Emerald Pool and Trafalgar Falls

Emerald Pond, Dominica

Emerald Pool, Dominica

The day we go on a road trip around Dominica with a rental car which we share with our good Aussie friends Mel and Caryn s/v Passages we visit many sites all over the island, the east coast and the west coats and the middle. We take our time in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. The park is an area of volcanic activity including the Valley of Desolation with its boiling mud ponds and small geysers, and the Boiling Lake which we have already visited, as well as a few rivers and waterfalls.

Trail to Emerald Pond, Dominica

Trail to Emerald Pool, Dominica

First we hike to Emerald Pool through the beautiful lush rainforest vegetation covering pretty much the entire island. It is just a few minutes walk on a very well managed trail, with steps and handrails, from the visitor’s center where we have to present our weekly park passes.

Emerald Pond, Dominica

Mira at Emerald Pool, Dominica

As we get to the pool we all go Aaah!

Emerald Pool, Dominica

Emerald Pool, Dominica

The small waterfall is a charming very delicate 50-feet chute coming down from the grey rocks above, between branches and roots, cascading into a crystal shallow pool of blue-green water in front of a small grotto.

Maya at Emerald Pool, Dominica

Maya at Emerald Pool, Dominica

We swim in the pool, shower under the fall, climb the rocks around, and just chill in the shade of the forest.

Emerald Pool, Dominica

Emerald Pool, Dominica

Ivo and Mira at Emerald Pool, Dominica Photo by Mel

Ivo and Mira at Emerald Pool, Dominica
Photo by Mel

Next, we drive to Trafalgar Falls.

Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

The hike to the falls is again very short, on a path through the forest. We see the two falls from a distance, Mother and Father,

Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

Two spectacular waterfalls, but really hard to get closer to.

Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

We climb over huge boulders and walk over fallen trees above the river which runs fast and furious here. Some places are dangerous.

Maya at Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

Maya at Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

Maya, like always jumps from boulder to boulder like a mountain goat and reaches the first fall before the rest of us.

Ivo at Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

Ivo at Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

This chute is massive, the water is booming down loud and angry, with strong wind rushing from the canyon.

Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

The pool bottom is sandy with rocks and some spots are very deep.

Mira underwater, Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

Mira underwater, Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

We splash around some more and Ivo conquers the biggest tallest rock, as usual.

Ivo at Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

Ivo at Trafalgar Falls, Dominica

On the way back from the falls, next to the rive, there is a hot water stream coming down from Boiling Lake, forming yellowish geothermal ponds of very hot volcanic water.

Mira in a hot water pool

Mira in a hot water pool

So hot it’s hard to stay too long. It feels like a hot bathtub. I miss hot bathtubs…It has been a long time since I have been a tub with hot water, and I really enjoy this one. We soak int the hot waters, then run to the cold water of the river to cool down. Then repeat.

Ivo

Ivo is zen

Until it starts getting late and it’s time to go home, back to the anchorage in Plymouth, back on the boats.

Plymouth anchorage, Dominica

Plymouth anchorage, Dominica

 

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Mountain of Magic

-by Mira

For our good friend Nikolay Tzanevski

 

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In august of 1976 there were indications that La Grande Soufrière volcano in Guadeloupe will erupt with an expected explosion the size of 6 atomic bombs.

In August 1976 all inhabitants of the island’s capital and biggest city Basse-Terre situated right at the foot of the western slope of the mountain were evacuated, for, the scientists agreed, a catastrophe of great magnitude was inevitable.

 

La Grande Soufrière, Guadeloupe

La Grande Soufrière, Guadeloupe

A filmmaker and his crew were allowed to fly to Guadeloupe and film the final moments of its deserted capital. That filmmaker was Werner Herzog who found an eerie ghost town full of starving dogs, a bay full of dead snakes who have fled the mountain only to drown in the sea, and a homeless person who has refused to leave.

There were tremors and shock waves, 1257 earthquakes recorded, dense poisonous sulfuric clouds gushing from the mountain craters, yet, magically, nothing happened. Never before seismologists had measured signs of eruption of such magnitude, yet an eruption never occurred. The people who thought they would never again see their homes in Basse-Terre returned. La Grande Soufrière went back to slumber.

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In August 1976, back in Bulgaria, my mother gave birth to a baby-girl. That baby was me. I am a Leo.

This year, to celebrate my 38th birthday and the 38th anniversary of the active volcano’s failed eruption, we climb La Grande Soufrière in Guadeloupe.

The Life Nomadik family at La Grande Soufrière volcano, Guadeloupe

The Life Nomadik family at La Grande Soufrière volcano, Guadeloupe

The top of the volcano is also the highest point on the island rising 1,467 m (4,813 ft) above the sea.

The hike starts from a road east of Basse-Terre. There are no entry fees to the park and tons of visitors swarm the mountain slopes, especially on sunny cloudless days.

We start early in the morning sharing a car from Deshaies with our Australian mates Mel and Caryn. We have a long steep walk ahead of us.

Our volcano-climbing shoes. We are ready!

Our volcano-climbing shoes. We are ready!

The climb to the top is about two hours starting with an easy walk in the rainforest on almost flat terrain. The path is paved and shady. We pass by a small stone pool with hot volcanic spring water. Many people come here just for the hot springs and don’t go hiking further.

Hot volcanic springs in the forest.

Hot volcanic springs in the forest.

As soon as we are out of the forest we see the volcano, heavy and silent, standing before us, with a mantle of thin grey cloud. It’s all very strange and mysterious. It’s also a lot colder.

