Keeping the peace

This month’s raft-up topic looks into relationships on board and asks the question: how do you make a relationship work on board?

Exhibit A: the happy couple… or are they?!

Among the more common questions we get asked by non-cruisers is how we manage to live together in such a small space. At 47 feet, Totem is a middling-to-somewhat-above average size for cruising boat- but it’s smaller than the master suite in our land home, and carved up into three sleeping cabins, two heads, and our “main cabin” area. It’s snug by many standards.

This is a sign that the creature in the V-berth probably needs her space for a while

I suppose that the truth is different for every couple, for every family, based on individual personalities involved. Maybe we’re lucky, but the transition for us from sprawling house to compact boat was pretty easy. If we weren’t suited for this kind of life, we probably wouldn’t be here- and one of the big reasons we’re out cruising is because we wanted more time together as a family. But meanwhile, I think that the occasional relationship tension or family problems that crop up have pretty much nothing to do with the fact we live on a boat. They’d almost certainly happen if we were back in suburbia, too- just with different window dressing.

Jamie and I have joked that cruising adds dog years to a partnership. With more time together, the opportunity to figure out how to make things work- or not- happens faster than it might otherwise. We’ve seen some partnerships weaken, and others grow stronger…. just like we would have at home. It’s a mistake to think that going cruising can resolve relationship problems. It’s not an antidote for a troubled relationship; the work to fix it still has to happen.

We all need different things to keep our souls at peace. Expecting harmonious togetherness all day, every day, isn’t a realistic expectation. I need girlfriend time and exercise, so long walks with my friend Diane from Ceilydh before we left Mexico in 2010 were a helpful place to vent any emotional or physical steam of pre-Pacific crossing stress. When we were living at home on Bainbridge Island, my dear friend Tracey would have been the one to help me re-center on one of our morning runs: we worked through everything but world peace in those misty trots. Ultimately, though, being able to talk to your partner about issues, and understanding when they need space, is an important skill weather you live afloat or ashore. Jamie loves to get off the boat for some spearfishing. I love to tag along and try my luck, but realize this is sometimes a fun thing for him to do “away” with friends as well.

Jamie and Mike bringing home the fish-bacon, South Pacific style

Does it help that we all have space we can retreat to when we need alone time? Maybe. There’s not a cabin per person on Totem, we share three between the five of us, but anyone who needs a quiet corner can find it. I know there are bigger families in smaller boats, but three cabins was our magic number: the girls share one, Niall has one, and Jamie and I have one. It means that when someone needs a little alone time, there’s usually a place to disappear for a while and find some peace. When we’re passagemaking, we actually see less of each other, since we divide keeping watch- but that’s only a small fraction of our time.

Living together in a small space may have changed the way we communicate and interact. We haven’t lived ashore since early 2008, but in 2009 we left Totem for a couple of months during the hurricane season and drove around the US. In my parent’s spacious summer home, I remember noticing that we often stayed bunched together, or at least in the same room/area, when there really was no reason to be within touching distance- especially with all the fun and games on offer at the spread, from sandcastle building to hammock swinging or going for a walk to see the horses. So maybe, the bigger question for us will be how we’ll manage to live together if we move back ashore someday.

Overwhelmingly the root causes come down communication, and aren’t boat specific: being able to listen, being able to share what you need, and working through any differences.

Once upon a time on some pretty Polynesian beach, I asked my friend Christine from Stray Kitty how she and her husband managed to avoid relationship tension while working together in the consulting business they had before cruising. We’d already been cruising for a couple of years at that point. Really, from someone who spends all day (and night), seven days a week, in shmushed togetherness with her family- what was I thinking? Sorry, Chris!

Taking a break in the Padaidos

Once the hook is set in our little spot at Mios Manggwandi, there’s little we’d like to do more than have a nice long nap. When we left Jayapura for all we knew we’d be sleeping off some island anchorage that night- not continuing through three nights of passagemaking! But the right thing to do is launch the dinghy and immediately go ashore to ask for permission to anchoring off the village, so that’s exactly what we do.

On shore, we’re told the kepala desa, the village leader, is away in Biak. He’ll be back in another day or two. The people we meet are reticent- a complete contrast to the exuberant “Hey Mister!” vibe in Jayapura- but we’re welcomed, and told it’s no problem to anchor here.  We ask a few questions – are there crocodiles here? (yes, but not this part of the island- it’s safe for swimming) What are those floats off the reef?  (fish traps / holding pens for some, reef markers for others) We’re offered help to come inside the reef and anchor inside the very flat, and amply large, inner bay in front of the village.

