Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Keep Your Fingers Crossed!

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll remember how excited we were last spring when Chris' book, Scimitar Moon, won the gold medal for fantasy books in the ForeWord Review Magazine book awards.  Well, we recently found out that the sequel to that book, Scimitar Sun, is on the finalist list for the same award.  So keep your fingers crossed that he gets a double header!

Las Salinas

Salt depot at Salinas

Salt pans evaporating before the salt harvest

Looking out the back of Hotel Salinas
After an overnight run from Isla Beata, we arrived at Salinas.  The town gets its name from the numerous salt pans.  Pans are constructed by dividing a large, low area into individual ponds (pans).  Sea water is allowed to enter a pan, then it’s blocked off to inflow.  Over time, the water evaporates, concentrating the salt.  Eventually, the salt is raked up and collected.  Think about that next time you pick up your salt shaker!  Cruisers have a great base at the Hotel Salinas.  There’s a dock you can land at, a lovely lounge/bar/restaurant that overlooks the bay, and an incredibly helpful proprietor, George (Jorge in Spanish).  We met up with a couple of Canadian cruisers, Wade and Diane on Joana, and George got the four of us a ride to the town of Bani to shop at a grocery store.  On the way back we stopped at one of many roadside stands to buy some wonderfully delicious and delightfully inexpensive pineapples, avocados, and watermelon.  In our three days in Salinas, we did a little kayaking and a lot of walking.  To the east of town are some funky hills, really high sand dunes with patches of vegetation growing on them.  People were friendly, and we enjoyed our stay.

Funky dune hills

The Lizards of Isla Beata

Iguana strolling in front of the Canal de Beata

Just a few examples of the many lizards we saw on Isla Beata.  The iguanas were large, about three to four feet from nose to tip of the tail.  The other lizards were much smaller, but more colorful and very cute.  Our nephew, Aidan, is a lizard fan, and has a wonderful bearded dragon named Spiny, so these pictures are dedicated to him.
Is that a pose or what!

Isla Beata

Mr Mac anchored off of Isla Beata
OK, picture this: blue water, white beach, swaying palm trees, colorful native fishing boats, and warm, friendly people.  Sounds like a tropical island cliché, right?  Maybe, but it describes Isla Beata to a T.  This island off the southwest coast of the Dominican Republic is a must-see if you’re in the area.  You can only reach the island by boat and, unlike the islands farther east along the coast, there aren’t dozens of day boats ferrying multitudes of tourists here.  The palm-lined beach is in the northwest corner of the island; farther south are high rocky bluffs.  The only buildings here are the Marina de Guerra (coast guard) outpost, and fishermen shacks lining the beach.  The shacks are patchwork quilts of small pieces of wood, corrugated tin, and whatever other building materials were available, but seemingly well-constructed, and everything is neat and clean.  Fishing boats are moored off the beach, with some pulled way up on the sand.  When we arrived, the Marina de Guerra officers came out to the boat to welcome us, check our papers, and invite us ashore.  Very friendly folk, as were the fishermen we passed when we walked along the shore.  At the north end of the beach were a couple of half-built/ruined block buildings and a two-story watch tower, and a concrete sidewalk that led nowhere, making you wonder what used to be here.  The north shore of the island is hell rock that looks barren, but as you pick your way across it, you see that much vegetation has taken hold.  In the holes in the rocks were succulents with fat, oval leaves; a low ground cover with small, shiny green leaves; grasses in deep holes that had accumulated some soil; very prickly catci; and several low plants with yellow flowers.  There was an entire beach of conch shells, old and bleached black and white, and when we walked across them, it was like the scene in the movie Return of the King where Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are walking across all of the skulls that crunch under their feet.  The north shore overlooks the Canal de Beata, the channel that runs between the island and the Dominican Republic mainland.

