Road Trips and Adventures

The first rule(*) of a road trip: always carry toilet paper.

Technically it doesn’t have to be actual toilet paper, and in the case of the past few weeks, it’s been the grotesque four-inch stack of napkins that the guy at Extreme Pizza gave me the night before leaving Richmond, California just before Christmas. I think I can say with some authority that that guy had no idea how far those napkins would travel, how useful they’d be, or the circumstances within which they’d be useful – but I’m thankful for them nonetheless. The combination of gut flora acclimatizing to the cuisine of a different culture, combined with questionable bacterial content in the drinking water (or perhaps from the ice cubes in the margaritas), alongside the fact that many gas station restrooms in rural Mexico don’t even have toilet seats, much less pristine rolls of fluffy two-ply… it all makes for an adventure.

(* Aaaaactually, the first rule of any adventure is “absolutely no dying”, a perfect rule drilled into my head by the lovely people at Ephemerisle, a yearly floating anarchist city-event that occurs in the Sacramento River Delta each summer. Dying puts everyone around you in a bad situation; it’s generally considered to be pretty selfish.)

s/v Little Wing
sailing s/v Little Wing with Trevor and Rob

Regardless, an awful lot has changed since my last blog post! I purchased another sailboat near the end of 2015, and immediately moved aboard, effectively cutting my SF rent costs down to about a sixth of what they were in my one-bedroom apartment in Lower Haight. Living (or rather sneaking) aboard in the Bay Area wasn’t simple, but combined with a work-travel schedule that had me out of town almost half the time and some creative couch-surfing, I made it work.

The new boat’s name is “s/v Little Wing”; a monohull this time, an Islander 34 — a stout little ocean-crossing adventure boat on which I spent a great deal of my free time in 2016 sailing in and around the San Francisco Bay. I intend to take her on a multi-year adventure up to Canada, then down through Central America, and ultimately through the South Pacific… but that’s a story for another time.

music studio
goodbye, music project studio

This post is about current and recent happenings, so that I get back into the swing of writing this blog on a more regular basis. This post is about my return to s/v TIE Fighter, and life in San Carlos, and some of the events that brought me here.

This post is only passingly about the facts that I’ve left my job with Dell EMC, sold off all the gear from my awesome music studio in Richmond and bought an old pickup truck off Craigslist.

This post is about the fact that currently I’m back in Mexico living on my trimaran, up a ladder in the dry-storage workyard (or Marina Seca), and that I’m working on her every day; I’m hoping to have her back in the water by February 10th, and hoping to cruise the Sea of Cortez for the rest of the winter.

Six Flags
Six Flags in the rain

The big move happened just prior to Christmas, and in a surprising turn of events, Miya joined me for the twenty-hour drive down to Mexico. In fact, she had joined me for another roadtrip out to Wilbur Hot Springs a few weeks prior, as a test of the “new” truck, to shake out any unexpected mechanical issues on some muddy back roads. We left Richmond a few days before Christmas, and headed down the I-5, taking our time to smell the flowers on the way.

The GPS led us south, but on a rainy Wednesday around noon, when Google Maps told us that we’d be looking forward to at least four hours of gridlock on the highways just outside of Los Angeles, we decided that our time would be much better spent on rollercoasters. We stopped at a nearby Six Flags – sparsely populated, due to the weather – and spent the day jumping from coaster to coaster and eating way too much sugar. I even tasted my first funnel cake! (verdict: too sweet, but I’m glad I tried.)

Mexico border
adios, suckers!

We left the United States on December 23rd, exactly one day before the rules of my NAFTA-issued TN Visa would have me in trouble with the federal government. The letter of the law states that a person with TN status is to leave the country immediately upon termination of employment, but the conventional wisdom is that you’ve got ten days to get your affairs in order before you’re legally in the doghouse. I took nine days, and even after crossing into Mexico I went back through to the US again to make sure that the CBP agents had registered that I’d left the country – it’s always wisest to take any border-related matters very seriously.*

(* Incidentally, you should alway, always wear a suit and tie in your passport photo. No matter how filthy and hung over and unshaven you are when you arrive at a border, no matter how third-world the country or remote the border crossing, a suit and tie in your passport photo says “I am a person of significance in my home country, someone who could potentially cause you a lot of paperwork”.)

christmas cactus
Christmas cactus!

Christmas was spent at a fancy resort hotel here in San Carlos, nearly breaking the budget at a whopping $52/night. A few bottles of sparkling wine, some exploratory adventures around the area, a few margaritas – we had a lovely holiday while doing our best tourist impressions. We picked out a Christmas cactus together, and decorated it with the results of a pre-border Target mission – anything to delay the emotionally-loaded task of returning to TIE Fighter, unpacking our former life together, and making hard decisions about what to do with all of the things.

