Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sea Bees
By Michael
Bahia Candaleros, Mexico

Eleanor was brave when there were only
a few bees. There are no such pics of
when there were several hundred here.
They were the same bees that all the summertime Sea of Cortez veterans warned us about. We’d been told about or read about the bees at least a dozen times.

Yet, for some reason, as we headed north in to the Sea of Cortez to anchor off a few of the more than 200 islands, islets, and coastal areas identified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the idea of bees on our boat—lots of bees on our boat—seemed abstract. I mean, what’s that even like?

Apparently, the islands or unpopulated coastal areas of Baja have extensive resident bee populations. (Which blows my mind because, why? What’s there to pollinate? I guess cactus…and shrubs…and post-rain wildflowers. But the place just seems inhospitable to anything other than rattlesnakes and scorpions. Bees?) Apparently these insects are ravenously thirsty and will seek out the slightest bit of fresh water aboard yachts anchored a hundred yards from shore and who-knows-how-far from the hive.

Usually the bee warnings we got came with a favored approach for dealing with said bees.

“Kill the scouts, the first bees you see, kill them—kill, kill, kill! The others will never learn you are there.”

No, not going to kill bees.

Our summers-in-the-Sea veterans aboard Eyoni offered a more thoughtful approach, with a dash of bee psychology: “You see, bees are cleithrophobes, they have a real fear of being trapped. When you see any bees in your cabin, don’t shoo them, lock them in, close the companionway and ports and watch them. As soon as you see that they realize there is no exit, as soon as you see fear in their eyes, open everything back up and they’ll take off and not return. Works every time.”

Others insist it’s about the control of water. “You can’t have a drop aboard, not a drop. Make sure your boat is no more appealing than the dry, dusty desert they came from. If you wash your hands in the sink, follow with a salt water sink rinse, dry your hands completely, and then put the now-damp towel you used into a Ziploc bag—and hide it.”

Others insist it’s about providing the water the bees are after, but in a controlled way. “Put a sponge in a bowl of water and leave it on the bow, that’ll draw all the bees up there and away from you.”

None of this advice was reassuring, the sum of it left us all rather wondering what was in store for us, how bad would this be?

We were anchored in Puerto Ballandra, on Isla Carmen, near Loreto, when the bees found us. It was one, then two, then more and more and more, down below, invaders, hunting for water along every surface, all around us, the numbers increasing and increasing. “Sit down—carefully!—if you keep moving, you’re bound to step on one.” Windy cautioned the girls. Fortunately, all of us are pretty bug and insect savvy, we all kept our cool.

But it felt like a train robbery. One minute, everything is normal, the next we’re sitting still, at the mercy of these smart, stinging insects. Just do what they say and give them all your water.

Del Viento made
the cover of this
month's Good
Old Boat
I didn’t realize how much water we had down below. There was the glass of the stuff sitting on the table, buried in bees. There was the damp sponge sitting next to the sink, now a big, black bee rectangle. There was the drop hanging from the tap from which several bees nursed. There were more drops in the sink and a ring of moisture around the drain. There was water on the galley sole where one of the girls had dripped after washing her hands. Our cabin was a bee oasis and word spread quickly because they kept coming, hundreds and hundreds of bees sharing our small space.

“Girls, we have to get outside. Follow me, carefully. They aren’t after us, they just want water.” Windy led them topsides.

I grabbed a dry cereal bowl, folded a napkin inside it, and slowly, deliberately pumped water into it at the sink. Bees flew all around me. With about a cup-and-a-half of water in the bowl, the napkin saturated and acting as a wick, and already at least a dozen bees settled onto it, drinking, I made my way to the aft cockpit coaming, careful with every foot placement and hand hold not to come down on a bee. By the time I reached the back of the boat, more and more bees surrounded me and I realized I was these guys’ Pied Piper, the water my flute.

We dried up down below and I added a second bowl and when they were filled with water, hundreds of bees covered each, quietly drinking. But after only 20 minutes, the mass around one would begin to buzz very loudly and become more animated. I soon figured out this was a sign the bowl was bone dry and the cloth nearly so. I would then pour another cup-and-a-half of water slowly from a pitcher, right on top of the buzzing mass. It was magic, like turning down the volume on a stereo, the bees would go nearly quiet and move much less.

I repeated this process until just before sunset when the bees vanished. Within a five-minute span, we went from thousands of bees to zero bees. It was a coordinated exodus back to the hive before dark, like chickens heading for their coop.

“They’ll be back in the morning you know.”

“We don’t have enough water for us and them.”

