Simple gifts

The other night at dinner I served the last dollop of spiced mango chutney made by our friend Diana in Sydney. I’d stretched it this long because we never considered it just another condiment but rather served it only as a featured player in a meal that deserved it and we ate it consciously and with reverence, usually accompanied by storytelling and reminiscences of our times together.

I’m still enjoying a jar of my sister’s blueberry jam a full two years after she hand delivered it to Australia. Jack was forbidden to waste it on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and while I’m not a regular jam eater, there are times when two pieces of buttered toast with homemade jam comfort the soul, and my sister’s blueberry warms my heart and hits the spot when that spot needs attention.

I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts today as I read holiday greetings on social media and see the photos of gifts given and received.

When I use a certain long-handled silicone spoon to scrape the last bit of peanut butter from the bottom of the jar I’m thinking of my friend Di who gave it to me when we sailed away from Sydney. When I tidy up the device chargers and cords into an orange tortilla basket I’m thinking of our daughter-in-law Ericka who chose it in my favorite color. A fancy cheese knife, a set of carved chopsticks, each pair in its own beaded slipcase, the tiny bowl from Turkey I drop my earrings in when I go to bed, a luminous green Buddha. These totemic objects fill my days with thoughts of the people who shared something of themselves with me, and I treasure not just the memories they invoke, but the continued connection I feel whenever I see or use them.

I reach for the crocheted potholders my mother made many times a day, and even as they start to fray and fall apart I can’t imagine replacing them with anything new. Those old fashioned potholders represent the era my mother lived in, the time she spent making them and the love she had for me when she gave them to me.

The patchwork batik runner my sister made lives on our saloon table when we’re not underway and not a day goes by that I don’t admire it and appreciate the colors, the workmanship, and most of all the thought and care that went into making it.

All of these gifts are special because the people who gave them understand me, listen to me, know what makes me happy. But objects aren’t the only special gifts. What we do for each other is even better. I wrote before about Jack’s medical emergency in Labuan Bajo and how the nearby cruisers took care of him (and me), coming together in minutes to get him to the hospital and then monitor his progress. We are all mostly without close family out here and so we become each other’s kin and caregivers.

Our favorite gifts are time spent with the people we love, and the visits by our family rank at the top of that list. We are none of us flush enough for frequent long-distant airfare so the visits we get are few and far between and the time together is always precious.

One of the greatest gifts I ever received wasn’t meant to be a gift at all. About a year and a half ago I lost the carved manta ray necklace I bought in Tonga. I was crushed and spent days frantically searching the boat before coming to the conclusion that I must have left it in a marina shower. I knew that our friends Ken and Julie were in Tonga near the carver I’d bought it from, and I asked if they would pick up another one. They happily agreed and even got the carvers to make two especially for us. Our friends planned to arrive in Australia at the end of the cruising season and we looked forward to a reunion. Less than a month later they lost their boat on a reef in Fiji, and we learned that while their boat was sinking and they were salvaging what they could before abandoning ship, they took the time to find and include with their barebones possessions our new manta ray necklaces. It was a selfless and perhaps, in hindsight, foolish act, given that everything they owned was headed for the bottom of the sea and our necklaces meant nothing compared to what they lost. But the fact that in their most dire moment they thought of us makes those necklaces all the more precious. We received them many months later when they mailed them to our son so he and our daughter-in-law could bring them to Australia. I wear that necklace every day, and each morning when I fasten it I’m reminded of how fortunate I am to belong to this remarkable community of people who voyage on boats, of how capricious the sea is, of how everything we know and treasure can be lost in an instant through no fault of our own.

We realize how lucky we are that we survived our own disaster at sea relatively unscathed and were able to continue our journey. We know too many who could not. The manta ray necklace around my throat that Julie and Ken salvaged from their sinking boat and that I touch a hundred times a day reminds me that every moment of life is a gift. And if my chosen path should change suddenly for any reason I will try to remember that every day will still be a journey and the journey will still be home.

“The moon and sun are eternal travelers.

Even the years wander on.

A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years,

Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

Bashō, Narrow Road to the Interior

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Resorting to Christmas

Jack and I started the day with a modest breakfast in anticipation of the big brunch at noon, then, in a repeat of our solitary New Zealand Christmas Day three years ago, we walked a nature trail across the island on legs still wobbly from not nearly enough exercise these past months. Once we were clear of the boatyard we came across hornbills too quick to photograph and young long tailed macaques who didn’t mind posing until some elders determined we were too close and warned us off loudly.

Further up the road a gang of delinquents asserted their dominance and blocked the road until we took a side path to avoid them. That path lead to a shaky crossing over a stream so we turned back and waited patiently for the Sharks and the Jets to swagger past.

The path ended on the far side of the resort island at an isolated and beautiful gazebo, a spot we may take advantage of some evening with a bottle of wine and a nibble.

