole left for Sovereign, I noticed alarm lights on the forward bilge pump and shower pump, and investigation found that both had burned themselves out. Our neighbor Ken on s/v Novena, helped me find a replacement shower pump, and our long lost friend Spiff installed it for me. Although it’s supposed to be automatic, it’s not quite perfect — requiring running upstairs naked to turn it on (I forget to turn it on as I’m stepping into the shower), then rushing back upstairs to shut it off.

Without Ole here, Sim and Rosie, and Ken and Patty, English sailors moored near us, have adopted me and take me everywhere — most often to the Sundog Cafe for happy hour a couple of times a week. Some days we visit the “Ropa Americana” vendors who take pallets of Goodwill clothing and overstocks sent down from the states and offer clothing for sale cheap. My most recent finds are a denim sundress (Bobbie Brooks) for $3, and a tennis skort (Jones New York) for $2. I’m beginning to forget how to even spell “Nordstrom.”

From a Birthday Party in Guatemala to Mending Fences in Norway

Hacienda Tijax
Rio Dulce, Guatemala

With Ole’s 10 on/10 off schedule, we really have to cram life into a compressed schedule, and July was no exception.

For the Fourth of July we were invited to “Calamity Jane’s” birthday at the Crow Bar. Jane and her husband, Roy, have a Beebee trawler called Steel Magnolia, and they came down here from Houston about a year ago. His boat is written up in the December 2006 issue of Passagemaker Magazine. A former newspaper owner, Roy has retired to manage the Crow Bar with Jane and run the Rio Dulce’s online newsmagazine Rio Dulce Chisme Vindicator. Crow Bar Marina has its own cast of characters, who were all on hand for barbecue and rum.

The next celebration was the birthday of 7-year-old Gaia, who has been cruising with her family for 3 years. Originally from France, they have cruised South Africa and South America, and are now embarking on the Caribbean. We commandeered the palapa by the swimming pool, and had a no-kidding French potluck, with crepes, quiche, and tartes.

Eugenio takes a swing

Eugenio takes a swing

The third celebration was Eugene’s 50th birthday. Eugene is the owner of Hacienda Tijax, and was kind enough to invite us up to his house for a barbecue. Friends of his, as well as specialty foods, arrived from all over Guatemala.

Then, on July 9, we left the Rio for our biennial trip to Norway a year late. Not easy – 6 hours on a bus to Guatemala City, an overnight, then Houston/Newark/Oslo/Bodo and an overnight, then a 4 hour ferry ride. When we arrived, we found that three years of vacancy on the property had taken its toll – all of the sheep fencing was down and the sheep were partying all over the place. We had always had a “live and let live” policy with the weeds – but after three years, found they were actually birch trees. So we spent three and a half weeks in hard labor, cutting and burning brush, re-fencing the property (by hand – no power tools here), interrupted only occasionally by a visit to the relatives or a trip out to fish for fresh cod and sei. The best part, though, was cool days and gorgeous midnight sun.

The Marina Fills Up, and We Explore with New Friends

Hacienda Tijax
Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Tijax filled up this month, with boats arriving from England, France, Holland, and the US. After casually meeting a few cruisers on the dock, Gerard (from France) took it upon himself to organize a cocktail party in the dining room at Tijax so we could all meet one another. The party was the same night Ole arrived home from Sovereign, so he missed the initial meeting, but came up to speed quickly as we organized a couple of private excursions.

The first was about an hour away from Fronteras – to a place called “Finca Paraiso.” It’s a private ranch that happens to include a river with volcanic hot springs. There were eight of us — two from England, two from Holland, two from France, Ole and I, who rented a mini-van and driver, carried picnic lunch in backpacks, and spent the better part of the morning in the river.

We were followed by some entrepreneurial types who had warm-off-the-griddle banana pancakes for sale, and at the falls, there were a few young men who volunteered to keep an eye on our stuff while we played in the water. And after lunch, we organized a spontaneous International Tin-Foil bocci ball tournament. Not surprisingly, France won. After lunch, it was more playing — this time downstream from the falls. While wading in the river, we could feel the steam vents between the rocks, making for some interesting sensations.

