It’s 3am and the gentle rain we were having has suddenly turned into a howling squall. Escape Velocity is tugging at her docklines and Jack climbs down to the dock in his underwear to lay his bicycle down while I retrieve a few loose items out of the cockpit before they blow away.
When we’re at anchor the boat generally swings to face into the wind, which means wind-borne rain is blocked by the forward cockpit enclosure and we’re safe and dry while we check on things. Tied to a dock the boat is held in one position and we’re at the mercy of whatever direction the weather comes from. Right now it’s blowing in from behind so even a quick foray outside leaves us dripping.
Jack climbs back aboard and I check that our rain collector hose is feeding into the water tank. We’re both barely back in bed when a white flash lights the cabin accompanied by a loud thunderclap.
“That was close!” we both say at once and I jump out of bed again and out into the cockpit to see — what? I don’t know. I just feel the need to do something. Back inside I adjust the position of the yellow plastic bowl that collects the drips coming in where I haven’t perfectly taped the plastic around the temporary room air conditioner over the main galley hatch. I make a mental note to look into that tomorrow.
Within minutes the wind dies down and the rain is back to its gentle pitterpat but I can still hear thunder rumbling in the distance. Whether it’s coming or going I can’t tell. Squalls often come in bands around here and may go on for hours. I could check the weather radar but it’s now almost 4am and it seems more important to close my eyes again and try to get some sleep. Jack’s already in dreamland, blissfully trusting our boat, the docklines and his own instincts. As the more analytical partner I go through my standard mental checklist of What Could Go Wrong and What To Do About It before I can begin to think about sleep. But I’m going to try. Here goes. Good night.
It’s hard to believe but once again it’s time to plan a trip out of Malaysia to get a new 90-day visa stamp on our return. Where should we go this time? We’re planning our first US trip in almost five years in two months and that’s going to put a visible dent in our budget so this visa run needs to be cheap. We could untie the docklines and sail 30 miles to Thailand for a week of beach life at anchor but neither of us is keen on that. Flying out of Langkawi is so cheap we prefer to go that route and avoid the added paperwork and hassle of clearing the boat in and out of two countries. We narrow the affordable, desirable options to Singapore and Changrai, Thailand. And then we have the brilliant idea to invite our greatly missed Sydney friends to join us at either destination.
But damn, our Window of Opportunity doesn’t fit their Window of Opportunity and our spirits fall until a further email pops up with an alternative proposal. “Come to Sydney!” they say. “Yes!” we say. The idea of spending a week with good friends in a city we love is the exact thing we need right now, as we suffocate in the tropical humidity of the Malaysian summer, a little lonely for company with the marina nearly empty of inhabitants and those who are still here mostly taking refuge inside in air conditioned comfort, including us. We need to get out.
I’m shocked to realize that Sydney is very far away and booking the journey takes on the complexity of a major campaign. As much as we’ve traveled, neither of us has been on long-haul flights, and while this doesn’t qualify as that, it will be the longest flight either of us has taken before. And as with any trip from tiny Rebak Island, it all starts with a ferry ride to the bigger island of Langkawi where the airport is. Coordinating with the limited ferry schedule is the greatest challenge of any trip from here but I manage to get us to Kuala Lumpur in time for an 8-1/2 hour red-eye to Sydney without too much distress.
Diana insists they pick us up at the airport but we point out the need to clear customs and immigration, find an ATM, get a SIM card for the phone and arm ourselves with Opal cards for Sydney’s excellent public transportation system before we’re ready for pickup so she relents and allows that maybe it’s better if we make our way to their house in our own time. We look forward to the 45-minute downtime buffer between the buzz of the airport and welcome in Rozelle. But first we make our way to the duty free shop where we’ve ordered a two-pack of bubbly to celebrate our cruiser reunion.
We haven’t even presented ourselves at the pickup counter before the clerk looks up and says, “You must be Jack.” We’re both startled and suspicious as we look behind us to make sure he’s addressing us and not some long-lost distant cousin, but yes, he’s looking at Jack. We’re apparently the last of our flight to retrieve an order, as our age-adjusted pace from the plane, through the restroom gauntlet, down long terminal walkways and through the arrival hall means our Moët is the only remaining package.
With errands done and luggage compiled in traveling mode our feet remember the way to the train for the city, and we feel the nostalgic pull of a place we considered home not too long ago. It’s very good to be back.
We’ve been filling in some of our adventures from last season. If you’re not a subscriber use the calendar on the menu and go back the beginning of August 2018 to start reading about Buton, Flores, Komodo and Lombok. We’re doing our best to get up to date. More to come.
