Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sea Lice and Book Swaps

28 February 2009 – Havelock #7, Andamans, India.

Ugh. Just when I thought I’d made up my mind about getting off the boat, the day turned spectacular and I want to stay.
Alyssa and I agreed to get up at 6am to snorkel all the way around North Button Island. We not only saw the school of the biggest fish we’ve ever seen, but also felt accomplished for making what proved to be a treacherous journey (it took almost two hours of constant swimming and we were devoured by sea lice nearly half the time.

We set sail at 9am for a return to Havelock #7, marking a return to civilization after several days on deserted islands. John taught us to find our bearing and plot our course manually using the paper chart (circa 1988), a vintage protractor, pair of dividers and parallel ruler. I loved it. After a 7-hour sail, we arrived at Havelock #7 and were the third yacht to anchor (last time here we were the only yacht). We took the dinghy to shore and got chai teas from our usual place. Alyssa and I reunited with beautiful Lia from Austria (and a new couple - Spanish woman, English man) for drinks at a “posh” restaurant in a hut near the beach. When John picked us up, we dinghied over to a pretty little catamaran named Zorba and climbed aboard for drinks with its owners, Mark & Julie. They’re a young French couple who lived in Thailand for a year before moving onto the catamaran last September. They’ll be trailing two weeks behind us to Maldives (they’ll stop in Sri Lanka on the way), Chagos and Madagascar. Our paths should cross for a little while in Chagos. There’s another boat anchored here at Havelock 7 – a gigantic zillion dollar motor yacht named Maverick. We haven’t stumbled upon meeting the crew, but there’s always tomorrow. John was not so keen to meet the “big boat” and suggested that visits are likely invitation only.

Another exciting discovery today was that one of the restaurant huts runs a little book swap. We’ve been plotting to find a bookstore in Port Blair so we can stock up for 6 weeks in Chagos. Turns out the book swap won’t sell the books, will only swap them, so I had to negotiate heartily for the privilege of paying 300 rupees for Life of Pi. John has agreed to let us trade some of his paperbacks for new used books tomorrow.

I’ve decided that while the trip will always be difficult, it will always present unexpected and exhilarating experiences. I notice Linbaba never complains about his adventures in Shantaram:

…but I soon learned that those obscure, unplanned journeys were invariably worthwhile, frequently interesting and enjoyable, and quite often important. Little by little, I learned to relax, and submit, and trust my instincts, just as I was doing with Khaderbhai. I never regretted it, and I was never once hurt or disappointed ...”

But was he ever irritated?

posted by not ali

I will draw the charts...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Van Gogh's Fishing Boats

Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries

26 February 2009 – Anchored at North Button Island, Andamans, India.

Mid morning we motored for about 45 minutes from Middle Button to North Button and found no sign of human life yet again. These islands were surely named because they resemble tiny buttons of land protruding from the sea.

Today was uneventful other than that I’ve convinced myself to get off the boat in Port Blair next week. I’ve had too much sun exposure, am dehydrated, and I destroyed my eyes by wearing old contacts to snorkel yesterday. I’m tired of paradise. I inadvertently brought with me from Texas a little bookmark I bought at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam last year – which coincidentally happens to be a tiny print of Fishing Boats on the Beach. This is the first and only work of art I’ve seen in twenty days…and it seemed more beautiful to me than the endless view of beaches I wake up to daily. So, grumpily, I stayed in today, avoiding the sun, reading Shantaram and planning what I’ll do if I get off this boat. I think I’m in the mood for Bangkok.

Meanwhile, Alyssa embraced the day, testing Nat’s fishing pole for the first time and catching one squid. Squid look like black fish underwater and when you catch them they squirt black ink all over the place. While I was at the helm steering us to North Button, Nat brought me the blue bucket with the squid floating in it and asked, “it dead? it dead?” I looked sympathetically at the motionless little creature, “I don’t know, Nat. If it’s not dead it’s at least really, really depressed.” Later I saw Nat holding the squid up to John, smiling and pointing to it one tiny quarter-piece at a time saying “this Ali, this Alyssa, this you, this me… dinner…hahahaha” and her laugh made me happy because she really enjoys the funny things….also I’ve never heard her say all our names together before. Sure enough, she did make a spicy noodle salad with squid and it did feed all of us – along with papadoms made from a tiny canister she bought in Port Blair – which seems to fascinate her. This is her first time in India and I’ve noticed her studying all the food, inspecting it to figure out how she can make it herself. This afternoon she dissected a pomegranate Penny bought and twice asked me the name of it. I know I’ve said this before, but it is nothing short of amazing that Nat makes different meals for us three times a day. This morning over brekky, John told us his brother-in-law once described the menu on a three day sea passage as, “on the first day we ate sandwiches, on the second day we ate stale sandwiches, and on the third day we ate toasted sandwiches.” So I decided to be grateful for Nat, who never feeds us stale sandwiches.

Meanwhile, Linbaba in Shantaram endured a tremendously uncomfortable ordeal to get to Prabakar’s village where he lay down on the poor farmer’s bed, and [his] first night in that first Indian village ended, as it had begun, with surrender. But you know what? Linbaba is a much better person than I. I just don’t think I can surrender to this.

I’ll have to decide in a few short days.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bubble & Squeak

25 February 2009 – Middle Button Island, the Andamans, India.

I guess I should mention something about the tropical paradise - it’s wonderful, no doubt about it. The sky is blue, the water is bluer, and the beaches are pristine. We snorkel twice a day. It’s spectacular in the way that cannot be captured in photographs or described in words, and so I won’t even try.

