August 25, 2015

Comoros Wedding Crashers

Behan gets her wiggle on with the local ladies

I felt her hands on my waist before I saw her. Plump and smiling and wrapped in a red robe she tied a blue sash around my hips and then holding the fabric she tried to transform my awkward shimmy into a replica of her own graceful gyrations. Somehow, well, I sort of know how it happened; we were out for a walk exploring Mutsamadu, we heard music, we peaked behind some tarps to take a look and suddenly I had a hundred women trying to teach me to shake my booty at a stranger’s wedding while the men waited outside.

Depending on your perspective, I’ve failed dance class in three different butt-shaking cultures. In Mexico I perfected the hip pop as a solo manoeuvre, but when it came time to add the steps that turned it into a sinuous wiggle, something went wrong. In French Polynesia I decided I must be missing both the muscles and the portion of my spine that allow some women to move their backsides like a cocktail shaker. But here in Comoros, when I began watching women of all ages slowly swivel their hips as they danced in a long sensuous spiral, there was nothing obvious about the moves that struck me as not-physically-possible.

The celebration, the first stage of a wedding, was thrown by the groom’s family. It began with a dance where all the bride’s gifts were displayed. Women dressed in flowing print robes—some wearing make-up of sandalwood paste and necklaces of flowers and herbs, shuffled and shimmied to a loud African beat while holding up gifts of bed sheets, towels and golden jewellery. The dancers slowly settled into a line which spiralled into itself as more and more women joined.

Trying to get a better view by peaking around the booming towers of speakers Behan, Aline, Karen and I were urged into the dance area. Then my first dance instructor showed me her moves and I tried to mimic her.

I don't stand out at all
My next dance partner, a tiny elderly woman with a wide gummy smile, had me bend my knees, thrust out my hips and push back my shoulders. Then she showed me how she swivelled her hips without moving any part of her body. I stared and she watched my hips, smiling—waiting for me to catch on. The next woman danced up in a long purple-print wrap, sparkly orange headscarf and henna circles on the palms of her hands. She adjusted my knees lower and pushed my shoulders further back and got me moving in a manner that almost seemed to satisfy her. Then another dancer boogied me to the spiral and pushed me into position. Packed between wiggling hips I joined the slow writhing shuffle, arms held high—trying to let the pulsing beat guide my hips.

It was travel writing that gave me my urge to travel: tales about intrepid adventures and crazy escapades that always seemed to illuminate how, despite all our outward differences, there’s a basic sameness between people everywhere. The thing I notice now, when I turn back to my favourite writing, is how much of it is written by men, who hang out with other men (drinking, carousing and defying death) and how much of it is off limits to me.

I’ve been traveling for a while now—and much of our time has been in countries where the lives and actions of women are so restricted that wandering into a bar, meeting some bad-ass dude and setting off on a mad quest isn’t very likely to happen (not to mention Evan might not be so keen). I’ve also discovered that while I love a good adventure I’m equally curious about the lives of the women I meet.

It’s typically the men who have the freedom, leisure time and language skills to interact with us when we travel. The women are veiled by family and home (and cloth) and we often only intersect in the markets, or over children. These connections are sweet and memorable for me; I’ve been taught recipes, learned cultural details, held children and heard hopes and dreams. But these moments are quiet. They don’t usually become stories.

Young women won’t read my tale about discovering how to cook taro leaves (boiled, with baking soda!) from a woman in Fiji, or how to properly tie Maia’s sari from a tea plantation worker in Sri Lanka (you need at least two pins) and decide they must get a passport Right. Now. to replicate my adventures. Not the way I did when I read about one writer who went trekking through the jungles of the Congo with mercenaries and snakes. I needed to get to the Congo. I wanted to meet mercenaries too!

