Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Geppetto's Muse

I recently had the opportunity to explore a local accordion store Victoria. When I got there, I was surprised by the largeness of the store, and the number and different sizes of accordions lining the walls (800 in total, I found out later). But what most stands out about this visit was the owner. When I got there, a tiny, grey-haired man emerged from a dully lit room in the back. He was wearing a leather tool-belt that carried curious, clinking instruments on it. He blinked up at me from behind round, wire-rimmed glasses and asked  in a European accent if there was anything he could do for me. I said I was looking for a full-size accordion. His face lit up, and he asked me what kind, and before I could answer, he began to talk lovingly about different kinds of accordions: the various sizes of accordions, the sounds, feels, weights, and brands of accordions. He talked about the colours of accordions and the spacing of the keys. Then there were the European accordions that had a special tone to their notes--the "muse," he called this tone. He gazed a little dreamily into space as he talked about it. This was a man in love with accordions.

He took me into a small side room where there were about 20 accordions on the wall that you could test out. He told me to play away, and then he disappeared into a back room. I took a quick peek in there on my way out, and it was amazing! A Geppetto's workshop, the room was filled with little tools, spare accordion parts, and partly assembled instruments that he was working away at. I couldn't help but thinking after I left that if we were all as in love with our work as this man was, we'd be very fortunate!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Thoughts on Waves

The waves keep on coming, one after another, hour after hour. Sometimes we glided smoothly over gleaming sea hills while at other times, giant crashing waves fought around us for hours. Ups and downs! Lifting the boat high and then sending it flying back down a watery slope. Somewhat like life :) Troubles and thrills. Ups and downs. Problems and solutions. Forks in the road, and decisions to be made. Mysteries and sorting-outs. Questions and answers. It seems never-ending! When one thing passes, the next looms up.

Thinking about the waves out at sea helped me realize that the trick isn't trying for there to be no problems, mysteries and questions. There's no point in being angry and frightened by the next wave. Or trying to figure out just how we're going to get over a wave that hasn't even arrived yet.  How will we make it over this monster? What is past the horizon? That's just part of it - not knowing and not being able to see, yet believing, having faith that we're getting there. After all, the boat was made to float and ride out any storm! It's about learning to surf the waves, to trust that we're made to get through it and onwards to our destination. Futhermore, I do believe that all our answers come to meet us if we keep moving forward. We're not meant to cling in fear to the shore, and if we were always in simple, flat water, how boring would that be? We'd never get anywhere, and never know what we are capable of. The waves keep on coming, and each one seems more fearful and impossible than the last, but we're made to float, to ride, to survive, to thrive, and to find exhilaration in the wild impossible roller-coaster ride of life!


Kava is a drink that comes from a root and is commonly enjoyed in the South Pacific islands. As kava has a paralytic effect, you will often see people staggering home or collapsed in the street after a kava party. It's also known to cause vivid dreams! I was able to rustle up some kava in Tonga and bring it home. While completely legal, it unfortunately came as a powder packaged in suspicious little baggies. As I was being searching by New Zealand customs officers, they pulled out the baggies, looked at me like I was a hideous criminal, and demanded to know, "What is this?" When I told them it was kava, they nodded and smiled and moved on. The Canadian border officials didn't know what the heck it was, but they were happy with the description of, "A ground-up root."

This kava was not very strong--probably brewed for unexperienced visitors--but it numbed the lips and tongue and gave a feeling of slight light-headedness. It also tasted like the most disgusting dirty dishwater!! Chalk it up to an interesting cultural experience.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Musical Goodness

The Torkington clan lives on a hill overlooking a tiny ocean bay, tucked away in the midst of little rolling hills that are sprinkled with (surprise!)....sheep :) I was very lucky to find these kind people to work with for a month. The grandfather, son and his wife form a bluegrass band together, and as a family of bluegrass musicians, they have musical instruments everywhere! The fiddles and guitars strewn about made me very happy) There is always great music playing or being played (see The Pipi Pickers and Hot Diggity). From their ginormous library to their love of PG Wodehouse, and their ability to substitute popcorn for dinner, these people are great!!

