Thursday, April 30, 2009

Finding Cinea - Amapala Honduras

I started writing this story about Cinea ten years ago after Tim and I returned from our journey on board Capella. Last week, we stopped in Amapala, Honduras in the Gulf of Fonseca to see if we could find Cinea, a girl that we had taken sailing with us. We found her and she was doing well, but first please read on…It's a little long.

Cinea’s brown eyes glistened when she took the helm of Capella, our 45-foot sailboat. At 17, she had a sense of the wind and quickly understood how to gently steer the boat by keeping the telltales on the jib parallel.

When I met her just a few days ago, she had a glazed look, like life was passing her by. We met because of her brother Antonio who grabbed the plastic bag of garbage accumulated from five days at sea as I stepped on the cement dock in Amapala, Honduras. Amapala is a port town located in Isla del Tigre in the Gulf of Fonseca. “I’ll throw it away for you,” Antonio offered. “Gracias,” I responded, happy to have such a courteous welcome. The ten year old boy stuck to our side like a hungry dog.

Inserted along the Pacific coast, the Gulf of Fonseca is known as the forgotten middle because most sailing boats opt to forget about this area of the world and sail straight to Costa Rica. Here in the Gulf, three countries, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, merge together. During the Contra War in the 1980s, the tension amongst the countries used to be as thick as the same April smoke that now fills the air. Today’s air is cloudy from the burning of vegetation. Today, April 1998, instead of flying bullets, fishing boats buzz the waters. The water is where the action lies.

At the pier, men with worn cowboy shoes sit at the bench staring, laughing, smoking, drinking and passing their day. They are without work because cargo ships no longer frequent the town and, since the Contra war is over, the American CIA no longer lives on the top of the volcano. Children run around barefoot and throw fishing lines in search of dinner. The wide cobblestone streets remind the town of its thriving days as a port; but that’s just a reminder. Today, it feels like someone sucked the oxygen out of the air, leaving the people and children to whither up like dried apples.

Following protocol, we bring our boat’s papers and register with the port captain whose office is at the far end of the pier. He has been eagerly awaiting our arrival, perhaps since he saw us anchor early in the morning. Behind the wooden desk, he vigorously shakes my fiance’s hand and asks us how long we want to stay in his country. A few days, Tim tells him. We are en route to Costa Rica where we will keep the boat before returning to the states to get married. It costs us $75 for a visa, an unusually high price. The captain looks at our American passports enviously and then with his typewriter prepares our papers. Only a few sailing boats have ever visited Amapala, so our presence and American dollars are welcome.

Antonio offers to escort us to the market. Together with several other young boys, we walk down the pier, up the cobblestone street and pass the yellow church to an open air concrete building. The women perched on the side of the street stare as we pass them. Inside the market, a few bananas, bruised tomatoes, tennis ball sized potatoes and one cabbage are displayed on the otherwise barren wooden tables. “Buy from me,” a petite yet aged woman nudges me. I pay her about fifteen cents for the barely edible cabbage. As much as I want fresh food, the withered goods dissuade me. What a contrast from the abundance of fruit we found in Mexico.

Antonio tells us that its possible to hike to the top of the volcano looming behind their town. He says it will take about three hours. We agree to meet at the pier the next day. We plan on leaving at 7 in the morning to avoid the mid-day heat.

The following morning, Antonio and two other young boys, Carlos and Ricky, meet us at the pier. Antonio grabs my backpack. Our walk takes us through the town, and past Antonio’s two room house. That’s where I meet his older sister, Cinea. She peaks out of her windowless room and rubs her eyes as if she had just woken up. Cinea had never climbed the volcano so she wants to join us.

As we hike the steep hill towards the top of the volcano, we sing songs in Spanish and take pictures. Cinea gives me a yellow flower and I place it behind my ear. I give her one for her ear. She grabs my straw hat and puts it on her head. Sometimes Ricky and Antonio hide behind bushes to try to scare us and we pretend to jump with fear. Carlos is climbing the steep gravel trail without any shoes, but it doesn’t seem to bother his feet. Tim and I teach them “Row, Row Row your boat” in English and they teach us “La Cucaracha” in Spanish.

