Monthly Archives: January 2011

Something Better Than Democracy (?)

This is not a travel blog. But, there is no where else to express this philosophical idea that has been running around in my brain like hamster in one of those wheels. Do not suggest FaceBook. I have tried to post items of FaceBook that do not have anything to do with a mangy puppie, or what I had for lunch,and no one seems to care. In fact, I think I have be defriended  by a few people because I dared to use facebook for something that was not inane. So, I am breaking tradition here, breaking my travel rhythm, to express an idea.

Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the light hearted travel stuff next week.

I think this is a new idea, at least I have never heard it spoken about by pundits or serious commentators. Being at least new to me, it is both historically and philosophically immature. It might get some “hurrumphs” and it might get some people’s ire raised, but you know me, that is what I do. So sit back, have a coffee or tea or a beer or some other form of mind relaxing (but not hallucinogenic) substance and read on.

I have come to the conclusion that Democracy, with a large D, is a joke. Maybe a cruel joke. I have become convinced that it is a conspiratorial enterprise serving  pablum to the masses.

I grew up in what is called a Democracy. I participated in my Democracy at the local state and national level. My political experiences started in 1968. Motivated by, or more aptly put, disgusted by, the Viet Nam war I was looking for something I could do, even though I was still too young to vote. I started by taking Eugene McCarthy flower shaped bumper stickers from the local “Clean for Gene” office and pasting them on the rear of expensive cars in the shopping mall near my home. But the most memorable thing for me that election cycle was that I shook hands with Bobby Kennedy, on the morning of the last day of his life.

The next election cycle I got serious for George McGovern because my future included a draft to fight in a war I thought was just plain wrong. I stuffed mailboxes and made phone calls.

“Hello, good evening, Sorry to call you at eleven o’clock at night. I am calling on behalf of the McGovern Campaign. We need your vote to help defeat Tricky Dick.”

I was now old enough to vote and I was motivated to participate inside the system. St. George could not slay the dragon Nixon, but praise to everything holy I did not get drafted or have to move to Canada. I never wanted to be a Toronto Blue Jays fan anyway. During that election I watched McGovern self implode. I also watched one of his main campaign managers in action, a smart young guy named Gary Hart. I was among the first people to actively (very actively) work for Hart when he formed his “exploratory committee” to run for President in 1984    As a result of my efforts I became a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. We all know what happened to him. Damn, I was hoping to become to cultural atache to Bolivia. Oh well.

My last full blown effort at politics found me the co-manager of a campaign for a bright young man who was running for  a seat in the California Assembly. From that insiders viewpoint, I witnessed Machiavellian  machinations that left me numb. I stopped my active political life. Since then I have donated a few $ to Obama, and yes, I have even voted when motivated.

So do not say I do not know how Democracies work. Also, be slow to disagree with me when I say they don’t. Allow me to blabber on before you call me names, OK?

My first exposure to a democracy being a joke was when I was a 10 year old wide-eyed kid living in Bolivia. They had an “election” while I was there. The parties (about 6 of them) were known by their colors. People voted blue, green orange, yellow, or even red. It soon became apparent even to a ten year-old that there was not a lot of (what I would later learn to be) critical thinking going on here. When the peasants (about 95% of Bolivians can be called peasants without any derogatory meaning, they just are) who were almost all illiterate went to the polling place they voted for the same color as their comrades out of nothing more than peer pressure. They had no idea what Mr. Green or Mr. Chartreuse would do for them, or for that matter why they were voting, except that it made them think they were in control of something. PABLUM.

Since then I have lived in Chile, Peru and Panama. Chile is rather well educated. They had an elction to end the rule of Pinochet (more on him later) and re-install democracy in their country. Pinochet seized power in the worst way, but I was left with impression when he left power that in the end he helped Chile an awful lot. A benevolent Dictator.

Peru had an election while I lived there. Peru, has two faces. The urban educated upper classes, and the rural pablum eaters. On a couple of occasions Peru has gone out on a limb and elected reformers, however the reforms never seem to happen. Just more pablum and frustration for the people.

I also lived in Panama. The educated vote their pocket book, and the indigenous vote with no more discretion than the Bolivian peasants. Sad.

You can look around the world today and see many exercises in Democracy that are just plain bullshit. Iraq? Iran?? Afghanistan??? Southern Sudan? The list goes on. The reason they are bullshit is simple. An uneducated population. At least poorly educated.

Now I am not (as you damn well know) some intellectual powerhouse. But I consider myself an “educated” person. The cornerstone of my University education was a required class (In the California system anyway) called Critical Thinking. It taught me how to read an op-ed piece, an everyday news story, even Hitory. It taught me to take it apart and examine every quote, every supposed fact. Examine who wrote it, to determine the authors pedigree. I can sum up what I learned in one simple question I ask every time I read a politically oriented article or hear a speech or a talking head on TV. I ask myself “He would say that wouldn’t he?” If the answer to that question is yes, then what I just read or heard is useless. However, if the answer to that is no, then maybe I should look into this a bit more. Why would he say that? What is behind the story?

I seriously doubt, in fact I am 100% sure , that the majority of people in “developing nations” (the 3rd world in my day) do not posses this skill. They are led down the path to the polling place by people who want to seize power “Democratically”. All the great intentions of the Carter foundation aside, that is not good democracy.

Now let us look at the United States. Talk about pablum. In this case expensive pablum. I am not sure how many hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in 2008 or 2010 to elect the people now in power. One thing I am sure of is that if all that money went to schools or to feed the poor, the country would benefit a lot more than it has or will from the leaders we now have.

