Friday, April 1, 2011

With a little help from my Friends

Quito, Ecuador---I go through life thinking that "I am an Island." I do not like to ask for help. I’ve tried to be independent and self-reliant. But I write this humbled by the fact that this year would not have been possible without a group of friends that supported my idea to live overseas, crew on a boat and then later rallied around me in some emotionally dark hours when I was so far away.

When the unplanned situation of moving my dog Turbo back home came up I was in the Canary Islands. There was no getting around it or putting it off any longer. My dog needed to be rescued. They stepped up to doing above and beyond by getting him (a 10 hour drive round trip) taking care of him all along, unsure if he would even make it. It became a total group effort of six people who organized his care, one being a foreign student from Peru that lived in my house and I’ve never even met. I called the group “Team Turbo”. They worked out a journal system to “check in” and report when they stopped by my house, sometimes to just give him and Convict (my cat) some petting.

I almost lost my best friend from college, Lisa, in a terrible skiing accident in Colorado before I left. It was unimaginable to think of her not growing old. She doesn’t even know how much it scared me. But all my high school, college, and once Daytona friends that are now scattered around the US all had similar reactions to me doing this…like it was meant to be. A reassuring thought on the many sleepless nights when I wondered “what the heck am I doing?”

My sister went through a terrible divorce while I was gone. Ever since my Mom got Alzheimer’s and later passed away, we have always been each other’s shoulder to lean on and I was not around during some hard times when she needed me. Yet she was always sending me emails and was my biggest supporter of this year away. I couldn’t have a better friend or amazing human to have as my only sibling.

Besides my sister, there were several relatives in particular whose support was unconditional. My cousin Martha, battleing cancer at the time, was a loyal reader with her children. As she was going through so much herself, her encouragement to me was self-less and inspiring. If my adventure gave her a distraction as she said, then I'm thrilled. And Mary and Jason in South Africa, invited me to live with them when I came close to leaving the first boat and didn't know where to go and hosted me for a 10 day break while the boat was in Gibraltar...well, there really isn't a big enough gesture to say thank you. Months later I did leave that boat and the encouragement they gave me rang clear when I took that stand. And finally, I had a couple of Aunts who had no idea the role they played. My Aunt Wanda battleing cancer, kept emails coming from Kansas City and constantly checked on me right up to a week before her unexpected passing. But as if it were planned, my Aunt Viola in Oklahoma started emailing soon after, only later did I find out that she did not know that the other Aunt had been regularly emailing me and that she had picked up the encouraging notes where the other left off.

I left my CPA, Minna Hardesty, in charge of my financial mess after losing so much and appointed her as my Power of Attorney while I was gone. As much as I tried to have everything handled before I left, life just doesn’t work that way. She is more than the best accounting firm in town; she has been an amazing friend who dealt gracefully with all the issues that came up along the way…and my mail.

Terri from my management company has tried to juggle things for me usually with a bit of humor but another person who helped make this possible.

That larger group of “friends” who have followed me, reading my stories on the blog and sending comments. Thank you, you do not know how it cheered me, encouraged me and kept me writing.

And the sponsors who gifted me, thank you does not seem big enough. It was great fun to find things to assign it to and write about it.

I know FaceBook has been a great connector of people, but I never saw its impact personally until my birthday when I had 80-something well wishes; I honestly didn’t know I knew that many people. Again, how humbling.

I had two great friends who gave me a chance to sail with their family for nine months. It did not end how I imagined and their treatment of me, forgiven but not forgotten, left our friendship as a thing of the past. However, for the original opportunity, I will always be grateful.

And for the inner circle of girlfriends that know who they are, thank you.

Our life is long, our time is short. And I, I am so thankful for a little…well, a lot of help from my friends.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Coffee for a Caffeine addict

Quito, Ecuador---I thought Italy was the only place in the world where the coffee made you feel like Starbucks was a joke. And I love Starbucks and rarely joke about it. But then came Panama. I discovered the same aroma bliss I had when I opened a bag in Italy. And then came Ecuador, actually the coffee grown in the Galapagos, did the same thing. What’s going on? There is another world of coffee out here that I didn't realize?

