April 17, 2000
We arrived in Guatemala one week ago. Livingston is the port of check-in at the mouth of the Rio Dulce. If you can find it on your maps at the very southern end of Belize, you will be able to trace the river in a ways until it dumps into a large lake named El Golfete. At the western end of El Golfete - where it becomes Lago de Izabel - is a town called Frontera. That is where we are located now. Let me back up a little to the day of our arrival - last Monday.
As you can imagine Livingston is a very busy port. There is a large bar across the river at the entrance - many years of soil erosion and deposit. Boaters must time their entrance and departures from the Rio for high tide due to the bar. We did fine there - our mishaps were yet to come.
Due to the heavy wind and the shallow bar, the waters in the harbor were very turbulent. We anchored and were ready for the officials to board at about 11:45. The paper pushing went smoothly and then we were looking at another two hours before we could finish the check-in procedure ashore. Everything in Guatemala shuts down from noon to 2 PM! In Belize it was noon to 1 PM. It seems that the farther south we go, the longer the siesta time is.
We decided to go ashore and find some lunch. At the dock we met Phillip who speaks lovely English - transplanted from Belize. Phillip makes courtesy flags which he sells to cruisers and he fancies himself an official greeter. Phillip's name appeared in the cruising book from 1990 and he is still there. Phillip said that he would watch our dinghy for us and we were off to climb the hill in Livingston to find lunch.
Our first challenge in Guatemala was to decide what to have for lunch from the Spanish menu. While waiting for lunch to arrive, we talked with two nice girls (about 20 years old) from Norway and from Germany. They have been traveling by themselves around Guatemala for the summer and had met each other just the day before. They both gave us some good tips about traveling and about the language schools that they had attended.
When lunch had just arrived, so did Phillip! He had run up the hill looking for us in every restaurante to tell us that our boat was dragging. Sander ran down the hill to set a second anchor and the boat was saved. You can bet that Phillip got a nice tip for his efforts.
We must be destined to be "saved" as we enter each new country. Do you remember the story about "St. Frances"?
We left Livingston about 3:30 and decided to proceed on into El Golfete right away. In retrospect that was not such a good idea as we were already quite tired. That's when problems happen...
The beginning of the Rio Dulce is a ride through a canyon with lush jungle vegetation up the sides of the walls. Here and there you will see huge slabs of gray and white limestone with graffiti all over them. It would be totally awful if it were not for the fact that the writing has happened for hundreds of years back to the Spanish and English pirates. Those of you who have gone in a boat down the river in Wisconsin Dells have a bit of an idea what it is like.
There are two hair pin turns in the river. The first one has shoaling to the inside so you must take the outside turn. We breathed a little easier after that one but should not have lowered our guard. At the second turn there were fishermen on the inside of the turn and we were sure that they had nets out. To the outside of the turn were two stakes. We decided that we should motor between the two stakes - big mistake! We went hard aground as the local children went into fits of laughter. There is a procedure that we use to get ourselves out of such a predicament and we set to work as the fishermen watched. One of the boats came to the side and the fishermen started talking in Spanish to me. They were telling me that it was very shallow where our boat was - DAAAAAAA!
I replied "Yo se!" which is one of the few Spanish expressions that I remembered at the time...""I know!"
I guess that they did not really believe that I understood the gravity of our situation, as one of them jumped right into the water to show me that the water only came to his waist. That made me feel real confident in my command of Spanish!
It was an hour of hard work kedging off with our spare anchor. The real help came from the fishermen who took one of our lines that runs to the top of our mast. They pulled on that line - they had a 60 hp outboard - and effictively pulled Satori over on her side to release the weight of the hull so that we could back off the bar. You can bet that they got a good tip also. Life on the Rio Dulce was not going to be cheap if we continued to need to be rescued.
We anchored just on the inside of El Golfete and proceeded on to the western end on Tuesday.
We are now on a narrow river-like area between the two large lakes. Around us are the hills and the homes of the rich and powerful folks of Guatemala. The homes are mostly built with palapa roofs - the leaves of the Cohune Palm, but these homes are really huge. They have windows with dormers and large verandas all around. Most of them have large motor boats that are kept in their own palapa huts. It is quite beatiful until you go into town which is where the rest of Guatemala lives. As is common in most third world countries, The "Haves" live very close to The "Have-Nots". The whole country consists of one or the other.
There are no large grocery stores here as we found in Belize City, but there are fresh produce stalls and the vegetables are lovely and inexpensive. A pineapple costs a little less than a dollar. Avocados are about 30 cents each and are great. No oranges as we found in Belize though and that's disappointing. We have found that very few people speak English so it is imperative that we brush up on our Spanish. With the incentive I have dragged out the books and spent 5-6 hours a day studying.
