Life at sea

Change is the defining factor of the sea. Over time, at sea, change comes to define you, too.

One week ago today, at this precise moment, I was sitting at a bustling seaside canteen, on a wooden bench piled high with my two over-stuffed backpacks and camera bag, waiting for a 4,000-French-Pacific-Franc-taxi to the Nuku Hiva airport. As I sat I sipped the canteen’s home-brewed lemonade, scratched the ears of the friendly brown island pups who padded by, and listened to the locals’ morning chatter, all in French.

 Island dog. ©Erica Cirino

Island dog. ©Erica Cirino

One week ago today I embarked on the beginning of the end of a 2,300-nautical mile sailing expedition from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Tai-o-Hae, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, French Polynesia, with eight Danish sailors and scientists. What stood between me and the end of the journey–my home in New York–was 24 hours, a stretch of time over which I’d fly more than 10,000 miles. Before touching down in New York, my airplanes would stop in Tahiti, and Hawaii — where it all started.

Hawaii. I remember the night we left, Honolulu, vividly. As our ship motored out of Kewalo Basin Harbor’s rocky mouth toward the Pacific, the sky and water were endless and black, the same dark entity. The world was opened up to our exploration and enjoyment. While we could still feel the security Honolulu’s warm city lights, we hoisted the jib and cut the engine, surging forward over waves warm and wild on wind power alone. Sailing into the unknown.

 Leaving Honolulu. ©Erica Cirino

Leaving Honolulu. ©Erica Cirino

The unknown. The sea is always changing, but over time its actions fall into familiar patterns. Day after day the sun rises, the sun sets. Waves crest and break. Wind speeds and slows and blows into new directions over the blue undulating waters. Change is the defining factor of the sea. Over time, at sea, change comes to define you, too.

 Waves and sky. ©Erica Cirino

Waves and sky. ©Erica Cirino

You. You might think you have a reason to go to sea. Many people do. Many hope to find something. Many hope to find themselves. I did. I went to sea twice, each time wishing to come off the boat a different person than when I stepped on board. But I didn’t change in the ways I expected. Each time I sought more peace, and instead I uncovered inner turmoil that I started to confront; each time I sought confidence, and instead I discovered insecurities that I began to try to cope with. I learned that inner change is inevitable at sea, but that it’s impossible to predetermine what it is about you that will change. Crossing the sea has just been the start of the larger spiritual journey of my life; there will always be more work to be done, more room for change–I feel that deeply, humbly.

 A portrait on my most recent sailing expedition. ©Rasmus Hytting

A portrait on my most recent sailing expedition. ©Rasmus Hytting

The journey. At sea you are forced to cope with both your wildest dreams and your most tormenting demons. The sea itself is a fantastical dreamscape: blue and sparkling, brimming with life — leaping dolphins, gliding birds, splashing fish. It’s home to the most intense sunrises and sunsets on Earth. And out there, the intensity of the sea sets your soul on fire.

 Sunrise with seabird. ©Erica Cirino

Sunrise with seabird. ©Erica Cirino

Intensity. About two weeks into the journey, it hits you how isolated you are from the colleagues, friends and family members you interact with on a regular basis on land. Your days at sea are different than the days you spend on land. There are fewer distractions out here. You eat, you sleep, you talk, you steer the ship, you raise sails, you turn winches, you tie knots, you cook, you clean. That’s about it. There’s no Instagram or Facebook, text messages or phone calls, emails or television. Life at sea is intense because there is no way for you to escape, to enter an alternate reality. You are here and must deal with the discomfort, you must embrace the intensity until it becomes your intensity.

 Sailing-scape. ©Erica Cirino

Sailing-scape. ©Erica Cirino

The discomfort. We shower, wash and cook with seawater for 23 days. Our toilet is a bucket that wants to skitter across the deck when we try to sit on it. Our clothes are slick and smelly. Our hair is greasy. Our hands are calloused. We tan and burn beneath the strong equatorial sun. We eat from cans and boxes and the occasional fish from the sea. We sleep in shifts throughout the day, coming together during mealtime. Sometimes the closeness is too much. But over time your crew becomes your family, and you accept that. I learned to live like this, for 23 days, and then for 11 more after we arrived in Nuku Hiva, anchoring in the bay but still living on the ship.

