The particular topography of Rebak Island often deflects the storm cells we see heading across the Strait on radar. Looks like this one’s going to pass us by.
Author Archives: Marce
Ok, ok. Yes, it’s been a while, and we apologize to those loyal readers who’ve sent us increasingly worried messages asking if we’re ok. We are, sort of. Like nearly everyone else we’re trying, often unsuccessfully, to adjust to the pandemic spanner that got tossed into our best-laid plans. Actually, we didn’t really have plans but Covid-19 sure has limited our options. Let’s back up a bit.
When last we wrote Jack was appreciating some new hardware in his port side leg. He made steady progress and our plan was to sail north to Thailand around the end of February when he was fit enough to handle the boat.
While Jack was still rehabbing his knee we hired a local canvas company to replace our deteriorating cockpit enclosure and re-cover the cockpit cushions. We ran into a snag when the canvas people told us they couldn’t schedule our job before our Thai visas expired but they could easily finish before our current Malaysian visas ran out in early April. We were faced with a decision. The Thai visas weren’t cheap, but the canvas price was excellent and we really needed the new enclosure because it’s not only a comfort issue, keeping us sheltered from the elements, it’s also a safety concern for visibility underway in harsh weather.
In the end, we decided to sacrifice the Thai visas and wait in Malaysia for the canvas work to be done. It was a decision that sealed our fate, for good or for ill.
In mid-February, the canvas was ordered and the painstaking patterning work started. It’s a big job and we made some design modifications from the original so the canvas folks made several trips to our island over the next few weeks. During this time, just like everyone all over the world, we monitored the news as a contagious virus inched its way toward us. And suddenly, on March 18th, Malaysia went into full lockdown. All but essential businesses closed, and that included our canvas people. Our hearts ached for them, and all the other small businesses that were left with no income.
We assumed the lockdown would be temporary. As our April 13th visa expiration date approached we worried we’d have to leave the country with half our cockpit work done, bad for us, bad for the canvas business. Just in time, the Movement Control Order was extended and foreigners on tourist visas, including us, learned we could overstay our visas without penalty, but once the MCO was lifted, we’d have two weeks to clear out. At the same time, our embassy communicated to us that they recommended no unnecessary international travel. Flights were canceled left and right. Our choices were to either leave the boat and return to the US immediately or stay put. We stayed put.
As a reminder, we are in a marina on a tiny privately owned island. The only other business here is a small resort owned by Taj.
When the country went on lockdown, the resort closed and sent most of their employees home. Except for a skeleton crew, we yachties were the only residents on Rebak Island. At the time of lockdown, there were 110 marina residents and we were effectively quarantined together.
Back to the fate part. Had we declined the bid from the canvas people and left for Thailand when we intended, we’d have been locked down there instead of here. Would that have been better or worse? Who knows? Just different, I guess. We know people who are stuck in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Maldives, and the movement restrictions and visa worries are largely the same. We feel lucky that our small island is virus-free and we’re safe both from infection and from weather. On the other hand for people accustomed to traveling, being tied to a dock for this long is taxing.
The community of long-distance sailors is far-flung but tight. We’ve been following the travails of our comrades all over the world, people like us who are on our boats but confined to a certain place and with bureaucratic worries, people who weren’t on their boats when the lockdown happened and can’t return to them, people who were underway when borders closed and weren’t allowed to clear in to their destinations. Some have been lucky enough to get to a safe place where they could wait out the worst of it and move on. Depending on your passport countries are either open or not. Unfortunately, as US citizens we are not welcome in the EU, and Malaysia just announced that citizens from the 23 nations with the greatest number of cases (we’re number 1!) are not allowed to enter the country. That means if we leave Escape Velocity and fly back to the States, we will not be allowed to return for the foreseeable future. The surrounding borders are all closed, probably until at least 2021. It’s quite the situation.
So, like everyone else, we’re in limbo, trying to adjust to this new reality and wavering about whether to leave our home and return to the States until the world gets to the other side of this. On the one hand, we’d be able to see friends and family and do a little safe road tripping in a big country. On the other hand, we’d hate to leave our home, we’re definitely safer here, and SE Asia is affordable on our social security income, which America definitely is not.
Meanwhile, here we sit.
