October 28, 2015

Sailing to South Africa

If you asked us six years ago if South Africa (or Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, Chagos or the Maldives) were part of our cruising plans we wouldn't have been sure. For many of us out here this is the ocean we never planned to cross. The Suez canal through to the Med was easier and more alluring (and for Europeans which make up a hefty percentage of IO sailors-it's more direct). But then, pirates. And the decision got tougher. 
But we crossed (almost: knock on wood, make a sacrifice to Tiki, get those bananas eaten...) And now I get to contemplate South Africa.
We're about 1/3 of the way to Richard's Bay. Aside from the first squally night (40 knots out of a little cloud, surprise!) It's been mellow enough. Charlie is out of hiding and the meals I prepared before setting off are being consumed.
While we've had some bumpy and uncomfortable moments we've also been blessed with a bright full moon and clear skies.
So it was sobering when just south of Madagascar a boat was lost while we were sailing along. Fortunately, like the other for boats lost this season, the crew of two was rescued by a passing container ship.
Still it reminds us why we were wary of this ocean. And why so many boats chose pirates over potential storms this year. It will be a great thing to have the Suez canal become a safe route for cruising boats again one day. But with a few hundred Indian Ocean miles to go I'm grateful that circumstance sent us here.

This e-mail was delivered via satellite phone using Iridium Mail & Web software. Please be kind and keep your replies short.

October 23, 2015

Four Reasons to Sail (and love) Madagascar

With our time in Madagascar quickly running down I wonder how I will remember this magical place. Every country we’ve ever visited (except maybe Tonga) has always been my favourite while I’m there. Immersed in the place I get mesmerized by the culture, intrigued by the politics and inspired by the landscape.

wild sifaka lemurs in Moramba Bay
But Madagascar really is my favourite.

It’s not my favourite just because of the lemurs, the brilliant sailing, the yummy rum, the incredible encounters with manta rays, turtles and giant groupers, or the way the women dance in a way that defies both physics and physiology, or because of the kind of genuine smiles we’re graced with, dozens of times a day, which make you think the world is a really great place.

dancing happens everywhere
It’s also not my favourite because plastic pollution hasn’t taken hold here yet (and the grocery stores in Mahajunga are getting rid of plastic bags so it won’t), and because subsistence living doesn’t necessarily mean abject poverty, and because we can go out for dinner and drinks on under $10. It’s my favourite because combined, all these things make Madagascar ideal for cruisers—it’s exotic, accessible and affordable.

ox carts are almost as common as cars in many places (and more common in others)
1) It’s a sailing country:

Unlike anywhere we’ve ever been, the age of sail came to Madagascar and never left. At sunrise the dhows drift out in the first whispers of wind. Lanteen rigged sails made of canvas or rice sacks and patched with old clothes are set on long yards of lashed together branches. As the breeze fills in the huge sails billow and strain against the willowy tree trunk masts. Filled with all manner of passengers and stuff (fruit, palm fronds, sand, chickens or granite stones) the crews set off with whoops and hollers to cross the wide bays on the sort of dependable breeze that makes motors seem like a foolish investment.

When we sail (race!) beside them we’re amazed by their speed. And gratified by the kind of wind that means during our travels around Madagascar we’ve only burned 40 litres of fuel (most of that because we were impatient and didn’t wait for the twice daily wind shifts). And the boats are beautiful—hewn from logs or built from raw timbers they have the kind of ancient grace that makes sailing seem noble.

And if sailing is noble, sailing around the world must be a worthy thing. Here, more than anywhere we’ve ever been, the idea we sailed here, and will sail to the next faraway place, makes sense to the people we meet.
How else would we travel?

2) Friendly Villages

Maia's dolls found a welcome home
In Moramba Bay, dugouts stopped by the boat each day to trade. Inevitably we’d offer too much for the fresh crab and prawns—but for years we’ve been keeping a box of useful things we no longer need for this very purpose. So a crab would be offered and we’d pull things out of the box: leftover fabric, empty jars, an old pot that never fit on the stove. Items would be selected and another crab would be added to our pile. Then the cadeaux (gifts) would be exchanged: a toy for the paddler’s daughter, bananas for us.

the girls claimed the pink soccer ball and we got a month's worth of mangoes
The trades needed to be fair—we’re not to give too much or it changes the balance from trade to charity. Even though the people are dressed in rags. Rags.

So we visited the three small villages to try and get rid of more stuff without getting too many crab. Each was a tidy cluster of thatch huts. One had a dhow under construction, another had a dugout being hollowed out, and the third had an injured grandfather who needed medical help. We gave out more things for the children, trying to explain they were cadeaux—my child had grown, their children could have her toys and clothes. For the grandfather we went and got medical supplies—then we decided the other village probably needed supplies so we made up another bag.

Later that night the crab arrived, and then the prawns, and the mangoes and bananas.

no diapers on the babies leads to less waste, but you need to cuddle with caution
The next day another boat was going to visit the villages so we asked them to check on the grandfather. Each boat since has been to see him and give him care. He’s healing and the crab is still being given out.

