Welcome to our mid-life crisis! These are the chronicles of Laura and Patrick, their young son Jack, and their goofball Labrador Retriever named Evinrude (Rudy), as they travelled the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific coast of mainland Mexico in their catamaran. We went cruising in search of a change of pace, a closer knit family, and peace of mind. We found all three and more. The fun all started in October, 2008 and nearly four years later the Mexican adventure came to an end August 3rd, 2012. With our mid-life crisis cured in Mexico, we are excited to start a new adventure - life back in America.

Candeleros Chico

Candeleros Chico
Just another beautiful day at anchor on the Baja. 2010

Dolphins at play in the bow wake 2011

Dolphins at play in the bow wake  2011

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Change of Plans

I knew I was getting into trouble, all those months ago when I changed our declarative statement at the top of our blog. From the beginning, I had only stated that we were cruising Mexican waters, and very purposely left off any other goal. And then I got cocky several months back and added in that we were going to be going to Alaska in the spring of 2011. I should have known.

A cruiser cannot say he is going ANYWHERE until he is there. It's the thing I love most about cruising. This life makes it abundantly clear to anyone who is paying attention that they are not in control of their life. All of our lives are ruled by the circumstances we find ourselves in, but when you are cruising around on a boat, that fact becomes very clear. You aren't in control - the weather, breakdowns, money situations and more, these are the things that rule us. I can tell you with fairly good accuracy where I will be tomorrow, maybe the next day. But the further into the future you wander, the less likely you will be to pin down where you will be and what you will be doing. It's really cool. It makes you live in the moment, just like the great thinkers tell you to.

With that said, I humbly ask your forgiveness as I take that statement about Alaska off the the blog. Our circumstances have changed and so our plans have changed. Through a happy string of coincidences, we have decided that we can stay another year in Mexico! I have always been the type of traveller who would rather see one foreign city really well, than four countries superficially. We all love the Sea of Cortez and though we have spent two years there already, we are getting excited about another one. Every year we have sought out new anchorages, and despite this we still haven't even come close to seeing everything there is to see.

To keep it exciting, we are thinking of a few changes. We are planning to do a lot more gunkholing far up north where there aren't as many guidebooks to use. We've been scanning Google Earth and have picked out several bays and islands that look cool from space. We also plan on leaving the boat in a marina during the hot, hot months and going somewhere else. While July and August are some of the best times to be out in the anchorages snorkeling around - it is just too hot for Rudy and us.

So, the Mexican adventure continues. Eventually we will leave here, I just won't even hazard a guess as to when that will happen.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Eating our way through Mazatlan

