Something To Say About Miracles

We finally arrive in Penang – exactly one year after our intended arrival date, and well past due we share this story.

For those of you who have met Ayla, you will know that she has a condition called radial dysplasia. She has the fourth stage that is defined by the absence of a radial bone and thumb. Often the condition is associated with heart and renal issues, along with a variety of other potential complications. It is only now that we have her with us that I can share her birth story, or more specifically, her en utero story.

I have heard many people say what a miracle babies are and what a complex process their development is, particularly in the womb. I understood this but never really appreciated it. It was truly amazing with my first to follow the month-to-month stages of growth and how quickly complex systems develop.

I got the condensed version with Ayla as we didn’t discover we were pregnant until the 15th week, well into the second trimester. We were sailing up the eastern Australian coast when I discovered a lump in my stomach, of which it took several days for me to convince John it wasn’t a figment of my imagination. We were a few days out of Cairns when he agreed that there was something evident, of which I said “it is either a good lump, or a bad one.” I figured it was either tumour or a baby and I knew right away which I preferred. A few days later we were able to confirm good news, and the following day we got an ultrasound.

It was such an unexpected surprise. For several reasons we thought I was unable to conceive, so to learn that we would be joined by yet another was fantastic news. During the ultrasound we were told that we would be having a girl and that all looked good in the scan. We were jubilant – a daughter for us, a sister for Braca! We returned to the receiving room to wait for our photos and our alarm grew as our wait was extended. Couples arriving after us came and went while we still waited, and we were finally called back into the examination room. There is a funny thing that adrenalin does to shift the space around you. I am sure everything slipped sideways and created a void as voices started to drift off when the doctor started talked about problems that had been found. Further tests were recommended. Specialists were referred. I walked out in a mechanical daze until I was freed by the open space outside to break down and cry. I called my mother and the words I remember repeating were “my baby is broken.”

We spent several weeks in Cairns seeing specialists who helped us understand what Ayla was dealing with. We had a child with a malformed limb with a host of other serious complications that could present on delivery. Her kidneys could fail. She may need heart surgery at birth. She may have mental disability. Blood transfusions.

Fifteen weeks along and we had some major decisions to make. Were we to carry this child to term? Should we head directly to New Zealand and the safety of a medical system we would be supported by? Could we dare carry forward with our plans and spend the pregnancy in remote regions with an at-risk pregnancy? Those few weeks without a plan and so many factors outside our influence was a very stressful period. I cried my full for the sorrow I felt for a child I couldn’t do anything to help, and worried over the possibility of a future with a special-needs child.

In the end, we decided to press on. Atea and crew would sail from Australia through Indonesia as planned, with sights on Singapore as a base for temporary work. We discussed this with the specialists and agreed that we would get periodic ultrasounds along the way. I did some research on potential delivery locations and found a gynecologist in Penang, Malaysia, who shared a birth philosophy that I was aligned with and who agreed to deliver Ayla for us. I owe my deepest, most sincere gratitude to Dr. Narinder Shadan for his support along the way. His responses were prompt, his manner gentle and sincere as well as professional, and his patronage gave me the confidence to carry forward.

We had a magic season – our trip through Indonesia was filled with dances and festivals, celebrations and local hospitality. It was easy to let my worries get lost in the fullness of our lives, and I embraced that. It was easier for me to put the pregnancy out of mind when results of the ultrasounds along the way confused us with a myriad of different results, all worse than the last.

Lombok and the northwestern Gili group provided a significant change to our plans. Through some close sailing friends I was introduced to Julia, a gynecologist-on-holiday who sat down for a consultation with me – it was a very fortunate introduction. We discussed Ayla’s condition and the risks we were taking of a delivery so far from home. She offered to join me during my next ultrasound appointment, as she would be traveling through Lombok and close to the hospital I would be visiting. On the evening, she was there in advance of us – “us” included John, Braca and I and our French friends Marie & Michel and their two children Nali & Niobe, 2 and 4. We walked in like a fortified battalion of misfit tourists. The doctor I consulted with was using old equipment and was under trained, and so Julia stepped in and ran the ultrasound for him. The conclusion was that I needed more sophisticated equipment to get the results we were looking for, and so we were referred to a specialist clinic across town. Off I went trailed by my eight-strong support team.