The next day, we’re visited by Paul (which sounds more like “powell” in the Indonesian pronounciation). He is entirely unassuming, so it takes us a while to figure out he is, in fact, the kepala desa.  We spend some time talking in the cockpit, sharing stories. Jamie has been towing kids from Totem and Nalukai in the dinghy behind what we have fondly come to know as “the biscuit”- a big inflatable cushion that induces all manner of squealing and hysterics for the kids pulled behind. Paul doesn’t think twice about the invitation to join, just jumps in the dinghy, then hoots and hollers with the best of them while the boat does doughnuts in the bay.

Later, he brings us the Buku Tamu– their village guest book. A handful of names are written for each year. Most are Indonesian officials of one sort or another, but two Aussie researchers were here a couple of years ago. Paul is especially impressed because one of them is proficient not just in Indonesian, but the local Biak language. We have to go back several years before we find another boat listed… a reminder we’re well off the usual path here.

It’s nice to get here and just relax. We’ve been pushing to get west for months now. We wanted to get ahead -well, catch up anyway- with the seasonal winds and currents, and try to avoid contrary conditions. Between debris, traffic and less friendly villages we’d not been looking forward to this stretch across the top of New Guinea, even with the recommendations and waypoints for safe harbors from our friends on Elena and Anui if we had needed to stop each night. But it’s draining overall. Here in the Padaidos, we know we could jump almost halfway across Papua in a single shot- the rest is achievable. Meanwhile, we have earned a break! The long leg before we can turn south feels within reach now.

Sharing our experiences: Totem’s IWAC interview

It’s brilliant, really, and is exactly the kind of site I would love to have drawn from during our years before departure- when I had a lot more questions than answers. We’ve had fun reading it while we had better internet access, and are pretty tickled that she asked us to do an interview, posted this week.

It’s interesting to see how different cruisers respond to the same question- a good reminder that we all approach cruising in our own way, and there aren’t always “right answers.” 

Livia has been on hiatus for a while and isn’t adding new material regularly- just a few stragglers like us- but there is a wealth of knowledge to mine in the archives. So if you’re thinking about cruising, check it out! And if you’re already out there, well, you should still check it out- we can all learn from sharing our experiences with each other.

Across the top of Papua: Jayapura to Biak

We had been anticipating a challenging journey across the top of Papua. It is the “wrong” season. Wind and current are likely to be adverse. Because of the logging in Papua, there are many trees and logs reported in the water- so many that boats were required to slow their speed. It was impossible to see every log in the water and hitting at least a few was inevitable, and best not done while screaming along. They stopped all night travel because it was impossible to see logs in the water. This is further complicated by the fact that it’s a rough coast of roadstead anchorages. It is expected that you will get permission from the adjacent village ashore, and some have not been terribly friendly (such as requesting exorbitant fees for anchoring). Rather than set the precedent of paying a ransom to anchor, boats simply move on. But this takes time, since it’s a bad practice to anchor in the dark.

Totem at Mios Munggwandi
Totem at rest off Mios Mangwandi, in the Padaido Islands

Our first goal is to get from Jayapura to the Padaido Islands, just southeast of Biak. We know our speed will be slow, whether as a result of the wind/current or a deliberate action based on logs, so expect it will take a few days if we can press straight through- but easily more than a week if we determine we can move during daylight hours only.

After the bright lights, floating garbage, and mosque megaphones of Jayapura- the coastline to the west is almost eerily wild. Once again, there are no lights- just the occasional firelight flickering, although soon enough we’re not close enough to see even those. In fading evening light, the coastline screams upward into mountains, lush and densely green. Clouds obscure the top, reaching with misty fingers towards the sea. We crack bad jokes about returning to Jurassic Park, but still half expect to see a pterodactyl overhead.

Most of our worries do not play out. We bump into three logs in the first hours out of Jayapura, where a relatively confused sea state makes it difficult to see and anticipate any impact. But conditions soon mellow out, fewer logs are seen, and ultimately we decide we feel entirely comfortable continuing overnight. Every day we watch conditions and re-evaluate.  The current is generally neutral, with periods of a slightly foul flow. The debris in the water isn’t significant, even as we cross in front of rivers. There’s a considerable amount of large boat traffic, but it’s all four to five miles offshore- we stay about eight miles out and have a clear path. Unfortunately there’s no wind for sailing, and the passage is almost entirely a motorboat ride. We get just enough to motorsail a few times. It’s a big help for fuel efficiency, but we’d rather just be sailing.

