Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Vignette: Tanzania/ Pangani: On living in the real world

Sisal plantation on the road between Pangani and Tanga
The house went up in flames in a matter of minutes. Once the spark jumped from the burning field to the nearby palm and then the makuti roof, there was no stopping it.

The couple grabbed what they could and fled. Got out with the most important items in tow: baby, passports, laptop, iPhone, a few bags of clothes.

We meet two days later; I go with them to the market to buy necessary replacement items; for two days G has been living in pajamas, her clothes turned to ash. She tells me the details of the fire while we drive: her fear, the moment she saw the palm tree go, how she knew then it was time to scoop up the baby and leave. How it all seemed so surreal – you never really realize it’s happening when it’s actually happening. How they are still processing the whole event. How, besides what they grabbed in those first few moments, most things are burnt to black: furniture, clothing, camera, baby clothes, sentimental stuff, books.

I recall a book we lent them last week – a family favorite, a gift from my mother. I wonder if it survived the flames, but I don’t ask.

G says that they’ve had wonderful support, except for the one comment that ruined her day. Judgmental, condescending. Suggesting parental irresponsibility for having a baby in Africa in the first place, implying that similar disasters could be avoided if only these young parents would wise up and get their baby back to the safety of home shores. That comment began with “I’ll say what everyone else is thinking…”

Not everyone.

The naysayers come out when the going gets tough. The naysayers will tell you the things you can’t do. We’ve heard plenty.

You can’t raise a baby on a boat.
You can’t give birth in Mexico.
You can’t sail across oceans with children.
You can’t you can’t you can’t.

The naysayers are good at prescriptive advice. The naysayers fit life into a space with four predictable corners.

The naysayers haven’t tried to live outside the box. They just know they can’t.

When our first baby was due, we were told we needed a paediatrician before the baby was born. We did as suggested; we ‘interviewed’ several potential paediatricians one month prior to the baby’s birth. Important topics such as immunization schedules, birth weights and standardized expectations for a healthy baby dominated the sessions. Books were consulted; charts were referenced. Only one listened to our story – how we planned to move aboard our 28’ boat, with our baby, as soon as summer arrived – and said, “Listen. You can raise your children anywhere in the world.” He was from Egypt. He’d seen a few things before landing his practice in Baltimore. “Love your baby,” he said, “and she’ll have a good life.”

*

Lunchtime. We admire our purchases from the market; G does not have to walk around in her pajamas anymore. Our friends tell the story of their wedding bands – metal, plain – and purchased in Malaysia for $2. We laugh at that, and we laugh again when they tell us they purchased an extra ring, because E knew he’d lose the first one. We laugh a third time when he tells us the one he’s wearing is the replacement ring.

The baby sits on dad’s lap, blowing bubbles.

“Oh!” says G suddenly. “Your book! I’ve just remembered your book!” This talk of lost things. G realises now that the book we lent her is destroyed, gone.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say quickly. But as soon as I say it I know I’ve misspoken. The book does matter. Just the like the wedding bands – the lost one and the replacement. What doesn’t matter is that the ring was lost, that the book was burnt to bits. But they are still part of the story.

I reach to take the baby, to hold him while his parents eat. I put him to my shoulder and inhale – he smells like he should: fresh, warm, milky soft. He squirms a bit and almost cries. 

“Try turning him around,” E says. “He likes to see the world.”


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Vignette: Tanzania/ Serengeti -- Endless Plains? (March 2016)



Southern Serengeti, mid-March: we are surrounded by thousands of wildebeests on either side. We’ve stopped our vehicle to watch. We look left and right, forward and back: they are everywhere, a sea of life across this African plain. Running, jumping, grazing, nursing. Bucks and youngsters, mothers and babies. We are here at the end of calving season (500,000 calves are born each year, in a mostly condensed time frame near the end of February ) and the beginning of their annual migration (map here). They are gathering in the tens of thousands, nursing their young and congregating under trees. When we first see them, the grass is tall and wavy; near the end of our week we see large swaths of short stubble as they set out, following patterns of rains and grassland. Some 1.5 million wildebeests and 250,000 zebra travel a nearly 2000-mile clockwise route each year to move south to west to north (traversing national boundaries into Kenya’s  Mara Maarai game reserve as well), and then back again when the season comes round. Besides wildebeest and zebra, the migration also includes Grant and Thompson gazelles, impala and eland. We feel lucky and overwhelmed by the sheer numbers.

*

The Serengeti is named from the Maasai language, Maa: ‘serengit’ means ‘endless plains’.

