Monday, March 31, 2014

The Little Mallet
By Michael

Pelicans are cool, but they are so
numerous her in La Paz, that they
come to seem like sea gulls; we
shoo them off every chance we
get. See the giant white stain in
corner of our dinghy floor?
And I waved back, just to emphasize how happy I am, and how great this is.

I wrote that, just weeks ago. I was relishing the joy of doing laundry on the foredeck, basking in the warm air of paradise as I stomped on clothes in a bucket of cool soapy water.

The joy was short-lived.

A few days ago I was at it again, stomping, stomping. But then I reached into the bucket to pull a piece of clothing from the bottom and…I don’t know. It happened quickly, my pinky finger on my left hand caught something and I felt a small tweak or snap. When I pulled my hand up, it hurt a bit, but worse, my little finger just felt odd, a combined numbness and stretched feeling.

And it looked odd too. The very tip hung limp. I could easily lift it with my other hand, rotating that tiny joint so that my finger was straight, but as soon as I let go that tip would just fall down again. I played with it a bit and decided I must have ripped a tendon off the top of the little bone at the tip of my finger.

I went below to consult Dr. Google and right away it was clear that my diagnosis was spot-on: I had ripped the tendon off the top of the little bone at the tip of my finger. The injury is called mallet finger. Treatment rarely involves surgery, a splint for eight weeks is the indicated approach. I made a splint. That was the end of it.

Until it made me think about my healthcare decision-making process as an out-of-country cruiser. First, though we do carry international health insurance, our deductible is $10K per person; we are self-insured for the small stuff like mallet finger. Seeing a doctor for this injury would be easy and cheap, not even an appointment would be necessary. If indicated, an x-ray would be more of a hassle, probably a referral and more walking and waiting, but I wouldn't expect the total cost to exceed $40US.

So those were my options for care. I decided not to seek care. I think my decision is primarily due to the fact that the information I found online seems to align perfectly with my injury, the treatment approach seems universal, and I don't feel like taking the time to visit a clinic and then an x-ray lab.

But I want to contrast this with the approach I may have taken in our old life, complete with a steady income and employer-based health insurance coverage. Let's put me at home with this injury, it happens during a Saturday of yard work. Ice would have been so easy to get out of the freezer that I would have likely done that first. Then, without a thought to inquiring online, I'd have driven myself to nearby urgent care. I'd flash my insurance card, fill out forms, see a doctor or P.A., get in the queue for an x-ray, watch a nurse put a $25 splint on my finger, and then get sent home--with a prescription for pain medication I probably would not have filled.

All totally appropriate, and with a more certain diagnosis and a smaller risk that a rare complication went undiscovered. Old life or new, the out-of-pocket expenses would be about the same.

In our current, very-low-income life, every dollar spent moves us closer to the end of our travels, so maybe my decision making in this case is just a matter of $40US looming larger than it otherwise would. (Yet I know that if one of the girls suffered the same injury, I wouldn't think twice before bringing them in.) But whatever the reason, and whether it's foolish or prideful, I appreciate the self-sufficient approach, I embrace it.

Back in my Washington, DC professional life, I remember several times over a decade, returning to work after missing a day because a cold or flu had knocked me out. Invariably, throughout that first day back, one or two coworkers would ask if I'd been to the doctor. "No, of course not," I'd reply, "it's just a cold--maybe the flu--just had to wait for the fever to break."

"I had that last week, my doctor gave me an antibiotic that just knocked it out."

The whole over-proscribed-antibiotics issue aside, I couldn't understand the knee-jerk response to seek medical care for something minor. The last thing I want when feeling sick in bed is to leave the bed to visit a doctor's office. But I think that mentality is pervasive in a system in which there is an almost complete disconnect between health care seekers and the market that sets prices for that care.

