You’re in a small but relatively civilized town – not a village – in Panama. It is a Panamanian holiday, but the Chinese grocery stores are open. You have fifteen dollars and are not sure when you will be able to get more cash. You have plenty of drinking water, but no food, nothing, nada. What do you buy first?
“They can sense when there’s fresh U.S. blood,” say the locals, and it must be true. Within minutes of getting off the small plane from Panama City to Bocas Del Toro, I was battling mosquitoes and scratching madly wherever they bit. Somewhere in the luggage was a bottle of Avon Skin So Soft®, which is terrific for bugs and woodwork, but Joe would have a conniption if I unpacked in the middle of a dirt road.
“Man up,” Joe said, and I had many, many responses to that but didn’t say a word. You have to pick your battles and we were tired, dirty, jetlagged, and hungry. This was no time to launch any missiles.
The ATM machine didn’t know it was a holiday and when we got more money, I provisioned with bare necessities. I assumed we would have no refrigeration.
“I’ll have the refrigerator up and running in a couple of hours,” Joe said, and he encouraged me to buy cheeses, butter, meat . . . but I bought 1 pound of hamburger and lots of rice and pasta. “I want to go on low-carb,” he reminded me as I shopped.
“You can low-carb after the refrigerator is running,” I replied.
One week later we were still without refrigeration.
Some of our friends will recall me saying, “No more refrigerators! No more refrigeration! I can deal with not having it, but I’m tired of throwing good money after bad and STILL not having it!” Two years ago, right after I spoke those this-is-final words, Joe spent $1,000 on a new refrigerator unit to replace the one that cost us an average of $400+ per year to keep running. I tried to be upbeat about the new refrigerator, even when it developed a leak. I could live with the leak – every two weeks Joe had to add freon to the unit – and a couple of times it even made ice, something he seems to think is a direct connection to his masculinity. We have very, very rarely had homemade ice onboard. But now it was completely non-working.
Joe contacted Rick, the Bocas refrigeration repair man, who said the cost would be somewhere between $200 and $400, if we were lucky. Same money, different year.
I swear, our next major refrigerator purchase will abandon the Westerly refrigeration design completely and go to some kind of free-standing unit. Westerly coolers are notoriously badly sealed anyway, and the Norcold® units that were factory installed are unreliable at best. The unit with which we left the U.S. conked out in Guatemala. We replaced that original one and the replacement never worked well either, so we bought an Adler Barbour® unit, a new one.
Rick discovered a bad control module. He replaced it. $275 plus labor and two days later, we had a working unit that didn’t leak.
There wasn’t a whole lot Joe could say to get me past my angst about the refrigeration in the boat. “We have an RV,” Joe told a group of men at the Calypso Cantina. “Every year, no matter how long we left it, we fire it up and the refrigerator works fine. There’s never a single problem on the RV like we have with our boat.”
That sound you hear is me knocking on wood.
It’s true; RVing is easier than cruising. Several people have asked us which is better, which we prefer and the differences. Well, RVing is easier but cruising is more rewarding, especially if you are more a sea-to-shining-sea person as opposed to purple-mountains-majesty person.
Cruisers are a whole different breed of society, walking a very fine line between poor/homeless and rich/carefree. Sometimes, you’re both in one week. It’s difficult to explain . . . but living in the Caribbean and the cruising people we meet are what make it preferable to any other lifestyle for me. As citizens of the world in a Caribbean-slash Central American country, we cruisers look out for one another. If someone needs a part, assistance with their boat, money for medical treatment, information . . . well, cruisers don’t even hesitate to help one another. We trust each other, maybe too much. An example is the time Joe and I made the trip from the Archipelago San Blas to Panama City carrying four other cruisers’ ATM and debit cards. After we visited the ATM machine, I had a panic attack when the realization hit that we were carrying several thousand dollars of other people’s money. It worked out fine, but I don’t know that we’d do it again.
Our experience with RV people – usually couples, just like cruisers – is that they are sometimes worried too much about their stuff. George Carlin did a fabulous routine about people and stuff. Well, I feel that many of the RVers we meet are afraid someone might steal their stuff. Or want to borrow it.
