silas crosby

some words from the sea

Month: January 2011

somehow

…despite a prize-winning absence of daily, weekly or monthly deadlines, I manage to effectively procrastinate every week so that the Wednesday sun rarely sees my blog post published.

…I find myself (for the second day in a row), the sole sipper at a small cafe in central La Paz. For hours, I move from table to table, chased by the sun and driven by my small computer’s need for power as shifts begin and end.

…Steve and I spent five hours today passing from one governmental office to another in search of all the pieces required for official departure by sea from Mexico. On the walks between buildings I would try to bring to the surface potentially useful verbs like obtain, check, document, inspect, complete, leave. Disculpanos, I would begin, carefully mapping out the possible directions of every conversation, nos preperamos a irnos del pais por velero.

…We write lists of lists that need to be made.

  • Make a list.
  • Buy fabric to sew flags for Ecuador and Chile (note: only four colours are required).
  • Sew flags.
  • Also, extend the shoulder straps on foul weather pants so as to lower the crotch by just a few inches (this one will be worth it in a couple of months, even if it’s a pain now).
  • While we’re at it, sew a bag for the chain weight of the Jordan Series Drogue, which may stay prepped on the aft deck while on passage.
  • Make an effort to be suitably serious about the business of long distance ocean cruising. Avoid tendency towards nonchalance.
  • Make a list of podcasts to be downloaded.
  • Download as many podcasts as humanly possible.
  • And knitted slipper patterns.
  • Try not to let the outboard run out of gas halfway to the dock again (a beginner’s mistake – inappropriate and mildly irritating).
  • Watch some more instructional ukulele you tube videos.
  • Check daily at the bank for replacement debit card.
  • Don’t lose the list.
  • Or the new debit card.

…We prepare to cross thousands of miles of ocean by buying candy, bungee cord, new rope, more canned tomatoes, vinegar and index cards. Also, I dry bananas on the foredeck (and La Paz has it’s first cloudy day in months).

Somehow, days slide by and hours slip past until one day we will decide we are ready to pull away from this country, bound for points much southward.

Isla San Jose

Reno looks at me over his bowl of clam chowder.
“Over above Evaristo there, up the arroyo to the right of town, you know, there’s a spot where you find geodes like tubes instead of spheres, like they normally are”. He shakes his head and grins. “It baffles the heck out of me, how they form that way. I’ve thought about it a lot, but for now it goes on the list of things I don’t understand”.
Outside, the wind whistles through the rigging and blows the boat from side to side on the end of it’s anchor chain. Steve and I sit across the small table from Reno and his wife, Cathy. The pot of chowder and a plate of warm soda crackers sits in between us. The clams were collected a few miles away, off the north coast of Isla San Francisco. Reno shows me the shells of the different clams and explains how to find them.
“And it’s best to go when it’s calm,” interrupts Cathy, “On windy days, the shadows of the wind waves along the sandy bottom make the clams nervous so they close up and you can’t see them.”
I scrape the bottom of my wooden bowl, try to imagine it’s me who spotted the spot, took the breath, dove down deep. Even in imagining it, I can’t quite bring myself to dig my fingers down into the sand to grasp at something unseen, unknown, alive.

I had been skirting the crystal white edge of an abandoned salt pond, pink with algae and neglect, when I paused to look up from my careful route finding towards the west. From a distance, he could have been an old Mexican goat herder or fisherman. His silhouette, straw hat and slow progress, is as of this landscape as is possible. Our paths converged beside the old lighthouse on the point where we shook hands and stood looking out across San Jose channel. He had a pair of goat horns slung with string across his back, a twenty litre plastic drum in one hand.
“You must be our new neighbour,” one of his front teeth is capped with gold and his skin is sun weary.
I nod. “We’ve been invited for dinner on your boat,” I tell him, “your wife is making clam chowder”.

None of us here are of this place – me least of all. Despite four months over the last two years spent travelling through this peninsula, for me it has lost none of its strangeness. Everything about it is foreign to me, from the ever present sand to the fact that it hasn’t really rained in two years. Compared to the places I call home, at first this desert feels so empty. Without the dense greens and dark soils from which I have been taught things grow I find it hard to believe that abundant life is possible.