The results of the second test indicated that Ayla was loosing weight. She was in the 10th percentile and with it our focus shifted to low birth weight concerns. We decided that we had too much at risk to deliver Ayla overseas and made the decision to return to New Zealand for her birth.

But first, we had to get there. We had a floating home half way between points and needed to find a safe place to leave her. We ran through a few, mostly impractical, ideas before settling on a plan. My proposed solution – ludicrous on reflection – was to sail from Bali to Borneo, sail upriver and trek wild orangutan, then help deliver Atea o Singapore. Once there, I’d hop on a plane with a belly fit to bust and a two-year old, leaving John to job hunt in Singapore while I flew to NZ to deliver a baby and return once we’d received clearance. After persuading John to this plan, I realized that leaving him to his bachelorhood while I roamed Auckland knocked up and homeless was, while a wildly creative plan, definitely not a sound one. Eventually we agreed that I could keep the orangutan if I acceded Singapore. We would put the search for a contract in Singapore on the back burner and take it one step at a time. John would return with me to New Zealand to join in the birth of his daughter. If we could return to Atea soon after delivery we would address work options then. If we needed to stay in New Zealand at the request of our doctors we would be in a position to do so.

Having agreed on plan, we then needed to get both ourselves and our boat over 1000 miles to Danga Bay Marina in Malaysia, with 4 weeks remaining before the flight cut off. Women are denied access to airspace a month prior to their due date, which left us with a lot of distance and little time to get Atea secured before we had to fly.

While our pace was quick, we did schedule in a detour up the Kumai River in Borneo to visit wild orangutan in their natural habitat. With few places around the world that offered such a unique experience I was determined to get there (see video on our blog: X). John always teases me that when I am given option A and option B to choose between, I always choose A and B. We were also able to celebrate our son’s second birthday with our fellow cruising mates before signing off on the season. We then followed a quick pace to get Atea to our designated marina and did so with three days to spare. We madly packed bags and boat not knowing how long our departure was for. I expected a quick return and packed accordingly, however prepared the boat for an extended absence to ensure she would be keep well should be gone longer than anticipated. It was a mad few days in sweltering heat getting things ready for our departure. No feet up on soft cushions for the abdominally-enlarged. We worked steady and hard together, with a day to spare for a sight-seeing tour of Singapore before departure. All would have rolled without comment had the airline staff not stopped me at check-in, two short hours before departure, and demanded that I get a medical certificate confirming me fit to fly. Talk about sending a woman into early contractions! We raced out of the terminal to get a stamp of approval from an airline-approved doctor. Fortunately, the checkup was a blitz – I was asked my age and weight, told to flash him my ankle for visual inspection and waived out the door. It was the quickest, most expensive consultation in my life, and I thanked him for it. We were cleared for travel. Holding my belly, we sprinted off to departure count down and boarded our flight just in the knick of time.

The day after our return I had appointments with the specialists to discuss Ayla’s case. It was quickly determined that Ayla had slipped from the 10th percentile to the 3rd and the suggestion was made for an immediate C-section. I was totally unprepared for that recommendation. We had only just arrived, we were sleeping in a friend’s basement and had made no preparations to receive an infant.

We agreed on a contingency plan and monitored Ayla’s weight, however it was quickly evident that she was continuing to struggle and so on my subsequent assessment I was asked to immediately check in for an induction. A long, drawn out two days later, I held my beautiful baby in my arms.

One look at Ayla and I fell absolutely head-over-heals in love. Now, this is the amazing thing about nature: I had spent six months protecting myself and all the barriers crumbled the minute she was placed in my arms. I looked down at the most beautiful face I’d ever seen; blue eyes that reflected my father, graceful fingers that reflected my mother. Johns smile. My nose. I felt so proud of her for the miracle she made happen – she had survived on a single-vein umbilical chord with half the blood supply of a standard birth and she had made it.

