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Friday, April 30, 2010

Key West Songwriters Festival

When Yann and I arrived in Miami on Tuesday morning, we spent a few hours online and on the phone taking care of administrative details while we waited for Steve to arrive from Nassau. He got in around 3:00 and we all piled into a cab to Billy Bob's Storage about 30 minutes north of Miami. Awaiting us in the storage facility was Steve's partner's 1988 Grand National: our ride down to Key West.

I'll be honest, I'm a girl and not really into cars. I didn't even know what a Grand National was. Hopefully, Yann will post something about this separately, since I know I'm not giving it the awesomeness I'm told it deserves. I also don't get why I had to post this very unflattering photo of myself laying on the hood. But I'm just going along with it. :)

The ride down was pretty and fairly uneventful. We made it in about 3-1/2 hours. Once we checked into our hotels and got cleaned up, we headed out to meet up with Kylie and her crew. At that point, they were well ahead of us and after dinner, shots were in order. We joined them for a few hours, but since Yann and I had been up since 4:30 AM, we called it quits just after midnight. I think most everyone else made it to closing and beyond.

Wednesday was gorgeous and relaxing. After our sandwiches at the vegan deli (we were seriously vegetable-deprived in DR and were so excited not to eat anything fried), we met Kylie and Steve at the pool at the Mango Tree Inn where they are staying. It may be my favorite pool ever--totally surrounded by trees and orchids. We had the area to ourselves and just chilled out and drank a few beers. Around 2:30, Kylie headed in for a nap before her performance that night. Yann and Steve went out to meet some people and I moved over to our pool to read.

As an aside, I think I expected more beach in Key West...I mean it is an island afterall. However, so far my experience is that it is far more of a pool and party town. Kind of like New Orleans in a sub-tropical setting. Or maybe I've already gotten spoiled in the short couple of weeks in the Caribbean!

A few hours later, we got cleaned up and headed out for a night of music. It was an absolute blast. Kylie played around 9:00 with two other guys. Awesome! Later that evening, Dr. Scott joined us and Robin made it in yesterday afternoon.

Yesterday was more sun and more music (including the lovely Courtney Jaye before dinner at Louie's Backyard), as I suspect today and the weekend will be as well. We are having a great time, but I suspect our livers are anxiously awaiting Monday!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Stranded in DR

This was actually my second trip to DR, and by no fault of the country or its people, it was also the second time I found myself filled with anxiety and a strong desire to get out of there as quickly as possible. During my first trip, my brother had fallen victim to an unknown food allergy which left him in a state of semi-paralysis until we finally got him to an emergency clinic to treat the anaphylactic shock. After several frightening hours he slowly began stabilizing and ended up being just fine in the end. Needless to say, negotiating through a medical emergency on survival Spanish was plenty enough stress to make me very happy to be back home and know my brother could clearly articulate what had happened to his own doctor.

Bearing this initial departure in mind, I found it rather disturbing when we arrived at the airport on Monday afternoon only to find out that our flight had been canceled due to weather in Miami (perhaps the bag handler slowly running this finger in a slit-throat motion while saying "American to Miami" should have tipped us off). So it was that the nasty weather system that wreaked such havoc in my home state of Mississippi last Saturday and was now sitting over Miami creating violent thunderstorms and 55mph gusts--understandably, not weather for flying.

The airline clerk provided us with the official version of this disappointing news and dipped her head back down to her terminal to begin determining our options. Catherine and I looked at each other with disappointed eyes which understood the longing for our king size bed on South Beach and dinner plans of stone crab coupled with sauvignon blanc. We took a deep breath and tried to remind ourselves that it is called "Adventure" for a reason.

Our clerk proceeded to inform us that the flight leaving Tuesday from Puerto Plata was sold out, but that there was still room if we wanted to stay two more nights and leave on Wednesday. When inquiring about Santiago, we discovered the same problem. With that our clerk looked up with a smile and said that we could make it to Miami on Tuesday if we wanted to leave from Santo Domingo which had four flights a day. There was just one small detail to figure out--it was a 3.5 hour drive across the country! We quickly weighed our options and decided our only option to make it to Key West on time would be to book the flight departing Santo Domingo the next morning and just figure out a way to get ourselves across the island.

