the journey

West Peninsular Malaysia

Girls Trip

October 17, 2009

Story location: Pulau Penang, Malaysia and Siem Reep, Cambodia

Have you been on a girl's trip lately? (Or a boy's trip if you’re a boy?) Everyone should have at least one girls trip every few years, no matter who you are or what your world looks like. There's something so good about it. It revitalized my spirit, stimulated my intellect, solidified our friendship, gave me perspective, and reminded me of the playful sister in me that doesn't get to come out too often.

One of my best friends from college left her husband and two kids in Los Angeles to visit me for 10 days. Heather met us at the marina in Georgetown Penang, Malaysia where we stepped back in time. Chinese, Indians, Malay all live within the colorful city.

Colonial style buildings stand characteristically worn while the scent of joss sticks and frankincense swirl through the thick hot alleyways mingling with the stench of sewage. Old chinese store fronts color the streets while the buzz of Little India spills over into the Chinese temples. Trishaw drivers doze lazily under giant trees while old ladies buy squid in the wet markets. The food is scrumptious in Penang. We gorged on banana leaf Indian plates to Chinese vegetarian buffets, Tandoori Chicken and garlic nan, fresh starfruit juice, and bindi masala (okra in spicy sauce). And sipped spiced masala tea by the pint from the vats boiling on the streets as we wandered by on our way to discover the old buddhist and hindu temples that seemed to stand on every street.

But what I remember most aren't the impressive temples or the thousands of buddha tiles we saw nor is it the oldest chinese medicine shop in the city dispensing ginseng roots by the foot to stooped, old Chinese ladies. It is an early morning, just the two of us, sipping chai masala tea and eating potato dosas for breakfast in our favorite Indian restaurant. Watching the world and connecting over an early morning cup of tea, is a ritual we've shared since we were college roommates that has continued throughout our lives. Seeing Heather sitting across from me with a steaming up of tea in her hands made me feel such gratitude.

I am thankful that we have remained friends through the flow of our lives, her with two almost teenage kids and a husband, and me as a nomad now with my own husband. Our friendship has withstood the tests of time and changes that accompany it. I am so thankful for that. While we may have changed as people what is elementally the same is the respect and love we have for each other.

Heather gracefully slipped into our lives and spent 6 days with us on the boat before we flew away to Cambodia for our girl's adventure. The three of us climbed hundreds of temple steps, visited spice gardens where we fund the cinnamon tree, and made wishes in ponds. We found balance with the three of us. We laughed and explored, really talked about life, the world, and our hearts. Gar patiently waited while darkness settled over the city and we spun Indian glass bangles around and around, trying to decide on what colors we wanted. Suzi, our taxi driver blessed us all and were ready to leave Penang and head north.

It was so special for Gar and me to have another friend make the effort to meet us and jump into our unpredictable lives. Heather's desire to learn about the boat and our lives here is so endearing. While our world often sounds romantic and exciting which it often is, it also is logistical and dirty, banal and incomprehensible to a non sailor. I often found Heather and Gar discussing the bowels of the boat and both he and I had smiles on our faces because it is rare to have anyone really interested about our world.

Heather got to see us in our elements, exiting a stressful marina berth, anchoring in the middle of Penang harbor for an easy early am departure, navigating the fishing boats along the Malaysian coast and nestling into a lovely island anchorage in Langkawi for the night. We swam in the Bay of fertility, just in case, spotting star constellations on deck, and hung off the back of DK in a gentle current watching jellyfish swirl by. In the morning we woke to sea eagles and hornbills flying by and then the toilet backed up.

We left Gar to do the dirty work and then we were off on our girl's trip. It started like any good girls trip should, with a good talk over glasses of wine mingled with laughter and tears. We added a bit of adventure and intrique into it and made ourselves a perfect journey.

Arriving in Siem Reap, I felt different. Independent again. I took care of my own plane ticket and passport, successfully navigated through the airport and to our hotel with my baggage and camera equipment without Gar. The way my life used to be but is a first in over 3 years of being with Gar every day. In some ways I felt free.

