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Thursday, 12 June 2014

Luperon, my kind of town

Yesterday, I'm standing at the counter of a small grocery come off licence type of Colmado (shop) in the centre of the town of Luperon, waiting to buy a packet of cigarettes, along with few other locals also waiting. There's a local police officer being served who turns and smiles at me, he says, "Como esta", I say, Bien, gracias, e tu, "bueno gracias" he says, and we shake hands like old friends. Next to him, another local asks, in English, "where are you from" England I say, "Oh, Eng-a-land hey, lubbly jubbly" he says, and we laugh. A little kid pushes in front of me, oblivious of the queue, and pushes a crumpled note towards the shopkeeper, who takes it, serves him some sweets and he's gone. It's a slow queue of about six of us standing patiently at the counter, engaged in animated and good hearted conversations, that I don't get, but I can feel it, my Spanish isn't quite that up to speed.  The shopkeeper weighs out small portions of this and that for the police officer that takes time. People pass by the open-to-the-road counter and exchange friendly  banter loudly, with either the shopkeeper or the queue. It's a lively ten minutes whilst I wait to be served, it's a popular little shop, almost a meeting place, more than a shop.
We've just been round the corner to a mini supermacado to buy some eggs and bread, and a couple of bottles of wine, guided there by some guy who wants to help, he speaks good English, wants to be friendly, but I'm a bit suspicious of his motive. Turns out he just wants something to eat in payment for his trouble. We give him four rolls and fifty pesos so he can buy some salami to put in them, that was enough, and as we pass him after buying the cigarettes he gives us a big smile and a wave from across the street.
The streets are alive, awash with people, it's Saturday, noisy people, noisy little motor bikes, weave in and out of the street gatherings, kids laughing, playing, speakers pump out Dominican pop music to a small bunch of teenagers that have taken up residence in the middle of the road, some sit in chairs in the road, parents with babes in arms getting down with the kids, sway to the rhythm of the day.  Each doorway seems to have at least one person, sometimes two, elderly ladies or gents,  sat on an old chair taking in the view, with a cheerful smile and a ready "hola"(hello) as we pass, it would be impolite of us and them not to exchange this simple greeting.
Luperon is alive, life plays out on the street, a ramshackle street, a mish-mash of dwellings, and workshops and the tiniest of stores. We pass one of these no bigger than a garden shed where two young trumpet players are having a music lesson that spills out into the street, everywhere is life in chaotic abundance. And litter, and lazy dogs, missing pavements, holes in the road, watch your step, is the order of the day, and don't trip over those motor bike parts strewn around the guy who's fixing his bike on the pavement.

Then there's the gringos, the cruisers, the live-aboards that have adopted, and been adopted by Luperon, who spend time gossiping, in JRs, or Wendys, (coldest beer in town says the sign) or having breakfast in the upper deck under a corrugated roof on the first floor completely open to the breeze where they serve only breakfast, all day.

 It takes about half a minute after walking in to any of these watering holes to strike up a conversation. "what boat you on, I'm Liz, anything you need to know, want, just ask". Hi, my names Less, need a haircut, a massage, just call me on 68" What did you say your name was, sorry, "Less" oh like more or less I says, " gee that's funny,but  no, more like Lester, but call me Less".

Then we run into hillbilly Bob Mathews, in JRs bar, in a garden courtyard, still on the street. Bob plays fiddle, well, is revisiting the fiddle after a 13 year break, we fall into an easy conversation about music, mostly, and then Cabarete falls into the dialogue.

"I was in Cabarete, in January" drawls Bob, "looking after a small apartment block" That wouldn't be an apartment block just behind Janets' supermacado I butt in. "Yep, looked after it for a friend of mine called", called Jerry I says, "Hell yeh, you know him". Well not exactly but I do know his wife, although I haven't seen her for over 30 years. She used to be married to my best friend Smoke who lives in London. We ran into the brother of the owner that died, down in Salinas, Tony and Rose, they're on a boat called English Rose.
It was one massive coincidence that we had run into them, especially as I had only just remade contact with Jerrys wife, Judy, Smokes' ex of more than thirty years ago now about to live just down the road from us in the Dominican republic, and now we find another link in hillbilly Bob, here in Luperon. Sometimes life throws up the strangest of circumstances, or is it the smallest of worlds.

