Unexpected Luxury and Romance on a Cargo Ship

“But where do you shower?!?”

That’s the most common question from people we run into who ask us about life in a van.
“We don’t” is the short answer, but it’s far from the truth.


Fact is, we’ve made a lot of changes in our lives and our routine since living in a van, some directly related to our constraints, some because of our zero waste challenge. A lot of these seem to coincide. So for example I don’t use shampoo anymore, I wash my hair with baking soda. That means I don’t need a shower to get my hair clean. I sit on the edge of the van and pour the water/baking soda mixture onto my scalp, scrub, and rinse it in our sink.

What’s more, as surfers, we’re often around the ocean, which we use as a ginormous bathtub. Sometimes it’s been weeks, if not months, since we’ve “showered” but you wouldn’t know it from looking at us, or more importantly, smelling us. We’ve both found, in fact, that when we take a warm shower, our armpits end up smelling a few hours later, whereas our new “non-shower” techniques leave us feeling fresh for days. That logic is still lost on us. But I digress, what in the world am I doing talking about showers when I should be talking about our Sea of Cortez crossing in a cargo ship?

But I digress, what in the world am I doing talking about showers when I should be talking about our Sea of Cortez crossing in a cargo ship?


Baja Ferry With a Puppy

A puppy came into our lives a few weeks before we had planned to cross from La Paz to Mazatlan. We had planned to take Baja Ferries across, but when we went to purchase our tickets, we were informed they would shove our puppy into a kennel for the (scheduled) 16-hour voyage.

Phi was no more than 2 months old, already traumatized from being separated from his mother and all the shenanigans we had put him through. Locking him up in a kennel on a boat for at least 16 hours with no visitation rights wasn’t even a debatable question. We’d drive back up the peninsula and over to mainland if we had to. But there was another way. Almost no tourists seem to know about TMC ferries, and why would they, it’s mostly reserved for cargo, not passengers. Whereas Baja Ferries advertises its sleeper cabins and other commodities, TMC is a deck you can roll your vehicle onto. If you’re lucky you’ll end up on the upper deck, where the infernal heat and questionable smells are less, shall I say, acute.


At a bit over $300 for the passage for the three of us and BigBlu, including meals, it was a much cheaper option than driving around the Sea, so we went for it.

Gabriel worked his butt off to make sure we landed a spot on the upper deck, and his magic did the trick. After 3 days of waiting for a free spot, and a few hours waiting for the delayed ship, one fateful Saturday, just around sunset, BigBlu made her way up the filthy ramp of a cargo ship named the “Santa Marcela” and parked herself precariously between the railing and two semi-trailers, which, despite the engineers’ skillful tie-down job, were still in my mind only a minor disaster away from crushing us before throwing us overboard, a minor detail I chose to ignore for the rest of the ride.

Can you spot the Vanagon?

We quickly popped the top and made ourselves at home in our little corner of the deck. It felt funny, for sure, being dwarfed by containers on a ship about to head out to sea in our little home on wheels.

Yet here we were, the puppy free to sleep where he had been sleeping since he found us: between the two of us, in our bed, in the van, all of us at home. What a better alternative than caged and terrified.

As the ship continued to load we headed across the deck to the galley. The metal deck had been painted in layers of dark green paint which were barely visible under the layers of black grime. Phi’s paws would be covered in this grime for the duration of the journey, except when confined to the van whereby I would try to wipe his paws clean. Still, the grime crept in and everything in the van would have to be washed, mainland side.

On the way to the galley we passed the fish-juice-like leak coming from one of the containers which would soon puddle up the entire area and smell up the ship horrendously, for now, it was barely noticeable. As we climbed the steep ladder to the galley deck, to my utmost surprise, I noticed shower stalls next to the bathrooms.


It had been… Well, I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I showered! Despite the fact that I had been perfectly comfortable in my non-showered state, the sight of the facilities made me feel as dirty as a smoker feels anxious at the sight of a cigarette. I rushed through my surprisingly tasty and filling dinner so I could get back to the van for my toiletries, and proceeded to revel in the warm water purification.

Never mind the fact that the whole stall was of the same grimy metal and that I had to consider long and hard before settling on a somehow suitable spot to place my clothes and towel while I showered, I let the water pour over me and wash off the stagnant layers of my soul. It felt like the desert itself had started to petrify my everything and it was coming off me in layers. I was the Sierras and the shower a torrential downpour, the layers stripped off me returning to the ocean like the desert’s sediment.

That’s when I realized there’s something about a shower that cleanses more than your skin, and I savored every moment of it. Upon returning to the van, past the blooming fish smell, hair wrapped in my towel, skin feeling fresh as a lone feather on a pillow of a thousand threads, I understood I had taken showers for granted my whole life. This was not a mundane daily ritual to be had haphazardly with one foot still in the dream world, this was a communion with the spirit world, to be cherished and honored. With this thought, the engines started rumbling below my feet like a thousand purring pumas.


We were on the brink of departure, and suddenly that too felt like more than just another leg of our trip. Nothing had changed, but everything was different. There would be no crossing back over the sea of Cortez. We were leaving the desert and closing a chapter on our lives to begin another. I was as absorbed in this story as I had been with the books that I devoured as a child. This was the cliffhanger at the end of the chapter that made me deaf to the sound of the kettle whistling in the kitchen. I had no idea what would happen next, but here we were: no longer just a couple, but a family, huddled comfortably in a less-than-comfortable environment, ecstatic to be alive and together, welcoming an unwritten future with exaltation.

Somehow the sea of Cortez was no longer just the separation of a peninsula from its mainland, it separated North America from South, the desert from the jungle, our past from our future.


That evening, as we started getting underway, Gabriel and Phi were lulled to sleep by the purr of the motor on the upper bunk of our van, on the upper deck of the Santa Marcela. This had become a pivotal moment for me, and there was something now undeniably romantic about our departure. So I slipped out of bed to the edge of the railing where I watched the sea stirred by the propellers lit by a single spotlight.

“Goodbye Baja, ” I spoke to the whole of the desert, silently, but it heard me “See you again probably never, but it’s been swell!”

Just then a pelican swooped around the back of the ship and stopped in the spotlight. It soared, its almost three-meter-wide wingspan, reminiscent of that of a WWII bomber, kept it aloft at deck height. Without beating a wing it kept our speed, perfectly centered in the spotlight, its beak straight ahead, but its gaze on the sea below. Without warning, its wings folded back as it plunged into the water, beating its wings a few times on his way back out, barely struggling against the added weight of the fish in his pouch and its wet feathers. He resumed his position in the spotlight.


Then there were two, taking turns attacking the surface of the ocean like obsidian arrowheads. Then there were half-a-dozen, in perfect formation, piercing the ocean rhythmically, then letting the ship and the pelican fleet catch up to them, whooshing by just inches from my face as they resumed their positions in the formation. I ran back to get Gabriel so he could partake in this most magical of sights, but he was fast asleep, his soft snores telling me to leave him in his dream world. I resumed my position on deck, reluctant to accept that this experience was just for me. I watched them for almost an hour as they enjoyed their after-hour fishing abundance in the wake of our ship, under the only light in the ether, escorting us out of the desert and into the next chapter of our journey.

Approaching mainland.



  1. I enjoy your writing and observations. You are gifted.

    Watching Pelicans fly formation is a wonder of nature and I’ve spent hours on the beach in Baja in awe.

    So now it’s life with Phi – another wonder.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge