Friday, March 20, 2015

Underwater Adventures

Floating weightless in a magical world that few get to experience ... scuba diving is a big draw for us in the clear waters of the Caribbean.  This year, we decided to take our certification to the advanced open water level.  We (mostly) had the skills already, but needed the paperwork, some book studying, and a few specialized dives.  One of the specialized dives we had hoped to do was an underwater photography dive, but that didn't work out for this year.  The underwater photos that go along with this blog post were taken by the incomparable Manon Houtman of Aqua Windies Aruba in 2013.  (If you're ever on Aruba and want to dive or snorkel, I can't recommend these folks highly enough.  We've known them about 15 years and have never ever had a bad experience.)

If ya gotta study, at least do it somewhere fun!

The first specialized dive we did was underwater navigation.  The first time we tried to do this part of the qualification was a couple of years ago and it was a total fail. The instructor gave us an underwater compass and made sure we knew how to use it. Then told us to swim in a straight line. I took off thinking, oh, this is easy, I've GOT this, I'm keeping perfectly straight, the needle is barely budging. Turns out, the compass was stuck, and I was swimming in circles. Duh!  This year, with a less sticky compass, the navigation part was quite straightforward.

We did a wreck dive.   We have dived on wrecks before, but this time, instead of just looking at the pretty fish, we were assessing it for exploration.  We estimated its depth and size and orientation, looked for entry points and possible hazards, and how to get back to our starting point.

The next dive on the list was the deep dive, and it was one we had both been dreading.  We knew it would be dark, because that thick column of water above us would absorb light and make colors appear different.  But that wasn't the worrisome part.  What scared me was that the whole point of the exercise was to demonstrate (carefully supervised by the instructor) how your brain is affected by deep water and the nitrogen buildup in your blood.  We dove to 100 ft and had to do some simple tasks, like writing the letters in your name from back to front (so this blog name, Life Afloat, would be written taolfA efiL), and some dexterity tasks. Writing only took Dan about 15 seconds at the surface, but was **impossible** to do at 100 ft!  My hands didn't work and my brain was like I was seriously drunk only without the alcohol.  And the colors were also wildly different. Reds were gone completely, turned to black, orange became olive green, and purple became navy blue.  Highly disorienting even if my brain wasn't affected.  We were very happy after the tasks, to rise to a shallower depth of 40-50 feet and float along looking at the scenery.

On the right, a color card as it appeared in our hotel room.  On the left, the same color card photoshopped to mimic what I saw at 100 feet below sea level on a bright sunny day.

After the lessons of the deep dive, the biggest challenges were behind us ... we thought.  Our next adventure was going to be a drift dive.  For this one, the boat dropped us off and we floated along with the current while trailing a buoy at the surface so the boat could find us to pick us up about an hour later whereever we had drifted to.  We had done dives like this before, the only thing new for us was learning about how to use the buoy.  No biggie.

Well, the biggest lesson of this day was not to get complacent. There were two groups on the boat doing drift dives that day, one pair of new divers with one instructor, and five of us more experienced divers with a second instructor.  They jumped in and headed out to do their thing; we jumped in and headed out to do our thing, which involved exploring the intriguing sunken wreck of a small plane and then letting the current carry us along a long linear coral reef.  About 45 beautiful minutes later, we surfaced ... to an empty ocean.  The support boat was gone.  I knew the captain, he was careful and attentive to detail, so this was a startling, though not yet alarming, turn of events.  Then I remembered our chatter earlier in the morning, when he had commented that the boat had been out of service the previous day due to a load of bad gas.  What if he were stalled somewhere, unable to reach us?  The ocean seemed very very big, and we were very very small, as we looked at the distance to shore!

The mystery was solved in about 10 minutes as a speck on the horizon well downwind of us got larger and turned into our familiar support boat.  Surprisingly, the currents had carried the two groups of divers in different directions.  The skipper had, quite properly, gone to collect the less experienced folks first, assuming we were better equipped to take care of ourselves.

