Father Jerome’s Via Dolorosa

Giving Back

As travelers we are fortunate enough to be able to learn about foreign cultures, geographies, and histories, to visit the most beautiful natural sites and tourist attractions, to enjoy local arts, foods and entertainments, to meet many interesting people, and generally to have lots of fun and good time everywhere we go. But I started asking myself how can we give back to a place we are visiting, a place we are taking so much from? Is spending money (for food, transportation, accommodation, and other necessities) enough to support local economies and to make us, travelers, feel we are not exploiting a place and its people? And what if we don’t spend much money for anything when we travel, as in our case? We live on a boat always anchored out for free, don’t use fuel as we sail using the wind, we have solar panels to produce electricity and a watermaker to produce freshwater. We do our washing by hand, we fish a lot and make our own food with products we bought back form the US or the cheapest local ones, and we don’t need any new cloths, cell phones, furniture, cars. Well, there are many different ways to get involve and give back to places and peoples. Each one of us can figure such ways according to what is needed and what we are able to do. We figured, helping local people and cleaning polluted places is the best way to give back. Thus, everywhere we go we offer our help.

Father Jerome’s Via Dolorosa

We are travelers. The World is our address; the Sea our permanent residency. ‘Our Home is where the Boat is’, a sign hangs in the galley of our catamaran. We don’t spend much time in one place: we sail farther. We are driven by a need like an unquenchable thirst, like a curse, to find out what lies beyond the horizon. Yet, sometimes we pause. Sometimes we climb a ridge and look from the top of a mountain to see where we have come from and where we are going. 

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The distance between Little San Salvador and Cat Island is 34 nautical miles. We sail all day. It’s already dark when we drop anchor in the vast anchorage on the west lee side of the island.

The next day we grab a bottle of water and take to the hills. As we climb the 206-foot tall Mount Alvernia on Cat Island, the highest land elevation in all of the 700 Bahamian islands, I tell this story to my children:

Once upon a time there was an old hermit, a most unusual man, who lived alone in a stone home he built atop a hill. You might imagine that he was a very small man, maybe a midget, about four feet tall, for his house, which still crowns the hill, is so tiny. Everything in it: his sleeping quarters furnished with nothing but a simple plank bed taking up most of the space, the cloister with only three miniature columns leading to a guestroom where no more than one or two guests could fit, the little bell tower, and the chapel with its single pew where one must bend in order to fit through the door, resemble a child-size castle on top of a tiny mountain where a tiny person dwelled. But you know what? The resident of this place was in fact a very tall person, slender, with white beard and sad eyes, wearing a grey robe with a hood. Why do you suppose he built for himself such a small dwelling?

Inside the chapel.

Inside the chapel.

We keep going. It is a short but steep trek to the peak of Mount Alvernia. Visitors from all over the world come here not only to climb the Everest of the Bahamas, but also as a pilgrimage to Father Jerome’s final masterpiece: the Hermitage which he designed and built singlehandedly and where he spent the last 17 years of his life in solitude, as a poor person dedicated to seeking God through prayer, charity, and seclusion from society.

Hermitage on Mount Alvernia

Hermitage on Mount Alvernia

Born John Cyril Hawes in 1876 in England, he studied architecture and theology. At age 21 he was already a practicing building designer. At age 27 he became an Anglican priest. In 1909 John Hawes joined a mission in the Bahamas to restore local churches damaged by a great hurricane. After repairing various churches and building a few new ones, the architect-priest left the Bahamas and didn’t return until 1939, almost thirty years later. During that time he traveled to the United States where he converted to Roman Catholicism, then spent a few years as a homeless person and a wanderer traveling across North America by foot and even working as a laborer on the Canadian Pacific Railways, and then he sailed to Rome and was ordained a priest after two years of studies at The Beda College. He was then commissioned to go to Australia both as an outback missionary and a cathedral architect. He spent many years in Western Australia designing and building various churches, cathedrals, and chapels. In 1937, as recognition for his important work as a missionary priest and church builder, he received the papal title, monsignor. When he came back to Cat Island in the Bahamas he was an old man of 63. Everyone called him Father Jerome.

Father Jerome

Father Jerome

 

We reach the summit. The view from the top is spectacular. We see the entire Cat Island below: an evergreen scrubby mass of low tropical vegetation with small colorful houses strewn along the west coast bathed in crystal sunlight. The placid emerald-green waters of the sea to the west are calm and warm, home of coral gardens and fish. The roaring Atlantic to the east stretching all the way to Africa is deep, purple, mysterious. Up here the wind which never rests carries the songs of insects and birds, and the muffled prayers of an old hermit. Up here, inside the one-man monastery with its massive medieval-looking stone walls, we, atheists, feel the presence of the old hermit: a sudden nostalgic sensation of profound spirituality and awe.

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The grey stones of the walls constructed over the limestone dome of the hill following its curves in perfect harmony with the natural surroundings, and the white cupolas bright in the sun against the blue sky are perfect as a renaissance painting. Except for the cone-shaped dome of the belltower which is broken and crooked, a huge gash like a wound gaping on one side.

“What happened?” I ask a man mixing cement on the grass in front of the hermitage, rocks, sand, buckets, and instruments scattered about. Another man is working up on the tower.

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“A lightning strike it. There is a metal bell inside, so the lightning come and BAM, strike it! About a month ago. Worst damage ever since the hermitage was built”, he explains.

Cedric Wilson, a building contractor with over 45 years of experience specializing in church restoration, and Kirk Burrows, both Cat Islanders, are commissioned by the local Catholic Church to repair the damaged belltower.

Cedric Wilson

Cedric Wilson

We offer to help and they gladly accept.

“You see, we have to bring everything up here by hand, there is no other way”, Cedric explains.

Kirk Burrows

Kirk Burrows

We begin working the next day. A fellow sailor, Ben Rusi, also joins our little brigade.

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Cedric, Kirk, and Ivo building the scaffolding around the belltower.

Cedric, Kirk, and Ivo building the scaffolding around the belltower.

Every morning for about a week, we walk from the anchorage to the foot of Mount Alvernia where we find construction materials waiting for us to be hauled up. As we walk the narrow steep rocky path carrying buckets of sand and water, wooden planks and iron rods, I can’t help thinking of Father Jerome building the hermitage all by himself, stone by stone.

Kirk and Ivo mixing cement.

Kirk and Ivo mixing cement.

There, all along the path from the foot to the top of the hill, set among shadowy trees, he has placed large concrete bas-reliefs representing various Stations of the Cross, imaging Jesus carrying his cross on the way to his crucifixion along the Via Dolorosa: the Way of Suffering. The analogy is inevitable: Jesus struggling with the cross, Father Jerome building the hermitage, Cedric and Kirk fixing it, and now us too being part of it.

Ivo along "the Path of Suffering"

Ivo along „the Path of Suffering“

After a few days, the belltower is fixed, and we celebrate with a small picnic on the terrace of a closed-down restaurant on the beach. Cedric brings tomatoes from his garden, homemade citrus juice, and a big pot of thick chicken and potato soup his wife cooked for us. The bread I made in the morning is on us. The chicken soup is hot and rich and so tasty, it enters our list of Best Foods we Ever Had. We enjoy the food and the stories Cedric and Kirk share with us in the orange-and-blue afternoon on the beach.

