Educating Cabarete: 3 Mariposas Montessori

I drove my motorbike up and down the dusty road to La Ciénega (The Swamp), one of the poorer neighborhoods in Cabarete, in search of a Montessori school called 3 Mariposas, or 3 Butterflies. But all I could find were houses guarded by cinder-block walls and apartment buildings with sun-faded laundry hanging from derelict balconies. I couldn’t see anything that looked remotely like a school.

But after a few more laps of the same road and some help from Dominican passers-by, I realized what I thought was someone’s home was actually a primary school in a converted house. I just couldn’t see the yard full of toys and the butterflies painted on the walls from the road.

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3 Butterflies adding a splash of color to Cabarete

Once inside the walls surrounding 3 Mariposas, I found myself in an inviting and colorful space full of love and inspiration. Located in the heart of a Dominican/Haitian community, whose families make an average income of $2,000 a year, this school offers free tuition to 75% of its student body. Which is a huge relief to the small number of parents whose kids attend 3 Mariposas; especially since formal education for children under age 8 and over age 13 is rare in the D.R.

Yet there’s this little Montessori school for kids aged 0-7 in the middle of a swamp, offering free education with qualified teachers to Dominicans and Haitians who can barely afford to feed their family, let alone invest in education. And it’s full of smiling kids hard at work learning shapes, colors, math, reading, writing and more, in both Spanish and English.

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A little girl working on her own with color blocks

And since Ryan and I are teachers who built our own teacher training school and English language school in New York City, we were interested in meeting 3 Mariposas’ American founder, Sarah Ross, and learning more about the school because, (1) we believe in the power of education, and (2) we have a policy of donating money each year to an educational cause.

Sarah welcomed me into her school warmly and, despite her perpetually full schedule, gave me a full tour. And as she told stories about the school construction, her students and the two years it took to get non-profit status, I could see how much passion and sweat equity went into creating 3 Mariposas. After all, it was Sarah’s own house that she and her Austrian husband converted into a school.

They redesigned the layout to form open, airy classrooms; cleaned up and expanded the backyard to create a colorful playground with mango trees and flowers; and recruited foreign students and church groups to help paint the school in bright colors, giving the place a warm, child-friendly feeling.

sarah ludwig-ross founder of 3 mariposas montessori

Sarah Ross, the founder of 3 Mariposas, telling us the history of her school

And inside the colorful classrooms, there was a different kind of bilingual education at work than I’d ever seen before. Kids of different ages worked independently or with teachers on tasks in different corners of the room. And in the middle of the room, two children sat on the floor spelling out words and sentences with wooden letters while a teacher helped them sound out the words they wanted to spell.

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Two girls hard at work spelling out sentences in Spanish

“Children can read and spell long before they have the motor skills to write,” Sarah explained. “Which is why we use these wooden letters. Most schools teach children to write at the same time they learn to read, which frustrates kids. Their hands get tired, they can’t hold the pencil, and they give up. Instead, we have them reading and spelling as early as three years old so that by the time they are physically capable of gripping a pencil, they already know the words and their spellings. It makes learning to write easier.”

I thought back to my own Kindergarten class, which was taught by a gray-haired woman who hated children and smelled like a medicine cabinet. To keep us quiet, she used to make us copy our names endlessly on paper until some kid inevitably started throwing crayons and got spanked for it. Just thinking of it made me wish I’d gone to a Montessori school.

Meanwhile, a little girl, who was about 6 or 7, was mopping the floor and scrubbing chairs with soap and water. I was about to ask if this was some kind of punishment, but Sarah explained that each student has a job or “Practical Life Activity,” of his or her choosing. These activities teach children responsibility and the importance of taking care of their environment. As Montessori educational theory asserts, it is always a goal “to make the child independent and be able to do things for himself… When the children are able to do things for themselves there is an increase in their self belief, self confidence and esteem that they may carry on throughout their life.”

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One happy little girl putting together a puzzle by herself

This tenet must hold some truth because what I saw of the children at 3 Mariposas, who varied in age from 3 to 7, was a great deal of respect for school property. When a child finished a task, he dutifully packed up the items he was using and put them back on the shelf without being asked. And at snack time, children as young as 3 were given real glasses and ceramic plates, rather than plastic dishes, which Sarah explained was to show the children they could be trusted with “adult” things, which relates back to Montessori’s theories of child responsibility and building confidence.

I’m sure that long after I’ve left Cabarete, my visit to 3 Mariposas — and the experience of seeing first-hand how Dominican children have benefitted from Sarah’s work — will stand out as a highlight of my stay. It also serves as a reminder of the wonderful opportunities that arise when traveling, as long as I remain open to learning from the amazing people I meet along the way. Sometimes those people are native residents, and sometimes they’re expats like Sarah who’ve traveled abroad and created something amazing in the community they’ve settled down in. There’s a lot of inspiration to be found out there in the world, if you look for it.

And because we were so inspired by 3 Mariposas, Ryan and I decided to donate $3,000 from Teaching House, our ESL teacher training school, to help support the kids who attend the school. And, in addition, we’re asking you, our friends and readers, to visit the donation page on the 3 Mariposas web site to read more about the school. And if you feel inspired, you can also click on the “Donate Now” link.

Every little bit of aid really does help, so if this story has inspired you, please consider donating to this wonderful project. Even $10 makes a difference to a youngstudent’s life.

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This colorful school breathes life into the education of local children in Cabarete

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Sarah works with two girls to develop their spelling and writing skills

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A little girl celebrates a classmate’s birthday with a cupcake and real “adult” utensils

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When a boy gets hurt, Sarah holds a meeting with the children to drive home a lesson

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3 Mariposas thanks you for all your support

To find out more about 3 Mariposas, visit their web site www.3mariposasmontessori.com. And if you’re ever in Cabarete, I encourage you to come see for yourself how they’re tackling education in the Dominican Republic.

