[I have had a few technical questions about timeline/logistics etc. recently and so will pause for a moment to explain what's up. Silas Crosby, with Steve on board, is somewhere over in the vicinity of La Paz. John went home for Christmas. A few weeks ago, I got onto a different sailboat (taking flight) for the three day passage over to the Mexican mainland. While waiting for my mum and sister to arrive from BC, I looked after a cat named Buster on a boat in Puerto Vallarta called Grace while the owners did some inland traveling. I lost the cat, but, oh wonder of wonders, it has since been found. I am now in Sayulita hanging out with the fam (minus Dad, who is still in Kenya). In another week or so I will start to make my way back to Silas Crosby, via the ferry from Mazatlan. Is anyone reading this in Mazatlan and might have a small space for me to sleep in for a night - a settee or a sidedeck? Worth a try.]
In this place where the moon hangs belly down I finally feel alone. Even though I am in the most crowded place I have been in weeks I feel the most solitary I have felt in months.
I celebrate by drinking rum and cokes and sitting very still.
“Really” I think, as I look to the sky full of stars dulled by the lights of the city, “is this what it takes?”
Why do I so struggle with independence? As if my life doesn’t speak for itself. But inside all of the independent actions are thoughts that dwell on moments so intimately shared; these roads, these towns, this midday heat and midnight cool.
Unintentionally and without noticing, these dusty Mexican towns became familiar and as comfortable as home.
In a life lived so fiercely, it is hard to explain the overwhelming tendency towards inaction. But on this borrowed boat I bask in sudden solitude and allow myself to think great rare thoughts.
With deep inhales, I breathe in words already shaped into sentences, will myself to remember syntax and form. Writing is such a handy excuse until actually attempted.
It’s like the plot in a made for tv movie. At first, it’s too convenient and everyone is super friendly. We barely know each other, but Paul and Judy, a couple in their sixties from Seattle, are enthusiastic about having me stay on their boat Grace for a few days while they travel inland with friends. They show me around, introduce me to the cat for which I am responsible, give me the phone number of some nearby friends and take me out for lunch before waving goodbye. For a supposedly win win situation, I feel my prize is bigger.
I haven’t been alone for more than a few hours in months, since we left Vancouver Island in September. On Silas Crosby, my bunk is part of the main cabin and from day to night I shift my things up and down from the settee to the bunk and back again. And then on Taking Flight, my bunk was the settee and my stuffsack of clothes lived under the nav table. In other words, my current existence is not what you would call spatially expansive.
The first night on Grace I just kind of sit around. Not once do I have to move so that someone can get into a settee locker, nor do have to tidy up my clothes which lay strewn all over the cabin. Once and a while I move to check on the cat, which naps peacefully on the cabin top. He’s nineteen years old and chatty but not especially demanding. We seem to get off on the right foot.
The next morning I wake up to the arrival of the polishing team. Paul had warned me that he had arranged to have his stainless shined and so I am expecting them. They’re not really expecting me though and look disbelieving when I tell them I’m just staying here to look after the cat.
That afternoon, I meet up with the family from Taking Flight again and we head into Puerto Vallarta for the celebration of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. The streets are packed and we drift along with the current of people as they flow towards the central cathedral. It’s exciting to be part of a crowd after so much time spent in open, empty spaces. Kids run in circles and vendors hoc traditional flan deserts and spongy lizards on the end of wire leashes. It’s fun to watch Kara watch the world. Though soon she will learn to consider choosing fear or aloofness when faced with a world so different from her own, for now she gets up close, squeezing through the undergrowth of the crowd as only kids can do, her white blonde head standing a bit taller than her Mexican peers.
The polishing team takes Sunday off, and I take advantage of new friends who live in a condo with a pool. Over fresh cut salsa and tortialla chips they tell me stories from their five years spent sailing the Caribbean.
At this point in the movie, lots has already been covered. The chapter titles are pretty predictable: Meredith gets responsibility, Meredith relaxes and does her laundry, Meredith goes on a Mexican fiesta adventure, and Meredith makes new friends. Anyone familiar with the genre knows what necessarily comes next: trouble.
And indeed, when I take a break from my book to poke my head out of the cabin to check on Buster the cat, I am subconsciously prepared for this next chapter. Meredith loses the cat.
It’s dark and the docks are quiet as I wander them forlornly, ears perked for the sound of the cat’s jingling collar. Eventually, I have to give up and go to sleep hoping he will be back by the morning. Obviously, this does not happen, and when the polishing crew arrives instead I try to explain to them that I have failed at the job (as simple as it had initially seemed). We all look at each other and shrug our shoulders.
“Que puedes hacer?” We ask each other. Nada.
