Friday, December 17, 2010

Grenada Marine Boat Yard: A Painful Experience

Our return to Grenada on December 5th 2010 wasn’t in the least bit fun or comfortable. Not only were we extremely sad to return without Darwin, but the plane arrived with a delay and Mark and I were the last ones off and, consequently, through immigration. Luckily, our cab driver Mandoo was still around and brought us back to Irie at Grenada Marine boat yard in St. David’s. His friendliness and courtesy are always appreciated and fit the welcoming and kind attitude of most Grenadians. It was past 11pm by then and we had to cross a soggy swamp before we could board our boat with eight pieces of luggage. By the time our cockpit was cleared of dangerous lines, a loose solar panel and a friend’s outboard engine, the next day had started.

Life in a boat yard is never fun, but most of the time we manage and try to get used to the sweat on our faces and bodies, the heaps of mosquitoes, the dirt and grime, the manual labor and the busy schedule. It’s a part of boat ownership. Grenada Marine proved to be more challenging than any of the other handful of boat yards we have stayed before, however. Our friends from SV Imagine had noticed that Irie was surrounded by water and had basically been put in “a swamp with lots of frogs and mosquitoes”. Upon hearing this, we asked the yard manager to move Irie to higher and drier ground, so we could work in relative comfort for a week. Obviously, that request had been denied or never got through…

Instead, our bare feet were exposed to water and chemicals the whole time, we dragged and kicked up mud everywhere we went, the power supply was inefficient and unreliable (no air conditioning for us, let alone decent use of power tools) and the water pressure was VERY sporadic, especially when needed most. After a long day of heavy, dirty and sweaty labor, Mark and I would walk to the showers for a serious clean-up, only to find a trickle of (cold) water emerging from the shower heads and full toilet bowls with no water to flush them. The psychological pain of loosing Darwin was soon augmented by physical pain from having to squat many times a day (the wet ground did not allow us to sit or kneel in hard to reach places) and strained muscles.

Mark and I pushed through, worked around the rainstorms and managed to complete a lot of projects while on the hard. We meticulously prepped Irie’s bottom – scraping hundreds of calcium deposits (we removed the barnacles before we left in September), sanding the two hulls, washing everything down and taping the borders – before we applied a barrier coat in the worst places and painted the area 2.5 times. Mark did the same with our sail drives and we managed to fix some dinghy leaks and install a new cooling system for the fridge. That required a newly drilled hole under the waterline, a scary but successful endeavor.

After a little over a week, we needed to pay our bill. All the employees and workers in the boat yard are very friendly, but we counted on the unprofessionalism of the office staff to miscalculate the bill in our advantage. That would have made up for some of our “suffering”. The bill did come back with an error in every department. In our disadvantage, of course. It took another half an hour to set a few things straight, while Irie was hanging in the travel lift. Then, we chased the remaining frogs away, took a few fat mosquitoes with us and sailed away from St. David’s Harbour with a new looking Irie. Under the waterline anyway…

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Darwin: Our Bestest Boy

It was my 35th birthday, just a few days ago. The morning started early. I saw the sky turn from black into blue. My whole household was awake early. I received happy birthday kisses in my face from Darwin. Mark and I talked about our wedding plans. Later on, Mark and Darwin gave me my presents: the interesting and supposedly funny sailing novel “The Motion of the Ocean”, a day backpack just big enough for our stuff and some doggy gear and a state-of-the art, small digital camera that is waterproof and shock proof. I was excited and didn’t expect this. There is even a “pet function” on it. You enter your pet’s name and date of birth and it keeps track of its age with every picture you take of him. I would be using that setting frequently! A card wished me many more wonderful birthdays together with my small family. Mark, Darwin and even Kali signed it. I felt pretty darn happy.

During this day of rare relaxation, we hang out with Darwin frequently and Mark noticed that he looked pretty dehydrated. His gums and tongue lost their pink color and looked almost white. He showed not much interest in water and food and Mark called the vet twice during the day, mentioning the symptoms and updating Darwin’s status. It didn’t seem life threatening, so we decided to take him in the following morning, saving on the expensive Sunday emergency fees. Those fees would have been the least of our worries and expenses based on the days to follow…

Before Mark and I went to Belgium, we took Darwin to a vet for his annual check-up and extensive blood work. Big was our relief when he proved to be “totally healthy”. About two weeks later, while we were in Belgium and Darwin enjoyed love, care and exercise at Tim and Kristen’s place, he got sick. Tim took good care of him and the vet diagnosed him with tick fever, for which he prescribed antibiotics. Mark and I received daily updates that Darwin was doing better and the medicine seemed to work.

