Author Archives: Marce

Champagne living, beer budget

It occurs to me that we haven’t described our current “residence.” Since right before Christmas we’ve been living at a marina, a very uncommon situation for the ever-wandering, usually-anchoring Escape Velocity and her crew. But this is Malaysia, a budget friendly country and a beautiful place to hang out for a while to regain financial solvency after 20 months of what we can only characterize as a spending spree in Australia, and to recover from sailing nearly 6000 miles in 9 months, from Sydney almost to the Thailand border. I think last year was the most distance covered in one season since 2015 when we crossed the Pacific from El Salvador to New Zealand. It was exhausting.

Many of the boats we met while traveling north along Australia’s east coast and through Indonesia and Malaysia have scattered to the winds, some sailing onward to Thailand, India, Djibouti or South Africa.

A goodbye dinner for two of our own who are off to caravan through Europe.

A temporary goodbye to the crew of Impetuous Too who will spend seven or eight months in England. We’ll see them again when they return before Christmas.

For some, this is the end of the line and their boats are for sale as they embrace new adventures. Some have parked their boats for longterm maintenance and upgrade projects, or extended trips home to Europe, Australia, or New Zealand. Others are poking around the general vicinity exploring the lifetime of beautiful anchorages along the Malacca Strait, and a few, like us, have ordered the combination platter.

We definitely need to tackle a few maintenance projects and do some upgrades and gear replacement, but we aren’t under any pressure to do it all at once — easier on our fixed income, gentler on our psyches — and we also want to do more land traveling like our wonderful trip to Cambodia. All of that lead to the decision to tie up at a marina for a while. It takes weather worries off our minds, allows us to step on and off the boat to a dock rather than have to dingy ashore every time we want to take a walk or visit a cafe. And it allows us to do some of the things we enjoy that are difficult if we’re constantly moving from anchorage to anchorage. I’ve been cooking a lot more, enjoying craft projects that I can’t do when everything needs to be stowed for travel every few days, catching up on reading and blogging, and just generally having a recognizably domestic life. It’s been fun!

We chose to come to Rebak Island Marina, part of the Vivanta Rebak Island Resort. This is a high end Taj hotel property in a gorgeous, if somewhat isolated, setting. Rebak is a tiny private island off the southwest corner of Langkawi, a larger island off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. If that sounds confusing, find us here: https://goo.gl/maps/fxKRrJ3xkVq or here: http://www.farkwar.com/boats/escape-velocity

The resort is beautiful, nestled among mature trees and lovely gardens. There’s a pool with a swim-up bar and a private beach, nature trails with plenty of wildlife and a daily wake up serenade by the considerable bird population. Yachties have our own Hard Dock Café and generous discounts at the hotel restaurants and bars. We have the run of the joint, plus our own services like a small chandlery, yacht and insurance brokers, and some limited technical and mechanical repair services. There’s a tiny gym and a couple of women lead yoga classes three times a week. The hard stand, where boats haul out of the water for bottom work or longterm storage, is one of the cleanest we’ve ever been in.

That sounds pretty posh, you’re thinking, the escapees must have hit the lottery. Nope. As shiny-pants as this is, we are living here for pennies compared to what any longterm marina stay would cost us elsewhere. Most of that is a result of the favorable economy, but we’re aided by a healthy discount the marina offers to boats that participate in the rally that brought us here in the first place. It’s a golden opportunity for Escape Velocity to experience the life of a marina queen (don’t let her hear you say that) and for us to work on projects or travel off the boat without the pressure of a mounting marina bill.

We love the pool, we love the beach bar, we love the multinational breakfast and dinner buffets, we love being in the trees. We don’t love not being able to walk to a cafe for coffee and a pastry, or to a market for fresh produce. There are no businesses on the island beyond the resort, and though there’s a tiny convenience store it mostly stocks snack foods for the resort visitors. That means a grocery or parts run is generally a day-long trek involving a short ferry ride to the big island of Langkawi, then either a rental car ($12.50 a day from Mr. Din, no questions asked) or a Grab car (like Uber) that’ll drive you to the shopping district clear across the island for $6. We like to take our folding cart so we’re not schlepping too many parcels, and a Grab car back to the ferry drops us right at the jetty.

