Given my temporarily disabled status due to my broken knee, I wasn’t much help to Kenny on boat repairs. Nor was I able to go off exploring Mayan ruins or join cruisers on outings of hiking, zip lining or tubing down rivers. My forays out of marina territory were few and far between. I decided to find purpose in writing another article for Cruising World about Julia Bartlett’s charity – Pass It On Guatemala. I’d been hoping to volunteer for the charity myself, but riding in a pick up truck and hiking up mountain trails, was beyond my capabilities. Writing an article would allow me to live vicariously through the adventures of volunteers going out to remote villages to set up lighting systems or visiting the old folks home to bring relief to the indigent.
Interviewing is a quick way to learn about people. You have an excuse for asking a lot of questions without appearing nosy or forward. Fabien, a French cruiser on Orfin, a Whitby 42, was particularly captivating. He’s co-founder of the self-described “alternative sailing community,” a loosely knit group of hippy-cruisers. Kenny and I had noticed them early on around the Rio and referred to them as “the hair people,” because most of them have prominent hairdos frequently involving dreadlocks. They usually sport a healthy number piercings and tattoos, wear an eclectic assortment of used and tattered clothing and eschew footwear. They are fearless, open and warm.
Fabien’s band of merry sailors believe in going sailing now, while you’re still young. “You don’t need lots of money. Just find an old boat. Fix it with recycled parts and go. Worry about making money when you’re old. Sailing is hard. I don’t know how some of these older people do it.” Fabien’s group support themselves playing music and performing circus acts and by bartering with people they meet. They embrace cultural exchange and sharing knowledge, and aim to leave a small footprint on the earth.
Fabien says he likes volunteering for Pass It On, because the charity’s philosophy mirrors his own, and having hiked for years through South and Central America, where locals fed and lodged him, it was the least he could do to give back. If you’d like to learn more about this jolly crew, check out their website: alternativesailing.org.
Irene is another cool cruiser who works for Julia. She’s one of the few paid staff, and is the primary liaison/translator between Pass It On and the village councils. Getting to know her gave me a bit more insight into Guatemalan culture. She told me one village declined the offer of lights, because they were afraid the volunteers would steal their children. Having dropped out of college to pursue the boating life and live aboard a ketch with her German boyfriend, she is not following the path of most of her peers. Like the “alternatives,” she’s a rebel with a good cause. She told me, “My parents always said: Today for you. Tomorrow for me.” Next fall she plans to sail to Panama and then on through the canal…
Having spent so much time in Rio Dulce, we’ve been privy to the local gossip. Stories of love found and lost, family squabbles, death, drug cartels and a cast of eccentric characters make it a ripe setting for a novel or screenplay. The most mysterious thing to me is how safe it feels despite the fact that armed guards patrol the marina at night and concertina wire is everywhere. An intimidating naval officer stands guard on an armored boat at the dock where we leave our dinghies to go into town on shopping excursions. There is little to no tension between locals and cruisers. Although plenty of Guatemalans and visitors from around the world vacation here, it is not a tourist town. And of course, the overriding feeling of warmth and forgiveness within the boating community draws sailors in and makes it difficult to leave.
Four weeks after my knee collided with concrete in the Mar Marine parking lot, I went for a second x-ray. Once again, Marlene, the marina owner offered to drive Kenny and I back to Morales to the drug lord’s hospital. The trip was the usual drag race peppered with horror stories about Guatemala, and how violent the indigenous people were. I bit my tongue.
The doctor I’d seen before looked at my x-ray in the hallway and mused over whether or not I might need surgery. My heart sank. I had thought the x-ray showed improvement. The doctor told us to wait while he consulted an orthopedist friend of his. I let my imagination run wild over potentially negative consequences. Then I reined myself in. Finally, the doctor returned and reported all was well and I should pursue physical therapy. Kenny and I let out a big sigh of relief.
My cousin, Allyn, a physical therapist in Pennsylvania has been extremely helpful and generous with her time. We’ve had several long phone conversations and she sent me emails with attachments full of exercises as well as videos of herself showing me what to do. I don’t know how I would’ve managed without her. The pool at Mar Marine was also a godsend, and made therapy more fun.
