Between Two Worlds

Two weeks ago today, May 27, we came back across the lagoon from Omoka, where we had completed all the necessary paperwork for our departure from Tongareva. Once all the fees for our stay in the Cook Islands had been paid we were given our clearance certificate. This simple piece of paper is an important document, also often called a zarpe. It was presented today to the custom official together with our identity documents and the ships papers in a neon lit office deep inside the guts of the grey concrete admin building of the Pago Pago Container Port. Without it we would have been grinding our teeth against the bureaucracy of this small protectorate of capitalism, where like almost everywhere human beings are being trained to give more importance to what’s written on paper than to what is happening before their eyes. It is after all just a thin sheet of pressed and bleached paper pulp marked with black ink and infused with some meaning, supposedly confirming that we are reliable and obedient citizens and have complied with all the rules and regulations, and surely most importantly, that we have paid whatever has been demanded by the wit of the authorities of our last port and therefore must be likely to bleed equally without protesting nor clenching teeth towards the material welfare of this new place of temporary residence. What this little form with a serious looking stamp and signature on it really does is underline the distrust amongst us and it allows the human trickery to continue. It is well known amongst the seafaring folks of the present times that American Samoa levies a hefty one hundred dollar departure tax and if you should dare to refuse paying such an outrageous extortion you will be sailing away without any clearance certificate in your possession. Your next port is guaranteed to be a regulatory nightmare from which you might not wake up anymore. Strangely, or better: interestingly enough none of the many officials we have to visit today and entertain with our waterlogged smiles mentions or even hints at that mysterious fee, nor any of the others that will also have to be paid before being able to go on our way. Warm, welcoming smiles and desperately friendly faces are all we get to see.

Things of artificial importance reign throughout the human realm, kept aloft by military muscles of trigger friendly soldiers, listening intently to the orders streaming down from those who sip the curdled cream, who sniff the distilled spirit, who ride the roaming rage of all their subdued subordinates, enjoying in the meantime immense pleasures and exuberant luxuries. Who amongst us has the courage to slap their bloated butts, to twist their tortured tongues, to scold their smothered selves, to strike their stiff stance and to blow their feeble cringe for power to smithereens? Of course, you are supposed do all that only while bravely looking into their eyes serenely and clearly understanding why they are doing what they are, feeling intensely who they are, so that once we’ve wiped them out of our way and left them crying foul with Barbie tears, we will not do exactly the same, we will, after slurping maybe two three sips of the finest tea from gold rimmed Dutch porcelain cups ourselves, not become like them.

That complicated and so shamefully twisted human realm started to matter less and less soon after we had waved goodbye to our four-months-friends in Tetautua on the East rim of the Tongareva atoll. The flat and peaceful waters begun to rustle under Aluna’s hulls while after a slow and somber sail-by along Rio’s postmodern concrete dock, Papa Henry’s newly enlarged family complex, Papa Saitu’s beach front hut and finally the temporary school installation in the community center, where the kids in their blue white uniforms danced and screamed, I spun the wheel to lead our vessel westward. While crossing the lagoon and dodging it’s many coral heads little wavelets came licking along our waterline. Before we knew it we had squeezed out of the narrow pass on the West side of the atoll and our land of plenty begun to shrink and slowly sink below the horizon in our wake. Sea and air both were very gentle with the exception of a sizable swell rolling in from the South. Puffy trade wind clouds slowly streamed above us just barely pushing Aluna’s big main sail along at a comfortable speed. The imaginary straight line from Tongareva to Pago Pago on American Samoa’s Tutuila Island passes in between two of the other Northern Cook Islands, Manihiki and Rakahanga, so close to Manihiki in fact that we expected to be able to see it. Towards noon on the third day out I was checking the GPS for our position and noticed that Manihiki should by now be less then 12 miles away, slightly off to port. I turned my head to the left and there it was! Barely visible over the wave trains disappearing in front of us towards the horizon sat a dark blue ribbon of palm fronds. I decided to alter course just slightly, so as to skirt the atoll at maybe a mile a half distance and by two o’clock we’re passing the binoculars back and forth, checking out the features of yet another solitary outpost of humanity. Manihiki has an established pearl farming industry and therefore is quite a bit wealthier on a material level than Tongareva. The houses looked definitely more modern, some seemed to be built on stilts inside the lagoon. Pearl farming is hard work, so to live out there over your plantation makes a lot of sense. After morning coffee you do your diving off your veranda! The oysters are picked up from the slopes of the coral heads, brought up to the surface where an artificial seedling is inserted with a special tool. Then they are placed back on the bottom for maybe an year or more, where after, if you’re lucky enough to have nature on your side, you’re rewarded with a beautiful, shiny pearl that you can pluck out of the shell and put on the market. The whole procedure seems to be quite a hit and miss affair, you must be cultivating the oysters by the hundreds to get a dozen or so of pearls. Manihiki does not have a navigable pass into the lagoon, so the only way to stop here would be to anchor on the fringing reef off the leeward side. The weather was benign enough for such a venture, but unfortunately we had used up all our allowable time in the Cook Islands, so once the coconut stringed wonderland had moved aft of our beams, the binoculars saw less and less use until this little world too begun sinking below the curvature of the sea’s horizon. All this sight seeing sure made for an exciting day in the honestly quite monotonous routine of the ocean passage we were to settle back into now for almost a week.