Emotionally some parts of the trip are grand and I could do them forever. I love waking up in what John calls “another paradise” each day – often a different island than the day before. Even more, I loved sailing from Thailand to India, where four days at sea delivered us into the bustling Indian city of Port Blair, with sari clad women and the occasional lazy cow sauntering through busy, honking traffic. Those are the great bits, but other days are not so great. Everything in life is a trade-off, and this journey through “paradise” is no exception. Yesterday was great – the setting along the deserted island was magnificent, Alyssa and I swam to a tiny beach and got to know one another better now that Penny and Fuzz are gone. The mood was light, the four of us were relaxed and we ate, for dinner, Nat’s delicious Mongrel Mix. Noticing there was plenty food left for another meal, Alyssa suggested “bubble and squeak” for breakfast, an Australian dish of leftovers pan-fried into pancake patties. Nat smiled big and said, “okay, you cook you cook.” So today, we had bubble and squeak – leftovers of yesterday. Paradise is like that sometimes - some days are like being in paradise for the first time, and other days it feels like hey, weren’t we here yesterday? That’s when the conversations are repetitive, the heat is hotter, the SPF 50 is gloppier and the loo is grimier. And so today, for me, was bubble & squeak.

After brekky, we made our way through the narrow strait from Henry Lawrence Island to Middle Button Island and I listened to Cheap Trick, remembering how much we loved getting those packages in the mail of free promotional albums from Uncle Paul in the 1970s. Then, when the song came on, I recalled how, for about two years, I really listened to the words and started trying to apply Cheap Trick’s directive to surrender, but don’t give yourself away. All day I wondered whether I’m really going to surrender to this and carry on to the Maldives, or if I’m going to jump ship in Port Blair just a few days from now. Then, just before sunset, I read in Shantaram, where Karla says to Linbaba, “tomorrow when you go to Prabakar’s village, try to relax completely, and go with the experience. Just…let yourself go. Sometimes, in India, you have to surrender before you win.”

Well, I’ve been in India 8 days, so maybe it’s time for me to surrender? I’m not so sure I can.

Mommy’s alright, daddy’s alright. They just seem a little weird.
Surrender, surrender, but don’t give yourself away.

-Cheap Trick

posted by Ali's U.S. ambassador

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Shantaram - 24, February 2009-Anchored at Henry Lawrence, Andamans, India

I woke at 6am, took my yoga mat out on deck and succeeded at only one sun salutation on the rocking boat before submitting to meditation – which lasted only minutes before my mind rattled about whether or not to get off this boat. I didn’t expect this trip to be easy so I’m not surprised I’m struggling. I just couldn’t conceive of how it would be difficult. I have a great a cushy indulgent Plan B that tempts me constantly. I suppose, though, that I understood the highs of sailing across the Indian Ocean would be at trade off with the lows, so if I went a more moderate route, I’d miss out on what set me sailing in the first place. What are the good things? The total disconnect from society, the absence of the internet and television, the beautiful locales, the snorkeling, sleeping in a rocking boat is the best I’ve ever slept, John insists on fresh ginger tea daily, John’s patience and kindness, Nat’s delicious Thai meals, the general easy going nature of everyone onboard, the new friendships, the drifting feeling of moving across the globe slowly, the undemanding yet persistent exposure to sailing and navigation, the repetition, reading without diversion, the excitement of social changes, the long slow days of thinking, and the total immersion into something out of my control. Oh, but wait, that last part about control is the reason I’m going completely fucking mad.

A bit later:

We’ve just had lunch and Alyssa and I are relaxing in the shade under the tarp between the main and head sails. Lunch was Mongrel Mix (a pot of delicious leftovers from the last few days) and fried bananas. Alyssa and I snorkeled for the longest time. I think I’m going to stay on this damn boat with her because I like her. Also, she’s finished Shantaram so I started reading it today and found this on page 43:

“And I was a writer…I’d just begun to establish myself…when my marriage collapsed, I lost custody of my daughter and I lost my life in drugs, crime, imprisonment, and escape. But even as a fugitive, writing was still a daily custom and part of my instinctual routine. Even there, in Leopold’s, my pockets were full of notes, scribbled onto napkins, receipts, and scraps of paper. I never stopped writing. It was what I did, no matter where I was or how my circumstances changed. One of the reasons I remember those early Bombay months so well is that, whenever I was alone, I wrote about those new friends and the conversations we shared. And writing was one of the things that saved me: the discipline and abstraction of putting my life into words, every day, helped me to cope with shame and its first cousin, despair.”

Okay, well, I can’t say the difficult thing about this sail trip is shame, or even its first cousin despair. But maybe it’s irritation, and its first cousin frustration. In any case, I happen to be writing a ridiculous amount on a regular basis, so maybe the discipline and abstraction of putting my life into words, every day, will help me to cope.

But for now, back to paradise.

posted by ali's U.S. ambassador

John always says....

John always says yachting means doing maintenance work in paradise. Who would have guessed paradise is set to the sound of power tools.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mango Juice

22 February 2009 - Yacht Millennium anchored at Henry Lawrence Island, Andaman Islands, India. Day #6 in the Andamans.

Today wraps up the first chapter of our journey because Penny and Fiona (“Fuzz”) left our happy little family. I am not sure what I’ll do without Penny, because I’ve come to rely on her humour, wisdom and grace to get me through the hard bits.

The apparent goal of yachties is to anchor in uninhabited areas of natural beauty, so the only reason we anchored outside the little town of Laccam Harbour, was so that Penny and Fuzz could catch the ferry to Port Blair this afternoon. We had an adventure in this harbour town last night, when we dinghied in the dark to the rubbish covered beach and negotiated a jeep to drive us across the island to a “resort” for dinner in a little hut. We drank Hayward’s 5000 Super Strong Beer and toasted our last night together. Our jeep driver had been irritated by our request to be returned to the shore so late in the evening (9pm) and retaliated by not showing up to retrieve us from the dinner hut. Thus, we walked ourselves back through the unlit streets for 40 minutes, dodging the occasional honking motorbike or tut-tut.

This morning we woke to the not-so-pretty view of a handful of fishing boats on the littered shore of the harbour town. Our morning came to life when a wooden boat filled with pre-teen boys approached our yacht and negotiated the loan of all our snorkeling gear. John swam with them to the nearby reef and they were all smiles in our florescent coloured fins and masks against their dark skin and wooden boat. Later, we made our way to shore in search of chai tea and found ourselves at a “restaurant” run by one of the snorkeling boys’ mothers dressed in a bright and billowy red and gold sari.

We were surprised when Sacha, whom we’d met at Havelock #7 two days ago, turned up at the restaurant. Turns out he was searching for us because he wants to join the crew for the Maldives stretch! I’ve been on the fence about staying on the boat for the sea passage to the Maldives and was relieved that the addition of Sacha meant I wouldn’t be deserting a skeleton crew. Or, if I decide to stay, I’d strongly prefer to have another male crew member onboard. So, to be a little strategic, I discreetly approached Sacha and advised him on how to approach John about joining the crew: emphasize clean living, little to no drinking/smoking, no ego, willingness to learn …warned him that John previously declined a guy with tatts and a penchant for extreme sports as well as a gay, self-proclaimed “not-an-alcoholic” social drinker. I was curious to know if Sacha had talked to Lia about our full disclosure about the boat and the quirkiness of the voyage. He had talked to Lia and was undeterred (which means my good friend John R may be right - that our complaints may be bunch of girly whining about cockroaches and a grimy loo. Later Sacha came out to inspect the boat and his only request was that I move into Alyssa’s cabin so he could have my cabin. I obliged with Alyssa’s concurrence.

Still being strategic, I sidled up to John in the cockpit and timidly informed him that I may not continue on to the Maldives so he should factor that into his decision to bring Sacha aboard. Eventually we made our way back to shore, said farewell to Penny and Fuzz at the ferry (so sad!), and returned to the same restaurant for lunch. We ordered a round of Cokes from the boy’s mother in the red and gold sari. She said, “No Coke, would you like mango juice?” Sacha asked, “what about Sprite?” She opened an old-timey refrigerator, which was empty, except for one bottle of mango juice, and said, “Only mango juice. Would you like?”

We sipped our tiny glasses of mango juice while John put Sacha through a similar vetting process that he’d put Penny and me through late last year. What are your favorite hobbies? How much sailing have you done? Do you smoke? What kind of work do you do back in Switzerland? Sacha’s hobbies were outdoorsy – maybe skiing, snowboarding and something about having once been offered a contract to play professional soccer. He’s done some sailing years ago, but modestly assured John he’s forgotten navigation and how to tie knots, so he’s keen to learn it all again. As a matter of fact, he does smoke but would have no problem giving it up for ten days on the journey to Maldives. He’s quit many times before, especially when doing meditation in Thailand. John lit up at the prospect of Sacha being into meditation and explained, as he has to all of us many times, that he likes bringing “enlightened” people together on Millennium so we can learn from one another, meditate in the mornings and enjoy the plentiful supply of enlightenment books on board. Sacha casually mentioned to John that he doesn’t drink much, while throwing a knowing glance in my direction since that was in line with my guidance on clean living. To lighten the air of restriction, I announced to John that I will surely want to drink beer on this ten day sea passage to the Maldives.

The vetting continued and we learned that Sacha is traveling now for a year or two. He works odd jobs like parasailing instructor (maybe ski instructor?) and mostly as a secondary school teacher of subjects like art and shop and science. He travels for long periods because he finds Switzerland to be too closed-minded. He’d love to go to Madagascar and asked about crossing the equator – what I think is called the doldrums and is a stillness that can be quite horrible on a sailboat in the heat.

After lunch, Nat and John went on the hunt to purchase fresh fish since we missed the morning market. Alyssa, Sacha and I walked across the road, stopping in the shade where Sacha immediately lit a cigarette and gave me a sly grin. About ten minutes later we walked the rubbish covered beach to the dingy, stopping to snap photos of a pack of mongrel dogs napping in the shadow of a yellow wooden fishing boat. Sacha made his way over to me and discreetly asked what kind of alcohol he should bring for the passage. Rum? I said anything but whiskey, and breathed a tiny sigh of relief to finally have someone on board with a vice. He’ll meet us in Port Blair on the 1st of March.

I have about six days before we return to Port Blair, where I will have to make the decision whether to carry on to the Maldives or pack my bags and fly to Chennai. Oh but, ugh, I hate packing.

posted by ali's U.S. ambassador

John and the Snorkelers

Laccam Harbour - Farewell to Penny and Fiona

Bye, Penny

Bye, Fuzz

Enter Sacha

Friday, February 20, 2009

Havelock #7

19-20 February 2009 - Yacht Millennium anchored at Havelock #7, Andaman Islands, India. Day #4-5 in the Andamans. Havelock #7 is the only touristy beach in the Andamans.