But I digress. The worst part about my injury isn't the care, it's typing. I’m a writer, I type constantly. And my self-splinted left pinky finger can no longer manage its important job on the <SHIFT> key and the letter <a.> (It's in charge of the <q> too, but I’m not a big user of the letter <q.>) Fortunately, I’m not a quitter. I will quietly suck it up and learn to type quickly with my temporary disability. Damn, that was three q’s.


Here are Eleanor and Frances with the 256-foot yacht Venus.
It's owned by Laurene Powell, wife of the late Steve Jobs.
Jobs commissioned this boat, but it wasn't finished until
almost a year after he died. It cost $250 million. The
quality of the photo is terrible because I didn't have my
camera with me when we saw this, only a second-generation
iPhone from 2008, kind of appropriate actually.
This is Frances in her berth with Stella, a dog we sat for a couple
days while the owner was in Cabo. She is a nice dog, a former
La Paz stray they picked up a couple months back. But she must
have been beaten by some guy with a 35mm camera in her street
dog life because we couldn't get her to look at the camera
for anything.


Friday, March 28, 2014

Just Eleanor
By Michael

Frances getting a fluoride treatment
from our La Paz dentist.
“Hey, we’re here,” I told Windy from the shore-based radio.

That morning, Frances and I drove south to the Cabo airport. We had lunch and walked around, killing a couple hours for a delayed flight arrival. Then family emerged from the terminal and we hugged and laughed and started the long drive back to La Paz. Now it was late in the afternoon and Auntie Julie, cousin Eoin, and cousin Kat were eager to get out to Del Viento and see Windy and Eleanor.

“Okay, I’m going to send Eleanor in the dinghy to pick you up,” Windy answered.

“Just Eleanor?”


“Hmm. Okay, I'll watch for her.”

I couldn’t help but smile broadly, imagining how proud Eleanor must feel en route to the dock where we waited. This would be her first time driving the dinghy alone. Eleanor’s logged many turns at the helm with Windy or I aboard, preparing for this. Yet I knew when she came into view, my girl wouldn’t be wearing her own smile. She is a master of restraint and would suppress it, pulling up in the dinghy nonchalant, playing it totally cool for all of us, and maybe especially for her cousins.

Ten minutes later, when she was 40 feet away, I caught her eyes and gave her a look to let her know I knew she was swollen with pride. I saw a sparkle on her face and then she rolled her bottom lip over the top to stifle her grin. I couldn’t get her to look at me again for ten minutes.

Eleanor made a soft landing, secured her boat, greeted everyone, and then helped to load and organize people and luggage, reminding the other kids to don the life vests Windy sent with her.

A week later, my sister and the cousins were gone, Windy was in Thailand, and it was nearly time for me to take Eleanor to her 9:00 a.m. artists’ meeting at the cruiser’s lounge ashore.

“Frances and I won’t need the dinghy until later today, why don’t you drive yourself to your meeting?”

She nodded like that would be fine, like she didn’t mind helping me out by driving herself. I sent her with water bottles to fill, the handheld to call me on, and a time to call me by.

It’s an oft-repeated sentiment that childhood is fleeting, that this time passes quickly. This never rang true before having kids. Even at 30, the 18 years I spent under my folks’ roof was still almost two-thirds of all the time I’d known. But now, at 45 and with a 10-year-old daughter, I wonder what happened to put the past decade on fast-forward. Thankfully, the nearly 24/7 time we’ve spent together as a family for the past two years and ten months has served to arrest things just a bit, to slow them down enough that I can keep up with the girls’ changes and do my best to make them smile.

There’s nothing quite so pleasurable in this life than experiencing maturity milestones like this with my kids. My vantage point is intimate and the feeling is magical.

The girls looking at a La Paz fabric store display
of some carnaval dresses.

Parking is at a premium lately at the Marina de La Paz
dinghy dock. Our yellow dink is diminutive tucked
in the middle of the right-side row.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Just Someplace
By Michael

We celebrated Frances's eighth birthday
at the end of February. By request, her
birthday dinner was at Tim and Nancy's
house, our friends who live here in La Paz.
Where will you be next season?

