Times Change

A friend stopped by the garden yesterday afternoon, while I was thinning my carrots. “Did you grow up on a farm?” he asked. “No, not really… but we had a big garden when I was a kid, and my Aunt Sue and Uncle Rick had a dairy farm so I’d go and help them milk the cows and feed the chickens…” This led to his next question: “Have you ever plucked a chicken?” (I was starting to wonder where we were going with this.) “Um, yes, a couple of times…” I said. “It’s not my favorite thing to do…” His face showed his thoughts clearly, that plucking chickens probably isn’t anybody’s favorite thing to do.

Turns out an hour or two later I was helping him kill and pluck chickens. I got paid — with a chicken, which is now in a pot. Seldovia continues to surprise me. Such a variety of opportunities and experiences available!

I could feel the presence of my poor grandmother, who survived my decade-of-vegetarianism (and even custom-cooked dishes for me at family gatherings, using separate spoons and all), up there in heaven rolling her eyes.

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Five hundred years ago, people loved this place. We know this by the things they left behind: the bones and shells of halibut, salmon, chitons, clams, and mussels. We know they came here to the clifftops, and stood under the big trees – just like we do today. They gazed at the view, watched the volcanoes, saw the play of light and wind on the water – just like we do today. They felt the breeze blow in from the ocean, they smelled the spruce trees and salt air, they built fires and visited with friends – just like we do today.

Five hundred years, a thousand years, more. Through all this time, the eagles have watched. They look down from their perches, they make forays to the slough to catch ducks, they dance and fight in the air. They care for their young and defend their home. They call out in their jagged sharp squeaky voices. The nest is hard to see. Even after you have found it, even after you know where it is.

The path leads downhill, toward the sea. Water flows down, too, from the deep moss forest. We go with the flow, walking down, past the wild geraniums, past the chocolate lilies, past the beach greens. We pause there, and reach down… taste them. Bitter-green-fresh. At the base of the cliff, the creek runs to the sea, sweet water mixing with salt. Nori grows on the slippery rocks here; reach down… taste it. Sea-salt-fresh.

Pigeon Guillemots float on the surface of the ocean, bright black, white, and red, only the simplest colors. They whistle and call to each other in musical trills. They climb out onto the rocks; then they dive deep; return from hunting and in their bills hold fish, as though reluctant to give them up. Treasures, hard-won, they’ll give to their chicks, hidden in crevices in the cliffs.

A kingfisher’s staccato call draws our attention upward. He flies away from us, along the shoreline. Waiting until we look the other way, he returns, silently, back to the burrow. Concealed in the sandy bank at the very top of the cliff, the burrow is nestled into the roots of a spruce tree, but we can’t tell exactly where. We watch, eyes averted, waiting for movement. When the bird flies out of the hole, a thrill runs through us. We found the nest! It’s a moment worthy of a high-five, but instead we quietly look at each other, eyes wide with joy and wonder.

We feel like we’re the first to discover this place. We are the only ones who know it’s here, we are the only ones who know it so intimately.

Bones and seashells and artifacts spill out of an ancient midden, here, at this cliff. The midden proves that others came before us. Just like us, they found themselves in this sacred place. Just like us, they learned and lived and loved here.

A thousand years ago, and a thousand more.

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Tutka Backdoor Trail

Summer in Alaska is crazy. We’re not exactly farmers, so “making hay while the sun shines” doesn’t really apply, but it’s the same concept that I grew up with at 45 degrees north latitude, just to even more manic effect here at 60 degrees north. The sun barely sets, so the working and playing goes on and on and on. Everyone is trying to earn as much money as they can in a four-month period. One’s hourly “day jobs” take up a bunch of time, but at least offer a paycheck. Self-employment activities… well, hopefully they are given some priority. But fishing, planting the garden, and foraging for wild edibles to pickle, can, freeze, and turn into wine is so much fun. Hiking, camping, parties, beach walks, birding, botanizing, and photography fill in any leftover time. Oh, but then there’s fixing the boat, rigging the fishing gear, painting the house, entertaining house guests, going to community events, volunteering — even the wee hours of dusk from midnight to four AM often get taken up. Berry-picking season hasn’t even started yet. Who has time for dishes, housekeeping, laundry, or writing?  Maybe sometime this fall I’ll be able to pick up the thread on those abandoned Mexico and Galapagos storylines, and finish my Bertie Journals.

