Author Archives: Marce

School day

Almost every day when we went ashore I was met by a man who offered a pot of homemade nutmeg jam and “spices cake,” both made by his wife. We were always on our way somewhere but one day I made arrangements with him to meet us at the dock when I knew we’d be on our way back to the boat and the deal was done. (Delicious on both counts.)

In talking with him we learned he teaches an after school English class and he invited us to come talk to his students. A group of cruisers did this a few days ago when we were booked on a tour and I was sorry to miss it. I agreed to come and volunteered Jack, who reluctantly came along.

We were whisked to the other side of the island on motorbikes and saw the eye-opening living conditions away from the touristy areas.

We were parked on a shady patio to await the arrival of the students and served the ubiquitous cinnamon tea and two plates of baked goods. We were the object of curiosity, as always.

When the students arrived we were coached to introduce ourselves with our names, boat name and where we come from. Then the teacher asked us to tell something about ourselves then make up five questions as a quiz to test the students’ listening comprehension. We had heard about this from the other cruisers and discussed it beforehand, and we even brought visual aids.

I spoke first and showed on our soft globe where we come from and wrote “Pennsylvania” on the whiteboard. I told them we have four seasons, spring, summer, autumn, winter, and that summer is very hot, and winter is very cold. I tried to explain how cold but I think subzero temperatures are hard to convey to folks who live near the equator.

I erased my notes on the whiteboard and wrote my five questions, which they answered in their copy books.

Then it was Jack’s turn. He talked about the animals we have in Pennsylvania, as the teacher translated the names of some that Jack listed. When he talked about bears we showed our stuffed black bear — our onboard reminder of our previous home — to the delight of the students. Jack told them a real black bear is as big as a man.

Jack erased his notes and wrote out his own questions, including “How big is a bear?”

After the students answered all the questions we had to grade their quizzes and sign our names to the papers, and in a “formal” ceremony, hand the papers back and congratulate them on their achievement, shaking each hand in turn.

In the end we were serenaded with great gusto with the Kookaburra Song and three or four other easy songs, many with counting or repetition in them, good for learning English. The teacher asked us to teach them a song but for the life of me I couldn’t come up with anything appropriate on the spot.

Now that we’ve done this once and know what the kids responded to we’ll do a little better next time. It was definitely a rewarding experience and I think even Jack enjoyed it.

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Around town

Pulau Bandaneira is a tiny little island, but jam-packed with surviving evidence of the nutmeg wars along with more recent historic buildings and newer accommodations to the tourist trade. We tried, in the stifling heat of the day, to explore as much as we could in the time we had left.

On one hot day we corralled the crew of Erie Spirit to join us for lunch at a nearby café where the food was cooked to order by Rose in her back alley kitchen. And it was delicious!

After lunch we followed a hand drawn map in search of a couple of notable buildings.

We started at the beautiful Cilu Bintang, a guesthouse and restaurant where we enjoyed a welcome dinner the night we arrived. It’s a Dutch colonial reproduction decorated to the max with artifacts from the nutmeg trade and lovely cool gardens and balconies. The owner is also the go-to person for tours and information.

Further out of town we met a local man who guided us to the Hatta House, the early 20th century home in exile of an Indonesian revolutionary who became Vice President after independence. It’s easy to see that this exile may not have been so terrible. The house is lovely, and now seems to be occupied variously by squatters and community groups.

The man who showed us around is pioneering a recycling campaign to help the Bandanese better manage their considerable waste stream, which ends up along the waterways and is the only sad blot on these gorgeous islands. We made a small donation of support for his efforts by buying a couple of the purses his group makes from plastic wrappers.

The heat finally chased us back to the waterfront and a cold drink in the shade. I think I could live here.

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Nutmeg trail

On a hot sunny day we joined a tour to the adjacent island of Pulau Besar to see the nutmeg trees that put these islands on the map.

A wet landing took us to the town of Lonthoir, an obviously prosperous settlement whose residents seem to try to outdo each other in Crayola color combinations.

These islands are steep, and the fitness program on my phone was delighted that I was finally exercising my passage-weakened legs.

