Monday, February 27, 2012

Wild, Crazy Yeast
By Michael

This is Eleanor emerging from the best and
busiest ice cream place in La Paz, Neveria
Fuente. Surprising to me and the folks who
work there, she likes the flavor Tequila
Almond. I guess the apple doesn't fall
so far from the tree.
It was three weeks ago that I wrote about our bread starter gift from La Loupiote and our wonderings about whether it would result in sourdough bread. (You’ll recall that La Loupiote sailed away, leaving our question unanswered.) Well, we got an email from Deb.

We first met Deb online when she won the book giveaway during our Great Pre-Departure Stuff Purge. We caught up with Deb months later as we passed through her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. I knew Deb was a former sailing instructor, but I now know she is also a former chef who has been, “probing the depths of sourdough for the past year or so.”
Deb wrote: “What you have is sourdough starter. Sourdough does not necessarily mean dough that tastes sour, although I sure like it when it does. It just means using wild yeast instead of commercial. The sour flavor can come from a variety of things--type of flour, type of water--but mostly comes from a long proofing time.”

We baked our first batch shortly after it rose. We gathered around two hot loaves, a knife, and a crock of butter and devoured them both in one sitting, like hungry savages. It was fantastic.Yet neither loaf tasted sour, but like really good French bread.
Moonrise at anchor off La Paz.
For the second batch, Windy allowed the dough to rise, then to sit overnight in the fridge, and then to rise again in the oven before finally baking it. What popped out of our Force 10 that morning was among the best sourdough bread I have ever enjoyed in my life. It was perfectly tangy. It was soft but with a bit of a chew. The crust crackled and crunched and was a bit tough. The entire boat smelled divine. (Of course, what makes this all the more enjoyable is the climate.  We’ve been rolling out of bed when it is still 55 degrees down below--in Mexico that is technically freezing, by the way--so warm bread out of the oven appeals in a way it would not have back in Puerto Vallarta during the summer.)

In the same email, Deb wrote: “There are so many names for sourdough starter--chef, biga, poolish, mother--depending on the percentages and your background--but any starter that's 20 years old is nothing but wild, crazy yeast…I'm sure it's been colonized by foreign-language-speaking yeasties from all over the world.
I’m sure it has been too. Just today, I heard again from the French crew of La Loupiote. They are back online after running into our friends Kyra and Rick aboard the Canadian-flagged Nyon a few hundred miles south, anchored off Mexico’s Isla Isabel. The Nyon crew told La Loupiote about our sourdough dilemma and that we needed help.

So where next? We’re spreading the love. We’ve already decided to send some of this 20-year-old bread starter across the Pacific (once again, I’m sure) with our friends aboard Wondertime—because you can’t keep a good bread down—err, you can keep it down—pardon that pun.


Our friend Nancy (a Magotian--that is she lives on the La Paz Magote)
took the four of us south on a full-day road trip in her Honda CRV. It
was a nice respite from the intense month of boat work that has
nearly consumed February (more in a later post).

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fat Tuesday
By Michael

The iconic carnaval mask.
The city of La Paz, Mexico exploded these past several days with a barrage of color and cacophony of sound. Carnaval was here.

While there are larger carnaval celebrations in Mexico (Mazatlan is probably the biggest), the celebration we enjoyed in La Paz retains a home town feel where folks watching the parade call out to friends on the floats.

Festivities began in the afternoon, when the air filled with the smells of deep-fried churros, steamed corn, and bacon-wrapped hot dogs. About 5:00 p.m., the parade began its slow craw down the seaside drag, closed to traffic until the morning. The beach and anchorage abutting this route provided a respite from the hustle, bustle, light, and color.

The post-parade crowd grew eash night. By the time the headliner took the main stage late Tuesday, the crush of people was difficult to sqeeze through. Yet children still darted underfoot, undeterred in their bid to reach the cotton candy vendors. An invisible hand would seem to part the crowd for strollers.

On the carnaval perimeters, thousands of lights fixed to amusement park rides flashed and careened. Many of the rides were tame enough to delight little ones and others were raucous and perilous enough to entice the teens. Booths of games of skill and chance were everywhere, sucking up pesos at a furious pace.

Following is a video of Eleanor enjoying one of the not-so-tame carnaval activities. The background audio is a pretty mild representation of the boisterous soundtrack of carnaval:


There was a heavy nautical theme; not sure whether this is this year's theme
or the same every year.

The floats were heavy on paper mache and kids in costume.

The girls and I taking it in.