We experience an anomaly: at one point, our transducer reads a water temperature that suddenly dips from around 90 degrees down to a cool 68. It lingers there for a few minutes, then pops back up to near 90 again. We’re near a trench and assume it’s part of an upwelling. Ideally this would translate into a great place for fishing, but our lines are empty.

It’s not until the last morning- our fourth calendar day out- that we get some truly snotty weather. Ironically it is just as we in the final 15 or so miles coming into the islands where we hope to anchor. This has been something of a theme for us in recent months: squalls that hit just as we are in the home stretch or entering a harbor. Not the best timing, but it’s all fine, and Totem soon rests peacefully in the lee of a sweet looking island.

Making friends in Jayapura

Jayapura was supposed to be all about clearing the official hurdles, then getting west- but we had a great time making new friends.
Totem anchored in deep water right off the city center in a spot recommended by Anui, who stopped here last year. The police dock adjacent to a small neighborhood makes for a safe place to leave the dink, and the friendly residents next door offer us a warm welcome.
After days of going back and forth through their neighborhood, we feel like we know them. Selfi has plied us with treats from street vendors in the laneway. We’ve invited the families who live at the waterfront end of the laneway out to Totem, and they descent in masse one afternoon. It’s hysterical. These families- and most of the neighborhood- is associated with the adjacent intelligence police presence…we are assured it is a very safe place for us to be.
Parting is such sweet sorrow
We had an afternoon of silly fun with the laneway moms and kids
Our first night, we go ashore in search of dinner. We would never have dreamed of setting foot in an PNG town after dark, but here it’s no problem. Not that we make it far- it’s only a few yards past the laneway before a group of stalls lure us with delicious aromas and the promise of noodles. We end up talking to an official from the naval department that manages navigation aids, located next door. After chatting over dinner, he invites us to his office Christmas party the following evening. OK!
The party turns out to be mostly a long ceremony of speeches and skits (with senior officials in costume replaying, but livens up at the end with song and dance performances. It has a surprisingly Christian bent, from the nativity scene at the front of the room to a sermon delivered by a Christian pastor. There is a huge buffet, and the children make me proud by tackling all manner of unidentifiable food. It is delicious, when it isn’t too spicy for them. Their highlight was when the big boss walked around and handed each child a 50,000 Rupiah note. It’s only about US$5, but that’s a pretty big deal here, where a “taksi” ride is $0.20 and dinner out at a Warung is about $2.50. Windfall for the Totem kids!
Office Christmas party
There were lots of photos. Generallly, the kids looked happy about it. Really.
Heading back to the laneway, we find the tide has gone out, and the dinghy is aground. This normally wouldn’t seem like such a big deal, but the stilt houses at the waters edge are basically floating over the worst filth of the harbor. Dirty diapers and other delights make this a haven for rats. Lots of rats. Glorious rats, all around the dinghy and under the house, surfing garbage piles. Jamie rescues us all by retrieving the dinghy to a distance that minimizes our exposure. We all want to shower when we get back to Totem.
The next day, I’m eager to get some exercise. It’s been a lot of days either cooped up on the boat or tramping between official offices- I want to get out and stretch my legs, see a little. There’s a temple perched temptingly up the hillside behind the anchorage, so I make it my goal.
I set off in the general direction and hope for the best. Jumping under a shelter to wait for a squall to pass through, I talk to the others doing the same. By the time the rain stops five minutes later, two boys are insisting they will take me to the temple.
Following them turns out to be an excellent idea, because I could never have found it on my own. We wind through alleyways with walls I can touch on either side. Several times it feels more like I’m stepping into someone’s home, when it’s really a path farther along the mountainside!
My impromptu guides
Nicest guys. I would definitely have gotten lost without them.
But the view is worth it.  
We change anchorages to be closer to Hamadi, where we hope to find fuel and where a large fresh produce market is located. Many curious boats stop by. Some are a little too friendly. One kid decides to let himself on board Sea Glass, and is hustled off. This turns out to mostly be a communication problem. When the boy and his friends come over to Totem, it resolves that they are trying to give us fish and offer a few words of welcome! 
New best friends
Papuan family we befriended near Hamadi
I end up jumping in their boat and following them around the big open air market in Hamadi, where I’m treated to an excellent tour and given advice on what I should be paying for everything. It is a huge help to be able to speak some Indonesian! I’m so grateful that rusty bahasa, learned 20+ years ago on Bali, is all sliding back into my head.
He comes back again, with his family.