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The nature here is out of this world: low vegetation, damp orange moss over huge boulders adorned with small purple flowers.

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From the slopes, when the clouds clear, we can see Basse-Terre, the sea and Iles des Saintes in the distance.

 

Free Million Dollar View

Free Million Dollar View

But most of the time it’s foggy and the landscape is mysterious. Giant rocks are sticking out of the ground vertically, like teeth in the the low clouds, the result of some terrific Jurassic event millions of years ago.

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The walk up is now steep and narrow, at places difficult, but pleasant all the way to the top.

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We pass by deep shafts, ancient cracks on the slopes of the mountain, the result of seismic tremors and earthquakes.

Lava shafts

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We reach the summit, the highest point in Guadeloupe. We are now standing on top of a volcano.

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The smell of sulfur near the craters is so strong it burns the eyes and sticks to the throat.

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There are a few craters and a maize of small paths among jagged boulders, and in the mist of the fog we become disoriented and restless.

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Evo heads for one of the craters gushing dense yellow steam of sulfur with horrific industrial noise. The sound is deep and muffled coming from the underearth, like suffering. I start after Evo but Maya is left behind, she doesn’t want to breathe the intense poisonous gas.

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She is worried and I hear her voice calling us. Evo cannot hear her anymore, so I go back. We lose each other for a moment, each one of us looking for the others in a dense cloud of sulfuric smoke and mist, on an unfamiliar strange, unstable volcano.

Crater

Crater

I find Maya, Evo finds us, everything is OK. We are just a bit cold and bit scared.

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We are also awe-stricken like never before. The place, the entire experience is sublime, beyond explanation.

Picture A Volcano: La Grande Soufrière

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Maya

Maya

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Volcano Paintings

 

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Island of Beautiful Waters

Guadeloupe

River in Guadeloupe

River in Guadeloupe

Guadeloupe, one of the biggest and most populated islands of the Lesser Antilles island chain, is an overseas region and an integral department of France. French language only is spoken here, and the euro is its currency. Like pretty much every other Caribbean island, the main industry is tourism, but agriculture is also well developed, with vast banana plantations on fertile volcanic soil.

Guadeloupe consists of two islands in the shape of, most people say a butterfly, but to me they look more like human lungs. Basse-Terre to the west and Grange-Terre to the east are joined, almost like Siamese twins, separated by a narrow strait crossed by bridges. There are two smaller islands also part of Guadeloupe: Marie-Galante and Iles des Saintes.

Evo with dorado

Evo with dorado

Guadeloupe is our next stop after visiting the sovereign state of Antigua and Barbuda. Sailing there on a beam reach in moderate tradewinds from English Harbour is a sheer pleasure, and we even catch a small dorado. Evo has been hoping to catch a dorado for months now and it’s funny that his first one is so tiny and doesn’t fight at all. Small, but fish, one of the tastiest out there, and it feeds us all that evening.

Deshaies

We arrive in Deshaies, a main port of entry to Guadeloupe on the northwest side of Basse-Terre and a charming little fishermen village, and are happy to find s/v Passages already moored in the bay there (mooring balls in the bay are available free of charge, for now).

Desaies

Desaies

We met Caryn and Mel briefly when we were checking out from Nevis, and then again in Montserrat. With them and with the crews of two other boats in the Deshaies anchorage: Bev aboard s/v Aseka and Mark and Tina aboard s/v Rainbow, we organize our first waterfall expedition.

Deshaies Waterfall

Guadeloupe was once named Kerukera, The Island of Beautiful Waters, by its first known inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, for its abundance of rivers, lakes, and waterfalls.

River near Deshaies, Guadeloupe

River near Deshaies, Guadeloupe

Not far from the Deshaies anchorage there is a small river flowing through the forest, and a waterfall. But to reach the waterfall, which has no name (or maybe it does but we don’t know it) we have to walk beside and inside the river, over boulders and fallen trees for what seems an eternity.

Cruisers on a waterfall expedition

Cruisers on a waterfall expedition

Maya

Maya

Evo

Evo

We stop for a short refreshing splash-around in a small pond up river. Everyone is happy to chill before heading up and up again until we reach the place.

Maya and Evo in the river pool

Maya and Evo in the river pool

Cruisiers in the pond

Cruisers in a pond

It’s a beautiful miniature canyon with dark mossy walls dripping with water, a green pool and a small waterfall hidden in the dark behind a huge rock.

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We are really glad we have finally reached it, it was not an easy walk-in-the-park kind of hike. On the way back we pick up a few coconuts and lots of mangoes from the forest.

Mira

Mira

Ecrevisses Waterfall

A few days later we hire a car with our new best friends Caryn and Mel s/v Passages, very sweet people form Australia, and visit another waterfall, this one really popular and very close to the road, Ecrevisse Waterfall. You can park your car on the side of the road, get your towel, enter the forest, and walk 2 minutes to the place.

Ecrevisse Fall

Ecrevisse Fall

It’s full of people even at 6 in the evening, and everyone is cooling down in the pool under the cascade and in the small ponds formed here and there in the shallow wide river.

Maya having fun at the river, Ecrevisse Fall

Maya having fun at the river, Ecrevisse Fall

Most visitors are locals enjoying the refreshing waters in the afternoon, and we join them for a dip.

 

Cabret Falls

Days later we share a rental car again with Caryn and Mel and drive to the Cabret Falls for another expedition. The Cabret Falls are a series of waterfalls in a national park and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Guadeloupe. There is an entrance fee to the park of about 3 euros per person which is well worth the excellent trails with wooden paths and steps in some parts of the path.

