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.

Photo Essay: Ocean World, Dominican Republic

When I flew back to New York for my grandmother’s funeral, Ryan’s sister Carina and her two boys had just arrived to visit us in the Dominican Republic. And since I had no choice but to leave my visitors, I left Ryan behind to fulfill his role as Chief Entertainer and Favorite Uncle.

When I returned, I only had three days left with my sister-in-law and nephews to make up for lost time, so we decided to splash out (pun intended) and go on a kid-tastic adventure involving a full day at Ocean World Adventure Park, swimming with stingrays, sharks, sea lions and dolphins, and then finish off the day with a family sleepover on Hideaway, which was docked right at Ocean World Marina.

It was an incredible experience to interact with these animals and experience their strength, beauty, agility and kindness up close. I’m not sure who had more fun — me or the kids — but it seemed certain from the pie-eating grins on our faces at the end of the day that this was an experience none of us would forget anytime soon.

post-line-divide

Note: After viewing this photo essay, a reader brought to my attention the issues activists have raised regarding dolphins in captivity, which I wasn’t aware of before we went to Ocean World. Having done some research on the subject, I wrote this follow-up post about the controversy surrounding Ocean World and dolphins in captivity.

ocean world dominican republic dolphin jump

The dolphin swim at Ocean World was the highlight of the day

ocean world park and marina dominican republic

Somewhere behind the sea lion stage is our boat in the marina

feeding stingrays at ocean world dominican republic

Xander, me, Henry and Ryan preparing to feed the stingrays

shark on my lap ocean world dominican republic

“Whoa, there’s a shark on my lap!”

sea lion and ryan ocean world dr

You vote: who’s face is funnier?!

sea lion kissing xander ocean world dr

“One day, you’ll have a beard like me, little boy.”

sea lion handstand ocean world

Sea lion doing a handstand while the rest of us look far less impressive

royal dolphin swim ocean world dominican republic

It was the first time any of us had touched a dolphin, and we were ecstatic.

dolphin swim ocean world dominican republic

“Whoa whoa whoa, where are we gooooiiiingggg?!”

dolphin swim dominican republic ocean world

Xander looked like he’d been swimming with dolphins all his life!

dolphin kiss ocean world dominican republic

Henry’s first kiss from a dolphin.

dolphin hug ocean world dominican republic

Dolphin hugs are amazing.

dolphin dance ocean world dominican republic

We’re in the Dominican Republic, so of course the dolphins can merengue.

lovebirds ocean world dominican republic

Even seeing lovebirds was an interactive experience at Ocean World.

Guests on board: Managing expectations

When we first heard from Ryan’s sister Carina that she and her two boys, Henry and Xander, wanted to visit as guests on board the boat, my first thought was, “Yay, visitors!” My second thought was, “Crap, where will we put everyone?!”

Having guests on board can be a lot of fun if the location is right, the weather is good, and everyone’s expectations are very low. After all, it’s really fun to brag to your friends, “We’re going to spend a week on a yacht in the Dominican Republic…,” but, as we cruisers know, it’s not always as awesome as it sounds. It can be. But it might require some clarification of your visitors’ definition of “awesome.”

When it comes to having fellow boaters visiting, we don’t worry much about managing expectations. Other sailors know what to expect from a 34-foot monohull. But non-boating guests can pose quite a challenge. For one, there is very little space on board, so if your visitors aren’t coming from, say, a studio apartment in Manhattan and/or aren’t used to bumping elbows with someone every time they pick up their drink, they may have difficulties adjusting to such close quarters.

So before Ryan, his sister and our two nephews got too excited about their dream vacation on our “yacht,” only to have their dreams corroded by too much salt water, lack of air conditioning and moldy sheets, I started devising a mental list of things to warn our visitors about before they arrived to the boat:

1) You might not be able to shower. Like, ever. Well, okay, maybe you can have one shower. But it has to be short. And you can’t let the water run while you soap up your hair.

2) You can’t put paper in the toilet (head). Remember the rule, Nothing goes in the head unless you have eaten it first. This is very important if you don’t want to get your hands dirty helping me fix a clogged head.

