October 23, 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 20, 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 4, 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.

September 30, 2014

The sea is so wide, my ship is so small

It's funny how the same words can mean so many different things during a passage. The old Irish fisherman's prayer 'the sea is so wide, my ship is so small' is one that comes to mind every time we head to sea.

At first, on this passage, it was a lament about distance: A complaint that even after traveling, seemingly nonstop, for two months the distance from Cape York to Darwin was still almost 1000 nautical miles. That's like sailing from Tonga to Vanuatu without the benefit of Fiji in the middle. And when we reach Darwin in a couple of days, we'll still be in the same country.

Each time we request a weather report, the words become like a plea to the weather gods. We were crossing the Gulf of Carpenteria: a shallow body of water known for high winds, steep seas and inaccurate weather reports. Every day the prediction was for 10-15 knots with 1-2 meter seas. Not one day yet have we gotten that weather. We've had other weather-some was too calm, some offered up sickeningly steep seas that made my stomach roil as our boat plunged straight down off a wave, some was too windy. But the weather reports in this part of the wide, wide sea seem meaningless. Still we plead for fair winds for our small ship.

When we were escorted into the Arafura Sea by a large pod of dolphins the words were closest to a prayer of awe. Dolphins are a good omen to sailors. And as we watched the creatures dance in our bow wave while we crossed the imaginary line from one sea to the next, they seemed like a symbol of all the wonders the oceans have to offer. A reminder that the sea contains so much beauty and sometimes the only way to encounter it is to venture out in our very small boat.

The prayer of awe became words of acceptance when the sea became too big and we decided to stop for a rest. We can reef our sails, try to believe the weather reports, sail as safely as we may but the sea can make you tired sometimes.

Land has its own hazards though and when a fault in our starter battery meant our engine didn't start when we needed it most the prayer/lament/plea/words of awe became simple truth. Our small boat is our shelter on a big ocean; a fragile shell that's only as safe as we are skillful.

By sail alone we skirted the reefs and made our way up a blustery channel to safety.

And now we sit in our small boat. The engine is fixed, the weather report says it looks fine to carry-on. We'll sleep soundly tonight and tomorrow we'll venture back out into the wide sea.

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September 26, 2014

Into the Arafura Sea

With about 12 knots behind us we're making steady progress across the Gulf of Carpenteria. The shallow body of water at the top of Australia is notorious for delivering up a parting slap-so we've been watching the weather carefully-trying to get a sense of when conditions would be favourable. We waited out a few days of 15-20 forecasts, knowing that in the Gulf these come up more like 20-25 with nasty seas. But we're off.

Seisia was a good reintroduction to developing countries. Cut off for half the year by the wet season and only reachable by four-wheel drive, or once a month by bus, or twice a week by freighter it is the definition of remote. The kids, who spoke only a little bit of English, appear to be a mix of Aboriginal, Torres Straight and PNG cultures. They were fun to watch as they played and dove from the village pier. I think Maia was envious of the fun they had in the water-but we were too aware of the area's well-publicized crocodile attacks to let her join in.

My only disappointment was we never saw the wild horses. There were signs of them (and signs about them) everywhere. Letting us know if we fed them they'd get belligerent and steal food ("eat you bread"). Mostly we used the time in Seisia to catch up on laundry.

We still have several hundred miles left to Darwin. But we're taking the last bit in long hops. Tonight is our first overnight since arriving in Australia over 2.5 years ago.

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September 23, 2014

Will Sail for Food

Shortly after we dropped anchor I saw a shrimp trawler pull in. We’d been waiting for this moment. Ever since cruising friends gave us a tip: go with a bucket, they told us, and $20 in small bills. Then after shooting the breeze for a bit—it’s lonely being a fisherman on the remote Queensland coast—ask how much shrimp your money will buy. $5 bought us a generous kilo of enormous prawns. We could have had more—but our fridge was too small for the pre-measured packages that were flash frozen as soon as they were caught.

Maia is becoming a great bread baker
A drinking coconut
And the kilo would be perfect for a celebratory meal at to top of Australia (which coincided with our anniversary). The menu: prawns, risotto Milanese and sautéed broccoli followed by chocolate mousse. Not bad for a meal that came on a trip with a month between grocery stores.

I recall visiting maritime museums as a kid. It was always the food that was displayed in the galley’s of old sailing ships that fascinated and appalled me; tins of butter, potted meat, ships biscuits. Everything was serviceable and simple—as though food was fuel and not sustenance.

Twenty years ago, as we prepared to sail off on little Ceilydh, the books I read that told me how to outfit my galley seemed to take a page from those old ships. They offered up undemanding recipes made from bland ingredients, potted meat, it seemed was universal. Serve it over potatoes (powdered or tinned were both acceptable options) with tinned peas; you could finish with cling peaches or fruit cocktail for dessert. If you wanted to be fancy (or change it up) add curry powder or an onion.