There is a 90' bridge over the river here and it must be quite a landmark for Guatemala. We watch from the deck of Satori as cars and busses stop at the top of the bridge so that the people inside can stand and view the scene. We have decided that it must be rather like taking a trip to the Grand Canyon in the States...the experience of a lifetime for some of the people here. Actually, it is quite a sight and may be the source of Christmas card for this year.
The days here are much hotter than in Belize as the mornings are rather still. By noon the wind pipes up from the east and conditions are a little more bearable. There is sweet water to swim in and there are the fans for sleeping at night when we need them. There are new sights and new sounds.
May 13, 2000
has been quite a while since we communicated. We have arrived in a marina - El Tortugal - and have been very busy with boat projects and,recently, a trip.
The marina is small and friendly. There are,at present, 12 boats here. There is electric power, potable water, showers and a nice palapa with a large propane stove and picnic table for a work area. All of these amenities for only $120/month. Our cruising friends who pay marina fees in the States or in Canada will greatly appreciate the reasonable rates here. It is difficult not to be in a marina at those rates, especially since we want to do a lot of traveling inland this summer.
The "Chicken Buses" is the affectionate name that the cruisers give to the local buses. We have yet to be aboard one that carries livestock, but expect that we will have that pleasure one day. The buses are very inexpensive; although not the tops in comfort or atmosphere. During one of the legs of our recent journey, we had to stand for two hours and standing room was "packed". Feet were often stepped upon thus the need for sturdy shoes.
Because Satori still has electrical problems, we decided to travel back north to Belize by public transport to see our friends, Kathy and Abby from Dartmouth, N.S. They were vacationing at a resort on the coast of southern Belize. The first leg of the trip was to be by boat from Puerto Barrios, Guatemala to Punta Gorda, Belize. We spent the night in Puerto Barrios in anticipation for an early departure.
We traveled to Puerto Barrios with an American friend, Joe, who has lived in Guatemala for years at a time and speaks lovely Spanish. Joe struck up a conversation with the young girl who operated a refreshment stand and discovered some interesting facts. She works at the stand six days/week for twelve hours each day. For this work she earns an equivalent of $13.15! It was a sobering fact to us as I'm sure it is to you.
The port towns of Belize and Guatemala are largely influenced by a Garifuna population, also called the Black Caribs, people of mixed South American Indian and African blood. They lived initially on the island of St. Vincent as free and independent minded people. In the 18th century the Brits took care of that and transported them from island to island in an effort to subdue them.
What a difference there is in Puerto Barrios on the coast and Fronteras where the marina is. Here the people are primarily decended from the Mayans and are very timid and conservative. The women are usually barefoot and wear a traditional skirt of woven material. They wear a plain underblouse which is covered with a lace top. Their hair is black and shiny - usually very long. They often carry huge bundles or plastic buckets on their heads filled with tortillas or other food to sell.
In Puerto Barrios, and also the southern cities of Belize, the Garifuna are happy, outgoing and very loud. The women wear shorts, pants, short skirts or (in general) whatever pleases them (but they all have shoes!) The chicken buses were alive with the loud talking and laughing of the people. How strange to experience such different cultures in such a close geographic area.
We did meet up with our friends and enjoyed two nights and a day with them. Went to the Jaguar Reserve but did not see any jaquars - in fact very little animal life at all.
When we left K&A, we went back into Guatemala via the Mayan city of Tikal. With 10 hours at Tikal we were able to see nearly all the temples, a truly magnificent place to visit. It is hard to imagine that they have only uncovered a very small fraction of the buildings. Everywhere one looks there are big hills with trees growing on them - each one the site of yet another temple or lodging.
Most of Tikal has been dated from about 700BC to 800AD high upon hills which elevate the sight from the dense jungle rainforest at the lower levels. There are many deciduous trees that have deposited leaves over the years offering peaceful surroundings filled with the sounds of parrots and other wildlife. We saw fox, cotimundi (a little like raccoons), toucans, parrots and Motmots. These are as large as a turkey but resemble a peacock. Their faces are light blue and they have an outrageous motion and noise that sounds as though they are belching.
If any of you ever get anywhere close to Tikal, we feel that it is a "must see" for everyone.
We were gone for only six days but it felt like much longer. We learned some things about traveling by bus through the countryside and will be sure to remember them for our trips this summer. We must bring sink stoppers to wash out our clothes and a line and pins to hang them. We were lucky to find even one small towel rack in the rooms. We must wear much sturdier shoes and heavy socks - even if our feet sweat. The bugs seem to head straight for the feet and ankles for their feasts.