3) Doing dishes is tricky business. Water is precious and hard to come by, so we use a finely-tuned method of filling the largest dirty vessel with water and soap, using that to soap down the other dishes, then using a slight trickle of water to rinse down the entire load using little more than a drinking cup’s worth. Better yet, just leave the dishes for us to do.

4) We only have one family car (the dinghy). So shore trips for five people in a dinghy that only fits three require some coordination. You may not be able to go to shore anytime you want to, so bring a good book.

5) Our plans to go somewhere may change at any time due to wind, waves, engine troubles or some other factor I am completely unable to predict at this time. Again, bring a good book. In fact, bring a few books.

I guess you could say we got lucky this time, though. I never actually had to send my sister-in-law the weird email I would’ve entitled “Tasha’s Tips for Happy Boat Cohabitation.” At the last minute, she booked her and the kids into an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Plata, circumventing any need for me to worry about whether or not a family of five could comfortably cram themselves into our little boat for a week. And not kill each other.

Now all we needed to worry about was making sure we dragged Carina, Henry and Xander out of their resort to show them a little of the rough-around-the-edges Dominican Republic we’d grown to know and love so much in the short time we’d been here. After all, we couldn’t let our little nephews go back to England thinking the Dominican Republic looked like a massive cruise ship tied to land now, could we?

“But…wait…did you say they have a gym?! And unlimited hot showers?! Never mind. You’ll have to drag me out of the resort!!!

ryan jet skiing turf to surf

Jet skis were a new toy for us at the resort, and the kids loved it!

carina riu bachata beach dominican republic

Carina looks happy to have a whole resort for the kids to run around.

riu bachata dr restaurant turf to surf

And I’m sure we couldn’t have fed them nearly as frequently as the resort restaurant did!

riu bachata pool

This looked much more inviting for a swim than where our boat was in Luperon Harbor

riu bachata dr pool

“Who’s your favorite uncle?!”

Losing an anchor, remembering my grandmother

Photo: Me with my grandmother in 1981, hanging out on a beach in Florida.

post-line-divide

Sitting aboard Hideaway at Ocean World Marina in the Dominican Republic, I stared across the water at a lavish pool and octopus-shaped bar with little interest. I was lost in a reverie, imagining myself as a six-year-old girl standing inside the door of my grandparents’ bulbous Frigidaire, stuffing candy-red maraschino cherries into my mouth before my grandmother could catch me and shut the fridge. Though I knew she’d let me grab just one more cherry.

I’d just gotten off the phone with my dad, who’d told me my grandmother had just passed away, following a stroke. And I was sitting in stunned silence, alone with my thoughts, feeling a mix of sadness and guilt that I was here in a land far away while my family was there, in the place that still held my roots.

I wasn’t ready just yet to deal with the logistics of flying home to New York from a small town in the Dominican Republic. But I knew in two day’s time, I would be attending the funeral for my grandmother, the woman who’d held my family together for generations with the glue of hard work, selflessness, criticism, love and, above all, the belief that family comes before all else in this world. Unquestionably.

But rather than take action and search for flights, for a little while I just sat still and watched a series of non sequitur vignettes from my grandmother’s life play out from a reel in my mind made up of childhood memories, old photos and stories my relatives told me about the mark my grandmother had left on each of them.

And I thought about the mark she left on me.

Growing up, I didn’t know much about my grandmother’s early life; that her parents had emigrated to the U.S. from Denmark. Or that her parents had traveled and given birth to each of their children in a different South American country until they ended up in the U.S., where my grandmother was born. I also didn’t know both my grandmother’s parents had died before she even reached adolescence, leaving her and her siblings to fend for themselves from a young age.

I just knew my grandmother lived her life like a determined force, organizing, controlling and tirelessly working to make sure the people in her life were taken care of and had learned the skills necessary to take care of themselves.

Knickerbocker Lake, where my grandparents lived, had been the center of activity in my family for as long as I could remember, and for generations before me. My father and his brother and sister grew up there, helping to maintain the expanse of land by mowing the lawn in the summer, raking leaves in the autumn, shoveling snow off the driveway in winter and pulling seaweed out of the swimming area in spring to prepare for The Lake’s annual summer opening to the public. And my grandfather and his siblings did the same for his parents at Knickerbocker Lake.