Ultimately no big, sweeping decisions were made – though it was very clear to both of us that the connection that had kept us together for the six years we were a couple was still very much alive and well, and inasmuch as no new formal plans or agreements were made, nothing was ruled out either. It remains very much to be seen whether the very rich, very full lives we’ve built for ourselves over the two years we’ve spent apart could be compatible enough to have a future together, but I remain optimistic and will be traveling up to visit her in San Francisco at the end of January.

TIE Fighter in the work yard

After extending our stay at the resort hotel for another day of cartoons and sparkling wine, we finally buckled down and spent two days on TIE Fighter unpacking and sorting. One disappointment we encountered was the fact that despite being repeatedly reassured that the Marina Seca was a very secure spot to store a cruising sailboat, a few things had somehow grown legs and left the boat. Miya’s Sailrite sewing machine was the largest and most obvious missing item, followed by my mandolin, my busking loudspeaker, my binoculars and a few powertools. Interestingly all of the missing items had been stored very much out in the open, and the boat hadn’t been overtly ransacked – had the thieves searched a little deeper there were other valuables that I’m sure would have been attractive. I guess it’s to be expected given the circumstances, but it still felt like a huge violation of personal space.

Miya left back to California, and I spent a few days cleaning and settling in for a long month in the boatyard… but I was soon rescued by my friend France, who came to visit for New Years. I picked her up at the airport in Hermosillo and after a drunken New Year’s Eve spent barhopping around San Carlos, we left south on a roadtrip to Topolobampo to catch a ferry to La Paz.

If you only learn one word in Spanish prior to going on a roadtrip in Mexico, I suggest the word “topes“. It’s a seemingly innocuous word, but if you see a sign that says Topes on the side of the highway, that word means “brake aggressively or lose your suspension“. Topes means “speed bumps”, but in Mexico those bumps can be anything from little steel domes set into the asphalt to huge amateur-constructed concrete curbs across the middle of the highway. You basically have your choice – pay the steep tolls for Mexico’s (admittedly excellent) toll highways, or use the libramente freeways, which are somewhat older, often in disrepair, and regularly have huge topes for apparently only one reason: to make you slow down so that you might purchase food from a fruit stand or restaurant conveniently located at exactly that spot. One might wonder cynically which existed first; the tope or the restaurant…

It was a couple of hours south of Guaymas, in the middle of nowhere, shortly after one of these topes – one that I hit very slowly actually, since this is not my first goddamned rodeo – that my little truck suddenly began sounding like a MUCH LARGER and MUCH LESS MECHANICALLY SOUND truck. I pulled over to have a look, and found that the exhaust pipe leading from the engine to the muffler had cracked completely in half! A half-kilometer later we pulled (loudly) into a gas station to try to make a repair, and the attendant was less than helpful – since it was New Years Day, and also a Sunday, he explained that the chances of having any repair work done before Monday was out of the question.

repairs in rural Mexico
repairs in rural Mexico

We had a cup of coffee and a think, and decided to try asking at a nearby llanteria (tire sales/repair shop) for help. Using my rudimentary Spanish, accompanied by a lot of hand-waving and pointing, I showed them the problem. A young guy beckoned us to bring the truck around to the back of his shop, where he got right to work, jacking up the truck and arc-welding the pipes back together. He worked for about an hour and a half in total; France and I had a bet going on what he would charge us, with me guessing around 600 pesos ($30 USD) and her predicting at least 1000 ($50 USD)… but in the end he asked for 150 pesos ($7.50 USD), though I insisted on giving him 200 ($10). Gotta love Mexico!

boarding the ferry to La Paz
boarding the ferry to La Paz

Riding the overnight ferry was an adventure all in itself, as we hadn’t had the foresight to book a $50 “private cabin” with beds, since my pickup truck has a camper shell and a mattress in the back. Upon boarding the ferry, we were told that passengers were expressly forbidden from the car decks during transport! Any “public” seating with vertical space filled up immediately, staked out with blankets and baggage by locals, and we ended up sleeping the night shivering on the hard tile floor of the noisy ferry lounge as a live entertainer continued her song-and-dance act until well after 3am. Note to self: next time, make sure to bring blankets, pillows, or hell, even a hoodie – it gets cold at night in the middle of the Sea of Cortez in early January!

kites in La Ventana
kites in La Ventana

From La Paz, we drove an hour south to La Ventana, the kiteboarding Mecca of the Baja, where France had booked us into a hotel. We spent the next three days taking kiteboarding lessons by day, and drinking fiercely strong Baja-style margaritas at night, singing and playing guitar with new friends.

