Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Heaven on Earth

There are some places on earth, some things that once seen cannot be captured, cannot be written or described. It’s like taking a photograph of a breathtaking scene, but once you view the photo back at home, it's an underwhelming experience to say the least. These are the photos that your friends breeze by with only a quick glance, and you plead with them trying to convince them how wonderful it looked when you were there, conceding eventually that ‘you had to be there’, and leaving it at that.

There were places we sailed to in the Caribbean this summer that do defy description, but I can’t help but try. To describe the experience is to say it was like stepping into a postcard where you just know the colours have been digitally enhanced – only they haven’t. So you spend days trying to adjust your eyes, blinking and squinting and trying to see the place as something real and ‘of this world’, when what is in front of you is just so surreal. The place that jumps to mind is the Tobago Cays (pronounced Keys). It’s a set of coral reefs and sand bars just south of Martinique – a place that can only be reached by boat. And despite the dangers of sailing among shallow coral reefs and sandbars, there are boats galore anchored at the Cays, presumably all year round. I think once you’ve discovered such a place, you tell everyone you know and you go back yourself, just to see if you were dreaming the first time. We went during the off season, hurricane season! (and missed Dean by less than a week!). Still, the boats were flocked to this oasis in the sea. We arrived at dusk, dangerously close to darkness, which would have been quite difficult to negotiate – as per the guide book we had been reading, we navigated a narrow path between two tiny islands and got Shiloh anchored facing the reef. Then we just marveled and ogled and stared wide eyed in every direction at the colours of the ocean and sky and the palm trees on these tiny sand bars, blowing gently in the wind. And once the sun set, the ocean and sky lit up in different ways – the stars shone like I have never seen before. They flooded the sky completely, leaving us all to guess at the constellations above us. The ocean too came alive with tiny creatures that gave off fluorescent blue ink in bursts and had us all leaning over the edge of the boat, speculating and in awe.

When we woke the next morning and sat with coffee in hand admiring our surroundings, I felt we’d definitely reached heaven.

Every shade of blue, teal, turquoise and many others there is no name for, surrounded us in the sky and in the water. And we spent the day discovering each tiny island, buzzing around on the dinghy and taking it up to the reef. Once there, John put on the snorkel mask and dipped his face over the edge of the dinghy. He came up excitedly saying Holli, you should see what’s down here just below us! Go in! So I put on the mask and carefully dipped over the edge into the warm water. I was absolutely shocked and overwhelmed. Within my reach were hundreds of multicoloured fish, coral and other mysterious underwater life, and all the colours were indescribably diverse and bright. I came bursting up out of the water, unable to breathe in the mask and trying excitedly to speak and flailing about – Trish and John thought something was wrong. I flung off the mask and started babbling about what was just under me. It was like being in the real life world of Finding Nemo!

This trip out to the reef took a turn for the worse however, as my non-outdoorsy suburban upbringing exposed me when I needed to think practically and react accordingly a few minutes later…

John had decided to jump in and get some photos, however he had jumped out of the boat right onto a jutting coral and cut his stomach. He said he was okay, and continued to swim about with the camera in hand. Seconds later we realised how strong the currents were, as Trish and I in the dinghy had drifted quite far from the reef where John was.

John motioned for me to start the dinghy engine and head back over to him, but as we were just above so much coral, I couldn’t let the engine down into the water. I looked up and he was even farther away and I panicked. I eventually got the engine down in the water and revved it so hard it took us jolting forward. It started pouring rain just then and I forgot all my lessons about steering a dinghy. I would rev and turn the steering stick in completely the wrong direction until we were even further away. Circles, rain, panic, John in the distance tredding with the camera and the mask. I was a mess. SWIM OVER HERE! I shouted, and when his reply came back, I CAN’T! My panic rose to a new level. My hands were shaking and I was imagining him being dragged away into the deep ocean while we did frantic donuts and dodged coral with this stupid dinghy!!

Eventually we got close enough back to him and he pulled himself back on, about to ask me what went wrong and why I was so frantic, when I just burst into tears. I don’t think I’ll ever get to live that one down. Only later, safely on the boat did I realise how little danger any of us had been in. The water was warm, there were about 6 other snorkellers and a couple other dinghys right by us. The rain storm hadn’t even phased them, though it sent me into panic mode!!! Ah well – the lessons in life I learn at all ages!!! I vow never to let these things panic me again.

