Work with what you have

We’ve returned home after five months away and are trying desperately to reinsert ourselves back into our normal lives. This is proving to be substantially more difficult than we had anticipated, but thankfully the task of cooking is always there to ground me. My aspirational motto for this summer (and forever, really) is “Work with what you have.” It’s easy to wish that circumstances were different, or that we had an alternate set of tools at our disposal to complete a specific task, but in the kitchen, as in life, sometimes you simply have to work with what you have. And so my task for the summer, at least, is to cook from our existing food supplies rather than buying more.

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Dry beans, grains, seeds and legumes are a pantry staple.

By most estimates, about 40% of all edible food produced in America is thrown out (more, if it’s fresh produce) instead of eaten. This is a statistic that I cite often in my classes; I ask my guests to calculate their own food budget and determine how much money they’re throwing away. I’ve even gone so far as to put actual dollar bills in the trash can (later retrieved, obviously) because for some reason that sludgy green bag of decomposing kale in the bottom of the crisper drawer doesn’t seem to equate to real money to most people. Apparently we care about our food waste problem, but we’re just too busy to do anything about it.

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How to add flavor and interest to your food.

Americans spend less money on food than any country in the First World. Calories are cheap here and we’re obsessed with aesthetic perfection, plus we have absolutely no idea what all those “best by” and “use by” dates actually mean. (Answer: nothing. There are no regulations. Use your common sense; it’s designed to protect you from food poisoning. Plus, food manufacturers and grocery stores love those misleading labels because the sooner they expire, the sooner you buy more.) That means that not only do we waste food before it even arrives in the grocery store, but we buy more when our fridge and freezer and cupboards are already filled to the brim. Hence, the summer challenge.

Baking

I bake frequently, so I keep a well-stocked baking pantry.

One of the most important concepts I try to get across in my cooking classes is the idea of cooking without a recipe. I would love not to hand out recipes in class, but am well aware that this would not endear me to my guests. I want people to feel comfortable working towards a basic end goal; i.e. “Tonight I’d like to make a stir-fry,” rather than “Tonight I’m making Mark Bittman’s Beef with Broccoli and I have to stop by the store on the way home to buy beef and broccoli and fourteen other specialty ingredients.” If you look in your fridge and you’ve got a little leftover steak plus some carrots and peppers (because you already used all the broccoli earlier this week), and you know you have rice in your pantry along with Asian basics like soy or hoisin sauce, then you’ve got a meal. Start with what you have, and figure out where you’re going from there.

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So much flavor hidden in these little dishes.

In addition to teaching people specific recipes (which I invariably deviate from in class – people hate this) I also teach how to stock your pantry. Oils and vinegars, sauces and condiments, spices and seasonings, grains, pasta, beans and legumes, plus freezer basics like frozen vegetables (which get a bad rap but are in many cases better and cheaper than fresh) all come together to form the basis of some truly amazing meals. I know that people who are new to cooking require the comfort and guidance of a recipe. But I also think that as you grow and develop as a home cook, you should challenge yourself to work with what you have, rather than buying exactly what you need. Oh, and those specialty ingredients you bought for that one recipe you made months ago but never used again? A quick online search for “What should I do with tahini?” goes a long way towards using those up.

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Don’t judge. I’m working on it.

So please, friends, try this at home. I’m willing to bet that you have at least two weeks’ worth of food in your house already. Challenge yourself – for a day, a week, even a month – to only cook with what you have. See if you can come up with interesting, delicious and healthy options to use up all that food you’re stockpiling. Learning how to trust yourself and improvise a bit in the kitchen is one of the biggest steps towards becoming a better cook, and I promise you that the reward is worth the effort.

32,831 miles later

About eight months ago, we decided to put our regular lives on hold for a brief period and venture out to see the world again. We were heartsick and weary and in desperate need of a break from pretty much everything except each other. So we gave away our chickens, threw a few clothes in a backpack and locked up our house. And thus it happened that on a chilly January day, we left Colorado for Japan.

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Colorado

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Japan

In Japan, we visited monkeys in hot tubs and worked on farms. We ate ramen and tempura and so many other delicious things. We walked Tokyo and Kyoto and fell deeply, completely in love with a country so strange and different and welcoming and lovely that we cannot wait to return.