We anchored at Havelock #7 in the dark, as usual, because we never seem to set sail at the scheduled time (John is teaching us all to go with the flow.) Thus, we’d not seen the beach at all when Penny rousted us from bed shouting “elephants on the beach!” By mid-morning we were having our usual after brekky lazy spell – Penny reading on deck, Alyssa swimming, Fiona walking around in a bikini, Nat nowhere to be found, John making a cupper in the kitchen, and I was probably in my cabin slathering on gobs of SPF 50. It appeared that someone was swimming to our boat from the beach, but we dismissed the idea because we’d anchored so far off shore and no one would do that. Many minutes later, the swimmer got close enough for Fiona to wave him in. I climbed out on deck to invite him in for a cup, um, I mean cupper…and they laughed at my American attempt to use that phrase. Turns out it was the traveler guy we saw at a restaurant our first night in Port Blair. Over tea we learned his name is Chris, he’s 31 and has a gardening business in Bristol, UK, which allows him to travel for two months each year while the grass isn’t growing. He’s a hilarious, fun, outgoing guy and was happy to be onboard to catch his breath and get our story.

Everyone always wants to know our story and they always look a bit dizzy from details as we explain three Australians, a Thai, a Brit from Japan and an American from London… no we didn’t know one another when we climbed aboard in Phuket: John’s the skipper, Nat’s his Thai girlfriend, Fiona sailed with John before, Alyssa knows Fiona, Penny and Ali each found John on the internet (through and flew to Phuket on a vibe. The novelty has worn off for us, but new listeners never cease to be amazed. John takes it all in stride; he’s a quiet guy with no ego, gets the humour but doesn’t make much of a fuss about it. Though one of his favourite jokes is to tell strangers that Nat’s his girlfriend, Penny’s his wife, and the remaining three of us are his daughters.

After tea with Chris the Bristol Gardener, we made our way to the beach to meet the girl with whom he’s traveling. Lia is a gorgeous 30 year old dark haired Austrian girl who has worked for ten years as a flight attendant for Austrian Air on a part time schedule of 7 months on, 5 months off, which she spends traveling all over the world, usually by herself. She and Chris met each other traveling 30 days ago somewhere in India and, as Lia explained in her adorable Austrian accent, they discussed and decided “I am a girl and you are a boy, so let’s go to the Andamans.” They arrived the same day we did so their 15 day permits expire the same day ours do. Chris and Lia had another acquaintance, Olivier, a French athlete with a rock hard body, smoldering blue eyes and an endless supply of flirtatious smiles. Olivier lives in Italy but hopes to move to Japan some day. The entire lot of us made our way up the road to the row of huts of nearly identical restaurants. We ate a big lunch of samosas, chai teas, chapattis and veg thali, after which handsome Olivier rode his bike into the sunset never to be seen again.

We girls spent several hours with our new friends on the beach (John and Nat went back to the boat). Chris amused us by describing his disbelief as he approached Millennium that morning, spotting Penny, then Fiona, then Alyssa and thinking to himself “oh my gosh, a boat full of chicks?!?” Another acquaintance of Chris & Lia’s, a guy named Sacha, came over to join us for the first time. He was unassuming and I didn’t notice him expressing any interest in joining the crew…but Alyssa told me later that he’d approached her while she was surfing earlier that morning and inquired all about the trip. That day, I had only heard Sacha remind Lia she couldn’t leave without him because her bike was chained to his, after which he politely shared a packet of chocolate biscuits among us – which was so nice because there are no food stalls near the beach.
It was a nice long lazy day and we all agreed that the best part of a long sea passage is getting to civilization and meeting new people when you get to the other side.

posted by ali's assistant in the U.S.

Penny & Me at Havelock #7

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Port Blair, Andaman Islands, India (17th Feb)

This is the Usual Suspects line-up for the Indian Coast Guard official photo (we handed them my camera after they shot us with theirs). The crew would surely kill me for sharing this photo because it is not the least bit flattering. Keep in mind we'd been at sea for four days and were attempting to "dress up" for the authorities, i.e. no tanks tops or bathing suits, per the guidance from prior yachties. Once again I'm wearing the flash drive, but I was in charge of the paperwork - and there were seriously volumes of paperwork. I promise to stop wearing it in future photos. But hey, where's my baseball cap?

Similan Islands, Thailand (11-13 February)

Sadly, that's a flash drive hanging around my neck because I was put in charge of all the paperwork to get us into the Andamans. Penny and I spent 8 hours at the computer preparing for the bureaucratic nightmare that lay ahead. It was ridiculous but fun to entertain the India immigration officials, then the customs officials, then the coast guard...all on our boat for several hours the morning after hour arrival. The coast guard made us line up on deck like a criminal line up to take an official photo - after which we asked them to snap one for us with my camera and they obliged. It was hilarious. The photo is too hideous to post...but maybe I'll post it anyway.

Thap Lamu, Thailand (9-10 February)

This is the tiny fishing village on a river. We stopped here to provision before a long day sail to the Similan Islands.

Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand (8th Feb I think)

Chalong Bay, Phuket - Where the Journey Began 6th Feb

The sparrow has landed....

