American cruisers through foreign eyes

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The coconut telegraph, as the cruiser-to-cruiser communication is jokingly referenced, is good for a lot of things. The clearance process like in Vava’u, Tonga. A great deal on brie at the Carrefour in ‘Ārue. An unmarked shoal by the Santa Inez Islands. But don’t let the coconut telegraph shape your perception of a country or culture before you arrive: assess from your own experiences instead. Now flip that around. How often do we show up in another country and find ourselves judged based on our US nationality?

Do you fly your US flag on Totem? We’ve been asked this a number of times since coming back. The assumption is that flying the US flag is asking for trouble, because people don’t like Americans. You know what? It’s not our experience at all. We don’t fly our US flag very often, but that’s because UV damage is killer on fabric, I won’t fly a ragged flag (disrespectful!), and it’s expensive to replace. We try to make it last and as a result it doesn’t live on the transom of Totem full time, and flies only on special occasions… not because we’re worried about being identifiable in an anchorage as The American Boat.

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South African news stand in February. Headline reads: “Election in the USA: knock-out punch in Iowa” and “Why is the state so important?”

So much of geopolitics is connected to the US and our economy that for better or for worse, people outside the USA often are pretty dialed in to what’s going on in our country. It was still startling earlier this year to see daily headlines in South African newspapers following the US presidential elections, like this one in early February about the Iowa caucus results.

Of course people will have opinions, but in the rare occasions where we’ve been at the receiving end of bad treatment, it had everything to do with the person directing it at us rather than the fact that we were Americans.

Our reception based on being American ranged from neutral to positive. Sometimes, it helped to identify ourselves as Americans. Papua New Guinea is a former dependency of Australia, a complicated history and relationship; we found our reception sometimes improved after clarifying we were American and not Aussie. In Indonesia, pride in the US President’s childhood ties to the country sometimes spurred positive outbursts of “OBAMA!” once our nationality was known.

During eight years overseas, a period which aligns closely with the Obama administration, the people who seem most likely to have negative pre-conceptions about Americans are… well, what do you think? We’ve been through a lot of territory in that time. Go on, guess.

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Making friends across boundaries: Jayapura, Indonesia

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s been fellow travelers from other English-speaking countries. Brits, Canadians, Aussies, South Africans, etc. Little brother complex? Resentment of being influenced downstream by US policies or economics? Some rationales are easier to understand, and some are silly, as expressed by a Kiwi cruiser one evening in an international gathering over sundowners. “I hate Americans!” he blurted out. “What,” said Jamie, “all 320 million of us?”

I strongly believe that it’s important for us to be good ambassadors while traveling. Like it or not, many people we meet are paying attention to US politics and will have preconceived opinions. And many of them may be apprehensive that we have elected a bellicose reality-TV star who has fanned flames of bigotry and thinks climate change is a hoax. Some of the first messages I had waking up the morning after election day were from friends we’ve made overseas with responses that could be most graciously summarized as “what the heck?!”

It’s even more important now to be those good ambassadors, and demonstrate that the media impressions people in other countries get about America is, well, just media, and the outcome of the election almost certainly is about desire for change and not offensive ideology. Shine that through everyday actions! Outside of the fact it is simply the right thing to do, I believe that individual actions make a difference and how we interact with people as travelers can have a ripple effect.

Be respectful. If there’s a cardinal rule to be a good ambassador, this is it. Is there any emotion more likely to breed ill will than disrespect? I remember watching a shirtless guy ranting at the Port Captain in a smallish town in Mexico over some unimportant frustration: the guy handled that interaction badly on multiple levels, and it didn’t help his case.

Remember you’re a guest. You don’t have a right to be in (fill in the blank: country X): rather, you are privileged to have the opportunity. Their culture, their rules, their standards, your responsibility to be attuned and inline.

Be indiscriminately kind and patient. Sure, things take longer sometimes, or happen in unfamiliar ways that make your life a little more difficult. It’s not meaningful. Repeat mantras about being a guest, and showing respect.

