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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Out into the Caribbean


As expected, our exit from Guatemala was more dramatic than our entry……this time we got stuck on the bar at Livingstone for two hours! This was due to the delay in repairs to our turbo charger (a three day job stretched to nine), meaning we missed the spring tide of December 9.  Luckily we were in a nice place – Tortugal Marina.

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The next really good tide was mid January but there was no way we were staying that long…our visas were due to expire and the Caribbean was calling.  We decided to run the risk of crossing the bar on a slightly lower tide and arrived in Livingston on December 14.

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Our agent Raoul assured us that our 2.1m draft would easily clear the bar – “no problemo”.  We weren’t convinced given that the Rio Dulce was running about 10cms lower than normal, but he’s a local and knows – right?  Hmmm.  The high tide was at 8pm and as the channel is unlit, unmarked and littered with fishing nets, we booked a pilot.

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The pilot, Hector, insisted we leave at 5pm and so we (doubtfully) set off following him, anxiously watching the depth gauge as it went from 5m to 4m to 3m to 2m……which is when we came to a crunching halt.  Now exactly where is this deep water Raoul and Hector promised?? 


Hector heeled us over using a halyard from the top of the mast and tried to drag us but there simply wasn’t enough water.  We told him to leave us and come back at high tide…8pm…as per our original plans.  We decided we may as well have dinner so sat in the cockpit trying to explain to the many fishermen who approached us that we were “esta bien” – fine…and were simply waiting for the high tide.  It was not a particularly memorable few hours!


Hector duly returned and with the extra few inches of water he managed to drag us over the 200m bar.  Phew.   Next day we motored up to the southernmost of the Belize Cays where we’d spent a few days at the end of last season.  It was sheer bliss to anchor in the crystal clear water,  swim and just enjoy being back in the Caribbean.

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That joy didn’t last long.  Strange spots began to appear on David’s back and as we crossed off mosquito bites, jellyfish stings, allergic reactions we deduced they must be shingles.  A couple of emails/calls to medical friends back home confirmed our diagnosis.  Shingles is an incredibly painful condition that affects the nerves.  It can last weeks and there is no treatment.  Great!  Just what we need.


We’d previously arranged to meet Kiwi sailing buddies Balvenie in Roatan but that was a 24 hour sail away.  It was far more tempting to head for the Belize mainland…just a few hours away but we figured we might get better medical supplies in Roatan so the next day we headed off.  It was a mistake as the trip really tired David out.


Roatan is a long skinny island with good anchorages.  We headed to French Cay, about halfway along, a stunning sheltered spot behind the reef.  It’s all marine reserve here and believe it or not, you can touch the crayfish – they are so unafraid.  There are hundreds of them in shallow water on the reef and they come out from their hidey holes when they hear/see snorkellers approach….wanting food.


The island is known for its fantastic diving and snorkelling but we’ve only managed a few short snorkels in the marine reserve.


On our second night a squall went through and we went on deck to see our neighbours dragging past us at an alarming rate.  We managed to wake them by sounding the horn and they re-anchored…..but several days later while ashore their boat dragged again.  This time we had to board their boat but they hadn’t left the key in the ignition and their anchor windlass was off so all we could do was put out a second anchor from the tender. 


The cruisers in the anchorage organise a heap of activities including yoga, trips ashore and numerous social gatherings including a pot luck Christmas cruisers’ dinner.  We celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve (well, it was Christmas Day NZ time) and feasted on garlic prawns.  On Christmas morning we started the day with French toast, bacon, bananas and maple syrup and polished off the bubbles we’d opened the night before.


 We went to the cruisers’ potluck dinner which was fun and the food was delicious – ham and turkey supplied by the generous hosts at Brooksy Point marina and salads and vegetables brought by cruisers. 


There are about 20 cruisers in the anchorage, mostly American, and if you thought Christmas decorations were only done on shore think again.  Bandit is about the only boat in the bay without flashing lights.  Boring, we know but that’s the way it will stay!


We haven’t done a huge amount on Roatan due to David just not being up to it.  I took a taxi into Coxen’s Hole to clear in with authorities and, true to its name, it’s a hole.  What I saw of the island was pretty enough – it’s very green and lush.   On the slopes are some amazing properties with fantastic sea views and there are wonderful resorts as well.  But the majority of locals live a pretty basic existence.   


