Monday, January 18, 2010

The Epic Boat Trip, pt 4 - Dolphins and Flying Fish

Next morning, children's shouts drew my attention away from my breakfast (dry Navy biscuits and bananas). I hopped down from my nest on the cargo hatch and climbed the ladder up to the bow of the ship. Kids were hanging over the railings at the front, pointing excitedly into the water. Pushing into a free spot, I looked down and saw the source of the commotion.

A school of dolphins was frolicking in the frothy furrows cut by the ship's hull. I watched in delight as the playful creatures leaped in and out of the water, chasing each other in their race to get ahead of the boat. We laughed and clapped and pointed at the playful abandon with which the dolphins carried out their dance below us.

Leaning over the railing, the sea breeze hit me full in the face, fresh and sweet. The sky had only a few token puffs of cloud, and had already turned bright, deep blue. The breeze must have been created by our movement through the water, because the ocean itself was stretched taut around us, like silk sheets on a slightly hilly bed.

Flying fish now joined the dolphins in the water around our ship. The funny little creatures would suddenly shoot out of the waves in a shallow arc, almost like a covey of quail startled from their bush. They looked like some medieval wizard had been dabbling in alchemy, and accidentally stuck leathery wings on a fish, or, from the top, like little silver airplanes sailing over the water. I sat down on the deck at the very edge, hanging my bare heels over the side, with my arms slung over the bottom railing. I let the breeze tickle my toes, and the kids push around me. I was sitting in that attitude when first land was sighted.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Epic Boat Trip, pt 3 - Asleep on the Cargo Hatch

I went to sleep that night curled up between my mom and sister on the little two-inch thick foam pads we'd put over our square of cargo hatch. I covered myself in a lava lava and lay there for a while, listening to the settling sounds around me. There was a cranky baby's cry, followed by steady and contented sucking as its mother put it to breast. The tarp overhead went 'slap, slap, flap' in the breeze. Rigging jingled and clanged against the metal posts and awnings. Two women talked quietly together in rhythmic Polynesian. Underscoring it all was the deep chug-chug as the Baruku made her patient way across the vast openness.

My mom, on the cargo hatch.

From where I lay I could see some of the horizon. The ocean breathed quietly, blue-black underneath the star scattered sky. The water was a calm, gentle friend tonight. The ship's lights spilled out onto the water in ethereal amber swatches. Stars looked down on us aloofly. I could just see Orion rising out of the sea. I always greeted Orion as my friend, because it was a constellation that I recognized from the Texas skies. Wherever in the world I traveled, Orion was my constant night time companion. He watched over me kindly as I finally let sleep take me that night.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Epic Boat Trip, part 2 - Departure

The sun had completed its rapid descent into the sea. Its reds, yellows and golds were mopped up by the clouds, leaving the sky a tired plum fading to indigo. My mom, sister, youngest brother and I were clustered in a tight little group on the wharf, waiting for Dad to show us the spot he had secured for us on the cargo hatch. Nathan had disappeared with some friends to help load last minute items onto the ship.

The entire pier was packed with the sweating, brown bodies of both passengers and well-wishers, there to see their loved ones off. Harsh, electric lights illuminated the scene, glittering off of the inky water and various clanging metal fastenings. The harbor glistened ominously in the dark. Mike, our SITAG director who had brought us here, prayed briefly with my dad over us.

Mike always gave me the impression of a charming Southern gentleman, suddenly transplanted from his plantation porch into the tropical jungles of the Equator. He had a quizzical smile that you couldn't help responding to, like a father in a Normal Rockwell painting. His wife, Sal, spoke with a soft Georgian lilt. I don't know if I ever heard her raise her voice above the level of mild agitation.

"God's speed, guys," Mike said, encompassing us all with his reassuring smile. "Lukim iu." (See you later)

Anna, Matthew and I, with some SITAG 'cousins' and an Islander friend.

Some unspoken signal rippled through the crowd as the passengers all suddenly started boarding the boat. People swung up to the top deck from the wharf, aided by hands above and below, or jumped over the narrow space between dock and boat into the lower cargo area. A woman next to me grabbed her niece's face with both hands, and rubbed her nose on each cheek in the island good-bye kiss. Little tremors of change electrified my arms and legs, causing my hands to shake slightly and my brain to schiz from one unconnected thought to the next.

I climbed with my mom and sister onto the boat, grabbing friendly hands for support as I transitioned from the solid dock onto the gently rocking deck. Hair thin treads of anxiety wound themselves surely around my heart. Looking over the side, I could see the water, glossy in the darkness, alien and sinister.