Public Education in the USA was deemed absolutely necessary by  Benjamin Franklin because he knew that no democracy could survive unless the people were educated. I agree.

But lets take a look at the most disturbing (to me) facet of American democracy today. That would be the Tea Party. Even if you ARE a Tea Partier, you must admit that you are NOT analyzing what the likes of Sarah Palin have to say. You just can’t be. So why is the Tea Party still tapping kegs and rolling into the night? Simple. Many people in America have grown very tired of elitists, of people smarter than they are running things  They do not like having to try and understand what a politician is saying, even though they dumb down their rhetoric so a sixth grader can understand it.  So they rally around a dimwit who likes to say “golly gee” and shoot reindeer.

Democracy, yes, even in the USA is a joke.

So what else? Here we go, sit back far enough away from your monitor so you cant’t spit on it or throw it out the window.

Ready?

Benevolent Rulers.

I live in such a country now, The UAE. I lived in Chile under what I call a benevolent Dictator.  I have traveled and spent time in others. The one thing they all have common, and this is a very rare thing, is an incredible amount of natural resources. Here it is of course oil, in Chile it was copper. Having these resources is not the end all. It requires strong man, a ruler, a one stop shopping power source who just happens to be benevolent.

The rulers here in the UAE (all 7 of them), the Sultan of Oman and the kings of Qatar and Bahrain all qualify as benevolent Rulers. So does the King of Thailand.

As an aside, I was in a class last semester with a princess from Bahrain. A real princess, her Uncle is the Benevolent Ruler. I expressed this philosophy to her and she laughed and said “Ah we have brainwashed you!” I laughed and said “By example.”

Thanks for reading. tell a friend. But this is NOT a democracy, so don’t bother commenting.

Just kidding, fire away.

Will We Get Lost in India?

Mary Ann and I were lamenting the fact that we had not gone anywhere in January. I actually like January in the Arabian Desert, it is very temperate. We have not had the air conditioner on for almost two months. Mary Ann thinks it is freezing. (Folks, it is between 65 and 80 f) She started looking for someplace warm to go in February. We were looking at Istanbul, Sri Lanka and the like. Then, like warm a wind off the desert, we got an invitation!

We have a houseboy. He comes in once a week and does floors and bathrooms, two tasks we do not want to do. He is a young man from India. He is pleasant and works his butt off. A week ago he told us he was getting married and would be leaving for home for about three months. We congratulated him and started thinking about wedding presents.

Then he rocks our world by handing us an invitation to his wedding!  We thought about it for maybe 30 seconds before we said “OK, we’ll be there!” He seemed pleased that two old white folks would come all the way to his home town to see him get married. We were excited to be invited. Indian weddings are supposed to be wondrous events, vividly colorful while saturated in custom. A great photo op for my new camera!

Now the adventure began. I was looking at the invitation and I did not understand a word of it. (Yes, it is in English.) That is not entirely true. I understood that the wedding takes place at 6 a.m. on a Monday. That was curious, but just the start.  I could not figure out where the venue was. I am not surprised that I did not recognize any city names. I started using my old pal Mr. Google. Then panic set in.

The town (at least what I thought was the town) did not exist. I went to Trip Advisor, and no one who uses TA has ever been wherever this is. My next resource was our next door neighbors. They happen to be from India, and the groomn, Kanbarasan if you need his name, also works for them.  I walked next door with the invitation and my best “I’m so confused” face and asked for help. It turns out what I thought was the city was the name of the marriage hall. She pointed out to me the name of the city and the district and told me what state it was in. “Oh thank you thank you thank you.”

I ran back to my computer and used Wikipedia to find out about the city. The name of the city if you insist on knowing is Kattumannarkoil. Wikipedia told me that in the 2001 census it had a population of about 22k. So in 2011, what 40k? That makes it little more than a village in Indian standards. I went back to TA. Nope, no one has ever been there. I checked every hotel website I know of, nope, no hotels.

So I tried to find it on Google Maps. Nope. I started to think we were headed for Terra Incognito…”beyond here lie dragons”. But this is India, not 17th century Africa. I started searching on the state. The name of the state by the way is Tamil Nadu. It is in the south of India on the Eastern side. I found an international airport in a city called Chennai. When I studied things a bit more I found out that Chennai used to be called Madras. All I know about Madras is that Rodney Dangerfield wore madras shorts in Caddy Shack..

Our local airline, Air Arabia, just happens to fly directly from here to Chennai. If you look at a route map for Air Arabia, they have at least twenty destinations in India. The reason for that being all the labor force from India that works in the UAE. The RT airfare is less than US$300. We booked our flight. There is only one flight a day to Chennai and it arrives at 3 a.m.  Oh well.

Now it was time to figure out where to go when we leave the airport in pre dawn hours.  I found the district in Tamil Nadu where this village is supposed to be. It is called Cuddalure. Or Cudalor, or Kuddalore, depending on your source.  There is no train from Chennai to Cuddalure, only busses. A six hour bus ride. And that does not get us to Kattumannnarkoil.

At this point in typing this story, and probably from your perspective of reading it, we are both tired of these multiple syllable unpronounceable names.  OK, Cud and Katt from now on.

Realizing that we would be absolutely lost with a mere three days to find the wedding, I figured out a new approach. I found a bunch of nice hotels in Chennai and emailed them. I said that if they could find a way to get me to Katt, we would stay with them before the wedding and afterwards. When I say a bunch, I mean a bunch. To quote John Lennon “I’VE GOT BLISTUHS ON MY FINGUHS”. No one wrote back. Perhaps they had no damned idea where Katt was either.

