Tuesday, October 25, 2011

An Evening Out

Last week, I ran into a newly-arrived family of cruisers at the dinghy dock.  They have two girls Stylish’s age; as soon as they saw each other, the four girls ran off to clamber over the gravel piles by the dock.  Their mom, Nadia*, mentioned they had heard about a free concert by an Italian orchestra happening that evening at the National Theatre.  I looked over at Indy, waving a stick at the three older girls, and at Stylish, her green dress now as dirty as though she had climbed out of a grave.  My wolf puppies at a concert... could they possibly sit still that long?

Growing up, my grandfather had tickets to the Philharmonic, and I would often accompany him.  I loved those evenings, both for the music and the company.  The girls have always enjoyed music; surely this would be fine.  And, worst case, if it all fell apart we could slink out in the middle.  Reminding myself firmly of our boat motto: Just Roll With it, I happily agreed to meet Nadia & co. by the theatre shortly before six.

After a flurry of boat jobs in the afternoon, we jumped into a cab, closely followed by friends from a third boat, and headed to the theatre.  We found the others, and discovered that the concert was, in fact, not to start until seven.  Well, no problem.  Time for dinner, then.  We bought empanadas from a street vendor, and watched as the kids raced around the tiny square.  Once again, Indy kept the five older kids at bay with a stiff, rolled-up palm leaf.  They pretended to be terrified, she pretended to be terrifying, and everyone was happy.

Seven was rapidly approaching, and still the theatre doors were firmly locked.  No, no, the coffee vendor told us, it doesn’t start until 7:30.  Of course not.

Finally the lights came on, the doors were flung open, and we were allowed to file into the pretty theatre.  We found a box with three rows of three seats; with the 3-year-olds on laps, it was just right for eleven people.  (And close to the exit for a quick escape, if need be.)  A prophylactic trip to the bathroom later, we were in our seats and waiting for the show to begin.
Very swish.
Once a squirmy Indy had settled on my lap, I looked to the stage.  It was small, and contained only a piano and, ominously, a microphone.  Well, no orchestra, then.  I pushed my disappointment aside.  The piano was no issue, but the microphone... a microphone meant a singer, and what classically-trained singer needed a microphone in a theatre this size?  Hmm.

Nope, not this time.
We waited, and waited, and waited some more.  Eventually, a small podium was deposited on the stage, followed closely by a man.  After polite applause, he gave a speech in Spanish.  More polite applause, then a woman arrived.  More talking, and then everyone jumped to their feet for the Colombian national anthem.  While I don’t know the words, I know a military tune when I hear one, and this one certainly evoked images of marching in lockstep.  Shiver.

Finally, finally, the woman departed and a fluffy-haired piano player arrived on the scene.  He played alone for a while, and then a slim woman marched out onto the stage.  She was wearing a floor-length sequined dress, spike heels and a lot of lipstick.


The woman grabbed the microphone, gave the crowd a dazzling smile, and poured forth a stream of Italian, looking around the audience.  Several hands shot into the air.  There was a further burst of applause, and a stage hand delivered a portable microphone to a man in the front row.  Being capable in neither Spanish nor Italian, I was a little puzzled, but soon pieced together that the man had volunteered to translate for Lady Sequin, who only spoke Italian.  As the show went on, it seemed his fluency wasn’t quite as advertised, as long speeches were frequently translated in two or three words, or not at all.  Our singer occasionally gave him good-natured, if frustrated, directions, which, judging by the general laughter, were not always followed.  The price of volunteering.

Lady Sequin struck a pose, signalled the piano player, and began to sing in a throaty, cigarette-damaged, voice honed by many, many long years of practice.  And what was she singing, dear children?  Italian chansons.  Ie. lounge music.


Definitely not a classical orchestra.

She gave quite a show, and the crowd – better prepared for the actual nature of the concert than we – was eating out of her hand.  If you have never heard a theatre full of Spanish-speakers belt out “Volare” at top volume, then you haven’t lived, my friends.   Lady Sequin was dancing up a storm, although her very long dress and very sharp heels were not playing nicely together.  The upshot was that she grabbed handful of material in the vicinity of her thigh, hiked up the dress and strode around that way.  The show must go on!

Most entertaining to me was watching Stylish and her two friends sitting in the row ahead of me.  An hour in, Stylish and Sunny were slumped in their chairs, eyes glazed, staring slightly slack-jawed at the indefatigable Lady Sequin on stage.  Poppy, on the other hand, was bright-eyed and bouncing in her seat, clapping in time to “Arrivederci Roma” along with the Colombian-Italian club around us, clearly delighted.  Indy was long-since asleep in my lap.  But my motherly pride insists I note there was not a word of complaint from the less-interested girls.

As Stylish later put it, it was "the endless song.”  By the end, Nadia behind me kept whispering, “is this the last one?  Tell me this is the last one.”  We all were fighting the giggles, not wanting to spoil things for Poppy or anyone else.

