October 30, 2014

Something We Didn’t Bargain For—trading with locals

I have to admit from the outset; I’m terrible at bargaining. I’m pretty sure people see me coming and clap their hands in glee—they just know they’re going to come out on the better side of the bargain. We also don’t tend to barter with ‘stuff’ that often. Usually we use cash—knowing that local people, especially in subsistence villages, really need money in hand to in order to buy essentials.

There are still times we will barter, but the items we carry to trade with are pretty carefully selected. Basically we don’t stock up on stuff we wouldn’t use ourselves—so no cigarettes and Playboys or junky plastic stuff (and no balloons for kids!). What we try to carry are things we know are hard to come by and can improve life a little, but don’t harm the local environment: so old swim masks or goggles, hats, sunglasses, binoculars, reusable water bottles, used clothes, fishing gear, flashlights, tools and school supplies.
kids are adorable and quickly learn to ask for money and stuff  

when possible we encourage a simple trade-in this case it was coconuts for hats
Most of what we have aboard for trade are things we’ve ended up with either from tradeshows, work trips, other boats, or are items that we’ve replaced with new gear. Having the stuff aboard doesn’t mean it’s always easy to know when to pull it out though.

Typically we wait for people to ask us for things before we suggest a trade—this way we know we’re offering up something they can use. So far in Indonesia the most coveted item is a swim mask to help with spear fishing. While we’ve seen some very clever handmade swim goggles—they don’t look comfortable.

If we are going to  give--it's typically to a school. We brought in a load of books and supplies to a school in Fiji
Aboard the boat rather than giving gifts we bring out paper and coloured pencils
Today we ended up trading away two swim masks. One of them by accident. Through a series of acquisitions we’ve somehow ended up with seven SPARE masks. Spares are important—we’ll use them if ours leak, or lend them to guests. But seven is a lot.

Yesterday when we had about 15 guests aboard one fellow asked if we had a mask to spare. Not wanting to display all our stuff with people around we shrugged off the question, but this morning I pulled out a mask and decided we needed hunt down the fellow who asked after it. Through a consensus we sort of recalled his name might be Paulus.

Midway through my morning coffee I saw a prau that looked like Paulus’ blue boat so I waved it over, mask in hand. As it drifted closer I realized neither occupant was Paulus. Actually one of them was Paulus, just not our Paulus (who may or may not be Paulus…) Paulus who wasn’t Paulus wanted the mask though—but all he had to trade was bananas.

Bananas are nice, and I don’t drive a very hard bargain, in fact I have to try really hard not to give stuff away. Giving stuff away (except for in dire situations where the need is great and the ability to trade doesn’t exist—like the fisherman without fish who showed up in his dissolving-around-him swimsuit and asked for shorts) is a bit of a no-no. Everyone needs dignity and when one boat starts giving things away it changes the dynamic from equals, or host and visitor, to beggar and giver.
So if all you have to trade is a hand of bananas—we’re going to find something of value to offer in exchange. A swim mask wasn’t the thing though—that’s worth a whole stalk of bananas. So we offered banana Paulus a t-shirt (which he accepted happily) and headed to shore to find other Paulus.

Once we were on shore we found everyone but Paulus. Evan chatted with the boat builder and I went to hang out with the ladies who were headed to market. One of the ladies called me over and started pointing at my eyes and making glasses symbols. At first I thought she was after reading glasses or sunglasses but then she mimicked swimming. With no Paulus in sight, and the need to get going starting to press, I called Evan over to show the lady the mask.

Mistake. Always start the bargaining process before handing something over. My error led the lovely lady to thinking I’d given her the mask. Which made her dance. And then all her friends clapped. She bubbled with happy. Evan suggested I try to get the mask back, or bargain for something, but there was no way I was wrecking her windfall and all she seemed to have for the market were two little pigs….

So right then Paulus showed up (positive that’s not his name). He saw the mask and his face fell. So we decided to try again—Evan went back to the boat for another mask. We made it clear we wanted 24 eggs for the mask. A thrilled Paulus walked us a kilometre straight up hill to the village to collect the eggs. But when he happily delivered us to the store we realized our trade had gone wrong again. The store wanted money for eggs. Paulus wanted the mask for delivering us to the store. We had no money. We wanted eggs.

In the end we sold the mask to the store for a dozen eggs—we negotiated for 24 eggs, but I wanted Paulus to be able to buy it for a price he could manage. And taking 24 eggs would have cleared out the store’s entire stock—we couldn’t do that. So we left a dozen eggs on the table.

We have to hope that Paulus got the mask in the end—all we know is he stayed behind to bargain for it with the store.

