December 28, 2010

On the Third Day of Christmas

Or maybe the 4th, you play jokes.

In Mexico the Christmas season doesn’t wind down after the big all-you-can-eat turkey blow-out on the 25th. It keeps going. In fact, Christmas is just The First Day of Christmas. Or maybe Boxing Day is the first, it depends on who you ask…

But whichever day counts as the first day of Christmas, the fact remains there are still twelve more to follow. In Mexico, Boxing Day, or the Feast of St Stephen, appears to be celebrated by taking your new bicycle, skate board, roller blades or roller skates to the malecon and using them for the first time, dangerously (how I wish I brought my camera…). This is followed by a big seafood feast and loads of Mariachi music.

Yesterday, the 2nd (or 3rd) day of Christmas, seems to be a day of rest. But today the party is back on. December 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It’s pretty much the equivalent of April Fools Day, which means Maia was all over the concept and spent much of yesterday contemplating plans to dupe a few inocente palomitas.

The day itself commemorates the death of the baby boys who were slain by King Herod in an attempt to assassinate Christ—which isn’t terribly jolly. But somewhere along the way it became a day of pranks in Spanish speaking countries.

Maia decided that Evan would be the victim of her prank. She let him in on her plan to do ‘something’ just to give him cause to worry. Then I gave her a bunch of jobs to do—tasks like washing and putting away dishes, cooking breakfast and sweeping the floor—where she could potentially play a joke on Evan.

Evan spent the morning on edge waiting for the trick. He was concerned about every glass of juice Maia offered him, every dish she washed and was suspicious of the yummy breakfast she made. Eventually she did get him (going with the old shaving cream in his shoes standby), but in truth it was me who was laughing. My inocente palomita happily did chores all morning in an effort to fake out her father, while not realizing that as she did them that she was the victim of MY joke.

December 25, 2010

A Traditional Christmas

 Maia bounced into our bed at 6am. In a loud stage whisper she let us know, “Santa Came!” She turned on the light and showed us her stuffed stocking. Evan shut it off. “It’s not Christmas until the sun comes up,” he told her. “When will that be?” Maia asked as she turned the light back on, “What time zone is this?”

My perpetual question, in this nomadic life of ours, is when does our dream start to detract from Maia’s childhood? At what point do the constant goodbyes, our regularly re-imagined holidays, and the far away relatives offset the goodness of our life?

Before we left, I thought about this a lot. I tried to create traditions that were ours alone and that we could carry where ever we went. What I didn’t realize is that the places we’d arrive at would come with traditions and demands of their own. So those days when I plan to bake a Christmas favourite (if I can even find the ingredients—we were out of luck finding what we needed for a gingerbread house this year…) might end up being cancelled because of a stormy night at anchor. And an afternoon of gift-making might lose out to the arrival of a longed-for new friend.

Christmas this year doesn’t look at all like last season, and it seems even less like the year before that. And Christmas Eve (which has always been a time we’ve spent with close friends) was most unique of all.
 We spent the evening at a cruiser’s potluck. 100 people, only a handful known to us by name. We had tequila shots (for us) with old (by cruising standards) friends we first met in Coos Bay, and Maia set off fireworks with a gaggle of teens. Then we went to a Christmas Eve carol service—opting for the English version that was put on by a roving band of 60’s-era style missionaries who were throwing a b-day party for Jesus (heck, it was in the marina). Back on the boat we listened to the VHF radio as a fellow sailor read, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and then settled in to watch “Alastair Sims—A Christmas Carol” (something we always did in my family).

