Bangkok!

P1030509THIS is the first opportunity I’ve had in a week to update you on the ongoing adventures of the Picaroons, or, rather, half the Picaroons, e.g., me.  Which shouldn’t surprise anyone reading the blog lately, as Pip has been so busy finishing a novel that he doesn’t bother to blog anymore, because I guess a lowly blog isn’t good enough for a novelist.

While poor Philip is stuck in Salinas working on the boat and polishing his oeuvre, I have finally made it to Thailand and begun to settle in.  Oh, and my “friend” made it fine into MYland as well.

The new 'do.Yesterday was a quick trip to the local mall with fellow visitors Peter and Lilly, friends of Mahesh who are also staying at his place. I was completely overwhelmed by the mall itself, six stories of thoroughly Western stores (Au Bon Pain, Starbucks, Levi’s, Marks and Spencer) and a grocery store in the basement with an amazing variety of international foods, a greater selection than I’ve seen in the past year and a half.  After all this time on the boat, I was overwhelmed not only by the very size and fancy-ness of the mall (seven stories!) but also by my inability to make decisions about buying stuff after two years of not buying anything beyond the basic necessities.  It took me an hour to pick out three t-shirts — and they were only $3 each, so it’s not like it really mattered if they were perfect.  I also got a fantastic haircut ($10)– my first in two years (I cut my own on the boat) — and followed up this extraordinary bit of pampering with an at-home, two hour Thai massage (for a mere $15 – wow!).  I know, my life sucks so much, right?

balcony viewI’m staying for the moment with a family friend, Mahesh, in the suburbs, and today finally made it into Bangkok proper.  I first visited the UNICEF offices and met my new colleagues (who seem fantastic — W00t!).  The office is located smack-dab in the middle of the backpacker area, one block from the infamous street packed with grungies sporting tats, dreads and backpacks.  It’s in the old town, pretty far from the downtown areas where people live, but charming and right on the river.

 

 

The view from the office balcony - note the floating hyacinth in the river.

The view from the office balcony – note the floating hyacinth in the river.

truck in backpacker central

I decided to walk a very long way to the skytrain station in order to get a bit of exercise and my bearings in a new city, and while I had a good walk with fascinating sights, the notorious Bangkok smog nearly did me in by the time I reached the train.  Seriously, even when the high clouds parted for a bit and the sun was visible, the haze over the city was so thick the sky was still white, and the sun didn’t feel nearly as hot as it should.  However, the walk held a few surprises; upon getting lost once, I accidentally find some amazing alleys tucked behind a medieval wall, a slice of daily life that seemed centuries old.

Food stalls are everywhere, fruit and snacks and full meals available for about a dollar.

Food stalls are everywhere, fruit and snacks and full meals available for about a dollar.

The Victory Monument.  I didn't have my guide with me, so I can't tell you which victory it represents, but check out that crazy smog sky!

The Victory Monument. I didn’t have my guide with me, so I can’t tell you which victory it represents, but check out that crazy smog sky!

 

Wat Ratchanadda, which Mahesh tells me used to be one of the most austere Buddhist monasteries, until the King joined (for that very reason) and people started giving it loads of money.

Wat Ratchanadda, which Mahesh tells me used to be one of the most austere Buddhist monasteries, until the King joined (for that very reason) and people started giving it loads of money.

One of the little alleyways I stumbled into; note the temple peak in the background.

One of the little alleyways I stumbled into; note the temple peak in the background.

People were just going about everyday life.

People were just going about everyday life.

I love the contrast between people walking along the tracks and the super-modern skyscrapers in the background.

I love the contrast between people walking along the tracks and the super-modern skyscrapers in the background.

Fish vendor on the street.

Fish vendor on the street.

Orchids and semi-precious stones.

Orchids and semi-precious stones.

The Phra Sumen Fort, on the river near the office.

The Phra Sumen Fort, on the river near the office.

A temple on the river; note the beret-wearing busker playing accordian.

A temple on the river; note the beret-wearing busker playing accordian.

