I saw the most incredible sunset tonight. It's common knowledge that equatorial sunsets are singularly boring, the rapidity of the earth's movement at its waistline causing the sun to drop out of sight far too quickly for conventional taste. But this is, like so much common knowledge and conventional predeliction, pish posh. It does drop fast - visibly fast - but ah, the glory of it.
Tonight Rick and I were in the town of Ampenan, a charming village more crowded with horsecarts than cars. Everywhere is the sound of clip-clops accompanied by the jungling of harness bells, and the people know time the way the trees know it, the way the land knows it; they are of the land. We wound our way through the town near dusk, enjoying its mellow bustle, when Rick suggested that we head to the water to see the sunset. We walked to the beach. It's not much of a beach as far as sunbathing goes... Lombok has much more to offer in that vain at other locations... but it was full of local kids playing ball, people strolling, and nearby was a harbor full of sailboats, their bright canvases (which are around here usually made out of a sort of synthetic burlap type material) lending to the majesty of the perspective of the hundreds of masts and bows fading away from sight. Whether they were fishing boats just in from the day or preparing to go out for the night I do not know.
We found a spot and sat. The sun had not yet set, and hid behind some clouds, the very clouds which always linger above high land. Because to the west lay Bali, not really visible except for the tremendous cone of the volcano Agung, the island's centerpiece, which towered slopingly upward through the haze of the dusky distance. Agung is strikingly irregular in its clichéd regularity. It has flat sides which rise smoothly and unbroken to a trunkated level, its caldera, a perfect volcano belying the necessity of fractal crags and promontories. The clouds hovered in a billowing flat slab over the faint shadow of the far-off summit, and as I said, hid the sun, making the straight edges of the mountain appear as though they were not of hard black igneous stone, but of light, as though Agung were an illusion, a distant mirage produced by the warm rays dispersed downward by the clouds and all parallel to the traced ridge of the distant slopes.
When the sun finally did appear, it did so exactly centered with the crater's flat top and it sank rapidly, an orange-red ball of fire descending into the earth. The clouds' altitude provided an ideal frame, like a huge mass of albumen no longer able to sustain the weight of its yolk, and choosing the crater into which to drop it. The sky all around glowed a translucent apricot hue which mixed to green overhead with the blue-black of the oncoming night behind us, and which glistened off the smoothly rolling water only on the sides of the waves poised to catch it. The other sides, the ripples facing us, reflected the variety of the spectrum in the sky in all other directions, a spectacularly hallucinogenic effect wherein orange rolls into black and yellow into blue seemlessly within each of the billions of tiny swells.
The bottom of the sun reached the top of the mountain, each majestic, each full, each ready to accept the other. When it had sunk halfway, its diameter fitting perfectly into place, occupying the width of the crater's horizontal rim, the rays were spraying outwards in all directions, cutting in sharp filtered lines through the vague atmosphere and up through the clouds, so that as it continued to sink I had the impression of a vast eruption in reverse, not volcanic and wrathful but calm, smooth, more of rest than violent creation, the sun collecting all the light and energy around it and returning it peacefully to the earth.
Soon we could no longer see any trace of the solar disc, but its effects lingered. It continued to burn, out of sight behind the mountain, but making of the once almost imperceptibly grey stone a sharp black silhouette, backlit with a glow quickly losing its struggle with the encroaching night. On Gili Air recently I spent some time with a 5-year-old Danish boy, the son of a woman we met travelling in a few different cities. One night on that island, as we watched a different sunset, he had remarked that it wasn't truly the sun setting, but the earth rising. Kids are smart. And I thought of his words as I watched Agung benefitting from the sun's low position behind it. It looked glorified, exalted by the light apparently radiating from its slopes, a streaky orange-red outline across the water. The earth had risen, the sun had acquiesced and subjugated itself, accepting its position as the foil, the backdrop, content to accentuate the greatness of the noble volcanic peak.
Then the sun dropped fully below the horizon, the light went out, and we stood to walk back into town.
I suppose I should warn you that when I was a child my elders handed me a vacuous platitude to live by: "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Well, if you agree with their wisdom, perhaps you'd better stop reading now, because not everything I'm about to say falls into the "nice" category. You see, Rick and I went on a boat ride, a 5-day, 6-night maritime extravaganza, plying the briny deep from Lombok to Flores, visiting islands and reefs along the way, and spending 100% of our time, inescapably, with a group of people who... but wait... I'm getting ahead of myself... I should start at the beginning.
The beginning was Bangsal, at which harbor everyone congregated to embark. When Rick and I arrived, we were told there'd be a short wait, so we found a soda shop in which to pass the time. We sat and were soon, as per our voyeuristic tendencies, rapt spectators of the unruly bunch of tourists at a nearby table. There were nine of them, all fully decked out in Lombok tank-tops and souvenir straw hats, glowing with fresh tans and shiny from sunscreen. They were tourist tourists, and excellent eye-candy for us. We sat quietly as they talked and laughed, under our curious gaze, about last night's alcohol festival and the promise of... the ride ahead. I exchanged cautious glances with Rick. Were these to be our boatmates? If so, we'd better be careful. We didn't want to establish a negative verdict too hastily, we'd need to give them a fair chance and the benefit of our mounting doubts, especially so early and with 6 days of close confinement in the offing. But first impressions can wield tremendous influence, and ours of them did not leave us overly enthusiastic. However, I've grown to like many who first struck me as idiots, and to this fact I clung as the call came and, shouldering our packs, we headed en masse for the dock.