Also, their backyard features the best outhouse ever, the "Turdis":

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


My cousin Theresa says that one of the first questions she gets when people find out that she was raised on a boat is, "Did you experience any big storms?" followed by "How did you shower?" A small sailing ship has no shower, and this is fine! We'd shampoo down our hair and then dive into the sea in our bathing suits to rinse off. I didn't miss the normal showers at all. However, when I was back in an Auckland hostel, my first shower in two months was a beautiful, beautiful thing :)

Friday, June 26, 2015


The Kingdom of Tonga is full of shipwrecks. The country is such a reef-filled place that this is no surprise! It takes quite a bit of skill to safely navigate the reefs and approach many of these islands.

When we were anchored at Ha'afeva, we saw marked on the charts that there was a shipwreck across the lagoon. About a mile away, the tip of an the old ship poked out of the water. The tip was visible at low tide, but completely disappeared at high tide. So choosing our time carefully, Uncle Kurt and I rowed over to explore.

A giant Korean fishing vessel lay on an angle in the water. Its stern (rear) was lodged on the reef. Its giant metal body stretched out behind this, and the prow (nose) was lying on the sandy bottom between the jungle of coral heads. At low tide, most of the ship was only about a meter below the surface, so I was able to snorkel and explore. You could still see the letters faintly painted on the metal hull, and the giant structure was an imposing form below the surface. I swam along just above the ship's deck to examine it. Then I pulled myself head-first through two of the several hatches that opened on the deck and led into it's dark belly below. Brightly coloured fish and weird shapes hung motionless in the mirk below, but I didn't dare go down into the hold. Visions of human-hungry octapuses, skeletons, and other horrors filled my mind. An old, tiled bathroom stall was shattered open on the deck, and the remains of the engine could be seen. The ship also attracted the most brilliant fish life, which hovered about the deck. The forward cabin jutted up above the rest of the main deck, so if you swam in front, you were in direct eye-level with the empty cabin as well as all the bright fish the circled about it. Pretty quickly, I stopped feeling terrified and felt instead what a little goldfish must feel when it first sees an underwater palace: tiny and in awe! I think that this wreck was perhaps most stunning experience of the whole sea adventure.

Later, in Tongatapu we saw many more shipwrecks. They weren't pretty, though, but big hulking bits of metal and wooden mess. Wrecks abound in this part of the world because no one has the money or wants to be bothered to get rid of them. The only exception was before the new king's coronation when the city towed big wrecks away to the far side of the bay where they were less visible.

Near the capital, the tip of a wrecked Chinese fishing vessel stuck out of the water. It was not too far from where we were anchored, so one afternoon I took the kayak over to explore. What looked like the whole bow of the boat jutted like a big, white tooth above the water. When I got closer, what looked like the "bow" turned out to be just the point on the actual prow of a massive white boat that disappeared into the depths below. A mast of some kind also stretched out into the blackness. The size of the ship and depth of the water was enough to keep me comfortably paddling about in the kayak and not diving down to explore. It was downright creepy!

Still, there is something fascinating about these shipwrecks. It's like a piece of history has gotten frozen where the ship went aground (a-reef, I should say). You can see exactly where time stopped for this boat.  Also, how many stories and conversations and emotions and dramas were enacted in what was once a great ship?! The Ha'afeva ship was still full of life: taken over by schools of fish and strange whiskered underwater creatures and colourful coral sprouting in patches on the deck. However,  all the human stories were hidden by time and water and only visited and vaguely imagined by the occasional snorkeler like myself.

(On a side-note, hopefully no one died; the local people are quick to help out sailors who are floundering on a reef).