Finally, a woman who runs a B&B wrote me back. Things were looking up. Her husband runs the AMEX travel agency in Chennai. He is hooking us up with a car and driver. No folks, I am not about to drive a car in India. I would rather sword fight a ninja.

In our communications he of course offered to provide tourist type activities for the rest of our trip. So, we are hiring him to find flights for us to Delhi, and get us to Agra. In Delhi we will do what can only be described as the Slum Dog Millionaire tour, a walk thru the ghettos with young guides who worked their way out of them. The next day we will take a tour of historical sites relevant to Gandhi. (I watched the movie last night and seems how I am now an expert, it better be a great tour.)

Then we are off to Agra. Agra is of course where the Taj Mahal is. The Taj is one of my bucket list items. We will see it at sunset and sunrise and I expect to really put my new Nikon through its paces.

So, don’t forget to read my next half dozen blogs, if for nothing more than the pictures. Tell a friend, thanks for reading, and please make a comment.

My Entire Year of 2010 Blogs on Amazon!

If you own a Kindle, you can get all my years travels for $1.98! Such a DEAL!

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Be Careful What You Wish For

Be Careful What You Wish For


A Touch of Insanity Seals My Fate

I never wanted to be a fireman and save damsels in distress. I never wanted to run away and join the circus. I knew I would never walk on the moon. Most regrettably, I was sure, as much as I wanted to, I would never play center field for the Dodgers. My childhood dreams were muddled and undeveloped.

In my early adulthood, while living in an arctic construction camp, I developed a dream to go sailing. No, not day sailing on lake Winnepookie, but cruising around the world. I even had my boat chosen. It was a boat I could single handle, so that if I wanted to I could go off by myself and spend weeks with nothing but wind and water for company.

Life, to quote John Lennon, happened while I was making other plans. 30 years after my isolated dream state gave me the desire to cruise the world; I wound up here in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. This happens to be a place where there are two marinas, and being south of the hurricane zone, many boats use this as a home port.

Sitting in my favorite chair and reading novels (my only activity sometimes for weeks) I see numerous sail boats come and go, and my dream of being on one of them kept nagging at me. I envied (envy is a deadly sin) the owners and crews of those boats

“The cruisers” as we call them are their own clique. Rarely do they interact with the land lubbers of the Bocas social circles. However, my circumstances here in Bocas made me a babysitter for an old shrimp boat turned cruiser. This boat has a wooden hull, and even us landlubbers know that if you leave a wooden hull alone in tropical waters, well, trouble ensues. I got to know, thru unfortunate circumstances, a couple of people who work on boats. I call them the “save Riptide” committee.

In May Riptide sprung another leak, bilge pumps wore out, and I needed to call on the committee. As fate would have it there was a new guy in town.

This new guy was named Dwight. He showed up, diagnosed and fixed the problem in a couple of days, very ably I must add. Sitting around waiting for glue to dry, we talked. His story about why he was in Bocas was one of woe. The day he sailed in, we had the most intense electrical storm in a year. To us living on land, it was magnificent. However, if you are at anchor, in a boat with a 70’ mast, anything can happen, none of it good. Dwight’s boat had the highest mast in the bay, and sure enough, it attracted a bolt of lightening straight from Zeus’ right arm. It fried everything electrical on board.

Dwight, like all sailors these days, rely upon electronic gadgets. They need radios to stay in contact with other boats at sea. They need another type of radio called a single side band to get weather reports. They need radar to detect those ubiquitous freighters before they cross your path. Most importantly, it seems to me now, they need an autopilot. All of this, and more, were now relegated to relics on Dwight’s 52’ sloop.

While talking to him he told me that he was going to sail the boat back to Key West. He had been cruising the Caribbean for “three years and two months”, which I must have heard him say 50 times during the time I knew him. The little I did know about this man I knew well, because he tended to repeat his stories every time he took a breath. He was in the Canadian navy for 6 years, qualified as a marine engineer. He had owned this boat for close to ten years. It was the greatest boat ever made. Yada yada yada.  It must be said here at the outset, it was, even in its crippled condition, a wonderful boat. And I will add without doubt, Dwight knew the boat thoroughly, and knew how to sail her incredibly well.

Now here I was, sitting in my favorite chair, wondering where my next novel would come from, bored to tears with my life. People who move to Bocas hit a wall at two years. If you make it past your second anniversary, you might never leave. I was just past my second year, and starting to dread being here any longer. I needed an out; an adventure, and I did not care much what it was. It just had to take me away from this endless progression of 80-degree weather with 80% humidity and even higher levels of stupidity. Even if the adventure was dangerous, hell life threatening, I did not care. With that rather poor motivating factor, and my unrealized dream of sailing off into the sunset, I uttered the fated words, “need a crew member?” His immediate positive response should have been my first clue.

Preparing to get Underway

My second clue should have been when Dwight told me that due to the absence of anything electronic on board, we would need to steer the boat 24 hours a day. He was certain that we would be at sea without a landfall until Key West for 7 to 10 days. During those days we would be on watch for 3 hours, and off watch for 3 hours.  Now having the sailing bug in my mind for 30+ years, I have read most the seagoing adventure stories ever written. I knew one thing. That in the navy, 3 on 3 off was a punishment, a serious punishment. I thought hard about that, could I do it? The alternative, sitting here in Bocas appalled me even more than the thought of going ape at sea.

I soon found out that the boat not only lacked anything that needed to be plugged in, it lacked other essentials, such as diesel, drinking water and of course food. I also found out that Dwight was stone-broke. I am not a wealthy man, and the thought of underwriting this adventure almost diverted my desire to get away from this place.