Maya

Maya

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Maya on the trail

Maya on the trail

The first cascade is about two hours of uphill walking from the visitor’s center and descends from the Soufriere Volcano’s slopes dropping 125 meters (410 ft) in a deep pool of green waters surrounded by yellow and red rocks.

Cabret First Cascade

Cabret First Cascade

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Mira

Mira

Mel and Caryn

Mel and Caryn

It is not an easy hike to the first cascade and not too many visitors go there. Most people are content with the 15-minute walk from the visitor’s center on a paved wheelchair-accessible path to the second cascade which has a 110 meters (360 ft) drop.

Cabret Second Cascade

Cabret Second Cascade

Evo and Maya

Evo and Maya

The access to the third cascade, the one with most water volume, is currently restricted after an earthquake in 2004 and heavy rains caused landslides and cut off the trail.

Maya

Maya

We spend the day walking up and down the slopes of Soufriere volcano amidst the intense green vegetation of the tropical rainforest, going from one waterfall to another, eating sandwiches, singing and dancing among giant trees, enjoying Guadeloupe’s beautiful nature.

Maya

Maya

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Maya

Maya

Mel and Caryn

Mel and Caryn

Maya

Maya

Maya-elephant

Maya-elephant

Evo

Evo

Mira

Mira

Maya sleeping on a rock

Maya sleeping on a rock

Evo's blond-forest hairstyle

Evo’s blond-forest hairstyle

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Maya dancing and singing: I Will Survive!

Maya dancing and singing: I Will Survive!

The Life Nomadik family in Guadeloupe

The Life Nomadik family in Guadeloupe

 

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Traveling in Cuba. Viñales

 

 Cruisers traveling in Cuba

 

We came to Cuba by boat and that made it very difficult and expensive exploring the country by land because of the many restrictions on boaters and the high marina and transportation costs.

 

In Cuba, it is forbidden to just drop anchor anywhere you like, leave the boat and go to the mainland. (One more reason why Cuba is unique in the world of cruising.) On the north coast, you can drop anchor only near some of the many tourist-populated cayos and resorts, but you can then only visit the cayos, by law you cannot set foot on the mainland and explore the nearest village. Plus, there must be at least one adult on board at all times if you are anchored out, you cannot leave the boat unattended. The concern, I guess, is that a bunch of not very patriotic Cubanos might grab the opportunity (and the boat) and sail off into the sunset (or rather into the Gulf Stream and north).

 

If you want to explore the interior of the country, your only option is to leave the boat at one of the marinas, which are not many in Cuba, pay 20 dollars per day for a 40-feet boat ( $0.50 per foot per day), and find transportation to where you want to go. Here is the tricky part: transportation. From Havana to all main cities,  Santiago, Trinidad, Camagüey, Holguín, etc., you can get an air-conditioned tourists-only bus for about $100 per person one direction. Or you can rent a car (maybe air-conditioned if you are lucky) with or without a driver, between $90 and $120 per day. You can try to move around by cheap local bus, which is actually an old truck and people pile up in the open-air trailer under a canvass. We wouldn’t mind doing this, to us it sounds like fun, but it would take days to get anywhere, and we would still have to pay for the marina, $20 per day, so it is not worth it. Same problem with hitch-hiking…

 

We really wanted to visit Trinidad, a spectacular UNESCO heritage mountain village with spectacular colonial architecture in the south, but we calculated that for our family of four it would cost us over a thousand dollars to leave the boat for a few days in Hemingway marina, get on the tourist bus and pay for hotel or a casa particular in Trinidad for a couple of nights. So we didn’t visit it this time, we might sail there some other day.

 

Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba.

A photo journal.

The only place we visited in the country’s interior was Viñales in the Pinar del Rio province, less than two hundred kilometers west of Havana, thanks to Harley and April who we met at Marina Hemingway: it was their idea.

 

Harley and April aboard El Karma

Harley and April aboard El Karma

 

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway … stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway ... stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

Cooling off the car

 

For two and a half hours we look out the car windows. The countryside is charming: fresh green mountains, plains, little neat villages. None of the madness of the big city.

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Viñales is a small model-village in the mountains, a national monument since 1978 and a UNESCO heritage site since 1999. It is a main touristic destination, and so we were not very pleased to find here crowds of visitors, buses arriving every half an hour.

Main street and church in Viñales

 

The main attraction in Viñales are the two caves where runaway salves,  Cimarróns, lived in the 1800s. After entering in the first cave, we decided not to enter in the second… There is an entrance fee of $5 per person, the cave is in fact a few meter long corridor complete with fake snakes and frogs and a small restaurant at the entrance. Even if the cave is not big and impressive, its history is a fascinating one. The fact that this cave was the home for runaway slaves in the 1800-s was the most thrilling for me.

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A bunch of street artists ambush the cave exit and perform a  Cimarrón dance for inevitable tips.

 

Performance in the cave

Performance in the cave

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave's houses in Vinales Valley

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave’s houses in Vinales Valley

 

The caves are located in Palenque near Viñales, in a deep green valley surrounded by tall granite mountains and thick vegetation. It is an awe-inspiring landscape.

Viñales Valley

Viñales Valley

 

Looking up

Looking up

We get a bunch of very cheap and very sweet bananas from a local farmer on our way back in Viñales.