At the end, the reward we receive for our hard labors, for our time spent helping those in need, is the ultimate one: it is the feeling of moral uplifting and spiritual inspiration achievable only through acts of selflessness and charity. It is the lesson that Father Jerome and his humble yet charming last dwelling taught our children: to enjoy life one doesn’t need a big house but a big heart.

Through our efforts to help repair the belltower we became forever connected to Father Jerome and his Hermitage, to the past and the present of Mount Alvernia, to the people of Cat Island, and to the history of the Bahamas.

The only inhabitant of the hermitage today is a small hermit-frog.

The only inhabitant of the hermitage today is a small hermit-frog.

Cat Islanders who told us stories and facts about Father Jerome

Deacon Andrew Burrows

One Saturday night last December there was a big storm. When the lightning hit, everything went black. The lights went down. The next day we found out that the belltower got struck. It is an act of Nature. It is also a wake-up call. Everyone uses the Hermitage, we have pictures of the Hermitage printed on Cat Island brochures to attract tourists. The Hermitage as a cultural and historical heritage is a resource we are using, but nobody maintains it. Yes, the lightning can be interpreted as a wake up call, to bring attention. 

Deacon Burrows in front of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church designed and built by Father Jerome.

Deacon Burrows in front of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church designed and built by Father Jerome

  He had a bell placed at the bottom of the hill. When people needed him they rang the bell and he would come down. He gave clothes, food, helped everyone as much as possible.  People came to him from Monday to Friday when they needed him. He preached the gospel but would help everyone regardless of their religion.

Father Jerome died on a June 26th. I was born June 26th.

Deacon Burrows during service, inside Holly Redeemer Church.

Deacon Burrows during service, inside Holly Redeemer Church.

Poompey

We have more churches than people in this town. Everyone wants to build their own church. Father Jerome built 5 churches on Cat Island and Long Island alone. But the Hermitage is where he lived for 17 years and he is buried up there too.

Poompey

Poompey

Paula Thurston

My mother, Katleen Thurston, used to take care of Father Jerome. She used to clean and cook and wash clothes for him. She was about thirty then, married, but she couldn’t have children. One day father Jerome put his hand on her shoulder and talked to her in Latin and blessed her. And told her, you will have a daughter. And that was me. I was blessed by Father Jerome. My mother didn’t have anymore children.

One morning, after it rained all night, my mother found him lying on the ground there. He fell down and hurt himself. It’s very steep and the rocks get slippery after rain. She found him and called people from the village and they called the C-plane. and they took him to Nassau, to the hospital. He returned after that but was not the same man. He died shortly after this incident.

Paula Thurston

Paula Thurston

Gladys McKenzie

I don’t know how old I am, I don’t remember. But I remember Father Jerome. Sure, I remember him. He was a nice man. He is buried under a rock in the ground, right there up on the hill. When he died I was a young woman. We all went to the funeral. Now everyone comes here and takes my picture, because I remember him. (She loughs.)

Gladys McKenzie, around 90-years-old

Gladys McKenzie, around 90-years-old

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Secrets of the Mountains

This is the extended version with previously unpublished images of the story about our October 2013 expedition to a Mayan burial ground: a cave full of ancient human remains in the mountains of Sierra de las Minas in Guatemala. It also includes the story of the Q’eqchi community Caxlampom Pataxte where a foreign palm-oil corporation presently exploits the land and pollutes the environment, with transcribed and translated testimonies given by two members of the indigenous community.

 

 

Smoke over the village in the morning

Smoke over the village in the morning

 

“Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets.”

-Rigoberta Menchu Tum

 

 

   „Are you afraid of death?” he asks me with the same intonation as if he is asking Do you like yellow flowers. I don’t know how to answer. My mouth becomes dry. „When you go to the graveyard, are you scared?” he clarifies.

   „When I was a little girl, yes, I was scared of death and to go in graveyards, but now no. Now I am more afraid of the living than of the dead.“ We both lough at the joke.

We are walking fast on a dirt road through a vast plantation of palm trees, the guy and me, past a palm-oil processing plant, across a wide shallow river, and into the shadow of a jungle-covered mountain. Ivo, Joni, and two other local guys are walking ahead of us.

 

Ivo, Joni, and two of the guides walking across a palm plantation.

Ivo, Joni, and two of the guides walking across a palm plantation.

One of the guys is propping a little radio on his shoulder, his ear stuck to it, and is listening to the news the entire time.  

“Something happened in Syria again” he announces.

He is small and very serious, with a melancholic expression. His Spanish is good and most of the time he is the one speaking with us. One of the other two guys is his brother; I like him a lot. He is slightly chubby and has the most sincere beautiful smile every time someone is talking to him. Makes him look happy. The third guy doesn’t speak Spanish and doesn’t smile. He is like a ghost. Walks way in front of the group; appears from nowhere, and then disappears again. Sometimes they use signals to communicate between each other from far away.

We have met them this morning. We don’t know their names. We don’t know if they are good guys or bad guys. All we know is that they are young indigenous Q’eqchi men who had nothing to do this particular day and agreed to take us to a cave in the mountain above their village. They are wearing jeans, t-shirts and black rubber boots, carrying small backpacks and machetes.

 

Mira with the guides before the hike.

Mira with the guides before the hike.

The machetes are worrying me a bit. Are they for our protection or what? Protection against whom? And what was this question about death? We are heading to a cave hidden in the jungle with three unknown men armed with machetes who like to talk about death and the war in Syria. Great.

The whole thing happened spontaneously. We were sailing along the remote edge of Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s biggest lake, near the valley of river Polochic. The area is largely uninhabited. It is one of the world’s most bio diverse regions where manatees and crocodiles chill in the waters of the delta, giant anteaters, sloths, and jaguars roam the forested land, and howler monkeys, like sad demons, announce from the tops of the trees the end of each day, the most ominous heartbreaking roars. The few villages scattered on the shores of the lake are tiny Mayan Q’eqchi communities whose inhabitants live pretty much the same way as their ancestors hundreds of years ago: fishing, working their milpas harvesting beans and corn, raising chickens and pigs.

 

Q'eqchi people gathered on the shores of Lake Izabal, Guatemala.

Q’eqchi people gathered on the shores of Lake Izabal, Guatemala.

It was getting late; we had to find a place to anchor overnight. We approached the shore where a big column of grey smoke was coming out of the forest: a village, we thought, and that’s where we stopped. From the two boats we saw a few traditional Mayan homes on the banks of the lake. Tiny, made of thin logs and roofs of dry palm leaves. Behind them, like the back of a sleeping iguana, rose the heavy humid mountains of Sierra de las Minas: white limestone covered with thick intensely green jungle.

 

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As we drew closer we realized that the grey smoke was not coming from any of the houses; it was very dense and did not smell of firewood or tortillas. There was something else, something hidden between the village and the mountain, exhaling thick mysterious clouds into the afternoon sky. The night fell.