I am in a very dodgy icafe in a back alley off a busy street in Port Blair, so I will make this quick. I'm safe and healthy and all is well. We sailed around Phuket and the Similan Islands longer than expected and didn't set sail for the Andamans until Friday night. There was no wind...while y'all were worried about tsunamis and earthquakes, we were motoring through still waters. The deep sea was wonderful...totally beautiful. There were some rough patches but they were fun and a break from the monotony. (I realize bad seas will be another story altogether.) The deep sea is like floating in heaven because the sky and sometimes white clouds reflect off the water, which looks like metallic blue lava melting into the sky. It's mesmerizing being out there for days with no sight of land. We saw several pods of dolphin. Night watch is grueling and scary if the winds change, but John is always a holler away. We didn't reach the Andamans until midnight last night. Spent most of the day having officials visit the boat (immigration, then customs, then Coast Guard) and now John is on land visiting the harbour master. Yachties from previous journeys warned a sense of humour is a must to get through the beauracracy of entering the Andamans. Finally we dinghied to shore and are making our way around looking for cash and internet. Penny and I may get a hotel tonight for a proper shower, which would be grand. I have lots of photos to share but the flash drive port at the icafe is...well, looks rusted for starters. The keyboard tray is bouncing from loose screws and the keyboard is sticky and this is about all i can manage for now.

I hope to be back at the internet cafe if Penny and I get settled tonight, so maybe you'll hear from me again. If not, we are bouncing around the Andamans for 15 days and will be very well watched by four or five authorities (I haven't mentioned the wildlife warden) don't worry about us! Sailing around the islands is a breeze and there's nothing at all to worry about. I'm still contemplating the next leg to the Maldives because Penny and Fiona get off here and John was hoping to bring another guy on but that guy is finding it impossible to get to the Andamans. It really is next to impossible to get here but promises to be paradise once we get out of busy Port Blair, which is exactly like the other parts of India i've seen...not sure why I was expecting something different.
So that's all for now. Miss y'all so much and wish we could talk!
posted by Ali's personal assisstant in the U.S.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

the world's foremost Proust scholar

11 February 2009 – Similan Islands, Thailand. We have been on the boat now for several days (since the 6th) but our first big day of sailing was just yesterday. The night of the 6th we motored south from Chalong Bay around the southern tip of Phuket and anchored at Hat Nai Harn. We slept there two nights then sailed a long day sail up to Thap Lamu, a tiny fishing village just south of the Burmese border. Penny would tell you it was awful – an ugly river with mossies biting, but I enjoyed seeing the colourful fishing boats and couple of small naval ships. Penny and I walked through town and indulged in cold cokes at the Navy Wives Club while John and Nat got more food and fuel and filled a diving tank. That must have been yesterday, the 10th, after which we set sail for the big trip to the Similans, 9 uninhabited islands due west of Thap Lamu. It was our first long sail and marked the official beginning of our journey. We lost sight of shore for several hours and arrived at the Similans in the dark. It was another new experience to find the mooring in the pitch blackness, with only a little direction from a small boat full of loud “Frenchies”. The darkness concealed the fact that we’d arrived in paradise, so this morning was quite a treat – sun coming up over the clear blue waters and fish visible in every direction. Nat made an amazing breakfast as usual and then we snorkeled for hours before eating yet another surprise for lunch – cucumber salad and mango on sweet sticky rice. She impressed us once again by catching a gigantic fish off the side of the boat (in about ten minutes) and cooking it for dinner. We’ll sleep here tonight and set sail for the Andamans on Friday the 13th. We expect to be in the Andamans by the 16th.

Okay, that was the boring logistical stuff…but I have no time for the scoop now. John has set up the DVD player on deck and we’re going to have our second movie night watching Benjamin Button, one of the many pirated DVDs I bought back in Phuket. Our first movie night we watched Little Miss Sunshine with Thai subtitles for Nat. Since I don’t have time to explain the craziness of this band of six random strangers on a giant weathered sailboat headed to India, I will simply say that Little Miss Sunshine was totally apropos.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

I will draw the chart...

8 February 2009 - Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand

I'm at an icafe for ten minutes so can't say much. We sailed for the first time today. Yesterday we spent the day anchored at the south part of the island, I forget the name of the beach. The first day we were all together, we got through customs, had dinner, then motored around the southern tip of the island and anchored. We were anchored there all day while John took care of last minute business. I spent hours in the water with Alysa, she's the surfer girl signed up to go all the way to Madagascar. I really like her, she doesn't say much and seems like a nature surfer girl. Says she'll teach me how to surf. I got on the board and paddled around the boat one time....and nearly died. Nat has cooked every meal and it is consistently, amazingly delicious. She doesn't speak much English, but you can tell she's smart and has a great sense of humour. The first night, three of us were waiting on the pier for John and Nat to arrive and walk us down to the dinghy. There were rats all over the place just ten feet from where we were standing. It was making Penny nervous. John and Nat walked up and Nat immediately stampeded over to the rats chasing them in every direction and laughing. She has a really funny infectious laugh. So John jokes to her, pointing to the rats, "Nat, you cook?" She laughs and then quickly gets him, "no, you eat?" and falls out laughing. Fiona joined us on the boat late yesterday afternoon for the first time. She had gotten bitten by a spider (in her ear) and had to go to the doctor to get it checked out. Not poisonous but she's in a lot of pain. I'm convinced she now has superhero powers so we've got that going for us. Last night for dinner we dinghied to shore and ate at a restaurant on a secluded beach. Sat at a long picnic table with other yachties, one couple of whom spent 6 months in Chagos a few years ago. Apparently Chagos is heaven or nirvana or eden or freaks me out because when I googled it the first thing that came up was that it is almost uninhabitable. It's got a US naval base, but it's largely just a bunch of atolls with no civilization. Wendy told us we will forget about our wallets because money is no good there...and that we won't recognize our shoes. But there is a community of yachties there and everyone takes care of each other. They grew a garden in the cockpit of their boat. Wendy said the women would go on picnics together...dinghy out to a secret spot and eat, drink and be merry (and I'm pretty sure she meant naked). Everyone seemed quite amused that John has put together a crew of five women for this journey to paradise. Three of the men delighted in detailing how horrific our seasickness will likely be. For two days you'll think you're dying...and on the third day you'll wish you were dead. John is so good though. He's really nurturing and easing us into the whole thing. He says seasickness is related to fear, control issues and inner ear balance. I think the way he introduced us to each other and the boat was by design - I had that 3 hours to acclimate by myself on the boat before the chaos began. He also told us to write down why we came on the trip and what we expect to get from it (though he always advocates having no expectations too). He's got lots of kinesiology books on board and is super laid back. Things are good. I was a little freaked hearing about how remote Chagos is going to be...but I get really excited thinking that it truly will be a total disconnect. The part about it being paradise is intriguing too. Apparently Nat is a great fisherman too, so we'll get to see her fish and cook. Yeah yeah yeah, I'll try to learn...okay okay. I have volunteered to cut there. I'm eating everything Nat puts out...including little dried fishies, complete with eyeballs. Crunch crunch.

