November 24, 1999
I dont think food is going to be the focus of this trip at least not in the Virgin Islands, and probably specifically not in the British Virgin Islands, accent on the British. Should be no surprise, there. Just the disappointment of someone who was ready to name a book, "Sailing on Your Stomach" or Gluttony on the Bounty."
The food at the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbours signature restaurant, Bath and Turtle (hardly a mouthwatering name for a restaurant), was either drowned in unfamiliar spices or overly battered and fried. Sometimes it was hard to figure out if I was eating the bath or the turtle.
So, while stuck in dock, we naturally ventured forth to other local restaurants. We ate at The Rock several times. An Italian woman is the proprietor, very pleasant, with a refreshing accent to happen upon here. But she dished up only passable pasta, fish and poultry -- at pretty stiff prices, considering the size of the platters and relative blandness of the food. Still, it was a short walk from the marina, amid a gorgeous setting. There was a covered porch dining room, but the best tables were nestled up higher and higher up a treed hill, with the very best ones under a huge old banyan tree.
In our search for more exciting fare, one night we took a cab up to the Mineshaft, also on top of a mountain, near an old copper mine. Fabulous view this place would have been best visited at sunset, when you might notice the food less. Dinner ranged from mediocre to poor, except for the ribs, which were my favorite the sweet Carolina kind, with no hint of smokiness and falling off the bone.
Trying to go local, I ordered the wahoo and it was as far from a "yahoo!" or a wahoo!" as you can imagine. It actually tasted like a dry piece of sponge, with a vague fishy flavor. We were out for a trial dinner that night with another couple, Bob and Susan, (They've done the 1500 three times now, traveled the Caribbean extensively and are a fount of boat, sailing, cooking, touring and restaurant information about these islands sort of a cross between Fodor's, Zagat's and Reed's Nautical Almanac. Much of which they shared for most of the evening. I can't remember anyone else talking, except the occasional "Really!" and our heads were bobbing up and down all night like Pachinko dolls.) Anyway, Bob loved his burger, but he drenched it in Caribbean Island melt-your-tongue hot sauce and he ordered it well done, so I cant consider him a reliable reviewer.
A restaurant called Georgios Table was on our list advertised by an 8- or 9-year-old girl plying the dock, personally distributing flyers and talking up the place, a budding Ruth Reichl. This little mite, dark-skinned, dinner-plate-eyed and most ingratiating, talked about the quality of the wine list, the tenderness of the meat and the various sauces as if shed personally assembled, stirred and simmered them. Entrepreneurial as she seemed, maybe she did. Unfortunately Georgios sustained hurricane damage and so was closed until after we left.
The food hit of the week was a serendipitous stop at a place called The New Dixies Restaurant and Bar, If The New Dixies is an improvement over The Old Dixies, I can only say, even Gary and I, roadside-dive enthusiasts that we are, would have speeded right by. It was quite a stretch to get our group into The New Dixies. We had stopped there to ask about a restaurant named Tesss, which one of our fellow rallyers had touted as having huge lobsters (the Anegada clawless kind). Lobster of any kind wouldve done by then, two of our group being Maine residents, the other two longtime lobster lovers. Plus Gary and Mel, who are agreeable to most any food adventure, if they can get a hamburger or a veggie burger, respectively.
None of the locals we asked had the vaguest idea what we were talking about. We sort of had to believe they knew whereof, it not exactly being Third Avenue, New York, the only place I could think of where a restaurant could come and go totally unobserved by the neighborhood.
The woman outside Dixies told us we should try her place -- they make great fried chicken. This I had already figured out by the odors wafting out from this wooden shed, its rickety front porch populated by a Saturday-night group of locaI men drinking beer. I was all for it to me it smacked of yummy junk food, Hubba-Hubba style, and could possibly turn out to be a find of the caliber of Kittys in Kansas City, home of the most delectable fried pork sandwich imaginable (for those who imagine such things.)
I think the entirely black clientele at Dixies might have turned off Dave & Carolyn, whod joined us for dinner.. Mel was put off by the cholesterol quotient and Jackie, I think, by the what it might do to her iffy digestive system.