Thursday, June 25, 2015


After a slightly nerve-wracking entry between two poorly marked reefs, we found peaceful anchorage in a lagoon next to the island Ha'afeva. In comparison to the dirty, cyclone-devastated town of Pangai, which we had just left, we were struck by this island's beauty and happy vibe. Fruit trees and cows were everywhere, and people were out raking their front yards and collecting stray coconuts. We were able to visit the local school, and here we were greeted by a crowd of children, who ran back to the main building yelling, "Palangi! Palangi!" (white person! white person!).

In Ha'afeva we went on the hunt for fresh fruit and vegetables because our supplies were depleted. The headmaster of the school introduced us to a local man named Peta, who took us on a merry chase through the jungle to find food. He shook the oranges out of the trees for us and hacked down the papaya and a giant clump of bananas with his machete. Afterwards, we went to pay him for the goods, but he didn't want money. He asked for cigarettes and beer for himself and shampoo for his wife--things that are hard to get and very expensive in the islands. We didn't have any of this stuff, however, so he accepted some Tongan dollars.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Tongatapu and the New King

A new king was being crowned in Tonga when we got there, and all of Tongatapu was in a hubbub! There was a ritual drinking of kava on the fields near the royal palace. Kava comes from a root and paralyses you if you drink enough of it! It's very common to drink in Tonga, especially with the Tongan men. (Incidentally, I was once invited to a kava party at the little island of Uoleva, but Pim and Josje didn't want to go, and I didn't want to paralyse myself in a strange hut with a bunch of unknown people on a deserted island!). Other festivities included great crowds of schoolchildren dancing in bright colours. And, as I mentioned before, the shipwrecks near the city were towed away out of sight so that visitors flying in wouldn't see them. Lots of flags and excitement!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Alien Ruins?

We anchored for three days at the tiny island of Uoleva - a restful place with sandy beaches, ten inhabitants, and crystal-clear blue water. Pim, Josje and I decided to walk around the island, and on our way back, we encountered an American woman who was running a small resort of beach huts. She told us a story about when she was building the resort, and her Tongan employees started showing up with big heavy rocks. She asked them where on this desert, coral island they were getting the boulders, and they took her to a mysterious, pyramid-shaped ruin in the jungle (where she told them "For the love of God, stop dismantling this!"). We were pretty excited by her story, so the next day, we followed the lady's specific, but curious directions to find the ruins: "past the three small coconut trees, by the stump, under the arched vines, through the jungle" :) It was easy enough to find: a small pyramid, overgrown with trees and leaves. We scrambled up the steep side of it until we reached the top, which was higher than our heads, almost as high as a one-story building. At the top, pointed stones were set in a ring like an ancient fire pit. We walked across the top, and on the other side, a ramp made of big stones let us walk down again more easily.

The American lady said that according to the Tongans, an ancient Tongan king had ordered his men to build it so that he could climb to the top and "catch pigeons more easily." We shared the American woman's view that this was bullshit. Others said that the Chinese had built it centuries ago. We suggested that maybe it was an old alien site used for communicating with the mother planet? There are only two such pyramids on the Tonga islands, she said, and her opinion was that they were for lighting fires and navigating ships to safety at night. Tonga is so rife with dangerous reefs that this version of the story made the most sense to me. I still like the idea of aliens.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mysteries at Sea

You encounter many strange things at sea. Once during my night watch, when we were hundreds of miles from anywhere, the sonar kept going off indicating that the "bottom" was only 13 meters below, then 15 meters, then 12, then 17. Very strange. I told Uncle Kurt, who just smiled and said, "Yep, something's probably swimming below us." It was probably a whale, but I liked to picture something hideous and tentacled and extremely hungry that had ventured up from the Tongan trench (which is a part of the ocean that at it's deepest is over 10,000 meters deep).

Another strange thing was marked on the chart as a "magnetic anomaly". This was a largish patch of ocean we sailed through between Tonga and New Zealand where our compass got all confused and pointed in the wrong direction. Fortunately for us, the GPS, was working just fine. I'm not sure what caused this--an enormous metal deposit on the ocean floor?