A Tale of Two Cities

Marina del Rey, Puerto Rico

By: Kerry

Fantazia Caribbean-9244Ponce is known as ‘The Pearl of The South’ in Puerto Rico. Its centre is crammed with grand and opulent public buildings in its own, unique ‘Ponce Creole’ architectural style, which is a tropical amalgam of Neoclassical and Art Nouveau, with a little Rococco flourish here and there.

On the main square, the cathedral is painted in mauve with white trim and fronted by a fountain attended by stone lions that apparently came from France. Next door is the Parque de Bombas – painted in red and black horizontal stripes – that houses the museum of Ponce, the tourist office, and a vintage fire truck in its foyer.

It’s charming and quirky and clean. And disturbingly empty of people.

Though apparently reluctant to admit it, Ponce has been in decline for around a century: since the US started manufacturing sugar from beet rather than cane, undermining the mainstay of the Ponce economy. Later, political decisions saw development focused on the north coast of Puerto Rico and the south was overlooked. And then the GFC hit. Ponce’s port – though looking almost new – lies dormant. Probably a billion dollars worth of cranes and equipment, utterly idle.

It’s eery and sad.

By contrast, Damian and I spent a day sightseeing in San Juan.

Old San Juan is crowded on cobblestone streets between massive fortress walls on a finger of land with El Morro – a fort/castle – at its tip.

Like Ponce, San Juan’s architecture is flamboyant and grand, painted in wildly vivid colours, one building brighter than the next. But unlike Ponce, San Juan appears to be thriving: it’s a hub for cruise ships, and throngs of white-socked Americans filled the quay-side restaurants and kept the many tourist shops, cafes and galleries busy.

Few of the cruise ship crowd ventured beyond a block or two from the waterfront. Deeper into the Old Town, restaurants were humming with Spanish-speaking locals. People walked briskly, the traffic jams consisted of BMWs and Jeep SUVs and everyone seemed busy.

The place was buzzing.

We had lunch at Barrachina, the restaurant that claims to be where the pina colada was invented. Of course, we had to try one… or two…

And then we spent the afternoon strolling the back streets, taking photos – probably more than I’ve taken in the whole trip so far!

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Onwards to Puerto Rico

Ponce, Puerto Rico

By: Kerry

Fantazia Caribbean-9079With Mick and Garth’s departure, it left sailing the 300-odd miles to the east coast of Puerto Rico to John, Damian and me. Not a distance you’d normally be concerned about, but once again, we were beating against the trades and negotiating the bottom end of the notorious Mona Passage between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico.

Frank had given us a fine-tuning on the katabatic theory: if the trades don’t get above 15 knots during the day, he reckons, the katabatics will kick in. Any more than 15 knots, they won’t and you should stay put.

So we ate the elephant in small chunks: a 60 mile hop to anchor off Saona Island for a nap, then a night-time departure to make the crossing to Boqueron on the west coast of PR.

The trades had been up almost to 20 knots during the day, but we went anyway. The katabatics didn’t exactly kick in, but at least the headwinds were lighter and it ended up being a reasonable crossing.

Boqueron had little to recommend it, and Mayaguez, where we had to go to clear Customs the following day, didn’t inspire either, so we left at 0500 (hoping that the katabatics might ease our way early in the day) and motored 45 miles around the corner and along the south coast to Ponce, arriving in time for the annual mahi mahi fishing competition, the biggest weekend of the year at the Ponce yacht club. The docks were bristling with rods and tuna towers atop 30 or so sports fishing boats.

We arrived in time for the fish weigh-in and the start of the music… Loud, but nothing on the DR!

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A Few Days in the DR

Boca Chica, Dominican Republic By: Kerry

Da Boyz: Mick, Garth, Damian

Da Boyz: Mick, Garth, Damian

The Dominican Republic is LOUD. Salsa, merengue, bachata and reggaeton blast you sideways all day long. Every shop, bar, car – wherever two or more people gather – the music is dialled to ear-splitting.

On our first afternoon in Barahona, we came face to ear with this local phenomenon, and also with Iban: the quintessential fixer. In a country where the average monthly wage is $400, nearly everyone is moonlighting at something, and propinas, or tips, are an integral part of business.

Iban is second-in-charge of Immigration at Barahona, but with only around three boats a week dropping by, he has time on his very enterprising and well-connected hands. With Customs and Immigration cleared (expedited by Iban), he whisked Garth and me into town in his beaten-up Toyota, took us to the ATM, negotiated on our behalf to buy a local SIM card and drove us around trying to find ice, which was in short supply. We eventually found it at a bar of er, questionable repute where the music was a solid wall of noise, negating the need for the patrons to talk to one another.