The short ride to our anchored boat said a lot about the coming week. It was nothing verbal, mind you, nobody said much to us, but that was it: they had about them a sense of camaraderie and established community which clearly did not and quite possibly could not include us. Apparently they'd all met on Trawangan (the party island) and had clicked together like airplane seatbelts. They were each other's kind of people. I remembered speculating about how fun it would be to assemble a group of guaranteed cool people for the long boat ride; they had done just that. But one man's art is just a canvas covered with vomit to another eye... they may have been each other's Cézannes or Jacometti's, but to us they seemed more like motel room paintings, coarse and mass-produced. Still, we hadn't much evidence to go on, and so we did our best to reserve judgement.
The boat seemed a worthy enough craft. Made entirely of wood, it had a split-level flat deck partially covered by an awning of synthetic burlap, and an enclosed squat toilet at the back which emptied directly into the limpid blue sea. Below sprawled a long cabin for the crew and kitchen, and beneath that, the engines. By edict of the captain, all white skin was forbidden below, confined to the deck (and to one another) for the duration.
When at last we had all clambered aboard and stowed our packs, we sat quietly anticipating lift-off and scoping out the situation. They eyed us and we eyed them in a friendly, curious way, the way you might evaluate a not-that-attractive blind date, grasping at appearances, smiles and vibes, searching for some point of connection. To me they all appeared rather plain lower-middle-class tourists - not economically, but more in terms of a lifestyle aesthetic. One was Dutch, the rest British; 3 couples, 3 single guys, and us. I'm sure they felt the same differences as we did, and so for the first few days, the ice didn't really melt beyond cordiality. They had no need of us, and we were happier spectating than participating in their brand of society, a microcosm of holiday culture replete with fujichrome and inspired repartee about such lofty topics as fecal composition, soccer scores, and the relative merits and drawbacks of other things I honestly can't remember, because they were just so not anything I'd care to think about, much less retain. These people had nothing to talk about, but talk they did, loudly and at length. And when the group did, on occasion, fall silent, it was all the more deafening for the certainty that they weren't content in silence, but simply couldn't think of anything, worthwhile or not, to say. I could see a huge a vacant cartoon word-bubble, round and billowing with thick black edges, hovering over the deck, radiating speaker points to all of their mouths at once. It contained, I suppose, not only the blankness of the words they couldn't find, but also the blankness of the words they could. It was a disturbing apparition, and it brought me, as the days wore on, an ever more terrifying recognition of the angst inherent in nothingness, and of the somehow fortunate inability of these people to acknowledge the existential vacuity of which they served as such sterling examples. They embodied what I think is meant by the collective term "the people" when used in its most pejorative sense, not individuals who contribute to the average, but just average individuals. They were quite simply bland, so much so that by the end of the first day I found myself clinging to the salt air for a touch of flavor and wishing that it also contained MSG. To call them losers would be to suggest their ability to compete, clearly not an option, for they each bore so little personal flare that days later I could still honestly not tell most of them apart. "In the future," I told myself, "people will be so much alike that names will cease to have function." Well, as far as this boat was concerned, the future had arrived. Even now, safely back on land, I still don't know most of their names, and what names I did hear floating around (which, like Steve, Dennis and Frances, were as plain and uninteresting as their referents) I couldn't match to a face if I tried. For those whose faces we could distinguish we developed, as is our custom, our own nomenclature, one far more descriptive than their given names anyway.
Now, it's true that much of this invective has been aided by the clarity of hindsight and cooked under the high pressure of close confinement. But while first impressions are often not accurate, they as often are, and as the days wore on, my initial perception of my shipmates was not only confirmed, but intensified. However, in our defence I must say that we tried. On the first evening we attempted to talk to one of the couples near us on deck, a youngish pair whom we later named Vanilla and Bonk. They seemed a nice enough pair... but that's really the root of the whole problem: everyone was just that: nice: in the worst possible way.
Bonk, a rather nondescript sort of chap with nondescript short dark hair, a nondescript medium build, and a very descript black corduroy Jack Daniel's baseball cap with white lettering and a short bill, looked altogether too apple pie, a caricature melange of too many lame popular influences. Any personal extremes which he may have once cultivated had long since hopelessly cancelled one another out, leaving him blank, ordinary, and contentedly so. His one attempt at flamboyance, a silver belly-button ring, utterly failed to achieve its purpose, instead underscoring his complete personal dispersion into the wind of trend culture.