Allyn continually urged me to go see a real orthopedist myself. But that meant a trip to Guatemala City, a seven to ten hour bus ride depending on the amount of traffic and road construction. Ugh. I finally gave in to her wise suggestion, because I was starting to feel more pain and something was moving around inside my knee, giving me the creeps.
Kenny and I decided to splurge on a private driver for the trip. The idea of trying to cram my leg into public transport for an extended period filled me with dread. The buses are air conditioned and the seats reasonably comfortable, but there is not a lot of leg room, bad movies are played at high volume throughout the trip, and the toilets are not recommended for use.
As our the day of our journey approached, I found myself looking forward to it. I hadn’t been out of the area for months and had barely left the marina in weeks. We could eat at some good restaurants and sleep in a real bed together. I’d been sleeping on the settee on the boat, because it was too hard to get in and out of the V-berth which involves a small bit of gymnastics.
A driver named William picked us up at 4 a.m. in his sedan. William drove fast, but calmly and smoothly, so I was able to enjoy the scenery without gritting my teeth. We passed through ranches and fruit plantations, over rivers and high up through the mountain passes with spectacular views, ascending to a more temperate climate well above sea level.
Guatemala City is gritty, sooty, smokey and decaying, but it has its charm points. After taking stock of our lodgings and listening to the life story of our gracious hostess at Angie’s Guesthouse, we went out for a coffee at our favorite cafe, San Martin. Normally I’m not a big fan of chain restaurants that have photographs of the food in their menus, but San Martin is an exception. They have excellent coffees and pastries and bread. Their lunches are good too, and the ambiance is grand ruinesque. (Is that even a word?) Afterwords, we returned to Angie’s and took long naps. Having gotten up at three we were fairly exhausted. We found and eccentric restaurant for dinner that night with whimsical décor and good middle eastern fare. My gimpy status came in handy in town when it came to crossing streets. My crutches and brace brought traffic quickly to a halt.
The morning before my appointment, we decided to visit the historic presidential palace which is supposed to be quite exquisite and full of art, blah, blah, blah. We took a taxi across the city only to discover that the place was closed until 2 p.m. because there was a meeting taking place. Apparently, some government business still happens there. We decided to wander the streets and take in the sights. In the grand plaza in front of the presidential palace there was a haunting memorial to young girls who lost their lives in the eruption of El Fuego in June 2018. Just as we were growing weary from our walk, we stumbled upon another San Martin. Ah heaven.
Finally it was time for the big appointment. Sitting in the reception area, I started to get nervous. What if the doctor told me I’d need some kind of surgery? The idea filled me with dread. The paperwork was mercifully short and we were ushered into Dr. Collia’s office to wait some more. A small plastic model of a knee sat behind the sheer blind on the window sill. I picked it up and started to play with it, when it came apart in two pieces. It looked simple enough, but I couldn’t put it back together. “Now look what you’ve done,” Kenny mocked. Suddenly I got a horrible case of the giggles trying to put the damn thing back together. First time in the office and I was already destroying the property. Tears of laughter rolled down my cheeks. Eventually I managed to get the two pieces back together. It really wasn’t broken, just a flimsy model.
Dr. Collia strode into his office all smiles and Ken Doll good looks. It was clear he’d just come off of the set of General Hospital. He put me immediately at ease. “What brings you here?” I explained my situation finishing with, “I though it was time I saw a proper orthopedist.” “What makes you think I’m a proper orthopedist?” he chortled. After examining my knee and x-rays and asking questions, he pointed to my brace by the chair. “Get rid of that,” he ordered. “And no more limping.” He recommended I see a physical therapist and ditch the crutches as soon as possible. I practically floated out of that office. I can’t remember the last time I felt so light. It cost $50. No wonder Guatemala is a prime destination for medical tourism.
I found a medical massage therapist in Rio Dulce – an American named Jesslynn, who was staying at Captain John’s marina in one of the cabana’s with her boyfriend, Tyrone. We’d met once before when Tyrone was working for RAM marina. Jesslynn’s massages felt great, though my knee swelled quite a bit after the first two treatments.
Our last week in Rio Dulce, Kenny continued doing small boat jobs and we hired a local named Jairo, to sand and varnish Mary T’s toe rail. He did a superb job. I gave my crutches back to the fire department and used a cane Julia loaned me, if I left the marina. I was finally able to make it out to the old folks home with the Pass It On volunteers. I got some nice shots of the residents and volunteers for the article and it was quite the eye opening experience. My heart went out to those poor people. None of them have relatives who come to visit and they feel like they’re in prison. Thank god for Julia and the volunteers who bring a bit of light, nail polish, medical supplies and toilet paper into their lives.
