Monday, July 22, 2019

Day 1120 to 1150 of the Third Voyage: In which if the first 20 refers to percentage of good days and the second 20 is equivalent to IQ then yes, there is something to be said for hindsight.

Before I begin, I’d like to express an abundance of gratitude to our friend, Doug, who so graciously agreed to join us on this voyage and whose cool head and abundant blue-water cruising experience is a huge reason why this blog has another entry and didn’t just ominously end. That being said…

We made our second attempt to leave El Salvador on June 15. It was technically two weeks into hurricane season but a good weather window, a fairly confident grasp on what was causing our mechanical issues, and a strong desire to be back in Barra made us throw caution (and sanity) to the wind and make a break for it. So as soon as the bar was reopened, we shoved off on the first day that wasn’t a Friday, crossed the bar, and set a course for Mexico. And of course, the engine died nine hours in. But we had told ourselves from the start that there would be no turning back this time and that we would make it to Mexico one way or another so we threw up the sails and whimpered along for an hour or two before trying the engine again. We were pleasantly surprised when it started right up, and I am happy to report that it continued to chug along for the next 45 hours all the way to Puerto Madero and Marina Chiapas. Bienvenido a Mexico!

Now Marina Chiapas is a really nice—albeit remote—marina and we would love to have stayed longer, but it was imperative that we arrive in Barra before the hurricanes did, so a quick-turnaround was required (that and our insurance company has no idea we’re out here. As far as they’re concerned, we’re already in Barra.) Best weather window for crossing Tehuantepec? June 21st…a Friday. As you may recall from previous blog posts (most notably The False Start of the Third Voyage), we do not leave on Fridays. Bad things happen when you leave on Fridays. But we told ourselves that these were extenuating circumstances. This was Tehuantepec; this was hurricane season; this was a “best get going while the gettin’s still good” scenario; and besides, it’s not like we were starting the journey on a Friday…merely continuing it. Unless we wanted to spend the next six months in Chiapas, superstitions would have to be set aside. 

Besides, we have a black cat and a butthead on board so clearly we’re not that easily spooked.

But at this point I’d like to pose the question…how many times must your “irrational fear” be proved right before the superstition becomes an absolute fact?  Because if the answer is “every fricking time” then I think we’ve officially established a new truth. Which is…don’t leave on a Friday. And especially don’t do it during hurricane season. And for the love of God, if you’re already tempting fate, don’t go for the trifecta and put me on watch. Because things will go wrong. Every time.

Now we’re not totally stupid. We checked several weather forecasts, looked at tide and swell reports, consulted GRIB files, checked for warnings from NOAA’s Hurricane Center and by all accounts we had a four-day window of nothing. And when you’re trying to get across Tehuantepec (aka the bubbling cauldron of notoriously iffy weather), nothing is exactly what you want to see. Knowing it would take nearly two days to cross Tehuantepec (230ish miles) and just as long to get to the anchorage at Puerto Marques (another 230ish miles), we left early in the afternoon in anticipation of a late morning arrival on the 24th. And for the first few hours, everything was fine. We had the the main and jib out and were motor sailing at a steady 7 knots which is practically flying on a 35-ton sailboat. As evening approached, we set up four-hour watch rotations with Doug starting us out, myself following, and the Captain coming on after me. How we work the shifts on Raven is that whoever comes off watch acts as back-up to the person going on. The idea is that if you need help, you don’t want to wake someone who is fast asleep when it’s so much easier to just rouse someone before they have a chance to fall asleep. (I feel the need to point this out in case you think I’m picking on someone as this story progresses.) At any rate, I went below at seven to try to get some sleep before my 10:00 pm shift and it was probably around nine that I started dreaming of a strobe light that was keeping odd time with a beat I couldn’t quite make out and at that point I just assumed that I had “Boogie Wonderland” stuck in my head again. It was only when I crossed over from sort of asleep to vaguely awake that I realized I wasn’t dreaming at all and that it was lightning. And a lot of it. Normal lightning (as I’ve experienced it) is random and sporadic but not overly abundant: a few good bursts of light with a thunder chaser before the rains commence.  Of the big light shows I’ve seen, most lasted 15-20 minutes before they packed up and headed to the next town over. But this wouldn’t quit. It just went on and on, encore after encore. When I went up top to relieve Doug, he said that the lightning—which was hugging the entire length of the coastline about 20 miles from us—had been putting on a show for the past two hours but was now getting a bit more intense with the addition of huge bolts that zapped from sky to land, sky to sea, cloud to cloud, and occasionally bolt to bolt. It was fascinating and terrifying, and at one point I had to turn away because the endless flickering was making me queasy. But Doug seemed to be enjoying the show and not acting too concerned, so I sucked it up and tried not to panic. Before heading down below, he pointed to an ominous blob on the radar which was a good 20 miles behind us and said that—at its current speed—it would most likely catch up with us in a few hours at which time the jib would probably need to be retracted and the main reefed and to wake him if I needed help. And with that he was gone, and I settled myself in for what I thought was going to be a long night of scanning the dark waters, watching blobs, and keeping a nervous eye on the roller disco off the coast. So, imagine my surprise when not 10 minutes later, I felt a cool wind at my back. One that smelled of earth and metal and dense rain. I checked the radar and headed down below.  “Um…Doug? Sorry to wake you. But that blob that was 20 miles out? It’s now at 5 miles and closing fast.”

In the split second it took to return to the cockpit, the wind had really started to pick up, so we immediately set to work bringing in the jib. By the time we were able to turn our attention to the main sail, the wind was clocking in at about 18-20 mph sustained with gusts closer to 30. And this is where things got scary. Because I may not know much about boats, but I do know that when a strong wind comes up, you don’t want a lot of sail out because a big gust could come along, fill it up, cause you to heel way the hell over and possibly even capsize. Either way, it’s the opposite of comfortable. And here’s where our sails suck. We have in-mast roller furling which means that you press a button and the sail winds itself up into the mast. It’s awesome when it works properly. Ours doesn’t work properly (surprised?) At some point in the recent past, it decided we couldn’t be trusted to bring it in proper-like and so locked down into full-on governor mode which means we can’t press the button and expect everything to roll up in one fluid motion. Oh no. Ours will only go in one inch at a time. One. Inch. At. A. Time. And because of this, there has to be constant tension on the sheet (which is the line (rope) attached to the sail) so it’s now become a two-person job. One person to constantly press the button and another to manage the sheet. So as Doug and I are trying to get 500 square feet of mainsail reefed one inch at a time, we’re relying on the autopilot to keep us fairly steady—which is getting harder to do as the winds get stronger, the gusts get gustier, and the waves get bigger. And the whole time I’m hitting the button—urnch, urnch, urnch, urnch—I’m watching the anemometer reading go higher and higher and higher and soon winds are holding steady in the 30’s with gusts cracking the 40’s. And by now the boat is rocking from side to side and to and fro and the Captain has come up on deck and is busily securing lines and just as the mainsail is fully reefed, the autopilot decides to call it quits at which point Doug grabs the wheel but not before the whole boat lurches in a gust, causing the boom to swing to port and rip the lines out of the Captain’s hands in a great sideways motion cracking three of his ribs and taking out the navigation pedestal and the autopilot controls in the process. 

That’s gotta hurt. The ribs, too.

