October 12th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

I miss dirt. On the boat, I tend to three small potted plants – aloe, basil and parsley. We have a composting toilet, and we separate our kitchen scraps for release to the wild. Its not that I have left the nutrient cycle, its that I miss dirt.

To remedy this, I subscribed to a website called Workaway.com, and began to search for opportunities to work on land. There are a lot of interesting projects out there, many DIYers in need of energetic hands.

My first pick was a APROVACA, a conservation project devoted to the protection and propagation of orchids in Panama. The facility is located in the Valle of Antón, in Cocle province. This valley is an ancient crater with rich soils, diverse agriculture, and fancy estates competing for land use.

They assigned me to the garden of medicinal plants, to clear it of weeds and start making some general order. In exchange, I was housed in their hostel on-site, treated to daily serenades by the frog chorus and fantastic downpours each afternoon onto the tin roofs of the orchid center, and invited to share lunch each day with the group of socios that work with the orchids.

The time was restorative, not just to work in the dirt, but to work with the rest of the group. Even though I wasn’t able to commit to a very long stay, the socios were nonetheless generous with their time, and I could not help but learn constantly. Just being in this space and exploring its nooks and crannies was like medicine. Pura vida.


August 11th, 2017 § 5 comments § permalink

Water provides us with a freedom that is the main feature of our life right now. Since we got the boat “done”, the sea is the open highway that stretches out before us.

But our “process water”, what we use for cooking, cleaning, and drinking, is our main limitation. Being the smallest boat out here means that we are less insulated from the environment by infrastructure like water makers and large freshwater tanks, and puts us in the company of how most of the world lives, as it turns out.

Even though it’s the rainy season here in Panama, the last few days have been dry, and local reserves were getting low.

A Guna neighbor, Rauliano, paddled up yesterday and discussed with us a plan to accompany one another to the nearest island with piped freshwater. We would tow his cayuco with our boat, and we could all load up on water. At 8 this morning we were scheduled to go.

Still waking up a bit slowly at 7:30, I knew that we had cloud cover. If the sky is clear, our cabin is fully illuminated fully by 6am. #equatorlife

When I poked my head out, I saw those gravid clouds full of delicious sky water. And then I heard Rauliano running up and down his beach with the signaling conch – honking out a code that relays along the strings of other islands like a radio repeater, each one with their own shell. I don’t claim to know what the shell-horn code means in any detail, but I am sure today the main topic was WATER. Far and wide, off in the distance, the shell horn repeaters said, “water, water, water”.

Now, there is rain that wakes up the Capitan (F), and there is rain that wakes up the XO (me). Rain with changes in wind speed or wind direction will get F out of bed at any time, to stand on deck with a headlamp glaring around with all the other capitans. Instead, I have a humidity alarm in my brain, which is connected to whatever dish pan, snorkling gear, or laundry that is in rotation through the cockpit in a never ending cycle of  rinsing and drying. It’s a ballet, really.

This morning’s soft, warm rain, was of my variety. Big fat drops turn the water around us into a grey static, and mini rivulets take shape all over our deck. Our dinghy, and every container we have get “redded up” and deployed for sweetwater catchment, and I know our 8am appointment has hereby been cancelled.

The visibility among the boats and shore was very low, and so I take the opportunity for a head-to-toe scrub down, with actual shampoo in my hair. I cannot tell you enough, dear reader, what a luxury this is. There are many not-glamorous parts of my current lifestyle, but when I am alone washing my hair in warm rain, I gotta say I’m feeling pretty extra.

At a certain point I hear Rauliano again, now freestyling on the shell horn. His family is scurrying around the island doing the same things as me, setting out containers to catch the rain and giving everything a good scrub. Between honks, he is shouting into the rain thanking God in three languages, and cheering the good fortune of the day. We can just barely make each other out, but we exchange international signs of joy, with gesticulations toward the sky and whatever source up there we happen to feel grateful toward.

The rest of the morning was spent with a second coffee, planning a pasta supper tonight (a water–intensive treat!), and washing ALL THE CLOTHES. Our time is extended again.

Getting vertical with laundry, new post on blog about delicious sky water. Link in bio! #sealevellaundry #sealevelliving

A post shared by kate zidar (@plankton_every_day) on

pithy debris

July 27th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

“The first step in developing a solid waste management plan is to first characterize the waste stream you are dealing with.”
~Me, to every urban planning student, ever

If you were ever a student of mine, it is 99.9% possible that you received the above pearl of wisdom live, between the magical hours of 6-10 pm, at Pratt Institute (#HigginsHallNorth).   It was just the type of pithy remark that could pivot a lively discussion on dog waste composting into the pie charts I keep handy on waste taxonomy.
Plastic marine debris is what bobs along beside me all day long.  Our present anchorage is in the Eastern Lemmon Cays of Guna Yala, a place without curbside recycling. Or curbs. 

In my field of vision are about a dozen other boats, and about a half dozen Guna islands, each with a family or two on it.  Of the boats, I would say about half are Panamanian, and half are from elsewhere in the Americas or Europe.  The local industries are: fishing from dugout canoes, coconut farming, mola making, and selling all of the above to the people on the boats. A few of the islands have makeshift bars where one can snorkel with a lukewarm can of Balboa and eat almuerzo at a picnic table while immersed in a sizzling reggeton mix.  A class of skiff called a panga will ferry daytrippers from the mainland, bring produce or other staples from the city, and return within the day.
As one does, I mention marine plastic in conversation with anybody I talk to – So, how about that plastic, huh? 

We heard one of the islands’ residents referred to as banditos (bad hombres!!!) because they were spotted dumping garbage from their little island bar in open water nearby.  Escándalo!
We boat people wince while we fork over some bucks for our garbage go off on the pangas to shore, where – fingers crossed(!) – it will be burned on land.  I live in fear that anything of ours will resurface and implicate us. Does that eggshell look familiar? 
I can only assume we do better than most of the other boats by being penny pinchers. The cheapest and least convenient way to provision (our specialty) tends toward less packaging and non-disposable containers.  I.e. I have started making cloth bags for all things, as in, “Oh what a lovely watermelon, I shall make you a bag.”
The Gunas rake through their beach litter each day, tidying up the edges, and inspecting for anything useful – animal, vegetable or mineral.  On the island closest to us, F saw the mother-in-law score a plastic emergency whistle out of the surf and immediately start blowing it at the son-in-law with a toothy grin. If an item is deemed un-useful, however, it just get chucked back.  
An(other) Italian named F from a neighboring boat began a one-man plastic picking party, and over the course of three days amassed enough for a roiling bonfire that made my throat sting well into the evening.

Marine debris is also very dependent on weather.  We are still within sight of the mainland, which slopes steeply into mountainous jungle. Heavy and frequent rains send downed trees and any sort of jungle debris  – including anthropogenic litter –  out our way. 
Now here comes the gut punch, in the form of a quote from Scripps marine ecologist Paul Dayton, via my current favorite book, Mapping the Deep by Robert Kunzig, “…we have already changed the ocean; it is no longer untouched wilderness. The damage is so pervasive, that it may be impossible ever to know or reconstruct the ecosystem. In fact, each succeeding generation of biologists has markedly different expectations of what is natural, because they study increasingly altered systems that bear less and less resemblance to the former, preexploitation versions. This loss of perspective is accompanied by fewer direct human experiences (or even memories) of once undisturbed systems.” Tl;dr There is no Contiki experience anymore, and the days of plankton soup are over.

This dog-eared page is my everything right now.  Direct human experience.  What is natural? That and our neighbor wailing on that whistle to the delight of her daughter.