Where we are

Monday, September 29, 2014

Wild Phosphorescence (Ko Phaluai, Thailand)

Pinnacle Beach, Ko Phaluai
While anchored in a bay off a small Thai island (Ko Phaluai) the other night, I woke up around 1:00 AM to find the boat rocking a little bit, so I went out to check the direction of the wind. Well, there wasn’t any wind to speak of -- the boat was just moving a little due to refracted swell. But when I stuck my head out the hatch, I saw long lines of phosphorescence pulsing into the bay. This was definitely something we all had to see, so I woke up Michelle and the kids and we were soon on the foredeck watching a most amazing and mysterious light show.

The pulsing lines or waves were hundreds of meters long (as far as we could see), widely spaced, and maybe 8 meters wide, moving rapidly at a rate of about 3 pulses per second. These slightly curved waves of light were moderately bright and  "clean" -- that is, without disruptions or anomalies, all the same width, evenly spaced, all with the same uniform, undifferentiated, moderate level of phosphorescent glow. The entire effect was incredibly geometrical. Within the waves (and around them) we could also see an abundance of more “conventional” phosphorescence -- intense isolated flashes of green from individual organisms caused by agitation through wavelets and darting fish.

Phosphorescent pulses were emanating from a couple of points within the bay as well, not far from the boat.  They seemed to spin out like scythes from these points -- not points, really, but central areas that were perhaps 4 meters across.  Whenever pulses from different sources met, they flashed together and the train of pulses stopped. That is to say, the pulsing patterns never overlapped or extended beyond the line of contact with other pulsing patterns. It was as if their energies cancelled each other out. Meanwhile, the whole arrangement of pulsing light was slowly moving and shifting the entire time.

Then, around 2:00 AM -- we had been watching for approximately one hour -- the display abruptly ceased; the bay went dark first, while beyond the bay an indistinct glow persisted for a few minutes longer.

Many years ago we saw something similar while sailing near Hawaii. In that case, we didn’t see waves or pulses of light but rather large (many meters across) sharply delineated angular patches of flashing phosphorescent that lit up the ocean surface.

These large patterned displays of phosphorescence seem almost other worldly. They are impossible for me to comprehend and very difficult describe.

Update:check out the following article "Phosphorescent Wheels: Fact or Fiction" by Peter Herring and Paul Horsman, which examines other accounts of such phenomena.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Beyond first impressions: Ambon, Indonesia (Dec. 2013)


Had we let our first impressions guide us, we'd never have stayed nearly three weeks in Ambon City. Nestled a good ten nautical miles up the inlet that runs into the center of Ambon Island, Ambon City is the capital of the Maluku province of Indonesia and historically served as the regional center of the Dutch colonial administration. It's a relatively large city in eastern Indonesia, with a gubernatorial office, bustling streets, varied and imposing architecture, a university, military parade grounds and a large shopping mall (where we discovered, among other things, Indonesian donuts that rival Krispy Kremes).

The first thing we knew about Ambon, however -- even before we arrived -- was that it was the center of Christian-Muslim violence as recently as just over a decade ago. We learned of this first-hand from a Muslim English teacher in Banda (our last port of call before Ambon), Mr. Cinta, who told us he'd fled to Banda when the violence got really intense. Mr. Cinta met us on a Banda street one day, stopping his moped and smiling a hello. We struck up a conversation and the next thing we knew, he was inviting us to 'tour' Banda Neira with his school group. His students, he told us, would enjoy the English practice -- and they'd show us around the historical sites. They took us from the central museum to the canoe sheds, where carvers were hard at work preparing their crafts for the upcoming annual island races, to the wide waterfront streets where Dutch plantation owners built large homes with sprawling verandas, now overgrown and unoccupied (their plantations occupying the nearby, and larger, Lontar island).