Actually both areas are just now becoming more exposed for their coffee. Panama first, winning several "cupping competitions."

Boquete coffees from the Chirqui district, ones from small family-owned farms that produce the truly distinct, unique coffees, this I'm told by the Captain's friend who is staying in Panama and who went through the canal with us. He tells me it is THE coffee I should look for and take as much as I can possibly fit in my bags home with me! Research online also informs me that they employ N'gbe Indians for the picking season, who will come to the coffee farms to work under some of the best wage standards and work laws in Central America.

Then later in the Galapagos, I try some of their local brew, only to discover more liquid treasure. Although I do not see the local Ecuadorians embracing coffee in their culture like we do, they produce some great beans. And as my only vise, this caffeine addict loves it!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A trip to Otavalo, Ecuador: the Market

Otavalo, Ecuador---Lama skins, silk purses, thread for knitting and crochet, leather goods, jewelry, and in between all this, women walking up and down the aisles, carrying buckets of questionable foods screaming out in a melancholy Spanish what it was and what it cost.

This is the market at Otavalo. Said to be the most visited market in Latin America.

I had talken a group taxi to get here and will get a bus back, a two hour trip through the Andes mountains. The market spread out before me.

They like to negociate the price and the prices are amazingly low. They follow you around until you engage in another booth's seller. Very tiny and very old women beggers weave in and out following you for a donation.

This is a taste of Ecuador. I am alone and have to be careful of my backpack. I've been warned in the ways of theifs here, more than any other country. But, what a great afternoon. A good chance to find unique gifts, see the mountainous countryside and people watch as well.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Reflections: One year of Changing Courses

Tame Airlines, flying to Ecuador---A year ago today I landed in Naples, Italy to begin this journey. Now my head spins with all I’ve gotten to see and do. My heart longs for a little more time with those I’ve met along the way, especially the crew who were my roommates for the recent months. But my mind knows it’s time. It’s time to go “home.”

My plan for a year overseas did not go as planned, but when does it ever happen that way? Not in a million years did I think I would end my journey in the Galapagos, but there was not a better, more perfect last destination. God’s plan is always better than mine.

I thought I would be a changed person, but I’m not sure I am…I think time will tell. I know the things I really wanted to change in me; taking things personally, playing the victim card, having my hair reach the middle of my back and being as skinny as I was my sophomore year in college, did not happen.

But I did change courses and my life projection will never be the same. I don’t know what I want to do for a second career, but I DO know what I don’t want to do. That’s a start.

On a serious note, I learned that nothing is as it seems, not even people you thought you trusted. The black cloud of my year away was solely with the first boat I crewed on. The owners were awful to me. The captain was manipulative and took complete advantage of my venerability. He yelled and cursed at me by day, and by night would make advances. I felt lost and alone. Losing everything I had worked for 27 years for, having my Dad die when I was away...all still do not excuse my very bad judgement with regards to handling his advances. Nothing will ever excuse or heal it. Then the wife was once a close friend, threatened to hurt me, dumped a hot cup of coffee on my head and called my friend a terrible thing. I was warned to leave the children alone yet the smallest child was manipulative; taking 4 hours to finish dinner so we could not do anything until he finished, continuously lied and made peace on the boat impossible. Leaving them was 50% the Captain, 25% the wife, 25% the youngest kid. Thank God I had the strength to realize that the only way to get out was to get off their boat.

In a lot of ways, saved me from a deep hole. Learning more about our oceans, reefs and the struggles of communities throughout the Caribbean was eye opening. A focus away from ME. Volunteering and having a purpose on their boat, as well as surrounded by new friends breathed new life in my soul. It wasn’t all easy or all fun, it was hard work, but it was good for me. And dispite them being brand new friends, I was surrounded by people who cared about me and were not just using me.

And every time I start to wonder or feel guilty for taking this year overseas, I remind myself of the 26 years I worked many hours building a business and many years without a vacation. The many opportunities I said no to.  A career that ended by a corporation turning its back on me financially, with shallow promises of "trust me" from someone without authority to trust. I trusted who I thought was like family, only to find out the higher power, the corporation itself could care less of my personal loyalty and sacrifices for all those years. I learned. A contract overides trust. So, good lesson. Does it leave me cold and bitter? No, just smarter in contract negotiations. As far as the "family" of the "company"...The Orlando Sentinel, well, the real ones are still there. The real ones have shown themselves clearly. And for that, I am deeply moved.