We've been in Mazatlan almost 8 weeks! Shocking but true. We love Mazatlan and the El Cid experience so much that it is hard to leave. This is the third January we have spent here and after all that time, we feel very comfortable here - we have friends here besides other boaters, we know the tricks of public transportation, but best of all we know some REALLY GOOD places to eat.
#1 Eating Experience in all of Mexico - El Montalayo. This restaurant can be found down past the Home Depot at Av. La Marina Y Colima. The specialty sold at this restaurant is barbacoa de borrego (barbecue lamb). It is hard to even describe how good this stuff is. You simply cannot stop eating it until your stomach explodes. You buy the lamb by the kilo, with or without bones. They bring it out on a platter with a special little clay pot that has glowing embers in the bottom that keep the lamb hot as you work your way through it. Along with the lamb comes mounds of fresh, hot, homemade corn tortillas, and about 8 different topping choices of salsas, guacamole, pickled onions, etc. which you use to create your own lamb tacos. They also sell carne asada (red beef) in the same manner, but the lamb is so good we have never ordered anything else. The word is getting out on this place so now you often see a table with long term visitors here, sitting among the locals. You never see an average tourist.
The Fish Market - This absolutely cute place just opened within the last year about a block or two past the El Cid entrance. Someone put a lot of money into this tiny restaurant and it looks like you could pick it up and place it down in California and no one would notice. All tacos cost 20 pesos (or 3 for 50 pesos) and you can chose to have octopus, shrimp, fish or scallop in your tacos, either grilled or deep-fryed. The other items on their menu look fabulous too, but they are much more expensive (shrimp burger for 90 pesos) and since we are so happy with the tacos we have not branched out, yet. I have only seen other tourists eating here since it is so brilliantly packaged to appeal to them and the prices are a little high for tacos, so the locals don't go here.
Claudia's - This restaurant can be found on the upper level of the Central Market. There are about ten different restaurants on the upper level and we happened to choose Claudia's. We were not disappointed. The first time we ate there, I had the Second Best Chile Relleno in Mexico (poblano chile stuffed with cheese). The second time we went there, I had very good Albondigas Soup (meatball soup) and Patrick had the Best Ever in the World Chicken Mole. It was truly spectacular, and I don't usually like Mole since most places just use the stuff from the can. Obviously Claudia's makes their own mole sauce and it is exceptional. The entire meal came to 50 pesos which is about $4 at the current exchange rate. I have only seen locals eating here.
Q Cotorro - This taco stand can be found on the same street as the Mega grocery store, a couple blocks further down on the same side. It is large, clean and packed with locals after 8pm. Not being Mexican, we tend to eat dinner at 5 or 6 pm and so the place is nearly empty. They have excellent charros (bean soup) for 12 pesos a bowl, fabulous grilled whole green onions, and a variety of really good tacos for a reasonable price.

I could keep going, but I think you get the picture - forget the budget and who cares about our expanding waists. There are so many places that have been recommended to us that we could stay another two months checking them out, in between going to our favorites.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A New Level of Luxury

We've been enjoying our stay at Marina El Cid, as always. We take this opportunity tied to a dock and work through a big list of repairs and maintenance. After a summer in the sea, it is heaven to tie up to the dock at El Cid and enjoy the electricity, water, pools, beach, and most of all the staff. El Cid is a great resort and it's a treat to be here and enjoy it. But this year we decided to really pamper ourselves. We booked a week in a room here. It's perfect since we can get off the boat and still be around for Rudy. We tell ourselves it's so we can repair the broken head (toilet) on the boat. But really that is just an excuse. Our unit has a nice TV, two beds, a huge shower, a sitting area with couches, a balcony with beautiful ocean and marina views, and a handy little kitchen.
Since our lives are a holiday anyway, when we are on holiday at El Cid our interests are different from the average guest. Most important is that each one of us is fighting to spend the most nights alone in the suite. After two years of extreme togetherness as a family, we are all craving a little space. We have a roster all lined up to make sure we each get at least one night alone. The next thing high on our list is laying in bed with the remote control and a TV. Jack and his friends have spent several afternoons hanging out in the room, ignoring the sunshine so they can watch Sponge Bob. Patrick is all excited to use the kitchen to can some tuna that he caught on the sail over. It will save our propane and keep the smell out of our boat - not sure what our neighbor will think! But my favorite luxury is a flushing the toilet that you can put toilet paper in - what heaven.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Safety in Mexico

Recently a friend who follows our blog asked in the Comments Section about safety in Mexico. He had noticed that in the pictures I posted of Mazatlan, every home had bars on the windows and doors. It is true, it's not just in big cities like Mazatlan, but virtually every home I have seen in Mexico has had bars on the windows and the doors. Mexico being Mexico, the bars are usually very beautiful, ornate hand-wrought iron, but still there are bars. At first, it unnerved me since I too imagined the lawlessness that must exist to make this necessary, since in America only homes in very poor areas in large cities tend to have bars on the windows and doors.

However, I think there is more to it. It's hot in much of Mexico through most of the year, and many homes do not even have glass in their window openings, they simply have wooden shutters to cover their windows. Many homes do not have air conditioning. People often leave their doors and window shutters open all day and night to keep the air circulating. The iron bars let air circulate and keep people and large animals out. They also keep little children in. Also, many of the homes in cities and towns are built directly against the sidewalk with no "front yard" or space to create a barrier to people passing on the sidewalk, so the bars add that sense. So I think the bars offer more than security, though that is a primary good.

