Shirley’s farewell post: My Central American land & sea adventures

In the previous Ariose Note, I shared how my intended sailing adventure off the coast of Central America was superseded by a different sort of life voyage, my mother’s passing. And then, less than 2 months later, I found myself travelling from Canada once again, on a deja-vu flight, this time to Honduras’ Bay of Islands. I was resuming my stint crewing with Mary, a solo sailor who was moving her boat to Guatemala.

I stepped off the plane into the thickness of the hot, humid Roatan air, made my way through customs’ photo and fingerprinting, and had a cab deliver me to the yacht club. I arrived just in time to be greeted by an open-armed captain as she climbed the stairs from the dock. After a poolside cool-down and relaxing catch-up, we headed out to Glass Slipper waiting at anchor a short dinghy row away.

[as usual, just click on thumbnail images if you’d like to view the larger photos]

OK, I said as I pulled myself up on the deck, Let’s try this again.

I settled back aboard Glass Slipper, and the next morning, we motored around a peninsula, escaping the fishing trawlers and inevitable debris from the town, to anchor where we could swim. How lovely to be back in warm salt water. Armed with scrubby pads and metal scrapers, we tackled the bottom which was starting to grow a living carpet, and pried off the barnacles that had decided to call the propeller home.

Mary’s intent to stretch out our anticipated one-week sail into several weeks, had evaporated. We had talked about staying a few days at each stop along the way, to have a leisurely time with lots of snorkelling and shore exploration en route to the Rio Dulce, our destination. We would leave the motor off and sail even if the winds were light as we wouldn’t be in a hurry. But Mary had been underway for 1/2 a year, and was feeling exhausted. The image of gentle sails and a tranquil life aboard is a false one for the majority of time cruising, and especially when solo. Mary felt she would only be able to relax once Glass Slipper was secure in a safe harbour where it would remain for the nearing hurricane season.

So we did move on each day, and if conditions weren’t ideal, we relied on the “iron sail” (i.e. the motor) to propel us. It was still a very pleasant week. A pleasant, albeit scorching, week.

It was so hot. Most days reached a humid mid-40s. It was the kind of heat that the relief of a “cooling” dip in the luke-warm sea was forgotten by the time I climbed back into the cockpit. It was the kind of heat that transfers litres of consumed water to a steady drip of sweat from chin and nose-tip … a very attractive look! It was the kind of heat that blocks solid sleep, but propping a fan a foot away from my face allowed catnaps. We rose before dawn every day to weigh anchor and get underway before the sun began to bake us again.

We made our way to Roatan’s West End, and the incredible reef that is its claim to fame in the diving world. The 3 main Bay Islands, a few smaller islands and over 50 cays form an archipelago along our earth’s 2nd largest barrier reef. I had sailed and snorkelled the largest, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, nearly 40 years ago, and still easily summon up those feelings of awe. It’s been 6 years since I’ve been in tropical waters, when Tim and I snorkelled almost daily during our 4 months in the Bahamas. I was so excited to be about to immerse myself in that magical underworld again. We slipped through the narrow marked channel and took a mooring ball. Less than a 10 minute swim, towing Mary’s kayak to be sure we were visible to the boats zipping around, brought us to an underwater wonderland.

There was gorgeous vibrant coral in blues, greens, a touch of reds and purples too – and sadly, much dead coral as well. Plentiful and varied fish ignored us as they went about their business. Once back aboard, a quick google refreshed my memory as what we had seen: lots of sargeant majors, varied parrotfish, butterflyfish, groupers, and comical trumpetfish, standing on their heads. Marvellous memories from past snorkelling merged with these new ones, clouded by the sombre recognition of what’s been lost. I don’t think its a matter of memory enhancement; this underwater world and the one I experienced in the Bahamas, although incredible, do not come close to the vibrancy, variety and density of life that I got to witness decades ago. The oceans are dying. Even so, I could have just hovered above the show forever. Mary agreed to delay the next morning’s departure so that I could visit one more time.