It really couldn’t be easier but we do sometimes feel a little isolated and dependent on the ferry schedule. Then we go to the pool to cool off and read for a while and we forget all about the isolation thing and just feel lucky that we can enjoy this lush life on our budget.

Friends and family, feel free to book yourselves into the resort. We’ll meet you at the beach for sundowners.

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Homeward bound

After our fun trip to the Silk Island we asked Sambo to take us to the Russian Market, which turned out to be just another crowded, stuffy, sprawling warren of stalls just like every other SE Asian market. We wished we’d gone to the Central Market instead but by that time we were hot and tired and done for the day.

We spent our last evening having a ritual gin and tonic on the upper deck of the Foreign Correspondents Club, followed by a last dinner at the tiny, friendly Ethiopian restaurant. We know it’ll be a long time before we see Ethiopian food again.

Early the next morning Sambo picked us up for the run to the airport, most of which we spent in bumper to bumper traffic.

We had a short layover in Kuala Lumpur and were happy to see no queue at immigration. But when we got stamped back in, we were both warned by our respective officials that we would have to leave the country in six days when our original visas expire. No, we said, those visas were single entry and when we left the country they were void and now we’re eligible for new 90-day visas. Nope, they told us, you need to apply for extensions in Langkawi.

Now, I know this to be wrong. Ninety-day single-entry tourist visas are not renewable or extendable. That’s why we had to leave the country for seven days, to qualify for new visas. But we could see that the officers — who were conferring with each other in Malay– would not be moved and if we argued further we’d risk missing our connection. We took our passports and rushed to catch the flight to Langkawi.

In Langkawi, even though we arrived on a domestic flight, we presented ourselves at immigration and told them our tale of leaving for the required interval but being denied a new visa on arrival. The two agents we spoke with agreed that we should have been stamped for a new 90 days but shrugged and told us they couldn’t fix it. They advised we’d have to appeal to the main immigration office when it reopened on Sunday. It was now Thursday, and our current visas expire the following Wednesday. If we had to sail to Thailand we wouldn’t have much time to prepare.

The day continued to deteriorate when we took the escalator down to collect our luggage only to find our suitcase missing. Was it being held at Customs in Kuala Lumpur? In Phnom Penh it had been checked through to Langkawi but it definitely hadn’t made it here.

We filed a report at the baggage office, ordered a Grab car to the Rebak ferry, and finally made it home to Escape Velocity in time to drop off our backpacks and totes and get to the beach bar in time for happy hour. Our fun and relaxing vacation to renew our visas completely failed to accomplish its purpose, and we apparently sacrificed our luggage, too. More wine, please.

Overnight it occurred to me that we hadn’t listed our boat name on the lost luggage report so when I got up I walked over to the kiosk to give the ferrymen a heads up.

“The airline lost our luggage and they may send it on the ferry if they find it,” I told the guy on duty.

He pointed behind him and said, “Does it look like that?”

Hurrah! We had our luggage back, now it was on to solving our visa problem.

When Sunday rolled around we took the earliest ferry to Langkawi and a Grab car to the immigration office and arrived when they opened. We explained our dilemma and showed our passports. The clerk was puzzled and agreed that we should have been given new 90-day visas. She told us to take a seat while she consulted with her supervisor.

Forty five minutes and 6RM/each (about $3 total) later we have another 90 days to enjoy our new temporary home on Rebak Island, Malaysia. And life is good again.

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Weaving across the Mekong

When we first started to explore the idea of traveling to Cambodia we were focused on a river journey on the Mekong River from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam. We had so enjoyed our river trip in Borneo to see the orangutans and we wanted to experience the Mekong in the same way. Turns out that cruise wasn’t even close to fitting our travel budget and besides, the river runs out of water in the dry season and some years you have to be transported by bus to a port closer to the delta until the river is navigable. No thanks, even if we could afford it.

Alternatively we learned of a half day river excursion to the Silk Island that held some appeal, but there’s that aversion to being herded we spoke of before so joining a tour, even to traverse a little of the Mekong, put us right off.

Our driver Sambo solved our dilemma when he suggested he take us across the river to the Silk Island himself and we could have a private tour of the silk production. It was our last day, our last opportunity to get on the river, even if it was only a ferry. We gave Sambo the go-ahead and climbed aboard his now familiar tuktuk.