Yesterday, I was finally able to get out of town and take a break from this busy and hectic Seldovia lifestyle. If you’ve read this blog before, you may remember a very soggy story I posted last September, called “Rainforest,” in which we visited the new Tutka Backdoor Trail in Kachemak Bay State Park. This week I was able to make a return visit to the trail, thanks to Bret “Hig” Higman and Erin McKittrick’s continuing efforts to coordinate volunteer construction there. If you’d like more information about the Tutka Backdoor Trail, please visit Erin and Hig’s Groundtruth Trekking website. Click here for a link.

I wonder if there is an Alaskan saying that’s the equivalent of “making hay while the sun shines”? Because I’m so busy catching salmon while they run, I’m just going to post a bunch of photos and write captions, instead of taking the time to concentrate and write an actual story.


Coldwater Taxi transported us from the Jakolof Bay dock to the head of Tutka Bay. This particular boat had a double-decker pilot house, which offered excellent views from up high.


When we were kids, Damara and I both lived in Lake Orion, Michigan, but never met until 2013 in Seldovia. Small world!


Landing craft boats are nifty: they can take you right up to shore so you can step onto land without getting your feet wet. But even they have limits. If the approach is too shallow, you may still have to wade that last bit. So, as usual when hiking with Hig, I had no choice but to follow his advice to “embrace having wet feet.”


The section of trail we worked on today goes from a new landing point to the state park’s Upper Tutka Campsite, and then connects to the original Tutka Backdoor Trailhead. The new landing spot should provide a greater range of options for landing at varying tides. Chae was game when I asked him to go pose with this big Sitka spruce tree. The new trail section is an easy, beautiful hike through mature forest.


Groundtruth Trekking’s food and supply cache for a month of volunteer trail work. The electric bear fence got turned back on prematurely while we were still in camp and accidentally zapped Libby the dog — she won’t try THAT again!


Hig and Nikki talk logistics next to Erin and Hig’s tent. This is the view looking up the bay toward the original trailhead. The Tutka Backdoor Trail goes all the way through to Taylor Bay on the Gulf of Alaska side of the Kenai Peninsula.


Kachemak Bay State Park’s Upper Tutka Campsite is next to this lovely creek. If you want to connect through to the trail, this is a wet creek crossing. There are others along the way, too. Bring sandals or Crocs if you’re one of those picky people who like to keep your boots dry.


In addition to working on the trail, I had enough time to do some birding. This tiny Townsend’s Warbler was curious, which made it slow down enough for me to get a photo. See my complete bird list at https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47162816. There’s an eBird hotspot for the trail, so you can file checklists of your own.


These kids — Chae, Renn, Lituya, Ellis, and Katmai — are all very accomplished hikers, campers, fishermen, trail builders, boat operators, and general outdoors-people. (Also pictured: Damara and Libby the dog.)


A different Coldwater Taxi boat picked us up at 6:00 PM for the return trip. This one has a stairway/ladder at the bow. Very handy for beach landings!


Tutka Bay colors.


This is what a taxi ride looks like in my neck of the woods.


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Bertie Journal — February 21, 2018

It’s 6:10 AM. I just finished my 02:00-06:00 watch, my sixth completed watch so far on this journey. The 4 on/4 off schedule is a bit brutal. I’m hoping to settle into the rhythm of it soon. Well, actually, as soon as I’m trained we will switch to 4 on/8 off, which will be a welcome relief.

Peter set the sails at 2:00 AM and then lay down for his remaining two hours. Close enough for me to call him with a softly-spoken word, if I needed help. I never had to touch the tiller. Bertie does just fine on her own.

Sailing at night, off-shore, in steady conditions. The boat is a living entity, the only other “being” who’s conscious right now, besides the sea creatures and birds. I’m along for the ride, trying to stay awake. I still need to watch for ships on the AIS (Automatic Identification System), and especially watch for ships that aren’t on the AIS. I need to pay attention to the compass course, and make sure we stay on it. I need to keep track of the wind and if anything changes be ready to make adjustments.