Now when the two guys with the most experience on the boat start saying things like, “Oh, shit!” and “Holy shit!” and “unintelligible cuss word” then it’s time to crawl back down into the pilothouse, huddle in the corner with your life jacket on, scribble out your last will and testament on the back of a cruising guide—you know…the one with the picture on the front of the happy people in the boat that works enjoying a nice, easy day sail—and try not to notice that the wind is now gusting up towards 50 mph and simple things that you didn’t think needed stowing (like pillows, Kleenex boxes, and dogs) have now become dangerous projectiles. After an hour, the worst was over. A couple hours after that, the squall finally left us behind and went out to sea and it was all done but for the big swell. The Captain had sustained broken ribs and developed a large hematoma on his left arm; the Deck Boss had fallen against the door in her cabin and bruised her tail bone; two cats and a dog were drafting their letters to the ASPCA; I managed to break the middle toe on my left foot…again; and the navigation pedestal will probably never walk again. If Doug broke or injured something, he didn’t let on. Perhaps he just didn’t want to add to the misery. But suffice to say that the aftershocks of the squall were felt well into the next day as no one really had the energy to do anything aside from sit their watches and nurse their wounds. Even the pedestal with the GPS/Chart plotter display lay where it had fallen. We were too tired to care.

Editor’s Note:  Here’s the thing about ocean weather. NOAA and the marine apps and all the various weather agencies can predict a lot of stuff now, but it’s still nigh impossible to predict a squall. They just pop up when the conditions are right (and this time of year, it’s more right than not) and by the time it shows up on radar, it’s too late. This squall, however, stuck around long after we got out of it. It stuck around, got stronger, got bigger, and ultimately turned into the first hurricane of the season…Alvin. Not sure how I feel about that. I mean I guess we should be happy that we made it through a hurricane fetus, but it’s kind of embarrassing to admit that you had your butt kicked by a chipmunk with a falsetto and a shitty tailor. 

This thing won a Grammy?

Mother Nature took pity on us and the next night was uneventful. Watches were done from inside the pilothouse where we have a secondary (functioning) chart plotter and autopilot and were augmented with frequent forays up into the cockpit to do a visual scan. The following day, we pulled apart the Furuno, got it dried out and working again, and then reattached it to the pedestal which we propped up with line and zip ties. The cockpit autopilot controller was replaced with a spare on board. We had good weather throughout the day, but by early evening it had started to get swelly and by the time I came on watch at 10:00, a light rain had begun so I opted to start my watch from inside the pilothouse. Soon, the winds came up. I had been on watch all of twenty minutes when I went outside to do a visual sweep of the area. That’s when something caught my eye—something that didn’t seem possible—so I shone my flashlight on it, made sure I wasn’t just seeing things, then went down below.  “Um…Doug? Sorry to wake you. But I think we’re about to lose the back of the boat.”

In the two seconds it took to get back on deck, it had become readily apparent—even without a flashlight—that the davits (and the dinghy attached to it) and all four stanchions of the aft rail had come loose and were swaying forcefully from side to side and with each swing, you could see the stanchions and railings along the port and starboard sides start to move as well. I procured some line and Doug quickly set to work lashing stanchions and davits to winches and cleats and creating an elaborate web of crisscrossed lines to keep everything from falling off the back end and taking the side rails with it. By this time, the Captain was on deck and of course the winds had picked up and we were trying to get a halyard around the mizzen mast so it could be attached to the dinghy to alleviate some of the excess weight but every time we’d swing it out, the wind would blow it back which made for slow and frustrating work. But at last everything was secured as best as could be, which was good because it was then that the rains began in earnest, followed by the winds, followed by the swell. So of course, the engine died. And we bobbed and rocked and thrashed along for what seemed an eternity until we could get it going again. During this time—being preoccupied and all—I hadn’t had a chance to look at the radar and when I did, I noticed that yes, we were in a squall but it was moving so fast that we were already in the tail end of it. We would soon be out of it. Which would have been awesome had it been true. But the rain never abated, the winds never died down, the swell never eased, and every time I looked at the radar, it showed the exact same thing:  huge squall, Raven in the tail end. Somehow this son of a bitch had stalled right over the top of us and decided to just keep us company for the next five hours. There was so much rain that things down below that hadn’t leaked in years were now wee-weeing everywhere. And all the known leaks had turned into gushers. I used up every towel, every washrag, and even spare linens just to keep things reasonable dry. The next morning, I covered every inch of deck space trying to get them all dry. We looked like a floating yard sale, but all that extra fabric flapping in the breeze sure came in handy when the engine died again and we had to rely solely on wind power. 

Towels: $1.00 each. Free boat with every purchase!

Editor’s Note:  This particular squall did indeed stall out at the edge of Tehuantepec. It stalled, got stronger, picked up speed, and ultimately turned into the second hurricane of the season…Barbara.

Et tu, Barbara? Et tu?

While checking out the engine, we noticed that one the Racor filters was dry as a bone which indicated a huge air bubble somewhere in the system which would need to be squelched in order to get the fuel flowing again. While this did reinforce our theory as to what has been plaguing our engine all this time—and we did get it running again—it did not instill confidence that it would get us through the two-meter (i.e. 6 ½ foot) chop that we now had to plow through to get to the anchorage in Puerto Marques. But it did its job and we eventually limped out of the chop and motored deep into the bay until we found a nice, calm, peaceful spot to throw down the anchor. We stayed for two nights to get some sleep, dry out, duct tape the boat back together, and wait out a storm that was howling off the coast while we were safe and snug and pondering if we should ever go back out there again. I wish I could say that the whole stopover was uneventful, but we had a “Gato Overboard!” moment where Cadejo fell into the water from somewhere off the bow, meow-wowed down the length of the boat, was scooped up at the stern by the Captain who had jumped in after him, and spent the next two hours desperately trying to wash the humiliation off himself…

...and/or the stink of this voyage.

One other odd thing happened there as well. When we went to pull up the anchor, it brought up a buddy. Specifically, it snagged a dorade (steam vent) from a boat that was most likely sunk and sitting on the seabed beneath us. Coincidence? Allegory? Omen?

Davy Jones' Scrapyard?

When it was time to head back out, we decided to change up the watches. Since all the shitty stuff happened on my watch, we put me on an 8:00 to midnight shift so at least we could get all the storms, squalls, and boat malfunctions out of the way earlier. And sure enough, I went up at 8:00, Doug showed me all the various blobs that were scattered along the coast 15 miles away, he went down below, and not 30 minutes later all those scattered blobs had formed into one big blob, made a sharp turn out to sea, and headed straight for us. I didn’t have to wake him up this time. I’m sure the anticipation of hearing me say, “Um…Doug?” had made sleep impossible. But at least this time the squall didn’t last so long. And I will be forever grateful to Doug for hanging out with me in the cockpit even as I looked for all the world like a damp rat burrowed down in my life preserver, clinging to the mast, desperately searching for a way out of this watery maze. Cheese be damned. I was never so happy when midnight came around. My next watch—at 8:00 the next morning—went much better aside from the fact that I overshot Zihuantanejo by about five miles and we had to do some backtracking. But what’s another two hours at sea when you’ve already been out there for what seems like an eternity.