So we walked back to the restaurant right next door, Chez Bamboo, which is the most expensive restaurant on the island, featuring one of those chefs who probably trained in Los Angeles and uses more ingredients than it seems could possibly fit on one plate. The very frou-frou menu, the pretentious tower of food we could expect and the steep New Yorky prices turned us off, not to mention the fact that they couldnt seat six for a half-hour or so.
So we walked back to Dixies and there was Davis, with his wife, who told us wed discovered this islands secret. Unfortunately Dixies was out of anything but wings and drumsticks. But, never mind, the chicken, while it didnt best our Ruthies (the Barbadian treasure who helped raise my children), Poultry Time (in our very own backyard) or Strouds (another Kansas City gem) it came damn close. Crisp, crunchy skin, with only the barest hint of a mellow cooking oil, and the meat not the least bit dry. Keeping my reputation intact, I scarfed up 8 wings and 2 legs. Several people had fish sandwiches, which they liked. Still, this is pretty much a one-note dive, with no side dishes that seemed appealing, unless you count the beer selection.
Last night in Gorda Sound we dinghied over to Saba Rock, too small to even call an island, its namesake rock entirely built over by an inviting-looking, thatched-roofed restaurant. Tables are set around the huge porch, an open-air semi-circle fringing the building. Saba Rock delivered an okay all-you-can eat buffet.
I cant believe Im saying this, but the main attraction was actually the salad bar, something weve been starved for here. I never thought Id see the day Id be thrilled by a salad bar stocked exactly like any highway Wendys or Dennys or Arbys. Missing only was the cottage cheese and fruit, but this was more than made up for by the dressings: gloppy Blue Cheese and the Halloween-colored Russian Dressing, as well as the Italian, that familiar greasy yellow liquid with the mysterious red seeds floating around. The medley of vegetables (also impossible to find, so far, in any color but brown at the small Gorda local markets) the sweet herb-flecked potatoes, the barbecued ribs, chicken and mahi-mahi were all tasty, if not stellar. Rounding this smorgasbord out were big hunks of carved roast beef and lamb, which I have to say were rarer than even I would consider. They almost turned me into a momentary vegetarian.
The highlight of the evening, however, was the jazz piano player, a guy named Dave. Gary and I had met him the day before at the bar, as we sipped decadent 11 AM Virgin Marys.
I wish Id gotten his last name. A friendly, unremarkably-faced man in his late 50s with a stringy, gray-blond pony tail slithering down his back. Originally from Milford, Connecticut, hed wended his way around the world performing, and chose eventually to live on a small island just a short ferry-ride out of Auckland, New Zealand. One of those places, he said, that just got under his skin, and he just kept spending more and more time there as the years dribbled by.
His mother still lives in Milford, and he travels to his gigs via New York, whenever it works, to see her. His circuit is as far-flung as the Caribbean, San Moritz and the Cote d'Azur. The jazz fest here was here to play in was kayboshed by the hurricane, and hed stayed anyway to veg out and play whenever enough guests showed up.
We got the idea he was talented from the variety of his past bookings and from the manager, Demetrius, who stopped to talk to us. (Almost everyone weve run into has been incredibly friendly, in a non-phony, actually-interested-in-how-you-happen-to-be-there kind of way. Although, many of the locals who staff small businesses have also ranged from indifferent to cold and difficult, sometimes even approaching surly. The women in the laundry at the VG Yacht Harbour stand out as particularly unfriendly. Jackie had to beg them to put bleach in her clothes and Laurie actually tipped them 2 dollars to use one of the 6 public machines. It seems they hoard them to do the laundry they get paid for.)
Dave was an entrancing and versatile performer, his talent creeping up on us unhurriedly. Unusual style for a jazz pianist, we thought. A low-key, trance-like delivery, punctuated by an odd, almost spastic, mix of body motions: A metronome foot, in slipperlike loafers, shuffling, not stomping, out the beat. A bushy-tailed head tilted skyward, eyes closed in some extrasensory communion with the music and this intimate bond interrupted, occasionally and for no apparent reason, by an Exorcist-like 120-degree full-head swivel and a slit-eyed gaze sweeping, unseeing, over the small audience. His most dramatic gesture, to swoop his swaying body suddenly over the keyboard, and, as accompaniment, to sneak an entire leg from under the pedals, darting it farther out to the side than seems physically feasible without propelling him off his seat.