The tropical sun is hard on the nutmeg trees, so the planters shade them with huge and beautiful almond trees that are so big I can’t get a whole tree in the frame.

At the plantation the owner demonstrated how they pick the nutmegs with what looks like a lacrosse stick, then he cut open several nutmegs and almonds so we could all smell and taste the fresh fruit and nuts.

Then we were on to cinnamon, another of the traditional crops of these spice islands. We all stood around like Ewell Gibbons chewing on tree bark and agreed that its fresh, pungent, bordering on hot spicy flavor reminded us of the candy Red Hots.

Walking back through town we saw nutmegs and cloves drying in front of many of the houses and realized the spices are produced not just by the plantations but by nearly everyone on the islands. The scent is nearly intoxicating.

We climbed a little further to the remnants of the Dutch fort for a spectacular view of the volcano and the anchorage below.

We ended the tour with cinnamon tea and nutmeg coffee and more of the friendly faces we’ve become accustomed to here in Banda.

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The land of nutmeg

As soon as we set foot on shore we fell in love with Banda Neira, the administrative center of the Spice Islands. It’s got the same lively, bordering on chaotic vibe as Bali, but on a much smaller scale and without the Hindu influence. People here are Muslim and the competing muezzins ring out a modern jazz symphony of aural ouch four times a day. But the people are as friendly and fun loving as we’ve seen so far, and obviously used to foreign visitors, as evidenced by the many shop signs in English. We’re using our Google Translate app far less that we did in Debut.

Every shop displays nutmegs, cinnamon and nutmeg candy, made from the dried and spiced meat of the nutmeg, something we haven’t seen before.

Our local host for the rally boats has arranged various tours and dinners on an ad hoc basis, so while we decide what we want to do on an organized jaunt vs. on our own we’re just wandering the streets of Banda Neira, appreciating the Graham Greene atmosphere of slightly decaying colonial architecture.

The spice that made the islands famous and the bitter conflict between the Dutch and the English it caused are evident everywhere.

But this is not a reconstructed Disneyland of tourist fakery, but rather a lively community with, of course, a traditional market, always my favorite destination.

The locals seem to absorb the influx of visitors with good cheer while still going about the daily business of living.

We have a lot more to see and do on these tiny islands. Another day. We’ve got time.

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The view from the back porch

We have arrived at the legendary Spice Islands, a dream come true for Jack.

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Ease on down the road

Our weeklong stay in Debut gave us an opportunity to ease into Indonesia, learn a few critical phrases, get accustomed to what’s available in the markets, and reacquaint ourselves with the high-finance feel of the currency, where 100,000 rupiah is approximately $10AUD. We find it easier to do the mental arithmetic to Aussie dollars — knock off four zeros — than the more headscratching conversion to USD, which we haven’t used in years anyway.

Our little town of Debut has very little in the way of shops and supplies so a local taxi or van is in order for a 20 to 30 minute drive into Langgur where an ATM coughs up a maximum of 2,500,000 rupiah, about $175US. The wad of bills challenges the Velcro on my wallet and I have to find alternative ways of carrying money.

The fresh market is typical, and in a few visits we’ve learned what’s readily available — bok choy, tomatoes, eggplant, ladyfinger bananas — and what’s not, most notably mangoes, which we learned are out of season, and much in the way of fresh herbs. Everyone is patient and helpful as we navigate the ways of the marketplace and the language.

The big surprise for me is how difficult it is to find vegetarian food in restaurants. During our sojourns into town, and also at our rally dinners, there isn’t much in the way of food for me to eat, and when I ask if vegetarian food is available I’m met with puzzled looks. This is not what I expected in Indonesia and I’m hoping it’s just the case in these particular islands, where fishing is the dominant industry.

We stayed behind the day much of the fleet departed for our next stop because I wanted to catch up on laundry and get the boat more organized after the passage from Australia. We also wanted to walk the road along the shore to see more of the village and stretch our legs a bit before heading back out to sea.