Upon our return to the States, all three of us were very excited to see each other again, and to be reunited felt wonderful. We had missed our cute boy, who is normally with us 24/7. Darwin didn’t appear to be 100% to us, but we blamed that on the antibiotics, known to upset the stomach. He lacked appetite, was slow, missed his usual energy and rested a lot. Mark noticed that his belly was a bit bloated, which sent a shiver through his spine. Thoughts of Kali and her life threatening cancer emerged. It seemed unlikely, though, to have two dogs with the same symptoms within two years. Must be the medicines. A couple more days went by until we noticed Darwin was anemic (pale) last Sunday.

On Monday, we took our dog to the vet, first thing in the morning. He agreed the gums and tongue were very pale and Darwin’s belly didn’t feel normal. The blood work came out exactly the same as when he was diagnosed with the tick fever: his red blood count was low, explaining his anemia. But why? They kept Darwin for the rest of the morning, took X-rays and did more tests, but couldn’t figure it out. We were referred to the specialists of Port City Referral Hospital in Portsmouth, NH, and set up an appointment immediately. There, a specialized radiologist took an ultrasound of Darwin while we waited. Always a perfect dog to us, he was a perfect patient there.

The news came like a bomb shell and took our breath and our life away. Our hearts missed a few beats. Darwin had three malignant masses, on both kidneys and liver. There was nothing to be done! His bloated abdomen was believed to be filled with blood, leaking from a ruptured tumor. We really couldn’t believe it! That was almost exactly what happened to Kali. We took her to the vet; she was diagnosed with cancer and died quickly… This could not be true. Darwin was not even ten years old and we did a check-up to make sure he was all right! We were not going to let this happen to him, after the disaster with Kali, not even two years ago. We were devastated. Darwin was going to die. Soon.

The tears came and kept coming for days. We thought about all the options and there were none. The next day, Tuesday, Mark noticed a red dot on Darwin’s shaved belly. He talked to the radiologist about it, who thought there might be a small chance that Darwin’s blood didn’t clot right. A small chance that the blood in his belly and his anemia were the result of a blood clotting problem. That was all we needed to load our baby into the car and drive to Portsmouth again. A sprinkle of hope that this was just a nightmare. Another blood test was performed, only to wipe away that last bit of hope. His blood clotted OK. One question remained: What if the liquid in his belly wasn’t blood but something else? Either way, it would be disastrous, but if it wasn’t blood, Darwin would live a little bit longer. I wanted to know and we let the vets find out. A nurse returned with a syringe full of blood. It was over…

Disbelief. Pain. Sorrow. Many tears. Disbelief. A lot of pain. We were in shock. Cold. Shivering. Not thinking right. Not being able to function. There must be something we could do… An operation was impossible. It would kill him on the spot. If only it was in one kidney… If only he didn’t get sick… If only…

Mark and I spoiled Darwin more than ever. He had bacon, steak and rice for dinner, brie (his favorite French cheese) and home made treats as snacks. He drank a lot. Proof that his kidneys were starting to fail. His belly grew bigger. Mark carried him down the stairs. He wasn’t interested in walks. He grew more uncomfortable with the progress of every day. We loaded him up with hugs, love and sweet words. I kissed him on his nose, between his eyes. My favorite spot. I used to stroke him there, while his head lay on my lap, until he drifted into a comfortable sleep. This wouldn’t happen anymore.

The thought of losing him was unbearable. Mark and I were/are devastated. We can not imagine a life without dogs, especially on the boat. Everything we did, all the choices we made, the kind of boat we have, the way the days developed; it was all with Darwin in mind. The new doggy toys and gear we bought to take back to Irie. His home, he would never see again. An empty home for us to return to. Why would we go to the beach again? Why would we get up early? Who will bark to passers by? Who will greet our visitors? Who will protect us in the future? No more licks in the morning, huffs to warn us, wagging tail to greet us, four legged company everywhere we go…

Wednesday arrived. Darwin stared at us with a weird look in his face. He didn’t understand what was going on. Why all those tears, mommy and daddy? He tried to get comfy –he used to be so good about that- but didn’t succeed. It was time. He was ready for a deep, long, comfortable sleep. He was ready to go find Kali. Mark made the worst phone call of his life. Darwin made his last trip in the car. He loved car rides. He loved everything if he could just be with us. We always promised him we’d return and we always did. Now, for the first time in our lives, he was going to leave us. Another vet visit. His last one. After the doctor sedated him a bit, he rested his head on my lap. Mark and I were very close to his face. We stroked him, whispered sweet words, showered him with tears and gave him all of our remaining love, while he passed away. Then, he was gone. All that remained was his lifeless body. I gave him a last kiss on his nose, between his eyes.

