February 28, 2013

Watch Out, That Can Kill You

Most people know a few things about Australia, even if they’ve never been. They know it’s a big island/continent somewhere Down Under, they assume it’s hot and sunny (all the bloody rain doesn’t make for good tourism campaigns so the tourism board kept that bit hush-hush), they think everyone says ‘g’day mate’ and they’re positive that just about everything here can kill you.

People ask us about it all the time: ‘how often do we encounter deadly snakes, venomous platypus, lethal spiders, fierce sharks, trees with neurotoxins, poisonous jellyfish, killer octopi or hungry salt water crocodiles?’

The answer is, mostly we don’t. The danger in modern Australia is largely theoretical. For example the deadliest spider, the funnel web, hasn’t killed anyone in over 30 years. And the redback spider hasn’t managed to off anyone since 1955. Even the snakes are doing it tough—Australia doesn’t even rank in the top ten for snake bite deaths world wide. Consider the fact that the actual body count — even when you combine all the deaths attributed to homicidal animals— comes in below deaths caused by lightning strikes (5 to 10 deaths and 45 serious injuries each year from lightning).

And there is something else to consider: If the deadly things in Australia were really that lethal I’m pretty sure the place would be empty. Bless their hearts, but Aussies are very good at drinking and having fun, but not so competent at common sense. In the wise words of my daughter, who just this morning noted a subdued appearing young man who was carrying a huge stuffed bunny which was wearing his shoes and apparently also letting him know when it was safe to cross the street, “I’ll be kind and assume he’s not a foolish drunk idiot about to be killed by a car and just pretend he’s just really excited about Easter.”

In other words, people only stay alive here because all the murderous creatures got a bunch of hyped up bad press and because it’s a bit of a nanny state with heaps of safety measures (they keep barbed wire fences behind fences here so drunk people don’t accidentally try to climb them).
I bring this up because I was taking a picture of a flying fox yesterday and the people around me were seriously afraid for my safety.

I love flying foxes, or fruit bats. They are spectacular as they fly overhead—looking more bat-like than I realized a bat could ever look. They come in great flocks this time of year, and squabble like children as they perform essential work for a healthy ecosystem by moving pollen and seeds over long distances. They also, like many animals, occasionally carry a zoonotic virus which can transmit illness to other species. And in the case of our flying foxes, the tragic recent death of a young boy from lyssavirus has catapulted them to the front of the ‘most deadly’ list.
After being here for a while I can say quite comfortably that for all the air of bravado, Aussies like to be safe. They like rules and regulations that lead to fences and signs and security. And since this solitary death there has been an increased call to cull the flying foxes, some of which are already threatened with extinction. This desire to kill bats echoes the call to cull sharks, and slay crocodiles, and influences our desire to bash snakes and poison spiders.

Perhaps though we should step back, and focus on doing away with lightning.

February 21, 2013

Lost in the Loveliness--aka lost should be a keyword in my life


Springbrook National Park
I backed against the mossy wall out of the waterfall’s spray, as a group of hikers edged by. “The trail up ahead is closed.” I said, beaming. “We tried the left fork too. It’s also closed off,” I added, as I tried to stifle my crazy-lady Oh. My. Gosh. Waterfalls-make-me-happy grin while relaying the disappointing news.

Evan and I continued back to the map and tried to sort out where else to go on the crisscrossing trails. Despite the fact the sign had one of those handy ‘you are here’ arrows pointing at a section of wiggly line, I kept suggesting: a) sections of trail we’d already explored and discovered were closed due to cyclone and flood damage or b) paths that weren’t actually connected to the trail we were on. 

 Having no sense of direction and a grave inability to read a map could be seen as a liability in a travel-based lifestyle. When it comes to real world travel—where it actually matters if when travelling from ‘A’ to ‘B’ you end up at ‘C’ after a long detour through ‘I’m-pretty-sure-this-is-the-wrong-town’—I need to compensate. But here, where I could pass the same waterfall three times and still react with the same giddy awe that most people reserve for the first one or two times they see something wondrous, it wasn’t much of a problem.

Gorgeous landscape and the only real risk aside from getting lost was the Giant Stinging Tree a, "Australian rainforest tree that protects itself with fine silica hairs on its leaves that are coated in a neurotoxin which can cause pain for up to 6 months at a time."