We enjoyed the long ride that led us out through the streets of Phnom Penh toward the river and a local ferry.

Jack and I walked aboard and climbed to the upper deck, but as the ferry prepared to pull away it looked like there wouldn’t be room for our tuktuk. At the last minute, Sambo drove onto the ramp and that’s how we traversed the river, with Sambo’s tuktuk barely hanging on at the edge of the ramp.

The river crossing was brief but satisfying and transported us back into our familiar water world.

On the other side we found lush fields and a glimpse of rural life. Sambo found it amusing that we asked him to stop so we could photograph the crops, but it’s been a long time since we were in an agricultural area.

The silk operation is a small enterprise I suspect was just created for the tourist trade, but our young volunteer guide enthusiastically practiced her English describing the process from the eggs to the moths to pupae to cocoons. Jack and I had a theoretical knowledge from school days but it was great to learn it all again first hand and to be able to see and touch each step of the process.

I love process, and following the steps from raw material to final product was what much of my work life in industrial video involved. I always thought of silk as a delicate frou-frou material but our guide emphasized how very strong it is, and we remembered that parachutes used to be made of silk.

The fabric woven at this site is sold only here and they weave beautiful complex patterns. It takes weeks to set up the loom and weeks to weave the length of fabric. The colors are mostly chemical dyes now.

After my experience attempting weaving in Buton, I was in awe of the concentration required for these complicated patterns. Most of the weavers learned their craft at the feet of their mothers and grandmothers, just like the weavers we met in Indonesia.

Our “tour” ended, as they always do, at the gift shop where I spent a long time deciding on what to buy. Everything was beautiful but we live on a boat and have limited space or use for fancy silk things. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to admire and touch everything in the shop while Jack and our guide chatted in the shade outside.

The island is beautiful and quiet and our guide told us it’s a weekend destination for city dwellers needing a break from the urban dust and noise.

We woke Sambo from his nap and began the long trek back across the river to Phnom Penh. This quiet trip was one of our favorite excursions in Cambodia, and in the end satisfied our desire to experience something of the Mekong River.

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Peace and war

I read before we left for Cambodia that a certain Buddhist temple in Phnom Penh held several open meditation hours during the week. Only one of those scheduled times coincided with our visit, and I entered it into our itinerary as a Marce must do. The website said it would be “in English” so I assumed a guided meditation, or a spiritual discourse by a monk. It turned out to be just an open quiet space with seat pads and I took a spot, made myself comfortable and settled in for the longest meditation session I’ve done in quite some time. My own practice is generally limited to ten minutes after my morning yoga, so an hour would be a challenge to my attention and my knees. As the beginning hour approached the room filled up with about 20 fellow meditators, most of whom seemed like regulars in their ritual entrance and eventual calm and steady posture.

As I practiced breathing in peace and exhaling love and lifted my internal gaze from the constant drone of my eternally busy brain, Jack explored the temple grounds and made friends with the resident cats and a few passing monks.

At the end of the hour a monk came in and chanted a blessing and I unfolded my cramped legs and joined Jack, refreshed, peaceful and proud that I didn’t fart or otherwise embarrass myself.

We took a tuktuk back to our neighborhood and had dinner at Friends, a wonderful tapas restaurant that’s part of a global alliance of training establishments whose students are former street youth or at-risk kids. The food was incredible, and though priced a little higher than other local restaurants, we were happy to support the cause, and the menu included many vegetarian and vegan options in addition to meat and fish, as well as creative cocktails. We loved it.

The lingering peaceful feeling from the meditation session helped the next morning when our tuktuk driver picked us up for the trip to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, one of many Killing Fields across Cambodia where a quarter of the population were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.

The site is now a memorial and a beautifully written and produced audio tour guides visitors around the site and tells the horrific story of the Pol Pot regime.

We hadn’t planned much more for this day and took our time touring the quiet memorial. One of the optional tracks in the audio tour is an excerpt from an orchestral piece by a Cambodian composer and we sat on a bench by the river letting the music express the sadness we felt that a peaceful civilization with a rich cultural history could fall victim to a murderous tyrant determined to send the country back to the Bronze Age.