The sun was half way down to it’s resting place on the horizon and like most afternoons we were chasing the shadows of the main sail on the foredeck to do a little siesta time. Laying on my back to contemplate the clouds above or face down and listen to the swashing water below, I was feeling suspended in between those two worlds of constant change providing a soft slide towards slumber that washed away many pains of the past. Escaping the total white-out of sleep from which I would come back groggy and grumpy, I sat back up, crossed my legs in a lotus and led my leaden eyes along the horizon curve, where again the two apparently separate worlds of water and air came together as one and the same. Reading the rolling waves, following their direction, watching them cross, emphasize and sometimes cancel each other’s paths, anticipating the motion they will subject our tiny living platform to once they decided to pass underneath us, and counteract subconsciously the disturbances of balance with subtle adjustments of muscle tension of my own physical vehicle here and there to remain upright in my humble and meandering walk through life. Raising my meditative gaze only slightly I was now intrigued by the bulging cauliflower clouds indicating blobs of warm air drifting upwards into the colder air mass above it. Condensation of water droplets resist the passage of light, reflect it in bright white where facing the sun and accumulate somber patches of menacing grey on their underside. Those blobs of raising air are worth a dedicated and intimate study of their own. Their life cycle of many hours can start out of nowhere in the clear blue sky as a tiny puff of white curling upwards, slowly expanding and if the conditions are just right, growing into monsters of black darkness, pouring rain and lashing winds that can quickly spoil your day by ripping apart your sails! It is good practice to keep your eyes tuned to the eye of the wind from where such an onslaught would come upon you. When you see them there towering a mile or two high pushing into the upper atmosphere where they meet winds of different directions, their underbelly now of the darkest imaginable grey and curtains of rain descending down to the sea and slowly coming towards you, you should be on high alert with your hands never too far from the brailing lines to close the sail and protect it from the howling winds that can pick up in an instant.

Nothing of that sort was happening that afternoon, the puffy clouds were all contained in a manageable smallness, and once the sun was four fingers of the outstretched hand above the horizon the drama of color started to unfold. Time to cook diner but also time for immense visual pleasures soaking in bursts of orange, shades of pink, explosions of blood red, all splashed with the hands of a master on a canvas of pastel blue. We make a sport of it to time the serving of diner just right to have a go at it right after the culmination of that light show, once the disk of burning light flushed out its might and with an imaginary hiss had sunk into the darkening sea. Just enough light remained to be able to see what we were eating and after the last bites the first little sparkling lights peeked out of the last shades of high-rise pinks.

The stars of the highest magnitude were the first ones to appear, the ones in the East a long time before the ones in the West where the retreating daylight only slowly lost its grip to the darkness. In this twilight zone the constellations were easily recognized. The famous Southern Cross stood almost upright and therefore pretty much due South of us, below it the two bright stars, Alpha and Beta Centauri, the hind leg of the feisty centaur’s equine part and even further down just above the horizon the Southern Triangle. To the West of the Southern Cross sailed an enormous ship, composed of four constellations, the keel, the stern, the sail and the compass, all pivoting on brilliant Canopus, the second brightest star of all the million and one twinklers, and surrounded by a flying fish and a swordfish, while a dove trails its wake. Deeper into the night, only one hour later, we’re still gazing up into the heavens. For Beatriz some of those distant points of luminescence are placeholders for the family members she has recently lost. To the ancient navigators of these Pacific waters they were guiding lights and a map of supreme precision with ways etched amongst them to find home and distant, never before settled lands. Before our necks got too stiff and sore we decided it’s time to hunker down for the night. On passage I sleep on the watch bunk in the superbly designed deck pod, where I can raise from a superficial slumber every hour or so and scan the horizon for any form of menace to our peaceful journey, like fishing boats and container ships ready to run us down, or a dark squall sneaking up from behind, eager to drench us with sheets of fresh water and whip us with nasty gusts. Beatriz went down below to lay lonely in our love nest, but herself also set to peak out of the companion way as often as she manages to wake, hoping that both our instincts combined are well tuned to the harsh reality of the sea, enough to get sufficient rest, but become aware of any danger before it’s to late to make our way around it.