Satori was quite safe on our return. Last night we experienced the first of the Suribanami. I am definitely not sure of that spelling. They are fierce storms which kick up on the lake with little or no notice. Last night's storm brought welcome relief to the dry season here.
As always we look forward to hearing from all of you when you have a few minutes. We are at work on completing the needed repairs to Satori - all six of the glow plugs in our engine were burned out. The reasons are yet to be discovered. We will be here at El Tortugal Marina most of the time.
It's been quite a while since we last wrote - mid May in fact. We have been well and busy but had nothing new to share til now. We spent our second and third month on the Rio completing two big projects on the boat and living day to day. Sander has completely torn down the steering system and rebuilt it. A short trip down river to Livingston to renew our boat papers proved that the job went well. The steering is smoother and more quiet than it has been since we purchased Satori. The second project was the alternator system for the engine. Both 12V and 24V alternators have been rebuilt and several items within that system have been upgraded. We want to be certain that we have all systems working before we take any more long trips. The new auto pilot has arrived and Sander has completed the installation except for the hydraulic system. We are once again playing the waiting game for parts from the " Land of Stuff".
We spent the first week of May on our first trip to the highlands of Guatemala. As luck would have it, Joe (our friend from the States) had planned a trip to Guatemala and we went along in his pickup - sort of folded into the cab with him. It's a long ride, about 5-6 hours. If you have a map, you will easily find the capital city of Guatemala City. A large % of the population of the country lives there. Antigua was the original capital city of the country and can be found a little southwest of the current capital.
The altitude is about 5,000' therefore much of the trip is climbing up on a twisting two lane road. After the heat and humidity in the lowlands of the river, it is a heavenly experience to arrive in Antigua. For the first time in a year and a half we could sleep beneath a blanket. The temps at Antigua are about 80 degrees and during the night about 60. While in the city we stayed at the private home of an ex-pat (replaced American) named Romelle - more about her later. All of the homes in the city are behind high continuous cement block/stucko walls. Within the walls are homes in the Roman style with gardens in the center and the home arranged around the garden. Romelle has four rooms to let at the price of $5/single and $10/double. She offers her kitchen for use and it's far enough from the center of town to be very quiet.
Romelle built her home 7 years ago when she initiated her Foundation for Education. Through books at her house we have barely begun our education on the history and current conditions of this country. When I wrote about Belize, I was incensed about the monopolies which make life expensive for lower classes. In Guatemala the force that caused the 36 year civil war and continues to keep the indegenous people down is the distribution of land. I could write pages about problems, but perhaps it is simplest to say that 70% of the land is owned by 2% of the people. According to a United Nations report, the top 20% of the population has an income 30 times greater than the bottom 20%.
Something happened to us while at breakfast one morning in Antigua that seemed very unreal. A nice young Guatemalan couple from Guatemala City joined us at our table. They were obviously in the aforementioned top 20% of the population. He had a printing shop which tended to the ball cap and T Shirt specialty trade. Mentioning that we would going to Guate in the next few days, she pulled out a brochure advertising an upcoming fund raiser to "SAVE TIBET". I coulc not resist reminding her that there were thousands of the people in her own country who need to be "saved". They really do not care at all, because most of the upper class perceive the indigenous to be heathens and vermin.
In Guatemala there are two main groups of people. The indigenous are the Mayan descendants living primarily in the mountain villages, the women still wearing the village clothing of long skirts and colorful blouses called huipiles (pronounced Wheepeelays) and hats of straw or brightly colored cloth woven around the head. When you see pictures of Guatemala, it is invariably these women and children in the brilliant dress that will be shown. The huipile is handmade by the woman and handled very carefully so as to last a long time. Each village has a festival time during the year. For these times there are special costumes that are worn only then. Through the 20th century the indigenous have lost more and more of their land while the cost of living has rose. The average amount of land owned is less than an acre. On this plot they must plant their crops beside their primitive shacks. Some are lucky to have a plot of land high above the village where they grow their corn on terribly steep terrain. But the soil is good. There are several volcanoes around Antigua and that volcanic soil is rich brown and well watered during the rainy season. The corn that we saw on our hike to the volcano was at least 8' tall and had not yet tastled.
The government of Guatemala has been primarily military dictatorships through the years. The USA has had a major influence here. The primary presence has been that of the United Fruit Company, later bought by DelMonte. They owned and controlled a huge area for banana and pineapple growth.
In the 50's there were two men elected who did their best to forward land distribution and improve the services to the people - including labor laws that seemed liberal at the time. The second leader actually decided that any piece of land over a certain size (20,000 acres?) that was not being used should be purchased back by the government and distributed to the people. The United Fruit Company stood to lose a lot of land, although they were not even using it! They were paid at the current value for that land and claimed a value many times what they had been paid. At that time John Foster Dulles and the US government pitched such a fit that the man in power was run off. The UFC was given the land back and paid $11 million for their (agrivation?).