October 29, 2014

It’s a Boat Thing

This morning we got an early visit. Two fishermen paddled up in a small fibreglass prau and said hello. After the greetings (what are our names, where are we from, where have we been and where are we going?) their eyes turned to our boat’s details. Evan did his best to explain how our boat was built and what materials were used. But most of their answers were found by studying the hull shape and looking at the joins

Perhaps it’s similar to the way an architect or builder approaches a building in a foreign place; looking for details that explain how the people adapted their structures to take into account weather, landscape and usage. Sailors and fisherman adapt our vessels in a similar way and we have a language of hull shapes and construction details all our own.

Over time we’ve made a game of it. When we get to a new place we check out the local boats to see what clues they offer about the sea and the people. The dugouts are obvious—they tend to be limited by the size of trees. But the boats that have evolved after the dugouts have all sorts of telling details.

working on a boat
 Long narrow hulls are expensive to keep in marinas (where you’re charged by the foot) but when you’re launching from a beach they cut through the swell nicely. They’re also fast through the water so it’s easy to push them along with a minimum of power and fuel—important when paying for fuel cuts into your fishing profits.

recaulking the bottom so it won't leak
A wider boat is more stable and can carry more cargo, but it’s much more expensive to run, especially if the fishing isn’t that lucrative. The low freeboard and high upswept bows of Indonesian boats (so different from the fishing boats at home) are ideal for choppy seas that don’t have big cold waves. They also let the fishermen work close to the water while offering some sun protection in the very stern.

When the fisherman finished looking over our boat—completing the exchange by trading bananas for a t-shirt—we headed in to see a boat that was being rebuilt on shore. The builder was using a machete the way we might use a chisel and a handsaw in place of power tools.

Like other boats we’ve seen being built here much of the construction is traditional—wooden dowels instead of nails, seams caulked with cotton and bamboo outriggers lashed to the hull. The surprise came when we saw the effort he was putting into decorative details. As boaters though—adornment makes sense. It’s hard not to add a little love to a boat, no matter what its purpose.

October 26, 2014

Underwater Alor

 We spent the last few days in Alor. For the past 15 years or so Alor’s been billed as Indonesia’s up and coming dive destination – the next Raja Ampat. While the tourists haven’t quite made it to this remote section of Indonesia, the diving is definitively spectacular. The Cave Point wall dive off of Ternate had 100 ft+ visibility and more varieties of coral than we’ve ever seen. We also saw a great variety of fish—including lion fish and a few sharks tucked into the caves. Topsy Turvy off of Reta was just plain pretty—lots of colour, lots to explore.
bubble coral
clear water, colourful coral
traditional rattan fish trap
The trick is to find places to anchor and to manage the strong irregular currents, known locally as “Ajar Gundah” (uncertain water). On our first night we anchored off Point Kumba, in coral rubble, at the edge of a drop off. During the night, when the current changed, we dragged off the shelf, across a bay and hooked back on in front of a village in the middle of a fishing fleet. After that we started to use our anchor alarm.

Even still the anchorages we found were in shallow reefs areas beside 200ft drop offs. Using a bow and stern anchor (which we buoyed to keep from damaging coral) the holding was still indifferent – the diving and snorkeling made it oh, so worth it though.

fishing village at Ternate
Making Alor even better was seeing Maia in the water. She’s always been a waterbaby, but now she’s evolved into a competent and confident diver. Watching her explore the nooks and crannies of the reef was a reminder why we’re here. I really don’t know what she’ll make of her childhood when she’s grown up but I have to believe that places like this will stick.

flying above the clear water

October 22, 2014

Road Triping with Elfis -- Exploring Alor

When we left Kupang we opted to sail off the beaten path—as much as there is a beaten path in Indonesia. A good percentage of the cruisers who travel through the country travel in one of the annual rallies and those who aren’t on a rally often follow the same routes. Sailing the world may sound very adventurous, but in some ways it’s really not that different than traveling around North America in an RV. Just like the journey of those land-based snowbirds, everyone on a boat follows the same seasons and tends to show up in the same harbours, hitting many of the same highlights.

Heading off the beaten path means picking a place that sounds interesting—then doing some research and discovering no one’s mentioned your destination in a cruising guide or blog. When you show up people tend to be surprised to see you and also not quite sure why you’re there.

just a few of the day's visitors
Being off the path also means you lose access to years of accumulated cruiser knowledge. Something I hadn’t realized we were so reliant on until I looked up our current port of Kalabahi. I was intrigued by the shape of the islands (it looked like there would be lots of calm anchorages and coral reefs). But the only info we found was a brief entry in the Lonely Planet guide, which oddly enough doesn’t tell you where the best anchorage is or where to bring your dinghy ashore (we anchored in the cove past the port and brought our dinghy to a breakwater in the inner harbour where a security guard tied it up for us).

