Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rain, Please!

When Mark and I returned to Irie in the pretty San Blas islands, our fresh water tank was barely one third full. We were thinking of ways to solve this “issue” ahead of time, while hoping the standing water would still be good enough to drink after two and a half months. But, it is the rainy season in this part of the world right now, so we decided we’d have no problem filling up our relatively small tank, while diluting the water that was already in it. Before we left, it rained – very hard –every other day or so, with spectacular lightning and thunder as a backdrop. It would be easy to collect our needed water supply.

The day we arrived, we caught the end of a massive rainstorm, ourselves, with luggage, but we just missed a big collecting opportunity. A few days later, enough rain fell to clean our roof and decks and to fill our sun shower. Now, we could at least rinse off after our salty showers. In the meantime, our water supply in the boat dwindled down. Every evening, we prepared the cockpit, the jugs, and our two collecting systems for the anticipated downpour. Instead, we saw massive clouds dunking rain along mainland Panama, while the outer anchorages (= here) stayed dry. We became even more careful with the water from our tank, only using it for cooking and drinking. Mark suggested I’d drink beer for a while, to save water, but even that is not enough reason for me to drink that unpleasantly tasting beverage!

Mark and I made plans to take Irie to a small village called Soledad Miria, where they supposedly have fresh water from the mountains. We were not looking forward to this frustration, time, and money/diesel. Buying water in the rainy season and going through all the effort of getting it, seemed a bit silly, but we were getting desperate and sick of being extremely scant. The day we planned to do the trip, other issued appeared that needed dealing with first, like a broken water pump. There’s no need for water in our tank if we can’t pump it to our faucets… or, there is no need for a pump if we don’t have water. Luckily, Mark had a spare and he’s a great handyman, so that issue was fixed in “no time” and we hoped for a lot of rain, one last night.

When you say “I remember” out loud, you hear Irie, but when you think “irony”, be sure Irie is a part of it as well. Towards the evening of said last night, clouds started to gather all around us and the wind picked up tremendously. Mark and I smiled at each other: “Finally!” While other cruisers frantically checked their surroundings and feared another storm, we were applauding it, well, the rainy part anyway. A massive dark grey curtain of rain slid past the mainland, while the wind was blowing over 20 knots from that direction. It wouldn’t take long for the storm to approach us and we were truly anticipating its arrival. Behind us, another front moved from east to west, producing a massive sound and light show. Water spouts reached the ocean and it was an impressive sight to behold, from afar.

Mark and I waited and waited; jugs, hoses and tank at the ready. Finally, two rain drops bounced on our roof and then, the wind speed slowed down and the storm had passed, leaving us baffled and disappointed. How was this possible, with the wind coming from the clouds exploding with water, for an hour? Instead of drinking big gulps of fresh water, we – unsuccessfully - spent our time trying to take pictures of the lightning strikes behind us. What a spectacle that was! Mark managed to film one sequence, which is pretty cool. We went to bed with all the hoses hooked up, but the night stayed dry.

The following day, we had an early start and motored to Soledad Miria (wind on the nose going there and no wind coming back), after confirming with another cruiser they had water there. The visibility was poor, this close to land, but our guide book and chart plotter lead us safely around the reefs. A concrete dock with wooden poles and a set of helping hands welcomed us. When we explained what we desired, an old man walked off and came back ten minutes later with sets of keys to the water “depot”, a small cabinet where the spigot hid behind. He tried all the keys, with no luck. We waited. Mark contemplated getting his bolt cutters out, but we decided against that. After another ten minutes or so, he managed to pry the lock open. When was the last time this water spigot had been used? We just reached Irie’s tank with all the hoses combined and the tap was turned on. We waited… No water was coming out! To make a long set of trials short, the pressure was just too low and the only way to get water was to fill jerry cans on the dock, haul them aboard and empty them into our freshwater tank. This was still quicker than having to anchor and take the dinghy back and forth.

It was a slow process. Every jug took about 10 to 15 minutes to fill, but we prepared for this by starting early. While the sun was beating down on us, we waited and we hoped the job would be finished before the afternoon storms would start. Upon looking into jug number five, the contents were brown. We started all over again with this one, trying to filter the water with a cloth. After a couple of more tries and even more time, we gave up and abandoned our mission. We arrived back at our anchorage seven hours later, dripping with sweat and containing under half a tank of fresh water. The surroundings, our swim in the gorgeous water and the sunny weather slowly erased our disappointment. The best thing to do in the San Blas islands is to stay put in a place you like, without trying to accomplish things involving other people or goods. When you do that: life is good!

That night, it rained.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ode to Friends and Family

Our two and a half months leave of absence from the boat is finished. And, what a great time is has been. Mark and I were really ready to take a break from the primitive life on the water and swap it temporarily for the comforts and luxuries of other people’s houses. We took lavish showers, spent as much time online as we desired and ate scrumptious foods. We rarely cooked, barely had to do dishes and used washing machines to clean our clothes. We were so “out of it”, that once we settled back on Irie, we didn’t remember which side of the bed we used to sleep and wondered what all the buttons were for… The whole trip to the States and Europe was a success thanks to our lovely friends and awesome family!