After taking my first skytrain ride (very clean and efficient system, new and almost futuristic-seeming — but, sadly, not a monorail as I’d hoped) and checking out one of the neighborhoods that was recommended to me for apartment searching, I headed down into the center city to find a bank at which I could withdraw money.  (In the ongoing saga of my debit card, the bank changed my PIN when issuing me a new card and neglected to tell me, so I can only withdraw cash inside banks until I get a new PIN.  Sigh…)

Inside the Siam Center: why are they nekkid and reading Vogue? Who knows?And if I thought the mall yesterday was overwhelming, I was gobsmacked by the Siam Center, which is simply the poshest shopping center I’ve ever seen.  Mahesh informs me that you can quite literally buy a Lamborghni there, and that there’s a salt water aquarium where you can swim with sharks in the basement.  I didn’t see any of that, but the crazy art, hundreds of upscale boutiques and simple wealth on display was astounding.  Seriously. I have never seen anything like this place, not in the poshest places in the States.  And right outside on the street was a tiny child, his bare feet black with street dirt, begging.

Yet another crazy display in the Siam shopping center.

Yet another crazy display in the Siam shopping center.

Sesame snacks after dinner.That was about it for my explorations, except that it’s worth noting that the common wisdom that you won’t eat a bad meal in Thailand is proving true.  Of course, except for the Pho-like beef noodle soup I had at lunch today, it’s all been amazing meals prepared by Mahesh’s housekeeper Gaythorn, who is a stellar cook. I’m still sighing contentedly from the yellow curry, salad and sticky mango rice she made for dinner tonight, followed by strikingly beautiful salty-sweet sesame snacks that Peter and Lilly had picked up during the day.

Old San Juan, Again

Our friend Kacy arrived yesterday from snowy D.C., and we spent the afternoon wandering around sunny Old San Juan.

The bridge to the airport is flanked with huge, gorgeous U.S. and Puerto Rican flags; I think DC should do this on all their bridges!

Yesterday was Epiphany, which they call Three Kings Day here in PR, a big public holiday. The park outside the Fort was packed with picnickers and dozens of people flying kites in the brisk trade winds.

There’s a fantastic cemetery outside the northern city wall just by the fort; I guess that’s some sort of mausoleum in the center.

In the fort lobby was a gingerbread replica of the fort. It smelled FANTASTIC. I was hard-pressed not to taste.

The triangular staircase in the fort — rather Escheresque.

For dinner, we decided to grab some street food, and stopped at a truck selling something called Tripletas, which ended up being huge sandwiches of pork, ham and chicken (thus, the tripleta…) smothered in squeezy cheese, mayo, bbq sauce and mustard. Seriously, each one weighed about two pounds. They were amazing. We each ate half a sandwich, and then felt kinda dirty.

A Drive in the Mountains

SATURDAY, we grabbed Sydney’s car keys again and headed up into the central mountains, the gorgeous hills that have been taunting me from the boat for weeks.  Every morning and evening, the sun sets them aglow, dramatic shadows in the valleys deepening as the ridges reflect the amber light of sunrise/sunset.  I’ve been itching to get up there and explore, and Saturday’s adventure was no disappointment.

As we turned left from the coast and began climbing the hills, the view transitioned from long, straight stretches bordered by agricultural fields lined with stately, old trees to switchbacks and striking views from on a narrow lane clinging precariously to the side of densely-forested mountains.  I was big on the “Oh S*#t” handle and imaginary brake most of the day, but Philip’s an excellent driver (which is why he was driving), and we didn’t die.

Our first rather surprising sight was Lago Patillas, a small lake nestled in the tropical forest that looks for all the world like it should be in the Lake District (where Philip is from).  Ok, so it’s not exactly the same, but still — ODD.  Beautiful, but odd.

 

After more winding and twisting and stunning views, we found our way to Carite forest, where we planned to hike.  Apparently, Puerto Ricans aren’t big hikers, so there aren’t many hiking paths in the forests.  We managed to find one of the few, and it was paved, and about a mile round-trip.  But it was a nice stroll through the forest under a gentle rain to a small waterfall and pool.  Not too dramatic after the waterfalls of Dominica and Grenada, but pretty nonetheless.

Having worked up our appetite with a couple hours in the car and a brief stroll, we stopped just outside the Carite forest in Guavate, home of the famous Puerto Rican lechoneras roadside cafeterias — pork-a-rias!  Lining the road through town are dozens of cafeterias featuring whole suckling pigs slow-roasted for 6-8 hours on spits over fires.