3) It’s Wild:

Andrew on Utopia let us know about the manta rays outside the entrance of Honey River. Stretching 4 meters from wingtip to wingtip the bigger of the two was trying to mate with the smaller one. The action was all on the surface—between our four boats we spent two hours watching them swoop and circle. The way they circled under and around the boats it seemed to us that when they weren’t busy trying to make baby rays they were equally curious about us.

we think they thought they were hiding
It’s not just the undersea life (and the fishing) that’s been remarkable. We’ve seen wild lemurs, incredible bird life, boa constrictors and chameleons. And when we walk the long beaches in some places we’ve been more likely to find shards of ancient Sakalava pottery than modern garbage. Subsistence living means that people haven’t learned to depend on plastic yet. Glass bottles and glass jars with lids are coveted and kept.

4) It’s Affordable:

gorgeous pulled thread table clothes that can take weeks to make sell for under $20 table runners ara less than $10
I would say cheap—but good value seems the better way to describe it. Because the things you can buy—boxes carved from hardwoods, carefully decorated fabrics, dried vanilla beans and various essential oils are all lovely quality. They just cost very little. What we don’t see here is much cheap plastic stuff. It’s not a disposable culture. Even when we traded for crab people would look over our offerings very carefully to make sure they were well made and would last.
From a cruiser perspective—while there are no marinas or big chandleries all the basics are here. There are mechanics and craftsmen and people to dive your boat and scrub the bottom. And then there's the food: fresh and delicious with enough French influence to make it a welcome change after an ocean of fish curry. And everything costs a fraction of what it would in other places. It would be easy to spend a long time here.

But while we love it—South Africa is beckoning (and rainy season is approaching). So we’re hopping down the coast while waiting for a weather window. Collecting more memories and more reasons to love Madagascar.

October 15, 2015

Every Day's a Holiday--except when it's not

Our first Thanksgiving with lemurs. A new tradition?
From the beginning of our cruising life one of Maia’s biggest concerns was how we’d celebrate holidays. Her memories of celebrations at home had that kind of pumpkin-tinted-amber-glow that meant they were hard to live up to. So every (almost-missed) Thanksgiving or looming Halloween was a reason for angst. She wanted to know where we'd be, if we’d have people to celebrate with and if we'd find the right 'stuff' to make the holiday right. No matter how much we tried to reassure her that although each holiday would be different than previous ones it would still be special, she had her doubts.
Maia and Rivers pulled out the stops for a Halloween that was far from home

Waiting for the sun to set so boat to boat trick-or treating cold get under way
Over the years Maia has evolved into a mini Martha Stewart (with a sub-par kitchen and who hopefully won’t do jail time). She loves to plan parties and celebrations and spends hours baking yummy things. The thing that’s really changed though is she’s begun to embrace the uncertainty of our life and make the best of it. When there was a chance her 14th birthday would fall while we were on passage she opted to throw herself (yes—she made the dinner and baked her own cake) a party in an anchorage she liked while it was filled with good friends.

And this past weekend (after finding a pumpkin in the market) she and her friend Rivers decided Halloween needed to coincide with the maximum number of available kids—rather than a date on the calendar. She surprised me even further when she made a couple of Day of the Dead dishes to share.  Apparently the previously declared second-rate Halloweens spent in Mexico had improved with nostalgia and Day of the Dead was now a favourite holiday.

I had so many doubts the first year or two of cruising. I questioned if we were wrecking Maia’s childhood by being nomadic and embracing a sort of traveler’s hypocrisy where we lose our own traditions while simultaneously admiring cultures that are rich with their own. Happily though it seems the promise I made to Maia a couple of Halloweens ago: someday you will love this memory and be happy to have spent Halloween in a bunch of different countries, was actually accurate.
Familiar celebrations in exotic locations

And this year, as kids from four different countries dressed up to trick-or-treat on boats from six different countries, followed by an improvised Canadian Thanksgiving (zebu roasts and pumpkin pie) on a beach with crews from seven different countries, I realized that both kids and traditions are resilient. That’s why they last (the traditions—the kids grow).

It turns out you can take a celebration around the world, introduce it to a diverse crowd, change it to suit the date and location and still have it feel as rich and meaningful as it was meant to.
I’m thankful for that.
Traditional Thanksgiving fare: Pumpkin pie and roast zebu
And I’m grateful that Maia doesn’t feel short changed by holidays that may not resemble the ones we started off with but that still offer a connection to home while tying her to a much wider world.

October 6, 2015

Why Madagascar is great

The rum costs about the same as the mixer (4500 Ariary rum = $1.75 US); (4000 Ariary fruit juice = $1.50). It's actually quite a drinkable rum - the local dance club we've been to a few times uses it in their mixed drinks.

The lovely dhows still bring produce to the town we are anchored in front of.

While this is a rather superficial way of looking at a place, it's been great and we will be sad to leave it behind.