Today was the day we set sail so it was a busy morning. John assigned me the task of scanning maps of the Maldives that he borrowed from Jim last night. I just keep envisioning myself wearing an eye patch as I pirate all this intellectual property. I spent over an hour scanning a giant chart in little A4 increments. No one else on the boat knows about the shamanic Indian curse. I'm fully committed to purchasing that book to break the curse. In the meantime, my very dear friend Rich says I've got one Armenian Orthodox deacon who is praying for me.

And the song that occured to me today was Rush's Closer to the Heart:

You can be the captain
I will draw the chart
Sailing into destiny
Closer to the heart
*posted by Ali's personal assistant in the U.S.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Nine Inch Nails

The adventure is now in progress! The day has been amazingly fun...from getting myself and five bags from the hotel to the pier, then the pier to the dinghy and then the dinghy to the boat. John and his girlfriend Nat picked me up in the dinghy and showed me around the boat, which is totally killer. It's huge and lived-in with stuff everywhere and works in progress and laundry drying on the lines, etc. John's been living on the boat for seven or eight years so it's got life all over it. This is not the posh loveliness I'm used to on the decadent spa retreats (I'm won't detail the lived-in-ness for you) but there's something warm about the realness (though in:spa still rocks!). I was the first and only crew member to arrive in the morning. John & Nat left me on the boat alone for two or three hours so I just got to be with it and get used to the rhythm of the sea. The Millennium is anchored in Chalong Bay sprawled beneath Phuket's Giant Buddha, which sits atop one of the highest hills. I visited the Buddha yesterday so I know there is actually a live Buddha sitting up there praying somewhere under the great statue. Thus, I feel the boat has been blessed these past few days it's sat in the bay.

Oh but wait, that reminds me...turns out there may be a threat of piracy after all. John left me with this giant print copy of a Guide to Sailing the Indian Ocean. It's photocopied on that giant 2x size paper and hand bound with those crappy plastic binding devices. I flipped straight to the table of contents and the two topics that grabbed my attention were the Andaman Islands and the Pirates. But first I read the preface, a nice long letter from the author. The letter closes with an appeal to sailors to not make photo copies of his book because he doesn't have a villa in Italy and doesn't believe the argument that sailors' shoe string budgets should preclude them from paying full fare for the legal version of his book. Then...and this is where it gets scary...he says he had a shaman in India put a curse on all sailors who use bootleg versions of this sailing guide. So there I sat...on the sailboat Millennium...holding a bootleg version of his book...realizing I'm now a direct target of a shamanic curse on pirates of intellectual property rights...and I'm the pirate. This is further affirmed by the fact that I spent 1500 bhat in the dark back corridors of a city market last night on 37 pirated DVDs. It makes me sick to think about it. It's the one thing John asked me to do/buy to contribute to the preparation of the trip. How could I not do it? The shameful thing is how quickly my ethics vanished once I crossed the line...I bought twice as many movies as I'd planned. (Everyone please do some sort of prayer ritual to the shamanic Indian to let him know I otherwise pay full price for all my movies. Heck, I'm the only person on the planet who purchases all my music from itunes.)

I vow to purchase the legal version of the book as soon as I get settled.