Back aboard, with boat captain Mario.

Our last dive would be just the two of us ... the instructor was in the water nearby, but not with us to lead us, or to solve problems for us if things went sour.  Our task was data collection -- identifying different fish species we saw and how many of each, not a precise count, but just whether we saw a single individual, a few examples, many, or abundant (>100).  Sounded straightforward, and I've always been interested in how anecdotal evidence such as what we were collecting was incorporated into scientific assessments.  If we didn't record any purple-finned whatsitfish, did that mean that the whatsitfish was now an endangered species, or merely that we were not very diligent observers?  What we in fact discovered was that it was a harder job than it sounded to identify and record the species as they swam past.  Fish move fast when they want to, much faster than clumsy humans with air tanks and slates.  We counted upward of 30 different types, ranging from a single individual, to a cloud of hundreds of silvery swimmers each smaller than my thumb.

Here's some underwater eye candy.  I'll add a few to the Facebook page, too.

Both of our wetsuits were getting tired.  For Dan, his just needed in to be patched, so we brought it into a local shoe and purse repair place that was recommended. I realized we had a bit of a language barrier when I thought I was asking if we could have the suit back on Thursday, but I realized I asked for eggs. (huevos=eggs; jueves=Thursday) (but the "j" is pronounced like an "h")  For myself, a new wetsuit was going to be the only answer. I know they're supposed to fit tight, but as I was struggling to get into it I felt like a cartoon of a vain woman who insists that she's really a size 2 even though she's really large, and blaming the manufacturer who must have just designed this garment funny, blah blah blah. Zipping it up was a bit like a corset. It took 3 different members of the staff to convince me that it really was supposed to fit that snugly. Then I went diving in it ... and what a difference it makes! Amazing! And worth every bit of the struggle, it was so comfortable and WARM!


My dad used to say that he liked living in the Northeast because he liked having four seasons, and couldn't quite identify with us heading for the tropics.  "But we have seasons, Dad!" I told him, "Hurricane season, tourist season, Carnaval season ..."

Carnaval.  Biggest island-wide party ever.  The origin is in that last self-indulgent fling in the pleasures of the flesh before Lent.  On Aruba it is a season that lasts for weeks of beauty pageants and music competitions and parades and costumes and we love it.  No half-way measures here -- if this was to be people's last fling then by gosh they were going to make it a good one!

I can't fully convey the atmosphere of the Grand Parade.  It's not just watching a parade pass.  For one thing, it takes hours and includes thousands of people.  It's an all-day party, and we were ready to join.  We packed our rental car with snacks, water bottles, cameras, and sunscreen and drove east.  Road closures and congestion started while we were still a good ways away, so we parked in the shade of a tree and continued on foot.

The luckier spectators were in tents and awnings along the sides of the route.  Others had claimed spots with the ubiquitous cheap white plastic chairs.  Whole extended families were there in groups, although the crowd slightly favored the very old and the very young; a sizeable proportion of the able-bodied were absent because they were in the parade.  First came what we called the parade-before-the-parade, as people strolled the shut-down street catching up with friends who were standing along the parade route waiting for the main event to begin.  A "target-rich environment" for peoplewatchers like us.  Vendors pushed their carts as well, selling ice cream and pizza and silly string for the kids and giant straw sombreros for folks who had forgotten their sun umbrellas.

We walked down the closed-off street with the crowd, looking for a spot we remembered from a past year, a partly-shaded curb at the parking lot of a bank building with a nice breeze from behind.  We had no sooner settled there than a stranger came over to us.  She and her family had the tent across the street, there was plenty of extra space, would we like to join them?

Well, um, yes! Every word we had heard about the openness and generosity of the Arubian people was proved true. She sent one of the men to get some extra white plastic chairs for us and settled us in.  We shared the juice and nuts we had brought, they shared chips and soda from their cooler.  Except for two women named Lilian and Sylvia, their names were unfamiliar and hard for us to understand over the loud music.  But we were able to exchange stories -- they were as fascinated by the rootlessness of our life on a sailboat as we were of their living their entire lives on a 19-mile-long island.

