Friday, February 7, 2014

Yeah, But What's It REALLY Like? Part 4

What is it like to be retired? I don’t know what it is for NORMAL people; that is, what it would be like at home in Washington, DC. Haven’t tried it yet. I can only relate to what it’s like aboard a small-ish sailboat in a laid-back, partially developed country.

I have not shoveled a single ounce of snow and don’t anticipate starting any time soon. I have not run for the Metro nor fretted on the platform waiting for a train since July. Not a single worry has entered my brain about how many signs are needed for a government-sponsored exhibit or how to explain a scientific result.

Instead, I get up in the morning, complain briefly about the damp sheets and pillows, then throw on the same dirty tank top I wore yesterday, since water is scarce so we rarely do laundry. I glance at the sun wondering whether it will be sweat-soaked hot or just plain warm, and curse the relentless wind, wishing it would give us a break and stop blowing sand in our eyes. I look around to find out which boats are leaving and whether any new ones are crowding us too closely in our anchorage.

If it’s calm I swim around the boat a few times to warm up my lazy muscles, being mindful of the current trying to suck me out to sea and the possibility of circling sharks or pigs that swim out to nudge you for a handout.


 Then I sink back into a vegetative state with a crime novel or Bill Bryson. After all that strenuous activity I’m too darn tired to do anything constructive like washing towels in a bucket or writing any serious travel articles other than this blog.

Ah, what a dismal life. So hard to endure. As my friend Linda reminds me, though, endure I must, because I need to inspire those poor working folks back home to persevere so that they, too, may someday suffer as much as me.

Each day I say a little prayer to the gods that we won’t have any more breakdowns. The gods have not been kind. I won’t repeat the very true tales about engine failures and ripped sails. This week, in continuation of our recent lucky streak of only experiencing minor issues, the centerboard cable broke, and the regulator on the propane grill jammed. Each incident makes me less confident, more homesick.

But I manage to stay on the boat instead of flying straight home, for the sake of my friends who need me to inspire them to work hard toward the seemingly elusive and somewhat questionable rewards of retirement.

As you can see on the map, we are essentially in the middle of nowhere--far from the comforts of home and civilization--at the red X. (Florida is upper left, Cuba lower left.) A tough spot to be in.

Most of this region consists of scenic, uninhabited islands. This week, because of our need for fresh water, we were forced to anchor off the shore of Staniel Cay, a small settlement with a marina. Despite the hardship of being stuck near semi-civilization, we  managed to survive on conch sandwiches and goombay smashes (rum cocktails) at the island’s tiny café, along with locals in worn t-shirts and yachters in baseball caps inscribed with their boat names. Yesterday, we squeaked by with fried snapper and plantains on the patio of Taste and Sea. We had to share the meal to save cash and use the free wifi to pay our enormous credit card bills.

We filled 5-gallon canisters with diesel ($6.00/gal.) and fresh water (40 cents/ gal.) and hauled them to the boat in our dinghy. This involves lifting a 40-pound jug from an inflatable dinghy, at sea level, to the deck of the big boat, about 4 feet higher, in wind, waves, and current. Trust me, it rocks. Then we poured the liquids into the respective tanks through a small hole in the deck. Afterward, we had to jump in the water to wash off the diesel that splashed on our arms and legs.

Oh, the obstacles we have had to overcome. I hope you all appreciate the tribulations we’re going through for your sake.

To get any kind of decent nourishment I have to walk several blocks to the three tiny markets on Staniel Cay—making several trips until I find one that isn’t padlocked—searching for a fresh vegetable or two and maybe a can of soup or juice. Imagine a tiny 7-11 in a small pink or blue shack with shelves that are pretty barren except for a few hours after the boat from Nassau arrives, when all the yachters converge in a Black-Friday-type rout in which the meanest, strongest captains take home the fresh carrots and avocadoes and the rest of us make do with wilted iceberg lettuce and a $1.00 potato.  

I haven’t figured out what the local people eat, since stocks are low, prices are three times what they are back home, and well-paying jobs are scarce. I did see some squash plants in a field, being trampled by chickens.

We supplement our meager groceries with staples brought from the U.S.—rice, spaghetti, beans, canned soups—stored in plastic bins stacked in a corner of the boat. Finding things consumes a portion of every day. The bins are looking pretty empty these days, though, this being our fourth month on board.

When we get together with other sailors, such as Lee (an old friend with whom Pope has journeyed across oceans) and Stephanie, we have to scrounge for a few soggy crackers and a little salami to contribute to the party. Fortunately for us, Lee and Stephanie are on a big catamaran with real refrigeration, and they graciously offered to share. A fresh salad and watermelons were luxuries i didn’t expect to enjoy until we returned to Florida.

Keeping the boat clean is another challenge. Everything is damp and salty, wet and moldy. The plumbing backs up, and the bilge stinks unless it’s scrubbed with bleach—a slimy, disagreeable chore. As for personal hygiene, sometimes I rinse off the salt and sweat with a sun shower—five gallons of water in a hanging plastic bag. Most days, though, I climb into our bunk slathered in sunblock, perspiration, and Deep Woods Off, falling into a slumber frequently interrupted by the banging of ropes against the mast, and restless dreams of long, hot showers and clean, dry underwear.

Ah, this lifestyle is so hard. Who was the wise guy who told me my post-career life would be so blissful that I would wonder why I didn’t quit sooner? Why would I give up an ergomatic chair in an air-conditioned office for a soggy mattress with a toilet two feet from my head?

We left cars, closets, bathtubs, and washing machines behind in Washington, DC, along with jobs, snow, and Metro. At times I can’t wait to go home because life seems so much easier there, and I could hang out with friends in person instead of pining for an email every two or three months.

On the other hand, the air is warm, the water is blue, and the swimming is always free here, and I certainly don’t want to let down my friends who are counting on me to provide an armchair experience that will help them better appreciate the realities of what they’re working toward. In spite of the grueling day-to-day obstacles, at least the white sand beaches might provide a little inspiration. I hope.

 Guess this is what retirement is all about.

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