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New Zealand

From Japan, we flew to New Zealand. We rented a ragged campervan and drove the length and breadth of the country. We stumbled on an old sheep station and did some stunning walks and learned how macadamia nuts grow. And we discovered that we are perfectly content to live in a campervan…and we plan to do that again soon, too.

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Cambodia

After New Zealand, we were off to southeast Asia. We started in Cambodia with Angkor Wat and we also saw interesting things being made, like incense and rice noodles and tofu. Oh, and it was hot. (At least we thought so until we got to India, where we learned what heat really is.)

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Vietnam

We traveled overland to Vietnam, where we jumped on trains, dodged motorbikes, devoured street food and struggled to learn more about a conflicted country with a conflicted history.

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Thailand

Then it was time for a brief rest in Thailand; we went to more markets and bicycled through rice paddies and learned how to make handmade paper. We didn’t ride any elephants but we loved our time on the Banana Pancake Trail.

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India

No matter what, we weren’t ready for the heat and noise and crush and total sensory assault that is India. We’ve never traveled anywhere that we loved and hated in equal measure – sometimes in the exact same moment – and this complicated country has for certain gotten under our skin. We’ll be back here, too, and much better prepared this time.

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Spain

We flew from India to England, with a brief jaunt to gorgeous Madrid. This is one hell of a city…we miss drinking canas and eating jamón y queso at 2AM with hundreds of other people in the city’s beautiful plazas.

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England

We finished with some restorative time in the Midlands’ lush, rolling hills, where the innumerable shades of intense green defy belief. Hours of walking with only cows and sheep for company and then perhaps a brief stop at the local pub for a pint of Tiger. It’s not the worst way to spend a day.

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Colorado

And that brings us to now. We’ve been home for about three weeks and we’re struggling to adjust. This is not the country we left; it has been immensely challenging to reconcile the joy and freedom and lovely people of our travels with the rage and divisiveness and fear currently smothering all of us like a dense fog. But we’re back on our bikes, we’re volunteering on a goat farm and we’ve planted our garden. And this fall, we’ll be out on the road again to search for our farm property in earnest. Thanks for joining us on our travels over these past months and please stay tuned, friends, as our journey has just begun. We’re off to find Quiet Farm.

The photos we didn’t take

N took a lot of remarkable photos during our round-the-world trip, but you won’t see us riding elephants, cradling sea turtles, posing for selfies with tiger cubs or swimming with captive dolphins. (We’ve certainly swum with wild dolphins in the middle of the ocean, but we don’t have the photos to prove it.)

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Animal tourism is all of a sudden a hot topic. Last year, SeaWorld announced that it would cease its controversial orca captive breeding program. In May, Ringling Brothers Circus performed its last show; ticket revenue had dwindled for years once the animal attractions were eliminated. And last autumn, TripAdvisor – one of the world’s largest ticket sellers for tourist attractions worldwide – announced that they would no longer sell tickets to most animal attractions. All of these stories, and many more, clearly indicate that knowledge about this topic is growing, and quickly.

A recent Oxford University study indicated that between two and four million visitors per year pay to visit animal attractions that are considered harmful to animal welfare. Most of this is done out of ignorance, not cruelty. If you’re an American tourist, for example, you might assume that other countries have strict standards for the animals’ health and wellbeing (even though America doesn’t). The reality, however, is that most animal attractions are in desperately poor countries, and the “trainers” might be impoverished people simply looking to feed their family. The possibility of strict regulations, competent oversight or of punishments meted out for violations, is laughable just about everywhere.

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As such, animal tourism was a major issue during much of our trip, particularly in southeast Asia. If you visit Thailand for the first time, one of the things you’ll notice quickly is that elephants are ubiquitous. They’re used in high-end art and on cheap tourist trinkets.

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Elephants advertise beer here too.

Their elegant silhouette can be seen everywhere, and nowhere more glaringly than in the racks and racks of tourist brochures found outside just about every restaurant and guesthouse in Chiang Mai, where these photos were all taken. (Please know that elephant riding and other abusive animal tourism is available all over Asia; we just spent the most time in Thailand and therefore found its constant and unrelenting promotion here particularly overwhelming.)

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Look at all the options you have! Definitely go for the cheapest one. The animals like it there best.

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Notice words like happysanctuary and home? These places are anything but.