When are you taking off?

You’re still here?

Cruising implies motion; it's hard to voyage with your anchor buried in the sea bed. Among cruisers I feel the expectation that we move, to reach the next port, hopefully more exotic than the last.

Or not. There’s no shame in still being anyplace, so long as it’s where you want to be. Nobody will strip you of your cruising badge if you slow down to give people and their cultures time to reveal themselves. But this is easier said than done.

Last year, way up in Alaska, I suggested to Windy that we plan a Pacific crossing this season, join the 2014 Puddle Jumpers. She wouldn't commit, wondering how we could know at 59 degrees north latitude what we'd want to do when we returned to the tropics a half-year later. I clearly have the desire to add miles to our log, to add destinations, to experience as much as possible in the time we have. Surely we didn’t buy a boat and upend our lives just to sit in one place.

By the time we reached Southern California, she argued that she was ready to slow down, that we'd done nothing but move, almost daily, for the past several months. Every day had been passage planning, guidebooks, and discovery. It was exhilarating, but exhausting. The Sea of Cortez beckoned like a shimmering Siren of calm and ease.

I agreed. There is a trade-off to unceasing motion.

I thought back to the richness of our long-term stays in Victoria, B.C. and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Frances swinging at her pinata.
The family of Dawn Treader joined
the festivities.
But even that richness doesn't mean long-term stays are indicated for every attractive destination. This past winter, our two weeks anchored off Bahia Magdalena’s Man O’War Cove (Puerto Magdalena) was sublime, but then we were ready to leave. And that's when we left, no matter that we might have discovered more had we stayed two months.

Obviously, budgets and seasons and personal factors play a dominant hand in determining the pace and compass headings of cruising sailboats. We’ve been at anchor here in La Paz since mid-January. It’s our third time visiting this interesting city by boat, and we’re still learning more about it each day. We have close friends who live in a house here. We’ve met other cruising families. It’s a great place for family and other close friends to visit. There are lots of things for the girls to see and do.

But all that said, I’m itching to move. Perhaps it’s spawned by the radio bon voyages to the folks who sail out of here daily, bound for the South Pacific. This afternoon came a knock on the hull, another cruising family dropping by in their dinghy to tell us they’re leaving, headed north into the Sea and then on to Panama.

Windy is now away in Thailand for nearly a month. We have close friends coming for ten days in April. The girls are enjoying their tennis lessons. But soon we will pull our anchor and sail deeper into the Sea of Cortez. And we’ll give it several more months at least, to revisit old haunts and soak up as much of her wonder as we can. It's where we want to be now.


For her birthday breakfast, Frances requested smoothies and crepes at
the crepe place with her sister and Sophia from Dawn Treader. For the
perfect Frances day, this was followed by a trip to the shelter to
visit with and walk dogs.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

There And Back
By Michael

This happened on our way back
from Sol de Mayo. Fortunately,
our wait wasn't too long.
Kids’ passports are good for five years. That’s probably quite a while when you’re paying off a new car loan, but it’s sixty short months of travel and adventure time. So here we are, in Mexico, with half of us needing new passports. The good news is that it’s easier, in some ways, to renew your U.S. passport out-of-country. The bad news is I found a way to make it harder. But then I found a way to make it better.

I took on this task by getting our ducks in a row. Since we’d be renting a car and driving three hours to the U.S. Consular Agent in San Jose del Cabo, I made sure we had all the paperwork ready (application forms, certified birth certificates, passport photos, and money), that I knew the office hours (M-F, 0730-1615), and rules (both parents must accompany minors to apply for a passport renewal—or make other difficult provisions), and the location (Shoppes at Palmilla strip mall). Then I booked our rental car.

On Monday, February 17, we got up early, secured the boat, and headed south to apply for new passports. Our goal was a quick drive down and a quick drive back. We met our first goal.