On the table in front of us, Steve arranges Reno’s arrowhead collection in neat rows on the placemat. He tells us he only finds two or three every year, mostly on the ridges and high places of the islands scattered throughout the southern Sea of Cortez. The twenty ancient artifacts kept casually in a basket on the cabin tabletop, shuffled out of the way for bowls of chowder and glasses of beer, represent a lot of miles walked by one man and a lot of years lived by a people long since gone from this place. A few are perfectly formed – carefully napped stone gives way to a point on one end, to grooves for binding on the other.
“When the basket gets full, I make him sort through and put some back to make way for new finds”. Cathy picks through other treasures on the table, pieces of coral and bone.

Over dessert, Cathy apologizes for being antisocial. They were up celebrating late the night before, she explains, with a different Steve from a different boat.
“I finally finished my book,” she tells us, kicking vaguely under the table where the manuscript is apparently packaged and ready for distribution to publishers.
“When we quit cruising and built our cabin in Montana, I pictured snowed-in winters when I would finally have time to sit down and write about our adventures.” Cathy shakes her head and looks at Reno. “But we have never stayed in the cabin for the winter, we kept coming back down here. So I just had to write it here on the boat”.
Reno doesn’t respond; he’s busy digging in the galley. He comes back to the table with a bowl holding four or five marble sized balls covered in small black specks. He has been experimenting with making candy from different cactus fruits and seeds. The ball is tasty, sweet and sticky and the seeds make a satisfying crunch.

“I’m not much of a sailor,” Reno tells us. For him, he explains to us, it’s a convenient lifestyle, one that allows him to live the way he wants to live. They truck camped for a couple of winters in between boats, but, he laughs as he tells us, “the only places we could go were places where the roads went”.
There were no roads to the small island in the south pacific where they wrecked a previous sailboat more than twenty years ago. With no way off, they stayed, Cathy for three months and Reno for a further two. There’s no question it has good potential, but I worry that such a life has too many good stories for a book to be read by people in winter armchairs. People struggle to write books about one year of adventure, let alone forty.

The next day, Steve and I take Reno up on his offer of a hike to an old gold mine. The mine village (which I hear as “the Mayan village” for the first ten times it is mentioned and has me seriously confused) hasn’t been lived in for at least thirty years. Pieces of heavy machinery are scattered in between roofless houses and crumbling goat fences. We all lean over the opening of a deep well as Steve throws in a rock, ears cocked for the distant splash.
Our route mostly follows an old arroyo. It’s hard to believe no water has run down these canyons for many months, the undercut banks and uprooted cacti suggest more recent raging torrents. Resilient as it may be, the desert does not absorb impact well. It’s history, though bleached white and drained of any residual moisture, stays visible and readable until the next time people try to live here, until the next big rainfall.

We’re not lost, exactly, it’s just that every arroyo looks much like the next and when the guiding landmark is one low reddish hill among many, it’s easy to see how one can get confused.

When we reach the top of the mine hill, Reno points out features along the facing mountain range – ranchos and palm oasises, roads and anchorages. This is a place he knows, better by far than any place I know anywhere. He explains that they used to go further north, but “now they just get so busy around here doing this and that” that they never move much more than twenty miles north or south from this place now. He’s spent more years in this small piece of the world – the boundaries of which we can basically see from the very hill on which we stand – than I have been alive.
We walk back to the boats along the beach. I pick up a few shells to carry with me. As we sit on the beach to take off our boots, Reno hands me a tiny pink shell, so thin the light shines right through. “Now that’s a keeper,” he tells me.

se habla

Last week, Steve went back to Spanish school for five days. For the morning hours, Steve would learn the verbs and tenses of a new language – whole ideas, ways of being, time itself reconsidered, really – while I would jog/walk the few kilometres down the malecon and back.
In the afternoons, Steve studied verbos while I, content in my ability to conjugate the verb to be in every one of Spanish’s fourteen tenses, canned chorizo and sampled knitted slipper patterns.
“Que aprendiste?” I would ask him at the end of each day’s lessons. “What did you learn?” “Verbos”, he would tell me, “muchos verbos”.
For every one of his new verbs, I learned the cast of morning characters along the coastal walkway. By Friday, I shared smiles with a daily jogger in her sixties and said “hola” to the teenage girl and her father who passed me each morning at about halfway. I started to feel part of a communal routine. Steve started to talk about things in the past. “Supe que,” he told me, “el viento viene despues del fin de semana”.

