BOOK REVIEW (and Thailand travel throwback): A Sailing Story

Now that it’s ‘lockdown’ here in Vietnam (though they’re loathe to use that term, favouring ‘social-distancing curfew’), I’m remembering round-about this time last year, when I got to sail around Thailand’s dreamy islands and did an in-situ reading of a coming-of-age travel memoir about seafaring experiences few can imagine.

Phuket sunset Thailand

Sunset reading spot (Phuket).

I’d just finished four months of teaching in rural NorthEast Thailand − a rewarding but dusty, landlocked experience − when an old bookclub friend from home suggested I join her and her new hubby on one leg of their year-long honeymoon – sailing on a catamaran around Southern Thailand.

I met up with them on a beach on Koh Lanta. Getting picked up via dinghy, running as fast as I could across the hot sand with my heavy suitcase and laptop, was a surreal experience − something I’ll smile about for years to come 🙂

Koh Lanta SUP Thailand

The Koh Lanta beach where I was picked up.

As I was adjusting my footing (and core) to the sway of being on-board, I was thrilled to spot a copy of Martinique (Nicky) Stilwell’s sailing memoir, Thinking Up a Hurricane.

I first read about Martinique’s story when I worked at O, the Oprah Magazine South Africa, and we printed a book excerpt. I’d always wanted to read the whole memoir. The universe conspired to have me do so in the most appropriate of settings.

I know little about sailing, apart from the odd term I picked up from copy-editing a sailing magazine. So reading the book while experiencing a bit of life at sea first hand, and for the first time (and with a bookclub buddy, to boot), made for a truly immersive reading experience.

Koh Yao Yai island sunset Thailand

Another dreamy day, another dreamy sunset. This time while anchored at Koh Yao Yai island.

sailing the James Bond island Koh Phang Nga

Approaching Koh Phang-Nga…

Like me, the author is one of twins who grew up on the East Rand of Johannesburg, South Africa. Knowing the place she grew up in, about a six-hour drive away from the sea, helped me appreciate just how unusual and eccentric her family’s mission was. (Neighbours must’ve thought them nuts!)

ABOUT THE BOOK:

In 1977, the author’s father, Frank Stilwell launched Vingila, “17 tons of welded-together 11-mm steel plates” into the Indian Ocean, to take his family (including their pet dog) circumnavigating the world.

His experience of sailing? Very little.

The author and her twin brother, Robert, were nine. They were taken out of school in order to learn about life on the open seas.

The Stilwell family became part of an odd-ball community of sailors, learning how to live as sea gypsys day by day, swell by swell, island after island.

The book reads like a journal and adventure story, albeit the adventure wasn’t one of the author’s own will. As a reader, I admired the family’s grit and guts, while balking at the dysfunctional aspects of their story. Their poor diet and lack of access to clothing and supplies was coupled with the Dad’s lack of sailing know-how, which put them in serious danger many times. There are some truly frightening scenes in the book, of approaching storms and Frank’s stubborn refusal to exercise caution. (As one Amazon reviewer said, “I wanted to pop the old man on the nose”.)

Monkey Beach Phi Phi island Thailand

View of Monkey Beach, Phi Phi island.

The twins often lack the company of kids their own age, and they become keen and adept sailors rather quickly. I loved how the author collected cowrie shells and managed to keep her own education up, as best she could.

At first, the family are outliers among the salty sailor types who scoff at their boat and naivety. But as they become more hardy, self-sufficient and eccentric, they start to fit in among the oddball assortment of sea gypsy characters that weave in and out of the narrative. There are amusing anecdotes featuring boozy escapades, nudity, and some very salty seafaring language!

buy prawns in Phang Nga Bay Thailand James bond

The highlight of my sailing experience: Buying prawns straight from a longtail in Phang Nga Bay, near where the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed. We stayed the night and enjoyed a beautiful evening with no other boats in sight.