 As we snuggled into bed and waited to hear Santa’s sleigh bells, I was content with our odd version of Christmas Eve, but wondered if it was traditional enough for Maia.
 But then she bounced into our bed and opened her stocking in the dark. And we gathered around our tree, exchanging gifts while listening to our favourite Christmas carols. And we waved at neighbours, and ate our breakfast in the warm Mexican sun. And I realized our current traditions have little to do with making the right food, or doing the same activities year-after-year. Our current tradition is learning to accept and enjoy the unexpected—and feeling the magic when it finds us.
 And so this morning, as we admire our gifts and giggle to the Christmas stories on the Vinyl Café, we’re enjoy a traditional Christmas, one that’s unfolding in ways we can’t quite imagine yet but that is a happy one.

We wish you and yours all the joy of the season.

December 23, 2010

Working and Cruising FAQ

I've received a bunch of questions lately about the fact that Evan and I are working while we cruise--I'm guessing because I've mentioned it a few times in blog posts and in our "About Us" section. I'm currently on deadline so doing a quick FAQ is a nice distraction from real work. If I miss question you have, or you want to know more about Ev's job (it always disappoints him that people ask about my job and not his...) let me know:

What do you do?
I'm a freelance writer and Evan's a naval architect. I write for a variety of national an international pubs and Evan does the occasional contract with his old employer. Most recently I’ve been working on a series of stories for Reader’s Digest Canada--like this and this, and Evan did a couple of reports for his old company.

 I want to be a travel writer, how did you do it? It seems like the perfect job for a cruiser...
I've worked as a freelance writer for about five years and the past three were spent expanding my travel markets. Becoming an employed writer was a goal I set when we went cruising last time. I took a few magazine writing classes and actually went through all the steps (developing a story, finding the right magazine to pitch, sending off a query and following up) over, and over until I had regular work coming in. There's no magic formula, just steady, hard work.
As far as being the perfect cruiser's job, it is and it isn't. It's still a job—which means I’m often at my desk when I’d like to be playing. But it does blend my natural curiosity with my need to write.

Do You Write For Sailing Magazines?
I do, but I couldn't make a living just writing for boating mags. I also write for a variety of websites and custom publications. Writing for a large number of different types of publications has helped me weather the economic downturn without too much difficulty.

How Do You Stay in Touch?
I've written a few times about communication--but the gist is this: We use an amplified wi-fi antenna for wi-fi when it's available, plus we have a 3G cell modem. When out of range for those I can get basic email through the SSB with Sailmail. Needing to have internet does place limits on our ability to disconnect for long periods, but we find the sacrifice works for us.

 Do You Earn Enough to Live On?
Yes. We don’t actually know how much we spend in a month—it can really vary… And working does add some significant additional costs (for example we recently upgraded our professional camera gear, we have higher than typical travel and communication expenses, and I need to maintain a decent work wardrobe…) But after the initial costs associated with getting out cruising were covered our bank balance stabilized. So we’re bringing in roughly the same amount that’s going out.

 How Much Do You Work?
I have kind of a feast or famine job. When we were in Vancouver, I worked about 20-hours a week, which is probably more or less the same as now. I just do it differently now—I squish all my work into the periods when we are in towns. So I’ll work non-stop (or what feels like non-stop) for a few weeks, then do very little for several weeks. Evan has worked less than me. Probably only about 100 hours or so this year.

What’s Your Opinion On Working and Cruising?
I actually enjoy it. Last time we cruised I felt like I wanted to be doing more—either volunteering or learning. Working lets me feel like I’m doing something meaningful and gives us an excuse to really explore each place. It does dictate some of what we do and where we go, but I like the structure.
Beyond the intrinsic value of work—we like having money. We have enough saved that if  we were really frugal we could go for a couple of years, but we don’t like being that frugal and I like having money in the bank.

December 21, 2010

Total Eclipse of the Moon

I had a homeschooling plan: We'd read up on lunar eclipes, do a trial run with a flashlight and juggling balls, then snuggle up and eat moon shaped cookies and drink cocoa while the moon put on its show.

But life intervened. We heard one of Maia's favourite boat friends arrive in the harbour and ended up whiling away the afternoon, and early evening catching up on five months of separation. By the time we'd eaten a late dinner Maia was ready to nap before the eclipse.