Not content to just motor back to our boats, we asked our driver to stop at the old fort near Fronteras: Castillo San Felipe. This fort was built in the 1500s to discourage the pirates who discovered that the Rio Dulce and Lake Izabal were a great hideout. Though small, the fort is beautifully built and restored, with 7 cannon pointing at the narrow opening between the river and the lake.

Later in the month, Ole and I took a short (three night) trip to Antigua for our 19th wedding anniversary.

When not going out on excursions, we putter around the boat, doing projects and socializing. A regular meeting is forming up every afternoon at 4:30 in the swimming pool. This seems to be one of those times in life where magically the right people arrive at the same place and time!

A Gringa (Partially) Does Holy Week in Antigua

Easter Sunday, April 6, 2007
Tijax Marina, Fronteras, Rio Dulce

If we Americans are guilty of pageantry and associated gluttony at Christmas, we are only outdone by the magnitude of Holy Week (Semana Santa) in Guatemala in general, Antigua in particular.

Monday I took a shuttle van with our boat buddies Rosie and Don from Chickcharnie for the 6-hour trip to Antigua. The drive was amazing, and relaxing in that someone else had to be responsible for negotiating the potholed mountain road and building holiday traffic. We arrived in Antigua at about 2:30 in the afternoon, and checked into a triple room at a private, restored 17th century colonial house run by the charming, outgoing Karla, who spoke no English but greeted us like long lost family.

The home was completely nondescript from the street – just a yellow plaster building with a big heavy black door. But once through the door, we found a typical Spanish home, complete with interior courtyard and wildly flowering three-story garden. Don, Rosie and I shared a triple room on the second floor, and just steps outside our door was a comfortable outdoor parlor and garden terrace that continued up to the roof, where there was a spectacular view of one of Antigua’s three volcanoes. The cost of the room was an outrageous $20 per person per night, and included afternoon coffee and kitchen privileges!

Mangos

Mangoes

Her home is two cobblestone blocks from the signature church in Antigua, Nuestra Senora de la Merced (Our Lady of Mercy), a large yellow church with a white plaster lace façade. In the church square, food vendors were crowded together with boiling pots of oil for deep frying churros, grills for hand-making tortillas, mangoes carved into beautiful orange flowers on sticks, and riotous displays of sweets.

After a stroll through town and some preliminary shop scouting, we returned to the church to tour the inside with the other Holy Week pilgrims and were treated to a concert featuring solemn funeral music from a full on concert orchestra with a marimba section, and hymns sung by a children’s choir. We were pressed along by the crowd toward the church’s ritual “alfombra,” a mosaic “carpet” made with flower petals, colored sawdust, fruits, vegetables, and plants.

Opting for dinner among the masses, we chose do-it-yourself tacos from a Mayan family stand, complete with gyro-like beef, homemade guacamole and salsa, and beans – and ate sitting on the steps as we watched the hundreds of faithful chow down. – unlike the other tourists who seemed wary of street food. Heck – at less than $2.00 apiece for dinner, what was there to be wary about? We finished dinner off with a stop at the sweets stand for “angel tongues” (literal translation of the Spanish, actually marshmallows) and some candy made from condensed milk that felt like reeeeeaaaaaaly sweet squishy caramel or penuche.

Antigua Weaver

Antigua Weaver

Tuesday was reserved for heavy shopping that included visits to the National Geographic Mayan jade store and to the House of Weaving, an independent museum completely run by Mayans – actually one of the only Mayan-run businesses in Antigua. I have looked at Guatemalan weaving many times, dismissing it as cheap and gaudy – but that’s what we do with our uneducated eyes. The museum taught me great respect for Guatemalan fabrics, as well as traditional Mayan costuming entirely woven by hand using a back strap loom, each garment taking at minimum weeks, at maximum six months to complete. Like in many indigenous cultures, the educated eye can look at a piece of weaving or an element of costuming and identify the exact region and village of the wearer. I’m not yet educated.