 Malene Møhl and Torsten Geertz bird watch from the cockpit of S/Y Christianshavn. ©Erica Cirino

Malene Møhl and Torsten Geertz bird watch from the cockpit of S/Y Christianshavn. ©Erica Cirino

Living. By now I’m back home, back in my apartment in New York–alone save for my sweet dog, who seems to have aged over the two months I’ve been away. It’s cold outside but radiant heat keeps my studio cozy. Here I have a shower with warm, pressurized, running water. Here I have a stationary toilet that flushes. Here I have two sinks and a too-large refrigerator filled with fresh produce, beer and chocolate from the grocery store down the street. Here I have my car, internet and a cellular connection, social media and work, friends who text and colleagues who email. I know I have changed because I am consistently uncomfortable with these things that have not changed, while I’ve been away.

I have changed. Since coming back home, I have begun to consider my values, my happiness. I’ve asked myself what it is I want to get out of life, what makes me feel fulfilled. Today what pleases me are not the luxuries of life on land but the knowledge that I can cope with the discomforts of life at sea. That I can embrace the intensity required to entertain my dreams and stand off with my demons and still come out the other side ok, alive.

Alive. I miss the raw realness of life at sea.

 Sunrise wave on the Pacific. ©Erica Cirino

Sunrise wave on the Pacific. ©Erica Cirino

This is your brain on whales (and dolphins and sea birds)

Last weekend I spent 36 hours on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean in search of marine wildlife. This is what I saw. And thought.

 Humpback whale, Great South Channel, Atlantic Ocean. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

Humpback whale, Great South Channel, Atlantic Ocean. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

how could such an enormous creature simply slip beneath the surface in such a small swirl of water and vanish, right before my eyes?

how is it that this creature that seems to magically exist in this other reality, this other world–this vast, dark ocean–be made of the same stuff as me: flesh and bone and brain and spirit; suspended in water and raised on our mothers’ milk?

…are these whales my brothers and sisters?

These musings and more posted on Medium, with more of my original photography. Read here

Just a girl in the world

Traveling as a woman, especially alone, can be challenging for women; if you’re a lady on the go, here’s what you need to know

 Defunct “Cubana” plane. Pearls Airport, Grenada. May 2017. ©Erica Cirino

Defunct “Cubana” plane. Pearls Airport, Grenada. May 2017. ©Erica Cirino

When standing in a mass of hot, sweaty human travelers at JFK in New York last October for an outbound flight to Seattle, I was verbally attacked. For being a woman.

Here’s what happened: That day I was traveling with my friend Jen, who I took as my assistant to do some fieldwork on killer whales in the Salish Sea up off Northern Washington State. The other passengers waiting to board our full flight at the terminal were packed together like partygoers in a mosh pit. So, we chose to stand just at the edge of the waiting area–out of the way of the incoming passengers of our plane, which had just arrived, but also not too far from the terminal so we could board on time.

Jen and I were talking about our game plan for the day when we reached Seattle: Rent a car, visit my friend Natasha for a few hours, catch a ferry to San Juan Island, check into our hotel, grab dinner. Suddenly, I noticed a tall, gray-haired man with a sour face staring and shaking his head in our direction. He stood cross-armed, next to his wife, just a few feet away from us, also at the terminal’s edge.

I turned to him and said, “Excuse me?”

“Do you not notice that you’re completely in the way of those people coming in?” the man sneered. His wife was silently looking away. “Way to have any common courtesy.” Then he turned on his heels to face his wife.

Jen tried to move even further from the terminal, but I grabbed her arm. “No,” I whispered. “We’re staying put. We’re not in anyone’s way.”

I took a deep breath to cool off. What he said–and that his wife stood idly by while her husband attacked two woman–really pissed me off. I was fuming. A few minutes passed. All the while the man kept giving us dirty looks for staying where we were. Finally, I marched straight up to him.