In sharp contrast to this almost stuporlike stance, were his hands, which ranged over the keys smartly: sometimes hovering, clawlike and ready to pounce on them, sometimes scampering over them, sometimes banging them, sometimes caressing them, sometimes merely tweaking them, but always a sharpness, clarity and distinctness to each single note. He played from an enormous repertoire, without benefit of paper music: from Hoagie Carmichael to Cakewalk, from 1800s march songs to 1940s love songs, from George Gershwin to George Harrison singing only very occasionally in a husky, muffled tenor, knowing the music would speak for itself. Id have stayed till whatever interior signal might move him to slide from the bench. But eventually Jackie wanted to leave, and we were the designated dinghy drivers for the night.
Regarding our social life, I like, but am not bowled over in any way, by the people weve met. Am I suddenly getting mature? Picking up some of Garys standoffishness, his waiting-for-them-to-prove-themselves-other-than-boring posture? Or worse, my ex-husband Barrys Im-going-to-hate-you-till-you-show-me-why-I-shouldnt attitude? Are they, in fact, boring? Whichever it is, I am not liking that I feel this way, instead of enthusiastically embracing and willy-nilly honestly liking everyone I meet, as I usually do. Did.
Last night we had dinner with some 1500-ers: Babs and Bill of Wave
Runner, Carrie and Win on Saltair , and Sandy and Tom on Vauntcourier.
Vauntcourier, we learned, is Anglo-Saxon, referring to the advance party
of Vikings whose job it would be to inform the newly conquered of the
tithes and treasures now expected as the fruits of victory. Their
personalities belie such a bellicose name. Tom is shy and quiet with a
trenchant, if infrequent, wit. Sandy’s a pretty mid-West type with
platinum hair and a breathy Marilyn Monroe delivery makes her appear a
dumb-blonde type, until you learn she’s an engineer and that 16 years
ago she and Tom, just the two of them, made a Florida to Bahamas
crossing on a 30-foot boat, with no stove and no running water.
Babs is an A.D.D. personality. She’s often funny but loud and since she
almost never stops talking and laughing, and everything is said with the
same degree of importance, it’s difficult listening to her continuously
so as to distinguish what’s really amusing. She’s a cheerleader type:
very petite, which often accompanies these cutesy personalities, and she
has a great body. She frequently shows up in short-shorts or miniskirts,
which show off shapely legs, and with tight tied-at-the-waist shirts,
which accentuate hefty-sized, untouched-by-gravity tits. (Maybe that’s
the real reason I’m having trouble with her.) Her boyfriend, Bill,
chubby, with a thatch of auburny-blonde hair, is super nice and very
friendly, sort of Golden-Retriever style, but has yet to say anything
self-revealing or of particular significance.
Carrie and Win are nice enough sometimes I think I’d even like to get
to know them better -- but he has a gratingly nasal speech pattern and
tends to swallow the ends of his sentences, as if unwilling to share the
secret, while her laugh can only be called annoyingly braying and comes
frequently without any particular provocation at least, that I can
Maybe Im just in a bad mood because I miss our kids, our grandchildren and our (to my mind) much-more-clever-and-scintillating friends. Or maybe it actually takes time to get to know people enough to want them as friends, and time is exactly what we may not have, given the transitory nature of our differing itineraries and schedules. Were lucky to be traveling with very good friends, though Jackie and Mel and Gary and I are considered joined at the hip and weve already been labeled "an item," whatever that means in groups of more than two.
So far, our hands-down favorites in the friend category are Carolyn and Dave, who seem to have some depth and are fun to be with in a low-key, non-competitive sort of way. Theyre an attractive couple, Dave especially, who has fine-featured good looks and a trim, athletic build, the result of decades of daily running. We saw in Hampton that theyre both thin enough to be able to accomplish the super-layered look, not just double- but even triple-tucked shirts! (Also were hard to like for that reason! Im joking, of course.)