Bonk's girlfriend Vanilla was a product of the same forces, but in a female version. She rarely wore much more, in addition to her perpetual vacant stare, than a bikini... which is fine. Except that her breasts fell somewhere in the C-to-D range, while her bikini top lingered in the zone between size A and size whatever-it-is-that-comes-before-A, revealing far more than anyone wanted to see. Her legs looked structurally impossible, tapering straight to a point at her ankles, and her already small face was dwarfed by a stringy mass of long blonde hair which, draping everywhich way, almost managed to conceal her seemingly unconditional surrender to the ravages of acne. Vanilla was also a curiosity in that she's the only person I've ever met who had an active distaste for water. She just didn't like it, and carried with her a bottle of orange concentrate which she mixed into all of her drinking water. I couldn't believe that anyone could not like good ole' H2O, but I guess its flavorlessness may have reacted adversely with her own... just like Superman and kryptonite, only the exact opposite. But still, in our first night and ever sanguine, we tried to make friends by asking them questions about home.
They came from Wales, a place neither Rick nor I knew much about. Unfortunately, Vanilla and Bonk knew only slightly more than we did. What they couldn't tell us was disturbing: how big Wales is, its population, the population of their town, what industries or resources support it, or anything interesting about Welsh cities or culture; but what they could tell us was ridiculous: that their town's claim to fame is as the sight of the first ever human cremation. We asked incredulously for clarification.
"It's the first place anybody ever burned a body," Bonk said, with a shrug of nonchalant pride.
"Wow," we emoted, trying not to alienate them by disputing this clearly ludicrous assertion, and genuinely impressed by his ability to believe his own words. Then Michael interrupted us with a well-timed call to dinner.
The food came up through a small hatch on the deck, borne aloft by tan hands and greedily snatched up by white. It tasted excellent, especially considering that Michael, our guide and cook, had only one gas burner and a wok with which to feed 11 passengers and 6 crew. But feed us he did. We ate fried rice, fried noodles, mixed vegies, fish, fruit, and also four chickens who, until their numbers were called, lived their last days in uncomfortable ignorance, cramped into a small wooden crate tied to the stern, rolling with the pitching seas, and not happy about it. I wonder if it would have made them any happier to know that their seasick misery would end at the hands of an Indonesian guy wielding a dull-looking blade, who decapitated them slowly under the bloodthirsty watch of a few white people with a taste for mortal theater. Probably not. But my point is that the food remained delicious throughout the journey, in spite of the fact that that other passengers often found it prudent to play house music during mealtimes, you know, to break up the monotony of the spectacular landscapes, and to mask out that oh-so-annoying sloshing water sound that our clearly antediluvian boat technology was not able to properly curtail.
After dinner I chatted with Michael, who turned out to be pretty cool. Originally from Flores, he'd worked on our boat for the last few of his 24 years. We discussed his dilemma regarding his pregnant 40-year-old Canadian girlfriend, who he knew for only three weeks but who wants to marry him, among other topics. At one point he pointed clandestinely to Vanilla and said in Indonesian, "She is very beautiful, no?" It seems that Michael fell into that category of guys for whom large breasts are a necessary and sufficient condition for beauty, but for the most part, he and I got along pretty well and we spoke Indonesian together, which made me privy to the inside jokes of the crew, an alliance which lasted the rest of the trip.
The night deepened, the stars came out in all their moonless splendor, and before too long there seemed to be a consensus that bedtime had arrived. Of course, not being a fan of consensus - or of early nights - when everyone else crammed themselves onto the raised deck under the awning, I set up camp on the lower deck, under the sky. I lit my candles, read until they died, and went to sleep with plenty of room around me and the milky way above, soothingly eclipsed by the silhouette of the mast rocking back and forth across the sky.
The next day we spent in motion for 10 hours, cutting through the warm green sea, only stopping for lunch and a snorkel before setting off again. As the hours passed... and passed, the spectacular scenery began to grow a bit blasé. We sat, the engines throbbing beneath us. We read. We stood on the lower deck. We sat some more. We napped. We sat some more. There really wasn't a great deal to do. For a while, I watched Vanilla sunbathing, saw her breasts ripple and swell, sloshing and rolling with the motion of the boat, to huge gelatinous microcosms of the sea around us. It wasn't an erotic fixation (it wasn't erotic), only something to look at, but after a while it too grew old, and I sought alternative entertainment. Casting about for something to occupy me, my gaze fell on Jaws and hyphen, sitting together, looking dazed.
They made quite a couple. Both in their mid-late 20's, they perfectly matched each other through their absolute mediocrity, and through their absolute ignorance of it. Of course, if they'd swapped partners withVanilla and Bonk, it likely would have worked out the same - all these people seemed fairly interchangeable to me - but Jaws and hyphen had found each other in the jungles of urban London, and had formed a bond. Don't ask me how... I think of it something in the way that two sheets of glass can become stuck together by water.
Jaws was one of those rare people whom smiling does not compliment. She had more and larger teeth than anyone I've encountered, so many and so large that they had a hard time fitting into her mouth... or into a straight line. Add to this a genuine propensity to smile far too often and for too little reason, and you might be tempted to outlaw humor, or make orthodonture compulsory, or both. Her body looked a good 15 years older than she did, and to see her lounging in an ill-fitting bikini with her face twisted in concentration as she struggled through her book - a book Rick's best friend once read - when he was 13 - formed a grimly amusing sight. Of course, she wasn't always reading. Her specialty (everyone must have a specialty and I was glad she had found something she was good at) was serving tea. the tan hands would pass a pot of tea and some glasses through the hatch, and Jaws would kick into gear. "Anyone loi' a' spaw'-a'-taaay?" she'd screech in a piercing Liza Doolittle voice. I regularly declined.