Bananas 24 for $1

Bananas 24 for $1

 

Back in Viñales, we hide from a torrential tropical mountain rain, enjoying a glass of cold beer on the terrace of a small restaurant. In Cuba there are two kinds of beer: Bukanero and Cristal. We like Cristal a lot better, but they didn’t have Cristal and served us Bukanero instead…

 

Una cervesa por favor

Una cerveza por favor

As we are sitting in the restaurant enjoying our cold beers, a car pushed by three people passes down the road. Poor people, having car problems in the rain. Oh, wait a minute, this is our car! Our driver, Erie, a very timid always smiling guy, was supposed to wait for us at some corner, but I guess he had a bad day with that car…

 

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

We managed to get back to the marina without anymore car problems on the way back, listening to old 80-s disco hits and enjoying, once more, the unspoiled Cuban countryside.

House near Palenque

House near Palenque

 

The history of the Caribbean runaway slave, el Cimarron, is a fascinating one. 

 

As the sugar production (sweet gold) was booming in the French colony of Saint Domingue in the 1700-s, black young women and men, African princes and princesses, were piled up on ships and brought to the islands to work the sugar cane plantations. The slaves lasted for about a year in unimaginable conditions, and so more ships with „fresh meat“ were arriving weekly. For the slaves, the only hope was to escape. But escaping was not easy and most of the times the runaways were caught and brought back to be killed in public as an example, or died from dehydration and exhaustion in the unforgiving tropical wilderness of the island. But some succeeded, some made it to the mountains, to the caves, to freedom. They formed small communities, away from the cities and the plantations, life as close to nature as one can only imagine. Nature was mother, doctor, protector. The caves were home. The Cimarróns were free, multiplying, organizing.

Inspired by the French Revolution, a black avalanche descended from the mountains in 1791 upon Le Cap and Port-au-Prince in the then French colony of Saint Domingue. Sugar fields burned with black smoke for weeks, heads of planters and their entire families rolled on the streets, boats, this time loaded with white refugees fled to Cuba and America.

In Cuba, the emancipation took longer, freedom for all didn’t come until 1886. The history repeated itself.

I have read two remarkable books (in Spanish) which I would recommend to everyone interested in the subject of the runaway Caribbean slave.

One is  Miguel Barnet’s Biography of a Runaway Slave. Historia de un Cimarrón. It is the detailed and personal testimony of Esteban Montejo as told by himself in 1966, when he was 103 years old, and as such it is also a valuable historical document.

The other is Isabel Allende’s The Island Beneath the Sea, La isla bajo el mar, a beautifully written historical novel full of romance and intrigues, giving a poetic account of the Haitian revolution in the French colony of Saint Domingue (today Haiti). 

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Dry Tortugas

 

 

 

The time has come to sail away. Leave Key West and start visiting other places.

First destination: Cuba with a short stop in Dry Tortugas.

 

July 19, 7:00 am, Friday, we leave our Key West anchorage and head west. From here to Dry Tortugas are about 70 miles. Light wind (about 10 knots) is pushing us from the east. We are not going very fast, 5 to 6 nautical miles per hour, but we are not in a hurry and after 3 jibes and 14 hours of uneventful sailing we enter a marine sanctuary comprising seven uninhabited undeveloped coral and sand islands: Dry Tortugas.

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Garden Key

Explorer Ponce de Leon originally named the area Las Tortugas (Turtles) in 1513 for the shores of the islands were (and still are) favorite nesting grounds for sea turtles. Soon after, as ships started cruising these waters, the place became known as Dry Tortugas to mariners indicating that there ins’t fresh water on the islands.

The Lighthouse on top of Fort Jefferson

The Lighthouse on top of Fort Jefferson

It is already dark when we drop anchor in the anchorage next to Garden Key, a small island entirely occupied by Fort Jefferson: an impressive 19th century fort. This must be the most dramatic anchorage just outside the massive abandoned monster of a building.

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Fort Jefferson

The steps leading up and down the 2 levels of the fort and the roof

The steps leading up and down the 2 levels of the fort and the roof

 

The story of Fort Jefferson is as pathetic as it is fascinating. The Americans begun its construction in 1846 and the idea was to build a military fort and thus control navigation in  the Gulf of Mexico. Thirty years later, as the fort was still unfinished, it became evident that the construction was a failure.

Maya, Ivo, and Vick looking out from Fort Jefferson

Maya, Ivo, and Vick looking out from Fort Jefferson

Too many things went wrong mainly because of the lack of drinking water: the water tanks collecting rainwater failed, the iron corrugated, the bricks crumbled, the sewage system didn’t work, the workers became sick having to drink mosquito larva infested semi-salty water. Nature defeated man.

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From the top looking down

Looking out a broken window

Looking out a broken window

 

Still, Fort Jefferson was put to use during the Civil War as a Union military prison for deserters. It housed the four men convicted of complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln including doctor Samuel Mudd. By 1880s, the American Army abandoned the project and in 1908 the area became a wildlife refuge; a National Monument in 1935; and a National Park and Sanctuary in 1992.

 

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Inside the abandoned fort

The next two days we explore the fort in and outside as well as the island kayaking from our boat to shore.

Viktor "pushing" Maya off the roof of the fort

Viktor „pushing“ Maya off the roof of the fort

The building is enormous, we didn’t expect this. We roam for hours through its dark humid corridors and chambers imagining life in those times. We go there in the morning and in the afternoon, when all the day tourists arriving from Key West packed  in a motor boat for a four-hour guided tour are gone.

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Running around Fort Jefferson

At this point, we hate those tourist crowds so much, we keep as far as possible, as if they were diseased cockroaches. I believe tourism has spoiled so many once remote natural wonders and historic sites transforming them into ridiculous crowded polluted money-making resorts and attractions.