When people think about safety in Mexico now, the images in their heads are from the extreme violence caused by Mexico's war against the drug cartels. It is getting bloodier and bloodier but so far it is affecting only a small segment of the population in certain areas. The Mex-Am border and large cities on the mainland are the most dangerous areas to be in. I was reading through the BBC news and in this article it mentions that of the 34,000+ murders in Mexico related to the drug wars, 89% are drug cartel members killed in turf wars. That 11% is still a lot of innocent lives being lost, but they tend to be the police officers and officials fighting the cartels. The fact of the matter is the Average Joe has little to worry about. I think that the same advice that keeps someone safe in America will do the same down here - do not buy, sell or use drugs, do not hang out with people who buy/sell/use drugs, do not wander through areas of large towns late at night alone, stay aware of your surroundings and the people in your surroundings, do not flaunt money or wear expensive watches or jewelry. Oh heck, that's good advice for any part of the world.

The other violent crime that very rich Mexicans must worry about is abduction of family members for ransom. It is a very serious, frightening problem and many rich Mexicans have been abducted for ransom. Abductions are on the rise, but I believe that tourists are not usually targeted. Apparently they are not random incidents and the victims have been watched and assessed. These abductions happen in large cities.

More pertinent to cruisers is that Mexico has just had its first acts of piracy within the last year. US fishermen/boaters on a large lake which spans the Mex-Am border were held up at gun point by Mexicans (most likely cartel members) in a panga. In one incident an American has died. Documented piracy in Mexico had never happened before. Piracy in the Sea of Cortez is probably the one thing I would be most concerned about, but not as a problem now, as a problem that could develop in the following years. It is something to be aware of and to keep an ear out for, but I would not change my plans trying to avoid something that has never happened.

There is crime against the cruising community down here but I have only heard of "things" being stolen - I have not heard of any violent crime against cruisers in Mexico (unless they were walking in a large town at night and they were mugged). In the large cities on the Baja peninsula and basically from Mazatlan on down the Gold Coast, cruisers have to be very vigilant of their personal items. I have heard of many items being taken from cruisers (especially on the Mexican Riviera) - everything from surfboards to dinghy motors. Usually the items are taken off the outside areas of a boat when either no one is home on the boat, or late at night when people are sleeping. Just like at home, the thieves take the easiest pickings first which means dinghys floating behind boats only tied on with a rope, or cans full of gas set on the outside rail of a boat. Thieves have been known to even take outboard motors off of deck railings, or off of dinghys that were hoisted high above the water, so it is a good idea to secure your dinghy motor with locks and cable to the dinghy or railing, even if it's high above the water line. I have heard of items being stolen from the inside of boats when the boat has been put in storage for the season, but that is not as common.

It's true, though many cruisers think of themselves as "poor" or on a budget, we still have far more personal wealth than the average Mexican citizen. However, I have never felt unsafe, threatened or in danger down here throughout our last two years. We have never had anything stolen. Instead, I have felt welcomed, accepted and befriended - especially on the Baja peninsula. Mexico and the average Mexican citizen are wonderful.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Contract

As I mentioned earlier, Jack has been resistent to learning/school since the beginning, stemming from his feelings of failure caused by his dyslexia. By the time he was in 4th grade, I knew school was not the place for Jack to learn and grow. However, by then he had spent years in a setting that had destroyed his self-confidence, and made him feel like a complete failure. To protect himself, he had stopped trying to learn and was picking up a "class clown" attitude. I knew that our biggest hurdle was going to be getting Jack to believe in himself again.

Man, has that been a big hurdle. For kids who have been victimized by a school setting, they need to decompress for months before they can even start trying to learn. The standard wisdom in homeschooling support groups is that decompression takes about one month for every year spent in school. For Jack that would mean 7 months of decompression. So he stopped school in June of 2008 and we began homeschooling in earnest in January 2009.