From there we headed to Utila, another of Hondura’s Bay Islands, where we strolled the main street and grabbed food at a roadside stand. We easily found immigration and adjacent, the conveniently located harbour master, and joined the queue of cruisers also checking out of the country. It’s always interesting to chat and hear about others’ journeys and plans. Lots of interesting folks out here.

Mary’s excitement to be on this, the final sail of the season, was palpable. Once we checked into Guatemala, we would be motoring up river. She had had enough of sailing. Now, the “can’t wait for this to be over” narrative was replaced by an non-stop Ed Sheeran playlist with the captain showing off her dance moves at the helm! 😉

An uneventful overnight sail (and that’s good!) sharing 3-ish hour shifts, brought us into Guatemalan waters. I’ve shared before the magic of being at sea in the inky-black night, infinite stars overhead. So sacred. My mother’s spirit felt close. The next day, we made our way along the coast in, according to Mary, the best sailing conditions she had had since first weighing anchor in Panama 6 months previously. A lovely day.

We ate well!

By late afternoon on the 2nd day, good depths and no reefs meant we could to stay close to the coastline. Such lush vegetation. The vastness of the ocean is magnificent, but I do prefer the closer vantage of coastal cruising.

Sunset, at anchor on the Rio Dulce

For me, one of the life lessons that sailing has reinforced on every voyage is that change is the only constant. Out near-perfect leg of this passage tended on the east side of Amatique Bay, Guatemala, with a tense after-dark anchoring. Our only chart was an electronic version on Mary’s phone. That phone was thought to be charging (but wasn’t). It died at the most inopportune time as dark descended and we were heading toward shore to drop hook. Stressful, but we did manage to securely anchor, and then, to decompress.

The next day, a short motor to the other side of the bay, narrowly making it across the shallow bar at the river mouth, brought us to Livingston, where we checked in. Then, we motored up the aptly-named Rio Dulce. The “sweet river” winds through a spectacular canyon with jungle-lined limestone walls, then past thatch homes and villages along the less steep parts of the river and lake widenings. What an ideal inland shelter from hurricanes that may assault the coast.

During the week’s voyage to get here, we had a few adrenaline moments: A dose of panic triggered by a reaction to an unidentified insect, confusion interpreting the direction of a freighter, and a jib furler sticking just as winds were building and we needed to reduce sail. We also narrowly avoided grounding when the fogginess of a sun-damaged depth sounder hid a crucial decimal point. The captain thought we had 35 feet under the keel, when it was actually 3 point 5 feet of water. This is all the stuff of sailing. With Tim and I getting ourselves into so many tricky situations, I realize I have become good at remaining calm, and find the demands of quick problem solving rewarding. Mary has far more training and live-aboard experience than I do, but spent long periods stationary, and usually only moves on in ideal conditions. That’s wise, especially considering her daughter was with her for many of those years. It has also meant fewer “learning” opportunities for dealing with those more tense situations.

Hitch-hikers onboard!

Two days after entering the Rio Dulce, we pulled into Catamaran Island Marina, Glass Slipper’s home for the next 5 months. Mary was delighted to arrive. I kept my disappointment that this sailing adventure was over so quickly to myself. The marina, tucked into mangroves with gorgeous landscaped grounds housing cabins, pool, restaurant, and free lanchas shuttling patrons across the water to Rio Dulce, the town… it was perfect. I stayed a few days, lending a hand with boat tasks, and enjoying the camaraderie of the community of cruisers there.

One morning, Steve, dockmaster and full-time Good Samaritan, initiated a work party. I was happy to join, lending my newly acquired carpentry skills to refurbishing desks for a local school. It was a fun time, working alongside other cruisers in a productive assembly line. We cut plywood into desk tops, seats, and backs, then rounded, routered, sanded, and varnished them. The next week, Steve would deliver it all to the school, where the kids would assemble them on newly painted metal frames. The heat wasn’t even an issue. After a cold northern Ontario winter constructing my little cabin, I discovered that I actually prefer +37 to -37 degrees Celcius for that kind of work. 