We were on our own and decided to see some of the people before we explored the ancient temples. Heading out along the country side to Tonle Sap Lake, we passed men being pulled by oxen drawn carts, kids in crisp uniforms peddling miles on their bikes to school, people cooking on open fires and collecting water using hand pumps. Travel always makes me see differently and feel grateful for what I have.

We paid our entry fee for a ride to the floating stilt village by boat and made our way through a gathering of about twenty men to our awaiting vessel. We didn't really know what we paid for, where we were going or when we were coming back. I have a habit of trusting my gut and going on faith. These days, I also have a habit of traveling with my husband in strange new countries. He was not here.

We found ourselves avoiding people's eyes as we invaded this community on our motorized craft, peering into peoples' homes and leaving a wake behind us that rolled their fishing and transport boats from gunnel to gunnel. In some ways I felt a bit like I was the tourist visiting the houseboat community in Sausalito where we used to live. I could imagine what it felt like to be them and I didn't feel good about doing it.

There was a heaviness here that likely comes when your country has been torn by war and genocide and your home becomes a tourist attraction. Then something changed, we got talked into climbing aboard a small canoe paddled by brother and sister to see the flooded forest. We learned about their lives and their work, their food "they have plenty to eat, snails, fish, snakes, pigs (floating on manmade reed islands)". And as usual, connecting with the local people we felt our guilt float away and our spirits settle. We had arrived in Cambodia.

Angkor Wat at sunrise awakened my spirit along with the masses. People swarmed the temple grounds like ants. It was almost too much for me too see through until I found a little place to myself to feel the place. We walked along the elephant gate. Soaked up the Bayon twice, once under blazing sun and another magical time, almost alone in a rainstorm. It's gothic faced towers eerily stared down upon us. One afternoon we took our motorbike trishaw out to admire the golden details carved of women in Banteay Srei.

With each visit to the numerous temples, I felt like I was in an entirely different place. They are all unique and stunning and powerful in their own right. At each temple exit and entry point there is a ritual for tourists. Land mine victims play traditional music if you give them a donation and kids hawk their wares. Upon entering and exiting the temples my feelings of calm and wonder were predictably interrupted by young children, often without shoes who would scamper up to us and chorus, "Hey Lady, you want scarf, you want bracelets, hey Lady, you want book. Buy my book Lady, I need for school Lady. For school Lady, Lady you don't have my book." No matter how many times we explained we had bought bracelets or had a guide book, they would reply with, "Lady please buy you no buy one from ME Lady...Lady?"

Seeing Cambodia through Heather's unclouded vision brightened my own. We were deeply impacted by the emotional and physical scaring of the land mine victims and desperate children. Intrigued by the 13 temples we explored, fascinated by the carvings in the riverbed at Kbal Spean, and grateful for our evening foot massages. In the end, we compassionately said "no" to more than 50 kids, a lucky girl got heather's flip flops, and we ended up with a 113 bracelets between us.

"Hey Lady, thank you and I miss you more than you know, Lady".

The Toilet

October 15, 2009

Story location: Langkawi, Malaysia

It all started when the toilet plugged up. Nicole's friend, Heather, who was visiting at the time, came out of the head with a sullen look on her face. "Gar", she said ashamedly, "the toilet isn't flushing." Ahhh, another green salty mate learning to use a marine head, Nic and I thought. No worries, I assumed, an easy quick fix with some proper pumping and plunging.

Nope. Not this time.

We were in a beautiful anchorage in Langkawi, Malaysia. Sea Eagles by the dozens flew lazy circles around us, monkeys scampered around the mangrove roots, and DK bobbed in the gently pulling current tucked in between hundred foot walls of sharp limestone. It was a nice change for us to be "stopped" for a bit again after our rapid full-on transit up the Malacca Strait to Palau Penang where we chilled out in the fascinating city of Georgetown and awaited Heather's arrival from Los Angeles.

Today we were heading into the marina at the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club to tie up DK for a bit while the girls went on a trip to Cambodia. I was looking forward to a little time by myself chilling out, plugging away at some small boat projects, finally sitting down to write an article for a cruising magazine, and getting some exercise again. I'd just do a quick fix on the toilet first once we were tied up again and the girls off on their adventure. At least that was the idea.

