Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Homeschooling a Boat Kid

Mera Hard At Work
Mera Hard At Work
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
“Well, so much for school,” DrC remarks sardonically as we climb out the dinghy and into the cockpit one afternoon. Schoolwork is scattered across every surface, abandoned hours earlier when our buddy boats proposed a kayak trip through the jungle. The girls were full of promises regarding their swift return and diligent pursuit of education after the eagerly sought trip through the mangroves.

It seemed like an acceptable idea at the time. We would all head out, enjoy a long trip through the forest, eat lunch on the other side, and return to our schoolwork renewed and revitalized. We could even legitimately call the trip a combination of P.E. and Science.

Except it's 16:30. DrC and I have already had one beer and too much time in the sun. The girls have either been rowing, swimming, body surfing, or digging enormous holes in the sand for nearly six hours, and are now at least a half hour behind us rowing their way out of the jungle. I'm having trouble mustering the energy to eat a Snickers, let alone correct math or struggle with Aeron's social studies phobias. It will take every particle of our combined intelligence, patience, and persuasion just to get all the school materials, breakfast dishes, and scattered sand covered beach gear stowed in the proper hold and cranny. We're not going to be attempting any algebra.

If we were unschoolers, we'd have a smug moment, waggling our fingers at those schooly types for their planned curriculum, work books, and delusions of competence. And we'd be justified. The girls learned a great deal today. They ooze healthy energy out of their very pores. They are obviously clever enough to get out of spelling tests. Unschoolers do have a way of making their point through the simple self-evident example of my children. It appears that DrC and I are largely superfluous to their needs.

However, we do try to educate the children in ways that provide at least the illusion of measurable progress. We use textbooks, workbooks, and essay assignments. We throw a major standardized test at the girls about once a year just for giggles. But no matter how hard we try, boat schooling has a tendency to make unschooling believers – or at least practitioners – out of all us. To those floating a boat with kids who would like to take an active role in their child's education while underway, I offer a few ideas:

Restaurant Math – No, I'm not going to wax poetic on how to teach kids advanced math through clever attempts to educate at the market or restaurant. That works, by the way, for the little ones, but once you start in on geometry and algebra, you either have to go abstract or you've got to start building swimming pools and opera houses to make your point.

Restaurant math is the simple rule that every time you plan a trip into a restaurant or palapa, you take the math workbooks. After ordering while you wait the interminable amount of time it takes every chef in Mexico to produce even the most simple of dishes, you pull out the books and make everyone get to work. Restaurant math both keeps the kids busy while they wait while simultaneously assuring at least one lesson of math gets done for the day no matter what else happens to screw with the educational schedule. I also think it may result in my daughters forever associating mathematics with tortas, salsa, and limonada... maybe to their long term advantage if some future college professor lets them eat during exams.

Take Over the Net – In many areas frequented by cruisers, a custom has developed for there to be a news and information broadcast on the VHF every morning. This “cruising net”, as it's known, is run by a net controller usually drawn from either the cruising community or a C.L.O.D. (cruiser living on dry land) who settled in the area and enjoys maintaining ties with boaters. Frequently, your children can take over the net. The net controller uses a basic script to prompt for check ins, priority traffic, local services, or swaps and trades. At just about any age, a child can control the net. This offers an amazing opportunity for public speaking, weather prognostication, mediation and negotiation. A side benefit is that the kids become extremely well known throughout the anchorage providing an extra layer of support and security.

Language Find-A-Word – DrC is more or less attempting to teach the girls Spanish. Probably rather less than more. It's a struggle. All the Mexicans we meet want to practice their English. It's quite simple to live down here for years and speak little more than “una cerveza y un jaro de limonado por favour”. We play a game to extend the girls' vocabulary which I call “find a word.” As we move through towns, hotels, marinas, or cities, we ask the girls to find a word on a sign or wall and figure out what it means from the context.

