Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Aneityum

June 21, 2016


We’re bobbing up and down in the cross swells on the leeward side of Aneityum and the mist shrouded peaks of this mountainous island are disappearing slowly in the distance. Soon we’ll be catching the cool and resolute winter trades here in the higher tropical Southern latitudes, and before their rocky white horses will wipe away our memories for good, let me sieve through the remaining morsels of remembrance, leftover traces of our initial meeting of the Vanuatu people. Our direction of travel takes us from the outer islands towards the capital, a great privilege reserved to seafaring voyagers here in this island world, allowing us to see the gentle first and then the harsh. From the very day we arrived in the wide bay of Anelcauhat we were taken under the wings of Kenneth who just couldn’t keep his fascination with our unusual vessel under wrap. He jumped on board and told us with pride that he had built a traditional canoe himself with the same type of sails as our big crab claw sails. As we soon found out during our first visit ashore he has good reason to be friendly with foreigners. He is in the hospitality business and is the proud owner of a little island resort at one end of town right along the beach, where a half dozen small huts huddle around a carefully manicured coral walkway, and guests can stay and relax while on the island on business or holiday. His friendly and generous ways we hope to see more of as we move up the island chain.

The source of the apparent wealth of the town folks with their rows upon rows of sizeable fiberglass skiffs powered by high horse power outboards parked all along the beach became clear the second day after our arrival. A shoe box shaped colossus had parked itself just beyond the reef at the entrance of the bay in the wee hours of morning and by the time I had clambered out of bed a steady stream of orange water taxies was ferrying Australian and Asian tourists to the little island to the South, which at their very service had been re-baptized from its traditional name of Island to the non-descript moniker of “Mystery Island”. Another steady stream of locals in those same fiberglass skiffs was flowing across the bay to the left and right of us to meet the onslaught of pink and yellow skinned cruise ship denizens in search of the ultimate South Sea adventure. A veritable amusement park had been created around the grassy airstrip on that coral island with prices marked in Australian dollars on brown cardboard pieces. On offer were snorkel tours, transparent kayak rentals, short sailing stints on traditional outrigger canoes, hair braiding, relaxing massages and a special photo opportunity for the tourists to look out of a staged island cannibal cooking pot into the eager camera of a loving family members or the trigger happy smartphone of a jittery honeymoon co-conspirator. 
Once or sometimes twice a week this spectacle unfolds and must inject a good deal of cash into the coffers of local households, not only of this little town, but as we were told also of the many smaller villages up and down the coast. In the evening the traffic flowed in opposite directions and right before sunset after having hoisted the couple dozen water taxis antlike up along its vertical sides the cubistic behemoth belched out a hollow horn blast across the rippled waters, cranked up its anchor and soon disappeared into the freshly falling darkness. Once back on their home turf the locals seem quite happy to continue living in their palm thatch covered houses with their woven bamboo walls and continue to tend their beautiful gardens, where cassava, taro, yams and kumaras grow in between banana and papaya trees transforming the dark volcanic soil into nutritious food as it has for thousands of years before. 

It’s hard to put a wrap on the sustainability and the overall carbon footprint of this economic interchange between the first and third world. On the surface it all seems astonishingly benign and maybe the Vanuatu people are blessed with a natural happiness that allows them to bridge the gap of arrogant wealth and humbling poverty. The smart phone and selfie craze that has certainly gotten the better of them seems less stringent here than in other parts of the modern world. The bright white smiling teeth in the dark and fuzzy haired faces does much to soften the sting of our egocentric malaise with the ecological collapse luring just around the corner.

Instant Yuloh

March 17, 2014

There was one more thing slung on top of the canoe during that tugboat expedition at the end of the last post, just to push the oddball-look a bit closer to the edge of absurdity. In our age where for fetching a bottle of milk at the corner store we use a petrol powered car and to peel carrot we need an electric machine I do try to make a point of using my able body whenever possible, bare and without help of artificially produced energy. So there I was, like a madman paddling into the wind with two thirty foot long glassed bamboo spars in tow in the water behind me and a giant yuloh strapped onto the slim hull of the outrigger canoe, and just to push the envelope a little bit further I solemnly put the paddle down and fumbled for the mobile phone in the pockets of my pants. I wanted to call Beatriz, who was on board Aluna out there on the mooring, to have her take a couple pictures of my regal arrival. This had to be done quickly before the wind pushed the canoe’s bow over to the side so much it would be impossible to straighten it back with the drag of the load attached to her sterns. Unfortunately the call didn’t get through and the phone almost slid out of my hands into the water. No visual evidence of this rather unusual event is therefore preserved for posteriority.

What’s a yuloh, my friend Tony asked, when I texted him after the successful completion of the task. There was no way I was going to give him a detailed description thumbing on the numerical buttons of my not very smart phone, so he got the short version. Chinese sculling oar! Since I’m sitting in front of a standard computer keyboard now, you’re lucky. You get the full version.