All that day I lurk around the boat willing the cat to return. All this plot needs is a strapping young Mexican to walk up with the cat in his arms. But no such luck. The cat is just gone.
So now we’re in the brief inhale before the resolution of the problem, wherein Meredith tries to justify what she’s done (or not done) and then Meredith cleans the boat and waits for the owners to get back and hopes they will understand.
So I’m sorry folks, but there is no tidy ending to this one, no happy reunion or sly moral lesson. The cat just didn’t come back.
It’s eleven o’clock at night and I’m in the galley spreading peanut butter and jam onto a piece of bread. At dinnertime, Kara felt too seasick to eat quesadillas, but six hours later she’s a long way from seasick and has announced that she’s hungry.
What wind there was has pretty much died. Outside the sails bang and slap mercilessly as the boat is knocked from side to side by the swell but inside through the speakers the recorded voice of Jim Dale rises above it all. Kara’s mother, Ann, pushed play as we pulled out of the bay at Cabo San Lucas this morning and now, more than twelve hours later, we’re not even halfway through Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. As I screw the lid back on the peanut butter, Harry placates Hermione after yet another one of Ron’s rebuffs. It’s a surreal moment for me and I keenly feel the distance between this and life on Silas Crosby. There’s nothing like teen wizard angst to make one’s own life seem charmed.
Kara, who at six years old is closer to wizard than teenager, is curled on the windward side of the cockpit. This morning, she had grudgingly consented to putting on some underwear, which is presently all she is wearing. Clothes, she would have us know, are highly overrated. By the light of the navigation instruments I can see that she has been busy; pen drawings of hearts and faces and rectangles are interspersed across her chest and thighs like avant guard tattoos of an up and coming love punk band. I hand up the sandwich and climb out into the night to join her.
These multi day passages are a challenge for most adults but, after the first forty eight hours, most people fall into a rhythm of watching and sleeping that allows the days to slip by quite comfortably. For Kara though, the project at hand (of crossing a sea) definitely lacks tangible purpose. I recognize her scattered attention span in my own not too distant past; indeed, in the space of one afternoon hour, we play two different puzzle games, fold some origami animals, draw some flowers and butterflies and discuss the various merits of different wand material. From mile to watery mile, Harry Potter goes from one escapade to the next and even when Kara finally goes to sleep near midnight I keep listening.
We’re about halfway between the Baja Peninsula and the mainland of Mexico. As an encore to my boat hitchhiking adventures of a year ago, I have joined the crew of “Taking Flight” on their passage to Puerto Vallarta. Dave and Ann did the trip ten years ago, pre-child, and have come back with the hope of sharing the delights of cruising with Kara. There are moments when she seems to understand; for example, within moments of dropping the anchor at Isla Isabella, three days after leaving Cabo San Lucas, we’re all in our bathing suits and overboard. The water is so clear that we can see the anchor on the bottom, twenty five feet down, and around the keel swim brightly coloured tropical fish. Kara squeals as she paddles in circles a couple of feet away from the ladder.
“We could never do this in Seattle, could we?” Kara has never lived anywhere but in this boat (albeit on a dock in Seattle), so the major adjustment that most cruisers have to make to living aboard goes unnoticed for the most part. It’s in moments like this though, where the water is warm and blue and she hasn’t worn clothes in days (perhaps weeks), that she grasps the distance travelled.
But in other moments, the spirit of discovery fails her. We’ve come ashore at the small fish camp on Isabella for a walk. The Island is one of the most important nesting sites for Frigate birds and Blue-footed Boobies. The island, with its lush vegetation is a marked change to the desert landscape of the Baja from where we have just come. Kara is nonplussed and vocalising. I’m trying hard to give her the benefit of the doubt by desperately trying to remember what it is like to be six. I know I wasn’t the keenest hiker around (I had the nickname Mona for a while), but I also don’t remember being given a vote. I’m sure there are times when my and my sister’s protestations overcame my parents’ own spirit of discovery, but for the most part I remember hiking, cycling and paddling even when my most fervent complaints had been logged. Even now, I get irrationally irritated when my Dad asks if I would like to join him for a “walk” when I know the planned route falls easily into the category of Hike. Euphemisms and bribes are no longer necessary to keep me from complaining (most of the time), but over the sound of Kara’s lamentations I have to consciously suppress the desire to tell her to get over it and carry on. Instead, I cheerfully point out the lizard and look desperately around for the next distraction.
Kara’s big into games and even bigger into rules and two or three times a day I accidentally and obliviously make up a new one. After dinner one night Kara comes up to me with a blanket.