Strew Books – Before you leave the English speaking world, fill the hold with books... and not just the romance and science fiction. We now actively seek “literature.” By this, I include all books any teacher ever assigned me at any grade ever as well as anything with a Nebula, Hugo or other award. If those ever run out, we'll start working our way through the books in the Guggenheim project. Desperate for reading material merely days after leaving a big book exchange source like La Paz or Zihuatanejo, the girls are open to reading anything. Slipping some Asimov, L'Engle, Wells, Twain, or Frank into their hands works like a charm.

Sixthgrading – We don't have an elaborate ceremony or pin a medal on them, but when the kids finish a major academic milestone, we celebrate. We announce it during the morning net, invite other cruisers out to dinner or over for sun downers, and we find or bake something sweet. Recently, we had Mera's sixthgrading party as she finished the last of her 5th grade math workbooks. Aeron should be achieving her fourthgrading in the next few weeks. By making an occasion for the entire anchorage, you create an environment where your child wants to finish up a major bit of academic effort.

During the Race
During the Race
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Yet for all our cleverness, we still don't seem to be educating our children with anything like the rigor I'm sure their former teachers, our home state's school administration, and their grandparents would like. DrC grabs the VHF as Jaime checks in, “Don Quixote, Don Quixote Mobile.”

“Mobile go ahead,” says the stern taskmaster and father.

Jaime sounds bright and happy, “We just made it to Triumph. We're playing a game of Mexican dominoes.”

DrC looks at me. “Can we put dominoes down as a math check?” I ask rhetorically. Not sure how I'd explain that to the Seattle School District, to be honest. Never mind, I shrug. “Fine,” he snarls and glares over at me as he signs out. “So much for school.”

I yawn, “Dean, you're starting to repeat yourself.”

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Questions from the Class - Catitude

One of my lady posse who lives on a beautiful monohull down here on the Mexican coastline with us, recently pushed me on an opinion I had casually tossed out: I'd written, “There is amongst even the older cruisers on cats a slightly different approach to cruising.” She replied, “I'm curious. How would you characterize this?”

Favorite People - Jimmy
Favorite People - Jimmy
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
The difference is subtle, unmistakable, and probably a temporary demographic oddity or maybe just a Winter 2008-2009 coincidence. However, there is something distinctive about this year's cruising class differentiating the multihull and monohull owners. I wrote on the subject long ago when I was naïve, and my skin was still had the pale healthy pallor of a Pacific Northwesterner. Living amongst a lot of monohull and multihull enthusiasts, it surprises me how much about that series still rings true.

Primarily for comedic effect, I characterized Catamaran guy as wearing Bermuda shorts, sun glasses, and a deep tan... the quintessential surfer dude. Weirdly, all the dedicated surfer-cruisers we have met thus far are on multihulls. That can't be right. There must be monohull surfers. But we haven't seen them yet. And all the surfing catamaran and trimaran owners dress like surfer dudes, sound like surfer dudes, look like surfer dudes complete with Polynesian beach wear, expensive sun glasses, and long bleach blonde locks. Except for Jimmie on Sea Level who looks precisely like Jean Luc Picard – in beach gear. Now all cruisers more or less look like beach bums down here. However, cruisers who surf look just a wee bit more so.

Catamarans and trimarans also show up in the anchorage with kayaks, boogie boards, dogs, cats, children, slides, floating islands, and surf boards. They look like mobile party platforms, and their crews take this responsibility very seriously.

"More room for toys makes us more like kids."
-- Steve, Endless Summer

Multihull owners look at the coastline differently for a very practical reason; During the mild winters of the Mexican Riviera, a cat or tri can comfortably stop for the night just about anywhere from Punta Ipala to Acapulco. Now, any boat can stop just about anywhere along the coastline, but in most areas the swell will roll in all night long. If you're tucked in to the beach closely enough, you'll even experience rebound waves off the shore. This means the roadstead anchorages are rolly as all hell. Only the multihulls seem to be able to comfortably skip the microdot breakwaters and just drop a hook anywhere. This totally changes their planning horizon.

"Well, sure the anchorage was a bit bumpy ... but not for ... you know... us."
-- Sue, Sun Baby

DrC's theory is that it's a minority group. Any time you are in a minority group -- for whatever reason -- there is a tendency to collect and bond over shared experience. Many in the multihull minority are also a bit defensive, since we prepped our boats in a culture of monohull dominance... negative monohull dominance. One evening in Barra lagoon, for example, we heard a captain bemoan on the net, "Well well, seven catamarans and a hippie tri. Time to party."

