Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor and Jackson’s departure

We got up early on Monday morning for two reasons. First of all, we wanted to see a bit more of the city with Jackson before his flight back to the states, and secondly, our enthusiasm for air conditioning had led us to set the thermostat somewhere around the temperature at which vodka freezes. The bare sheets without blankets that the hotel provided, while perfect for a cool Dominican evening, were unequipped to handle such an extreme temperature, and so I awoke around six with my blood the consistency of cake frosting.

Fortunately, stepping outside was an instantaneous cure for his deep chill, as the temperature in the Dominican Republic, though pleasant at night, reaches boiling point about two hours after sunrise. We all took another shower that morning(you really indulge when you get them so infrequently), and headed out to our main stop, the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor, the oldest cathedral in the Americas. This is a beautiful, old building, cobbled together from several different styles. It was constructed in the first half of the 16th century and used to harbor the remains of Christopher Columbus before they were moved to Seville. I found the ceiling to be most arresting, as it appeared to be simply constructed of smaller stones cut to fit against one another and hold each other in place. I’m sure this was the only method that they had of constructing it, and I can hardly think of a better, but it does look pretty cool. Apparently the cathedral had been recently refurbished, as all the stonework appeared new and almost reflective, but as Wikipedia doesn’t seem to have any information on any such project, I will have to chalk it up to the Cathedral’s impeccable janitorial staff. The cathedral additionally sports an extremely detailed audio-tour, although it is not precisely scintillating, and some might even call it “exhaustive”.

After the Cathedral we set about finding some food and wound up at a local Dominican diner-looking establishment with sandwiches, fried plantains, and whole chickens. All in all, it didn’t exactly look like the type of place where they wash their vegetables with bottled water, but what’s life without a little risk? We dragged ourselves out a half hour later, entirely stuffed, wondering why precisely we had felt the need to consume quite so much food, leaving us quite unable to tell whether we were experiencing painful fullness, or severe indigestion. After meandering back to the hotel, we picked the car up and drove Jackson to the nearby airport for his flight.

It was sad to see him go. It can’t be easy to join a group of three people who have spent the last 8 months in disturbingly close proximity to one another, for three weeks of living in severely cramped squalor  He had to, upon arrival, begin sharing sheets, utensils, and inevitably germs, and come to terms with the fact that the only consistent daily topic of conversation is of bowel movements(this may seem weird until you consider that we are in each other’s presence for literally every other experience of the day…ok, maybe it’s still weird, but, I hope, understandable). We hit him with sleepless nights, bug attacks, and Montezuma’s revenge, and he bore it all with an unbelievably positive demeanor, and acclimated to the boat in what appeared to be mere minutes after his arrival. We can’t thank him enough for joining us, and it hasn’t been the same without him.

Carnival in Santo Domingo and Mamajuana

As we descended from the mountain roads into Santo Domingo proper and began searching for our hotel, we began noticing some interesting aspects of city driving that differed from the way people drove up in Luperon and Puerto Plata. While drivers in Santo Domingo are unquestionably more courteous than in the outlying towns, sometimes even going so far as to stop and gesture you to merge in front of them, they still tend to follow the tried and true Dominican tradition of no rules anywhere on the road. This was our first real experience with stoplights, which seem to be, like so many other driving regulations in the Dominican Republic, entirely optional. Cars ignore red lights for at least 7 seconds after they turn, an action apparently fully endorsed by all, as cars waiting at the perpendicular light do not even try to enter the intersection until 10 seconds after their own green light has begun. Stopping at a light that has, heaven forbid, just turned red therefore elicits a minor international crisis as cars peel out around you, honking and cursing, clearly shocked that anyone come to a halt so early in the light’s redness. We nevertheless made it to the Discovery Hotel without major incident, and were shown into our room, complete with air conditioning, wifi, and a shower (also known as “a heaven”). it was, quite frankly, difficult to tear ourselves away from such luxury, but we wanted to see as much of the city as we could. Our hotel was located in the Zona Colonial, which is the convenient tourist district in the old colonial part of town.There is plenty of history here, though, since all the remnants from the colonial days:churches, forts, statues etc. are nearby and either free or incredibly inexpensive to visit. We walked around fro a couple hours before making our way up a hill to this old fort, where we found a most welcome sight.