If these capes wind up in
the tires...
Lots of recycled materials
used on the floats too. Here
note the LPs, CDs, and bottoms
of green plastic bottles--among
other things.
I thought, "Pretty girl in an outrageous costume,"
but then he climbed back on the transvestite float.
There were several environmental-, human rights-,
and sexual freedom-themed floats.

Another reminder that the Baja peninnsula is culturally more similar to
California  than to mainland Mexico. Even the language is different.
When your car breaks in Baja, you go to the autopartes store. When
it breaks in mainland Mexico, you go to a refaccionaria.

This was the main stage featuring the big acts. There were at least three
additional stages, all competing to see which could be loudest.

Windy, the girls, and our friends Tim and Nancy waiting out a 15-minute
lull in the parade, ostensibly due to a vehicle breakdown.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Starting The Staff Of Life
By Michael

Our new mystery starter.
Something cool happened to us the other night. Our friends aboard La Loupiote gave us a special parting gift: a bread starter that’s been around the world. It is nasty looking thing, just as a good bread starter should be. We haven’t used it yet, and there is a burning question about whether it is a sourdough starter.

Now, this is not a trifle concern. We have not eaten any sourdough bread since leaving the U.S.—six-and-a-half months ago. This despite visiting a few bakeries run by expats here in Mexico and buying their tasty looking, overpriced loaves stuck with little hand-printed, chichi sourdough labels. Lesson: A sourdough label does not a sourdough bread make. And shame on us, because:
“I don’t smell any sourdough, do you?”

And we buy it anyway, every time, hoping against hope that maybe the tangy, distinctive, glorious, characteristic scent promised by the label, is simply trapped beneath that beautiful, crackled crust.

Like the crew of Del Viento,
the crew of La Loupiote is a
family of four with two girls.
Unlike us, the La Loupiote
parents are in excellent shape,
experts in circus technique,
and have astounded audiences
on their way around the world,
performing more than 400 shows
to date. This is them, twisted up
in silk drapes and high up in their
rigging, performing their Cirque
du Soleil-like show at sunset.
It was beautiful and amazing.
“Nope, I don’t taste any sourdough.”
“Me neither.”

Hanging off La Loupiote’s transom in our dinghy, we listened to Franck and Delphine tell us the story of this starter, of how a young European bread maker spotted the boat Bread, of how she patiently tutored the German owner in the fine art of bread making after learning Bread was a misnomer, that the German couldn’t bake a loaf to save his life. About how the German sailor nurtured and propagated the starter she left him, about how he then shared that starter with others on his trip around the world, 20 years ago. About how those sailors followed suit. About how the La Loupiote crew tried recently to share this same starter with a fellow Frenchman in Alaska, only to learn he already used the same starter in his galley. About how this sourdough starter…
That’s where Windy and I can’t reconcile: she never heard the word sourdough, I did. You see, it was dark. We were in our dinghy filled with groceries. We were hanging off the transom of La Loupiote, clutching our gift, listening to the story. The girls were boisterous (yeah, that’s the word), it was hard to hear. And Franck and Delphine are French…their English is very good, but not perfect, and their accents strong.

We don’t know whether our well-travelled starter will yield sourdough bread or just really good French bread. La Loupiote sailed away early the next morning, up into the sea, out of VHF range and temporarily without access to email. But we will know soon and learning the answer promises to taste very good indeed.

We enjoy the Ballandra anchorage, especially when we have it all to ourselves. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Forget Mitt & Barack
By Michael

I'm halfway through this book.
The author was Mexico's foreign
minister in the Fox administration
and is a visiting professor at Princeton.
The book sheds light on many of
the seeming paradoxes of Mexican
culture and examines where this
country may be headed in the next
50 years. So far, it is fascinating.
Mexican presidential politics are getting exciting. As of yesterday, all three major parties have selected their candidate. One way or another, the outcome of the July presidential election will be extraordinary.

A WOMAN AT THE HELM: Josefina Vazquez Mota could be the first female leader of Mexico. While female leadership is relatively common throughout Latin America (Evita! is only one example), Mexico is a glaring exception. What are her odds? Vazquez  Mota is a member of the PAN party. This is the party of the current administration  (President Calderon) and the party of his predecessor, President Fox. Fox is credited with returning Mexico to democracy 12 years ago when his election ended the rule of the PRI party, which had been in power for 71 years and was widely acknowledged as corrupt, nearly a dictatorship. Fox was a pro-business candidate who instituted free market reforms and is credited with eliminating much corruption. But...while the Mexican economy has been awesome over the past decade, the populace is fatigued by the war on drugs that has hurt tourism, reduced foreign investment, and resulted in so much violence.