 And so we wandered. Every so often Evan pointed out when I was going to head off on a trail I’d already traversed and when we got back in the car to head home he carefully turned on the GPS and aimed the screen more directly at himself. I simply relished the view.

February 19, 2013

Bump and Bite--fishy problems

Shortly after arriving in the Brisbane River we noticed the occasional loud thump against our hull. For the first few months we assumed we’d been hit by a wave slap or maybe a bit of debris, but eventually we realized the thumps were fishier than that (sorry couldn’t resist…)

Our river is known for the thousand plus bull sharks that swim and feed here. They are born at the mouth of the river then the pups swim upstream where they grow up to 3m. Most of the sharks in our part of the river ‘only’ get to about 1.5m, a size that’s not considered dangerous to people (though world-wide bull sharks are blamed for more fatalities than any other species) but can be hazardous to small dogs (and the occasional race horse).

But being a shark lover I found the idea of sharks outside our boat more fascinating than frightening. And I was eager to get a glimpse of this cosmopolitan creature that can live in fresh or salt water and that seemed to be bashing our boat with increasing frequency and enthusiasm.

Bull sharks are pretty mysterious (they are known to jump out of the water and spin like dolphins for no clear reason) but one behaviour: the bump and bite, is pretty well-known. This is when the near-blind shark head-butts their prey before sinking their teeth into it, this lets the shark figure out what its about to bite.

This is what we assumed was happening—for some reason our boat appealed to sharks, so they’d bump us, realize we weren’t really food, then move on. Only to decide to try again a few minutes later. Then the behaviour changed. Every time we filled the sink to do dishes the bumps became concentrated right around the drain. We’d get a ‘bump, bump, bump’ and the plug would pop out and our fresh water (with yummy food debris would drain away).

We tried to convince ourselves we were imagining it—maybe the plug fit poorly, or something. So I read up on the sharks some more. When in the ocean they eat fish, stingrays, dolphins, sea turtles, other sharks, molluscs and crustaceans. In rivers they have a more varied diet that includes fish, crab, shrimp, squid, sea urchins, turtles, birds, bats, dogs, rats, cows and antelope (apparently). I couldn’t find a single reference for bull sharks liking dish washing debris.

So we pondered and we held in the plug with one hand while we washed quickly. Occasionally after having the plug bumped free I’d rush outside to see if I could glimpse our ‘shark’. I’d see splashes, a flash of silver but nothing conclusive until one day when we threw mouldy bread over the side.
just a few of 'our' catfish

The water erupted. But not with the shark I had expected, instead there were dozens of catfish.

It seems we have a permanent school under the boat now—they make dishwashing interesting. But we kind of find them endearing.

February 14, 2013

The Cricket, more adventures Down Under

 'Why is it THE cricket?’ I asked, as a group of us sat around a table eating prawns, drinking wine and enjoying the dinner that came with our VIP cricket tickets. “Don’t you go to THE cinema? It’s just a definite article,” I was told. (Which made sense.) “Just like going to the tennis or the hockey.” (Mmm, not so much.)

The cricket is like that for me. It almost makes sense: You have a bowler trying to throw a ball at a wicket and a batter trying to hit the ball so it can’t hit the wicket. Good so far.

‘Wait! Are there are two batters running?!’ I was slowly putting it together: An over is six balls. We were at a 20 Over game which meant it would be over in about three hours (or four if you add in dinner and supper breaks) versus a test match which takes five days (six hours a day with tea breaks, and maybe naps). “Test matches,” I was told, “are wonderful. Like watching a waterfall.”

But while I had sorted out the overs and the innings, and took great delight every time a batter got a six (ooh!! Pretty fire explosions and loud music) it took me thirty minutes into my first ever match (thirty minutes!) for me to realize two batters were running at the same time.
Without Alex the game would have been nonsensical...
 It took me even longer to realize that when a batter hit the ball out of the ballpark (cricket pitch?) and into the stands (scoring a six—as in six runs. Fire!! Ooh, pretty.), the guy who caught it didn’t keep it, have it autographed and then later sell it on Gumtree—no, he gave it back. “They only get one ball,” my interpreter, the ever-cheerful eight-year old Alex, explained. Apparently even if the ball breaks they need to sift through a box of other used balls and find one there. A very economical sport this.

