Ship's Log

June 23rd, 2009- Luperon, Dominican Republic:

We're happily settling in here, and what a difference in our lives over the past month!  Since January, we'd been accustomed to sparse, arid islands, featuring little more than wind-beaten scrub.  But even from 30 miles out at sea, we could smell that Hispaniola was completely different.  There was no land in sight, but the distinct odors of dark, wet earth, cows, and strange tropical flowers were unmistakeable on the breeze, and we realized it'd been far too long since we smelled such things.  

We smelled this guy in the dark from miles away.

We tried to find out as much as we could about Luperon before we arrived, and found people either love it here or absolutely hate it.  Nothing we heard or read  offered a neutral opinion.  Some boats swore they would never return, that the town was filthy and Dominican customs officials resented Americans, demanding outrageous bribes and turning the process into an expensive bureaucratic marathon.  Other people assured us that the locals were lovely and Luperon was a magical place we’d remember forever!  We had no idea what to expect, so when we pulled into the harbor we were armed with small bills and sodas for the officials, a Spanish phrase book, and faith in the idea that if you treat people with some humility and respect, they’ll usually reciprocate.

A map of the harbor - we're snuggled in to the left of "To Enter" near the mangroves.  This map came from

We shouldn’t have worried so much.  Yes, the customs process was more elaborate than it was in the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos, but each of the 6 officials we met was courteous and pleasant.  Luperon’s commandancia (the harbormaster), his assistant, and a translator boarded our boat shortly after we arrived to inspect our ship’s papers.  It was a quick, simple process, and when it was nearly through we offered each man $5 and a Coca Cola. The commandancia’s face clouded over and he murmured softly to the translator.  “Uh oh,” we thought, thinking the bribery nightmare had begun.

Then the translator solemnly said: “The commandacia wants you to know that you don’t have to give these things - it is not required.”  We answered that we understood, but wanted to offer them all the same, and there were friendly smiles and the popping of soda cans all around.  SARABANDE was officially welcome in the harbor, and after a couple of trips ashore we had visited the officers of the Department of Agriculture, the Port Authority, and Immigration and all the proper stamps and papers were in place.  Relieved and happy, we set off roaming this bustling little town.


Louie takes his first off-leash hike with the Ministry of Agriculture's blessing.
Walking down Luperon's main thoroughfare is a feast  for the eyes, ears, nose, and occasionally the bottom of your shoe.  Aging motorscooters whiz by, piled high with entire families.  The tiny canteen on the streetcorner attracts customers with giant speakers almost bigger than the bar itself, blaring merengue and bachata music.  Packs of children, some clothed, some naked, run en masse down the sidewalk away from their mothers.  Chickens and dogs owned by no one in particular loiter in the shade.  The town’s small houses open up directly to the sidewalk, and all day the front doors are kept wide open. Walking by, you can glance right in and maybe spy a sleepy grandmother taking a nap in the living room.  A beat-up old pickup truck full of bananas and plantains swerves down the street, the driver authoritatively yelling slogans through a loudspeaker strapped onto the roof (“you WILL buy these bananas IMMEDIATELY!”).  Occasionally, a herd of goats storms through town and one or two inevitably wander into someone’s house, or the hardware store, or the beauty parlor.  

Goats takin' it to the streets.

The heat here is no joke, and the afternoon siesta is taken very seriously.  And it makes perfect sense!  None of the buildings in town are air-conditioned, and neither is SARABANDE at anchor.  From 12pm-2pm, all the shops close up and people go home to escape the hottest part of the day.   Trying to do much of anything under the intense tropical sun will quickly drain all of one's energy in a sticky puddle of sweat.  We’ve made the interior of the boat as cave-like as possible and we wait out the afternoon heat in our lair to re-emerge at dusk.  More often than not, the heat and humidity bring on dramatic thunderstorms in the late afternoons, and afterwards the night is still and cool. 

Luperon after dark is very active, and the locals dress up a little to sit outside and socialize, as if to celebrate the relief from the heat.  We walk around town, take in the scene and work on our spanish.  Our grasp of Espanol is sorry, but every day we pick up a new word or two, and locals have been very patient and helpful.  Karaoke bars have proven to be great places to learn - we can read the words on the screen prompting the singers, and hear the right pronunciations as they're sung.  We've also proven that Michael Jackson's hits transcend the language barrier, and Brian has now danced The Worm internationally.

The friendly mobile produce guy takes a momentary break from the loudspeaker.  Nice Yankees hat!  

