Sunday, August 21, 2016

Bula!
By Michael
TAVEUNI, FIJI


Dogs in front of a Savusavu market.
Damn, I thought to myself when we first arrived in Fiji, how do all these people get stuck wearing the wrong size flip-flops? Men, women, and children alike all wear flip-flops, always the cheapest thinnest-soled kind—the ones they sell in the drug store for $1.99. But on Fijian feet—and I remember seeing the same thing in the Samoas—every pair is just way too small. The tips of toes hang over the flip-flop fronts and soles disappear under bare heels. A size 7 shoe is the same price as a size 9, so it can’t be a money thing.

The other day, walking down Savusavu’s waterfront street in the rain, wearing my generous-sized Tahitian flip-flops, I felt the little water droplets filled with street grime flicking up onto the backs of my calves with every step. My questions disappeared. All the calves of the Fijians around me were clean. Damn, I gotta trim my flip flops.

Fiji is turning out to be an interesting place (for more reasons than the flip-flop conundrum). We’re rather enjoying it. The population seems to be an equal mix of afro-haired Melanesians and Indians. But they’re all Fijian. The Indians arrived generations ago and one man I spoke with said he is no more familiar with India then I am with Ireland/Sweden. But the difference between the Fijian Indians and melting-pot Americans like me, is that the Indian culture is preserved here among Fijian Indians who have never been to India and have no plans to go. Religion, language, and dress are all unmistakably Indian. I can choose from several brands and sizes of ghee in every store and turmeric and masala is sold by the kilo. We ride on buses owned by a company called Vishnu and the pirated-DVD stores are filled with Bollywood titles.

I asked the same Indian gentleman about relations between the Indians and native Fijians. Contrary to my limited understanding of politics here, he said there are no problems. He said that inter-racial relationships are not unheard of, but that they aren’t common. I asked if either group is relegated to a lower class. He said no. Then he said that native Fijians don’t keep their houses clean like the Indians keep their houses.

Fiji is inexpensive for cruising sailors, and not just compared to the rest of the South Pacific. We’re currently sitting on a mooring in front of a plush resort. The mooring is free and we have full access to all of the resort amenities. We got our 10-gallon propane tank filled in Savusavu for US$6.50. There were a dozen Indian food restaurants around Savusavu and the plates are a great value. The four of us enjoyed one excellent sit-down Indian dinner with rice, curries, roti, and drinks for US$15--total. At the awesome Waitui Marina in Savusavu, we twice stuffed ourselves on the all-you-can-eat Indian buffet for US$7.50 per person (cheaper for the girls). The pumpkin curry and dahl and roti were out of this world.

Well, those Nazis really did quite a job
stigmatizing the swastika. It's a prime
symbol in Hinduism. These ornaments
were for sale for the Raksha Bandhan
festival (informally called Rakhi)
that was celebrated a few days
ago. It's a celebration of the love and
duty that exists in a brother-sister
relationship. The Hindus and Jains
both celebrate it, but so do secular folks.
Remarkably, I can say that every person we’ve met in three weeks in Fiji has been genuinely friendly and welcoming and accommodating. Parts of this country were devastated by Cyclone Winston this past season, and the effects are still evident, all around. Rebuilding is in full swing and from an arriving visitor’s perspective, among a people of an economy that depends on tourism, I have the sense everyone is sincerely pleased that we are here, that they recognize the import of ensuring the few visitors who are here, return home with positive reports from Fiji.

So what’s bad about this place? Well, it’s the dead of winter and we’ve had very few clear, sunny days since we arrived. (I feel badly for the few fly-in tourists we’ve seen who’ve spent their 10-day resort vacations in the rain and drizzle.) But apparently, this spat of inclement weather is unusual. I can report that the check-in fees are steep (just under US$200) and the process was more demanding than most countries we’ve visited. In fact, a week before we arrived, we were required to fill out a dozen-page form and send a copy of it—along with a photo of Del Viento and a photocopy of my passport—to Fijian Customs. Then, upon arriving, we had Customs, Immigration, Health, and Bio-Security officials aboard before we could go ashore. Then we had to later rendezvous in town at the offices of all but immigration to pay. Additionally, we are technically required to report our whereabouts weekly. But we’re used to the paper chase and we take it in stride.