It was the right decision that we had returned to New Zealand. We were wrapped up in a medical system that made things happen. As an American it was amazing to be in socialized care within a country with such excellent medical support. Things just happened without draining me of all my sweat, tears and dollars. Within days of Ayla’s birth, she had a full set of detailed full-bodied x-rays, a brain scan, a heart scan, bloods drawn and genetic testing – all reviewed by the top pediatric specialists in the country. I was visited by a Psychologist who offered free support counseling should I need it. Ayla’s pediatric doctor made several visits to check in. After all the emotional pressure of this pregnancy, it was amazing to fly home and fall into the arms of such an efficient medical system.

As always, it is the unknown that is the scariest. I remember a poignant moment when the psychologist called in. After a brief summary, I said how deeply I had fallen in love with my daughter on our first day together. She looked at me with very serious eyes, nodded, and asked, “and how are you feeling about her today?” She was looking for all the things unsaid. But there was nothing other than this floating feeling of elation. We’d made it. Ayla hadn’t been whisked off to an operating theatre or intensive care in her first moments. None of the disasters that we’d feared for her had presented. She had been placed in my arms on delivery and stayed with me every moment since.

And here we are, a few weeks shy of her first birthday. Back onboard Atea in the town we’d intended as her birthplace. I had sent Dr. Narinder an update when Ayla was born and said we’d touch base if we made it to Penang. On arriving, I followed up on that promise and received a reply filled with his typical warmth and enthusiasm. Two days following he came down and joined us at a pub near the marina and we met in person for the first time. He was introduced to the baby we’d hoped he would deliver and we were able to thank him for the support he gave us along the way. Had he not been there, we would have made very different decisions in regard to our movements last year.

While our pregnancy had been a difficult one, no day since her arrival has been. We’d spent six months preparing for the worst and every day since celebrating her progress. During that meeting a comment Dr. Narinder made hit home in a way I had never registered similar comments before. In talking about Ayla, he said what a miracle she was. When I acknowledged him he stopped, held my gaze and repeated, “No. She really is a miracle.” And for the first time I understood just how very, very lucky we were.

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Bicycle Spokes and White Rice

We can now officially report that we have “gone cruising.” Dock lines were cast yesterday and we spent our first night at anchor. If feels rewarding to be truly afloat again, with bows pointed to the breeze and salt spray cast across her decks.

It is hot here in September – low 30’s hot, which when breezeless means really, really hot. Matters are worse when smoke fills the sky from burning plantations of palm trees, making the heat seem all the more oppressive. It has taken us some time to adjust to the high temperature but the gauges are tuning and our bodies starting to regulate. We initially stayed in a hotel near the marina whilst Atea was on the hard getting her final work done, the air-conditioned rooms a welcome reprieve. We soon discovered, however, that air-con in these parts don’t have temperature adjustments so we either battle hypothermia or heat exhaustion. I’ve never understood why countries with the hottest temperatures tend to turn their thermostats the lowest – it has always seemed counter-intuitive to carry jumpers around when walking around in the blistering heat. But if you intend to spend anytime indoors the extra layers are necessary. I now understand how Muslim’s can get away with head-to-toe covering when I spend time indoors shivering myself blue.

It took us three weeks to get ourselves sorted for the season, which was the timeframe we expected. While Pangkor may not attract the average tourist, Pangkor Marina does offer a good base to get marine work done. We had high hopes of getting a significant refit done to Atea during her nine months on the hard, but we soon realized that you have to be present to ensure progress. Nevertheless, we succeeded antifouling the hull, polishing the topsides, painting rust spots and the interior woodwork has been rejuvenated. At the last minute we added in an anchor winch service, rudder shaft repairs and a leaking hull valve replacement. After emptying out the bank account, we were finally ready to go. You quickly realize why boatyards are full of foreign cruising yachts. With prices roughly 50% lower than western yards, it is the only place you can afford to have work done… and even then boats quickly consume what money you have.