But when I was whirling through that kaleidoscope of women who had cut loose from their market stalls, children and kitchen duties; when I saw how their downcast eyes and shy smiles had been replaced with big grins (despite the embarrassment of the missing teeth they normally try to hide); and their reserve had been replaced with a willingness to grab my hips and shake them until I could just about feel their rhythm; I couldn’t help but think this is why I got that passport.

August 23, 2015

Arrival Africa: Anjouan, Comoros

The best part of a hard passage is the last few miles; after you sight land and, if you're lucky, the wind and seas drop to the point where you can catch your breath and clean up a bit, in preparation for arrival formalities.

Arriving in Anjouan was perfect this way. The wind decreased to ten knots and the seas settled from over three meters to one. We had a day of calm weather to tidy up, shower, wash salty clothes and towels and a salty ceiling caused by a particularly boisterous wave that broke over the boat and then bounced up through the cockpit and in through the back door. As we cleaned we danced to our traditional landfall song Supertramp's, "Land Ho".

Comoros is 99% Muslim and one of the poorest countries in the world. The population speaks some French (but mostly an Arabic dialect of Swahili). The economy is primarily agricultural—with people growing vanilla, cloves and ylang-ylang. And despite a tumultuous political history the country has been coup-free the past few years (after experiencing more than 20 coups since independence from France in 1974…).

The combination of mystery, relative political peace and Anjouan's location in the lee of Madagascar halfway to Mozambique made it appealing to a few previous boats—and their reports of a friendly culture and a must-see island made it an intriguing stop. The only real negatives were reports of arrival procedures (and costs) that seem to be at the whim of the officials. Costs seemed to included visas at 30 Euros PP, Port fees at 50 Euros a boat, Police and Gendarme fees that were as much as 40 Euros each, various bribes and an agent fee that was set at, "whatever you think my services are worth."

We started calling the port from about six miles out. Eventually we reached the port police through our friends on Geramar—they arrived a couple of days before us and prepped officials and our agent Maketse for our 6pm Friday arrival. Pulling into the harbour we were directed to a rusted out tug and asked to tie up. Using every fender we owned, we nosed in carefully and a full contingent of line-handlers and officials made sure we didn't make contact with the tug's ragged hull.

Geramar told us to expect a full search. They had every cupboard and locker rummaged and they were asked repeatedly for gifts. In our case customs, gendarmes and the port police came aboard. Then Charlie the cat came out of hiding and the customs official leapt out of our cabin in fear and the other two officials made a cursory one minute search and then scooted off the boat—laughing nervously. For some reason our cat scares the heck out of some officials, which is fine with us.

Then we handed over documents and Evan headed off to see the officials. Minutes later he was back, explaining we'd need to check-in, in the morning when the banks reopened. Saturday came but the banks didn't open and the bank machines didn't work so Maketse arranged for a friend to lend us enough money for visas and a flag—then the visas (the one item we expected to have a fixed cost) ended up costing only 10,000 francs each (65 Euros total). The flag came from a man with a sewing machine in a tiny market alley and cost 5000 francs.

I won't itemize the rest of check-in. Normally, I wouldn't go into the minutiae of arrival at all—but here in Comoros it's been such a quirky process that I wanted to give a sense of it (and offer up details for boats that follow).

While Evan went through check-in Maia and I wandered through town. It's comfortable here—scented with cloves and spice. The women are wrapped in bright African fabrics—their faces often painted with a light-coloured powdered wood mixture with their eyebrows traced over in charcoal and their hair covered in scarves. They are gentle—quick to place a hand on my arm as we talked or if they needed to pass us in the crowded aisles of the market.

The men are polite—one man stopped to surreptitiously show us his bible. Assuming we were Christian he explained he was thinking of converting to Catholicism, because "it's a religion based on a personal relationship with God and not one that houses terrorists or extremists." Gently we let him know that Christians too could twist religious doctrine—that terror and extremism are not unique to Islam. But we told him our travels have shown us that it seems like good people made up the bulk of the faithful in every religion.

"What about Jehovah's Witnesses? Do they have terrorists?" he asked. "That's also an option."