"There is still a multihull stigma. Since the 60's, they were homemade and not of good quality. It's going to take a long time for that image to go away." -- DrC

Another by product of being a minority is that multihull owners hang out with other multihull owners. So of course they tend to do the same things, visit the same places, enjoy the same restaurants and palapas.

"It's a choice to do something different. Seeing and hanging around with other multihulls validates that choice." -- DrC

"If you want to talk boat design, equipment and storm tactics, it's better to drink with someone whose boat has the same issues." -- Jim, Sea Level

Our Favorite Position
Our Favorite Position
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Anecdotally, the average age of multihull owners and their crews is less than that of the monohull cruisers. I believe this is a demographic and economic shift rather than self-selection or any meaningful distinction. Multihulls are just starting to popularize outside of the Med and Caribbean. As new owners come into the cruising community, a higher percentage than in the past are multihulls. As time progresses, this demographic will distribute more evenly throughout the age range present out here. But for awhile, at least, the average age is lower.

“I'll admit it. We're an oddity out here. Even more than you are.” – Toby (24), captain of Triumph

Whatever the reasons, this year sees an unusually high number of catamaran and trimarans plying the coastline. Long time cruisers here regularly comment on the influx. Those familiar with cruising the Caribbean talk about how it looks like Pacific Mexico is starting to see the same transition to catamarans as happened long since in those cruising grounds. Tonight in Tenacatita, there were 27 boats, 13 of which were multihulls.

Look, it's easy to make too much of this. The hull preference distinction is no more or less significant than “hookers and dockers”, “retirees and sabbatical cruisers”, or “old couples and the rest of us.” Basically, it's human nature to play with these differences to create shifting social groups, not to mention it makes for entertaining shop talk during sun downers.

However, don't be surprised or alarmed if an anchorage near you suddenly fills up with a flotilla of masted tennis courts, blasting music and calling friendly insults and invitations to one another as they spread into the shallow and rolly spots near the beach.

Particularly if the surf is up.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What's For Dinner?

News? In English?
News? In English?
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
As DrC hands me my evening cocktail, Mera asks, “What's for dinner?”

“Food,” I reply in a flat voice.

This is my standard answer to this question. I have not actually answered the question of “What's for dinner?” in over a decade. For some reason, the question itself strikes me as profoundly aggravating, incorporating as it does so many basic assumptions: Thing 1) Mommy is going to make dinner: Thing 2) Mommy knows what she is going to make for dinner; Thing 3) The beginning and end of the questioner's responsibility in making Things 1 and 2 take place is to remind Mommy that dinner is Pending.

I am not the only woman for whom this question enrages. I've met others. They admit it after a few glasses of wine. The sensation is similar to having ants crawl all over your body. “What's for dinner?” is a trick question whose purpose is to goad Mommy and whose underlying objective is to get her off her ass and into the galley.

My counterattack is to be singularly unhelpful. After a thousand times receiving the same precise reply, “Food” you would think those kids would give up. You would think my husband would give up. Unfortunately, he now has a very valid point. If they don't ask me what's for dinner, they won't know what to cook.

Okay, it's not like they are actually committing to cooking. “But I'm just saying,” DrC explains, “if we were going to help, we would have to know what to cook.”

Because provisioning and cooking on a boat is not like the real world. You can't get a craving at the last minute for steak and potatoes and pop over to the grocery to pick them up. Everything on the boat has a purpose and an assigned meal. As project manager and cattle herder extraordinaire, it's my job to figure out what the family is going to eat. The produce needs to be eaten in a certain order as it ripens, the meat has designated dishes, don't eat the cream cheese it's for the dinghy raft up, eat the bollo before they turn to stone... etc etc. Figuring all this out takes a lot of energy, but someone has to do it or we'll get halfway to Cape Corrientes, and we'll run out of bananas, tortillas and rum (not related problems).