In the steadily lengthening shadows of this ruin, several band members were scurrying about, erecting a stage while spectators were setting up seats for what was clearly going to be a concert of impressive proportions. Our visit to The Dominican Republic happened to serendipitously  coincide with Carnival, which occurs throughout February across the country. The festival is similar to Junkanoo in the Bahamas, in that it originated as a festival for slaves to “get the wild out of their systems”, but became a national tradition after the abolition of slavery. In the Dominican Republic it carries a special weight, as February 27th is their Independence day, making it a huge culmination for this exciting festival. Unfortunately, we were there too early for the parade, but this concert was one of many around the city that was part of the general festivities and celebrations that occur during February. Naturally, we had to partake, so we went down the street to get a beer and returned in time to watch the band strike up.

This was another night that seemed to build momentum as the night progressed. The seats became wholly extraneous within minutes, as everyone stood up to dance two or three songs in. Everyone was incredibly friendly, and we must have spoken to at least six or seven people who wanted to tell us how excited they were to see gringos there. One of the more amusing juxtapositions that night was watching these three asian women on a raised hill near the stage, as they spent the first hour or so swaying in time to an entirely different beat than the ones being played, and spinning their umbrellas around over their heads. We were, admittedly, perplexed at their presence until we walked up into the same area the next day and found chinatown just a few blocks away from the fort.

After several hours of pure enjoyment, we headed back down the hill to a very late dinner at the first Dominican restaurant we could find. It was here that we continued our tour of international aphrodisiacs that we have no intention of utilizing(as aphrodisiacs, that is) by trying mamajuana, an alcoholic beverage consisting of rum, red wine, honey, tree bark, and herbs, which are mixed together and allowed to sit for a few days before being served in a shot glass. As with the crystalline structure, we have no empirical support for the concoction’s aphrodisiac properties, but neither have we grounds to deny them, and it was, at the very least, not unpleasant to the taste.

Fun with DIgestion and Driving to Santo Domingo

So, last time I left you we had just begun grilling our massive bacon steaks, doing our level best to achieve a heart-attack within the hour. John, Jackson and I spiced and grilled ours normally, while we seared Ellen’s for about 15 seconds on each side, as she prefers her steak with a faint heartbeat. We had a few beers over the next couple hours before noticing that something was definitely wrong with Jackson. He kept getting up to use the head, something that all of us avoid on principle whenever we can, and it was only when he began describing his symptoms(which I will here, for the sake of your digestion, omit), that we began to wonder what could have caused such an unpleasant reaction. We decided that the steak had been too recent to be the culprit, but as we realized that we had all eaten exactly the same things over the course of the day, our concern deepened. Ellen helpfully chimed in from the bow, where she had gone to bed a couple hours before, with news that she had experienced similar…symptoms. We therefore went to bed that night in various states of discomfort: some of us from anticipation, others from a rather more manifest disturbance.

I wound up being the most fortunate party in our little group. I experienced some mild discomfort when I woke up the following morning, but it never materialized. Everyone else, however, was struck to one extent or another with what we, striking a blow for political correctness and cultural sensitivity, christened “Montezuma’s Revenge”. Jackson had by far the worst of it, having experienced the most…violent symptoms, but he was coming out of it by mid morning, while John and Ellen were still mostly bed-ridden. We therefore spent most of the day in the boat, alternatively napping and complaining until late afternoon when we had all mostly recovered and went into town to set up a car rental with Tony, as we were driving Jackson to Santo Domingo the following day for his flight out on Monday.