After tying up to the first true "cruiser" marina we have been at in a long long time, the first of many massive daily thunderstorm squalls hit as the girls shuffled into their taxi heading to the airport and I tucked into the cabin to begin my dismantle of our Groco toilet that I have become quite familiar with in the last 3 years.

It looked promising when I took it apart and serviced the pieces that are the usual suspects when we have problems. But an hour later after having it back together and giving it a trial run, it still wouldn't flush. Apart again. I'd better have a look at the hoses. First hose off, peek inside....uh oh.......not good....

Most of you sailors know the issue, but for you landlubbers out there you must know that saltwater and bodily excrement don't mix too well. Over time calcification occurs on the inside of your rubber hoses where everything is pumped through. Similar to cholesterol in your arteries, the passageway just keeps getting smaller and smaller until it finally closes up....heart attack. Or in this case, shit in the bowl with nowhere for it to go. Nice, huh??!! The only remedy is for you to flush fresh water or vinegar down through your toilet and hoses from time to time, but eventually, one day, they are going to still clog up. Then you have to deal.

The first hose I pulled off was solid calcification with a pin-hole left for poopy travelers. This was the easy hose, the one I could actually access. The others were tucked away deep in the bowels of DK with limited access behind our teak sink locker. Right then I knew this wasn't going to be fun. It was already dark, the toilet not working, and I knew I was just beginning a big project. So much for some time to chill out and do some writing, because when you live on a boat you quickly realize that you are always on call.

I spent the whole next day dismantling teak cabinetry, yanking out thick ten-year old 2-inch rubber hoses that were wedged and clamped into the most difficult to reach spots. When dismantling there was always a bit of "poop water" that would undoubtedly find it's way running down my arm or pooling up around my scraped and bruised sweating body. When I did get a hose out, I took it on the finger pier beside our boat and battered the thing along the side into the water. One of them was so bad I had to let soak in muriatic acid all day to free up the cement-like calcification that had set in. It was an all day job, but at the end of it, the hoses were clear again and ready to be reinstalled.

Thankfully, we had chosen to tie up to a real "cruiser" marina. These are the places where the sailors tend to congregate who live year-round on their boats for cheap, hang out in generally the same few areas, and usually all know each others business. Most of these people are retired, in their 60's and 70's, own a form of small collapsible bike, have moldy and tattered permanent shade awnings up and have plants growing all over their decks. They are usually a nice lot, but from our experiences pretty exclusive, not ones to open up and introduce themselves to "voyaging" newcomers like ourselves who are still traveling on our boat and not staying long in their small community. Arriving to Langkawi reminded us quite a bit of when we arrived to La Paz, Baja, Mexico. Both farily easy and cheap places to live on your boat comfortably around hundreds of people who are in no hurry to do much of anything. For many people, paradise. For us, another fascinating little microcosm of eccentric characters we appreciate to dip into and then move onward to new adventures.

But, like I was saying, the good thing about me servicing our toilet in a place like this is, no one cares. They've all done it themselves before too, and totally understand the reality. Perfectly normal. But, imagine, pulling up to one of those snooty marinas with fancy "day use" boaters only and then pulling out your toilet hoses and whacking them around on the dock to clear out the calcified poop while you, yourself, are covered from head to toe in sweat-soaked clothes and smell like sulfur.....yeah, you get the picture.

The next day I re-installed the system. In a few more hours everything was cleaned up with bleach water, new hose clamps attached, teak cabinetry put back together and the hoses happy as can be.

Writing this story makes me think that there must be a message here somewhere. Friend comes to visit, plugs up toilet, leaves with my wife to go visit thousand year-old ruins in exotic country, and I am left cleaning up shit. Hmmmmm....
Could it be Heather is sub-consciously trying to tell me something?? Or Nicole???
Could it be that my personal legend is to explore the exotic realms of the bowels of DreamKeeper's innermost secrets?
Or am I just too damn capable at dealing with boat problems and this is my fate?

I'm still not sure what all that was about, but, like I said in the beginning, it all only "started" with the toilet plugging up......