Of our diet, it has changed considerably since re-embarking on the cruising life. As I reflect through the seasons, the taste and flavour of our meals are highly influenced by the regions we travel through. This one more so than any other. In previous years we have left shore with a yacht stocked for extended periods. Rather than a year of stores onboard, this year we have the luxury of easy access to most foods and we are able to provision as we go. A novel experience. For the first time ice-cream blesses our freezer, which sounds a good thing as in years past the entire space has been jammed exclusively with eye fillet and scotch steak. However, while fruit and vegetables abound, quality meat, breads and cheeses are sparse. The chicken is scrawny and the meat ordered by hue: orange, black or green. As such, a vegetarian diet consumes our meals unless we go ashore. Given meals – good, delicious, full-flavour meals – are a quarter of what the ingredients would cost, eating ashore is a regular affair.

That’s great until you are blessed with a toddler who has little appreciation for spice. As meals in Malaysia are a blend of Indian and Malay culture, very little is served bland in nature. Given Braca’s distaste for meals with a red hot kick, rice is slowing becoming his staple. Ayla is getting her balance of nutrition through breast milk, but Braca has been abruptly deposited into a white rice diet.

We lucked into good company on our first day. We went to the boatyard to greet Atea for the first time in ten months when we saw two small figures madly peddling along the walkway. To my delight, they turned down the ramp to a yacht at the end of the jetty. I went around to introduce myself and was delighted to meet a very chatty and warm Canadian woman and her Australian family. Her two daughters are two and five, the youngest a month off Braca’s birthdate. We laughed at the kit that comes with kids and how ridiculous some of it was in a cruising context – babies on boats with bikes. John and I had debated before leaving Auckland at how ridiculous it was to bring a bicycle and trike (for the baby who isn’t yet crawling!), but this introduction started a ritual of morning communal bike rides and an immediate friendship. “Where are my girls?!” was the first thing Braca would say in the morning and they’d soon be off as a connected threesome. They would be off peddling around the marina, swimming in the hotel pool, hanging out below decks playing games or attending home-schooling lessons. We also took excursions into town, which provided access to local attractions and activities. SV Wandoo made the three weeks in Pangkor Marina a very social, welcome affair.

We have reunited with old friends and met some new, and social evenings on the aft deck have kicked in to a regular affair. What stands out is that at some point in the evening all conversation inevitably turns to “where to next?” Opposed to seasons past where routes all led westward, piracy in the Indian Ocean means that cruisers have to choose alternate plans to what was once the “milk run” to the Med. From Malaysia and Thailand, most boats head southwest through the South Indian Ocean to round the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa on a return trip to Europe or the Americas. A few brave or foolhardy team up to head through the Bay of Bengal and the pirate waters of the Arabian Sea (or finance the safer but more expensive option of shipping the yacht by cargo ship). Others look eastward on a circuit that leads them back through the North or South Pacific. Us? We have no idea. Or more aptly put, we have many ideas but none that we have committed to.

Sight and Taste of the Spice Islands

[As we prepare for this cruising season, we are tidying up from last season: Here is an update from July 2013 that covers the first few months of our trip through eastern Indonesia.]

In deciding to join the Indonesian rally this year, known locally as Sail Komodo and internationally as Sail Indonesia, we chose to do so not because of its logistical perks but for its social benefits. Indeed, the rally does assist in organizing visa permits and extensions. It organizes immigration and customs visits and the like which saves on the hassle of sorting it out individually and the runaround you often get outside of organizational sponsorship. However our key drivers were much less serious than all that; we wanted rum-buddies & poker-pals to share anchorages with along the way. With 105 yachts signed up for the rally, we were certain there would be a few like-minded comrades that we would be able to join up with.