We looked for the place with the longest line and allowed the people in front of us to tell us what and how to order, and ended up with a huge pile of the most amazing melt-in-your-mouth roast pork with cracklin’, rice and peas, plantains and a local delicacy called a pastele (a Christmas thing, I think) which is mashed plantain and ground pork steamed in a paper wrapper, and actually sounds a LOT better than it tastes.  Not sure if it’s always this way, but the one we tried was greasy and oddly sour.    The rest of the meal, however, was divine. I should say, meals, because for $20 we had enough for two very large lunches and two very large dinners!

We heaved our stuffed bodies back in the car and made our way further into the mountains, headed for Aibonito and the Mirador Piedra Degetau, a scenic overlook that is supposed to have the best panorama of the island, with views of the ocean both north and south. Of course, it was totally overcast when we got there, so we enjoyed some nice views of clouds.  A

There were a few stunning views as we made our way down out of the mountains, but this was the point at which the theme of the trip became, “Puerto Rico needs more scenic overlooks!”  On a twisty, turny forest road with no shoulders, on which people nevertheless drive like bats out of hell, you don’t want to just stop your car for a gawk.  Pull-outs are needed.  And — frustratingly — there were none.

We made it back to the boat before sunset, and although I’d planned to save the pork leftovers for the next day’s lunch in an attempt to somewhat approximate a balanced diet, they didn’t make it to Sunday.   Because we are big piggies.

Rotis With Ruthie

A few months ago, I taunted y’all with promises of a roti recipe.  We’ll, my article has been published in Caribbean Compass, which you can read in PDF format, but I figured I’d re-post it here because I know I’m totally lazy about downloading PDFs, so you might be, too.

Rotis with Ruthie (Caribbean Compass, October 2012)

I’m ashamed to admit that after six months sailing the Caribbean, I didn’t even know what a roti was when I lucked into a roti-making lesson in Bequia, in the Grenadines.  My husband Pip and I had seen signs for them everywhere in the 10 islands we’d visited on our sailboat, a 40-foot Hardin Sea Wolf ketch, but hadn’t yet sampled a roti, despite our enthusiastic explorations of other island foods.  So when a couple of fellow cruisers visiting our boat for sundowners started raving about the “made-from-scratch” rotis they had eaten at a local restaurant, I decided it was time to lose my roti virginity – particularly because I had just spent the afternoon laughing with the owner and suspected she’d be willing to let me watch her make them.

When we first dropped into the Whaleboner for beers and internet, the owner, Ruthie Hinkson-Williams was out.  Her adorable, scrawny 8-year old son Camillo, however, was more than capable of filling in, asking us with precise politeness, “What may I bring you? That will be 12 dollars Eastern Caribbean, please.”  I was charmed silly by his diction and good manners, and had to stifle a giggle as he opened our bottles by enthusiastically grasping them with both hands and fitting them into a traditional, wall-mounted bottle opener, levering them open with a great heave, as if they weighed a ton.  Ruthie soon returned, and my amused retelling of her son’s bartending aptitude led to an afternoon of telling stories and laughing over working in our parents’ businesses as children.

Ruthie’s father started the Whaleboner 50 years ago.  Whaling is a traditional, if controversial, activity on Bequia, started when a whaling ship from Nantucket was stranded on the island during a hurricane.  In the year it took to repair the boat, many of the fishermen had started families and – not surprisingly – elected to stay in the island paradise rather than return to the frigid waters of New England.  While the International Whaling Commission today permits islanders to take up to four whales a year using traditional methods – in an open sailing boat using a harpoon – there are few left with the skills to hunt them, and many years, no whales are taken.   But a large pile of whale bones still exists on a small island known as Whale Key.  Fifty years ago, Ruthie’s father was drinking with his friends one day down among the bones and exclaimed, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to open a bar with these?” and the idea for the Whaleboner was born.  Today you enter the restaurant through an arch of whale ribs and sit on bar stools made from vertebrae as you look out over the crystal-clear, aqua waters of Admiralty Bay – and if you ask Ruthie nicely, maybe she’ll tell you the other story of the bar’s name.