We stayed in Z-town for a couple of nights before making our final push to Barra. First night out…my watch. Did something go wrong? Of course it did! As I was relieving Doug, he showed me how the mainsail and jib were set and said that I would need to tack if the wind shifted direction but that so far everything had been holding steady for quite some time. So he goes below and of course the wind shifts direction almost immediately. Tacking is not something I can do on my own (I can barely do it with someone else and, if truth be told, I’m a liability just watching other people do it) so I called the Captain up. Editor’s Note: My abuse of the “Doug as Back Up” privilege had gotten out of hand, so I was under instructions to not bother him with things like this so that he could get at least one night of sleep. It was time to spread the wealth so to speak. The Captain asked me if I wanted to handle the lines or handle the wheel. I opted for the lines, went back behind the winch, readied the ropes, and immediately had a panic attack when I remembered what happened the last time I handled lines on a tack (hint…I lost control of the sail and it folded in on itself. Not a good thing.)  So the Captain put me at the helm instead. At which point I had another panic attack because I remembered what happened the last time I was at the wheel during a tack (hint…we lost steerage. Not a good thing either, though technically not my fault.) But the Captain talked me through it, and we executed a good tack. So of course, the wind died immediately and it all became a moot point. It was time to bring the jib in. Now remember how I said before that our mainsail in-mast roller furling sucked?  Well, so does the roller furling on the jib. It used to work perfectly. In fact, it worked perfectly right up until this moment. We pressed and repressed the button, checked the fuses, pressed the button again. Nothing. The Captain finally had to make his way up to the bow—in the dark, in the pitching sea—and manually crank it in while I guided the lines. It took a solid 20 minutes of cranking to get the sail all the way in and when it was done, he was in agony. I don’t know who felt shittier. Me for putting him through this. Or him for reinjuring his ribs. Spreading the wealth indeed.

On our final night at sea, nothing happened…on my watch. I spent the last two hours of my shift keeping us out of the path of the container ships making their way to and from the port in Manzanillo. But during this time, it was hard not to notice the lightning and storm clouds gathering along the coast and as we closed in on midnight it had become evident from the radar that they were all amassing into one big system and heading our way. It could only have been more obvious had they all formed a giant arrow with neon bulbs flashing all around as it approached our little blip on the radar screen but regardless, it was inevitable. And sure enough the wind came up and the waves whipped higher but this time, instead of the really heavy rain, we got lightning. Up close, and way too personal. During the other squalls, the lightning itself had at least kept its distance. But this was right on top of us and all around. The night sky lit up so bright it became an eerie type of day. We could see bolts hit the water a mile maybe two away—which may seem far until you realize that if you’re moving at X mph and the storm is moving at Y mph and you’re inevitably going to run into each other and you’re the only thing worth hitting in this whole expanse of open water then the likelihood of a big massive Z(ap) becomes much more probable. And I don’t know a whole lot about boats, but I do know that a direct hit from a bolt of lightning can take out all your electronics. As in ALL your electronics. Navigation, VFH, wind instruments, cell phones, computers, tablets. Doesn’t matter if they’re on, off, plugged in, or not. They can fry. We put one cell phone and the Captain’s iPad (with its supplemental navigation software) in the microwave just in case, and then hunkered down in the pilothouse to ride out the storm. Being outside was too iffy as there’s so much metal on the decks and if you think lightning can screw up your iPhone, just imagine what it could to your innards. Needless to say, it was a very long night. We couldn’t outrun the storm. It wouldn’t pass us by. Every time the Captain would change our course to get away from the system, it would change along with us. What’s the saying? “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you?”

Now technically I was off watch and could have retreated down to the aft cabin, stuck a pillow over my head, and just waited for the inevitable barbecuing of the SV Raven, but I stayed with the Captain. Partly out of moral support; partly because I still felt bad about not being able to bring in a jib on my own; and mainly because if the Good Lord meant for us to be human Jiffy-Pop, then I at least wanted to be able to look him in the eyes one last time and whisper, “What the hell were we thinking?!!”

But eventually the storm moved on and the sun began to rise and we made the turn into Bahia de Navidad. In the morning haze, we could just make out Melaque at the far end of the bay, San Patricio next to it, and right in front of us…Barra! By 8:00 am we were tied up at the end of “C” dock here in the marina. That was two weeks ago, and we haven’t moved since. As in literally…we haven’t moved. Not even to go into a different slip. There’s some big mega-yacht that has this spot-on permanent reserve every December. So maybe we’ll move then.

But I gotta say, it’s kind of surreal being back. I keep thinking I’m going to wake up back in El Salvador or, worse, back out in the Pacific and it’s my turn to go on watch. We had been anticipating our return for so long that amongst the setbacks, the false starts, and the voyage itself, I was a little worried that perhaps we had pinned too many of our hopes on this place. But as the days go by, it has become readily apparent that returning here was unequivocally the right decision—that this is our home.

And what’s really made our return special, is that people remember us! We’ve been gone almost a year and a half and yet the staff at the marina, the servers at Manglito’s and Nacho’s, the proprietors of the tiendas, and the pangeros all remember us. And Senor Pipi gave us two “en la casa” rounds and a set of glasses to welcome us home.

In hindsight (wait…who am I kidding…there’s no hindsight involved…we knew the whole time we were doing it), this was a careless venture. If we were smart, we would have stayed in El Salvador until hurricane season was over. Because yes, you can avoid hurricanes but there’s a reason why hurricanes are born this time of year…because the conditions are right for it. And if the conditions are right for hurricanes, then they’re right for squall after squall and lots and lots of lightning. So yes, smart people would have waited.

 But do smart people get kick-ass glassware like this? I think not.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Day 1060 to 1119 of the Third Voyage: In which we tried to leave El Salvador and yet here we are…again.

You know what a mulligan is, right? It’s when your first attempt at something goes unexpectedly awry so you get to try it again in anticipation of a better outcome. Basically, it’s a do-over. We don’t get mulligans anymore.  After you’ve had two or three or twenty, your mulligan rights get revoked. We no longer get do-overs; we just get do-agains. As in, “Swell, the engine died…again; or great, the transmission blew a seal…again; or, awesome, this thing that has always worked has decided not to work just when we need it most…again.”  Yet despite our track record, we really thought this was our moment. This would be the time when everything would go in our favor. So when the inevitable happened, the disbelief was profound—a punch in the gut that sent us to our knees.  

We don’t get mulligans. We get Kerrigans.

So what went wrong?  Well, first off…let’s talk about what went right.  To say that this was the best prepared we’ve ever been for a passage would be an understatement. Over a month before our departure window, we printed out a list of everything that needed to be done and posted it in a conspicuous place in our cabin so that it stared/slapped us in the face every day and twice on Sundays. It ran the gamut from oil changes and systems checks to provisioning and stowing charts—a full two pages of to-dos—and damned if we didn’t cross every item off the list. We even took the boat out of the slip and put her through her paces, running up and down the estuary testing gears, speeds, temperatures, and loads. We wanted to leave the last week of March but ended up pushing that out two weeks for an optimal bar crossing. And then, just for good measure, we talked our friends into going with us because we were so sure we’d have the perfect cruising experience that we wanted to share it with fellow Boaters-With-Engine-Troubles to prove to all of us that it could be done.

We were set to depart on April 15th, but I woke up nauseas, head-achey, and loathe to get out of bed so we opted to wait until the next day so I could get some rest. At the time, I chalked it up to multiple days of toiling in the extremely high heat and humidity, not enough sleep, and pre-voyage jitters. An excessive amount of drinking due to all the going away parties that we threw/were thrown for us probably didn’t help. But looking back it was probably a premonition. Kind of how animals can predict earthquakes before they happen, maybe I’ve developed a sixth sense that things are about to go terribly wrong. Or maybe it’s just because things always go terribly wrong. But at any rate, we pushed off around noon on the 16th, rendezvoused with the pilot boat, made it over the bar safely and in one piece, and turned the pointy end toward Mexico. With no wind to sail, we settled in at a motoring speed of about 7 knots and there wasn’t much to be done except sit back, look for fishing pangas and long lines, and contemplate the 30-hour voyage ahead. And for four hours, it was awesome. Until the engine died. And then it wasn’t so awesome.