When I pulled on the doors of the U.S. Consular Agent, they wouldn’t open. Windy pointed at a small notice in the window and gave me a look. Who knew it was Presidents’ Day in the U.S.?

So it had been a hot drive in our little econobox and we were sweaty, hungry, and none of us wanted to drive six hours just to be here again the next morning. I called the car rental company to extend a day and told the girls we’d make a San Jose del Cabo vacation of it. I found a half-star motel for 500 pesos ($39), where we could shower, grudgingly put back on our dirty clothes, and wish that for some reason we’d thought to bring toothpaste and toothbrushes. Then we went to get ice cream and see La Ladrona de Libros (The Book Thief) in the theater (very good movie that prompted lots of talking points for the ride home the next day).

My out-of-country girls. This seal
was outside the Consulate offices,
they wouldn't let us take any
pictures inside.
On Tuesday, the passport application process went smoothly. The benefit of being out-of-country is that you get almost personalized service from Consulate employees who know what they’re talking about, you don’t wait in line to get it, and you pay no more than in the States. (Though one of us will have to repeat this trip in five weeks or so to pick up the new passports.)

On the way home, things got even better. Exploring a strange side road off Highway 1, I picked up our first hitchhiker.

It’s a quick appraisal, even at the modest pace of 45 miles-per-hour, whether the dude on the side of the road you stop for is someone you want to invite into the car with your family. I don’t remember the young student’s name, but he was headed on foot down a long, straight road that appeared to us to have no end. And as I said, it was a strange road, out in the middle of nowhere but with curbs, thousands of streetlights, and a verge separating traffic that’s filled with flowering oleanders. Windy climbed in the backseat and we continued on.

It turned out our hitchhiker lived just about a mile and a half ahead, where the road ended in the small town of Santiago, population 700. He asked where we were going and I said we didn’t know, just exploring. He peered back to the rest of this odd gringo family in the backseat and smiled.

¿Va a sol de mayo?
Here we are on the trail to Sol
de Mayo. The pool is way below,
just above my shoulder.

Manday.” I said, asking him to repeat.

¿Va a sol de mayo?

I looked back at Windy, “Do you get it? It sounds like he’s asking if we’re going to the sun of May, that can’t be right.”

We dropped our young passenger off in town, never getting past our communication barrier. Then we took in Santiago. It was a relief from the tourism of San Jose del Cabo and the metropolis of La Paz, a small, Mexican pueblo. It was first inhabited by Jesuit missionaries in the mid-1700s; there’s an old mission there dating back to that century. The Mexicans made it an incorporated city back in the 1800s and it used to be a stop on the long, rough road down to the tip of the Baja peninsula, before they finished Highway 1 in 1973.

Then we saw a small sign at the edge of town: “Sol de Mayo, 10 km.” We followed the arrow, slinging our econobox down a soft, narrow dirt road, stopping to read interpretive displays about where we were apparently headed. The only thing that became clear is that we were headed for an oasis of sorts, an eco-tourism destination at the foot of the Sierra de la Laguna range, a UNESCO global biosphere reserve.

Sol de Mayo is an oasis, a pool at the base of one of several waterfalls in the area that are produced from underground springs. It’s at the end of a short trailhead that begins where we parked our car. And from there, there was no hint of what lay ahead.

The trail was steep and when we finally got to Sol de Mayo it seemed more like a mirage. We again removed our sweat soaked clothes and waded in. A family of coots swam with us as we moved between the hot, smooth rocks and the cool spring water.


The water of the falls was warm.

Eleanor looking down at the pool and waterfall.
Just after this picture was taken, she reached out
to see if that cactus next to her was sharp. Yep.
Besides the cows in the previous picture, here's
another reason not to drive at night in Mexico. These
unshodden, unbridled horses just walked in front
of us on a busy road on the outskirts of La Paz.

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