We started off early the following morning(Sunday, the 17th. Dang, am I a month behind again?) and headed in to Luperon to pick up the car for the long drive ahead of us. We had heard from several people that the drive across the country to Santo Domingo was an easy 4 hours, but given what we had seen of driving in the Dominican Republic, we were hardly going to trust an estimate that was the next best thing to arbitrary, given the variety of unpredictable factors from our vehicle, to the traffic, to the degree of our fellow drivers’ recklessness. Our car for the drive was Tony’s standard rental, a Chevy Tracker that, while in much better shape than our previous vehicle, had a few eccentricities of its own. The speedometer worked, though the blinkers didn’t, and neither did the horn(blared into debilitation long ago, I’m sure), which left us unable to communicate with other cars, other than by John making hourn noises out the window, distressing his passengers far more than the myriad uncaring drivers who sped by, horns blaring. Nevertheless, the drive was significantly more relaxing than our previous attempt, as the majority of the drive was on a divided highway. This didn’t stop our fellow drivers from turning three lanes into five or six, but at least there was no oncoming traffic for them to hit. It didn’t hurt, either that the drive was staggeringly beautiful. Between the various cities, we cound ourselved driving through densly wooded mountain roads, from which we would emerge onto bare cliffsides, looking out across mountain ranges wreathed in mist. These were not the harsh, jagged crags of the rockies, either, but lush forested peaks that gave the impression of verdant life everywhere you looked. Eventually we descended into Santo Domingo proper and began searching for our hoste, noticing, as we did,  certain aspects of city driving in the DR that must, I’m afraid, wait until the next post, as this one has already gone over-long.

Puerto Plata and Driving in the DR

Puerto Plata wound up being less exciting than we’d hoped. There is a huge grocery store there and a few shops, but it is primarily a resort town, and we therefore found less personality there than in a place like Luperon, which was undoubtedly meaner. We spent an enjoyable few hours there, even so, exploring the various food-vending carts for more artery-clogging goodness than you can imagine, and walked into the beautiful church in town, as it appears to be the most notable site there. I also found a vendor, walking the street with a cart full of coconuts and a machete. For 25 pesos(maybe 60 cents) he will hack off the top, wait for you to drink the water, and then cut the husk into pieces for you to eat the meat. How could I resist? I made everyone wait for a few minutes while I indulged in this extravagant deal, and enjoyed the mental image of someone walking around a major city in America with a cart full of coconuts and a machete. We rounded off the day by visiting the Supermarket, and picked up a few odds and ends before getting back onto the road just as it was getting dark.

I have refrained from describing the experience of driving in the Dominican Republic thus far because I wanted to give it my full attention, but now is as good a time as any to tell you that it is absolutely horrifying. There may well be laws that govern driving in the DR, but they are taken, to paraphrase a great philosopher, as guidelines, rather than actual rules. You are hard-pressed to find a speed limit sign in the entire country, and once you do, you wonder why you bothered, as it is patently ignored by every driver whose vehicle is capable of exceeding it. Any attempt to maintain a speed that does not propel you around blind turns with enough centrifugal force to make a fighter pilot lose his lunch is met with an angry blaring of horns(the unofficial language of the DR), and the agonized scream of engines as multiple cars, buses, and motorcycles fly past you at the same time. If driving in the Bahamas can be likened to driving with extremely high people(it can be), then driving in the Dominican Republic is more akin to driving with aggressive, testosterone-infused steroid users, apparently participating in a race whose rules are limited to the simple axiom “whoever gets there first, wins”. It was not only common, but positively routine to see a car passed by a bus packed with people, simultaneously being passed by another car, and perhaps a motorcycle too for good measure, on a two lane road, going around a blind turn on a hill. If you think I’m exaggerating, I can assure you that while I may have the tendency to descend into the hyperbolic, In this instance I am describing events that we saw with disturbing frequency.

This…diverting experience was further complicated by the state of the roads, which are often treacherous. Potholes abound, and not just shallow divots that cause your car to bounce uncomfortably. We’re talking about massive craters in the earth that look like they were formed by an air raid and will tear out your undercarriage in addition to flattening your tire and blowing your suspension. The state of the cars is a further factor to take into account, as they all appear to have been repaired up to the point of being barely functional, not safe. Tony’s normal rental vehicle was taken that day, so he called a friend who had a car to rent that almost drove me to religion. The blinkers and speedometer didn’t work, for starters, which was hardly an issue, as no one uses them anyway. More troubling was the suspension, which flexed sickeningly over even small obstructions, and slammed the car’s trunk on the going over anything as substantial as a speed bump.