Seek local company. Interact with people besides other cruisers. Thoughtful interest is appreciated and you’ll probably learn something. Language barrier? No problem. Surprisingly few common words are necessary to communicate. Authentic interest reflects positivism.

Kids in Fakarava, French Polynesia - June 2010

Kids in Fakarava, French Polynesia – June 2010

Assume the best in others. Like a memorable cruiser we knew once said, “the world is full of beautiful people.” Enter every interaction with that in mind, not the possibility that they are somehow out to take advantage of you, and flip off the internal voice that distrusts. I don’t mean be naïve and ignore your gut, but start from a positive assumption. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most suspicious cruisers we knew were the most frequently plagued by petty theft.

Don’t complain about local standards. OK, so we all commiserate in the cockpit conversation about things that are challenging in an unfamiliar place, whether it’s the selection of produce in the market or the bus schedule. But for deeper differences, if you really don’t like them? Please, go somewhere else, instead of sharing your disdain. Mobility is one of the great luxuries of living on a boat.

Have a sense of humor. Be open to making fun of yourself when finding how people react to you! Remember that laughter is also a reaction to confusion or nervousness, like… when you’re trying to have a conversation with someone in a different language/country/culture.

This week a friend of ours said “…we can, all of us, commit to not allowing the prejudice and hurtful in our lives and around us and reach out to other folks and show them, through example and deeds, that other folks are good and we are worthy of each other. The alternative is to bask in our moral superiority, calling out the other side, and telling ourselves – ‘Well, I am not like those people.’” He’s referring to the post-election domestic dialogue in the US, and it’s spot on there but holds a greater truth. Our human family has so much more in common than we do holding us apart! Thank you for the words, John, and the reminder.

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Jamie and Patrick talk politics and disenfranchisement. Near New Hanover, Papua New Guinea

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Distance is relative: upriver to Washington DC

Family walking by Capitol building

You’re going to Washington DC with your boat? You know that’s going to take days, right? It’s really far away!

We heard this from nearly every individual around Annapolis that we told of our plans to take Totem up the Potomac. From Annapolis, it’s about four days of motoring (if you’re lucky, some sailing).  I’m sure that once upon a time, when our cruising life was contained in long weekends or vacation trips, we would have regarded the time it takes to go south in the Chesapeake Bay, and then north again, as “really far” too.

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Our bigger issue is that it’s getting cold, now that we’ve cracked into November.

COLD.

Diggin’ out the old oversized so you can layer under them foulies cold. It dipped into the 30s overnight in this pic.

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When we meet people here at home who are amazed at the distance our family has traveled, I have trouble accepting the recognition. I remember well enough when a few hundred miles WAS “really far.” Kind of like how that first overnight jaunt feels a little scary. You overthink the watch schedule, forget something you shouldn’t, and have just enough jitters enough that nobody really sleeps anyway. You string together a few more daytrips than usual to make tracks. And there’s a point along the way when the rhythm feels natural, and suddenly…going “really far” is not such a big deal.

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We anchored for a few nights at St Mary’s, MD, for Niall to tour the college and meet with admissions, and for the rest of us to explore the historic town. Founded by 300-odd settlers in the 1630s, it’s now carefully preserved including re-enactment of 17th century settler life by costumed docents. A replica of the 17th-century trading ship Maryland Dove, one of two ships which made up the first expedition from England to Maryland, awaited.

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Maryland Dove had really informed guides to help us understand the vessel in the context of it’s time. Anybody know what this is?

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Because it’s standard issue on boats of this era, and something I’d never encountered before, but really, really fascinating. Go ahead, guess here or on our Facebook page post! I’ll add it to the comments….EVENTUALLY. ?

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How cruising kids boatschool, example #724: spending the day exploring a national historic landmark, having 1:1 conversations with the staff who interpreted of daily life of the early settlers and indigenous  Yaocomaco  who lived here. Their rich information makes the skeleton structures feel real, the archeology sites tangibly important to preserving this slice of the past.