Luperon; I think I'm going to enjoy our stay here, it's full of cruising characters, and a pageant of humanity that is the real Dominican republic, all colour and chaos, and open hearts.  There'll be the rouges and ruffians lurking, as in any poor and impoverished country, or even in the grand cities of the world, you can't avoid stumbling into a bad experience where ever you lay your hat, park your yacht, choose to be, but hey give me Luperon over Salinas, give me Republica Dominicana any day over Americanised Puerto Rico with its faceless malls, everybody locked inside the bubble of their air-conned all terrain 4x4s.

Luperon hasn't got a good reputation amongst cruisers, especially the cruisers from the USA, the air-con cruisers Roger called them, I think maybe it's just too real, no Disney style fa├žade, no KFC, Burger King, Walgreens, etc., etc., no gloss. They pass remarks like oh no Luperon, an open sewer, a place to avoid at all cost. But they are so missing the point, the point of travel, the shedding of your preconceived notion of how the world should be just like home, and horrified when they find it's not, so they by-pass Luperon, or get out fast to nestle in the comfort of Salinas Bay, with easy access to a mall. We sort of warmed to Puerto Rico, did a lot of shopping, got comfortable I suppose, but we're so glad we finally made it to Luperon, and our beloved island of Hispanola.

We heard all about the corruption of the customs comandante, the shear unhelpfulness of officials, the hassle of checking in. We climbed the steps to the Aduantes' office, after crossing the makeshift bridge spanning a finger of mangrove swamp, to be greeted by a guy surfing facebook, earphones in,"COMANDANTE" he called, and a casual figure in T-shirt and flip-flops appeared from round the corner with a beaming smile. "Hola, como esta ustedes" Bien, gracias, we chime "e tu?" Bien, bien says he, shuffles some scraps of paper on an old clip board and asks for our despacio. "Si ests Bueno, muchos gracias, and in English, Welcome to Luperon. We shake hands and climb back down the stone steps, across the crab infested swamp and make for the nearest cold cerveza (beer). No hassle, no bribes, no problem, absolutely chalk and cheese to our dealings with Homeland Security and Puerto Rican USof A.  
Tomorrow we'll be heading back to Cabarete to luxuriate in our apartment for a few days; long showers with running water, toilet that flushes without being manually pumped, huge bed, swimming pool and dramatic Robinson Crusoe beach.  Come next weekend though, we'll be back in Luperon, play a gig at JRs, and board Picaroon to start on our list of jobs and take up the life of Seadogs in old Luperon......check out Cols song at.......................... 