Now, John had driven us all the way to the falls, and Jackson had driven to Puerto Plata, so it was only fair that I drive back to Luperon(if you are wondering whether Ellen drove or why she didn’t, then you have never met Ellen). Darkness added a whole new element as all those vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians without lights suddenly became impossibly difficult to see, all the more so because our own headlights were, as far as I could tell, a few hours from going out entirely. The brights worked somewhat better, but I had to flick them off for every approaching vehicle, most of whom left theirs determinedly on, adding temporary blindness to our laundry-list of dangers. We eventually made it back to Luperon, and I almost kissed the ground in gratitude for being on my own two feet again. John and Jackson picked up some beer and we made our way shakily back to the boat, where we decided to unwind from our harrowing experience with a few beers and the tidbits that we had picked up at the supermarket, namely steak wrapped in a half pound of bacon(we’d had no idea how to order bacon by weight, and it was cheap, so 2 pounds had seemed reasonable).

The Dominican Republic and the Damajagua Cascades

Our journey over the following day and night was uninteresting, though a southeast wind did frustrate our efforts to head, you know, southeast. It was not particularly difficult sailing, however, and the wind was brisk enough to allow us to point well, so we ended up nearing the coast of the Dominican Republic only about 10 miles west of our intended destination, Luperon. The waves and wind were sufficiently diminished along the coastline for us to motor, and I came up on deck to an unexpected sight just as John and Jackson dropped the sails and began motoring east. I could have perhaps predicted such a vision, having heard of the beauty of the Dominican landscape several times, but I was thoroughly unprepared for what I saw. Mountains projected straight out of the ocean all along the coastline, and their thickly verdant slopes gave the impression of an uninhabited, fantastical landscape. The mist, too, was just beginning to dissipate, creating an effect so reminiscent of Jurassic Park that I half-expected to see a pterodactyl swooping overhead. This stunning view accompanied us all the way to Luperon(along with the Jurassic Park theme song, which I kept unconsciously humming, undoubtedly making my fellow travelers wish that a pterodactyl would indeed swoop down and bear me out of earshot), and while we waited for the commandante to come out to our boat, we were afforded enough time to consider the true extent of our accomplishment. Making it to the Dominican Republic finally achieved our goal of making it to the Caribbean. We had crossed the Tropic of Cancer on the way to Mayaguana, and the Turks and Caicos are technically Caribbean islands, but they could really be better described as “Caribbean light”. The Dominican Republic on the other hand, bordering the Caribbean Sea, is the real thing, and it was immensely fulfilling for us, after so much work, time, and disappointment, to finally be there.

Immediately upon anchoring in the Luperon harbor, a boat approached us, bearing a man who introduced himself as “Papo”. He has worked in the harbor for 20 years, and runs the moorings, as well as running a laundry and shower service out of his mother’s house, delivering water, diesel, and anything else you may need, as well as offering hull and stainless steel cleaning. This was clearly the man to know. The moorings cost two dollars a day, which we were more than happy to pay after 8 months of marina bills that often cost that much per foot. We had to forego the rest of his services for the moment, unfortunately, as we had not yet cleared customs. The DR is home to the most extensive customs process we have yet encountered (other than returning to the U.S., that is). In addition to meeting the commandante of the harbor, we had to speak to three or four other customs officials, fill out paperwork, pay fees, and submit to an agricultural inspection, all in a vague combination of broken English and Spanish. We eventually cleared without issue, and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Luperon, finding wifi, and drinking a few beers for the first time in what felt like months.

Our plan for the first full day in the DR was to visit the Damajagua Cascades, a series of 27 waterfalls, so we rented a car from Tony’s, a local internet café that also has a car to rent, and drove the hour or so down to the waterfalls, stopping only to pick up a local meal of fried chicken, beans and rice(this will be applicable in a post or two) but arrived at the location to do all 27, and had to settle for 12 instead. The Damajagua Cascades are another activity that is unashamedly geared towards tourists(the parking lot is filled with tour buses, covered in names like “Camel Safari Tours”, neither of which I knew existed in the DR) and is nevertheless entirely worth a visit. You are provided tour guides, helmets, and lifejackets, and they lead you up a series of easily navigable stairs to the river. It turns out to be a surprisingly safe trip down. The guides know precisely what they are doing, and every waterfall with a jump also has a slide for those who do not enjoy the feeling of uncontrollably plummeting through the air. I am what most people would call a “pansy” when it comes to leaping from heights. The highest I’d ever done was 10 feet, and that was at the mouth of the Welland Canal on this trip, so jumping from 25 feet on our second waterfall was akin to jumping from an airplane as far as I was concerned. After seeing Ellen go before me with little hesitation(though with a bit of a scream), I had little choice but to throw myself into space and hope that my body didn’t, by some convulsive recoild from the ledge, cause me to bounce painfully down the precipice in a steeper, rockier reenactment of the Princess Bride. I wound up perfectly fine, however, and even a bit exhilarated, somehow looking forward to more such jumps.