Photo Essay: Motorbike trip to Rio San Juan

My first weekend motorcycle trip felt like a milestone achievement when I pulled into Rio San Juan with Ryan on the back of the bike and all my limbs still in tact. Despite my fears, the trip was nothing short of breath-taking, scenic and exhilarating. The wind whipped my hair into knots as we rolled up, down and around one long road along the coast with nothing around us but dense jungle, craggy cliffs, grazing cattle and friendly Dominicans working in their little roadside huts selling oranges, peanuts and eggs.

Ryan and I had agreed to take turns driving so I could gain some open-road experience, which required some courage from me to take the reins, as well as courage from Ryan to put any hint of machismo aside to endure the alarmed stares and surprised double-takes from passing Dominican drivers. No doubt, they were wondering if Ryan had misplaced his cojones when he put me in the driver’s seat.

After a long journey of being glued together on a small seat, though, we were rewarded with a new town of a completely different vibe from Cabarete or Luperon, towns we’d gotten to know quite well. The people were just as generous and friendly as they are in the rest of the country, but Río San Juan offered unique local treasures like the gorgeous beach of Playa Caletón, tucked away in a protected cove beyond the mangroves.

Looking now at this photo essay, it would appear that what I thought was a casual fling with the Dominican Republic, sparked by love at first sight, has turned into a long-lasting relationship. And if this is what biking through the Dominican countryside brings, I can see myself falling quite hard for this country during our time here.

motorbike road trip to rio san juan

Tour leaders: Joelle and Tasha.

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Tour stuntmen: Ryan and Morgan

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Stopping to stretch our legs in a one-moto Dominican town

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Hotel room: $30. View: Priceless.

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We woke up to see the day’s catch coming in

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Learning the history of Rio San Juan from our animated guide, Felix

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The highlight of the tour was our stop at Playa Caleton

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Back in Rio San Juan, we were tempted by fresh oysters from the mangroves

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Who could resist Julian’s offerings?

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They don’t get much fresher than this

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Spending the evening with some local Haitian girls

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The trip home was no less adventurous

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On the open road, heading home from our 3-day adventure

For more photos of Rio San Juan, visit Turf to Surf’s Photo Album on their Facebook Page.

Book Review: Love with a Chance of Drowning

After six months of cruising and reading books about sailing, I thought the last thing I needed was another sailing story on my bookshelf. What I really needed was a literary escape from boat life, rather than more reminders of what could go wrong at sea as confirmed by the many disaster tales that are born of the ocean.

But then a copy of Torre DeRoche’s memoir “Love with a Chance of Drowning” dropped in my lap, and once I started the first chapter, I couldn’t put it down. Witty, emotional and laugh-out-loud funny, “Love with a Chance of Drowning” is the story of an aqua-phobic Aussie gal (Torre) living abroad in San Francisco who meets and falls in love with an adventure-loving Argentinian who has been planning for the last seven years to sail his boat around the world.

Torre is put in the difficult position of having to choose whether to watch the love of her life sail away, possibly forever, or swallow her phobia and get onboard with exploring the world in a way that she never thought she could.

It’s an immediately lovable book for sailors, travelers and any of us who have either fallen in love with adventuring or an adventurer. And even if you’ve never stepped foot on a boat or traveled abroad, you can identify with the emotions Torre feels as she questions herself, her love and whether her fears should stop her from living out a dream, even if that dream is not hers.

Torre is blessed with the gift of great story-telling, crafting the tale of an unusual journey, with all its peaks and troughs, while also injecting a good dose of self-deprecating humor and a love for anyone who has an interesting story to tell.

I can’t recommend this book enough to those with an adventurous spirit, a love for human flaws and a healthy sense of humor. It’s hard not to find something of yourself in Torre and her experiences and find humor in the folly of the way love is stumbled upon sometimes.

In a word, this memoir is loveable. If you don’t believe me, watch this video trailer:

 

“Love with a Chance of Drowning” is for sale now on Amazon.com.

A crazy adventure on the horizon

“Robert Granville, Nick Golding, Domenico Grazzani, Tasha Hacker…”

“Holy shit, that’s me!” I screamed, jumping up from my seat and reaching over to high-five Ryan.

After a morning of chugging coffee, chewing my nails and pacing back and forth in anticipation of this moment, it was a relief to hear my name and know my fate had been sealed.

Contrary to your guesses, I was not at a Hogwarts’ ceremony with Harry Potter waiting to find out which house the Sorting Hat would choose me for. Rather, I was watching the live broadcast from England of Crew Allocation for the Clipper Round the World Race.

Yep, that’s right. I’m going to be an ocean racer.

The Clipper race is the closest an amateur sailor will ever come to doing something like the Volvo Ocean Race; a round-the-world adventure on stripped down, 70-foot racing boats. It is the only race in the world to take hundreds of amateur sailors, train them specifically for ocean racing, and place them on racing monohulls to battle it out at sea on a circumnavigation. There are 12 boats in total, each carrying 22 amateur crew and 1 professional skipper.

Before you ask, we were completely sober when we signed ourselves up for this insane challenge. Ryan and I even signed up to crew on two different boats, which means we won’t be racing together. We’ll both be doing two out of the eight legs making up the full round-the-world race. And, of course, Ryan and I have a little rum wager on who’s going to win.

