Samaná – a year at rest

I’ll be honest, this post is pretty long. But we were in Samaná for a pretty long time, so I think it deserves it. I can’t really do our time there, or our feelings about leaving, justice, by shortening the post. I’ve tried some sub-headings for those of you who want to skim-read, and plenty of pictures in case you just want to see what we loved so much!

March 15th 2020 to April 15th 2021

It was with mixed feelings that we left Samanà. The first place since the UK where each of us has celebrated a birthday. Where we spent our first Christmas without seeing family. That welcomed, supported and embraced us, not only as tourists and visitors, but also during COVID and last year’s hurricane season. We couldn’t have planned to be anywhere more accommodating through such difficult times. As well as the generosity and kindness, Samanà struck a good balance between COVID restrictions and freedoms, meaning we were able to carry on in a way not too dissimilar to our normal cruising life throughout the pandemic.

We were in Samaná nearly 14 months, the longest time in one place since we left the UK. Planning to leave almost didn’t seem real. We had a couple of false starts, having to revise our ongoing plans due to COVID restrictions and essential boat maintenance. Because our initial departure date was late February, then mid-March, I think we all got kind of used to saying ‘when we leave’ without it necessarily meaning anything concrete!

It was a wrench to leave. Not just because of the people and beauty of the area, but also because we had time for those day-to-day necessities of life to become routines and have a range of regular outings and activities. Recently, as the boys were talking about us getting a sailing dinghy, Arthur said the three of them could sail in it alongside the bridge in Samaná Bay- they clearly felt at home. And it’s no surprise really- 14 months is a huge proportion of their lives, especially as we are normally so nomadic!

Arthur, usually eager to see what’s next, was alternating between excited and distraught, crying and telling us “I don’t want to go”. Because everything would change (which he can find difficult anyway), because he has got to know what we call Creature Beach and “all its habitats”, and because he was worried he wouldn’t be able to free dive anywhere else as easily. He became so at ease in Samanà, companionably fishing alongside local fisherman, casting his handline in snyc with them and sharing their joy at a catch, or striding around the shallows searching for specific species in the exact location he knows they will be, or comfortable going it alone to find just the right location to dive for a starfish. In a year he has carved out a little niche of his own in Samaná that he knows he won’t be able to replicate until we are next somewhere for a prolonged period of time.

For me, it was anxiety about the mundane. After more than a year, the day-to-day had become second nature: the routine of shopping; knowing where to land the dinghy and how best to secure it; sourcing materials, part or supplies; knowing that the maritime authorities were familiar with us. Visiting a new place feels a bit like starting a new job: the unfamiliarity is daunting despite there being no obvious obstacles or reasons for things to go wrong.

Until we made plans for leaving, I had forgotten how at home familiar faces can make you feel, despite the language barriers, despite not knowing someone’s name, despite it being only a passing, fleeting relationship: the people running the fruit and veg stalls who offered the kids free bananas, and in one case, a free pineapple with a spiky top when an exhausted Arthur cried because I asked for our pineapple leaves to be removed; the guy at the door of La Bodega who played tricks on the kids and fist bumped them whenever we shopped; and the local kids who swam out to the boat, played wild games with the kids and held halted Spanish conversations with us. And just seeing familiar faces and saying ‘Hola’ to people we know around town. Our normal, transient lifestyle doesn’t always give us chance to build or appreciate the little things like this.

On the whole, though, we were ready for a change. Theo especially had become less keen on exploring Creature Beach than he used to be- the novelty had worn off for him. Both Arthur and Theo are eager to practice diving, snorkelling and free-diving in some clearer and shallower waters, and Hector and Dave, well they pretty much go along with whatever! For me, it’s access to some longer walks for exploring. In Samaná, we were taking a weekly walk across the bridge into town, avoiding the busiest areas, buying empanadas and playing around the open front, and there were options of taking transport further afield, but some more rural/open space, accessible by walking from the shore, is ideal. Unfortunately, as our year’s permit (which wasn’t cheap) expired mid-April, finding more these things in the Dominican Republic wasn’t an option- otherwise, who knows how long we might have stayed?!

Our favourite or most missed things are…

Empanada- cheap, tasty, easy to eat on the move or out-and-about. Great bought with fresh passion fruit or pineapple juice.