Fortunately our taxi driver had paid more attention to the bag handler's earlier gesture and decided to wait around until we knew what we were doing. After some haggling and pricing out our options with the rental car company, we opted to pay the $30 premium charge to have our taxi driver deliver us to Santo Domingo and find us a hotel near the airport.

The drive across DR was an interesting tour of both the country side and the local inhabitants driving culture. As for the latter, we were both extremely pleased that it appears to be an internationally accepted good idea to get out of the way of things bigger than you (everything else is fair game to test the opposing drivers nerves).

We eventually made it to Santo Domingo around 6:00pm at which point our taxi's rear tire exploded a block from the hotel. We really did feel bad about this but were also very glad it happened when it did--it had been a long day for us, too. Our driver seemed optimistic about getting his tire repaired and returning to Puerto Plata that evening so we bid one another farewell and checked into the hotel he had identified for us.

Hotel Tropicana sits on the Las Americas expressway just outside of downtown Santo Domingo. As we approached the hotel's lobby Catherine asked, "Is this place open?" The lobby had been completely cleared and the floors were covered in mud created by sawing ceramic tiles. Contrary to its appearance, a kind young gentleman appeared at the front counter and greeted us warmly in English. We were provided with a room for the evening as long as we could pay cash which required paying one of the hotel workers $200RD for a ride to the ATM. When we got back from our run to get more cash we found the room to our door open with three guys inside working on our 13" CRT television. While slightly weirded out, we tried to play it cool and told them to take their time. We decided our best recourse would be to hunker down by the pool and procure some Presidente. Service at the pool made us realize that we needed to be cracked out of our "western shells" and start embracing that with each culture comes its own expectations/standards for service.

It was a loud and somewhat awkward evening of voices outside our room (and perhaps a chicken or two) but we managed to catch a few hours of sleep before our early wake up call at 4:30am. As promised, our taxi driver was waiting patiently in the lobby, on time, and ready to deliver us to Santo Domingo International. Luckily we arrived with ample time to fill out our multiple immigration forms (which Catherine has assumed as one of her duties) and made it to our gate on time.

Perhaps "stranded" is a bit strong since we did manage to make it to Miami a day later, albeit a few dollars shorter. All is well though, this morning we awoke well rested after a full night sleep in a big bed and the beautiful Key West sunshine streaming in through our windows. Now it's time for sunshine, great music, and an unhealthy dose of partying!

Stay tuned for an update on burning rubber in the Grand National between Miami and Key West!


Monday, April 26, 2010

Seasickness (or why I am not fluent in Spanish)

I claimed that I'd be fluent in Spanish by the time we got here. I mean, I knew I wouldn't be fluent, but I'd definitely envisioned spending 4+ hours per day on the boat working with the Rosetta Stone. And I thought I'd be happily chattering away with waiters using some super-gringofied Spanglish.

As it was, the weather was kind of miserable when we left Harbour Island last Sunday. There was a period where we had 6-8' seas and I was the most uncomfortable I'd ever been on a boat. Monday was much better, but I was nervous and took some Dramamine. That put me in a coma for about six hours. Tuesday was the first awesome day and I did complete two lessons, but being on my laptop required me to leave the deck and hang out in the salon. On Wednesday, the weather was gorgeous, the water was gorgeous, and I was actually able to READ on the deck. There was no way I was spending the day inside. (Especially since I was reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is a GREAT book if you haven't already read it) Ditto on Thursday.

Yann and I are starting to realize that we need to impose a little bit of structure to our days. It's only been two weeks since I left work and I think a bit of relaxing was necessary to downshift into a different lifestyle. However, I know that I don't want to spend the next year on perma-vacation. Since we're unproductive members of society at the moment, we're going to have to figure out how to inject some discipline into this project. Stay tuned for how that manifests itself!

Leaving DR

Since Yann's last post, we had a gorgeous trip from Provo to Ambergris Cay, the site of last Wednesday night's anchoring. I have never seen water so clear. At some point, Ross or Yann mentioned that it was like snorkeling without having to get wet.

