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Chandra's Blog


Entries in island living (9)


First day

Today was the first day of school. The first time, since becoming a mother almost twelve years ago, that all three of my children will go to traditional school together, at the same time. For twenty eight and a half hours a week. After several episodes of homeschooling and traveling, of book touring and then leading our two lives, one here and one on Isla de Utila, I don't know what to think about this.

Hoffspring leaving their island life

 All the things I thought I'd be so excited to do--go on a long run, start writing on a brand-new project--turned into me rattling around this morning with a second cup of coffee, laying out a few hands of Aces on the Bottom, obsessively checking my email and finally getting out of the house, and browsing (without luck) at the carpet store.

Off to school, Aug 2013

It's funny, in their other life, they learned to tie nautical knots to keep the boat from drifting away from the dock cleat, and leapt barefoot from the boat to their tutor in town. In the other, this past Sunday my father and brothers taught me a hasty and sloppy half Windsor for prep school ties and I obsessed over the minutiae of dress code approved footwear.


After Skyping with them early this morning, J remarked privately to me that the kids look great, though maybe a little like they're auditioning for an Annie Lennox music video. That's ok. It's part of why this two lives thing works. Hopefully, we are shooting for the bigger picture--presenting them with all kinds of options for a life, and hoping we are raising people capable of playing by the rules, (and breaking a few) and figuring out what really matters.


Last night, I wallpapered Hayden's pencil keeper (a wooden Honduran cigar box) with photos of Amigo and Sampson, the dogs he loves in both places, and a tiny cameo of his family, just in case a hip sixth grader whose side part in the photo at left was 'ironic, mom, get it?' wanted a glimpse of familiar faces.  

The hoping we're getting it right is what had me up again at 3:30 am, cutting out Max and Piper's sandwiches in the shape of our stateside house's roofline, and leaving little notes on red paper where the front door would be, telling them I couldn't wait to hear about everything when they came HOME. 


Here's to a great year, and all kinds of new adventures for us all. 

* *** *




Hanging wash and kneading dough -- La Vida Tranquila

wash on the lineMy husband jokes that every time he stops by the house for a refill of iced jasmine tea, he finds me either hanging out wash on the line behind the house or kneading bread dough like a good Central American doña. 

While it is not exactly true, he is right. We slip into a simpler life here, a slower pace with more labor intensive tasks, out of necessity, to take advantage of the benefits of abundant sunshine and live more responsibly in our environment. We don't need a dryer, though it does take considerably longer to hang clothes than simply flipping a sopping pile into another machine and pushing a button. I don't have to bake bagels or bread here in the land of fluffy Bimbo bread, where there are occasionally overpriced, imported Lender's bagels in the freezer section of the supermercado in Utila Town. And though I sell some of my bagels to the local restaurant, we could live without bagels in general. Yet there is something pleasant about kneading the dough, putting it out on the back porch to rise, boiling the water and shaping the bagels. 

There is something meditative about hanging each item of clothing out on the zigzag of clothesline. I think of the people who wear these sunbleached beach clothes, and somehow a chore becomes an act of love.

And yet I know, having transitioned between my two lives last winter (documented previously in Ten Take Home Lessons from La Vida Tranquila) that the disparity in my lifestyle choices might remain the same. 

Why? I can be one of the pioneers of bringing back the clothesline, at least in summer, in my Northeast suburban lifestyle. But will I? I can make my family's own fresh bread and bagels--we have a lovely soapstone kitchen counter just begging for a kneading session. But will I? What is it about the pace of my other life that gobbles up time that might be spent in loving, healthier, greener domestic rituals? 

I have subscribed to the Fly Lady Fling, belong to a Facebook purge and declutter group, and a woman I met last weekend here in Utila introduced me to the 100 Thing Challenge. She's considering moving to the island, wondering what she will need. I told her I think Utila will suit her perfectly--it is easier here to live with less. 