 

Before dark

Before dark

In the morning the entire village gathered on the shore to greet our kayak. Cacxlampon Pataxte is a small community of about thirty-forty indigenous Q’eqchi families; the majority are children. Tourists don’t stop here often, and so our visit is a huge event.

 

Caxlampom Pataxte greeting us

Caxlampom Pataxte greeting us

“Are there caves near-by?” I ask. Only a few speak Spanish.

 „Yes, there is a cave not too far; we can take you there if you like“, says the guy with the melancholic expression.

Thus began our journey.

 

In the village

In the village

Once we enter the jungle and start climbing the mountain there is no road anymore. Our progress upwards is slow and difficult. Our improvised guides use their machetes to cut a path through tangled vegetation, dig holes in the slopes making steps for us, and remove thorns from spiky trees so we can hold on to them. The terrain is extremely harsh, at places seems impossible to pass. We go over crevices stepping on fallen trees and slippery rocks; we zigzag where the mountain is too steep. Here, one mistake, one wrong step could be fatal.

 

Ivo

Ivo

We stop to rest a few times even though the Q’eqchi guys are not tired at all. They tell us they are used to this kind of hikes in the mountains. They have been doing it since kids, since they can remember. They would walk for hours, sometimes days to gather firewood and logs for the construction of their houses and cayucos, and to get from one place to another. “We don’t have other roads but the rivers and mountains. And we don’t have electricity in the village. We depend on the forest. Without wood we cannot make fire, we cannot make tortillas and roast fish; without the forest our children will not eat.”

 

A traditional Mayan house

A traditional Mayan house

We didn’t bring any food and it is already lunchtime. One of the guys pulls out a big bottle of atol from his backpack and passes it around. I love atol: a thick drink prepared with cornflower and water, but this one is without sugar. Still, it is the best thing to bring on a hike: it’s like liquid bread: food and water mixed in a bottle. I take a big gulp. The guy with the nice smile cuts a few small round balls from a thin spiky tree and opens their hard shells with his machete. “We call it Monok, he explains, because the little spikes on the shell make it look a bit like the fur of the howler monkey, como los monos: monok”. The little white nut inside tastes like hazelnut but is softer. Two-three of those contain as much protein as a full meal, and they are everywhere in the forest. You just have to know. When you know, it is easy to reach and take what the forest is so generously offering. But the forest has many secrets.

Monok

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As we are enjoying our forest snack, I look around. In our feet lies the vast river valley, and beyond: the lake, sparkling, delicious, immense liquid mirror in which the mountain contemplates itself. Behind us, grey rocks like towers without roofs, and in their skin: tiny fossils of ocean creatures, pale empty skeletons, ancient remains of underwater creatures, witness of another time.

 

Taking a rest from a steep trek.

Taking a rest from a steep trek.

We are at the bottom of the jungle, on top of the mountain, surrounded by insane vegetation, abundant, pulsating with juices and life, like a still image of some mad extravagant festival: The Secret Life of the Forest. Thin palms with dark spiky skins dance behind luxurious fans of oversized ferns. Giant elders with yellow barks smooth like paper walk heavily, as very important kings do, up and down the mountain, their majestic wigs made of leaves, birds, clouds, and mysteries. Lianas like garlands fall from the forest roof twisting around, stretching and swinging in the shadows of the roaring mountain.

The names of these plants and trees, like poetry, testify to the transience of cultures known to these forests: Poc-xum, Saqi Lokab, Q’eqi Lokab, Lindernia Rotundifolia, Hyptis Recurvate, Russelia Longifolia, Zygadenus Elegans, Quequescamote de Culebra, Plumilla de Gallina, Santa Maria, San Pedro…

 

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By the time we reach the cave, our guides tell us all about their struggles against the palm-oil company which, since over a decade now, is exploiting and polluting their land. The vast plantations of palm trees we have seen on our way, the smoke of the palm-oil treatment plant, the channels dumping chemical waste in the lake, are all killing the trees, poisoning the water, and bringing disease to their children. They have been robbed of their ancestral land by a corporate giant and are now fighting to get it back.

 

A channel carrying thick dark waste waters across the palm plantation to the lake.

A channel carrying thick dark waste waters across the palm plantation to the lake.

By the time we come back from the cave, we have become friends. The kind of friends who can count on each other. We could count on them for protection against the village crooks and the company people who saw us taking pictures and filming around the palm-oil processing plant; they could count on us to tell their story of struggle against injustice.

 

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Their story is not an exceptional one. It resembles all the other similar stories which take place in a third-world country, where the poorest indigenous people live in a most remote, beautiful, bio diverse setting. Rivers, mountains, forests, and lakes. Endemic wild animals. Abundant evergreen vegetation. Explosion of life. In the rivers: fish. Under the lakes: oil. In the forests: jaguars. Under the mountains: nickel, aluminum, copper, and gold. Vast fertile valleys. A foreign corporation shows up with promises of “progress and development”.

But there is one obstacle for the corporation: the local people. A few people. Small indigenous communities. Small obstacle. The mine/plant/company moves in. Animals/people/communities move out. Or rather, are being moved out/displaced/killed, their habitat destroyed, their homes burned down. Economic interests equal exploitation, corruption, destruction. The story continues with evictions, massacres, pollution, devastation.

The End.

 

Waste waters from the processing plant

Waste waters from the processing plant

Actually, it’s not The End because the story goes on, but that is how it ends for a lot of people and ecosystems throughout the world.

A child drinking water from the river.

A child drinking water from the river.

 

In reality, what happened is that they didn’t respect our indigenous rights.

In the beginning, when our grandfathers lived, our grandfathers lived in this part of the land. There, on the lakeshore are the lands we occupied for over two hundred years; the place known as Caxlampom Pataxte. This is the name. ‘Caxlam’ means ‘chicken’. ‘Pom’ is the thing we extract from the trees and we use it for ceremonies and cults.’Pataxte’ is the name of the river, just there next to the lake. For this, our community is called Caxlampom Pataxte.

People from the community.

People from the community.

 

But then what they’ve done is evict us. The palm-oil company came and the owner of the company told to our grandfathers:

“What a poor life you are living here on the shores of the lake! It is not good! Better, what I am going to do”, said the owner of the company, “I will move you up there, up in the mountains, so that you will live better.”

 

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The company took the lands and promised our fathers to give them work and progress. Thus, our fathers had to move and build their houses in a very small piece of land. But our fathers had ten children. And then the children had children of their own. Where to live? For this reason, taught our fathers, better if we take back our land, which has been ours. We belong to this land.

 

The only thing the company has done for the community is building a non-functioning clinic which is closed down and deserted.

The only thing the company has done for the community is building a non-functioning clinic which is closed down and deserted.

But the company now said the land is not ours, they called us invaders. ‘People who are stealing land’, this means the word ‘invaders’.

In our political constitution of Guatemala, in the article 122 is said that there is on the shore of lake Izabal a National Area of the State of 200 meters, all along the banks of the lake. No one can be owner of this piece of land. Only an ‘organized community’ can own these lands.