La Cucaracha, La Cucaracha
lla no puede caminar
Por que la falta
Por que no tiene
una patita para andar

After about two miles, we reach the summit. We could see the remnants of the CIA base with its dilapidated wooden structures. One of the shacks has the words “N2 Operation” stenciled on it.

I imagine the confidential information being passed around all in the hopes of keeping Communism from spreading northward to the United States. What did we gain from this war? Did we turn people into cockroaches with our fear of Russia and Cuba taking over? The air at the peak was thick, blanketing our view. Even though we couldn’t see El Salvador and Honduras, the walk with these kids brought clarity. Like all kids, they were curious and wanted to play. When we arrived back in town, we stopped at the sweet shop and bought everyone ice cream. The children didn’t want to leave us, so we invited them to visit our boat and go for a sail.

The men at the pier stare enviously when our gang hops into our small dinghy that we use to shuttle to our sailboat. They were curious and awed by our boat. Tim and I were eager to take them for sailing and teach them about the wind and the water. Cinea took the wheel and suddenly she came to life. She looked strong and self-confident. She had talent, and understood quickly how to head the boat up and fall off with the wind.

Back in town that night, Cinea met up with us as we were eating dinner in one of the outside shacks. She asked if she could come with us to Costa Rica. Tim took one look at me and we both agreed. “Si.”

We thought it would be great idea, a way to show her another world, a way for us to improve Spanish. I was especially keen because of her raw talent as a sailor. But first she needed a passport. We had to take her to Tegucigalpa, the capital, to get her one. That was more than four hours away. Tim and I were willing and wanted to give her a chance.

Ricky’s father agrees to drive us to the city to get Cinea a passport. The town buzzes with excitement over the opportunity for one of them to sail off with the gringos. Cinea, her mother, and a few others join us on the long journey to the capital city. First, we take a panga to San Lorenzo and then we drive about three hours through the hills to the crowded city. We arrive at the passport office just before lunch and the uniformed government worker instructs us to get a lawyer to prepare papers since Cinea was a minor, only seventeen and not eighteen. We succeed with bureaucracy and return to Amapala with passport in hand. Our plan is to leave the following day.

We pick Cinea up at the pier and Tim, Cinea and I return via dinghy to our boat. At first we had trouble bringing the anchor up because it was caked with mud. Cinea’s mother, brother and what seemed like half the town stood on the pier waving. They waved, I started the engine. Cinea waved back. Tim tried to hoist the anchor. They waved. Then finally we broke free of the mud and Tim hauled up our 40 pound anchor. Most boats have an anchor windless which is an electrical machine that helps bring up the heavy anchor, but because our boat was a racing boat, we decided not to clutter the deck.

Cinea came back and took the wheel. She glowed with wonder and perhaps some fear as she waved good-bye to her town. We sailed with Cinea for four days straight all the way to Costa Rica. Sailing for a long period of time is a little like having a baby. Both sound romantic. Both take months of preparation. Both have incredible moments surrounded by routine and monotonous times. At sea, the wide Pacific Ocean swells keep moving for what seems like forever. Often there is nothing to see out at the horizon except more swells and more skies. Days blend together, only to be broken up with the night sky.

Everything for Cinea was new, and she wanted to learn. However, her eagerness slowed down and she slept more on the boat. She was too proud to tell me that she was getting sick and then it was too late for me to give her seasick pills. We sailed through gale winds and Cinea slept.

When we reached Costa Rica, Cinea wanted to return to her windowless house, a house so frail it could easily collapse in a storm. Her mother was a part time maid and she thought she would also become a maid. She never knew her father. But she wanted to go home. I took her to the bus stop in Liberia, Costa Rica and gave her a strong and sorrowful hug. Life at sea isn’t for everyone, and we had endured a difficult journey. As she settled into her seat in the bus and waved from the window, I wondered whether she was also saying good-bye to her ambition to see the world? What about my ambition to give her legs to walk, to change her life?

Last week, when we arrived in Amapala we asked about Cinea and people remembered us. One man took us straight to her big house and we spent the next two days with her and her vivacious six year old daughter, Angie. Cinea married an American and is waiting for papers to return to Florida. Cinea, Antonio, Tim and I also hiked to the top of the volcano. It was much more strenuous than I had remembered. This time we had a clear view of the surrounding islands.