Since January 2009 we have struggled through homeschooling's ups and downs. Jack's attitude to learning was slowly getting better if we kept up a constant day to day effort, but anytime we had to take a break, his resistance was immediately up again. We continued on in this manner until about July 2010. Things were slowly getting better - he was doing well reading, he stopped saying negative things about himself, and he actually enjoyed taking the Standardized Test (that was a miracle!).

Then all systems broke down. You see, it all kicked off when we had back-to-back visitors on JaM which took out the entire month of May, then we tried to get back into schooling in June. And then in July, Jack and I went home for two weeks. When we returned after that trip, homeschooling had plunged down into the worst situation yet. I think it mostly had to do with Jack's burgeoning hormones as he was nearing 13. Suddenly he had the worst attitude ever. He was disrespectful, angry, moody, and uncooperative. It is impossible to teach someone anything when they have that attitude. I think he honestly thought that if he made it horrible enough, I would just stop trying and he wouldn't have to have any schooling!

We kept struggling on, but I was getting angrier and angrier at the way he was treating me and the things he would say to me. Who needs it? It was destroying our mother/child relationship. Finally I had enough. I told Patrick I was done cruising since we needed to get Jack into a school again since he was telling me that I was a bad teacher and he couldn't learn anything from me. It was September and I wanted to get Jack into a school at the beginning of the year. I wanted the boat driven immediately to Loreto so we could be on the next plane out. It took a few minutes for Patrick to realize I was serious and we began having the heart to heart talk about how we would make it happen. It took Jack about twenty minutes to realize that we were serious.

And then miracles began happening. Over the next 24 hours we three had many heart to heart talks. And so "The Contract" came into existence. It is a document that hangs on our wall signed by Jack and myself which says "I will: Try, Be Cooperative, and Be Respectful." That's it. It doesn't say anything about What he Learns, it's about How we Act. And I mean "we" since I was getting a bad attitude toward him in response to his attitude toward me. Then every day of the year, Jack either gets a star on the calendar for meeting that goal or he gets an "X". If he gets three "X's" in one month, then we are on the next plane home and he is back in school. If he makes it through the month without any "X's" then he gets to take three days off in the following month. The contract still lets Jack have a bad day, even two of them every month - but if he has three of them, we are on the next plane home. The contract started in September, 2010.

Since then, homeschooling has been a dream. It is always pleasant, is usually fun, and is filled with great discussions about history and science questions. I absolutely love being his teacher now and he is learning so much. In the last four months, he has become a self-learner. I can set out a list that has his subjects on it and the expectations for that day and he can complete the assignments on his own (you know- Do page 45 and 46 in Math, Read pages 384 through 392 in science and answer these questions, etc.) It is a miracle. Always before this, homeschooling meant I was sitting next to him the whole time keeping him on task.

Jack has competely changed his attitude towards us, also. Now that he realizes that his actions can stop our trip, he has taken on a whole new ownership of our adventure and is extremely helpful with boat chores and other things. The Contract has changed our day to day life. Sometimes you have to reach rock bottom before you can find the steps to make things better.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Homeschooling Day

On our boat, homeschooling sets the pace of the day, almost every day of the year. We do not take weekends, most holidays or summer off. I know this seems pretty extreme, but after trial and error, we found this works best for us. Even with just a weekend off, Jack is hard to get started again on Monday, let alone any serious time off like Christmas vacation - so we just keep at it, day after day.

The holidays Jack gets are two days for Christmas and his birthday. He gets the occasional sick day, but thankfully he has had few of those except when he had Dengue Fever. When we are on a passage, or moving for more than four hours, we also take a skip. If we have visitors, or if we go home for a visit we stop schooling. This means that school is in session probably 310 days a year. The good news is that we can then spend less time each day on school, since we have so many of them.