The day we visited was a rare rainy day in Bequia, which had just entered the off season.  The restaurant was quiet, giving Ruthie plenty of time to show me her roti technique.  She first laid out all the ingredients, explaining that rotis came to the West Indies with Indian indentured servants after the end of slavery, though there were no Indians on Bequia, “it was all Africans and Scots here.”  The roti – a tortilla-like flatbread filled with potatoes and meat or vegetables — is the “packed, fitted lunch with everything in there … a bulky, hearty meal for the husbands going out in the fields,” and each island makes them differently.
As she spoke, she mixed a basic flour dough, kneaded it and split it into two balls. Using her thumbs, she shaped each ball of dough into a small bowl shape, then placed a few tablespoons of mashed yellow split peas in the center.  She explained that the split peas “add flavour and protein” as she pinched the sides of the dough back together into a ball.   She set the two filled balls of dough aside to rest, covered with a cloth, explaining that she makes the entire roti from scratch each time, “because the dough is just not the same if refrigerated.”  It’s a lengthy process, she explained, “But what I tell people when they start fussin’ is you’re gonna get the best roti you’ve ever had.”

Ruthie turned to the fillings as the dough rested: she’d decided to make both a fish and a veggie roti, but started the spice mix for both in the same pan.  Over medium heat in a bit of oil, she sauted garlic, onions, peppers, cayenne, peppercorns, Trinidadian curry powder and chadon beni, a Caribbean herb much like cilantro.  “You’ve got to let it heat up to get the flavors out of the spices,” she explained. “For the veggie and beef rotis, I like to add a nice strong cinnamon bay leaf, even though it’s not traditional.”

Into another pot went another handful of Trini curry powder and diced potatoes, set to boil while she cubed the firm kingfish into half-inch squares.   Halving the now fragrant spice mix and starting a second pan for the vegetable filling, Ruthie explained that a vegetable roti can use any combination of vegetables, and is particularly good for leftovers.  She used carrots and pre-cooked Caribbean pumpkin, throwing in handfuls of pigeon peas cooked in coconut milk and yellow split peas leftover from the dough.   The cubed fish was added to the spices in the original pan, along with about a half a cup of water, and left to simmer.

Once the fillings were on the stove, Ruthie turned back to the dough, rolling it out onto a 12-inch round.  She explained that the rotis are traditionally made on a roti stone, like a flat iron plate, but a flat griddle would work just as well in the modern kitchen.   Tapping off the flour from the dough round, she gently placed it in a generous amount of oil then used a wax-paper ball to thoroughly cover the top of the round with oil.  “Really cover the top with oil,” she instructed,” and let it sit a few minutes to cook.  It might puff up, but you don’t want to let it get brown freckles – it will be too hard to fold.”

Finally, Ruthie slid the cooked flatbread onto a plate, the layered a potatoes, then fish, then potatoes, and folded the bread around the filling, gently flipping the whole thing over to keep the edges together.  After repeating the same process with the vegetables, we carried the two steaming rotis out to the dining area, where my husband awaited eagerly.  As Ruthie looked on, eagerly awaiting our verdict, we tucked into the rotis with delight, mumbling our praise around mouthfuls of deliciousness.

Satisfied that we were happy, Ruthie sat down with us and we wiled away the rest of the afternoon swapping stories and laughing together.  Ruthie’s rotis were fabulous, but even more memorable was the afternoon I spent making a new friend and learning about her life, a cooking lesson that became a lesson in living fully.

Vegetable Roti

Makes 2

For the dough:

three-quarters cup cooked yellow split peas, mashed with fork or food mill
2 cups flour
on half teaspoon salt
one quarter cup vegetable oil
one half cup water

Filling

Oil for sautéing
half an onion, very finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced or grated
10 whole peppercorns
3 tablespoons diced cive: a cross between chives and green onions; either can be substituted
2 leaves chadon beni, sliced substitute cilantro if unavailable
one quarter teaspoon cayenne
one quarter teaspoon black pepper
6 tablespoons West Indian curry powder West Indian curry powder is different from Indian, but you can substitute any sweet Indian curry powder if you cannot find West Indian
2 medium potatoes, in  half-inch dice
1 cup vegetables, such as diced carrot, pumpkin, squash, or greens
one half cup cooked beans or peas, such as pigeon or black-eyed peas

Mix the flour and salt in a bowl and add the oil and enough water to form a moderately stiff dough.  Knead together just long enough for the dough to become firm and hold together.  Divide into two and flatten into a 5-inch round.  Make a well in the center of each and fill with 2- 3 tablespoons of the mashed peas, reserving the rest for the filling.  Bring together the edges of the dough to form a ball and let rest covered with a cloth or plastic wrap while preparing the filling.

In oil over medium-low heat, sauté the onion, garlic, peppercorns, cive, cadon beni, cayenne and black peppers and 3 tablespoons of the curry powder in a few tablespoons of oil.