We set off reluctantly from heaven the next afternoon, headed for more worldly looking islands and the daunting prospect of many many flights back to Ghana.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The journey beginning

The beginning of the journey

It’s been ages since I’ve written – I feel like what I imagine a confession is like in a Catholic Church. Having said this, admittedly, everything I know about Church I’ve seen on TV… But I transgress…

I’ve been away on a great holiday and an adventure to be remembered, so really I now have no excuse not to write!

We named our new boat Shiloh.

It had been three years coming, this boat, the dream that comes with it, and the events that molded it’s most special name.

When I first met John we talked excitedly about one day having a life where there are no boundaries, no country, city, neighborhood, house to be bolted down to. I guess this desire is not in everyone and it is one of the things that we hold dear as a partnership.

How to accomplish this? John never doubted. He is practical, and had the idea since he was young about dressing up a caravan and touring, or even better, buying a boat and sailing everywhere our hearts desired.

Through our chats we eventually realised our thought of touring Africa on land was not remotely practical. Friends of his had had this idea, started in Morocco and were headed to Cape Town, only their caravan was shot to pieces on entering Nigeria along the way. Living in Africa gives you far too much practical knowledge of all the possibilities of what could happen. The number of armed borders between the countries was daunting enough, and then there was John’s experience in a Togolese jail, after having driven down the wrong street at the wrong time unknowingly when the Togo President was out in town and heading for the airport. They had kept he and our other colleagues in cells for the day without explanation, fearing them to be terrorists or worse, and waiting till the President had safely left the country before they were released.

We instead cultivated the idea that we could purchase a boat now, have it kept somewhere, take our vacations on it for the next few years while we learned about it, and got our minds used to the lifestyle, and eventually move onto the boat.

Only our hearts were broken in June 2005 when my baby Shiloh, our vibrant, opinionated, adorably stubborn and talented little boy died. In my arms. After a 3 day illness, having been rushed to the hospital on the 4th morning when it became obvious it was not the flu or malaria. In the overcrowded, depressing Ghana hospital ward, sharing a bed with another boy who died minutes later. My Shiloh stopped breathing and my life stopped. Everything was a blur for weeks. Everything about life changed for me. I became more timid and forgot how to walk down stairs sometimes and was generally keeping it together only barely. John was tremendous. He still is.

It was only much later when we allowed ourselves to dream again and live again that we rekindled the idea of the boat. And the perfect idea came to mind. We could name the boat Shiloh, and keep his spirit and his name with us in all our journeys.

We bought the boat in March, after visiting the Caribbean, home of catamarans – which are extremely popular as floating hotel rooms for the chartering crowd. We stepped aboard so many models and makes that we had only seen on the Internet, and the boat for us became clear quite quickly. It’s a French made 41’ catamaran, 2003 model, from a company called Lagoon. It’s white and bright and spacious and airy. It is fiberglass, with two engines and two sails and fitted with some very helpful modern amenities like an autopilot and digital depth and wind meters. It’s cozy and strong and won us over right there. We actually took ownership in July and made copious and tedious arrangements for all of us – John, myself, my friend, all our three children and the eldest one’s girlfriend, to fly from all corners of the world, to meet in little Tortola, to pick up our boat and sail her ourselves, from the company where she had finished her tour of duty, down to Grenada to her new home for the next few years, with a Charter company there.

We all moved straight onto the boat and set about getting it ready for the journey.

It needed to be renamed, and well this was a subject carefully treaded by many. Sailing is a very superstitious endeavour and most sailors will tell you it is bad luck to rename a boat unless you perform a certain set of rituals. So once we had the new name in a great font of my choice, in the right size and material, ordered and designed locally in Tortola, we needed to perform the rituals. We knew we needed champagne but that was about it. Thanks to the gadgets of the modern world, we used Internet access on a cell phone and found a whole ritual – complete with speeches honouring Poseidon and libations to the sea at various intervals, along with enough champagne to share among our little crew.

Shiloh was born!!! We were ready for the journey… well sort of.

I sort of lost the registration papers we’d been handed the day before and mayhem ensued for about half a day….

But that’s the next story!

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