The Chinese have been a seafaring nation for millennia. While maybe not precisely to the tune of the fantastic accounts of Mr. Gavin Menzies they have come up with some nifty gadgets that make the harsh life on the seas a bit more feasible. Most mariners of European decent when using their own muscle power to propel themselves across the surface of the water row with their back turned towards where they are heading and waste a good percentage of their energy in repositioning the blade of their oars and their upper body to the beginning of the power stroke on each and every cycle of their art. I have tried every possible contortion of my neck and upper spine to make reasonably straight progress towards a desired destination in that way. I therefore early on in my maritime career opted to resolve the first one of these rather serious obtrusions by adopting the style of our brothers living in the vast expanses of the Pacific, which is also used by many other indigenous people around the world. I paddle our tender, which is a slim canoe. That means not only can I see exactly where I’m going, but I’m also able to precisely alter the stroke to influence the direction of the craft. I can even instantly turn the paddle into a steering blade if that’s needed for a particular maneuver. This does nothing however to solve the second issue of the wasted energy through the intermittent nature of the stroke.

Here is where the yuloh comes to shine! There is a vanishing art in the European realm as well called sculling. It has gone a similar way. A long and slender oar is used over the stern of the boat and moved from side to side. The Chinese have refined this idea to the point where a single man is able to move a heavily loaded junk with apparent ease through the backwaters of the Shanghai markets and back up the river to his home out in the country side amongst the verdant rice paddies. Two technological tricks are involved in the improvement. For one there is a bend in the oar’s shaft or loom of somewhere between ten and fifteen degrees, lowering the blade close to vertical into the water. Then, apart from sitting firmly on a fulcrum at the stern of the boat, it is also connected with a piece of rope tied to the handle to the floor of the boat where the operator is standing. In fact the yuloh artisan has only one hand on the handle of the oar while the other one moves that piece of rope from side to side ahead of the handle, so as to make the required twist of the blade almost automatic. The result is a propulsion tool that is in fact much more a single blade of a propeller than an oar. Its side-to-side motion mimics the natural movement of a leave falling through the autumn air.

On one of Aluna’s first outings and subsequent tense return to the fingerdock of the San Leandro Marina, where the stubborn second or probably even third hand outboard motors had refused to start up, we came into the maze of fancy maritime real estate under sail. Since then I longed for a way to propel her with my own arms and hands over short distances in emergency situations. At that time I had grossly misjudged our brand new vessel’s turning radius and her ability to make headway into the wind once head on, and we found ourselves stopped dead in the water about 20 meters short of our spot on the dock and started to drift straight towards a shiny shell of immaculately waxed gelcoat. Luckily we had our good friend Thomas Nielsen on board! While I stood there wide-eyed scratching my balls, I mean, my glaring boldness, Thomas reached into the pockets of his pants, handed me his latest and greatest model smartphone, and next thing I saw was a splash in the water and him swimming with a rope clinched between his teeth over to the dock. We easily pulled Aluna home with that rope.

I set out to fabricate a rudimentary paddle with a three-meter handle out of an offcut from the pine sapplings used for the first version of the spars. With that I’m able to stand on Aluna’s aft decks, dip it into the water over the sides, and pull at it with all my might. It is quite helpful when having to go through the eye of the wind in very light air, when the boat’s speed is so minimal that it just can’t do so on its own, but its efficiency is rather limited. That’s how the yuloh had established a firm place on my list of pending projects, and while it sat there eternally in the waiting line I had combed the internet down to its most obscure and rarely visited corners and absorbed any and all tidbits of information I was able to light up on the computer screen. But years went by and I never got around to start the actual process of designing and building it. When I looked at the two offcuts from the two bamboo culms for the spars, they stared back at me, impeccably dressed in spiral wrapped and already faired fiberglass, and begged: Do something! Don’t just let us sit here and go to waste!

I had never even gotten to the point in the yuloh project where you sit down and do scale drawings based on the real measurements, but I had rolled the idea of it around in my head for so long that I decided to walk the fun route and wing it. After all, James Wharram’s profoundly human concept of the functional sculpture gives all us hobby engineers a very broad artistic license. And since our modern world seems to suffer from a rampant over-rationalization of just about every aspect of our lives, I said to myself: Let’s play around with it a bit, shall we?

