Author Archives: Marce

Resorting to Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peace on earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy holidays!

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

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No one in sight

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

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

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

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

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

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The view from the front porch

Besar (Water) Island

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Sea gypsies

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

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

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

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The view from the back porch

Sunrise over Belitung.

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Tripping at big pink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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River run

Our second tour day took us further upriver to another feeding station with a beautiful walk through the forest. Herman showed us various plants, insects and birds along the way, and at one point he talked about “hairballs” just like Jack’s doctor in Labuan Bajo.

“Hairballs, hairballs,” I’m thinking, “What the — ?” Suddenly it clicked. Herbals! It all makes sense now. Doh.

The river narrowed and we turned off the main channel into an even narrower stream to our final destination, Camp Leakey. On the way Herman and Ivan kept watch for more sightings while we tried to do justice to another of Yana’s delicious meals and Iyeb took care of a few infield repairs.

Sitting on the bow of this klotok, meandering deeper into a dense rain forest, watching and listening and smelling for wildlife was one of the best experiences I’ve had since we’ve been cruising. On our own boat we’re constantly concerned about the boat, our ground tackle, the weather, the tides, always alert to sounds or changes that might indicate a problem. What a joy it was to sit without a care at all, to just appreciate the place and time, the peace and the beauty. Heaven! I think there might be a river life in our future.

Once again the boats congregated at a feeding station. Camp Leakey is where Biruté Baldikas has been studying these orangutans since 1970. A sign at the entrance informed us that it’s the “longest continuous study by one principle investigator into any wild non-human animal in the history of science.” That’s saying something.

For nearly an hour at the feeding station no orangutans showed up, despite the frequent calls by the rangers. Many of the guests left but we’d been advised by travelers we spoke to earlier to be patient and wait for the entire time. Sure enough, just when those few of us who remained started to relax our vow of silence and talk quietly we saw an enormous head poke up from behind the platform, followed by huge shoulders. Then with a great heave the entire body of a giant alpha male launched over the edge and came to rest with authority as a shaggy mountain beside a bucket of milk.

This is Terry, born in 1991 and not to be messed with, I reckon. Even the females who came soon after stayed at the other end of the platform. I don’t blame them. A few minutes later a young female swung through the trees toward the platform but when she saw Terry blocking the way she wisely took the overhead route, expertly judging the flex of the tree against her own weight, landing neatly on the other side.

Once again we stayed for the entire time allowed, just watching the behaviors and interactions.

It started raining on our walk back to the boat, and by the time we were underway it was pouring in earnest. The rain meant we couldn’t do a night walk in the forest because the rain brings fire ants and chases the other animals into their hiding places. We were disappointed but we’d come for the orangutans and they delivered so we’re not complaining.

The crew tarped the sides of the boat and we enjoyed another wonderful meal and slept like babies with the rain drumming a lullaby on the roof.

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Plan of the apes

The island of Borneo is shared by Indonesia and Malaysia, with the tiny nation of Brunei occupying two small bits in the north. Borneo is rich in oil, coal, tin, diamonds, timber and other resources with ecotourism one of its largest economies. It’s the third largest island in the world with diverse and abundant wildlife and plants, many species, like the proboscus monkeys, only found here. Most important for us is that it’s the only place on earth to find the endangered Bornean orangutans. Sadly, palm oil plantations are causing an alarming loss of the ancient rain forest habitat. Many people fear the orangutans’ days are numbered and that’s why we’re here. As Douglas Adams would say, it may be our Last Chance to See.

The people of this region, called Kalimantan, know what they have and a visit to the orangutans is a well-oiled machine. But happily it’s also charming, personal, warm and most of all, protective of the animals and their precious and beautiful habitat. We didn’t at all feel that the experience has been Disneyfied or rushed, and everyone we came in contact with in planning our trip and on the tour itself was genuinely happy that we are here and went out of their way to make our visit as good as can be.

We arrived in Kumai without reservations late Thursday afternoon and I contacted four tour operators that I’d previously reached out to for info, schedule and cost. Within hours we had a three day, two night houseboat tour booked for the next morning and we scrambled to get the boat buttoned up and our small duffles packed.

By 11am Friday we were underway in the Kumai River, getting to know our houseboat and crew. The boats vary in size and style but are fairly standard in accommodation. Guests occupy the upper deck, with front and back sightseeing decks, a mattress in the middle, and a table and chairs aft. The crew (guide, captain, mate and cook) have the lower deck, including the bridge, sleeping/living quarters, and galley. In the back of the boat are a private bathroom for guests with western toilet, shower and sink, and a crew bathroom. Compared to Escape Velocity this houseboat is luxuriously spacious.

As we chugged up the river to our first stop we enjoyed a yummy lunch of local Indonesian food, freshly cooked with ingredients bought at the market just hours before. We were so hungry that we ate every morsel, which in hindsight must have sent the wrong message to our cook Yana because she upped the quantity in subsequent meals until we were often unable to finish the piles of food she put in front of us.

Our guide Herman (lots of Indonesians have European names, a legacy of 300 years of Dutch rule, I guess) kept a lookout for wildlife while we ate. He signaled Ivan the captain who stopped the boat and often maneuvered toward a better viewing angle for whatever we saw, then waited until we were ready to get underway again. As time went on, Jack and I got better at spotting things too, but Herman, with his repertoire of bird and animal calls, and Ivan with his experience and intimate knowledge of the river, never let us miss an opportunity to see whatever was lurking along the shore or in the canopy above.

In a few hours we arrived, along with a dozen or so other boats, at the first feeding station. A short walk through the forest brought us to a wooden platform where rangers dumped a couple of basket loads of bananas to tempt the nearby orangutans out of the trees. The orangutans aren’t dependent on this feeding, we learned, and in fact if none show up it means they found a more preferred food source elsewhere. Often an alpha male comes to the platform just to find some females and isn’t so much interested in the food as he is in the company. Herman told us the Bornean orangutans are more solitary than their Sumatran cousins, who live closer together for safely because of the threat of tigers.

Before long a few moms and babies showed up, along with an not-too-big alpha male.

While the 25 or 30 guests and our guides watched and snapped away in respectful near silence from crude wooden benches, the captains, mates and cooks socialized boat to boat out in the river. It’s a tight knit community and there’s always a helping hand with docking or mechanical issues or close quarter maneuvering.

At the feeding station we happily watched the orangutans for the entire allowed two hours. Jack and Herman and I were the last to leave.

Back on board we were treated to a chilled wet towel and a frosty Coke, much appreciated in these steamy equatorial afternoons.

For the rest of the daylight we spotted proboscus monkeys and other wildlife until just before dark Ivan and mate Iyeb lassoed a couple of pandanus branches and snugged us close to shore for the night.

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