We’ll be setting out with the fleet on Leg 1, which includes two races: the first starting in Southern England and finishing in Brest, France, and then after a 2-3 day layover, we’ll be heading off to the west coast of Brazil. The entire leg covers nearly 4,500 nautical miles, taking us out of the English Channel, across the Bay of Biscay, across the Atlantic Ocean and the equator and down the Brazilian coast. We’ll tackle strong tides, confused seas, the fluky conditions of the infamous doldrums, and both cold and hot weather.

Once we are safely deposited on Brazilian soil, we’ll have about 30 days to get to South Africa and meet our boats again for the third leg of the Clipper, which will start in Cape Town and finish in Western Australia. This epic 4,700-nautical-mile leg takes us across the South Indian Ocean and the treacherous Southern Ocean, which will have us facing torrential rains and fast-moving weather systems, fighting large, powerful depressions, surfing down monstrous waves at speeds of up to 30 knots and hopefully dropping us at the doorstep of a well-stocked pub when we finally reach Australia.

The Clipper team has three months to train us and a fleet of 650 amateurs to be ready to take on this awesome challenge.

But not to worry. As the Clipper Founder, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, said in an inspiring speech he gave on Crew Allocation Day, “We’re giving you about the finest training anyone has developed for what you’re taking on. We train you to go out and sail oceans. And there’s not many people who do it. More people have climbed Mt. Everest than have sailed around the world.”

What’s more, I’ll be covering the experience from start to finish here on Turf to Surf. So stay tuned for more news about the Clipper race and our upcoming training in England.

I know this experience is going to be nothing short of amazing and difficult and life-changing. So, despite the concerns I have about this adventure, I’m banking on the advice of that oft-quoted fellow, Mark Twain, who said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor.”

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These boats might have a few more lines than we have on s/v Hideaway.

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Two excited crew preparing to race in ’11-’12. Next time out, that will be us!

Featured photo credit: Clipper Ventures Plc

To follow the rest of this crazy adventure in real time, keep an eye on Turf to Surf’s Photo Albums on their Facebook Page.

Easy Rider: Learning to drive a motorbike

Before arriving to the Dominican Republic, my experience with motorbikes was limited to a singular weekend of touring Block Island on a rented motor-scooter. That, and listening to my friends’ tales of motorcycle crashes, which mostly ended in “I had three operations to fix my knee,” or “…and he died.”

This didn’t do much to allay my fear of motorcycles or prepare me for life in the Dominican Republic, which requires hopping on the back of a motoconcho to go shopping, get to the beach, or go about your daily business. So, when we rented a motorbike so I could learn to drive it and get around town on my own, my first thought was that the Cabarete Medical Center was going to be seeing a lot of me.

Luckily, I’m married to a very skilled teacher. Ryan patiently coached me through my initial inability to coordinate my right hand on the throttle, left hand on the clutch, left foot on the gears and right foot on the brake until, eventually, it became as second-nature as driving a car. And after that, once I’d gotten my hands and feet to cooperate with my brain, I just had the busy roads and Dominican traffic rules to contend (you know, nothing big). Which was luckily conquered with a little more practice and some mental coaching from Ryan.

Now, I can’t imagine not driving around the Dominican Republic on a motorbike. When I’m out on the road, I can hear, see, feel and smell my surroundings like I’m an integral part of them. I’m aware of every little change in scenery; the sound of cars, birds and cattle; and I get an adrenalin buzz even on a ten-minute ride to the beach.

And, sure, I get scared sometimes, like when I have to stop on a hill or pull out into traffic. But the more I ride, the easier it becomes, the less scary it is, and the more I realize that I won’t get hurt as long as I stay vigilant and make sure I’m aware of other drivers and my surroundings.

The real gift of this new-found skill, though, is a heightened sense of adventure. It’s opened up new possibilities for where we can go and how we can travel on land when we reach a new country. And it’s injected excitement into otherwise mundane chores like going to the store to buy milk. Going anywhere to do anything has become such a sensory experience that now I look for excuses to go out just so I can take the motorcycle.

For sure, motorcycle riding is a lot of things, including potentially dangerous and unpopular with protective parents. But it is anything but boring.

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I think my clear-lens riding glasses and helmet say “total badass,” don’t you?

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Tommy, my favorite neighborhood dog, seems to like my new look

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Just riding through Cabarete… like I’ve been doing this my whole life

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Isn’t she a beauty? The bike, I mean.

If you enjoyed these “Easy Rider” photos, visit Turf to Surf’s Photo Albums on Facebook to see more of Tasha & Ryan’s motorcycle travels.

Overcoming fear at Laguna Dudu

Laguna Dudu, Cabrera, Dominica Republic

As I approached the ledge guarded by a skinny Dominican kid in an orange vest labeled “Rescate,” (Rescue, in Spanish), I wondered if this place called Dudu was comically named for the doo-doo I was about to get myself into. I mean, how the hell was this kid’s orange life preserver ever going to save me if something went wrong with the makeshift zip-line that ran across the canyon below?

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Not exactly Baywatch.

laguna dudu rescate dominican republic

“Don’t worry. I have a plastic life preserver.”

The main attraction of Laguna Dudu in Cabrera, Dominican Republic, and the source of my anxiety, was essentially a metal wire tied around two large trees on either side of a massive canyon containing a cavernous pool of blue, brackish water of unknown depth.

As I peeked over the edge of the rock I was meant to launch myself off of, the soles of my feet and palms of my hands tingled, signifying a familiar and overwhelming terror reserved solely for those moments when I’m either about to deliver a speech or drop from an unfathomable height.

In this case, the height was 8 meters or, roughly, 26 feet. Like I said, unfathomable.

Sure, I’d just watched my husband Ryan, our friend Morgan and about a dozen Dominicans drop like stones from their zip-line handlebars into the pool of water below. And, sure, every single one of them had surfaced alive, unharmed and whooping with delight. But, even still, everything in my brain was screaming, “Don’t do it. You have nothing to prove. Step away from the edge.”