So, following family tradition, I spent my childhood summers swimming at The Lake, helping Grandpa sell (or, rather, eat) ice cream from the concession stand, raking the beach and picking up trash every day when The Lake closed for business.

But it was my grandmother’s get-it-done-and-quit-yer-whining attitude that organized us all through every family gathering from Fourth of July to Christmas. She was always at the organizational heart of any event, ordering us to paint fences, mow lawns, cut down trees, patch up holes in rowboats, cook food, and how, when and where to do whatever needed doing. And to do it with no complaints. Grandma was a doer, not a talker. And she expected the rest of us to follow suit.

And it was that same get-it-done attitude that also helped my family survive tragedy, like the sudden death of my uncle Walter, my grandparents’ oldest son and my father’s brother. Walter had suffered a head trauma from an accidental fall, which put him in a coma he never woke up from just a few months before his sister Lynda’s wedding at The Lake. And with the family in mourning, everyone doubted whether going ahead with a wedding was really a good idea. But my grandmother drove the family through their grief and out the other side, doling out commands and jobs and nudging anyone who slacked off or wallowed a little too long. Crying wasn’t going to make a wedding happen and, goddamnit, there was work to be done.

Even when Walter’s two sons, Greg and Walter Jr., were suddenly left behind without a father or a home, my grandmother didn’t flinch at the thought of taking the boys in and raising them as her own. It was something that had to be done. Simple as that.

And when one of those kids, Walter Jr., was accidentally shot and killed by a friend messing around with a shotgun, my grandmother cried for the first and only time in front of me. I was seven years old and didn’t fully understand death, but I understood that my family, the pillars around me, were stricken with grief. But the family had the next Fourth of July to gather for, the next Thanksgiving, the next Christmas and the next birthday. Life went on at the lake. It had to.

So, as I sat on my boat in the Dominican Republic, remembering all my grandmother did to hold my family together over the years, I realized what had allowed me to live my life so freely, traveling the world with a backpack and now with a boat.

Without knowing it, my grandmother had been the anchor that secured my family ship to a harbor so safe that we could all take flight in our own way, knowing we always had somewhere safe to return. And she passed on her steel strength and iron-clad self-reliance to her children, urging them to pass those qualities on to their children.

Even towards the end of my grandmother’s life, if ever we tried to worry about her or fuss over her, she would vehemently reject it. Her job was to worry about each of us and support us, even when that support didn’t always come in forms we expected. She believed in tough love, generous actions and thick skin. And she loved us too much to let us worry about her.

So, in a way, as I sit here on my boat, in the midst of the unforgettable journey that is my life, I acknowledge that my life is a gift from my grandmother, passed down to my father and mother, and bestowed upon me.

And I remember how lucky I am to have that gift.

Florida - 1981 - 006

My dad, Grandma and me, building castles in the sand in Florida (1981)

honeymoon in us 056

Me, introducing Ryan to Knickerbocker Lake for the first time after tying the knot (2005)

Party at lake - Carlos 099

Three generations of Hackers, walking together at Knickerbocker Lake (2005)

elsie and walter hacker tasha's wedding

Grandma and Grandpa, dancing at our wedding reception at Knickerbocker Lake (2005)

The Comandante of Luperon, Dominican Republic

As soon as I arrived to Luperon, I discovered why so many cruisers heading towards the Dominican Republic come to Luperon and Luperon only. One word: Bureaucracy.

Entering any port in the D.R. requires a lot of paperwork and sitting around sweating while trying to figure out how to pay the non-English-speaking bureaucrat before you the 411 pesos he is asking for when he has no change for your 500-peso bill.

But then the advantage of clearing in to Luperon, according to my friends who did not clear in to Luperon, is that the chances of being arrested for something bribe-tastic go down significantly. Because the new Luperon Comandante likes cruisers and, presumably, the money cruisers bring to Luperon. Why would he mess with that potential?

But even still, leaving any port in the D.R., unfortunately, requires getting a despacho from immigration, which means you have to go through the customs clear-in process again at the next port. So, it’s not like you can just sail from port to port when you want, like in the Bahamas, with one cruising permit for the whole country. In essence, it’s a royal pain in the ass to move, so cruisers mostly keep their boat in Luperon and travel the country overland until it’s time to depart.