But why am I talking about pirates? I've spent the day on the boat, met the crew, checked through customs and I know so much more about everyone and everything. After my three hours of solitude chilling on the boat listening to Nine Inch Nails and watching the Buddha watch the bay, the dinghy arrived again with John, Nat and Penny in tow. Penny is the artist from Japan. She's British but she's lived in Japan for 24 years studying a "particular kind of art." She thinks she may move in a year but doesn't know where yet since the economy is so bad everywhere. She's a little older than me, tall and pretty and reminds me a bit of Nicole Kidman. She's fair skinned and John asked if she brought enough sunscreen. These people do not yet realize I'm a traveling drugstore. I should get Boots tattooed on my forehead. We loaded the groceries onto the boat and then quickly raced back onto the dinghy to get to the customs office before 3pm. Alyssa and Fiona were waiting with their stuff in front of the immigration office. They're the two young Aussie girls, about 22 I think. Fiona is tall and athletic, confident and friendly. Reminds me of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Christiane Amanpour. Turns out she's a world traveling journalist so the Amanpour thing makes sense. She was editor of a magazine in Vietnam but the "GEC" (global economic crisis, she's tired of saying the whole thing) has got the industry squirrelly so she's doing various things - one of which is an article or two about this voyage. So...looks like I don't have to blog after all, I can just send you her article;) Fiona has sailed a few days with John on a regatta and testifies that he's as wonderful as he seems - a great teacher, patient yet firm. Fiona will leave us in Andaman, after which she's going various places on seemingly fabulous writing assignments including something about a German documentary film crew in Mumbai...or something. I'm trying to escape from the fabulousness of modern life, so I'm going to try not to figure out what the hell she's doing. She's a super cool chick and really funny. Lots of humility. I asked her and Alyssa, "so y'all are surfers?" and they started laughing....apparently they've possibly been on surf boards before, but that's about it. Fiona likes my Texas pendant and seemed appropriately disgusted when I explained how I saw it on Jessica Simpson in People Magazine and just had to have it. But it's true, I did just have to have it (Missy, thanks so much for finding it for me) and it reminds me of my family and it stays on me wherever I go. Alyssa is quieter and didn't have any particular career or journey to explain in the time we had to kill at the immigration office. Alyssa and I are the only ones signed on to go all the way to Madagascar. She's never sailed so it's quite brave of her, a young pretty blond girl with a giant backpack and a tan. The four of us girls got along nicely, laughing about how none of us can sail, swapping stories on the madness of trying to get permission to enter the Andaman Islands, and collectively agreeing none of us will take antimalarials. Fiona knows all about the antimalarial debate and has worked/lived in many malaria regions...and has seen someone go schizophrenic on Lariam, so she's with me on the anti-antimalarial agenda. Still, I assured them I have enough malarone for all of us (because my traveling drugstore has a 24-hour pharmacy). Fiona is well versed in travel medicine and put together an premiere emergency kit at the local pharmacy here...and apparently she understands how and when to administer which antibiotics, so that's good. Since I don't.

It was amazing having the boat to myself for three hours. I'm on the other side of the island than the Hilton so I see the front of the Buddha for a change...and it was fun being among the boats. The water is an emerald blue-green and the landscape is subtle, just a handful of hills with the Giant Buddha as the only distinguishing characteristic. It has been an amazing day all around - finally I'm on this journey after all the talking and speculating and not-talking and planning and fretting and traveling to get here, I'm here. It feels good. I've been listening to Nine Inch Nails all week and keep going back to a song called Everyday is Exactly The Same...and it reminds me of my daily lunch with Rebecca on the first floor of the BofA building, looking out over Canary Wharf. We talked about this trip daily for weeks (she was my confidante at the beginning)...and before that we talked about moving on from BofA...for weeks. Day after day. Every day was exactly the same.

Not anymore.

I'm heading out!

At the hotel now, bags packed and a taxi waiting to drive me to Ao Chalong Pier where the Millennium awates. Mom, Dad & Missy, thanks for calling this morning. It was great to talk to you one last time before I get on the boat. Nikki, saw your note, forgot the camel pack but will follow your other guidance;) Thanks, everyone. Love you and miss you already.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

One lost soul living in a fish bowl…

5 February 2009, 10am – Phuket, Thailand. One last day/night here at the Phuket Hilton then I get on the boat tomorrow morning around 9am. John says we’ll start the customs clearing process in the afternoon.

I spent yesterday at the beach but today I’m taking in some of the sights. Walking along the bustling beach road last night, it occurred to me that the Phuket Hilton is a safety zone for me. I’m in Thailand, but sheltered by a comfy American hotel with English speaking staff, hamburgers on the menu, CNN on the telly, all the trappings of western life including considerable safety. Even the exit guards know me by now and seem to keep a watchful eye as I wander off into the real world. It reminds me of how the pet store sells new fish in the little Ziploc baggie, which you submerge into the bigger aquarium until the little fishy acclimates to the new environment. The Hilton is my little Ziploc baggie and tomorrow I get released into the wild…

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I finally met the skipper...

4 February 2009 - Phuket, Thailand. Still at the Phuket Hilton. New plan is to depart on the 6th (was previously the 5th) so I have one more day of beach and sightseeing tomorrow.

Last night I had dinner with the skipper of the boat, John C, so reality is setting in and I’m getting nervous-excited-freaked-out-anxious. He explained at dinner how we're rarely going to have internet because we're going to "be out in the wilderness." I had had this fantasy that we would be sailing into marinas and having all the trappings of the civilized world on a fairly regular basis. We should have it in places like Port Blair when we go through customs/immigration to enter the Andaman Islands...but not most of the time. Yikes! I can't even imagine what this is going to be like. Here in Phuket he's anchored offshore somewhere and dinghies out to the boat.

He's got a very very thick Australian accent and does that ayyyyy thing that's kind of like a sigh and sort of lulls his words into a pleasant melody. I'd spoken with him on the phone two or three times in the beginning of arranging this madness, but the calls were awkward with a time delay and me never understanding everything he said. But I always liked what I could understand him saying and he always throws in a parable that puts me at ease. (One thing he keeps telling me is that the key to this trip for me is to have no expectations be cause “the greater the expectation, the greater the disappointment.”)