So legitimately, if anyone is going to cook anything, they need to ask my permission and gain my cooperation first. I need to answer the question politely and helpfully. I need to elaborate on “food.” But my inner child whines, “I don't wanna!....” I do not want to be helpful. I'm about to sink my teeth into a glass of chilled red and I'd like to sit here and do absolutely nothing, think absolutely nothing for about an hour. Then I want my dinner to magically appear before me like a genie >poofed< from a bottle.

Still Cheesy Grins
Still Cheesy Grins
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I unbend enough to tell Mera, “Curry and rice.” I glance at my husband, daring him to get off his gorgeously shaped ass and cook dinner. After all, with three words I have released three potatoes, two onions, a squash, some carrots, the pork, and two cups of rice into the wilds of the galley, fair game for an enterprising chef. DrC picks up his guitar and returns the look guilelessly, “What?” He strums a few chords to check the tuning, “That sounds good.” Mera smilingly agrees as she returns to her cabin to read a book. Aeron and Jaime are nowhere in sight.

“What's for dinner?” The ants start crawling all down my arms making my teeth itch and my spine twitch. God, I hate that question.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Summer Plans

Layers of Red
Layers of Red
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I've held off as long as I can updating everyone on our plans for the summer not because I am reluctant to share them but simply because I had no idea. We have been working many ideas and angles. It wasn't clear which plan would bear fruit. However, now the various pieces are coming together. We know where we're going to be for the next five months.

First, the economic fiasco up in the States has made it impossible for us to return to our old lives.

In order to live in the States full time, DrC and I would need to work full time and we can't. DrC can't go back to work full time in the Seattle area because the practice that bought his practice doesn't need him full time, and he's not allowed to work for anyone else up there for another two years. Unemployment in my industry – computer and software development – is at an all time high with 800 resumes showing up for each listing posted.

In order to live in Mexico cruising, however, we only need to work roughly three months out of the year which is actually relatively easy to arrange. DrC can work part-time for his old practice, and people who have laid off all their technical writers find themselves suddenly in need of a contract technical writer for a few weeks every few months.

I know that seems odd. What I'm saying is that it's cheaper and more responsible for us to be irresponsible, semi-retired nomads than it is for us to try to work for full time.

But once you start thinking like this, all sorts of fun ideas pop into your head. For example, why cruise? Why work only in the United States? Why tie yourself to just American clients? We've been putting out feelers in every direction to see what would happen. While a recent tentative assignment to the Caribbean fell through, we are eager to see what happens and ready to move in any direction except backwards including those that might take us to New Zealand, the South Pacific, South American, or the wilds of western Canada.

Cool, huh?

So our plans are all tentative; our planning horizon is month-to-month. As long as the cruising kitty has about six months to a year cushion, we'll just keep stringing these opportunities together like pearls on a rope and see where they lead us.

So this summer and fall look something like this:

  • May and June -- Cruise slowly in a big half circle up and and over through the Sea of Cortez from La Paz to Guyamas.
  • July -- DrC working in Seattle while the girls and Toast try to survive the heat in Guaymas.
  • August -- Family wedding in New Mexico for the first week and then three or four weeks of car camping with Grandma Sue in the Southwest United States.
  • September -- DrC working in Seattle while the girls and Toast swing south visiting a few land based and boat friends before heading back down to Mexico.
  • October -- Meet up in Guaymas and prep the boat for another cruising season.

    Any questions?
  • Monday, April 13, 2009

    Doing More with Less: Clothing

    The boat teaches many lessons in conservation. This is part of an ongoing series of posts about how we boaters do more with considerably less. The tips are valid for land based life as well, though, so hopefully folks can use some of these ideas.

    It Was Nothing
    It Was Nothing
    Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
    I found a bag of winter clothes this week while cleaning out the master cabin lockers. I should say “another bag of winter clothes.” We lived in Seattle for so long, I begin to think I could pull fleece, flannel, and long sleeved shirts out my butt for a year before completely shedding the old life. A fellow cruiser from the same part of the country admits she carries on her boat at least a full bag of her favorites from the old life... as if a boat which for the foreseeable future will never travel north of 38 ever needs a pair of wool socks. I nearly pitched the found treasure full of jeans, sweatshirts, and two scarves overboard until my charitable self agreed to keep it until the next time we find a place to donate the stuff. Ironically, when the temperature drops to 60 in Mexico, they actually pull on these gifts from overheated Pacific Northwesterners.