But it’s hard. It is so peaceful and quiet out here, so calm… my eyelids start to close, so I walk around the deck. I change positions. I check the lines. I look around, scanning the dark ocean – including the sea behind us (easy to forget). I move every few minutes to a new spot. I stretch and bend my knees and elbows. I empathize with every sailor and soldier throughout history who had to stay awake in the middle of the night. I pray for the sky and the sea and the animals to entertain me, give me something interesting to observe.

The water glows with bioluminescence, tiny sea creatures who light up when disturbed. Bertie’s wake shows a faint green light. The waxing crescent moon has already set, so the stars are free to shine, brilliant and strange. The Dipper hangs by its cup, then later hangs by its handle. Orion is directly above, in the center of the sky. If we go much farther south, he will be standing on his head. Some new constellations, southern ones down near the horizon, go un-named. A frigatebird circles the mast in the dark, thinking about landing. A school of fish swims by, bright shapes in the water as they brush against the tiny organisms, activating the bioluminescent glow. Pre-dawn, a small flock of birds wheels in the distance, just the flash of their wings, white, as they veer and turn as a group.

February 21, 9:05 AM. Still groggy, but it’s time for my mid-day watch in less than an hour. On this schedule it seems I am either on watch or asleep – hopefully not both at the same time. We are all looking forward to me being trained. I thought I was feeling ready, but then had a shift where Bertie wasn’t totally self-steering and I almost had a mental meltdown. Too much to keep track of: compass bearing, wind direction, watching the wind indicator at the top of the mast (slightly wonky and out of whack from having frigatebirds sit on it), which way to turn the tiller. I’m thinking too hard about it; if I just DO it, feel it, I am better. But I feel like I need to understand intellectually how it all works, before I’ll be able to let intuition take over.


Are we on course? Rocketing along at almost 5 knots.

February 21, 15:38 (3:38 PM – how is it possible that it’s still the same day?)

This afternoon’s watch, 10:00-14:00, was turtle heaven: I counted 102 in two and a half hours. It reminded me of when I was a kid and Dad would say, “herd o’ turtles!” on some backcountry road and then start turning the wheel back and forth as if he was steering around the turtles. But in this case I had to steer around real live sea turtles. We were motoring at the time, so it was easier to avoid them than if we’d been under sail. I was at the tiller, and when you’re motoring, steering is more of a hands-on activity. I couldn’t move away from the tiller, and didn’t have to pay as much attention to wind conditions (since there wasn’t any wind), so I had nothing else to do but count the turtles. I think they were Pacific green turtles. Off in the distance, on the coast, we could see a long sandy beach, where I imagine they nest. They seemed to be sleeping, mostly, just floating on the surface… until we got pretty close, when they’d startle, or dive, or stick their heads up to see what we were. Some of them slept right through. The shells of a few were dry on the top, as if they’d been sleeping in the sun a long time.

We’re heading into Puerto Angel to anchor for a couple of nights. We will scrape the bottom, clean and organize, and get ready for our crossing to the Galápagos!


A sleeping sea turtle, shell dried by the sun.

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This one woke up enough to lift its head and peer at us.

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Bertie Journal – February 19, 2018

We slipped the mooring in Acapulco and got underway at 07:00! It’s 08:41 now.


Leaving Acapulco, headed for the Galápagos Islands.

I’ve helped raise the mainsail, loosened the vangs, coiled and stowed lines, and taken a turn at steering. I really was awful at that. Peter steered first, and after a while handed it over to me and said, “See if you can get the hang of it. Course one-five-five.” Then he walked away. I got totally confused. There are two compasses, which are oriented in opposite directions (as if one is upside down). The GPS shows our course (which should be 155°) but it has a fifteen- or twenty-second delay. So, if you steer by the GPS (“Never steer by the GPS!” says Peter), you’ll be zigzagging all over the place, the effects of over-correcting amplified by that delayed reaction time. Bertie has a tiller, of course, and I had the usual slight tiller dyslexia until I reminded myself that it’s just like steering an outboard. This boat is simply five times bigger than any outboard-powered Zodiac or rowboat I’ve driven.


Bertie’s cockpit.