 

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Thus says the article 122. If the law in Guatemala is worth nothing, then let them say we are invaders. But if the law is to be respected in our country, let it be applied! I believe I am not superior to the law, nor are they. We have to respect the law. So, this is what I am asking. If the land is theirs, then what happened with the article 122? And they call us invaders. I pull out my ID. Look, my ID says I was born here; let me see yours. You are foreigners.  Señor Juan Melg is foreigner; I think he is from Germany. He came here a few years ago and is calling me and invader? How is it possible?

Now the rich and the foreigners have the best flat lands and our communities are pushed up in the mountains. Why? Because they know how to manipulate the law. There is a great corruption.

 

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NaturAceites was founded in 1985. In 1998, the company began production of palm and palm kernel oils, with the first planting of palm cultivation in the Polochic region. In 2002 started the cultivation, production, extraction, refining and marketing of edible oil, butter, and margarine based on palm fruit

NaturAceites currently operates in three agricultural areas located in Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in Alta Verapaz , El Estor in Izabal and San Luis in Peten , two extraction plants , one in Fray Bartolome de las Casas and the other in El Estor and a refining plant in Escuintla. In previous years local communities have been evicted, their houses and crops burnt, and people slaughtered as a result of locals protesting against the company taking over their lands.

 

Plantation of palms for palm oil.

Plantation of palms for palm oil.

In 2011 they kicked me out of work. I worked there for 18 months. My first job was on the irrigation pump. But it was very strong, the chemical waste coming out of the processing plant. In wintertime the pool overflows and the waste gets to the rivers and contaminates them. And the rivers contaminated the lake and the fish died. There is not much fish left in the lake.

 

Waste-water pool.

Waste-water pool. The stink is indescribable.

The company takes advantage of us, the indigenous people. Even though they pay us a bit of salary our work has more value. But they take advantage of us, as if we are basura (garbage). They put us to work in all the dirtiness and we become very affected because we have to breathe the contaminated air and it is very dangerous for us and also for our children; it is a risk we are taking. All this contaminated air… And the waste they are dumping under the palm trees attracts flies. Now we cannot eat in peace, there are so many flies everywhere, and the children get diseases. Sometimes children die and we don’t know from what class of a sickness. It’s from the contamination. The contamination of the environment is very strong.

 

Blue fly-catchers placed around the processing plant.

Blue fly-catchers placed around the processing plant.

Before it was not like this. Before all this shores of the lake were very beautiful, there were lots of birds, there were monkeys, but now they are no more.

 

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One day there was a visit, I think it was from the United Nations, to inspect the plant, but they only spoke English. Then the engineers told me, as I was the one in charge of all these ugly things, the irrigation pump and the pool that contaminates the rivers with all these chemicals, so what they told me was: ‘There will be a visit now, if they ask you if the pool overflows, you tell them that it never happened. Because if you tell them that the waste overflows in the rivers they will shut down the plant.’

 

Black waters flow to the rivers and lake.

Black waters flow to the rivers and lake.

When they came, they didn’t ask me anything. At the end, the inspectors left satisfied. The bosses gathered us in a room to congratulate us, to tell us that the visit was excellent: the inspectors didn’t see any cont

I was very happy when we finally started to organize with my friends and to recuperate our lands. We organized a group and started discussing things with our grad-parents. Our grand-parents told us that, yes, this land is ours, that the company cheated us. The company promised many things, but all we got is contamination. This is the reality.

 

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I am very happy now that you came here. When people from outside come they can see the reality and tell our story to the rest of the world, they can explain what is happening in our community, what is the company doing. The owners of the company think that we don’t know what is happening, that we cannot express ourselves and tell what we experience. But thanks God our fathers sent us to school and we learned a bit of Spanish. Now we can speak a little bit Spanish, not only Q’eqchi, so that the world understands us more. Now it is not like before. Now, we, the indigenous peoples, are organizing and uprising. 

 

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We get to the cave’s entrance after about three hours of extreme hiking through the jungle. It is a small opening in the grey rocks leading down. Our guides stop at the edge of the opening to say a muffled prayer in Q’eqchi before going in. We follow. It is a place they rarely visit, they say, a sacred site for prayers and rituals; for secrets and secret knowledge. We are the first white people to ever enter this cave.

The cave's entrance.

The cave’s entrance.

They lead us into a narrow dark corridor, humid and cool. We get to a small chamber. The light of a small flashlight illuminates scattered objects on the floor: yellow bones, human skulls, lower jaws with crooked teeth. Some are calcified to the cave’s walls; others lay loose on the ground. It is a Tomba Maya, they explain, a Mayan burial ground. The skeletons must be hundreds of years old, they say, from the times before the Conquista.

Human remains inside the cave and a cacao-fruit offering.

Human remains inside the cave and a cacao-fruit offering.

Being in the presence of ancient Mayan remains is something both strange and beautiful. In the dark, my mind begins to wander. The cave with its breath of a carnivorous flower becomes a temple; I become a ghost from a faraway land.

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 “We didn’t think you will make it all the way to the cave”, tell us our Q’eqchi guides, laughing, upon our return from the mountain that day, and invite us to a “celebration” the same evening. I imagine it will be some sort of a party with local food, music and alcohol, maybe even dancing.

As we return to the village at dusk, we are escorted to a house with wide-plank walls and a few separate compartments. There we meet the leader of the organization fighting to recuperate their lands. He shows us documentation and maps proving that according to the Guatemalan law the palm-oil company should not occupy the 200 meter stripe on the shores of the lake. He also says that this area of Sierra de las Minas is a protected national park and therefor industrial activity and environmental pollution should not be allowed, but they are.

Looking at documents in the dark.

Looking at documents in the dark.

A chart of the lake's shores.

A chart of the lake’s shores.

 

There is no electricity in the village even though the company has promised “progress” and, as the night falls, our hosts bring candles and flashlights. We are served tortillas and fried fish the women have just prepared for us over open-fire stoves. We eat in silence, in the flickering light of the candles, thinking how we can help. What can we possibly do for these people who see in us some sort of saviors?

A woman frying fish for us over the fire.

A woman frying fish for us over the fire.

There are many people in the house: young women working in the open kitchen with dirt floor and no running water, holding flashlights over black pans on the fire; shy kids giggling, sitting in the corners, watching us with respect and curiosity; men walking in and out: impossible to know who exactly lives here, and who is just passing by driven by curiosity to see the ‘foreign visitors’.  

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The furniture in the room consists of one massive rough wooden table, a few chairs, a plank bed and a few hammocks. All sorts of objects hang on the walls: family photos, green fishing nets, machetes, bags, clothes, instruments. To us all this seems impossibly miserable, yet it is one of the biggest and ‘richest’ houses in the village.

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After supper, we start for the church. One of our cave-guides now leads us across the broad cobbled streets of his village without electricity, illuminating our way with a small flashlight. The darkness of a village without electricity is intense. We hear dogs barking from the blackness of yards, we see tiny beams of blue light in the distance: other people with flashlights going somewhere, we choose our step carefully over stones, puddles, and animal dung.