There were no cookies or cocoa and Maia laid against me heavy with sleep as we watched a shadow sneak across the moon, turning it dark, and then deep amber. We made up our own myth-like explanations--imagining how it would have been to be an ancient person encountering a moon turned dark.
 Rather than a science lesson it was a nature lesson, and a snuggle lesson. A simple night. A beautiful Moon.

December 20, 2010

You Buy My Junk, I’ll Buy Yours…

heading to the swap meet (and recycling centre...)
“What is that?” I asked Evan who was holding something metal with wires coming out of it.
“A boat part,” he said
“For what?”
“Something we don’t have anymore…” he mumbled, as he headed out of sight.
I wanted to ask why we had a boat part we don’t need, for something we don’t have, on our very weight sensitive catamaran. I wanted to point out that I had sacrificed some of my cutest shoes in the name of saving weight. I wanted a chance to complain. So I followed him. And found him with a stockpile of stuff sporting wires and metal. Some of it still in packages, new packages.

And all of it was stuff we have no need for. But that Evan would like to be compensated for, or at least assured that the crap we’ve carried for 2000 miles doesn’t end up in the basura…

To a non-boater, a cruiser’s swap-meet looks more like a bizarre junk bazaar than anything. Every boat has a supply of random stuff that is potentially too useful or valuable to toss, but that still takes up precious real estate in our ever-shrinking living space. It might be spare parts for an auto-pilot that went kaput, or a worn, but still functional, outboard that was replaced with a shiny new one, or charts and guide books for the place you’ve already been.

The solution is a swap meet. But unlike a swap meet that occurs in harbours further north, cruiser swap meets often have more sellers than buyers. The good news is this means that if you do find just the right part you can get a screaming deal. The bad new is that most people want your metal bits with wire coming out of it even less than you do.

What typically happens at a swap meet is you go home with pretty much the same amount of stuff you left with. Anything you get rid of ends up being replaced by something you find. It’s kind of like taking the contents of your garage and dumping it in your neighbour’s yard, while your other neighbour offloads his stuff into your yard… And if that’s not bad enough you need to keep an eye on your kids. When you’re not looking, people give them stuff…

So the moral is I should have just kept my cute shoes and sworn off swap meets.

December 18, 2010

Christmas in Vista Hermosa--Care for Kids La Paz

Beyond all that is lush and wonderful about Mexico, it’s impossible to forget that it’s also home to some very poor people. The hills around La Paz are filled with squatter’s shacks, mostly inhabited by migrants who have travelled from other parts of Mexico, hoping find work in this relatively prosperous region.

As cruisers—it’s easy to stay on the periphery of the places we visit. We hang out with fellow cruising friends, and only occasionally get to know the locals. But there are some people who venture to a place like La Paz, and rather than sitting on the beaches or hanging out at gringo events, they look around and find a place that needs them.
Barbara, and some of the beautiful girls who are in school with help from the foundation
 In this case, a woman called Barbara Spencer found a colonia called Vista Hermosa on the windswept hills above La Paz. There, the children went to school with empty bellies and even the brightest dropped out far too soon. So Barbara began working with the local priest and the children’s mothers—trying to get them a healthy breakfast three times a week. Then she added scholarships—helping bright, hardworking students to complete their educations.

We would never have known about Barbara’s quiet contribution to the little colonia on the hill—but I came across a notice she put up, requesting Christmas gifts for poor kids. And considering that buying gifts for kids in need is one of our favourite holiday traditions, I contacted Barbara and learned a bit about Care For Kids La Paz. When I told her we wanted to contribute, she invited us to the Christmas Fiesta.