We put out the sails, but the light afternoon winds did us no favors and our speed dropped down to an excruciating three knots.  So the decision had to be made…do we cut our losses, turn back, and hope we can get the engine working long enough to get us back over the bar? Or do we push forward, hope for some wind, and pray that the Mexican navy can tow us into Marina Chiapas should it come to that? I think had we been anywhere near the half-way point, we would have gone with the latter, but four hours after leaving Bahia del Sol we were barely out of the state of La Paz, let alone the country of El Salvador. Because here’s the sucky part of boating. It’s amazingly, incredibly, agonizingly slow. Even on the good days. One knot is roughly equivalent to 1.15 mph. When the engine is working, it’ll hum along nicely at 7-8 knots which, given wind/wave/water resistance coupled with the gross tonnage of the boat and all that other physics stuff, is considered quite a good speed until you realize that you’ve been chugging along for four hours and you’ve only gone 25 freaking miles.

Had there been wind in the forecast, we probably would have just said “screw it” and kept going, but the forecast called for winds of 2 mph. Two. Miles. Per. Hour. I’m pretty sure Otter farts with more velocity than that. And here’s another sucky thing about boating. When you have no means of propulsion to flatten out the ride, you’re at the mercy of the waves and the swell and all the up and down and bob and sway and side to side that comes with it. And if you were already a little unsettled to begin with (like I was), it’s very easy to get seasick (like I did), and that just adds to the fun quotient right there. Because why be depressed when you can be queasy and lethargic as well.  It made the most sense to turn around, so that’s what we did. And because no good deed goes unpunished, our reduced speed meant that it would now take over eight hours to go back those 25 freaking miles.

It was close to midnight by the time we got to the “anchorage” which is in quotes because it’s not really an anchorage so much an okay-ish place to set an anchor while you wait for the next bar crossing opportunity which in our case was the following afternoon. The last time we were in this “anchorage” we had just come off one of our more hellish journeys and no sooner had we set anchor than we were met by a panga full of mechanics to slap a Band-Aid on the engine so that we could at least get over the bar and into the safety of the estuary. Amongst all the people and commotion, I hadn’t realized how roly-poly the anchorage was then, but I sure got to experience it now—over twelve hours of bobbing and weaving and swaying in the heat and humidity and not a breeze to be found. Because why be depressed, queasy, and lethargic, when you can be miserably hot as well.

Now on a positive note, the engine had decided to work again. A couple hours in to our return trip the night before, we tried the engine and it turned over and for a split second we thought about turning around and heading to Mexico after all, but we erred on the side of caution which was a good thing because approximately four hours later, it died again. Out came the sails and down went our speed. A couple hours later, as we approached the anchorage, we tried the engine again and it started right up so at least setting the anchor was easy. It started again the next day after having been off all night. We were starting to see a pattern. But at least it was working now for this, our third time across the bar. The first time—going in—was totally anticlimactic. Of course, after the voyage we’d had, we could have ended up on the beach and it would have been the least of our many ordeals. The second time—going out—was a bit more of a ride as we got on a pretty good outgoing tide and surfed our way out at a blistering 14 knots.  This third time was a bit more dramatic. Just as we were making our approach, we got caught by a big wave that got up under our stern, buried the bow deep into the water, and then swung us hard to starboard while surfing the wave at over 15 knots. It was such a sharp veer that at first I thought the Captain was aborting the crossing, but he stayed calm, corrected our course, and got us over the bar in one piece.

By now, you’ve probably figured out that this bar is not something to be taken lightly, and you’d be right. We’ve been over plenty of bars. Most were straightforward, a couple were on the scary side. You hit them at the right time—some at high tide, some at slack—and in the right conditions, and you generally don’t have any problems. This one, however, requires “local knowledge” which is an ominous term describing anything that will kick your ass unless you were born, raised, and reside within 100 yards of said obstacle. This bar shifts and changes on a daily basis and is subject to the tides, swells, waves, and whims of the Pacific Ocean, so you must be guided in by a pilot boat that gives you instructions over the VHF in terms of where to steer, when to throttle, and what’s coming up behind you. And if you’re really lucky, they take your picture while you’re doing it…
This is us being pushed SIDEWAYS toward the bar. If they’d had a telephoto lens, you’d see four people, one dog, two cats, and a small child with “Oh Shit!” looks on their faces. All except the Captain. His just says, “Screw this. Nicaragua is just down the coast. I hear it's nice.”

Overall though, we were lucky. Some things went flying down below when our bow went down, but nothing was broken. We’ve seen other boats come in with broken stanchions, bent davits, loose rigging, and overwrought gears. Some didn’t close hatches before they came over and ended up with more water in their boat than under it.  One couple was towing their dinghy (big no-no) and it overturned and got ripped up on the way in. And in one heartbreaking case, a rogue wave came down on top of a catamaran, swamping the cockpit, and flattening a little dog before a second wave lifted him up and out. Despite an exhaustive search of the surrounding beaches, he was never found. Now obviously these are not the norm and most just experience a high-speed surfing sensation, but the potential for hazard is there and must be respected.

Tail tucked firmly between legs, we limped back into the marina where friends gathered to grab lines, Leo was on hand with extra-strong welcome back beverages, and the Port Captain was there to record our arrival. The Immigration Officer also met us on the dock. Why? Because our visas had expired the day we left and as we had not made it out of the country, we were now officially illegal aliens. Because why be depressed, queasy, lethargic, and overheated when you can run afoul of a country’s immigration policy as well?

Back at his office, he went into a lengthy discourse in Spanish regarding our situation in which the only words I caught were “problema”, “mucho problema”, and “penalizacion” with a look on his face that could only mean a very large fine. But this mess was our own doing, and we were quite willing to (literally) pay the consequences. We asked him how big of a fine and he very sheepishly said, “$11.43… por persona.” And then immediately winced as if he was fully expecting one of us to throw a chair at him. But we’re calm, and thinking “Okay, $11.43 per person per day. Even if it takes us a month to repair the engine, we’re looking at about a thousand dollars. That’s cheaper than flying out of the country, especially since it was Easter week and flights would be difficult to find and ten times more expensive even if something was available.” And that’s when he clarified that no, the fine was $11.43…regardless of how many days we overstay our visa accompanied by a look that said, “I can’t believe you’d think that of us. We’re not total monsters. And thank you for not chucking a chair at me.” This was confirmed by others we spoke to (the one-time fine of $11.43, not the chair chucking.) Of course, rules and regulations change as frequently as the honchos in many of these government agencies, so I guess we’ll find out when we attempt to leave again.

In the meantime, we think we identified the problem with the engine and once again, it’s related to fuel delivery. The fact that the engine would run perfectly fine for four hours then quit, only to start up again after a couple of hours and run for another four, got us to thinking that there must be a small air leak in the fuel line. How I understand it is that air gets in the hoses, gets caught somewhere, slowly forms a bubble, fuel can’t get around it, the engine starves, the engines quits, the engine cools down, the bubble dissipates, fuel gets through, the engine works, lather, rinse, repeat.  It makes sense, right? And when the Captain found some dodgy fittings that were absolutely letting air in, it just seemed to validate the theory.