The parade was a series of groups.  Each group had a particular local band and theme.  Semi trucks pulled custom platforms designed as mobile band stages.  An array of huge speakers was attached to the front and back of each truck.  The music was loud -- you could hear it from blocks away, and when each truck got close, I could feel the bass notes vibrating my lungs.  Foam earplugs were a must.   Before and behind the truck were floats, and people elaborately costumed in feathers and sequins that glittered in the sunlight, in very fanciful interpretations of the theme.  The more adventurous -- and sturdier -- participants carried shoulder pieces (costume embellishments like wings or other fantasies, meant to be carried on the shoulders) or head pieces, or pushed road pieces.  After the last costumed group went past, there was one last band truck and spectators were invited to fall in behind this one and join the parade.

I loved that people of all shapes and ages were represented, not just the buffed and beautiful.  And everyone was having fun with this, and so willing to share that joy with all of the spectators.  When they saw our cameras, people would step out of their loose parade ranks to pose for us.  They seemed delighted by our delight in their costumes.

We marveled at the energy that went into the event.  The parade route was several miles long, it was a bright hot sunny day, and these people weren't just walking, they were dancing.  For hours on end.  In many cases with heavy costume pieces on their heads.  I even saw many women in sparkly stiletto heels, that I would find a challenge just to walk in.  I can't imagine dancing, in two parades, in two days back-to-back.  No wonder the day after Carnaval is a national holiday nicknamed "Burn-out Monday!"

More photos on Life Afloat's Facebook page!

Playing With Our Food

Loving the variety of tropical fruits!  Image from here.
One of the employees at the dive shop we use was amazed that we were cooking at home almost every night.  "But, why?" She was confused.  "You are on vacation!  Why are you working at cooking?" Well, partly to save money for diving, I admitted, so she promptly turned us on to several local- knowledge, budget-friendly food options.

Eating local has been an assortment of surprises.  There was one fantastic waterfront seafood place where you stood in line to place your order, saw and approved the piece of fish or seafood that would be cooked for you, and paid by weight.  You ate on paper plates, generally using your fingers though inadequate wimpy plastic forks were available for the fastidious.  But fresh!  How fresh was it?  Well, fishing boats docked in the back, that's why it was waterfront, and offloaded their catch directly into the kitchen.  At our favorite Indonesian place, the vegetables came directly from the owner's backyard garden.  Downtown on weekday mornings we could get a local breakfast of orange juice and "kerrie-kerrie," mildly curried fish with lettuce and tomato on a baguette, for $5.  It took a while to get used to the idea of fish sandwiches for breakfast, but it really set us up for an active day.

One restaurant that we stumbled on ourselves was simply named "Restaurant Vegetariano." That needed no translation, right?  It was tiny -- only six tables.  There was no menu but a blackboard, single words naming the (limited) options for lunch, no descriptions, and no prices.  There was a major language barrier but what the heck, we were at least certain that whatever we ended up with would be vegetarian, so okay for us to eat, right?

We started off a bit on the wrong foot, I'm afraid.  There's a lovely Caribbean courtesy of acknowledging the existence of everyone when you enter a room.  People will say "Good morning" to the bus at large when coming aboard, or to the group of everyone seated ahead of them in a waiting room.  The custom has pretty much disappeared from the big cities but was evident in our little restaurant; I suppose we were perceived as quite arrogant for not greeting everyone the first time we came in, but everyone was nice to us anyway. It turned out that ordering "pampuna" got Dan a plate of roasted cubes of West Indies pumpkin with mushrooms and sauteed sea weed, some kind of crumbly soy meat, and flavorful spices; and rice, some kind of chopped tropical fruit salad, and a sliced avocado on the side.  (sounds odd but it was actually very tasty).  My meal involved red pepper and onion, a different kind of soy meat and a different kind of seaweed, and the same rice and fruits and avocado salad.  We were served a cup of soup for starters and a pot of hot ginger tea (it is winter, after all, even though it was 85 degrees and sunny outside), and afterward a dessert of delicate passionfruit creme.  With the tip it all came to $10 US per person, and was enough food that we had no thought of dinner that day.