We were at an RV campsite in Ohio, our first experience as work campers (people who live and work part-time at a campground) and the other workers there were worried because we didn’t have a car. They kept asking how we would survive without a car, how would we get to Wal-Mart, how would we leave the campsite? Well, we hadn’t thought it through that far, but having taken advantage of public transportation for several years, Joe and I never worried about that kind of thing. I mean, the RV did have wheels. We figured we’d pick up a little runabout car in a few days. This lackadaisical attitude caused unusual concern among the other work campers. Later, we bought a little used Saturn to tow behind our RV, but we never forgot the fear of the Ohio campers that me might want to borrow their cars to go get more stuff. I remember trying to explain to them how we “provisioned” so that we could live for weeks at a time without having to buy stuff, and that scared them even more.
With the refrigeration back and better than ever, we were able to buy meats and cheeses, Joe’s two favorite foods. So it was time to move on to the second major project for our stay at the dock in Bocas: our flooring needed to be redone.
I used to make fun of people who had nice things but never used them. They covered them in plastic and hid them under rugs and afghans, giving their living space a cluttered, slumber party look. I never do that, but the downside is, your stuff gets used often and looks used quickly.
Our flooring was scarred and weather-beaten as if it had been outside, not inside. The finish was long gone and the bare wood was spotty and dinged in places. One piece of floor had a stain where our portable generator had leaked oil while we stored it down below for our trip to the States. Some pieces had dents and skid marks, particularly the flooring that the television hit on its three trips across the boat while underway in rough seas. To our surprise, the television still works well and continues to be our test for how “sporty” (see: “terrifying”) a passage’s winds and waves are.
My gauge for how well a home is maintained is to look at the interior doorjambs, door knobs and trim. If those areas are dirty and in need of paint, in my mind the house does not show “pride of ownership.” Well, our boat’s interior trim was worn and eroded in several places, so according to my theory, my home was not showing pride of ownership, and I am proud of our boat. She is such a good sailor! But the woman in me wanted her to be pretty, too.
We took up the floor panels in sections, so we had some flooring to walk on and some support beams on which we tiptoed precariously. But as the sanding ended and the varnishing progressed, all the floor pieces were in the cockpit or in our bodega (storage building). So, there we were: for three days we trod lightly across boards that were sometimes only ½ - inch wide. During the day, this was a minor inconvenience. When cooking, washing dishes, and puttering around the galley, I had a small piece of 4”x 8” wood upon which I could stand. But at night, my trips to the head were cause for concern. Twice, I had forgotten the floor was gone, tripped and nearly fallen but caught myself on a handrail or wall. There was a time when I could’ve contributed this to my daily wine consumption, but since I no longer drink like a sailor, so to speak, I had to blame this forgetfulness on something worse: senility.
Every night, as I climbed over Joe to exit the bunk for my tinkle trek, he would say, “Remember, we don’t have a floor,” then he’d turn on the light. When I stepped gingerly from the main berth to the hallway, he would remind me to turn on another light. Several minutes later I would have made my way to the head and carefully tiptoed back to our bunk.
This led to discussions involving re-opening the head in our main bunk, which had become a kind-of storage closet. We hadn’t used that head in years, but in our old age, having a toilet nearby would be an advantage. We added that to our list of home improvements, a low priority one, though.
While Joe sanded and varnished, he gave me cleaning assignments, most of which involved scrubbing places below the waterline. I didn’t mind, and tackled it with energy and enthusiasm, but when he would scrutinize my work, he seemed to think I could’ve removed more dirt. Early in our marriage, if Joe scrutinized then criticized, I would crumble. That was 41 years ago. Fast track to 2012: “I’ve done all I’m going to do,” I declared. “I’m scrubbing places that haven’t seen daylight since 1987, when the boat was built. Plus, how do you know some of that dirt isn’t what’s holding her together? What if I clean too much and she falls apart and sinks?”
If he wanted the bilge and the belly of the boat to sparkle, he’d have to do it himself or re-define quality control for this project. He let it go and we continued work for three days until the varnish had dried enough to re-install the floor boards.
We stood in the salon, looking at our shiny new floor. “That looks better,” said Joe.
“No! It looks fabulous! What an improvement!” I enthused.
It was time to move on to the trims. I only wanted to varnish the well-worn areas in the galley and head and some of the trim. The fact is, our interior is very teak-ish and I love the look of the original wood. The galley has a ceramic tiled countertop, one of the last ones installed in the British-made Westerly Corsairs, and I’ve worked hard to maintain the tile in its original condition.