One hundred and five is a whole heap of boats; about one hundred more than we were interested in joining in a poker match. Fortunately, the rally had organized two route options. Option A followed the traditional cruising route and had the majority of participants. Option B was on the ‘road less traveled’ and had received much less interest. When we first discovered the ratio of 6/99 we thought we’d clearly missed something. We spent a day doubting our choice however concluded that nothing could be worse than following a hundred boats around a cruising circuit. When the Indonesian Government laid down incentives we spent a second day debating what we’d missed: $250 in cash and $250 in diesel to switch, but the offer had only persuaded six boats to defect. One follows the tradition route along Flores, the other strikes north to the mythical Spice Islands.

Our decision made, we readied Atea for departure out of Darwin on the 27 of July, two days after our beach wedding. Our route would take us north to the Spice Islands in eastern Indonesia, westward through the little-known diving meccas of Wakatobi and Takabonerate, through the province of Buton and then southwest to rejoin the fleet in the world-famous Komodo Island, land where ‘dragons’ still roam.

After a three-day, rough but fast passage north from Darwin, as we set thankful feet ashore in Saumlaki, our first stop in Indonesia. Two things were immediately obvious: We were welcome guests, and this was no casual cruise. Upon arrival we were quickly wrapped up in a list of welcome ceremonies and official functions and as official guests of the state. Second, the Indonesian people were delighted to see us. As a step off the beaten path, locals were unused to foreigners and Saumlaki is far from a tourist destination. “Hello Mr., Hello Mrs.!” sang out in our ears along with the constant peeping of horns from countless motor-scooters, signaling a warm reception.

While we were used to Braca being a novelty in placed we’ve traveled, Indonesia is a busy populous country and he was swarmed in mass. Braca was bombarded by pinching fingers and phone cameras every step of the way, and he was quickly overwhelmed by the attention. Our poor little trooper was swamped in attention from adults and trailed an ever-growing crowd of kids wherever he went. The locals have a habit of touching or pinching the cheeks and flesh of babies they admire, and whilst Braca stoically endured this constantly, being picked up by adults became his do not cross line. Last year he was gently loved by the Pacific Islanders, but this year his patience had found its limit and he adopted a new habit of screaming his annoyance if picked up by an enthusiastic local. We coined the term “Braca-razzi” from paparazzi for the crowds of photographers who surrounded our son, and whenever the Brac-Pac was in pursuit we followed closely like security guards.

Braca was not the only youngster to be intimidated, however, as we quickly learned that the screaming babes and toddlers running for the protection of a mother’s skirt was due to our whiteness – it was the first time that these young ones had seen blue-eyed, yellow-haired humans. It made me appreciate just out “off the beaten path” we were.

After a week of official welcome ceremonies in the gusty deep-water anchorage of Port Saumlaki, we headed for a quiet stop only 20 miles up the coast which provided an insight to rural Indonesia. We anchored Atea off a beautiful sandy beach and took ourselves in to play on the white sand; before long a few of the villagers who’d spotted our mast wandered down to investigate. As children go, Braca immediately had playmates and we sat with the elder who shared with us stories about his village. We were taken to some charming washing pools in the forest and watched the children splash in the water and the women scrub clothes on the rocks. As the sunlight trickled through the thick canopy overhead, we felt the magic of the moment and the beauty of these cultural exchanges – this was what the lifestyle was about for us, unplanned and spontaneous.

From there it was another overnight passage to Banda Island, center of the lucrative nutmeg trade 200 years ago. Such was the importance of the nutmeg trade that the island was once swapped by the colonial powers in equal exchange for nothing less than Manhattan Island. Today it is a small, quiet but pretty town that sits in front of a towering volcano with a deep volcanic crater that provided us safe harbour. We were anchored stern to the shore alongside our new cruising partners, making new friendships as we adjusted to the dynamics of the rally.
Banda has clear waters and great diving to offer, a volcano to climb and a town rich in history so our days were kept full. John took the two-hour hike up through thick bush to the summit of the volcano and was rewarded with a glimpse into the smoking crater, commanding views of the ocean and a sore knee that has not been the same since.

