Turn and face the strange
Don’t want to be a richer man
Turn and face the strange
There’s gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time’
David Bowie – Changes
Two years of turning to face the strange are behind me and I’m definitely not a richer man. But am I a different man? Has time
changed me? The decision to take a two-week repositioning cruise back to the USA from Barcelona, was mainly based on the hope that we could relax and reflect on what we had experienced during this endurance vacation – these two years of controlled chaos. Although I didn’t set out to make this a profound, life-changing adventure, as my motives were much more basic; basic as in, let’s see as much of this blue ball as we possibly can. Nothing more, nothing less was in my simple little mind than that. Just allow whatever is going to happen, happen, and then move on to next happening. And over the two-year span, little to no critical analysis of the events experienced had occurred in my pea-brain. Hopefully, during this cruise – presumably isolated from the noise of the planet, without even the internet to distract us – I could draw some conclusions about our adventure. But this was my first cruise, so I had no idea what to expect.
So, was I to be the recipient of the heaven that I so desperately needed, or a slice of Las Vegas, surrounded by neon and glitter, and party animals? The short answer was that I got a bit of both and then some. The then some came in the form of a low-grade infection, probably food poisoning, that resulted in a trip to the ship’s ER and a 24-hour in-cabin quarantine. Repositioning cruises don’t make many landfalls – this one only made two stops – and I missed the first one in Malaga, Spain, due to the quarantine. Fortunately, the plague only lasted two days and I was released from prison on my own recognizance. Not a good start to our Atlantic crossing, eh?
The heaven part came in the form of mostly beautiful weather with the resulting calm seas, excellent food, a well-equipped gym, and a designated quiet area where one could read, write, or simply relax and reflect. And although the ship was sold out – which meant that there were 4100 passengers and 1700 crew – the ship’s size allowed one to find areas of minimal craziness.
And by size I mean huge! Upon first sight of this beast, I had the same reaction as when I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time; jaw-dropping awe. To make my point, allow me to bore you with just a few numbers: 200 feet tall, 133 feet at the beam, and 1081 feet long. That’s big!
The atmosphere aboard was fairly relaxed; there were no dress codes (although clothes were required), we were free to eat at any time at a variety of different restaurants, and there were many planned activities to keep the masses entertained. We only availed ourselves of one activity, however, a Johnny Walker scotch tasting. It was fun, with the host’s intent of getting us a bit blitzed so that we could more easily reach our wallet in order to purchase their $200 bottles. However, as anyone who has read our blogs knows, we are drinking pros. The pours were heavy and we smiled and nodded as we drank their top shelf expensive whiskeys, before waddling back to our cabin, wallet still well secured in its pocket. That’s one beautiful thing about a cruise, no DUI worries. On the subject of alcohol; drinking aboard ship is prohibitively expensive and smuggling some on-board difficult. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but we did manage to sneak some aboard. I won’t tell you how, in case we need to do it again, but I will say that Carrie was in a motherly way briefly. As a matter of fact, she nearly ‘delivered’ while going through the ship’s security, as the ‘baby’ began
to descend. But, she managed to get through the x-ray and waddle down the hall to find a secluded spot to give ‘birth’.
Yes, the ship’s ambiance had a Las Vegas bent, with all the familiar trappings; casino, shows, bars/lounges (lounge singers), art auctions, buffets, and high priced clothing and jewelry. Many of the passengers were also typical of people that you might find cruising Las Vegas Boulevard; dressed to the nines, loud, eating and drinking too much, the women putting on their best Paris Hilton swagger, while the men countered with their best Justin Bieber party boy ploy. I know that I sound a bit snooty and I don’t mean to demean the plebeian’s attempt at the jet set lifestyle – oh who am I kidding, yes I am – but it’s just not our cup of tea. With that said, I did say many and not all of the passengers were of that ilk. We did meet some interesting people from various countries, in various walks of life, that led unusual and interesting lives. Seek and you shall find.
With ship’s life figured out, we were able to develop a daily routine, which fit nicely with our mission of using this time to reflect and absorb the last two years on the road. Early to rise, we saw many a beautiful sunrise. After a light breakfast and copious quantities of coffee, we would head to the gym, staring out into the infinite Atlantic, and sweat our little butts off. A shower and then off to the quiet zone for some introspection, reading, and writing. This was followed by lunch, then walking the ship – stem to stern – while people watching and photo taking, ending with an expensive beer on the aft deck. A little more reading and writing until cocktail hour, when we would return to our cabin to consume a bit of our contraband. The day ended with dinner and bed.