Deep shouts from the men sounded as the fastenings were loosened of their moorings. The ship eased away from the restricting wharf. One foot. A yard. There was suddenly a yell of alarm. A young man had been talking on the other side of the boat and hadn't realized that it was departing. He raced to the wharf side, stood on the railing for a brief, breathless moment, and launched himself at the concrete pilings. He barely made it.

A second later, we were several yards away from the wharf and the engine kicked on reluctantly. I ran with Anna to the bow of the ship, claiming a spot against the railings. Behind us, the lights of Honiara spread cheerily up the hill. I savored my last look at the wonders of modern conveniences as we slowly chugged deeper into the harbor. The heavy, engine-oil smell of the wharf dissipated as a fresh ocean breeze claimed us. The air became cooler and lighter. The water, which from the dock had seemed ominous and angry, now embraced our little boat. We would spend the next three days cradled in its bosom, trusting it to treat us kindly and gently, helping us on our way.

As the last of Honiara's artificial lights faded behind me, I turned my face out towards the open sea and whatever adventure awaited me.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Epic Boat Trip, pt 1 - Guadalcanal

The trip started simply enough, with the six of us standing on the packed wharf in Honiara, the Solomon Islands' capital city. Honiara is nestled on the Northern face of Guadalcanal Island, a throw-back from the GI's fight against the Japs in WWII. It consists of a cluster of concrete block buildings that line a dusty main road, sidewalks that are stained red from betel nut spit, and piles of the inevitable assorted garbage and rotting brush inherent to all third-world cities. People from villages all over the Solomons live there, in the sprawling slums that spread backwards through the hills. These grass and jungle covered hills are peppered with old fox holes, rusty bullet cartridges, and even the occasional grenade, pin still intact. Every other Saturday, you can hear explosions as the government explodes two weeks worth of still-active bombs, grenades, and other live munitions left over from the War.

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The group we served with, SITAG (short for Solomon Islands Translation Advisory Group), had a couple of houses strung out along the first big hill that rose against the harbor. I remember one day, Matthew and some other SITAG kids were playing down in the valley behind the houses. They had found a heavy, rusty orb in the soft soil beneath a cassava plant, and were playing a game of hot-potato with it, throwing it back and forth over increasingly wider distances. They were standing about five yards apart when my mom caught them. "MATTHEW!!!" she yelled in the panicked, sharp voice instinctive to mothers across the world. It is the voice that says, 'you are doing something potentially life threatening, and you'd better ... stop ... NOW!'

"What is that? Bring it to me!" They all trooped up to her, and relinquished their plaything. Turns out, it was a still-active grenade. I don't have to tell you about the lecture we all got over the dinner table that night. You can probably imagine it.

We came in to Honiara for group conferences, and to have a respite from the harshness of village living every six months or so. We would enjoy the modern comforts of electricity, bakery made bread, flushable toilets, and (wonder of all wonders!) television. SITAG formed our little family away from home. We were all aliens in a foreign land, and bonded together into a sort of extended family. The other parents were my aunts and uncles, and the kids my cousins.

My family had been in Honiara for a few months, and it was time to return to the village. Mom had spent the past weeks stocking up for supplies to last us over the next six months. We loaded cases of canned food, buckets of rice and flour, Christmas and birthday presents to cover everyone, enough hygiene products to cover a family of six for half a year, dish soap, laundry soap, school supplies ... all these went into the hold of the rusty old cargo ship, the Baruku.

The Baruku, recipient of our hope and faith for the next three days, was an old freighter put out to pasture by the Japanese, but regarded by the Solomon Islands government as having many good voyages yet in her. The term 'rust bucket' could have been coined specifically for her. The decks turned your feet and hands orange from the rust. The engine had an odd knocking rhythm, and had to be kept continually going in order to pump out the water that constantly gushed through the many gaps in the hold. If you stood at railing and looked over the side, you could see the stream of water shooting out from the pump into the ocean. It was as round as the opening of a fire hydrant, and ran full force, constantly.

The cargo hold was filled with everything from our stuff (which probably took up half of it), to supplies for the village trade stores, bags of dried fish, coconuts, chickens, bolts of cloth, and anything else the villagers wanted to transport to or from the outer islands. Passengers on the Baruku slept under a tarp on the raised roof of the hold. My dad went out to the wharf hours before the rest of us got there in order to secure a spot for us to sleep on that coveted, elevated place. If you didn't get a place on the cargo hold, you were relegated to sleeping at the bow of the ship, which had no cover and you could get rained on, or on the deck itself. This was not optimum, because on the deck you were a target for any wave that splashed over the side, and in danger of being assaulted by the slosh of refuse that sought the lowest point; salt water, vomit, pee, pig poop, and engine oil, to name a few. There was one trip that I spent curled up across two barrels, because the cargo hatch was full. But on this time, we were lucky.