What we did discover was Kalabahi is the access point for a great dive area, and while we were keen to check out the diving I also found a mention of a nearby traditional village called Tapkala. These two things were enough—we decided that even if we couldn’t find online reassurance that Kalabahi was a good destination, we’d check it out ourselves.

Maia is frequently asked to pose for pictures
Being the only white people in a remote Indonesian city is both overwhelming and charming—children ran after us practising their English while scooter drivers stared at us in such obvious shock we nearly caused accidents. The attention was almost enough to make us scurry home—but even on the boat we got frequent visitors.

Finding information about diving and the little village we wanted to see was more complicated than we expected. Not a tourist town, Kalabahi doesn’t have a handy tourist office to check in with. We thought stopping in at the hotel might be an option but as we were making a plan (maybe we’d just catch a bemo and say where we hoped to go and see what happened?) a car pulled up beside us and Elfis, (who didn’t speak English) and his friend Noby (who spoke even less) offered to help.

I wonder sometimes what we teach Maia when we climb into a strange car, with strangers who don’t speak English in a city we know nothing about. I hope she learns that we all have more in common than we think and the distance between us is less than you imagine. Also I hope it teachers her that most people are kind. But I also don’t really want HER climbing in strange cars with strangers anytime in her near future—so it’s a bit of a conundrum.

Somehow though everything about Elfis felt comfortable—from the stuffed animals on his dashboard, to the mellow (and very bad) Christian music on the stereo, to the extreme effort he made to hunt down someone who could tell us where Tapkala was.

Noby and Elfis
I’m pretty sure that without Elfis we would never have found Tapkala. It turned out to be located across the island and way up a mountainside, even if we’d found the bus that was supposed to go that way it would have been a seriously hot hoof up the hill. Instead we were chauffeured like visiting celebrities. Seriously. Little children would wave and call out to us as we passed…

Tapkala is best shared in pictures. The village is a subsistence one but the tourists that find their way bring in much needed cash. Sadly the women bring out the same Chinese ‘handicrafts’ that we’ve seen everywhere from Mexico to Fiji. But the headman was eager to show us around the village and teach us about some of their traditions—he dressed up in his (rather terrifying) warrior clothes and then explained what each barb of his bow and arrow was designed to kill us.

October 19, 2014

Sailing the Seven Seas

Whoever wants to go into the world must cross seven seas, each one with its own colour and wind and fish and breeze, completely unlike the sea that lies beside it.

We've sailed out of the Arafura Sea, through the Timor Sea into the Savu Sea. Soon we'll be in the Flores Sea. In the early days of sailing, these seas were part of the seven seas; those enchanting waters on the other side of the world where spice was in the wind. To sail them meant you had sailed as far from staid grey Europe as you could. You'd reached the mystical land of dragons.

For the record, there are more than seven seas; there's more like 100. But these waters do feel different. And it's not just the fire scented breeze that set off our smoke detector, the long slow swells, or the colourful high-bowed fishing boats that swoop close to look at us. Maybe if we'd flown into Jakarta by plane that sense of the exotic would have been more subdued. But we sailed into a port where the numbers of foreign ships each year only numbers in the hundreds (we were yacht # 675) and these numbers make up a good part of Kupang's foreign visitors.

We stand out in the streets. Everywhere we go: getting sim cards for our mobiles, waiting for bemos take us from place to place, shopping in the market, we're surrounded by a crowd. People touch our arms and stroke our hair. Maia is pulled into photos. They offer us help in bargaining for our dinner and laugh when we clearly paid too much. They follow us using a few English words, "Hello madam!" "Ausralie?" "You speak Indo?" We offer back our small bits of Indonesian, "Selamat pagi." "Terima Kasih."

Arriving by boat is an older way to travel. Everything is harder and takes longer. On our first morning we decided to check in using an agent. Stories of three and four day check ins (Maia and I would need to stay on the boat while Evan visited office after office) convinced us that help wouldn't go amiss. Our faith (and $60) in Api wasn't misplaced. After having the customs agent aboard (we served cold juice and lemon squares and he looked for alcohol in our olive oil bottle) Evan made record time visiting four offices (one twice) and making dozens of photo copies. By the end of the day we were officially in. But in the process Evan lost a credit card.

Our second day was spent trying to reconnect to the world-especially with the credit card company. Setting up phones in a foreign place is rarely simple. It took three tries. Midway through we ran out of steam-touched out and wrung out we found a restaurant and had lunch. Lunch brought us good fortune. We met a Canadian expat who offered us a scooter ride and we were off to see monkeys.

seems we found the only polite monkeys in Asia...