Once we anchored (and by we, I mean Yann and Ross), the guys lowered the tender into the water, we grabbed our masks and snorkels and zipped around a bit until we found some interesting looking coral heads. I'll go ahead and put it out there, at this point, I'd never snorkeled before. I got into the water and felt panicky enough in the current and not really being able to use my snorkel, that I got back into the tender pretty quickly. Yann said it was one of the prettiest reefs he'd ever seen--not because it was so colorful and spectacular, but because it was so old and unspoiled. We then found an area with less current and, this time, I managed to snorkel--awesome! I'm really looking forward to doing so again.

After we'd had enough of the water, we figured we'd motor around the island. Sounded like a quick and easy enough jaunt, but no one had anticipated the amount of reef circling the island just barely under the surface. Major props to Ross for navigating the underwater maze in the early evening sun and returning us to Hammerhead with the tender intact.

For dinner that night: mahi mahi caught the day before and oh my goodness was it awesome! We were missing some essential grill part, so we did them on the stove, but it was definitely the best fish ever.

The next day we arrived at Ocean World Marina in Puerto Plata. We cleaned up the boat a bit and Yann and I settled into the apartment where we'd stay for the next four nights. The next four days were super relaxing. Yann and I hired a driver one afternoon and saw the sights in Puerto Plata and we had some serious beach time. We also sampled the local restaurants, had some awesome fish and the best ceviche ever. And a lot of Presidente.

So not only is Ocean World a marina, but there is also a casino and "adventure park". One of Ross' friends had arranged for us to see the show at the casino on Friday night. It was spectacular--they call it Las Vegas style, but I believe that Vegas actually stole this style from the Caribbean. Anyway, it was really fun: full of feathers and sequins and scantily clad women...what's not to like? And the men had some *fancy* outfits. (Guy, we wanted to bring one back for you, but we just didn't have the room for all of the sequins and tulle)

Then yesterday, Kim had arranged shark/stingray and sea lion encounters for us in the adventure park. I'll admit I was a little skittish about swimming with the sharks and stingrays, but the sea lions were soooo cute. That was a really great afternoon--thanks, Kim!

Now for the cool part. Yann and I left our apartment last night for dinner and noticed that an ENORMOUS sailboat had pulled into the marina. We gawked for a few minutes and then walked on to dinner. About halfway through delicious grilled grouper overlooking the ocean, a bunch of guys walked out onto the deck and settled down at the bar. We decided they definitely looked like the crew of the huge sailboat. Once we finished our dinner, we ordered a couple more beers and made our way to the bar. I interrupted their conversation and it turned out that they were, in fact, the captain and crew aboard Symmetry, a 100ish-foot Cookson. They had arrived from St. Maarten and were headed on to Ft. Lauderdale. We had a lot of fun talking to them and managed to score an invite to check out the boat this morning before we leave. Hopefully, they'll still be up for it in the sober light of day! So we're off to do that and then we're leaving for the airport to fly to Miami!

I'll try not to let so much time lapse between blog entries...I recognize this was a kind of long and boring one. :)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Update: Delivery to DR

We made it to Harbour Island on Sunday around 10:30am and were greeted by the owner who took us back by golf cart to the boat. We got settled into the boat and Ross proceeded to spend an hour or so going over the boat systems and my duties as mate. After looking at the weather report our good captain decided to take advantage of of a weather window and begin our journey south that afternoon instead of leaving Monday morning. We grabbed a bite to eat in town (delicious Wahoo sandwiches and salads) and then returned back to Hammerhead to set off on our journey.

It was overcast and rainy when we left the dock and headed over to fuel up the boat before taking off. Almost 500 gallons of diesel later, we were ready to make our way off of Harbour Island and start our five day journey in a persistent rain and light wind. By the time we made it to the ocean, winds had picked up over 10 knots and it felt downright cold. Luckily we had brought rain jackets and were afforded the luxury of an enclosed cockpit. We motored for about 8 hours until we came to the south end of Cat Island where we dropped anchor, made a quick sandwich, and all retired to our bunks for a solid nights sleep.

The next morning we woke up to the beautiful scenery of the southern Bahamas, made some tea, and lifted anchor around 7am. It was warmer on Monday and the seas a bit smoother but the sky continued to be overcast. We stopped for gas at the Flying Fish Marina at Clarence Town, Long Island just before lunch for a fill up and some fishing lures. After our stop and a quick lunch Catherine decided to try some Dramamine to help ease the woes of the rolling sea and managed to catch up on a lot of lost sleep. :) We continued south and spent the night in Atwood Harbour at Acklins Island. After setting anchor, Catherine and I jumped off the stern of boat and swam about a hundred yards to a beautiful uninhabited beach. The sunrise the next morning was beautiful as you can see above.