Even after a couple of days of lessons, I’m still not to the point where I’d be comfortable taking a kite out by myself, but I was able to get up on the board and ride for about thirty seconds at a time… but only in one direction! I was a skateboarder and snowboarder back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but that was before people really rode ambidextrously, and so I only ever learned to ride “regular foot”, i.e. left-foot-forward. On a kiteboard I was able to ride left-foot-forward repeatedly, but it took all my focus and concentration to try to ride right-foot-forward for more than a couple of seconds at a time.

protestor roadblock!
protestor roadblock!

After a few days of vacation in La Ventana, I was beginning to get antsy about working on TIE Fighter… but France was still having a blast, so she changed her flight home from Hermosillo to a La Paz departure and got a room for another night, and I left for the ferry. My timing couldn’t have been better – due to the President of Mexico’s decision to deregulate gas prices, protestors on the Baja had shut down the highways! I made it as far as La Paz before running into my first roadblock; six or seven tractor-trailer trucks parked across the highway, blocking all traffic.

Luckily I had budgeted a couple of extra hours to get to the ferry, with plans to stop in La Paz for lunch; I had to reroute several times down sketchy backroads, bypassing the highways, until finally reaching the last stretch of road to the ferry terminal. The ferry departure ended up being delayed for several hours, and I heard later that all sailings for the next few days were cancelled outright from the protests blocking fuel deliveries to the docks. Glad I caught the one I did!

Jamie and Darion
Jamie and Darion

I returned to the workyard and dug in hard, but luckily I was provided with a brief respite by my friends Jamie and Darion, down from Victoria BC, visiting family in San Carlos. Jamie had access to a couple of amazing Hobie Mirage kayaks – they’re pedal-powered, using fins modeled after dolphin tails, super fast and very easy to pilot – and managed to borrow a third one from a neighbour, and the three of us headed out on an adventure around Isla El Pastel.

We “paddled” a total of 12km (7.5 miles) without really even feeling it, running into tonnes of seabirds and a couple of pods of bottlenose dolphins on the way! I would jump on buying one of those kayaks, but they’re quite expensive and I think I’d be constantly worried about it having it get stolen at a dinghy dock.

BUT WHAT ABOUT TIE FIGHTER?!? How is she?? How well did she survive the hurricane?? What projects have you been working on in the boatyard for the past month?!

…well, that’ll be the subject of the next blog post. 🙂

Also, just as a footnote: since it’s now 2017 and blogging isn’t exactly the bleeding edge of internet technology anymore, I’ve branched out a bit. You’re welcome to follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, if that’s the sort of thing that floats your boat. Hah!

East Coast

Well, now that I’ve been in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for a week, I figure I should update the blog with my experiences so far.

Strangely, the most productive I’ve been to date was a set of two eight-hour stints in a quiet side room at my father’s office in Sussex. Today, however, I am in a bustling food court in the Halifax Shopping Center. Oh my…

So the big question with this whole ‘work from anywhere’ project is whether or not I can be productive even when the office is a massive set of distractions. Admittedly, today is a strong test.

It’s interesting, really – as someone who has spent their entire life struggling to overcome attention deficit disorder, the idea of trying to get work done in an environment full of shiny distractions seems like a plan destined to fail. Still, I’m pretty sure that with a bit of self-discipline, combined with careful self-medication with coffee and prescription ADD drugs, that I might just be able to pull this off.

On the prescription drugs tip – just as a back story, as a young child I was lucky enough to have a mother who was an elementary school vice principal, studying for her masters in education. She attended a lot of educator conferences, and at one in particular the speaker spent a half-hour describing an interaction between a mother and her son – it went a bit like this:

“…so the mother and son went to visit the grandparents. Now, the son is hyperactive and can’t seem to sit still for more than a few seconds, and is constantly distracted by new ‘projects’, which drives his grandfather absolutely nuts. The kid knows this, and knows that every time they interact he makes the grandfather angry, so he’s trying to be on his best behavior.

“So they’re at the grandparents place for a few hours, and there hasn’t been a peep from the kid. It’s been snowing, and when the mother goes to leave, there’s the kid, and he’s shoveled pretty much the entire front walk. He’s beaming, he’s done a good job, and even the grandfather gruffly says he’s done well. The mother and son pack up and go home.