The angle in the loom should be around 11 degrees. That much I had distilled from the various texts and treaties on the net. Easy enough! I cut the ends of the two bamboo sticks at the corresponding angle to end up with a scarf joint to spread the load over as big a glue area as possible, fasten them together with sufficient epoxy and then wrapped some more of my leftover glass cloth around it, covering the culms about a foot on either side of the joint.

yuloh1 yuloh6The blade was a bit more complicated. On most of the pictures I have seen, the yuloh blade is thin and long and benefits from a certain elasticity. Looking around in the shop I couldn’t set my eyes on anything containing such a shape. But again there were leftovers staring at me. It looked like re-utilization would be the theme of the day. There was roughly a quarter sheet of the 4mm ply leaning against the wall, left over from the ama project. The problem with it was that there was nowhere close to the required length left on it without having to do extensive scarfing. Since my self-esteem always seems to thrive when I can do something different than everybody else, I talked myself into making a much wider blade to get a similar surface area.  A little playing around with cardboard mockups pretty quickly revealed the most effective use of the plywood scrap. Three ribs provide the profile of the blade, which needs to be curved on its forward side in order to provide lift. Panels glued onto these built the basic shape. The aft side is usually left flat and there I didn’t feel any need for rebellion.

yuloh2 yuloh3 yuloh4 yuloh5 yuloh7These were my last two days in Ted’s workshop. So things had to fly together fast. Ted’s long sailing vacation up the coast was coming to an end and we were departing the Bay of Islands for a mission to the metropolis. What came out of this sprint on the final stretch is a curious contraption. Just to find a place to store this angled thing on board Aluna turned out to be a major headache. An odd sculpture it is for now, its functionality not yet established. When we’ll be back it will have to face the reality and prove its usefulness. I’m just about certain that it is but a first sketch of an evolution. Nothing comes easy in the world of technology, and that is a very, very good thing!

SV Aluna safe at N Minerva

June 19, 2012

Aluna arrived three days ago at North Minerva Reef. We passed through a magnificent storm on the way, but Aluna held up strong. We will set to sea again tomorrow with destination Savusavu, Fiji. All aboard is well! Beat Rettenmund
SV Aluna
svaluna@gmail.com

Inappropriate Technology

September 12, 2011

The theory behind epoxy composite construction, more specifically the combination of epoxy resins and wood, is that the modern polymer is able to encapsulate and thereby stabilize the ancient building material and thereby overcomes one of its major limitations. Unprotected wood when exposed to the elements breathes the gases around it like a living tissue, which it was, and absorbs or releases water. Its precise dimensions therefore suffer from a constant flux of contraction and expansion. The creaking of stairs and the crackling of roofs, the squeaking of spars and stringers in a wooden boat are all sonic expression of the dimensional instability of these cellulose building blocks. Cracks in posts, gaps in joints and peeling paint are its corresponding optical eyesores. The magic of combining the hyper stable but brittle epoxy with the fickle but strong wood is that the former encapsulates the latter, isolating it from the whimsical variations of its environment. Once the exchange of gases and humidity is stopped the dimensional variation of timber is now reduced to those caused by temperature, which is in most practical applications negligible and much more in tune with other common building materials.

Plywood is the ideal candidate for this marriage of materials. It is an by itself already designed to be more stable than bare timber and the addition of epoxy makes it the almost ideal material to build complicated structures like boats and airplanes. Bamboo with its extraordinary strength and stiffness would also be a happy contender if it weren’t for the fact that, while the spongy nature of plywood makes it a thirsty absorber of the epoxy resin in its liquid state, the wooden grass has chosen to protect itself with a waxy coating of its surfaces that does not allow epoxy to penetrate without further work intensive procedures. So the marriage between bamboo and epoxy, when insisted upon, is usually not a happy one, very seldom productive and various forms of divorce, separation and other forms of legal wrangling are most often not very far down the road of the rocky relationship.

Aluna’s spars, the sticks that spread out her sails into the wind, are of such questionable construction. They’re fabricated from long, slowly dried culms coated with epoxy and a layer of glass fiber cloth wrapped around and soaked also in the polymerous resin. While the sanding of the bamboo previous to the application of the epoxy coating has permitted the uneasy concubines to live in relative harmony most of time, some exposed areas where there is ample friction or abrasion are a constant pain in the bundled banana jelly jar. So far the problem consisted mainly in the peeling off of the glass fiber tissue, and a couple cracks in the paint here and there. But just yesterday I had to learn of a new and most peculiar variant to the persistent problem. Aluna now sports sail covers of almost professional looking quality, which we fabricated out of a discarded sail that was given to us by a more materially bestowed fellow sailor. They do a very good job of protecting the sails from the destructive rays of the tropical sun while they are taking time of from active service and rest along the outboard hull sides of our double canoe. Of course, every good comes with its own portion of evil, so as this incident indicates, when protecting it from the sun it also keeps in the humidity, which leads to the breeding of some very special kinds of vegetables.