We’ll be here for a spell, so stay tuned for reports and photos from Fiji. It’s a good place to be.

--MR
Hours after completing a 5-day passage from Samoa,
Customs (l) and immigration (r) officials boarded to
begin the check-in paperwork. Health and biosecurity
officials followed. Everyone was friendly and efficient.
Waitui isn't a marina per se, but a club house with a
dinghy dock, bar, showers, laundry, and restaurant.
Something about the building's aesthetic reminds
Windy and both of Alaska. Jolene, the manager,
provides the best customer service in the
entire Pacific. And she is a nice person.
Fiji Bitter is so far the best beer of the Pacific.


Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Same and Different
By Michael
SAVUSAVU, FIJI


I don't know the name of this fall and pool
in American Samoa, our friends Matt
and Brittany took us on a hike here for
a refreshing day. I'm about to jump in.
We’ve been singing the praises of American Samoa since we first arrived there a year ago and found a place and people who contradicted everything we’ve heard about, “the Americanized cesspool of the South Pacific.” We loved the place. We still do. We returned again on our way to Fiji.

When we first arrived in Apia, the big city in the other Samoa, we described the country to our friends as, “More American than American Samoa.” There was a McDonalds in Apia too, and a larger population; a snazzy marina with new docks made in Bellingham, Washington, and fringed with nightclubs; a bunch of tourists and the taxis to serve them; and prohibitions against anchoring and other restrictive rules.

We didn’t stay long in Samoa, but we didn’t leave before we got past our first impressions and came to appreciate the place more. We met people and we got a couple hours out of town, by car.

Samoans (formerly Western Samoans) and American Samoans are a common people divided only by a political border. From my lay perspective, it seemed to me that American Samoans had not abandoned elements of their culture for their American identity. They still speak Samoan, they still live on communal lands under the jurisdiction of a chief, they still wear lava-lavas, they still bury their relatives in a crypt in front of their homes. All true, but in Samoa we saw a contrast in culture and identity that allowed us to appreciate the differences.

Driving outside the city of Apia, we were struck by the care and attention paid to landscaping outside of modest homes. (I’m describing a structure built hastily of scrap wood and sheet metal with the knowledge that it will need to be rebuilt after the next hurricane. Doors and windows do not warrant their expense.) Many of these properties are surrounded by landscaping that was designed and maintained with exquisite care. There is a cultural impetus behind this that we learned about in American Samoa, but which I strained to see evidence of there. Apparently, although all property is communal, the appearance of the landscaping in front of a man’s home is a strong reflection of his character and status. This was obvious and dramatic in Samoa.

Another Samoan (and South Pacific) cultural aspect is the fale, a domed, pillared structure without walls that is iconic. People call them sleeping rooms and meeting places. They are all over American Samoa, in all shapes and sizes near people’s homes and not apparently used often. They appeared to me as empty monuments to tradition, perhaps widely used before TV and AC.

In Samoa, the fales were just as prevalent, and appeared to be in daily use. Woven mats of pandanus leaves covered floors on which children played and women worked. Cots and bedding were neatly arranged in many.

That’s all, just small observations between the two Samoas. I absolutely felt a kinship in American Samoa; perhaps that was the allure to a traveler who has been out of country for so long. And every single American Samoan we’ve met has been friendly. But they are indeed more like us than their more numerous brothers and sisters, just 80 miles away—but not so many worlds apart.

--MR
Okay, so this is Le Sua, one of two joined, collapsed
lava tubes that lead to the ocean and that make a great
swimming hole about 2 hours by car outside of Apia, Samoa.
I know you have no perspective, but that's a small
beach on the bottom. See another perspective below.

And this is the adjacent To Sua. The dark patch at the
top is the lava tube to the ocean. You can swim through
at low tide. Not the two swimmers climbing down
the final ladder.

Here's a closer view of To Sua. See the line strung
across at water level? That is a help for holding on against
the strong, surging current.

