But...If you don't share your memories then the force, that turns your past into a painful sense of nostalgia and your present into an ever faster playing movie, gains momentum the more time passes.
Forgive me, since my memories are selective and therefore don't reveal an absolute truth.
I also decided to write in English and not to translate into neither German or Spanish.
See you soon,
Lange Zeit hielt ich nicht viel davon mehr ueber meine Reise zu berichten. Bekanntlich erfindet man sich selbst beim Schreiben und im Nachhinein schien nichts von dem, was ich von mir selbst las, mit dem zu tun zu haben, was wirklich in mir vorging. Doch wenn man Erinnerungen nicht teilt, dann wirkt die Kraft, welche Vergangenheit in schmerzende Nostalgie verwandelt und die Gegenwart in einen immer schneller spielenden Film, desto staerker je mehr Zeit vergeht.
Vergibt mir also, denn meine Erinnerungen sind selektiv und reichen nicht auf den Grund.
Desweiteren habe ich mich entschlossen auf Englisch zu schreiben, da es die weitverbreiteste Sprache in meiner Kontaktliste ist und ich somit nicht alles zu uebersetzen brauche.
Desde mucho tiempo no he creido mucho en contar de mis viajes. Escribiendo, uno inventa su propia personalidad y cada vez que estaba leyendo de lo que habia publicado, senti que no tenia mucho que ver con lo que realmente estaba pansando dentro de mi.
Pero...Si no comparto mis recuerdos, siento que la fuerza que convierte mi pasado en un sentimiento doloroso de nostalgia y mi presente en una pelicula mas y mas rapida, gana de poder.
Perdona me, que mis recuerdos son selectivos y por eso no representan la verdad absoluta.
Ademas decidi de escribir en Ingles, para no tener que traducir todo de nuevo.
Los hecho de menos!
Absolute darkness. Where am I? What happened? My mind’s eye is a kaleidoscope. Colorful images, scenes from Mexico, Central America, Panama and finally: the pacific ocean.
Now I can feel the boat moving.
I jump up. Did I fall asleep on my night watch? Is the boat on course? Is everyone okay?
A dim, red light cuts through the night, then rests on my face and evokes the helpless but beautifully mystic feeling of a déjà vu.
For another moment my mind is blank, I must have felt this way when I was born.
“What’s going on, Finn?”
Then it all comes back…
June 2008. After a short stopover on the Galapagos Islands (next time please stay on board, John, you were missed!), we had been on the sea for 22 days straight, not a glimpse of land. Just as every night, Dave, our captain, had taken over the steering wheel from me and after 3 hours Christian from him. And for weeks I had woken up in the same terrifying way.
“Your shift’s up in 10 minutes!”
Really? It feels like I had just fallen asleep...
That same day we spotted land and while we were witnessing another stunning pacific sunset, I could even smell it: Wet earth and flowers. For almost a month wind and saltwater had been our only sources of sensation; dolphins, pilotwhales, seabirds and flying fish our only company. Excitement.
My first impression of the Polynesian islands is a weighty, tall man. The morning sun is glistening on his even, dark skin and his facial features are somewhere between American Indian and Asian. He is sitting on the pier, fishing with his son, surrounded by the beautiful, tropical, mountainous scenery of the small volcanic island “Hiva Oa”.
In the following months I kept comparing Polynesia with my fresh impressions from Latin America. Indigenous culture in countries like Mexico had been almost eradicated by disease and brutal colonization and mostly survived as part of a fusion-“mestizo”-culture. This “Latin” culture surely had gone through a lot of changes within the last century, but it seemed to be only reinventing itself in modern ways: traditional music evolved into Latin-Ska or Reggaeton, independence- and revolutionary movements found their way through socialist guerilla organizations from the 70s to the 90s into the modern student protests, the new political left or the EZLN.
Polynesian culture though, it first seemed to me, was dying in front of my eyes.
There have been various theories on the origin of Polynesians but most modern historians agree that they originated in Taiwan, sailed their way to modern-day Indonesia and Malaysia and from there spread eastwards, reaching as far as Hawaii and westwards as far as Madagascar. On their way they populated the pacific islands and, depending on the quality of natural resources they found, founded societies ranging from hunter-gatherer to huge kingdoms with elaborate social structures like Tonga or Tahiti. They shared the same family of languages, were highly skilled seafarers and fishermen, proud warriors and worshipped ancestors and spirits. There are unexplained links between native South Americans and Polynesians such as a bulk of intriguingly similar vocabulary in native languages as well as ancient tales suggesting exchange between the two cultures.