Theyre together 32 years, have no children, and seem to be very much in synch with each other. Theyre planning a voyage through the Panama Canal next season and on to the South Pacific long, long passages and faraway cultures. You have to be pretty secure with each other, I think, to envision that lifestyle and to go for it.
At first we thought they were uptight, quietly rich, martini-swilling WASPs. Maybe they were. Or are. But weve spent some fun time together, which seems to have loosened them up. That process probably started in the first 15 minutes of our acquaintanceship, when Gary gratuitously used the word "fuck." I think it came out accidentally but he insists it was quite deliberate and intended to de-crust them. So now, after 5 or 6 evenings together, plus that shared hurricane, Carolyn is still understated, but droll: she makes these outlandish faces when she tells a story, which makes her quite human and amusing to listen to. And Dave has a sense of humor that sneaks out playfully and hes trotting it out more and more frequently. Its too bad that their Far East agenda doesnt permit us to spend a whole lot of time developing a deeper, more lasting friendship. Though you never know, we do have the whole winter ahead of us.
Speaking of agendas, someone on Morning Chat yesterday asked someone else, "Whats your schedule today?"
"My schedule is I have no schedule," he answered. This aptly describes the delights of this lifestyle. Although, I must admit, my schedule is still overly rigorous and compulsive -- yesterday it included polishing all the polishable metal on this 61-foot boat, in 90-degree heat. Today my hands are contorted, my shoulders ache and my back is stiff. Not to mention the sunburn.
Still, I am quite content. And feeling very lucky. Especially when, this morning I heard on the Chat about a man, a single-handed sailor, caught in the hurricane, who tried to divert to St Martin and avoid the BVIs. It was like he was hit by a "moving bus," someone said. They found his body two days ago 4 miles from St. Barts. The boat, a 40-foot something-or-other, has not been found at all. Theres a memorial service in Bermuda today. Lenny was no joke.
For a long time before we left, we listened to our friends ask us how we had the nerve to do this, especially in a huge sailboat, at least huge for a couple to handle alone and with our limited sailing experience. Whats the big deal, I thought. If Christopher Columbus, surely no genius, could do it, why not us?. But eventually, as people continued to cluck over us, praise our daring, or even hint at our cavalier foolhardiness I began believing, as they obviously did, that we must be intrepid risk takers -- monumentally brave. (The words monumentally stupid never entered my mind!)
And, further, as we sat in our doctors office a month before we left, waiting for immunizations against Hepatis A & B, Diphtheria-Tetanus, Polio, Typhoid, Meningococcus, all ominous diseases we might be exposed to, I was feeling particularly courageous, like a regular adrenalin junkie. Until I chanced on a Time Magazine whose cover story was called "Life on the Edge." There I read about how a whole slew of Americans are pursuing danger and fear by immersing themselves in "extreme sports:" parachuting off bridges, buildings and concrete dams at 65 miles an hour; helicopter skiing in Alaska and avalanche territory; climbing Everest in record numbers, despite, in fact, seemingly propelled into attempting the ascent by the terrifying bestseller, "Into Thin Air."
Theyre paragliding instead of couch-potatoeing; dementedly daytrading instead of cautiously investing for the long-term. By these standards, we were mere woosies. No big deal, our big adventure.
November 26, 1999
Thanksgiving was stranger than Id anticipated. For starters, the weather -- the sultry heat, the summery breeze, and the background of white sailboats rocking on ripply aquamarine water made it virtually impossible to comprehend that a major holiday back home was happening without us.
Until we spoke to the kids and I dissolved immediately at hearing their voices. Imagine, my daughter, and not me, putting the turkey into the oven. And even beyond -- instead of me, without my advice.
"Did you put the garlic slivers under the turkey skin and did you season it with plenty of garlic salt," I asked.
"No garlic, rosemary," she answered, clearly slamming the door on not only the oven but on any further long-distance culinary expertise on my part.
Forlorn, I now I realized my brand new clearly-chosen, but nonetheless unhappy, superfluity.