The Christmas brunch offered up by the resort was — please excuse the word choice — awesome. Many meters of long buffets featured seafood and sushi; salads from basic greens to tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella to Waldorf salad to hummus and other Turkish and Syrian dips; cheeses and fresh fruit; a turkey carving station; grilled, roasted and stewed meats of all kinds; a tandoori station; a pasta station; a vast array of Malaysian, European and Indian dishes; baskets of breads and spreads; and of course desserts. I’d met with the chef a few days before to be sure there’d be enough vegetarian dishes to justify the cost for me and when we arrived he kindly walked me through the whole presentation pointing out what was and wasn’t veg friendly. There were more options for me than I’m used to and I shared the intel with another vegetarian I know.

We dug in again and again, plate after plate, washed down with glasses of free-flowing bubbly, wishing we had more capacity or more time and suggesting to the staff that they do this once a week. It was worth every precious ringgit!

Santa made an appearance and passed out candies, and after a few hours of eating and visiting table to table, we waddled back to Escape Velocity to put our feet up and recover from our gluttony.

We finished the day with a refreshing dip in the pool, and later some streaming Netflix thanks to my sister and the marina wifi. All in all, it was a pretty good day. We hope yours was too.

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Peace on earth

It’s an hour before dawn on Christmas Day and Escape Velocity floats perfectly still at a dock at Rebak Marina in Langkawi, Malaysia. The marina is part of a resort, and even this early the whine of an electric cart and the rumble of luggage wheels on the dock ramp tells me there are guests boarding the little private ferry to the big island for an early flight. In a few minutes the ferry will motor past D-dock into the channel and all will be peaceful again.

We came into the marina because we needed to be in a more social environment for the holidays. A downside to our chosen life is that certain times of the year remind us of what we miss of “home.” Thanksgiving is a big one for me because it always involved a wintry road trip to reconnect with family we hadn’t seen since the last Thanksgiving. And since we’ve been cruising the extended holiday season of December often leaves me feeling more empty than joyful as I think of what we’re missing. I miss the general atmosphere of anticipation as we prepared for entertaining; I miss the aromas of roasting vegetables, spicy samosa filling, sweet cinnamon buns. I miss the last-minute run to the Strip District and taking a number at the cheese counter at Penn Mac and seeing that I’m at least 100 numbers away from being served but not stressing because that gives me time to wriggle my basket through the press of spirited shoppers and find the other exotic items on my list. I miss our traditional Cassidy Christmas Eve curry dinner, where everyone is relaxed except our hostess Mary, and getting her to sit down, enjoy the amazing meal she presents and take her kudos is a yearly challenge.

Mostly I miss the time to be with the people I love, to share their troubles and celebrate their joys. I’m so grateful to be cruising in this era of global communications and particularly social media because I feel connected to most of my friends and family in a way that was unimaginable when we first started to plan for this life. I love every photo of new babies, grandkids, cats and dogs, every rant and praise, every sad joke, every plate of food. These small moments are the things we miss when we’re no longer living next door or across town. I think that the people who pooh-pooh social media because it can be mundane and inane are missing the point. Yes, we would prefer to meet for breakfast in person. But when that’s impossible we sure love seeing a friend’s post of our favorite breakfast place and some yummy-looking pancakes. We love the views from the back porch of the latest snowfall, the hike you took this morning, what you’re cooking at home.

The idea for Escape Velocity’s “view from the back porch” emerged many years ago when Jack was a cameraman on a small cruise ship in the Caribbean for a couple of weeks and cell phones (for us) were new. Every morning he sent a photo of where he was to share the trip with me. Since we both traveled often for work it became a thing from then on and it’s the same now with our friends and family on social media. Those shares — however mundane — allow us to continue to be a part of your lives even while we’re far away. Keep ’em coming, folks!

The sky is beginning to lighten. Resort staff are chattering noisily as they arrive on the tiny ferry. Unlike other years I have no early morning cooking or baking to do because the resort is hosting a massive Christmas brunch and all our boater friends will be there. This is our family now, the ever-evolving community of long-distance sailors who are also missing their loved ones and who share their troubles and joys with each other.

We’re lucky to be in Malaysia this holiday season because, as one of our Grab Car (think Uber) drivers said, when I asked why there were so many Christmas decorations in a Muslim country, “We celebrate everything!” And they do. We have rarely seen such over-the-top excess as we did in Kuala Lumpur a few weeks ago. It’s funny to see holiday displays featuring snow scenes in a climate where we’ll be spending our afternoon taking refuge from the oppressive heat in a refrigerated pool.

Even though the largest percentage of Malaysians are Muslim, this is a truly multicultural and tolerant country and we’re enjoying being part of it.

The sun is up. Jack has lit a mosquito coil to keep the nasties at bay, and I think a cup of coffee is in my future. We both wish you all peace in your mind, joy in your soul, and love in your heart every day of your life.

