“I’M LIVIN’ THE LIFE"
On a gloomy winter February afternoon in Texas, my friend Roberta, sitting in the sun on the deck of her sailboat in Guatemala, called me and said, “I need you for a dive charter!”
Roberta was constantly begging me to come down to Guatemala. This time the words ‘dive charter’ piqued my interest.
“What’s the hook,” I asked.
“You are to be the cook and help me with the diving,” she answered.
“The cook?” I shouted. I do not cook. I have a husband who loves to cook, so why in the world would I care to be introduced to a frying pan or a stew pot? For some reason I found myself on a plane heading for a job as a cook and diver.
I landed in Guatemala armed with three vaguely worded e-mails with instructions on how to get to a place called Rio Dulce. Bear in mind these e-mails were more like Where’s Waldo instructions. My first stop, after collecting my dive bag, was the information desk.
“Where can I get a bus to Rio Dulce,” I inquired?
“Rio Dulce?” the man rolled the name around on his tongue and then said, “I have no idea how to get there.”
Oh great!!! The e-mail mentioned going to the central bus station, so I asked, “How do I get to the central bus station?”
“No senora, you do not want to go there,” he opined.
“What about a taxi?” I asked.
He pointed to a woman sitting behind a small desk with a sign haphazardly hanging on the wall that read, ‘Taxi’.
“Rio Dulce?” I inquired.
The woman got out a pen and wrote $160 on her hand, then said, “Dolars.”
I nearly choked.
I went back to the information desk. The man promised to make a few phone calls.
I stepped over to the bank to change some money. The airport version of the Bank of Guatemala consisted of a counter without a teller and an ATM machine that took only Master Card. I had a Visa card.
A sign indicated that the teller would return in five minutes. Twenty minutes later, still no teller.
The man at the information desk still could not help me get to Rio Dulce.
The flight was two hours late in arriving. Roberta said the drive to Rio Dulce took at least four hours. It was now 3 p.m. There was no way I would get to Rio Dulce before dark.
The bank reopened; I changed some money and went outside to get a taxi. One driver spoke up and said he would take me there for $120. Desperation does funny things. I said, “OK, let’s go.”
The drive to Rio Dulce is not for anyone that is prone to car sickness. There is no flat land in all of Guatemala. We drove up and down, twisting and turning our way along what is described as a major highway…it had two lanes. As big semi-trucks flew by in the opposite direction I learned that Guatemala is the winter fruit-basket for foods headed to the tables of North America. The hours started to slip by. The driver told me that the highway is notorious for hold-ups and kidnapping of gringos. How nice!
After five hours of driving, I was watching the time and beginning to worry, I finally saw a sign for Rio Dulce; only 22 more kilometers to go.
At long last I saw lights up ahead and a bridge. Civilization. I dug out Roberts’s e-mail for the name of the restaurant and marina where I was to meet her.
After crossing the river, the driver stopped at the bus depot, to ask where the marina and the restaurant were located. I could see heads moving back and forth indicating they had no idea where either of those places might be.
I had a cell phone number for the charter boat. The call went unanswered. My heart sank. We drove to the Hotel Rio Dulce to inquire about the locations; more head shaking.
I tried the phone again. This time it was answered. Relief.
Within five minutes, Roberta and the boat owner Pierre found me. I retrieved my dive bag, paid the driver, gave him a generous tip and bid him a safe journey back to Guatemala City.
We all hopped in the dinghy and headed for the marina. Mind you, the marina and restaurant were only a stones throw from the hotel, but they had no idea where either was located. Welcome to Guatemala.
Canned goods, fruit, rice, pasta, paper products, flour, boxes of cereal, etc. were all lying greeted me as I stepped into the main salon of the boat.
As I stood there looking over the situation Pierre asked, “What can I get you?”
“I have three immediate requests and in this order: use the head, a cold beer and some dinner.”
I was shown a door and introduced to the Glory Hole. The head was a toilet seat attached to a cut-out hole on the port side of the boat overhanging the water. Best marine head I ever saw. The route to the restaurant took the skill of an agile monkey. We had to climb off the boat, step into the dinghy, duck under the dock lines, climb up a rickety ladder and then crawl up on the dock.
Over beer and dinner, I learned that Pierre took ownership of the boat only three days earlier. When the sale was completed the former owner told Pierre he had a charter in three days.
Pierre decided not to let the charter folks down, so he spent the next three days cleaning, painting and taking stock of the boat. He was told that four adults and six children were coming from Michigan.
Pierre chucked the rat race of the garment industry in Holland to live his dream; a dive charter boat. After search looking for the right boat, he settled on ‘That’ to build his business. Pierre is not a sailor; fortunately, he hired the former boat captain, Alex, a Guatemalan, to run the boat.
‘That’ is a schooner rigged trimaran, 60-feet in length with a 40-foot beam. According to the logbooks she had circumnavigated the world twice before it went into charter.
Roberta and I hold U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton captain’s licenses and we both are PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainers. We figured between us we had enough experience to meet any challenge.
We spent the next morning getting everything ready. In mid-afternoon we learned that our guests had been delayed a day. Yipee.
Sunday afternoon our guests finally arrived; five adults and five children. All from the state of Washington and they were related. So much for the ‘accurate’ information we received from the previous owner. The guests were given erroneous information as well. It gave us a few laughs during the trip.
The adults took the bunks in the main cabin and the boys in the starboard sponson. The question of using the toilet at night came up; we suggested to the boys that they use their ingenuity.
