The Harbormaster of Gringo Bay

In Clearwater they said, “stop by to see Jennifer.”In Isla Mujeres, someone commented, “see Jennifer in El Rio Dulce.” “Who is she?” “An artist, with a home on ‘The Rio.’”In Belize City, on learning that we planned to spend several months on “The River,” another boater advised us to stop by “Gringo Bay,” a small inlet on the south side of El Golfete, the widest spot on the river,
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In Clearwater they said, “stop by to see Jennifer.”

In Isla Mujeres, someone commented, “see Jennifer in El Rio Dulce.” “Who is she?” “An artist, with a home on ‘The Rio.’”

In Belize City, on learning that we planned to spend several months on “The River,” another boater advised us to stop by “Gringo Bay,” a small inlet on the south side of El Golfete, the widest spot on the river, and to say hello to Jennifer. “How do we find her,” we asked. “Check the drawing in Freya Raucher’s Guide,” they said.” Westbound, after the river widens, look for the third little bay. Plenty of water everywhere. Her home is there.”

So, we anchored, hopped into Pachi, our tender, and motored, hesitantly, doubtfully, to a charming home that we thought might be Jennifer’s, the only evidence being three boats apparently moored and stored about 150 feet off the porch, and another docked to one side. All was quiet. We could see no one, until we got close, and observed a person standing on the porch, brush in hand, preparing a painting. We said, “Ahh, err, by any chance, are you Jennifer?” “Yes, I am.” “Well, maybe, we heard that possibly, if you have time, you prepare dinner for boaters?” “True,” she said. “It's too late today, but we could do it tomorrow night. What do you like? Meat, fish or chicken?” The next night, like dozens of boaters before us, we had a quiet dinner, the three of us, relaxed and comfortable, flowers everywhere, numerous small kerosene lanterns providing romantic light, in the personal style that has made Jennifer a warm and accommodating presence since 1989.

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Jennifer Lindeen entered The University of Wisconsin-Stout, at age 25. Her daughter, Jessica, was six. Working as a waitress and supporting her daughter, she studied the arts, especially printmaking and sculpture, and graduated in five years. Then, she returned to her home state of Minnesota and went to work at the well-known Minneapolis restaurant, Gluecks. It was 1979. She fell in love with the owner, Kent Holcomb, who had learned to sail as a boy. He took Jennifer sailing on Lake Superior in a Pearson 30.

Kent had always dreamed of life on the sea. This was a long-term ambition that became a short-term goal when he was diagnosed with diabetes. It was time to lay off the stress, to “squeeze more into life,” to advance the time frame. Jennifer had no trouble accepting the dream. They purchased an Ericson Cruising 36, and named it October, the month of her birth, marriage, and of the boat's purchase. After Jessica’s high school graduation in 1986, Kent and Jennifer began their live-aboard traveling odyssey. Moving through the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway, Quebec, the Maritimes, and the Bay of Fundy, they searched for quiet spots. They wanted to make the annual November meeting of The Seven Seas Cruising Association in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, so they blasted down the ICW, with ice on the deck. They moved through the Keys and around to Ft. Meyers Beach, where Jennifer again worked as a waitress while they outfitted October with a new engine, paint, and an single side band radio.

Kent and Jennifer left for Isla Mujeres in April, 1988, then moved on to Belize to avoid Hurricane Gilbert. During 1989 and 1990, they sailed between Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, but always back to Guatemala, where the thought of buying land grew more forceful with each new visit.

In the late 1980s, through the mid 1990s, Guatemala would not have seemed attractive to any American tourist. A civil war dominated both the news and the economy. The area of El Rio Dulce was undeveloped and unsophisticated, a place isolated by geography and circumstances, a completely undeveloped oasis. At the time, most Americans would have considered buying land in Guatemala as an absurd risk, made more so by the absence of property records and surveys. Sellers were squatters who did not know the boundaries of their properties. A transfer was accomplished by “walking the lines” hoping that no one would later challenge the assumptions. (Today, Jennifer has a GPS survey.)