So the engine was fixed and has been tested twice (the first time for 15 hours in gear while tied securely to the dock and a second time for four hours tied loosely to the dock and maybe in gear but who knows because we lost all those brain cells from huffing in diesel fumes from the first go-round.) We’ve been ready to go since mid-May. Yet here it is June, and we’re still here. Why? That damn bar. Bad weather on the other side of the fricking globe has wrought havoc all the way over here in the form of huge waves and swell that effectively closed the bar. Because despite thousands and thousands of leagues across vast expanses of ocean dotted with myriad land masses between here and there, a storm in Indonesia means there’s no leaving an estuary in El Salvador. And perhaps we’re taking it all too personally, but when you’ve been someplace for a really long time and all your previous plans to leave have been thwarted and you’re so ready to go you can taste it, it’s quite disheartening to hear things like, “The bar has never been closed for this long! It’s gotta be some sort of record!” and you begin to wonder who you screwed over in another life. And what were you doing in Indonesia in the first place?

And that brings us to now in what feels like Day 2,743 of the “Great Wait” in which the boat sits in a perpetual state of readiness…nothing has been unstowed; boxes and bins are still tucked away or crammed Jenga-like into cabin corners; bungie cords are at the ready to secure moving items; passports and paperwork are near at hand; and any foodstuffs eaten or provisions used are immediately replenished. We don’t venture too far from the boat—a reprovisioning trip to San Salvador or a jaunt up the coast to Cadejo in La Libertad is as far as we like to go because you never know when the time will come and the next favorable bar crossing window will not catch us unawares. We are resolved to be within two hours of shoving off at any given time. So if the storms on the other side of the world suddenly subsided, the swell settled down, and the bar became calm, we would be ready in the time it would take for the Immigration Officer to come down to the marina, collect his $11.43 per person, and wave us off with his white hanky.

At this point it seems weird—to me at least—that we’re so anxious to leave when we know what’s waiting for us out there. But I think deep down it’s more that we are determined to make it back to Barra and whether we motor, sail, bob, limp, or tow ourselves with our own dinghy, we will get there. Something will inevitably happen…it always does, but better to get back out there and let it do what it’s going to do rather than sit here and fret. Because we’ve been “ready” for a long time and we’ve been stuck in “set” for what seems like ages. It’s time to “go” and do it again.  The big question is when. And who knows? It could be tomorrow…

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Day 1014 to 1059 of the Third Voyage: In we which we take 2,335 steps forward and 849 steps back, but we’re not ready to give up just yet.

We’ve been in El Salvador just shy of one year now which just blows my mind because it seems like only yesterday that we were flailing about helplessly off the coast sans engine, sans steering, sans generator, and apparently sans sanity and/or any common sense. But I guess a year is about how long it takes to forget the crappy parts about being on a passage and start to think that maybe it’s not that bad. So, I guess what I’m saying is that it’s time to leave—time to hit the open ocean and see where it takes us. That and our visas expire on April 17th and we do not want to go through that bullshit again.

Of course, we do know where the ocean is (hopefully) going to take us only it’s not where you think it may be and—up till a couple months ago—not where we thought it would be, but…we’re going back to Barra de Navidad. I know, I know… it seems like a huge step back, but we have our reasons. Specifically, we have a list, but here are the highlights...

Reasons to go back to Barra:

1…Mexico is infinitely less expensive than pretty much everywhere else. Taking the cost of moorage out of the equation (because it’s going to be either “are you joking?” high or “okay, what’s really wrong with the place” low, depending on the season), living in Mexico is just so much more economical. If you shop where the locals shop, the staples (meat, dairy, vegetables, fruit, bread, etc.) are about 30% less than what we’re paying here (and half of what we’d pay in the States) whereas most other goods can be found for less because Mexico manufactures just about everything—including drugs (of the pharmaceutical variety) where we figure we’ll save well over $150 per month on our prescriptions between the three of us. An added bonus is that we won’t have to pay a driver or rent a car to procure said goods and staples because things are more accessible in Barra. Looking to the south, things won’t get much better from a cost and/or convenience factor. Costa Rica is frightfully expensive and much of Panama isn’t much better. And as we can all agree, saving money is a good thing because we’ll need all that extra dough when the next system on the boat goes kablooey. As for moorage, we’re negotiating a rate with Marina Puerto de la Navidad that should make us all happy. The harbor master there loves the Captain because he designed the invitations for his daughter’s quinceanera so that practically makes us part of the extended family. That and I’m pretty sure we singlehandedly kept their bartenders employed during the slow season so we’re good for their bottom line.

2…Medical care is more accessible in Barra. So a scary thing happened about two months ago and by scary I mean that it started off as an “oh shit!” moment but then turned into an “oh shit…” moment and yes, there is a difference. One morning—about a week after she had returned to the boat after her knee replacement—the Deck Boss greeted me by saying, “I think I had a mini stroke” which 1) is NEVER preferable to “Good morning” and 2) is NOT something you want to hear before you’ve had your coffee. Cue the “oh shit!” moment. Her symptoms had included numbness, dizziness, and vision changes which according to WebMD (our primary physician) might be indicative of a mini stroke. Upon further research, these same symptoms also fit the description for someone who has just ended a regimen of post-surgery anti-coagulants aka the more likely diagnosis. After everyone was satisfied that she was not dying and after two cups of strong coffee, came the “oh shit…” moment as in “oh shit…what if this HAD been a stroke? What would we have done?” Because as the medical establishment likes to stress, the difference between having a bad day and having a catastrophic, life-changing, horrible bad day comes down to how fast you can get treatment. Had she had an actual stroke (mini or otherwise), we’re at least an hour away from medical attention—and only if someone here has a car. Even an ambulance would need thirty minutes just to get here. In looking ahead at some of the marinas and anchorages in Costa Rica and Panama, we’d be in the same boat (no pun intended, though technically true.)

Now broken bones, gaping wounds, animal bites, allergic reactions, and the ilk can (generally) be tended to using the first aid we have on the boat until proper treatment arrives or can be obtained (witness the events of Day 883-909.) But strokes are a whole other animal and the one that got me thinking that we need to be someplace where time is taken out of the equation. There are doctors within Barra—only 10 minutes away by water taxi; 24-hour emergency clinics in Melaque and Cihautlan (half hour by car); and, better yet, there’s an on-call doctor at the Grand Bay that will make “boat calls” (as described in the events of Day 457-557) and also has an ambulance on the property at his disposal. Also in the immediate area:  dentists, eye doctors, dermatologists, and a really good vet.  More specialized doctors can be found in the city of Manzanillo about an hour south by car. Given age and accident proneness (Deck Boss), propensity for odd maladies (Captain), and susceptibility to a complete mental breakdown (First Mate), these are all advantages.