We talked about maybe finding another crewmember. Dwight had asked around the marina but was met with distant stares and the back of people’s heads. I guess that is why my offer to crew was so readily accepted.

I suggested that we canvas the hostels in town. Those backpacking adventurists that permeate the Bocas experience might just produce a couple of people crazy as me.

I made up a sign to post in the hostels. It was pretty clear that this was not a pleasure cruise. It stated that this was a working trip. It stated that you did not need to know how to sail, you will learn on-the-job. It also stated that you had to be able to enter the USA legally, much more on this later.

We got one taker. A great British kid named Ben.  He was in his mid twenties, athletic and bright. He had a wonderful (although British) sense of humor. He was willing and eager to learn to sail. He was up for the adventure, and he had the $250 we requested. He was in the last leg of an around-the-world trip. Therefore this was his last $250, but what the hell. I liked him from the get-go. It meant that instead of 3 on 3 off we would have

2-on-4-off watches. A bit better.

It was time to buy provisions. Ben’s 250 went for diesel. My wallet was depleted with purchases of food and bottled water. Dwight thought we could just use the municipal water, I knew better, and besides, I was paying for it. We hauled out booty to the boat.

Dwight then proceeded to talk nautical to us. He touched things on the boat and said words like halyard, winch, boom, mainsail, jib along with another thousand terms. I knew some of these terms from my reading, and Ben is truly a bright kid, but geesh. It was like trying to learn Slobovian in ten minutes.

The next experience was with the local maritime authorities and immigration. We had to get a “zarpe”. A term I had never heard before, but basically it is a document that names and describes the boat as well as listing all the crewmembers that will be leaving port on-board. Dwight joked that this was to be sure no one was thrown overboard at sea.  I had pause days later to wonder if that was really a joke.  The process took only a couple of hours. This is Latin America, so that was warp speed. Dwight did not see it that way. He treated the experience as if he was being personally insulted. I sat there and made jokes with the port captain and immigration man, both of whom I have gotten to know in the last two years. No problema, take your time.

This was Wednesday. We had checked a weather site for mariners called Gribb. It told us that Thursday morning we would have very favorable winds off shore and that we would be well on our way.  So we spent Wednesday night on-board, ready to leave Thursday Morning.

Captain Bligh’s Ghost Arises

Remember when I said I was crazy, not stupid? You might not believe it anymore.  The crew of three sat up Wednesday night shooting the bull. Dwight told us the abbreviated story of his life twelve more times. All about how even though he looked like a cross between a biker and a pirate (he is both) he is really an intellectual with “three patents”. “Just google me” he said. I never have, I now know everything I need to know about him. He kept talking about his my-space page. I consider people with a my-space page to be the equivalent of 50-year-old men who hang their college diplomas in their cubicles at work. I sat quietly, as did Ben, and listened to him rant about how he wanted to die with “adrenalin in my blood”. Oh great, and I am about to go to sea in a crippled sailboat with this guy.  I looked ashore and wondered what my fellow expats would think of me if I backed out at this late hour. Stupidly, I decided to stay.

About then I asked the wrong question. “Dwight, why would you sail a crippled boat from a hurricane fee zone into hurricane alley at the start of hurricane season? Why not fly back to Florida, get a job, buy new equipment and come back, fix your boat and sail it home after Hurricane Zulu?”

“Because no one would take care of the cats and the airlines will not take them this time of year because they are Persians….blah blahh blah”.

My response was “Cats? There are cats on board?”

He snapped back, “Yeah, my Wife’s cats” The question was begged so I asked

“So where is the wife” “She left the boat. SHE DIDN’T LEAVE ME, SHE LEFT THE BOAT”.

I left it there.

I didn’t sleep well that night. It bothered me that I was going on this adventure, even though I thought any adventure beat sitting in my favorite chair. I was truly starting to worry about the interpersonal relationship between me, and a man I must now take unquestioned orders from.

Dawn arrived. I was already up.  I thought we would motor out of Bahia Almirante and raise sail once we were at sea. Not Dwight. He started ranting about not wanting to look like all these “cruisers who need to motor in and out of ports”. He was a sailor, not some port-to-port marina dweller. Whatever. So we raised the mainsail and had enough wind to get out of the Bahia, it only took an hour.

Outside of the Bahia we got something like 3 knot winds, for a few hours. Dwight kept asking, more and more angrily “where is the damn wind”. I started to feel like I forgot to bring it along or something.

About 6 hours outside of Bocas, just out of sight of land, it stopped. Not a hint of wind. Complete doldrums.  “We are supposed to have 10 knot winds out here, where are they” We sat there for 18 hours. 18 hours of rants from our captain.

One of the rules Dwight had made for the trip was that we would only start the engine to charge the batteries, not to make headway. We only had a half tank of diesel.  So we bobbed, and bobbed.  It was the first time I had ever seen truly blue water. It was beautiful. The flying fish were fun to watch and a couple flew into the boat, which was cool. The stars that night were brilliant. However, by morning the crew of two was a bit exasperated.  I have not had a schedule to keep for years now, but Ben had a flight in 10 days from MIA to Heathrow. At this rate we wouldn’t get there for weeks. He had already changed his flight a couple of times and could not afford to pay the penalty to change it again.

“Please captain, can we motor until we find wind?”  He gave in and we started motoring, making a headway of two knots.  Slow but sure.

You might ask at this time, “how did you know what speed you were making if none of the electronics worked?”  On a lark, I had brought along a little $75 hand held GPS. If I had not we would probablyhave drifted to the mid-Atlantic and starved.  The GPS turned out to be the only navigation aid we had with us.