“Let’s play Blanket Monster again, but this time you’re not allowed to look me in the eye for more than two seconds. It’s a rule”. I have to think for a moment to remember back a couple of hours to when I had rolled her into a blanket repeatedly and called her the Blanket Monster. Apparently, that was enough for a Game. Just before we leave on for our hike on the island, Kara announces a new game.
“Let’s pretend,” she tells me, “that you’re my big sister and I’m your little sister. And you have to be serious about it.”
I try and joke my way out of it. I warn her that she might want to check in with my real little sister before she commits to anything.
“Being a little sister doesn’t really seem like that much fun,” I tell her, “mostly I would make you ask Mum for things I knew we aren’t allowed and not let you play with me or my friends”. Kara looks a bit confused. “No,” she demands, “you have to be for REALS”. She has no idea. A couple of hours later we’re cooling off with a swim.
“Get me my towel,” she tells me. I look at her for a moment before I inform her that if I was really her big sister, there’s no way I would do that, and since we’re playing for reals, she can go and get her own towel. She comes back inside with her towel and an announcement.
“Ok,” she tells me, “now I’m the big sister and you’re the little sister. And we’re playing for reals”. She’s learning.
I head in the direction of the village with the hope of doing some socialising. I’m no stranger to the limited social life, but I don’t think it’s ever been quite this limited. We left San Diego almost a month ago, and in that time I have legitimately interacted with four people. Sure, I have exchanged words with ten or twelve others, but nothing past a short, cursory conversation.
To be totally honest, I don’t lie awake at night wishing there were more people around. In the frustrating moments, I’m more likely to wish there were fewer. However, the prospect of a good chat has me making the trek towards the nearest gathering of people, modest as it may be.
Halfway along the road through town, a sign tells me that the population of Puerto Magdalena is 110 strong and that wifi is available here (though it is currently not functioning). I feel like I’ve already said good afternoon to half the town on my way in and I’m ready to take a break and be a watcher instead of the watched. I ask at the restaurant if they have any sodas, but they explain to me that the restaurant only opens once the whales arrive. Tourists come, they explain, from Puerto San Carlos on day tours. See the whales and visit a real Mexican fish camp. But not yet, not for another month. Jorge points me up the hill to the small store.
As I push open the screen door I wonder for an awkward moment if I have the wrong house and that I’m about to walk into a family living room. My fears are quickly eased by the familiar sight of Bimbo bread racks and Tecate beer posters. A woman emerges through a doorway that does in fact lead into the family living room and takes her place behind the counter. She watches me select a pop from the cooler and I can sense her gearing up for the pantomime that usual takes place between her and the visiting yachties. I over compensate in my desire to communicate, babbling away about weather and drink selection and weather again. She smiles shyly and hands me my change. I ask if I can sit on the porch for a while drinking my pop. Claro, she tells me.
I suck back my Fresca and watch some guys paint lines on a new basketball court. A few women and children come and pick up things at the store – tortillas, bread, candy. There is a lull and the shopkeeper joins me on the porch. Slowly, the conversation ball starts rolling and before ten minutes have gone by I’ve met her husband and grandmother, I know that her second baby is due on March 14th (my own birthday) and there are two or three other people gathered on the deck. The town is not so bad, they tell me. They have a school now, for the eleven or twelve kids under twelve. After that, they make the half hour trip by panga across Bahia Magdalena to Puerto San Carlos to go to the high school.
I ask about the whales and they all shake their heads. Todavia no, they tell me. Not yet. Soon? I ask. They shrug collectively; they come when they come. I know how they feel. A teenager comes out of the house and deposits a baby in a fleecey sleeper into the arms of the shopkeeper. He’s just woken up, but he wastes no time in noticing me. He stares at my eyes, and the gathered crowd laughs. Los ojos claros, they explain, he doesn’t understand the blue.
I tell them about where I am from and they roll the word around in their mouths. Canada, they say, CanaDA. Someone’s cell phone rings, and one by one the posse dissipates until it’s just the shopkeeper and her baby left. Do you like it here? She asks me. Of course I tell her I do, but I’m not just saying so to be nice. The place has a great feel.
And, quite in contrast to what one might first assume, it is not a feeling of exoticness. Rather, it feels like a small, friendly town past the end of the road anywhere. There are places like this in Ontario, I think, and BC. I know people who come from these towns.
But yet, so often we expect to account for the distance travelled. Indeed, it is with our keen desire for strangeness that we hold these places and their people up for examination. And, through the wilful lens of the outsider the elements we so hope to find are held up and brought forward from amidst the all too ordinary lives: simplicity, struggle, ritual, progress.
My quest for words fulfilled, I buy a kilo of tortillas and begin my walk back to the boat.