The church

The church

The church, one of four in the small village, is nothing but a hut with wooden walls, palm-leaf roof and dirt floors where a generator allows for a single light bulb to illuminate the space inside. There are huge nails sticking on the inside of the walls on which bundles of sleeping babies are being hung. Three rows of long benches occupied by men, women , and children are placed on both sides of a narrow walk leading to the front stage where men take turns to sing and read passages from the bible in Q’eqchi and, just because of our presence tonight, in Spanish as well. The only musical instrument accompanying the singing is a turtle shell which a young kid rhythmically bangs away with a stick while the rest of the congregation claps hands. Many young men sit close to the electricity plugs where the generator is and charge their cell phones during the entire service. Not exactly the sort of ‘celebration’ we, atheists, have imagined. Yet, we are overwhelmed with joy and so happy to witness all this.

Inside the church.

Inside the church.

We are presented to the fifty-sixty people gathered for the celebration as the “guest-foreigners who will help us”, a related passage from the bible is read in our honor, and we are asked to say a few words. I thank them for the hospitality and the friendship, for the food they have shared with us and the trust they have placed upon us, and express my profound humility and joy to be among them. My words are being translated in Q’eqchi for the audience and everyone applauds.

More singing from the Bible follows, a baby receives a blessing in exchange for a bag in which something moves, maybe a chicken, and the celebration ends with a performance by kids who sing for us.

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The next day we return to the village to document some more of the palm-oil company secrets. Our new friends show up with a small motorbike with a flat tire and say only one of us can go on the bike with only one of them. That one is me and my camera. After an epic motorbike ride through endless plantations of African palm trees, and a few stops to pump some air in the flat tire, we arrive to a place where a small channel runs across a dead forest and finally dumps its thick black waste-waters in Lake Izabal. I have never before seen a dead forest. It is a haunting apocalyptic vision of what pollution does to nature.

A thin channel carrying chemical waste flows through a dead forest in the outskirts of the village.

A thin channel carrying chemical waste flows through a dead forest in the outskirts of the village.

Before we leave, we decide it is our turn to invite our new friends to visit us on the boat. We invite only the three cave-guides and their wives but the entire village shows up. It is funny how we think of a home as a one-family unit, and how the Q’eqchi perceive ‘home’ as a community and not as a private space. 

Guests on the boat.

Guests on the boat.

I remember asking someone, the first time when we went ashore with the kayak, if it is OK to leave the kayak there, on the shore, and they were amused telling me of course it is OK, it is no one’s land in particular. And then I remember how people were going in and out of houses and yards without knocking on the doors or asking permission. And then I remember how one of our new friends explained to me the meaning of ‘community’ and how the land is to everyone and no one in particular. With this kind of mentality one must expect that if one person from a community is invited, the entire community is invited. And thus, we have almost the entire community of Caxlampom Pataxte, men, women with babies, and children aboard Fata Morgana.

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Our kayak in the company of the visiting lanchas and cayucos.

Our kayak in the company of the visiting lanchas and cayucos.

 

Q'eqchi kids aboard Fata Morgana.

Q’eqchi kids aboard Fata Morgana.

For them it is like visiting a spaceship. I show the women my kitchen with running water and a fridge, Ivo shows the men the solar panels and the electronics: the GPS and the autopilot and explains how we produce freshwater out of saltwater using a special machine, and how the sails work with the wind and the boat moves without engine.

Q'eqchi men aboard Fata Morgana.

Q’eqchi men aboard Fata Morgana.

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“Would you like to travel as well and visit the world?” we ask them.

“We don’t even think of traveling. Every people has its place. This is our place. We are connected to our community, our home. Our land it is our life.”

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A Q'eqchi home built with bamboo trees.

A Q’eqchi home built with bamboo trees.

A turtle from the lake makes for delicious soup, a great delicacy.

A turtle from the lake makes for delicious soup, a great delicacy.

 

A kid carrying the turtle.

A kid carrying the turtle.

 

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Young Q'eqchi woman with a baby washing clothes in Lake Izabal.

Young Q’eqchi woman with a baby washing clothes in Lake Izabal.

 

Early morning fisherman.

Early morning fisherman.

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Mira holding a baby in Comunidad Indigena Caxlampom Pataxte, Lago de Izabal, Guatemala

Mira holding a baby at Comunidad Indigena Caxlampom Pataxte, Lago de Izabal, Guatemala

I have promised to help our Q’eqchi friends. Even if ‘help’ only means ‘expose’. I promised them I will tell their story to the world.

If you want to help too, please share this story, and contact me if you know of an Indigenous Rights organization or a group who could help them further. Thank you- Bantiox!

Stop NaturAceites

Stop NaturAceites

 

For further information about the palm-oil company NaturAceites and the history of violence surrounding the Q’eqchi communities in the region, please read the following article by clicking here.

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Marooned in Burger Paradise. Part Two

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After a week of unlimited burgers in the private cruise ship resort Half Moon Cay, we decide it is time to go and make a first attempt to sail away to the next Bahamian island south, Cat Island. As we lift anchor we look back at the beach, the fake pirate ship, the cabanas. Our friend ‘Crazy George’, one of the island workers whose job is to clean the beach and even the sand early in the morning before the arrival of the tourists, and whom we befriended, is standing on the shore whistling and waving in our direction with both arms over his head. We are waving back at him, our hearts heavy, we feel like we will never again see this place we enjoyed so much.

"I wish i could stay here forever."

„I wish i could stay here forever.“

But as soon as we are out of the protected anchorage, we are overwhelmed by strong headwind and big waves and the thought that for the first time in a week we will not have a proper lunch. After an hour of banging and too much stress, we turn back. For the first time in our sailing experience (about 7 months now) we change plans, give up, and turn back. With the wind now pushing us from behind, we arrive in the anchorage we have just left in only 20 minutes. There are a bunch of other sailboats which have arrived the evening before and as we drop anchor we spot two little girls, about Maya’s age, watching us from their boat just a few feet away. They have long hairs: one the color of gold, the other the color of fire. Riley (11) and Wren (9) become instant friends with Maya (10).

Wren, Maya, Riley

Wren, Maya, Riley

Thus, in the next few days, the three girls are inseparable. They play together all day rarely getting out of the water having tons of fun.

Maya, Riley, Wren

Maya, Riley, Wren

At the same time, Ivo and me become instant friends with Riley and Wren’s mom and dad. Turns out, they are „professional“ adventurers and teachers on a sabbatical vacation. Scott is teaching Adventure Education and Tourism (and currently writing a manual on the subject) at Washington County Community College. Stephanie, an athlete, is also an instructor in the same collage with many years of experience working as a White-Water Adventure instructor. Avid adventurers, hikers, mountain-climbers, skiers, free-divers, sailors, Scott and Steph are also great parents and friends, great people.

Stephanie

Stephanie

Riley, Scott, Maya, Ivo

Riley, Scott, Maya, Ivo

 

Wren and Stephanie

Wren and Stephanie

The perfect paradise became even perfecter with friends in it. We show them around and invite them to our buffet, and the girls are happy all day long. Scott, a snorkeling and spear-fishing addict, teaches Ivo how to spear-fish with a Hawaiian spear. They disappear and spend pretty much a million years in the water coming back in the evening, just before shark-time, with a bucket of assorted fish and a huge lobster. We improvise a small party on our boat and have fish for super for a change.