The whole path down this beautiful canyon is similar. Sometimes you jump(though 25 feet was the highest), and sometimes you slide down these grooves in the rock, worn to a comfortable smoothness by years of water and millions of vacationing posteriors. Surprisingly, I found a couple of the slides significantly more perturbing than the jumps, as you twist and turn down these rock gullies, with your head flashing inches past these very solid looking boulders, before getting spit out sideways into the pool below. Everything is very controlled, however, and barring a thoroughly boneheaded move, you are perfectly safe, so it is easy to take your time and enjoy the sights surrounding you. Thewhole area is a wilderness preserve, so you are not exposed to any of the trappings of civilization that might distract from the enchantment of the falls. The river has created a gorge, lined with rock up to maybe 20 feet above the river, where soil and trees take over, extending upward so thickly that you can’t see the top. The river, meanwhile, runs down this channel, sometimes dropping with punishing weight over a waterfall, elsewhere running smoothly through multiple small gullies along its course. Pools abound(creating the opportunity for cliff jumping), and also give you the opportunity to paddle around for a bit, relaxing in the cool water. Indeed, this was not the least pleasant aspect of visiting the falls. Our last showers had been in Provo, five days before, so swimming around in fresh water, muddy as it was, felt remarkably cleansing as it wiped away the accumulated layers of salt and old sunscreen that form a gunky layer over one’s skin after a few days. Our only real regret was that we hadn’t gotten to the falls earlier in the day, and so been able to do all 27. Nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed our time there, and all piled happily back into the car to explore Puerto Plata, the major town just east of Luperon.

South Caicos: A Treatise on Abject Humiliation

In order to leave the Turks and Caicos, you are required to check out of the country with Customs, so John set about finding the office while Ellen, Jackson and I went on a hunt for wifi to look up weather for our crossing. This turned out to be a true hunt, as we actually had to cross the entire island to reach an empty, unused hotel that nevertheless had working wifi that we could snag from the parking lot. When we returned to find John waiting on the boat, we learned that he, in his inimitable fashion, had gotten us invited to dinner. There is a marine biology institution the island, and John had naturally run into the director of said school on the street, struck up a conversation, as is his wont, and somehow contrived to have all of us invited to a “potluck dinner” at her house. Never ones to turn down such an opportunity, we decided to go, but didn’t want to show up empty-handed, which left us arguing for far longer than we should have over what to bring. We eventually settled on fruit salad and threw it together rather hastily, leaving the boat maybe five minutes after the appointed dinner time. I was thoroughly unconcerned, and said so, as long familiarity with potlucks(as a stomach, rather than as a cook) has led to a marked relaxation about punctuality for such events, as people routinely show up hours after they begin, their tardiness thoroughly excused by their contribution of food.

In this blissfully naïve mindset, we arrived at the front door of this woman’s house and knocked vigorously for a minute or so. We had no answer, but could see people inside, so we opened up the door and ran into each other as we came to a screeching halt at the scene that greeted us. This woman’s “house” apparently incorporated the dining center for the institute, and the “potluck style dinner” was in fact no more than your standard school buffet. Thus, instead of the milling confusion, into which we’d hoped to blend without causing much of a stir, we found instead three long tables packed with students, all chatting animatedly together as they devoured their school-provided dinners. What’s more, at the sound of the door closing behind us, conversation died almost immediately, and every head swiveled to look a the four strangers who had just traipsed in without so much as ringing the doorbell.

We all stood staring at each other for a second or two, though it felt positively interminable, before John recovered from his shock and returned to his normal, garrulous nature(if slightly more flustered than is common). “We were, um, invited to come here by the head of the program” he began, somewhat awkwardly, before adding, with a bit more confidence “We brought fruit salad”. Unfortunately, names have never been John’s strong suit, and so when asked who invited us, we could only respond with “the head of the program”, who was not, unfortunately, in the room at the time to verify our story. Nevertheless, we were apparently deemed mostly harmless, and were invited to grab plates and food. We shuffled over to the serving table, trying very hard not to laugh at the situation as several dozen pairs of eyes followed us, though conversation had thankfully begun again, no doubt discussing the strange quartet that had just intruded.

