Sunday, March 09, 2014


Although not my personal shipwreck, this google pic
 does sort of embody the moment.
     A freeze-framed moment. A handful of fragmented moments strung together....
     The moment of the car crash, after the bomb blast. Hollywood has recently gotten good at portraying this with editing techniques.  The moment the world comes undone, when mother adrenaline puts sticky nano-glue between all the microseconds, and reality reveals itself as flattened and two dimensional, as if you were looking down on Flatland.
    So I woke up in the middle of one of these moments.  I woke up, not from unconsciousness, not in the least bit blacked out, but that is the feeling you get if your short term memory tape just misplaces those last few seconds.  In the first few weeks after the accident, I began to get short pieces of that lost tape back: the missing five seconds between the following two events:
    First: I'm sitting on the boat, talking to the Argentine facing me across the narrow deck. Our knees are touching.  We are in heavy seas now, having left the harbor and the smaller winds, waves and storm.  We are now in open seas, and that means two meter swells, and what that means on a five meter long double outrigger canoe is that we are sometimes staring at a wall of water, before successfully riding it up (and slamming down the other side, usually).  Perhaps as a way of relieving the stress, Jose started telling me a story about the last time he was in rough seas in Honduras, and the boat flipped over.  This really wasn't helping, but to give the story a little more stress relieving action, he added that everyone on the boat, especially the captain, was drunk and high, and as an added bonus, it was a dive boat and they were all experienced divers.  No casualties, he said, it was all like a fun little silly accident for people who spent as much time in the water as they did out of it.
    THEN I'm sitting on top of the upside down canoe, straddling the hull with my legs, alone, and holding on to my bag, which is still dry, as am I.  I'm thinking about my ipad inside and the galaxy note 2 in the money pouch around my waist.  Then I notice the other six people below me, treading water like kittens.  We are all of us spouting abuse at the gods of fate for having put us here.  I begin to remember why we are here, then where we are, then oh shit....this is where we are? in the middle of the ocean, in one of the remotest places on earth?
Which one of these looks like a weird sea creature?

The odd shape even attracted
the attention of the
 I had first wanted to go to Sulawesi because, well, it has a weird shape.  Some say it looks like a squid or octopus, some more land based creatures, but it is certainly a shape that doesn't come up much in the geography of large islands, which are mostly bits and bobs.  But the best part is when you tell people where you are going for the vacation.  "What is that?" they almost invariably say.  I mean, for me the boundary between exotic and mundane destinations is the question "WHERE is that?" so Sulawesi exceeds that by several orders of magnitude.
No Longer worth its
weight in gold...
     Of course, this is not just geographical obscurity, part of it might be that Sulawesi underwent a makeover.  It was quite well known in Magellan's time as 'Celebes', or the Spice Islands.  That's right, I had finally achieved what Columbus and countless other government-sponsored explorers had failed to do. (Assuming the main objective was not to actually enslave heathen, which they were pretty good at). And at some point, the value of cloves and nutmeg per kilo started to fall, not because of competition, but because the world correctly identified energy (and unfortunately for us,carbon based forms of it) as the source of civilization and not spices.  But back in the day, and that would be the Dutch Colonial Empire days,
there was a pretty tight lid on the place; originally the Dutch surrounded it and wouldn't let anyone else near it, so they could have the monopoly.  Long before the Dutch were kicked out, though, the monopoly was broken by the usual methods; smuggling plants out and planting them in less tightly controlled tropical areas, but I think it's safe to say that long before that, the Europeans lost their fascination with spices, though it's still interesting to see how these tropical spices (including cardamom) pop up in 'traditional' Northern European cuisine, even though none of these plants will grow even in Mediterreanean climates.
    But I diverge from the boat accident. and the water, and what happened after we all simultaneously realized we had been unceremoniously shipwrecked.  At this point, we didn't fear the boat turning over, we feared death, making the last concerns pretty ridiculous indeed.  Lucky for us, the two meter swells were about as bad as the waves got.  Sometimes you can have a freak wave , say four meters, that would completely destroy you once you are sitting there capsized and helpless.  And indeed, even those two meter swells kept tipping the boat on its side again, threatening to conk us all on the heads with the outrigger booms and pontoons (deadly much more than any amount of waves), so we had to be constantly wary.