Two hours and a three-song encore later, we were out of there.  Not what we expected, and certainly not what I would have signed up for, but a fun evening all the same.

Volare... oh oh....

*Pseudonyms in effect, as usual.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


When you find yourself bouncing along in the back of a Colombian police van, there are questions you should ask yourself.  “How did this happen?” is probably the best one.

Looking back, I suppose this really came of trusting people.  At every step of this trip, people have softened us up, worn us down with their kindness.  Bringing us banana bread.  Offering their condos and cars.  Touring us around the area.  Giving our girls birthday parties.  In the Vivorillos, unpopulated islands off the tip of Honduras, we were alone except for the shrimp boats that anchored there during the day.  One day, two shrimp boats came by and gave us 15 pounds of shrimp.

So.  Much.  Shrimp.
Trust and kindness.  Look where it gets you.  Looking out at the world through a metal grate, that is where it gets you.

We arrived on a small Colombian island with happy smiles.  We’d had calm seas, the place was beautiful, the people (once again) friendly.  What could be better?  Checked in, clean(er) once again, the next day we decided to go exploring.  Sometimes this is an easy business, sometimes not.  We decided to go by land for once, and asked our customs agent for advice.  The bus (singular) wasn’t around at the moment, so he walked us down the street to look for a taxi.  No taxis.  Hmm.

Back in the police van, the rain was starting to pound the metal roof, little rat-a-tat-tats asking me “what-did-you-do? what-did-you-do?”

The agent spotted a man he knew parked at the side of the road.  They chatted for a minute, then seemed to come to an agreement.  We were told to climb in, as the man would take us where we wanted to go.  Relaxed, trusting, we smiled and climbed aboard.  Accepting rides with strangers?  Pfft.  Small potatoes for Papillon.  What could possibly go wrong?

And then we were attacked and robbed and beaten and shot full of drugs and left for dead bleeding in the gutter and I cried out “Why oh why did I ever trust anyone?” and I then I died.


Nothing went wrong, of course.  That man parked on the road was an off-duty cop, and he had use of the police van for the day.  So he took us all over the island – to a dive shop, the beach, a great seafood restaurant.  We chatted about the neighbourhoods and people there, his life, our lives.  At the end of the day, well after dark, we got back to the dinghy, waited out the rain, then gently roused the sleeping girls in my lap, and headed back to Papillon.   Another new friend, another invitation to visit a new corner of the world.
Kids love sleeping in police vans!

I have to tell you, people, all this is making me cast a stern eye on some habits and attitudes from back home.  Too much watching the news and not enough interacting with the neighbours is making people suspicious of their fellow man.  It is a crying shame, I have to tell you.  Yes, we all have to be careful in this ol’ world, but it is not as bad and scary as you might think.  That homeless guy shuffling over to your kids?  He just wants to tell them about the Australian pine tree they have been playing under.  He actually knows a lot about them.  And that hard-faced lady at the small hotel?  She’s just tired of being talked to like she wants to screw you over.  If you talk to her like a human being, you’d be surprised at how nice she is.

More than once we’ve heard from other cruisers, “be careful here – the locals all want to rip you off.”  And then we have seen how those same people treat the locals, and I’ll tell you – I’d want to rip them off, too.

All I can say is, it hasn’t been our experience.  And I’m pretty sure I know why.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

One Year On

Home, sweet home.
Can it be true?  The Papillon crew has been living aboard for one full year.  And no one has murdered anyone else!  We've done so many things and visited so many places, it is hard even to remember those early days: adjusting to 15.5 square feet of floor space down from 2,000; running young Indy down the dock to the loo as we fought to free ourselves from diapers; learning to hear small noises and react to them immediately.  Where did the time go?

I refuse to let this post become a sappy reminiscence - well, okay, I’m likely temperamentally incapable of it - but I think I can manage a brief recap without going all gooey, don’t you?

Some Lessons I’ve Learned From A Year Aboard
  • Once you reach the tropics, you cannot buy any food product packaged in cardboard.  No, really.  Don’t do it.
  • Modesty and hot weather are almost wholly incompatible.
  • If you give them the chance, people are delightfully nice anywhere you go, up to and including riot police waving and blowing kisses to our grinning girls in Cartagena.
  • Markers are just as bad an idea with the under-6 set on a boat as they are in a house.
Nicest surprise 
  • Guatemala.  We almost didn’t go, and I’m so glad we did.
Biggest regret
  • Not getting a photo of the world's best perfume box.  This gem was sitting in a corner store display case in Guanaja: an oversized box with a dreamy, 70s-style airbrushed photo of a woman in purples and blues, and the words JUICE OF LOVE flowing across the front.  I curse leaving my camera behind that day.  Google Images was no help, so it looks like this bit of excellence will remain hidden from the world a while longer.
    Papillon Trivia

    • We have travelled more than 6,000 km so far, visiting the USA, Bahamas, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia.
    • The Best Visitor Award goes to my mother, bunny9, who as of Monday will have visited Papillon a record four times.
    • Indy has named her feet.  Formerly Bagel and English Muffin, they are both now named Rubber Biscuit.  I swear she came up with this on her own.  She has reluctantly allowed us to distinguish them, but I remain glad for the language barrier here when I say, “Indy, give me your starboard rubber biscuit.”  I am considering producing a translation guide for future teachers. 
    I am a red race-car-loving, loud-opinion-having, literal-minded original.
    • Erik sunburns faster and more regularly than anyone else on board. [insert joke about Erik’s hot temper here.]