Mr. Cinta and his students, with Lola and Jana
We learned many things that day in Banda, but Mr. Cinta's brief account of his abrupt departure from his home town of Ambon impacted us as much as anything else. He summed up the circumstances of his departure from Ambon succinctly: "If I stayed, I would be killed. So I left." Cause for caution, we thought, though Ambon has enjoyed relative peace in recent years.

The second impression came when left the Banda Sea, turning into  Ambon Bay between the two main peninsulas that comprise Ambon Island and seeking the protected port of Ambon City.

Trash along the shore of Ambon City -- with plenty floating
in the river, too, posing navigational hazards
Instantly we were surrounded by trash, forcing us to carefully navigate in and out of garbage; never before had we seen so many bits of wood crates, plastic, netting, styrofoam, ramen wrappers, yoghurt containers, soda bottles. Some pieces of trash floated as isolated bits, while others were caught by eddies and currents and strung together over time: swirling masses of putrid waste. We crept up the inlet ever closer to Ambon City, wondering: What have we got ourselves into?


Ambon River 
But we dropped our anchor in the midst of this filthy harbor and made ready for shore -- where we were confronted with more garbage: along the inner harbor, by waterfront homes, up riverbanks. We soon discovered that discarding our own trash ashore simply meant finding a pile (any old pile) and heaving our plastic onto it. Not something we ever became comfortable with -- but, with no other option, something we did. We sought out large rubbish containers, only to discover later that they were dumped on the side of the road (right next to the bins) by city-dwellers searching for useful items -- only to be refilled again. What use the receptacles were, we never did figure out.

Rubbish is an inescapable rudeness and affront in Indonesia -- and Ambon was, well, ugly.

*

Thus, stories of religious strife and the vast amount of trash we encountered first-hand shaped our early impressions of this city.

But we stayed long enough to look closer and soon discovered many things to enjoy in this crowded city of nearly 400,000 souls. The food was spectacular. The wireless worked. And the people were remarkably friendly -- despite our youngest having to endure far too many women pinching her soft white cheeks.

We dinghied ashore the first day and walked through a gritty, dark and downright stinky alleyway to arrive on a streetcorner bustling with more noise and traffic and smells than any place we'd been in a long, long while. Mango carts, bicycle guides (becaks), motorbikes, mopoed taxis (ojek), automobiles, pedestrians, taxis, bicyclists... all crowding together, many of them bucking the trend of the local (and sometimes, to us, indiscernible) traffic patterns.







Even now, after nearly a year since we arrived in SE Asia, I'm mesmerized by mopeds and other vehicles crowding the streets in this part of the world. Tual and Ambon introduced me to the frenzied driving (by the time we arrived in Bali, we were brave enough to enter the fray ourselves) -- and I still  stop on the sidewalk just to watch the traffic, a striking shift in scenery, compared to sailing in a ten-knot breeze.

*

Ambon streetside care
Our first mission upon arrival in Ambon was sorting our Internet connection. We were sent to the Telkom offices but arrived around 4pm to discover them closed. Sullen and hot, we started down the street, only to hear a man chasing after us: Internet? Come! I show you Internet. Bernie was skeptical and did not want to follow him, sure that we were being led to an Internet cafe -- which was not what we needed. But we really had no choice except to follow this enthusiastic individual, so we did.

He led us only a little way down the street to a red van. Two women emerged with their Telkom-mobile shop. I marvelled at the efficiency of this small troupe, watching as the Seussian thingamabob unfolded before our eyes: front doors and side doors opened, then out popped a display counter, and next came the folding table and chairs: - voila! --  Thing One and Thing Two had set up an Internet street-side access provider, just for us. Within twenty minutes we were up and running. And smiling.