Each time I woke during the night the Southern Cross had walked a little stretch on its clock like path around the dark zone void of any noticeable star that contains the imaginary point we call the South Pole, the center of rotation around which the heavens turn. I had no need for consulting a mechanical or electronic watch to know what part of the night I happened to stumble upon. The celestial clock took me by its many hands and each time I stood up on wiggly legs from the dizziness of sleep, the projected end of darkness had come a wee bit closer. Once the mighty scorpion was dipping its tweezers into the sea and in Aluna’s wake two bright planets had risen, I knew that the twilight of dawn would soon follow their trails. One last hour of slumber, one last chance to push away the ever-present tiredness at sea! The next time I woke the burning disk of fire had already gained enough strength to make me leave the soft and comfy cushions for good and start the many chores of the brand new day. The machete dug into the husk of a light brown coconut, a paring knife with its claw like little blade bit into the biggest of the three eyes at the top of the peeled nut to make a straw sized hole. Put upside down on a cup the sweet and nourishing milk poured out of the nut to the gargling sound of bubbles of air streaming in. Another hefty strike of the bush knife split it in half and now our galley’s sturdiest spoon wedges curved slabs of bright white meat off the hard, dark brown shell. Depending on the age of the nut that meat is anywhere from tender and jelly like to hard and brittle. That day’s nut was old enough for its meat to resist being simply cut up into little pieces and I had to take out our rusty grater and work the meat through for it to become fit for adding to what remained of our breakfast oatmeal, once we had run out of oat. Flower now added consistency to the brew and the coconut together with the dried bananas gave it a hint of what it used to be when living on islands with plenty of fresh fruit. Coffee and toasted bread that had been baked in our super duper pressure cooker complemented our first meal of the day sitting in the cozy cocoon of the deck pod under the sun shade I had put up once the meal was prepared.

The morning hours then went by quickly doing little chores, setting out the trolling lines, adjusting the sheets of the sails and airing the ones of the beds, stretching the limber limbs of the rested bodies as much as the constant pitching and rolling of the boat allowed, washing the dishes with buckets of clear sea water hauled up from the hatch in the center deck, reading instructions and studying maps of our next port, trying to memorize as much of that as possible, and many other little things. Time flies sometimes even through monotony and before we knew it soon it was noon, or better five minutes to. Time to turn on the GPS and establish our noon position. Gone are the times of complicated measurements with a sextant, hair splitting calculations and doubtful plotting on maps. At the push of a button the little gadget gave us not only our present position on the earths longitude and latitude grid, but also our travelled course and distance run, the heading needed to reach our destination and the remaining miles to cover, even the exact, location adjusted times the sun and moon were supposed to rise and set on that particular day, human technology for once a blessing without disguise!

Around one thirty Beatriz’ stomach lining started to secrete enough juices to make her descend into the galley, where she issued yet another taste bud tweezing version of her lunch soups. Even though downgraded from miso paste to common bouillon stock and from real potatoes to mashed potato puree powder, it was still a treat and made sure to keep us going through the rest of yet another day out in the big blue yonder, where the human mind is free to simply be and wonder what all this constant eruption of life around it is truly supposed to mean.

In the morning of the eighth day three humps of land emerged on the Southern horizon through the veil of twilight. The Manau Islands belong to American Samoa but once again we’re stifled by laws and legislations and not allowed to land. In order to set foot on those mysterious volcanic remnants we would have to go and clear in at Pago Pago, then beat our way back against the wind for eighty miles. We left them slowly behind our beams, but now the calculations of our estimated arrival time suggested that we would get to Tutuila Island and Pago Pago harbor at nightfall. We therefore reduced Aluna’s sails to a minimum during the day, to go really slow and then hove to during the night. Only at five in the morning of the next day, May 27, did Aluna spread her wings again and by sunrise lush green mountains were quickly coming closer. The orange gloom during the night emanating from the little landmass ahead had brought a sternly clear message to us still out at sea: This is a place where modern petrol based civilization rules. It still was a shock to see the little island girdled by an asphalt road along the entire coastline with shiny cars of the latest model busily zipping forth and hence. We passed between the main island and the little islet of Anu’u and sailed along the Southern coast, admiring white foaming breakers crashing onto the black volcanic rock. Pago Pago harbor is termed the finest natural harbor of the South Pacific and consists of a fjord like groove that cuts a good two miles into the land, almost bisecting Tutuila Island, bent ninety degrees about half way in so that any swell that might dare to roll into it breaks harmlessly before getting to the anchorage. Coming around the aptly named Breakers Point we were now at the mouth of that wonder of geology, sailing once again the fickle winds of protected waters, our motors again, quite possibly once and for all, out of commission. A busy container port on the South shore, a tuna cannery with a dock for fishing boats along the Northern rim and the yacht anchorage at the very end of the bay close to the river mouth that feeds into it, they were all waiting for us. Under sail alone we did feel a bit nervous, vulnerable, patching up our shaky self-confidence with: We’ve done this all before!

One Response to “Between Two Worlds”

  1. Mario Says:

    Interesting little paper, the clearance certificate. Aimed to make sure one does not leave behind assorted messes, e.g. unpaid bills, cleanup, damage to property or persons…

    In a connected world, that will likely be replaced by a carefully nurtured ‘Positive Feedback’ score ala Ebay or Yelp.

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