Quiet Time

Learning to be still may be as important as honing the skills needed to move. Osprey's Flight from our November 2010 issue

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Time ashore in a Guatemalan marina is a chance for Kailani Clarke (center) to make new friends.Wendy Mitman Clarke

Tonight, I've been out on the dock watching lightning over the distant mountains. Nearly every night it fires the clouds here in Guatemala, their silhouettes towering against a molten Mayan sky.

Behind me, Osprey floats in her slip looking like a bizarre form of beetle, covered as she is with a patchwork of heat-reflecting tarps. An air-conditioner propped in the companionway rumbles and sighs. The well-tuned sailing machine that carried us over 1,200 miles of Caribbean Sea from the Dominican Republic to Guatemala a month ago is under all that stuff somewhere. But now we're firmly planted for the hurricane season, and though that was the plan all along, this sudden, prolonged stillness is more unsettling than watching a squall stalking the horizon. At least it has been, until lately.

Lightning-the kind that backlights the clouds-is relámpago. Rayo is lightning that hits the ground. Thunder is trueno. Far is lejano, and close is cerca. I learned these from Julio, who is the marina's night guard tonight. With his shotgun slung casually over his shoulder, he hung out with me for a while on the dock, and we had a conversation about stars, lightning, and kids. Despite our tenuous grasp of each other's language and our completely different lives, we managed to connect these things we have in common.

In the remarkable book Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson describes his work building schools in the most remote mountains of Pakistan, where he met a village chief named Haji Ali, who became his mentor. "You can't tell the mountains what to do," Haji Ali told him. "You must learn to listen to them. . . . You must take the time to share three cups of tea."

By its very nature, this life we've chosen is one of movement. The house of sea and sky we inhabit is ever changing, and so infuses us with the same sort of restlessness. It's hard to sit still.

But being here is teaching me the value of that skill, of waiting. Not like "island-time" waiting, which is superficial and temporary, imposing our American concepts of work ethic and time management on places that have no need or use for them. I mean waiting as in taking the time to open one's self to a place and its people. This means setting aside everything you've learned and taken in as entrenched behavior, and any agenda that such behavior may bring with it. It means being content simply to be there, to be willing to let go of the restlessness. And watch, listen, and shut up.

The kids, of course, know how to do this instinctively. Last Sunday, one of the staff here brought his son by to go fishing. Our daughter, Kailani, who's been trying to catch these wily, quick fish for weeks, saw them out there. "I feel silly standing here with my carbon-fiber rod not catching a thing," she said, "while they're using hand lines and catching fish over and over."

So she dug around in the old tackle box for a hand line and went fishing on the dock with Israel and his son. She didn't catch anything; she didn't care. She learned what they use for bait-tortilla dough, rolled into balls-and she had fun. She built a little bridge just by being there. Now she's fishing with the whole family.

We only came here to wait out hurricane season, maybe travel to some Mayan ruins, and hike a volcano or two. And when we first arrived and furled our sails, after the freedom of all those blue-ocean miles, we were rather shocked at what we'd done. To be stuck, to not be sailing, seemed so wrong. Now it's starting to feel like an opportunity, a chance to be still and learn about something far bigger than the sea we crossed to get here.

As of press time, the crewmembers of Osprey were savoring their final moments of repose while prepping to get under way once again.