When we arrived to Luperon and after the Navy came to check out our boat in person, I spent two hours making the rounds from office to office, paying one $10 fee after another. And every time I thought I was done, another bureaucrat would appear and say something like, “I’m the officer of Narcotics. Please come to my office…” or “I’m the officer of Agriculture…”

At which point I’d be led to a trailer where a man in sweaty clothes would write down on a scrap piece of paper the same information the last four people had written down: boat name, captain’s name (Yo soy la capitan. Si, mujeres son capitanes in los Estados Unidos…I’m the Captain. Yes, women are captains in the U.S.), boat length, boat weight, registration number, etc. And then he’d ask me for $10 or roughly 400 pesos, which sometimes I’d get a receipt for, and sometimes I wouldn’t.

Despite the annoyance, though, we’d heard the clearing-in process in Luperon was much more friendly since the new, young Comandante had taken over from the old, grumpy guy that cruisers had told us horror stories about. And we were grateful. Because no one likes trouble when arriving to a new country.

But regardless of my “easy” clear-in, I wasn’t looking forward to doing the clearing out with immigration to leave Luperon. And we needed to arrange in advance to get a despacho from immigration to leave after just two weeks there because Ryan’s sister Carina and our two nephews were coming to visit in a few days. So, we were headed for a $1.25/foot dock at the glitzy, touristy Ocean World Marina, just 18 nautical miles around the headland, so we could spend a week with our family.

For that reason, after we returned to Luperon following a short kiteboarding vacation in Cabarete, we went about arranging for our despacho from the Comandante. Which mostly involved asking people when we could arrange for the paperwork to be done and being told to return the following day. And when it finally became the last possible day to get the despacho, we found ourselves waiting for the Comandante in his “office,” which was more like an open-air grass hut on a hill.

After a two-hour wait, the friendly Comandante finally arrived on his motorcycle, wearing jeans and a t-shirt (it was Saturday, after all), and filled out our despacho free-of-charge with wishes for us to return to Luperon soon. And, with documents in hand, we were free to enjoy our last Saturday night in Luperon, as we corralled our newfound friends from our trip to the 27 Charcos, and dragged them out to a local bar, which we’d heard was famous for Dominican dancing and shenanigans.

Unlike the popular Wendy’s Bar and J.R.’s Bistro, though, there wasn’t a single cruiser at the Rancho Tipical. And we were grateful for the Dominican entertainment, for a change. So we sat in the corner with some beers and a bottle of rum, watching Dominicans dance Bachata and Merengue until the Comandante walked in and said to Ryan and I, “Hey! I thought you were leaving in the morning!”

I just held up my drink and nodded enthusiastically. “Don’t worry, Comandante!” I said. “We’ve done this before! We can sail with a hangover!”

luperon dominican republic

The “office” at the top of the hill wasn’t exactly the picture of efficiency…

dominican republic luperon comandante 2013

…though the view wasn’t bad

sailing blog luperon comandante dominican republic

The Comandante Brian and I, posing after I’d received my despacho

Kiteboarding in Cabarete

If there’s anything you should know about me, it’s that I have a passion for throwing myself into extremely expensive sports that require years of practice, tons of gear and very specific geographical conditions to master.

So, imagine my excitement when I discovered that just down the road from where we were in Luperon was one of the world’s Top 10 Kiteboarding (aka Kitesurfing) Spots.

You see, not only is Cabarete home to the most famous kiteboarding beach in the whole of the Caribbean, but it also hosts the World Kiteboarding Championships each year in June. So if there’s anywhere in the Dominican Republic to learn kiteboarding, Cabarete is the place.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t I a little old to start taking up new and complicated sports like kiteboarding? Maybe. But, hell, I figured the last five years have seen me learning to sail, slamming myself into slalom gates on skis, driving my butt into the ice learning to snowboard, swallowing oceans trying to surf, and breaking my collarbones playing roller derby. Why not kiteboarding? It seemed exactly like the kind of sport I could spend an obscene amount of time, energy and money on. So, I was in!