We do have some stories to tell, and Jack and I are determined to do some blogging again. We’ve missed it, but I admit the realities of life during a global pandemic too often take our attention away from our own day to day life. We need to remedy that. Life is short.
We’ve been lax about blogging for so long that we’re starting to get messages of concern from readers wondering if we’re ok. We are, but it’s definitely past time to paint the picture of where we are now and what’s happening in our life.
For several years now both Jack and I have been suffering the predictable — but not welcome — physical deterioration that advancing age can bring. Jack’s left knee became so worn down and painful that many of our travel decisions and even shopping trips had to be planned around how far he can walk between resting spots. Gone were our spectacular but arduous hikes that made many of our destinations as thrilling as the beautiful anchorages.
For my part, you may remember I injured my back in 2015 in Huahine, French Polynesia. For the past four years I’ve gone through good periods and bad ones where my back would flare up and change my whole attitude toward life. Ocean passages have become torture for me, as are long bus rides, or even retrieving cookware from the bottom cupboard. I’m definitely too young to accept this as the new normal.
Between the two of us, we slowed down so much that eventually we stopped. We’ve been in the same place, parked in a marina, for over a year. This is not the life we imagined, or the one we enjoyed for more than 7 years. We’ve become less and less active, in effect surrendering to aging. Something had to change.
In the beginning of November we flew to Penang, a well-respected “medical tourism” destination and made appointments for both of us to see an orthopedist. For my part, I was assured that with proper physiotherapy my back can be pain free and I can regain my former strength and flexibility. For Jack, the answer was simple and unavoidable: total knee replacement. Remarkably, they could schedule it for two days later. That was a shocker, but we needed to think it through, do some research and financial calculations. Besides, we had flights booked for the end of the week and we’d need to repack for a longer trip.
I spent the next three days in physiotherapy with a wonderful woman who not only released the muscle spasms that cause much of my pain, but also taught me strengthening exercises and reassured me that the stretching she recommended would not reinjure my discs. I’m on the road to recovery, but it will take a long time to rebuild the strength I used to have in my back and to live pain free.
We flew home to Escape Velocity where we tried to compare the out-of-pocket cost of a knee replacement in Malaysia vs. the cost of flying back to the states where Medicare would cover most of the hospital costs but not the flights, car rental, Airbnb, etc. It’s apples to oranges and impossible to reckon. The final decision was based on our assumption that scheduling the surgery in America would probably take weeks, if not months, and here in Malaysia the only scheduling factor is which days of the week the surgeon operates.
In the end we called the hospital and scheduled the surgery for Thursday of the following week which just happened to be Jack’s 70th birthday. By paying a little extra for a private room in the hospital I was allowed to stay with Jack and sleep on a daybed, saving us a few bucks in hotel costs. We packed what we needed for a couple of weeks, flew back to Penang and checked into the hospital on the 20th of November.
Dr. Aaron Lim replaced Jack’s knee in little more than an hour. Later that day he came to check on his work, and the following day Jack started the long road of physical therapy.
After a week in the hospital we moved to a hotel and made daily trips to rehab. Jack made great progress and after another week he could walk without a cane. We moved to another hotel closer to restaurants and part of Jack’s daily exercise became walking to a café or to dinner in the evening. Penang is a food paradise, especially compared to Langkawi.
Finally, twenty-four days after flying to Penang, we returned to Escape Velocity. I was a little worried about whether Jack could get on and off the boat, and if he could continue rehabbing without the supervision and encouragement of the physiotherapist. On the first point, he had no problem. His knee was so bad for so long that he had already figured out workarounds for most movements. This turned out to be a mixed blessing and Jack sometimes needs reminders that he’s got a perfectly functioning knee now that doesn’t require favoring.
Back to my back. After making great progress while I saw the physiotherapist and diligently doing the exercises she suggested, at home my back returned to its new not-normal bad condition. It’s clear I need longer term help to get better. We both do.
So here we are, making progress but much more slowly than we hoped. We’re still in a marina, me unhappily so, Jack, the more zen of us, content for the moment. I still love boat life, but not being in one place for so long. Jack wants to keep on keeping on, whatever that means to him.
We are definitely at a time of re-evaluation. We have to consider what we can do physically, how many more years of active life we can expect, what our priorities are travel-wise, and what our options are from where we are now.
Most options are on the table. Negotiations continue….
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.