Tuesday evening, I opted to taste the local rum – Botran – the 12-year-old sipping rum is every bit as good as Havana Club Reposada – and at $7.50 per bottle, may replace the Bombay Sapphire martinis at cocktail hour chez Emma Jo. Hey, family, guess what you’re getting for souvenirs…

Wednesday morning, while Rosie and Don negotiated brass and pewter conchas for the door to the house they are building, I wandered toward the central square and the Church of San Ignacio, where there was another alfombra, and a helpful walking tour guide who ingratiated himself enough to escort me through the ruins of San Ignacio, then further into the city to the Cathedral of San Francisco for yet another alfombra and the staging area for the Good Friday procession. Two city blocks were taped off to gather the icons and relics, and the Stations of the Cross were arranged in ghoulishly realistic order, ready to be hoisted onto the shoulders of purple-clad bearers for the big deal on Good Friday. The Mayans were moving their food streets to this staging area and the square outside San Francisco, where I guess the really crowded stuff goes on for the rest of the week. Here’s some of what I saw:

I had read in an English-language magazine about a new shop in Antigua featuring the artistry of the area’s only chocolatier, so I had the tour guide drop me off for rosemary-infused dark chocolate and the remaining 3 chocolate bunnies in the store (might have been the only chocolate bunnies in Guatemala, for all I know!) A short visit to a dress shop earned me two sundresses made of hand-woven cotton for $20 apiece (you can go broke saving money here), then it was back to the van for the long trek back to Fronteras and the Rio.

We caught some holiday traffic in Guatemala City (not a place I care to see much of – traffic, pollution, crime) and our 5-1/2 hour trip back ended up taking 8-1/2 hours. We found a roadside eatery (comedor, as opposed to restaurante) with a couple of police vans out front and a dozen cops inside, and counting on the donut syndrome, ordered up the special of the day, cheerfully cooked by mom and auntie, and served by daughter or niece. I’ll give it a week – if I don’t get Montezuma’s by then, I probably never will.

I arrived back at Tijax to find the place jammed full of holidaymakers from all over the world, and quickly reconsidered a quiet afternoon by the pool when I discovered about 20 kids squealing and playing with inflatables (including a blow-up 747) that took up half the space in the water. Back on the boat, it wasn’t much better, as several of the city folk had towed their jet skis and speedboats with them on vacation, and the stern of Emma Jo only about 100 feet away, was not the most stable of relaxing spots.

Part of the Easter celebration here also included a procession of relics and statuary, complete with palm fronds and funeral music – but on boats that cruised both sides of the river. I didn’t quite get the penance involved in loading Jesus and his friends up onto Cayucos with 25-horse Yamahas on the back, but hey – I never was too Catholic.

Easter Sunday came and went quietly – with most of the vacationers from Tijax. Spent the evening with friends enjoying barbecue at Bruno’s across the river. Tomorrow holds the possibility of a cold, quiet beer by the pool and some reflection about holiday excess.

Hello Guatemala!

March 23, 2007
Fronteras, Rio Dulce
Izabal, Guatemala

(Check out Maya Paradise.)

Once we decided to go, we left yesterday morning about 6:15 a.m. with a “buddy boat” called Chickcharnie, with Don and Rosie from Montana aboard, to attempt to cruise to Punta Gorda, check out of Belize, cruise to Livingston, check into Guatemala, and find a quiet anchorage for the night.

Cruising in open waters now has Jan wary, so we thoroughly secured for sea, only to find ourselves in flat calm, almost glassy seas across the Gulf of Honduras. FINE with me!! We were in Punta Gorda in less than three hours, and the formalities went fairly efficiently, so off we went immediately toward Livingston, arriving there just after noon. We figured we’d have to wait for the officials to finish their lunch before coming out to our boat to clear us in – apparently lunch lasts until about 3:30.