Many people don’t know that elephants aren’t physiologically designed to be ridden. Despite seeming sort of like a giant, floppy horse, elephants’ spines aren’t built to support weight. Plus, elephants are fundamentally wild animals, and in order to be “domesticated” enough for tourists, they have their spirits broken. They’re also naturally social creatures with intricate familial relationships, and in these camps they typically exist in solitude. And adult females are routinely slaughtered in order to capture wild calves. I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the idea. Elephants are not supposed to be a tourist attraction.

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Tired of this lecture? We haven’t even discussed cuddling tiger cubs yet! Tigers aren’t like house cats and they’re not thrilled about you pawing them. Most of the “tiger sanctuaries” in Asia sedate the tigers before letting the tourists in, just to ensure that the creatures are docile enough to avoid incidents. Oh, and sometimes they’re heavily involved in wildlife trafficking, too! Really some good people here. Absolutely give them your money.

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Don’t these look like fun? The animals are absolutely thrilled to have such an opportunity to enhance your vacation.

Or perhaps you’d rather donate your money a little closer to home, to a place like Lion’s Gate in Colorado, which recently euthanized all of its animals even after other sanctuaries volunteered to take the lions, tigers and bears. These people do not care a fig about animal welfare, and don’t let the cute pictures make you think otherwise. Animal attractions rake in billions of dollars every year, and since there is massive profit to be made from charging people to “experience” (i.e. unintentionally mistreat) animals, it will continue to happen.

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Could we discuss how animal tourism provides jobs and livelihoods in some of the world’s poorest countries? Of course. Should we talk about zoos, which in some places are top-notch research and breeding facilities and in other places absolute horror shows, especially when the population is starving? Sure. Maybe we can discuss the fact that – at least in America – we raise animals for food in horrifying conditions and most people aren’t particularly bothered about that so why shouldn’t we mistreat them for our entertainment, too? And in response to all those hypotheticals, I would argue: because we as humans are better than that. Or at least we should be.

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The advertisements for the animal attractions are literally everywhere.

People who visit animal tourism attractions are typically people who love animals. They want to get up close and personal with fascinating creatures they don’t often encounter, and they’re willing to pay for that privilege. But the Oxford study demonstrated that as many as 80% of these people will visit animal attractions and post positive reviews online, without acknowledging the risks to the animals’ health and welfare. They argue that they really love tigers – they were even born in the Year of the Tiger! – so just one selfie with a drugged tiger cub won’t hurt. Because it shows their social media feed how much they love tigers! It is simply not acceptable, friends. Just as the way America currently raises most of its animals for food isn’t acceptable, neither is this.

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If you made it all the way to the end of this post, thank you. We’ve written about this because we think it’s important and we hope you do too. Please, if you’re considering visiting any sort of animal tourism attraction – whether in the U.S. or overseas – do your research, and don’t just fool yourself with glowing online reviews. Use your common sense and ask yourself whether a large, predatory and naturally solitary animal like a tiger really wants to be handled by human beings for endless hours each day. Not all animal attractions are necessarily poorly managed or abusive, but the bad ones definitely outweigh the good ones.

We say it a lot, but vote with your wallet – refuse to support organizations or attractions that promote any sort of animal cruelty (looking at you, Tyson, Hormel and countless others). This is especially relevant if you’re traveling in the Third World, but as we know from films like Blackfish, we’re to blame here in the U.S. as well. We write a lot about animal welfare on this site, and that’s true not only for what we eat, but what we exploit for entertainment, too. How you choose to spend your money matters, always – and the recent policy changes from major companies like SeaWorld and TripAdvisor shows that they’re paying attention to your choices. Use those choices wisely.

Comer y beber en Madrid

Dear friends, it should come as no surprise by now that eating (comer) and drinking (beber) are two of our favorite travel activities. We are quick to search out food and market tours wherever we go, and Madrid was no exception. Many thanks to Jorge at Secret Food Tours for taking us on a gastronomic adventure through his city!

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Madrid’s Plaza Major, a perfect example of Spain’s café culture.

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The Spanish verb tapear translates literally as “to eat small portions” – and of course from that we get tapas.  

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Chalkboard menus (and fresh baguettes) dot the city.

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Chorizo and sangria. What more do you need, really?