In a medium pot in salted water, bring the remaining curry powder and potatoes to a boil then lower to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender, about 8 minutes.
If the vegetables are not pre-cooked, add them to the spice mix with about a half cup of water and simmer until tender, adding water as needed. When tender, add the cooked beans/peas and leftover lentils

As the potatoes and vegetables are cooking, roll out the dough into two 12-inch rounds.  Heat several tablespoons of oil in a griddle or shallow frying pan over medium heat.  Shake off the flour and place the dough round in the oil.  Use a ball of wax paper or paper towel to generously coat the top side of the flatbread with oil.  Cook for 1-2 minutes on each side; do not let brown marks appear.

Drain the potatoes.

Place each flatbread round on a plate.  Place a quarter of the potatoes on each round, then half the vegetable mix, then the rest of the potatoes.  Fold the edges of the flatbread over the filling, creating a rough cube, and flip so that the edges are under the filling.

Free Sneak Peek of New Cruising Cookbook

NOW, I’m not generally a fan of cookbooks geared toward cruisers; I tend to find the advice simplistic and the recipes reminiscent of those old church recipe collections, devoid of any reference to modern culinary tastes. (Molded jello salad, anyone?  How about some tuna casserole?  Hot dog pigs in blankets? YETCH.)

So I was pleasantly surprised by a sneak-peek at The Boat Galley Cookbook, by Carolyn Shearlock and Jan Irons — so much so, I can’t wait to read the whole thing.  Their practical advice (how to cook veggies in seawater; advice on potlucks; ideas for meals on passage) is balanced by 800 recipes for things I’d actually like to try — like English muffin bread; no-bake, no-refrigerator granola bars and fish sausage.

Check out the free sneak-peek in downloadable PDF format on Carolyn’s site, The Boat Galley.  Might be fun even for you landlubbers out there!

By Request: My Oatmeal Cookies

My new, fabulous sister-in-law Kris asked for this recipe after my StepMomster Mamasan posted a piccie of them on her FB page.  These cookies are infamous.  I have friends who won’t let me make them because they can’t stop eating them.  I make them as thank you gifts and people do nice things again and again in the hope of getting more.  They’re magic.

Heather’s Oatmeal Cookies

1/2 c shortening

1/2 c butter

3/4 c white sugar

1 c brown sugar

2 eggs

1 t vanilla

 

1 1/2 c white flour

1 t baking soda

1 t salt

1/2 t to 1 t cinnamon 

3 c oats

1 1/2 c rasins

 

Cream 1st 6 ingredients together.  Wisk next four together in separate bowl.  Stir gently into wet ingredients.  Mix in oats and rasins.  Form into 1 inch balls and flatten slightly.  Bake on greased cookie sheet in 350 oven around 6-8 minutes, or until the sides are brown and the middle is just starting to cook.  Let cool on sheet for a few minutes and cool on rack.  Pack in airtight container.

 

‘Ti Punch

Denis’ Guadeloupian friend Regis taught us to make this on our first day in Guadeloupe.  The “ti” is short for petit, or small, in French.  It’s not much of a punch; more of a sweet-and-sour sipping shot, but it sure is fantastic.

1 t Demerara (raw) sugar

1 small slice lime

Rhum agricole (or just use white rum)

Muddle the sugar and the lime in the bottom of a glass until the sugar is dissolved.  Add rum until the lime is just covered.  Drink.  Breathe fire after first sip.  After a couple of these, you stop noticing the alcohol.

 

Francis Bay

We were lured off our mooring last week by an invitation to join Capt’n Fatty Goodlander for his 60th birthday party on the beach at Francis Bay, on the north side of St. John.  It was impeccable timing, as we expected Marc back to claim his mooring the very next morning.  Before we left, we tied a bottle of bubbly to a gallon jug, scrawled “Thank you, Marc!!!!” all over it and made it fast to the mooring as a thank-you for Marc; we giggled at our silliness the whole way out of Great Cruz.

Before we actually started cruising, I’d heard endless stories about beach parties, bonfires and group excursions from more experienced folk, including my parents, who seem to have been more social in their five years in Mexico than in the 20 years preceeding their cruise.  (Of course, having a kid puts a cramp in your partying…)  Accordingly, I was expecting lots of social events when we got down here, only to discover a relative lack of cruising culture in the Virgins; there’s not even a morning SSB net.  The BVIs are almost all bareboat charters, with no interest in meeting other people on their vacation, and U.S. Virgins seemed to be mostly local cruisers, with the few long-distance folks enjoying their peace and quiet in the national park.