Meanwhile, Ryan was standing at my side, using a well-worn motivational tactic. “It’s okay if you don’t have the guts,” he said, smirking.

Which made me twitch, since Ryan was the one who was supposedly afraid of heights and, yet, I’d just watched him jump off the cliff not once, but twice. But I couldn’t ignore my brain, which was screaming in a voice that sounded like my mother’s, “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?”

Tasha, not happy about this peer pressure.

Tasha, not happy about this peer pressure.

“What are you so worried about?” Ryan asked, interrupting the screaming in my head.

“Dying,” I said.

Which was the truth, even though I knew it was irrational. All the evidence before me, including all the people I’d just watched not die, showed that I definitely wouldn’t die if I jumped off that cliff. Even though I’m pretty sure there’s no park in the entire United States that could get insurance to string a wire across a canyon and charge people to drop themselves off it, regardless of how many waivers they made you sign.

But we weren’t in the United States. We were deep in the Dominican jungle, well off the beaten path, where thousands of Dominicans had dropped themselves off this cliff before me and had the adrenalin rushes to show for it.

“You’re being a wimp,” my brave self accused. “You’ve jumped off cliffs before and you liked it. C’mon, it’ll be fun!”

“I’m not really convinced I liked it,” my wimpy self said. “I’m pretty sure I did it because there was no other way down.”

While I stood frozen at the edge of the rock arguing with myself, a long line of men formed behind me, making me even more nervous. So I backed up and let them go ahead while I continued the internal debate with myself over whether or not it was reasonable to be afraid of dying in a place called Dudú.

When the last guy in line grabbed hold of the zip handle, I knew I’d have to make a decision soon as to whether or not I was going to jump. And every nerve in my body was telling me not to.

But just as he grabbed the bar, the guy looked down, dropped the bar and, shaking his head, walked away from the edge and back toward his friends, who were now doubled over laughing at their fearful buddy. And, in that moment, I realized how silly I was being.

So before I could rethink my decision, I stepped up to the edge of the rock and grabbed the zip-line handle.

Moment of truth: real fear kicks in

Moment of truth: real fear kicks in.

And as soon as I stepped off the rock, I immediately regretted my decision.

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There’s no going back now.

If I thought I was terrified before, standing on the edge of the cliff, I was absolutely frozen with fear now, flying through the air towards my cavernous, water-filled doom. The only difference was now I no longer had a choice in the matter. I was going to have to drop into that water whether I liked it or not.

So I took a deep breath and let go.

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Free falling.

When I surfaced, my own laughter was met by the giggles of a dozen Dominican guys standing at the water’s edge. And it took me a moment to realize they weren’t laughing at me. They were laughing at their friend, who had just been shown up by a gringo girl. And now this poor guy would never live this humiliation down unless he grew some cojones and dropped off that cliff. Shame is a powerful motivator, I thought, as I watched the guy turn on his heels and march back up the hill and towards his fate, which was to ride that zip line with courage.

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Happy to be alive.

By now, the fearful tingling in my feet had been replaced by the lingering thrill of speed mixed with positive elation at still being alive. Followed by a disproportionate sense of self-satisfaction. The kind of satisfaction that only comes from accomplishing something that – even for a brief moment –  seemed impossible.

I had conquered my own Dudu.

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“That was, like, a thousand meters, right?”

For more photos, visit Turf to Surf’s Photo Album for Rio San Juan and Laguna Dudu.

post-line-divide

This post is part of the My Fearful Adventure series, which is celebrating the launch of Torre DeRoche’s debut book Love with a Chance of Drowning, a true adventure story about one girl’s leap into the deep end of her fears.

love with a chance of drowning

“Wow, what a book. Exciting. Dramatic. Honest. Torre DeRoche is an author to follow.” Australian Associated Press

“… a story about conquering the fears that keep you from living your dreams.” Nomadicmatt.com

“In her debut, DeRoche has penned such a beautiful, thrilling story you’ll have to remind yourself it’s not fiction.” Courier Mail

Life after the Bahamas

Sometimes it takes a drastic change of scenery to refresh your perspective on a place. Which is exactly what happened when we arrived to the lush, tropical expanse of the Dominican Republic after 3 months in the quiet, secluded, picture-perfect islands of the Bahamas.

I was thrilled to have arrived to the D.R. after deciding to head south for hurricane season, and not just because the journey there was long and rough and lacked a working auto-pilot. As soon as we stepped foot in Luperón, I was smacked in the senses by loud, Latin music; lively Spanish chatter; jagged mountains begging to be climbed; motorbikes whizzing past carrying women and babies; the smell of overripe mangoes; cheerful, aimless dogs; and delicious food so cheap you could eat out three times a day and barely graze the bank.

It was such an ecstatic contrast to the last three months of tranquility in the Bahamas that it brought on a surprising revelation: as stunning and picturesque as the water and beaches of the Bahamas were, I had gotten bored of them.

Now, if you are a land-lubber or soon-to-be-cruiser, you’re probably thinking, “Boo hoo. It must be torture to spend 3 months on beautiful beaches. Cry me a river.”

I get it. First world problems. I should just shut up. (Except I won’t ‘cause this is my blog.)

Or maybe you agree with “Rum Trouble” (which is his real name, no doubt), who commented on a post I wrote about how little there was to do on Warderick Wells Cay:

rum trouble comment

I get him, too. How dare a faux sailor like myself talk smack about everyone’s favorite cruising destination?

But before you and my Rum Trouble fan club start throwing virtual tomatoes at me for calling the Bahamas “boring,” let me first explain where I’m coming from.