    But it got me to thinking about how dramatically our family has reduced the quantity of clothing we own. Granted, we don't have jobs or school driving us to enhance our wardrobe. On the other hand, I've learned so much about living with less, I can't see that I'll ever need a walk in closet again. Even my clothes-horse eldest child agrees that there are many ways to reduce the volume and cost of your garment bag. The following are our ideas on the subject of doing more with less clothing:

    One Year Rule – Throw it away if you haven't worn it in one year. If you live in a location with a relatively tame climate, you can reduce the time horizon to six months. The point is that the stories you tell yourself about wearing an item are self-delusional lies. You won't wear the pants that don't fit you today. You won't need the fancy coat, the slinky dress, the heels. If you haven't had occasion to pull them out off the rack or out of the drawer in the last year, then it's time to donate the item to someone who will.

    It's Gross, Destroy It – Ladies, you know what I mean. The Stain says, “Throw me out.” I'm sorry, but there is a reason my Mom keeps sending me new panties. She has a 1 for 1 rule. She sends one, I'm required to throw one out. The bra with the broken under wire, the favorite shirt with the wine stain that you're positive some magic goop somewhere will get rid of, the Led Zeppelin shirt so worn you can actually count the number of hairs on your husband's chest when he wears it... these all must go. Don't give them away. That's insulting, rude, and wasteful. Just shred them.

    Create a Look
    – Rather than investing in a dozen outfits to wear to work, create a look which involves interchangeable tops and bottoms but is effectively the same every day. Dressing for success doesn't mean variety unless you are in the fashion industry. For most of us, it involves cleanliness, consistency, and forgetability. Boring as it might seem, my look back in the day was clean, pressed khaki jeans, black boots, and a branded company shirt. Every day for nearly seven years. My look today is unwashed hair and a t-shirt dress that falls to my knees. Okay, it's embarrassing but it suits my current job.

    Thrift Stores Are Your Friend – I can't believe I ever bought anything new. It's improbable that I will ever do so again. Panties, bras, socks, and good shoes are the only items I recommend purchasing fresh and shiny. Everything else can be had in almost new condition from your local consignment and thrift stores. For kids, you can even get the socks and shoes. Sometimes you can get good deals on second run tennis shoes, Crocs, and sandals. Always check the book and wine glass racks while you're there... if only out of sympathy for Toast who lives on a boat in Mexico with three girls who are rabid readers and destroyers of glassware.

    Launder Frequently – Three messages on laundering... First, make sure that everything you own can be laundered in the same load without consideration for color, fabric, temperature, or fancy additives. You do not want to sort. It's a complete waste of time and energy. Second, make sure that everything you own can be washed in no more than two loads, three if you count the sheets and towels. Third, get a clothes basket only big enough for a single load and wash it the instant it is full. Washing frequently reduces your need for clothing volume. It's also easier. When the laundry pile is roughly the same height as that of your eldest child, the problem is not laziness, it's too many clothes. Carve the pile down.

    Make Your Children Buy It Themselves
    – If you're having trouble getting your kids to stop whining about the latest Hannah Montana skirt or Gap jacket, there is a very simple solution: Don't buy them clothes, give them money. Every month each of my daughters gets a small sum of money for her clothing allowance. I haven't purchased an item of clothing for any of them in over a year. Interestingly, they haven't either unless it was absolutely essential to their survival. They don't beg, they don't buy, and they no longer lose hats, sunglasses, shoes, shirts and swim suits. They love thrift stores, cheap t-shirt deals, and two for one swimsuits. Stop fighting your child's desire to be fashionable and instead make it her problem. Instead of new clothes, Aeron and Mera pooled their resources and bought an iTouch. Be still my geeky heart.