After about 6 hours of motoring, Dwight announced that we could not burn up all the diesel in case of emergency.  I had looked at some charts before we set sail and I dared to say “Captain, due north of us is an island called San Andres. It belongs to Columbia. It is a tourist and cruiser destination, so I am sure it will have diesel. Lets go there and I’ll buy you some diesel”. He agreed, turned the motor back on and away we crawled. We did finally get some wind, and on Sunday afternoon we made landfall.

Maybe we could have just filled our tanks and gotten out in a few hours, but I was paying the bills now, and I wanted an overnight break. I wanted to use a toilet that was not a moving target and actually flushed. I wanted a break from Bligh.

The immigration man had to take our passports to the airport to stamp them. Both Ben and I were nervous about that, so I asked to go along because I was a tourist and I wanted to see their airport. So, I accompanied the three passports to a beautiful, modern airport. I looked at all the destinations I could leave for. Nothing I had left on board meant anything to me, and I was already a bit tired of life under Bligh. Again, I thought “don’t quit you bozo. You signed on to this friggen adventure, follow through” I hate it when I use positive clap like that to motivate myself, I usually have to pay for it. Payment came sure enough.

The problem now was that since we were legally in Columbia, we needed another zarpe. Only the port captain can issue a zarpe, and it was Sunday. We were dealing with an agent who kept telling us that the port captain would be there soon. He never showed. I suggested to Dwight that we pay a mordida which is a courtesy payment to government officials in Latin America to get them to leave their home and family on a Sunday and come do their job. It appalled Dwight that he would need to pay a “bribe”. I did not push it, like I said, no schedule for me.  At the end of Sunday the agent told us that Monday was a holiday and probably the port captain would not come down out of the hills Monday either. Dwight was a bit upset, I took a cab into town and found a hotel and a restaurant.

Monday rolled around. A very big expensive sportfisher came into the harbor. The port captain was there with bells on. He dealt with them first and then issued us our Zarpe.

Dwight went on-board the sportfisher and checked Gribb again. “great news, good winds all the way to the gulfstream”. So we set off with $500 worth of diesel and the promise of favorable seas all the way to Key West.

Promises, promises.

Arthur

We were about twelve hours out of San Andres. We were on course thru the Yucatan channel. In maybe another 36 hours we would catch the Gulf Stream and be literally pushed all the way to Key West. It all looked pretty good.

As my watch ended, about sunset, I turned over the helm to Dwight, telling him the course I was on and that “the winds seem to have picked up”. This is standard nautical behavior at the change of a watch, I knew that from reading Hornblower novels.

To follow a course, we had to manipulate a 48 inch wheel to keep a compass heading at whatever Dwight said it should be. Rogue wave and wind gusts would push the boat onto different course seemingly at will. It was a constant battle to keep the boat headed within a five degree range of the desired course.  If the wind changed direction, it became physically difficult to stay on course. Only Dwight could trim the sails to account for a change in wind direction. By the way, again, I will compliment him on his seamanship. There were times tho, when battling to stay somewhere near the desired 83 degree course he would yell out, ‘Change course to 82 degrees”. Yeah right, Aye Aye captain 82 degrees. By the way, this wheel had seen better days. One of the spokes was unattached to the wheel, the rest of the spokes were tack welded in place. A giant bolt that kept wiggling loose held on the whole thing.  I kept tightening it by hand. It all made me quite nervous. I mean no electronics is one thing, no wheel would be quite another.

So, I hit the rack. I needed my sleep after fighting that wheel. I fell asleep quite easily. Soon, I was rolled over up against the port side of the boat. I was actually pinned against it. It woke me up. I heard screaming and yelling from the deck. No one was calling for me, and as far as I was concerned, I was off watch. When I finally got up to go on deck, I realized that things were quite abnormal. The boat had a 45 degree keel to port. I could barely maneuver my old body from my rack and up the ladder to the deck. When I got there, Dwight was screaming “This is friggen beautiful, this is what it is all about”. The water was over the port scuppers, and we were flying. Again, both the boat and Dwight were incredible. If not, we would have been in serious trouble. We were being slammed by the first named tropical storm of the year, Arthur. A tropical storm has winds of 50 knots and we were being treated to every knot. We were truly moving. Dwight kept the helm until the storm passed. The two of us did whatever he asked, excuse me, whatever he screamed out at us to do. “Douse the jib” he would yell. “Douse the effing thing.”

Neither of us knew what dousing meant. ”Let it out, bring it in? Speak English” yelled Ben.

That night I had a dream of receiving last rites at sea, and I’m not even Catholic.

Anyway, thanks to a great boat and a very able seaman, we survived Arthur. Only problem was we were now somewhere between Jamaica and Cuba, oops.

Cuba and the Elusive Gulf Stream

The plan was to give Cuba a pretty wide berth. Now, we had to beat around the western tip of the island. In order to do so we had to head west again, actually WNW. It meant another 24 hours at least before we could get into the warm embrace of the Gulf Stream.

It took longer than that. The winds were all wrong. We could not get a northerly course after we saw the light at the tip of Cuba, which by the way was pretty close. We were now paralleling the north coast of Cuba, heading for Havana. Dwight is Canadian, Ben English, and either of them could enter Cuba sin problemas. But me, well I would have to convince my government that it wasn’t my fault. Not that it bothered me. We were running low on food, fuel, water, and patience.

But we spent the next day trying to get north so we could catch that damned Gulf Stream. The winds started to cooperate, but alas, no gulf stream. We were not getting any closer to Key West.

We started heading west again, then north, then west, but east did not seem to be a course Dwight either could do or wanted to do. I was beginning to think that he knew this was the last voyage he would be on for some time, and he wanted it to last a bit longer.