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.” — Anthony Bourdain
This is a different kind of view from what you’re used to seeing from us. We’ve been living at a marina since January and will be here at least until the end of October. It’s relatively inexpensive, easy living, very protected from weather, and we’re getting caught up on some very minor but time consuming boat projects. It’s also a very easy place to travel from, with an airport close by. Any marina dents our budget a little, even a cheap one, but the removal of anchor/weather stress is giving us a much needed break from cruising after seven years.
In this marina there are many unoccupied boats that are either for sale or stowed during the wet season while the owners go back to Australia or Europe or New Zealand. The occupied boats are either longterm residents or, like us, taking a break, doing longterm repairs, or here for the convenience of traveling. It’s not perfect — getting groceries is an effort — but living in the trees with abundant birds, monkeys, monitor lizards and, though we haven’t seen them yet, otters, is a delight.
On this peaceful morning, I can hear at least five or six different bird calls. Today is Hari Raya or Eid, the end of Ramadan and we’ll be going to a special buffet at sundown this evening to celebrate. You can read about Eid here. We’re looking forward to it!
And just like that our Vietnam sojourn is over. In hindsight I think we would skip Hué and spend more time in Hanoi but that could be because our weather in Hué was unbearably hot and it was difficult to get motivated for anything. Hanoi, however, is much more interesting and deserves more time than we gave it.
We flew directly to Penang, wisely avoiding a potential repeat of our visa problem at Kuala Lumpur Immigration. When we arrived we confidently queued up behind the “All Passports” sign and I went first. “How long will you be staying in Malaysia?” the agent asked. I told her we have a yacht in Langkawi and asked for three more months. “Wait here,” she said, and she left her post and disappeared down the row of agents and around the corner. I called after her, “Do you want my yacht papers?” but she didn’t answer. Not again, I thought, and I looked over at Jack and shrugged.
Time passed. The people who had queued behind Jack grew impatient. I kept leaning around the booth to watch for her return, then turned toward the passengers behind Jack and shrugged to indicate I didn’t know what was happening. Eventually they all moved to another line as Jack and I grew more concerned. What could possibly be the problem?
After about 15 minutes the agent returned to her booth, stamped my passport and handed it over. “Did you want to see my yacht papers?” I asked again. She shook her head in dismissal and gestured for Jack to approach. “He’s with me,” I said. “Same deal.” She nodded, and as I stood off to the side, Jack was stamped in within seconds. I have no idea what to make of it but we’re legal for another 90 days.
We collected our luggage, skipped through customs and called a Grab car for the 30 minute ride to Georgetown. We intend to stay here, yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, for a few days before finally heading home to Escape Velocity. Most of our yachtie friends have sung the praises of Penang and I think if there were better yacht facilities there’d be more boats here than in Langkawi. Most folks either stop for a day or two on their way north or south or leave their boats elsewhere and come by ferry, air or car.
It was pouring rain. And by pouring, I mean like Costa Rica. Biblical. I even mentioned to Jack that I suspected Escape Velocity’s water tank was probably overflowing with rainwater from our passive collection system. Our driver said it had been raining for days. And with that I began to worry.
Escape Velocity relies on sunshine to function without us. The batteries that run the bilge pumps and keep the fridge and freezer working are kept charged by solar panels on the roof. Too many days without enough sunshine can drain the battery bank. When we’re there and monitoring things we can supplement the solar charging with a battery charger powered by a diesel generator but if we’re not there, well, nothing happens automatically.
I checked a few weather apps to see if Langkawi, a mere 70 miles north, was experiencing the same rain as Penang. It didn’t appear to be, and Jack convinced me that EV is fine and not to worry. I consider it part of my job to worry, but we’re finally in Penang and looking forward to it.
Our hotel, another cruiser recommendation, is modern and comfy with some seriously fancy fixtures. we just love these hotel visits where we can indulge in long hot showers and modern plumbing that’s not our responsibility to maintain.
I found a café about a kilometer from the hotel that advertised bagels so the next morning we hightailed it out the door into the steam heat of SE Asia rainy season to see for ourselves if they were real bagels and not just donut shaped bread. They were. We ordered toasted bagels with egg and cheese, plus bacon for Jack, and savored every bite. I like Penang already.
The historic area of Georgetown is famous for its street art and we sought out some, but the rain got to be too much and we took refuge where any self-respecting American goes in bad weather: to the mall. There are several huge ones in Penang and we both enjoy keeping up with what’s selling in the First World even if we don’t buy anything. We did get an extra set of mandolin strings for Jack at a gigantic music store, the second one we checked out. The first one was merely large, quite a difference from the tiny jam packed shop in Hanoi where Jack bought his new axe.