With such wonderful and interesting meals and low prices it was hard to justify doing the work ourselves.  But we also enjoyed cooking at home, I explained to my dive-shop friend, because we got to experiment with cooking so many things that aren't available back in the US.  Our fridge had coconut rice and mango and pineapple and pumpkin, and "gerookte zalm," which turned out to be the mildest smoked salmon that I had ever tasted.  Not what we thought we were buying but it was all part of the adventure.  Many years ago our friend Hilda had taught us how to cook cho-cho, a Caribbean squash that looked more like a green apple than a vegetable; this year it was our turn to teach.  She was curious about tofu so we had her over for dinner one day and made a Chinese-style stir fry with tofu and vegetables.  We also made a baked tofu in Caribbean jerk sauce.  Our sauce contained a puree of onion and fresh green chiles, soy sauce and red wine, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, thyme, and black pepper and a pinch of cane sugar.  The audacity of a guy from Kansas making jerk sauce for a woman from Jamaica where jerk was invented wasn't lost on any of us, but she rated the meal a rousing success.

One of my favorite foods, though, was alphabet letters.  We had alphabet noodles in soup when we were kids, but these letters were made not of wheat noodles but of high-quality Belgian chocolate.  One evening at the Birdhouse, all the residents got together for a potluck dinner and the letters were our contribution for dessert.  We played a silly game where everyone got to eat their initial -- there was Lars, and Natasha, and Karl, and Alyssa, and Dan and Jaye, and fortunately all of those letters were included in the bag we'd bought.  I suppose this was one case where you'd much rather your name was Melvin or Wendy than Ingrid, say, because "M" or "W" contains more chocolate than "I."

The lonely unclaimed leftover letters, U and X and F and Y, didn't last long either!


Some food adventures are more adventurous than others.  This Suriname Roti was a lot of fun once we got over the odd appearance.

 At the end of the vacation when we toted up our receipts we learned that our food spending was exactly on par with our US budget; total groceries plus meals out came to $400/month.  And all the grilled fish plus tropical fruit, plus fresh air and exercise, did wonders for our weight, we each lost about 10 pounds.  A bit more embarrassing to admit was our booze budget -- good thing we had the excuse of being on vacation because it ended up double what we budget for at home!

Blue Toenails (On Becoming "Seaspray")

Toenails the exact color of the Caribbean Sea

I haven't painted my toenails for at least 25 years, back when the only color choices were red and pink, but I've been admiring my toes lately.  My blue-painted-toenail toes. Let me back up a minute and tell you why this is so meaningful.

It's tough to be girly on a boat, as several bloggers have described.  Long fingernails get wet and soft and break while grinding winches; and jewelry is impractical when working with your hands or swimming.  Long hair uses too much water to wash, and a blow dryer uses too much power to make sense, and the humidity and salt spray and wind would destroy any perfect coif even if swimming weren't on the agenda.  Skirts would blow in the wind revealing more than intended, or tangle with your feet and trip you up in a dinghy or climbing aboard, and fancy shoes are out of the question on irregular docks.  I've always been more of a tomboy than a girl-girl in any case, so I didn't find the boat restrictions very limiting.  Even at the marina, where the option of shoreside bathroom facilities (lots of hot water, brightly-lit mirrors, and plug-ins for that hair dryer) made it possible, it's still inconvenient. No biggie, I was delighted to have a practical reason to dispense with the time and money and energy spent on appearances.

On top of that, there's my "job."  Three days a week, I'm my maritime-history alter-ego, a character named Seaspray, or a variant of her, as a tour guide on the Spanish tall ship El Galeon, or a Spanish soldado (soldier) at the Castillo.  My work means that even on the off days I can't ever (for example) get a manicure, because painted fingernails would just totally ruin the historically accurate image.