Fire, loud music and cricket dancers--what more could you want?
 ‘Hey! Why’d we get the fire?’ No one hit a six, but it turns out you also get fire, loud music and cricket dancers (sort of like cheerleaders who have no skills) when someone goes out. And someone can go out, or be dismissed, for one of five reasons (wikipedia says 10, but my interpreters were an eight year old and a co-worker of Ev’s who had an open bar at his disposal, so we’ll accept five).
Vip section meant fancy food and free booze, and a dress code...
And so went the game. Until the near the end—when using relatively simple maths Evan and I realized there was no way for Australia to catch up. But all around us the crowd kept cheering and urging them on. So we asked about that. “Oh, sure they still have a chance!” We did the math—1.5 overs left = 9 balls or a maximum of 54 runs. Oz needed 51. “Oh, so not so good then… But they could get extras!”

‘Are extras common?’ I asked, as two more batters were dismissed and the West Indies win seemed sealed (as evidenced by one of the fielders doing yoga stretches). “No, not really,” I was told.

Can you see the trend?
 ‘By the way,’ I asked, ‘which countries make up the West Indies team?’ My question got a puzzled look. Not the cheerfully bemused look I got when I asked dumb game questions like ‘why do they keep switching sides?’ (They do it at the end of each over, or after some one is dismissed, unless it’s the last ball of the over—or something like that). The West Indies, I was told, are just that, “The country of West Indie.”
There is no country of ‘West Indie’, I said.
“Are you sure?” I was asked. By a few people.

February 10, 2013

Raft-up-Small Boat Big Lives

This months raft-up is about relationships: "How do you think you'd do living and working in a studio apartment with your significant other? It's not unlike what cruisers do every day. We live in 30, 40, 50 feet and are with our partners and children all day long. We eat together, sleep together, do chores together, site-see together...you get the point. We are pretty much always together. Cruising will either make a relationship stronger or will cause it to crumble to pieces."

If you read books about cruising, especially books about cruising with a family, you’ll often see titles that allude to the fact that once you’re underway together, you are together. Oftentimes that’s the entire point of setting sail; stepping off the hamster wheel and slowing down enough to see the world and to really see each other. The thing is it’s not as straightforward adjustment as you might think. For us, getting the hang of cruising meant sorting out first how to have no time for each other while we got the boat ready to go, then how to be together because that was the whole goal, and finally how to be together but still be ourselves.

Looking back it feels like the whole thing was seamless—but thanks to the beauty of blogging I can see now we went through some pretty specific steps and a few rocky moments:

Stage One--Someday We’ll Sail but Until Then Our Family Will Just Have to Survive

When you spend years re-building a boat, you stop sailing, you stop hanging out together and, if you’re not careful, you stop dreaming. Every weekend, and often weeknights, Evan would head to Ceilydh. Sometimes I would tag along with Maia and we’d all install hatches, lay-up fibreglass and remove old fittings. But mostly Evan worked alone. The project, while often fulfilling, also wore us down - it taxed our marriage, diminished our bank account and pulled us away from family and friends. If ever there were a time I longed to just go sailing - this was it. But instead, the tasks stretched on.

Stage Two—We Worked Hard to Get This Time Together So I’m Going to Cherish It No Matter How Annoying You Are

We’ve been at this cruising thing for eight months now. For the past 34 weeks it’s been me, Maia and Evan; sailing, exploring, and hanging out together. 240 days of just the three of us. 5,760 hours where time spent apart has been the exception, not the rule.

When you are together. All. The. Time. It’s the little things that start to grate: the messes that seem to materialize where ever Maia is sitting; Evan’s half-finished projects that give our boat a semi-derelict feel; the fact the two of them try and talk to me while I’m working; and the way they seem to hover when I’d rather be alone…

The problem, when you’ve just spent 345,600 minutes together, is there is no unique perspective to give things a fresh energy. Maia and I can anticipate the joke Evan will tell before he tells it (although we still give a half-hearted laugh to keep his confidence up). Maia and Evan know what I’ll order in a restaurant before I do. Maia tends to surprise us still (especially when she waxes poetic about something like the beauty of a burro in, “the soft morning light”), but even she’s becoming staid and predictable.