Bullets were expensive so the mass killings were accomplished using whatever weapons came to hand, mostly various farm implements, and these jagged dried palm leaves, used to slit the throats of the victims. The image still gives me nightmares. This is not ancient history but the methods were crude and barbaric.

Babies and their mothers were swung by their feet to bash their brains against this tree, then thrown into an adjacent pit. Hundreds of mourners have hung bracelets on the tree in remembrance of the victims, and I took off an ankle bracelet I’ve worn since the Caribbean to add to the collection. As I tied it on I thought of all the beautiful places it’s been and I made a wish for eternal peace for the lives that were brutally ended here. It’s impossible to conceive how any human being could do these things.

The centerpiece of the memorial is a Buddhist stupa filled with the skulls and bones of 5000 victims.

The condition of the skulls hints at the torture these people were subjected to, or the method of their murder.

Most travelers to Phnom Penh combine the Killing Fields with a tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. After hearing firsthand reports from fellows cruisers we decided against more harrowing nightmare fodder and instead took refuge in our hotel for a few hours before countering the horrors of Pol Pot with a celebration of Khmer culture we booked for that evening. If you’re too young to remember Pol Pot or you need a refresher you can find a brief one here.

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Temple fugit

We spent our last day and a half in Angkor visiting some of the more outlying sites. This strategy served two purposes: we were able to explore temples in the company of far fewer of our fellow tourists, and the distances between the places we visited meant we had lovely long tuktuk rides allowing for a rest and a nice cooling breeze. I really enjoyed this form of travel, slow enough to appreciate the scenery along the way, fast enough that you don’t feel you’re wasting time, and open-air to see real life around us.

We fell into a comfortable routine. We’d arrive at a temple, get oriented and find a bit of shade to shelter in. Then using an Angkor guide app on my phone we read the historical overview about the site, then consulted our guide book for the original layout and the significant features we should look for.

Jack can never resist the urge to climb to the top of wherever we are so he made his way up steep steps to explore the upper bits, while I wandered the lower parts looking for the important carvings or other features.

I was often perfectly content to find a quiet corner taking in the peace, the majesty, the artistry, trying to imagine the place when it was first built and occupied. Often when we visit ruins we see them just as crumbling structures, beautiful in their current state of disarray, and it can be a challenge to paint a mental picture of newly finished monumental works in all their glorious perfection being used for their intended purpose.

Our penultimate stop was the temple of Phnom Bakeng, one of the taller structures, and a favorite for watching the sunset. The temple is so fragile that only 300 people are allowed at one time. We weren’t staying for sunset so our early afternoon visit found the place nearly empty. We both climbed to the top of this one, scary for me, routine for Jaco. The view was spectacular even in the afternoon heat haze.

We spent our last two hours back at the crown jewel, Angkor Wat, which by this time was packed with hot and tired tourists.

It was hard to tear ourselves away, and we both watched behind us as this magical thousand-year-old city disappeared into the forest and our tuktuk delivered us back to Siem Reap for our last evening before venturing on to Phnom Penh. We could easily have spent more time here but there are always more places to discover. Tick tock. Tempus fugit.

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Even more photos of Angkor

In trying to choose the photos for my last blog post on Angkor I realize it’s impossible to post them all, so here’s a link to our online Google photos album. Some will be repeats from the map (the ones that are geotagged by my phone) but the bulk of them aren’t from the phone but from our camera. Sorry, not edited or whittled down yet, just a complete dump of everything we shot.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/ZB3TudtREoxP3EvaA

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More Angkor photos if you dare

These are only from the phone camera because they get geotagged. Yes, I know you can manually geotag other photos, but really, enough already.

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Then and Now

*whirrr, click, chonk*

I’m staring at a drop down movie screen as a new slide appears, a stone bas relief of two bare-breasted women.

“And here’s another pair of lovelies,” chirps the professor. I glance over at my friend Gordon and we do a tandem eye roll as we take notes. We’re sitting in a large theatre classroom in a survey course called Eastern Art, not something we’re really interested in, but in our strict liberal arts university curriculum it ticks several boxes of required credits, and most importantly, fits into the increasingly tight upperclass schedule of our major in filmmaking.