*
Coast Guard vessels, right, in the evening light
When we went ashore the second day, we passed a Coast Guard ship with men waving vigorously -- and motioning for us to come. We hesitated, wanting to avoid an official scolding for any potential offense or violation of an unnamed rule that we had no way of knowing in this part of the world. We even tried to ignore them. But they kept hollering and waving -- and so we reluctantly motored closer and slowed near their boat. With very little English, they indicated we should come aboard. We hesitated again. But after a few more words in our very limited Bahasa and their very limited English -- and a lot of gesticulating -- it was established that we should come aboard and tie up our dinghy there, alongside their boat -- because it's safer. That part was easy to understand: they wanted to be sure we felt secure, and insisted we use their boat as our floating dock while in Ambon. We felt quite safe in this city so far, and we had no fears of leaving our dinghy at the nearby fishing dock, but we followed their friendly suggestion nonetheless.

On our first day aboard the Akelamo, Captain Djufri and his crew also insisted they help bring our washing to the laundromat, and soon they had lined up four mopeds streetside, inviting us to hop on. In the end, Jana declined the offer to board the back of a motorcycle and race through an unfamiliar city with a man she'd only just met (despite her parents' urging: go on, it'll be fun! -- sometimes it's good to have one sane person among the four of us), and instead she and I got a becak, the local cycle rickshaw, while Bernie and Lola happily sped off on motorbikes en route to the landromat.

View to Ambon houses from the Commonwealth War Cemetery
From that day forward, we went ashore many times, and we always tied up to the Coast Guard -- there were actually two vessels tied side-by-side, the Akelamo alongside a larger ship which we traversed each time. And we were always greeted by crew members who helped us carry our laundry, rubbish and groceries across their decks, and who courteously raised and lowered a long boarding ladder each time they saw us coming. We grew comfortable with the smiles and limited dialogue with Kiki, Dudi, Enjiel and Huong (who had the greatest smile of all).

During our stay, the Coasties also insisted on filling our water tanks, even urging us repeatedly to tie Momo alongside Akelamo for convenience, but we declined the generous offer because the angular curve of their considerable steel hull would damage our rigging (something we finally communicated via a pencil-on-napkin drawing).

Captain Djufri and his crew helped us with fuel as well -- taking us to a waterfront alleyway in Ambon lined with vendors whose shops are stocked with large barrels of diesel and petrol, and filling our jerry cans at Kiki's shop in an unusual hands-on funnel fashion. The shops were filled with containers -- full ones lined up on the ground, empty ones hanging from the ceilings --  plus small counters of candies on the side and family members emerging from various doors and hallways to say hello and check us out.

We have now come to realize that we're as much a curiosity to the locals as they are to us -- and we've grown accustomed to having our photo taken quite often by locals capturing the family in the dinghy, or the family walking down the street, or the family visiting the Islamic Theme Park (more on that forthcoming -- in the Malaysia tales).

But back in November 2013, having only arrived in Indonesia, we were still taking it all in and found ourselves marvelling at thecoordinated family operation for delivering fuel into our jerry cans, which involved a woman we assumed was Kiki's wife sharing the workload, squatting in her sarong and controlling the transfer of fuel from their large vats into our small cans. Meanwhile, there was a child relaxing on the counter, a parrot overseeing the whole process, other family members popping in and out to check on the curious strangers and smile at our children, various other small transactions happening in the corners of the shops, chickens wandering the alleyway, goats in nearby pens. And, of all things, a codger smoking cigarettes.

We had several exchanges over tea and biscuits, too -- some more successful than others. And near the end of our stay in Ambon, our new benefactors came to Momo for a visit, too, marveling, we think, at our cramped quarters and what my children decided was our underappreciated tea. Both Lola and Jana observed how our guests gingerly sipped small quantities and feigned that their thirst had been quenched, while Captain Djufri kept encouraging the one reluctant drinker to finish his cuppa -- which he promptly did, though all of them adamantly refused seconds.