It's this: the forgotten slowness of travel that feels uncertain and foreign, that draws us to sailing. To cruise you need to go more deeply into a place, moving beyond restaurants, hotels and tourist highlights. You need to find out how to buy a chicken and how to eat that fruit. You listen as the call to an unknown prayer echoes through the anchorage in the setting sun. You puzzle over your clothes; wondering if it's better to cover chest, knees or shoulders (no one dress seems to tackle all three). And you realize that no matter what you learn today, it won't be the same tomorrow when you enter a new sea that's completely unlike the sea that lies beside it.

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October 17, 2014

We're going to Indonesia, Man...

 As promised the passage from Darwin to Kupang, Indonesia is slow and leisurely. It's peaceful enough that yesterday (after another great dolphin visit) the wind dropped to nothing and we went for a swim in the open ocean. There's not been much to do on this trip-we practice our Indonesian, read the guide books and on Thanksgiving we had an almost-traditional meal of chicken sausages while reflecting back on our gratitude for our life in Australia.

In Darwin it felt like a race against time and the approaching wet (apparently the thunder squalls started last night…) to get our Indonesian visas and our Australian clearance. While we waited for paperwork we finished off boat chores (now both our front windows are clear and uncrazed), bought more last minute cheese and bacon, visited with the family on Relapse and spent time with the lovely Polish-Canadian couple we first met in Cairns and who are a day or two behind us headed to Kupang.
Darwin turned out to be a great stop (other than the harbour and its big tides and bigger sand flats, which are a huge pain…) we checked out the market, the museum, and the Yacht Club, Sailing Club and Ski Club. Maia had a great time hanging out with the Relapse kids while Evan and I ticked off the boxes of our endless 'leave Australia' checklist (cancel healthcare, cancel phones, change banking details…).
Flying our 'Q' flag and our Indonesian courtesy flag as we make landfall
But now we're at sea and despite the very regular presence of Australian border patrol ships and aircraft, which we've gotten to know well with regular check ins along the Australian coast, the calm conditions make it feel like we're headed somewhere very new.

October 3, 2014

Should Never Have Stopped

we've sailed our flag off in the past few months...

We have every reason to keep moving. Not only did our CAIT arrive from Indonesia (the cruising permit that allows us to visit the Indonesian Consulate and arrange for visas) but we’ve also scheduled an awesome guest to meet us in Bali and really hope to catch up with our friends on Totem before they head across the Indian Ocean. Also—we’ve been in Australia long enough.

So when we set off from Seisia we decided the cruising portion of ‘travelling through Australia’ was done—now it was just a ‘get to Indonesia’ trip, while we still counted as late for this year, rather than as early for next.

steep seas gave way to dolphins and back again
We stopped though. I have to admit I was a bit tired—the combination of steep current-addled seas and variable winds kept me perpetually sea sick on this passage. And no matter how much I sleep when I’m sea sick I still wake exhausted and achy. Being tired wouldn’t have stopped us, but we also have a few items that broke that need attention—the big one being the lazy jacks which hold up our mainsail bag—without them it’s hard to stow our mainsail.
That wouldn’t have stopped us either though.

One of the promises we made ourselves when we returned from our first cruising trip a gazillion years ago was that we’d never become so rigid in our schedule and planning that we lost room in our life for serendipity. Even after we returned to Vancouver, where the currency of self-worth seems to be how full your calendar is, we made sure we could stop, even when we really shouldn’t.

But we still shouldn’t have spent the extra day in Alcaro Bay when we could have been in Darwin getting our visas and catching up on email. We shouldn’t have risen slowly and headed for a leisurely breakfast on a boat called Jirakati with Des (who was filled with great info and advice) and Ted (who reminded us of my stepfather Frank, with his easy humour and deeply held knowledge about the landscape.)

We shouldn’t have spent our most relaxed day in months with them—watching them teach Maia to fish, cheering her on when she caught the biggest one of the day. Or snapping our camera as they fed scraps to the sea eagles—bringing them close for our benefit.

Ted and Desley were worth the stop
We also shouldn’t have caught that delicious mud crab. Or strolled the beach looking at newly hatched turtle nests. We shouldn’t have sampled the green part of a green ant and learned it tasted like lemons (okay, one of us didn’t do that). We shouldn’t have watched the sun set on a day we all agreed was quietly perfect.

I spotted a mud crab and Ted caught him for me with a throw net
It’s so easy to forget that our days belong to us. We get caught up in the should’s and must’s and forget what we could do.

But someday, when we look back at all our days, we’re not going to recall how we kept to a schedule or did what we were supposed to do. What we’ll recall are the days where we busted out, took back our hours, and spent them exactly how the moment dictated: making new friends, catching a fish and watching a most magnificent bird.