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The city of Madrid issues plaques like the one above to stores and restaurants of historical significance in the city; this one dates from 1837. Many of these places pay rent that is far below market rates to keep their businesses open, because Madrid’s government has decided that they don’t wish to have the center of town filled with Starbucks, McDonald’s and tacky tourist stores able to pay inflated prices. Smart decisions like this help cities maintain their cultural character instead of becoming homogenized corporate copies.

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Slicing jamón by hand.

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Legs are hung for months or years to cure properly.

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Spain is justifiably famous for its jamón, which comes in different grades. Jamón ibérico, or Iberian ham, can only be made in Spain and Portugal from pigs that are at least 50% Iberian. The very best is called jamón ibérico de bellota, which comes from pigs allowed to forage in the wild for acorns, giving the flesh a sweet taste and silky texture. Jamón ibérico de bellota is so valuable that individual pigs often have armed bodyguards, since the entire pig can be worth as much as $4,000. Traditionally, it’s always shaved very thinly by hand and served as tapas with tiny breadsticks, above.

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Notice how the leg is stamped? Since they’re so valuable, it’s important that they can be traced to prevent forgeries and theft.

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Calamari sandwiches are another classic snack in Madrid.

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Did you know that the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world is in Madrid? It’s famous for suckling pig, which you can see in the dishes on the left.

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One of the oldest pastry shops in Madrid…

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…and their famous ponche segoviano, a layered pastry made with marzipan.

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France gets all the press, but Spain makes its fair share of incredible pastries.

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Jorge demonstrating how to pour Spanish cidre, made from apples grown in the north of Spain.

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Classic tapas: a Spanish omelette, or tortilla, made of eggs, potatoes and onions, served on fresh bread. Simple, filling and delicious.

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A perfect pair: manchego and cidre.

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I’ll be in the cellar if anyone needs me.

 

Four days in Spain

In the midst of a few weeks in England with N’s family, we tucked in a quick trip to Madrid. N and I have both been to other parts of Spain before – Barcelona, the Balearics, Valencia, Seville and Granada – but neither of us had visited Madrid, and we absolutely adored this city. Just look at this architecture!

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See the small black dots in the lower center? They’re turtles! In a train station!

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Interlude: We like big boats

…and we cannot lie. For this travel interlude, we thought we might revisit our seagoing years. N and I worked on a wide variety of different boats all over the world for nearly a decade, he as dive instructor and deckhand and me as chef. More often than not, people think we worked on cruise ships. This is understandable, because people know what a cruise ship is, and many of the boats we worked on have – quite frankly – no relevance to the real world whatsoever. Welcome to our former life!

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Far and away the best yacht we ever worked on…may we present the legendary and much-missed M/Y Triumphant Lady.

Boats’ status and other relevant information is generally conveyed by the name’s prefix. Triumphant Lady is a motor yacht, so she bears M/Y before her name. Sailing yachts are labeled S/Y (though they almost always still have engines), research vessels R/V, motor vessels (such as dive boats) M/V, and fishing vessels F/V. This allows you to tell at a glance a boat’s primary purpose, though the prefix is typically only used in formal settings and not when referring to the boat casually in conversation. Our crew uniforms, for example, almost never carried the prefix – just the boat’s name and image.

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There is no place in the world quite like Monaco’s harbor.

N and I worked on boats both together and separately. We started aboard scuba diving liveaboards and sailboats in Australia and the Caribbean, then progressed to the “white boats,” as private yachts (in a blend of derision and envy) are known. The snide label exists because there are so many crew constantly cleaning the boat, polishing its hull to a perfect gleaming white; the rough-and-tumble dive boats we worked on were a bit untidy, to say the least. Seawater and diesel exhaust leave a boat’s hull rather grimy, but a proud motor yacht would never arrive in port looking shabby. Depending on sea conditions, the deckhands would start scrubbing the hull with long-handled brushes on the way into port.

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M/Y Charisma (right) at the dock in Viareggio, Italy.

Our last yachting season was spent in the Mediterranean on Charisma. Our first charter guests, a young hedge fund manager and his wife, chartered both Charisma and Blind Date (above) simultaneously for their family group because each yacht could only accommodate twelve guests. At the time, each chartered for about $350,000 per week. The two yachts traveled in tandem for the week of the charter.