 

Those wonders of the fungal kingdom are not unpleasing to the eye. Their geometry leads the muscles of the eyes to perform mantic compulsions and stimulates the optical receptors in the retina to dance all kinds of cosmic grooves. When I’m reminded however of the fungi’s vast network of feeding tubers deep inside the substrate they’re living on, I imagine their penetration into the structural integrity of the bamboo culms and the damage they must be doing there to the magnificent strength of our sailing rig. I cannot help myself but let my usually quite peaceful thinking spirit wander into the treacherous and nonreversible realms of brutal extermination, reciting musty maxims of the cowardly art of chemical warfare. I dig deep into my rusty toolbox and get out the sharpest of my box cutter blades to slice off those fruity marvels of parasitic growth and sever the connection of nutrients that feeds the timely transformation of our tried and true technology into geometric riddles of singular beauty. The self-defense of purposeful living battles the chaos of freedom to stand still in awe of meaningful deviations to the will of diligently meditated determination. The surgeon to the lord of practicality has removed the cancerous growth with a careful but decisive incision, coldly calculating the chances of being able to nudge the unsettled destiny of evolution a fraction of a fingernail towards the preferred side of rational control, and thereby increasing my odds of landing in a world of comfort and relative ease, from where I can calmly contemplate the sad state of the world around me, listening with heartfelt attention to my closest brothers and sisters perish in a pungent bog of unnecessary suffering. This might all sound a wee bit far fetched, but in spite of your most justified concern it is meant to stand strong as a cordial invitation to be aware of the minute and intrinsically complicated ramifications of consequence inborn incomprehensibly in every little fraction of your noble actions, and of your more plebeian reactions.

Bright White Sundays

May 31, 2011

It’s Sunday morning and we’re sitting on the church paw for the third day in a row. Tomorrow will be the fourth! Of course, it’s Easter week and the strange story of a guy being nailed to a cross, lifted up in the air to die a slow and painful death, then buried in a chamber sealed with a big rock from where he reappears amongst the living and finally sails up into the heavens on a ray of light, might be reason enough to do some extra duty. I’ve never ever in my life been subdued to this nasty habit of spending Sunday mornings congregating with supposedly like minded folks and listening to the monotonous utterances of a professional representative of the divine on Earth.

For this special Easter Sunday service the Tautuans are dressed in impeccable white, just like they do every first Sunday of the month, the aptly named white Sundays. The first act of business of the day is the blessing of the donations received. Papa Saitu reads aloud the list of donors from a book in a green cover. It includes some familiar names from here, but there are also a lot of New Zealands and Australias in the long ledger. The Penrhyn communities there are said to be very tight knit, keeping to themselves and providing a steady flow of support for the homeland. In his left hand Papa Saitu holds a cloth bag, which must contain a bunch of the stuff that makes the world go round and once there are no more willing donors to he honored by vocalizing their names, Papa Rongo, the assistant minister, puts his right hand on the bag and makes the mundane checks and bills fit for the holy treasury by blessing them with a torrent of sacred words. Once the divine finances are taken care of, the service takes its usual course. Papa Rongo is not exactly a very spirited orator; most of the sermon is rather flat and acoustically monotonous. He stands behind a slightly raised pulpit in front of an elaborate altar with stairs rising on both sides towards a second pulpit up high, very much closer to the divine inspiration, but only to be used by a full fledged minister. Behind the altar are three high slots in the church wall, slender rectangular windows with pointed tops. Right at the tip of the center window hangs suspended from the dark, wooden ceiling a sculpted bird, as if flying in straight from the heaven with a godly message in his beak.

What can a mind thirsting for freedom of conditioning do while being forced to demonstrate outward content with the imposing authority and the massive business of a church? The service is held in native Maori, so it is for me above all a soothing language lesson that has my mind drink every syllable with feverish attention while everybody else seems to be dozing off into oblivion. Ora is life, kia orana, the local greeting, translates into “long may you live”, te atua stands for God or a crumb more feudal: the Lord, te moana is the sea and also its color, kitse leads you to knowledge, if you know it, mai come, hano mai come here, ono look and also the number six, hula let’s go, kona means full, and ma kona au you say at the end of the kai kai, the meal, to let others know that you’ve had it, no more space down there, meitaki maata, thank you very much! Logo stands for the word, now isn’t that one interesting! How did classy Greek find its way half way across the planet and lend meaning to such an important concept? The London Missionary Society must have something to do with it. Over two centuries ago the members of this organization were the fanatic converters, bringing a new faith to the lonesome islands of the South Pacific, according to their accounts to an enthusiastic reception. The mighty Tangaroa, chief of the Polynesian Pantheon, was hastily abandoned, traded in mounds of goodwill for this new code of ethics preaching the business of peace.

The language lesson alone though does not carry me through the hour and something of the service. My mind soon wanders off to wonder what made these ancient seafarers, the brave long-distance voyagers, the fearless explorers and settlers of the vastest stretch of ocean on this blue planet, the quarrelsome to outright fierce warriors doing battles with each other on one hundred foot war canoes, the highly skilled fishermen familiar with all the nooks and crannies of their watery world, what made those tradition burdened folks decide to worship so passionately the bearded son of the Jews, studying avidly the legends and cultural records of a desert people half way around the globe. What is the contagious might of the Christian religion that allowed it to spread like a spiritual smallpox virus very virulently eradicating forever more down to earth regional systems of credence? Did not its fatherly distant, forever unreachable and untouchable god seem utterly strange and weirdly abstract to folks who seem to have been extremely keen observers of not only their physical environment, but also the intrinsic subtleties of the human sphere? Did those bearers of the “good news” maybe come at a crucial time when the warriors had grown wary of their wars and slurped up the gospel of love and peace like liquid honey on toasted whole wheat bread because it helped them stop the stupid brutalities amongst themselves? The historical record is so sparse and the little at hand so helplessly distorted through a twisted point of view that this question will await its satisfying answer forever. For the faithful Christian folks of today their ancestors before the arrival of the enlightenment were primitive heathens more brute than the muddy pigs they are fattening up in little cages built from five pallets around the perimeter of their village.