3…We really miss the food! Growing up, I didn’t eat a whole lot of Mexican food. The Deck Boss broke out in hives every time we drove by a Mexican restaurant so Chinese became our family’s go-to ethnic fare. There was the odd school outing to Casa Bonita in Denver, but even at that young age I knew that much like the restaurant was supposed to resemble a Mexican village so, too, was the food supposed to resemble Mexican cuisine. In other words, it was all an illusion crafted from plaster and paint, and just about as tasty. In college, I was introduced to Taco Bell—which I love like a junkie—but have since been informed it’s about as Mexican as apple pie. In Seattle, the Captain and I used to frequent several Mexican restaurants. At least I think there were several—could’ve been the same one. The food all tasted the same from location to location, only the name of the establishment changed. The Captain said it’s because most of the chain restaurants get their stuff from the same food distribution companies, so it’s not so much “Las Palmas” as “Los Sysco”.  But that’s all in the past now, because we’ve seen the light and it’s covered in mole. The food in Mexican is as varied as the country itself, and after having sampled everything from a simple street taco to pozole to a molcajete mixto simmering in a volcanic bowl, we’ve come to really appreciate how lively and full of flavor even the most basic food is.  And yes, there will always be dishes that aren’t quite to your liking, but at least it’ll never be boring. Here in El Salvador they have the mighty pupusa which is a thick tortilla (either rice or corn), stuffed with beans, cheese, and whatever else you want, and fried on a griddle. Good ones are delicious and satisfyingly filling—the Salvadorean comfort food you didn’t know you were missing. Bad ones taste a little like paste and sit like an adobe brick in your stomach. But whether good, bad, or somewhere in between, the flavor is enhanced when covered in a hot sauce that we picked up in Mexico. So, there you go.

But beyond that, we miss our favorites in Barra…our pollo asado guy across from the Ixtapa Tienda, the fresh tortillas just down the block from him, the carniceria that stocks the best smoked pork chops and cut-to-order bacon anywhere, the flan man that sets up his dessert cart by the Malecon in the early evenings, and the fresh fruit vendors that come to the Thursday market, to name a few. And, of course, there’s Pipi’s, Manglito’s, and our regular haunts. Editor’s Note: When we get back, we’re going to try the home-made tamales that the lady sells out of a cooler across from Loco Loco Pizza. We never got there in time and she was always sold out. Fresh tamales are the best! Back in the States, I used to make those tamales that came in the can. It took a couple of dinner disasters before I realized that the paper should come off BEFORE you cook them. It’s definitely not Mexican food. It’s more like “what shall we do with the leftover ravioli paste at the Chef Boyardee factory?” food and “I know! Let’s fashion it into tubes, wrap them in repurposed can labels, and slap a Mexican flag on the lid!” And speaking of individually wrapped food, the first time I bought hot dogs in El Salvador I was surprised to find that each weenie came in its own wrapper. At least I think it was a wrapper. If you took it off, the whole thing fell apart. But if you left it on and cooked it, you couldn’t bite through it. It’s like they wanted us to question our food choices or something. But we weren’t deterred, because sometimes you just want a taste of home and few things are more American than hot dogs, apple pie, and Taco Bell.

Of course, there is one thing that the Deck Boss does not miss about Mexican restaurants. She’s not a fan of mariachi bands—specifically ones with horns…which is all of them. She thinks they’re deafeningly loud, earsplittingly loud, and just overly loud in general. I don’t know if she’s always had an aversion to them or if this is something new since her hearing started going wonky, but she’s pretty convinced that a) mariachi bands never had horns back in “her day”, b) the only reason mariachi bands added horns was so that people would give them money to stop playing, and c) the restaurants that employ mariachi bands with horns only do so to compel people to eat faster and thus create higher table turn-over. So imagine her surprise when a mariachi band showed up at our favorite restaurant in El Salvador—horns and all—and proceeded to play the entire afternoon, even after it started raining and they had to take refuge in the swim-up bar.

"Don't look over there. You'll just encourage them." Deck Boss

4…Barra will be better for Otter. He doesn’t get a whole lot of off-leash time here (reference blogpost Day 697 -782), but he sure did in Barra. Every morning we did a big 3-mile walk up, down, and around the hillside surrounding the marina—all of it off leash which means that he did twice as much walking as I did due to the constant intreat to, “Get back over here!” which would require him to trot back toward me before pulling a u-turn about five feet shy and taking off again. Add to that the frequent trips to Barra (where there are an abundance of dog-friendly establishments) and he was getting in some damn good exercise and on a consistent basis. We all were, truth be told. Here…not so much. And it’s starting to show. The Labrador Retriever in him means he is predisposed to “lab flab” as it is and let’s just say I can’t let his harness out any more. Editor’s Note: Change “lab flab” to “land lubber blubber” and “harness” to “shorts” and I could also be talking about myself and the Captain. We try to keep him (and us) active with regular trips to the beach, but the circumstances of our surroundings coupled with the extreme heat of the day makes additional exercise challenging. I think Barra will be good for him in this regard—more opportunities to be more active. That goes for all of us really.

Reasons to continue the voyage south:

Well, there’s only one…but it’s a doozy. Namely, there’s a whole world out there that we haven’t seen and, technically, the point of the odyssey is to travel, have adventures, and live a less conventional life. There’s no telling what’s out there. And it’s quite possible that we’ll find another Barra somewhere along the way.

So perhaps we’re doing ourselves a disservice by not moving forward, but sometimes there are reasons as to why it’s best to go back, if only to just stand still. Because in truth, it was a tough year. Besides the usual parade of shit going wrong and the health challenges and the hip replacements and the knee replacements and all the things that happen in the course of living that you just deal with because that’s what you do, there was one event that was wholly life changing and one which has not been touched on in this blog because it is not my story to tell. But Neil lost his brother last April and I think when the rug has been pulled out from under you, sometimes it’s best not to have the floor moving as well. He needs—we need—some stability. A place to feel like home. At least for a while. And Barra is our happy place.

So, what does this mean for the odyssey? Well, it’s not over. The Third Voyage only ends when we reach the Panama Canal so while it’s very possible that it will take another 1,283 days to get there, we will get there. The world isn’t closed to us; we’re just doing some backtracking until we find our footing. And there are still new places to see and adventures to be had—we just might get there by car or plane instead of boat. I guess what I’m saying is that I’ll keep blogging as long as you keep reading. Besides, there’s still 849 miles of ocean between us and Barra. And as we all know, shit is bound to happen—especially to us. We could experience a catastrophe between here and there that would fill a thousand blog pages. It could be such an adventure that only a blockbuster action movie starring Jason Statham, Olivia de Haviland, and the Taco Bell spokes-dog could possibly tell the story. Who knows what will happen? Besides…the nice thing about journeys and adventures and less-conventional lifestyles is that you can change your course almost as easily as you can change your mind.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Day 946 to 1013 of the Third Voyage: In which I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re totally over hospitals and definitely done with hoops.

The new year brought a new knee. The Deck Boss was admitted into the hospital on January 7th and went into surgery the next morning. Everything went according to procedure with the exception that her knee had become so pronated over the past few years that Dr. Zeledon had to shorten a tendon which had become stretched and straighten a nerve that had become pinched. But after two hours of surgery, the new hardware was installed, the kinks were worked out (literally and figuratively), and her leg was the straightest its been in probably ten years.