Here's Cinea on board Kamaya.

Cinea had a motorcycle and she took the kids around the island. Here she is with Kai and her daughter Angie.

Here's Cinea and Antonio goofing around on our hike up the volcano.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Fish On!

En route from El Salvador to the Gulf of Fonseca, Kai put our fishing line in the water. Tim was down below adjusting our watermaker. In just ten minutes we heard a zzzzzip. “Fish on” Kai yells. That’s when all panic sets in. My role is to slow the boat down and sometimes that’s challenging, especially when our spinnaker is flying. But this time we were motoring. This time it was easy to slow down. This time I could be a fisherman, well a fisherwoman.

Kai starts reeling in the fish. “I need help,” he says. So Tim pops his head up from the cabin and comes out to help us. Sounding a bit cocky, Tim takes the fishing pole and says, “It’s feels like a small Bonita - who wants to bring in the fish?” Feeling empowered this morning, especially after successfully making it out the crashing waves of El Salvador, I volunteered.

I sat on the big winch to brace the fishing pole and start reeling in. Kai helps me as we struggle to bring the fish into the boat. “This is hard work, I think this is a bigger fish,” I blurt out. Kai and I keep reeling but we’re having trouble keeping the tip of the fishing rod up.

Tim comes back out to help and I relinquish the role of fisherwoman. As he too struggles to bring the fish closer to the boat, we see a thin humongous fish with black stripes. It's at least four feet long. What is it?

We take out our Peterson fish guide and leaf through the pages. “If we don’t know what kind of fish it is, do we want to keep it?” Tim asks. We think it’s a Wahoo, the fastest gilled creature of the sea, but we’re not sure. Resourceful Maya finds a picture in the book confirming our thoughts. My brothers used to have a 470 sailboat which they named Wahoo, but I had never seen one of these sleek fish in person.

Tim keeps reeling. We hunt for our gaff which has fallen to the bottom of the lazarette. Tim hooks the fish and does it slightly off center, gaffing the poor fish through the eye. That’s when I convert the fish into food so as not to dwell on the fact that it’s a beautiful shimmering living being.

Take a look at the picture. I'm not telling a fish story and this one didn't get away! The fish was almost as long as 6 foot Tim.

As Tim fillets the fish, I prepare the sushi rice and then Oma and I make tasty melt in your mouth sushi. For the next week, we feast on the biggest catch so far.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Oma Arrives in El Salvador

Story by “Oma” (Maya and Kai’s grandmother and Ruth’s mother)

After gorging myself on a delicious Passover dinner chez Joshua, on April 10th, I took the red-eye directly to El Salvador. It took me seven hours compared to the seven months for Kamaya.

Maya ran up to me at the airport, gave me a big hug and I had to take a second look. She had grown at least one foot. We hired a very friendly and very big taxi to take us and my huge bags heavy with spare pumps, spare parts and books from the airport to Bahia del Sol. It took us about 45 minutes with a stop to provision and then we reached the boat which was anchored in the estuary of Jaltepeque.

It was Semana Santa and the weekend at the hotel was full of non-religious swimming celebrants. Maya and Kai quickly made friends and I loved watching them speak Spanish with their friends. We spent the next few days enjoying the good life with ice creams and marathon swims in the swimming pool at Bahia del Sol.

The plan was to leave on Monday, but the waves at the mouth of Jaltepeque were too “peligrosas” giving us time to visit the nearby islands, and sample papusas, the local food.

Talking about food, we went to the funniest restaurant- “stilts or sticks” restaurant which are like treehouses, built on thin tree trunks holding up a floor that has more “sticks” holding up a roof made of dried banana leaves -- no inspection permit needed. We could see the water flowing underneath the boards. Our restaurant was built in December by three men in three days.

The chef comes out with a plate of uncooked fish and huge shrimps, takes our order and cooks it over an open fire.

In the meantime, we lounge in the hammocks and drink cervasas (yes, I could get used to this life!) while Maya and Kai build sand castles in the beach below. The beach changes quickly with the tide. A little like a magic trick -- now you see it, now you don't.