From that time until 1996 civil war has been the menu for the people of Guatemala with thousands of indegenous people suffering the most. The military forces in power were supported throughout with funds and training to subvert the gorilla forces. Reagan was one of the worst in this situation with the highlands (with the indegenous peoples in the middle) being use for training grounds for our forces. Learning of these things made us both feel uncomfortable about being from the States.
Now one travels through Guatemala and sees mile after mile of unused land; only to visit the highland villages to see the indegenous people crammed onto their tiny plots of land and struggling to stay alive and feed their families.
July 13, 2000
The joy of traveling in Guatemala is to see the villages in their beautiful settings. The indigenous still cling to their ancient cultures and their old ways, as they cling to their homesteads on the mountains. They are very proud and very poor.
Sander and I traveled by chicken bus up one of the volcanoes to a village called Santa Maria de Jesus. The catholic church has a big hold on Guatemala as can be sensed by the village names. Each village has a saint, but many aspects of Catholicism easily blended with Mayan beliefs. Various catholic saints hold a double meaning for the Mayan people with the identity of the saint superimposed over that of a deity or saint that they held sacred even before the Spanish arrived.
The bus ride took us up another 1500' (about 6500' in elevation) to this town of 11,000 Mayans. We hiked about 1000' above the village on a lovely sunny day twisting around the foot path guiding us through the patches of corn, peach trees and peas. We met various villagers who were on their way down with crops, bundles of firewood or bags of something. We would move quickly out of their way as they seemed to develop a quick pace down the steep terrain. Two young boys working in a crop patch asked us for sweets and they were very happy with a chicklet to chew on for a while. A man on horseback on his way up the volcano stopped to talk with us and said "Esta bueno" with a beautiful smile when he heard we had hiked up the mountain. That means "it's good".
We are eager to do much traveling through the highlands while we are here.
I would like to tell you a little more about the Foundation for Education run by our friend, Romelle. I have told you that she rents out four rooms in her house and uses the funds for the foundation. She also receives some funds from foreign sources: primarily Canadian, USA and some from Europe. Currently the foundation is supporting the education of 144 students from the ages of 8-38. Once a student has been adopted by the foundation, that support will continue as long as they meet the requirements set. Right now two of her students have received Beckas (scholarships) from Cuba and are there studying to be doctors. When Cuba awards a Becka they send a doctor from Cuba to that student's village to work for two years caring for the villagers. And who says that Cuba is an evil place???
Each student under the foundation must meet with Romelle at least twice a year. Some of them live in villages far distant from Antigua and must be on the chicken bus early in the morning in order to reach Antigua and return by bus that same day. Each day we stayed with Romelle three or four groups of students arrived. She talked with them for 1-2 hours each, learning not just about their grades but about their families, etc.
There is a particular village in the district of Quiche which Romelle has adopted. This village, literally at the end of the road high in the central mountains, was in the center of the civil war activity and suffered grievously for that location. Each month Romelle travels to the village of Cajul to check out her students and the one teacher who is paid by the foundation. I have a newsletter from Romelle which I will be sending to my sister, Judy. If anyone is interested in finding financial support for Romelle's foundation I would love to get more information for you! Just let me know! She also encourages visits from her supporters and will arrange a trip to the village of Cajul so that you can see for yourself the good work that is happening.
Upon our return to the Rio, Jane was hard at work handing out letters to the community once more. We have a security committee here in the area of the Rio and we are trying to organize a community action group to fight the local petty crimes. The village has a police force now but that office has no support from the government. Can you picture a police force which has jurisdiction over a 200 square mile area - no telephone and only a maximum of 9 officers on duty at one time? That sounds like a problem, but the biggest problem is the distrust that the citizens feel for the police. In their eyes the police are just new military who in the past have been a gestapo type force. The police now have a donated celular telephone and a donated hand-held portable radio. We have set up an account at a local bank to pay the bills for the above equipment and the letter (in Spanish and English) is to explain our progress. The area also has no newspaper or other way of communicating. It has been an interesting experience - both writing the letters and delivering them, all in Spanish. I am still bumbling along but have a good cruising friend who was raised in Mexico. Maria helps me a lot and speaks excellent Spanish when I have trouble and when I make a big mistake! The locals enjoy my struggles and are very patient with my efforts.