Jayapura’s sharp contrast to PNG

Jayapura is just a few hours sail (or motor) from Vanimo, PNG, but it’s a world apart.  We are clearly in a new country, a new culture- and although the delineation seems arbitrary, a new continent as well.

Oh tempeh. it’s been a while, and I’ve missed you.

There’s infrastructure. From no utilities of any kind in PNG, radio towers and power poles now sprout everywhere, and there’s a dramatic increase in houses and buildings- built from durable materials, even. The harbor is dotted with large fishing platforms. The roads are paved, and most even have sidewalks, although they are frequently missing slabs make it more treacherous than La Paz (our last winner for the Most Dangerous Sidewalk award). Looking up is risky!

The harbor is filthy. In Papua New Guinea, there was little in the way of plastic goods sold- things are reused to an extreme degree, and any garbage usually washed up from somewhere else. Here, there is a ton of cheap plastic junk for sale, and no system to collect garbage other than chucking it outside. Raw sewage flows into the bay. We ask someone where to take our bag of garbage, and they actually recommend we throw it over the side of the boat into the bay.

The military presence is palpable. It’s a dramatic contrast to PNG, where official encounters were rare. Here, there are so many branches of the military I cannot keep count. We see armored cars, uniforms of every color, busses decked out for riot gear, transport wagons with caged enclosures. We seemed to see police of one stripe or another on every block.

It’s noisy. In the early morning hours, we listen to the calls to prayer float over the water as dawn breaks across the sky. Every neighborhood has a mosque, and each one has a different voice. It’s not too loud, though. The more irritating sound is the power station alongside the bay that drones over everything. In the evening, churches get in on the broadcasting action- and the sheer noise competition is a little too much.

It’s a little overwhelming, but I cannot wipe the smile off my face. It is still feels so good to be back in Indonesia, and I love every minute of the new assault on the senses.

Welcome to Indonesia – big bureaucracy and big brother

The view!
Looking down- way, way down- at Totem. Jayapura, Papua, Indonesia

We arrive in Jayapura at midday (is 12 pm on 12/12/12 auspicious?) and go through the motions of checking in with immigration, customs, and quarantine. This eventually takes two days, but considering the amount of bureaucracy involved this ends up feeling fairly efficient (typical of the experience at any of the official offices: “take this paper, go down the street, make 5 copies and come back”). Naturally, these offices are also in different parts of town. At least the “taksi” service (actually a shared minivan used for public transportation) is cheap- about US$0.20 for a ride across town.

I make the fatal error of leaving our ship’s stamp on board. Until now, this has been a novelty- something we use to stamp the inside of our books or imprint for fun on notepaper. Now, the immigration official gives me a look that can only be described as aghast when I tell her I don’t have a ships stamp to put on that piece of paper she’s holding. She allows the process to continue with just my signature, but clearly isn’t happy about it. OK, note to self, bring stamp next time!

What we don’t realize initially is we’ve missed two critical stops: the harbormaster, who it turns out is rather offended that we did not visit him first, and the military police, who issue permits specific to travel in Papua (the surat jalan).

The harbormaster is readily resolved once we realize our error. It turns out we’ve been using his dock as a dropoff for the dinghy shuttle for some time– although we were clearly from new yachts in the harbor, it was days before any the guys who waved us ashore thought to mention that possibly we should step inside instead of walk around the side to the main road. Oops!

Getting the surat jalan was another experience altogether. The Indonesian half of New Guinea is currently divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua. Independence movements have rumbled here for years. The indigenous Melanesian people from New Guinea are culturally vastly different from the Asiatic Indonesians. In many places, indigenous people have been forced off their land to make way for extraction- and, big surprise, they receive little to no benefit. In some cases are literally kept outside the high fences from their traditional lands. This independence movement has had increased activity in recent years, making the surat jalan a tool for the Indonesian government to watch and monitor foreigners in the area.

A visit to the anchorage by police kicks off the process. We are told to report into the intelligence police, and show up as quickly as we can- I was ashore and had to scramble back. What followed was entirely unexpected. It soon becomes apparent that we are being interrogated. Respectfully, yes, but definitely interrogated.

We are shuffled through a couple of different rooms, with a couple of different people questioning us. There is the Lt Col with a very large quantity of gold stitching and various metal insignias of rank hanging off his uniform. Later was the intelligence colonel, in a tailored version of the Indonesian suit (leisure suits never went out of style here) but specifically unmarked uniform- no name, no gold, no medals, nothing. Another round of interrogation ensues. I’m sure he was very good at getting information from us, although we couldn’t tell him much about things that we didn’t know about!