Riley, Maya, Wren with lobster

Three little savages and an unlucky lobster.

After a few days, we sail south together with our new friends aboard s/v Kiawah and spend a couple of days more with them at Cat Island, hiking up the tallest hill of the Bahamas where the famous Father Jerome hermitage is, shooting coconuts with rocks (Scott is an unbelievable good shot with those rocks, no coconut has a chance), drinking beers and listening to live music at the small beach shack with Cedell and Poompey, world-famous Rake-and-Scrape musicians, plus an epic sleep-over (Maya had the best time sleeping over at Kiawah with her two friends).

Wren and Maya at Cat Island

Wren and Maya at Cat Island

Riley in Blue, Cat Island

Riley in Blue, Cat Island

 

What the boat-girls play with

What the boat-girls play with

Hiking up Mount Alvernia

Hiking up Mount Alvernia

Inside the Hermitage's small chapel

Inside the Hermitage’s small chapel

 

A hermit-frog inside the hermitage

A hermit-frog inside the hermitage

Shack on the beach

Shack on the beach

 

Maya on the flute, Cedell in the saw, Pompey on the accordion, Scott on the drum

Maya on the flute, Cedell on the saw, Pompey on the accordion, Scott on the drum

And then is time to say goodby… Kiawah continued her journey taking away our friends, and we stayed behind for another week. We had a job to do.

Dear Riley and Wren,

Dear Riley and Wren,

 

Maya, Riley, and Wren BFF

Maya, Riley, and Wren
BFF

Check out S/V Kiawah amazing blog and follow their journey here.

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Marooned In Burger Paradise. Part One

Thank you, Brian and Joyce, for bringing us to this place!

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Remember the Swimming Pigs and how we envied them? Living on a beautiful tropical island in the Bahamas, right on the beach, doing nothing all day long but chill and swim gracefully in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, nobody bothering them with grills or machetes, boats bringing them free food right up to the beach? Well, careful what you wish for, they say. All this happened to us too: the perfect island, the beach paradise, free food floating right up to us. We now know exactly how those pigs feel (this has nothing to do with Miyazaki’s films) and it is so good that we began envying ourselves. But let me explain.

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Food in the Bahamas is a problem.

In the settlements on the little islands there are small grocery stores with very limited selection of foods which are up to 4 times more expensive than the same products in the U.S. because everything is imported from the U.S. with an added transportation cost. Moreover, the stuff comes once a week by the mailboat and often we have to wait till Wednesday, when the boat usually brings supplies, if we want to buy fresh tomatoes or apples (if we are near a settlement at all).

We knew this and so, before leaving USA, we stocked up the boat with canned and dried foods, pasta, flour, and rice and we hoped to be catching lots of fish. Still, after about a month and a half we finished most of our supplies, and rice became our main meal, with or without fish depending on luck.

A few weeks ago Brian and Joyce, our friends and ex-neighbors (great people!) from back in Canada, sent us a message: “Guys, we will be coming to the Bahamas on a cruise ship. We’ll be spending a day in Half Moon Cay. Let’s meet up!”

Sure thing! At that time we were just about 30 miles away from Half Moon Cay. And so, we check the weather, wait for a few days for the best winds to cross from Great Guana Cay to Little San Salvador, and after a day of slow uneventful sailing we get to the anchorage in front of the small private island owned by Holland-America and Carnival cruise lines, Little San Salvador.

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We arrive in the evening exactly one week before Brian and Joyce’s ship, no rush. We are the only sailboat in the anchorage. The beach is perfect: white sand and palm trees, little colorful cabanas, a wooden pirate ship. The island is private and everything is set up for the cruise ships’ crowd. There is no settlement here, no houses, no school, no shops. We drop anchor on the far north side, trying to stay away from the resort facilities; we are not even sure if we are allowed to be here at all. But we kayak to shore and we meet the manager of the island, Anthony, and he is happy to have us around, no problem, man, enjoy!

Fake Pirate Ship

Fake Pirate Ship

The next morning a cruise ship like a huge white ice-cream cone arrives and unloads about 3 000 (that is three thousand) pink, fat, drunk, loud, hungry tourists, mostly Americans. We think: horror, how are we to survive here for a week? Until we discover the Island Grill Buffet.

Is this the same beach?

Is this the same beach?

It’s lunch time and the cruise ship people lying on the beach, starving, are being directed to an enormous buffet set up behind the fake pirate ship. We casually follow the hungry crowd pretending we are passengers from the big ship. And there it is: haven on earth (food heaven, that is).

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Burgers, hotdogs, grilled chicken, ribs with barbeque sauce, grilled fish fillet; five or six salads and side dishes (I am talking about green salad, cabbage salad, macaroni salad, shrimp salad, potatoes with Dijon mustard, baked zucchini, steamed broccoli, corn, beans, couscous with curry…); little cakes for dessert; and mountains of cut and whole fruits: watermelon, honeydew melon, pineapple, mango, grapes, apples, oranges, pears, kiwi, papaya, strawberries…

 

Ivo loading up his fifteenth plate.

Ivo loading up his fifteenth plate.

We stuff ourselves until our bellies cannot take it no more, we pause for a few minutes, and then we stuff ourselves some more until we are about to explode, and we even stuff the small camera backpack with a bunch of fruits and burgers for later. But we now feel not only stuffed but also guilty for steeling food from the cruise ship. Until we observe with horror how they deal with the leftover food after everyone is done eating. The trash: half-eaten burgers and whatever the three thousand people had in their plates and didn’t eat, goes in garbage bags and is being burned on the island. And the leftovers from the buffet: food left uneaten: perfectly good burgers, chicken, ribs, salads, side dishes, cut fruit, desserts, is being dumped in huge 20 gallon red buckets with lids, to be brought back on the ship and thrown overboard when they pull away from the anchorage. Because, they say, they cannot serve lunch food for supper, nor can they give it to the local staff on the island, about 40 permanent Bahamian workers. Company policy.

It is a great waste, if you ask me, so much good food dumped in the sea for the sharks to feast on, while people everywhere are starving or paying a dollar for an apple. And there are so many more issues besides wasting food that are wrong with those cruise ships corporate giants… Pollution, tax evasion, exploitation of workers from third-world countries, etc…

At least we felt better; not as if we are steeling food, but rather saving it from the dumpster.

 

Maya and Viktor (Ivo behind them) with burgers.

Maya and Viktor (Ivo behind them) with burgers.

The ship leaves in the early afternoon, and the island is only ours now; not a single soul on the beach, silence restored. We swim, we go for a walk exploring the interior, the fields and pastures where a few dozen horses, some goats, and a donkey named Ted are being kept.