August 8, 2000
Sander and I have just returned from 11 days on the road in chicken buses to two towns. The first was Coban, Guatemala. For those of you who like to look at the map, you will find Coban near the center of Guatemala in the mountains at an elevation of 5,000 feet. Our decision to go to Coban at this time is to see an annual festival held there over the weekend of July 28-29 th. This town is the center of the Rabinal Mayan Indian population – a warring people. They held out the longest against the Spanish Conquistadores and have maintained a strong pride in that heritage. Each summer they celebrate with dancing and the election of a new queen. The town has the reputation for the most colorful festival in Guatemala. Since we need to get to the Honduran border to renew our passports by August 8 th, the timing is perfect for a visit to both.
Waiting for the bus in the middle of our trip, we are approached by a local. “Are you on your way to Coban?” “Yes.” “Come with us in this van.” After agreeing on the price, we are off with about 9 others in a 12-person van. One young man is just finishing an ear of corn. I ask if it is “Dulce Maiz (means sweet corn)” He replies (with a smile), “Yes, sweet corn.” We are surprised and ask, ”Where did you learn to speak English?” He grew up in Honduras and learned in school but he also has three sisters in the states married to Americans. From there we have a lively conversation in what Sander calls Spanglish…a little Spanish and a little English.
Part way up the mountain we hear what sounds like a baby with the croup…a very strange sound that neither of us can identify. The trip in the van takes well over two hours as we climb higher and higher into the clouds. Along the way some folks get off and more get on – at one point we count 24 people in that van! Every time we stop we are sure that these extras will never fit in, but they do. Wow! There is that sound again!
The ride through the mountains grows more beautiful and cooler with each passing mile. At one point there are more people who wish to ride and the driver actually says, “No, we can’t take any more.” That is a surprise as we actually believe that he will carry folks on his roof.
The next time that we hear the strange sound, we can finally see its source. An old woman in front of us has a straw bag. Out of the top of the bag are the heads of two chickens, really quite well behaved. At last, we are truly on a chicken bus! We try to explain our excitement to our English-speaking friend who thinks that we are just a little crazy.
One of our photos is taken in Coban to show you that those chickens actually do ride with the folks. The women of Coban are amazing! They carry a huge basket on their head, wear a satchel on their back to carry a small one, hold the hand of another child and nurse an infant in their arms as they walk. And I thought that it was difficult to fly a helicopter!
Our hotel in Coban is quite nice for a mountain town – private bath with cold-water shower. In case you are interested the cost was about $18/night.
I am including one photo from the festival. It is definitely hard to choose but this fellow is very picturesque with his ceremonial dolls. We are very surprised not to see more tourists around town. Actually it is very nice as the town is mobbed with people but they are Guatemalans and very much interested in the proceedings. The people of Coban are very friendly asking us often in Spanish where we are “from”. That’s hard to answer now because of our mobile style of life. We usually tell them “Estados Unidos – Chicago”. That is a place that most of them know, thanks to the Bulls and Michael Jordan.
One local man is buying a new straw hat for his wife and tells Sander that he needs a sombrero too. He asks me then, “ Como se dice ‘sombrero’ en Ingles?” and I respond that the word for us is “hat”. He is successful with that word and it pleases him immensely to repeat it. Later I see him again as I watch three men playing a marimba. Upon his asking the same question again, I can think only of a xylophone as a comparable instrument and tell him so. He looks very confused and asks “Que?…What?” After trying twice with that one, he finally gives up and does not ask me again. The marimba has wooden keys rather than metal and all indigenous people favor the music of the marimba over any other.
The strangest sight in Coban?…Sander sees an indigenous girl flossing her teeth with her hair. It’s sounds quite gross, I know, but the women are scrupulously clean and have beautiful long glossy black hair. Guess it makes sense if you need to get rid of that pesky bit of food and don’t have anything else handy.
Another attraction in Coban is an orchid hacienda. For the past 21 years Vivero Verapaz has collected orchid specimens from all over Central America . Some are so tiny that we need a magnifying glass to see the blossoms – fascinating and a great source for some lovely photos.
On Sunday (7/30) we make the trip back down the mountain and east to the border of Honduras. Our destination is the town of Copan Ruinas, very close to the famous Mayan ruins of Copan. The closest town that you will see on the map is that of Chiquimula, Guatemala, directly west of Copan. The distance from the border to Copan is about 15 miles but takes us nearly an hour in the back of a pickup truck. The road washed out recently and is being rebuilt. The bus will not make the route again til the work is completed.
We decide to look into the possibility of studying Spanish for a week while in Copan and find a very good situation to do just that. As a part of the Spanish language school program, we live with Duena Elena during the week to be sure that we speak only Spanish and learn some of the local customs. Duena Elena is in her mid-50’s and runs a boarding house. Her boarders include a young archeologist from the states on a Fullbright scholarship, taking tiny samples of dust at the ruins to determine what plants the Mayans used in their rituals. There also are several workers from the road-rebuilding project.
