Sunday, January 31, 2010

All is Irie with The Wirie

Over the last few months, Mark and Tim have been working extra hard on improving The Wirie and the website. From his nice, comfortable house in cold Massachusetts, Tim communicated over Skype with his brother Mark in the meager living space of Irie, located in the warm climate and pretty environments of the Caribbean. Together, they figured a whole bunch of stuff out and shared their thoughts and ideas during daily chat sessions. I helped by reviewing documents, writing some PR stuff and making Mark’s (sometimes frustrating) life a bit easier.

The result of our effort, time investment, research and team work is an improved Wirie ready for sale on the website ( and for the press. The new stainless steel bracket is custom made to fit horizontal and vertical poles as well as standard antenna mounts, a higher power 1000mW WiFi unit replaces the 500mW unit, the website focuses on Wirie use in the boating and the RV (recreational vehicle) world, Windows 7 got its own manual and the manuals for all the other operating systems (Windows XP, Windows Vista and Mac) are updated. The FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page is enriched with extra information, other long range WiFi solutions were researched, the product comparison chart has more competitors on it, our customer service department is constantly providing advice and help, more unsolicited testimonials show how pleased our customers are and many more positive changes have been made to the site and the business operation.

Mark and Tim also tested a new WiFi unit that claims to be 2 Watts and supports the N protocol. It didn’t take them long, however, to discover that the internet connections with this unit lack reliability and are actually weaker than the 1000mW unit when used with the more frequently available B and G protocols. They concluded to not use this unit until improvements are made and results show that it is indeed better than the unit we currently use in The Wirie.

Working from pretty places scattered through the Caribbean islands over the last months has been enjoyable enough, but now it is time for the “real world”! Once in St. Martin, Mark and I will have a full time job taking care of boat projects, getting our life back on track, earning some money doing random jobs, advertising The Wirie and running the business with Tim.

With this different kind of blog, I wanted to give some insight about what else is going on in this little boat and this big world of ours. It’s not all sightseeing, relaxing and fun here on Irie, although we can’t complain about this last week. Mark and I decided to go on vacation to Barbuda and actually try to relax a bit. We did succeed splendidly and even read a couple of books, until we found a great internet signal in front of an 11 mile deserted beach! Well, I guess the beach isn’t totally deserted, based on that one building a couple of miles down. That Wirie, I tell ya…

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Northbound: Guadeloupe

Point à Pitre is Guadeloupe’s biggest city. It is located on the southern edge of the thinnest part of the country and has a big harbor with a few anchorages. There is a marina area that is very convenient, clean and self-contained. You find marine shops, car rental places, a supermarket, expensive restaurants, and a chiropractor all in walking distance from the dinghy dock. The day after our arrival, “sore backed” Mark visited the chiropractor, who “cracked” him five times. The whole ordeal took less than five minutes and cost 60 euros. In the afternoon, we paid a brief visit to the city.

The following two weeks, we basically stayed put in the harbor, to examine the developments of Mark’s back, work online and “wait for weather”. Mark spent hours on end improving the Wirie website, updating the manuals and preparing for our big launch of The “improved” Wirie. We were mainly anchored off a quiet island, Islet à Cochons, inhabited by little biting bugs. It was a good place to take Darwin to shore, except early in the morning or late in the afternoon. While the captain’s back was resting, the crew carried 70 gallons of water back on deck, filled the water tank, hauled the dinghy up the beach each time we took Darwin to shore and pulled it up our davits every night (a security matter). As good practice, the captain is steering the boat and the crew is lifting the anchor and the sails these days… Sometimes life on shore sounds appealing!

But, it wasn’t all work and bug bites. One day, we rented a car to explore the mainland a bit. Guadeloupe, shaped like a massive butterfly, consists of two islands cut apart by the Riviѐre Saleé. Grande Terre is flat with nice beaches, resorts and agriculture, while Basse Terre is mountainous and lush. Most of this side of the island is a National Park with many hikes, view points, a volcano and water falls. I’ve wanted to check it out for a while and Wednesday, January 13th was the selected day to do so.

Mark, Darwin and I loaded up the dinghy and went to the marina area to see whether Cap Caraibes had a cheap car that day. Sometimes, they don’t have any cars at all and you can’t reserve. They don’t care. This is French land. Everything is laid-back and unorganized… We waited for about an hour and got lucky and on our way by 8:30 am in a tiny, crappy Renault Twingo. Well, what do you want for “only” 30 euros ($ 45)? After a few wrong turns because of my awful co-piloting skills, we stopped at a super duper, bigger than American-sized shopping mall to check their closing hours. To get most of our car and day, we would do some shopping here once it got dark.