So as I review the year I am going to share my “Best” list from places, people and things.

Best Greek Island for fun: Paros

Best tiny Greek Island: Trizonia

Best secluded Greek Beach: Despotico

Best Museum/Palace: Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Best all-around vacation spot: La Palma Island, Canary Islands

Best Volcano: Sicily. (Especially Stromboli)

Best Caribbean Island: Bequia

Best unusual Caribbean experience: Montserrat

Best prices for shopping: Colon, Panama and Panama City

Best place in the world: Galapagos Islands

Best experience with animals: tie 1) Petting baby lions in South Africa 2) Snorkeling with sea lions and penguins in the wild in the Galapagos Islands

Best place to find the craziest drivers with no speed limits and no tickets: Dominican Republic

Best swimming and sunbathing: the Balearic Islands, Spain

Best wind: on top of Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

Best spices: Sale, Morocco, Africa.

Best year of my life: this one.

Standing on the Equator Line

Quito, Ecuador (9500 feet above sea level and 13 miles from the equator) ---For the first time in a very long time, there I was, land locked. But I was oh so close to standing on the actual equator. I felt like it would be a lot different than sailing over it. And I wanted exposure to this invisible place on the globe. So I got up early, caught a "share van", and set off to the Mitad del Mund (Spanish: Middle of the World).

The van dropped me outside gates which looked much like an amusement park entrance. Here you have two choices for standing at the equator; you can visit Mitad del Mundo or the Museo Solar Inti Nan both claim that they not only run along the equator but are the center point.

Why the different opinions? The development of modern technology.
Turns out the ancients established the mid world point with using their understanding of the stars and directions.
Then back in 1743 they determined the line was close but different. As technology increased, they kept moving it. In 1936 they built a 10-meter monument, only to be moved in 1979... 7k to the next "spot".
Mitad del Mundo's huge monument stands in the wrong spot
Between 1979 and 1982, a 30-meter-tall monument was constructed to mark the point where the equator passes through Ecuador at that time at Mitad del Mundo. But oops, once the GPS was used, truth was uncovered and it was really 240 meters north. Regardless, "Mitad del Mundo" is the called official site.

However, I chose to visit a local private attraction to the north. The "GPS" spot.  It claims to be built to mark the TRUE location of the equator.

This humble spot is dwarfed by the "attraction" a few blocks away. It is set up with displays of local houses and explains the different cultures of Ecuador. However at the point where the guide showed us a large area in the hut full of adorable guinea pigs squeaking and running around and then said "yum, yum," I felt ill. I knew this is a delicacy in Ecuador and I had seen roasting little bodies at street side vendors. But to see them alive and running about made me queasy!

Following a walkway that curled around the compound, a space opened and there it was. The equator line. Yes, it's an actual line painted on the cement. Guides explain what effects the equator has on the Earth and demonstrate this with activities that can only be performed at the "equator". I watched as they moved a sink on one side of the line and poured water in it, then pulled the plug and the water drained clockwise. Move the sink to the other side...only about 1-1/2 feet and it drained counterclockwise! So what happens when they set it in the middle, right on top of the line? It goes straight down!

They also had us balance eggs on the end of a nail and informed us that we weigh .2 pounds lighter on the line.
It was a good day. I had stood at "the line"...I thought. But then after researching some more later, many believe that the REAL line is a few more feet in front of this location in the middle of a busy road and that the sink routine is like a slide of hands and works being anywhere close to the line. Regardless I'm in Ecuador feeling extremely overheated. So hot that the middle of the earth, the Equator has to be close.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A trip to Isabella Island Galapagos

Isabella, Galapagos---In my dreams I am swimming with the sea lions. They are playing and turning summersaults around me. The heat is incredible. It is hotter than I've ever experienced but the cool blue water swishes over my skin and cools me. The water is clear and the seas calm. I let out a spontanious, startled, happy scream then start laughing when one sea lion swims right up to my face. They play for about 15 minutes and then dart off as quickly as they appeared. I turn and see a penguin dart past me, swimming so fast I can hardly follow it with my eyes. But wait. Pinch me. THIS IS NOT A DREAM!