The odd road-side chat about good and evil, terror, extremism and religion seems to fit with this strange friendly town. Everyone we meet knows we're from the catamaran—ours are the only white faces here.

Today Evan went out with Maketse to find wood to replace the foredeck that floated away. He found the wood but there is no electricity today—so the banks don't work. And the lumber is lovely but it can't be milled until the power comes back on. And we're still not checked in fully so we don't know what it will eventually cost. And we haven't paid back the stranger who lent us money to get visas. And we can't get the internet yet because the phone office is closed until the electricity comes back. But the vibe of the place has rubbed off on us.

Three small boys came by—paddling a mattress (made from rice sacks stuffed with plastic) using old miss-matched flipflops. We gave them a few crackers each when they asked for food—then they wished us a good day.
It really is.

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August 19, 2015

Enduring the Indian Ocean

Of all the sounds that have filled my ears on this 800 miles from the Seychelles to Comoros I never heard the noise when a big wave washed our foredeck free. The slatted wooden deck just sort of sits (sat) forward of the mast beam. Soaked with spilled wine and good memories it had been on the Thai 'to-do' list for upgrading. But Thailand never came and an Indian Ocean wave did. So now it's on the Madagascar to-do list. I hope Neptune appreciated the sacrifice.

We're on day 4 of an upwind passage in 20-25 knots. We don't have a windspeed indicator, but the boats around us do. And my ear is now calibrated. At 25 knots the wind is a high-pitched moan that resonates at the same frequency I grind my teeth. 30 knots clenches my stomach and sounds just like anxiety. The three meter waves hit with enough force to make dishes jump and drown out speech.

20 knots is better. Fewer waves crash into us or wash over us. Both Charlie the cat and I venture out of our seasick haze long enough to drink water and eat something. Charlie noticed the foredeck was gone and raised a meowing alarm. Each time he comes out he notices the sea where our deck should be and alarms anew.

15 knots sounds like exhaling. The short lulls where the seas uncrumple and we can sail without crashes and bangs and clenched teeth. Most of the passage has been under staysail and double reefed main. A few square meters of canvas catching all the power of the Indian Ocean as it compresses over Madagascar and hits Africa.

We're heading now into the lee of Madagascar. Boats that headed to the Mascarenes while we went north and boats that followed the entire southern route (this year they were so rocked by gales our 25 knots would have been appreciated) will converge on Madagascar and then South Africa in the next couple of weeks and months. Unlike the 200+ Pacific crossing boats, the Indian Ocean boats number in the dozens. But the sound of us celebrating together, with another ocean behind us will be still be huge.

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August 15, 2015

Cats on Board

Every so often I get a letter in my inbox asking about Charlie the cat. Usually people want to know if he’s still with us (yes!), what sailing with a cat is like, what documents he needs and how we manage to care for him. If pets aren’t your thing—skip this post. But if you wonder what it’s like to sail around the world from a feline perspective, read on.

Like the people on the boat, Charlie the cat is now halfway around the world (though he did fly part of the way). But between him and Travis the cat we’ve had pets onboard in a lot of different countries. Which means we’ve been clearing cats in and out of countries and looking for (but not necessarily finding) cat food and kitty litter in a lot of interesting places.

Care and Feeding of Fluffy

Currently we’re stocking up on food and supplies for our last leg to South Africa. Over the next three months we’ll be in places where the population is quite poor, as in ‘not always enough food for the kids’ poor. Places like this usually offer up meagre basic supplies for us, but when it comes to the needs of Charlie the cat, he’s out of luck.

So because the Seychelles actually has cat food and kitty litter we’re making sure we buy enough to last until we reach the next country that has cat food and cat litter (we’re pretty confident South Africa is a good option). But it’s not always easy to determine where we’ll find it. When we were in Indonesia we discovered that while lots of people had cats as pets the idea of actually feeding them was pretty strange. It wasn’t until we reached Bali, with its expat population, that we found (expensive) food and litter.