Seeing this migration in the Serengeti takes some doing. You have to travel hundreds of miles (or thousands, depending on your departure point) just to get here, first by air and then over rough roads. Our focus was the southern Serengeti and the Seronera Valley, a grassy expanse of plain with granite kopjes offering shade and shelter for their own mini-ecosystems with thriving baboon families, snakes, chameleons and red-headed rock agama. How’d we come to be here, so far from our usual coastal living? A relative who visits every now and then said at the beginning of the month that he’d like to go on a safari – and invited us along. So we buttoned up Momo and flew to Arusha. From there, we travelled for a week with our binoculars and guide.

We learned more in a week than we’ve ever learned about animals, big and small. We sat in silence on the side of the road, day after day, awed by the vibrancy of life around us: elephants bathing, lions mating, giraffes loping, cheetahs feeding, rhinos grazing, eagles swooping, flamingos flapping, buffalo grunting, buzzards buzzing, weavers weaving. Even dung beetles pushing their oversized loads and tortoises sunbathing. We didn’t know what to expect when we said a spontaneous yes to the offer of a week in Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. We didn’t even know what The Big Five were. But we know some things now. We saw The Big Five, yes. We saw The Ugly Five. We even saw some of The Small Five. In a short week, days stretched from pre-dawn purples to the deep black of night. We drove and drove and drove. It made me feel very small, and very fortunate to be alive on this earth. It made me cry at the unspoilt beauty.

*



We fly back to Momo after our short sojourn inland, awe and wonder pushing up in our chests as we looked down at the expanse of land below us. We usually don’t have this kind of view – not in such a compressed period of time. We see the world slowly; we follow the horizon and travel with wind and current. We nourish ourselves with fish and whatever’s available at local markets. We don’t buy meat anymore – because it’s too hard to manage, because it’s overpriced, because it’s… Because.

We feel both exhilarated and overwhelmed by the wildlife of the Serengeti – by the numbers, by the variety, by the tenacity of nature. In 1972, when the United Nations met to set up World Heritage Sites, the Serengeti topped the list. These days, there's continued talk of building a highway straight through the middle of it. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Vignette: Tanzania / Tanga -- Impromptu Community (March 2016)

What for them is the call to prayer wakes me up at an hour ungodly and dark; for me, it’s the call to check my email for work. I translate stuff from German into English (mostly for lawyers, bankers, and corporations via an agency in New York but sometimes for academics who care to seek me out), dressed only in my "Soda"-labeled underwear purchased in Malaysia, extra large but still too small, hence filling me with confidence.

Not long after first light, the day’s first swimmers appear – two, three, or four dark heads bobbing around the boat. They swim out from the bathing club that shares the little bay’s waterfront, flanked on one side by the yacht club and by the swimming club on the other. Of the three, the bathing club has the most raucous fun, with loud music and frequent games of soccer on the beach; the swimming club doesn’t seem to have much fun at all, but it has a substantial and well-lit building and serves pretty good Indian food (there's a new chef, I've heard). Most mornings Michelle and I try to steal a moment for ourselves and have coffee on the bow before the sun really kicks in. But we sit just in front of Lola’s hatch, and she invariably pipes in with “what was that?” the moment she hears our voices. Speaking in German only invites further interrogation.
  
We find ourselves in a remarkably secure anchorage in a remarkably pleasant impromptu community. What we have here is a handful of peculiar sailors following very different trajectories and motivated by very different purposes. Everybody has stories to tell and experiences to share, but, unlike what we've found in the so-called cruising community, there is no jockeying for position or assertive need to dispense advice or expertise. Perhaps this is because we are really not a community at all but just a serendipitous constellation unmanaged by spreadsheets or radio schedules and without the coherence that comes from shared agendas, for we will very soon disperse in entirely different directions. But for now I'm swapping ideas with Josh for making pressure-cooker bread and smoking Stephan's cigarettes in exchange for the occasional beer.

Here in Tanga, this handful of sailors intersects with a cluster of less transient but equally peculiar grounded folks – builders, farmers, aid workers, missionaries, restaurant owners, resort owners, peace corp volunteers – many of whom are also just passing through, but more slowly. We orbit around a yacht  club that was once an Anglo-Saxon colonial institution but has now become more of cordial multi-ethnic drinking club overrun by monkeys with sky-blue testicles (only the males, of course; Michelle was hoping that the females had sky-blue nipples, but they don't) and posting lots of unenforced rules and boasting a multi-term, ethnically Indian commodore who doesn’t own a boat. For years now, cruising boats have stayed away because of the Somali pirates, but perhaps they are coming back. In any event, there’s a move afoot to shift the club’s focus back to the water, which has led to the tentative resurrection of three or four Optimists and sailing lessons for the kids, taught by a heartsick French single-hander who has sailed around the Horn and by Jana, who hasn't.