Not the actual boat, but pretty darn close.
     So after a few minutes of shouting at the gods for our lost gear, which turned out to be about 10 thousand dollars worth collectively (no wonder the natives are convinced we are just cash cows walking around waiting to be milked....), we began to think more naturally of survival and just trying to get life started again. One of our group, Gayle of Australia, was a trained rescue swimmer, and she immediately began assessing the situation and the hazards therein. "Is everyone OK? she asked, after we had all finished with the Shit! word.  We all reported in, except Diana, the Argentine's wife, who said with a shaking voice, "I can't swim...".  She was all right for the moment, clinging to a board that had fallen out of the boat.  Gayle swam over and began cracking jokes, like the most natural thing in the world, as if she had just walked out on the stage in Vegas.  This amazed me, because it calmed Diana, and all of us, and then I remembered that Panic is always the main enemy in "Nature vs. Man" kind of situations.
     Gayle was so good at this, and at shepherding Diana to safety, that she completely left out any consideration to her own belongings, none of which had surfaced (in fact she returned to shore without a single possession, but later got all of them back).  By now about half a dozen bags were bobbing in the waves with us, and most of us began collecting them and shepherding them like little sheep, keeping them from drifting, or god forbid, sinking.  My own bag floated almost like a buoy; It had always been so heavy when I carried it, even I was mystified to see it bobbing on the waves.
     Later I discovered that one of my obsessions had kept the bag afloat; not through telekinetic will power, but hermetically sealed bags of green coffee beans.  A coffee freak friend of mine had mentioned that I was passing through one of the world famous coffee growing regions, Kalosi coffee, and so I had done a bit of investigating, and discovered this little grinding/roasting factory outlet there, and honestly, one of my best memories of my travels, olfactory wise, was the moment I opened a barrel of their roasted beans and stuck my entire head in and breathed, as the flavors and colors danced around me.....
     These reveries were really not happening at that time; these are all later reconstructions, in those adrenaline minutes, as we floated out there helplessly, there were a series of steps that we were taking, probably typical in the first minutes after a wreck:
1. People identifying the situation they were in. (In Diana's case, a life and death kind of thing; for us, figuring out how much immediate danger we were in (medium), how much likelihood our 'things' had in this situation (little to none), and how many game plans we had left (one or possibly two- we appeared to be drifting back towards an island, but there was no way of knowing which way the currents would take us)
2. Attempting to flip the boat back over- on the face of it, a splendid idea. But according to mariners I consulted, idiotic.  This outrigger seemed happiest when upside down, especially since our former roof was now serving as an excellent keel.  We wasted what could have been crucial energy and life force trying to rock the pontoons back to the upright position.
3. Standing on the struts and waving and yelling all at the same time- an excellent idea.  It didn't seem to work for the Gilligan's Islanders, but it worked wonders for us.  A boat about three times larger than our boat saw us, and came around in a large circle.  When they came near, THEY nearly flipped over, and judging by the captain's ashen expression, we had better haul our buns quickly aboard.  I added a few new barnacle razor scrapes to my already museum-quality collection as I scrambled aboard.
     When we got back to shore , to the small town capital of the Togeans, aptly named "Togean", there was a small crowd assembled to greet what may have been the first shipwreck that year (or possibly that month).  A kindly soul loaned us their house, and most importantly big barrels of freshwater to wash the salt out of our bodies, clothes, and belongings, and we turned their backyard into an impromptu drying rack.  Hundreds of paper folding money bills, weighted down by rocks, clothes laid out to dry in the sun, on racks, made for a bizarre scene something like what I imagine an airplane disaster scene after ten Obsessive Compulsive people had been at work there.
     As we toiled and grumbled about our recent misfortunes, we were looking at the very dock from which we had taken off; the Alpha of our disaster.  Like a dream, we saw the same people leading four MORE hapless foreigners, loaded down with backpacks, electronics , and possessions, into an identical boat to ours, as if they were preparing to make a new sacrifice to Poseidon, since the last had been thwarted.  We all dropped what we were doing, and frantically ran to the edge of the water, waving our hands and shouting at the new lambs.  "Hey, DON'T GET ON THAT FUCKING BOAT" is what I think most of us shouted.  The foreigners looked at us like we were crazy, and continued to load their things.