The cost per person of the school, for those of you who are interested: $100 for 20 hours of instruction and $60 for the room and all meals for the week. Since then we have heard that there are even less expensive schools in Antigua: $70 for 20 hours of instruction and $50 for the room and board for a week.
We are lucky to get instructors for the week that fit the bill for each of us…see the third photo. Sander is just starting his studies and works with Freddie who is able to speak a lot of English and has a wonderful sense of humor. That was vital for keeping Sander’s interest at a high level. Freddie is very bright and determined to escape the poverty conditions of Honduras. With the help of the young archeologist, Freddie has landed a scholarship to a college in Delaware and plans to leave very soon to begin his studies. Freddie is so quick and energetic that he was able to repeat the tongue twister: “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck…” after only 10 minutes of practice!
Carolina works with Jane. She is a 23 year old mother of a 3 year old son. Carolina speaks no English at all. For Jane that is an excellent situation. She has been studying Spanish on her own and needs the practice listening and speaking the language. When faced with a new word Carolina spent much time talking and giving hand signals until Jane finally caught on. Sure would be easier to use the dictionary, but that defeats the purpose. By the end of the week Jane carried on a conversation. I wish that I could say a ‘regular conversation’ – alas, not yet!
On Saturday, before our departure, we spend the day at the ruins. Tikal (see our earlier e mail) is like Egypt in the expanse and enormity of the ruins. Copan is like Paris with its beautiful works of art. Numerous detailed stella and sculptures remain today to be enjoyed by all of us.
September 13, 2000
What an extraordinary night! We are at anchor in the bay of New Haven, Belize. The night did not promise to be anything exceptional. We did not even know that there was a full moon scheduled for this night. We have just left the Rio Dulce after five months of captivity. It truly has not felt like that, but it is (after all) a small community with small minds. Tonight I feel sorry for those minds because they are not here.
When the sun set in the west it was truly beautiful enough to have sufficed ; at least special enough to have lasted my family and friends who would be held in awe at this beauty and tranquility. I still sit here and marvel at the power of the moon. It is like watching the most expertly choreographed dance. There are low hanging dark clouds…the moon dances in and out from behind the clouds. The sounds are absolutely silent except for Chopin. How I wish that my brother could see, that my grandmother could feel. How exquisite! It’s times like these when one misses the most those who have left us.
Sander mentioned that we might take out the camera and the tripod to try to capture the beauty…impossible, I’m afraid.
Monday, September 18, 2000
Porte Este, Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras
We arrived here very early in the dark on the 17 th.
The trip here…
When we departed New Haven on Friday morning, we were not sure where we would end up for the rest of our trip. The weather seemed good to be heading out to the far islands of Belize, The Sapodillas. The motor-sailing took us several hours, but we arrived early in the afternoon with no mishaps along the way. There are five Sapodilla Cayes stretching from north to south with reefs on the east side. We anchored close to Lyme Caye in 12’ of water and were lucky to drop the plow anchor on the edge of a sand patch. It dragged back into the turtle grass and dug one of its flukes in solid. The surf here can be significant so we added our Bruce anchor to the same line of chain about 50’ back from the plow. Then we let out another 100’ of chain. We felt quite secure for the night and spent another peaceful evening watching the full moon again before turning in early.
When we went to bed we still had not decided what to do the next day. At 2 AM our sleep was rudely interrupted by a drastic change in the weather.
The prevailing easterly winds changed 180 degrees to the west and turned us around completely. Now the anchors were still holding us off the reef but we were progressively inching our way towards them. If you can picture what happened with the anchors and the chain, it will give you a visual image of the problem. The Bruce had been pulled back to the location of the plow anchor. Our 100’ of chain from the Bruce to the boat was holding us, but we were very worried about the mess down on the bottom with two anchors and the 50’ of chain between the two.
We watched the situation for a while…”Why haul up the anchor as long as it was holding?” The GPS told us differently. We could see from the readings that we were creeping toward the Caye. There was nothing else to do but start the engine and attempt to retrieve the anchors. Jane had to stay at the wheel and this left the whole job up front to Sander. Sure enough! As the anchor came up Sander could see that both anchors were entwined. That is a bad situation, because it means that there is a 50’ loop of chain below the two entangled anchors. If that loop of chain should catch on a coral head below, we would be in a lot of trouble. We truly did not worry too much about that situation, because our path in to the Caye had not crossed any coral head grounds until about a half mile out.
Jane was attempting to gain distance from the Caye to deeper water as slowly as possible to lighten the hobby horsing that was happening up front. Could we drop the anchors again with the hope that the two would become untangled? Once that was accomplished, how would Sander get the Bruce on board by himself? That has always been a two-person effort with calm waters in the past! There were many thoughts to worry Jane back there in the cockpit.
