Jennifer On The Rio by Susan

Jennifer Lindeen is a 50 something woman living alone in Rio Dulce, Guatemala in the jungle home that she and her ex-husband built. Okay, so she didn’t go there alone, but the fact that she lives there alone now and survives on a modest income in what is still jungle, to us was fascinating. Let’s backtrack a little about how we found Jennifer and how she came to be at her place in life.
My husband Chuck and I had been planning a trip to Guatemala on our sailboat/home Sea Trek for over 6 years. For a number of reasons we were delayed, but finally got underway and headed South in the spring of 2005 from the Florida Keys down through Mexico and Belize. Good friends of ours from Minnesota/Florida, the Brands on the trawler Freelance, had suggested that when we arrive in the river, we should clear in at Livingston, Guatemala, then make the 10 mile run upriver and anchor in front the house with the red roof located in the third bay on the left. Jennifer and her former husband had rented a home from the Brands in Minneapolis almost 20 years ago. They had stayed in touch and had been reunited on the river about 10 years ago. That stirred our curiosity. A woman living alone in a house next to the river with no roads and a 15 foot open boat as the only means of transportation anywhere? We had to meet this person.
We arrived and anchored in Gringo Bay with another boat with whom we had been traveling. Our first call to Jennifer on the VHF radio was for advice. Kathleen from Nueva Vida had a scary bite on her knee of unknown origin and it was suggested that Jennifer, with her years of living on the river, may have some idea of what it was and how to treat it. Kathleen and her husband Tom went ashore to Jennifer’s house for a consultation. She inspected Kathleen’s knee and advised her to see the Jungle Medic further up the river. We decided to make our social call the next day after Nueva Vida had left to go upriver seeking further medical attention.
Jennifer greeted us warmly to her home and offered us a cup of coffee. Not only was it delicious, she had grown the beans and roasted and ground them herself. Although we knew some of her history, we asked her how she came to be in such a beautiful place and how she fared living alone in what can be a lonely and difficult environment. Jennifer had originally come to the river in the late 80’s aboard a sailboat with her ex-husband. They had been cruising for several years, starting in Lake Superior, Minnesota. They followed the Great Lakes to the Saint Lawrence, the Canadian Maritimes, and down the Atlantic coast to Florida. After some years in the Bahamas, Mexico and Belize, they fell in love with the Rio Dulce. They worked as river tour guides and charter captains for a number of years and eventually built the home that Jennifer lives in today.
The house itself is directly on the water in a cove known as Gringo Bay. The area got its’ name, naturally, because American expats had settled there. The first thing you see as you approach Jennifer’s house from El Golfete is the red roofs. The long front porch hangs over the water and runs the length of the house. The inviting couches and low chairs are casually arranged and beckon you to relax and put up your feet. I’ve never seen a prettier view of Sea Trek, our Mariner 40, than from this porch. This is also where Jennifer does her painting, inspired by her surroundings. She used to work out of a cottage up on the hill behind the house, but found it too confining. Now it sits empty, but makes a great backdrop for a photograph. She has a very serviceable kitchen and a large dining room table just steps away so she is never far from her guests. She is an avid reader and books line the shelves above the sitting area off to the left of the galley. There is also a small bathroom off the kitchen. Upon exiting the back door of the kitchen, one makes a left to go upstairs to the bedroom. This is the only screened in area of the house, surprisingly enough. The bedroom also has a cat door for LaVerne, a tabby shorthair, to have easy exit and entry, but occasionally is visited by other uninvited critters. The side of the porch is used for a dinghy dock with convenient steps to enter the porch. Jennifer also has a covered dock for her panga as well as her workers cayucos, hand carved canoes. Because the house is in and on the water, the lovely deck is perfect for afternoon socializing.

There are no roads or power lines and no public sewer or water. The river is the road and a dependable outboard engine is her lifeline. Electrical power to her home is supplied by golf cart batteries which are in turn charged by solar panels on the roof. Fresh water comes from a well on the back of the property, of which there is never a shortage due to abundant rainfall. This is, after all, the jungle. Jennifer’s home in the evening has the romantic glow of oil lanterns as she attempts to conserve power that is not needed. She grows apples and other fruit in the lush gardens behind the house to supplement her diet. When she needs supplies, she has to run 12 miles upriver to Fronteras or 9 miles downriver to Livingston in her boat. Cell phones have reached the jungle and although the service is unreliable, she can still make calls. The VHF radio, however, remains her main source of communication and she generally stands by on Ch. 68 and simply goes by “Jennifer”. She will also answer to “October”, the name of her former sailboat, which is no longer on the river. Recently she has added satellite radio to the house and thoroughly enjoys the programming, especially NPR and good old Prairie Home Companion.
Any inconvenience Jennifer may experience living here is offset by the sheer beauty of the place.
She has converted the back 40 into a lush garden with Jurassic Park size plants that is full of the most beautiful electric blue butterflies. Chico, her trusty assistant, will gladly take visitors on a tour of the garden to look for these elusive creatures. They don’t seem to like to have their picture taken and I can attest to after hours of stalking them with my camera. There are walkways that meander through flowerbeds, shaded by towering trees and the air is filled with the raucous calls of green parrots and other tropical birds. She has tamed the hill behind her house to a degree and one can walk for hours there taking pictures of the many species of flowers and plants, too numerous to name. At one point, she was even raising Australian freshwater lobsters in ponds toward the back of the yard. I have often gotten off the boat just to wander there alone. A more tranquil and peaceful place I have rarely found.