The soil here is a rich, coffee brown, the type of dirt coveted by gardeners around the world.  The land is blessed with incredible fertility and abundant rainfall, and everywhere you look there are giant, glossy-leaved plants competing for every square inch.  So although this country is poor by US standards, Dominicans don't have to rely on expensive imports to feed them; crops and livestock thrive here.  Which is excellent news to us!  We no longer have to hoard and ration overpriced, wilted produce on SARABANDE!  Our money goes a lot further here, and every Tuesday we get up at dawn and head over to the farmer’s market to grab our week’s supply of fruits and vegetables.  We take home all we can carry for around $6 or $7 - the price of one lousy head of cabbage in the Turks and Caicos.  

AMC pondering papaya.

Rice paddies are at the base of the moutains, and coffee is grown around 5,000 feet.

Of course, things are not sold here the way they’re typically sold at home.  The eggs have never seen the inside of a refrigerator and occasionally have some residual chicken poop or feathers on them. The local honey (sold in recycled old rum bottles) needs to be inspected for bees before purchase.  If you feel like chicken, the one-armed man will cheerfully select a bird from out back, tie up its feet and hand it over.  Or, for a very reasonable 8 pesos ($0.22) more, he’ll kill it, clean it and pluck it for you: money well spent!  The coffee here is so good that our first cup nearly brought us to tears, as did our first fresh pineapple.  Mangos and avocados are just coming into season.  If we’d wanted our eggs cold, our honey filtered, and our meat in styrofoam trays, we could’ve stayed home.  We don’t mind food that’s a little more vivid; we’re eating fresher and tastier even than we did in New York!

The meat section

There is a flip side to the incredible vitality of the Dominican Republic.  The insects here bigger, smarter and meaner, and they desperately want to come and live with us on SARABANDE - gnats, horse flies, regular old house flies, wasps, mosquitos, and an army of others we've never seen before.  If your swat is anything less than deadly, the bugs just shake off the blow, spit on the ground, and go after you for revenge.

Brian whips the flyswatter into a deadly blur.

It turns out that reptiles are also abundant here, as we learned one evening while we tidied up the boat for dinner guests.  Brian reached into one of our low galley lockers and found a 4 1/2 foot snake curled up on a cookie tray! 

After a few minutes of quiet, controlled panic, we suited up in all the Snake Safety gear we could gather:  leather barbecuing gloves, shoes, long pants, kitchen tongs, and a big stick that we use to prop open our main hatch. 

It was a ridiculous struggle, and luckily our snake was a fairly mellow guy.  After we managed to zip him into a duffel bag, we paused for some quick research.  After a few minutes on the internet, we were able to identify our snake as a type of boa constrictor common throughout the island of Hispaniola.  Apparently they can swim quite well, and this one must’ve slithered up our boarding ladder one night and made himself at home!   We were relieved to learn that there are no venomous snakes in the Dominican Republic.

“Thank god it's only a boa constrictor,” said Alicia.

“I’m telling our future children that you said that,” Brian replied, wiping snake pee off the floor.

We ferried the duffel bag to shore, wished our much-harassed snake well, shook him free of the bag and ran away without looking back.

Here our spazzing out has disturbed our friend, and he's trying to sneak through a hole that leads to impenetrable places in the bilge.  
We took swift, brave action soon after this photo was taken.

We told some of our fellow cruisers in the harbor our snake story.  Instead of comforting words, we heard tales of rats, giant cockroaches, and other snakes swimming, jumping, or flying aboard yachts anchored in the middle of the harbor.  This inspired us to spend the next day checking every single locker onboard for vermin.  We didn’t find anything, but now we're strongly considering a ship’s cat, a ship’s hawk or a ship’s wolverine.

Snakes and bugs aside, hurricane season is here and we've decided that Luperon's our home for the storm season.   The harbor's safe reputation is centuries old; ocean waves can't penetrate here, the bottom is thick, oozy mud that swallows anchors and holds them tight, and the surrounding mangrove swamps offer a soft shore to wash up on if one's anchor does happen to fail.  The high surrounding mountains are an added plus, shielding the harbor from punishing winds.   The cost of living is low, and the country's natural wonders will keep us entertained and amazed for months to come.   We feel good about our decision.

We're not alone in our conclusion:  Christopher Columbus himself anchored here to hide from hurricanes on his first voyage to the New World.  He was so grateful to have found a safe haven from the storms that he named the harbor “Bahia de Gracia” - Thanksgiving Bay.   And in describing the surrounding land to  Queen Isabella in Spain, Columbus raved, “these lands are so greatly good and fertile......there is no one who can tell it; and no one could believe it."  

Over 500 years later, his description is still pefectly apt.

Happy birthday to Alicia's wonderful Gran on June 27th, and belated birthday love to our dear friends Carly, Mikey J, Alicia's brother Tom, and Alyssa on our buddy boat GAIA!

Alicia & Brian

PS - We added another bit to our PSA section for people pondering a cruise with dogs, and humbly suggest two new hot weather recipes:  cuke salad and key lime pie.   


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