Her man hyphen, was the least describable person I know of, in that as far as I could discern, he had no characteristics. He was ineffably insipid, bordering on the nonexistent. I don't recall him speaking even once, but that doesn't necessarily imply that he didn't: it's just that everything about him was immaculately unmemorable. Even his face. I literally caught myself wondering at times, "what does he look like? I can't remember." And this while staring right at him. hyphen had reached an advanced stage of blandness which could be impressive, were it detectable, but which masked him away, an utterly unnoticeable presence, a simulacrum of a man, drifting ghostlike around the boat and influencing nothing. More about him I cannot say. He defied observation, much less description. But he and Jaws seemed to have a perfect wordless (but not tacit, which would imply some common understanding (which would imply some understanding)) bond. I thought of it as an acute isosceles relationship, with two equal sides and very little foundation between them.
At this point I feel I should point out that despite what may seem to be less than complimentary portrayals of my boatmates, I did not and do not harbor an active dislike for any of them. In fact I would have enjoyed that - any sort of feeling would have been preferable, I think, to the numbing indifference which they inspired in me - but there was nothing to dislike. there was nothing to like, either, of course. There was just nothing. Fortunately other events and circumstances occasionally conspired to entice my attentions away from my deck companions.
For example, that afternoon someone noticed that every few minutes a huge fish would drift past the boat, floating belly-up on the surface of the water. Assuming that some industrial oceanic toxin was busy terrorizing the region, we called it inquisitively to the attention of our crew, whose eyes widened. "No dead. Good. Good," they said excitedly, and we spent the next half hour living an impromptu comedy with Michael standing at the prow scanning the horizon for fish and directing our captain as he tried to delicately manoeuvre our large boat to each, and a third guy standing on the gunwale in his underpants scooping the fish out of the water with his hands when he could, jumping in after them when he needed to. It developed that the local fishermen like to use dynamite to stun their quarry and then collect them with surface nets... but some, inevitably, float out of reach. And so we hunted, chasing dazed fish around the salty Flores Sea. Quite hilarious, really, worthy of an action soundtrack, and when dinner time arrived we all enjoyed the booming bounty of the sea.
That night we anchored offshore from a small village. Before two long the Brits pulled out their whiskey bottles, the hypercardiac thudding of house music once more saturated all available deck space, and Rick and I found ourselves gazing piningly at the lights, hovering and twinkling like beacons across the water. When we asked permission to take the canoe ashore, just to escape for a bit and have a walk around, one of the crew, a serene-feeling guy named Mursing, offered to join us. We climbed into the tippy tiny craft, paddled ashore, and spent a nice time strolling through the village, a small place with perhaps 200 inhabitants. Mursing walked alongside us quietly, enjoying the night air. He was Sulawesian, and had about him such a secure, stable aura that Rick and I grew to like him immediately. We spoke, but only a little, and good-vibed each other a lot, and took in the sights of the somnolescent town. Stopping at a small warung, we discovered for sale large loaves of Rice Krispy treats: huge bricks of puffed rice, sugar and butter. We decided to try it and bought four, enough to share on the boat as sort of an offering of contact. After wandering a bit further, we paddled home, where we found the Brits still drinking, glassy-eyed, red-faced and loud. We showed them our purchase and offered it to the group, but no one wanted any. So Rick and I ate - and enjoyed - our treats by ourselves, and not too much later everyone called it a night and we went to bed.
Dear reader, if you think you're bored, you have no idea how I felt as again not much happened on the third day of our journey, all our daylight hours spent in transit save for a short break to eat and swim. As usual, we filled our time as best we could with the available materials. The vistas continued to scroll by, a blur of beauty and light. After lunch, all donned suits and masks to take advantage of the little coral cove where we had parked. The captain, a sloppy wild-eyed man who never seemed to have all his coins in their proper slots, pointed to a stream trickling down a hill onto the beach. "Drinking water," he told me. So when I swam, I swam ashore and sure enough, the stream was fresh, clear, and the sweetest water I ever tasted. Just inland I discovered that it widened into a small lake, fed from the mountaintop. I plunged in, and then noticed a pair of fishermen watching me from under a tree which sheltered them from the heat of the day. "Water," they called to me and smiled. "Yes," I replied. "Good," they confirmed, and gave me a thumbs-up. I splashed on for a minute or so and then waving goodbye, returned to the boat.
As it happened, I was not the only one to swim ashore. Our boatmate Moose also visited the pristine white beach... to shit on it. Just like him, really. As the largest, and loudest, of our group, I'd seen enough of his brazen insensitivity not to be surprised by his decision to take a dump on a perfect strip of sand. He was the type who thought it incredibly funny to hold his dirty socks clamped over his girlfriend's nose, despite her frantic attempts to wriggle free. Moose was in fact the member of the group I liked, most... because I liked him least. At least I felt some way about him, mild though it was. He was the kind of guy I'd want fighting for my side in a war, firstly because he was the big strong thick-necked type who could charge blindly over a hill in defence of his country without a thought; and also because it wouldn't overly upset me if he were killed in the process. And, if he happened to bring along his house music-blaring radio, OK, then.