After three more spirit enticing hymns it’s time for the “message for our English speaking friends”, a gesture of goodwill, where the minister repeats in the language of global commerce the reading of the bible verses composing the “Daily bread of today”, a selection of verses dictated by the central authority of the church in Rarotonga. Then he provides a brief summary in English of his sermon in Maori, usually emphasizing the importance of keeping and maintaining the faith in Christ, God, Jesus, the Lord, the Holy Spirit and the many other curious conceptions of this supposedly monotheistic religion. “May God bless you until the day you depart!”, Papa Rongo usually ends this section for the language impaired visitors. Just in case we should have forgotten, that day is approaching fast, and after that, I guess, we’ll have to fend for ourselves…

A couple more of the spirited, highly crafted and passionately interpreted hymns later, for which everybody rises from their worn paws, some visibly arousing from sweet slumber, a final prayer sends everybody back to the earthly realm. (Here’s one, two, three samples of what those sound like!) The sequence of the entrance to the worship is reversed. The children exit first with the two ladies who keep them in check most of the time, then the youngsters, who wear colored shirts with Japanese cartoon characters in dramatic warrior poses printed on them and manifest their pertinence to a new generation by sporting Polaroid shades sitting on their high riding noses. The female half of the adult population is next, followed and shadowed by the males, both loosely arranged according to age. The patriarchs are therefore the last to exit the church and ritually shake hands to reinforce the well-structured bonding between them. There is no hanging around after church, no place for gossip or small talk. Everybody silently walks away in direction of their homes giving just a bit more wear and tear to the weedless narrow footpaths on the light grey coral rubble, their white dresses disappearing one by one behind pastel-colored, tin-roofed concrete houses and slender coconut trees. A lonely white rooster is the last one to rush across the scenery, chasing away his inferiorly colored brides and sisters to prevent them from staining the absolute purity of the holy celebration. Those lazy hens can’t even lay enough to organize a half way decent egg hunt on the island! What kind of an Easter is that!

The Tuna Turn

March 15, 2011

There has been plenty of rain this year, which is a god sent for the islanders, like everything else in their beautiful minds is sent or made by god; but then that should probably be a God written properly, with a capital letter that is! The rain comes down in short squalls, sometimes a couple of them a day, but in between it’s sunny and breezy, good enough to just lie around, or go fishing a bit, hunting for a coconut or two, swim around the anchorage with the handsome blacktip sharks examining you from a boat length away, and the bigger and more mysterious brown nursing sharks circling below, or, what’s even better, take our vaka over to the beach and chat with the lovely folks of the tiny dying village of Tautua. We’re doing duty at the school there twice a week to do a performance project with the kids, preparing a little show for the beginning of April before our planned departure. Beatriz is teaching them the wicked dances of South America and I’m trying to coax them into telling the stories of their ancestors, viewed through their own big open eyes.

We are diligently going ashore every Sunday morning to have our minds tortured in mass. Thank God (theirs that is, since mine slipped out of my spiritual portfolio a good while back, as you might have guessed) for their frenetic, almost possessed way of singing, which overpowers the constant coughing of the ever spreading bronchopneumonia that ghastly clings to the most vulnerable in the village, the babies and the most elderly. The minister’s lonesome last surviving upper tooth rattles through a list of bible verses, while the congregation stares out the windy windows, their gaze lost and void of any trace of curiosity amongst a complicated set of rules tacked orderly on invisible cloth lines strung between the coconut trees.

The villager’s generosity is simply overwhelming as if wanting to underline the fact that beliefs, ideas and mindset are the least important stakes of the weathered fences we build between them and us. They exuberantly share not only the fruits of the sea and land, but also passionately instruct us in the elaborate techniques necessary to collect and harvest them. The tuna fishing sting out to the Flying Venus reef is still fresh in my mind.  Saitu sternly sits at the stern of his forty years old aluminum skiff, tillering the outboard and chanting tantric rhymes under the pouring rain of yet another pitch grey squall. Boss and I each with one hand on a line trolling behind, clinch our eyes to scan the horizon for more flocks of birds skimming the waves. A lazy lifting of the arm and pointing the finger towards it has Saitu change course to race towards it, pursue it in a wild dance of lifts and bangs and we cruise right through the frenzy in hopes of another one of the sudden jerks of the line. If that does occur a brutal aerobic exercise follows wheeling in the line with bare hands. You have to do that fast enough so that no shark has the chance to bite off the catch before we gentle and brain heavy humans get our go at wielding the short gaff, whacking the head of the magnificent creature to create a bloody mess on the floor plank before shoving the violently trembling creature into the hold in front of the boat and gingerly resetting the line aft while the adrenaline ebbs away in our own streaming blood, letting the soothing patches of technological superiority settle back onto the many wounds of our many unimportant psychological battles.