The Bahamas is an absolute boating paradise. You can anchor anywhere, near any island, and everything you could care to see is within walking or dinghying distance from your boat. And you’re always guaranteed a white-sand-and-crystal-blue-water view from your cockpit while you sip sundowners and eat home-cooked meals made with canned goods from Florida. Never mind that you stocked 6 months’ worth of canned beans and tomato paste because the price of eating out in the Bahamas rivals New York City. It’s still lovely to enjoy drinks and preserved food onboard as the sun sets over your private island paradise.

But, as much as I love the tranquility and sense of self-reliance that comes with traveling by sea, not to mention the stunning, secluded anchorages, I felt there was something missing from my travels in the Bahamas that I couldn’t put my finger on at the time.

Then we arrived to Luperón and, suddenly, my beautiful, barren, bird-less surroundings were replaced by deliciously gritty, musical streets full of Dominicans chattering and hanging their laundry from brightly-painted cinder walls, motoconcho drivers shouting offers to take me places, and more animal life in one neighborhood than I’d seen in the whole of the Bahamas. It was sensory overload, and I was so energized by it, I practically squealed with delight as I kicked off my deck shoes, threw my charts overboard and started running for the hills. Well, not really, since we need our charts… and I don’t wear deck shoes. But I did trade my flip flops for sneakers as soon as I discovered how many hundreds of miles there were to explore by car, foot, Guagua (local bus) and motorbike.

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The hills of Luperon were a sight for sore eyes

After all, we were making up for three months of lost activity in the Bahamas. So as soon as we’d had our fill of Luperon, we hit the road and headed for towns like Cabarete, where Dominicans and expats from all over the world come to go surfing, kiteboarding, windsurfing, mountain climbing, paddleboarding and motorbiking into the heart of rural towns to chat with Dominicans over cold Presidentes and the soundtrack of Salsa, Bachata, and Merengue. Which, of course, explains why everyone we’ve met looks they belong on the cover of an athletic wear catalog.

In essence, the Dominican Republic is everything the Bahamas is not. It’s dynamic, loud, sporty, tropical and cheap. So cheap you can go out every night, take Spanish classes and kiteboarding lessons and not break the bank. Which also explains why everyone here is so young. It’s the perfect place to come if you love beaches, sports and parties and you don’t have a lot of money behind you.

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This is the kind of stuff I was missing in the Bahamas. Call me crazy.

Don’t get me wrong (and put down those rotten tomatoes, please); I loved the Bahamas and I fully understand why it is such a popular cruising area. What sailor wouldn’t love a playground  of endless beautiful anchorages? And if you’re a water lover, there is enough fishing, diving, snorkeling and reef exploring in the islands to satisfy a mermaid.

But if you love getting off the boat and pushing your body, mind and senses to their limits by diving into the lifestyle of a different culture or taking on a new and foreign sport, then the Dominican Republic wins.

To see the places this country has to offer, though, you have to spend a fair bit of time away from your boat, which isn’t very cruiser-like. But if I’m being totally honest here, after 6 months of living in a closet-sized space with Ryan and our two cats, I am more than thrilled to get off the boat and explore land to my heart’s content.

So, in that sense, perhaps Mr. Rum Trouble’s criticism of me is accurate. As he said, “I would hardly consider you a seasoned sailor.” And though I never claimed I was, I can truthfully say I’m not content with life on the boat alone, which probably means I’m not really a cruiser at heart. Maybe I’m just a traveler who happens to have a boat.

And I’m okay with that. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to combine my love of travel with the new-found skill of sailing. It’s broadened my view of where I can go and how I can get to places that might be difficult for the average traveler to reach. And the Dominican Republic is just the kind of place where I could stay for a while, sink myself wholly into a new challenge like kiteboarding or surfing, and camouflage myself in the fabric of a new and interesting culture.

It has everything I was missing in the Bahamas.

So, if you still want to throw those tomatoes, I’ll understand. Go ahead and let ‘em rip.

27 Charcos Damajagua DR Turf to Surf

We loved the “27 Waterfalls” of Damajagua so much we went twice.

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This is what happens when you travel the countryside with crazy cruisers you meet in Luperon

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The nightlife in Cabarete makes a visit well worthwhile

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Ryan took to the Dominican “moto” like a pro

To see more photos of the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, visit Turf to Surf’s Photo Albums on Facebook.

7 Self-help Tips (from one cat to another)

Dear New-to-Cruising Kitty,

Let me first assure you, I know what you’re going through.

Your “owners” have decided to give up their land lives and move onto a boat. With you. And, of course, they didn’t ask first what you thought. They just plucked you from your large, comfortable home and dropped you onto a vessel only slightly larger than your litter box, which no amount of revenge pee can transform into Roman Abramovich’s 533-foot yacht.

Unless, that is, you’re Roman Abramovich’s cat. In which case, I’m not talking to you. You and your gold-plated self-cleaning litter box the size of a queen bed can mind your own business. You’re probably fed fresh tuna every day by a team of servants who were also hired to fluff your pillows and bring you live mice to play with. You’re the 1% I’m not talking to. This discussion is for real cats.

So back to the 99%. I know it sucks. But, take it from me, a fellow boat cat: you can’t change the fact that you now live in a floating prison surrounded by every cat’s kryptonite (H2O), but you can become happier by changing your outlook on this new life you’ve been subjected to.

And I, Charlie, queen cat of s/v Hideaway, am here to help you do just that by giving you seven tenets to live by to ensure a happy, fulfilled feline life at sea:

Rule #1: Take charge. Scratch the word “owner” from your vocabulary and replace it with “human servant.” I mean, are you a slave to these people? No. You tell them what to feed you, when to feed you and how often to change your litter. Get it? Servant.

sailing hideaway sailing with cats turf to surf

“A little to the left…almost there…you got it.”