Therefore, we were thrilled to be invited to a bona fide potluck beach party, and it didn’t disappoint.  We met scads of wonderful people and had a wonderful afternoon swimming, dancing on the beach to the sounds of Fatty and his friends singing and playing their instruments, and swapping tall tales.

We had planned to set off the next day for Christmas Cove and its free moorings, but once again the beauty of St. John’s National Park has sucked us in.  It would have been a crime to leave St. John without hiking through the nearby mangrove pond to the best-preserved sugar plantation ruins on the island at Annaberg.

The trail wound its way through mangrove swamp on a raised platform to the pond, a refuge for many birds we’d not seen before, including coots and white-faced pintail ducks, and some we had, like the white heron.  From there, we joined the main road for a couple of miles, checking out more ruins from plantation times on the way, before climbing a steep set of steps up to the old plantation.

While the vista of Leinster Bay and the BVIs is worth the climb alone, the 40-foot windmill and sugar factory are relatively well-preserved, and it’s fascinating to see the underground pipes leading from the horse mill to the factory.   The best part, though, wasn’t open, and we had to return the next day to see it: a subsistence garden of plants the islanders ate after the plantation system collapsed.

The volunteer guide, Charles, who also created the garden at the request of the National Park Service, led us on a rapid-fire tour of the garden, pointing out each plant in turn and pressing samples into our hands/under our noses, urging us, “Smell it,” “Taste it,” or “Feel it.”  We learned that local aloe smells like chicken soup and, added to water, is good for digestion.  Charles pressed a handful of aromatic soursop leaves into my hands, urging me to make a tea for calming for my husband, then, with a huge grin, directed Philip to take off his hat: “You put dem underneath.  It’s natural air conditioning!”  We were treated to tastes of fresh coconut and sugarcane, and let clutching handfuls of bay rum leaves under our noses, inhaling the fresh spicy aroma used for generations as a men’s cologne.

While the two days of hiking tuckered us out, necessitating long afternoon naps to recover, we weren’t too tired to host our Great Cruz Bay boat neighbours Steve and JenniLyn for dinner one evening.  It was a lovely evening, filled with lots of laughter and meaningful conversation, and we feel lucky to have friends in St. John for the next time we’re here.  JenniLynn asked for recipes for the soup and bread I made; the bread was the nummy oat soda bread I’ve previously posted, albeit with the addition of a couple of tablespoons of ground flaxseed, and the soup I threw together with what I had on hand – as usual, measurements are approximate.

Many-Bean Soup

  • 2 slices bacon, finely diced
  • A bit of ham butt or smoked pork (a small end slice works great), finely diced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • Several stems celery, preferably the heart with all its tasty leaves, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 medium carrots, diced
  • 2-3 potatoes, ½ inch dice
  • 2-3 cups assorted beans.  I used several handfuls each of great northern, adzuki, black beans, mung beans and green lentils.  Pre-soak the larger beans overnight if not using a pressure cooker.
  • Optional: 1 piece kombu (seaweed that helps beans get tender while retaining their shape; also adds flavour)
  • Broth or bullion in water (I used a couple of tablespoons of veggie Better than Bullion)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a pressure cooker or heavy-bottom stock pot, cook the bacon and pork over medium heat until the fat renders, but do not crisp the bacon.  Add the onions and cook for 5 minutes until clear.  Add the celery and garlic and stir for one to two minutes, then add in the carrots, potatoes, beans and kombu and cover with broth/water, with a couple of inches of water on top of the veggies and beans.  Throw in the bay leaves and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Lock on the lid and bring to pressure, cook for 30 minutes, then let the pressure release naturally.  Stir in salt and pepper to taste.

If not using a pressure cooker, reduce to a simmer once it boils, cover and simmer for probably about an hour and a half, or until the beans are tender.

Nice, Quiet Week, Plus a Celebrity (If You’re a Yachtie…)

IT’S been a quiet week since Val and Becca left.  We’ve taken advantage of the calm and quiet to catch up on our writing: Philip has made substantial progress on his book, and I’ve actually managed to submit two articles to magazines – my first attempts at commercial publication!

We’ve done a bit of work on the boat as well, but have mostly focused on catching up on tasks like refilling the propane and restocking the larders before heading off to remote Christmas Cove again.