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At least, they don’t play loud music and serve alcohol in Fort Jefferson, no disco clubs and casinos here. I hope they will never transform part of the fort into a hotel, but at this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do… For now, there is only the anchorage where boats can stay overnight and a small camping ground on the island with a few tent sites.

Getting to Fort Jefferson by kayak.

Getting to Fort Jefferson by kayak.

The only permanent residents here are various seabirds, billions and billions of hermit crabs with fancy shells, and a sea crocodile who comes out of the ocean before sunset to slumber on the hot sands of the deserted beach.

Sea birds resting on our boat

Sea birds resting on our boat

Mira with a hermit crab

Mira with a hermit crab

A sea crocodile on the beach at sunset

A sea crocodile on the beach at sunset

close up of the crock running back in the water

close up of the crock running back in the water

 

On the third day, we lift anchor (no motor on) and we sail very carefully among coral reefs for about two hours to the next  island, Loggerhead Key, where a tall lighthouse stays erected amidst a patch of palm trees surrounded by sandy beaches. Here, we spend a day and a night. And something incredible happens, it must be karma… You won’t believe it!

Loggerhead Key Lighthouse

Loggerhead Key Lighthouse

 

Inspiration

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The Nudist French-Canadians in Miami

After the Boat Show in Miami, and after our RV gets out of the auto service center, we start looking for overnight spots in safe areas in Miami while negotiating the catamaran in Key West and all the details around the contract and the sale.

The first night we sleep undisturbed behind a Publix store, and the next, in front of a 24 hour Wall-Mart in Hollandale Beach where we discover in the morning a small yellowish ticket on the windshield of our sleeping Baba Ghanoush saying “ No commercial vehicle parking between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. : fine $104.“  Baba Ghanoush IS NOT a commercial vehicle, she is an RV (Recreational Vehicle) and as a matter of fact, we were not parked, but stopped (people inside the vehicle). Next, we freak out, we find the police department, and we gently fight over definitions with a nice policewoman, who finally gives up, says, you are nice young people, and don’t do that again, and indulgently acquits us of all the charges. Great!

Now, back to finding a safe overnight free parking spot in Miami area for a 32 feet 1988 suspicious-looking RV…

It’s getting dark and we pull over behind another Wall-Mart in another part of Miami and just like that, accidently, the most amazing sight unfolds before our perplexed gazes. Baba Ghanoush stops abruptly, facing a population of  about twenty vans and campers of all sorts: big and small, new and old, almost exclusively with Quebec registrations, stationed in the most remote corner of the parking lot. There are also a few commercial tractor-trailers parked between the campers, a few permanent vans where homeless locals live, and some mini-busses. Not a single normal car. It looks more like a campground than a Wall-Mart parking lot.

In the middle, between the campers, there is a group of tanned men in their sixties wearing nothing but shorts and sandals, holding beer cans, staring at us, their conversation interrupted.

Bonjour, we greet them friendly in French-Quebecois, but it’s hard to break the ice. We join the gang for the night, instructed on which spot to park. We obey. We are not absolutely sure what is going on here, but we feel safe, among compatriots. We sleep.

This little off-grid campground, whose precise location I am not going to reveal as I now feel very protective of it, exists for many years. Its unknown French-Canadian founding fathers first settled here decades ago and each year spend six of the harshest Canadian winter months in Miami, near shopping and near the beach. More precisely, near the nudist beach, as these are no ordinary snowbirds, but nudist snowbirds, who don’t pay for campsites in crowded over regulated campgrounds. I absolutely admire them, and I can’t believe the local authorities are letting it happen. Maybe there is a reason why no one disturbs them and the police car slowly passes trough a few times a day with no objections. Living in the area half the year, they are supporting the local economy by spending their Canadian pensions in near by stores and restaurants. Plus, they occupy only a fraction of a humongous parking lot in back of Wall-Mart, which, if the no overnight parking rule was enforced, would remain deserted and unused anyway. Thus, they don’t bother no one and no one bothers them. I think, that’s the way it should be.

We spend a few days there, trying to fit in, accidently breaking some of the unwritten rules and regulations, like: taking someone else’s overnight spot, running the generator too close to the neighbor and thus ruining his atmosphere, using the water from the little water pump near the fence for washing our Baba Ghanoush in broad day light, and having too much fun at that same water pump taking late-evening cold-water bucket showers. Next time we’ll know better.

The Historical Washing of Baba Ghanoush

The Historical Washing of Baba Ghanoush

We spent a few great days there. We met new friends.

Marcel helped us fix an electrical problem with our RV and took us to a nice park and a pizza buffet; Stephanie from Switzerland introduced us to her dog Mapuche; Nicole thought me how to do crochet and how to make beautiful knitted handbags out of plastic bags; and we spent the last evening before heading off to Key West sitting in our folding heavy-duty camping chairs, under the parking lot lights, sipping warm beer, and sharing funny stories with Alex and few other guys until midnight.

A handbag made out of Dolarama plastic bags.   -by Nicole Cloutier

A handbag made out of Dolarama plastic bags. -by Nicole Cloutier

Evening socializing at the Wall-Mart French-Canadian nudist campground.

Evening socializing at the Wall-Mart French-Canadian nudist campground.

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Wally

“I’d rather hop freights around the country and cook my food out of tin cans over wood fires, than be rich and have a home or work.”

-Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

When we first came in the park near Turtle Beach, we noticed a dark mysterious lump  folded in upon itself in a brown sleeping bag lifelessly lying on one of the pick-nick tables. Only two legs, as dark and devastated as ancient totems, protruding from the cover. For a couple of days, the lump did not change its position nor shape. But when a cold front arrived and the temperatures dropped a bit, an old mysterious tortoise-like being emerged beneath its blanket and lugged its massive shell towards a roofed shelter at the other end of the park. I brought him a bowl of hot soup I have just made and cautiously started a conversation. A month later, the conversation still goes on.

Wally in the Night Park

His name is Wilhelm Gilbert von Wahlenmaier the Third, the mayor of the park.  But everyone knows him simply as Wally, the Mayor. And when I say everyone, I mean EVERYONE! Wally has a plethora of friends, a number in the thousands. People just cannot resist his charisma  and every day friends stop to converse with him for hours. He graciously granted us a permission to stay in the park as his ephemeral guests, and so here we are.

A very special relationship grew between us, and is still growing. One of friendship and trust. We learned so much from Wally, not only about his life, but also about many other things. Wally is an educated and well-versed fellow, graduate from Denison University, Granville, Ohio, with a bachelor degree in Business Administration and Marketing. He had a successful real estate career, a big beautiful house, and hundreds of lovers. Until one day…

On November 20 in 2000, Wally closed the last door of his last house behind him and realised to himself, Oh my God, I’m homeless… He rode his bicycle to the nearest park and the park became his new temporary home. It has been for the past twelve years and still is. He knows everything that goes on here, and here, possessed by the craving to recount his younger happier days, he tells us stories of love and betrayal, of war and horror, of glory and dismay. He is also writing a book on The Homeless Situation in Sarasota, Florida, an account of his own experiences, as well as those of countless homeless women and men he met. You see, we don’t event think about it, but often we only perceive the present condition of a person we meet, ignorant of their past, their reasons, their circumstances. A grey pile of forsaken ruins consumed by the devastating effects of time, is in fact the Colosseum once trembling with violent glory and rage. But, Oh boy, Wally was a gladiator, a Titus, a Colosseum.

Wally

Born in Columbus, Ohio, in July, 1943, he was a tiny baby paralysed with polio. He overcame it. He overcame everything: his mother’s death when he was 14; thirty three months of hell in North Vietnam when he was only 17; even three marriages, one of which to a terrible Mennonite princess.

But life was always good, and still is for Wally. He never complains, he greets everyone, he enjoys every minute of it. If you pass by in the morning you will here him cheer, Good morning, how are you? I’m fine, how are you, you will respond without stopping. I am marvellous! If I was any better i’d be a twin! And if you stop for a chat, he will tell you one of a thousand around-the-world stories.

In Africa: a hot-air balloon, over the Serengeti, infinite plains stretching before him, the water beasts like ants beneath him, he drifts: a weightless dandelion carried away by the wind, crystal champaign and caviare at sunset, a beautiful lady he loves. (Back on land, he almost gets killed by an irritated Masai warrior for snapping his picture.)

In Greece: an endless table covered with all fruits and fishes of heaven and Earth, a thousand intoxicated guests, a chain of five thousand Sirtaki dancers by the sea, a roasted goat. At the head of the table, he is the guest of honour. Reaching out with a fork, he plucks the roasted goat’s eyeball out and eats it.

In Saint Petersburg, Florida: at the opening of the new Museum of Art, he meets Salvador Dali.

In the Caribbean: he sails on his 27-foot Catalina sailboat for 5 years and almost marries a gorgeous doctor in Barbados. She is still waiting for him. Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaah….

In Egypt: down the Valley of the Kings, he meets so many marvellous people.

In New York: 1983, at the Metropolitan Opera, Pavarotti sing for him and Dorothy, his sugar mama, almost twenty years older than him, an artist and an intellectual, he learned so many things from her. They loved each other dearly.

People sometimes listen to Wally’s stories and tell him, You are not real. But you gotta remember, it’s all true. It’s ALL true, he says.

Such is Wally: full of memories and legendary adventures; a  landmark here in the park, and a form of hallucination.

We respect him very much and this last month we shared many stories and many precious moments. One day, when it is time to move on, we will miss him, and surely enough, he will miss us.

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Communitas. Genesis

The strangest thing. A small and almost unstructured community has come into existence right here, in the park.

A spontaneous and fragile birth of a tiny fruit-fly nymph: Dolania Ephemeroptera.

First, a family from Switzerland in an RV tentatively joins us for a few unforgettable days. Next, a young couple from  Germany travelling around North America by car decide to stay and stick with us for an undetermined period of time, hopefully longer. And recently, a woman with a dog currently living in a car, are often to be seen around. An intense and unfamiliar spirit of solidarity can be detected here, early in the morning, at noon, and late at night. As well as in between-time. It is defined, I believe, by the uncertainty of future outcomes. In other words, we are all staying here until they kick us out, or until we choose to leave, whichever comes first. But Wally says they wont because it’s up to him, and every time this sounds reassuring. Wally is the mayor (here in the park). He is not really a person, but a place. An icon and a legend, Wally is our nucleus. I will write more about him, as well as each and everyone of them in my next posts.

The Family from Switzerland

After two days and nights of undisturbed squatting in the park’s parking near Turtle Beach in Florida, a small rental RV joins us. Michele, un italiano vero, Claudia, his beautiful better half, and their kids, the six-years-old twins Laura, and Fabio, decide to move on the other side of the campground’s fence next to our Baba Ghanoush, where the grass is greener, the sky is bluer, there is no fees, no structure, no order (no showers, no electricity, no full hook-up).