A few stories dribble out. We are told that visitors, westerners in particular, have been smuggling things in to support the Papuan freedom movement. This was not idle threat: in the last few months, there have been arrests, deaths, and extraditions for people involved with smuggling arms or knowledge or other undesirables to the rebels. It took up all of an afternoon, but eventually we were given our paper and sent off with a “we’re watching you” smile. OK. Whew. Can we go now?

Vanimo, part 2: So you’re from the yacht!

“Oh, you’re from the yacht!” It’s not a question, but a statement I hear from almost everyone with whom I have more than a simple transactional interaction. From the woman who helps point me to the consulate, walking home from church. We’d only just arrived- how did she know? And yet she did, because she asked if it was the green or white boat… and we had arrived with our friends, in their green boat.

Totem at Rabaul
Totem at anchor. OK, so this is actually in Rabaul…I didn’t get the camera out much in Vanimo

I woke up our second morning determined to get a fresh perspective. Dawn has yet to lighten the sky, but I’m up anyway so I sit in the cockpit and watch the lights on shore. After all this time among islands lit only by fire, it’s a novelty.

Just like the prior night, a fishing boat drifts uncomfortably close. They pass a dozen yards from Totem, but are getting really close to Sea Glass. The big outboard off the back is pulled up, and the boat is being silently maneuvered with a wooden oar instead. I give a low whistle, thinking this will wake up Jamie. Instead, it gets the attention of the fishing boat. OK, here they come. Now what?

There seem to be several people aboard, most of them sleeping or resting on the bottom of the boat. As they get closer, it appears to be a family: parents, a grandmother, and two young children. I stand at the side of the boat as they come close, and offer a stem of bananas. There must be at least 50 left on the stem we were given in Ninigo, and we can’t possibly finish them before we clear into Indonesia. It seems a good peace offering. They were just curious, of course. Where are we from? Do we like Vanimo? The children immediately eat bananas, and look up with wide eyes.

Later in the morning, I go for a walk around town while waiting to pick up our visas. The public market was on, and I could get lost for hours wandering through even the smallish area it takes up. A woman with an impressive boar tusk pendant sells me a few papayas. I’m dying to talk to her and learn about the necklace, but am shy. Another woman is selling krupuk. Despite the fact that these crisp shrimp crackers bear more than a passing resemblance to Styrofoam, I’m so happy to buy a package. They are distinctly Indonesian and remind me of what’s ahead. I stop to talk with the seller. “So, you’re from the yacht!” Again, it’s not really a question.

Down the row, I play peek-a-boo with a baby, snuggled against his grandmother in a sling as she sits before her vegetable wares. The little boy gives me a wan smile; after some work, I finally get a giggle. “He’s sick,” granny tells me, and puts my hand on his back- it’s burning. What an awful feeling- what can I do? She presses a cucumber into my hand, and I walk away feeling a little dazed, not sure if I’m being thanked or sent away or a little of both. Sweet-smelling kretek smoke floats through the air. I detest cigarettes, but this smell of the Indonesian smokes throws me back to living there twenty years ago, and I am immediately nostalgic.

Back to the consulate, our paperwork is delayed again, but I am assured it will be ready after the lunch break. I stop to talk with Malaysian businessmen, hydrographers who work with the timber extraction business in New Guinea. They’re trying to get visas too. “So, you’re from the yacht?” – it’s still not really a question.

Outside the market, the roads rapidly vanish into lush mountains. The PNG border town could be called sleepy, if it weren’t for the busy harbor. Trucks roared down the causeway, loaded down with massive trees. Cranes lifted the awesome trunks (easily 75’ long and a meter thick diameter, which only suggest at the ultimate size of the tree) into ships and barges, their sound of their impact below resonating even inside Totem. Tugs were jockeying barges into position for loading, spinning and manoevering at an occasionally uncomfortable proximity.

The sheer scale of the timber is impressive, but it’s depressing too. It’s just highly unlikely that any of it is from sustainable managed forests. We have heard too many stories about government corruption, and about the manipulation of the local landowners by international timber companies, to imagine anything else. It is a massive area being felled to support this constant flow.

With a few more hours to wait for paperwork, I take our laptop into a surfer’s hotel and get an internet hookup. It’s been months since we had a decent connection! This still isn’t decent, by first world standards, but it gets the job done. I use my entire hour of time downloading about 300 emails, and manage to just check our bank statement before getting cut off. The staff is helpful, and I’m tempted to just sit in the air conditioning for a while- what a luxury it feels like! They ask if we’ll be back, and I hear once again- “oh, you’re from the yacht!” Yes, that’s me.