A RETURN TO DARKNESS?: As I wrote above, the PRI party has been out of power for 12 years, but otherwise ruled the country since 1929. That tenure was a period defined by corruption, no doubt about it. The PRI candidate for this election is Enrique Pena Nieto. He is handsome, charismatic governor of the state of Mexico and married to an ultra-popular, glamorous Mexican soap opera star. Will his election undo many of the reforms and much of the clean-up that's happened over the past 12 years? Or does Pena Nieto represent a new PRI platform?

A NEW SOCIALISM: The PRD party advances a platform way to the left of what we are used to in the U.S. Their candidate for this election is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, one of the most recognizable politicians in Mexico and the same guy they ran during the last election. He came in second last time and refused to accept the results, attempting to rally a populist revolution in the streets to have them overturned. While his actions were largely criticized for their destabilizing effect, he is credited with improving the Federal District of Mexico during his tenure as mayor of Mexico City.

I see the PRI and PRD parties as polar opposites, at the political extremes, with the PAN party platform somewhere in the middle. But regardless of who wins, I think moderation will prevail. For the first time in history, no one party has a stranglehold on the country. All three parties are strongly represented in local and state politics and in the national congress. Like in the U.S., Mexico's executive branch may set the tone, but doesn't rule absolutely.

So where do things stand? The PRI candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, is leading in the polls by a huge margin,  PAN's Josefina Vazquez Mota  is second, and the PRD's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is a distant third.

July will be here soon and I'm excited to see what happens.

Josefina Vazquez Mota celebrating her victory yesterday.

Sea of Cortez beaches are almost all very shallow, which means that
the girls can wade out for hundreds of yards sometimes, and the
water is delightfully clear. None of this is bound to change,
regardless of the election outcome.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What Does It Cost To Go Cruising?
By Michael

Windy at the helm steering us downwind
down the channel into La Paz. On this point
of sail, we would benefit from an extra
panel in our genoa.
We’re still working on our own answer to that question. I finished assembling the data and just updated The Cost page at the top of this blog, through December. Our monthly expenses still far exceed what is sustainable, yet they are in line with our expectations of now. Looking forward, I think 2012 will be less expensive than 2011, but costlier than normal for a couple reasons. First, we plan to spend a chunk of 2012 in the U.S. and Canada, and the higher cost of living (compared to Mexico) will affect us. Second, we anticipate two big expenses during the year.

The first big expense has to do with sails. Our 33-year-old mainsail is stretched and worn, with a belly like Santa Claus. And no matter how I trim this sail, I can’t seem to flatten the thing. I cinch down the outhaul, I make sure she’s sheeted tightly, I bear down on the halyard winch until the luff is stretched to the breaking point, and I still have a Santa sail.

Now, I’m not a very good sailor, but I’m blaming our tired mainsail for our inability to point. Returning from the islands last week, we played around on a close reach for several hours, tacking back and forth upwind into a stiff breeze. What I learned is that, try as I might, we have a no-go zone that spans 135 degrees. This is going to kill us trying to bash north against the prevailing winds late spring (headed up to British Columbia, not via Hawaii). So, sail work is in order, and it may not be cheap. I’m going to talk to the loft here in La Paz and see what they can do. And that is not the end of our sail problems: when the sun is on the other side of our genoa, I see thousands of points of light through the seams. Furthermore, our genoa is cut about 36 inches too short. Standing on deck, I can hardly reach the foot (the furling drum is already at stanchion level). The previous owner reported having it cut because of some deterioration, so if we learn the sail is worth saving, I may have a panel added. More money…
Tie up two big tugs next to
each other and this is
bound to happen.
Second, the dinghy situation is going to change, somehow. I wrote here about whether we should go with a life raft or a life boat. Today we have a soft-bottom dinghy and a Plastimo Offshore life raft with an inspection that expired 3 years ago. We are considering replacing both in San Diego with a Portland Pudgy. The idea is that the Pudgy would serve as both a dinghy and a life raft. We’ll see. Otherwise, if we stay with the dinghy + life raft model we have now, we will probably have our life raft inspected and may replace our dinghy with a ridged-bottom inflatable. More money regardless…and on my wish list is a Torqeedo electric outboard that uses no gasoline…

Today, the cost basis of our boat (the purchase price plus the money we spent on it) is just about $90K. We will likely spend about $10K more on the refit.

Just a week ago, I was in contact with the Portland Pudgy folks in Maine,
trying to locate an owner in San Diego whom we could contact and
arrange a sea trial. Then yesterday, here in La Paz, we ran into a couple
cruising on a 72-foot powerboat who let us try out theirs. We found
it felt much bigger than we anticipated. This may indeed be our future,
but still lots to consider, including cost.

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