Seaspray, aboard the nao Victoria (photo by Fer Iglesias)
When I designed the character of Seaspray, I explained that she had "disguised herself as a common [male] sailor, because that was the only way for a woman to live a life of freedom and adventure that would otherwise be denied to her sex in those days.  Though she appears a young man to the world, she's still definitely a girl, and is drawn to sparkly things.  While she is careful not to blow her cover and ruin her piratey career, sometimes she slips up a bit ..." I've always felt good about the character description, but until recently, it was just words.

Lately, I've been feeling frustrated, restless.  It might have started with the haircut.  I have found the best-ever stylist, Sheri, who understands curly hair. I have to rent a car and drive about an hour each way to get to her salon, but it's okay because she's that good.  When I told her we were going on a vacation that involved beaches and diving, she suggested a really short cut.  "We're going for something of an elfin look here," she explained as she clipped.  "And, well, there's just nothing sexier than supershort hair, if you pair it with the right earrings and more feminine clothing styles."  Sheri probably wasn't thinking about my shapeless black tee shirt, or Seaspray's white linen shirt when she said that.

Or maybe it started with the nail polish.  I had had a random conversation with my BFF Karen about young people dyeing their hair and painting their nails fun colors like teal or magenta, and a few weeks later in response she mailed me a surprise care package, a pedicure in a box, including nail polish in a rich shade of clear deep blue.  I was touched that she had remembered our conversation, but I was disappointed to have wasted her money -- I couldn't use the pretty polish she'd selected, because of my "job."

As I packed for vacation, I realized that I had selected jewelry and my most feminine shirts, unusual for practical me, because Sheri's description of how to work my new haircut sounded exciting and fun.  I looked at Karen's "pedicure in a box" and the lightbulb went off.  Whenever that restless feeling had started, I was both stunned and fascinated to learn that at some level, just like Seaspray, I must have been chafing under the gender-hiding restriction of the job and my practical interpretation of life afloat without even realizing it.  On a gut level, I finally understood, really, this Seaspray character I had created.  Understood?  Heck, I was living her.  So I packed the blue nail polish.  It was going to be warm, I was going to be barefoot a lot, and I wouldn't need to be historically-correct for months.  I was going to be living on land, with infinite hot water and power.  Time to play "girl."

In The Birdhouse

Welcome to the Birdhouse!

Our little cottage is nicknamed "The Birdhouse." It's a play on the landlord's last name ("Vogel" means "bird" in Dutch), but coincidentally also specially meaningful to us.  There was an incident after Dan's cancer surgery, when he couldn't use his hands.  The drugs were making him starving hungry All.The.Time, but he couldn't feed himself without his hands, so he had to be fed.  He jokingly tipped his head back and opened his mouth wide and said, "I'm like a baby bird, FEED ME! Squawk!" So "Baby Bird" or simply "Bird" has also been his nickname, ever since, and the great blue heron has been his totem.  It seemed like an omen that our rental was going to be the perfect fit.

And perfect it was! Quiet when we needed quiet, social when we wanted a barbecue party with the renters in adjacent units, high-energy when we overheared the giggles of the owners' two young sons playing in the garden.  Most of all, a place for us to sit and think and restructure our priorities.  (Oh yeah, and sit in the breezy shade drinking wine and reading trashy novels. We did a fair amount of that, too.) We gained a lot of introspective time about streamlining, and having just the right amount of possessions.

So you can see what we mean, here are a few photos of the space.  Worthy of a "Tiny House" blog, it reminded us about how little we really need.  The bar has really been reset. My friend Cathy calls it "rebaselining:" after 13 years on the boat, owning a car, having infinite hot water for showers and drinking wine out of glass glasses instead of plastic feels like time in a luxury resort, instead of things we take for granted like we did when we lived in a house. Ironically, the apartment is only a foot or two longer, and a foot or two wider, than our boat.  Just as it is on the boat, our favorite place to be is outside, in the cockpit or on the porch.

