It's not just that there are donkeys standing around in the streets. I've traveled a bit, and seen donkeys before. But in South Caicos, part of the island nation known as the Turks & Caicos, halfway between the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, the donkeys are unemployed, and that's a first. They just stand there, seemingly without purpose. Years ago donkeys were an integral part of the workforce producing salt from the salt ponds in South Caicos, but these days the ponds are deserted and donkey unemployment has soared. If it's any consolation, the horses in South Caicos don't seem to be doing much better.

We had a lot of time to think about such things in South Caicos. After we missed a short window to depart for the Dominican Republic, the winds and seas stayed high for a solid week. There being no better shelter within fifty miles, we stayed put in Cockburn Harbour. It wasn't all that bad. The people in town were friendly for the most part, and the water was clear and colorful and beautiful. But after a couple of days we felt we had pretty much exhausted the sightseeing opportunities on the island, and started feeling more like donkeys than cruisers. I started to wonder, as I had elsewhere over the past six months, should our cruise have some kind of purpose?

From the start our cruise has been a goof-off vacation, a well-earned but selfish break. No agenda, no detailed plan, just a whimsical tour of the tropics. Before we left, I pondered if it would be wise or even possible to try to make the cruise into something larger. Perhaps we could do some sort of project with the schools or the Tennessee Aquarium, where I still had some contacts. I'd heard of cruisers doing volunteer work in many places. Maybe we could help repair damage from last season's hurricanes, ferry down schoolbooks or some other supplies.

I'd been pondering these things without doing much of anything about them, and I was still pondering when we finally got a window and arrived in Luperon in the Dominican Republic. Luperon, like George Town in the Bahamas, is flypaper to cruisers--they are attracted by its charms and then find it difficult to leave. Some never escape. They come to Luperon intending to stay a few days or weeks before fighting their way further southeast against the trade winds, get comfortable, and settle in for years. Surrounded by hills and lined with mangroves and soft mud, Luperon is said to be one of the two best "hurricane holes" in the entire Caribbean. The town and people here are very friendly to visiting cruisers. The country is green, mountainous, and beautiful. A frugal person could live on the boat in the harbor at Luperon for many years on very little money, if that was what they wanted out of life.

But after the first few weeks, what would you do with yourself?

Despite our avowed desires that we just wanted to drop out of the rat race and do absolutely nothing for a while, none of us on Seaductress is happy doing nothing. No matter how beautiful the scenery, after a few days we start to feel restless. As our friend Sam from Encantada says, "What, are you just going to sit around on the boat all day? You have to have something to do!" Sam braids beautiful woven bracelets in his spare time. Some cruisers start little businesses cleaning bottoms or organizing tours, others do charitable work, build houses or start schools for the local children. Some write cruising guides. Even on this, our first cruise, we saw plenty of examples, including our dock neighbors Clarence and Mary Myers from Chattanooga, who sailed down on their Irwin 37, Third Angel, to do missionary work around Luperon. Also in Luperon, we met Les and Lindy Bissell, on a world cruise (see to educate about the dangers of strokes. Sometimes the mission that changes someone's life happens during the cruise, as when Milanne Rehor sailed into the Abacos and ever since has devoted her life to saving the small herd of wild horses that lived there (see I suppose I thought that kind of discovery might come to us during our cruise, but it hasn't so far.

Maybe it's genetics that cause me to spend my time wondering about such things. As a young woman my mother chose a career as a social worker, while my father became an attorney for the federal government. Public service runs in the family. A sister and brother are both teachers. My other sister is an ecologist for the Department of Agriculture. I've worked most of my life in higher education. None of us ever got rich, but all of us apparently felt a need to do something positive for the world.

I was eager to get opinions from other cruisers, but wary. Raising about the subject made me feel like an self-absorbed teenager, a kid without a clue, as if I hadn't learned a thing in the past thirty years. Even writing this essay is somewhat embarrassing, but then I suppose I'm not alone in my naivety. The questions are the same ones people have asked for generations. What gives life meaning? Why am I here? Songwriter Jackson Browne called it "the reason for your life that you'll never know," and for most of us that's an accurate description.

In the larger scheme of things, when the sum of our lifelong accomplishments is added to human history, the vast majority of us might as well have been donkeys standing around in South Caicos.

Fortunately, even I know that's the wrong scale.

"If at the end of your life, you've made a positive difference in the life of another person, then it's all been worthwhile," Cliff from Watermark I told me one night there in Luperon.

"Even if that one person is yourself!" his wife Debra said, and I still smile when I remember that. It's been months since we left Luperon, and I haven't come across a better answer.

Photo: Sam, Cliff and Deb, Les and Lindy.

Copyright © 2007 by Rodger Ling. All rights reserved.