As far as we could tell, for some reason the Gulf Stream was eluding us. So finally, Dwight took the initiative, checked the available diesel, and started the engine. He decided that we would head for the Marquesa Islands, which are the last islands in the Florida key chain. They were on the inside of a reef, and he promised that we would have a smooth sail all the way into Key West.

I only saw one problem with that. We were vulnerable in the shipping lanes. Our radar was useless, our radio had a range of maybe a mile, and in Arthur, our radar deflector had been blown away.

Dwight told us that the Coast Guard would probably board us. I hoped so, maybe I could jump ship.

It was my 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. watch, when I noticed a couple of lights off the starboard bow. They got closer. Then I noticed a red light, meaning I was looking at the port side of a ship, crossing our bow. I blew the air horn we used to wake up Dwight. Once, twice, thrice and a fourth time. By the time he got up on deck, I was maybe 300 yards away from an oil tanker and way off course to avoid him. Dwight’s screaming was intolerable. However, again, we survived. It was the end of my watch anyway so I waved him off and hit the rack again. I felt like saying “wake me up when we get to Key West.”

The Last Leg

We were now inside “the reef” heading for the back door of Key West. This is supposedly the smugglers route. We were passing the infamous spot where the infamous Mel Fisher found the infamous Atocha and got rich. Great, all I wanted by this time was off this damned boat.

When I got up for my 8 a.m. watch on Sunday morning, Ben looked like a beer truck had hit his dog. I asked him why the long face. He held out the GPS and showed me we were doing about 2 ½ knots again. “At this speed we won’t get to Key West until Monday. I have to be at MIA 3 hours before my 5 p.m. flight. We are not going to make it” He gave me the heading and went below to console himself.  But about then, the wind picked up. We were running under a double reefed main. Dwight came up and said we should let out some Jib. Fine by me. All of a sudden we were making 7 knots and ETA Key West became Sunday afternoon.

We got all the way into Key West without a single Coast guard visit. Dwight had asked me about twenty times if I had any contraband , which of course I did not. I got tired of answering the question and eluded to a package of white powder I bought in Columbia. He had no sense of humor, about that or anything else. This guy didn’t laugh once for 12 days.

About this time Ben and I noticed a bucket floating by. It looked just like a bucket we had lost over board just out of Bocas. I said, “Yup, same bucket. It beat us here” Ben and I looked at each other and simultaneously said “It must have found the gulf stream”. Dwight was not amused. By this time we did not care if he laughed or not, we knew it was a lost cause.

Dwight made an excellent anchoring maneuver. We raised the yellow “Q” flag, meaning we had not “cleared in” yet. We waited for a coast guard or other vessel to approach us, nothing doing.  We found out that they do not work on Sunday. Really. We could have snuck in the entire Cuban National Baseball team and no one would have been the wiser.

I wanted to go ashore. I wanted to use a real toilet, and I wanted a cheeseburger. We had to talk Dwight into it. “Don’t tell anyone we haven’t cleared.” Who would I tell?

We went to his old haunt, the Schooner Wharf Bar. He began telling his story to anyone who would listen. Ben and I wolfed down burgers and had some beers. I asked the bartender for “Gulf Stream Ale”, Ben Laughed, Dwight didn’t get it.

Immigration Man

After what I knew would be my last night on that boat, we headed into the Key West federal building.

We walked up to the window, there were two immigration officers working. I handed one my US passport, he took a look and said “welcome home”. I gave him a power salute and said “God Bless America Bro.”

The other two were not so lucky.

The same guy that welcomed me back to the bosom of my homeland asked Ben “where is your visa.”  Oh oh, I backed up against the wall and watched.

Ben is a very polite young man. His response was “Sir, I have entered America ten times, I have never needed a visa.”

The immigration man said, “well son, that is because you came in on a common carrier. If you arrive on a private vessel, you need a visa.”

Ben’s polite and politically correct reply was “I apologize for my ignorance sir, what can I do?”

The immigration man hemmed and hawed for ten minutes, walked away from the window, came back and said “We have to deport you.”

Ben’s reply was, I have a reservation on the 5 p.m. BA flite out of Miami to Heathrow, if I get there in time I’ll be gone by sunset.”

“Where is your ticket?” said the man in uniform.

“It is an Eticket. If I can go to an internet café I can print it for you.” The important man in his crisp uniform said “You are not leaving this building”.

I told Ben, “What the hell, let them deport you. A free flight and you don’t have to worry about missing your flight” He did not like that idea at all, go figure.

The Graham Nash tune Immigration Man came to my mind  “c’mon and let me in, immigration man”

The now probably amused federal employee came back twenty minutes later. ”I have a solution for you. You have to pay a fine of $550 dollars and we will give you a five day visa”.

Ben, now broke, said “I do not have $550 dollars sir”. I gave them both a “don’t look at me” glance and the immigration man went away for another half hour. By now Ben was going to sprain his wrist from looking at his watch. There was no way he could make MIA by 2 p.m.

Finally, Mr. Important returned and said, “Kid, I like you. I am waving the $550 fine.” He stamped his passport and Ben’s face somehow showed relief, gratefulness and confusion all at the same time.

That was the easier experience of the two.

Dwight had been talking to the other guy the whole time. I was listening to his travails along with those of Ben. He had managed to tell his story a dozen times to the same guy.  “I was a permanent US resident. My card got stolen in the DR. I have been cruising for 3 years and two months…my card had actually expired anyway…my wife works for the Ft. St. Luci police department. You can check out my My-Space page. I have a job interview in Marathon tomorrow.” He kept repeating himself. The immigration man had his hands folded in front  of his chest and was just shaking his head.