And after a week of hanging out in Wendy’s Bar in Luperon, Ryan, our friend Morgan, and I decided it was time for a change of scenery and a little adrenalin fix. So, we hopped in a taxi to Cabarete and booked ourselves a cheap hotel room overlooking Kite Beach, along with two days of kiteboarding lessons at Kitexcite.

And since there wasn’t much difference in price between group and individual lessons, Ryan and I decided to book our own private instructors so we could accelerate the learning process and hopefully be up and running in the water as soon as possible. After all, we’d had a heads up from Morgan, who was an experienced kiteboarder, that the first day of lessons is mostly spent on land just learning how to control your kite. The second day involves learning to drag your body through the water using your kite. And the third day is when you finally start to get up on your board in the water. So, like snowboarding, you really need a minimum of three days of lessons to get a real feel for the sport.

And, sure enough, the three-day minimum was no lie. I’d hoped I would be up on my board and cruising through the waves like a born surfer chick by the end of Day 2. But it seemed the only thing I was really good at by the end of Day 2 was launching myself into the air while shrieking, then promptly throwing myself head first into the water while my instructor laughed and said clever things like, “You see? You didn’t turn your body enough.” Or “Remember, do a figure eight with your kite, balance your board, then turn. But don’t forget to let go a little, and keep the kite at two o’clock…”

Right. I’d enthusiastically nod my head “yes,” then promptly forget what to do with my feet, hands and shoulders as soon as I was launched into the air by a kite that had a nasty habit of dive-bombing any time I took my eyes off it.

So, it would appear, from our Day 2 performance, that Ryan and I really did need that third day of lessons. Except when we woke up in the morning on Day 3, there was no wind. Nada. Which meant we’d have to postpone Day 3’s lesson in “How to launch yourself in the air with a board on your feet while turning your body, controlling the kite and staying upright when your brain is screaming, holy shit this is crazy!!!”

That lesson would have to wait for another day when we could get ourselves back to Cabarete to continue our adventures in kiteboarding with our amazing instructors from Kitexcite.

So, stay tuned for more lessons from Turf to Surf on How to drag yourself uncontrollably across the ocean while inhaling enough salt water to fill a fish tank…

cabarete kitexcite kiteboarding dominican republic

Whenever there’s wind, hundreds of kites dot the sky over Kite Beach, Cabarete

kitexcite lessons cabarete dominican republic

Kitexcite’s instructors are all certified and highly professional – I had a great experience with them

kitesurfing horseback riding cabarete dr

If you’re not into kiteboarding, you can spend the day touring on horseback

kiteboarding lessons cabarete dominican republic

Day 1: Learning to control and steer your kite on land before bringing it into the water

kitesurfing kiteboarding cabarete dr

Day 2: Yeah, right. In my dreams! I’ll have to come back again so I can get to this.

Photo Essay: 27 Charcos, Damajagua, Dominican Republic

It’s amazing how drastically the demographic of cruisers can change between leaving the Bahamas and arriving to the Dominican Republic.

Cruisers who’ve sailed beyond George Town (aka “Chicken Harbor”) told us this would happen but, even still, we were surprised when we arrived to Luperon to find a harbor full of sailors in their twenties and thirties on small, barely-held-together boats who were willing to go anywhere so long as there was the promise of adventure.

To name a few of the characters we met, there was Ben, Nacho and Kavour, three young guys on a mission to get Ben some boat-delivery experience by sailing a beautiful, yet slowly unraveling, double-ender called Skookum from Florida to St. Thomas free-of-charge, where its owner awaited their arrival…which never came to pass after Skookum limped into Luperon with a rotten-through bowsprit and some structural problems, essentially ending their journey in Luperon.

And there was Alex from Maryland, whose boat had gotten washed off its mooring in Florida several months earlier. When it came to rest on a private dock, the dock owner contacted Alex to claim salvage for the boat. But since the rules of salvage state that a claim can be made for either money or the boat, Alex told the dock owner to keep the boat, and figured he’d washed his hands of the problem. That is, until the local environmental protection agency got in touch and informed Alex that since the owner wanted money, and not the boat, he’d have to come to Florida and deal with the boat.