Fortunately we knew Malaysia also had pet supplies in the expat zones—so we only bought the basics of what we needed (which turned out to be a cat food Charlie really hated) and as soon as we were in Malaysia we stocked back up. By the time we were in the Maldives we were running low again—I had read a couple of expat blogs that indicated I’d find food and litter but we never did. So we set off from the Maldives without much litter. Charlie was also rapidly losing weight because he was stuck with the terrible Indonesian food he hated

During our month in Chagos Charlie was happy that a lot of fresh fish scraps came his way—this supplemented the yucky food. We also used beach sand for litter—and wished again that Charlie had been bright enough to figure out how to use the astro-turf litter box that other cruisers have great luck with. Here in the Seychelles we were able to find him food he likes and have a choice of lavender or strawberry scented kitty litter—truly odd stuff.
Which brings me to the main characteristic cruising cats should have—they need to be willing to eat almost anything and use any litter.

Sea Sick Cats and Other Perils

In most respects Charlie is a great boat cat. He’s super cautious—so unlike Travis the cat we’ve never found him on the foredeck trying to catch flying fish while we’re underway. He’s never visited other boats while we’ve been in marinas—and left on sailing holidays with them. He also hasn’t tried to catch sea birds or fish straight from the ocean—requiring us to fish him out of the sea 20-30 times. And Charlie the cat has never bitten or attacked anyone at all—including officials, which we think is good.

The only thing that Charlie the cat does that concerns us is he gets seasick on the first day of a passage. So now when we head out—he doesn’t get breakfast. And if he looks sad and starts to pant or drool we get a rag handy. Other than that he’s pleasant to have around—he’s sweet and cuddly and moderately playful. For those who knew Travis—we think of Charlie as our reward for having given a good home to a devil-cat.

Clearing In to Foreign Countries

Charlie was micro chipped and given a big fat file of impressive looking paperwork when we imported him into Australia. We covered what was involved in bringing Charlie into Oz in another post—so this is more general. Most places don’t really care about Charlie. We don’t hide him away—but we only bring him up if we’re asked directly if we have a pet onboard. Then we pass along his paperwork for perusal.

One complication we’ve found is that while countries may want up to date medical records it’s hard to find places to take pets to get their vaccines updated. For the last several countries just the volume and official-ness of the paper has been enough. But we’re quite sure with the Caribbean, US and Canada coming up that it’s time for Charlie to visit the vet again soon.

August 13, 2015

Die Jet Skis Die!

We have been anchored in the beautiful bay of Beau Vallon, enjoying the mountains ashore, the lovely beaches and the cool trade winds blowing from the land.

At about 11 a.m. they unleash the jet skis from shore. Tourists without a clue are given some basic instructions “Try not to hit the anchored sailboats. Have fun!” and pushed out past the mild surf. To say that they are annoying would be charitable.

Do you have what it takes to ride a jetski around and around and around our boat? Take this handy quiz and find out!

1)                  Hitler was:

(a)    misunderstood, mostly
(b)   an evil dictator

2)                  The best way to have fun on a jetski is:

(a)    ride around and around anchored sailboats, trying to soak their laundry with your spray
(b)   head far out into the ocean and stay away from those crowded sailboats

3)                  It would annoy me if somebody rode a dirt bike on my front lawn for a few hours:

(a)    no way – they’re having a great time!
(b)   WTF – get off my lawn you ass!

4)                  The best way to enjoy a peaceful winter landscape is:

(a)    on a Yamaha 3000GXR snowmobile with turbo boosted acceleration. Wee Haa!
(b)   on cross country skis

5)                  When I’m in a nice restaurant I will:

(a)    flick peas across the dining room with my spoon
(b)   enjoy my meal with my dining companions

Add up all your (a) answers. If you got at least 4 (a) answers, you’re ready to ride!