My wife is a writer and I have managed to persuad her to allow me to publish one of her short stories, about our adventure holiday.
Its Entitled Odyssey
It’s midday in late July and I’m huddled in a large fishing dinghy on the Pacific Ocean. The equatorial sun attempts to penetrate the swaddling of this mummy-like figure clinging to the wooden rim of the boat. What am I doing here, I wonder, as I drink greedily from my water bottle? I could be lounging lazily in Melbourne beside a cosy fire, sipping hot chocolate.
My friend, Barbara, sitting up on the side of this craft, soaking up the experience, knows why she is here. My husband, Lindsay, perched further forward on the opposite side, unconcerned about the sun’s perforating rays, knows what he is doing here. They are responding to an invitation to visit Abaiang, a small coral island, part of Kiribati (KIR-UH-BAHS) (formerly the Gilbert Islands).
“Come and visit my island; you will see the most amazing sunsets,” Judy, a 27 year old Canadian missionary, offered to Barbara some months earlier.
Barbara has come because she has visited Kiribati before, and feels the need to return, perhaps to commit to some volunteer work later. Lindsay wished to accompany a friend, to experience something new, and I am, somewhat reluctantly, accompanying partner and friend.
“Look, dolphins,” calls Lindsay over the whirr of the outboard motor.
I struggle to make myself a little more comfortable on my luggage seat, at the same time following Lindsay’s gaze. Two grey forms leap gracefully from the cobalt sea ahead then disappear, like children playing hide and seek, into the inky depths. I’m mesmerised, waiting enthusiastically for their next display.
The ocean is relatively calm, dispelling my fear of huge swells, sea sickness, and most of all, the possibility of capsizing. I did read in Arthur Grimble’s, “A Pattern of Islands,” that the south-east trades breathe steadily at 25 miles an hour for months on end, but can slam round to the north and blow a 40 mile gale. I wonder if our two boatmen are expecting heavy weather? They’re wearing hard hats for some reason, and we can’t ask them why as their English is limited. We can but speculate! Perhaps there are large flying fish in the waters. Maybe they were a gift, or left over from a building site job some time. The latter seems unlikely, though, as there was little evidence of large building works at Basio, the port of Tarawa, from where we had cast off only an hour ago. There were, however, remains of industrious activity from the Second World War. The Japanese invaded Tarawa, building a landing strip, road and later cement bunkers to defend the island from the American rescuers. The beach, where once one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the Pacific was fought, is now covered with cramped village housing and the bunkers have become the children’s climbing equipment. Oh, there is really nothing to worry about, as we are still in sight of land: Tarawa, a slate silhouette on the horizon behind us, and Abaiang appearing ahead like a mirage, through the sun’s metallic rays.
I hope my water lasts. Of course it will. Only an hour to go and the temperature is unlikely to change much. The internet printout states that the temperature here varies little between 26 and 32 degrees Celsius all year round and I’m sure it’s reached the maximum. Wouldn’t it be pleasant if we could slip over the side to cool off. On second thought I don’t think I would like to risk the wrath of the tiger sharks (Tababa) said to hunt for trevally in these waters. Legend has it that if you stay still in the sea the Tababa will charge you. If you swim away from them in fear they will smell your fear and chase you. If you swim without fear towards them they will be afraid and leave you in peace. Still, this is not the time or place to prove myth or fact.
“Coming, ready or not.”
Where are those cheeky dolphins? I want to take a photo. Oh, good, there they are, so sleek and graceful. I wonder if they are marine guardian angels guiding us from island to island. That is a comforting thought. Is the sun addling my brain?
“What an amazing sight,” Barbara comments, wrenching me from my reverie.
“Yes, that is incredible. It looks like a house boat.”
“ Fam-ly fish,” responds one of our smiling boatmen.
The family doesn’t appear to be doing much fishing at the moment. I wouldn’t mind changing places with them. They seem very comfortable sitting cross-legged on that flat wooden roof beneath the shade of a tarpaulin, which, like a misplaced sail is tied loosely between the side of the vessel and two poles fastened to the deck. I imagine they are enjoying the gentle breeze generated by the propulsion of the craft through the sultry salty air.
Still, like us, they have little room to move around. Two thirds of the roof is covered with rolls of hand woven pandanus leaf mats which the native women weave to sell in the Tarawa market places. All their worldly possessions are stacked haphazardly on the lower deck. I wonder if those splashed of colour filtering through the open sided structure are sarongs drying in the heat.
Heat! Was it only two days ago I stepped from the plane to a burst of hot air which momentarily stopped me in my tracks? I should have expected it, as we are, after all, two degrees above the equator. The stifling, corrugated iron airport building was a far cry from the modern Tullamarine air terminal. Our luggage had been piled in the far corner, on a cement floor, among dozens of those striped plastic carry-all bags which the I-Kirabiti passengers used as luggage. Various packages and boxes full of purchases from Australia littered the unloading bay entrance, slowing our customs clearance. It was 10:00am and 28 degrees in the shade, and I was anxious for a cold shower and a change of clothes.
A pale hand beckoned like a beacon above a sea of dark faces, guiding us through the crowd. A handsome young man, hair tied loosely behind his neck, moved leisurely towards us , smiling lazily. Gently he placed a brightly-coloured, delicately-woven garland of tiny blossoms on our heads, evoking memories of frangipani, daisy chains and a carefree childhood. Introductions followed this unexpected moving gesture. Then John, Barbara’s Australian Volunteers Abroad friend, announced,
“Your plane to Abaiang is grounded due to mechanical problems. But, I have managed to get some local fishermen to run you over.”
So here I am , slowly cooking to a lobster red but fascinated by the changing colours of the waters beneath. Azure, like the cloudless sky above, and now aqua marine as we glide closer to our island destination. Not far to go now. That line of palm trees, rising sentry-like from the horizon, must be concealing the mission buildings and our expectant host. Can’t see a wharf anywhere. Neither can our fishermen apparently, as one has been scouring the shore line with binoculars for the past half hour. Hope we are not lost. Can’t see any sign-posts or markers. Those natives snorkelling over there might point us in the right direction as there seems to be a great deal of calling and gesticulating.
Is that a cross ahead on the beach? Yes! We’re here at last. But where’s the wharf? I should have realised this is not your everyday tropical paradise but an equatorial outpost. Beautiful, peaceful and pristine, yes, but remote, nonetheless. If my friends could only see me now, stumbling knee deep through the lagoon shallows, water-bottle and camera held high. The fine coral bed gripping my ankles like shallow quick-sand is making progress extremely difficult. Barbara’s suggestion to wear water resistant shoes was sound advice. Our fishermen, now loaded down with backpacks and boxes of groceries, seem quite at home with this aquatic landing.
What a strange sight we must seem to those striking-looking students observing our sluggish arrival. Their smiles radiating from cocoa coloured features are beacons to this broiled flotsam.
“How did you get here?” called a pretty,freckled-faced red head joyously. “The plane was cancelled!”
“John arranged a lift with some local fishermen. We couldn’t miss your promised sunset,” Barbara replied.
“Come in, freshen up,and meet my house mates, then we will walk down to the lagoon and watch the show.”
At last we’re here, rested and expectant, beneath the lanky coconut trees clustered along the foreshore. The offshore breeze, caressing our faces and playing tag with the palms, heralds the reposing sun. Magenta, crimson, orange and lavender downy clouds fashion its bedding. I am not disappointed. My reluctance fades with the sunset. The journey to this land of endless summer is worth the taking. Once in a lifetime one should step out of life’s rut and experience something different. This is my season.