Archive for February, 2007

Cap’n Bill

February 21, 2007

Cap’n Bill claims 61, but looks 70. He’s been a commercial captain sailing the East Coast and the Caribbean for many decades, though he looks instead like a retired executive – short silver hair, a square face, patrician features – but barefooted and unconcerned as only 3 of the 8 people booked for today actually show up. His fin-keeled sloop seems able enough, if a little rusty as we push away from the pier under the Spanish fort and lighthouse, though you could not get below for all the wire, tape, line, and detritus he has covering every surface. He does not – could not – live aboard. I am glad the rest did not show up – the cockpit holds only the four of us comfortably – the rest would have been lolling on the deck, and 1500 pounds of flesh would have affected the 30’ footer’s handling.

All I want is to sail, and the wind obligingly freshens for a beam reach across to Culebra, with the soothing sound and feel I will not have again until my boat is launched in May, but the arrogant young Frenchman with his diffident American wife is itching to show off his ability to free dive to seventy feet, so we bring her alongside a reef (with a heart-stopping moment as Cap’n Bill sails across the ridge of the reef, the water going from deep blue to coral heads right under the keel in seconds – but he does this every day, so he knows where he can go.

Yes, does this every day, with an endless procession of tourists. Cap’n Bill has long since stopped listening to what we have to say – if he ever did – something drives a man to sea, and he rides over whatever anyone else is saying with ease and aplomb. Fortunately, his patter and his stories are good enough to cancel any rudeness. I drop over and follow his directions into the coral garden of the reef – bleached like most of the Caribbean, but offshore and thus richer than most of what I’ve been seeing while snorkeling from the island. We’re on Cap’n Bill’s own mooring he set out here, in about 40 feet, so he wants the Frenchman to dive down the lines to check the shackles and thimbles for wear. Thomås puts on his huge diver’s watch and drops over the side, but in going down, he apparently catches himself on some part of the mooring gear, so that by the time I get back from my tour, he is shivering back in the boat, with a cut down his sternum as neat as a heart transplant. The poor guy is bleeding pretty profusely, even though it’s not very deep, with paper towels pressed to his chest, and his wife still reading her book. The wind has petered out and we motor back to the dock, them to their plane to frigid, snow-bound Chicago, while Cap’n Bill keeps me working for another hour on some sailor’s errands around the boat, regaling me with stories of the stupidities and the ‘There we were…’ stories that are the staple food of all sailors’ repertoires.

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Carib Hols II

February 21, 2007

Saturday night in the town of Isabel Secundo, the island of Vieques, territory of Puerto Rico. All day, we have been seeing the boys washing the horses. Now, as we wander the town in the afterglow of a wonderful and well-lubricated tapas meal, they are everywhere – the boys on their horses, flashing white teeth atop the unmistakable clop-clop pattern of the pasofino gait. The small horses bear their riders in a straight line down the street, the riders leaning back – never rising to the trot, because there isn’t a trot, nor a canter, just the walking gait, somehow a throwback to an earlier time, done slow or fast.

Occasionally we see a girl riding, or an older man, but the majority are teenage boys, swelled with pride. The horse are ‘free’ – wild horses roam the island and are easily caught, and have a better life if they are – so anybody with a little gumption can have one. There are those with fancy gear, some done up with old rope and a rug as a pad. There are probably 50 horses in the few criss-crossed streets that make up the town center, and all the cars wait patiently, giving way to the proud riders and their equally proud mounts.

Down this street a live band is scratching out Latin hip-hop, down that one island pop music blares from speakers in the bed of a pick-up truck; some of the horses flare from the visceral force of the sound.

Wandering the streets in knots are the tiny girls – heartbreaking at 15, 13, 10 even – dressed in short shorts and halters, hair pulled tight, pelves cocked, aching already for that first baby.

The old men sit outside the bars and watch the world go by. The tourists have their own bars where they get increasingly slurry about real estate, the state of the local management, or how cold it is back home, and ex-pats talk knowingly about all these things, each with a different conflicting story about whatever it is – the Navy, the disappearance of the coral, why the tourists are coming or not, why this island is so special.

Carib hols

February 13, 2007

Turquoise won’t do it – the water atop the sandy bottom on this windy day is malachite.