Stage Three—Balance For Now

I pretty much have all the same balancing/time issues as every mother everywhere—I’m just doing it on a small boat far from girlfriends, gyms and therapists…

But sometimes, like mothers everywhere, I do find a way to take time for myself. I decide we can skip laundry wear dirty clothes for one more day and join our buddy boats for a yoga class. And I realize that Ev and Maia can fend for themselves for an evening while I sneak off to have a girl-night on Britannia.

And while eating a double batch of popcorn and yawning, and watching a lushly romantic movie that husbands and kids would never want to see, it seems that for one day, at least, we found just enough time to fit the important stuff in. And maybe tomorrow I’ll get to the laundry.

It’s easy to feel guilty if you are not happy all the time. For us our happiness as a family and as a couple often comes down to how we’re doing as individuals. And sometimes it’s hard to sort out your individual needs when you are crammed together like sardines. But for us that’s the clue—when the boat suddenly feels too small it’s time to find out why.

February 6, 2013

Sewn Souvenirs Part Deux

We’ve learned so much while out cruising. I don’t just mean the things you’d expect to learn: offshore sailing, local history, how to say ‘where’s the bathroom’ in smattering of foreign languages or even how to husk a coconut. No, we’ve learned all sorts of cool things we never even knew were out there to learn: how to custom dye fabric, how to set up a slack line, why that weird looking fish is doing what it’s doing…

Cruisers have some of the most diverse skills and backgrounds of any group of people we’ve ever met. We’ve met botanists and biologists, astronomers, engineers and IT guys, doctors, lawyers and investment bankers, jewellery makers and stunt drivers, and the guy who invented the forth squeeze for orange juice.

And from so many of them we’ve learned things. Real things. Useful things—like which leaf makes a poultice that can help heal wounds, and how to find constellations in the new-to-us southern sky and how to take that huge coin collection and turn it into beautiful keepsakes.

Lauren girl from Pico was our jewellery maker in the Pacific. Lauren’s grandmother taught her to make gorgeous embroidered bead jewellery, and she passed on her skills and knowledge to Amanda from Britannia, who also makes stunning embroidered bead jewellery, and Amanda kindly passed on some of her skills and knowledge to Maia, who aspires to make wonderful embroidered bead jewellery.
Amanda and Lauren's work as inspiration
 Maia is actually doing really well with her new found skills. Her first piece caught the eye of the kids on Viatrix (a lovely French Canadian family we’ve been spending time with) and they asked to learn so she invited them and the girls from Dorénavant (another lovely French Canadian family we’re spending time with—in fact there are currently six Canadian boats here in Brissie, the most we’ve encountered in one harbour since Mexico) over for a jewelry making class.

The class was both a French lesson (Maia can now swear and threaten to eat small children) and a jewelry making class. And as the kids sewed and giggled and Maia struggled with the ‘r’ sound in Merde! while the other kids tried to keep their beads even, I thought about how far this lesson had traveled: from Lauren’s grandmother to her, and then across oceans and cultures. And soon it will spread even further.

February 5, 2013

Sewn Souvenirs

With vibrant fabrics like these available it's hard not to want to take some home. The fabric.
 "Oh, mum! Do we have space?”I heard it over and over. In every market. In every country.
Sailing to new and distant shores is one of those things we want to hold with us. Not just by memories and photographs (though those are #1 and 2) but having tactile things—a hair stick carved in the Marquesas to wind my hair up out of the humidity, serving dishes from Mexico for fresh salsa—keep the memories that much closer.

But we don’t have the money, the space, the need (you name it) for so many of the beautiful things we see. So we search out small things—a hand woven basket to replace a plastic crate, a mask to add to our wee collection. But mostly we admired the pretty things and move on. Fabric though—fabric we can use. Or so I thought as we loaded up on gorgeous South Pacific prints.

We have a big beastly sailrite, but when it came time to make the little girl dresses I used to love to sew (or teach the little girl to make them) the sailrite was a bit cranky. A lot cranky. So recently we bought a cheap light weight machine, called it Maia’s and let her pull out some of her lovely Fiji fabrics and start learning to sew.
Fiji fabric gets a new look
 I can almost smell the frangipani.