But what if I'm not ready for anything quite so extreme as narrowing my life down to 100 necessary belongings (or is it 500, when you count J and the Hoffspring?) What if I'm staring down my upcoming transition to the Land of Stuff (as my Utila ladies and I refer to the USA) and I want to take some of my island lessons back to my other life?

In what ways would you like to simplify your current life? What small steps would you choose to make? What quiet rituals would enrich your connection to the tasks of daily life, your family or the earth? 


Piper to School -- La Vida Tranquila

the steps to Piper's schoolToday I walked my daughter up the hill to her school on the island of Utila. The stairs are cracking and steep, some as high as Piper’s skinny thigh. At the top, there is a huge mango tree that arches wide, casting shade over the crest of the hill. Often we have to stop and wait for the little boys at the top to stop throwing stones and chunks of wood at the higher branches to knock fruit down.

When we reach the high street at the top, we turn--and to be honest, catch our breath--and we look out over the main street, and the sea beyond it.

Then Piper chatters to me as we wind through the street above Town to Wisdom Paradise Bilingual School. There are houses with broken beer bottles cemented to the peaks of their walls, an effective if primitive security system, and others where chickens run wild in the fuschia bougainvillea. Piper talks about her classmates, who earned the most smiley faces, who sat on Time Out and why, how she showed her beloved Miss Nery to make healthy sandwiches of her snack, (raisins and peanuts) and she rattles off the new words of the day in two languages.


 “You know, you can speak to the Spanish kids in English, but you have to do it in a Spah-nish accent,” Piper tells me, spreading her mouth wide to form the vowels in the island dialect. She knows how to use the term “among you”, the island’s version of the American South’s "y’all" or our hometown Philly’s “youse guys”.

“Clean up clean up, all among you clean up,” she sings the Barney theme song, clutching my hand in hers. HerPiper and Bine in uniform, crazy hair day uniform is the school’s cheery yellow T-shirt with a logo of a red-roof schoolhouse on a rock in the sea, and a happy dolphin jumping in the baby blue wave behind it.


Of the ten children in her class who swing on the row of swings behind the colorfully painted fence, Piper speaks the least Spanish. Sometimes, this makes her nervous. Today, right before she follows her friends through the gate, a handful of plucked cherry hibiscus to hand to Miss Nery, she throws her arms around my waist and squeezes hard. She holds on for a moment, and then runs to join in.


The gate to Wisdom Paradise










In a few short months, we will go back to the States. I’ll walk Piper through the same suburban town where I grew up, to the same private school I attended. The trees will be grandfatherly oaks and silvers maples, spindly hemlocks and bushy Scotch pines. She’ll wear a different uniform, khakis and Land's End polos, her brothers in navy plaid ties, their bleached-out, shaggy island hair cut to dress code standards. It is a good school—they will come home with backpacks full of projects and tasks, enriched by their full days and friendships and activities. If they speak any Spanish, it will be at home with me, if we remember to do our Utila nights, when I cut a circle out of a plastic bag and make tortillas by hand with Maseca corn flour I order off


In our other life, there will be no mango trees, no scampering geckoes on our bedroom walls, no apple bananas ripening on the back porch, no cangrejos en la casa, no leisurely morning snorkel, the reef in front of our island house as familiar to them as their childhood neighborhood, with sea fans and swim-through coral arches as landmarks. We’ll leave behind friends, memories, and our handprints in the cement of the bottle cap trash-to-treasure art project we are creating.


Trash to treasure bottle cap project

In our other life, if we want to see the ocean, we will have to play hooky while it is still warm enough, Indian Summer and drive hours through the state of New Jersey to play in the icy, darker water of the Atlantic. Maybe we will catch a glimpse of the Caribbean in the background when we Skype with our friends back on the island.


Today, as I walked Piper up the hillside stairs to her school, our feet gritty inside our flip flops, I wondered aloud if she would remember this crazy, Bohemian island life, when we go back to the States, or later, when she grows up.