Shes grown up. Soon to be a mother herself. Yet despite her declared and obvious independence, she has become me in so many ways. I hear my own Holiday Overwhelm in her voice: anxious it wont all get done, already worried about the gravy not turning out, the turkey being underdone, impatiently barking orders at her husband, who only wants to disappear behind a computer screen or under the bed.
She, too, is teary that we wont be there. That this Thanksgiving wont be at our home. And, that her own guest list numbers only 5: "I used to hate the "circus" at our house," she said, referring to my annual assortment of "not-just-the family:" our friends and their children or even their aging parents; customers or business associates, sometimes flamboyantly gay and difficult for adolescents to deal with; later, the childrens college friends or, as they married, their in-laws; plus any strays Id discover who had no place to go.
"But, oh, how I miss that circus," she now admitted, wistfully.
Eventually dry-eyed and off the phone, we had time to dinghy about the harbor, climb to the small summit of Marina Cay, where a small concrete bungalow, now a combination museum, open air reading room, library and book exchange, still stands. It is the former home of Robb and Rodie White, who came in 1937 quite deliberately to a rocky, barren, uninhabited island, as 24- and 28-year-old newlyweds. There they built this one-room house, wresting a cistern out of the dry, rocky land. They stayed what was for them (though not for their visiting parents) three idyllic, if difficult, years. His goal was to forge a literary career. Out of this experience, eventually he wrote "Two on the Isle, " which became a best seller and ultimately a movie starring Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes.
Just as the pumpkin soup (hot, an unfortunate tropical menu choice) is being served, the lights go out and the overhead fans stall. Its going to get hotter.
This is no unusual occurrence. Lanterns appear quickly, get deployed around the kitchen and the tables.. The stoves are propane, so dinner will barely be delayed. Jim, one of the restaurant managers, says a quick, but entirely fitting blessing: giving thanks for the assembled new friends, for the safe, successful passage they have just made and for continued good winds.
He speaks from personal knowledge: Just 3 years ago he signed on as crew on a 1500 boat. Beguiled by the islands, he somehow never made it back home as intended.
We understand, but its hard to describe, how innocently seductive this lifestyle is not for all, of course. But certainly for us.
The universal question when we finally connect by voice to any of the children or a friend, is "Whats it like? Is it exciting?"
You can read that on his face. The tension is gone from his jaw and so is the strain from his smile; the taut cords of his neck have relaxed and the furrow between his eyes has smoothed out some, His eyes read peaceful. Satisfied.
Weve done excitement. Weve lived frenzy. Racing from one fire to put out the next, from payroll after payroll to meet, from one month-load load of bills to the next.
What it is, is life. A different life. A good part of our day can be devoted to trying to locate a phone to call home, only to get someones answering machine. Or chasing down an edible Romaine lettuce; or on a fruitless search for decent fruit. (Believe it or not, in mango-land, I have yet to see a ripe mango.) Plain yogurt is out of the question, at least until we find whatever passes for a supermarket, instead of dusty beach- or marina bodegas. We are shocked to find a box of 25 quart-size Ziplocs cost $4.25, which may be cheap compared to a 3-stack box of Ritz for $6.50. We hear there are some supermarkets in the bigger islands like Tortola and St. Thomas and we cant wait to fulfill some of our most basic food fantasies. What I miss most from my former life, in the realm of things, is not my jewelry or my clothes, but Costco and Trader Joes!
Just getting gas for a dinghy can take a few hours. When you get to the fuel dock, you find its run on island time the attendant is, well, no ones exactly sure where, and he may or may not be back in an hour or so.
But this allows us to slow down, sit on the porch at the nearby beach bar/restaurant, observing the clouds, watching the boats, wondering at the scenery -- from both Mother Nature and human nature. We check out the women with unfortunate bulges and overlarge breasts who nonetheless wear thong bikinis. And the ones with rippleless tushies and flat tummies -- who look all too great in them. We take in the pelicans as they dive bomb the water, their staccato beaks directed by their own onboard radar. Down their gullets goes an assortment of fish brought out amid an inevitable excess of water. Long, skinny necks inflate suddenly into big, goitery balloons. In this self-made bucket, they process the catch, eliminating the water and swallowing the unhappy prey.