I must have made some noise of dismay, because soon Heidi was there to help. She’s a natural, and has had enough practice steering Bertie that she can do it very well without even thinking about it. Bertie’s tiller has a jam cleat on top, and with a line strung from there to a cleat on the rail you can set her on auto-pilot, so to speak. Heidi got the line set just right, then showed me how to steer from the hip. Looking at the horizon helps. Using reference points on the boat, like the mast or the headsails, and watching to see if they move through the landscape, it’s easy to see if you are drifting to the right or the left off course. Or checking the compass to see if the course is getting off by a few degrees. You lean into the tiller with your hip till the boat comes back to center, then release it and let the tiller settle back in to the position set on the jam cleat. There’s also a springy elastic line you can connect to the tiller from the opposite side, in case there’s a bouncy swell, to keep the tiller from slamming around. This works whether we are motoring or under sail – but only if it’s a steady wind.


Bertie’s tiller, with a cue ball and a jam cleat.

The GPS track for my part would look like the path of a drunken sailor, varying from 180° to 130°. I was finally getting the hang of it, when Peter relieved me. I’ll be on watch from 10:00 to 14:00, overlapping with the last half of Peter’s watch, and the first half of Heidi’s watch. This is my training period. We will keep overlapping that way until I am comfortable doing a watch on my own. Then we can stop doing the four hours on/four hours off watch schedule, and switch to four on/eight off. So, today my first watch is 10:00 to 14:00, then again from 18:00 to 22:00, and 02:00 to 06:00.


Overlapping 4-hour watches, for my training period.


It’s 14:17 now and I’ve finished my first official four-hour watch on Bertie, from 10:00 to 14:00. We motored for a little over half of that time. Once we shut off the motor and got under sail, Bertie could steer herself – and she did a much better job if it than I did! Peter called our track while I was steering a “snake wake.” Every little puff of wind affected the course slightly; once I corrected, it was hard not to over-correct.

There’s lots of time for conversation while we’re sailing, and doubling up on our watches assures that we have company. Our stories unfurl as we move with the wind, sometimes circling around and collecting themselves into themes or patterns. The thought process is unhemmed, opened up as big as the far horizon.

I ask Peter, “Tell me one short story about your grandmother, Bertie. Tell me the first thing that pops into your head.”

He doesn’t even pause. “Hitting a rattlesnake with a shovel. Just like that – WHACK! – she cut off its head.”

“Wow, that gives me a strong first impression of your grandma.” I feel like I want to get to know her a bit, since the boat is named after her. Maybe I’ll ask Peter for more stories about Grandma Bertie later, as our trip moves along.


Peter’s grandmother, Bertie.

Later, he said, “I’ve been sailing since I was fifteen, and every single day there is still something new I don’t know, something to learn or figure out.”

“That’s what I love about birding and natural history,” I say. “I could NEVER know it all, and even if I did, then there’d be dragonflies or ferns or something else to learn.”

Peter said, “I wanted to be either an ornithologist or a herpetologist.” In seventh grade, he and a friend killed a California red diamondback rattlesnake. The friend cooked down the head and rearticulated the skull bones. Peter salted the skin and pinned it out on a board. They won first prize at the science fair.

While Peter and I have been sailing, Heidi has been busy making soup: shrimp stock, carrots, cabbage, rice noodles. So tasty and good, we can dip it out of the pressure cooker as we go. It’s easy to eat while you’re steering. “Some boats exist on Cup-a-Soup and saltines. This is so much better,” I tell her. “My Grandma Mom always had a pot of soup on the stove when my dad was a kid. Dad loved it – there was always something to eat. My dad and my uncle are both in their seventies now, but I’d never heard about the soup before. This winter they were talking about it. My uncle said, ‘I hated that soup, always there on the stove. I never eat soup now.’ Funny how they had such different reactions to it.”

I tell Heidi a story about my other grandmother, Grandma LaDuke. “There was a big pear tree in the backyard – what they called a postage-stamp sized yard in Harper Woods, Michigan. When the pears were ready, all the aunts and uncles and cousins would come over. The men would pick the pears, and all the women were in the kitchen, peeling and cutting up the pears and canning them. We would eat those pears all winter long. I remember my very last jar, after both of my grandparents were gone and the house had been sold. I saved that jar for a long time, then finally opened it and shared it with a friend. We sat in the front seat of my pickup truck, and passed the jar back and forth until the pears were gone. Then we drank the juice. It was strange and a bit sad, knowing I would never taste them again. But, oh, those pears were so good. It was better share them.”