Getting 'er Done

October 4, 2009

Story location: Passage up the Strait of Malacca

We left Singapore with a mission. The goal for our passage up the infamous Strait of Malacca was to "get 'er done". For us we had a timeline to arrive in Penang, Malaysia, to meet up with one of Nicole's best friend's, Heather, and also we really didn't have the desire to poke around in the extremely busy strait full of cargo ships and thousands of fishing boats anyway. Yes, I'm sure we missed some spots that would be cool to explore, but you just can't see and do it all and this was one part of the world we were OK not doing.

For a quick geography and history lesson, I'm going to borrow from Wikipedia right now because, truthfully, I'm feeling lazy: "The Strait of Malacca is the narrow body of water situated between Peninsular Malaysia (West Malaysia) and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is named after the Empire of Melaka that ruled over the archipelago between 1414 to 1511."

"From an economic and strategic perspective the Strait of Malacca is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. The strait is the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, linking major Asian economies such as India, China, Japan and South Korea. Over 50,000-94,000 vessels pass through the strait per year, carrying about one-quarter of the world's traded goods including oil, Chinese manufactures, and Indonesian coffee."

Pirates have a history in the Strait of Malacca too. They have been here since the beginning of trade for political and economic reasons, and they are still here today. Modern pirates now sport very fast speedboats armed with grappling hooks and automatic weapons. Even with a multi-national police force watching over the shipping channel, pirate attacks, especially on the cargo ships, still occur and often gigantic ransoms are paid for the boat and crew to be let go.

Fortunately, for small sailboats like ourselves, we are rarely the targets in these waters. A few years back it was more of an issue, but these last few years there have been only a few issues with pirates on small vessels. Thankfully for us we had zero problems with this "still possible" reality.

It took us 8 days to get to Penang, Malaysia, from Singapore. 7 of those days were spent sailing and most of those were long day-sails. Below is an outline of our reality, meant more to help other sailors than to spin a good story:

Day 1 (September 27): 1° 15 Marina (Singapore) to Pulau Pisang: approx 42 miles

*Anchored at: 1°28.54’ N, 103°15.39E on the north side of Pisang
---left marina at 7:30 a.m. and cleared out at Western Immigration anchorage by 9 a.m.
---anchored on north side as winds were light and from the SW
---good holding in mud for us and a nice sleep

Day 2: Pulau Pisang to Pulau Besar (Water Islands off of Melaka): approx 70 miles

*Anchored at: 2°06.21’N, 102°19.87E
---sure looked good at first then late at night southerly winds picked up and the awful rolls and swell rolled in. No sleep. Anchor held fine, but no fun.
---Fun note: went through a pod of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (pink dolphins) a few miles before the anchorage. 3 of them rode our bow-wake, which our "whale and dolphin book" say they never do. Very cool.

Day 3: Pulau Besar to Admiral Marina/Port Dickson: approx 42 miles

---marina supposedly hails VHF 14, but didn’t answer us. No problem hailing them once you are in the marina and dock guys help you tie up. Felt a little "ghost-like" with very few people around. But still a nice place to relax, catch up on sleep, and have a dip in the pool. Rates are cheap and water is a flat fee. WIFI is fast and free too. Very nice.
---We had the marina do our check in for us into Malaysia. They charged 60 Ringit (about $17 U.S.) for everything. Piece of cake and allowed us to do some small boat projects, walk up to the local shops, and chill out a bit before the next leg.

Day 4: Rest day at Admiral Marina

Day 5: Admiral Marina to Pulau Angsa (10 miles north of Port Klang): approx. 72 miles

*Anchored at: 3°11.289’N, 101°12.853’E
---Long slog of a day but we made it. Going through Port Klang channels we had 1.5-2 knots against us (ebbing tide).
---Pulau Angsa is a serious fishing outpost. When we arrived in the late afternoon/duskish time, many boats had their nets set up in circles all around the area So heads up as these are the “floaty nets” where you can’t go between the buoys. The good thing was when we left at 4 a.m. for our next leg, all the local fishing boats were gone. Phew!
---This turned out to be a good place to anchor to make the next leg shorter. Very exposed out there though. We got hit by another ‘middle of the night’ thunderstorm/squall and it got pretty bouncy with strong currents. If you want a more sheltered anchorage then check in Port Klang proper, across from the commercial docks, looked good.