Dutifully I bought a case of canned ham (I couldn’t bring my self to buy spam). We ate one and decided there had to be a better way.
the food should match the extraordinary journey
There are two types of thought when it comes filling the pantry of modern cruising boats: 
1) Food is everywhere, because everyone eats. So don’t over shop.
2) Buy everything you can before you leave because not everyone eats what you want to eat.

Food is everywhere. But often we look for it in the wrong places. The dusty grocery store in Seisia, where green beans cost $12 a kilo and we’ll buy them anyway—because over a lifetime of eating green beans they probably only bring up the overall cost by a fraction, isn’t what we’ll remember when we think about food on this coast. Nor will it be the well-stocked grocery stores in Cairns and Airlie beach.

Percy Island fruit became gorgeous marmalade
What we’ll recall are the foods we’ve stumbled across—the fruit that was piled into my arms by Kate, a homesteader on Middle Percy Island, the coconuts Maia climbed for, the fish given to us by friends on Arjenta, the bush tomato relish we found in Cairns, and those prawns. We sail to experience the riches of the world around us; to find the flavours and textures of each new place. 
We’ll leave the potted meat for someone else.

September 19, 2014

A Rocking Detour--Stanley Island Aboriginal Art

It began like so many of our adventures do; a casual mention over drinks and a few half-recalled details. “It’s cave art—there are supposed to be 19th century sailing ships, dugongs and turtles.”

When I persisted, we managed to narrow down the island; Stanley Island in the Flinders group and get a few directions, “go in through the mangroves until you find the trail.” Even the government website was a bit light on details, “This walk on Stanley Island begins at the Mangrove Landing in Owen Channel. The track crosses to the northern side of the island, continues along the beach and meanders through low woodland.”

Owen Channel, it turns out, is over two miles long. Fully half of Stanley Island has mangroves along this length. We anchored at one end and made our way down the channel by dinghy, bashing through big seas in high winds, completely soaking ourselves through, while playing eenie meenie with the mangrove landings (ahem, small croc-infested beaches…)

Mangrove Landing
Being a pessimist I suggested we start with the furthest beach, which after we crossed the fringing reef, turned out to be a long dinghy drag through shallow water (We’re in an area that tells us to bring up our dinghy at night because crocs are known to bite them.) Then we anchored the dingy and went exploring behind the mangroves and looked up a hill for signs of a trail. This is where we found the park signs telling us we had found Yindayin. (Not to complain—but if I were putting up a sign for a water access only park, I’d probably put it where you could see it from the water…)

From the sign we set off through a kapok orchard, if you’ve ever seen those old kapok lifejackets these are the orange-sized fruit where the fluff comes from; past meter-high termite mounds; and skirting the Castle Peak cliffs. We wound our way through huge middens with silver-faded shells; and past discoloured signs that told us about the island’s bush tucker, eaten green and fresh this was tasty, this cured tooth pain, this bore fruit.
kapok orchard and fruit
When we reached the beach on the other side Maia warned me that this better not be like the cave art we trudged up a desert cliff to see in the Sea of Cortez—there, the reward for our heat-stroke inducing hike were red handprints of a rather nebulous pedigree found in a cave full of bat guano.

After admiring a few shells we found the trail up from the beach and reached another aged sign, this one explaining that an elder from the Yiithuwarra people, and the last baby to be born on the site, had helped interpret the site. He also drew the last image to be created; a dugong, some 60+ years ago.

Following an overhanging cliff we reached ‘ships shelter’. Awe is a word that should be used sparingly. But as I took in the cliff face that curved around and over me—forming a wide cave with natural air conditioning—I was awe-stuck. Sailing ships: painted in red and outlined white overlapped each other and obscured other images. Some ships had the distinct sterns of 18th century European galleons; while others had the more exotic eastern curves of Macassan praus; still others brought to mind early 16th century Portuguese ships. Layered with the ships were other signs of daily life; an eagle ray, crocodiles, dugongs, turtles and symbols that were too surreal to discern. 
Then we signed the guest book--discovering we were about the 40th group of people to visit this year.

Following the cliff side further into the center of the island the cave deepened into what had been a living place for over 2900 years, right up until WW2. The people who had lived here experienced the tragedies we now know about; some of the men were inevitably lost in the beche-de-mer, pearl and trochus shell industries, the children were sent to missions, illness took a tremendous toll.

But before all of that, while the island still had everything the people needed to survive, someone captured the moment of contact and recorded strange ships as they sailed by.