Grandmothers. Snakes. Snake heads. Soup.

Bertie, Peter’s grandmother, sure was different than my grandmothers. But look at us now: their grandkids ended up out here together, sailing. They must have had something in common.


Bertie under sail. (Photographer unknown)

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The Great Egg Hunt

Vincente knows how to get stuff done. He’s our Acapulco water taxi, airport shuttle, question-answer man, and general fixer. He’ll get you a mooring, fuel, water. He’ll find the unfindable. He’s got connections.

We start the day by sitting under a tamarind tree at the boat landing, next to Yate Fiesta Bonanza. We need to get our exit papers (or “zarpe”), but no one on board Bertie has a captain’s license, required for the paperwork. Captain’s licenses aren’t necessary for private boats in the U.S., but somehow this was lost in translation when we visited the harbormaster’s office yesterday, and the process stalled. Never fear. Vincente’s arranged for a customs official to meet us here today, even though it’s Saturday. She walks up in her high-heeled flipflops, official brown Mexico government uniform with short skirt, glitter nail extensions, lipstick, gold watch, and sunglasses. All business. She has three rubber stamps in a manila envelope, goes through our papers, stamps our passports, takes our visas, and we’re all set. We’ve officially exited Mexico, bound for the Galapagos Islands. Vincente made it happen.

We’ll leave early Monday morning, but Heidi and I still have some provisioning to do. We are on a quest for fourteen dozen local, fresh, unwashed eggs. We’re stocking up for the passage, and eggs are a good standby protein source. As long as they’re unwashed, and you turn them every day or two, they’ll last a long time even without refrigeration. Vincente has told us he can connect us with the eggs. So, after the paperwork is done, Heidi and I get into Vincente’s little burnt-orange two-door Chevy, headed to his family’s ranchito.


Vincente’s little go-devil.

I’d imagined that we’d drive up into the mountains, but instead we head northwest out of the city, driving along the coast. Vincente’s little son, Luis, is with us. He’s about four years old, and, unlike Vincente, he’s shy. Heidi rides in the front seat, Luis and I in the back. I snap photos of distant beaches as we weave through traffic. We don’t really know where we’re going, and sometimes there’s a bit of a disconnect between Vincente’s English and our Spanish. We trust he’ll take us someplace interesting.


Luces en el Mar and Laguna de Coyuca — just northwest of Acapulco.

We drive through a small low-key resort village, on an isthmus between the beach and a big laguna. Vincente seems to know everyone. This is his ‘hood. We pull into a dusty lane, and he turns off the car. Piling out, we discover that we’re at his house. We meet his wife, Maria, and one of his daughters. Vincente sends his daughter to talk to the neighbor who has the eggs. The yard is shaded by coconut palms and mango trees. Butterflies float by. Vincente uses a machete to chop open a coconut, shows me to a hammock, gives me a piece of sugary cake. Four dogs gather round, looking for a handout. “This one is Pandera, this one is Pinky…” Vincente tells me their names. “You can have Pinky, take with you.” I feed the cake frosting to the dogs. We wait, tranquilo. On the ride here, I told Vincente I like birds. He taught me to say, “Soy pararera.” (I’m a birder.) And, “Necessito guia de observacion de aves.” (I need a bird field guide book.) Now, waiting for the eggs, he takes us for a stroll down to the end of his street, which leads to the laguna. Birds fill the air, wade the edges, float and dive the surface: swallows, ibises, egrets, ducks. I don’t have my binoculars, but quickly change lenses on my camera and snap a few photos, before we head back to the yard.


Vincente gets us a coconut from a tree in his yard.


Yo soy tranquilo…


Vincente at home. The little dog to the left is Pinky, the one he wanted me to take home.


Vincente, Luis, and Pinky take us on a walk down to the laguna.

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Laguna de Coyuca… birding hotspot. 