The huge variety of locally grown fruit and vegetables. Cheap and delicious, it was easy to keep stocked up on pretty much anything we would need or want, and even imported apples and strawberries were available. We’ve tried a few new foods here, like batata, a kind of sweet potato, and making tostones from chunks of plantain which are pressed flat between a first and second fry.

The young people being, well, young! The teenagers play for hours on the beach without a mobile phone in sight: the boys are mischievous but polite, and playful in a way more common in younger kids elsewhere; the girls seem less worried about appearances, wearing little or no make-up, and dive, jump and splash in the sea with no fear that it will ruin their hair or eyebrows.

The kindness. Buying Velcro with Arthur and Hector from a small haberdashery ended in us being invited to the house of a Pastorita who worked there, being served delicious food and given a huge bag of craft supplies and shown around La Chucha and its school (then closed). Luis, the harbour master, drove around town to buy Arthur an empanada to cheer him up after an eye-test (Arthur really dislikes medical examination). Similarly, we were offered homes with people if a tropical storm/hurricane hit, and we needed to be ashore.

Luis and Domingo- always on hand with advice, support, to help out with sourcing boat parts and translation, looking out for the kids, keeping us safe during COVID, and working tirelessly during the two tropical storms that hit the island, checking on us and dealing with boats dragging anchor in driving, relentless rain, heavy winds and swell. I’ve heard nothing but positive about these guys, you couldn’t be in better hands in Samana Bay.

Creature Beach- an amazing area that is completely exposed at low tide and where we have found an abundance of varied, unusual and interesting species, including one of my favourites (which I don’t have a picture of), a tiny baby octopus less than an inch long that could even squirt ink! The shallow areas around the bridge are also wonderful for diving and snorkelling, being both extensive and varied, and only a short dinghy/paddleboard ride from the anchorage. And of course, a great place to see or learn about fishing techniques!

It’s a loud and vibrant town- pick-up trucks with loudspeakers blaring the prices of pineapples and peppers; motorcycles zipping everywhere, riders carrying gas cannisters, dragging metres of rebar, or loaded with bags of shopping, or with passengers towing wheelbarrows of tools; music everywhere, but nothing in English; horses grazing the communal grassland; men strolling the streets with machetes on their way to or from cutting leaves or fruit. There is also a close feeling local community, lots of shouts of greeting, games of dominoes in bars, chatting in the streets, fisherman sharing news as they pass each other in the bay.

It also has a genuine, non-tourist feel. We have visited many wonderful towns- picturesque, quaint, idyllic- but some felt so geared towards visitors that the local life and culture was veiled. In Samaná, it’s rough around the edges, with a lot of concrete, a disappointing problem with litter and waste disposal, and obvious poverty. It’s also real. You can see people working to improve the community, see that people are smiling, happy and friendly even without a great deal of “disposable income”. And I don’t think I saw a chain store or international brand (no well-known fast-food restaurants of cafes), an advert in town for make-up, or an airbrushed poster of a ‘star’.

How did we spend our last few weeks in Samaná?

Getting PCR tests wasn’t as straightforward as we would have hoped- the specific type we need can only be carried out at a clinic 1.5hrs drive away. With Theo getting car sick and Hector hating car travel, Dave and I opted to make separate trips (Dave with some fellow cruisers, and me the next day before making yet another grocery run) to avoid taking three fidgety children into a hospital. In the end, a power cut meant I waited an extra 3 hours to take the 2-minute test, and had a bit of tiring day, but we got the COVID all clear and were able to complete the relevant paperwork for entry to Turks and Caicos in advance to speed clearance upon arrival.

We took a whale tour- yes, we could go on our own boat, but there’s a permit to buy for this, and at our speed, we can only cover a limited area of sea. The tour company we used travels with a biologist onboard, and collects scientific data every trip, so we learned about the specific whales we saw, and their behaviour. It was a bit rough out in the marine sanctuary that makes up the entrance to Samanà Bay, but Arthur was still happy standing or dancing on the bow with Dave most of the trip!, and we saw plenty of whale action.

We ran through some boat maintenance, mostly many minor things after a year of being near-stationary. Dave made some alterations to the rigging that will hopefully help with sailing performance, and the hull had a thorough clean for the same reason. Dave managed to diagnose an ongoing engine problem- somehow the blades of an impeller, that must have been changed before we bought the boat, were blocking the radiator. We prefer to sail but having two working engines is just good practice.