Wakatobi and Buton, our next two stops, lay at the end of a three-day passage westward and showed us the ethical dilemma of the rally. As a government-sponsored event, townships vied for the ability to host the rally and took on responsibility for events and activities to entertain us. It appeared to us that each town tried to outdo the last, as events became grander as we continued onward. Wakatobi offered us fuel and cash to visit and we were not too shy to decline the offer. Thankfully, the warmth of our welcome and the richness of the local events meant that we did not have to question whether acceptance of a gift imposed an obligation – we were grateful to accept both. The feast provided at Wakatobi was fantastic, local dance professionally delivered with plaques and traditional dress offered to us as gifts. Local events were hosted each day and free transportation provided at our beck and call.

Buton posed a slightly different problem, as it was a remote province that was not visited by foreigners and to get there added distance in the wrong direction. We were visited by the governor of the province with a direct plea that we attend his township’s festivities as they had spent six months preparing for our arrival, the “Dance of 12,000 Virgins.” While we had plotted to bypass this in search of some solitude, we felt the pressure to attend – of course we didn’t expect to actually see 12,000 bodies on stage however that is exactly what was delivered.

We were honoured guests to a traditional takoki, which translates to “giant dance.” 12,500 school children had spent the better part of a year preparing for the choreographed dance, professional musicians were brought in and the media was present. We were given “box office seats” in a decorated, designated area – the only covered seating offered to the public. I assume they were expecting a more even distribution of the 100 rally boats, but as there were only 12 yachts on this route the distribution was 1,000 dancers per visiting boat. We felt humbled that so many people had put in so much effort to be part of our welcome, but as the music boomed and the superbly drilled dancers flashed colour and movement as far as we could see, we couldn’t help but be absorbed and overwhelmed by the event. Buton had put on its very best and it was a truly exhilarating experience.

From the pace of back-to-back events and continuous entertainment, it was a welcome relief to leave big townships behind for the quieter pace of remote islands and small villages. Of those, Sagori Island provided an intimacy and closeness with the locals that we were blessed to experience. Idyllic in setting, local children would come out in their dugout canoes for friendly exchange, we would play ashore with imaginatively-crafted games and spend hours hanging out under palm trees with the locals. Braca developed a very sweet bond with one of the girls in particular, and would let no one but her pick him up and carry him around, whereby everyone took to calling her “big sister.” Sadly, it was an exposed and steeply shelving anchorage. When Atea gently carried away the inadequate mooring buoy, John’s prior decision to stay onboard that day saved us from disaster. Sadly we had to leave the island without a proper goodbye to the locals that we’d come to love the most.

Our final stop before rejoining the main rally was at Takabonerate Marine Park, which claimed to have some of the world’s most pristine diving and diverse marine life. We were eager for quiet, lazy days and that’s just what we got. Afternoons filled with nothing but water play, kites and scuba kit, beach toys and paddleboards. There was no village on the island but we were in the company of a few of our fellow cruisers, friends to enjoy a few sundowners with at the end of the day. Takabonerate was a welcome break from the obligations of being an official guest of Indonesia, and it was a break from the admiring – and sometimes intrusive – attentions we received over the past several weeks.

Sail Indonesia has defined the season more than we ever imagined. Once involved in the rally, it was difficult to withdraw to a more normal cruising pattern as the small size of our group meant that we were accountable for attending all of the activities. That said, the events that we were included in were opportunities to see a part of the culture we would have otherwise missed. We were wined and dined and not a cent was asked of us in compensation. We can only assume that the government took this on in an attempt to open the region up to tourism and we were the lucky ones to experience the graciousness and generosity of the locals as a result. I hope our small tokens of reciprocity to the individuals that we met along the way will have them remembering us as dearly as we remember them.

As we head south to rejoin the larger rally group we feel ready to be more anonymous. Perhaps none more so than Braca, whose photo must be on every cellphone in Southeast Sulawezi. Perhaps the locals will not remember the twelve visiting yachts or a dozen trailing officials, but I am sure they will remember with warmth our little blonde white boy, and all the laughter shared along the way. Sail Indonesia may have been sponsored by the state, but we did get to meet the people.