Laura, Claudia, Michele, and Fabio at Turtle Beach, Florida

Laura, Claudia, Michele, and Fabio at Turtle Beach, Florida

They are on vacation from Switzerland, travelling all over Florida. We quickly become friends. Together, we are driven by the irresistible impulse to have fun. At the beach or (when the Red Tide is raging there) somewhere else. We play volleyball, we play football (the Americans wrongly call it soccer  but we are all with European roots); in the evening, in our park, we have BBQ and lots of vino. The kids, like innocent shamans, are playing with burning sticks near the lake. Fabio and Laura, who only speak Italian and some Swiss-German dialect which to me sounds as beautiful as butterflies, are teaching Viktor and Maya a song which they now only remember in their dreams. How is it possible that kids of different languages always find a way to communicate? Isn’t it magical?

Their feet covered with grey dirt,  fingers sticky, eyes heavy with sleep, the kids are transported into their beds in the campers. Tomorrow they will continue the game.

Around the fire, Michele continues to sing gently, and we all join in, the songs of Adriano Celentano, Toto Cutugno, and Al Bano and Romina Power. The night will never end.

A few days pass, and our new friends have to continue their journey. Departure is the saddest part of every friendship. We didn’t have enough of each other and yet it is time to say goodbye.

Who will sing to us Felicita now, Michele?

When will you play with Maya again, Laura?

Who am I going to photograph now, and how are we ever going to play football without you, Fabio?

When are we going to savour again the best spaghetti with tomato sauce, Claudia?

We miss you, guys…

Laura, Maya, and Fabio

Laura, Maya, and Fabio

The men washing the dishes at the beach showers.

The men washing the dishes at the beach showers.

The Unstoppable, Unbeatable, Football Legend: Fabio

The shy but ambitious Fabio. Before the game.

Fabio, a frail little guy, but feisty.

Claudia and Fabio playing football (soccer-am.)

Claudia trying without any chance of success to score a goal against Fabio

Two players: Maya and Laura, trying to outrun Fabio. Impossible.

Ivo is trying to take the ball. from Fabio. Ha-ha! Better luck next time, Ivo!

Ivo is trying to take the ball from Fabio. Ha-ha! Better luck next time, Ivo!

Gooooooooooooooooooooooal

All of us

All of us

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Morning. Routines. Our Life in the City Park. Part 3

Our Saint Petersburg mornings in the park are filled with little routines. They begin very early with other people’s little routines which wake us up. You see, we don’t sleep in a campground like any normal tourist family with a motor home, but in a city park next to a swimming pool, the only free place we found where overnight parking is not forbidden. Early swimmers come here around 5:30 and inevitably start splashing and cheering next to our sleeping Baba Ghanouche. She wakes up reluctantly, shakes the morning dew and the little yellow seeds brought by night birds off her back, and gracefully drifts through the quiet purple city towards her daytime spot at Demens Landing Park, about a mile away. This is all the distance she traverses back and forth in a day lately.

Lotus and Hibiscus(a fictional physically impossible morning exercise)

Lotus and Hibiscus
(a fictional physically impossible morning exercise)

There I make myself a coffee and watch another sun slowly emerging from the sea. Viktor and Maya are still sleeping or just about to wake up and ask for breakfast. Maya tells me the ending of her dream, she never remembers the beginnings.
A bird made a wish and Jackie turned into a bird. I ate one popcorn, only one, and blew on a dandelion. She became Jackie again. She was crying and she gave me a hug.
Jackie is a new friend but a truly good friend, especially to Maya. We will miss her one day when we leave…
Ivo is already near the piers exercising. Ringo the cat is keeping him company. Soon I join them as well. We believe that physical exercising in the morning is a good way to start the day.

Lotus and HibiscusReincarnated

Lotus and Hibiscus
Reincarnated

The January breeze caries smells and sounds of seas and palm leafs. The air is already hot but fresh. Back in Canada, it is snowing for sure…

One would think that besides the occasional jogger or an early dog walker, there is not a living soul in the park. But it isn’t so. Saint Petersburg is invaded by hyperactive skinny squirrels and they proliferate in high concentration here in Demens Landing. The last squirrel census for this park alone came up with a number in the thousands, but since then they have surely multiplied. Squirrels have babies 6 times a year! And with tender dedication they teach their young the same bad manners. Thus, the savage traditions of trash cans scavenging for leftover french fries, of stealing the peanut butter  and jelly sandwiches from absentminded picnickers, of fiercely chasing each other up and down the palm trees emitting peculiar heartbreaking cries, are inevitably passed down the generations.
After we finish jogging and exercising, I find a 20 dollar bill all wet from the night, stuck on the wooden pier. I enjoy finding it, although I am also sadly conscious of the fact that as soon as I find it, I start loosing it, cent by cent, the same way we loose everything else that we ever find, including friends.
Next, we go back to the motor home dodging hysterical squirrels on the way, and prepare for sailing.

Ringo arrives

Ringo arrives

RingoReads about catamarans and drinks coffee

Ringo
Reads about catamarans and drinks coffee

RingoPurring

Ringo
Purring

I can do two pull-ups! It is tough being tough

I can do two pull ups!                                                                                                                                                                                                   This is a good exercise for the arms, chest and back

This one is for the back and shoulders

Hanging with arms spread.                                                                                                                                                                             This one is a good exercise for the back and shoulders

A morning egret on the rocks near the pier in Demens Landing.

A morning egret on the rocks near the pier in Demens Landing.