As in the past, we were lucky to get the anchors separated. Sander got the two of them up as close to the bow as possible. Lying on his stomach and with adrenalin running high, he managed to muscle the two apart. He also discovered that it is possible for him to get that Bruce aboard by himself. Strangely enough, Sander discovered that once the plow dropped back down it seemed to have set again at our new location. Again, luck was with us! We let out some more scope, watched the situation for a while, set the anchor alarm on the GPS and were able to get a few more hours sleep.
Decision to Leave
In the morning the wind was still strongly out of the west. We checked the morning weather and learned that Tropical Depression #11 was over Cancun and not a factor to us any longer. Now we were in a good situation to head for the Bay Islands of Honduras as we had hoped to do in the beginning. The winds were in our favor so we set off to the east – a distance of 82 nautical miles. We knew that our arrival would be in the middle of the night. We could make a decision about what to do when we arrived there.
On the southwest corner of the island of Utila there is deep water running nearly up to the island itself right along the 87 th parallel. At 2 AM with a full moon and calm seas, it was fairly easy and straight forward to work our way directly north staying in depths of over 100’. When close enough to the island we worked our way slowly over to a depth of 20’ and crossed our fingers that the anchor would make good on a bottom that we could not see. Again luck was with us…we could get a few hours of sleep.
The anchor held well during the rest of the night, but by morning the winds from the west had built strongly and we were riding some 6-8’ swells. This time the anchor came up with no problem and by 9AM we were entering the harbor at Porte Este. The Island of Utila
Monday, September 18 th
There are only three settlements on this low lying island which is covered with mangrove swamps and ringed with fantastic reefs. The largest is at the head of a horseshoe shaped harbor open to the southwest. We have stayed two nights here now and plan to stay for several more. The ride is not that comfortable as there are always swells from that southwest exposure, but the anchor holds fine and there are lots of things to do before we travel on.
The Bay Islands are peopled by a combination of English-speaking fair-skinned people and Spanish speaking natives from the mainland of Honduras. The Caucasians have been here for a long time and have come from several sources. Their speech is not British at all but sounds more like that of New England i.e. chopping off the R’s at the ends of words etc. The blacks (Garifuna in origin) came mostly from Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Their language is an island English-based which is totally impossible to understand.
The town is spaced out along the waterfront running from east to west. Through the town runs a narrow concrete road supporting ATV’s, motor bikes and bicycles. We have seen less than ten vehicles during our few days here. The living is inexpensive as it is in Guatemala. A meal of fresh-grilled fish, salad and French fries cost about $3 and is very good. It is difficult to think about eating on the boat when a cooked meal is so inexpensive.
Great snorkeling is available within a dinghy ride from our anchorage. Yesterday we sought out a narrow canal (often just the width of the dinghy) that runs all the way through the mangrove about 1.5 miles to the north end of the island. Today we will check in with immigration and then try out our dive equipment around the boat to do some bottom cleaning. The visibility here is fantastic! We can see the anchor through 26’ of water with our swim goggles.
Wednesday, September 20, 2000
Weather and Snorkeling
On Monday we visited several dive sites where we just snorkeled. Along the entire southern coast of the island is a reef that extends out to about 50 yards from shore. There are huge coral islands with white sand paths running between. Some of the coral heads come up to within a foot of the surface. Gives us the chills thinking of Satori being pushed up onto a shore such as this.
Back at the boat in the afternoon we hauled out the dive gear and tried it out. There were several problems that we have since worked out. We were able to get the bottom of the boat nice and clean, scraping off all of the green slime from the Rio Dulce. It will lessen the work that we have to do when we return to the river.
Monday and Tuesday night brought very uncomfortable rides with high winds and rolling seas. Last night the winds reached between 20 and 25 knots. Our anchor dragged a little but then reset itself. The GPS is a great tool for monitoring that situation.
Today Sander is on the mainland working with a mechanic to try to get our outboard engine fixed. It has been misbehaving. Since it totally gave out yesterday, we were lucky to finally locate a local who works on engines. He is not as picturesque as our Belizean mechanic from last winter, but we will keep our fingers crossed that he knows what he is doing. The outboard engine has been a constant headache since we left, but we are not alone in this predicament. It is a common problem for most cruisers.
I have done the dishes, prepared a lunch, connected to the ham radio system for messages and done a load of wash. Time to relax a little and wait for Sander’s return.
Cayos Cochinos, Bay Islands of Honduras
September 25, 2000
Obviously, several days have passed since my last writing. The outcome of the problems in Utila was the purchase of a new outboard engine for our dinghy. Sander worked with the mechanic for two full days and it just refused to work. Could have had the cylinder head rebuilt, but that would be 50% of the cost of a new one.