The next and most important discussion other than safety was the use of the fresh water. Pierre told everyone that the water at the sink in the head and the tap on the right side of the galley sink was fresh unfiltered water good enough for brushing teeth and washing hands. The water tap on the left side of the sink in the galley was filtered water good for drinking. For dinner that night Pierre took everyone to dinner at the Dim Sum.
The morning dawned sunny. As soon as our guests were ready we started the journey down river toward the sea. Near the mouth of the Rio Dulce is the town of Livingston where boats and guests must clear immigrations. While there we picked up Birgit, an attorney from Austria, who was looking to do some sailing and diving. That evening the wind piped-up straight out of the north.
The Rio Dulce delta swings out to the north providing no protection from weather coming from that direction. Our destination was Sapadilla Cayes in southern Belize an eight hour journey. It was not long before everyone was either sea sick or just hoping to die.
By noon we were on a mooring and settling into Sapadilla Caye. Someone yelled out from below deck that the water in the fresh water tap in the head was now salty. A horrible realization came to Pierre that he had been wrong about the water. Another thing that Pierre did not know was how much fresh water was in the tanks. Everyone was hungry. My first meal, lunch, was serve yourself sandwiches.
Now I had to start thinking about dinner. My first culinary delight was a gourmet meal of pork chops, vegetables and rice which I waited to serve until everyone was good and hungry. I did not hear any complaints. I passed the first test!
In the morning we broke out the dive gear and took the divers on a check-out dive in the lagoon. The non-divers played on the beach and snorkeled. That evening we barbecued chicken on the beach.
Next day we motored over to Seal Caye to dive, snorkel and play on the beach. We returned to Sapadilla Cayes to spend the night. Grilled fish, caught be local fishermen, was on the menu, it was all eaten. My culinary skills must be improving!
We departed Sapadilla Cayes in the morning for Ranguana Caye; half way to Placentia, Belize, the eventual departure point for all of our guests.
We dove on the outer reef. Roberta and I pointed out eels, Peterson shrimp, flamingo tongues, arrow crabs, trunkfish, trumpetfish, lobsters, crabs and anything else we could find that would interest our divers.
Spaghetti seemed like a good choice for dinner. I made the sauce from tins of tomato sauce and mushrooms (no Ragu in my cookbook). Is my cooking getting better or is it because I am waiting until everyone is hungry?
That evening as dinner was concluding, Kevin the youngest guest on the boat, turned to his mom with a Coke raised high in his hand and said, “Mom, I’m livin’ the life here on the beach.” We all agreed, and drank a toast to a great life.
In the morning we upped anchor and headed for Placentia. Our guests had flight reservation to Ambergris Caye in northern Belize. Pierre and the Alex had to go into town to clear the boat and guests and we could not get off the boat until we were cleared. Getting the clearance is another story. Our guests almost missed their flight due to the lengthy process…four hours. After our guests departed, we walked to town and had dinner in a nice quiet little café. No cooking tonight.
Morning dawned with a blustering wind blowing out of the north. No leaving the port today. Dinner that evening was leftovers ala Chef Bonnie. Should I write a cookbook?
In the morning, as we were getting ready to leave Placentia the captain discovered a mechanical problem with the engine. No one works on Sunday. Dinner was on shore again. Yeah.
On our way back to Guatemala; while underway, I fixed up the last of the chicken. I prepared a chicken stew so we would have a nice hot dinner once the boat was secured in Livingston. Captain Alex liked it so much he asked for my recipe. Can you believe that?
As we were settling down for dinner, Birgit brought to our attention that the water pump in the head miraculously started to pump fresh water again. Now that we were back in the river it was not hard to imagine how that happened.
At the marina that afternoon, Pierre announced he was treating us to dinner. Was he tired of my culinary treats?
I needed to make plans for returning home. I was told that Monica, at Bruno’s Bistro was the person in town you could trust to make travel arrangements. Car, bus, taxi, boat, it does not matter she knows what is moving through and up and down the Rio Dulce. Monica gave me a choice between the $14 old bus with no air conditioning, the $21 moderately old bus with no video or the $28 new, modern double-deck luxury bus with all the amenities. Guess which bus I opted for??? Monica also made a reservation for me at the Palacio de Chicos in Antigua and arranged for a taxi in the morning to take me to the airport.
It was early evening when I arrived in Antigua. I could not see much as we bumped down the dimly lighted cobblestone streets, but I did notice a Thai restaurant. Having lived in Thailand for two years I will go out of my way for Thai food.
I checked in to the hotel and was shown to my room. I asked about the availability of hot water. The clerk pointed the showerhead. The water was barely warm. Aside from not having hot water, two small window panes atop the windows in the bathroom were missing and chilly winter air was blowing into the room. No shower tonight.
I walked to the nearby Thai restaurant. I asked the hostess if the cook was Thai. “Oh no,” she said, “The food is our interpretation of Thai cooking.” Another dining adventure.
I ordered the Tom Yam soup. It did not taste like Tom Yam, but it was hot and tasted good enough.
Back at the hotel, I set my alarm for a 4 a.m. pick-up and mentally reviewed the past week. The trip turned out to be a good adventure, met nice people and had a lot of laughs; just what I like.
While on the runway waiting for take off, in the distance I could see a volcano pouring clouds of gray ash and smoke in the air; a good sign for me to depart Guatemala and know that I will not have to cook dinner.
Written by Bonnie McKenna.