January 28, 2011

Stupid Steps

This will be one of those mostly photo-free blog posts. Not because I don’t want to share my stupidity, but because my stupidity lead to something that would make for ugly pictures…

One of the first things we tell visitors who are coming to Mexico is to bring comfortable shoes, suitable for rough terrain. Even if they insist they’ll never leave the city, we explain that Mexican sidewalks aren’t for sissies and frivolous shoes really have no place here.
 Then, once they get here, we point out all the dangers: crumbling pavement, stairs with big drop offs, loose cobble stones, collapsible sewer covers, leg eating gratings, washed out streets—that sort of thing. Once you get over the initial shock that people actually brave these hazards rather handily, and often in towering heels, you sort of forget about them.
 Which is how I found myself mid-intersection with my leg wedged up to my knee between the street and a metal grating.

Initially, my biggest concern was that I get myself removed from the street’s grasp quickly enough that I didn’t miss my bus. Then I realized I was sort of blocking the bus and it was dark, and there was a lot of traffic around. So my next concern was I extract myself before I was killed.

Once I was free I had other worries. My leg had a few large dents and less skin than I’d like, and it was also swelling and my toes had gone numb. I hobbled home with Evan and Maia watching me nervously but ended up looking better with a bit of first aid and a good amount of ice.

Now I just need something to treat my ego…

January 26, 2011

Pacific Planning

 I think it was the, “so where exactly in the South Pacific are you going?” question that got me thinking. But it could have been the fact that Evan is steadily ticking items off the to-do list (we nearly have new carbon fibre tillers!) that made me realize I don’t actually know which countries are in the South Pacific. 
Let alone which individual islands we might want to visit.

I’ve become so accustomed to the kind of trip where someone meets me in the airport with my name on a placard and an itinerary to follow, that the idea that I might need to do more than pack the right shoes and enough canned goods to get me to Australia caught me off guard. The South Pacific just doesn't seem like the sort of destination where we should wing it. We should know what we want to do and see...

The thing is I’m a great researcher, but a terrible planner. When I’m immersed in something I want to know every detail, but when that something is still in the foggy future it’s hard for me to even get interested. I first noticed this when I was pregnant with Maia. Through my entire pregnancy I researched everything about pregnancy and birth. And round about the 4th hour of labour, the fact I was going to come out of the whole pregnancy thing with a baby suddenly hit me.

The same thing happened this week. We’re not just crossing an ocean. We’re going somewhere, and I should really brush up on that…

So I had a dinner party. We invited the folks from Savannah and all their guidebooks over to find out what they know (a lot) and discuss strategies, and timeframes, and drink wine. I kind of think the wine drinking won. But I did discover a few things:

1) We do have a destination—Hiva Oa or maybe Nuka Hiva…
2) There are way more islands in the South Pacific than I can count—somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20,000...
3) There are more pirates in the Indian Ocean than I realized, and they are venturing way outside the traditional danger region (although that part was not as relevant to the current exercise as my sleepless night might indicate…)
4) Evan really was doing research all those nights he stayed up late on the computer and we have files and files of well organized cruising guides and other stuff to prove it.
5) You can get a pretty decent cheap Concha y Toro by the case from Costco.

But as far as an actual plan and a strategy for getting the most out of our time in the Pacific--we don't have that... I'm starting to think that guide book reading (along with brushing up on our French) might be a good use of that little ocean passage we have coming our way...