The drive to Vista Hermosa took us beyond La Paz’s paved roads and up dusty winding ones—the view down was stunning, but the view around was one of poverty. The day though was a celebration and every child was dressed in their best clothes, waiting to see what gifts might arrive.
 We were quickly surrounded by children and Maia was swept away by shy giggling girls who practiced their English on her—while she practiced her Spanish. My camera was the icebreaker—with first a trickle, then a flood of shy smiles appearing in my lens.
When it came time for the piñata, Maia declined the first spot in the girl’s line, but happily accepted space further back. When the piñata burst, her hands were repeatedly filled with candy by our gracious new friends (which she then passed on to the younger children).
Comida (lunch) then gifts soon followed, and the day disappeared more quickly than we could have imagined. As we left, Maia was hugged, her red hair stroked and examined, and Feliz Navidads were exchanged.
And when we drove down the winding road and back into our fortunate life, we felt richer than ever.
If you are looking for a place for any Christmas cash you might have left over—consider Care for Kids La Paz. It’s a small charity, it only reaches out to a few hundred children, but it gives them an entire world of opportunities.

December 16, 2010

Posadas, pinatas and us

cruising kids ready for the show
When I told Evan and Maia there was a fiesta on shore last night—they didn't seem nearly as excited as I would have expected. In truth, we've seen (and heard) a lot of very enthusiastic (but maybe not so talented) performers in the past year. And we're pretty much Folkloric Ballet-ed out...

But, I told them, this one was different: It was the Posada—which actually means quite a few things in Mexico.

The Posada in its purest sense is the re-enactment of Joseph and Mary's search for room at an inn. For the nine days before Christmas, friends and neighbours set out and go door to door with candles, only to get turned away at each stop, until they reach the home where that night's party is being held. Once they get to that place (usually the third stop) everyone is invited in and the kids get to whack a pinata.
the posada

Posada is also the generic name for any kind of Christmas party--from the one at the office, to a lunch with friends. And it is also the name for bigger celebrations: like the one we attended, where hundreds of locals come out to see a procession of Joseph and Mary, then sing carols, eat food and dance...

So, I explained, this wasn't just going to be the standard fiesta we've become used to and maybe even a bit jaded about. This was going to be good.
The other element that had me excited was that the performing troop was from Ballet Folklórico de México the group where baile folkloric, itself, originated. In the 1950's a researcher, Alura Angeles de Flores and choreographer, Amalia Hernández Navarro collected information on all the regional and indigenous dances (many which were dying out) and together they created a new form of dance which combined the style and costume of the regional dances, with the discipline and techniques of ballet.
The dance troops go through up to a dozen costume changes and often perform with a live mariachi band—which plays without music behind the dancers. When done well, folkloric is breathtaking. And as last night's performance began—with an achingly beautiful song and a lush posada procession, we knew we were seeing the good kind.
By the end of the night we were all giddy—and grateful and one fiesta closer to Christmas.

A Cat Story

Travis in his prime
I noticed him first—a big orange cat, standing in the water, clearly hunting for fish. But it wasn't just his unique behaviour that caught my attention--almost fifteen years ago we adopted a tiny orange kitten from this very stretch of beach. An orange kitten that grew into a 30 lb cat and who sailed some 8,000 miles with us—having adventures, terrorizing our friends and fishing straight from the ocean, just like this cat.

I watched that orange cat for a while, then pointed him out to Maia, who was busy playing with friends. “He looks like Travis,” Maia told me. So I told her that Travis had been born just a few steps from this beach and that maybe we were looking at his great grand-nephew...

Maia then asked exactly where we had found Travis-- an animal who has grown to mythical proportions in her life, and who died over two years ago. So I walked her over to the little corner store across from the beach. When we went in, I explained to the man at the counter how fifteen years ago we had adopted a tiny orange kitten from the store's inner courtyard.

Life is filled with charming coincidences, and the story that came next may only seem special if you've loved and lost a pet. But the man told us he has had big orange toms from the same family for 30-years. And that the first tom was a huge wild one that he found on an isolated beach. He told us that he keeps the orange males, and gets new females from friends, and that every year, and in almost every litter there is one orange cat, and it's always huge, and it always knows how to fish.