In the United States, we stayed at Mark’s parents’ place, where we occupied our own little “flat” above their garage, and we visited sister Dru and husband Brian on the extensive and pretty grounds of one of Greenwich’s estates. They all made us feel welcome and kept us entertained.  When I arrived in Belgium, a random encounter with an acquaintance led to a wonderful long weekend in Holland with old Scouts friends and their children. My oma received many visits which brought a massive smile to her face, which in turn made me happy, and my parents harbored me in the room of my childhood. I was taken care of in the same way and didn’t have to do a thing! Sometimes one can really go back in time and enjoy it immensely!

When Mark arrived, our visits started in earnest. We were treated to home cooked meals and superb restaurant meals by friends and family alike. Our “vacation” in Germany, was a German version of the Belgian hospitality we had encountered thus far. Back in Belgium, the splurge continued with delicious food, interesting company and afternoons turning into evenings with complimentary dinners and drinks, and once even with some fun in a homemade water park! With a plunge, I finished a steep ride down a slide, and with a mojito in hand I relaxed in a bubbly Jacuzzi. The sun was even present that day; life was good. Mark savored the renowned Belgian specialty beers, while I was the designated driver. The food made up for it, though, and in the States, he took the wheel.

Our stay “abroad” finished with a fast, last week in the States, where we took hold of our little flat again. Most of the days were spent trying to pack the loads of gear we had obtained and catching up on last minute online chores. Evening dinners were social events turned special with friends and family wishing us well in the unknown future. One of the last nights, we went out for an exquisite sushi dinner, at the expense of The Wirie. It grew into a fun business meeting, without talking about business at all. Who said doing business with family members is a bad thing? Even though these wonderful times “at home” are still fresh in our memory, the daily boat life is engrossing us again. It was a needed and welcome break and we truly feel refreshed and excited about our life style again. Now, it is back to showering in the ocean, doing laundry by hand, being restricted with internet, careful with electricity and fresh water and … making new friends.

Going out for a fantastic four course Chinese lunch with Liesbet's parents.

Lobster as a last dinner with Mark's parents, his brother and sister-in-law.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Introduction to Bavaria

In Germany, there is a special deal when you take the train in the weekend. Schönes Wochenender ticket it is called and it gives up to five people unlimited travel in Germany, on the Saturday or Sunday of your choice, for only 40 euro! It’s a steal, especially when you know that taking the train from Berlin to Munich usually costs over 150 euro. So, our decision was quickly made. The catch? You are only allowed to use regional trains, which is why our journey took nine hours…

Traveling by train is relaxing and fun, even with the many stopovers and changes. Mark and I were lucky no delays took place and we were welcomed to Munich by our friend Sabine. She took us to her spacious, comfortable and worldly decorated apartment, where husband Michael had prepared a tasty dinner. We “fell with our butt in the butter” as the Dutch expression goes, when you get lucky and spoiled! We hadn’t seen our German friends, whom we met and traveled with in Mexico and who visited us in the Bahamas, for four years, so we had a lot to catch up on. Our cruising life and their current overland travels in Africa offered enough story material for weeks, so the nights grew long.

Our first full day in Bavaria was filled with stories and picture gazing during the rainy daytime hours and later in the afternoon, our friends took us to Jachenau, near the border with Austria, where the Alps begin. We were to spend a night in a cozy and typical Bavarian B&B, starting with a very hearty dinner: fried onions, fries, slabs of pork meat and a massive dollop of butter on top. The setting was very picturesque and the enjoyable scene was repeated during breakfast the following day. Bellies full of dark and sour German bread, pretzels, eggs and lunch meat we were ready for a long day of hiking, to burn off all those calories.

It was a grey day, so the views had a cloudy lining, but the cool mountain temperature was perfect for hiking. For about three hours, we climbed one of the nearby peaks, where we had a simple, but delicious lunch. Picnicking in nature with only the presence of cows and each other; life was good! The walk back down took a couple of hours as well, since we were all suffering from one or another ailment. For me, it was my right knee, which was in excruciating pain with each descending step. Playing sports is healthy one says, but years after, the body suffers… Getting old(er) is no joke!

Regardless, we all had a nice time in the mountains and after the scenic route past a stunningly beautiful lake, we arrived back in Munich and were ready for more eating, drinking and sightseeing. Michael showed us around the touristy center of town, where we spoiled ourselves with a sushi lunch. In the afternoon, Mark and I walked back home past a few other sights to finish the day on the sunny balcony with yet another home cooked meal and delicious wine. 

Our last day in Munich was spent in peace for Mark and with Sabine for me. The girls walked along the Isar River, gossiped about all things important and Sabine, the color consultant,  figured out “my colors” (I am a summer – winter mix) after lunch. In the evening, the four of us biked to the massive beer garden in Englischer Garten, to conclude our stay the Bavarian way: with German sausages and liter draught beers!