During our final season aboard Charisma we crossed from Florida to Europe (stopping at Bermuda, the Azores, Gibraltar and Palma en route) in April and returned to Florida in September. Traditionally, boats spend the winter in the Caribbean and the summer in the Med – the route ideally hopes to avoid hurricanes – but obviously yachts can go pretty much anywhere they want. Even the boat’s draw (or draft), which indicates how much of the boat is under the hull line and determines where it can enter, doesn’t matter much because fast tenders can ferry guests, crew and supplies to and from shore as needed.

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Staniel Cay, Bahamas. Oddly, this island is famous for its swimming pigs.

Between the dive boats and the private yachts we’ve worked on, we’ve spent a lot of time in the Bahamas and the Caribbean (despite popular belief, the Bahamas aren’t technically part of the Caribbean because they’re not located in the Caribbean Sea). Definitely some of the best diving in the world, but as a chef it is exceptionally tricky (and shockingly expensive) to find fresh produce and other provisions. Some day, ask me about the time I spent well over $1,000 of the boat’s money on just a few basic groceries in St. Lucia.

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Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, USVI, taken from the bow of Sea Fox.

Notice that there is a cruise ship in the background, but we worked on private yachts similar to those in the foreground. It was always common to have cruise ship passengers strolling the docks, asking the deckhands which celebrity owned the yacht. Interestingly, most private yachts are owned by people you’ve probably never heard of, rather than the super-famous.

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Rybovich Shipyard, West Palm Beach, Florida.

Charisma, at 150 feet, is second from the right in the photo above. As you can see from the yacht to the far right, that’s still little! Seawater really isn’t kind to machinery, so boats spend a lot of time in the shipyard for various reasons. Most yachts are in the yard for at least a few days at the end of every season; this may be to refresh the boat before upcoming charters, or it may be for something major, like a hull extension or a total refit, which often happens when a boat changed hands.

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A rare photo of N (foreground) applying one of fifteen eventual coats of varnish on Triumphant Lady‘s caprail.

Stereotypical gender roles are mostly alive and well on the private yachts; with few exceptions, men work outside as deckhands, mates and captains, whereas women are traditionally responsible for the interior as stewardesses. Chefs tend to be both male and female, and most often there is only one. Unless there is a second chef, which is unusual on yachts under 180 feet, chefs cook three meals a day for both guests and crew, plus snacks and specialty requests as needed. The chef is also responsible for ordering and stocking all edible provisions as well as doing dishes and cleaning the galley.

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Triumphant Lady‘s tender on the beach, Bahamas.

Having a private yacht means you can go places other people can’t. On charter, the chef will pack a picnic lunch for the guests and the deckhands will organize water toys, JetSkis, snorkeling gear and any other equipment the guests might want to use. Depending on water depth, the yachts could anchor just off stunning deserted beaches.

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The harbor of Portofino, Italy.

Some owners and guests want to see and be seen, and the Med is known for many glamorous ports. Portofino is certainly one; others include Monaco, St. Tropez, Capri, Cannes, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Cap Ferrat, Antibes and many more. Celebrities and other high-profile guests who actually don’t want to be seen will avoid these places like the proverbial plague – or stay on anchor full-time.

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Charisma on anchor at sunset near Sardinia, Italy.

As a rule, crew would rather be at the dock than at anchor – it is so much easier to get guests and supplies on and off the boat by walking down the gangplank rather than using the tender(s). Depending on location, though, a space at the dock might not be available, or the marina might be too small for the boat. In high season in the popular places, like St. Tropez and Monaco and definitely Cannes during the film festival, captains are known to carry envelopes full of cash to bribe dockmasters for premium placement.

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Another rare shot of N polishing Triumphant Lady‘s extensive stainless.

There is always – always – something to clean aboard a yacht. Notice his crew shirt bears a line drawing of the yacht on the back; this is traditional of the vast majority of yacht crew uniforms. T-shirts are just for work days; when owners or guests are on board, crew wear polo shirts and pressed khakis during the day and “blacks” (epaulettes and black trousers) at night, depending on the boat’s level of formality. The chef, of course, is always in a chef jacket.

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Working on a boat isn’t always smooth sailing. This bow shot was taken on Triumphant Lady during an especially rough crossing from Fort Lauderdale to Tortola, BVI.

If we needed to move the boat over long distances, owners would most often fly in to meet us. Crossings can be really rough and are challenging for crew and hard on the boat. Since the boat is always underway during a long crossing, crew rotate on two-man four-hour watches. The chef is typically exempt from watch duty because they still need to cook for the crew. It’s imperative that the chef doesn’t get seasick, though on rough crossings the rest of the crew might well be.