We tried more exploring on foot but with on and off showers it was clear that our planned time here is not going to entail our favorite pastime of café hopping and architecture gazing. With another check on the weather we gave up and reserved seats on a flight back to Langkawi the next morning. We’ll come back when it stops raining. There’s a lot to do here and we’d rather do it without carrying an umbrella.
As Jack predicted, Escape Velocity had fared well in our absence, and waiting for me at home was my new Firefly 5-string banjo made by Magic Fluke in Massachusetts. It’s a beautiful scaled down instrument that fits perfectly on the boat, yet has a real bluegrass sound. I can’t wait to learn to play. Dock neighbors beware! You may need earplugs for a while….
Morning found us walking purposefully south and west of our hotel, navigating via Google maps on my phone because we found it difficult to follow the tourist map our hotel concierge gave us. We zigged and zagged a number of doglegs around Hoan Kiem Lake, dodged traffic, made vague promises of “later” to groups of school children wanting to practice their English, and fought the temptations of inviting streets and alleyways. After about 30 minutes we turned a corner and saw what we were looking for, one of the remaining outer walls of Maison Centrale, the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where captured American pilots were imprisoned and tortured, some for more than eight years, during the “American War.” When I saw the recognizable wall, my breath caught in my throat and I anticipated another difficult morning.
We paid our admission fee, entered though the main arch and picked up our headphones and players for the audio tour.
As it happened most of the tour focused on the construction of the prison by the French in the late 19th century and the abominable conditions experienced by the Vietnamese patriots who were imprisoned there. The place was called “hell on earth” and the French were said to use “ruthless and inhumane torture against patriotic and revolutionary prisoners.” Exhibit after exhibit detailed the meager food rations, the beatings, the stench, the killings by guillotine, the attempted escapes and subsequent recaptures and punishments, and of course the heroic acts of the patriots to subvert their French rulers.
After the overthrow of the French in 1954 the Vietnamese took over the prison, and from 1964 to 1972 during the “war of destruction against North Vietnam” the prison held captured US pilots.
Our audio tour painted a happy picture of war prisoners being well looked after, playing basketball, decorating Christmas trees, preparing holiday dinners. We’ve been told a different story.
Later I looked up the tap code that we’ve heard about so many times from survivors of the Hanoi Hilton and found this.
We left Maison Centrale in a glum mood and walked back toward the center of town. We had lunch on a balcony overlooking the cathedral and the setting lifted our spirits while we batted around doing an overnight cruise on Ha Long Bay. We wanted to do it, but it would eat up two full days of our time in Hanoi and we were really enjoying the energy of the city and hated to leave. Choosing a tour operator was also causing some agita, as there are dozens of them and the guidebooks and online sources are full of warnings of low quality, unsafe or unscrupulous companies. What to do, what to do?
We pushed that dilemma to the back burner and enjoyed the afternoon and evening. shopping, eating, and doing the usual Schulz Aimless Wandering that we’ve perfected over the years.
Back towards our hotel we found ourselves on Musical Instrument Street and while we were marveling over some of the unidentifiable native instruments Jack spotted a mandolin, a target of his obsession over the years. He recently bought a ukulele bass and wisely talked himself out of adding another instrument to the growing onboard collection.
As darkness fell activity spilled out into the streets and we returned to our hotel to freshen up and rest before tackling dinner.
It was Cinco de Mayo so like all good Americans we opted for Mexican again and enjoyed two-for-one margaritas and about the best quesadilla I’ve ever had. In Hanoi.
We didn’t plan it especially for this reason but our tour of Vietnam includes four cities beginning with H: Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hué and our final stop, Hanoi. We also planned three UNESCO sites, Hoi An Ancient Town, the Citadel in Hué and our last intended site, Ha Long Bay, which isn’t really near Hanoi but that’s how you get there.
After the dead heat of Hué I was glad to be going further north and hoping to find cooler temps. We did, but we also got our first cloudy weather, and eventually, rain. We had pushed the calendar a little and were on the cusp of rainy season so we weren’t surprised at that, and really, in a big city, rain is rarely a deterrent to activity.
We settled into our hotel by mid afternoon, giving us plenty of time to reconnoiter the neighborhood. Right away we noticed that the shops are largely organized like a giant department store, with one street mostly hardware stores, one street baby clothes, several streets toys, etc. Our hotel was in Notions department with separate shops selling buttons, zippers, fasteners, beads and so on. If my feet would hold out I’d have walked the streets for days just to discover the categories.
The scary Vietnamese telecom system is on full view in Hanoi and apparently kept in good nick.