We pulled anchor at 7am and headed south for our next stop at Turks and Caicos. Weather conditions were very nice and we got in some smooth boating and great sun bathing. Less than 30 minutes from our destination, Ross exclaims, "I feel like catching a fish!" I ran to the transom and dropped our line in the water and he trolled past a huge patch of sea grass. Needless to say our efforts were well rewarded!

The boat is now clean, the fish filleted, and we are showered up--time to go find a beer on this island!


Friday, April 16, 2010

Bonus Trip: Dominican Republic

On the night before we left for Nassau, I received a call from Steve and Ross with some bad/good news regarding our trip. The alleged bad news was that the sailboat was still sitting in the sling at the boatyard awaiting additional paint and work. It would be sailable before we left the Bahamas; however, there would be no sailing immediately upon our arrival. In addition, weather forecasts for the weekend were not looking to good (highs only in the 70’s and strong winds ) which made the prospect of any water sports unlikely.

The good news was that Ross had to deliver a 58’ Hatteras motor yahct from Harbor Island (Bahamas) down to the Domincan Republic and was in need of a mate. I was offered the job which included airfare back to Nassau and a salary which would be enough to cover Catherine’s flight back with me. The trip would take about 5 days and include passage through the beautiful southern Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and ultimately Dominican Republic.

I got off the phone and relayed this offer to Catherine as we continued putting together a meal of jerked chicken for Fred and Debbie. It didn’t take long for us both to decide we were definitely up for this bonus adventure. I emailed Ross back that night and told him no need to look for a mate—I would happily assume that role.
We are both really excited about this trip and feel good that we are sinking our teeth deep into the promised “adventure” associated with our travel plans. I can not wait to spend 5 days working on my seamanship and nautical skills with Ross and hopefully lending a helpful had along the way. Couple that with seeing some of the most remote and beautiful islands in the Carribean and I call that a good job. Catherine is also extremely enthused to have a entire week to take in the scenary, work on her tan before Key West and…..become semi- fluent in Spanish!? Yes that’s right folks, she’s planning to conquer that Rosetta Stone (quick shout out to V&M for an awesome gift!) and practice her new talents in DR.

So for now the plan is to take the ferry on Sunday over to Harbor Island, spend the afternoon provisioning and making ready our vessel for an early morning departure on Monday. Ross tells us that our path will take to Cat Island, Rum Cay, Turks and Caicos, and then an overnight steam to DR. As these details firm up, we will keep everyone posted. But for now, we are off to change clothes and check out an art opening in downtown Nassau.


We did it!

We've been talking about it forever...or so it seems....quit our jobs, take some time off, blah blah blah... But now we've actually done it! We are officially unemployed and plan to travel around the world for a year(ish).

Yann's last day of work was March 12. He and Ky spent the following four weeks packing up the majority of our worldly possessions, moving things into storage, and making minor repairs to the house. It was ready to rent after about two or three weeks and we lucked out by renting it out quickly. Hooray for craigslist! Meanwhile, I was finishing up work. Yann's motto was since I had to work, he'd take care of the house stuff, but I think we all know which job was harder. My last day was last Friday, April 9. We had a quick weekend in NYC and are now in Nassau.

The initial plan was to relax with Steve and the Bahamian crew, take care of the rest of our administrative life details, and research the around the world trip for the next month. However, as luck would have it, we have some unexpectedly awesome things in store: a five day boating trip down to the Dominican Republic, a week in Key West at a singer/songwriters' festival.. Hopefully, we'll actually plan some of the bigger trip! In mid- to late-May we'll return home to Mississippi and Baltimore to bid final farewell to our families. Then, at the beginning of June, we'll leave for the big trip!

So, welcome, to our blog! We plan to update this as frequently as we can to keep you all informed of our progress. Although we do have a rough path planned at this point, we expect it to change often. We also hope to meet up with as many of you as possible along the way!

Catherine Neil