“No, we’ll get an early start.”
Looking through my hatch, these few bees kept
seeming to try and communicate, forming
Kanji-like characters. I'm no expert, but this
clearly reads, "We'll find your water."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Pineapple Secret
By Michael

July 30. It's 11:06 a.m. It's 101F outside
and 100F inside. Can you imagine your
house that temperature? We run the
fans a lot. Fortunately, the refer is still
going strong, keeping the pineapple cold. 
For all you pineapple-loving cruisers in the tropics, I’ve discovered the way to eat it perfectly sweet, every time. All you need is a pineapple, a knife, some tupperware, and refrigeration.

I’d heard before about choosing a ripe pineapple based on the ease with which a leaf can be plucked from the center of the head. But this knowledge has never been of much help to me in terms of choosing the best time to cut open this fruit. Sometimes I’ve been lucky, but more often than not, no matter how that leaf is to pluck, what I get is either not ripe enough or too ripe.

That was then.

Now I no longer fret. I buy a good-looking pineapple in the store, one that is more green than not, bring it home, and cut it up. It’s usually a bit tart or a bit bland, not quite ready for eating. I put it into the tupperware and into the fridge where, surprisingly, this fruit will continue to ripen at a good clip.

Two or three days later, I pull out the now refreshingly chilled and perfectly sweet pineapple.

In the same vein, we’ve learned to use our fridge to increase the lifespan of our avocado supply. We love avocados, but how long can you enjoy them aboard when in the tropics and away from grocery stores? We’ve gone a month.

We used to buy them hard and green and then they’d be ripe after three days. Then we’d stick them in the fridge and get a couple more days out of them—but no more than that. Like bananas, ripe avos never seemed happy in there.

But then we discovered this: hard green avos will live happily at the bottom of the fridge for as much as 25 days. We stick a bunch in there, removing two or three at a time as needed, to ripen as normal. In this way, we plan to enjoy a batch of fresh guacamole at the end of our future Pacific crossing.

So pineapples and avocados are taken care of. Now I’m off to solve a more important food problem: how do we stow ice cream without a freezer?


Big afternoon thunderstorm coming, our view from
the La Paz anchorage. We are seeing this every
day now. Sometimes they pack quite a punch, in
terms of wind and rain.
And this is how summer in the Baja feels. Fortunately, when
the beer is gone, I've got the next best thing: cold, sweet pineapple.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

An Herbal Tale
By Michael

This is how I used to shop for basil.
We grew basil in our D.C. backyard garden. The plant was like a weed in that climate and for a few months every year, we ate basil on everything and made pesto by the quart.

And we didn’t take our basil bonanza for granted. For years before we owned our own home, we harvested our basil in grocery stores, a few non-organic sprigs packaged in thin, clear-plastic containers and waiting patiently with other, like-packaged fresh herbs. It was barely enough for a garnish and would set us back $2.50 a pop.

Long-immersed in the flavors of Mexico, I’d not given basil a thought for a while. Then I saw it. In Chadraui (one of the big-box stores here in La Paz). In the produce section. A large wicker basket bathed in fluorescent light and brimming with dozens of big, fresh bunches of basil.

My pulse quickened as the necessary components of a new meal came together. We had dried oregano and rosemary aboard. Pasta is widely available. Many of the bland, white Mexican cheeses could stand-in for mozzarella…onions, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, parmesan—check, check, check.

But how much was this bunch of fresh basil the size of a baseball mit gonna cost?

I looked for an Albahaca shelf tag, but there was none. The tag beneath the basil read Epazote: 4.50 c/u. This meant they sold epazote for four-and-a-half pesos a bunch. But this tag was misplaced, because while epazote is an herb, it’s nothing like basil (albahaca).

I decided to go for it. Surely this mammoth bunch of albahaca would cost an arm and leg, but it would be a nice treat.

Chadraui doesn’t have stickers on their produce with four-digit identifying codes. The cashiers just have to know them. Unloading my cart that day, I missed the cashier ringing up my basil and so I didn’t note the price. But outside, I scanned my receipt and found it. She’d charged me 4.5 pesos for epazote. How could this Mexican native confuse the two herbs? It didn’t make sense, but it didn’t matter; I’d just scored about a quarter-pound of beautiful basil for the equivalent of 35 cents U.S.

Over the next few months, I bought increasing quantities of basil. Each time I was charged for epazote. It was so consistent, I began to wonder if it was a La Paz thing, that everyone here just took a vote and decided to call albahaca, epazote. It’s what I needed to believe to ease my conscience. Because if it wasn’t true, I was a thief and the amount of money I’d cost the store to date, walking out with pounds and pounds of basil for pennies, was nearing the threshold of grand theft.

Then I found myself in Chadraui with Carla, another cruiser on her Big Shop before sailing north.

“Do you guys like basil?”

She answered enthusiastically in the affirmative.