Recall the beach in Le Sua, here it is
from inside the tube--that's Windy and
Frances.

The park that features the lava tubes also has
a sandy grotto near lava pools on the beach.

Eleanor poking around the lava-molded pools.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Melanesia Made
By Michael
SAVUSAVU, FIJI


Frances swings from the chair while we motor,
just 90 minutes before landfall in Fiji. She's
hoping for another dolphin encounter from
this vantage.
Our Fuji is now in Fiji. This is to say we’ve completed our 5-day passage from Apia, Samoa, that we’re no longer in the Western Hemisphere, that we’re no longer in Polynesia. All kinds of newness for Del Viento and her crew.

It was a good passage, in stark contrast to our sail last month from Ha’apai, Tonga, to Pago Pago, American Samoa. The Tonga-American Samoa passage was unpleasant, such is to be expected when trying to make easterly progress using the South Pacific trades. But this trip—oh this trip—there is nothing unpleasant about using the South Pacific trades to go west.

My long night watches were blissful. Without strain or protest from Del Viento, without spiteful spray thrown from the sea to the cockpit, we simply rolled gently, urged along mile after mile by a steady breeze from the aft quarter. The Southern Cross kept me company off to port, meteorites streaked all around, and each night, in the dark wee hours, the golden, waning crescent moon rose slowly from the aft horizon.

Sometime in the early evening on the third day, Windy surprised me when she appeared in the companionway. “I thought you were sleeping,” I said, fumbling for the iPod, to pause the audio, to ask her what was up. She was now in the cockpit not looking at me, her brow furled, peering into the dusk abeam and forward. “What is it?”

“I heard something.”

“Heard what?”

“Squeaking. Through the hull. Dolphins.”

“I don’t think you’d hear them through the hull, and I haven’t seen any.”

In fact, our dolphin encounters in the South Pacific have been rare. While sightings of all kinds of cetaceans were common in Mexico—so common they even occasionally failed to draw crew up from the cabin or forward from the cockpit—we’ve lately gone months between sightings.

This was dawn on our last day; the wind
pushed us for 5 days, then ceased. Note
rain drops on the water. This was taken
as the Fijian dolphins danced at the bow.
“Hmm. It was weird, just like dolphins, that squeaking.”

“Maybe it’s just the mast partners—eeee-kk eeeee-kk—as we roll slightly.”

“No, it was like dolphins.”

Two minutes after she returned below, a huge dolphin leapt 6 feet out of the water just 20 feet abeam of the cockpit.

“Dolphins!” I yelled.

She and girls all scrambled back out the companionway like puppies pushing each other through a dog door at the sound of food.

“A huge one--you were right--just jumped out of the water, right here.” The water was still. I was on my feet, looking for more.

“Are you making fun of me?”

Then there were more.

“They don’t have beaks, their heads are round.”

For about 5 minutes, we all watched a small pod of large, dark-gray dolphins streaked under the bow. They weren’t staying to check us out, it seemed we were just on their path to someplace else. Two more of them cleared the water in flying leaps, giving us a good look. We later identified them as either Pygmy Killer Whales or Melon-headed Whales.

Then, on our last day of the passage, Eleanor’s voice came shrill through the hatch over my berth at 0600. “Pops, wake up! You’ve got to come up and see these dolphins, swimming right through the rainbow that’s a complete circle!”

I stood up through the hatch, facing aft, my nose on the glass. “I don’t see them.”

“No! Turn around, you’ve gotta come up!”

I grabbed my camera and got up to the foredeck. A small pod of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins was playing at our bow. We were moving so slowly that we all wondered what could be so fun about our wake. But they stayed. The girls said they’d already been there for more than 30 minutes before they woke me. 30 minutes! That’s a Del Viento record.

--MR
Eleanor took this with her iPod.

And she took this, a selfie. The girls love seeing dolphins again.
That's Frances on the bow seat below her.


So I shot this video during the passage. It's pretty poor technically and not very exciting, but hopefully gives you a sense of our days on the sea.