Everyone wants a ‘selfie,’ by which they mean either they want us to take their picture or they want to take our picture with them. We’ve posed for more photos than we can count.

And now it’s time to go, a little less than 200 miles west, to a destination that Jack has dreamed of for decades.

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Join the crowd

For our journey through Indonesia we have, for the first time ever, joined a rally. This is an organized cruise where boats travel the same itinerary, gathering at prearranged destinations where local organizations welcome the boats with various events.

We did this because the bureaucracy of Indonesia has traditionally been difficult to navigate. We understand that it’s become less complicated recently and several of our cruiser friends made reasonably easy journeys on their own, but we made the decision to facilitate the paperwork process and signed up.

So far it’s been a mixed blessing. It’s nice to meet other cruisers, some of whom we’ve seen in anchorages going back for years but never actually met. It’s a good international group, with mostly Europeans — from Germany, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Denmark, England, Ireland — along with Americans, Aussies and Kiwis and one Brazilian. I haven’t met everyone yet so there might be others. We haven’t enjoyed this mixed a group since New Zealand.

On the other hand, the locals, at least here in Debut, are so excited to have this many visitors that they put on an enervating schedule of events that we can’t keep up with. It’s party time for them and a bit much for many of us. Add in that any event in this part of the world involves audio speakers turned up to eleven, and we are drained at the end of the day and long for the peace and quiet of remote anchorages.

The good news is that we are free to go off on our own and drop in and out of the rally schedule as we wish, and luckily we don’t have to check in and out of every port of call. That simplifies life for us because the authorities, as lovely and friendly as they are, have a different definition of efficiency and we must draw on the patience we developed while cruising the Caribbean. Everything takes time and a smile and a book to read while you wait.

We escaped to the waterfront during a particularly loud presentation to enjoy a little quiet time. How the locals aren’t all deaf by puberty is a mystery to me.

Everyone wants their picture taken, or to take ours.

Indonesia’s alternative to face painting: henna hands.

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The longest day

We always note that on any passage, no matter how long, the last twenty miles or so seem like one hundred miles. When you can see your destination ahead and you’re only moving at about five or six miles an hour you don’t feel like you’re getting closer hour by hour.

All we cared about was getting to anchor before dark. We were on a course that minimized the effect of the cross swell as we came up to the island and it wasn’t particularly fast but our ETA unwaveringly showed us arriving around 5pm and that was ok by us.

As we sailed up the channel we had to turn to avoid some fishermen setting out a net. It was our first encounter with the locals and we waved at each other excitedly.

Finally we got settled in at anchor just as the muezzin started his call from one of the several mosques we could see on shore.

Jack flew our quarantine flag but it soon became clear that the officials had stopped working for the day and we’d be boatbound overnight. That’s ok. We called it quesadilla night and celebrated our arrival with margaritas and hot showers.

The next morning we got the boat ready for biosecurity and customs inspections but nobody came to clear us in. We waited and waited and finally decided to spend the time doing some much needed boat work. Jack spent an hour or so installing a 12v outlet in the TV cabinet and routing the heavy satellite antenna cable so we can plug the Iridium GO in for a better signal.

And still we waited, with shore tantalizingly close.

Finally we were visited by biosecurity, who cleared us of any illness or disease pretty quick.

It was another wait before Customs came and they took a little longer, with more paperwork and a boat inspection. Finally we were told we could go ashore where Immigration had set up a temporary office in a pavilion on the waterfront. We got our visas checked and our passports stamped and we are finally officially in Indonesia.

This is how you get ashore in Debut. Get off the dinghy at the slippery steps, then walk the dinghy around to the bridge and tie off.

Our first stop was the Telkomsel truck on the street where two young men set us up with a SIM card for our mobile hotspot. Back on the grid!

By this time it was about 4pm and too late to take a taxi into town for an ATM and a market but we walked around the village to stretch our legs and see exactly where we’ve landed. I’d say it’s a pretty nice place.