We have a lovely private beach – well, as private as anything is on this seemingly communard island – textbook perfect with palms and sloping sand out to the reefs.  Except for the glass – how did so much glass get here?  Go a quarter mile in either direction and there is little, but here, it abounds.  One could imagine the locals breaking their beer bottles here – it is clear, green, and brown, mostly small pieces, some tumbled to frostiness (Annie will like that for her bottle lamps), some new and sharp.  But some is mis-shapen, and melted together as if subjected to great heat – as if a tanker full of beer exploded just offshore, and these are the remains.

A white egret perched atop a grazing horse.  This is repeated many times during our visit – an act of grooming?

The unique feature of this otherwise delightfully bland Caribbean island is the omnipresence of the pasofino horses.  Some domesticated, others left to roam but still tolerant, of people some wild in the jungled hills of the island.  These horses are as small as a pony, but with the distinctive horse shape, such that the riders look unnaturally large atop them, to our northern eyes.  They clop along with a distinctive short gait, which sounds choppy on the road, but take the rider on a straight, smooth track, rather like our Tennessee Walker.

Last night, a couple of young men sprinted down our beach, looking for all the world like Arabs with their t-shirts around their heads like jalabahs, dark skinned, bareback but for a small piece of carpet for a pad.  At the far end of the beach, they ventured out onto the coral reef – maybe a foot of water.  The horses went willingly enough, even with the waves breaking around their ankles, but it seemed so dangerous to us – one slip into a hole in the old coral…

Quan is intrigued with the horses, and when a couple of them wandered into our yard to graze on the meager grass, she went out to look.  One horse had a crop of ticks within its ear so thick they looked like mussel seed on a rock – literally hundreds of ticks in each ear.  Quan, using some bum plums we got from the market, tempted this wild horse down the beach and – reluctantly, but those plums! – into the water, where she was able to rinse and clean his hind leg where it got torn on some barbed wire.  He will not sit still for any treatment of his ears, however.

Quan has uncharacteristically adopted a dog.  A tiny Benjy-type of terrier, this beach dog was surviving on the voluminous garbage one can find in every nook and cranny here. She looks well if scruffy, but with matted fur and the usual insectivorous collection along with her.  Banjo (an evolution from Benjy) now lives with us, and eats better than most dogs in Christendom.  She guards the house when we leave, and sleeps under it at night, barking only at other dogs, and the horses, until we taught her not to.  On a long walk over rocks, I essayed picking her up to carry her to the next stretch of sand – thinking I might get bit.  But she rested easily in my arm, and clearly understood, licking her gratitude before I set her down again to run.  The local shelter worker, whom we met last night on the beach, says the dogs here eat alright, but often die of heartworm.  We are in a quandary as to what to do with her when we leave.

Hibernation

February 4, 2007

‘When the days get longer, the cold gets stronger’ is an old woodsman’s aphorism around here, and it is certainly true this year, where December was all mud, but February’s set in bitter.  The driveway’s a skating rink, but the pond is rubble – unskateable.

In the woods, there is the quietness of Morphée, not the hush dispersed by fresh snow – the old fall has dried into a decrepitude of ice, so that you cannot walk without making a dispelling crunch.  Not that anything is there to hear – all the animals have crept as well, into their dens to sleep with their tails over their nose.  Over the brook the ice is in thin shelves, I must cross on the icy trunks, or risk breaking through like the floors of the World Trade Center, and landing in the stream I can still hear flowing below the albic ice.

The air is piercingly blue, with a strikingly different wind chill whether you’re walking into it or away from it.  I walk down the pond, wind cowled around my back – someone’s brought an ice house onto the pond, one they can push around over different holes.

Back through the still woods in the gathering dark to avoid that wind trying to cleave my face, there is no sense of life – it is the eerie frozen-ness of a fairy tale.

If the weather is trying to convince me to stay, it is doing a terrible job – I’m wondering why I live here, and am headed for the door to the tropics.

Ingrained

February 2, 2007

My next gig is in NY also, so I left most of my stuf there and traveled home with a nearly empty bag.  In the kerfuffle at the airport (I got dropped at the wrong terminal), I kept being nagged by the feeling that I was missing or had forgotten something, and then realized that the source of the psychological feeling was simply the lack of usual drag on my fingers as I wheeled the suitcase behind me.  Such is the precise nature of ingrained habit.

Life in these United States

February 2, 2007

Ahead of us, a girl jumped out of the back of a stretch limousine, ran around the back to go stand and wait at a bus stop. She is dressed for the bus.