The following day little rounds of burgundy colored fish flesh are shrinking under the tropical sun on Aluna’s foredeck after having been soaked in a salty brine overnight. Two days of that are capable of reducing the muscle mass of a seafaring bundle of flesh to chewy crusts almost completely immune to the powerful forces of decomposition. They are now fit for storing long term in the holds of our galley for times when fresh fish fillet feasts will be unavailable for some unfortunate reason or other.

It has been a great shock to me in our extended excursion into the realm of human subsistence existence, to discover just how much of it is accomplished by beating the very tenacious life force out of many magnificent creatures, that otherwise frolic so frivolously and mostly peacefully in our surroundings. Apparently that is, of course. The ability to catch and eat other creatures quite obviously is the most efficient way nature proposes to fatten up your belly and your brain. While grazing on greens seems to do it for the belly, it doesn’t seem to do too much for your brain. Here goes my beatnik intelligence, literally out the window frame. Quite literally as we speak, it is being radically redefined through the learning and inventing of ever new ways to lure and corner muscled creatures into coming within the brutal reach of stones and sticks wielded from my arms to smack their brains to smithereens and hence expel them for good from the golden ladder of evolution. While my old moral carcass shudders in its frugal free fall towards oblivion, my index finger’s tactile tips tenderly explore yet another slimy cavity of fishy innards, consistently improving their agility of preparing freshly slaughtered carcasses for delicious and frankly quite healthy consumption without making a total mess of everything five feet downwind of their troubled master. That master’s movable mind is reborn while scraping scales, turned inside out and upside down, nurtured from scratch with hopes of not only clinging stubbornly with one hand to the present rung of that rusty rope ladder hanging from the stormy skies of psychological growth, but gingerly extending the other one upwards towards the dizzying heights of the elusive next one dangling just as stubbornly above in the eternal realm of things unreachable. All this is done, I wish to insist, not to become any more or better or whatsoever miserable measure of success, but simply as a means to move away as far and as fast as possible from the numbing and morbid feeling of staying the same.

 

The Other Side, But Not of the Coin

February 27, 2011

Saturday the wind is still blowing hard, but more steadily and the cloud are no longer dripping rain all day. Early morning we once again weigh anchor and this time we’re trying to get a head start on things by motor sailing the first leg of the shipping channel. Since the sun raises in the East visibility of underwater features is almost none, so we’re once again blindly following spots marked electronically on our GPS. It’s a slow affair heading into the fresh breeze with only the weaker of our two outboard motors working, but by ten o’clock the result of our strategy is paying off and we are able to shut the motors off. By now the light blue and green coral patches are clearly visible in our path. They appear as a thin line in the darker, deeper water just underneath the horizon and as Aluna draws nearer to them they spread out into an impressionist painting of the most vibrant colors just underneath the surface. As dangerous as they are to navigation as beautiful they are to the eye. Some sport only a single dark yellow head while others are so wide we had to tack in front of them in order not to have to turn back away from the wind towards where we had just come from. Towards mid afternoon it was once again becoming clear that one day is not enough to sail across this immense lagoon, but this time we were armed with the knowledge that we could anchor for the night along the Northern shore. Since it was Sunday the following day however we would have to stay put until Monday in order not to offend the delicate local Christian doctrine. So we were now sailing straight towards that strip of coconut palms to the North. The closer it came the more it started to take on the air of the perfect South Sea vacation travel agency calendar picture. We were now in the lee of it, the water flat as a lake and the winds just puffing peacefully. The color of the water turned from dark blue to lighter tones, the coral heads now instead of being lighter than its surroundings started to appear as darker spots, but by now they were actually just small protrusions on a smooth sandy bottom that slowly rose up from the depths of the lagoon, which at places surpasses seventy meters, towards the white beaches under the palm trees. I had Beatriz take the wheel and stood anchor in hand on the fore beam, looking down into the blue green tapestry for a suitable spot to plant the hook. There was enough to choose from.

Our main anchor, a Bruce claw type, still stuck in the coral outside the pass where we had to abandon it, we were now anchoring with a Danforth, which is a plate anchor with two triangular flukes pivoting on a rod that protrudes quite a bit on either side, pivoting at the crown of a shaft. I like them for their graceful way of descending through the water like a glider or a kite of our childhood, with the chain appearing weightless like its tail trailing behind. A little tiny mechanical manta ray too, maybe.