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Happy holidays!

The view from the back porch on Christmas Eve, Rebak Island Marina, Langkawi, Malaysia.

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No one in sight

For the first time in many months we’re anchored in a deserted bay and as the sun comes up I’m awakened by the sound of the teakettle whistling. Jack is sleeping beside me and I go up to the kitchen to turn off the kettle but find the sound is coming from ashore and is apparently cicada-like insects greeting the day. As the sky lightens the sound fades and birds begin their morning songs. The water laps against the hulls as we rock to the breeze coming through the gap in the mountains we’ve anchored behind for shelter.

We came in late last night after a tiring three-day plod from Pangkor to Langkawi, mostly motoring in the fluky up and down wind that, when it did materialize, was on the nose. Jack spent the days at the helm, as he likes to do, and called me out for assistance whenever he spotted a flag or buoy that may be marking a fishing net. I take the binoculars and sit on the bow pulpit seat spotting which way the net is oriented and relay with hand signals how to avoid it. This has been our routine as we make our way up the Malacca Strait. It’s the least fun you can have while traveling by boat, but the destinations are mostly worth it.

A new bird has begun a cheerful welcome and two sea eagles are carving lazy circles overhead. The wind is gusting, williwaws coming down the steep mountain slopes, and Escape Velocity swings sharply for a moment, then gently drifts back with a final dip of the stern steps.

Our water tank is full and the weight of 100 gallons of water coupled with the dinghy and its outboard motor hanging off the back makes EV a little sternheavy and dips our bottom steps in the sea as we rock in the slight swell. We could stand to offload a ton or so of excess weight if I could convince my packrat husband to part with anything. We notice this with other cruisers. Those who still have a land based home have far less excess weight onboard than those of us who carry everything we own. A catamaran is much less forgiving of excess weight than a heavy displacement monohull and we really should address it. But that’s a chore for another time.

Jack is up, still sniffling from his recent cold. He brings coffee to the cockpit and in a few minutes we’ll look at the weather reports and plan our day. It’s probably going to remain overcast and we will have rain later, maybe a thunderstorm. It’s about ten miles to the main anchorage where we know people and where there are shops and cafes and a new town to explore. But for now we’ll enjoy this peaceful place and the solitude we realize we’ve missed all these months.

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The view from the front porch

Besar (Water) Island

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Sea gypsies

We’ve been traveling through the world of the Bajau Laut, Malay people who live their lives on the sea. I’m reading Outcasts of the Islands by Sebastian Hope and I want to share this window into the concept of time the author describes so beautifully.

Living so close to the equator and its perpetual equinox means that the length of days and nights does not vary much year round. The words ‘summer’ and ‘winter’ do not have a useful meaning. But the Bajau Laut live in a world of other time signals, just as regular, just as significant. There are two tides a day, a full moon every twenty-eighth night, and a change in the prevailing wind every six months. These events are so central to the pattern of their life that it seemed inconceivable to me they would not tally them.

But then why bother counting? When the tide falls you prop up the boat. When the moon is full you go fishing at night. When the wind changes you move your anchorage. You do not have to plan beyond the next tide and the next visit to the well; there is no need to lay in store for the winter, as there is no winter. There is no need to know how old you are. When you are big enough you learn to swim and paddle a canoe. When you are strong enough you help with the fishing and the housework. When you reach puberty you work and wear clothes. When the bride price has been raised you are married. While your strength lasts you are parent and provider. When your strength fails you do what you can to help. These are the only markers of time that make any sense, the events of a personal history, and there is no need to count them as they happen only once. I would ask Sarani when things happened and he would say, ‘I was already wearing shorts,’ or ‘Before my first wife died,’ or ‘Before Kapalai was washed away.’ These were the singular events against which his time was measured.

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The view from the back porch

Sunrise over Belitung.

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Just don’t suck

We don’t always go on the official rally tours. I don’t know, how many endless Indonesian speeches can you listen to before you just don’t care anymore? Sultans, governors, village officials, we’ve watched them all drone on and on, but sometimes the organizers get it right. The bus tour of Kumai promised to be one of the good ones, and besides there’s usually some descent swag. The problem is that once they have you on the bus, you’re on for the whole day until the final speech.

At 9:00 am as I motor toward the official rally dock I can already see the usual madness. Dignitaries at the podium, outrageously colorful “authentic costumes”on the dancers and the band, event facilitators desperately trying to hold a constantly evolving situation together.