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Siobhan and the 17th century seaman reenactment character… shoeless.

The next anchorage was a little bay tucked on the east side of the Potomac, 30ish miles south of DC. Another reason it was well worthwhile to take Totem up here instead of day-tripping in traffic from Annapolis: Mallows Bay is the final resting place for more than 230 ships, mostly of which were built for WWI. The war ended, they were considered useless and scuttled…burned to the waterline and sunk.

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It is surreal.

We paddle right past the bones in our dinghy, in water so shallow it threatens the tubes of the RIB.

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During WWII, Bethlehem Steel built a salvage operation to wrest scrap from the mostly wooden vessels: that left a mark, too. Today this bow is home to a massive (9′ diameter?) osprey nest.

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The beaches around Chesapeake Bay are full of fossilized shark’s teeth. We tried.

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It’s stops like this that make me grateful we can take time. Whatever semblance of a schedule we have now is driven by a balance between wanting to make the most of the opportunity to spend time in the US capital…and not getting too cold.

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The Totem madrasa is in session. Actually, Jamie was giving a civics lesson.

We’re now 100 up the Potomac river. This is further inland than we have ever been on Totem. And there’s a warm weather break, thankfully. So surreal to see the Washington Monument in front of Niall, as he takes the helm when we anchored off DC.

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Shirtsleeve weather. Enjoying it while we can!

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And although the rest of the southbound fleet has basically left us in the dust, we’re planning to spend a few weeks here. Why? Because we CAN, and because the learning opportunities are outrageous! We are trying to limit ourselves to One Thing Per Day, because otherwise… total overload. And we have the luxury of time…to soak places in without going numb from the input.

Day one was at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History with Dr Christopher Mah. Introduced by a mutual friend a few years ago when we were trying to ID some of the interesting critters spotted underwater, he gave us an unforgettable behind-the-scenes tour. This invertebrate biologist is deeply respected in his field, and I feel tremendously grateful for the perspective he gave us on his work and the NMNH.

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Storage areas are like Raiders of the Lost Ark. OH, the treasures within!

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…and the treasures just sitting out, dated generations past, named by explorations you would recognize. History in the vaults.

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Another day, we gave a presentation in this room at the Department of Homeland Security to a range of senior officials from a variety of disciplines. A lucky opportunity after one attended our marina meet-n-greet presentation near Annapolis a couple of weeks ago. We really enjoy sharing from our experiences, and had fun tuning a few stories for the audience: piracy, working with officials in foreign countries, that time we befriended the families of the secret police tasked with following us in a corner of SE Asia.

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Walking the mall with Annapolis friends, checking out the Air & Space museum in DC…

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…ahead of visiting the Udvar-Hazy Air & Space museum near Dulles, thanks to friends from near Baltimore. MINDBLOWING. This panorama of the view at entry is just a teeny glimpse into how massive and amazing it is (thank you Scott & Sara!).

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Here’s another perspective on the massive scale at Udvar-Hazy: the space shuttle Discovery… that’s Niall, circled in orange, at bottom right.

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dsc01623Today’s destination: the capitol. Arranging a tour through our senator… well actually, I think the path/topics are not hugely different from the tour you’d get with the general public. But we had a smart intern, a small group with our family plus 2 others (vs a couple dozen), and WE GOT TO RIDE THE COOL SECRET TROLLEY.

This is just the first five days. We’ve got a bunch more. And DC has what feels like a bottomless supply of experiences, learning, history, unforgettable things to see and do. That question about why we’d go “really far” to be here just needed to be pulled out of the context of weekend/holiday sailing. Being able to go slow is our luxury, and not having a lot of traditional luxury in life, we’re going to revel the sh*t out of this one.

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At least two more weeks here. So yeah, we’ll be cold. But when else can we do this again? And how crazy/cool to be in DC for the elections?

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Hey, we’re in Huffington Post! Check out the article here, it’s full of pictures from eight years of cruising.