The sun was now setting in its usual spectacular way and the night was peaceful, quiet and calm and we felt safe enough to truly rest for the first time in almost a month since leaving the protection of Hakatea Bay back with our boar hunter friends. So we decided to side with the local discipline and took Sunday off, from work that is, not from having fun! It was exploring time. With our trusty old inflatable canoe we paddled over to the beach and set out exploring this lonesome stretch of the atoll. Behind the thicket of palm trees we found to our surprise a series of small lakes with coffee colored water, which terminated on the other side in fields of study knee-high bushes. Those grew over a bed of dark grey coral junks, sharp edged enough to make walking over them akin to a circus act. We tried hard to traverse them Cirque du Soleil style, not exposing any animals to the unnecessary danger of cutting their shins and elbows when stumbling and falling down on them. To the North of us those junks slowly became smaller in size and rose up to a moraine of bright white coral rubble, from where we could finally see the sea, crashing heavily white onto a ledge of rust colored coral reef. Inside of the breaking waves there is always a stretch of shallow reef, where the waves disperse every joule of energy they incorporated in their long journey across the oceans, rippling over pools between the most hallucinating shapes of dark brown lime stone sculptures. Black sea cucumbers with a coat of grey sand on their skin call this their home and with little tentacles protruding from their good end they seem to be grazing like aphonic cows on a pasture land up in the alps of Switzerland. There are green blue parrot fish too, busy grazing themselves on coral critters, dislodging minuscule grains of the reefs limestone skeleton and therefore helping to create those lovely white beaches the herds of honeymooners love, and the sandy seafloors in front of them too, where the cruising folks love to nest because it holds their anchors tight. Many smaller fish of any imaginable color dart around and there goes even a black tipped reef shark pursuing its prey of opportunity in barely half a foot of water!

On the way back my machete slammed into the husk of some green coconuts lying around everywhere and we drank the delightful milk. A couple more strokes of the bush knife and we scooped the tender meat, which is most delicious where it has the translucent color of white jellybeans. Our friends the tupa crabs were also plentiful, hiding in their dug out homes as soon as we came in sight. We had feasted on them back in the Marquesas, here they seemed to be smaller in size, not worth the while to pursue gastronomically. Eating these critters is a laborious way of nurturing he human body and diminishing in size they definitely sink below the threshold of culinary interest. We would learn the next day though that they do make good bait for hooking tasty white parrotfish that live right under our anchored boat!

This place was so peaceful and the resting so sweet, we decided to stay on Monday and do a small repair at the upper tip of the small main sail, which had started to come apart, its area of tarp obviously having been exposed to the sun and shaken in the wind too long. We were just getting to the task of sewing on the patch when an outboard powered aluminum skiff comes riding our way from the village of Tautua, which we can see from where we are. After all, we’re probably just a mile and a half away from it and they must have been curious about us visiting their wilderness. The visitors are Saitun, one of the village elders, Rosalyn of girly age, and Larry, skipper of Tao 8, a Canadian flagged sailboat that has been anchored at Tautua for the last couple months. Apart from having come over to check us out they also came with a much nobler mission. They wanted to make sure that we had enough to eat! So Saitun inquired about our fishing gear and insisted in putting it to maximum use. Soon we were skipping over the wavelets up and down the beach under a dark grey sky what had begun to drizzled softly with one of my last remaining lures trolling behind. After just one turn the line stiffened and we hauled in a sizable fish. The thin line on my cane was not up to the task though and shortly before being able to land our catch it broke away. Saitun resolve was unbroken. “Let’s get some bait!”, was his predicament. We landed on the beach and stumbled across rotting palm fronds looking for tupa crabs unfortunate enough to have ventured too far their burrows to hide in a quick spurt when spotting us with their elevated eyes, a sideway spurt that is, of course, as any crab motion is. Little Rosalyn was best at it and Saitun crushed three specimen, then assembled the mush in a rusty tin can found also lying around. Back aboard Aluna the nimble hands of this heavy set man assembled a simple hand line with swivel, hook and lead weight, each hook baited quite heavily with dripping crab meat. He sat down on the after deck on the port hull, and before Larry had a chance to present his case in any way or form a howler came from back there requesting a bucked for storing the first of three fish he would land in less then ten minutes. Two white Parrotfish and one sizable Surgeon lie gaping in the bucket, two of which would later decorate our dinner plate, while the third left in the hands of Larry for feasting on it with his wife Angie.

Nurtured by this local nutrition we were now ready for the final leg of the journey across the lagoon. We started once the sun had sufficiently risen above the horizon to make the coral heads visible under its path, which is pretty much where we were headed. Although the taking angles meant that we never had to sail directly into the sun and after an hour or two the sun was high enough up in the sky to allow visibility all around. It was a beautiful sail, with the big mainsail proudly up in the light breeze. The little houses of Tautua slowly grew bigger, but so did the dark squall cloud right behind them. But we did make to the beach in front of it just in time to drop the anchor into the clear and turquoise waters and lower the sails before the wind and downpour hit. Sheltered behind the fringe of palm trees however, the effect of that squall was practically nil and lunch was delicious below deck.