“Excuse me. Notice how you’re standing pretty much in exactly the same spot as us?” I said cooly. “How are we in the way while you are not? Is it because women are not allowed to stand here? If that’s the case, isn’t your wife also violating your nonsensical little rule? Anyway, as you have probably noticed, we have not moved and…wow! Look! The people appear to be getting off their flight and into the airport without incident.” I made a swooping gesture toward the terminal gate with my arms. “It’s a miracle! How on Earth they figured out a way to get around two women standing ‘in the way’ is unbelievable. Now I hope you have a great day! In the meantime, my friend and I will be careful not to get in anyone’s way!”

The man was PISSED. I felt better.

Normally, I wouldn’t seek justice in verbal attacks such as this one. I didn’t know that man, and he could have physically attacked me after I fought back with my words. But my justice-seeking reaction in this situation illustrates how I feel when I, or other women travelers I meet, recount sexism-based travel issues: I get angry.

Women shouldn’t have to feel on the defensive every time the go out the door. But sadly, this is often not the reality. Men may not realize it, but when we travel (or even just go walk around our own neighborhoods) we face: getting looked at, cat-called at, honked at, yelled at, stalked and more unpleasant things. Some men (not all, of course) say to women who complain of dealing with these issues, “Well don’t wear revealing clothes!” That attitude is demeaning. And untrue: In my experiences I’ve had these issues even when wearing my baggiest, grimiest sweatshirt and jeans.

Women, especially those who travel alone, face these and other hazards: pickpocketing and other theft, physical or sexual assault and other violence, extortion.

I’m a female traveler who often goes solo. For my work as a writer, I insert myself in sometimes risky situations with strangers that may compromise my safety. Examples: Sailing the Eastern Pacific Ocean with 8 strangers, 7 of which were from a different country and thus had a culture completely different than my own; flying to a tiny town in New Mexico to backpack across the desert looking for wolves with a complete stranger; driving my car up through small-town New York towns and couch-surfing friends of friends (whom I had never previously met).

I am fortunate to have avoided any serious incidents up to this point. I credit my street-smarts for keeping me safe. If you’re a woman who travels alone, there is always the possibility of danger. But remembering the following advice may help you avoid it, or even save your life:

  1. Look and act like a local: Blending in can go a long way in taking possibly prying eyes off of you. Research the local dress code (in some countries it’s offensive to wear or not wear certain articles of clothing). On the more benign end, I’ve been heckled as a foreign female traveler: A foreign merchant once tried to charge me twice the price he would sell a local a coconut. I know this because I had overheard the amount he charged a local while waiting in line at his market stall. (When I told him I’d buy a coconut elsewhere, he spontaneously dropped his price to the local price.) So be aware of that, and keep your eyes and ears open. Dress simply: Do not wear any fancy jewelry or clothes, and don’t carry expensive bags with you. Learn enough of the local language to get around: Hello, Goodbye, Thank you, Where is…, My name is…, Food, Water, Bathroom….etc, etc. Know the local emergency number and put it on speed dial on your phone. And know what police officers look like and where to find them.
  2. Keep valuables away: A simple, secure backpack, preferably a messenger bag you can keep one hand on (to keep potential pickpockets away), is preferable. Don’t take more than one pack out with you. Don’t keep valuables or money in your clothes pockets (a good place for paper money, I’ve found, is the good-old inside the shoe trick; or, a secure yet accessible pocket in your bag (it’s smart to keep your phone in this kind of pocket, too). Bury your passport and the majority of your money in the bottom of your bag if you’re carrying it on you. Never, ever put your bag down somewhere and leave it. Not even if you ask someone to “keep an eye on it.” If you take off your pack, make sure it’s close enough you can reach out a hand and grab it in the case someone else tries to.
  3. Know how to use your voice…and when not to: If someone ever tried to threaten your safety with a physical, sexual or violent assault yell as loudly as you can for help and run if you are able. A whistle is also helpful in these situations. Do not stop yelling until someone comes to your aid. In the case that someone verbally attacks you, as I was verbally attacked at JFK, fighting back isn’t the best strategy. Ignoring the person completely and simply walking away can better de-escalate the situation and keep you safe. I only fought back in that instance because I was in such a public place (and honestly I was really, really fuming mad).
  4. Be vigilant: Most people will tell you that profiling people isn’t a nice thing to do. I don’t 100% agree. Humans profile others based on first impressions for survival. I’m not condoning racial or gender profiling, but human profiling. We all know what bad vibes feel like. If you get them from a person, or if you notice someone eying you in a strange way, quickly walk away from them to a very public place–say, a coffeeshop or bookstore or museum–where you’ll be surrounded by people and can just kind of crash for a while to escape the creepy person. If the creepy person follows you in, alert the staff immediately and do not leave the place you sought shelter in. If you’re walking and notice a potentially dangerous person or situation–such as someone who is yelling profanities at another person–turn around and walk away quickly before you get too close.
  5. Talk to people: There are several different people and conversations you should have before and during your travels: First, before you leave, talk to friends and family and tell them where you’re going, how long you’ll be there, and how to best keep in touch (I like using WhatsApp when traveling overseas, you can use it with data or wifi). Second, ask them if they’ve ever been–or know someone who’s been–to the place you’re going. Talk to them about their experience and any tips. Once you arrive, talk to people like your Airbnb hosts, taxi driver, coffeeshop barista and other trustworthy-looking people you encounter about things to do, travel tips and other important local information. Take notes so you don’t forget what they tell you.