Saturday, July 23, 2016

Boatschooling in Session!
By Michael
APIA, SAMOA

Our cruising friend, Matt, now
lives in American Samoa and
gave Eleanor and Frances surfing
lessons. On two different days,
they paddled out. Eleanor really took to
it and says she wants to do more in Fiji.
The prospect of educating one’s own children is daunting for many parents who want to cast off with their kids. We’ve learned that every family does it differently. Behan, Sara, and I researched the varied approaches to homeschooling and covered them in Voyaging with Kids. We also covered the legal stuff. I’m going to talk here about what we’ve done, what we’re doing, and how it’s all been going since we embarked on this cruising life aboard Del Viento. 

We started homeschooling our girls almost 2 years before we left D.C. They were then ages 3 and 5 and schooling wasn’t a big stretch academically, but I think the experience gave us a sense of competence. Engaging with a local homeschooling cooperative and being surrounded by other homeschooling parents and homeschooled kids, for us normalized the reality of our new roles as parent-teacher. When we quit our jobs, closed on the house, and drove away with a trailer full of boat stuff, we counted ourselves lucky not to have to deal also with a schooling transition.

Windy’s not a teacher and I’m not a teacher. We are college educated. But I don’t think our educations or the fact that we’re not teachers means a hill of beans with regard to our ability to homeschool our kids. In our experience, and for many others we've known, homeschooling challenges are rarely academic in nature, but more often about personalities clashing, about temperaments, about expectations.

Okay, the academics.

For many topics, learning happens organically through a conversation on the bus, or at the dinner table, or while hanging out with friends. Every day one of us breaks out the dictionary, an atlas, or offline Wikipedia. Our kids naturally gravitate to the humanities, especially reading, writing, and art, so our job there is mostly limited to keeping new books and notebooks and art supplies available. We consider this natural learning to be ideal, and we’re content to act as facilitators, or at the very least, to get out of the way.
Eleanor getting ready to paddle out.

For the rest of their learning, for subjects such as math for which we have an expectation of progress along a continuum, our approach has been more structured.

Officially, the girls are responsible for five subjects each day, Monday through Friday. Weekends are free, assuming they've completed their workweek work. Instruction generally happens earlier in the day, but no mind is paid to the clock—it’s up to each kid to get started and sustain momentum. (The girls are keen to keep most of each day and weekends free for themselves, so with that motivation, one of them has learned to drive herself forward and resist distraction, the other is climbing that hill.)

That sounds very regimented, but we always keep an eye open to the real world and to our interest in the places we visit and the people we meet. Practically, this means there are many days the girls are excused from a normal day’s schooling. For example, during passages there is no structured school (audiobooks are a lifesaver for fighting boredom and seasickness). And of course the location-specific opportunities our lifestyle offers are one of the reasons we are out here. We recently spent a couple of days with friends in American Samoa learning to sail Optimists. In Tonga, the girls practiced free diving. And now that we’re in Apia, Samoa, they are learning about Robert Louis Stevenson in preparation for seeing his gravesite on Monday.

We have on board an evolving collection of textbooks, workbooks, iPad apps, novels, games, and craft supplies for the more structured schooling. At the moment, Frances is making her way through Singapore Math books while Eleanor learns from the Doodlemath and Xtramath apps on an iPad, and Khan Academy online. Frances is working through a multiple-subject BrainQuest workbook. Windy quizzes Eleanor from a similarly themed deck of BrainQuest cards. For the past 8 months, Eleanor has been teaching herself Japanese, using primarily TextFugu online. Frances is working on a puppet show that tells the story of the Ramayana, building paper puppets from Thailand her aunt gave her. The girls enjoy competing against each other in spelling bees Windy hosts frequently, drawing words from lists of those commonly misspelled. Next week is likely to look a bit different.
Can you spot Frances on an American
Samoa beach?

There is not a whole lot more to report. It’s been much the same for the past few years and I think it will be much the same for as long as we keep cruising (though Eleanor is increasingly self-directed in her learning and I expect that trend to continue, and for Frances as well).