The path to the front door.  And before you say that the roofline seems long for a "small, simple apartment," I'll explain that it shelters two apartments, plus a storage shed, under that roof.

The full kitchen fills one end of the main room.

And the "living room" sitting area spans the other end.

Queen-size bed, fun dresser.  There's a chair in the other corner.  Bathroom with a very nice walk-in shower is through the door.  And, a feature we've seen before here, one end of the bathroom is a spacious closet with both hanging space and shelves.

But here on the shady porch is really where we spend our time!

Hang out spot in the garden

And because the place is named the "Birdhouse," there are a few notes that reflect the "bird" theme, the design printed on a lampshade, or a painting in the bedroom, or small accessory. (The word "whimsical" was invented for this place, I'm sure.) My favorite is this key chain holder; loved it so much we searched it on Amazon and bought one for ourselves:

Then we had fun shopping for a few things to add.  Things that we'd need anyway, but extra points if we could correlate them with the bird theme.  The coffee mugs in the previous post, that inadvertently contained the important message "Simple Life, Happy Life" were one such find.  We also found beach towels; one with parrots, one with bird-of-paradise flowers.

And then the ultimate connection!  One day in the garden we met this baby bird!  When s/he grows up, s/he'll be a "chuchubi" (tropical mockingbird), much loved on the island.  But for now, s/he's just beginning to learn to fly, and chirping "peep, peep, peep" demanding a steady diet of bugs and worms from the parent birds.

Baby Bird! 

(P.S., the apartment is available for rent.  There is also a smaller studio apartment available, that shares the same garden.  There are more pictures of the apartments at the links.)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Simple Life, Happy Life

We found these mugs in the hardware store, and bought them because they seemed like the perfect touch to add to a rental that was called "Casa Pajaritos" (The Bird House).  But arranged like this, the his-and-her mugs seem to have an important message, ya think?

One of the things we hoped to do, this trip, was get out of what my friend Linda called the "bubble" -- that protected space for tourists, all high-rise hotels and white-sand beaches and palm trees.  How do real people here live, and what could we learn from them?  So instead of a luxury beach resort, we rented a small furnished apartment with a garden view.

When we walked into our rental, I immediately noticed the spaciousness.  Which seemed odd, because by US standards, the apartment is not very spacious at all, at a little over 450 square feet, it seems very small and simple.  But then, houses in the Caribbean often seem small to US eyes.  It's not that the entire population is poor, its just that when the daytime temperature is 82F/28C year-round and the nighttime temperature is 77F/25c, much of life happens outdoors in the yard or on the porch/patio. Indoors is for cooking and sleeping and not much else, and our little apartment was no different.

Outside, a large shaded porch faced the shared garden.  It included a dining table and two comfortable wicker chairs where we would spend almost every morning sharing a pot of coffee (and other things; this post was written there.) Inside, the main room, which served as a combined living/dining/kitchen room, is around 13x17. That's about the size of the master bedroom back in our house in Michigan.  There was reason #1 for me to dance around with my arms widespread, enjoying the space -- the main room was twice the size of the main salon on the boat.  An L-shaped kitchen takes up one end of the room; the sitting area forms the other.   The floor is tile, white around the edges and black in the center, suggesting area rugs without the clutter of actual rugs; the walls are concrete painted white.  The decor is mostly low-key.  Furniture is minimal and of simple materials, no elaborately carved mahogany here! A dining table and 4 chairs, a sofa, flat-screen TV on a credenza, wall-hung shelves for books and knickknacks fill the main room.  The bedroom is similarly streamlined: a bed, two nightstands, a dresser, a chair.  A couple of lamps in each room ... and that's it.  No excess.  Everything we need, and nothing we don't.  A few pots and pans, dishes and glassware in the cabinets.  I looked at the cabinets in wonder; as we unpacked and put away our groceries, I realized more than half the space was still empty.  We used to design and build kitchens, far larger and more elaborate than this one.  But now, after 13 years living on the boat, I could no longer imagine owning enough possessions to fill even this small kitchen.