We are, therefore, the owners of a brand new Yamaha 15hp 2 stroke outboard engine. It was definitely not in our budget for right now, but we knew that it was inevitable at some point in time. The comforting aspect is its reliability. We were both a little wary about going any distance in the dinghy with the old engine. The first photo that is attached is one from Cochino Grande, our next stop, and it shows our new outboard engine on the back of the dinghy.
On Monday morning we set out southeast to a group of islands just 10 NM off the mainland coast of Honduras. There are no settlements here, just a few vacation homes. The harbor here is gorgeous, very quiet and a real treat. It is very small – less than a mile in length – with hills of 450’ and dark gray slate ledges all round. It reminds us of the beauty of the North Channel of Lake Huron with water warm enough for swimming and the added attractions of the reefs for fun.
When we arrived about 2 PM on Monday, we dropped the anchor but had trouble getting it to set. The bottom is covered with coral – most of it dead but some coming back to life. There was one other large boat in the harbor at the time with Honduran flag. Sander and I talked about our wishes to find moorings here so that we did not need to worry about damaging the coral.
The next morning we went to talk with the Honduran boat. It is actually owned by a transplanted Canadian. He has a business in the capital city of Honduras and enjoys his time-off on his boat. What a life! Luckily we learned from this fellow that there is a law in Honduras that prohibits anchoring anywhere. The possibility exists for a fine of up to $500 for such an action. The Honduran boat was moored to a very heavy line at the time. The captain said that the mooring was maintained for the dive boat, Aggressor, but could be used by anyone. They pulled out yesterday. As you can imagine, we did not waste any time at all snatching up that mooring.
We have used our diving equipment for fun. There is a reef surrounding all of the islands and Cayes here. The coral is exceptional and the visibility much better than anywhere else we have yet been. So far we are a little disappointed there is not more fish life, but cannot complain. To the south of us is the other small island of the group – Cochino Pequeno which “small island” in Spanish. In the background are the slate blue mountains of the mainland of Honduras. The nights have been calm with none of the rolling that we had in Utila.
The second photo sent to you was taken from a beach was our view when on one of our snorkeling runs. It is taken on one of the small out-islands in the Cochinos. Most of these islands are owned privately and are surrounded by the reefs. This one had a family living on it with clean clothes drying on a line.
Monday morning, October 2, 2000
Brick Bay Harbor, South Coast of Roatan Island
We left the Cochinos Cayes last Tuesday morning and headed for the largest island of the group, Roatan. We decided that we might as well see some more of the area since we had two whole weeks left. Arrived in French Harbor early in the afternoon and were quite disappointed with the poverty and filth that we found. As I write this one week later, however, it turns out that it was a fortunate decision. One mile to the south of French Harbor is a delightful little bay that is totally protected from all points on the compass. There is a small marina and very good holding for our anchor. After two nights of French Harbor, we were happy to move Satori over to Brick Bay. The third photo sent is one of our anchorage in Brick Bay with the roof of the hotel at the bottom. The marina is in front of the hotel.
Our second day on Roatan brought word of a depression just to the south of us on the coast of Nicaragua and Honduras. That depression developed to tropical storm level in one day and then quickly to hurricane level. We decided that it would not be a good idea to leave a safe harbor until we were sure of the track of what became Hurricane Keith. Was it a wise decision? Who can second guess? The worse that we have seen of the storm was 24 hours of rain and winds of 18 knots maximum. The protection is so good here that Satori rode smoothly the whole time.
The small villages of Belize did not fare as well. We have been hearing the news on the ham radio that is coming from Belize. All those lovely little villages and Cayes that we visited last winter have withstood 7-8 hours of 120 knots wind and 4 foot surge from the sea. The damage is bound to be very bad.
We will wait one more day and then move back to the Rio. We are hoping that the winds will have come around to the east and died down. It looks as though Keith will work his way across the Yucatan Peninsula and out into the Gulf of Mexico to continue its havoc. Now we must watch the track of Joyce. It appears that she will head straight north and develop into hurricane status again. She is due to hit the north coast of the Yucatan. We are hoping that Belize will be spared this one.
Friday, October 6 th
We took three days to motor sail back to the Rio in company with a 32’ Chris Craft sloop which is single-handed by Shirley, a retired PE teacher from Alameda, CA. Our heading was essentially directly west and winds were supposed to be out of the east – prevailing Easterlies. Of course winds were out of the west, but most of the time graced us with quartering SW or NW. It was a good three days with stops each night and no mishaps. We are glad to be back, glad to be safe and now looking forward to our visit to the states in November. It will probably be several months before we compose another group message. Hope that you enjoyed this one and that we will hear from you soon!