Despite living in such a fantastic growing climate the locals don’t seem to grow much – unlike Guatemala where you can buy fruit and vegetables dirt cheap.  Here most of the produce is imported from the States or Canada and therefore pretty expensive. 


Many of the locals live in houses built on stilts over the water – to stay cooler and escape bugs.  Rubbish doesn’t seem to bother them – it piles up in front of their houses and they ignore it. 


Not sure how long we will stay on Roatan – we’ve both got severe cabin fever but need to wait until David gets better before moving.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Cold Baltic Countries


During our winters spent working in the UK, we always tried to see as much as possible.  It was a case of working seven days a week for a month or two – then taking a week off and heading off to a place we’d always wanted to go.  Sometimes we’d rent a cottage in somewhere like Devon or Cornwall and explore by car, other times we’d grab a cheap flight and head off to a city like Prague


In 2011 we saw ridiculously cheap flights to Tallin, in Estonia, and as we’d always wanted to visit the Baltic we booked a week…in January, the coldest time of the year.  We packed all our Icebreakers including long johns, feather and down jackets, cashmere scarves and headed off to the winter wonderland.


We flew into Tallin with thick snow on the ground but the plane had no problem landing unlike at Heathrow, where even light snow forces endless cancellations.  We sat beside a lovely Tallin girl who insisted her mother, who was picking her up, drop us off at our hotel.  It was our first introduction to the friendly and helpful Estonians.

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We loved Tallin, especially the old town where our hotel was.  We spent several days and nights just exploring the magical cobbled streets, taking tram rides out into the suburbs and every night having a glug or two.  Glug is the national drink… mulled wine but better!

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Highlight foodwise was sampling the traditional “elk soup”…yes, made from real elks.  It tasted like a very rich oxtail soup and was served with thick crusty bread.  Needless to say when it’s below freezing outside a bowl of elk soup and glass of glug are just what’s needed to warm up, along with a fox fur hat of course.  There’s not an animal right’s activist in sight - they wouldn’t survive – every second person wears fur and there are endless shops and stalls selling fur garments.


At one restaurant we even saw bear on the menu…but drew the line.  Instead we opted for a plate of foods typically eaten in the 18th century - salted fish, dried meats and cheeses.  Interesting.


After a few days we decided to move on to neighbouring Latvia and caught a luxury bus to Riga, complete with movies, drinks and a bathroom.  The five hour drive was over icy roads with the frozen Baltic Sea on one side and a snowy landscape on the other.  We passed frozen lakes where fisherman sat on stools fishing through holes they had carved in the ice.  Any animals were obviously kept inside as there was no sign of life….despite driving through pastoral land.


Riga is the capital of Latvia and we stayed in a fantastic hotel in the heart of the old town.  Once again the streets were covered in snow making for picture postcard scenes.  We climbed to the top of the St Peter’s church an had amazing panoramic views over the snow clad city and frozen Daugava river.


Founded in 1201, the historical centre of Riga is a Unesco World Heritage Site and has some amazing Art Nouveau architecture as well as some stunning old wooden buildings.


A visit to the  museum proved sobering as we read of the tragic history of this country and its people.  It was first occupied by what was the Soviet Union, then Nazi Germany.  By 1942 around 24,000 Latvian Jews had been killed by the Nazis.  Others were forced off their farms and from their houses and many fled.  In recent years their descendants have returned to claim their rightful property. 


One day we took a fairly old and uncomfortable local train to the mountain resort of Sigulda.  The skies were deep blue providing some magical scenes.  We took a cable car across a frozen gully and river to an area where there are castles but it was too cold to explore them – our feet were freezing despite wearing silk sock liners. 

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The temperature dropped to minus 24 so we headed back to a comfy cafe where we sipped hot coffee and ate chocolate cake!