So Alex quit his job in California and flew to Florida to examine his damaged boat, which turned out, surprisingly, to still be seaworthy. Which prompted Alex to say “What the hell,” board his boat, and sail it south until he reached Luperon, where we met him long after he’d lost his engine.

And, of course, we can’t forget our buddy boat Senara, home to our friend Morgan, a film-set designer from Paris who sailed alongside us all the way from the Bahamas to the D.R.

What do all these characters have in common?

For starters, we all met in Luperon in Wendy’s Bar and agreed to cram ourselves into a taxi one day so we could go out and explore the nearby 27 Charcos, which could be loosely translated as “27 Puddles,” but are probably better described as 27 rivers, rock slides, waterfalls, and cliffs, naturally formed in a rural, Dominican area called Damajagua.

And being excited to meet each other in this unique corner of the world, the motley crew we formed on a day’s outing from Luperon also pub-crawled our way back to town and finished the night with a nine-person party on Hideaway.

And, yes, it is true that we set off for the 27 Charcos in Damajagua with six crazy cruisers in our pack. But we returned to Luperon with nine crazy characters, having picked up a few more on the way.

After all, travel brings you to the world’s most interesting places. But it’s the people you meet that make those places truly memorable.

27 charcos damajagua dominican republic

6 sailors geared up to hike some waterfalls.

damajagua turf to surf sailing blog

It was 25-minute walk up into the hills and over bridges.

27 waterfalls damajagua dominican republic sailing blog

Sliding down rocks and jumping off cliffs got my adrenalin pumping, for sure.

dominican republic 27 charcos sailing blog

The walks through natural canyons to get to the slides and waterfalls were fun, as well.

damajagua waterfall jump dominican republid

As we climbed up to our first jump, I had no idea what I was in for.

27 cascades damajagua dominican republic travel

My brave face, after the scariest jump of my life.

tasha ryan turf to surf sailing blog dominican republic

Some passages required swimming from one point to another.

dominican republic travel 27 waterfalls attraction

The walk down the hill was as beautiful as the walk up.

travel dominican republic blog

“Anyone know the way home?”

dominican republic travel sailing blog

It’s always a good sign when you can see lunch hanging outside the pub.

brugal rum dominican republic

Nothing like a little Dominican rum to help get you home safely…

dominican republic countryside travel blog

It was worth taking the slow route home for the view alone.

imbert dominican republic travel blog

“How far to the next pub?” asks Nacho.

travel blog turf to surf dominican republic

No pubs here…

dominican republic sailing blog travel

“We got rum! We don’t need a pub!”

imbert countryside dominican republic travel

We enjoyed the creekside view, while some boys worked hard to net some dinner.

Time to go: Sailing from the Bahamas to the Caribbean

Our passage to the Caribbean from the Bahamas didn’t work out quite the way we expected.

Unlike most of our passages so far, where we’ve hoped for light winds to make for calm sailing, we found ourselves waiting in Little Inagua, Bahamas for the winds to increase and come from the north so we could unfurl our sails and cut through the prevailing easterlies to sail to the Dominican Republic.

Studying weather forecasts has become a major part of our lives at sea, which means we usually consult at least three online weather sources, a few books and several sailors headed in the same direction to ensure a safe and comfortable journey onwards.

And this trip was no different. Our upcoming passage to the Dominican Republic wouldn’t be nearly as long as the calm, comfortable 240 nautical miles we sailed from Long Island to Little Inagua, but we still carefully studied the weather gribs our friend Morgan downloaded using his satellite phone, while we waited for the right weather window.

And just as we hoped, the grib files showed the winds would turn to the north and give us 10-15 knots on a beam reach only two days after we’d arrived to Little Inagua. Which was lucky, because we weren’t sure at the time we’d arrived how long we’d be stuck on this uninhabited island.

Truth be told, though, it was a little sad preparing to leave the Bahamas after so many great experiences in these beautiful islands. But the time had come to say good-bye and move on to a new chapter in our adventures. You know what they say: “All good things must come to an end.”

So we made our plans to depart Little Inagua just before sunset, when the winds were calm. And once we’d rounded the headland, we’d unfurl our sails just as the winds were forecasted to pick up.