The orange cat on the beach was his. And it was the great-grand nephew of our cat--because he remembered his wife had gave one of his cats away to sailors. The man was thrilled to hear how far Travis had traveled (much further than him), and how long he had lived, and he offered us the next orange kitten that came along—even though he doesn't normally give them away.

We don't need a kitten—and thankfully he didn't have one to give. But that urge—to laugh at the insane antics of a half-wild cat that doesn't know fear—came back with a pang. And as much as I think cats need to be spayed and neutered, I envied the man for knowing so many Travis's through the years...

December 14, 2010

Sort of Like Summer Camp

Evan and Maia on their way home after activities on shore

We rolled out of bed at ten to eight. By eight, I had a steaming cup of coffee in front of me and the VHF was on channel 22. After net control checked for emergency traffic, went over who had arrived in port (and who was leaving), asked who caught fish, and announced who had mail came the part I’m kind of enjoying—a listing of the day’s events.

There is something about La Paz that reminds me of summer camp—it might be the old-timers who are here year, after year and who make sure none of us newbees ever break the rules. Seriously. Want a smack down? Just try tying up your dinghy wrong, or using an incorrect channel on the VHF…But mostly I think it’s all the organized activities.

I’ve never been anywhere with such an organized agenda: today we had a choice of yoga at 8:30, coffee at 9:30, and organic market at 10:30 and a Spanish lecture at 1pm. Tomorrow is the same, with a few variations here and there.

The thing is—I was never that keen on summer camp. I hated rules. And I still like the adventure of finding my own activities. But when someone has gone to the work of planning a posada, organizing a race or running a yoga class—it’s kind of fun to be a joiner. For a while.

But I’m sure it won’t be too long before we tire of summer camp and are ready to jump back into unscripted cruising life. Not yet though…

December 12, 2010

All I Want for Christmas…

Christmas trees and cruising boats don’t typically go together in the same sentence. But it seems nine-year-olds need Christmas trees. So when Arboles de Navidad started appearing in Guaymas, Maia began dreaming about a tree of her own. 

A real tree.
Not the tiny fake one we carry—which still seems to take up much of the boat.

Trees don’t do well on cruising boats for a few reasons. First there’s the space issue—trees take room, space we normally reserve for living in. Then there’s the salt water—if we had bought a tree in Guaymas it would have ridden south on the foredeck. Two days of saltspray would have done it in. And it’s hot here, trees don’t like heat…

But somehow every argument against having a tree disappears when not only are they available, they’re freakishly cheap—we paid less for a Canadian tree here than we do in Canada…
 Add this to the fact that the only other thing besides a Christmas tree on Maia’s Christmas list is that everyone else be as fortunate as her, and suddenly a tree seems easy to find space for.
 So we bought our tree. And carted it home. We nestled it in the cockpit and then Maia and I began to bake: shortbread and minced tarts and homemade eggnog (we make the cooked version in Mexico.)
 We put on the Christmas tunes and spiked the grown-up eggnog and trimmed our very special tree.
 It may not last. It may be brown and wilted by weeks end. It may fill the boat with needles. The cat might eat it.
But the joy…

December 11, 2010

The Virgin of Guadalupe

 It’s fiesta time. I know, it’s always fiesta time, and every fiesta is the fiesta. But December 12, the Feast of Guadalupe, really is special to Mexicans.

If you were here, strolling through street markets or passing peoples homes you’d see mountains of goods all featuring the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.With her blue green-robe and serene face her image is ubiquitous in Mexico.