    Cut Up the Cards – You need to get out a pair of scissors today and cut up all but one credit card. In particular, destroy the clothing store cards such as JCPenny's, Target, Nordstrom, or whatever you can afford. Pay for all of your clothing items using cold, hard cash. Nothing looks quite as good on your ass when you're paying real money for it.

    * * *
    Chatting in the Cockpit
    Chatting in the Cockpit
    Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
    Every item of clothing I own currently resides in a space smaller than a carry-on suitcase. It's still more than I carried across the country when I rode my bike. Special lives, you'll say, but I look at those two little shelves and ponder how much I'd add if I had a “real job in the real world.” Weather would probably double the volume, and a job would add at least one more shelf and a pair of boots. That still puts me in a dresser half the size of the one we used to own to corral only Mera's wardrobe.

    Which gets me to another topic, doing more with less – furniture. If I don't have anything to put in it...

    Thursday, April 09, 2009

    One Bite at At Time

    You Want Me to What?
    You Want Me to What?
    Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
    Believe it or not, cruising is not a vacation. It feels like it should be, but it isn't. After all, we're on the Mexican Riviera in the middle of winter while everyone else is slogging through sleet and snow. We enjoy pleasant company, great surfing, and wonderful weather. And we don't work for a living. Which is the problem. We're not working.

    See what happens is this. You leave your home port after many years of preparation. The boat was at the dock while you outfitted, prepped, primped, polished, and laid in fifty cans of diced tomatoes. Then you left the comforts of home and started cruising. Which is great, mind you, but cruising is hard on the boat. Mexico is really super dirty. Children and cats and husband notwithstanding, it is fair to say I could be down here on Don Quixote all by myself and the boat would be covered in grime from bow tip to stern step in grime within a month.

    And did you know the ocean is salty? And full of sand?!

    Every day you live on your boat something gets worn down, dinged, scratched, or a little dingier. Every day the salt water gradually eats away the finish on the metal shiny parts, and the Mexican dust scrapes away at the plastic buffed parts. One day the dinghy oars scrape down the side of the starboard hull. Another night, the cat gets hold of a rug and tears it to shreds. Two weeks ago, every thread on the sail cover decided to simultaneously self-destruct in a puff of reinforced DB-92, sun-resistant dust. The electronics randomly quit, not always permanently but more or less in a fashion to render them useless as reliable tools. The sail locker builds a layer of mud and ocean gunk which ripens in the hot sun to a stench that rivals the kitty litter. Your children forget to use a cutting board one day and leave scratches on the counter top, your husband doesn't wipes his hands when changing the oil and leave stains all over the stairs. A pin box explodes and scatters pins everywhere which subsequently rust leaving long pin-sized shadows in odd locations in the cockpit like the outlines of murder victims etched into the white fiberglass floor.

    The only way to combat this inevitable, inexorable process is with an equal, sustained maintenance effort. Every day, a little here... a little there. But no one does this the first year. Actually, there are a few who do. Beach Access does. His boat looks new. I don't know anyone else in their first year of cruising, however, who has managed to get anything constructive done this season, let alone set up a regular, consistent maintenance schedule which fixes as much as the cruising life destroys.

    No... we're all dreadfully far behind. The world is fast destroying our floating homes. We're watching them literally shake themselves apart under our feet and now that the end of the first season approaches, panic is starting to set it. Because frankly, there is no effing way any human alive can catch up. We're in the 14th week of a 16 week semester, and we haven't read any of the course list. We talked the graduate assistant into giving us a passing grad on the mid-term then downloaded 95% of the contents of a mid-semester paper. We can barely remember from one day to the next what time the class meets. With two weeks left, we have to master the economic and political history of Western Europe from 1600 B.C. To 1950 A.D., and we can't remember if the Black Plague came before Joan of Arc or after the invention of the printing press.

    Except it's worse. This floating monstrosity is not only our home; It represents roughly 50% of our net worth. With the market for yachts presently about as active as the market for the toenail clippings of dead fat white guys, we can't sell the boat to pay off debts, revert to a land based life, or otherwise escape the nautical trap into which we dropped our sorry asses. Cruisers who fail to adjust to the reality of their self-destructing floating investments, lose them. The boats sink. This is not a metaphorical literary device to induce sympathy. It is a literal truism.