Baby goat

Baby goat

 

We visit the little camp where the 40 permanent island workers employed by Holland-America live in trailers, away from the tourist facilities, and they invite us to the community kitchen for supper. It’s wonderful: local Bahamian food: fish in tomato sauce, rice and beans, freshly baked cookies. They have a community cook who prepares food for everyone. These are the workers who clean the beach after the cruise ship is gone, who maintain the private beach-cabanas painting and cleaning them, who guide the horseback-riding and swimming-with-stingrays tours. I ask them what they think of the wasting of food from the buffet and they too don’t understand it but don’t want to say much, as they don’t want to jeopardize their employment. How about pigs, I suggest. You could raise pigs for free with so much leftovers. But the pigs will stink and the tourists will not like it, they say sadly. Even the goats and the horses we keep all the way on the other side of the island. No, the leftovers go to the sharks. Company policy.

The following night Ivo cannot sleep.

The memory of the buffet and the uncertainty of tomorrow keep him wide awake. Will a cruise ship come again? Will it bring us food? He spends the night sitting on deck, awaiting with anxiety the arrival of a big white ship.

Sure enough, the next morning, another cruise ship drops the hook in our anchorage and the buffet scene repeats. Every day a cruise ship arrives and every day we join the tourists for lunch. And in the afternoon we enjoy the silence; and in the evening we make a small fire on the sand to heat up some leftover burgers.

Vick and Maya building a small fire.

Vick and Maya building a small fire.

 

Mira heating up buffet-grilled-chicken and cruise-boat-buns.

Mira heating up buffet-grilled-chicken and cruise-boat-buns.

 

Maya by the fire.

Maya by the fire.

 

Thus, a week passes.

We now feel like this is our private island and when Brian and Joyce finally arrive, we welcome them and show them around. It is such a joy to meet old friends away from home, in such a beautiful setting!

Mira, Joyce and Brian in the pirate Ship Bar.

Mira, Joyce and Brian in the pirate Ship Bar.

 

Their ship, Carnival Fantasy, is the one with the craziest crowd. Mostly young people, everyone drunk, dancing in the sea. (Holland-America ships are like floating senior’s homes, less people, quiet well-behaved crowd.)

Drunk cruiseship people dancing Macarena in the sea.

Drunk cruiseship people dancing Macarena in the sea.

 

When Brian and Joyce leave that day, we are sad. We have no more reason to stay here… But a series of fortunate events cause us to stay one more memorable week.

To be continued…

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Liebster Award

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A while ago we got nominated by the guys @WeTravelAndBlog  for a Liebster Award. Thank you, Jade&Gabriel for the nomination!

First we panicked.

Then we felt soooo honored, like Johny Depp at the Academy Awards.

Photo by Steve Granitz - © WireImage.com

Photo by Steve Granitz – © WireImage.com

 

But WHAT is this Liebster Award, anyway?

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The Liebster Award is not really an award. It is not even a lobster that you catch under a rock, boil it, and then eat it. It is more like a way to connect with and promote travel blogs, especially not-so-popular blogs that people haven’t discovered yet. Everyone is a winner!

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THE RULES

Answer questions from the nominator and nominate other blogs you admire and want others to discover.

Here are the answers to We Travel And Blog questions:

1. Has travel ever made you cry?

 

Traveling is a crying business, especially by sailboat. It starts even before you set off.

You begin crying when it is time to leave everything behind: your friends and relatives, your old house, most of your stuff. Then you cry some more when you buy the boat and start fixing it and you realize you are broke.

Then you start traveling. But you cry again when you get to a place so beautiful, so perfect you never want to leave it, but you have to.

When you see a blue butterfly in a deep limestone canyon for the first time: you cry.

You meet people and you make friends you don’t want to lose just yet but it is time to go again: you cry.

You hear the unearthly cries of the howler monkeys at dawn in a remote corner of the world: you cry too.

You hit a storm in the middle of the night miles from land and you are sure the boat will not take it. You cry again.

You go snorkeling in an underwater cave and water enters your goggles: you cry.

Even swimming pigs sometimes makes you cry when they kick you underwater, no hard feelings…

The list is getting too long, I have to stop or I might start…you know…

2. If you weren’t blogging, what would you be doing?

I don’t see why I wouldn’t be blogging, what a preposterous idea! Even the very first explorers were blog-addicts. Christopher Columbus was writing a (b)log and it was so popular the king of Spain was reading it. Blogging is important, it inspires people, but it also teaches the one who is writing it a lot.

This question makes me panic. I don’t know! If I weren’t blogging I would probably be sitting in a dark room, locked from the outside, trembling.

3. If money weren’t an object, and you could only ever have one more adventure, what epicness would you pick?

Sailing around the world and visit all the exciting places on the way. But if I have to choose only one, it would be: tour India for as long as it takes to “feel at home” there.

4.What’s your traveler pet peeve?

We get really irritated when someone is catching fish and we are not. We also hate jet-skis. But most of all, we get an allergic reaction to sailboats motoring.

5. Do you have any role models? Who?

 

Many: Jacques Cousteau, Bear Grills, Buddha, Jack Kerouac, Genghis Khan, Khan Asparouh, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Columbus, all gypsies, refugees, sailors, astronauts, the Bajau people, the people of Mongolia, every other traveller on our way, the loggerhead turtles, blue wales, and Canadian geese, and many more.

 6. City hustle or remote landscapes?

Both: Bombay, Singapore, Istanbul or Nepal, Antarctica, Mongolia, the Amazon jungles or Patagonia, we want to experience it all.

 7. What are you more likely to do, visit a famously “haunted” landmark, or cross a rickety rope bridge across a giant canyon?

We’ll take the canyon any time. But we will not refuse the haunted landmark either.

8.Dirty hostel or overpriced luxury room?

Dirty hostel, bring it on! Ivo and I would go to the hostel but the kids will take the expensive hotel room for sure. (I wonder who will pay for the hotel for the kids, though… I suspect they will show up at the dirty hostel, grumpy, after they realize the luxury room is not worth it.)

But, there is a third choice we prefer: staying at new local friends’ homes.

9. What’s the worst habit you have that you can’t seem to shake.

 

Traveling. Sleeping.

10.When did the travel bug bite cha?

Maybe two years ago when we met Steve in Vancouver. He lives on a boat with his family and has traveled the world. He told us “Go, do it now!”.

Or maybe seven years ago when a friend took us sailing on his boat and told us all about his secret dream to cruise the globe “Life can be different, you know”.

Or maybe twenty years ago when we first met, Ivo and I, and begun our long journey together across rivers and mountains.

Or maybe thirty years ago when my father who was a sailor on a big ferryboat took me for a trip from Varna to Odessa.

I really don’t know…The bug has been biting us repeatedly all these years, I guess.

The blogs we have nominated are:

 Favorite blogs of people we have met and befriended on our journey:

 

Mike

Mike

#1 – Travel By Foote

„All fires have three things in common: they start, they  burn for a bit, and then they go out.  There’s no such thing as a never-ending fire.

Some fires are tame, burn slowly for a long time and then gradually extinguish themselves.  Some fires burn like hell, are full of pops and crackles, use entirely too much fuel and oxygen too fast, offer grand spectacle, and die at 27 minutes old.