Rule #2: Get to know your boat. Climb into every hole, crevice and opening you can find. All the time. Someone left a locker open? Get in there! Don’t worry about getting stuck between, say, a sack of flour and some electrical wiring. Seize the day! Your servants will fish you out.

boat cats sailing hideaway travel

“What? Did you need to get in here or something?”

Rule #3: Express yourself. You may not have the gift of language, but you can send a message. Litter need changing? Pee in their shoes. Don’t like your food? Scoop it into the bilge (if you don’t know, that’s the hole in the floor I like to call “the garbage disposal”). They’ll get the message.

Rule #4: Challenge yourself. You’ll never know how high or far you can jump until you try. Literally. There’s the boom, the dodger, the docks, the dinghy, etc. The boat is your playground! And if you want to see how far your human servants can jump, try balancing on the lifelines while the boat is underway. That’s always a good one.

Rule #5: Prepare your crew. Life at sea is unpredictable and your crew must be prepared to deal with emergencies at any time. Help keep everyone on their toes by, say, pooping on the bed in the middle of the night, jumping off the boat, or my favorite: pretending there’s a deadly insect on your servant’s face that must be killed PRONTO. At two in the morning. How will you know your crew can cope if you don’t test them?

travel with cats sailing hideaway turf to surf

“Just think of me as a sleeping obstacle to whatever you’re trying to do with this bag.”

Rule #6: Get your beauty rest. This one is important. We can’t be our cute, lovable selves unless we get at least 16-18 hours of sleep a day. Your servants, on the other hand, don’t need half as much sleep, so they may disrupt your continuous napping by trying to, say, move you off a tool box they need to get into or push you away from the winches they’re trying to use. Don’t stir. Tip: If you play dead, sometimes they just give up.

charlie sailing with cats hideaway turf to surf

“See what I mean? The world is your bed.”

Rule #7: Be a distraction. If your human servants are anything like mine, they work too hard. Just remember: you know what’s good for them, so make an executive decision and intervene! They’re doing electrical work in the back of a locker? Crawl into the locker. They spend too much time on the computer? Sit on the keyboard. They may act annoyed at first, but trust me on this one: they will come around to your way of doing nothing with a little persistence. And they’ll thank you for it later.

cruising kitty sailing with cats turf to surf

“Whatcha writin’ there? Wanna play?”

That should be enough to get you through the first few months of your new life at sea. With these tools, you should be fully equipped to transform your aquatic woes to a life of adventure and fulfillment. So, get out there and start pooping on some beds, crawling into holes, and leaping onto foreign docks! Live life to the fullest!

Remember: the only one standing in the way of your happiness is you.

You’re welcome and happy cruising,

Charlie

charlie sailing cats turf to surf

“See? You’ll get used to it…eventually.” (Photo by Justin Dent)

Visiting the E.R. in the D.R.

As I flew through the air Superman-style, arms outstretched and legs trailing behind me a good four feet off the ground, a frantic stream of panicked messages streaked my consciousness. “Shit, don’t land on your knees, your knees are for running, not the knees, this is not good…” then SLAM! I was buried face-down in the sand, unable to breathe and feeling lightning bolts shooting from my left rib down to my calf in a way that had me screaming and hyper-ventilating simultaneously.

It was my third lesson in kiteboarding and my lovely instructor Angel from Spain had been coaching me in a practice exercise where I sat on the beach with knees bent and feet flexed so I could power up my kite using a figure-eight motion, which would pull me up and onto my feet with a gentle force. In total control, I would run forward, de-power my kite, and Angel would explain how, in the water, I would need to turn my body to the side more so the kite could pull me up and forward on the surface of the water.

It made total sense. So I practiced my figure-eights based on the twelve-hour clock of kite positions I’d learned. Eleven to two. UP! De-power. Twelve o’clock. Sit down. Eleven to two. UP! De-power. Twelve o’clock. Sit down…Piece of cake…Hey Ryan’s in the water! I wonder if this might be safer over there…

“Try it one more time and we’ll hit the water!” Angel said. One more time? No problem…

But instead of the water, I hit the beach. Hard. And, after that, everything became a blur.

According to Angel, when he said “one more time,” I didn’t do exactly as I’d done the five times we’d practiced before that. I got a little sloppy and took my kite from 10 o’clock to 3 o’clock, which super-powered the kite on this already windy day, and had the effect of yanking me off the beach like I was a six-year-old walking a St. Bernard who’d just spotted a squirrel.

In a haze, I remember as I screamed, the beach sprang to life and dozens of kiteboarders dropped their equipment and ran to my aid. I was spitting out gobs of sand into Angel’s lap while begging him to get my harness and helmet off so I could breathe. Then suddenly a stranger appeared and shoved a pill in my mouth, telling me to swallow. I think he said “Vicodin,” but I wasn’t sure. Frankly, he could have said “crack cocaine” and I wouldn’t have cared.

For a moment, I thought, “Don’t panic, you’ve just had the wind knocked out of you…don’t bother Ryan…this will pass…once they get this harness off, you’ll be fine…DON’T PANIC.”

But then the harness came off and the pain seemed to intensify. And as I rubbed my hip, I realized I couldn’t feel the skin on my side, while my leg was stabbing me with pains that shot all the way to my skull.

Which brought back memories of lying on a roller derby rink in New York exactly a year ago, after being hit from both sides simultaneously in a scrimmage and hearing a snap so loud in my head I thought I’d broken my helmet. And as I laid on the floor, I put my hand on my right collarbone and realized it was in two pieces. I didn’t know yet that my left collarbone was also in two pieces. I just knew I was terrified and in excruciating pain, and yet the first thing that came to mind was the medical bills. “How much is this going to cost?” was my first question to the medics as they lifted me into the ambulance.