And so it went for most of those 14 days, which culminated in the realization that I wasn’t just recovering from and analyzing the experiences of the last two years, but that of the last 27 years.
It all began shortly after I proposed, the year was 1991. We were at our favorite sushi bar – actually the only sushi bar – in Flagstaff, Arizona, when I asked Carrie: “Hey, where do you want to go on our honeymoon?” “Do you remember the adventure travel brochure from Mountain Travel that I showed you?” She says. I nodded affirmatively. “Let’s go to Nepal and trek the Himalayas.” She continued. I smiled and said: “OK!” And that set the hook. We started saving money for the next trip, then for the trip after that, then, well you get the idea.
The next travel/life milestone was the trip to Tonga. A friend, knowing that we sailed a little 14-foot sailboat on Flagstaff’s mountain lakes, invited us to join them and 2 other couples on a bareboat sailing trip in Tonga. Without hesitation, we answered with an enthusiastic yes. Call us crazy, but shortly after that trip we sold everything, bought a blue-water cruising sailboat and moved aboard in San Diego, California. Five years in San Diego honing our sailing skills, which were nearly nonexistent, then 5 years of cruising Mexico, Central America, and South America. Memories? Yes, as you might expect, we have many. The places we’ve seen, many of which are rarely frequented by tourists, were awe-inspiring. But, that was the sidebar. It was the people met, the bonds created through shared experiences, that really makes our nomadic lifestyle special.
Like the 16:30 ‘club’ that met each evening to share cocktails and laughs in our San Diego marina. Orchestrated by Bill and Linda – s/v Creola – everyone would bring an appetizer to share, the booze flowed freely, and we exchanged stories about how we got here, why we got here, the last widget that broke on the boat, how we loved and hated our boats, and how no one
outside the sailing community could possibly understand us. Sailors do many things well, however, they’ve evolved drinking and laughing into an art form.
Or the time we were anchored off Cabo Santa Elana in Costa Rica with s/v Slip Away and s/v Loon III, resting up after our last passage and preparing to cross the notorious Gulfo de Papagayo. Loon III left first. Just as we were hoisting anchor we see Loon III go from slightly heeled to the rails in the water. A few seconds later, we receive a call from the Loons: “Hey, you guys may want to shorten sail. It’s a little breezy out here, eh.” A little breezy? Hell, it was blowing 30 knots. Those Canadians have a knack for the understatement. Or the night sailing off the coast of Costa Rica with the Slip Aways off our starboard side, when we receive a call, in a not to calm a voice: “Terra Firma, we’ve got water gushing
into our engine room. Not sure where it’s coming from yet. Can you standby?” Well, they didn’t sink, however we did spend the next few weeks attempting to get salt water out of their electronics. These are the experiences that create strong bonds between people that last a lifetime. They’re more family than friends.
But, what of the bond between husband and wife, who are also traveling companions and shipmates? The key here is that a strong bond must exist in the beginning; friends before lovers before husband and wife. With that said, it can still go either way. After all, the lifestyle requires that the couple live, work and play in tight quarters with little space to get ‘away’. The standard joke between us is that ‘we’re never more than 5 feet apart’. A constant within this lifestyle is that we’re continually bombarded with new challenges; learning new skills, immersed in new cultures and languages, in new and unfamiliar places, and sometimes, in life-threatening situations. One learns a great deal about your partner, as well as about yourself, during those times. And one of those events occurred very early on in the sailing portion of our alt-lifestyle.