Travel, even solo travel, doesn’t have to be scary for women. We simply live in a world where women have to be extra-careful. You’ll be in for a safe and enjoyable trip if you just “Keep your wits about you,” as my mother tells me before each trip.

Originally posted to Medium on June 13, 2017. 

Grief

 ©Erica Cirino. Danish forest, BW. March, 2017.

©Erica Cirino. Danish forest, BW. March, 2017.

Deep inside me lies a vast but secret wilderness

Only I have explored, mostly while stumbling around

In the dark, late at night when most people are asleep.

I close my eyes and wander through a black tangle of thought,

A silent observer, studying my surroundings so keenly so that

By now, I know this place like the back of my hand:

My grief.

It is somewhere I visit often,

More often than I’m willing to admit to most people,

Because, each time someone asks why I look down, why I look distracted,

I tell them I am contemplating my grief, and I am met

With skeptical eyes, pained expressions, and the words,

“How can you be sad if you have it all:

A car, a job, friends, family, food to eat, a place to live?”

I argue that I said I was grieving, not being ungrateful,

And yes my grief does make me sad sometimes.

But this often makes things worse, because thinking of the things I have

Only fills me with guilt for mourning what has been lost,

And even sometimes convinces me that maybe I really do not have a reason 

To feel this, to feel like this,

But only until the next time I find myself staring off into the sky,

But only until the next time I find myself in bed wide awake at 3am,

But only until the next time I find myself blinking back tears,

Forlornly contemplating a friend’s dying child, my own childhood brush with death;

A lover’s absence, a friend’s silence;

My jealously of a colleague, my indifference toward a family member;

A species going extinct, an ocean strewn with plastic;

Bombs exploding in continents far away, a deadly car crash just a few blocks from home;

Women being raped, men being shot;

Money being wasted by addicts on drugs and booze while they starve themselves to feed their habits, money being stolen and stuffed into the pockets of powerful people who make rules that benefit only the wealthy few.

My suspicions are confirmed: 

I do have reasons to grieve.

There are so many specters of loss that haunt the wilderness inside me,

And to date I have been unable to eradicate them, shoo them away.

And I am coming to terms with the fact that perhaps I never will,

That maybe my grief will forever loom in the shadows,

Waiting for me to confront it, to endure what it wants me to feel,

Following me, reminding me that

The opposite of loss is not gain, it is presence;

The opposite of grief is not happiness, it is love.

I am present, I have love,

Therefore, I grieve.

Originally posted to Medium on April 9, 2017. 

Complete

 ©Erica Cirino. Linocut print “The Swing Tree,” 3/5. 2017.

©Erica Cirino. Linocut print “The Swing Tree,” 3/5. 2017.

There is no greater moment–no moment filled with more excitement and possibility–than the realization that you need nothing auxiliary to make you whole; the realization that you, yourself have the power to destroy and create; the realization that all you need and all you are lies inside of you; the realization that you are good: A sentient being with wisdom and knowledge, power and weakness, virtue and vice, empathy and jealousy, love and hate.

You are nothing more, you are nothing less. You are complete.

Originally posted to Medium on April 6, 2017.