The second thing that struck me was how calm it felt to be here.  I recently read an article about our Western overwhelming relationship to -- or obsession with -- "stuff."  The article refers to a study done by some anthropologists at UCLA "In the smallest home in their study, a house of 980 sq ft, there were, in the two bedrooms and living room alone, 2,260 items. And, because of the rules the anthropologists were using to count, that was only the things they could see when they stood still. They didn't count any of the stuff that was tucked into drawers or squeezed into cupboards."  There were other statistics, too.  I learned that the average British woman buys 59 items of clothing per year, and has 22 items in her closet that she's never worn, and that the average family in the US study had 438 books and magazines.  The authors talked about the stress people feel when they are surrounded by too much clutter and coined a new word: "stuffocation."  I knew the feeling.  Sometimes a sofa feels like an anchor, tying you to a home, a lifestyle.  I remember a weird time, toward the end of our posting in Michigan, when I sat in our (gorgeous) house by the river, and felt a momentary envy for refugees from the war in eastern Europe, who had fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.  Not really -- I don't want to be in a war zone and lose everything I own.  But at the same time, I desperately didn't want to be obligated to the eternal care and maintenance of Grandma's silver, either.

That 2,260 number blew my mind, and sent me counting the items in our small apartment. I counted a little over 200 "things" in the living room and 67 in the bedroom. Not bad, not bad at all!  And I can't help but wonder if one of the reasons this place is feeling so relaxing, is that simplicity of possessions -- barely a tenth of the US average.  I've noticed the same thing when I've visited the homes of friends who used to live on boats and moved ashore, they often seem to have carefully considered collection of items, no clutter, an aesthetic that must have come from the necessity of life on board, where there just never was storage space for excess, and you get used to leaving nothing out on the counters that could be tossed in rough seas and the ever-present threat of mildew.

The clothing statistic, 59 new items per year, was a similarly dramatic contrast with my experiment with Project 333 and dressing with less, and made me think of a character in a novel I'm reading who was even more extreme.  She is described as a seasoned sailor in the Caribbean, her entire wardrobe consisted of 2 pairs of cutoff shorts, a pair of jeans, 2 bikinis, 6 cheap tourist t-shirts, and some well-worn foul weather gear.  Okay, she's a fictional person, and meant to be admirable. Presumably she also had shoes somewhere and some other odds and ends that were conveniently left out of the inventory, but the point about the extreme simplicity, I think, was the same.  Everything you need, and nothing you don't.

That's one of the lessons in simplicity that I so wanted to bring home with us.  The serenity of having empty space, and not too many things, as a decorating style.  And those few things that are there, are cherished and important.  But like the fictional character with the minimalist wardrobe, that's not quite the way reality works -- especially fulltime on a small sailboat.  Fitting everything aboard in an uncluttered, place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place mindset requires extreme streamlining.  At the same time, that need to streamline to fit everything aboard is at constant war with another liveaboard imperative.  You want to be self-reliant, able to repair a boat system, broken down on some deserted island, no hardware store in sight?  It's hard not to be a little bit of a hoarder, stashing all kinds of random bits, so able to produce whatever odd item, tool or spare part, you might you need.  Conflicting goals? Maybe. But finding the perfect balance between those two competing directions might be the real lesson in simplicity I'm looking for.  No one ever said this living aboard thing was gonna be easy.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Warm Welcome

Officially, you can only get a tourist visa here on Aruba for 30 days, to stay longer than that you need to meet certain special criteria, or "at the discretion of the immigration official."  Which was an issue keeping me up at night, because we wanted to stay longer -- all winter.  Our whole point was to rent an apartment so we could live like and hang out with ordinary local people, not other Americans and Canadians on vacation.  One of the criteria that lets you stay longer is that you're living aboard a boat of more than 14 meters (46 feet).  Although lots of friends and acquaintances asked if we were sailing here when we said we were going on a tropical vacation, our boat is only 10 meters (33 feet), so that exemption wouldn't apply.  And though the trip to sail here might be fun, the return trip would involve a lot of bashing to weather that we would find not fun.  Another possible exception to the 30-day rule is if you own property on the island.  Um, errr, that's not exactly our case either. And there's a special category for timeshare owners, where I thought I saw a loophole.