Day 6: Pulau Angsa (Klang) to Pulau Pangkor (island off of Lumut): approx 80 miles

*Anchored at: 4°14.94’N, 100°32.59’E in Teluk Belanga Bay
---Long day leaving at 3:30 a.m. but still made it in plenty of light.
---When leaving the Port Klang channel and all the way to the Sembilan Islands just south of Lumut, you will be encountering hundreds of bottom-dragging Malaysian fishing klotok boats. They are slow and usually staggered (because they are trawling) and easy to go around, but heads up. If you choose to do this route at night, we recommend heading a little more off shore towards the shipping channel so you don’t get caught up in the fishing city.
---We planned on anchoring at Pangkor Laut but the resort has really taken over the other bays. Also, we had weird weather of SE winds but a large NW swell of 1+ meter rolling in too. No good anchorage, so we chose the best option for us with our circumstances
---Still got hammered with a lightning/thunderstorm squall late night/early morning that brought more unsettled conditions into the bay and we left with little sleep again and rain in the pitch darkness at 6 a.m.

Day 7: Pulau Pangkor to Pulau Rimau (off the southern tip of Pulau Penang and about 10 miles from the heart of Georgetown): approx 65 miles

*Anchored at: 5°14.849’N, 100°16.675’E on the east side of Pulau Rimau
---anchored next to fishing boats but fine, protected from the NW winds that piped up this afternoon and the NW swell that is still significant
--good sleep and protected from 2 big thunderstorm/squalls that rolled through while we were there overnight

Day 8 (October 4): Pulau Rimau to Tanjung City Marina, Georgetown, Pulau Penang: approx 11 miles

*Located at approx.: 5.24.85N 100.20.64E
--Surprise, surprise...we tried to time our route from Pulau Rimau to the marina at slack high tide, thinking we would have a morning "north-setting" current to aid us. Not so. We actually had at times almost 3 knots against us close to high go figure. Not sure what the deal is here with the currents, just expect strong and not to your liking.
--Depending on your draft you may want/need to wait for high tide to get around INSIDE the marina. We came in at high tide and didn't see less then 9 feet. But we've heard many stories about boats over 2m getting stuck in the mud, even at mid-tide. Cocount telegraph says that only certain slips were dredged this year so each slip is at different depths.
--Biggest issue for us was the strong current running through, but you may not be able to tell looking at the "surface" of the water, underneath could be swirling (it was for us). Just be aware. Lastly there is the roll, it is very intermittent, sometimes quite calm and other times very bad.
--Still we think this is a great location in the heart of Georgetown. If you are willing to deal with "not perfect" marina situation, then you will love the accessibility to everything close to the marina: great walks, fascinating history and mix of cultures, and, of course, amazing Indian and Malay food.

Additional Notes:

As shown, we chose to do the trip from Singapore to Penang in long day trips to reduce the possibility of stress around all the big ships and the thousands of fishing boats that work these waters. This turned out to be a good choice for us, as we still had much maneuvering to do around fishing boats and nets in the daylight hours, but made it to all our destinations in daylight and at least had some rest each night. To do this, you obviously need to have some very consistent strong wind for sailing, or, like in our case, you will need to motor-sail. We motor-sailed the majority of this passage.

Weather for us was very unpredictable and erratic. We saw winds from almost every direction from zero up to 30 knots. On average we saw 8-20 knots with it mostly from the N, NE, NW or from the SW. At first no swell, then these last couple of days we’ve had 3-5’ waves rolling in from the NW.

Lightning/thunderstorm squalls were around quite a bit. We never had an episode where we were having bolts hit the water around us, but we did see many hit other places and we did get some good rain and strong winds from some of them, for us mostly in the middle of the night. We even saw one significant waterspout a few miles away.

Currents for us seemed to be tidal. We had morning incoming tides (floods), which usually meant we had “northerly” currents between .5 to 1 knots. Afternoons were ebb tides and we almost always had southerly currents between .5 to 2 knots against us. The worst we saw was through the Port Klang channels in the late afternoon at a stronger ebb tide.