We did get in a lovely hike the other day, heading up the hill from Cruz Bay and across to Caneel Bay.  It was a worthwhile short hike: the late afternoon sunlight was beautiful through the dry tropical forest and the vista of Cruz Bay was stunning.  We saw the craziest vine-like cactus that was kudzu-like in its attack on trees and other vegetation near the path.  The steep hills, however, were much less of a challenge after three weeks of hiking up and down several hills on our way to Val’s villa and Cruz Bay – I can feel my butt firming on a daily basis on this island!!

In other news, we got a new neighbour last week: Capt’n Fatty Goodlander, quite a celebrity in the cruising world, and his wife Carolyn picked up the mooring right next to us!  We had a lovely evening with them, laughing and telling lots of ribald stories, and today we’re headed up to the north shore to Francis Bay for Fatty’s birthday party on the beach.  I made the Caribbean black cake/figgy pudding that I made for Christmas again — it was such a hit the last time!

We’ll stay there for a night or two before heading to Christmas Cove, where we will meet up with Hannah and Paddy before our trip to St. Barts, a 70-mile beat to windward that neither of us is relishing.   We hope that buddy-boating will make it a bit less onerous.

One Fabulous Christmas Day

I didn’t have any great expectations for Christmas Day; as I’d noted previously, I really didn’t even notice that it was approaching.   That said, yesterday was one of my favorite Christmases EVAH.

I started my day, as I’ve finally regained the habit of doing, with about an hour of yoga and meditation, trying out a new sequence I found in a copy of Yoga Journal.  Thoroughly yogafied, I grabbed Pip and made for the shore, eager after our previous hike on Norman Island to explore the paths in the opposite direction.  Not only is hiking itself a real treat after months on a boat – using neglected muscles and enjoying being surrounded by earth and vegetation – but this was some spectacular hiking to boot.  The Virgin Islands are mostly steep, volcanic islands, making for steep cliffs that plunge dramatically into the sea and proportionally vigorous hiking.

Norman Island itself is almost entirely deserted: although technically there are two bars at your disposal if you’re anchored in The Bight, one of them is a barge disguised rather badly as a schooner, meaning that there’s really only one settlement on the island: Pirates Bar.  Even then, apparently all the staff but two live in Road Town and commute over by boat on a daily basis.  So while there are paths on the island – ATV trails to be precise – they are overgrown and used almost exclusively for the occasional wanderer.   The paths wind along the side of the mountains, through the dry forests  (not rain forests, as I learned: dry forests, which seem to be much like rain forests, but with cacti, beautifully-scented frangipani and gumbo limbo  trees, a tree with peeling red bark and particularly charmingly-twisted limbs) and across the mountains’ saddles, populated by meadows and low scrub more able to withstand the constant wind.

After rambling for about three miles, snapping pictures of the local flora and stunning vistas across Sir Francis Drake Channel to Tortola and the U.S. Virgin Islands, we spied the first human-made structure (apart from the road, of course) we’d seen on the island since the bar: a long breakwater that created a small, idyllic beach in the corner of a harbor otherwise exposed to the northern swell.   Excited, we hurried down the path, wondering whether someone had built at one time a small house in the cove and abandoned it, or if pirates had used the cove to smuggle treasure off the island (um, 20th century pirates with the capacity to build sea walls, perhaps drug-runners?  We did learn that the name of the place is Money Bay, soooo . . . Of course, as it turns out, the walls were built by another kind of pirate: developers who abandoned their project in the middle (seems to happen a lot down here).

The cove did not disappoint:  the two sea walls created a perfectly calm cove and tiny white sand beach surrounded by the clearest water we’d seen in the islands, with nary a soul in sight.  For a short time, it was our own private beach, and we dreamed of becoming stupidly rich and buying the land to build a tiny smallholding, far away from civilization.  But first I had to go skinny dipping.  Of course.  (I have been reading a lovely book about the Caribbean Islands, called Spice Necklace, in which the author, in an aside much like this one, remarks on how funny it is that skinny dipping is so much scarier, as if some little piece of lycra is going to protect you from the big bads.  I can totally relate: I ‘m normally unfazed by the idea of the denizens of the deep, but got a bit wigged out when paddling around in my birthday suit.)