So, armed with printouts and copies of letters and the title to our timeshare and a smile that (I imagined to myself) didn't reflect my weariness after a plane ride and lots of standing in long lines, we got in the line, the one that would end when we faced the immigration officer.  And just our luck (I'm thinking), we managed to get an older guy who seemed to be taking a lot longer processing each person in front of him than the lines to either side.  Aaaack!  Was he going to be a stickler?  Slowly, the line continued to move forward as I clenched the packet of my carefully researched and prepared paperwork including the form boldly requesting a visa for essentially the entire winter, and reviewed the few politeness words we knew in Papiamento. Why was our line moving slower than everyone else's?

Finally we reached the head of the line and he motioned us forward.  No real expression from him when we wished him bon tarde ("good afternoon,") and handed over our passports and visa forms.  He silently looked at the form and drew a circle around the number we had filled in  in answer to the question "How many nights will you stay on Aruba?" (That really big number, waaay more than 30). More silence.  I took a deep breath, waiting for the questions. Then he flipped through the pages of our passports, stamped the next blank spot, smiled hugely, and said, "Welcome home."

That was it.  Nothing.  No need for my carefully rehearsed explanations or my internet research or the packet of printouts and copies of letters and titles I was carrying.  "Discretion of the immigration officer," indeed!  The only thing I could assume is that he saw the proofs of our visits in previous years, and decided that a couple of retired civil engineers escaping winter are not a major security threat or likely drain on the public services.  We were in!

Our welcome at the apartment we had rented was equally warm.  The place had been remodeled since we'd seen it last year and was even more charming than the photos we'd seen over the summer.  The  thoughtful hosts had left us a bottle of wine and a snack of cashews; in the fridge was our first breakfast: juice, apples, grapes, a loaf of bread, butter, eggs, and some of that spectacular Dutch cheese. Actually enough food for dinner that night and breakfast the next morning.  We'd only been on the island a couple of hours, our greeting was warm in both the hospitality sense by the friendly people, and the temperature sense (82F/28C) and already we were totally relaxed.  Perfect!

What the weary traveler appreciates!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Tropical Escape

While our friends in the Northeast are looking at a forecast like this,

Snow Forecast from meteorologist Kait Parker's facebook page

our forecast looks like this:

25 January 2015 forecast from Weather Underground

It's even chilly in St Augustine, so we're on our annual tropical getaway.  And while I've always said that it's my goal to design a life that I don't need a vacation from, this getaway is more about travel and variety than an actual "vacation" from a life that's plenty fun as is.

A couple of years ago I was chatting online with friend Jorge. He described with excitement a vacation he'd recently taken: a week living aboard a dive boat in the tropics, just jumping overboard any time he felt like snorkeling.  

"But Jorge," I protested, "you've just described my everyday life!  So when I'm on vacation, I want to do the opposite! I want to stay on land.  For me land life is like a vacation in a luxury resort. Just think ... infinite hot water!  A car to go to the grocery store whenever we want!  Drinking wine from real glass stemware instead of plastic!  I want to revel in all the ordinary things I took for granted before we moved aboard and started cruising." 

We've rented a simple 1-bedroom apartment -- ironically, it's about 33 feet long, the same as our boat -- with a view of a xeriscaped garden.  The wind blowing the leaves of the palm trees sounds a lot like surf crashing on the shore.  Home sweet (simple) home for the next month.

The path to our front door winds through the garden.