I'm at an obnoxious American resort so our introduction took place in a massive, somewhat posh lobby with all kinds of lounges and bars around. When they finally walked in a little late, I wasn't sure it was him other than that he was smiling and coming toward me. He's much taller than I expected and seems 20 years younger than I'd conjured in my mind. She’s a little younger than me, a beautiful Thai girl with long black hair and big white teeth. He raves about her cooking and she helped us order at the authentic Thai restaurant. They've been dating 10 months and she didn't speak English when they met. They both started smiling really big as he described how she spent their first sailing trip seasick.

He's quite normal and smart and cool. He told me stories of guys who didn’t make the crew selection process because one seemed like a drinker and the other was into extreme sports. He needs people who are easy to get along with and not "rockstars" who think they know everything. I'm sure living on a small boat does require precision selection at the start. He says there's always someone on the boat who "takes up too much space" and is always in your face, always talking. He obviously tries hard to get the right mix of people. He's into kinesiology and healing...likes all the new agey stuff and recommended I read The Power of Now which he thinks he has on board. He has tons of movies and recently watched a documentary on banking the federal reserve systems...he loves documentaries and romantic comedies. So...he seems like a normal decent guy. I had gotten a really good vibe from him in our early telephone conversations and meeting him in person definitely affirmed the good vibe.

He’d worked all day on the anchor and said they have several more shopping trips planned to load up on food. During dinner he took a call from Penny, the forty-something British artist woman who lives in Japan and knows how to sail. The crew to start will be six of us including JohnC, his girlfriend, me, Penny and then two Australian girls in their early twenties, Allysa and Fiona, who are friends and avid surfers. Fiona has sailed with John before and is only going to Andaman with us.

So what else?... he’s been sailing around Borneo most recently and just did a regatta. He's never circumnavigated the world, but plans to with this trip. He’s going to leave the boat in South Africa for three months and fly back to Sydney, then pick up again and sail to the Caribbean from there. The Millennium is his second boat and has gone 80 thousand nautical miles (27 thousand nautical miles circles the globe, if I remember correctly). The sea passage from Andaman to the Maldives is like 10 to 13 days and the first two days are the roughest with everyone a bit nervous and sleepless, getting into the routine of 3 hours on watch, 6 hours off. His longest sea passage to date is 23 days. He seems to be vetting me for my capacity to do night watch. I said I’ll do anything to avoid cooking and that there's a good chance I’ll like the night. I didn't mention there's also a good chance I may turn into a stark raving lunatic and cry like a baby until we get to shore.

Monday, February 2, 2009

“Phuket! Big enjoy!”

2 February 2009 – Phuket, Thailand. I landed around 9am (+13hrs Houston, + 7 hrs London) and checked into the Phuket Hilton by noon. I have exchanged emails with Popeye and may meet him tomorrow. If not, I’ll spend the day at the beach. As far as I know we are still scheduled to disembark on the 5th so I’m booked here until then.

My arrival here was pretty anticlimactic… I was so deliriously tired all I could manage was this one crappy off-center photo of the sign at the airport. The drive to the hotel was 45 minutes during which I was nodding off in the backseat of the car, a luxury Toyota of some sort with a driver dressed in a Hilton uniform who didn’t speak any English (at least not to me, that is). Could barely keep my eyes open long enough to watch Phuket roll by like credits on a movie screen (to quote a Liz Phair song about flying on an airplane). My room is decent with a bathroom hand towel sculpted into the shape of an elephant. The view from my balcony is spectacular.

I had one wtf? moment on the plane when I was sleep deprived and my tv panel showed the map illustration of the plane going in for landing in Thailand close to the coast. It suddenly seemed irrational that I should get bored with my life, quit my job and fly to Thailand to meet a stranger with a sailboat. I freaked for a few moments thinking ohmygod what the fuck am I doing? No wonder everyone’s worried about me. Who would do this? Am I mad? This is nuts. But then it began to seem funny and I started laughing (lqoti)….and walking myself through the steps of why this isn’t crazy. People fly to Thailand all the time. Phuket is a luxury destination, a tropical paradise. Lots of people sail the oceans. Popeye sails all the time all over the world….and lots of people sail with him. So there you have it, this is perfectly normal.

The only other major event was getting through immigration in Bangkok. They take it very seriously here and I had a potential obstacle given that I’m here on a one-way ticket and they require evidence that you’re leaving in 30 days. Popeye had advised me to buy a refundable ticket then cancel it once I get through. But on principal I thought the truth should be acceptable – that I’m leaving Thailand on a sailboat set for India. I have my permission letter from the India Consulate to enter the Andaman Islands (restricted area) and the application papers to enter the BIOT….so I figured that should suffice. Turns out they didn’t even ask. Phew. Oh, and I met a nice older man in the queue at immigration control…he was British, returning to Thailand to memorialize his wife who died here a couple of years ago – it was sudden and unexpected. He hasn’t been back since but wanted to come to honour her memory and visit all the friends he made during the crisis that kept him here three months longer than planned. He and his wife visited Thailand all their lives and I could tell he was really happy to be back. His wife’s name was Sheila and she’d recovered from cancer four years prior to the year she died.

After immigration control, I had a quick 1:20 hour flight to Phuket. I sat next to a burly Italian guy who spoke little English but managed to piece together enough words to ask if I’ve been here before as he’s been several times. When I said no, he lit up happily and declared “Phuket! Big…big enjoy!” So I think I will.