And now I was lying on what Ryan would later call “a Dominican stretcher,” which was a beach lounger that five guys had lifted me onto and now sprinted up the beach carrying. They were yelling at people to get out of the way as they dashed out to the street and flagged down a taxi. Meanwhile, I was wailing in pain and panicking in my head, “Shit, what if I’ve broken something…what about sailing…how am I going to get back on the boat…where is Ryan…HOW MUCH IS THIS GOING TO COST?”

Now, if you are an American, or you know an American, then you already know that the subject of medical costs in the U.S. can drive a Yankee’s blood pressure from 0 to 60 in a nanosecond. Our voices grow louder as we recount tragic tales of friends who went bankrupt over, say, a botched appendix operation, and we whine about our monthly insurance bill and the things it doesn’t cover. Or we blurt out a stream of justifications for why we don’t have insurance and probably don’t need it anyway. “Live free or die!” or something like that…

If you are nodding your head, recalling the last annoying conversation you had with an American about our health care system, then I have to ask you to excuse us, please. It’s not our fault. We, as a nation, have endured major, prolonged trauma in the form of the world’s most expensive and unattainable health care. Despite the fact that we spend more per capita on health care than any other country in the world, we are ranked a dismal 38th in the world by the World Health Organization for quality of care. We’re like those abused children who duck instinctively when a hand is raised, except we immediately bark “HOW MUCH?!” any time we see a doctor.

So, if you think it’s crazy that — as I got wheeled into a private medical clinic in Cabarete and was attended to immediately by half a dozen doctors and given over a dozen X-rays and sonograms along with an IV drip of painkillers in the space of under three hours — all I could think was How much is this going to cost?, then just remember I AM AN AMERICAN.

Which means I pay $1,000/month for my and Ryan’s insurance coverage, and yet that only covers us in three states in the U.S. And even then, after all the money I pay, my insurance doesn’t cover ambulance rides, so my 10-minute trip to the hospital with my broken collarbones last year cost me $1,000. And, still, I was grateful because if I’d had that accident outside of New York, New Jersey or Connecticut, or if I’d not been insured at all, my bills would have cost me upwards of $10,000. No joke.

So with each X-ray my Dominican doctors gave me, Ryan and I anxiously played a real-life game of “The Price is Right,” mumbling guesses back and forth as to how much the bills would come to in the end. Ryan guessed $1,000 after four X-rays. But, after a dozen more tests, we said we’d be happy if it cost less than $3,000.

I smiled with relief once the X-ray and sonogram results came back and the doctors assured me I hadn’t broken anything. The mix of good news with strong painkillers numbed my worries…apart from the ones related to expenses. “How much is this going to cost?” I muttered to Ryan again, as the nurse removed my IV and helped me into a wheelchair.

“Ssshhh. It doesn’t matter,” Ryan said, trying to soothe my anxiety. “Whatever it is, we’ll pay it.”

So, when Ryan returned from the doctor’s office laughing out loud, I knew we’d way over shot with our guesses in “The Price is Right.”

“How much?” I asked.

“Eight thousand,” Ryan said.

“Dollars or pesos?!” I exclaimed.

“Funny you should ask,” Ryan said. “That’s exactly what I said to the doctor. I thought he was going to choke! It’s in pesos.”

“Two hundred dollars?” I asked.

“Two hundred dollars,” Ryan said, laughing. “And this is in a private clinic. If we’d gone to the public one down the road, it would’ve been much less.”

“I love this country,” I said. “I can play sports and hurt myself and I don’t have to worry about going bankrupt.”

“That’s anywhere but America, by that criteria,” Ryan said.

ryan kiteboarding kitexcite cabarete dominican republic

Ryan’s 3rd lesson in kiteboarding was cut short by my accident.

cabarete medical clinic dr

Feeling much better after a few painkillers and once I saw the bill.

cabarete medical clinic

It’s amazing how your medical bills drop when you leave the U.S.!

Ocean World: To go or not to go?

Photo: The dolphins at Ocean World look happy, but is it an illusion?

post-line-divide

Having traveled for over a decade, I’ve always felt that traveling was more like an occupation requiring dedication than some frivolous form of escapism. Though I’m sure my parents didn’t exactly see it that way as I boarded a plane to Russia, citing my “fear of cubicles” as reason enough to flee the U.S.

I learned quickly that traveling is hard work and comes with responsibilities. The responsibility to respect different cultures; to try to speak the language of the country I’m in; to be open to lifestyles different from my own; to eat foods I wouldn’t normally eat out of respect for my hosts; to have empathy for those who struggle to get by; and to consider the practices of other cultures, even those I initially recoil from, and decide how to react to them.

When I lived in Qatar, a conservative Muslim country, I got used to wearing long, loose clothing, even in 120-degree weather, and I had to remember never to extend my hand to a man when introducing myself, which took some getting used to. But there were some things I chose not to get used to. Like slavery and camel racing. And so I made the decision not to attend the local camel races so as not to support a sport that depended on child slaves to exist. And after I left in 2004, I felt validated when the government banned the use of child jockeys in camel racing.

When I lived in Seville, Spain, bullfighting was very much alive and popular, boasting Ernest Hemingway’s love for the sport as validation, as well as the fact that it was a tradition. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to attend a bullfight because, to me, it was blood-thirsty, cruel and pointless. And I didn’t understand how Spaniards could call it a “fight,” considering the bull never had a chance at winning.

What was interesting, though, was how my students in Spain reacted to the news in 2005 that the British government had banned fox-hunting in England, a sport which involved people on horseback unleashing trained dogs on foxes, tearing them apart from limb to limb when caught. My Spanish students all agreed that fox-hunting was barbaric, cruel and unnecessary and, of course, it should be banned.