Now the doctor had warned us that the first two days after knee replacement surgery could be the worst from a pain perspective so not only did the nurses duly administer pain meds on a regular schedule, but they were administered via an epidural going straight into her spine. Which sounds awful except that it did the trick and she was not in any terrible pain. She was also rarely conscious. As per hospital regulations, I was required to stay with her, so for two days I got to look at this…

On day three, they started easing back on the neural blockers and she was encouraged throughout the day to stand up, put weight on the knee, and take a step here and there to get the juices moving so to speak. Of course, with the epidural, she had zero feeling below the waist so during these little exercises, she had to be assisted by myself and a nurse—not an easy task (anyone who has ever tried to manhandle a mega large bag of dog food into a shopping cart that keeps rolling backwards should know what I mean.) I’m still feeling the effects of it and will most likely return here in about 10 years for a back replacement. But things continued along uneventfully until the evening of the fourth day when the vein that the IV administering the antibiotics and anticoagulants was in collapsed and it was necessary to find a new one pronto-like. The first nurse did her best, but after 45 minutes of trying different veins in the arm, wrist and hand and with the Deck Boss in pain and in tears, she gave up and called in one of the emergency room nurses. This nurse came in and over the next 45 minutes tried all the tricks of the trade to get a vein…clinching, rubbing, slapping, etc. At one point, she even filled a latex glove with hot water and placed it on her arm in the hopes that a warm vein would rise and I will never look at hand-turkeys quite the same way again. When everything failed, she prayed. Literally. She readied the needle, looked towards the heavens, said a few words in Spanish, eased it in, and hit pay dirt. A minor miracle and one that elicited much whooping, hollering, and hugs all around.

The next day the epidural was removed, and the nerve began to crackle back to life. This part was decidedly not fun but at least now she could feel her legs and, as you know, it’s way easier to do physical therapy when you can physically feel what’s being therapied. After another day or two—and once the doctor was satisfied that she could walk a few steps (i.e. to the bathroom and back) —she was released to the small, hospital-owned hotel across the street which, because this is San Salvador and you can’t get there from here without going 16 miles out of your way, took one hour. One hour in the back of an ambulance winding our way through the various neighborhoods because all the two-way streets are so narrow that oncoming traffic creates an impasse and all the one-way streets outnumber the way you need to go by about three to one. And when you do finally reach the main street, there’s a big nasty median in the way so you have to travel the opposite way of where you want to go until you get to one of the many traffic circles (all built around a massive monument to liberty, freedom, and/or the end of the civil war) in order to go back to where you really need to be which, in our case, was literally across the street from the hospital.

The hotel (for lack of a better word—we heard it referred to as a hotel, hostel, and hospice so I guess it’s all things to all patients) was typical of a lot of places in El Salvador in that from the street it looked like an austere, windowless concrete building surrounded by a high wall crowned in barbed wire—not unlike a mini-prison—yet on the inside, it was bright and airy and the back opened up onto a large patio overlooking a lush, tiered garden with a green belt beyond that. I spent a lot of time out here because the room—while large and comfortable—did not have a lot of natural light. The lack of large windows not only kept the whole place cooler, but more secure (important given the amount of medications on the premises) and quiet (important because many of the 15 rooms were occupied by recuperating patients and the rest by families with loved ones across the street in the hospital.) We opted to stay here because the Deck Boss was scheduled for daily physical therapy along with follow-ups with the orthopedic surgeon and here, at the hotel, they make house calls. Add three meals a day and on-call assistance (if needed) and all-in-all it’s an absolute bargain for $50 per day. Even more so when you factor in its secondary function as an immersive language course because with the exception of one of the day managers, no one spoke a lick of English. Editor’s Note: I’m not sure they spoke Spanish either. I once asked for some milk and they brought me corn flakes and I know my Espanol isn’t THAT bad. At any rate, I really had to up my game and came out all the better for it.

And there was another nice little perk…it was within walking distance of The Coffee Cup which is a Starbucks-like chain of cafes with the added bonus of not serving Starbucks coffee. Now, yes, we lived in Washington State for 25 years, most of that time in Seattle, but that doesn’t mean we’re required to love Starbucks by default (or, for that matter, the Seahawks, the Mariners, and long walks in the drizzle. But Costco? Costco rules!) But, yes, we do love coffee. And yes, we were those people that stopped for coffee every day—sometimes twice if it was a rough morning, and often times at happy hour (yes, that’s a thing at a lot of the coffee stands—half price drinks after four pm.) Add that to the urn at the office and that’s a lot of coffee. And if you ever wonder why microbrews, wines, and artisanal spirits are so popular in the Pacific Northwest it’s because we need all those depressants in the alcohol to counteract the caffeine so we can sleep at night and start the whole cycle over the next day. Of course, it’s easy to get caught up in the coffee culture when it’s absolutely everywhere. Besides the ubiquitous chains like Starbucks, SBC, and Tully’s, there are the countless independently-owned roasters, and the approximately 50,000 drive-through coffee stands found on every corner, most vacant lots, and in any parking lot with a little extra room. We frequented a lot of those. You know those plastic sleeve things you put on your car visor to hold your CD’s?  Ours held punch cards for all the different coffee stands we went to with small stars on the ones that gave out really good dog treats (because Otter was a regular, too.) The stands were also great for giving directions because in a place where something can literally be at the corner of NW 85th Place SE and W 4th Ave NE, it’s much more helpful to say, “Take a left at ‘Coffee Caboose’ like you’re going to that coffee stall at ‘Abe’s Auto Body’ and you’ll see it next to ‘Joltin’ Joe’, but if you pass ‘Hey, Joe!’ then you’ve gone too far. And while you’re there, can you pick me up a triple Americano?”

Once we got on the boat, our coffee consumption went way down—and not just because there wasn’t enough room in the galley for our urn. Rampant availability was at the core of our addiction (because the best coffee is impulse coffee!) and as we made our way down the west coast of the US, the fewer coffee stands we encountered and when we would go to a “destination” coffee place it was less “hey, let’s get a latte!” and more “buy something so we can use the wifi.” Good coffee could be found in San Diego, but bars of the juice, beach, and dive varieties seemed more prevalent. Mexico, of course, is all about the tequila, cerveza, and margaritas, with coffee and coffee drinks being relegated to page four of the bar menu. El Salvador is about the same (just change tequila to rum and page four to the small print on the back.) Starbucks, however, can be found everywhere--especially in all the larger cities and tourist towns. And, much like any other American chain operating anywhere in the world, you know exactly what to expect when you walk in…same layout, same d├ęcor, same merchandise, same food items, and same crappy coffee. There, I said it. They have crappy coffee. I know they start out with good beans. El Salvador produces some of the finest coffee beans in the world—shade grown in rich volcanic soil—and I was told that they sell an awful lot of them to Starbucks. So why Starbucks feels the need to turn around and roast these primo beans over an open dumpster fire is beyond me. And they obviously let the beans “age” in a dank cellar somewhere beforehand because that “old dirt” aftertaste has to come from somewhere. Blonde roast? Medium roast? Strong roast?  I’m pretty sure that’s just determined by rate of decomposition. Editor’s Note: Of course, this is just my opinion, and is most likely unpopular. But then I’m used to that because I also think that football is boring, In-n-Out Burger is overrated, and the only good part in that Titanic movie was when the ship finally sank and put us all out of our misery. So it was really nice to find The Coffee Cup—a Salvadoran chain that roasts its own beans (and “roasts” in the sense that the natural coffee flavor is released and nurtured and not beaten to death with a tire iron, buried out back in the septic field, disinterred with a back hoe, and blackened over a flaming tire)—and get my perc/Americano/latte fix on a daily basis. All this being said, we do go to Starbucks when other options are limited (i.e. no options and/or wifi is required), and I do enjoy their teas, smoothies, and various fruity quaffs. But if caffeine is a must and it has to be coffee, it’s best to stick with a Frappuccino or macchiatto-type concoction of some kind because nothing offsets the taste of burnt beans like 2000 calories of camouflage.