John was back in his element, however, and he grabbed his food quickly and strode confidently over to an empty seat, while the rest of us hung back in a cluster, waiting for one another, apparently under the impression that any stragglers would be attacked. I placed our bowl of fruit salad at the end of the serving table, noticing, as I did so, how very out of place it looked, its green stripes clashing garishly with the stark metallic platters already on the table. The food was tasty, however, and the students, friendly. In spite of the awkwardness of our arrival, we were immediately embroiled in conversation upon taking our seats, and did not lack for subjects to discuss. Everyone was curious to know where we were from and what on earth we were doing there. This interaction was sadly cut short, however, because the students had to attend some bonfire, but we finally ran into our hostess on the way out, and she graciously thanked us for coming, without once poking fun at our untimely entrance. We went out for a bit that night and ran into some of the teachers from the institute at one of the local bars, but we ended up going to bed fairly early, as we had another long stretch ahead of us.

Turks and Caicos

The night we spent headed to Turks and Caicos was one of the more pleasant that we’ve had on this trip. There were only three of us in driving condition, John, Jackson and I, but the wind was nonexistent, so we simply ran one-person 3-hour shifts, which afforded me an unheard-of six hours of sleep before I even had to go on watch. Once I did, I was alert enough to read even John’s soporific “Diplomacy”, by Henry Kissinger (a book so adept at causing drowsiness, I would unhesitatingly prescribe it as a sleep aid), while watching out for freighters and occasionally changing the course by a couple degrees on the autopilot.  I almost regretted waking Jackson up at the end of my shift because it was so pleasant that I wanted to remain on deck, but I ended up succumbing to sleep for an hour or two before we reached the Caicos Bank on our way to Southside Marina, when visual piloting became necessary once again.

We spent two nights on Providenciales(the largest island in the Turks and Caicos, and helpfully shortened to “Provo” by locals who don’t want to wait around all day for you to finish pronouncing their island), and truly didn’t experience much, as we were planning on returning after visiting the Dominican Republic. Instead we prepared for our sail down, picked up some groceries, and took our first showers in a week. We also hung out with a Canadian couple our second night there, who, in their twenties, were some of the youngest people we’d met in a month. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Provo was how hot it was. Despite being a mere 60 miles south of Mayaguana, the days were almost oppressively hot, with the sun searing your skin as soon as you left the shade. The only person  who seemed positively influenced by this incandescent atmosphere was Ellen, who made a miraculous recovery and was out “bronzing” within hours of our arrival.

We departed for South Caicos the morning of the third day, and beat straight into the wind for the first day, making it literally 11 miles from Provo in about 10 hours of sailing(for those of you not familiar with sailing, this is what we call a “bad ratio”), due to the horribly placed wind, and were forced to anchor in the best place we could find. This happened to be right out in the middle of the bank, literally out of sight of land, and at the mercy of the wind and waves. Now, the bank is shallow, so anchoring wasn’t problematic and the waves couldn’t get too large, but without any sort of cover, our main concern was that a large enough wave might coordinate with a low enough tide to slam our keel on the bottom. Fortunately no such slumber-impairing event occurred, and we completely ignored our sails the next day, motoring our way straight to South Caicos, and arriving just after noon at the small outpost.

Mayaguana Part 2: Conch

Our second day in Mayaguana was uneventful to the point of boredom. The weather was inclement, so we went into town, just to see what the island was like, and check our ever-elusive email. “Town” turned out to be a tiny settlement with very little going on. There was one small grocery store, a rain catch cistern, and a local wifi hot spot, which was a bar. Everything else was miles a way, so we grabbed a couple beers and spent a few hours catching up on what was going on in the world(it’s surprisingly difficult to do without internet these days).

John, Jackson and I went out snorkling again the following day, though Ellen had picked up a bug and was too sick to move, let alone swim. We found little in the way of fish or lobsters around our new anchorage, but after an hour or so we starting noticing some interesting shapes on the sea floor. We had heard from many fellow cruisers how prevalent conch is in the Bahamas, and how easy it is to find, but we hadn’t ever seen one of legal size before, and Mayaguana had been no exception up to that point. We had seen vast expanses of conch graveyards around coral heads, where cruisers had clearly chucked the shells after extracting the conch, but nothing that looked like it had supported a living being in the last decade.