We did a walk-through of our boat and I pointed out the areas that were high on my repair/refresh list, including two bare walls in the v-berth. The original walls in the v-berth were vinyl-covered, and as many an older Westerly owner can attest, the vinyl had a backing that is no longer used in manufacturing. It was the kind of stuff that was often seen as headliners in cars, at least until people’s headliners began falling down around their shoulders while they were driving. The British call this stuff “the uppy,” and there are many internet sites that mention the woeful condition of someone’s “uppy,” which always, eventually, falls down as the backing crumbles. We’d managed to salvage and secure our vinyl uppy throughout the boat, but these two small walls were bare. I’d painted the walls and put decals on them, but that was in 2001. The decals were faded and peeling.
We decided that gluing some kind of fabric on the walls, maybe even non-skid shelf liner, might work. The shelf liner looks attractive, actually, so the quest would be to find the right kind of adhesive for that project. If we could find it, 3M™ Super 77™ Multipurpose Adhesive would be perfect. Several cruisers said, “I’m sure they’ve got it at one of the hardware stores in town,” but that’s what they said when I lost my garlic press last month and I’m still grinding our garlic cloves on a grater, smashing them with whatever is near, or cooking with coarsely chopped garlic. I’m just sayin’ . . .
Our hibiscus was also in need of a touch-up. In Guatemala, before our passage to Panama, there had been no Rose of Sharon flower painted on the back of our boat. The Rose of Sharon is a hibiscus, and we’ve always had a hand-painted hibiscus, starting with our very first one that was painted by Stewart Stout when our boat was at a Kemah, Texas marina, Lafayette’s Landing (now the Kemah Boardwalk Marina). The flower had always been a shade of white.
I had explained to the Guatemalan artist that I wanted the flower to be white. He nodded, said he understood, and then painted a shocking pink hibiscus on the back of the boat. Thanks to my belief in karma, I immediately accepted the pink flower as something that was meant to be. Well, she was looking a little wilted, so a slight facelift would be in order.
We went to Bocas town for provisions, paint, and brushes. That morning, a large cruise ship had dropped anchor near our marina, and we watched with trepidation as rafts filled with tourists zipped from the cruise ship to shore. Sure enough, the small town was wall-to-wall white people. Old white people. “Joe!” I whispered. “They look just like us only . . . crisper!”
There are a disproportionate number of Chinese markets in Bocas Del Toro, in relation to the population of locals and tourists. I mean, every other building houses a Chinese market, and they have pretty-much the same stuff, but one may have U.S. cookies, or another may have a good dairy section. I was told that Bocas is a major site for money-laundering and that’s why there are such a large number of cash-only Chinese markets. The person who told me that had no idea who or why there was money laundering going on but firmly believed it explained the large number of markets selling, basically, the same thing at the same price. They don’t take credit cards and, remarkably, have no holidays. They never close!
In one of the markets a tourist was holding forth to a small crowd of women who had hairdos, nail polish, starched clothing and wore new, bright white sneakers. “You see what this is?” she said, holding up a bag. “It looks like plantain, but it is yucca! Yucca chips, like plantain or potato chips!” She was dropping the bags into her basket excitedly.
In another aisle, a woman was trying to read the microscopic Spanish print on the back of a local brand of insect repellent. “Does this have DEET in it?” she asked me.
“If you’re lucky,” I replied.
“I don’t want DEET!” she exclaimed. I pointed her toward a shelf with several U.S. products, environmentally safe lotions and potions that the bugs in Panama drink for happy hour.
In 1997, when I returned to Texas to live on a boat, the mosquitoes were a problem for me. “What insect repellent do you wear down here?” I asked another liveaboard. “Hell, I wear Yard Guard®!” she replied. Well, the no-see-ums and mosquitoes in Panama would corral and tame Texas bugs in no time and I apply two coasts of strong repellent every morning before I stick my head out of the hatch.
Such is life living on a marina dock in Panama. I’m enjoying being a part of the community of cruisers here at the Bocas Marina and in the Bocas Del Toro area, but our current lifestyle will have to incorporate frequent getaways to snorkel sites and beaches in addition to our home improvement agenda.
I miss the remote San Blas islands and the daily leap overboard into beautiful clear, Caribbean water. I miss the day sails between islands every time we wanted a change of scenery. Most of all, I miss the snorkel sites where I could lose time and space, becoming a part of the underwater world. For me, being in the ocean is medicinal, something that soothes my restless spirit.
Someone said it best for me when he defined the chemical breakdown of H2O: two parts Heart and one part Obsession.