A few days later, Mary and I said our goodbyes. We had different personalities, some different approaches , and different priorities, but I so appreciated this opportunity she gifted me, and I hope I eased the stress she felt in moving her vessel. Would I crew on another’s boat again? Most certainly!

Yes, I would certainly “hop” on a sailboat again.

I decided to continue my Guatemalan adventure. I’ve long wanted to improve my patchy Spanish. My mother’s first language was Spanish, and I had mentioned this possibility to her prior to her death. She was so excited at the prospect of being able to chat in Spanish on our daily calls. Sadly, we won’t have that opportunity. The Lago Atitlan region in central Guatemala has developed a tourism niche offering classes, so I enrolled for a week with the Orbita school in San Pedro La Laguna. I set off on the 10-hour drive into the mountains in the heart of the country. Higher elevation = cooler temps. Mid 20s, and short bursts of daily rain were invigorating. So refreshing! I had energy once again.

This volcano-lined lake hosts about a dozen unique Mayan towns. What colour! The dress, the street art, the markets: Uplifting! Just wandering these streets brings on a smile. The gatos and perros, however, seemed unimpressed.

The Indigenous people have maintained their vibrant culture in this area despite not only centuries of colonization, but attempts at genocide (known as the Silent Holocaust) by successive US-backed Guatemalan governments between the 1960s and 90s. A horrific history.

Each morning, I hunkered down to one-to-one tutoring. The effort was eased slightly by being in an open-air classroom with the most spectacular view. Que hermosa!

I was shocked at how difficult it was to retain what I was taught. I wanted to explain to Fabiola, my patient maestra, as I asked her to repeat that verb conjugation for the 4th time, that really, I was a relatively bright person. Unfortunately, my limited vocabulary didn’t permit me to rescue my ego. I could feel my cerebral matter straining. Maybe the heat had melted some circuits? Or maybe menopause is to blame? By the end of most mornings, I’m not sure I could have even summoned up my name if asked. I longed for my younger brain that could cram for an exam and spit out rote learning with ease.

How I felt by the end of each days’ lesson!

After one week, I was just beginning to feel like I was making some progress – or rather, wasn’t fully burnt-out by the end of our 4 hours, so I extended by another week.

I lodged for those 2 weeks, along with 4-5 other housemates from around the world, with a family that provided room and board to students. I really enjoyed staying with “my” 3-generation Mayan family.

Their first language is Tz’utujil, one of the 20+ indigenous languages in the area. Spanish was learned in school, so with their relatively clear and slow 2nd-language speech, we were able to manage some conversation at mealtimes. For the most part, we could figure out what we were trying to share, although we were often forced to invite google to join, and at times, just threw up our hands and laughed together at the ridiculous communication break-downs.

For those 2 weeks in San Pedro la Laguna, I was immersed in a social circle of mainly 20-to-30 year old backpackers. Attending festivals, taking a Mayan cooking class, pre-dawn summiting an extinct volcano (by the light of our phones!) to catch a breath-taking sunrise … I had a great time.

I’ve heard that hanging out with people younger than oneself can help you stay youthful. Heading out for a beer together after attending a soccer game, with my beer acually being tea, and still, by 8:30, finding myself abandoning the others at the bar to flag down a Tuk-tuk to scoot me home for 9 pm bedtime because there were classes the next day… well… youthful is not how I felt!! Nevertheless, I had fun.

Then, it was off to Antigua, for a bit of touristing. It’s a remarkable city. Once the Spanish colonized these lands, they made it the capital of Guatemala (1500s to 1700s). Multiple earthquakes lead to the decision to move the political and economic centre to more stable ground, at the present location of Guatemala City.

I enjoyed hours wandering the cobblestone streets, getting lost, then suddenly turning a corner to find myself in a familiar park or at a building I recognized. Found! I – someone with no sense of rhythm – was talked into stepping out of my comfort zone to take a salsa dance class. Annette, one of my San Pedro house-mates who was also in Antigua did the convincing. Uno-dos-tres, shuffle-stumble-recover! By the end of the evening, if I was paired with the instructor who was able to puppet-master coordinate me, I felt like I got it!