We left Ensenada, Mexico, December 28th, 2005 under a weather forecast of 15 to 20 knots of wind from the northwest. Perfect conditions, as we were heading southeast to Cabo San Lucas. Shortly after sundown, the wind picked up to a consistent 25 knots and the seas were becoming uncomfortable. A few hours later the wind was a consistent 40+ knots and the roar of the waves as they passed us was deafening. We reefed, yet we were still going too fast, making the boat squirrely down the growing waves. Sleep was impossible. I sat at the helm, keeping a vigilant eye on the auto-pilot. If it was overpowered, we could go
beam-on to a wave and broach. We nearly broached once and we were pooped once (overtaken by a large breaking wave – water filling the cockpit). This lasted for 48 hours, with both of us hallucinating towards the end due to sleep deprivation. As the sun set on the second night I was reminded of our Nepal trip, with the white tipped waves reminiscent of the Himalayas. Never once was there panic. We both knew what needed to be done and we went about those tasks with a determined and focused purpose. If that’s not a bond building event, then I don’t know what is. And from there, with each new challenge, our bond increased. Perhaps that’s the definition of a soulmate. An unbreakable bond that continues to grow with each new experience and challenge. And ultimately, I think, that’s the gift received by accepting this lifestyle.
By now you’re probably thinking that you must go through some difficult experience in order to develop a bond with another human. Thankfully, that is not the case. There was the time when Terra Firma, moored in Lima, Peru, was feeling abandoned because we had just accepted a
work assignment in India, when Carrie received an email from Gonzalo in Lima. ‘Why is your beautiful boat here with no one to look after her? Do you need any assistance?’ Carrie’s response: ‘Who are you? How did you find us?’ His reply: ‘I am the Seven Seas Cruising Association ambassador in Peru and since you are also members I was able to acquire your email address.’ Upon our return to Peru, Gonzalo assisted us in so many ways that it would take paragraphs to describe. But the real treat was meeting his family, enjoying parties at his home, and being wined and dined at wonderful restaurants all over Lima. The sharing of alcohol is also a great way to develop a bond, and with Gonzalo, we downed many a Pisco – Peru’s national drink. By the way, Peruvian food is some of the best in the world. Visit Peru, if for no other reason, for the culinary experience. Later that year, Gonzalo was named the Seven Seas Cruising Association Ambassador of the Year. A well-deserved honor.
Then there’s Roxi. Ahh, Roxi. We first heard of Roxi from friends of hers in San Diego. They told us to look her up if we ever got to Bariloche, Argentina. Roxi, a retired aviator, had decided to make Bariloche her home. We gave her a call and after an ‘interview’ we were invited to stay at her beautiful ‘cabin’ for a few weeks where we drank, hiked, ate wonderful Argentine beef, and helped Roxi part with some of her retirement savings through the game of farkel (first time we ever played it for money). Our funds depleting, we returned 6 months later for more farkel.
Attention span: I’ve always had a problem with that. It goes something like this: Something attracts my attention, I get all excited, I immerse myself in learning everything I can about it, I get bored, get excited about something new, repeat. Jack of all trades, master of none. Carrie has the same affliction, however, she’s usually further along on the learning curve than I am when we switch gears. So we sold the boat, our beloved Terra Firma – I thought I would live the rest of my life with her – and readied ourselves for the next chapter.
Thinking it possible to settle down for awhile – maybe even a necessity – we bought a house in Arizona and did the normal
stuff: remodeled the house, planted a garden, and tried to find our niche within the community. It was fun. To satisfy our wanderlust, we would jump into our 2003 Subaru – our version of the French Porsche (read on to find out about the French Porsche) – and road trip our way through the western national parks. But the rest of the planet that we had not yet seen beckoned and, of course, that short attention span problem that I mentioned earlier presented itself again, so we made the decision to lease our home out for two years and go somewhere, anywhere. Just go. We had a starting plan, then our plan was to just to wing it.
But oddly, the same thing happened to us this time as when we were on the boat. Our most cherished memories, the stories we recount most often, involve the
people we met and less about the places themselves. Let me give you a few examples, and if this doesn’t whet your appetite for free-form travel, then you’re hopeless.