When they arrived, the party consisted of Customs, Immigration, Health, and the Port Captain – all were very courteous and pleasant – especially Raul of Customs, who spoke fairly good English. They were charmed by the cats – and their only concern about them seemed to be their names.

We thought that once the party had been aboard that would be the end of it – but apparently now that they had seen us, we had to dinghy ashore to dance with them at: 1) the bank, to change dollars into Quetzales; 2) Immigration, where we had to pay out some of those Quetzales to get our passports stamped; 3) Customs, where Raul gave us a 90-day permit in exchange for still more Quetzales, that 4) the Port Captain, in exchange for even more Quetzales, stamped for us. FYI – there are 7.5 Quetzales to the dollar, and we figured it was just about $75 to clear in.

We could probably have managed this on our own, but at the town dock, there was a gaggle of 12-to-13-year old boys who argued for the privilege of watching our boat and guiding us through the rounds. Our tour guide, a charming local boy of 13, boldly took charge and led us around to each place, chatting with Jan in Spanish to explain each step of the “cha-cha.”

Livingston is a typically gritty third-world seaport town, built on the north shore of the Rio Dulce, with narrow streets, and a long uphill walk to the Port Captain’s office, high on a cliff with a magnificent view of the entire river mouth, and guarded by a young man with a well-practiced scowl who didn’t look old enough for the AK47 he was holding. While we waited in the Port Captain’s office for the Port Captain to arrive (about half an hour), the tour guide broached the subject of “el tip” very delicately, explaining that this is his job, and he would like to earn enough money to get something to eat – the same for the boy who was watching the dinghy. It seemed a fair exchange – the boy had a smile that would melt chocolate, and Jan was happy to practice the Spanish.

We were finished at about 5:30, hoisted anchor, and traveled about ¾ mile upriver to find a spot not heavily zoomed by the fishing fleet, just south of an old dock that used to service oil barges supplying a defunct nickel mine. As advised, because of the “loose” application of maritime custom and the fact that the fishing fleet goes out at night, we turned on our deck lights in addition to the anchor light, to avoid being bonked in the dark by some industrious fisherman with more horsepower than nav lights.

Friday morning we started the 20-mile cruise upriver through the Rio Dulce gorge. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto. The shoreline rises up several hundred feet from the river, sometimes straight up, and is covered by jungle vegetation including palms, mahogany, strangler figs, philodendra, and the like. Once through the gorge, the shoreline gentles a bit, and we were charmed by some of the homes we saw.

The river widens to an area called “El Golfete,” where we encountered families fishing from canoes – usually with the wife manning the motor, and the husband throwing the net; and we found we had to change course from time to time to avoid running through arrays of nets and floats.

And just past El Golfete, the settlement of Fronteras appeared, just under the highway bridge that connects this area to Guatemala City inland and Puerto Barrios, the town on the south shore of the river mouth.

Tijax Marina Front Door

Tijax Marina Front Door

Catamaran Island, where we had originally intended to stay, was fully booked. We aimed instead at Hacienda Tijax (TEE-hosh), on the same side of the river and a bit closer to town. As we approached, we were not impressed – until the owner himself came out in a lancha, consulted with Ole, and found us a perfect side-tie that catches a bit of the afternoon breeze. By paying in advance for three months, the monthly moorage is $243, which includes water, armed security, use of the pool, grounds, and trails, and free wireless internet. We’ll pay about 30 cents per kilowatt hour for power (less than we paid at Riverview in Ft. Lauderdale!), and have signing privileges at the hotel, restaurant and bar. We haven’t fully explored the place yet, so have included just a couple of pictures. Until we have more pictures to add, you might want to explore their website: www.tijax.com .

So, settled in, we get cell phone service and e-mail. For snail mail, the address is as follows: El Yate Emma Jo, % Eugenio Gobbato, Hacienda Tijax, Fronteras, Rio Dulce, Izabal 18022, Guatemala, Central America.

So we’re settled for at least three months. Ole will be going back to the ship next week, and Jan will be staying here for the duration. The cruise log will be updated at least weekly, but will focus more on life on the Rio than cruising per se.