    I can fix anything and my head makes an excellent pillow.
    • Stylish likes to deliver notes via Zhu Zhu pet.  She ties paper and pencil to the back of these hamster-like electronic pets using an endless supply of purple wool (provenance unknown).  I’ll hear whirring gears and frantic animal sounds , then feel the thing bounce off my foot.  Replies are expected to be returned in the same manner.

    I am a book-reading, princess-drawing, mermaid-aspiring delight.
    • Despite your kind words, I am singularly unfunny.  Your correspondent is the straight man in this operation, a dour, suspicious personage better suited to a drizzly moor than a palm-laden isle.

    I am a crabby person who likes to write.  And yes, that is a cut on my hand.

    I’d go on, but I am making pizza dough and the timer is about to go off.  Later, maybe we’ll kick back, have a beer, and peer at the USS Spruance anchored off to port.  Nothing says happy anniversary like a guided missile destroyer parked next door.

    All the best to you all on this fine occasion!  I hope you'll join us to see what Year Two will bring.

    Friday, October 7, 2011

    Nighttime adventures

    One of the exciting bits of living on a boat is the constant sense of imminent disaster.

    It is the rainy season in Cartagena, which means that we get afternoon thunderstorms, and occasionally something blows through during the night.  Regular stuff, you say.  You get thunderstorms, too.  Yes, I daresay you do.  But unless you live in a tornado zone or the hurricane belt, the drama of a storm means comforting an excitable dog, or maybe checking on a leaky roof.

    Let’s imagine you live in a house in the city.  You look out the window, and see lots of other houses in neat little rows.  You are snugly packed, but still have space.  So far so good.  Erase about two-thirds  of those houses from your mind, so your street looks a bit like a checkerboard.  Now you have lots of room, right?  Okay.  Now.  All of those houses are tethered to the ground by a chain.  Some chains are long, others short.  You don’t know – the chains are hidden underground.  And now, the best part: a very windy storm blows up, and all of those houses in your neighbourhood start to move.  They blow down to the end of their chains.  And some, the unlucky ones, start to drag.

    This was our situation a few nights ago (these problems only happen at night.  What fun would it be if you could actually see?).  Every bit of wind in a new anchorage is a test.  Is the holding any good?  Did our anchor set as well as we thought?  When the wind came up and the rain came down, Erik and I went through our routine of closing hatches and making sure the deck was clear, then sat in the cockpit to watch our windmeter and our little GPS to check for drag.  Our anchor held (hooray for the Manson!)... oh yes, we were fine.  But others were not so lucky.  We saw at least four other boats drag through the anchorage, silently streaming backwards through the rain.  All of which is entertaining at a distance, but one of those boats loomed ever closer to us.

    Remember your house on its chain?  When other houses start dragging, you are pretty much stuck.  You can’t move your house much – it is on a chain, and boy do you not want to horse around with a well-set anchor in a blow.  But when another house is coming at you, what do you do?

    The other boat slid alongside us, and stopped.  Curses.  That was a bad scenario.  If it had blown past before catching on something on the seafloor, we would have been fine.  But this boat sat directly alongside Papillon, sixty feet away.  We peered at the captain through the driving drain, and he peered back.  When the wind let up enough, he called to us that his engine was dead, so he couldn’t haul up the anchor and reposition.  He was stuck until he fixed it.

    We looked glumly at each other.  The wind would catch one of us, and we would drift ever-so-close, then blow apart again.  We hunched in the cockpit, fenders at the ready, hoping we wouldn’t need them, and watched, and waited.  The minutes and hours ticked by.  Then the wind started to swing around.

    As I said, the wind blows you to the end of your chain, bow forward.  When the wind shifted Papillon and our new neighbour were no longer side-by-side.  We were, inevitably, end-to-end, Papillon in front of the drifter.  As the wind shifted, he would barely eke past our stern, giving the dinghy hanging on the davits a light bump each time he passed.  Erik kept the engine on, moving us gently forward to keep us from crashing.

    Around 2:30am, our new neighbour finally got his engine started, and left to find a roomier spot to anchor.  And we got some sleep.

    So the next time a storm comes through town, you can sleep soundly in your bed, knowing that your house isn’t going to blow down the street.