Eight weeks after my accident, I went for a final x-ray of my knee in Morales. I shared images of the x-rays with cousin Allyn and cousin Mike, a former emergency room doctor, and both were pleased with the results. Phew. Then I really felt secure getting out of Dodge. Woohooo!
We cast off our dock lines at Mar Marine amidst great pomp and circumstance on Saturday April 13. We were getting out of town just in time for Semana Santa (Holy Week), during which the Rio is jam packed with visitors in motor boats and jet skis zooming around at top speed. We headed down river in the direction of the mouth for a little shakedown cruise, with the thought of heading for Belize within the week.
Ten minutes into our little trip, I discovered the auto pilot wasn’t working. Each time I hit the “auto” button it would engage briefly, then an error message appeared on the screen. Rather than turn back immediately we decided to continue on and try to trouble shoot it later. It was our first time underway since 2016, and we couldn’t bear the idea of going back to the marina. We cut off the motor and had a lovely sail downwind. “Mary T sails again,” cried the crew. We dropped the anchor in Cayo Quemado, a well protected cove with a few residents and a restaurant run by Texan Mike, a warm-hearted, eccentric ex-pat, with a gravelly voice, who walks like he’s had both knee caps broken and skipped the physical therapy.
Being at anchor is such a liberating feeling after living at a marina for so long. It was pretty steamy so, we soaked in the river with floaties drinking bears. Later, we hit Texan Mike’s restaurant for an early dinner of basic burgers. Mike eventually appeared to greet us and held court at a large table with a bunch of fellow Texans who just sailed in. I felt like I was in the Lone Star state. On our dinghy ride back to Mary T an otter swam by.
The next day Kenny removed the auto pilot’s motor drive and we hooked it up directly to 12 volts to see if it would work. Then we whacked it with a plastic mallet and it started working. It was still steamy as hell, so we couldn’t be bothered to re-install it right then and there. We decided to change anchorages and moved to a spot a few miles upriver called Gringo Bay. It’s a bit more open, so we thought it might be cooler. It was still hot as hell, so after dropping the anchor we soaked in the water to try and lower our body temperatures.
Some other cruisers from the Rio were anchored there. Among them, Kitty and Jim on Dream Away. I had interviewed Jim for the Pass It On article. He’s the Santa Claus of Rio Dulce, and delivers presents on behalf of the Casa Guatemala orphanage. With a mass of white curly hair and white beard, its not a stretch. Kitty plays Mrs. Claus. They’ve been on the Rio forever. We went to their boat for cocktails. Their cockpit was much cooler as they had a large fan. Kitty kept reminding me about the upcoming Cruisers Regatta on Easter weekend hoping I would film it. I kept trying to change the subject. We had no idea where we would be when Easter rolled around and a sailboat race is not an easy thing to shoot. When the sun sank below the horizon we returned to Mary T for cheese and crackers for dinner. Too hot to cook.
In the morning we struggled to put the motor drive back in place to see if it would really work. It wasn’t that hard to get out, but reinstalling it was a two-hour struggle as we took turns trying to stick a pin through a hole in an unreachable place. Kenny finally prevailed. We tested it while at anchor. It engaged, but wouldn’t hold. We had to hit it with the mallet, to reengage it. Having to whack it every few minutes, was not a viable option for cruising. We’d either have to forgo using it, or go back to the Rio to see if someone there could help us. We decided to call Tyrone. (Is she quoting that song)?
When I described the problem to Tyrone, he echoed what we’d read in the literature – it needed a good cleaning, especially the brushes. I asked how difficult it was for amateurs who’d never opened up a motor drive to undertake such and endeavor. He said it wasn’t that complicated, but that he’d do it for us, if we wanted. I said that sounded great. I told him we’d bring it to him the following morning. Between Tyrone and Jesslynn, they can solve all your problems. They’re re-fitting an old steel boat which they plan to take through the Northwest Passage in a couple of years.