[If you’re cruising yourself and want to replicate this hike, here’s how: From Pirates Bar, follow the road back behind the bar until it makes a sharp right turn – the ATV path will continue up the hill until the top;  when you can see over the ridge it dead-ends into another, grassier path.  You can go left or right.  The right-hand walk is very nice, but to get to Money Bay, turn left, and when the path goes off to the right, follow it down the hill.  You will have to push through a bit of vegetation at the end and cross some overgrown berms to get to the beach.]

The hike back was equally satisfying — backtracking isn’t as boring when the fantastic vistas are totally different – and we celebrated our return to the boat with a quick swim before preparing for Christmas dinner.  We hadn’t expected to have a Christmas dinner at all, but the crew of the aptly-named vessel Deliverance, which delivers groceries  to Norman and other remote islands, had invited us to join a Christmas dinner over at Willie T’s, the barge disguised as a schooner.  Our boat neighbors, Bobbi and Doug, to whom we had shamefully not yet introduced ourselves, were organizing the event and confirmed the invitation when we finally swung by to say Hi and make sure we weren’t crashing a private party.

As it turns out, there were only eight of us, so we felt extra special to be included in the traditional feast of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, carrots – the works.  I brought a tropical version of a figgy pudding that I improvised with what I had on hand and made in the pressure cooker, and turned out to be quite the hit of the party: the bar’s staff were stopping by and asking to take some home.  I obliged them happily.  The recipe is below.

Today, after morning yoga and writing, we motored over to Road Town, not bothering to raise the sails as we needed to run the engine to charge the batteries, and it was straight into 20 knots of wind anyway.  On the way, we saw a sea turtle – Philip spotted it and at first, I thought it was a person in the water.  But, no, just a MAGNIFICENT sea turtle, paddling along and popping her head up every few moments to make sure we weren’t about to mow her down.

Once at Road Town, we managed to anchor, get another 20 gallons of water and do a big trip to the grocery store before dark, and are currently braving the slight swells and frequent wakes of Road Town harbor, glad that we’ve finally gotten some Bonine into our seasick kitty (poor, poor thing really doesn’t like the bouncy).  The best part: showering.  For the first time in a week.  Now, we’ve been cleaning ourselves, don’t be disgusted, but when on short water rations one merely washes, rather than taking a proper shower.  Philip’s just finished his and reports that it was divine; I’m off now to enjoy the luxury of a hot shower, to be followed by a dinner of homemade mac and cheese.  Yes, it’s the small things in life that matter.

Figgy (Plum) Pudding

I’ve always been mystified as to why the Brits call this Plum Pudding, seeing as it has no actual plums in it, even in the real English (not HB-modified) version.  This pudding has been modified in too many ways to count; traditional plum pudding starts with suet gently rubbed into flour, which gives it its characteristic bubbles and lightess, and involves English alcohols like brandy and sherry.  I used what I had, which ended up being much more Caribbean – and pretty damn yummy.

As usual, all measurements are total stabs in the dark, as I don’t measure.

  • 2 c raisins, half chopped roughly
  • 1 c currants
  • ¼ c dried orange peel
  • 1 ½ c water

Combine above in saucepan and simmer 20 minutes until water is absorbed; let cool.

Whip or sift together in a bowl:

  • 1 ½ c flour
  • 1 T cinnamon
  • 2 t powdered ginger
  • ½ t cloves
  • ¼ t fresh nutmeg
  • ½ t baking soda

In another bowl, combine:

  • 1 c butter
  • 1 c brown sugar

Cream above two ingredients together until as frothy as you can get them.  Add:

  • 2 eggs

And whip until frothy.  Add:

  • 1/3 c dark rum
  • 1/3 c Madeira

Whip until frothy and well mixed.  Fold liquid mixture into solid mixture and add:

  • 1.5 c chopped pecans
  • ¼ c chopped candied ginger

Fold all ingredients together gently and pour into a greased pan.  You can bake this like a cake, I suspect, but it’s good steamed as well, which is the traditional way I did it.  I used a steel bowl tightly covered in tin foil, placed on a trivet inside my pressure cooker, with a long strip of folded tin foil placed underneath/around it to serve as a handle to lift it out.  I steamed it for a good 40 minutes under pressure; it takes up to two hours if steamed on top of the stove.  If you want clearer instructions on how to steam a pudding, check the Joy of Cooking.

I then topped it with a mix of about a cup of powdered sugar just wetted down with rum.  I suspect the glaze would have worked better if I had waited until the pudding was cool; as was, it just kinda soaked right in, which was fabulous, too.