*

Happy fruit vendor
We ate well in Ambon. We went back to the same two restaurants several times. We ate at Dedes because it's where we arrived on our first night out. When we asked our becak drivers (two passengers per vehicle) for a good restaurant, emphasizing we'd like to eat local ayam goreng (fried chicken), they drove us through a long stretch of the city outskirts and finally stopped at the palatial three-storied Kentucky Fried Chicken -- and, realizing our mistake, exclaimed, "No, no, we would like local food! Indonesian! Tidak American!" We were grateful when our drivers finally dropped us on the doorstep of Dedes, where we discovered delightful fish curry, squid barbecue and, yes, local fried chicken. The second restaurant became a favorite because they had the best nasi ayam goreng (essentially chicken fried rice) that we'd ever had. Lola always ordered two portions there, and when we told them it was our last visit after two weeks of frequenting their shop, they gave her a free watch from the counter at the entrance. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with smiles and generosity. And people who wanted to have their photos taken.

*

Jana pets an eel
Other highlights in Ambon included the day drive up the coast with the family on S/V Morning Glory, who also anchored in the harbor with us for a few days. On that excursion, we stopped at the Tulehu hot springs (we didn't swim) and the sacred eel pools at Waai (Jana got up close and personal with them, along with the kids from Morning Glory -- but she jumped back quite a bit when one became a little too friendly). We also stretched our legs at the very tidy Commonwealth War Cemetery, its manicured lawns and pruned gardens immaculately clean and in stark contrast to the rest of Ambon City.

Also, we'll not soon forget the jam-packed and bistering hot waterfront market, fireworks every night off our stern and the pre-dawn call to prayer, which, in the spirit of the Christmas season, was always answered, loud and garbled, by a nearby church. I've grown accustomed to the call to prayer. But I never expected to travel this far from home and be accosted by canned Christmas music.

4:30 AM in Ambon.

*

Other photos from our visit to Ambon below.
Ambon waterfront market


Locals gather at dusk at the city waterfront

Fuel shop in Ambon alley -- and the fuel was even clean! (photo by Lola Elvy)

Part diesel depot, part kiddie daycare -- fueling up in Ambon (photo by Lola Elvy)

Fuel alley, Ambon (photo by Lola Elvy)


Family fuel operations /vendors (photo by Lola Elvy)

Parrot overseeing the fuel op (photo by Lola Elvy)
All smiles in Ambon alley (photo by Lola Elvy)


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Paper Dance: from the Mexican Cha-cha to the Springtime Shuffle

Office of Tourism in Tual, Indonesia
Buenas Dias.
Bonjour.
Fakaalofa atu.
Kia ora.
Ni sa bula.
Selamat pagi.

Sailing from country to country, you become well acquainted with officialdom in its various forms. You learn how to greet officials with a friendly hello -- and with a stack of photocopies: passports, crew lists, boat documentation, exit papers from your previous port. For each port you enter, there is a dance you must learn, stepping gently from one office to the next. There are appropriate moves you adopt, always beginning with the greeting (often quite formal: a bow, perhaps). Each place has its own style, and quirks. A smile goes a long way in any language -- but you have to know how to dance by local rhythms.

Momo in Ensenada, 2004
In Mexico, for example, we learned that the Port Captain was the most important official -- and the one who led the dance -- in each town. Having a baby in Ensenada was enough to teach us about pacing when it came to the Mexican cha-cha and its various movements. Sometimes you pick up the beat and meet deadlines -- Cha-cha-chá! -- but mostly you have to turn in all the proper forms, with multiple copies going to multiple offices, and, well... wait.

In French Polynesia, we tangoed back and forth between Immigration, Customs and even the bank, as the bond (a deposit required upon arrival and returned upon departure) was a key stipulation for entry. The Cook Islands and Nuie were easy enough -- requiring patience and a knack for slowing down the pace, a quiet waltz through dusty concrete offices with friendly fragipani'ed agents.

I don't recall Tonga, to be honest, but by the time you reach there, you've gone through the drill enough times to bring multiple copies of all your papers and to be prepared to take your time.

Fiji  I do recall, because we went there twice, checking in one year in Savu Savu and another year in Lautoka. Fiji is an easy arrival, because the officials speak English for the most part and exhibit a characteristically quiet patience about them: sit here, please, let me get my pen -- no, this one does not work, another one perhaps -- let's see, oh my colleague has gone for the day, come back tomorrow... 