January 25, 2011

Bucerias Festival--Celebrating Life by Defying Death

 If Mexico had personal injury lawyers this country would be a lot less fun. Although I must say it’s become a much safer country over the past 15-years. Yes, there is that drug war stuff—but I’m talking about the fact your chance of being blinded by a random firework or injured on an unsafe children’s ride has been reduced considerably.
not sure how these shoes make sense anywhere let alone in a town of cobbled streets, but all the girls were wearing them...
But this is still a user beware kind of country. If something looks unsafe, appears poorly maintained, or seems like a bad idea—it probably is. It really is that simple. Beyond that, it’s a heck of a lot of fun to live without fences and warning signs and use your common sense when it comes to adventure.
Which brings us to last night:
 Festivals are the ultimate user-beware adventure: there are inebriated vaqueros with bb guns (whose pellets can ricochet back into the crowd even after they hit the target that makes the gorilla pee on their buddies…); there’s children’s rides that were either retired or condemned at some point in MY childhood; there are twelve-piece brass bands in every corner competing against the cacophony (and the performances on the main stage); and there are the fireworks.
 If Mexico didn’t already have a patron saint, I would have nominated the guy who invented fireworks. Their role in daily life really is really something to behold. Last night we realized we’ve probably seen more fireworks in our year here, than Maia had previously seen in her life to date.
the castillo before it's lit
 But last night’s lighting of the Castillo was something she’d never seen before. A Castillo (Castle) is a three story tower filled with fireworks. The fireworks go off in stages and as each stage fires, images appear and then spin--shooting sparks into the crowd. The show took about 20-minutes and culminated with Jesus’ crown flying off his head and into the sky where it exploded into overhead fireworks.
 And that was the point where we collected our very tired girl and caught a cab home. The revelry continued into the night—and no doubt the town will be very quiet today. But living with this kind of break-neck joy feels pretty right to us…

January 24, 2011

Bucerias—Festival of Our Lady of Peace

contemplating a surf landing
 I’m not sure if every town in Mexico has its own patron saint (and corresponding festival and feast day) but if I had to guess, based on the number of fiestas we attend, I’d say yes…
Fireworks over the fleet
 The good thing is fiestas in Mexico are not ‘seen one fire works, seen them all’ type events. Each has a unique twist. Right now in La Cruz’s sister town of Bucerias it’s the feast of Our Lady of the Peace. The festival started nine days ago—we were told by one man that the church says you need to start celebrating nine days before a feast, not sure if that’s a direct edict, but who’s going to say no to a ten-day party?

 The tradition of our Lady of Peace tells that during a December night in the 7th century a miracle occurred when Saint Ildephonse entered the Cathedral of Toledo. He found the Virgin Mary sitting on the archbishop’s chair and as a gift she gave him a cloak. Ildephonse died on Jan 23rd, and the next day Jan 24th, was dedicated to remember the miracle.
 Somehow this tradition reached the tiny fishing town of Bucerias, which in 1948 was made up of just seven palapas. The town claimed the feast as their own and added a few things—a blessing of the fishing fleet (which is harboured in La Cruz) that happens at about noon on the 24th and some crazy fireworks, which happen later tonight.
 Maia and I headed over to meet the fleet today. While 60 boats were expected, the bay is running with a pretty good swell right now, so only a few dozen decorated and heavily filled boats arrived just outside the surf zone.
 As fireworks were shot back and forth, a few of the boats made trial runs at the surf, then backed off and made mid-ocean transfers to reduce the number of passengers they had aboard. Finally they let fly at the beach. With engines roaring they rushed through the surf and right into the midst of the crowds (who tried to gage where each boat would land and run away in the right direction…)
after the boats were safely in, it was off to church for the blessing
 There were a couple of near capsizes and a few near collisions, but with every fishermen for miles in attendance the face-saving recoveries were swift, even if they did lead to a few bruises.

Maia and I decided though that surf landing doesn’t look like that great an idea. And leaving looks even worse.

January 23, 2011


great sunsets but sometimes rolly anchorage...
We pulled into a slip this morning after a near collision (note to selves--rules of the road still apply, even when docking…) and an engine outage (fuel connector disconnected). It was a stressful start to a plan that was meant to make our lives easier.

No one will claim that La Cruz has an ideal anchorage. But, on a windy afternoon with a swell running, it rates somewhere around mediocre. This means that anything that needs to be done on the boat needs to happen by 1pm, because at pretty much at the stroke of 1:01pm the wind and chop come up and stays up until 4pm—which by coincidence perfectly matches the town’s siesta.
 If I hadn’t booked as many stories as possible into the next two months, and Evan wasn’t trying to finish a half-dozen boat projects, and Maia wasn’t trying to do school work and see friends (the past few days have included a pirate night, a sleepover, and a birthday party…) we’d make the anchorage work. But when we were all sitting on a bench in the town square the other day, waiting for:
a) the anchorage to calm down
b) the dentist to come back from siesta so we could book appointments
c) the grocery store to reopen after siesta so we could shop
d) the hair cutting place to reopen after siesta so Evan could get a trim
e) any café to open so we could actually enjoy our break
we realized that being at anchor wasn’t a very efficient place to be…

So here we are. At the dock. It’s 3pm and Maia is running feral with friends. Evan is doing Evan stuff. I’m working (when not blogging) and outside the breakwater I hear the wind and surf.
Savannah is the smaller cat across from us...
I sort of feel like I’ve gone all soft and wimpy—but knowing that we’re paying the discounted 50 cents a foot puddlejump rates is helping me deal with it…

January 20, 2011

Puzzling through Paperwork

 When Evan checked in with the Port Captain a week or so ago he thumbed through our passports and discovered that Maia’s US one (she’s a dual citizen) was due to expire somewhere around Fiji.