It’s possible. My husband says his first memories are of walking to kindergarten with his mother in Buffalo’s nastiest weather, the wind off the lake stinging his cheeks and blowing her long brown hair. There is a story, family folklore, of the time he cried all the way to school, because she had accidentally zipped her prickly hairbrush inside his snowsuit.

So it is possible that these moments of our island life are tethering themselves to Piper’s long-term memory, that she’ll remember how she smiled shyly and called out a quiet ‘hola’ to the cheeky boys knocking down mangos around us while we stopped at the top of the hill and looked out at the sparkling sea, the wind tangling our hair, before we walked back down the high road to home. 

¡Ojala!, as they say in Utila. Would that it be so 

 * *** *


the view down the hill





Return to Utila 

After five plus months away, we returned to our Vida Tranquila on Utila. In the meantime, we endured a Northeastern winter that witheld the worst of its punches, a hockey season, my Dad's heart surgery and a health scare with Hayden, which ended with a relatively seamless open-septo-sino-rhinoplasty at the Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia. Needless to say, we were all breathing easier when we met up with Captain David in La Ceiba Immigration and he said to the kids, "Would you like to see your daddy?" We were delighted to be reunited as a family, flying over the skinny strip of sea back to Utila.


Flying over from the mainland

We fell back into our old patterns easily. Piper and Bine had the cinematic reunion her mother and I have been anticipating, complete with momentary hesitation, full-on crushing hug, and then a thirty hour playdate. These two little alphas had one terse conversation about which one said the shells hurt her feet en route to the 'dream lot', and then quickly lapsed into a game of fairies on the porch.

Piper and Bine arrange the fairies 


 I am fairly certain the only time they weren't holding hands was during their momentary spat and maybe during dinner. They dined a deux on chicken and waffles at Neptunes, chased the solar lights J installed on the dock, and I may owe an apology to Bine's mother for introducing her to the beingets with Nutella--sweet Bine picked up the plate and LICKED.IT.CLEAN. 

Piper and Bine to the marina








Same old, same old

The reunion of Piper and Bine was only rivaled by the one of the kids and Amigo, the resident mascot and surrogate perro negro for the Hoffspring. After worrying for days about whether their dog would remember them (the jury is out in my opinion--he might be this glad to see everyone) they had a love fest in the marina. They have come up with a game of chase and fetch on the beach with their darling dog that I don't think any of them will tire of soon. 


                                                                                                                                                                        It is amazing also to see the changes in Lobster, the project's other dog. Abused as a puppy and rescued to become part of the crew out on the South Shore, (and the Frick to Amigo's Frack) Lobster used to be too skittish to be touched. Now, he patrols proudly with the watchmen and is eager to have our loving attention.


As before, and much to the boys' chagrin, regular Spanish tutoring is on the agenda. Piper will also be attending a bilingual school called Widsom Paradise with her friends in Town. 




Neptune's RestaurantNeptune's! The former construction zone where the boys used to dash around playing tag has become an upscale restaurant. Neptune's at Coral Beach Village is an important part of the development we are here to create, complete with sandy beach, dock and marina, hammocks, palapa, volleyball and beach games and music. 


Piper doing some sunset swinging












We used to draw parallels between our life here and Little House on the Prairie. Now it's more like Swiss Family Robinson with an open tab at the tiki bar down the beach. Piper's sole vegetable consumption in the past week has been their hand-cut French fries and she has ketchup running through her veins. I am also in conversation with Jenny and Will and Brian about what we will be saying is "off the menu" when the little Hoffmans belly up to the bar (and by this I mean, the mac and cheese with the breaded topping Hayden can't get enough of, or the green bottled ginger ales Max and Camilo had me thinking were Salva Vidas complete with mock-stumbling on the beach.) 

wing man

Their habanero and pineapple margaritas are to die for, the boys are crazy for their Buffalo wings and I felt a tiny tear in my eye when I saw a special on their menu of a caprese sandwich this week. Cheese and fresh, locally grown tomato and spicy tequila at sunset on the beach, and I just might be in heaven. 