New Zealand is perhaps the most efficient place we've ever sailed to, despite the metaphorical slap and note in our official entry file for dropping our anchor for a few hours just outside the harbor entrance to await daylight, opting not to arrive in an unfamiliar harbor at an unfamiliar Customs Dock in the dark.

Momo in Town Basin, Whangarei, 2009
In New Zealand, administration runs like clockwork, and even getting our residency, while a lengthy process -- a very slow dance, you might say (with two offshore trips, one to Fiji for a season and one to the 12-mile-limit off the coast in order import the boat as residents, once all the papers had been properly filed and accepted) -- was straightforward enough. Even the tax department is easy to work with (and, in the IRD offices on Bank St in Whangarei, they smile).

Indonesia was another matter altogether. Prior to sailing there, we sorted our visas with a trip to Suva, and, via an online contact in Jakarta, I secured an 'agent' who became our 'sponsor' and helped get our Cruising Permit -- the infamous CAIT. To say the paperwork in Indonesia is cumbersome is an understatement. The check-in and check-out processes made all the paperwork required for giving birth in Mexico look like child's play, and the ease with which we obtained our visas in Suva was no indication of what was to come.

The offices in Indonesia share some characteristics with those in Mexico, and remind me faintly of encounters some decades ago in East Germany: they are dimly lit with fluorescent bulbs; they are smoky and poorly ventilated; they usually have one fan whirring away in the corner, with little or no effect; and there are always a bevvy of officials with impressive uniforms -- not exactly bustling, but doing a kind of indecipherable shuffle, as they open drawers, examine files, sigh and eventually sign and stamp an approval.

Mr Budhi and Michelle, photo by Arthur Hoag
We were helped with our check-in by Mr Budhi from the Tourism Ministry, who ushered me on his moped from Tual's Port Captain to Immigration to Customs. Half the time I had no idea what was being said, of course, so I settled into a relaxed position (in a somewhat dozed state after having been sick at sea for a week with salmonella) to observe just how they get the job done. Not many boats arrive in the eastern parts of Indonesia, and few boats had checked into Kai Island before our arrival.  Lucky for us, one boat had preceded us by a week -- S/V Morning Glory -- and apparently the easiest way for Customs to deal with our arrival was to copy their information onto our forms.

I watched over the shoulder of the official entering data on his screen.

Flag: US
Length: 13m
Tonnage: 15


Wait... In my dozy state, I thought: Morning Glory is a catamaran. Same flag, same length, but displacement? Not sure about that. 

Then:
Owner: Arthur Hoag

Stop. My turn to step in and lead. Gently, gently, I pointed out that they would have to change the owner's name, and a few other details. Oh ya, ya, ma'am.  

I leaned over the keyboard and peered at the screen while the Customs official typed in the next set of papers -- and had to do the same again: Change name here, and here. No, not Mr. Hoag. Me. And here. Not Morning Glory. Change to Momo. Here, here and... here. Hoag, no. Elvy, yes.

So far, so good. 

And now, your stamp. Boat stamp, ma'am. 
Momo's boat stamp

We had met Morning Glory on anchor in Debut the day before -- they were the previous boat to arrive in these parts, remember. They had greeted us with cold beer and snacks and advice about checking in. This included prepping us about the Boat Stamp: an official stamp with boat name, flag, registration number, captain's name, and signature line. We did not have such a stamp. But, armed with the advice from Arthur and Amy on S/V Morning Glory, I managed.

When it came time to stamp my papers, one photocopied paper after another, I pulled out the stamp we had dug up  in haste late on the previous night, in a cupboard of toys and games. It did not say S/V Momo; it did not have the boat registration number or the captain's name; it did not have a signature line. But it worked. I stamped over and over and over, with aplomb: Spring is here! 

And signed my name right above the wavy grass. And smiled and bowed and thanked them for the dance.