**

I swing by the hostel to say goodbye to a friend. We lounge in the afternoon sun on the rooftop, look out over La Paz. It’s unusual, although it shouldn’t be, that the conversation is in Spanish; Poncho (Alfonso) is from Spain and speaks no English. The others of us – Canadian, American, French – we build our sentences with the crude, simple blocks of travellers. It’s a place, like La Paz, that so many get to and never leave – once the basics are mastered, it’s hard to maintain rigour. “Hablas bien”, Poncho tells me, “pues, mejor que la mayoria”.
I protest. I have realised that to speak “better than most” does not hold much weight. Most, I have realised, don’t speak at all.
Of course, Poncho cannot hear all of the things I do not say, cannot say. I talk around so many thoughts, explain in four words what could be said in one, literalise, generalise, simplify.
Of course, some things roll easily off the tongue but they are the things we say the most. All day we repeat ourselves, deepening grooves into which our tongues fall more easily every time. The real question: how do you prepare yourself to speak a sentence that may only be spoken once?

**

I’ve just come back from swimming around the bay with dolphins (I know, right), when we hear an official announcement on Channel 16. There will be, the voice tells us, an official meteorological forecast delivered in Channel 12. We switch over and listen. It is concise, thorough and comprehensive. It’s a good reminder. These are not uncharted waters plied by backward people.
Yet. Every morning we listen closely through the static for weather delivered from hundreds of miles away, worry when it doesn’t come through. I listen closely now, learn new words like “gust” and “sea state”.
“El viento de quince a veinte nudos,” the voice tells us, “continua hasta el sabado cuando se baja”.

**

I resolve to improve my Spanish. With few daily conversation opportunities now, I instead pick up a novel Steve was given by a Mexican family on a sailboat at Christmastime. I am ruthless with myself – where normally I am inclined to skim over unknown words I force myself to look them up. It’s slow going, to be sure. I have to resist the urge to let sentences wrap themselves around strange words, prop them up and give them meaning through context. I need to let the words stand on their own. I am feeling despondent about my progress until the following phrase: “El refran decia: el momento de acortar una vela es cuando a uno se le ocurre por primera vez la idea de hacerlo”.
It’s like a lightbulb in my brain. Though I have never seem this sentence before, nor some of its words, it’s meaning is clear. Not only do I know the words and understand them, I know the idea behind these words. These are words I need, an idea I will use. And with that, it’s time for bed.

because I can

Mostly, I talk about things for a really long time before doing them.

Last year, I talked about spraypainting my bicycle panniers for two months before trying it once with little success. In many quiet ways, I choose to let things stay theoretical.

Most of us secretly know small truths about ourselves. Mine: my road between thought and action is longer than most.

In the spring we stopped in Silva Bay to talk to a couple who spent some years in Chile. Canning is easy, I was told, just be clean and follow the instructions.


A month later in a Port Angeles thrift store, I could hardly believe my eyes. A fully functional pressure canner, brand new replacement lid gasket included! I bungeed it onto the back of my bicycle for the ride home.

For the rest of the summer, I would casually chat about my intention to take up canning. The actual “putting of things into jars” stayed purely conceptual. I went so far as to watch Moira can tomatoes the day before I left.

But mostly I just talked about it.

Today I canned five jars of beef (I actually did six, but one didn’t seal). It took me three hours (and six months of talk), but today the jars (just five, remember) were filled.

In this city of big plans going nowhere, I happily watch my jars bubble away. They’ve come so far, these jars, and yet still have so far to go.

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