Playful Sea Lion
I had caught an early boat for another two hour trip to the largest island in the Galapagos: Isabella.  We toured more giant turtles (yawn)...Edee, stop it; even though at this point, I've seen hundreds, I can't take them for granted. This is the only place on earth that these turtles, plus many other species liveas natives. One giant tortoise in the Darwin Foundation Park named Lonesome George is the very last of his species, and he's 150-ish, but who's counting. I have learned that the different islands have different species. That they lose the clearness of their rings on the outside of their shells and that's how you can tell their age. I know that the females are smaller and they have a square-er shaped backend and a shorter tail. They hiss when frightened. The males take about 5-6 men to lift. And they can live for a year with no food or water I now know that the population of them went from 300,000 to 20,000 during the years of whalers and pirates. These sailors would load their ships with 100-200 turtles and have fresh meat for a very long time because they didn't have to feed or water them.
A very fast penguin! I kept snapping photos and captured one.
Isabella Island is where you can see Pink Flamingos that are so pink you would swear someone at the tourist department dyed them, more dragon-like marine iguanas(only found here), Darwin's famously studied finches, and yes, snorkel with sea lions and penguins.

It was another long day. I had finally backed down and started taking antibiotics a couple days ago after having a chest cold that I caught in Panama. After 10 days, I just couldn't handle it any longer and dove into my supply of Sipro. Yesterday I had to cancel my tour to Bartholomew Island...I was just so exhausted and really needed down time. I guess as my journey is coming to an end I am furiously trying to cram it all in, plus it's the Galapagos for heaven's sake!  So after a day of laying low, I was anxious to see Isabella and crewmate Shannon joined me.

Baby Giant Tortoises

Pink Flamingo behind the branches

White tiped VEGETARIAN sharks

It seems everyone has a very similar experience here. You just can't wipe the smile off your face. And you have to keep asking yourself, "Am I dreaming this?"

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A tour of Santa Cruz Island and trip to Floreana Island

Santa Cruz, Galapagos---It read like a tumultuous, seedy, romance novel; the Baroness and her two love partners, a crazy nudist doctor, a family trying to survive on a nearly deserted island, rumors, mystery… yet we were only reading my travel guide to Ecuador and the Galapagos produced by Moon publishing, on a tour to the island Floreana.
Black moss from the trees look a lot like Jake's beard
Thinking the boat I had crewed on was going to be leaving for Tahiti and I would spend a week alone in the Galapagos, I arranged five tours of Santa Cruz and the islands surrounding it.

But since the my friends didn't leave, I decided to see the Highlands of Santa Cruz with them. And here I saw my first enormous Galapagos tortoise, two twin sink holes and a Lava tunnel cave. All amazing.

A sink hole

Land Turtles cooling off

Entrance to the Lava Tunnel

Then, Shannon from the crew and I took off to Floreana, a two hour speeding boat ride away. With our time we thought we'd read about what we were going to see and came across the information about some early settlers, who shocked us both by the sorted information in the book.
 However, once we were there, NOTHING was said of this, I guess it's not the image the tourist department wants to send. Instead we saw more huge turtles, hiked through a cactus forest, ate some authentic food and snorkeled in the roughest seas I'd ever been in. Again like the Caribbean, no American firm would dare let tourists off their boat in these conditions or at least not without signing a long legal waiver. Here, caution is thrown to the wind, or the seas and all they told us was don't hit the rocks protruding up from the bay near the breaking waves we were to snorkel. So, off we went to see the floor of the ocean stirring wildly but I counted at least five huge sea turtles swimming around below us. It was wonderful.

Later in town, Shannon found a book written by one of these settlers; Floreana by Margret Wittmer. We both bought a copy. Maybe the mysteries will be answered. Maybe not. I know these islands hold more secrets than just those that started happening in 1932.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Enchanting World of Charles Darwin: the Galapagos

Santa Cruz, Galapagos---How can I find the words to fully describe these islands? How can I explain the feelings that such a place evokes? I don’t think I can. I do know in retrospect, that I can’t imagine my life lived without having been here. It is that special.