About his girlfriend Darlene, I've not much to say. She seemed rather dumpy and mild, tame enough to uncomplainingly put up with Moose. She wore as a permanent fixture the look which accompanies that specific kind of stupidity which is designed to prevent her full recognition of just how stupid she actually is. I got the feeling that she didn't esteem herself as such a great catch and was therefore used to dominating boyfriends who put her where she felt she belonged. Not that they had an abusive relationship, but it wasn't overly tender, either. And they definitely seemed inured to each other's traits, as solid a bond as any of the other couples. I later learned that they'd met on Trawangan only six days before, which says a lot more about the other couples than them... these people never had anything real to say to one another. They seemed lost in the depths of their own lostness.
Our captain had originally told us we'd be churning our way eastward for 15 hours. But since the water was rougher than he preferred, we hauled up and anchored early, at about 4 pm. We'd make up the difference by leaving earlier the following day, by leaving, in fact, at 2 am. But for the moment the engines were off and we had some peace, just off the northern shore of Sumbawa. Rick and I actually summoned the energy to play frisbee on the beach, until Mursing approached and asked if we wanted to see a nearby village. Since our boat had stopped at an unusual spot, he'd never been there and was interested in having a look himself. Of course we agreed, and so off we three set, Rick and I wearing only shorts and carrying a frisbee, into the brush.
It took some time to reach the town on a footpath littered with occasional horses and cows. The town consisted essentially of a single paved road lined with houses, shops and the odd mosque. And as we walked, people - the entire child population of the village, it seemed, plus some adults - fell in behind us, seeping out of the houses and alleyways to walk along in our wake. I felt sort of how Jesus would have felt walking down the dusty strip of a one-horse western town at high noon. When we'd stop, they'd stop. It was all very mellow and nonaggressive, even quite, and curious. They simply wanted to look at us, a couple of barechested white guys. But for us it felt very strange. We'd visited plenty of towns where the locals stared at us, or pointed, or laughed. But this felt bigger, as though we created no ordinary spectacle, as though we were causing a community disruption all out of proportion with the event. Mursing fell a step back, clearly still walking with us, but also wanting to watch the people. I think he was amused at their response to us. After progressing a kilometer or so down the main road with the forces ever mounting behind us, however, we decided to go back. Not because we were shy - we had achieved a level of focused community attention that far surpassed self-consciousness - but because it's hard to get a good look at a town in its normal phase of being when it's busy interrupting itself to get a good look at you. So counting to three, we wheeled around and headed directly into the accumulated crowd. There must've been 100 people there, and when we spun and dove into the throng, everyone laughed. We retraced our steps through the swirling crowd who again followed us to the town line, where they then stood as though forbidden to cross it, waving as we walked on and away. During our return hike, Mursing filled us in on the why of it all: due to the geographical isolation of that particular village, we were literally the first white people most of its residents had ever seen.
That night everyone pretty much took it easy. Full days of lassitude notwithstanding, the dawn wake-up calls were beginning to leave their mark, and we had a 2 am liftoff to look forward to. After dinner some of the crew invited me to join them on a girl-finding expedition in the village, but not really keen on the kind of girls I suspected they were after and sure that my presence would spoil any inconspicuity they might need, I gratefully declined. By now I'd grown to quite like the crew, certainly more than the other westerners, and the crew were sending signals that they felt the same.
I mentioned the captain before, with his wild, confused, bleezy look and his disoriented loose-bolts vibe. he seemed a little crazy already, but when they all returned from town he was both crazy and drunk. Great. Just what we need for nighttime navigation: a confused, inebriated pilot. And because the other crew members wanted to party on below deck, he slept up top, right next to me. He smelled terribly of low-grade alcohol, and had an annoying habit of shouting, rating and mumbling loudly, in his sleep, and in my ear, making it difficult for me to drift peacefully off. Thus I was still awake but trying to sleep with all my might, at quarter to two when he roused himself. And that's the perfect word to describe it, because I heard him stir, and then, to my incredulous horror, I heard him masturbating. At first I couldn't believe it, but my doubt soon withered in the face of the rhythmic hydraulic soundtrack. I adjusted my covers, sort of a hint to him that perhaps I wasn't as deeply asleep as I might have appeared, but with no effect. He kept pumping, busily lost in his erotic dreamworld. What sorts of fantasies fluttered his sails I didn't want to contemplate. Girls? Pigs? Boats perhaps? ME? I didn't know, I wouldn't ask, but I felt sure I didn't want it going on so nearby. So I grumbled and stirred a little more. And a little more. Finally he took the hint and climbed into the little canoe to finish things off with a moan and a grunt, before at last going to rev up the real, mechanical engines, to get us underway. The entire episode had that predawn dream quality to it, ethereal and haunting, and between its residual vibes, the purring throb of the engines, and the intermittent splashing of the waves on the deck, I didn't sleep for the rest of the night.