The most memorable highlight for me of my few days in Antigua was a guided summit of Pacaya, an active volcano. As we climbed, we had a view of a neighbouring peak, Fuego, which sent out the poofs of small eruptions every 15 minutes or so. Near the peak, we paused to take in the lava fields which had transformed the surroundings. Awesome is such an over-used word, but I have no other to describe the sight. And as if we needed further testimony to nature’s force, the guides cleared a shallow hole in the hot rock. Roasted marshmallows for all!

After having been away for a little over a month, a month of such varied and rich experiences, I felt well nourished. I was ready to head back home. Back to real life.

So what does that look like?

Real life has been working with my brothers in dealing with the final details of my mother’s estate. It’s been a fabulous week-long canoe trip with dear friends.

It’s been getting back to the finishing touches in my tiny cabin’s construction (and healing from an unfortunate finger-chopsaw encounter). And for Tim and me, it’s also been planning our individual lives’ next chapters.

Life does bring strange twists. Years ago, I introduced Tim to sailing, to the possibilities of live-aboard, long-term cruising. Tim introduced me to the possibilities of a kinder-to-the-planet, off-grid land living.

Now, the tables are turned.

I look forward to settling into life in my new home. I’m considering building something larger in the future – maybe as grand as 4 or 5 times the size of my current 80 square foot space! 😉 I’d love to take on the challenge of creating a home using natural materials, making it as healthy and sustainable as possible. Or maybe other opportunities will present, and I’ll seize them. We’ll see.

The thought of stepping into a void without a solid plan, not knowing what shape the future might take, used to terrify me. I’ve since realized I never knew what lay ahead; it was an illusion. For the short term, though, I’m looking forward to a winter of rejuvenating hibernation.

And Tim? He has just reunited with Ariose near Lunenberg, Nova Scotia. He is going to try out solo sailing. As mentioned in previous Ariose Notes, if all goes well, he will assume ownership of Ariose, and consider sailing to more distant horizons. I am confident they will take good care of each other.

It won’t be easy to part with Ariose. I never thought I could feel such attachment to something inanimate. Ariose has been much more than a boat. For Tim and me, our beloved Alberg 30 has been a central part of our lives for much of the past decade. This boat was the focus of a great deal of thinking and learning and consumed heaps of hours’ labour (not to mention making a significant dent in my savings). Who knew that the mental health program manager had it in her to become moderately proficient at fibreglass work, cabin carpentry, sewing canvas, boat painting, and so much more. And through our many miles at sea, and some rather hard lessons, our sailing-related skills matured. Ariose was our transportation and home from which we adventured. Ariose allowed us to realize life-long dreams and sparked new ones. I have memories to treasure. I’m so grateful.

Everything ends – from adventures to the lives of people we care about. As this chapter closes for me, I look forward to whatever is next.

So now, I’m disembarking from Ariose Notes, “our” blog. I’ve enjoyed sharing, and the connections forged with those of you who have been aboard virtually have been special. Ariose Notes will now transition to “Tim’s” blog, a record of adventures from his unique perspective.

Tim – I wish you fair winds and favourable conditions, at sea, and in life.

3 thoughts on “Shirley’s farewell post: My Central American land & sea adventures”

  1. Hello Shirley
    For some reason I found this latest sailing voyage in my junk box. So glad I checked.
    Such a great adventure. Makes someone feel we’re with you on this sailing voyage.
    Do keep in touch and let me know where you will settle down so I can visit.

    1. Hi Rose. Nice to hear from you! Our blog had been hacked is what lead, so I suspect the obvious spam messages coming from this site lead to this post going to “junk”. I will let you know next time I’m in your neighbourhood – would be nice to get together to catch up. And if you are ever in north Bay and have a bit of time to spare and would like to drop by, let me know (my email & cell haven’t changed).

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