The forecasts were pretty accurate with regards to the first 8 hours of our journey, giving us the 10 knots we were expecting. But by the following morning, we no longer had calm sailing. The wind had kicked up to 25-30 knots, we were doing 7.0 knots under sail with both the main and genoa heavily reefed, and our ETA to Luperon was about 12 hours earlier than we’d planned.

We’d read in Bruce Van Sant’s Passages South that Luperon’s entrance is dotted with shoals and reefs and therefore we should avoid coming in at night, so we were trying as hard as we could to slow down and arrive in daylight, so we’d have good visual on any obstacles in the harbor.

But the winds continued to build, causing our auto-pilot to creak under the stress while our boat was permanently tilted at a 35-degree angle, and Celia, the more squeamish of our two cats, wailed loudly as she searched for a calm place to hide from the chaos.

And that’s when things started to go wrong on both Senara and Hideaway. First, Morgan’s auto-pilot belt broke, forcing him to hand-steer for the rest of the journey, then our own Raymarine auto-pilot gave up on us, flashing a message that read “drive stopped,” and then, later, “current limit,” after which it shut down completely. Even with two of us on board, Ryan and I were exhausted doing heavy-handed two-hour watches through the night, so I felt really sorry for Morgan, who was single-handing without an auto-pilot and getting very little sleep.

I guess you have to be careful what you wish for. It’s true, we wanted strong winds…and we got it.

But, then, one advantage of going so fast was that we arrived to Luperon about 5 hours early. Which meant, after 30 exhausting hours at sea, both Hideaway and Senara could heave-to outside Luperon harbor until sunrise and get some much needed sleep before our arrival.

And, boy, when the sun rose overhead, were we ecstatic! Tired, but ecstatic. It was clear we had arrived somewhere new. The barren, white-sand miniature islands of the Bahamas had been replaced by green mountains and lush forests in the distance on an island so large it would require months of overland travel to fully explore.

And it would seem, upon coming to shore to check in with immigration, that our cruising life had intersected with backpackers’ territory. Which felt altogether familiar and exciting. I was thrilled to be in a Spanish-speaking country again, and a place I could sink my teeth into. There were gritty, Dominican towns offering cheap food, excellent beer, friendly locals and the kind of rough-around-the-edges travel that I remember from my days running around South America.

We’ve arrived to the start of a brand-new adventure… and with Bachata and Reggaeton playing in the background, it seems we also had a soundtrack to this new chapter.

Bienvenido a la Republica Dominicana!

bahamas seashells hideaway sailing blog

Little Inagua’s beaches, not yet picked clean by tourists, were teeming with sea treasures.

senara sunset bahamas sailing blog

Captain Morgan’s boat, Senara, getting ready to depart before the sun goes down.

bahamas sunset hideaway sailing blog

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight?

sailing with cats turf to surf

In rough conditions, both the cats and the crew prefer to sleep in the salon.

dominican courtesy flag sailing blog

Having checked into Luperon, it’s time to lower the quarantine flag and raise the Dominican flag!

dominican republic flag luperon sailing blog

We made it to the Dominican Republic!

Weather, SSB and the 21st Century

We’re lucky that our French buddy boat, Senara, wanted to travel with us from the Bahamas to the Dominican Republic for a few reasons; (1) Captain Morgan was great company, and (2) he had a satellite phone.

And if it weren’t for Morgan’s sat-phone, we wouldn’t have had any access to weather reports in Little Inagua, where we waited for the right weather window for our crossing to the Dominican Republic.

Throughout the U.S. and the Bahamas, we’d had regular access to weather information via the internet and sources like PassageWeather.com, Zygrib, Pocket Grib and Wunderground.com, to name a few of our favorites. Mostly, though, we’ve preferred to download weather gribs using Zygrib on the computer, or Pocket Grib on the iPad because (1) we can update the reports any time we want, granted there’s internet, (2) we get fairly accurate forecasts for up to five days, (3) we can study the gribs offline, and (4) they don’t require a degree in meteorology to read.

But in the back of our minds, we knew we’d find ourselves in a situation eventually where we’d need to get weather forecasts and couldn’t get internet access. We just didn’t know what the best tool would be to have in those situations.