Once we got moving we stayed moving. 15 hours moving. By now the long hours on deck seemed more or less routine, and labored by without major incident. In spite of our general incompatibilities, we and the others had grown accustomed to our togetherness, resigned to make the best of everything, and relations had warmed, if not to a rollicking boil, at least to tepid acceptance. As our tans grew darker, our confinement grew lighter, and everyone got along just fine. Myself, Rick, Vanilla, Bonk, Jaws, hyphen, Moose, Darlene... and the Zods.
I know I've said a lot about unmemorable faces and the interchangeability of vacuous spirits, but in no case are these sentiments more appropriate than when discussing the Zods, who share a name because I honestly couldn't tell them apart. Henry Ford would have loved the Zods. One Zod came from Holland, which fact I learned on day 3, and when I asked him to teach me a Dutch word, any word, he couldn't think of one. Later I decided that the word I wanted was "spider", and in posing the question to him, I accidentally addressed the wrong Zod. Fortunately the right Zod was sitting next to the one I asked, and so neither noticed my mistake. The other two Zods were Brits, and although they looked completely different, the didn't look as different as they seemed alike, and as a result I had a hard time keeping them straight. It didn't matter: there's nothing I could've said to one of the Zods that wouldn't apply equally well to the other two, apart from the language question, of course, and so what few interactions I had with whichever Zod it might have been at the time went smoothly and sans faux pas. It's hard to make an error of mistaken identity when there's so little identity to mistake. Most of their time was spent lounging in the sun, snapping pictures of what to me seemed to be uninteresting things to photograph (like sunsets, passing beaches, and each other), and listening to walkmen. The Zods were, like the others, boring but harmless; they seemed happy with themselves and therefore one another, and at least about this I was glad.
When at last we finally halted that evening, we anchored in a lovely cove of a small island. After dinner when the whiskey began its nightly rounds and the music once again spoiled the serenity of the splashing sea, Rick and I decided to escape to the beach. We hadn't built a fire in over a week, and it ached to happen. We tabled the idea, hoping that perhaps a community outing and sitting around a fire would be a fine setting for the evening's reverie as well as a nice bonding experience for the group as a whole, and thinking that everyone could benefit from a few hours ashore. To our surprise, though, no one was even the least bit interested. They were perfectly content to remain on deck with the music and the gas lantern, and saw no reason that a nice wood campfire on the beach, under the stars, and off the boat would be any better. So stupefied but sedulous, we climbed into the canoe with our saved-for-the-proper-occasion-rice-wine, and went to gather wood on our own.
We were eventually joined by almost the entire crew (someone had to stay behind and chaperone the party), and built an absolutely magnificent fire. The flames whipped like flags, the rice wine circulated from home-corked bottles, and the conversation rolled haltingly, as it should by a fire. Ultimately the them-over-there and us-over-here vibe became overevident, and Mursing said, "Y'know, I like you guys, but I don't like those other tourists too much." We assured him that we felt the same, everyone nodded assent, and again all lapsed into the comfortable silence of a mesmerizing campfire, glad of this small vocal confirmation of what had been so tacitly clear. But it was hard to sink into the pensive sobriety of the lapping flame, because beyond it bobbed the lights of the boat, anchored and anchoring us to a place not on this beach, not by this fire, but over there where whoops and raucous eruptions of speech and laughter conspired to deprive us of our peaceful getaway. We talked a bit more, about Indonesian and world politics, about girls ("I don't like girls," confided the captain to me, an assertion which made me shudder in light of recent happenings), and about Michael's troubling ambivalence toward his pregnant Canadian girlfriend, before finally giving in to the intrusion of the party echoing at us across the water, and returning to the boat.
We found the Brits in the midst of a game of charades, drunkenly acting out titles of the lesser type of popular novels and movies. Rick, the crew and I spectated, exchanging occasional looks of sympathy, horror and alliance, until everyone decided to call it a night and we assumed our now regular positions of repose. I watched the stars for a bit and, glancing at the beach, saw our fire still burning steadily away as I drifted off to sleep. It was an excellent fire.
Our last day (originally planned as our second-to-last, but more about that later) contained the bulk of the activity for the trip. We pulled up to Komodo Island at about 10 am, and piled ashore in hopes of glimpsing the infamously endemic dog-mongering deer-mutilating carnivorously captivating Komodo dragons. We got a park guide, a uniformed man armed with a walking stick with which I assumed he was expert at fending off ravenous 8-foot lizards, and quietly filed off into the woods.
The island was gorgeous and it felt invigorating to be tramping amongst trees after so long at sea. Komodo supported a nice mixture of trees, both palmy and deciduous, all towering up over dry scrubby dustland. Our walk was striped by long shadows and short interruptions wherein our guide would point out items of interest. "Monkey," he would point and announce. Or, "bird." One time he paused to indicate a pile of grey dust. "Dragon shit," he declared. As the trail wove through cactus and brush, among wild cockatoos and deer, I felt happy to be in nature and grateful that our group's footsteps pattered louder than their voices.