We decided Hanoi is even more chaotic than Saigon but we enjoyed navigating the crazy traffic and crowded streets, appreciating the architecture and the way the city seems to be held together by sheer determination and a little luck.
Our hotel concierge tipped us on the night market happening around the corner on the evening of our arrival so we joined the fray and negotiated the crush of humanity for about an hour and a half before taking refuge in a quiet restaurant for dinner. The food would surely have been better out in the market but we needed real chairs to sit in, and a bit of air conditioning.
Today is the March for Science and we wish we could participate in a local event but it’s a travel day for us. Two years ago we were in New Zealand on the day and we had our own march despite our remote location.
This year the March for Science appropriately falls on Star Wars Day, all the more reason to celebrate science in all its branches, everywhere, by everyone. Science isn’t something you decide to agree or disagree with. There aren’t “two sides” to science. It’s the fundamental underpinnings of everything over, under, around and through us. And I say hats off to every scientist, past, present and future, who furthers our understanding of the world.
May Fourth has a darker meaning and for me it’s become a personal day of remembrance, a meditation on peace, and a ritual of thanksgiving. It was on this day in 1970 that the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students at Kent State University who were protesting the American invasion of Cambodia, killing four and injuring nine others. It was a shocking act of violence against unarmed young adults exercising their right to free speech in a country we were being told was fighting a war halfway around the world to protect those very rights. I can remember the horror I felt that my country turned its weapons on its own citizens. Ten days later a similar shooting at Jackson State University in Mississippi left 2 student protestors dead and injured 12 more. Every year on this day I think of those students and the soldiers who killed them and hope that one day we will have peace on earth for all people.
On May 4th, 2014, forty-four years after the Kent State massacre, while I was pondering how to memorialize the event, we lost our rig to the Pacific Ocean on a fine sailing day when a critical piece of hardware failed without warning 450 miles from the nearest land. We were not injured, and except for the loss of sail power we were not disabled. We had sufficient fuel, water and food to make it back to safety. We were able to make repairs and continue our journey less than a year later, and we will always be grateful that what could have killed us or at least ended our plans, instead taught us patience and led us to experiences we never imagined.
Life is cruel and wonderful. We always hope for more wonderful than cruel, but we have no choice but to take it as it comes. Breathe in peace; breathe out love.
When we finally reached Hué our driver had a hard time finding our hotel. That’s because it was tucked down a narrow alley barely wide enough to accommodate a car and generally packed with motorbikes and backpackers squeezing past each other and the pedestrians. We learned there are quite a few alleys like this in our Hué neighborhood and we were to discover restaurants and cafés hidden in these tiny lanes. Out on the streets eateries spilled out into the sidewalks And like everywhere else in Vietnam, diners perch on child-sized plastic chairs at low tables. I don’t know why they don’t use adult sized chairs but my knees would definitely not be able to negotiate those chairs.
We had no plan for our time here except to see the Citadel, another UNESCO site. Our friends who’ve been here were of mixed opinions, from “we loved it” to “there’s not much there.” The stifling heat that nearly felled us in Hoi An followed us here and unlike Saigon there are few air conditioned cafés to take refuge in when the midday humidity saps your energy and dulls your brain. We spent the afternoons in the cool sanctuary of our hotel room or a cafe with a fan blowing directly on us. We had to.
The Citadel is surrounded by a moat and walls, with very few walkways through the massive ornate gates.
If you are told, when asking directions, that the entry gate is around the other side, you’ve just lost half a day. It’s big. There are virtually no signs or directions posted. When finding ourselves in the vicinity we decided to reconnoiter and while we couldn’t find the actual entrance, we did find a nice little lunch spot which was friendly to vegetarians. Getting Veitnamese to make our favorite banh mi without meat seems to offend most of them. I’m a simple man. I go with the pork.
Along the Perfume River we admired the Eiffel-designed bridge which bears an uncanny resemblance and construction techniques to the Smithfield Street bridge in Pittsburgh.
Walking across we were startled to see that Christo may have been here.
The following day our assault on the Citadel began in earnest with a Grab ride in an effort to save the legs. During the “American war” our country bombed the bejesus out of the Citadel, easy to find along the Perfume River and so big you can’t miss it, and the Vietnamese have been restoring it ever since. The site includes three walled enclosures and the signage is so poor that the Imperial City is probably here in these photos somewhere, it’s just that how would one know?
One dragon looks pretty much like another so you compose and shoot randomly. Turns out these walls contain a massive fort with, in its day, the largest guns in the world.
In our day, the only way the finish off this town was with giant mojitos at the Secret Garden just down the alley from our hotel.