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S/Y Red Dragon, St. Tropez, France.

The majority of the most impressive private yachts are motor yachts, but there are a few gorgeous luxury sailing yachts too. People who haven’t sailed before often don’t realize that when under sail the entire boat might be on a severe heel, meaning that it’s leaning pretty far over to one side and nothing can be set on a flat surface. This can often be uncomfortable for guests unless they’re accustomed to it, and the boat (including the artwork, the furniture, and the wine storage) have to be specially designed for it.

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Our beloved cabin aboard Triumphant Lady. 

One reason N and I could love a month in a tiny campervan? Because we spent years living together in cabins like this. Keeping things shipshape really does have relevance when two people live in a tiny space. Also, captains are well within their rights to inspect quarters at any time, so the cabin had better be neat and tidy.

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Golden Boy II in moody weather, Essex, Connecticut.

We spent one season traveling the East Coast of the U.S., from West Palm Beach to New Hampshire. The seas can be tricky here and this itinerary is typically only done in summer, but ports like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are worth the effort. The superyachts are too big to enter these smaller, older harbors and have to anchor offshore and tender in.

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Aboard Sea Fox, Tobago Cays.

Both the Bahamas and the Caribbean are full of tiny islands to explore, but the big motor yachts always have to watch out for the small sailboats, especially in the avid sailing areas like the British Virgin Islands.

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St. Thomas, USVI. The relative size difference between cruise ships (left) and private yachts (right) is a little easier to understand from this photo.

Working on boats was an amazing, incredible life, and we’re thankful to have had the experiences we did. But we wouldn’t go back to it again, and we’re looking forward to finding Quiet Farm more than ever.

Lost in translation, vol. 2

What’s more fun when traveling than searching out funny signs? (As always, this is gentle humor – no disrespect or mockery is intended.)

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Dear New Zealand: this could perhaps be rephrased.

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Maybe try it in a fourth language?

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If only they came together in one handy product.

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A helpful tip on a menu in India. Don’t talk to strangers, ever.

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Those crazy tourists in Vietnam! They always want to recycle!

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And right next to the recycling bins shown above, you’ll find this.

(As with India, this is what Vietnam actually looks like. Pretty sure it’s not just the tourists’ fault.)

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What?

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Notice #9…this sign was in a temple. So definitely watch out for muggers there. Muggers love temples.

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Again, temples are very dangerous places.

Funniest thing about these two signs? We were actually very politely mugged in a temple in Vietnam. A “monk” approached us and escorted us on a “secret” tour to a “hidden” altar not open to “regular” tourists (all in broken English, obviously). We were given an “honored blessing,” at which point he demanded 200,000 Vietnamese dong, or about $9. We handed him 100,000 and scampered, fully aware that we really didn’t have to pay him anything. But he was one of the few people in Vietnam who was actually (fake) nice to us, and isn’t it bad karma to skip out on a blessing? So really, please watch out for muggers in temples. We’re pretty sure he wasn’t even a monk.

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Having trouble with a caption on this one.

Farewell, India

To wrap up our nearly five weeks in India, we offer you a few more of our favorite photos. There is no way we could sum up our time here in merely a handful of images; we’ll be processing our experiences in this country for a long time to come. Thank you, India: you were beautiful and difficult and amazing and maddening and always, always memorable.

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Elephants for riding at Jaipur, a practice we abhor. (Related post on animal tourism coming soon.)

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The bride’s palms and soles of the feet are traditionally painted with henna for a Hindu wedding ceremony.

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This gorgeous shade of blue appears all over Indian temples and palaces.

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What’s more manipulative than including photos of cute baby animals?

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Even the simplest street scenes here are filled with color.

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The Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Goa.

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Chamundeshwari Temple near Mysore.

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Only in India can you see an actual bull in an actual china shop.

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Monks at worship in a Buddhist temple in Madikeri. Buddhism is not at all common in India; only about 10 million people (less than 1% of the population) identify as Buddhist.

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A wedding celebration in Jaipur; the parade goes through the streets so everyone can join in.

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View from the top of Hanuman Temple in Hampi.

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Fishing in the Arabian Sea.

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City Palace, Udaipur.

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Kochi’s central square.

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The white-breasted kingfisher, very common in central India.