At last we came to a halt next to an open field of khaki grass. The guide pointed in reverent silence and hissed, "dragon." And sure enough, we could see a dragon-sized, dragon-shaped, dragon-colored lump, lying inert about 20 meters away. We watched and waited for him to move. He didn't. The guide explained, "he's hungry, so he waits for food to come by." Lazy lizard. Rick and I looked at each other, clearly sharing a thought: "aren't we food?", and then hopefully at our group, their cameras blazing: "aren't they food?" I'd've paid cash to watch hyphen being devoured by this huge reptile. Maybe he'd even emote a little bit. And after all, the Komodos have been known to attack people... but I ended up disappointed. Not only did he not lunge, he didn't even stir. Not even when our guide rustled some bushes to alert him to the presence of his expectant audience. He refused to perform. Perhaps he was dead. Or, I mused, merely a stuffed model, posed to appear not-too-menacing by the Parks Department in order to justify their entrance fees. But I couldn't personally prove this theory without risking grievous maiming, so I surveyed the group, ultimately appraising them as all equally expendable, before turning to the nearest Zod. "Provoke him," I said encouragingly. But Zod refused, I shrugged at Rick, and we ambled on in search of more threatening fauna.
Soon we arrived at a small fenced-in area. At first I thought it had been built to house a captive dragon for the edification of park guests, but then I realized that it was meant for us. I pondered the potential for gladiatorial-style dragon-god tourist sacrifices that could take place within its chain-link walls, conjuring up fantastic images of Moose desperately trying to climb his way out with a huge lizard attached jaw-wise to his calf, while Vanilla and Bonk huddle coweringly in a corner, and hyphen standing unmolested in the center of the cage, his impactless presence unnoticed by the ravenous beasts. Mmmm. Unfortunately, however, the pen had been designed for our protection, not our immolation. Until the park had abandoned its practise of feeding the dragons in 1994, this was where they had done so, and it remains a high dragon risk area. We did see one from this safe haven, a 3 meter long caudate saurian, like a giant gecko, lumbering around aimlessly, as though he knew that he was supposed to be looking for something very very important, but had forgotten what and was starting to grow bored with the search: such are the woes of being out-evolved by the rest of the world. The air rang with the wheeze of auto-winders and shutter-clicks as he gracefully walked by, stopped meditatively for a moment, and then set off slowly in a completely different direction, before turning yet again and continuing on his indifferent trajectory, eventually weaving proudly out of sight with his head raised and his tail dragging placidly behind without a thrash. That episode concluded the Komodo show as well as the quiet hour, and we all marched nosily back to the dock ready for lunch, and afterward for Rinca Island.
At Rinca we were supplied with another guide, wielding another dragon-proof walking stick. He led us winding down a similar path to that on Komodo. The two islands lying so close together, the terrain looked largely the same, except that whoever had be given the assignment of designing Rinca seemed to have had a fetish for tall, Dr. Seuss-style palm trees, and an obsessive penchant for overly rolling green hillsides. The result had turned out too soft and scenic to provide the dragons with a properly rugged backdrop, so the designer's supervisor had simply turned a lot of the grass brown, put some snakes and thorny scrub on the island to spice it up a bit, and reassigned the designer to the Los Angeles Area Project, for which his skills were more appropriate. For this outing I went barefoot, carrying my shoes with me, letting my feet bathe in the solidity of terra firma. We tramped on in relative peace (shhh! Be Veeewy kwiet... we-ah hunting dwagons!) until our guide motioned for us to follow carefully behind him, and strayed off the path into a brushy field. He stealthily led us around a big rock, then cautiously beckoned us to peer around the monolith's edge. And there, to our stunned bemazement, posing in all its pensive glory... stood a water buffalo, the most common animal in Asia, quietly coughing up something to chew on, and ridiculously unaware that he had an audience watching him do so. After a few minutes of this bovine spectation, during which Jaws snapped photos as though she were popping pills, we turned and wound our way back to the trail, totally pumped for whatever wonder next awaited us.
As we lolled along, I found myself walking next to one of the Zods. It must have been the Dutch Zod, for in a burst of higher awareness he pointed down at my feet and said, "bqzxn ftrtn," or something like it, which I recognized to be the Dutch equivalent of "barefoot." Excellent. "So," I asked him, trying to integrate this new information with what I had learned in lesson one, "how would you say 'barefoot spider'?" Zod goggled, taken aback. "Well, but," he sputtered, "you... you wouldn't say that." "Weelll," I countered, "s'pose you had to. Couldja?" "But... but Dutch people don't say that!" he protested, frightened and bewildered. "Look, it's very simple," I told him, growing exasperated. I explained about adjectives and nouns, about modification, and, ironically enough, that if you have a sentence formula, the content is more or less completely interchangeable and need not convey any ostensible meaning or depth. Finally he relented, telling me how to say "barefoot spider" and self-surprised at the simplicity of his words. "Hmmm," he muttered to himself, "what an odd sentence!"
At that juncture, the others stopped to take group photos. Assuming they didn't care if I appeared anyway, I offered to do the actual picture taking. As I clicked through the stack of cameras they all eagerly thrust at me, I did my best to insure that for each shot the camera was tilted at just the right angle to capture the skewed aesthetic of the moment. I hope they appreciated my care.