The trip went on, over the Route de la Traverse to the National Park. Our first stop was a pretty, but busy waterfall, worth the picture. When we saw the National Park sign, however, it became clear to us that dogs were not allowed! We left Darwin in the shady car for a quick glimpse of sights in the busy areas and took him for a long walk up a mountain where no tourists were present. This trail was very challenging and muddy. We need better shoes than flip flops! Darwin loved it and everybody got their exercise and mud bath for the day.

We followed the west coast of Guadeloupe down and passed a few places we had anchored on our way to Grenada. Near the capital, Basseterre, we turned inland to approach the volcano La Soufriѐre. The top was in the clouds and rain was approaching while we drove through the lush environment. The Twingo had a very hard time climbing the steep roads, only allowing Mark to keep moving in first gear. If the car stopped, we were screwed. When that happened, we all got out and pushed. Just kidding! We did roll backwards while Mark floored the pedal in order to go the right way (=up) again. Near the volcano are a lot of interesting looking hiking trails to waterfalls and view points, but we couldn’t leave Darwin for that long. Plus, what’s the fun of going on a big walk without having a happy dog with you? We dipped out toes in a natural hot pool and drove the Twingo down again.

The roads in Guadeloupe are surprisingly good with stretches of highway and passing lanes. Along the southeast side of Basse Terre, we drove inward again to see the most visited and highest waterfalls of the country, the Chutes du Carbet. Because of rock slides, however, the closest falls were closed. The higher falls were accessible, but the day was running out of hours, so we opted for a walk around the serene Grand Etang with Darwin instead. The trail around this lake went up and down over tree roots and rocks with views of a calm pond in between the branches and leaves. It was a nice, but tiring way to end our sightseeing trip.

Back in Point à Pitre, I was excited about checking out the Decathlon outdoor store and the huge supermarket. Mark and I did find some new and affordable swimwear, but the Carrefour supermarket was, just like everywhere else in Guadeloupe, very expensive. When we tried to fuel up our car, the gauge didn’t want to get to the fifth bar, which was how we left the rental place. After a few tries and spending a lot of money, we gave up.

When we searched out a third gas station the next morning, we kept pumping without results. We figured worst case was to fill the tank and ask some money back, since there obviously was a problem with the gauge. By that time, we had spent 43 euros ($ 63) on fuel for this little Twingo! The owner of Cap Caraibes didn’t want to have anything to do with refunding money, blaming us for trying so many times instead of just bringing the car back. Are we too responsible? Or too dumb? The experience made this car rental the most expensive of our lives, costing over $ 100 for a day! Mark hated the fact he didn’t speak French, but I assured him that even knowing French would not have helped in this case as I was the proof of it! No, Mark is still not fond of the French islands…

One day, we moved over to cute and pretty Ilêt du Gosier, an uninhabited little island with a lighthouse, palm trees and a nice beach. Lots of people swim over from the mainland, since it is only 600 yards off shore. The place got quite busy during the day, but was all right in the mornings and the evenings, when we shared the island with the biting bugs. Dogs were not allowed, so we had to sneak Darwin on shore before and after “busy hours”. Not that rules are followed or enforced, based on the many camp fires!

Our last adventure in Guadeloupe took place a couple of days ago. We moved Irie to the south side of the Riviѐre Saleé, the slim body of the butterfly, to pick up a mooring ball that wasn’t there. We anchored for the night and got up at 4 am the next morning, to utilize the 5 am bridge openings. In the dark, we lifted anchor and made our way to the first bridge. Easy enough. The second one was close to the first one, but off set and very narrow. Once in the opening, with a foot on each side to spare, the current pushed us against one of the walls with a small crack as a result. Then, a 30 minute pitch dark slide through the mangroves followed, with some lit and unlit markers “showing” us the way and many no-see-ums. The last bridge was wide enough and we hoped to pick up a mooring ball on the north side until daylight was present. None were to be found, so we had to keep going until we reached the big bay up north. There, we dropped anchor for a few hours before continuing on when the sun was high enough to see the many reefs.

Later that day, we dropped anchor west of Ilêt à Fajou, far away from shore in shallow water. We were the only boat, surrounded by turquoise waters and expansive views. The exercise of the day was wading along some of the beaches and mangroves in clear water avoiding sea cucumbers and star fish and providing the local biting bugs with food for weeks to come. We returned to Irie red dotted, but ready for a day of relaxation. No internet here! Not even with The Wirie. Unfortunately, that meant we couldn’t check the weather again and found ourselves in a dead calm ocean the following day, heading north…

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

New Year’s Eve in the Caribbean

Mark and I never used to eat out much, mostly for financial reasons. But, once in a while we would like to celebrate something or we (think we) deserve a treat. Those times, we expect some good food and service for the hard earned or hard saved money we spend on a meal. The prospect of no dishes and no cooking in a hot kitchen would be an added bonus.