“But what about bullfighting?” I asked.

“Bullfighting? What do you mean?!” they asked. “That’s an art. It’s Spanish tradition!”

“But some could see it as barbaric, cruel and unnecessary,” I said.

“No, no, no, that is different,” they protested.

And I protested in return, challenging their viewpoint and asking my students to examine their own “traditions” with a bit more objectivity. This was a difficult exercise, as it turned out. As it is for many people, including myself, regardless of where they’re from. But through that conversation and many more like it, I began to see that one culture’s tradition is sometimes another culture’s cruel and unusual punishment.

So, when a reader respectfully wrote to me about the moral controversy surrounding animals in captivity and parks like Ocean World in the D.R., after seeing photos of me swimming with dolphins, sharks, stingrays and sea lions, I immediately felt guilty. Had I just unwittingly committed an irresponsible travel misstep?

ocean world dolphins controversy dominican republic

Admittedly, I am in heaven hugging this dolphin.

It had never occurred to me that by taking my nephews to Ocean World, I might be supporting an environmentally harmful cause. In fact, as an animal lover, I was ecstatic to have the rare opportunity to touch and swim with these incredible creatures. But as it turns out, ignorance really is bliss.

So now that I was no longer ignorant, I felt a responsibility to educate myself by consulting the internet, debating with my family, posing questions to a marine biologist, and renting the documentary “The Cove,” which has motivated animal rights organizations to advocate for dolphins and campaign against marine parks.

And the purpose of all this research has been to help me pin down my convictions about marine parks like Ocean World and make sense of the controversy surrounding dolphins and other wild animals in captivity.

If you haven’t seen “The Cove,” it is a film by Ric O’Barry, the dolphin trainer on the 1964 TV series “Flipper,” who had a drastic change of heart regarding captivity after a dolphin died in Ric’s arms from what he claims was a suicide wrought from despair at living in captivity. The film, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2010, criticizes the practice of dolphin culling in the Japanese fishing village of Taiji, where most of the world’s captive dolphins come from, and where about 23,000 dolphins are slaughtered each year for meat, as well as to protect the fish stock from dolphin consumption.

In a word, the film is heart-breaking. I can’t deny the emotions I felt while watching dolphins being netted and speared to death.

But, by the time I sat down to watch “The Cove,” I had already read a lot about the centuries-old dolphin-hunting tradition in Japan and countries like the Solomons Islands, Faroe Islands and Peru, as well as the issues with dolphins in captivity. So my inner cheerleader was rooting for the film to offer a solid argument for why I should never visit a marine park again, or support animals in captivity in any way.

Except, instead of filling me with conviction, I came away from the film with more questions than answers, including:

How is the slaughter of 23,000 dolphins a year in Japan more wrong than the 34 million cows slaughtered in the U.S. every year?

What is the criteria for animals we can’t kill for food vs. animals we can kill for food? Is it cuteness? Intelligence? Our sentimentality? Who decides this criteria?

If the dolphin population is increasing in Japan, despite the hunts, doesn’t that make them a sustainable source of food?

The 12 dolphins at Ocean World came from Taiji, Japan, and were spared from the dolphin hunt. Should I not be happy that someone paid good money to spare these dolphins’ lives?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. And though watching the one-sided tale of Taiji’s fishing industry unfold on film was educational, it was equally educational to read some of the negative reviews of the film on Amazon.com. Many of the reviewers asked similar questions to the ones I formed while watching “The Cove,” and some of them offered perspectives from within the Japanese culture, which the film failed to address.

“I think killing animals for meat could be cruel if killing dolphins is cruel,” wrote one Japanese reviewer. “And [the film] didn’t mention the history of dolphin and whale hunting in Japan. In the 19th century, Western whale hunters used to kill whales to get its oil just for fuel for the lamp, and they threw whale meats and bones into sea while Japanese hunted them for food.”

And one American reviewer, Nathan, wrote, “It’s funny how animals with cute personalities get more respect then ones without charm, say cows or chickens. Take a look at Food Inc. and see how we treat animals in this country and around the world. The small Japanese town that has been doing this is a fishing village, they don’t kill for sport. Leave them be.”

So, there it is. After all that research, my self-imposed obligation to be a responsible traveler has brought me here, to this troubled intersection of contradicting viewpoints, leaving me desperate to have a cheat sheet of rules that overrides all sentimentality and offers a universal morality.

But, alas, I am still unclear on whether I think it is wrong for parks like Ocean World to have dolphins and marine animals in captivity. Personally, I was blown away by the experience of interacting with the animals at Ocean World, and I could see from the ecstatic looks on my nephews’ faces, that they were too. And I know those particular dolphins were spared their lives in Taiji because a wealthy man who loves animals paid a lot of money to bring those dolphins to the Dominican Republic.

Does that make the owner of Ocean World a bad person? And I wonder, do zoos and marine parks have no educational value?

I do my best to be a responsible traveler, which requires me to tread carefully and learn from my mistakes as I move between cultures and around language barriers, all the while remembering that my viewpoint is just one viewpoint, which is not necessarily universal.

But in this particular case, I am struggling to work out what my viewpoint is.

I just know that, reflecting on my experience at Ocean World, I don’t regret having gone with my nephews to experience first-hand the power of these amazing creatures. And I have no doubt that some of the little kids who visit these parks are inspired by their love for these animals to grow up and become marine biologists who contribute to the protection of our natural world.

I guess the question is, is that justification enough?

royal dolphin swim ocean world dominican republic

At Ocean World with sister-in-law Carina and nephews, Xander and Henry.