Still daunted? Remind yourself that the day you became a parent, you automatically assumed primary responsibility for your child’s education—even if you had them enrolled in a conventional school. You were, and continue to be, responsible for all that we can’t leave it to schools to teach, the other stuff, the stuff that is even more important than academics. Like modeling positive social interactions, like showing what kindness and decency looks like in our day-to-day world, like staying inquisitive and interested in learning new things, like giving time to your kid and others when it’s needed, like all the practical lessons like learning to change the oil in the family car. You were your child’s first teacher and you remain their only continuous teacher, whether on land or at anchor. Remember that and academic studies can be seen as the straightforward knowledge acquisition they are.

I’m happy to answer any questions about our boatschooling experiences (just send an email or leave a comment), but I don’t know how much value our experience offers. It’s just what’s worked for us. But hopefully our history is affirming to anxious parents planning to go cruising. I will add that obviously homeschooling is not wine and roses for every family—and not always for us. I think it’s important to be flexible and to keep in mind that any stress you bring to the learning environment (perhaps from a concern that your kid is falling behind) will not be conducive to making progress. Just do your best, cut yourself slack, and give yourself time to see if things are working and then be open to trying new things.

That’s it from Del Viento, where the men are good looking and the kids are above average.

--MR

P.S.—My friend Behan aboard Totem just published a spot-on post about the socialization concern people have about cruising kids, the other big question we get from non-cruising parents and relatives and pretty much everyone else not out here with us. The subject raises Behan’s hackles—check out her feisty response.

Frances waxing her board.

Eleanor emerging from the tube.

This kind of learning happens periodically. I'll get a thought
in my head like, "Do my girls know what a lock washer is and
how it works?" Which will lead to a structured class
on all the types of fasteners and what they're used for.

Frances walking her steed in after a sailing lesson in American Samoa.
The girls can identify more fish and sea creatures than I
knew existed at their age.

Monday, July 11, 2016

On Water
By Michael
PAGO PAGO, AMERICAN SAMOA


On the hunt for raisins or some other Unobtainable
while in Tonga and other places, we often catch
ourselves imagining the bounty of a Stateside
grocery store. "We could get anything if we
were only in the States." But it ain't true.
It's just that we could get any of the things
we're used to. Does Safeway carry milk
flavored sunflower seeds, for example?
There are few ways of living that focus a person’s attention on resource consumption as sharply as cruising. Our boat is a very small island. At sea or at anchor, we are not connected to any inexhaustible supply of power or fresh water. Our power trickles in by sunlight. We collect rainwater or bring water aboard from shore in 5-gallon jerry cans. Our capacity to store either of these primary resources is finite. Accordingly, aboard Del Viento we consume power and water in a manner that would make any Earth Day activist seem profligate in comparison.

“Mom, can we watch that 'Project Runway' DVD after dinner?”

“Uh, no. The laptop battery is low and I don’t want to turn on the inverter—it was just too cloudy today.”

“Okay.”

“Whose turn is it to do dishes tonight?”

“Mine”

“Okay, be sure to use salt water for washing and just spritz with the fresh, okay? It’s supposed to rain later this week and then we’ll fill the tanks.”

For all the time we spent cruising between Mexico and Alaska, we lived differently than the populations ashore. That’s to be expected; our land-based friends couldn’t function the way we do, and why would they want to? But when we sailed to the South Pacific, we found people living on their own small islands, bigger than the island of Del Viento, but with similar resource constraints. Power often dribbled in from solar panels and small, community generators. On many islands, every home and business captured rainwater from rooftops and diverted it to cisterns. At least the latter was the case until we arrived at American Samoa.

I’ve roamed far from the port town of Pago Pago and I’ve yet to see a single structure with a rainwater collection system. The failure to capture rainwater on this island reaches a level of absurdity that rivals Heller’s descriptions of war in Catch-22.

There is a mountain on this island nicknamed The Rainmaker and in fact, the port of Pago Pago receives more annual rainfall than any port on Earth. There is a government works department (American Samoa Power Authority, or ASPA) that drills and drills and drills water wells on the island. They don’t stop because much of the water they tap is immediately contaminated with sewage (from broken underground sewer pipes) or salt. They also don’t stop because the underground water main pipes leak so badly, and increasingly, that more wells are needed to make up for the water that is lost. Because the cost of digging up and repairing the main pipes is prohibitive, it’s cheaper to keep drilling. And after all this, the water that’s piped to homes is not safe to drink. 60,000 residents buy drinking water in plastic bottles or fill containers at machines that vend purified water.