Keeping track of paperwork: credit cards, driver’s licenses, taxes and passport renewals is one of the more complex aspects of cruising. Most of us have a mailing address, somewhere. But the choreography of getting mail from that address to our boats means we don’t just wait for a new credit card or new passport to arrive. We have to plan, usually months in advance.

This summer, before we went home, we went through all our bank cards, licenses and passports and checked the expiry dates. We noted anything that was due to go before 2012 (when we’ll be in Australia and have a stable address for more than a few weeks) and began requesting new cards, scheduling appointments and filling out forms.

The problem with this, is many places are reluctant to provide new cards (or driver’s licences) when the expiry date is more than six months, and in some cases 12 months, out. So we need to explain our lifestyle to several levels of bureaucracy. And somehow these conversations always end up with us being asked if we’re worried about pirates…

Which brings us to Maia’s passport: We were told it would be possible to renew in Mexico if it was expiring within six months. But it expires in eight. And it also takes four-six weeks to process—which means we need to do it now. So I sent off a quick note to the US consulate in Puerto Vallarta explaining our travel plans and asking if they could make and exception. Two minutes later we got a note back, “yes”. Then I asked if we could schedule an appointment, expecting to wait several days as we had in Vancouver. We got back another immediate note telling us to come any day between 11:00am and 12:30.

So we gathered up the paperwork and headed for the consul office in Nuevo Vallarta, panicking a bit when we realized we wouldn’t arrive until noon, and that we still needed to get photocopies and passport photos. We did these across the hall from the office then ten minutes later headed in to the office expecting a long queue. There was none.

We were served immediately. Our travel plans and passport request seemed to make complete sense to the office staff (who have clearly encountered the issue before). We were out of the office in less than ten minutes, and no one even asked us about pirates.

January 19, 2011

Cruiser Maintenance

in Bucerais looking toward the anchorage
 The days are flying past in La Cruz. Ev’s parents were here for a week and we had a great time showing them the sights. Now we’re midway through a busy week of chores, errands and appointments.

Yesterday though I took the day off for a lusciously indulgent spa day at The Marriott CasaMagna with Monica from Savannah. There was something wonderful about spending the day in girlfriend mode—something most women out here really miss. The Blue Agave scrubs, followed by the hot stone massages, were really just the icing on the girl-day cake.

Cruising is about being a tight little family unit that stays together, plays together and endures the odd storm together. While we do meet wonderful people along the way—those enduring friendships that most women rely on can be hard to maintain.

The result tends to be a lot of women get a bit unhappy. It tends to be this creeping malaise that no one can quite identify, but it has something to do with living with guys who just don’t get what we’re looking for when we gossip about a neighbour or complain a bit about a discomfort. With a girlfriend we commiserate and exchange stories. Guys, being the more pragmatic type, either try to solve the problem or tell us to suck it up.

Neither response really works for me, so I tend to save up all my little bitchy thoughts until they become big bitchy thoughts and then I yell at Evan. A little girlfriend time tends to circumvent that whole cycle and we all end up much happier.

We recently met a couple who had also cruised before and who learned this lesson early on. He told us about how on their first cruise, which was something of an endurance voyage, she hated every moment, despite loving sailing. Midway through (when she was about to go home) they were given some advice: no matter what your budget, make room for the types of indulgences each of you needs, whatever they are.

For the guys this might be the right toy or tool, but for the women it might be a trip home to see family or old girlfriends. Or it might be slowing down enough that you can hang with a boat you click with. Or it could be a relaxing a week in a marina or a night in a nice hotel. Or maybe it’s a spa day with a girlfriend.

When we’re all on tight budgets being indulgent seems, well, indulgent. But the couple who told us about their cruise-saving strategy explained they were on the brink of divorce when they realized what she needed. They told us that the cost of quitting a trip and selling a boat is far expensive more finding a way to recharge your cruising batteries.