Mark, Darwin and I came to the United States, mainly to take care of Mark’s sister Dru, who has ovarian cancer. She is doing unexpectedly well at the moment. We’d like to think that Darwin gave his life for hers. The emptiness in our lives is indescribable. The pain incurable. Our future and life on the boat is shattered. Everybody who met Darwin, loved him. He was a special boy and will be remembered as a wonderful, well-behaved, lovable, handsome and smart boy. The bestest! Mark and I are very fortunate to have had him as our family for almost ten years. Now, we will have to move on, without him. And we will. It is going to be very very difficult. We are missing our boy so much. Now, it’s just the two of us, just loving each other…

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tourist in My Own Country

After a week of running errands and taking care of health check-ups, Mark joined me in my home country Belgium for two weeks of “vacation”. Of course, there was the usual business to attend to (what did we expect?), but we managed to visit many friends and family members, adding up to an extremely busy schedule. While I used to be treated like a princess on previous visits, Mark’s infrequent presence (once every five years at the going rate) turned us into a temporary "queen and king".

Every time we showed up at somebody’s house, good company awaited us and sumptuous portions of traditional dishes were served, whether it was for breakfast, lunch or dinner. We got to savor many of Belgium’s favorite foods, beers and treats and never felt as full as we did on one particular “combined visit” day! From pastries at my parent’s to a whole breakfast buffet at my cousin’s, from “stomp en worst” at my other cousin’s to Bouillabaisse soup at my aunt’s, from lasagna to sweet and sour chicken at friends’ places to a wonderful and extensive high quality lunch at a restaurant for my oma’s 90th birthday. I think we are done eating for a while… after Thanksgiving!

Despite the cold and grey weather (I saw the sun for a whole five hours, all on the same day, before Mark arrived, and Mark saw her for a full 5 minutes), we took a few daytrips with the help of friends, family and my mum’s car. Mum was so accommodating that she took days off to be with us or lend her car. With Rosy and Peter, we visited Brussels’ biggest landmark, the atomium. There are several exhibitions in the spheres, reached by escalators, and the view from the top can be amazing in better weather. Unfortunately, it rained that day, so we couldn’t explore much beyond the Expo ’58 attraction.

My cousin Griet and her husband Wim wanted to return the favor from their visit to Irie, exactly one year before. They treated us to a whole bunch of delicacies and showed us around Antwerp on a historical walking tour. Together with their kids Sam and Eva, we went to the top of one of the biggest buildings of town, coincidently Wim’s work place. The view was unbelievable and special. The rain held off until we returned homeward, after a quick glimpse at the totally and impressively renewed Central Station.

On another cold and crappy day, we took a little drive around the countryside of Belgium and Holland, with stops in the very cute town of Damme and tourist attraction number 1: picturesque Brugge. Every ten minutes or so, we had to dive into a museum or other heated structure to take care of our numb face and hands. Taking pictures was hard, but we nevertheless enjoyed the sights of historical buildings, canals and windmills.

Our personal highlight was a “weekend” away in the small country of Luxemburg, new to Mark and me. After three hours of driving, we reached the foresty environs of the Luxemburg Ardens. Our first stop, Esch-sur-Sûre proved to be a very idyllic valley town in the bend of a river. The houses of villagers were cozily grouped together, dominated by castle ruins and a watch tower on a rocky hill top.

After lunch, we gazed at the impressive castle of Vianden. The well maintained “house of the dukes” is perched on a hill and could be taken out of a fairytale book. Mark and I decided to have a look inside as well, taking in some historical facts, artifacts and information. Some of the rooms sported ornate era-furniture, giving a good impression of the life of the rich in the earlier centuries. Our drive continued to touristy, but attractive Echternach with its big abbey and green surroundings, called Little Switzerland. Just for the sake of it, we crossed the river to set foot in Germany. Dark arrived around 5 pm, a good time to head over to our basic, but affordable hotel in France.