We happened to be swimming across a sandy, grassy stretch, however, when we started to notice that conch shells had a habit of hiding underneath certain plant growth. Once we made that realization, we started spotting them everywhere, and we spent the next 20 minutes grabbing conch of all sizes and throwing them into the dinghy. If you are at all familiar with conch, you have undoubtedly noted that they are not the most elusive quarry. They don’t exactly move much, so once you figure out how to find them, the so-called “catching” could be more accurately described as “picking up”. We went a bit overboard in light of our success, I’ll admit, and so we grabbed whatever we saw, regardless of size, and only realized when we got back to the boat that we had definitely been over-exuberant. In order to be legal, the conch shell must have formed a lip(that description makes a lot more sense when you’re looking at the shell), and so of the roughly 25 conch that we picked up, we ended up placing 15 or so back on the ocean floor, which still left us with around 10 good-sized candidates.

Extracting conch from its shell is a tricky process, as we discovered when we began trying to coax them out. We fortunately have a fishing book that walked us through each step, which was invaluable, as our only recourse would have been to take a hammer to the shells. You must chip a hole at a very particular place on the shell and sever the muscle that’s exposed there, which will then allow you to pull the entire animal free.

Ellen was still feverish and achy, and as the wind had died to nothing, we delayed the rest of the conch-cleaning process to prepare for an evening departure. We thought that, should her condition take a turn for the worse, being in a (relatively) major city with an airport could hardly hurt. As we got under way, i set up a station on deck and began preparing the conch for our very own fritters. I soon realized that cleaning and skinning conch is a far more laborious process than either finding or extracting it had been. The first step is to cut off all the extraneous bits and scrape out the entrails. I only add that…vivid last image because of a certain conch tradition, to which you must adhere during that process.

Among the various organs of the conch, you find something called the “crystalline structure” a thin, cream-colored, tubular strand that our book exhorts you to under no circumstances throw away. Instead, it recommends slurping it up like a string of spaghetti in front of all your friends(though an informative non-fiction book, the author does have a flair for the dramatic), and it is said to “have properties that put Viagra to shame”. As we live on a boat with three guys and an Ellen, we were hardly in a position to put this claim to the test, but felt that we would be missing out on an important cultural activity if we didn’t try them, so we all shared a few, marveling at the unremarkable, slightly salty taste as we did so. Now, while we can hardly claim to have tried this delicacy under optimum circumstances(I’ll let you use your own imagination there), none of us noticed any marked libidinous surge as we made our way down to Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos that night.

Mayaguana, Part 1: Moral Conundrums in Spearfishing

The ride to Mayaguana, our last stop in the Bahamas was bumpy, but fairly uneventful, though we did surf the drop off on our way into Abrahams Bay to try for some more fish. Unfortunately we only managed to pull in 5 or 6 small barracuda that we threw back and one small tuna, which we turned into sashimi within minutes. Our mediocre haul notwithstanding, the prevalence of fish  indicated to us that Mayaguana might turn out to be fertile fishing grounds.

As it turns out, we were correct. the coral heads at Mayaguana were positively teeming with all kinds of life. We couldn’t find anything edible at the first couple coral heads we checked, but as always, watching the interplay between the various reef fishes and watching the colors flash before our eyes was very much its own reward. It wasn’t long before we found success, however, and speared two lobster within a couple hundred yards of our boat. This accomplishment was more than enough to get us back into the water that afternoon, when we managed to spear two more lobster and a trigger fish, which caused me an unexpected pang of conscience.

While there is always a thrill of success associated with spearfishing, this exuberance was tempered as I slid the trigger fish into our bucket. Fishing with a rod and reel from the surface allows the angler to distance himself somewhat from his quarry and remain emotionally detached as he plucks a fish from their world to ours. We can debate the relative morality of the two until we’re blue in the face, but there is no question that spearfishing, in contrast, bears much more in common in hunting and all of the moral quandaries that it elicits. You enter a foreign world, watch the various species interact with one another and their environment, choose a target, and fire a spear into its gills(if you do it right). It is a brutal, antagonistic process, and shooting the trigger fish forced me to question it in a way that I hadn’t previously.