Obviously cruising won’t be for everyone. And some people will get out here and hate it, but sometimes all it takes to make it fun again is to find out what’s missing and add it back in. We think of it as maintenance—we work hard to maintain our systems, and the same needs to be done with our happiness…

January 17, 2011

Charlie the Cat Goes Home

 We knew this day was coming, but for Maia it hit far sooner than she would like. Charlie the cat is heading home to Canada. We would love to cruise through the South Pacific to Australia with him aboard, because although he had a shaky start he really is an excellent boat cat. But the more we've looked into quarantine requirements for Oz, the clearer it's become that bringing a cat in by sea is fraught with trouble.
So, with the horror stories mounting (of unacceptable documents, six month quarantines and pets that were outright refused) and the success stories sounding more like horror stories (expensive, don't miss a single step in the process, be prepared for a long quarantine) we're taking the advice of other cruisers who have successfully imported their pets and sending him back to Canada.
 This puts Charlie in an approved country for the very important six month window prior to importing him--which means that if we follow the directions (far simpler in Canada) he'll fly to Oz with a shipping company the month before we arrive--and when we get there we'll just go pick him up out of quarantine.
as an FYI, this isn't his flight kennel, it's his little 'around town' kennel...
 It's a more, or less, simple solution to a complex problem. Although a bloody expensive solution. But Maia loves the little creature (as do we) and we're happy we have an option... So bye for now Charlie--we'll see you in November:(

Local Friends

I had a bit of a dream before we went cruising--it involved Maia meeting and playing with the local kids, learning Spanish as she went. Breaking down barriers of race, poverty, and culture, and becoming friends. The reality is local kids and cruising kids are pretty shy when it comes to crossing that friendship boundry.
 They rarely seem to pair up and play the way I'd hoped.
 At least that's how it was. I'm not sure what happened. Maybe it is Maia's increasing comfort with Spanish, which while still basic is now enough for play. Maybe it was the weeks on our own in Guaymas where the friendly kids simply adopted her whenever we showed up at the malecon play area. Or maybe she's just more confident now...

But lately Maia has been happy to play with kids. Any kids. And they are happy to play with her. This is really a huge deal for such a simple thing--because while most parents hope for the connection, it just doesn't happen as often as we'd like.
 My favourite moment so far came yesterday. Maia was playing in one of the bounce houses at the festival in Bucerais. She noticed a little girl watching with awe and knew immediately that the girl's mother couldn't afford the 15 peso entry.
 So she asked the girl's mother if she could give her the entry fee as a gift. The tiny girl found the bounce castle a bit strange--but she loved holding the hand of the big girl who befriended her. And the young mother kept whispering to her daughter, 'play with your friend, play with your friend.'

January 15, 2011

Searching for Elizabeth: Finding Mexico

The cupid-pink bridge is still there: Plaster cracking, paint fading, stretching from a ruined building to an empty one. But if I squint against the sun I can imagine a 32-year-old Elizabeth Taylor running across it. Flitting from one opulent Hacienda to the next. Meeting her lover, Richard Burton.

46 years ago when the world descended on Puerto Vallarta, trying to catch a glimpse of the movie stars, this city was no more than a fishing village really. The central part of town—with its regally crowned cathedral, winding cobble walkways, and bougainvillea-draped stone walls--was probably much the same as now. But the endless strips of hotels, the cruise ship terminal, and all the tourists had yet to be imagined.
 Mexico was still exotic: A place of unknown rhythms and sultry exploits.
 Evan and I meandered along the hilly streets Burton and Taylor made famous. Peeking through wrought iron gates, and greeting those we passed. As we explored I realized I wasn’t looking at Puerto Vallarta, but searching for echoes of Elizabeth in the misty views and in the noble decay of the old streets.
 There is a conceit among some cruisers that there is a real Mexico and a tourist Mexico. That somehow, like Disneyland, there are parts of the country that are not authentic, PV being one. There are resort towns—places where the local villages were removed and walled resorts were erected. Places where our Mexican friends have said they feel out of place and unwelcome—and in those places I agree. But there is also an idea that Mexico, in its diversity and in its ability to evolve and adapt, is also authentically and wondrously a land modified by visitors. And to say that some places are not real is to miss the point.
 We rounded a block and I counted doorways as we walked from Elizabeth’s Casa Kimberley, to Casa Bursus where Burton lived with his third wife Susan, after giving it to her as a valentine’s gift.