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Our Life in the City Park. Part 1: Overview

Demens Landing Park St Petersburg Florida.Photo by Bill Cobb, SkylineScenes.com

Demens Landing Park St Petersburg Florida.
Photo by Bill Cobb, SkylineScenes.com

Demens Landing is the name of the city park in Saint Petersburg, Florida where we live since a month now. Baba Ghanoush, our motor home (the name in Bulgarian actually means Granny Ghanoush, I forgot to mention this earlier) showed up one day in late November with all her majestic glory of a barbaric matron, provoking a mixture of admiration and suspicion, and stopped next to the playground, at parking A, which is the park parking, and all citizens are allowed to park there for free „from half an hour before sunrise until 11 p.m.. No overnight parking.“ (a sign explains)

The park is located in the hearth of downtown Saint Pete, between the municipal Marina and the Sailing Center (that is why there is also a parking B which is only for boat owners from the marina). The way Baba Ghanoush is parked, she is facing the Gulf of Mexico and all beautiful sunrises to the East, the Municipal Marina to her left (port), the Sailing Center to her right (starboard), and Down Town St Pete with its museums and galleries, cafes and restaurants, and souvenir shops behind her, strewn on Bayshore Drive and Beach Drive. If you walk out of the park and onto Bayshore Drive, you will see the extravagant shape of the Dali Museum building to your left (south) and the Museum of Fine Arts to your right (north). In between is the luxurious Yacht club building, and further north is the pink Renaissance Resort and Golf Club, next to Vinoy park.

We signed up for sailing lessons and for the One Year Unlimited Sailing program at the Sailing Center, which means 6 days of sailing per week, between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a 18-feet keel boat, the four of us, for a total of $500, showers included! Unlimited sailing+ unlimited showers, how cool is this! (For us the access to showers is of great importance right now, as we are not in a campground and we are not plugged to water, and so we are not using the shower and toilet in the motor home.)

Since we became members of the Sailing Center, we go out sailing every day, except Mondays, when the Center is closed, and except all those days when the wind is over 20-25 knots and they don’t allow us to take the boat out. (Thanks goodness they don’t allow us, because if you ask Ivo, he would try his skills even in such powerful winds, no matter how rookie we are.)

We come and park in Demens Landing usually before sunrise, around 6 a.m. The kids still sleeping, I make myself a sweet coffee boiling it in a small coffee-pot on the stove, the old-fashion fay, and watch the sunrises, all of them inexplicably anticipated and surprising. We go out, me and Ivo, sometimes only Ivo, sometimes the kids come too, whoever feels like it, and we do some sit-ups, squats, pull-ups and push-ups, as well as 15-20 min jogging. We greet people walking their dogs, jogging, older couples taking a walk: every day the same people. There is the fat bold guy and his trainer exercising near the bench; the very short latino woman doing some  bizarre dance movements while walking fast around listening to her music, suddenly shouting some cheerful words in Spanish; a couple who lives on a boat and their two dogs, one of which thinks is a bird, and probably has hollow bones, as she can jump so high after a Frisbee, she looks like she has been catapulted when you watch from a distance. There is  also a sleepy blue heron and an white egret greeting the sun on the shore or the piers, lots and lots of skinny hyper-exciter squirrels running up and down the palm trees or checking the garbage cans for leftover french fries, and Ringo,the cat, curled up in the middle of the sidewalk, finishing his unfinished slumber. Ringo also lives on a boat at the marina and I don’t know if he takes any drugs or it is just his character, but you can literally walk over him, or if you are a dog, you can bark all you want at him, he doesn’t care; he will not even look at you. He is now OUR CAT, as the park is OUR PARK, the herons are OUR HERONS, the park toilets are OUR TOILETS, and the playground is MAYA’S PLAYGROUND, where she plays for hours, waiting like a spider for little kids to arrive and a chance to play with them.

We also have a place: a small Police Memorial granite statue near the waterfront illuminated at night with benches around that have electrical plugs on them, where we sometimes go to charge and mode our i-phones, or plug our lap tops and write for the blog, because, guess what, we don’t have plenty of electricity in the motor home, as well. This place is OUR OFFICE. I brought from Canada my bread-making machine and one of these days I might bake some bread in the office, then it will become a bakery as well. But we don’t want to abuse the park hospitality too much. We now know all the park staff, we told them who we are and why we are in the park almost every day, and they are all friendly and nice with us, greeting us every time they see us. We offered them to volunteer and help them with the cleaning and maintenance of the park, as we now have a strong feeling of responsibility towards it, but they declined politely. Still, Maya went out yesterday and collected all palm leafs fallen after a windy night, piling them on the corners near the garbage cans.

Our morning rituals over, we gear up and we go sailing for two to four hours in different directions, practicing tacking, jibing, docking, man overboard, anchoring, as well as just going in a straight line towards a fixed point, trying to have a perfect sail’s position to wind. Every time the sea and the wind is different and every time we have a different experience, this is why we don’t want to miss a day of sailing.

After sailing we do all kinds of other activities: studying, reading, going to the public library not far away to use internet, fishing, cooking, playing tennis, taking walks on the beach or in Vinoy park, or around the city, enjoying life. I will write more detailed accounts of our activities later on.

A bird's view perspective of the park with points of interest.

A bird’s view perspective of the park with points of interest.

1- the usual parking spot of Baba Ghanoush

2- our restrooms

3- Maya’s playground

4- our fishing pier

5- our office (this is an older picture and here the Police Memorial is not build yet)

6- the Sailing Center&showers

7- our new friend Jackie’s 60 feet long houseboat

8- Gulf of Mexico- we sail through here

9- the Municipal Marina office

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