“About an hour after they get home, there’s a phonecall – it’s the grandmother. She says that the grandfather isn’t angry, but that he’d just like to know where the son left the screwdriver.

“The story expands a little bit from there. Apparently the son wanted to surprise the grandfather with something nice, so he went to shovel the walk. The door to the shed with the shovel was padlocked however, and if he’d asked for the key he’d spoil the surprise, so he tracked down a screwdriver, taken the hinges off the shed door, put them aside, gotten the shovel, and done the walk. In the process, the screwdriver was set down somewhere. They never did find the screwdriver.”

Well, after this story, apparently my mother stood up in the seminar and shouted THATS! MY! SON!

Anyway, I was about eight or nine at the time, and they shunted me around to various child psychologists and ADHD specialists (which were very rare, they had only just ‘discovered’ it), and finally I was diagnosed and prescribed Ritalin. Suddenly I was able to focus and my grades went from mid-60’s to mid-90’s!

Say what you will, but I know for a fact that I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for my mother being conscientious and willing to try an experiment. I count Ritalin/Dexedrine as being critical in my education, and I would likely be either in a trailer park or in jail if I hadn’t had that extra benefit.

The downside of ritalin/dexedrine is that they’re amphetamines, and for every up there is an equal and opposite down. The “crash” makes it difficult to focus, makes me crabby, and takes away most of my will to do anything but sit on the couch. Worse, if I take it too many days in a row, I start to lose the ability to feel emotions – I turn slowly but surely into a robot. This is the really insidious part – I see so many kids being prescribed dosages of Ritalin that must be just slamming their brains. I knew an eleven-year-old who was prescribed fully four times my dosage! Admittedly he was really, really, really hyperactive, but still…

Man. Did you know that Halifax mall cops wear bulletproof vests? Honestly, who thinks that’s a good idea? When was the last time there was a shooting at the Halifax Shopping Center? Google says never.

Anyway – it would seem that instead of actual “work”, I’m doing blog posts. Today I have to research alternative DNS hosting – I’m partial to EasyDNS, but the Evil Masters seem to want to go with UltraDNS. I don’t think they realize that UltraDNS has per-query billing, which will mean huge bills with our round-robin “load balancing” system.

The Quest Begins!

Today is my last day of work. I have Wednesday and Thursday to get my affairs in order, and I begin my new job – and officially begin my technomadic experiment – this Friday.

So the laptop buyout went… poorly. I was really hoping that they’d bite – my original negotiated deal was to work for the ISP for one year, and at that point I’d be entitled to buy out my laptop for $1000. Well, technically, the deal I tried to negotiate was that after six months the ownership of the laptop would just transfer to me, but they played hardball and would only go for the full transfer after eighteen months. I was kind of stretched financially at the time, so I accepted.

The problem is that I’m leaving the company after only just shy of nine months. I made them an offer of $1000 plus an extra $100 for each of the three months shy of a year, so $1300. The big boss agreed, but with the caveat “…as long as Joe doesn’t need the machine for his tech guys”, putting the decision in the hands of the manager of the technical support team. He was supposed to let me know Friday, but Friday afternoon told me he’d need the weekend to think it over.

That left me at a bit of a disadvantage, as my last day is today, Tuesday, and I would have to leave my machine there – but I was pretty confident that he’d make the right choice and let me buy the machine out. Unfortunately, early Monday morning he emailed me saying “Sorry dude, we’re getting more mac clients lately and so it’d be better to have it in the tech office for testing and client solutions stuff”.

Now, that’s a pretty flimsy premise. You’ve gotta understand, there’s a lot of office politics at play here – for one, I had the only Macbook Pro in the office, and frankly that chapped a lot of cabooses, and for two the Macbook Pro is a phenomenally well-designed machine and I’m in an office full of geeks. There were at least four people in the office with designs on my laptop, and from my vantage point (aka “shitty cubicle”) I got to watch them circle like vultures as the word spread. Deals were quietly made – my coworker made his case “I should get the laptop because I’m second to Drew in the admin team and I only have a regular Macbook, which could go to the tech team…”, and went from office to office gathering support for his cause. Another coworker, of much higher ranking, thought he should get it on rank alone. And even the big boss said something like “Just leave it on my desk when you go – oh, and make sure the applications and such are still installed, I’ve been meaning to pick up a mac for my own use…”.

Regardless, I’m getting a signing bonus with the new company, with which to purchase a new laptop. I was really hoping that purchase could be my macbook pro, with money left over for a fancy new iPhone too – but with that hope dashed, I was left with one day to evaluate my options and purchase a new machine.