Kent and Jennifer built a bodega, which became the home of the first construction contractor. The contractor asked one day whether he and his family could live there. A few days later, he arrived with his wife—and twelve children. Meanwhile, Jennifer and Kent lived aboard October. Early construction involved forming and placing cement pilings, accomplished by workers standing on small cayucos, pounding down by hand until the piling hit solid ground. At the most active point of construction, 33 people lived on their land. Kent and Jennifer did all of the work after the pilings were completed. They had help one weekend for a “house raising party” when a dozen boaters came over to raise the side walls. It was a good time, so good that Jennifer never told the party goers that the walls were later torn down. The walls did not match, corner to corner.

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Looking at the present house, the absence of access by road, the sophistication and beauty of its construction, and its presence, an observer is challenged to believe that it was done by two people who obtained most building supplies on two day car trips to Guatemala City, in a little Audi, with an oversize luggage rack, occasionally transporting hard wood, Chicozapote, illegally felled and obtained from the local forestry officer who had confiscated it.

As construction neared completion, the practical needs of life became evident. Jennifer and Kent experimented with several businesses such as providing river transportation, making canvas covers for boaters (Jennifer), and lobster fishing (Kent), but the best was chartering. For more than six years, October hosted dozens of travelers, including a U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, a French Ambassador and his companion, a Guatemalan Ambassador to The United States, a Peace Corps volunteer and his parents, and numerous Europeans and Guatemalans, most attracted by word of mouth through agents in Antigua and Guatemala City. Jennifer’s easy going graciousness undoubtedly helped both this business and her remarkable role as the hostess of the Rio Dulce.

Jennifer has applied the appellation “Accidental Restaurant” to her home and property. The “accident” took place in 2003. Just before dark, a Danish sailing vessel neared her front porch, with a crewmember indicating a desire to dock by prominently holding and displaying a dock line. They said:

“Is this a marina?” “No”

“Is this Fronteras?” “No.

“Is this a restaurant.” “No. This is my house.”

Jennifer soon realized that this crew had no chart, no food, little water, and little remaining energy. She invited them to dinner, and started a tradition.

Jennifer does most of her work, cooking, and living on the expansive porch that opens to Bahia Buena Vista, the correct name for the waters in front. The entire building rests on pilings. It has no doors. She uses local materials anywhere and everywhere. For example, a kitchen counter is supported by bamboo, with utensils stored conveniently in the natural holes. One end of the porch floor supports her many projects. Making courtesy flags, watching boats for land-traveling owners, and selling smoked robalo at the weekly swap meet produce income. The propane refrigerator has leopard spots on the door. What little electricity she uses is supplied by solar panels and stored in batteries, though a standby generator helps once in a while. A VHF radio and a cell phone keep her in touch. At least once a week, Jennifer boards her launcha for the 45-minute trip to Fronteras, Rio Dulce, where she stocks up, sells product, and visits with daughter Jessica.

Her neighbors are mostly K’ekchi’ Mayans or mixed K’ekchi’ and Garifuna. They are welcome to take water from Jennifer’s well, anytime, without charge. She helps where she can. She and other boaters and friends are supporting a Mayan deaf girl and her family. To obtain specialized education, the girl needs to commute five hours to school. A better solution is for the girl to live at the school, though her parents resist. If things work out, Jennifer’s foundation will cover the extra costs. Boaters have also organized and sponsored the first high school in the local village, now with 6 alumni. Notebooks, backpacks and other supplies for 33 elementary students in need are given.

The 7:30 a.m. channel 68 Rio Dulce net always has someone calling Jennifer. Most boaters who arrive in Rio Dulce stop by Gringo Bay on their way to the town Rio Dulce. Most boaters stop by again, on their way out. The location is charming, and the hostess is reassuring. She brings people together. The experiences of a guest remind her of situations in her life or in the life of a previous guest. Of her life, she says, “I am not interesting, but my life is, and I love watching it.” Jennifer Lindeen is the harbormaster of Gringo Bay. John Guy

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