But for me, books are about the characters and their growth. Martinique’s transformation comes when she finally stands up to her father. The difference between them is captured in the title. Frank, the risk-taking adventurer father, regards his daughter as the rat that would abandon ship, dreaming up catastrophes (“thinking up a hurricane”) and erring too much on the side of caution.

childhood sailing memoir

The author, Nicky, as a child with her father on Vingila.

As a teenager craving normalcy, Nicky finally stands up to her father in order to leave life at sea and return home to finish her education. In what’s seen by her parents and brother as a betrayal, she goes to live with family and attend high school. That she managed to get an education, after years of being at sea and feeling like a fish out of water when back on land, is incredible.

After reading this book, you think: What became of the protagonist, Nicky?

While she doesn’t have too active an online presence, her social-media bios read: “Writer, doctor, surfer, sailor”. So she reached her goal in the end. And it seems she still has an adventurous, seafaring spirit. For instance, in her role as doctor, she’s worked on contract in the Arctic.

“It takes courage to pursue a dream, such as to sail around the world, become a doctor or write a book. Martinique Stilwell’s book Thinking up a Hurricane is, in essence, about the realisation of these dreams.” – Reviewer Adele McCann, for writerscollegeblog.com

If you’re craving an absorbing (and true) travel adventure that will take you far away from the confines of your own home, I highly recommend this book.

Author-doctor Martinique Stilwell today

All grown up: Author-doctor Martinique Stilwell today.

TITLE: Thinking Up a Hurricane
PUBLISHER:
Penguin Random House South Africa
BUY IT HERE.

Some street scenes from Chiang Mai, Thailand’s chic, cosmopolitan #DigitalNomad city

“Do you ever get to a city and immediately think, I want to live here?”

This question, along with “Do you ever get to a city and instantly hate it?”, is frequently posted in some of the travel groups I’m part of on Facebook.

Tha Pae Gate

Big girl + little girl = captivating scene near the Tha Pae Gate, on Chiang Mai’s moat.

In the case of Chiang Mai, it was the former for me. I could say it began the moment I stepped off the overnight bus, when I saw I had two lovely Tinder matches, while deciding how to head where next. This is no big deal for some, but for me teaching in rural Thailand for three months, the Tinder pickings have been slim.

The feeling certainly grew as we took our Grab taxi to the old town, and I spotted so many cute cafes, and more men – and trees! (Isaan is the dry part of Thailand so I have been longing for greenery).

But to be honest, I was primed for this ‘love at first sight’.

A close friend spoke highly of it, saying his fancy-sounding Italian mamma talked dreamily of retiring there. And it’s a hot spot among the global #DigitalNomad community, of which I hope to be part of (someday soon?).

Anyway. It didn’t disappoint.

Apart from my self-confessed bias, several of the other foreign English teachers who came to Thailand with the same agency as me had the same feeling. Unlike Bangkok or Pattaya, which can turn some (including me) right off, Chiang Mai is a heart-stealer of note.

Here are some pics I took while walking around, all starry-eyed and full of that hope-filled energy only a truly promising strong first attraction delivers.

(I’ll be posting more on what I’ve gleaned on the city’s #DigitalNomad scene, and what to do there if you’re just passing through, soon.)

Chiang Mai cafe

Asian Art Deco: A cute cafe (and English signage, rare in my Thai experience so far) on Ratchapakhinai Road in the Old City.