But still we hadn't encountered any dragons on Rinca, and for the rest of our hike, we wouldn't. We did pause for a moment while our guide poked at a large pile of grass with his stick, prodding it searchingly. "Dragon?" we asked. He shook his head. "Vipers," he said. Then indeed we saw that snakes the exact color of the grass were slithering out and away as he intruded upon their nest. Still thirsty from the morning's dry bloodwell, I wanted to watch them snacking on someone, but the group balked, the guide shrugged, and we walked back to the guidepost without further incident. As it happened, while we'd been out spying on cows and provoking serpents, a dragon had walked right through the park encampment. Oh, well. We returned to the boat.
There Michael confronted us with our options: we could sleep here, snorkel in the morning, and then conclude the trip in Labuan Bajo; or we could make the 1_ hour journey to Flores now, sleep on the boat only if we wanted to, and snorkel in the morning before calling it quits. Simple enough. But the group mentality precluded any useful decision; either no one among them possessed an opinion, or no one shared what opinion they had. They all just kept looking to each other for help, living corpses with mass but no will. Our position was clear: Labuan Bajo now, off the boat immediately, don't come back ever; but we didn't feel right in pressing it on the others. Eventually Michael just decided the matter for himself (in our favor), and since no one raised any objection, off we went.
Three interesting things happened in that last short ride. Rick caught a fish with a line he had tied to the back of the boat, a beautiful silver animal with lots of fins. Michael took it below, promising he'd sneak it to us cooked, since it couldn't provide for everyone. Michael was cool. Happy with that arrangement, we started to ready our belongings for departure, and found ourselves more or less alone on the back deck with Moose. We started talking to him and actually had an interesting conversation. He turned out to be a solicitor, and we talked about law, taxes and social services in the UK and the US, comparing them to each other and to Indonesia. It was heartening to discover his latent individuality, and a valuable lesson in crowd psychology, that this man, now visibly intelligent on his own, could in the presence of his friends be reduced to a puerile buffoon incapable of distinguishing between farts and comedy. This conversation gave us hope, however remote, for the others.
And thirdly, we passed bat island at dusk, perfectly timed to see a huge cloud of thousands of bats making their crepuscular migration from their daytime sleep spot to the hunting land ashore. We marvelled at their grace, these winged foxes, flapping their furry webbed arms so steadily across the sky. It seemed so apt a summation of our adventure, that these animals, mammals like us, granted the gifts and freedoms of autonomy and flight, should choose to group so densely, moving in a single mass, unthinkingly through their lives. They seemed satisfied with this, however, and like our group of companions, I was glad of their contentment with the mass mentality. As we continued to slice toward Flores, I caught sight of a pair of bats who had separated from their flock, headed in a different direction entirely, beating the air without effort. Perhaps they didn't like their brothers, or maybe they were outcasts, but I preferred to muse that they had found a different source of food, an alternative form of nourishment, for which the others simply had no taste, and which they therefore pursued alone. "Good for them," I thought to myself.
An hour later we docked at Labuan Bajo. Everyone piled off to go for beer, leaving Rick and I to enjoy our clandestine seafood, offer the crew warm goodbyes and tips, and step into the streets of Flores, free men.
Looking back, I think I enjoyed the trip. Nothing actually ever went wrong, except what could have gone more right. I spent a lot of time with people very unlike me, which must be educational, besides the tiny bit of Dutch I learned, and the single irrelevant fact about Wales' illustrious crematory history, which nonetheless could come in handy if ever I want to impress a Welshman with my knowledge of his homeland. But the most important and surprising thing of all is that throughout our seemingly interminable time cramped together on deck, while the sea tossed our boat like the splinter that it is, no one even once vomited. So I guess it really couldn't have been that bad after all.
It's not even nine yet. I don't know why I'm awake but I am. I'm sitting in a bungalow café waiting for my matutinal cup of fuel, looking out at the bay. Early light is an odd phenomenon, so soft, so horizontal. It fits morning well, it's misty light, too powdery and warm to reveal distant detail. It obscures vivid colors. Like the dreams I cannot see, cannot remember, enshrouding my mind in a tissue wrapper.
The bay is full of islands, tiny plops of land rising from the placid water like icebergs. Icebergs, convention tells us, are nine-tenths below the surface, huge hidden transparent menaces drifting calmly around the globe and showing only their tips. But these craggy protuberances before me now, these periscopic projections, are tips of something much more lithic, something I love.
"Water" seems to me a weak word for the sea around here. The Latin "aqua" much more hits the mark. It's a splotchy mass of blue-green tones, darkened in places by the rough ripples of current, lighter in the smooth patches, positively glowing around the coral, sweeping up to the white lips of beach, where the sand impinges upon the higher scrubland. In the distance the many tones converge and average to a perfect sky blue which melds seamlessly into the horizon, leaving me with the impression that the distinction between sea and sky is purely illusory, that the only two true substances are mass and ether, body and mind, the sturdy brown of the land and the hazy paleness of everything else. It's all the same thing really: energy. Where I see blue, the gas and liquid phases, the energy is more or less liberated, while the solid land concentrates and clumps it into mass, matter, like a knot in a muscle that has yet to be worked out. Of course the ideal, energy's complete freedom, suffuses everything, illuminates everything, an odd phenomenon at this time of day, so soft, and horizontal.
But ah, my coffee has arrived.