Sunday, November 21st, brought more grey skies and frigid temperatures. Mark and I were determined to make a walking tour in Luxembourg, the capital of the country. It wasn’t too hard to find free parking (hurray for Sunday), but keeping warm was more of a challenge. At a pretty fast pace, we crossed squares surrounded by historical buildings and walked the old walls of the raised city. The vistas across the river and beneath the walls were incredible. We couldn’t agree more with the name “prettiest balcony of Europe” when we took in the scene.

Not much later, we descended the hill and entered the Pétrusse valley, an oasis of peace and nature in the midst of the busy capital. Foot paths bring you past a very old chapel, built against the rocks and underneath two immense arched bridges. We finished our tour without freezing to death and regretted not being able to just hang out and take in the views a bit more. Especially the area in Grund seemed to deserve more time. Luxembourg has a lot to offer and a status to maintain. I wouldn’t mind coming back here in the summer one day, but for now, I was happy to be “traveling” again!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Belgium: Socialism at Work

When you are cruising around, whether it is the world or the Caribbean, you hope not to get sick. In case something doesn’t feel right, you wait until you reach a cheaper country to deal with it, you suffer through what’s going on or you pay for medical help on shore. Medical assistance is practically always cheaper than in the US. Most of the time, however, you are able to swallow some of your onboard medicines or accept the ones offered by other cruisers. This is the most affordable option. When you are really fortunate, you have a doctor amongst your surrounding cruising friends. Since many of us on the water don’t have adequate health insurance, we hope the Sea Gods take mercy on us.

When somebody gets sick in the United States, it takes quite the amount of nausea, tooth ache or pain to check out a doctor. Most (working) people have insurance, but the deductible is high and even the fees are steep. If you get away from a hospital or examination room for under US$ 100, you scored and you are happy. I don’t think that happens frequently.

In Belgium, on the other hand, going to the doctor requires little pain or thought. You have a cough? A little bit of fever? Need a teeth cleaning? Are you sure it’s the flu? Better get it checked out. And, if you really feel crappy and are bed bound, the doctor comes to your door. Your cost? Less than US$ 10. Initially you pay full price, but then you go to your health care provider with the receipt and get most of it back in cash or transferred to your Belgian bank account. At the pharmacy, you pay a relatively small amount and your insurance covers the rest.

Once a year, I am really happy to be a Belgian. I save all my questions, aches and health problems up. I make a list of them and take it with me on my yearly doctor’s visit. At the time of my appointment, we go over the list, my questions are answered, I receive a full check-up, a gynecological exam and some recommendations for specialists if needed. Since recently, my house doctor (as we call our favorite general practitioner) joined a health center and when you are a member, all the care you receive there is totally free. Health insurance is mandatory in Belgium and I pay about US$ 100 a year. That does not include (extensive) coverage abroad for months on end. To me those 100 dollars seem a lot, since I don’t really live in Belgium anymore. So, I better get some return when I visit.

On the home coming program is also a visit to the dentist. Most years, I manage with just a check-up, but this year I have to go back. A cavity. I am annoyed, because that will cost me more. Then again, better get it taken care of here, instead of that unknown place where it will start to hurt, somewhere in the future. That could be in the States and the price there will be incomparable!

My knee has been hurting for a few months, on downhill slopes. I wanted to know what the problem is. Doctor looked at it, appointment in the hospital for a few scans after some painful liquid got injected in my poor knee, later in the day followed a visit to the orthopedist with a conclusion and advice. I should still say hi to a dermatologist and eye doctor this year, but –to be honest- I am a bit doctored out at the moment and hope to add those two chores to next year’s list. The extra visits for knee and teeth cost me less than $100 (on top of the yearly coverage).

Compared to other countries in the world, we, here in Belgium are lucky with our “socialist” “government” (I have to put both in quotes, since technically we still don’t have a government at the moment). To the wallet, health care is cheap and when the cash goes out, most of it will make its way back. We pay for it a different way. Even though Belgians realize they are having it “good” in this country, they also know why and have their answer ready: “We pay for it with taxes!” Income taxes are so high (up to 50% for an average household) that when Belgians talk about their wage, they only mention and (pretend to) know their net income. If we consider how much the employer actually pays for each received pay check, we won’t feel so “good” anymore!

Even the sales tax (21%) is hidden, because it is included in the prices we pay for goods and services. So is gratuity. No tipping necessary in Belgium! Over all, Belgians are pretty happy in their country and with their (lack of) government. 9% of the population is unemployed and none of them will go hungry. Socialism does work!