Weve also done almost no sailing, because the winds have been unusually calm, except for the hurricane. That will change with the arrival of the Christmas winds, in a week or so, which usually blow 20 to 30 knots regularly. That should cool things down, too.
So far, our typical day looks like this: We wake between 6:30 and 7:00, after a long night of very peaceful sleep. We jump to the SSB radio. We cant miss the 7:30 Chat: we need to get vital information: where to buy what, where to get fixed whatever, where to get lobster dinners, where to grocery shop, where to check in for customs, where to go for snorkeling, where to send email, where to get a decent haircut, where to get the New York Times. Someone always knows the answer to whatever the question, however esoteric. Except this one -- where is there a totally deserted cove?
Next, at 8:30, comes David Joness Caribbean weather, which informs a whole host of individual subscriber boat whether to sail or not. And will ultimately determine when we leave for wherever we want to go.
By this time its 9:30. We do chores on the boat, taking care of our small home together. Weve been, so far, too busy to snorkel, but we will, and weve been much too busy to get certified for scuba. We still need to buy water toys for the boat, in case our guests are bored by our undemanding retirement pace. It would be nice to read a book, but so far, we havent had time. Though I am catching up on 6 months worth of New Yorkers.
Somehow its now way beyond lunchtime and we slap together a ham sandwich.(I told you it wasnt about food!) When it gets too hot, we leap off the boat or go for a dinghy ride. And then suddenly its 5:30, time for a shower, a glass (or 2) of wine -- and dinner. What to make, and "their boat or ours" are the biggest decisions of the day.
And, oh yes, the sunset. The sunsets are glorious. So far we havent had a duplicate.
November 27, 1999
Yesterday we finally sailed and it was glorious, though the winds clocked only up to around 15 knots. This boat performed, as usual, beautifully. And so did we. Coming in at the end of the day we had trouble finding a quiet anchorage around Norman and Peter Island, but eventually we did find an one both boats were happy with.
As I sit, around 4PM, in the cockpit writing, there are just 8 boats in a comfortable size cove. My view is of only one of them and the sole stereo I hear is ours, blaring out the Blue Danube Waltz. Our American flag at the stern is flapping along in almost perfect rhythm. Its divine.
True, its not high season yet, so the deserted cove is likely to elude us very soon. This will do fine for now.
The boat is swinging around in the breeze, facing virtually barren islands, except for Tortola in the distance, where, last night, scattered houses twinkled all up its low mountains, lighting what was otherwise a complete circle of darkness. All tented by a canopy of stars.
This morning, looking just across the way, at our current front yard, three long, low bulbous projections from humpy Peter Island resembled giant turtles, lying quite still: observing us and, no doubt, resenting our presence in their front yard. Further to the left -- our side yard was planted with four teepee-shaped rocks, aptly named The Indians. An excellent place to snorkel, we hear.
Later on, after I scrubbed and scraped the stubborn grit off our stainless stove, inside and out, after I polished it till it shone like a motorcycle, we actually did snorkle for the first time, right here along the rocky shoreline of our current back yard. Id forgotten how easy and how much fun snorkling is.
The highlight of what was otherwise nice, but fairly unremarkable, underwater terrain, was, perhaps, a million tiny, irridescent fish, swimming through the water in syncopation -- creating a huge undulating silver lamé curtain as we swam toward them to investigate. Closer in, we watched, transfixed, as these 3-inch-long creatures -- individual black stripes coursing through their almost transparent slivers of bodies -- responded immediately, as if one, to changes in the current: veering off swiftly all in the same direction, like a well trained chorus line. As I extended one arm, theyd all kick left; if I ever so slightly thrust out the other, theyd all high-step to the right. I felt like Busby Berkeley.
Poor things, they were also breakfast meat for the local pelicans performing their constant kamikaze eating ritual.
Gary is napping across the cockpit from me. All is well in our world.
That is, except for our broken onboard email system, which is why youre getting this many-day-long update. Itll be two more days before we even touch down on land. A first priority is to handle our communications crisis. The one we thought wed solved way back there in Virginia. I am hoping when we finally hook up that there will be messages from some of you. Though I see some of your faces as I write, it would be nice to feel more connected to you again.