scared thrilled scared thrill scared thrilled

I find most things in life both scary and thrilling. I suppose I should hope it's always this way, but sometimes it feels like an awful lot of work.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Lost at sea

I made the news! I think it sounded something like this:
´´a small boat transporting the fishing authority~s new ice making machine ot the island of Orakan lost power yesterday somewhere between Bissau and the Bijaogos. They are presumed to be in distress. Any boats in the area tonight please keep a watch for the stranded landing craft, its crew and its faluable payload. They are all presumed lost at sea until they are found.´
Not sure if that was exactly it, but I guess its lcose. I know from tlaking to Titi that there was no mention on the radio fo the tagalong Canadian. International calamaties in the making are best kept hush hush if possible...
Like the best journalists in the biz, I had anticipated the story, embedded myself with those destined to make the news and rode the whole lot out, always ready to record the events for posterity.. actually I spent mos tof hte 27 hours trying to remember rhte words to Gordon Lightroot~s touching ode to another lost boat, the Yarmouth Castle.
My dad started with a neat fryup of eggs, garlic, butter and tomatoes, eaten with bread. I was cooking, and wondered while I was shaking the pan back and forth if I wasn~t making the very same meal my dad might be making in his eastern European abode. Chances are good I was. He loves a good fryup, though the tomatoes were my own addition, taken from the englihs tradition, and might have thrown jake a bit. After breakfast I walked down to the docks and started asking around for a boat to the Bijagos. I was told it was impossible and that I would have to wait for the big boat which leaves only on Friday, retuning to Bissau on Sunday. TIA. This is Africa. Sometimes TIA means you jus thave to suck it up and wait for a day, a week, whatever, but sometimes it also means that if you just keep looking for a solution you wil eventually find one, probably in a manner and sense of hygiene\saftey unimaginable anywhere but Africa. So I kept asking, dialogue bing extremely difficult thankjs to my no Portuguese. Eventualy someone told me there was a boat going to Orakan, a small island near Orango, and that it was leaving at 1pm. I was told Orakan was not where I wanted to go as it has no auberge, no shops and no Blancos. I said this was fine and ran off to buy enough food to last me for a week or so. I fel t if I could just get tot he islands I would be fine, even sans infranstrucruet. The guineans are noted for their hospitality and I knew they wouldn~t let me starve. In this fine weather I could easily sleep under a tree or on the beach, making a tent of my mosquito net and my turban. I don~t eat much, so I igured the two baguettes, 2 cans of sardines, two tins of poulet presse and a roll of biscuits could easily last me five days, a week if I need it to. Oh, nd a jar of green olives. Yum. I was taken to teh part of the pier from which the boat was meant to leav. There were three others waiting there, so I sat next to them and got out my book.
Eventualy a 30 foot landing craft, rusting, battered and powered by a 150 yamaha outboard pulled up with a large square box wrapped in plastic. This turned out to be the congilateur, about 3 metres square, it was being transported to Orakan to help make ice for packing the fish caught by the Bijagan fishermen so they could transport it to market in Bissau. The others jumped onto the reasy old boat and I waited for a surly nod from the captian before jumping on board as well, with my pack on my back and my guitar in my hand. In case I needed another reminder that when travelling, light is right, here it was... my 10 kilos plus food was just ok. Anything more and I would have been in the drink.
We cast away our lines around 1pm and set off from Bissau, leaving the pier with its listing trawlers still tied fast, holed and sinking lower every year, abandoned long ago and left to rot. Amazing to have a working pier with the rusting hulks of shipwrecks scattered between the crumbling rock and the working trawlers. Like a port for ghosts and people at the same time. A port on the River Styx. We headed up the coast for a few miles before turning west into the open sea. I was amazed at the slowness of our progress but the captain assured me the trip was a simple five hours. I spent part of the time working on adding some things to the leather and sea shell charm I had bought that day in the market. I had some help from the first mate, a powerful and sinewy man who himself was wearing a magnificent waistband charm of leather and shells. No one on board spoke a word of English or French, so we made do with hand gestures and a few words of Spanish. ]