All this while rain keeps falling from the sky.

But there’s more!

Residents are billed monthly in a way that encourages consumption. They pay a flat fee and then just pennies for usage. The monthly bill for a household that uses 1,000 gallons is only slightly lower than that for a household that uses 5,000 gallons.

Why is this island so different than its neighbors?
Hiking around the beaches of
Ha'apai, Tonga, we found hundreds
of clusters of these snails, all waiting
for high tide to return.

I’m sad to report that it’s the American way. When we colonized this place in the early 1900s, we sent our best engineers here to create the infrastructure that is the norm for folks on the continent. This ain’t the continent.

And maybe there is a lesson here.

After all, the continent ain’t homogenous. Perhaps what works on the East Coast of the U.S. should not have been mimicked on the West Coast.

In my Southern California hood there is a drought, a significant and prolonged one. There’s been much talk about the recent El Nino event and the rain it delivered and the snow it deposited, but that’s no salvation, it’s just a drop in the proverbial bucket. Southern California’s had a water crisis for a long time. I remember in the late 70s going to restaurants with my family and being served water only if we asked. This was then a new thing and saved not just the water in the glass, but the water necessary to wash that glass, as the widely-broadcast public service announcements of the time taught us all. And we put bricks in our toilet tanks, began watering the lawn after sundown, and stopped hosing off the driveway.

And here we are in the teens, now in the 21st century, and the ever-growing Los Angeles megalopolis is still a massive concrete basin that efficiently routes all rainwater down storm drains and into the ocean. Rain barrels are still a quaint novelty. Central valley aquafers are being pumped dry as though they are a sustainable resource.

From my little cruising boat island, it all seems out of whack.

I recently read a New York Times story about water usage in California, particularly about how fines imposed by water districts to promote conservation were ineffective. The lead paragraph caught my attention. It described the water consumption of a conservation-minded household in Apple Valley, so that it could be contrasted with a Bel Air residence with 2 pools, a waterslide, and 12 bathrooms.

Outside her two-story tract home in this working-class town, Debbie Alberts, a part-time food service worker, has torn out most of the lawn. She has given up daily showers and cut her family’s water use nearly in half, to just 178 gallons per person each day.

Stop right there.

“…178 gallons per person each day.

Per person, I’ll give her 8 gallons per day for toilet flushing, another 10 for a shower, a gallon for drinking, 4 gallons for dish washing and food prep, 10 for laundry. I’ve probably left stuff out, but that’s only 33 gallons. So I’ll give her 75 gallons per day, per person; that seems generous if she’s ripping out her lawn and trying to conserve. And yet her family uses more than twice that. And they’re in conservation mode, previously using at least 300 gallons per person, per day.

Does this make sense?

Maybe to Yossarian, not to this cruiser.

--MR

Beachcombing, Ha'apai, Tonga.

More beachcombing in Ha'apai, Tonga.

Frances hanging out under a pandanus tree

Windy and Eleanor watching their bounty, waiting for
movement. Often a shell that looks empty, that you'd
swear was empty, turns up with a too-small hermit crab
inside. Better to find out now than having to embark on
a repatriation mission at what is always the worst possible
time. "Bad news guys, we can't leave tomorrow, we have
to go back to that beach to put this guy back."

We spent time with the lovely British family that owns and lives
at the Matafonua Resort in Ha'apai. Here are the girls with
the owner's three kids and their aunt. The owners have lived
in 12 countries and these kids speak Tongan and have
three passports each. Globalization baby.

Unknown love birds looking out at Del Viento.
"We should go cruising someday."

My Frances

The two Matafonua girls with ours, jumping off Del Viento
after a sleepover.
Lots of kiteboarding happens at the pass near Matafonua.
(courtesy Marina Mathews of Marina Mathews Photography)

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