After a mercifully short welcoming we are herded toward a couple of nice buses, but I can’t help noticing the six motorcycle Polisi, faces covered, with M4 assault weapons hanging from a shoulder mount. Most Indonesian authorities have extremely colorful uniforms. These guys are head to toe in black. I’m thinking this is just a bus load of bum sailors, what the hell is going on here? Turns out Indo TV has been shooting footage of us and as improbable as it seems, we are a very popular segment most every night on television! The ministry of tourism has pulled out all the stops and that kind of explains all the drone shots and taped interviews we’ve done. I breathe a heavy sigh of relief in the knowledge that when the hail of bullets start, Marce, who begged off with a recurrence of back pain, will be safe back on Escape Velocity wondering what is he up to now?

Right now the well armed motorcycle gentlemen in black are motioning for the bus driver to park over there and personally I think we should just do as they say. Turns out the first thing you see is a traditional long house of the Dayaknese Tribe.

These folks are the people that gave us the term Bogeyman due to their remarkable fierceness.

But first a rice wine welcome.

Things are looking up and, fortified, Yours Truly gives the eight foot blow pipe a go, firmly striking the target, all the while remembering not to suck.

More dancing where the bogeyman finally shows up, and a little more rice wine.

Next up, our armed motorcade pulls up to Astana Mangkubumi which features this cute and colorful little prince and princess.

I’ve noticed that these palaces are kind of empty and have a lot of stuff that looks like the Dutch just left it behind. After the buffet lunch we walk down to the Tujuh Putri Water Castle which is better known as the Princess’s Pool and rumor has it that if you dare to rub this filthy water on your skin you will become beautiful. I pass.

I was pretty excited about this next location at the Rainbow Village and when our armed entourage drops us off at their pier we are swamped with requests for selfies with the locals.

We stumble right into the middle of a Refuse Fashion Contest for all ages. Kinda cute and very creative.

Unfortunately it starts to rain as we clamber aboard the local watercraft called a Tuck-Tuck, a one lung diesel, hand cranked, with a tiny propeller at the end of a long shaft that is mostly out of the water. No neutral, no reverse, no transmission, but kinda fun.

Scenes like something on the Nile overwhelm us as we chug by. The view from the river is a bit less painted rainbow, let’s call it just unpainted wood.

The gents in black motion our bus to the car park for the Yellow Palace where the gala dinner will take place. The Sultan is a no-show due to the romancing of his mistress over in Jakarta, which suits me fine, so Yours Truly needn’t change into long pants out of respect. Strange place this Yellow Palace. Once again a kind of empty museum but with a ballroom and grounds where we end up listening to speeches in Indonesian and watching traditional dance. I’m no judge but this show seemed a cut above. I even meet Biruté Galdikas, one of Leakey’s Angels who still runs the Leakey Camp we’d just visited.

It’s well past cruisers’ midnight as the well protected bus pulls into the official rally dock. On the way to Catnip I pick up several stranded cruisers who find they have no way back to their boats so we all pile in bringing to an official end, the official tour.

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Tripping at big pink

Day three of the standard three-day tour usually ends early with the guests transported back to the airport in time to catch a flight to Jakarta. We aren’t going anywhere but back to Escape Velocity so on the advice of a friend we negotiated a longer final day. That meant we could putt-putt downriver at a snail’s pace, savoring the early morning quiet and listening for birds and other creatures in the intermittent rainforest drizzle.

Tourists who lack a sense of romance can hire a speedboat to run them all the way to Camp Leakey and back in one day. That kind of noisy and lumpy conveyance doesn’t appeal to us, but to each his own. These were the only two speedboats we saw during our time in the river.

I mentioned that the boat people are a close-knit community and that includes those who live on the river. The owner of the only guest house got married that morning and the bride and groom issued a blanket invitation to the boat folks to stop by and say hello, and bring their klotok guests, too.

We rafted up to a couple of other boats and climbed boat to boat to get to shore where we were offered food and drink and ran a receiving line gauntlet to the resplendent bride and groom.

As I was backing up to take the following photo my flip flop caught on a loose bit of carpet and I did a spectacular half gainer with a double twist ending in a full layout right in the middle of the reception. I expertly missed hitting the drinks tray and bounced right back up but not before a collective gasp punctuated the solemn occcasion, followed by laughter as I raised my arms in the universal I-meant-to-do-that gesture.

I thought maybe we should prevent me from performing any more potentially destructive maneuvers in the middle of a wedding and asked Herman if we could stroll through town. He arranged to have our klotok meet us at the far end and we made our way down the dusty road, with the usual stops for teens wanting to practice English and take photos.

Earlier I praised Yana’s delicious mie goreng, the classic Indonesian fried noodle dish. “Best I ever had,” I told her, and with that she offered to make it again for us. We weren’t supposed to get another meal but Yana got right to work and let me watch and photograph the steps so I can make it at home. True to form, she whipped up several dishes and laid a final extravagant lunch for us as we slowly motored back to reality.

Two hours later we emerged from the quiet river and back to the noisy, dusty port of Kumai. Our Borneo orangutan adventure is over and I just want to turn around and do it again.

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