Because of Coral Beach Village's status as an eco resort, Neptune's only purchases fresh sustainable fish from local fisherman or the coast, and we cooperate with local law enforcement to put an end to reef poaching, because the true richness of this location is in the water out front.  












To the end of enjoying the ocean, we are also loving the newly installed ladder at the end of the dock, which facilitates the ease of everyone being able to get in and explore the reef. We continue to do our daily snorkel, finding everything from an enormous horse conch to spotted eagle rays to the most delicately patterned flamingo tongue shells. 


Max uses the ladder to show off a horse conch





One week in -- we are excited to be back, reunited as a family and enjoying our Vida Tranquila again!




cruising for whale sharksBeach bonfire before bed


La Vida Tranquila -- Ten Take Home Lessons

1. Things can be more simple.


sunset dock fishingHayden often said about Utila, "The days here are long, but the time passes quickly." Of course that is true when the day begins at dawn, when much of our effort is spent on the truly elemental tasks of food, exercise, water, heath, learning...

Why do we lose that in the translation of trying to hit the ground running in our US life? I have already caught myself leaving the tap on while I brush my teeth, and my initial combination of wonder and vague queasiness at the absolute abundance in the SuperGiant has been replaced by 'get groceries' on my To Do list.  

 Piper came to me the other day with a plastic bottle cap she had found on the beach.  She was carrying it carefully so the water wouldn't slosh out.

When I asked her what it was she said matter-of-factly,  "It's the back-up cistern for my fairy house." 

How do we remember all this when we go back to the land of stuff?



2. Make or purpose things we don't have.

Max and Pip constructing

we mastered the art of homemade bagels












3. Appreciate but do not abuse our new unlimited access to ... (fill in the blank: instant and constant internet acess, an iPhone that does more than act as a camera/flashlight, 24 hour electricity, hot water, drinkable tap water, paper products in public restrooms, imported produce,, etc)

4. Use less of...  (fill in the blank, see above list

5. We can live without TV, cable, microwave, dishwasher, dryer, Xbox, Playstation, (see above; the list is long)

6. Friendships forged in unusual places can be immediate, lasting, and span vast bodies of water.

Piper and Bine

chandra and amanda











pizza night with friends







Pip and Benja





amigo and max












7. Keep finding the interesting people, the experts in their fields and connecting them with the kids.

Uncle Brad was an endless source of marine biology info

Yesterday on our travels home we met the anthropologist Sue Hendrickson, who lives in Guanaja. She and Hayden chatted dinosaurs and conch pearls, Central American sandfly remedies and SCUBA diving. 

At the end of their visit, she swiped her palm against his for luck, and gave him a signed photo of her and her famous find, the most complete T-Rex skeleton.

We also were lucky to live next door to marine biologists Brad and Andi Ryon. Brad (center at left) was a willing partner in SCUBA, fishing and other maritime adventures, and Andi facilitated our connections to yoga. We also nd became close friends with Amanda and John Arne Løken of Float Utila, the world's largest sensory deprivation tank. You can read Hayden's review of Float Utila here.


Regular dive experiences with Diego Frank and Amir Gavrieli rounded out the experiences at Underwater Vision.


 There is something to be said for the kernel of adventuresome spirit that it takes to live in Utila, and the endlessly interesting characters one is fortunate to encounter there. 


8. You can move thousands of miles away, but it doesn't change who you are.

Within a month, we had a black dog sleeping in our bed, and mewling kittens waking us up to be fed.

Amigo and kids

Thunder, our formerly feral rescue kitten










9. Following our story has taken us to unexpected places both on the globe and within our family.

flying in Capt David's plane

commuting home with Andi









J and Max go diving




Hayden--certified diver














fishing tourney

La Ceiba, Honduras




















10. "Clean" "Safe" and "Necessary" are all relative terms. 


Night bonfires




 treasure collecting





Piper's schoolbus






don't worry--medical care is just a flight away













roasted coconut--a favorite













 BONUS Piper's favorite rule: In Utila, hairbrushing is optional. 

 Island girl