Everything wonderful that’s wrapped into the human genetic code – but with a quadruple dose of the crazy gene – is how best to describe Karine and her cohorts Arantxa and Marie. Commercial: Now’s the time to go get yourself a cup of coffee, because this may take awhile. After spending 3 months in Asia, it was time to head to Europe. First, stop Perpignan, France. We wanted to settle in for awhile, so we rented Karine’s Airbnb apartment for a full month. The first event occurred about a week into our stay. We’re sitting on our patio relaxing when Karine shows up and says: “Come on, we’re going to Gerona, Spain, for the flower festival!” So
, we hopped in her circa 1989 Peugeot -The notorious French Porsche -and off to the psychedelic flower show we go for a Hunter S. Thompson -Gonzo- type experience. A few days later, we’re road tripping again, this time to Banyuls and Collioure (on the Mediterranean coast) to have lunch with Arantxa, and then off wine tasting for the rest of the afternoon. A few more days later,
now fully recovered from the last road trip, we’re back in the French Porsche, this time we’re off to Les Bains de St. Thomas; hot springs nestled in a remote area of the Pyrenees (my first experience wearing a speedo – eewww!). Then it was hiking through Orgue d’Ille Sur Tet ending with apero time at Karine’s parents. A year later we returned, this time for only a week, and the craziness continued as if we
had never left. Back in the Porsche again for a road trip to Roses, Spain, a tourist town on the Mediterranean, where Marie owned a flat. A wonderful two days of partying hard – what I remember of it anyway – was had before heading back to Perpignan. More events ensued right up to the last day.
As I mentioned earlier, the sharing of alcohol is a great way to meet and bond with like-minded people. So, I’m sure it will come as no surprise that we are frequently found in wine bars, distilleries, and when in England, pubs. We met Jo on one such pub visit. Jo, the owner of The Corner House Pub in Cambridge, England – and in my opinion the finest pub in the UK – adopted us while we were recovering from a disastrous Airbnb experience. We were to be in Cambridge for three days and we tried to do the normal sightseeing thing, after all, Cambridge is the home of Stephen Hawking’s alma mater, but found ourselves drifting back to
The Corner House for just one more pint and some of the best food in all of the UK. It just so happened that Jo’s Mum (that’s how they say Mom in the UK) was visiting from her retirement home in Lesbos, Greece, planning for her son’s upcoming wedding which would occur the following year in Lesbos. “Hey, why don’t you guys come to the wedding? You’ll love my brother Royston and his fiance Claire.” Jo says. Carrie and I looked at each other, shrugged and said: “OK!” The following summer we met Roy and Claire, who welcomed us like we were part of the family. We were so fortunate to share so many experiences, with
so many wonderful people during the ten days we spent on Lesbos: Pints with Simon and Roy at the bar in the village of Skoutaros, An afternoon with Catherine at her hilltop home overlooking the Mediterranean, and the wedding to end all weddings. I also learned that the Brits are the royalty of partying. Even I was humbled by their drinking ability. Cheers!
The names of so many flood the memory: Georgina and her cats (UK), The Chase Pub (UK), Cvetelina, our border crossing savior (Bulgaria), Our German ‘girlfriends’ Lilly and Annika (Guatemala), our Bolivian friend Victor (Guatemala), Martin and Blaga (Bulgaria), countless sailing friends, and the list seems endless. If you were not mentioned, please don’t feel slighted, you are just as dear to our hearts as those mentioned. I’ll stop now. The stories could go on and on because they make me smile, they make me happy, but I won’t for your benefit. I hope that one of the takeaways from my long-winded stories is that you’ve gained some insight into the lives of people from different lands and that when you make the effort the result is the gift of lifelong friendships that transcend political boundaries and various ideologies. Ironically, all this comes from a person that is completely sour on the human race. I guess I’ll need to re-evaluate my position after this little introspective exercise. Maybe it’s the establishments that I dislike: governments, religions, cults, most things with a cause that attempt to manipulate trusting people.
Am I a better man after 27 years mostly spent on the road, without ever establishing permanent roots? I would like to think so because it ain’t easy leaving one’s comfort zone (which I was almost always out of). I think I’m better equipped to empathize and sympathize. I have a greater appreciation of this planet’s beauty, its power, and its frailty. I learned the joy of friends gained and the pain of friends lost. That borders mean nothing, because people all over the world, for all our cultural, religious, and political differences, are all the same. That time is what matters, it can be the provider of wonderful experiences if you let it, but that time will also, someday, in the blink of an eye, make it all disappear. So don’t waste a second, get out there and be happy!
So, what’s next for the rambling duo? Hell, I don’t know. For now, we’re content to be home, plant a garden, dabble in the stock market, and wait for friends to visit. Yes, we would love for friends to visit!
Hike Drink Live Laugh (Apero Time) More photos of the cruise and the Azores below.