Contrary to our plans, we returned to the Rio for Semana Santa. After leaving the motor drive off with Tyrone, we dropped our anchor in a wealthy neighborhood near Marlene’s house. It seemed out of the way of general boat traffic, and we hoped it wouldn’t be horribly bouncy. Fabien on Orfin, was anchored nearby. It wasn’t all bad being back in the hood.
We had a nice visit with Julia and I even journeyed out to a village with Pass It On for a mission. They let me sit in the front of the pick up, due to my somewhat gimpy status. No walking was required, because the truck was able to drive right up to the site in the village of Seacarcar. The residents were well acquainted with tourism and did not seem really needy. They have a restaurant and run tubing tours down the river. Julia explained we were putting lights in a boys dormitory for kids coming from poor neighboring villages to study. The lights would provide illumination for them to do homework at night. Julia asked me to take photos of the installation for her website. When the job was completed, we were all invited for a meal at the village restaurant. It was a traditional breakfast off eggs, black beans, sour cream and plantains. Afterword we were offered a trip down the river on inner tubes. Oooo–that sounded refreshing. Eric, the driver agreed to take our things and wait for us at the pick up point, with Jim, the one volunteer who declined the offer.
We set off in our life jackets with a guide, giant inner tubes in tow. Since I was still pretty gimpy, the guide carried my tube and stayed near me for the 3/4 kilometer hike up and down a trail through the jungle to the spot where we’d enter the river. It was a bit more arduous than I’d anticipated, but my knee held up. The others were patient with my pace. (We’ll she ever get over that knee thing?) Sometimes if the guide wasn’t nearby, the driver’s ten-year-old son, would take my hand over the rough spots. I melted. By the time we reached the put-in point I was drenched with sweat. The cool, clear water felt divine. Floating gently down stream through a rocky canyon with locals on holiday, swimming, tubing and kayaking was pretty darn swell. This was not a hardship volunteer gig.
In Rio Dulce, things were getting busier and busier as Semana Santa cranked up. Our boat was frequently waked by jet skis and speeding motor boats pulling skiers or kids on giant inner tubes. On Good Friday a procession of motor boats decked out in purple accompanied a boat carrying Jesus bearing the cross. Up and down the river they traveled, stopping at marinas and the homes of wealthy citizens, where the faithful offered money to a priest riding with Jesus. Although we failed to tithe, the good lord was looking after us that day, and Tyrone delivered our repaired auto pilot drive. He explained that the magnets inside had fallen off and he had to glue them back in place. It took two attempts to find the right kind of epoxy, but he said it seemed to be holding up and to let us know how it went. He warned that it would not last forever. Luckily, we have a spare motor drive in Florida, given to us by a fellow Morgan 38 owner, Jay Green, which we’ll bring back with us next fall. Thank you, Jay!
The following day we re-installed the motor drive and tested it at anchor. It worked! On Easter Sunday we departed Rio Dulce once again, and headed back down river toward Gringo Bay. Shortly after weighing anchor, I hit the auto button, and rather than holding course the boat turned sharply to port. I hit “standby” and tried it again. Same thing. I repeated this several times and every time I pressed “auto” the boat either turned hard to port or starboard. Crap. We continued downriver and I searched through our manuals and Googled for a solution while Kenny took the helm. Five miles out of Rio Dulce, frustrated with the situation and my inability to find a quick solution, we decided to turn back.
After I finished castigating ourselves for not thoroughly testing the motor pilot while sitting in Rio Dulce for five months, I calmed down and resumed my research. I downloaded the auto pilot owner’s manual on my phone. (Oh my God, she’s actually going to read the MANUAL!?) We only had the user’s guide on board. Finally, I stumbled on what looked like a fix. Swap the wires going from the motor drive into the course computer. We were baffled as to why that would work, but it sounded easy enough, so what the hell. Kenny went below and completed the operation in ten minutes. We turned the instruments back on. I held my breath and pressed “auto.” We held course! I pressed +10 and we turned 10 degrees to starboard. Same with port. We could hardly believe our good fortune.
We turned around again and headed for Gringo Bay. When we hit the wide area of the river known as the Golfete, we cut off the motor and tacked into the wind to our destination with cries of Mary T sails again! In the distance, we spotted the cruisers Easter regatta underway. The following day we would depart Guatemala and head north for Belize, a bite out of Guatemala’s Caribbean Coast, formerly known as British Honduras. We were really cruising again!