Sunday, March 6, 2016

Vignette: Tanzania / Tanga -- It's a Crime (March 2016)

(This is not John's place. But it is a place.)
At the grocery store in Tanga I hear an older white guy talking to the Indian checkout clerk about how he had been recently robbed and how somebody else he knows had been shot. She commiserates. Two months later while we're getting new passports at the Canadian High Commission in Dar Es Salaam, I see him again, explaining to the woman behind the glass how he lost his passport and papers, all stolen. We recognize each other. Let’s call him John. John and his girlfriend have a modest beach resort – we tell him we’ve actually come across his website. He describes how the small resorts along his way were robbed one after the other by men with machine guns pretending to be police and looking for tourists with foreign cash and pretty baubles. The resort’s security guards all ran away, and John and his girlfriend were badly beaten and robbed; elsewhere, someone was shot through the leg; elsewhere, someone was shot to death. Although the police took their sweet time, they eventually tracked down the thieves, who made the mistake of using stolen cell phones. Turns out that these guys rented their weapons from the military in a deal brokered by a policeman.

Later, I will tell this story to a Kenyan fisherman friend, a kind-hearted Muslim bloke who insists with genuine conviction that we’re all brothers and isn't fussed that I don't believe in God, which doesn't stop him from educating me in things Islam and polygamous. He will laugh and say he’s not surprised because it happens all the time. The criminals get their guns from the police/military because regular people can’t have guns and that’s the best place to get them. He doesn’t like the police because they just take your money. He will explain that they don't normally have police at his village. If you see a policeman, you warn everyone by cell phone that the Big Snake is coming. Before cell phones they had other methods. So I will ask: what do you do if you, say, catch somebody stealing. He will say: we beat him to death or beat him and kick him out of the village and turn him over to the police, which is worse than death.

Back at the Canadian High Commission, as we’re just about to leave, John hands us his card and enthusiastically invites us to check out his place.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Vignette: Tanzania / Zanzibar -- Beaded things (February 2016)

Narrow Zanzibar street -- Stone Town
My mother flies to visit. We meet in Zanzibar. We stay in a nice hotel with air conditioning. We get colds. We walk the narrow streets for hours. We chat with people in markets and shops. We buy trinkets and beautifully hand-made clothes in co-ops set up by and for African women. We drink coffee, lick gelato: coconut and cinnamon, mango and masala. We eat fish and calamari. We eat more fish and calamari. We meet a woman named S. who invites us to her village at the edge of town. It’s not really her village, she tells us, it’s the village where she has a room. We walk to the edge of town with S. and by the time we arrive we are sticky and hot. We sit on the cool floor of S.’s room. She offers my mother the seat beside her on the neatly covered mattress. I edge in next to my mother; my daughters sit on the floor. S. talks about her hotel job, her family. She shows us photos from home. Her daughter, only six and back in the village. S. is working in Zanzibar to earn money to send her daughter to school. Her daughter lives with her sister-in-law. S. had her baby when she was sixteen: raped by an older village boy. What happened to him? I ask. He was put in prison, says S. Now he lives in the village, with his wife and children. And the rest of your family? I ask. Are they there? S. smiles. My father is, yes. My father has ten wives. I am very good with my father. S. is Maasai. S. says we should come visit her Maasai village. I have read about the Maasai. Nat Geo. I want to see last year’s film, Warriors. Here in Tanzania, I have seen the Maasai in town markets, in roadside stands. Selling shoes, belts, beaded things. Websites tell you how to talk to the Maasai, how to say how much? and too expensive! S. says, when you come to my village, you say takwenya as a greeting to women, means hello. And you say yko, means hello back. When we leave, S. gives my mother a Maasai necklace: intricate beads and elephant hair. She gives us photos of herself in her Maasai dress, jots her email on a scrap of paper, says Write to me.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Vignette: Tanzania / Tanga -- Market (March 2016)

This is the market in Tanga near the waterfront. There’s lots of dirt and smells and plenty of flies. The guy in the photo? We always go to him first because he’s friendly and funny and always gives us something to try–an orange, a banana, today it was some strange and tasty knobby little fruit. He also always ends up giving Michelle a hug. He lets us slide our bags under his table when it’s time to wander to the other tables. The vendors sit around on plastic lawn chairs, some of them watching soccer games on TV. You buy your chickens alive here. They are stacked in cages along a wall, fine feathered and perky. I don’t know if they kill them for you because we haven’t tried to buy any. What if they don’t and you end up with a chicken on your boat? I’m aspiring to be a vegetarian anyway. You buy your meat from butchers operating out of tiled stalls. It hangs unrefrigerated in big slabs and is not USDA approved. It’s also not covered with shit and you can watch them cut it up. There are no price tags. There are no cash registers. Nobody announces specials from loudspeakers. They don’t take Visa, MasterCard, or American Express. You buy your stuff directly from this guy, or that guy, or from the other guy over there. The guys are all, well, guys. You pick out your stuff–mangoes, ginger, papaya, carrots, oranges, watermelons, beans, rice, etc. Or the guy picks your stuff out for you– you ask him for an avocado that will be good today and one that will be good tomorrow.