He finally interrupted him somewhere in the middle of Dwight’s umpteenth recitation and said “Buddy, you just are not getting in.”

Ben gave me the high sign. We booked. He went to the boat and got our bags, I figured out how to rent a car we could drop off at MIA, and an hour later we were gone. Did we abandon ship? Did we leave our captain in a dire strait? Damn right.

Ben made his flight. I flew out the next morning. I had not showered in ten days and the two people sharing my aisle asked to be moved. Great, I laid down for the flight. Before I did, I looked out at the ocean underneath me and said, “never again.”

A flash from the Past. Costa Rica Y2K

When I looked around me I noticed that almost the entire community was in a circle. It was as if a space ship had landed, or the second coming.  They were all in a joyous mood, some clapping, some laughing, and some just smiling.

The children of the community were in the middle of the circle. They were jumping around, screeching with joy and queuing up to enjoy the new attraction in the school yard. I was standing just inside the circle and taking grateful handshakes and words of everlasting thanks.

I was in the highlands of Costa Rica and I could not have been happier. A week’s worth of work had resulted in a playground for the community school. I was most proud of the absolutely gregarious swing set I had built.  If an inanimate object can be gregarious, this swing set was. It called out for attention and use.  It was huge. It was actually too big for a grammar school. Back in the states the school district would never have let me build it. But here I had no such restrictions. The swing beam was a good 30 feet high. When the kids got the swing going full tilt it blew their hair back. On the way down their faces and smiles got distorted by an increase in G force. They screamed happy screams. They cried with joy. So did I.

I was here by the graces of a woman I can only describe as a 70’s “earth mother” who kept her promise to improve the world. Her name was Gayle. She ran an organization called the Costa Rica Humanitarian Foundation. That was a name I found a bit grandiose at first but after my week of working for her, I realized she deserved it.

Her work consisted of bringing University or high school students to Costa Rica from the USA or Canada. They camped in her back yard. During the day, they went off to do good works.

Gayle tirelessly organized everything. She dealt with the schools and their students. She found funding. Most important she prioritized projects. There was no lack of worthy projects to consider. You could call it a triage of community needs.

When I walked into her office she was a bit wary of me. Well, most people were wary of me at that time in my life.

I was living at the beach and spending all my time barefoot in a hammock drinking Daiquiris and reading books. Not a bad life really. Except for when others around me would ask “so, what do you DO?”  I told them about my past life, my career, but they would stop me and say “No. I mean WHAT DO YOU DO NOW?” I had no answer.

I was 40 something. My life’s course, my goals, my wishes and desires had been totally and irrevocably derailed by the unnecessary death of my only son. I divorced my wife of 18 years. I sold everything I owned. I bought a 4WD pick-up, filled it with tools and drove from California to Costa Rica. I had no idea where I would end up. I was hoping to buy an acre of beach front property and build myself a suitable shack to hole up in and escape from reality. It was not to be. I had run out of anti-depression meds and my mind was fixated on suicide. No wonder Gayle looked at me like a serpent that had just slithered under her door.

I went to see Gayle and check out the foundation at the prompting of an American priest who was hanging out at the same beach. “Dude, do something with your life” he told me. A priest who used the word “dude” pulled at my heart strings. He knew Gayle and gave me instructions how to get to her house outside of San Jose.

I packed up my tools and set off. I arrived at her home. It was located on a large piece of property with tents pitched all over the back yard in the shade of mango trees. I walked in and knew I was going to have to make myself mentally presentable, because the physical equivalent was quite beyond me at the moment. After a half hour rap, during which I managed to convey my life story, tragedies and all, she realized that I could help her, and in doing so help myself.

“So you have a pick-up full of tools?” she asked.

“Sure do.”

“Do you know how to use them?” Smart lady.

I replied as if it were a job interview, “Well, the hammer and the shovel, yeah. I can figure out the rest”.

She told me about a group of high school students on their way from Canada. She wanted to put them to work at a school in a new community called Lindora not far away. The community was built on land donated by the Costa Rican government. The fathers of this new community built something like 200 homes. When they were all done they had a lottery to see which family got which home, and they all moved in. The government built the school.

Gayle explained “They did not build a playground for the kids. Are you interested?”

Yes I was. Since my son’s passing, until that very moment, I had avoided children as much as possible. My mind started to heal with the thought of doing something for poor kids. Mine had been lucky enough to have everything his blessed heart desired. Doing some small thing for a whole school full of kids just filled my head with dreamy pleasures. My son used to spend hours on a swing set I had put in our back yard. So I asked “Can I build them a Swing set?”

“Do whatever you want. I am giving you six young men. You supervise them and do something within a week”.

“What is my budget?”

“How much do you have?”

Well, now I had a schedule and free labor. As far as materials, well I was on my own. At least I had no restrictions.

 

The next Monday a group of twenty high school students arrived with one teacher as the chaperone. We first met at Gayle’s compound. I could only take one guy with me, the others had to travel in Gayle’s van and some Taxis she used for transport.

The student with me did not speak a word of Spanish. His travel experience was limited to Canada and the USA, mostly Canada. To say he was awed by what went zooming past the car window is an understatement. “Look, that guy is carrying a whole bunch of bananas, and they are green. Why don’t they wait until they ripen?”

I had to admit that things like that once perked my interest and I tried to be informative without talking down to him.

We got to the school and met the director. Director is what they call a principle. Most of the students were going to put up white boards in the class rooms, and help the teachers teach English for a week. Gayle took me aside and told me I was going to have to speak to the Director about my plans. My Spanish is excellent, and I was not exactly intimidated by a 30 year old Principle. He seemed more intimidated of me.