It was about five oclock when the motor started to give its first unhealthy rumbles, and 6 when we finally cut power and threw anchor into the shallow green water. The sun hung low in the sky and the suggestion of the Guinean coastline was just barely visible to the East. Through sign language I was led to believe that there was water in teh valves of the Yamaha and that we would have to just wait. To the great worry of the crew I took the opportunity to go for a swim. The guide book had said something like this: ¨Protected for ages by vicious currents and treacherous sandbanks the Bijagos have remained virtually untouched by colonial and even continental African influence.¨The part I had focused on, of course, had been the `virtually untouched`bit, but I was soon reminded of the rest of the sentence. We had been pitching in the rocking waves for hours, a good grip needed as the swells bucked bulging and unpredictable. As a lifelong swimmer I hadn~t been too concerned about the prospects of a dip. Certainly, in my first dive and splash from the bow I was worry-free, rejoicing in the feel of the cool sea washing over my sweaty skin. When I first surfaced though, I was instantly reminded of the guidebook~s warning, : vicious currents and treacherous sandbars. I emerged already far from the boat, and I could see I was being pulled quickly from its anchored location. A few minutes of strong, almost frantic swimming brought me back to the stern, where I looked up to the worried glances of the others. On my first attempt to climb back into the boat I was kinocked back into the sea by a lifting surge. The boat risthing high above me, like being in the bottom of an elevator shaft and watching a departing car. The second try saw success, with the help of the first mate, and I climbed aboard pretending not to have been worried at all. I dried in the setting sun, holding fast to the pitching boat.
We tried the motor again in the last light of the setting sun. We were at maybe a quarter power and continued this way, sailing completely blind into the dark night. I had taken a bearing of the barely visible coast on my compass, and saw we were still heading south by southwest. There was nowhere to lie down on the greasy old boat, but I eventually found a gas can to sit on, leaned against my pack and fell asleep.
It doesn~t matter if you]ve never run aground in a boat before, the first time you feel it you know exactly what it is. I had fallen asleep to teh constant and varied slap of the hull on the waves, and had a good feeling for the bottom dropping out, for the motion of hte falling boat being smoothly arrested and transferring its energy into upward buoyancy. I woke on the first slap of the hull on something solid, sand, la sable. We lifted and slapped again, again, the waves swinging the bow around, and we were stuck fast. The grumbling motor was killed instantly and I helped the first mate drop anchor. As the tide was on its way in the only thing to do was to rest on the anchor until we were lifted enough to stumble our way off the sand a back into the open sea. This took some hours, I suppose, and eventually we continued with our grumbling motor and tired and frightened crew.
I had been carrying the terrifying impression that I was more prepared to pilot this vessel than its captain. There were no charts on board. No radio. Mine was the only compass and my headlamp was stronger than the only other light on the boat, a windup flashlight. We were a bat flying in the middle of the grand canyon, certain there was something out there but unable to see it until we were already upon it. We ran aground two more times during hte night and eventually just droped anchor to wait for the dawn. In the morning light we again started to limp our way west. We were met finally by another boat which towed us to Orakan. We were greeted by the entire village, its matriarchal chieftess performing a dance in the shallow water where she took her breasts out of the billowing folds of her dress and held and pulled them this way and that. She was joined, stomping and splashing in the water, by the other women leaders of the village, the children singing, naked on the sand, and the men standing under the shade of the plams. We were all kissed with vigour, sailors rescued from the clutches of the sea, but I think the biggest thanks were given for the safe arrival, at long last, of the congilateur, the magic giant ice box.
I debarked happily and settled myself with some nice young guys who offered me a mat in their mud hut. I ate fish and rice with a man named Augusta and his family. I intended to stay until the next boat to... somewhere else. That boat brought me here, to Bubaque, a town of maybe 1000, the biggest in the Bijagos. I passed a wonderful day alone on the white expanse of beach on the island~s windward side, accompanied only by three cows and four kids who traded me cashews for biscuits and who I, one by one, managed to capture and toss, laughing, into the sea (the kids, not the cows). I am now in a bar, about to leave for the restaurant which serves spaghetti with hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise. After this I will probably go straight to bed. Ciao for now.


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