His daughter has returned, to tell us that the neighbor with the eggs isn’t home. That’s ok, Vincente knows someone else who has chickens. The five of us (Vincente, Luis, Heidi and I, plus Maria now) pile back into the little car and drive to the next block over. He asks the neighbor if he has any eggs. No luck. We try two more places in the neighborhood, and buy a dozen and a half eggs from a lady who runs a street-side candy stand. Back to the main road, we pull off at a place with chickens and a “cuidado con perro” sign behind a chain link fence. No eggs. Vincente is not daunted. We drive on. He knows of another couple of places.


Cattle on the Fuerza Aerea Mexicana.

A small herd of cattle wanders down the road. It’s the dry season, the countryside parched and brittle. Controlled burns along the roadside have cleared out the weeds, leaving blackened patches and melted trash. We stop at a place with a sign that says, “se venden huevos de rancho, 3 pesos.” There are chickens in the yard — rangy, running, wild-looking birds, and little chicks, too. But no eggs. The egg lady is in her hammock, “lunes,” she says. Maybe there will be eggs on Monday.


We sell farm eggs (just maybe not today.)

Another stop, this one with a gate that Heidi has to get out to open and then close, because she’s riding shotgun. We go down the sunbaked drive, finally feeling truly out in the country. We stay in the car on this one. Vincente explains what we’re looking for, and one of the rancheros brings out a plastic bag with about 18 eggs in it. Success! Heidi and I raise our eyebrows at each other, “This is fantastic, seeing the country, but how long will it take us to get fourteen dozen eggs, at this rate?”

One more place before we give up. Another shady spot, this time a sort of gateway into a yard. Dogs wander among junked cars and tires, brightly colored clean laundry hangs on the line, green fruit trees shade the bare dirt. It looks like paradise, only cluttered. A pile of trash smolders next to the makeshift patio. We join several men and a woman, who are sitting in plastic chairs. Vincente cuts up a watermelon and gives us big slices. Heidi says we are looking for eggs, but asks if the farmer sells pork, too. We sit in the shade, spit out the watermelon seeds, and throw the rinds into the dirt yard. The farmer yells, “Niña! Niña!” A couple of dogs and piglets appear, but who (and what) is Niña? I have my camera out, and am drawn to the yard; the farmer sees this, and waves me in. He leads me back, beyond the bright orange laundry, and introduces me to Niña, a big mama pig. She was too happy wallowing in some mud to come when called. After Vincente’s machete work on the coconut and the watermelon, I’m a bit afraid that the farmer will kill Niña or one of her piglets right there in front of me. But no. He obviously loves this pig, nudges her up out of the mud so I can say hello.


Heidi enjoys some watermelon.


Luis in the yard.


One of Niña’s friendly piglets.

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Come say hello, Niña!


The day’s haul.

We return to the front of the yard. Heidi and Vincente have scored another dozen eggs. We chat a while longer, and when they ask where I’m from, I say, “Alaska.” One of the men brightens. “I have been there! I climb Mt. McKinley!” For some reason this seems absurd to me, considering the fact that we are in Mexico, in land that’s flat as a pancake, a quarter of a mile from the beach, and sweltering hot. I think maybe he’s pulling my leg. But soon I am in deep conversation with this man. Turns out he worked for National Geographic as a mountaineer and porter, on many expeditions in the Andes, the Alps, and the Alaska Range. He reels off names of mountains, and shakes my hand before we get in the car and pull away. The other guys crack some joke with Vincente about how well we are getting along, but I can pretend to ignore it because I don’t know enough Spanish. I wave goodbye to the mountain man.

Five hours and 35 miles later, we are back in town. We have about four dozen eggs, only ten dozen short of our goal. But we are richer in different ways. Even though we’d asked Vincente for eggs, he knew what we really needed: shore leave, R&R in a hammock, fresh fruit, wild birds, and hangout time with kids, dogs, a few barnyard animals, and new friends.

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Acapulco Ashore

Our morning aboard Bertie is calm: coffee and a quiet breakfast. Little do I realize that my temperate zone brain is about to go on overload. Heidi and I are headed ashore for our first provisioning trip. After we leave Acapulco, we’ll be spending at least one week sailing offshore Mexico, and then two weeks crossing to the Galapagos. There are lots of loose ends to tie up, produce to buy, and other random miscellanea to acquire.


Peter gives Heidi and I a ride to shore.