Four doors.

It is amazing to think that two people and a movie can change the course of an entire town. Maybe Puerto Vallarta would have eventually come to be, even if the two lovers had never made history. But there are things--like the white sand beaches of Mismaloya, and the romance of the mariachis, and the regal beauty of haciendas, and casual fun of palapa bars that entered our northern culture that year, and for travellers they became the symbols of Mexico.

But perhaps these things are just tourist things.
 We knocked on the fourth door.  
Casa Bursus is a sumptuously romantic inn called San Angel now—and it contains a restaurant I’ve been dreaming about. We crossed through the flower-filled courtyard and began climbing the tiled stairs—stealing a look over banisters at hidden rooms, imagining the Hollywood parties, and before those the fiestas of wealthy PV families who lived within these walls.
 By the time we were seated, the cathedral below us was glowing with late-day light and the bay stretched out until it disappeared in a haze. The sun was just above the mountains and then dropped away as I held my breath. Around us the tables were filled with different accents: Spanish, French and every type of Canadian. Absent were the Americans—but they’ve been gone from the town for two years now and we’ve watched as the locals cling to the edges of employment and wait for them to return.
 The 14-piece mariachi band came out as our desert did. As the music soared and the lyrics from ‘Ay Jalisco, no te rajes’ brought my tears, I thought again of Elizabeth. She sold Casa Kimberly after Richard died. Unable, it’s said, to return to her beloved Puerto Vallarta even though the lovers were long broken up.

And I thought of the empty tourist hotels, waiting for guests, and all the locals waiting to work. And I thought of how the story of Mexico, of real Mexico, is populated by visitors and locals alike, and how after a time the two have woven into one tapestry, and how both are needed.

January 13, 2011

Turtle Release

 Some of our favourite cruising experiences are our encounters with wildlife. And last night’s olive ridley turtle release at the Marriott Casamagna was no exception.

The olive ridley is classified as Vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The reason is multi-faceted: The turtles have been used for food, bait, oil, leather, and fertilizer. And while the meat is not considered tasty, the eggs are highly prized and can fetch a good price. And then there are the problems with habitat destruction and the fact that the swimming turtles often end up as a shrimp fishery bycatch.
the turtle hatchery nursery
collecting newly hatched turtles
 The olive ridley nests between about June and November. Traditionally the female turtles arrived in mass numbers. Called an arribada, thousands of turtles would congregate on a beach and lay their eggs. Historically, there were several arribadas in Mexico, yet only the one at Playa Escobilla in Oaxaca is considered to come anywhere close to the historic events…
 The Marriott in Puerto Vallarta is one of the older resorts in the area and has one of the longer, lovelier stretched of beaches. About 15-years ago the hotel realized it could play a role in turtle conservation—so they hired a biologist who teaches guests to retrieve the nests and move them to a nursery (the resort has become so well known for their role that they now get nests from all over the bay). 45 days later the hatchlings emerge and are returned to the ocean.
lining up to release the turtles
 Every evening at 6pm from August-January locals, school children, guests and passing tourists congregate on the beach for a quick lesson in turtle conservation. Then, we are each given a turtle to release.

The newly hatched babies, with sand still clinging to their half-opened eyes, are about the size of a cookie. Which is how they must look to seagulls and hungry fish. So the idea is to place them on the sand just as the sun is dipping below the horizon and their predators are grounded for the night. Then the little hatchlings follow the setting sun into the ocean. As they make their way across the sand they imprint on the beach as home—and return when mature, 10-years later.
 I always imagined the little turtles tumbling down the beach, caught by the first wave and carried out to sea. Instead the process is marathon long, and heart-wrenching to watch.

The first time the little turtles hurried down the sand they were picked up by a wave and they began to swim their little hearts out. Moments later the wave dumped them back off, further up the beach than where they started, tumbled on their backs and disoriented.
 The second and third time this happened we sighed and smiled. By the fifth and sixth time we wondered how they would ever make it into the sea. Each wave seemed to take one or two of the little creatures, but as the ones that were left behind grew more tired and less enthusiastic in their stumble seaward—we wanted to help.
 But our role was done. All we could do was hope for the little turtles who ventured seaward and make sure we share their story to support their continued recovery. And eventually the sun set on a beach empty of little turtles. And the next part of their journey began. Now they will swim for 5-days, not stopping not eating, trying to get to safe open water.