Day hike in the Alps

Michael, Sabine, Mark and I made it (sweaty) to the top!

The pretty Walchensee lake

Historical buildings in Munich

The beer garden in Englischer Garten: Prost!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Five Days Berlin

Not much sailing, tropical adventures or cruising stories on this blog, the last couple of months! Mark and I are still on our little break from the boat, but our weeks in the Western world are rapidly coming to an end. The highlight of our vacation in Europe was a 10-day visit to Germany by train. We planned five days in Berlin and five in Munich and had a great time with beautiful weather.

When you sail all over the place, you meet a lot of wonderful people. Jens is one of those people. He is from Germany and lives in… Berlin. He and his girlfriend Steffi made us feel at home in their apartment in the hip and exciting Prenzlauer Berg district. With our hosts at work, Mark and I leisurely explored the different areas of this fascinating city during the day (with a guaranteed late start – it was our holiday after all!) and hung out with our friends at night.

A walk through Prenzlauer Berg revealed a bombed and overgrown Jewish cemetery, some historic structures, cool playgrounds, a lot of renovated GDR buildings, artsy bars and restaurants, the water tower with its peaceful park on the highest hill and the best currywurst in town. We continued towards Mitte, with a quick stroll and lunch in Scheunenviertel, where outdoor establishments, courtyards and shops abound. A short metro ride to Friedrichshain is the way to reach one of Berlin’s main attractions, the East Side Gallery. This “art exhibition” consists of the longest remaining section of the Berlin wall, painted by artists from all over the world, when the reunification took place in 1989. We strolled along the 1 km stretch of wall, while gazing at the interesting works of the artists. On the other side, in the “no man’s land of the past” the Spree River offers a peaceful walking alternative and multiple beach bars draw the crowds in sunny weather. The old Oberbraumbrücke makes for a pretty picture.

On our second day, Mark and I walked quite a bit as well. Berlin is very spread out. Fifteen minutes from “our” apartment lays busy Alexanderplatz with the tall TV tower. A beautiful church and square form the center of this area, bordered on one side by the red city hall. Continuing on, we reached the wide boulevard of Unter den Linden. Here, most of Berlin’s historic sights are to be seen. On Museuminsel, several charming buildings house as many museums, attracting thousands of tourists every day. Further on, we passed Humboldt University, where Albert Einstein used to teach, and Bebel Platz, where the infamous Nazi book burning took place in 1933. The Brandenburger Tor, built in 1788, majestically stands at the “end” of the road. From here, one can walk towards the massive Reichstag building for a great view of the city from the glass dome or expansive terrace (reservations required), or play hide and seek in the simple, but impressing Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial). The Visitor Center underneath gives a gripping overview of the Jewish life during Hitler’s reign.

Checkpoint Charlie was a famous border crossing between East and West Berlin. Only an old sign remains from those days, but Germans in costume, sand bags and other paraphernalia try to bring back the restrictive atmosphere, while cars buzz by. A panel with information explains the people’s fate during the years of the wall. From the balcony of a fashionable McDonalds, one can observe the hectic life of tourists and locals at the checkpoint during these modern times. In another part of town, the Jewish Museum is housed in an interestingly designed building, with narrow strips as windows. Since it was our last night with Jens and Steffi, we went out for a delicious Vietnamese dinner.

Mark and I took bus 100 (a normal bus driving a scenic route) towards Kurfürstendamm, where we stayed in a hotel for the last two days. The massive shopping street doesn’t do much for us, but the nearby Tiergarden is an oasis of greenery and peace. Before we relaxed there for the afternoon, we took the metro to the massive KaDeWe department store, where the 6th floor is worth visiting. Any kind of exotic, fancy, exclusive or international food (and drink) can be found, tasted, looked at or bought here! Potsdamer Platz, with its modern buildings and skyscrapers was not worth the detour.

Since Mark’s back was bothering him from all the walking throughout the city, he stayed “home” on our last day in Berlin. I went to Schloss Charlottenburg, where I explored the beautiful and big gardens and park instead of indulging myself in the palace life of the 1700s. On the way back, I quickly paid a visit to the Gedächtniskirche, where the light through the deep blue stained glass gives an overwhelming impression. As I walked towards the hotel, a local rock band, playing in the midst of traffic and (window)shoppers to promote their CD indicated Berlin’s inventive and creative spirit once more. But, a last dinner with friends in the old-fashioned and established Henne restaurant proved that old traditions and the simple pleasures of fried halve chickens and big beers are still popular as well!

The rotes rathaus (red city hall) on Alexander Platz

Mark and I in front of the Brandenburger Tor

Holocaust Memorial

View of Checkpoint Charlie from McDonalds

Going out for a Vietnamese dinner with Jens and Steffi

Peaceful and relaxing Tiergarten

Schloss Charlottenburg