After 15 years, the spark of living on the river was gone for Jennifer’s ex and soon, he was too. Jennifer decided to stay on in the river after his departure in 2003. She loved it there and chose to stay and do what she could to provide for herself without having to move back to the U.S. Her mainstay is her wonderful artwork – oil paint on thick canvas, primarily of jungle scenes. Her reasonably priced work is beautiful as well as durable. She can also be found in the wee hours of the morning buying “robalo” or snook from the local cayuco fishermen, then filleting it to sell fresh to cruisers in “Gringo Bay”. She also has it available frozen to sell at the swap meet at Mario’s Marina every Saturday morning, where she offers all of her wares. She also sews courtesy flags, grows and sells fresh basil, coconut oil and killer bee honey from her own hives.
Many people come into the Rio Dulce with their sailboats to escape the Atlantic hurricane season. Jennifer will provide boaters with a safe haven in Gringo Bay on a secure mooring. She will then transport them in her “panga”, the aforementioned open boat, to Fronteras for connecting transportation to Guatemala City. She has also become the “accidental restaurant”. People have seen the house on the water with a number of chairs and tables on the porch and assumed it was a restaurant. On one occasion when a boater approached her late one afternoon and asked what time dinner was served, she said, “what the heck” and will now serve meals should weary boaters request her culinary services. We can personally attest to those skills after a dinner of pasta with fresh homemade pesto sauce and items from her garden!
Those are some of the things she does to survive, but the person is so much more interesting. She is a deeply spiritual, sensitive person and has decided to give back to the country and community that has given her a home. She is involved in local neighborhood projects such as sending a 5 year old deaf child to a special school where she can learn sign language and lip reading. She is also encouraging a group of Mayan Indian women who are interested in starting a cooperative to raise chickens by going to their meetings and disseminating information to parties that may be interested in investing in the project. Women in this country are not encouraged to run their own businesses. She also provides employment for a local couple who otherwise would have no income other than what they might earn selling a few fish per day. In a recent email from Jennifer, she had this to say about her current activities.
I’m showing a lot of property for sale these days, and of course enjoying my new neighbors. The new school year has started and I distributed school supplies for 33 elementary kids whose families were not able to buy them. My goal is to get 100% attendance … no excuses for lack of money. And this year some of my new neighbors and I organized a “basico” (high school.) The local village has never had one before, and only the wealthier kids could go to private schools in other communities. Now there’re 6 teenagers going to a makeshift School in the village based on a radio program that’s broadcast for rural kids. We hired a teacher and are using the elementary school building in the afternoon. Cool, huh? And the little deaf girl is doing great!”
We didn’t just stop one afternoon to see Jennifer. Her little bay is an oasis from the hussle and bussle of the “marina district” of Rio Dulce and we would try to escape to Gringo Bay whenever we could. During one visit in October of 2005, she hosted a “croning ceremony” for women of a “certain age”. At 45, I was told I was too young so I observed. A group of 10 women from sailboats in the marina district spent the day together on the porch overlooking the river, sharing laughs and snacks. Some of the women took a dip in the fresh water river and did their best Ester Williams impersonations. As the day wore on into evening, the tone became more serious and the ladies dressed in sarongs for the ceremony. As darkness descended, we climbed the steps to the jungle garden and lit a fire in the large circular rock pit which had been constructed that afternoon. As each women held a candle and spoke of their dreams for the next year of life, camaraderie developed and we all embraced under the full moon. Afterward, everyone started howling to the delight of Jennifer’s “guard dog” Sandia who joined in with glee. After a dinner of roast chicken, salad and bread, the women spent the night draped over hammocks and sofas, while I quietly motored our dinghy out to my waiting husband and boat.
We hugged Jennifer goodbye before we left the river with a standing offer to return anytime and to keep in touch via email. When asked about herself, she admits, “Yeah, I guess my life is interesting!” Jennifer is a generous soul who seems to have found her place on this big rock we call Earth and that place is the Rio Dulce. She gives a heck of a lot more than she takes and Guatemala and the boating community are so much better for her presence.

6 comments:

  1. bugger
    3 time i try to leave comment
    hope this time it works!!
    i will be happy to send to Jennifer some books for herself and her school
    can she be contacted by mail or email?
    thank you
    "Cathyoz" from Australia
    Cathyoz in cruiserforums.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Many thanks for the offer. We will contact Jennifer and ask how best that could be accomplished and post back here how you might do that.

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  3. If anyone wants to send any items to Jennifer they can be sent to:

    Jennifer Lindeen
    c/o Bruno's Marina
    Fronteras, Rio Dulce
    Izabal, Guatemala 18002

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  4. My 4 year old daughter Eliza and I recently visited this oasis of beauty and spent an afternoon with Jennifer so we could get to know the area that is Cayo Quemado. She is an amazing woman, and I see after reading this that she has a far more amazing story then she initially shared. I look forward to heading back to el Rio Dulce later in the year again, but this time hope for more time to spend with Jennifer and in the area.

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  5. I moor my catamaran at Jennefer's. Everything said here is spot on. She helped me negotiate the Guatemalan banking system with success after hours trying. This area is beyond peaceful and enjoyable. They say the Rio will "suck up sailors". Now I know what they mean. With passports filled with stamps from everywhere I must say I may have found a favorite.

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  6. How well we know that Jennifer is a wonderful person. We miss the river and plan to get back again.

    ReplyDelete

While we always appreciate your feedback and comments, comments are moderated to keep out the spam. There are pretty much two rules. NO LINKS or URLs in your NAME or the POST, and BE NICE. There is enough negativity out there. If either of these are not followed, your comment will not be posted, so don't waste your time. Thanks, Chuck