“I am going to build a swing set” I told him.

His reply was conveyed with his quizzical look more than with words. I had to explain to him what a swing set was. It turned out my Spanish was not THAT good. But he finally shrugged his shoulders and I took that as him giving me permission. I told him how much space I needed, and he pointed at a thankfully flat piece of land.

My design was in my head. I mean, a swing set, right? My model was the swing set from Costco I had built for my boy. I took my six students aside and I told them what we would be doing. They were all enthusiastic and all had suggestions. Before I knew it, I had committed to a six seat contraption, made of steel with chains. We would use bald tires for the seats. As one of the students pointed out “The sides of the roads are littered with them.”

I put two students in charge of searching for suitable tires. They set out on a quest walking the streets of the town and the highway. They looked more like prospectors or misguided adventurers than students. I knew they would be fine.

I unloaded my tools and put the other four students in the back of the pick-up and we set off looking for a hardware store. It was not that simple. We ended up in the next town where we found 3” steel tubes. My design took another revision. These tubes were 30 feet long. They were hardened steel. The vendor could not cut them. This was going to be a very big swing set, how cool!

We (I) bought the tubes. I bought enough chain for twelve swing hangers. With a swing set as high as this was going to be, my original plan of using a clamp to attach the hangers, (like my Costco kit did) did not seem safe. So I improvised and bought lag bolts.

I knew I needed to install the uprights in concrete. Readymix is not even a word in Costa Rica. I had to buy cement, pebbles and sand. I had never mixed concrete before, so it was up to one of the students to figure that out.

After all that shopping we got back to the school just about the time we were going to lunch. We all piled into the vehicles and went to a park where Gayle was bringing the food.

A Canadian girl was with Gayle when she arrived. She was in tears. In fact she was in a state of shock. I needed to know why. I do not have any qualifications as a social worker, and certainly no future in it, but her anguish bothered me.

I put my arm around her and we walked over to a tree trunk that passed as a bench.

“Tell me what is bothering you” I said in a fatherly way.

“I just saw the poorest people anywhere! Gayle stopped to deliver them some rice and beans. They were living under a bridge with nothing but a beat up tarp for a shelter. The youngest kids ran around naked. None of the kids had shoes. The women were wearing rags.”

She could have go on for an hour, but I needed to get her settled down.

“So, you have never seen poverty stricken people before? Aren’t there any poor people in Vancouver?”

She looked at me like I had just asked her a trigonometry question.

“No, I have never seen anything like that before. I’m sure nobody lives like that in Vancouver, or anywhere in Canada.

I sat there a moment to decide how to deal with this. I knew from talking to Gayle that these kids were from an upper class enclave back home. I could have told her that from the Eddie Bauer adventure wear they had decided to wear for the trip. “you are wrong” I said. “90% of the people in the world live below what we call ‘the poverty line’. A lot of those live beneath bridges.”

Now she looked at me like I had just told her the Bible was a fairy tale. “That is terrible. That is just horrible. It is wrong. Why don’t people help them?”

Now it was my turn to look perplexed. “Well, there are not many people like Gayle in the world. What do you plan to do with your life?”

“I want to be a doctor like my father” she said. I could see the wheels spinning in her head.

“That is a great thing to strive for. Once you become a doctor, maybe you should look into volunteering with a group of doctors called Doctors Without Borders.” I went on to explain that they go around the world trying to cure the poorest people of things like malaria.

“That’s what I’ll do!” she declared. She stopped crying, jumped up and ran back to join her friends. I’ll never know if she finished med school or joined DWB, I can only hope so.

Over the next four days my group and I got the swing set installed. As I said, it was quite the sight. Way too big. We had set the frame in concrete and I had scribbled my son’s name into the concrete as it dried. Again, I cried.

On the last day we tested it. I was the guinea pig. I sat inside one of the tires, and pumped my legs to get the swing moving. Before I knew it I was swishing higher and higher and higher. I was having so much fun that I forgot about the local kids. I looked down from the top of the arch of my swing and realized I had an audience. It dawned on me that these children had never seen a swig set before. I felt like an astronaut when I stopped. Children ran out to jump on a tire and try it themselves. But the testing was not over. I wanted all six seats swung in at once, by the students who built the set, just to be sure it was safe. I stood by and watched six Canadian high school students put the set through its paces. I watched the school children anxiously awaiting their chance. This was something both boys and girls could do. They were all excited.

Word went out in the community that the swing set was open, and parents drifted onto the school grounds in groups. Soon they were surrounding it. I called off the Canadians. I made a 30 second speech thanking Gayle and her foundation for the chance to bring a little joy to the children of  Lindora, then I said “It is yours, Enjoy.”

 

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 3,300 times in 2010. That’s about 8 full 747s.

 

In 2010, there were 79 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 586 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 2gb. That’s about 2 pictures per day.

The busiest day of the year was September 21st with 64 views. The most popular post that day was Another Side Trip in Nepal.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, mail.yahoo.com, expatuae.blogspot.com, mail.live.com, and blogsurfer.us.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for the other side of the coconut, sale of pretty girls, hindu cremation, holy man, and bhubi dhubhi.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Another Side Trip in Nepal September 2010
10 comments

2

Hindu Cremation Service, In Person, With Photos September 2010
2 comments

3

Beirut, Safe and Sane December 2010
4 comments

4

My birthday Present, Oh Man, Oman October 2010
5 comments

5

Why I Have Not Blogged for a While July 2010
7 comments

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