We bussed back to Tallin and had another few days enjoying this wonderful old town.  We had planned to take a boat across to Helsinki in Finland but ran out of time….next trip!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Life on the Rio Dulce

It hasn’t been a great week for the crew on Bandit.  Systems onboard have come to a crashing halt meaning we’ve missed our cue to get across the river bar on the high tide of Dec 10. Frustration is high and pressure is on to get things working and leave before we are forced to do an expensive visa run to Mexico or Costa Rica – our Guatemalan visas run out on December 20.  Hmm…it’s weeks like this when cruising certainly isn’t the cocktails at sunset lifestyle many think.DSC_1025
All that however was put firmly into perspective when we heard the sad news that our good mate Jimma Dillon had died unexpectedly back home in Marlborough.  Jimma had a great week sailing with us on Bandit in Sardinia a few years ago.  What wonderful memories we have of one of life’s great enthusiasts….he will be so sadly missed. DSCN4206
As everything went wrong for us this week we figured that Jimma, a sailor from way back - in fact the first person David sailed with in Marlborough - would be having a chuckle to himself.  As all yachties know, boats are never straightforward. 
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The Rio Dulce is a pretty amazing place to be while we’re in fix-it mode.  We’re at Tortugal Marina which is gorgeous, we can swim in the river (avoiding crocodiles!), enjoy the lush tropical gardens, hike in the jungle and there’s a hectic social scene here if you choose it. 
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But back to Bandit.  Just as we were about to leave the river our turbo charger on the engine seized.  We’ve had to send it to Guatemala City and hope to have it back next week but as things here work on GMT (Guatemalan Maybe Time) we can never be sure!   It does give us time to fix all the other things that have given up the ghost. Our generator is in bits, the wind generator needs attention, the cockpit speakers aren’t working and to top things off the outboard motor packed up yesterday.  Luckily, a young Guatemalan boy saw our plight and came onboard and within minutes had it going. DSC_0556  Last week we had a visit from Petra, a Slovenian economist we met at language school in Antigua.  After years of intense studying and working, trips to countries such as Vietnam, Yemen and Iran made her realise there was more to life than being on the treadmill.  So she quit her job and came to Guatemala to learn Spanish.  It was wonderful to have such an inspirational person on board for a few days. 
With Petra we took a day trip to Finca Paraisio – a steaming hot waterfall near here.  Boiling water bubbles up out of the ground and spills over rocks into a tepid pond below.  It’s a wonderful feeling to stand under the hot sulphuric water then dip in the cooler pond water.
The trip there was yet another interesting Guatemalan experience.  We caught a “collectivo” - a 16 seater van into which we managed to squeeze 23 inside plus two hanging out the door and one on the roof. 
Last week we spent a day at a friend’s house down the river.  Wendy (a relative of David’s) and her husband Peter live in Guatemala City but have a fantastic holiday home here.  How amazing to live in a climate where the living areas are completely open – no walls, doors or windows!  The house is set in lush grounds with beautiful tropical trees including papaya, mango, coconut, cacoa and cashew.
The sleeping quarters are in a separate block and they do have walls, doors and windows which are obviously needed as 13 year old Hannah showed us her latest pet – a scorpion she found and is now keeping in a jar!  Snakes are also frequent visitors – the joy of living in the tropics.
We had a delicious lunch and spent the rest of the day just sitting around being waited on.  Oh and a bit of swimming too.
A week later, Wendy phoned and asked if we’d like to have a day with them on their boat.  They picked us up and we headed off down the river, ending up at Livingstone which is at the mouth of the river.
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On the way back we stopped at a great open air waterfront restaurant for a traditional lunch of prawns, fish, crab and conch in a spicy coconut broth.  Peter runs a coffee business in Guatemala City and was flying himself (and the family) back to the city the next morning.  We hope we’ll see them in New Zealand one day. 
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Provisioning has been an absolute joy here in the Rio – produce, meat and chicken is the cheapest we’ve ever found. Fruit and vegetables are fantastic and we’re enjoying fresh pineapple, papaya and strawberries for breakfast each morning and eggplants, peppers, courgettes, beans, brocolli, avocado and salad greens for dinner. We’ve also found fresh herbs including mint, coriander, parsley, lemon grass and basil!
You may notice the blog list we run on the left side of our page.  Some of these blogs are from other cruisers we’ve met in our travels and others from land based friends doing interesting things (such as former Marlburians David and Nick Cambridge who are house/animal sitting and travelling in the UK and Europe).  One of the most recent we added is Life is a Box of Chocolates – the daily happenings of the Genners……a young English family cycling through central and south America.  We met them in El Salvador and were amazed at their inspirational travels.  Cycling through third world countries with two young children is not easy but they seem to take it in their stride, educating their boys as they go.  Read it and be inspired. jenners

Depending on how things shape up with the turbo charger we could still get out of here before Christmas.  If need be we can get towed over the bar at Livingstone…..for a fee of course.  Watch this space.