On Monday, we went to Jani’s home and helped teach English to the neighborhood kids who come to her home twice a week. Some come to learn English and some come just to hang out. Maya worked with one 13 year old Maria who wanted to learn both English and Chinese - but when Maya started teaching her Chinese, Maria quickly changed her mind. "It's so much harder than I had imagined," Maria said. The kids were so polite, well dressed and very appreciative of Jani’s school.

Jani lives on Isla El Cordoncillo which is in the middle of the estuary. She arrived nine years ago in her 70 foot sailboat and decided to buy three acres and call it home. Jan showed us her mangos, bananas, cashews, pineapple and tamarindo trees and we ate our way around her property. Cashew fruits are interesting - they grow on trees and each nut is encased in a hard shell at the end of a large pear-shaped waxy red fruit. I never dreamed that each nut has to be twisted to separate it from the large fruit,then dried and pealed...big journey for such a tasty nut.

Kai picked up the skeletons of cicadas which conveniently retain their little claws. I think they're similarly to the ones that come every 17 years to the East Coast but these bugs come every year. Kai and his new friend Alex, collected the skeletons and had fun sticking them onto my shirt. They might look a little more elegant gold plated.

I also enjoyed meeting Collette Barrett, who similar to Jan, sailed into the estuary many years ago with the plan of only staying a few weeks, but as life has it, she, too, has been here for years. Collette lives down the road from Jan and has a boatyard, a travel lift and takes care of yachts moored here for extended periods of time. She and her husband Murray lured many sailors into the area.

Ruth and I took the dinghy on a half hour trip up the estuary to a small town called Herradora. Then the following day, Tim and I took the 193 bus to Zocatecaluca where we found a huge grocery store and bought more food for our journey south.

Thursday night, we met the famous Roberto de Llano and his wife, Mar. Roberto is an impersonator and had performed the night before. He has a website, and can be 10 different personalities, including Elvis. It was exciting to meet them and learn about his life and we got to show them life on board a sailboat.

On Friday morning, the waves were finally small enough to allow us to leave and sail over the sandbar to the Gulf of Fonseca. Rohelio, our local guide in his panga, safely led us through the crashing waves. Ruth held her breath, we all wore life jackets, I took pictures and Tim calmly steered us into the ocean.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Colorful Guatemala

One of the benefits of anchoring in Bahia del Sol, El Salvador is its proximity to Guatemala. Yes, we did just sail right by Guatemala when we crossed the Tehuantepec, but we opted not to stop in Puerto Quetzal because it would have cost us at least $100 a person just to enter the country via our boat.

So instead we anchored in the estuary in Bahia del Sol and enjoyed a few full nights of sleep without having to get up for watches, and then visited Guatemala via the traditional bus.

With Maya and Kai on unicycles and our toothbrushes packed, we made our way first via the one and a half hour chicken bus to San Salvador, then a six hour bus ride to Guatemala City and finally a short hour (but with traffic two hours) taxi ride to the colorful city of Antigua. Add it up together and the sum is a horrible day of traveling.

Once in Antigua with its colonial buildings and tasty food, we quickly forgot how we got there. Antigua goes all out for Semana Santa (Holy Week) with huge processions and colorful "alfombras" decorating the streets. We lucked out and quickly found a family that would take us in for the week, while we studied Spanish, ate ice cream, climbed an active volcano and gawked at the alfombras.

Alfombras originated in the 16th Century with simple pine needles that were placed along the streets to soften the rough cobblestones for the people/penitents walking in the processions and carrying heavy wooden floats. Overtime, the carpets became much more elaborate. Some are constructed with flowers and fruit.

Some are made with vivid colors of sawdust, dyed sand and salt. And all are trampled on which sends the message that beauty is fleeting.

Here are the heavy floats called andas. People carry them, swaying slowly for hours and hours as they weave through the streets of Antigua. Musicians follow, playing serene music.

It's hard work!

Kai and I loved visiting the markets full of colorful fabrics - all handmade.

In the mornings, we went to The Spanish Language Institute for personal Spanish lessons. I finally learned how to speak in the past and the future. Here's Christina teaching Kai and Maya.

After Spanish class, we'd walk back to our home, eat lunch and the kids would spend hours playing with the adorable French poodle puppies.

Volcanoes surround Antigua and there's one that is active and spews hot red lava. We woke up at dawn and made our way to Pacaya to hike as far as we could go. Since it was a pretty steep hike, Maya and Kai opted to saddle a horse that took them up the volcano.