 

 

 

 

Some honesty

We’ve shared lots of striking images of India, and in this brief post we want to share a few more. Unfortunately, these are striking for all the wrong reasons.

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For everything that we read about India before our visit there – to dress conservatively, to travel in groups, to keep our passports and money close by, to watch our luggage at all times – we never read about this. We had no idea just how unbelievably filthy India actually would be.

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We talked a lot about whether we should share photos like this, and obviously we ultimately decided yes. If everything on the Internet is fake, then we want this site not to be. And when we remember India, some of the most vivid memories we have are of amazing experiences like visiting tea plantations and spice gardens and eating dinner in a Sikh temple with five hundred strangers, but they’re also of the nearly incomprehensible piles of rubbish (and human and animal waste) we stepped around and through and over just about every single place we went.

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To be fair, some parts of India are cleaner than others. We covered nearly 3,000 kilometers in the country over a month, so we do feel as though we’ve visited enough places to form a reasonably educated opinion. Mumbai was lovely, and so was Mysore. But Agra (home of India’s most-visited tourist attraction!) was filthy, and Bundi was – quite frankly – disgusting. What you don’t see in most of the India photos elsewhere on the blog is how frequently N had to crop images or frame things differently to avoid photographing all of the trash.

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There are a lot of things about India that are difficult for Western travelers to comprehend; culture shock was a very real thing for us. More people in India have mobile phones than have access to clean drinking water or toilets; this is an especially dangerous problem for women and girls. The rails of India’s train system have to be replaced, on average, after two years rather than the expected thirty years because the human waste dumped on the tracks corrodes the rails entirely. And in many places, you can’t just throw your trash “away” because there is no “away.” There is no one to come collect it and nowhere to put it even if they did. And if there is a place to dispose of it, people still live there, too. So it most often stays on the streets, and the animals eat it, and the rats come, and it spirals from there.

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Please don’t misinterpret this – we loved our time in India, and we’re so glad we went. And we’re not in any way claiming that solving India’s immensely complex social and cultural issues will be easy, or quick. But travel blogs are full of carefully curated, spectacularly gorgeous photos – and most of the time, ours is, too. This post is designed to provide an honest counterpoint to all that beauty, and to remind ourselves that even in our First World countries, throwing something away isn’t really away, because it doesn’t disappear – it just disappears from our sight. And it’s not typically in a huge pile on the street with animals and people both fighting over it and living in it.

India by train

In an average day, about 23 million people ride on Indian Railways, the fourth-largest railway system in the world. This is about the same as the entire population of Australia!

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Victoria Railway Station, Mumbai.

We took a lot of trains during our four-plus weeks in India; it’s a big country. We rode on sleepers and day trains and subways and coal-fired trains from the 1800s. Like our experience on trains in Vietnam, we believe this is one of the best ways to see a place. From big cities to tiny villages to rural agriculture, we loved experiencing India this way.

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It’s common to see dozens of people sleeping in the train stations.

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A metro station in Delhi.

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Keep your wits about you; the crowds are intense.

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A six-berth sleeper carriage.

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The locomotive of Darjeeling’s “toy train.”

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A carriage of the toy train.

One of the primary tourist attractions in Darjeeling – in addition to tea plantations – is the “toy train,” a narrow-gauge railroad built by the British in the late 1800s that runs for about 78 kilometers through West Bengal. The train was revolutionary when it was first constructed, since it both traveled at altitude (Darjeeling is at about 7,000 feet) and navigated treacherously steep mountainsides.

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Emptying spent coal from the train’s furnace.

Nowadays it’s rather quaint (and slow), with piercingly loud horns and clouds of pollution from the coal, but it remains one of Darjeeling’s most popular tourist attractions.

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Despite its crowded cities, much of India is still almost entirely agricultural; this was often the view from the trains.

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It was always a little disconcerting for our group of Westerners to conspicuously walk into a lounge labeled as “upper class.”

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Chaiwallahs offer hot, sweet tea throughout the train carriages.

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I’m not sure what the plan is if the hammer isn’t there.

Just like everything else in India, the trains are hot, crowded and noisy, but they’re a quintessentially Indian experience. Can you travel India more efficiently? Of course. But the greatest gift the trains offer is time; they force travelers to slow down and experience a country at its own pace. We’re so glad we saw India by train.