Week after week I dutifully memorize the faded and scratched slides and filter out the tired jokes and sexist comments of the tenured professor, who often seems as bored as we are. One day a slide appears that gets my full attention. It’s a monumental stone structure being devoured by the surrounding jungle. Subsequent slides show closeups of intricate carvings and I’m transfixed. It’s spooky and beautiful and I learn that this is Angkor Wat, a 12th century temple complex. I know I’d heard about it, perhaps in a National Geographic magazine, but still, even these worn slides are enough to spark a lifelong interest in ancient architecture.

It’s forty years later and we’re on our way to see the extraordinary ruins of Angkor, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Jack shares my interest in these archaeological wonders and we plan three full days to explore the park, which covers 100 square kilometers. Part of me worries we’ll tire of temples and carvings after one day.

We opted out of joining the inevitable crowds on the day we arrived in Siem Reap and instead booked a tuktuk driver for the following day to take us to Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. That involved a 4:45am departure from the hotel and a long queue at the main ticket office where we bought our three-day passes complete with photo, and don’t we look cheerful and law abiding at 5am before coffee! With ticket lanyards around our necks we were dropped off at the main gate and only then realized that a flashlight might have been a good idea. We hobbled gingerly over the uneven ground in pitch darkness until we could just make out a small group of people perched on a stone wall, obviously camped out for dawn. We couldn’t see at all where we were in relation to the temples but we found an empty spot and settled in to wait for daylight.

When the sky turned pink we saw that we were outside the city walls, not exactly where we would have liked. We grabbed our packs and hightailed it onto the wobbly floating causeway over the moat and through the nearest outer gate as the sky got brighter and brighter.

We didn’t realize until we were inside the outer walls how massive the space is and it took nearly half an hour to make our way through the inner gate and along the main boulevard to the distinctive three pagodas of the temple itself. All the while tears were streaming down my face in disbelief that I’m finally here, and at the sheer magnificence of it all.

For the first time since Bali I feel at home and in my element. Angkor, and Cambodia in general, is largely Buddhist, although much of the temple iconography combines elements of Hinduism in a confusing mixture. I think most westerners assume the two are interchangeable, and in history and geography they are related, but Hinduism is polytheistic and Buddhism is atheistic, so seeing images of both in the same place is confounding. If you’re interested, there’s a quickie comparison here.

We spent several hours exploring the narrow passageways and open courtyards of Angkor Wat, occasionally eavesdropping on a tour guide. We decided against a guide for ourselves because we like to move at our own pace and find that more time at fewer stops works best for us. Those first few hours saw us pretty much mouths agape as each corner or doorway revealed a breathtaking view or stunning art. It was our on location survey course and we made little attempt to sort out the fine points of what we were seeing and just surrendered to the beauty and wonder.

In the middle of the temple a Buddhist monk offered blessings in exchange for a donation towards the upkeep of the many statues of Buddha throughout the grounds. I eagerly joined the short queue. The monk tied a braided yarn around my wrist and chanted a prayer while dousing me with water and flower petals. At the end he said, in English, “Long life for yü!”

From Angkor Wat our tuktuk driver took us through the South Gate of Angkor Thom to Bayon, then on to two more temple compounds before dropping us off mid-afternoon at the French bakery near our hotel where we decompressed over coffee and pastries. It’s obvious we’ll need to pace ourselves in the next two days and we made an effort to prioritize the sites we want to see most.

A few interesting conversations: A guide overheard us talking and asked where we’re from. He told us few Americans visit Angkor, and that the greatest number of tourists come from China and France. I heard quite a few Australians, some Russians and the occasional German group, too. Our driver told us later the German-speaking guides cost extra.

As I walked through a long corridor I overheard an Indian woman ask a guard when the temple changed from Hindu to Buddhist. He didn’t understand her question but I stopped to say I was also puzzled about the two religions sharing the space and we chatted for a few minutes but didn’t come up with an answer. That mystery will have to wait for another day.

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Bone up on Angkor via this 1930 New York Times piece

I’m a subscriber so I apologize if this link is behind a paywall. If you can get to it, it’s a good read.

timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1930/03/02/96061370.pdf

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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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