We did some mammoth ongoing provisioning as many of our future destinations will be expensive, and we don’t want to be limited to anchoring near facilities. As well as provisions, we received the last of our parcels, including our final ones from family for a while. We were forced to cancel the delivery of a new anchor chain from the BVIs as ports there remain closed, and the replacement for our faulty dinghy outboard battery will have to wait until we are somewhere it can be delivered as we travel.

Our survey of the wildlife in the bay, especially the tidal areas we call ‘Creature Beach’, has been an ongoing project, though the write up won’t be done for some time- we are on about 45 species and have a significant number still to go! I think I will add a page onto the blog “soon” to show you where we are currently up to, then update if and when we finish it.

I finished taking some photographs of the town- things I want to remember, to be able to show the kids in the future, or things that I think sum up our time and the life here.

Dave and I spent some time examining the charts and island maps to narrow down our options for Turks and Caicos, looking for good walking, interesting historic or geological sites, and lots of coral reefs that are accessible for the kids.

We went to Cayo Levantado for a final time and made two visits over to the Los Haitises National Park. I am trying to put together a post about both, but I will mention here that the park inparticualr was spectacular, with beautiful scenery, stunning caves and rock formations, plenty of opportunities to walk through the lush and undisturbed rainforest, and we were able to pick cocoa pods which we used to make our own chocolate! I think the park has been one of our favourite places here.

After a year without many other sailors around, some other kid boats arrived in the anchorage! We spent some time with a couple of other families, with lots of running around, a chance to meet with Edwin (a local kid who has swum out to our boat to play a few times), a couple of walks into town, climbing trees, eating together, and kids playing chess whilst waiting out a tropical rainstorm.

The kids spent their last night dinghy trolling with Dave- and had a pretty exciting time! One large Jack caught, one spoon lure lost to something large that broke the line, and one large, eel-like fish that leaped into the dinghy! Attacking Arthur and Dave in the process with it’s very sharp teeth.

So, where to?

Well, first Turks and Caicos. Though anyone who knows sailing or follows what we do will be aware that plans are often more like ideas than commitments!

We had until mid-April before our year’s permit here expired, the last month of which we had planned to spend on the Dominican Republic’s south coast before traveling the south of Cuba, heading to Mexico, and ultimately to Guatemala’s Rio Dulce for hurricane season and some long-overdue boat work. We were immensely looking forward both to the Dominican Republic’s and Cuba’s south coasts; however, with compulsory COVID testing for kids and potential quarantine on arrival, combined with reported widespread food shortages, Cuba wasn’t an appealing option at this time, especially if much of our limited time would be spent searching for fresh fruit and veg (we can stock up on dry stores) and waiting around in marinas.

But one failed plan led to other exciting opportunities. Rather than taking the more southern route from here to Guatemala, we have sailed to the islands of Turks and Caicos before heading on to the Bahamas and Mexico. This route means COVID testing for adults only, and an abundance of beautiful coral reefs and clear, shallow water anchorages- Arthur is on side given the opportunities he will have to free-dive. It looks from the charts like a lot of potential moves between the overwhelming choice of islands and anchorages, a complete contrast to our last year. But that’s exactly what they are- potential moves. If we enjoy somewhere especially, we can linger there and have a longer sail at another time to make gradual progress west towards Mexico.

Final Thoughts…

Travelling to English speaking countries has to some extent lessened my anxiety about moving on (my Spanish speaking and listening has been improving slowly, so I started online lessons), but it will still take time to adjust to this more active cruising lifestyle, where our schedule makes it less likely that we will become familiar with any of our upcoming destinations. And we will really miss Samaná. We already have plans to return, perhaps travelling Cuba’s south coast, Jamaica and the south cost of the DR before heading back- it will be great to reconnect with friends there, and to see how the town has changed, especially as the government, elected last year, appear to be investing heavily in areas throughout the country, and I have read and heard from the locals various plans to improve Santa Barbara de Samanà as a tourist destination.

When I started this post a few weeks ago, I was feeling much more anxious about moving on. Perhaps in some ways the COVID situation feels like it’s gradually improving so I’m more relaxed, perhaps I needed some time to adjust to the thought of moving on, perhaps our change of plans feels more ‘right’, despite the disappointment of missing some places, or perhaps writing this post has in itself helped. Whatever it was, although it was a sad day when we left Samana for Turks and Caicos, I am feeling really positive about our next adventures over the coming months.

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