When we reached the hot lava, we had to walk super carefully as some of the rocks were sharp and could cut you. It was hot enough that Tim's tennis shoes melted a little and we were able to roast marshmellows. Yum!

Then we made our way to Lake Atitlan where Maya met many of the indigenous Mayans. Here's Maya learning how to embroider.

In the town of San Juan, Kai tried back-weaving with the cotton dyed with natural dyes, similar to what we found in Oaxaca.

To celebrate my birthday, we biked along the lake.

And we stayed at a lovely hotel overlooking the lake. What a sunset view!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Crossing the Dreaded Gulf of Tehuantepec

Day one

Huatulco, Mexico
By Kai

We were getting ready to cross the Gulf of Tehuantepec. The place where lots of wind blows because of the gap though the mountains that goes straight through Mexico. And we just started sailing out. After a good 30 miles we saw a small turtle that Tim, my Dad, jumped in the water and swam with. He said he scared the turtle away.

“It wasn’t that big of a turtle anyways,” he said after he got out. Then we kept sailing and kept looking for turtles.

In a half an hour we saw a bigger turtle. Ruth, Maya and I got in with the turtle. When we were really close to the turtle Mommy said, “Don’t get to close to the turtle, it might bite you.”

So we went back to the boat.

At the end of the day we put our spinnaker up. Then took it down in an hour and had dinner then went to sleep.

Day two

We woke up and went into the cockpit then ate oatmeal for breakfast. In a couple of hours we saw a school of sailfish. They were jumping 4 feet high! They were so cool but they went away.

One or two hours later we saw a manta ray! The ray’s wings were sticking up out of the water.

Then we sailed about ‘till ten at night then Maya and I went to sleep.

Day three

I woke up got out of the aft cabin. Then I realized I had a loose tooth!
When I went into the cockpit, I noticed we were now sailing. Ruth said we had started sailing at 4 in the morning. In a few hours we put the spinnaker up and went 9.2 knots for a second! We kept going pretty fast. Then at night we had to take the spinnaker down.

During Tim’s watch we heard spouting.

“It’s dolphins!” Tim said.

“But we won’t be able to see them,” I replied.

Maya told me to “Just wait and see.”

Maya went up to the bow, she had her life jacket on. And she came back saying, “there are dolphins all right.”

We all went to the bow and saw shimmering trails of dolphins. They were zooming everywhere. You could even see their outlines! But in about 10 minutes they went away.
In an hour or so, Maya and I had to go to bed.

Day four

I woke up, and went into the cockpit to eat breakfast. We had crepes since Mommy was feeling better. Maya told Tim, “I’ll make a deal with you. If Kai and I will go to bed at 7:00 pm, will you wake us up for the 11:00 pm shift?” My Dad agreed.

That day we caught a female Dorado.
When we were pulling her in we saw another female dorado swimming right beside her. She went away when we pulled the fish out of the water. That means we got to eat sushi for lunch. We ate yummy dorado sushi. At dinner, we had tempura, a Japanese breaded fish. Then we were getting ready to play Yahtzee, but it was 7:15 so Maya and I went to bed because that was part of the deal.

Tim woke us up at 11:00 o’clock and we stayed and helped with the watch. We saw dolphins again at night. It was better because it was darker and we were going faster. Then we went back to the cockpit and my Dad said he felt sick so Maya and I agreed to stay up and finish his watch. At the end of the watch, Maya was asleep and at that time it was Mommy’s turn. I stayed up with Mommy and went to sleep in the cockpit.

Day five

We’re almost there. When I woke up we had less than 20 miles to go, about ten, but the wind was really light. So we started motoring.

Then after a few hours, at about 12, we anchored outside the estuary. After an hour or two, this guide came.

We pulled our anchor and first Sunbow, the catamaran, went over the bar of breaking waves. Not much trouble as far as we could see. Then we went in. We were doing fine. Then a big wave came and Tim said “it’s going to break on us,” We started riding the wave, like a surfboard. But after that we did not have any trouble.


Looking Back

It took me more than seven years to turn our blog into a hard covered bound book. At first, I was leery of wrapping up our adventure because...