To be fair, the reason for my concern may have stemmed from the fact that the trigger fish was simply “cuter” than our prey normally is. Lion fish provide a handy excuse for their execution, as you are “saving the reef”, while lobsters are decidedly bug-like in appearance, and we are so inured to the idea of live lobsters being brought home and boiled alive that spearing them feels almost humane by comparison. And no one would ever call a grouper “cute”. This trigger fish, however, was a beautiful array of colors that faded quickly after death, and a face that, contrary to a grouper’s characteristic scowl, conveys instead a wide-eyed innocence. I regretted releasing tthe spear almost as soon as it left my hand, but once you fire a spear there’s no taking it back, and so there was little to be done but filet the admittedly substantial trigger fish as soon as we got back to the boat and put the meat on ice. I don’t go in much for prayer or overt spirituality, but I did my best to say a few words of gratitude and apology for the life that I took so unthinkingly.

Rum Cay, part 2: Sea Turtles and Superbowls

The weather reflected our general state of being the following morning, and so we spent most of the morning gulping water and listening, once again, to Harry Potter, until one of the French Canadians, Francois, came by and asked if any of us wanted to go spear fishing. No one was particularly keen, but it was an opportunity to go with someone nicknamed “slayer” by the locals, so I figured I had nothing to lose. Now, we had been hearing for the previous few days that the reefs just outside the harbor entrance were positively “swarming” with sharks. This seemed logical, as we were treated to a veritable parade of the creatures up to the docks every evening. These were not only nurse sharks either, but lemon sharks as well, slightly more yellow, and way more toothy. Anyway, this information had led us to cross the island to avoid them the first day, and dinghy halfway across the bay the second. Both times, as I have already stated, we were wholly unsuccessful. Francois, however, motored us perhaps 100 yards from the entrance to the channel and, completely nonplussed, slid into the water. I followed somewhat warily, but secure in Francois’ confidence, and I needn’t have worried.

I had one of the most fun days that afternoon. The first reef we visited was positively buzzing with activity. There were giant flowers of coral, with all kinds of fish darting around, and even though I couldn’t see anything to target, just watching the reef life was more than worth the trip out. We moved around a good bit that afternoon, eventually finding a couple of groupers, hanging out by a coral head that we successfully managed to spear. This was a bit of an accomplishment for me, as I’d never speared a “real” fish before. Lobsters are almost entirely sedentary if you do it right, and lion fish only slightly less so, but there was a definite hint of pride in knowing that I’d managed to bag a fish that wasn’t simply sitting there with its back to me. Working for it made it feel more legitimate, somehow. We left soon thereafter, as the sky was becoming more forbidding, but I felt incredibly fortunate to have gone out with Francois that day. Without a question, the coolest moment of that day, and probably my entire time at Rum Cay, was when we were searching for lobster at the first reef. I dove down to perhaps 20 feet, peering under ledges for fish and lobster, when I saw the merest corner of a domed shell emerge. Curious, I peered a little lower, and stared for a moment into the face of the surprised sea turtle that was resting there. We examined each other for a moment, and then it darted pats me and out of sight faster than I could have imagined. Having only seen a couple sea turtles from the surface, as we were sailing to Florida, getting to see one so close to me was truly phenomenal.

We came back with our grouper and another lobster that Francois had speared, and set about making dinner plans for the Super Bowl. The fish was fried and used in appetizers, as could have been expected, but with the help of some of our canned ingredients we all managed to pull together a magnificent spread. The main course was pizza, featuring(individually) salami, mahi-mahi, and lobster pizza, which was positively decadent. Of course, when preparing such a scrumptious feast, the dessert must live up to its precursors, which it most certainly did, as the owner of a visiting mega yacht turned up with pineapple upside-down cake midway through the 4th quarter. It was beautiful.

The game itself was incredibly entertaining, all the more so because I didn’t really care who won. Having almost had a heart-attack last year, praying for the Patriots to lose, it did my heart good to relax and enjoy the spirit of the game without building up any negative karmic justice by wishing for Tom Brady to shatter his femur. We left early the following morning for Mayaguana, another hundred mile slog into the southeast wind.