Peter takes us to shore, a quick minute or two in the skiff, over to the public landing. I see three life birds as soon as I step ashore: two kinds of dove and something that looks like a Bananaquit. I snap a photo, then am whisked away by Shopper Heidi. I’ll have to look them up later. I don’t take another photo all day. This is not the day for birding, nor photography.


Crappy snapshot of two Inca Doves and a Ruddy Ground-dove at the boat landing. Both life birds for me. There was also a Great Kiskadee in the mango tree above. (Not a Bananaquit after all.)

Heidi and I start walking. We’ll take a cab home after we’ve filled our shopping bags. It’s HOT here, the sun a powerful weapon. Cardboard is stuck on the outsides of car windows to keep the interiors from melting. Most people wear hats and sunglasses. Anything shiny reflects an almost nuclear glare. The sidewalk territories are built out with wood frames, covered with tarps, fabric, and cardboard. From the outside, it looks like a strange linear shanty town, extending down both sides of the street. On the inside, it’s a shady music-filled tunnel, a busy marketplace: toys, plastic, candies, candles, CDs, electronics, phone cases, syringes loaded with refill printer ink, t-shirts, belts, jewelry, fruit, shoes. Women pat corn-and-mushroom hotcakes with their hands and fry them on hot iron cookers. A man sells fruit juices from a cart filled with ice. My mouth waters.

Too many impressions, sights, sounds, smells… I am so hot, glazed with sweat, sunblock, and car exhaust. I follow Heidi, feeling 1) not very useful except as a pack animal and 2) like such a gringa! White as a fish-belly, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and big floppy hat, camera around my neck. I finally put the camera away in my backpack.

Heidi is the goddess of navigation and translation. She’s quite fluent in “shopper’s Spanish” and “cabbie Spanish” and knows her numbers, and thus is fully equipped to negotiate. Anything she doesn’t understand, she can look up in her translator apps on her phone. She knows how much things should cost, and isn’t afraid to insist on being charged less. Then she leaves generous tips. It seems like a good way to do business. Thanks to her skill, we find all the stuff on my list: hiking shoes, a spare camera battery, socks, contact lens solution.

We make our way to the Mercado Municipal: a warren of stalls, narrow passageways, wet uneven pavements. Dogs sleep in the shade. Fabric, incense, religious candles, ten flavors of mole in pottery casks, cones of raw sugar, sacks of beans, lentils, rice, piles of nopales cactus pads, tamarind pods, braids of garlic. Little girls with pigtails, mannequins with nipples and big rounded peachy buttocks, a meat market with pig heads and chicken feet, flies, a man cutting up meat on a tree-stump chopping block. Feral cats gulp down discarded hunks of gristle. Loud music and delicious-smelling food permeate the air. Families sit in a little café with checkered tablecloths, wedged into some tiny interior space of the Mercado, eating lunch together, tortillas and beans and green vegetables. My stomach growls. A man sharpens a large knife on a motor-driven stone wheel, sparks flying everywhere. We buy a giant cabbage, some carrots, peppers, onions, consider a pineapple. By the time we leave the Mercado and re-enter the blazing hot street, I have short-circuited a bit, which feels good. I just let the sensory overload flow through me, and concentrate on walking. Don’t trip over a person or a dog or fall into a hole. Don’t step out in front of a bus.

The bulk of our shopping takes place at the Chedraui, an air-conditioned chain store, a short bus ride away from the Mercado. It seems almost antiseptic compared to the street vending and the Mercado… but much calmer. We fill a cart. I try to convert pesos to dollars, but am not quite up to speed yet. Compared to Alaska, everything is stunningly cheap. I could live here for a long time on very little cash. I’m dazed and confused, but Heidi is on her game. She’s in the zone. This is her gig: shopping, planning, bargaining, packing. She artfully fills our five carrier bags and my backpack with our loot. We catch a cab back to Fiesta Yate Bonanza (the nearest landmark), and get a ride back to Bertie with Vincente Dos. I take a deep breath.

Now, that was interesting.


Queen of Shopping, Heidi, with our five bags of groceries.


Almost home, back to Bertie!


Vincente Dos, our water taxi driver. (His dad is Vincente, so we call him Vincente Dos.)

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