On JaM, we take our mornings very seriously. Generally everyone stays in bed as long as they can before getting up. For me, that's around 7am; Patrick follows around 8 and Jack gets up sometime before noon, but usually between 10 and 11. Why not? There aren't usually any pressing issues that require early action. Once Jack is up, fed and ready, we start the day. We try to never do anything else before school is done. Sometimes this can be a real drag because you feel like the day is wasting away, but it is the only way to make sure it gets done. Generally a homeschooling session takes about an hour and a half to two hours depending on Jack's concentration level.

I put my own curriculum together for Jack. I did not feel that a set curriculum from a school would work at all for us. In the beginning I started with several reading programs specific to dyslexics, a Math program that I absolutely love called Math-U-See, and fiction books for reading. That is the program we started with - just reading, writing and 'rithmatic. Since that time we have added in a map reading program that encourages critical thinking skills, history lessons, a grammar program and a science program. I am the usual teacher, but when the substitute gets called in (Patrick), they cover other subjects like compass coordinates, barometer readings, latitude and longitude readings and dishwashing.

We hardly ever have internet access so I cannot use the internet as a tool for teaching, or use any program that requires internet participation. Also some programs require parents to send in school work to be corrected by the program, but that would not work for us either. That would be too much hassle. All of the programs that we have are self-contained in books or on DVD's.

Once school for the day is done, Jack is free to go about his business. It is great when there are other kids around since he is highly motivated to finish quickly, but I think he does a better job of learning when we are just out floating around on our own with no interruptions.

The next topic is "The Contract." It single handedly saved our cruising and is the secret to our success.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Truth About Homeschooling on Just a Minute

This topic is so huge that it is going to take several different posts to cover it all, so this first one is just general info.

Boy for cruising families, this is the "hot" topic. Usually, unless you are VERY good friends with a family, it is politely avoided like the elephant in the living room. And it should be. There are so many variables in the equation of homeschooling that trying to converse about homeschooling with a parent is like trying to get directions in Hong Kong from a person speaking Chinese - you can ask, but you are still going to feel lost. The age of the child, whether the kid enjoyed regular school or not, the attitude of the child about learning, whether the child has any special education needs (either super smart, or with learning disabilities), whether or not you have a lot of internet access, the family's religious beliefs, which state your child is registered as a homeschooler in - all of these things, and more, can make each family's homeschooling experience completely different.

So I can't tell you anything about homeschooling other than what our experience has been. We are a family with one 13 year old son who absolutely hated the school experience, has a horrible attitude about learning, and who has been diagnosed with moderate/severe dyslexia (which was the cause of his hatred of school), and who is quite intelligent like many dyslexics. Did you know that Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Alexander Graham Bell, Richard Branson and Erin Brokovich are all dysleyxic? So dyslexia is not about intelligence or abilities, it's about how your brain takes information in.

School was going so poorly for Jack that we were going to pull him from the system in 2008 regardless of whether we went sailing or not. School had completely demoralized his belief in his abilities and basically only "taught" him that he was "dumb". And he was attending a great private school with small classrooms where he was a popular guy. His idea about himself came from comparing his abilities to those of the kids around him. And truthfully, no dyslexic is going to shine in a school setting.

So for us on Just a Minute, our number one goal of homeschooling has been building self-esteem. We started out slow and just focused on Reading, Writing and 'Rithmatic - just like a little pioneer schoolhouse. Over time we have added in more subjects. Homeschooling has never been easy. But it has been incredibly rewarding. After two years of sometimes absolutely painful struggle, I am happy to say - things are going very well. I feel great success. Jack is now reading for fun; though it will never be his favorite thing to do, he does enjoy reading a good book. His attitude toward himself is very positive. He has passed his once-a-year Standardized tests that WA state requires with very good results (mostly in the 90th percentile ranges for the six different topics). But best of all, we have reached a place where our daily school session is not a battle of wills punctuated with anger and frustration. And that is heaven.