But I digress…

During our stay at the hotel, we didn’t spend the whole time staring at the wall. We also got to stare at the wall at Immigration, too!  Unlike Mexico, where a visa is good for 180 days, the maximum stay here is 90. That’s why we HAD to go on that cruise last July—we had to leave the country in order to reset our visa (it was tough, but sometimes sacrifices must made.) When it came due in October, we opted to get an extension through the Department of Immigration in San Salvador because we really thought we would be leaving in November (early December at the latest), had projects to complete, and didn’t want to lose days/incur the expense of flying out of the country. Editor’s Note: Driving to Guatemala, while only a few hours away, was not an option. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua have their own little European Union thing going on in that they form a four-country visa zone—to reset your visa requires leaving the zone. Now applying for an extension through Immigration should have been straightforward, but of course you can’t have a good bureaucracy without hoops, headaches, and a whole lot of paperwork. On our first visit, we met with the agent, got all the paperwork, and procured a list of everything that needed to accompany said paperwork (waiting-in-line time and agent time = two hours.) I spent approximately six hours getting the documents in order which consisted of translating the forms and applications into English so I knew what I was filling out, filling them out, writing an essay on why we needed to extend our stay, translating that into Spanish, procuring bank statements (to show we could pay our way), having our photos taken, and scanning/printing copies of passports and various boat documents. This had to be done three times: one packet for each of us. We also needed references from a Salvadoran so our friend, Ernesto, filled out forms that stated he knew us, we were okay people, and that to the best of his knowledge we weren’t up to any mischief. We returned to Immigration to hand in our paperwork along with our passports (waiting-in-line time, agent time, fingerprinting = another three hours.) A few days later, we returned to pick up our passports and new visas and were informed that there was now a new head of Immigration and that we’d need to fill out the paperwork again because the old paperwork had the previous honcho’s name on it (no waiting this time around but agent time and the three of us frantically copying the info from the old forms onto the new = two and a half hours.) When all was said and done—and factoring in the three-hour round trip to Immigration each time—we had over 24 hours into the process; but we did procure our 90-day extension—which would have worked out perfectly had we actually left in November or December, but when the Deck Boss decided she wanted a new hip and a new knee for Christmas, that all went by the wayside. The hip was done in October, but the knee wasn’t scheduled till January—approximately two weeks before our visas were set to expire…again. Now I guess in hindsight, we should have bundled up the Deck Boss’ knee in about five yards of Ace bandage and spent some time in Mexico, but after coming off the hip surgery it just seemed too much at the time and we had been told that medical waivers were fairly easy to come by. Yeah, right. Now one would assume (yeah, yeah, yeah “you”, “me”, “ass”, whatever) that since we were already in the system (paperwork, references, fingerprints, photos, et al) that all we’d need to do is provide a letter from the doctor, have our fingerprints scanned for verification, and pay our fee, right? Wrong. So very wrong. Not only did we have to fill out all the paperwork again; we had to procure new references (thank you, Santos!), submit new photos, produce updated bank statements, get fingerprinted again, provide a letter from the doctor, and bring copies of the hospital invoices. The agent then called me to say they also required a letter from me explaining why we needed to stay even though this was answered in essay form as part of the document pack. The fun part of this process? Between the time limits as to how soon you could apply for an extension and the office closures over the holidays, our window fell the week after the Deck Boss’ surgery which meant we had to spring her out of the hospital and bring her in by wheelchair—all nice and drugged up—to sign the paperwork and be fingerprinted.  I wish I could say that was the last hoop, but there was one more. And they set it on fire. But first I must backtrack a bit…

On the day the Deck Boss was due to be released from the hospital/hotel, I had planned everything out perfectly…Santos would drive to Bahia del Sol and pick up the Captain; when they got about thirty minutes out, I would head over to hospital administration and take care of the bills; once they arrived, we would pack up the Deck Boss and all our stuff and head over to Immigration to pick up our passports; we’d stop for a quick bite to eat, then head back to Bahia before the Deck Boss’ pain meds wore off and she cratered from all the activity. Did it go down as planned? No, it did not. The Captain called me first thing in the morning to tell me he was not feeling well. And not in a “just feeling blah” kind of way; but in a “stomach is cramping, heart is racing, losing feeling in my limbs” kind of way. But not coming was not an option. For one, if he did need medical attention, he wasn’t going to get it in Bahia. The nearest clinic is over an hour away, AFTER you procure a ride (which can take up to an hour.) Santos was already on his way and since they were picking us up across from the hospital, it made sense for him to endure the long ride just in case a doctor visit was required. And two…Immigration had already insisted we bring a semi-conscious woman into the office to sign paperwork; anything less than death would not be considered an excuse for not picking up a passport. But the closer that Santos and the Captain got to San Salvador, the more apparent that something was really wrong, and not ten minutes after paying the hospital bill to get the Deck Boss out of hock and secure her discharge, I found myself in the emergency room looking at this…
I think I've seen this show before.

Over the next few hours, the Captain was poked, prodded, and pried. They ran tests on blood, urine, stool, and every other bodily fluid that could be drawn, coaxed, or just plain induced. In between tests—while he was less conscious than not—I ran back and forth to the hotel to help Santos get the Deck Boss and all our stuff loaded into the van so they could make the hour drive to where we were in the ER across the street. And once they finally did arrive, we all waited…and waited…and waited…for the lab results. Four hours later, the results came back and the winner was…” Something you ate.” Or, more specifically…” Bacillus Cereus” aka “Fried Rice Syndrome” aka “Yes, that’s what they call it and that’s exactly how he got it.” Because a couple days before, the Captain had come out to visit us and he and I went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. He took the left-overs home but didn’t put it in the refrigerator right away. Suffice to say, if you feel the need to nosh on some fried rice that’s been out on the counter for a few hours, the MSG will be the least of your worries. He was pumped up with medications, given a prescription, and we were sent on our way. Next stop…Immigration. Now picture this:  I’ve got the Deck Boss high on pain meds on one side of me and the Captain spaced out on antibiotics on the other side and the agents should be wondering what I’m doing to these people (and probably check those references again), but what they’re really concerned about is the letter I wrote and how very wrong it is. And what I’m hearing from the agent is, “A medical waiver is a very serious thing and must be handled absolutely correctly and this letter is just not acceptable, and your passports will not be returned.” And I’m wondering if Google Translate pranked me when I was creating the letter and turned my text regarding surgeries, physical therapy, and extensions into a manifesto to overthrow the government, and the conversation is starting to get a little animated in a frantic kind of way, but then through my feeble Spanish, the agent’s so-so English, my phone’s translation app, and lots of pantomime, I finally realize that the problem wasn’t with the content—it was with the formatting. But not all the formatting—just one part. Solution? I procured my laptop out of the van, opened the document in Word, reformatted the letter so that the text was justified, and copied it onto a thumb drive so the agent could print it out and have me sign it. Once that was done, we were given our passports, and sent on our way. So l guess the take-away is this… it doesn’t matter if your paperwork is a little off, your intentions are somewhat dodgy, or your references are a bit sketchy—Hell, it doesn’t even matter if you’re 100% lucid—as long as your text is flush with both margins, it’s all good. Also, next time…just go to Mexico.

Postscript:  For those of you keeping track at home, here’s how much it costs to get your knee replaced in San Salvador:

The surgeon: $2500
The anesthesiologist and OR nurses: $1500
Body parts: $2563
Everything else (tests, labs, meds, hospital stay, nursing services): $3215.60
Twelve nights at the hotel/hostel/hospice:  $616.50
Grand total:  $10,395.10

And if you’re thinking of visiting the ER:  Exam, labs, meds:  $102.20