He didn’t ask us for money for helping us, but graciously accepted a propina when Garth offered it.

Iban doesn’t speak English – few people in the DR do – but he speaks Spanish clearly and slowly enough that I can understand him. (I am suddenly official Fantazia translator and trying to dredge Spanish out of the dim recesses of my brain). We were interested in doing an excursion to Lago Enriquillo – a sub-sea-level lake with crocodiles and iguanas – a few hours’ drive away.

Of course! Iban would take us on a full-day excursion, incorporating the hot springs and ‘Indian carvings’. He would drive us in his Toyota.

The Toyota didn’t look like it was up to a 300km round trip with five big men and me in it, and our crew definitely weren’t up to a full day crammed in like sardines.

No problem. Iban had a friend with a mini-van. But it would cost an extra $50… He also arranged for a colleague from the Immigration Dept to mind the boat for the day – for a small propina.

We were off at 7.00 next morning but, after a fuel stop (“can you please give the driver some money so he can pay for the petrol?”), we blew a tire. It was early, but not too early to break out a beer…

We drove through nondescript, scrubby hills and small towns of ramshackle weatherboard buildings in faded shades of gelato. Most of the vehicles on the road were pretty dilapidated, too, and motorcycles carried improbable loads, including 40kg gas cylinders almost two metres long, held athwart the pillion seat by the driver.

We stopped for fried chicken and to resupply the esky (600ml bottles of Presidente beer for a buck) as everyone – especially, it seemed, Iban and the driver – was thirsty in the heat.

A young guy was doing blockies: the front passenger seat of his clapped out ute was totally taken over by a massive speaker and the bass decibels were shaking up the dust all over town.

Even louder was the flat-bed truckload of speakers blaring at the natural spring baths. Family groups, teenagers and groups of gangsta-imitating youths splashed in the pools and shouted at one another to be heard over the Latin beats. Large people ate large plates of rice and beans and fried chicken.

It seems no-one in this country, no matter their size or shape, is afraid of lycra: a couple of sizes too small is good, fluoro is de rigueur.

We eventually pulled in to the lakeside car park, which had been taken over by lizards. A gang of metre-long Rhinoceros-horned iguanas stared us down, their chins jutting and their front elbows turned out in apparent indignation. They were happy to pose for photos, but I thought they looked a bit disappointed not to be given a propina.

In a case of ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey’, the lake itself was underwhelming. The waters have been inexplicably rising for the past few years, which is forcing the relocation of shore-side settlements and accounts for the dead trees protruding from the water.

The boat to the island in the lake where the crocodiles reside wasn’t operating, but we weren’t that fussed: we have them bigger and better back home!

We stopped briefly to climb some slippery stairs to see some ‘Indian rock petroglyphs’ that looked remarkably like recently-etched smiley faces, but didn’t linger as the sun’s heat on the top of our heads was so intense it hurt.

By then, everyone was feeling a little drowsy after beers and heat, so it was a fairly quiet trip around the remaining perimeter of the lake and back to Barahona.

The following day was Good Friday. So we were told, it’s supposed to be a day for reflection and respect. Most notably, you’re supposed to turn your music down and play ‘classical’ instead of raunchy Latino. Mostly, this held true: we wandered the deserted centre and backstreets of town, which looked like a movie set, with all the weather-beaten weatherboard houses (very Boo Radley).

The streets were pleasantly devoid of litter which added to the movie set feel, in stark contrast to the ‘beach’ where hordes of picnickers were congregating to eat rice and beans and fried chicken, drink beer and listen to loud music (just for a change).

The pebble beach looked like it was strewn with confetti: in fact it was tiny shards of multi-coloured plastic flotsam washed ashore.

Everyone was strutting their lycra-clad booty and having a fat old time. We hung around for a bit, briefly watched the girls’ boxing (!) and then it was time to check out: by law, we have to obtain a ‘Dispacho’ from Customs each time we leave one port for another in the DR.

Cruiser lore has it that the katabatic winds coming down from the mountains at night override the trade winds, making for a more comfortable trip. So we’re testing the theory and leaving tonight to do the passage to Boca Chica overnight. Trouble is, we aren’t supposed to leave port after 6.00pm.

We found Iban lounging in the shade under a tree. He’d ‘fixed’ it with Customs to allow us to leave any time we liked. There was a minor hitch when I came up against the Jefe – the Chief of Customs – who wasn’t aware of the ‘arrangement’. But a small propina soon sorted things out.

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