Aluna Presently Floating in Space

January 21, 2011

We made it to Tongareva, a beautiful atoll with a name that translates to South Floating in Space. Internet access is sparse. More later.

The Emperor’s Playground

December 2, 2010

The second balade brought us up into the humid area at the foot of the basalt pillars. Following a maintenance path of a water line, for long stretches carpeted with thorny leaves, with two places where a thick rope was hung to climb across vertical rock faces, we were looking up at these amazing sculptures from a very humbling perspective.

Clouds were still hiding the highest peak most of the time. Only every now and then did it become visible through the blinding white of the clouds. On the way back to town a local guy offered us a ride. He was on his way home from bulldozing at a place of urban sprawl for the better-off on a terrace overlooking Hakahau Bay. When he mentioned that he had to go and pick up his son from school, we asked about the local arts program there. He answered that Friday night was going to be a big get together of all the island’s elementary schools to perform dance and theater.

Here we are now sitting on concrete steps, which ascend arena like around a volleyball court, and the show is about to begin. The presenter announces that we will see the result of a state sponsored prevention program with the declared goal to raise awareness about environmental issues like recycling, and about risky behaviors like drinking and smoking pacololo, Polynesian for pot. What follows is artistically quite embarrassing, mainly teachers shoving groups of toddlers around and making them say many appropriate things, how we should not throw garbage onto the streets, how bad those social drugs are and that we will all be doing much better and never fall prey to those nasty habits. Behind us a heavyset lady stands up every twenty minutes or so to smoke her cigarette, as are many more of the responsible parents watching the show.

What hits me as particularly peculiar is the set of special guests sitting on a podium to which the spectacle was obviously directed. They are introduced elaborately as the honorable mayor, chief of the island, the principal of the school and the chief of the local gendarmes. The latter is accompanied by his sturdy wife, they have been greeting friends earlier at our side, she skinny of quite obvious French complexion in elegant trousers, him hands buried stiffly in his pant pockets, shoulders hunched forward and stopple hair. The principal is armed with a duffle bag over one shoulder, a short nose supports intellectualoid glasses with some melancholic shine misplaced behind them. He comes over to the kindergarten class sitting gingerly on woven palm fronds just at our feet, where his wide-eyed cute little daughter sports the same headband with a bundle of pandanus leave ribs sticking feather like into the air. Mid-show she gets a special treat from daddy in form of a sponge cake bought from a small food stand at the other end of the arena. Soon all the other boys and girls beg the teachers for some sweets too and they see themselves obliged to purchase a couple sponge cake slabs as well, which are morseled up and shared amongst all the less privileged kids.

The most impressive of the special guests though is monsieur le maire. His hefty body seems to have jumped out of a Fellini movie. Two massive thighs bulge the jeans he’s wearing to the seams, the legs spread apart like a cowboy on a barstool. The muscular upper body makes the pear shaped head look tiny, moving slowly from side to side. The voluminous arms and hands hold clumsily on to a gadget of some sort with which he’s taking pictures of the show. His attention seems to be totally absorbed by this little apparatus, when not shooting scenes his glance is glued to it with his arms now resting on his thighs. There is an ambiance of weighted opulence emanating from this figure with a whiff of brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin proportion. During the entire evening I don’t see anybody talking to him, he seems to enjoy his might in splendid isolation. This impression spreads into the analysis of everything else in this island society. The whole spectacle gives the impression of something deeply disjointed, leaderless chaos blindly stumbling into modernity, lust of power strangling healthy socializing and democratic problem solving. The innocence of children smooching with stage fright in the glaring lime light, the diligent work of resourcefully decorating the drama with all kinds of vegetative fronds and frills, the thrill of the audience responding gaily to the social comedy unfolding, it all is lost, it crunches and crackles and breaks apart to reveal a divine tragedy of roman proportions with the emperor indulging in the spectacle of the gladiators who are giving their lives for the travesty of entertaining the powerful, and with them the masses, anesthetizing the former’s doubts of conspiracy against his firm but senseless grip of absolute control.

While leaving this place of obediently manifested good intentions we stroll through the soccer field that stretches out alongside the arena. There clearly within shouting range of the no-drugs indoctrination a gang of youngsters clusters gothically around a potent boom box slung from the railing. Cardiac rhythm accelerating rap screeches mottafokin lyrics onto the passing good citizens returning to their humble homes. The gangs slimy stares follow each and every one of them to gauge the impact of their desperate provocation, ready to crank it up just a notch should the elixir of social recklessness prove to be too insipid for their urge of effortless revolution.

It’s too dark to see the lofty pillars up in the sky behind the glare of the lights. The ancient gods up there in turn, if they are still clinging on, must be seeing clearly the falseness in the artificially illuminated hearts of their flock!

Hawai’i to Marquesas in 34 Days, at a Glance

August 20, 2010

Here’s the promised map with the noon position of Aluna’s sail from Honomalino Bay on the East Coast of the Big Island of Hawai’i to Taiohae Bay, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, French Polynesia.