Once we arrived and went ashore, processing the boat with customs and immigration was a bit confusing. The captain had been here before and we had been advised of the policy that a boat could re-provision with a 24 hour stay with no fees. But either we fell into a scam or that has changed, needless to say, the boat had to pay the fees and the scramble to get me disembarked from the yacht was not an issue as once thought. And, being that the boat had to pay the fees anyway, the captain decided they could stay for three days.

During all this we ended up with an agent named Johnny. Diesel can only be bought through an agent if you are not a local. Assistance was needed for water and paperwork processing. I was fortunate that his agency also represented tours on the island as well as travel in Ecuador. I had been told wrong information from a Galapagos travel agent I had contacted; I can pay a one-way ticket off the island with a letter from the agent explaining I had arrived on a yacht. Information that non-yacht travel agents don’t seem to know.

Though the agency, I got a hotel room for $25 per night and it included breakfast! So I moved off the boat and had hot showers and air conditioning for the first time in months. The crew used it as a central place to meet on land…and a few hot showers themselves.

Johnny had been a tour guide before starting his business and was a wealth of information.

After a few days, the captain extended when they were leaving by another day, then another, then another. All-in-all, they stayed the same amount of time as I did and we had great fun seeing the sites and talking about what we had seen each night. Each one of us longed to stay on, to see more. It seemed like every day brought a new amazing sight, something around each corner that was only to be seen here, in the Galapagos. A world somewhat locked in time and struggling to stay that way.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

From Slimmy Pollywog to Trusty Shellback

Pacific Ocean---Today I Crossed the Line.

In Panama we knew we were heading towards the Galapagos which meant crossing the Equator Line, something I had always wanted to do. We Googled traditions of crossing the equator for the first time. Turns out that we would go from "Slimmy Pollywogs" (Wogs for short)  to "Trusty Shellbacks" at that moment. It's a good thing we were not on a military ship because their traditions sound very much like a College Greek house hazing ceremony. Tradition, initiation, ceremony are more accepted words in the Military now due to the 1997 instruction, which reemphasized the Navy’s zero-tolerance policy for hazing and explained that ‘crossing-the-line’ ceremonies are only meant to celebrate and recognize the achievements of individual Sailors. Sure.

But for OUR occasion Shannon and I were determined to celebrate it. The problem was, we had no idea what time of day we would actually pass the line. One sure thing about sailing is you never know what time you will arrive anywhere. But as the countdown got closer, we knew we were lucky. We did not have to crawl out of bed at 3am for a silly ceremony. Since we were all exhausted by waking at all hours to go on watch anyway, to do it as an extra activity? Well we knew we would never be able to drag either Jake or Andy up. But alas! the line was getting closer and the estimated time was predicted to be close to 7pm!


As our tiny boat rocked amidst the vast sea and the sun set on a moonlit sparkling ocean we checked the GPS like checking voice mail for the love of your life. We knew that the actual crossing of a 50 foot boat would last a second. Maybe two.

Shannon wrote a speech to Neptune, god of the sea. We all wrote wishes on pieces of paper, ready to be thrown into the sea. The skipper promised beer, which was UNHEARD OF during a passage, and rum was readied to be pored into the sea as another token to the Sea God.

Our Equator Celebration at Sea...and 3 new Trusty Shellbacks
The GPS ticked down and Shannon and I put dresses on for the occasion, out dressing the men by a significant amounts of style as always. Then, the moment came, I quickly scooped up some ocean water, beers were popped, Shannon read her thoughts to Neptune, papers baring our wishes were launched overboard and a toast to the Sea was made, thankful for safe passage. Our Skipper, a three-time Shellback, gave a fine speech to us and our "Wog" abilities and proving ourselves to be sea worthy.

Someone once wrote, "The sea is eternal, they say, and so are the traditions that accompany it. As long as there are imaginary lines by which we travel, we will attach a special significance to crossing over them---a significance which also bonds the crew together in a way few things can."

And yes, I will always have a bond with this crew and that tiny space in time. March 23, 2011, 7:31pm PST. The time Jake, Shannon and I became Trusty Shellbacks.