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Flipside

I came on watch this morning before dawn and Jack went downstairs to take a nap. Shortly after sunrise we were hit with a sudden wind squall that spun the boat around so quick I didn’t have time to get the sails under control. We had been sailing wing and wing with the mainsail held out to one side and the jib on the other, both secured with preventer lines. I called for Jack who took the helm while I went from one side deck to the other releasing the preventers and sheeting in the sails. We followed the wind around in a circle getting slammed this way and that by the big seas until the squall passed and the wind decided on a direction, then got back on something resembling our course and the sails trimmed. It was over in about 15 minutes but we were both exhausted and flush with adrenalin.

I offered to go below and make coffee while Jack kept an eye on things. I should have remembered that slamming into steep seas would shift the contents of the cabinets but it wasn’t on my mind. So when I opened a cupboard door the stack of my beloved little Turkish bowls toppled onto the counter, and half of them onto the floor and down the steps into the port hull.

I loved those bowls. I bought them at Harris Farm Market in Sydney for $2 each on a day when Alex drove Jack and me all over the city to knock off a bunch or errands that would have taken a day apiece had we used public transportation. Alex embraced every one of our quests and entertained us with life stories to boot. We ended up at Harris and when I wondered aloud if I should get four or six bowls Alex said to get the six. They became our dessert bowls, my yogurt bowls, serving bowls for nuts, olives, salsa. I associate them with Sydney and Alex and they made me happy. Three survived, not enough to serve dessert to guests, but enough for the salsa and the nibbles.

It took the better part of an hour to clean up the shards scattered so comprehensively throughout the galley and port hull that the effort left me queasy. By the time I delivered Jack’s thermal coffee mug to the cockpit I was ready for this day to be over. In fact I may have said I wanted to move to a farm. I’m not sure now what may have come out of my mouth at the time.

The day did improve after that, but I’m going to miss those bowls.

Flying fish routinely land onboard during a passage, but not usually on the cockpit cushions.

This fish was on deck after a particularly lively night of big waves.

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Underway

It’s our second night at sea on the way to Debut, Indonesia. It’s a beautiful night, with a sky full of stars, a soft breeze, following seas. The air is still chilly enough when the sun goes down that I change into sweatpants and a hoodie, funny when we’re at 10 degrees south latitude, closer to the equator than we’ve been since the Marquesas three years ago and that was hot. There’s a near constant parade of ships in both directions but they pass at a respectful distance. I’m still on the lookout for fishing vessels which are often unlit. There’s a tiny bit of moon but it’s dark on the water and I have to stare hard on my every 15-minute horizon check to see that the way ahead is clear.

A ship that I hailed earlier on the radio to make sure he could see us has altered course and is now abeam about a mile and a half away, bound for Singapore. Jack is off watch and I hope he’s getting some sleep. It takes a few days to adjust to the sleep pattern of a passage and we both feel out of sorts at first.

This afternoon we piped a couple of podcasts out to the cockpit, then switched to music. The random shuffle of a hundred gigabytes of tunes gave us didgeridoo music by Ganga Giri as a goodbye to Oz, then a beautiful rendition of Over the Rainbow by our dear friend Mary Cassidy to make us a little homesick for the people we love.

Being at sea, being anywhere cut off from the world and stripped of the visual stimuli of modern life, always unclutters my mind. It’s meditation, a complete reboot, tabula rasa. It’s what I loved about camping, when the hours in a day are concerned only with shelter, water, fire and food. Onboard a sailboat at sea, we watch the weather, take care of the boat’s needs to keep her on course and moving well. We take care of each other too, making sure we get enough rest, stay hydrated and fed. But with no internet or TV our minds are free to wander. Sometimes I find I’ve been staring at the sea or the sky for an hour with not one thought except to look and listen. The sea is of course hypnotic and it’s easy to lose yourself in its soothing rhythm. That’s assuming it’s in a soothing mood, which it is so far tonight. The wind is steady so I’m not having to tweak the sails or the course. So far this passage reminds me of sailing from Puerto Rico to Panama, a thousand downwind miles that started us on our six on/ six off watch schedule because it was too beautiful to go to bed. It doesn’t often happen but the memory of it keeps us coming back for more.

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