Some stuff you purchase by the piece (papaya, mangoes, pineapples); other stuff he weighs on an old and dented balance scale (beans, potatoes). Naturally, you banter about price. Our friend Josh, who knows how locals do things, seems to pay more than anybody else. His girlfriend, who makes no such claim and won’t negotiate, pays maybe half of what he does. Go figure. You give them your money.  If need be, the guys go get change while you wait–they get it from that guy, or the other guy, or from the store across the street. The money vanishes in pockets or maybe in a plastic bag that disappears someplace safe. Sometimes you shake hands, sometimes you don’t.


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Tying Stuff Down without using Padeyes, U-Bolts, Eyebolts, etc.

Tie-down at the front of the cabin to help secure the dinghy.
Last year when it came time to install a few tie-downs on the boat's cabin top we tried something a little different. Instead of resorting to toe-stubbing stainless hardware, we embedded loops of rope into the cabin top using epoxy. The approach has many advantages over the installation of standard fittings. It's quick and cheap and the results are waterproof and plenty strong. The tie-downs are also easy to replace. You just need to drill them out.

Today I made a few tie-downs to keep our solar panels in place when we go offshore. To make six tie-downs, I used 100 cm (40 inches) of line and 15 ml of epoxy. I could put the tie-downs exactly where I wanted them. And the job was done in an hour. No need to take down interior ceiling panels, seal off bore holes with epoxy, or seal fasteners with caulking.

  1.  Drill a hole: the cabin tops and decks of most fiberglass boats have a wooden core. Drill through the top layer of fiberglass and through the wooden core, but make sure to stop when you hit the bottom layer of fiberglass. On the cabin top of the Mason 43, this will leave you with a hole that is 20 mm (3/4 inches) deep.
  2. Insert the loop of line.
  3. Fill the hole with epoxy using a syringe.

Positioning the tie-downs. It's worth noting that the pretty piece of hardware in foreground costs USD 77.00 at West Marine, sans fasteners.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Mason 43 Mast Step Replacement Ensenada 2004 (January 2016)

This evening I stumbled across a few photos of our mast step replacement project in Ensenada back in 2004, a pleasant surprise because I thought we had lost them all.

Original mast step, looking forward from and into the bilge.

The mast step on the Mason 43 (at least on ours) was very poorly made. I refrain from saying poorly "designed," for the drawings by the naval architect show something quite different. But the actual construction was remarkably inept, consisting of a pad made of few layers of plywood supported and raised above a drainage channel (and drainage pipe) by thin supports on either side, all encased in fiberglass. Evidently, the idea was to give the boat all the weaknesses of deck-stepped mast and none of the advantages.

Water had found its way from the mast into the mast step, leading to the delamination of the plywood. We discovered the problem in Ensenada, Mexico when we noticed our slack rigging. Needless to say, we were quite distressed, all the more so because the boat was new to us.

Moreover, Ensenada lacked any good options for pulling the mast. Fortunately we had become friends with crew on Infinity, a 120' ferro-cement ketch whose skipper/owner was busy gutting and rebuilding his boat while at anchor in the Ensenada harbor. He not only offered us space on his boat to build a new mast step but also convinced us that we could lift the mast using his mizzen. He also had all the materials I needed for the job (if I recall correctly, in exchange I built an instrument panel for his engine). The lifting operation seemed a little dicey to me, but we decided to give it go. Over the next while, I built our new and much improved mast step. Then, after choosing a proper weather window, we rafted up to Infinity and raised the mast just enough so that we could set it on the cabin sole. We moved our little family (me,  two-year-old Lola, and pregnant Michelle) aboard Infinity. Then after we sealed off all the cupboards and lockers, I ground out the old mast step and epoxied the new mast step into place. For us it was a major victory over a potentially major problem. And it was fun, demonstrating what one could accomplish with a few friends.


Original mast step, looking aft.






Original mast step, looking forward. That's a water tank on the right.
Colin (where the hell are you? Why don't you write) showing off the new mast step.
Momo rafted alongside Infinity (that's a teepee on Infinity's foredeck)
That's me setting Momo's spinnaker pole for the lifting operation.



Raising the mast -- Skipper Clemens at the winch on the mizzen mast, Colin guiding the mast on Momo's cabin top.




Resting the mast on the cabin sole.


After the grinding.

Ready for the new mast step (looking aft).

New mast step installed (looking aft). Jonas did the nice job on the stainless & aluminum.