Fortunately, I’m a geek, so I’d kept up with the tech pretty well – I’d already narrowed the field down to two options. In the left corner the slightly more pedestrian Macbook, and in the right corner the sleek, sexy Macbook Air.

I’ll save you the suspense: I bought the Air.

It was pricy, that’s for sure, it used up my entire budget and then an extra $100 on top of that – but I think I’ve made the right decision. This is a machine that I’ll be carrying with me everywhere for the next – oh, let’s call it two years. I’ll be spending anywhere from one to fourteen hours per day on the thing, which means it has to be both functional and comfortable. I look at a laptop as being like a good pair of workboots – if you’re just doing some gardening every few weeks, the $90 pair of workboots will suit you just fine. If you’re out on a construction site every day though, rain or shine, for eight hour stretches, the $340 pair start to make a lot more sense.

There were a few other factors that influenced the decision; for instance, the Air doesn’t have firewire, which is a strike against… but I had firewire on my MBP and never used it once in the nine months I had the machine. Also the Air only has a 1.6Ghz processor. Which is, um, the same one I’ve been using for nine months on my MBP with no complaints.

Functionally speaking, I’ve traded my Macbook Pro for the equivalent machine, only pared down with less extraneous crap, lighter and more mobile. This is exactly what I’m trying to do with the rest of my life, so it makes me think that I’ve made the right choice.

Friday, I get to spend most of the day on Skype with my new coworkers, mapping out the networks that I’ll be taking care of. Of course, since the new company has grown very rapidly and with a small core of employees, there isn’t really any documentation for any of the systems, so that’ll be my first big task. The following Thursday, I fly to New Brunswick for a two-week “vacation”, which will be the first big test of being a fully mobile sysadmin… and after that, it’s off to Burning Man to either celebrate the burgeoning success of my venture, or to do some deep desert soul-searching as to what I’m actually trying to do here.

Is this all a great idea leading to a wonderfully adventurous alternative lifestyle, or a huge mistake stemming from a drive to escape from a life that seems to be leading to stagnancy?

Great Strides Forward!

If it takes ten hours to achieve three hours of actual work, who am I really cheating?

This update is a bit long in coming, because I took off for Salem, Oregon to attend the Emrg-n-See Festival with Trent and a bunch of other amazing people. The vacation was welcome, even though it ventured into the United States, which as of late has made me somewhat wary.

Regardless, I’m back now, and back at my ugly little cubicle desk in North Vancouver. There’s one major difference though…

This is my last week. I am done this coming Tuesday!

So I gave my notice last Tuesday – the big boss was neither surprised nor alarmed. I guess it’s been pretty obvious for a while now that our department has just been sitting here spinning our wheels, waiting for some guidance from the “new management” that never actually arrived. I mean seriously.. I was supposed to be reporting to a guy in the head office downtown, but I didn’t actually hear anything back from him for four solid months?!

The two things I need to sort out currently are my cellphone and a laptop for the new job. The new Evil Masters have provided a nice little budget for a new machine, but frankly after taxes it isn’t enough to cover a brand new Macbook Pro. I’m currently trying to see if I’ll be allowed to purchase my current Macbook Pro from this job – I negotiated a clause in my original contract here where I could buy out my laptop after one year of employment. I’m just a couple of days shy of nine months with the company, so I’ve offered them $100 per month on top of the original buyout fee. $1300 total for a Macbook Pro – albeit a used one – isn’t too shabby.

On the cellphone front however I got some bad news today – the boss here agreed to let me carry my cellphone number with me when I left, but Telus (who are bitches) have a grip on the number with nasty, sharp, pointy teeth. Looks like I’ll have to have a new cellphone number shortly. I’m currently deciding between pay-as-you-go and a regular cellular plan.

The more I think about this whole detach-from-the-office plan (and the more I read ‘The Four Hour Workweek’), the more I am convinced that it is a good idea. The biggest challenge will be to be honest with myself about what does and what does not work; maybe working in a coffeeshop will be fun, but will it be productive? If it takes ten hours to achieve three hours of actual work, who am I really cheating?

My last day here is Tuesday, and then I have Wednesday and Thursday off, and then Friday I begin my new contract. I will be working the following Monday through Wednesday, and then Thursday I pack up and leave for two weeks in New Brunswick! This is going to be the really big test: can I work successfully from the east coast, possibly without my new Evil Masters even noticing that I’m not around?

Another big question: as an independent contractor, how can I best track my hours? I saw a web app on Daring Fireball, but I foolishly neglected to bookmark it…