Wild night in The Mona Passage

Desecheo, is a seven hundred feet high island of desolated rock at the northern tip of the Puerto Rican trench and is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea. It's about twenty-five miles off the north western tip of Puerto Rico and where we would make a left turn to start our crossing of the Mona Passage. This far the seas and weather were as predicted, light winds and slight seas, so we were sailing under genoa and mizzen, but with the engine running. The sails were up to just steady Picaroon and maybe give the engine a bit of help. Just west of Desecheo we could see white tops on the seas which meant that perhaps conditions would freshen and we'd be able to cut the engine and enjoy a nice sail for a bit.
As we struck out into the Mona Passage leaving Desecheo in our wake, the seas turned decidedly boisterous, and Picaroon began to roll with the waves that were marching in just off our beam. The seas climbed aboard within the first five minutes and sloshed across the cockpit and half-filled the well where Jackie was standing, wrestling with the wheel. This well is where any stray rubbish tends to migrate to; old cigarette boxes, wrappers, the dross of living aboard, it's also where the two drain holes are, should the sea decide to come aboard. We roll uncomfortably to the opposite side and another great gush of sea makes its way on board, rushing down the decks and out of the scuppers, but the cockpit is still awash with the dregs of the Atlantic. The dross has been washed to the outlet drains and blocked them, so I scrabble about under Jackies feet to clear them, and the water leaves and goes back to where it should be, in the sea. Time to find the safety harnesses and get clipped on we think, this could be a bumpy ride.
The waves start to increase in size, perhaps twenty, sometimes thirty feet high or that's what it looked like from Piccars' cockpit. Most roll under Picaroons keel, bearing us into the air where we're able to catch a glimpse of the next candidate for Picaroons sea-washed decks. The genoa has been furled away, the wind has risen too much for comfort, but we leave up the mizzen to keep her steady, and Mr engine Sir still purrs away, below pushing us out of sight of land as Desecheo disappears into a gathering thunder storm a few miles behind us, we just hope that's not going our way too.
The day was fading and keeping the sea from mounting Picaroons decks was impossible, "Oh shit" Jackie would exclaim, hanging on to the wheel, me gripping the rail with a dead mans' grasp, as another wave rocked and rolled us, and then the rain started.  Above us a great lump of charcoal cloud had caught us up and was starting to unleash a torrent of rain, buckets of rain, waterfalls of rain began to penetrate our un-waterproofed  bimini, our only shelter. The sea attacked from both sides, the heavens above us drenched us and the soft furnishings of Picaroons cozy cockpit.
By now it had grown dark, the noise of the sea crashing around Picaroon and the winds of the storm wailing in the rigging, the rain relentless, it was becoming decidedly unpleasant. The one advantage of the onset of night was that we could no longer see the waves about to devour us, and although still making for a very scary ride, they had settled down to just horrible, as opposed to life threatening. The gizmo that tells us where we are also has a radar, so we turned that on to see where the storm above us was going, and if we may escape it soon, it had been raining a deluge for more than three hours, and although we had our English foulies on we were thoroughly and absolutely ringing wet, and still hanging on, clipped on, to one of those big dipper rides that you wished you'd said no to, but this is no Blackpool pleasure beach ride, no siree, there's no way out.
The Radar shows just one weather system in the Mona Passage, they said there would be isolated thunder storms, and we're slap bang in the middle of it. It's tracking our course, as though we have some magnetic attraction, there's  no escape, as it gathers itself for another assault, reeling around in a fiendish orange overlay on our chart plotter. The night thickens, we're getting weary, no we're worn out with being this wet and this bounced about. This was never our idea of what sailing the Caribbean would be, and we both thought silently that all this dream of buying a yacht had been a huge mistake, but neither of us voiced that thought. Standing under the waterfall that was cascading over the helmsman, yours truly, I broke into a rendition of "singing in the rain" at the top of my voice, and Ewans song, "Sailing close to the wind" that was on our last album, it seemed to help, but it didn't stop the rain, it didn't stop the seas paying us the occasional visit. It rained and rained all night and into the dawn. Just before dawn the lights of a distant Dominican Republic, dipped in and out of view as we rode up and down, the roller coaster ride of the Mona Passage swell.
The night seemed never-ending but after ten hours, the rain eased, and dawn broke majestically, in pink, orange and purple robes of the dying storm we had finally escaped. Everything was a mess aboard Picaroon, below stuff had spilled from what we thought were locked cupboards. A fire extinguisher had released itself from its clip and disgorged its contents around the galley floor, coating all the charts, books and minutia that had joined it on the floor. Wet clothes, shed in the storm littered the floor, all was chaos, and above deck too, stuff had been washed this way and that, in the dark we didn't notice, but as dawn broke it became apparent that it had been somewhat of a rough passage.
At long last, and it was a long last, we turned into the entrance of Samana Bay, Mr Engine Sir still beating in the heart of Picaroon, the mizzen raised, sometime in the middle of the night, to keep the rolling to a minimum, fluttering limply in a lifeless morning air. Samana Bay is big, much bigger than it looks on the chart, and it takes us the best part of the morning, Picaroon wallowing in an uncomfortable swell, until we get within hailing distance of Bahia Marina, where we'll find sanctuary from our ordeal. Our calls on the VHF bring no response, and we contemplate anchoring, but too tired to make any sensible decisions, we continue to try. At last we make contact, were only half a mile away from the entrance, and a voice says come in to slip 51.
We land in heaven, well it appears like that after thirty hours of hell. This is a five star Marina with infinity pools, Spa, restaurants, and staff that are ever so polite and correct, dressed in white, all marble and coral stone, incidental soothing music that you can barely hear, jazz, Frank Sinatra, and that transcendental stuff that just washes over you in the background. It's uncannily quiet too, hardly a soul about to cause a ripple in the tranquillity of the place. It's a dream, it must be a dream I am having in between those half hour watches we took in the middle of the storm, in the middle of that black as coal night, sailing the Mona Passage.
But no, we didn't sink, we didn't die, there wouldn't be two middle aged women in scant bikinis, dancing, inappropriately to muzac around an infinity pool in heaven, we must be in Bahia Marina in the Dominican Republic.