Most cruisers have recommended that we buy a single-sideband (SSB) receiver, which costs about $100 and would supposedly give us weather forecasts anywhere in the world, as long as we are tuned into the right frequency at the right time. And, being susceptible to peer pressure, we followed their advice. But in all honesty, with the technological advances of the last few decades, we couldn’t understand how the SSB hadn’t become obsolete. After all, GPS had so quickly become an essential household tool, existing in phones, watches and computers. So, surely, in the years since World War I, someone must have developed something more advanced than the SSB?

It turns out, they had. It’s called a satellite phone. And yet the SSB lingers on as an old-school necessity. For some reason, cruisers cling to the SSB the way my father clung to the vision of Beta-Max video players, long after the rest of the world had converted to VHS. Gosh-darned-it, he’d spent good money on that Beta-Max, so as long as we had “Karate Kid” and “Back to the Future” on Beta-Max tapes, I would watch those movies until someone either invented DVDs, or I left home. Whichever came first. End of discussion.

But unlike our Beta-Max machine when I was a kid, our SSB has never actually worked, though we persisted in trying to get Chris Parker’s weather reports in every port from New York to Nassau. And all we got was something that sounded like muffled Morse code transmitted from the moon.

A couple we met in Nassau even tried to help us out by using their SSB transceiver to transmit to our radio from just two boat lengths away. But all we heard was, “Bzzzz wah WAH wah WAAAHHHH bzzzzzz.”

I was so determined to make it work, though, that I threw out our first SSB and bought a second one after reading the Amazon.com reviews for the Kaito KA1103 SSB receiver. According to the reviews, “even ham radio operators love it.”

But ham radio operators must have some kind of secret decoder to understand transmissions like, “ssshhhh northwest ssshhh Sunday bzzzzzz front ssshhh west at bzzzz knots.” Because it didn’t matter if we ran the antenna up our mast, if we stood on the bow pointing our radio at the sky, or if we smacked the SSB on the deck whilst cursing 20th century technology like SSBs and fax machines, wondering why they refused to die like their relatives, the cassette tape and the rotary phone.

It was clear the only thing our SSB was good for was raising our blood pressure at 6:30 in the morning, the ridiculous hour at which Chris Parker supposedly transmits forecasts…though we wouldn’t know for sure, since we’ve never heard him.

Our SSB-certified friends in Nassau encouraged us to keep trying, though, arguing that no cruiser should travel without an SSB. “We heard this story once…” the wife said. “…About a captain who’d had a stroke on his boat off the coast of Mexico. His wife used the SSB to ask for help on the net and a ham radio operator in Vancouver picked it up and got them the number of a doctor in Mexico. The SSB saved his life,” she said earnestly.

But, all I could think was, “What, do we live in the age of telegrams? If that woman had had a sat-phone, she wouldn’t have had to bounce some message off the atmosphere hoping that someone on the other side of the world might hear it in the middle of night and help her. She could’ve just Googled a doctor and called him. Right from her sat phone. Pronto.”

But what about the cost, you ask? It’s true, satellite phones aren’t cheap at $1500 new with an additional $750 for a year’s worth of minutes. But it both receives and transmits, whereas an SSB receiver only receives. If you want an SSB transceiver (which can transmit and receive), it’ll cost around $4,000 including the installation and a boat-specific set-up, not to mention that you need special certification just to use your transceiver.

So when Morgan showed us his Iridium satellite phone, which he uses to make phone calls and download weather grib files in a matter of seconds anywhere in the world, whenever he wants, we nearly fed our SSB to the sharks on the spot. And we decided to look into getting a sat-phone for ourselves.

After all, a sat-phone isn’t fixed to a particular boat; you can take it with you backpacking, fishing or onto your next boat. Plus, it’s portable and it’s from the 21st century.

What more could you ask for?

iridium-satellite-phone-9555

Portable Iridium 9555 satellite phone, which can be used for phone calls, internet, downloading weather files, updating your blog, etc., with no installation, for about $1500.

Icom MC710 SSB

*For more info on price comparisons, www.macsailing.net posted this helpful info in 2010. It appears the prices haven’t changed much since then.