Kad Klang Wiang chiang mai

Tempting streetside seating at the Kad Klang Wiang foodie/shopping square in the Old City.

mango Thailand

When it comes to tourist pics, this mango place is ripe for the picking 🙂

asian beauty

Glamour pusses take a break to post those all-important status updates 😉

John's Place chiang mai

John’s Place, beside the east side of the Old City’s moat. Go here for nice views of the NYE Lantern Festival goings on.

wat temple chiang mai thailand

Ah, the temples you see, just walking around at night … peeping at monks going about their daily business.

thai monks morning alms round

Speaking of monks … they’re an everyday sight in Thailand, but I can’t get used to it. It was beautiful to be up early and hear their chants as they walked the streets on their morning rounds collecting alms. They do this every day, barefoot, no matter the weather. Read more at: http://www.thaibuddhist.com/monks-on-their-alms-round/

Wat Phan On temple walking street chiang mai thailand

This little lane in the Wat Phan On temple provided brief respite from the crowds of the Sunday evening walking street market. I saw women circling the temple’s Golden Pagoda, carrying flowers; heard the bells being rung; saw delicious food; and bought colourful earrings here.

capervan thailand

Cocktail, anyone? No, but I do WANT THIS DISCO CAMPERVAN REAL BAD!

wall art graffiti thailand

Hello Kitty wall art on one of the little lanes I liked.

urban hanging garden

Lush hanging garden that fills me with a good kind of envy…

scooter thailand

White respite.

massage chiang mai

A welcoming entrance to one of the many massage parlours in the city.

 

 

Seen at sea

Like the majority of people around the world in January, I’ve thrown off the devil’s horns and dusted off that halo. And to make it shine, I have vowed to do more of two things this year: write and move.

So the #writeandrun31 challenge put out by Christine Frazier (who deconstructs bestselling books at the Better Novel Project) and her brother Matt Frazier (a vegan ultra-marathoner and author of No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self) felt tailor-made for me.

Basically, for 31 days, starting whenever, you devote some time every day for 31 days to writing (or any creative work) and running (or any form of fitness). The idea is to start small and that the two activities should reinforce each other.

I am aiming on the following each day:

  • 15 minutes of free writing with prompts (which the #writeandrun31 team offer on their Facebook page) or journalling
  • 30 minutes towards blogging
  • 30 minutes of movement (walking, run-walking, yoga or gym)
  • 20-30 minutes of breathing meditation, specifically the Sudarshan Kriya (a toughie for me)

Hope I haven’t set myself up for failure with this list. Anyway. Yesterday, day one, was good. Ticks all round… apart from the breathing.

(Doh! Must. Remember. To. Breathe.)

Today was day two of 31. I got my writing task done this morning, but was procrastinating on the walk part (baby steps) of #writeandrun31 all of the dull day. Finally decided to just get out to the Sea Point Promenade, my favourite place in Cape Town, this stunning city at the bottom of Africa.

Stepped out… into drizzle.

But I headed to the Prom anyway, and was glad I did: It wasn’t raining that side of the mountain. As I began walking, I looked at the public artworks that have caused such controversy, with many ardent articles written on them in recent months, and agreed that between the seal-shaped benches, the Ray Ban sunglasses sculpture and the like, the Prom is beginning to look like the bottom of a giant’s abandoned toybox.

As I moved, I wondered on the link between motion and memory and metaphor. I saw boys and girls in their Shabbat best. I saw a man with jeans caked in grit, inhaling glue from a plastic bread bag, dancing dangerously close to the railing’s edge in his inebriated bubble.

Where will his story end?

I felt blessed when I came to the photography exhibition plastered on the concrete Promenade wall. Called “Sea Change”, the term first coined by Shakespeare in The Tempest, the multimedia project looks at man’s transformative relationship with the sea and its kelp forests and aquatic creatures, starting with the first (wo)man. And in just several steps, I went from feeling glum to being in my head to noticing others to going way back in time to where the human story started.

Early San and the sea

Early hunter-gatherers relied on the sea.

One of the photograph’s captions spoke of divers finding their “sea eyes”, and seeing creatures they’d never spotted before with regular diving. I guess with this challenge, I am hoping that repetition and paying conscious attention to movement and writing will help me strengthen my writer’s eye.

As I was leaving, the sun burnt through the clouds. And the day felt that little bit brighter.

Click here for more on the Sea-Change project and their support for MPAs (Marine Protected Areas).

Navigating the rich kelp forests.

Navigating the rich kelp forests.