    I'd rather not go down with the ship, so after hyperventilating, screaming in my pillow for an hour, and indulging in a good cry, I set us up with a schedule. The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. The way to get Don Quixote back in trim is to do a little bit more than a little bit every day. Just as we spent nearly a year not doing enough, we're going to have to spend nearly a year doing just a little bit too much. Mathematically speaking, this should result in a fine cruising vessel with functioning equipment and decently maintained deck by roughly this time next year.

    Better At A Distance
    Better At A Distance
    Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
    Our first week of what I think of as Routine Maintenance Plus went very well. DrC changed the oil and oil filters, fixed the water maker, replaced a fitting on the starboard traveler, and installed the dinghy wheels. I decided to recover the cleanliness and “beauty” of the boat first through reinstituting our “Make It Light” program. The purpose of Make It Light is to both improve boat performance and trim while also controlling crap. Each and every locker and cubby on the boat is periodically emptied, wiped out, inventoried and reorganized. All the tasks in my iGTD Make It Light project were roughly six months over due, but this week I made inroads. I purged and cleansed the medicine cabinet, pantry, under and behind stove, navigation table, salon center seat, under galley sink locker, and master cabin. I also scrubbed the starboard hull since the bottom paint has basically cried Uncle on its attempt to keep the hull free of grass and barnacles.

    It's a start. We can not afford for this renewed maintenance energy to go the way of similarly well-intentioned New Year's Resolutions. It's okay be fat and drunk. It is not okay to be fat, drunk, and sinking.

    Editor's Note: After writing this post, DrC and I got a super deal on a boat cleaning in La Cruz. All the crud was gone in a spasm of work by the fantastic team of Remington and Crew. All hail Manuel Labor! This allows us focus on the real "fixer upper stuff" for the next few months instead of cleaning cleaning cleaning.

    Sunday, April 05, 2009

    Cooking Tip: Weird Foreign Stuff

    This Will Be Good
    This Will Be Good
    Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
    As you are no doubt aware, every Costco is organized in precisely the same way. Membership counter as you walk in the door, electronics and specials on one side, pharmacy, glasses and copy center on the other. Proceed all the way to the back for cold goods and produce then work your way gradually forward. The familiarity of organization, product and layout promotes a sense of comfort to the customer even if – for some bizarre reason – he decides to treat himself to a $1.50 polish hot dog and Coke while on a vacation in Puerto Vallarta. After wedging down the ice cream bar – just couldn't resist at that price – he knows all he has to do is waddle halfway down the store and on the right for the dish and laundry soap.

    Using a similar retail principle, the big supermarket chains in Mexico are interchangeable: C.C.C., Soriana's, Mega, and Commercial Mexican. You can tell that they are owned by the same parent company because the organization and products inside are identical from store to store. Also, they all happen to share an enormous orange and white pelican logo.

    Now, here's the useful bit. Between the abbarotes (produce) section and the carneceria (chicken, beef, and pork) counter at the back of the store, there are several racks of a random assortment of goods. I imagine the conversation goes something like this:

    Juliana (in Spanish of course): What is this?

    Rebbecca (her coworker): I have no idea. Looks like some weird foreign shit. The gringos might like it.

    Juliana: Got it. I'll throw it in the rack by the meat counter.

    Pine nuts, nori, specialty jams, bags of walnuts and cranberry sauce, Italian pasta, Oreo cookies, and rice wine vinegar, olive oil and Krusteaz pancake mix. Large jars of Skippy peanut butter and Romanian cookies, Thai fish sauce, microbrewed beer from Colorado, and seasoned popcorn cakes. It's the most god awful mix of random stuff you'll ever lay eyes on. The selection changes from store to store, from day to day.

    Today's cooking tip is that when you travel in Mexico, you must check the weird foreign section each and every time you go to the store. If you find something you like, buy it in quantity. There is no assurance you will ever see that particular good for sale again anywhere in Mexico. It is for this reason, we currently have twenty packages of nori. I can not regret this otherwise ridiculous hoarding. Who knows what Juliana will do with the seaweed the next time it arrives on the loading dock?