Her story is mythical. On December 9, 1531 a peasant called Juan Diego was walking home across a hill in Tepeyac, near Mexico City, when he encountered a vision of a young woman. Speaking in the local dialect she asked that a church be built on the site. So Diego took her message to the bishop who asked for proof of the vision. Three days later, the peasant provided the proof when the image of the Virgin Mary appeared miraculously on his cloak.
The La Paz church has long been under construction--but that didn't stop the crowds
 So they built the church and a whole bunch of miracles happened. But charming story aside, many will argue that more than any other uniting factor, the idea of Guadalupe is what gives Mexicans their national identity. Language certainly didn’t unite the place, as some 117 of them were spoken in 1531. Ethnic background didn’t provide any kind of glue, not when the people evolved from raping Spanish fathers, enslaved Indigenous mothers, and a bunch of random Austrians, French, Germans, Irish, Black, and Chinese. Not even religion, geography or shared histories were enough to bond the people—there’s simply too much diversity.

But the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to be the common denominator. She combines early indigenous attributes and beliefs with the Catholic ones. The indigenous people who had been worn down by the Spaniards but not fully converted to Catholicism missed their own gods. And when the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe appeared, brown skinned, speaking a local language and cloaked in a hallo of light that could double as Maguey spines--they again had someone to worship—someone who was uniquely their own.
Her arrival is said to mark the birth of a new land and a new people: A country that is neither Spanish, nor indigenous, but both. Even her physical appearance reflects this new world, her face looks neither Spanish nor Indian, “Her lovely features are the pleasant mixture of both - she is a Mestizo, the first Mexican.” Writer Gloria Anzaldua writes, "She is like my race - a synthesis of the old world and the new, of the religion and culture of the two races in our psyche, the conquerors and the conquered."
even the bus gets into the spirit
rather than going from house to house admiring Christmas displays we checked out the neighbourhood virgins...
 And she’s another good reason to throw a party, play loud music, send off the odd firework... Her celebration is also the unooficial start to the Christmas season--from now through January 6th the country is pretty much on holiday.

December 10, 2010

Goodbye Guaymas--for real this time

We're headed south. The wind is about 10-12 knots from our stern quarter and we're sailing in lumpy seas. The wind's dying though. It clocked around from ahead and as it did our speed dropped to 6 knots, it feels a bit like we're wallowing toward La Paz. And wallowing makes me queasy. Maybe it's simply sailing for the first time in six weeks that makes me queasy. Or maybe it's the fact we stayed up too late and drank too much with the new friends that we hope someday will be old friends that makes the start of this passage feel less than lovely...
Evan, Maia and Charlie are napping. In an hour or so we'll eat dinner and watch the sunset. Then the long night will start. There won't be much moon--but the stars will be bright. La Paz is still two days away--maybe by the time we arrive my sea legs will be back.
But for now I type, stare at the horizon and think, type some more and imagine flat seas, or a smooth stomach.

Despite the forecast for light and variable winds dropping to calm, the wind clocked to our stern and built to 12 knots or so by this morning. So we've been sailing since we left--averaging 6.2 knots--even with a few middle of the night hours of 3's thrown in there. Our original plan had been to explore our way south to La Paz--stopping in at a few anchorages we missed. But Evan has work waiting for him in La Paz--and with the slow internet connections (aka difficult work connections) of the South Pacific in our near future, we're both trying to squeeze as many work gigs as we can out of the next few months. We enjoy cruising more when the coffers are full...
The trade off for not stopping is we are enjoying what has become perfect sailing. The Sea isn't known for steady winds or smooth seas--and while the seas certainly aren't long even swells--the simple fact the wind and waves are both coming from the same direction is a huge treat.
At our current speed we'll hit La Paz sometime in the middle of the night. So we may pull in to one of the wide open anchorages just outside the harbour and wait for daylight. Maia has already begun planning our first dinner ashore--she points out this is the first time she's returned to a harbour after a long absence and she's beginning to get excited about seeing places she likes and doing the things she's missed.
We're still going to miss all the people who won't be there with us this Christmas--but her confidence in the fun we'll have is making me excited too.

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