Performing such an easy task as having a decent, affordable dinner and be pleased is challenging in the Caribbean. Over the last one and a half years, we have tried multiple times and failed more than not. Bear in mind, though, that we are not on vacation, always ask or check prices ahead of time, always look at our bill, hate it to be taken advantage of and, that we have certain expectations, like a friendly face and an honest atmosphere, and certain principles in the lines of “Don’t play (tourist) games with us”! Is that too much to ask for?

So, when Mark and I go out to eat, we never know what to expect, except not to expect too much. We still get excited about treating ourselves sometimes and do give it another try, only to find out that the restaurant of our choice is closed, the prices have gone up, Darwin is not allowed, people are not friendly, many items on the menu are not available, a surprise tax or mandatory tip is added or the bill is wrong.

On Christmas Day, we tried our luck in St. Pierre, Martinique. The only restaurant that looked alive closed at 3 pm and was pretty expensive. Dinner (packaged stuffing, eggplant and slices of lunch meat ham) on Irie was tasty and cheap and I did leave the dishes until the next morning. Not too bad.

On New Year’s Eve, we were serious about eating out and decided to go to Big Papa’s near our anchorage in Prince Rupert Bay, Dominica. The town of Portsmouth doesn’t have much to offer and we were pleased by the atmosphere of this restaurant and by our meeting with Big Papa himself, about five months ago. We started off with a few Happy Hour drinks. The Big Papa rum punch was half price, we were told, so we would get two for EC$ 10 (US$ 4). Two small plastic cups with a yellow liquid showed up and we enjoyed the taste of it, but wondered about the size. It’s a common trick here. They offer a drink for Happy Hour, but reduce the size with the price…

When I asked about the size of the drink, one of the waitresses admitted that the normal rum punches came in a bigger “real” glass. But, it was New Year’s Eve and we were trying to have a good time, so I ordered another Big Papa rum punch, the only thing that seemed to be on special. Mark ordered a local (Kubuli) beer. My ordered drink was orange this time and tasted different than the previous one, not as good, and I inquired. Now, this was the Big Papa rum punch and the previous one was a normal rum punch. OK. Well, then I wanted my second part of the order to be a normal one! This appeared to be the only option, because one of the women declared there was no Big Papa rum punch available. One of the waitresses was leaving, there was some confusion, I made sure they realized that this drink was the second part of my “two for one” rum punch and got another beer for Mark, while wondering what they would charge for my two different punches in the same order.

After three drinks each (three 2 for 1 rum punches for me and one 2 for 1 rum punch and two beers for Mark), we decided to swallow hard about the unfriendliness and incapability of the staff and go for a Big Papa Hamburger. It was New Year’s Eve after all! When we ordered, the waitress announced that they didn’t do the snack menu in the evening, so we gave in and asked for the bill. Big Papa recognized us (or was it Darwin?) from our last visit and we had a friendly chat. He wouldn’t make us burgers, though, a “cook’s nightmare”, apparently. Not sure why, apart from this being a good way to make more money by “forcing” you to order a more expensive meal. Not us…

We were a little hyped up by now and sure anticipated the bill to be wrong. The drinks should cost EC$ 30 (US$ 12). How bad would it be? Bad! We owed Big Papa’s EC$ 60. Twice the price! They charged EC$ 10 for every single tiny rum punch and EC$ 10 for every beer, which has a fixed price of EC$ 5. Mmmm… After some questioning, the mistake about the beer was obvious, but some more arguments later, the Big Papa rum punch (of which I had 1 instead of 2) appeared to be EC$ 15 during happy hour (????) at which point we gave in and paid the EC$ 35. We’ve learned to sacrifice small amounts of money for everybody’s peace and just never go back. Needless to say, no tip was given and we were very happy about not purchasing a meal there that night.

On Irie, some cheap champagne, a delicious spaghetti carbonara and Belgian chocolates for dessert pleased our tummies and our moods. Once again, we were better off having our dinner at home, but that evening we had realized it in time!

Last year, Mark, Darwin and I thought about the recent loss of Kali and wept ourselves asleep on the trampoline, to be woken up by fireworks at midnight, in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas (USVI). This year we didn’t make January 1st at all, until the next morning. We tried to stay up for a few hours, but were sound asleep by 10:30 pm! New Year’s Eve was pretty much a day like any other day.