“Oh my god, have I got a secret to share…”

Summer was dawning and I walked Carla over to the football-sized leafy bouquets and showed her the Epazote shelf tag beneath them. I encouraged her to buy half-a-dozen bunches. “Pesto will keep forever,” I said.

I tossed a couple into my own cart and when we checked out, Carla was several registers away. I watched my basil move along the conveyor belt until the cashier plucked the bag up and held it to her nose. With her eyes closed, she took a deep inhale before a serene smile brightened her face.

“Ahhh,” she moaned, her eye lids fluttering in ecstasy, “albahaca!

I swallowed, on the verge of yelling out to contradict her: This is epazote! Don’t you remember the vote?

The gig was up. Now in a panic, I worried about Carla paying god-knows-what for an obscene pile of this expensive herb I’d promised her was almost free. I missed the price of my albahaca that flashed on the display. When the cashier was done, I paid and slowly wheeled my cart outside before looking at my receipt. Carla was right behind me and I’d already started apologizing before I saw it: Albahaca 2@ 3.25……6.50—or about fifty cents U.S. for my two bunches.

I’d been ripped off for months.


Eleanor in her spot, ruins in Puerto Escondido.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Myth of the Cruising Kid
By Michael

My girls with a few of their D.C. friends
who don't even own a boat. Windy,
Eleanor, and Frances just returned to
Mexico after three weeks in
the homeland.
There is a belief, widely held and oft-repeated in many forms, in many cases almost by rote. I call it The Myth of the Cruising Kid. In short, it is the assumption that the cruising lifestyle is an antidote to pediatric ills, a magic pill that is sure to turn out a master race of former cruising kids.

My introduction to this myth came as soon as we tossed our kids aboard Del Viento and sailed into the unknown. Thereafter, in nearly every port since, we’ve been met with heaps of assurance that the cruising life will benefit our kids beyond measure.

“It’s so great you’re doing this,” cruisers tell us, nodding and smiling at Eleanor and Frances, “getting them out here, away from the shopping malls and the video games. They are going to thrive.” Then they often add wistfully, “If I had it to do all over again…”

Others may offer, “All the cruising kids I’ve meet are so mature, they look you in eye and they talk to you like little grown-ups,” they say smiling down at our two non-eye-contacting mutes.

These are really nice things to hear, and I strongly agree that this life is a good one for our kids, for our family. But though these messengers are well-intentioned, I don’t think this cruising life setting automatically produces successful, independent, happy kids. And that is really the sentiment we hear from people.

Cruising kids enjoy an inherent, increased exposure to nature and to other cultures and ways of life. And this exposure is what’s often cited in support of The Myth of the Cruising Kid. But I believe that the nice cruising kids I meet are not the way they are because of the cruising-specific elements in their lives. Rather, I think the magic sauce that these kids drink liberally is available, land or sea. I think it’s the role they’re able to play as crewmembers—important, productive members of a household—and the increased time they spend with parents and siblings. These things give kids an important sense of connectedness.

And while it’s generally easier for cruising parents to offer this role and this togetherness, we know shore-based families that also successfully make this a priority, even given their busy shore-based lives. We know many non-cruising kids that shine, kids being raised on land in settings very unlike our cruising world. On average, these kids are no less congenial, sensitive, approachable, informed, or interesting than the dozens of cruising kids we’ve met.

Seeing the sights with their D.C. buddies.
Too, there are obvious problems with The Myth of the Cruising Kid. First, for at least 90 percent of cruising kids, this life is temporary, often fleeting—very few kids are actually raised aboard from start to finish, making them a bona fide product of this life. Second, kids are individuals and they respond individually to the cruising life, some adversely. As ashore, we’ve met cruising kids who’ve not yet learned to be kind.

So what accounts for this perception?

I think part of the answer may be the context of the exposure people have with kids in the cruising life. Did they ever before get stuck sitting next to a 10-year-old at a beach-side pot-luck and then ask questions about their life? Back home, they’d not have paid any attention to the blonde-haired kid helping pick out produce in the grocery store simply because that kid is obviously a foreigner like them. Perhaps some of them had little direct interaction with kids in their pre-cruising life.

Again, I think the cruising life can be rich, especially for families. But kids are kids just as people are people, none as much a product of their environment as of the loving relationships that surround them.

What do you think?

This is the garage I designed and built myself before we left.
I asked Windy to take a picture of it for me, Frances obliged.

I'd forgotten I bought this brick in Eleanor's name, shortly after she was born,
to support the local public pool. "But she was born in 2003," Windy said when
she first saw it after it was laid. Doh!
More good times geocaching with more good friends.

Okay, if you've gotten this far, I take it all back. Clearly, land-based
kids are jaded and mean and clearly my girls have learned from
them after just three short weeks. We need to get all kids
out cruising.
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