The more you try to contain the fire and direction of the flames, the less enchanting the fire is.  Propane fireplaces just don’t draw eyes the way disappearing logs can.  And a fireplace with fresh chopped wood will never silence a group of humans the way a campfire will.“- Mike

Rebecca

Rebecca

 

#2 – S/V Dolphin

„Right now i have crazy boatyard managers who threaten my freedom, fiberglass dust covering everything I own, voracious no-see-ums who bite me in the eyeball from the hours of 6-8 daily, termites piled an inch deep, dew in the evenings, heat in the day, not enough money, mental and physical near exhaustion and a vision that eclipses all that. “ -Rebecca

 

#3 – Sailing Kiawah

 

#4 – Levoyagedesuricats (French)

 

#5 – impetuoustoo

And a couple of blogs/facebook pages we found through Facebook:

#6 – To travel Too

 

#7 – Travel Diaries

 

And now, my 10 questions for the blogs we have nominated:

1.       What are you?

2.       What are you looking for? Did you find it?

3.       How many footsteps have you left on the surface of the planet, in total?

4.       Who would be the one person you would love to travel with?

5.       What are the top 5 things-to-do or places-to-visit on your bucket list?

6.       What are your thoughts on school and the school system in general?

7.       How do you fight with boredom and/or cabin fever?

8.       What is the meaning of life?

9.       What is the most unexpectedly-amazing place you ever been to?

10.   What important things has traveling thought you?

 

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People of The Bahamas

“The islanders, as naked as their mothers bore them, are very simple and honest, and exceedingly liberal with all they have; none of them refusing anything he may possess when he is asked for it … they exhibit great love towards all others in preference to themselves; they also give objects of great value for trifles, and content themselves with little or nothing in return… With 50 men you could subject everyone and make them do what you wished…”

– October 14, 1492, Christopher Columbus

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Columbus Taking Possession of The Bahamas

Lucayan Indians and Columbus

 

In 1492, on his way to India, Columbus “discovered” the “New World” making landfall on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas, home of the Lucayan indigenous people. Barely 25 years after first contact with European Man, all these ‘very simple and honest’ islanders who had been living there peacefully for many centuries fishing in the shallow waters surrounding their tiny pieces of scattered land, were completely extinct, wiped out from the face of the earth, forever.

The genocide of the Bahamian native population had been achieved through imported European diseases, starvation, and mass abduction into slavery, for soon after the discovery, Columbus and his successor realized with disappointment that there was no gold and riches to be found on the islands; no resources of any value to the Spanish Crown, except people: working force for the mines and plantations further southwest in Cuba and The Americas: slaves, who didn’t last long.

Eleutheran Adventurers

 

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After the Spanish conquistadores, the Bahamas became a wasteland, abandoned, unpeopled, unclaimed, until 1649, when English Puritans known as “Eleutheran Adventurers” arrived in search of religious freedom and settled on the island today known as Eleuthera. By the end of the 17th century there were over a thousand settlers struggling to survive in a land made of sand and limestone, where agriculture was impossible.

Fortunately, many Spanish Galleons and other heavily laden cargo ships passing regularly through the deeper channels near islands and reefs on their way between the New and the Old World often ended up wrecked on the rocks, providing the peaceful god-fearing settlers with rich booty. Wrecking became the main local industry and soon pirates joined in. The age of piracy began.

Age of Piracy

 

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The well-traveled shipping routes around the island of New Providence made Nassau, an ungoverned lawless commercial port, pirates’ paradise lined with brothels and taverns for ‘common cheats, thieves and lewd persons’, where one could bump into famous pirates like Henry Morgan, Jack Calico, Blackbeard, and the terrifying Amazons Anne Boney and Mary Read. Their motto was Take what you can, give nothing back.

The looting of ships got so out of hand, that the King of England appointed a Royal Governor to Nassau whose job was to restore order. The Bahamas’ new motto was Expulsis Piratis – Restituta Commercia (Pirates Expelled – Commerce Restored). The age of piracy ended.

In the course of the 18th century the Bahamas have been attacked, invaded and claimed twice by the Continental American army and once by the Spanish, but finally, thanks to the Treaty of Versailles, it remained a British colony until July 10, 1973 when the Bahamas officially became the Independent Commonwealth of the Bahamas, ending 325 years of peaceful British rule.

Slavery Period

 

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Following the American Revolution, Loyalists: rich slave and landowners unhappy with the idea of a new United States, began migrating to the Bahamas bringing all their possessions and slaves to start a new life and new plantations under the British flag. But many got ruined as agriculture on the sandy islands proved to be impossible, and so they left setting their slaves (of which they had no more use) free even before the British Empire abolished the slave trade in 1807. By 1838 slavery was ended and the Royal Navy added to the Bahamian population of newly-freed slaves the human cargo they had captured in slave ships. By early 1830s the black population, more than 10,000, outnumbered the white and permanent settlements of freed slaves were established on 17 islands.

Today’s Bahamians

Today, the population of the Bahamas, about 400,000, is 90% black descendants of West Africans whose ancestors settled on the islands during the slavery period. Apart from the heavily populated capital Nassau, there are few large settlements of a few thousand people and numerous small ones of less than 100 people scattered on the many islands and cays.

Tourism is their main source of income and most Bahamians are employed in the tourist industry. For this reason, people everywhere are extremely welcoming to visitors, making the Bahamas truly paradise for the tourist and cruiser.

Each small settlement has its own vibe and we love visiting them and meeting the locals.

Black Point Settlement

 

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Black Point is a small settlement of two hundred people on Great Guana Cay in Exumas with a big and wide anchorage very popular with boaters even though there is no marina, no fuel or water available for cruising boats, but a laundry. People come here with huge bags full of dirty cloths and spend a day at the public coin-laundry.

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We spend a week there not once using the laundry, as we do our washing by hand to save on coins. But we use the free Wi-Fi streaming from the local bar. And we explore the island and meet the locals.

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Walking on the main street, on our way to the small grocery store to buy ice cream, we pass by a lamp pole that looks strangely familiar. It is actually a tall two-spreader mast, yeah, why not?

We see people, women and men, sitting in front of houses under the shade of trees weaving palm leaves into long stripes of different widths. The entire village weaving. They sell the rolls by the foot in Nassau, on the straw market, to be made into handbags sold to tourists.

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Agnes shows me how it’s done. It’s really easy, man, and you find the palm leaves everywhere on the islands, no need to invest.

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We will be making some handbags, Maya and me. Will show you a photo when it is ready. Should look something like this:

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We also stumble upon the most unexpected outdoor art gallery. The artist is 70-year-old Willy, whose grandparents, parents and children were born on this same piece of land. The art gallery is located in his front yard which everyone refers to as “The Garden of Eden” and the artworks are environmental sculptures and installations of unaltered driftwood and dead mangroves found on the island.

The Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden

Each sculpture represents an animal or a person. There are two lobsters, a flamingo, a lioness, one male and one female iguana, an Indian head, a giraffe, a ballet dancer, and many many other fantastical creatures trapped in wood. Admission to the Garden of Eden is free of charge and a tour by Willy himself is included; donations are welcomed.

Willy and Maya in The Garden of Eden

Willy and Maya in The Garden of Eden

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