The guides mentioned how cruisers may be hit up for tips by the Marina de Guerra officers encountered.  We were pleasantly surprised when all these guys asked was whether we could make any copies of their despacho form (you are required to get a despacho to go from one port to the next), and if we had any books, Spanish or English, to pass on.  “¡Muy importante!” said the commandante of the books, and I can see why, since there’s little in the way of diversions here, and no place nearby to escape to if you need a change of scenery.  We took the despacho form to the boat, scanned it, and printed out a couple dozen copies, and brought them back in along with the pile of books we’d already read.  Chris also gave them a signed copy of Scimitar Moon, figuring that coasties would appreciate the nautical theme.  We’ll certainly stop back at Isla Beata if we’re ever in the neighborhood again.  Beautiful place and great people.
Chris readying the kayak to go for a paddle

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Caribbean, Here We Come!

Many people consider the Bahamas to be in the Caribbean, but the Caribbean Sea actually is encompassed by the islands to the south – Cuba, Hispañola, the Leewards and Windwards – and the curved coastline of South and Central America.  So only after traversing the Windward Passage were we really and truly in the Caribbean in our own boat, a dream fulfilled.  We had a three-day passage from Monte Cristi to the southern coast of the DR, through the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba.  Luckily, we had no problems that required us to put ashore, since our insurance covers us in neither of these countries.  The first two days were terrific, the third horrific, with 30-knot winds on the nose and choppy seas.  Not dangerous, just uncomfortable.  We were glad to finally anchor off of the white-sand beach at Bahia de Aguilas (Bay of Eagles).  We passed a couple of peaceful days here before heading on.  A couple of interesting things about our passage.  First was coming through the Windward Passage, where we were contacted by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter doing patrols.  It was the middle of the night and we saw a ship approaching us, and when it finally hailed us, it was good to hear an American voice.  They just asked the usual questions – captain’s and owner’s names, registration, last port and destination, etc. – then wished us a safe sail.  Second was our impression of Haiti from offshore.  The mountains were perpetually shrouded by clouds or mist or smoke, which made them rather mysterious.  The haze may well have been smoke, because downwind there was a constant smell of burning, so strong that it made Chris feel ill one night on watch.  And near the border, it was easy to distinguish Haitian lands from those of the Dominican Republic; the Haitian landscape was sparsely vegetated due to the severe deforestation, whereas the DR hills were well forested.  A shame.  You can certainly see why Haiti has such problems with landslides and mudflow when they get heavy rains.

Dominican Republic – Monte Cristi

 We checked into the DR at Monte Cristi, a small town in the northwestern corner of the country, close to the border with Haiti.  Unfortunately, our experience here was marred by the unexpected “fees” charged by the local Commandante of the Marina de Guerra (coast guard).  He actually held onto our boat documentation until we paid him, much to our dismay and the disgust of the local woman who was translating for us.  However, everyone else we met was delightful.  The translator, Soraya, runs a small stand selling soft drinks and beer along the beach road to the town of Monte Cristi, and her husband, Santo, takes tourists out by boat to view the mangroves, or go to some of the nearby islands.  They were incredibly helpful and nice.  Another nice young man was Isael, who was “assigned” to take us around on the local mode of transportation, the motor concho, which is a small scooter.  It was cozy with the three of us (Isael, Anne, and Chris) squished on the seat, but we saw up to five people (an adult driver and four school girls) on one.  And it turns out that Isael is a member of the marine police.  We found this out in an odd way.  I thought it was his cell phone tucked into the back of his pants that was jabbing me in the stomach when we were on the motor concho, but it turned out it was the butt of his pistol.  We certainly felt safe with him!  Isael spoke not a word of English, and we speak little Spanish, but between hand signals and my little dictionario, we got along well.  We were unsure why he had been assigned to us, since this is a tourist area and we didn’t feel unsafe when we were out and about on our own.  Everyone said “Hola!” (hi in Spanish), and one day we got a jovial ribbing by a bunch of guys enjoying a beer at an outdoor bar when they saw us walking by carrying a carton of 30 eggs (they cost 95 pesos, or about $2.50, and we couldn’t pass up the bargain – omelets for everyone!), and they shouted “Huevos!  Muchos huevos!” (Eggs!  Many eggs!).  We climbed El Morro, a cool-looking mountain that descends in cliffs to the water, and had terrific views, though the steps haven't been tended to for quite a while, making for some tricky climbing in areas.