    Wednesday, April 01, 2009

    Fake Mexico

    Playing the Pool
    Playing the Pool
    Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
    As we pull into the Las Hadas anchorage, the girls standing on the bow let out a delighted cry, “Fake Mexico!” Aeron comes running back to the cockpit, “Mommy! I think it's fake Mexico!”

    Fake Mexico is a relief after months on the hook in Zihuatanejo and traveling for over a week through remote parts of real Mexico. What fake Mexico means to the girls is swimming pools, air conditioning, and white, slightly pouchy, North American kids on winter break with their parents. What it means to DrC and I is unlimited fresh water to wash the boat in the morning followed by drinks at a sw up bar in the afternoon. Fake Mexico has green lawns, obsequious waiters who quietly tolerate obnoxious drunks, and no graffiti. The groceries stores go by names like C.C.C. (pronounced say-say-say) and Sorianas, and they all look precisely like WalMart. In fact, the stores are so familiar they even go by names all would recognize such as... yes... WalMart. And Costco, Domino's Pizza, and Burger King.

    There are many reasons we do not spend a great deal of time in fake Mexico, though I'll admit that probably the most important is financial. Fake Mexico costs about the same as Real United States. We had heard about this phenomena even before leaving. Apparently, fake Mexico used to be considerably cheaper but – perhaps because of NAFTA, perhaps because the Mexicans have just figured it all out – goods in fake Mexico are basically the same price as your average bar, mall or hotel up North. Now if you are one of those folks who can afford to live at a hotel 24/7, then pricing in fake Mexico won't pose a problem. Cruisers on a budget, however, need to be more frugal with the cruising kitty and so spend more time in real Mexico where the food and fuel budget drop by at least half.

    Another problem with fake Mexico is that it misses the entire point of traveling aboard. You can't really tell the difference between a bar in fake Mexico and one in San Diego or Miami. I say those cities deliberately because I sometimes think more Spanish is spoken in Miami or San Diego than in Nuevo Vallarta or Las Hadas. You could spend a week in Ixtapa and never go to a taco stand or mercado. You can pull up to the dock in Mazatlan, spend a month in El Cid, and never experience the zocolo, see the cow carcasses hanging from the rafters of a carneceria or browse through a fabric warehouse. Even the décor feels more like a Disneyland interpretation of ancient Mexico then anything you would find in the villages, towns, and incredibly busy cities of the real country.

    One of the more surreal aspects of fake Mexico are the licensed street vendors selling tchotkies and mementos along the water front. If you spend any time in real Mexico, a quick browse of the wares at the hotels reveals both their very low quality and premium pricing. Real Mexican markets involve haggling, competition, and cacophony. Contrasted with sun burnt visitors quietly picking over the goods of one or two sellers, it feels as though all the energy and vitality has been bled out of the system leaving only a pale, hollow echo.

    I want to shout at these travelers, “Get out of the hotel! Go to town!” A 5 peso bus ride and 20 minutes will put you in the heart of Manzanillo, Mazatlan, or Zihuatanejo. The goods you see here are pathetic, limited, and expensive. In town, you'll find literally hundreds of shops and vendors, the streets so full of commerce and a spirit of entrepreneurial energy, the money will just leap out of your pocket in exchange for incredibly fresh fruit, large glasses of cold jugo, vibrant shirts, plates, and rugs.

    Real Mexico
    Real Mexico
    Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
    But despite our scorn for fake Mexico, sometimes we flee into it as a vacation from our cruising life. Real Mexico is dirty, hot, and hard work. The streets are cobblestone or dirt, graffiti covers the walls, and it's hard to make ourselves understood. It's loud and smoky, busy and crowded, and it often smells. Probably most significantly, all the marinas are in fake Mexico. So if we want to dock up for water, provisioning, or simply a night of not moving, we have to step out of reality. We're forced to compromise, spend the money for a tie up, and slip into the creations of Singlar and Fontanur.

    Terrible compromise that is... sometimes we just have to swim up to the bar if we want a beer.