Europeans “discovered” and colonized these islands and after the biggest share of the population had died of disease or been killed in wars, the Europeans never found much economic value here and apart from using some locals as indentured laborers in Australia and South America, they mostly restricted their activity to missionaries.
Some islands that had been home to as many as 40,000 Polynesians and are now only sparsely populated or completely uninhabited. Sometimes left alone hill goats slowly destroy the natural vegetation. Villages grow older, smaller and finally vanish as the youth moves into the few modern cities like Papeete to study or work. Sometimes only males stay behind, since girls seem to be more successful in school. In many cases a western diet has caused widespread obesity and diabetes and substituted imports have taken the place of local foods and changed the local lifestyle along with modern cement buildings replacing bamboo huts on many islands. Most Polynesians are Christian, often very devoted, and it seemed that only some elders in the villages remembered their ancestral rituals. Polynesian languages are still widely spoken, especially at home, but colonial languages are mostly used as official and administrative languages. Many Polynesian Islands are still overseas territories of western countries (French Polynesia, Hawaii, New Caledonia etc.) or completely reliant on foreign aid (Cook Islands, Niue etc.).
On the other hand there are islands so beautiful that they seem unreal. Far away from tourism, they are surrounded by crystal-clear water with abundant maritime wildlife and covered with untouched, dense tropical vegetation. Soon we got used to swimming with millions of colorful fish, water snakes, rays, turtles and sometimes sharks or listening to whales under water (hey Christian, do you remember our crazy hikes through the jungles, swimming back through the water with a machete and zip lock bags? I fr****n miss those times!).
On remote islands villagers got very excited about visitors and were some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. Never had I been amongst people who are living their lives so directly connected to the very fundamental elements of it. To see a community living on an island that you can easily walk around in 30 minutes made me realize that sometimes I hadn’t had a single conversation with people that I called neighbors for years and that even the time I spent together with close friends was short compared to the time that just passes by all your life. Who in our paranoid western societies actually knows each other?
Sometimes I went spear- and net fishing with locals or watched them carving traditional symbols into wooden objects and realized that some of the amazing skills never disappeared from the local lifestyle. Warrior classes are now mirrored by competing kayak racing teams and some rituals like warrior dances are still practiced in the villages, even if it is for a French holiday.
There is something magical about the Polynesian Islands and its people. At times I felt a hidden truth or an honest appreciation of everything that makes up the essence of life, which I just couldn’t grasp completely or always escaped.
“Thanks for visiting me, guys!”
Dave is looking better, feeling better. Yesterday they took him to the hospital after Christian and I had tried to convince him to go for days. In the morning, when I checked on him I thought he was dead and now the doctor says he might not have lived much longer without medical treatment.
“So what are you guys’ plans?”
Our captain had contracted an infection from an insect bite, but even before that both of us had been thinking about leaving him. Christian constantly faced problems with accepting his sailing purist’s nudist lifestyle, especially on those occasions when Dave (61 years at that time) cooked up some food without bothering to put on any cloths. Personally, I didn’t care much about that, but rather about the rude way Dave had been commanding us around or snubbing us.
In Tahiti Christian and I jumped ships and ended up on two different yachts, only to meet up weeks later in Tonga. I sailed the remaining 3 months on “Excalibur”, a 40 footer, owned by two young Australians Nick and Marcelo (Thanks for picking me up!) , all the way to Australia.
I never became a good sailor. Actually, I am still a terrible sailor. There are lots of tasks on a sailing boat that I don’t know much or nothing about, especially when it comes to maintenance, but at least I got behind the basics of what one has to do to cross the ocean with the help of wind.
Lots of instruments make your life on the sea easier these days and even allow people to circumnavigate the globe single-handed. One of those instruments is the beloved auto-pilot. Somehow Dave never trusted that thing and on Excalibur we constantly faced problems with our power supply, so for at least half of the trip we actually had to steer the boat by hand.
Being on the ocean the boat began to represent everything that civilization had ever meant to me, it was my only refuge, my shelter, the only thing that my life relied on and that gave me a sense of being safe and separated me from the savage ocean. And then, on a clear night, when the stars were stretching out all across the horizon, not only did this boat that meant so much to me seem like a little toy on the ocean, but also did the ocean seem like a tiny drop of water somewhere in the universe.
For most of the time we sailed in proximity to the equator in the middle of the cooking tropics. The headwind over the ocean often provided for a comfortable, cooling sensation. Then, when tropical clouds appeared it started to rain day and night and we got into thunder storms. When it rains the temperature drops and the thick rain combined with the splashing saltwater and big waves that just unload over you and leave you soaking wet for hours, can suddenly make you get really cold and sometimes my teeth were shattering for hours before my shift was over. On other days, the wind disappears and there is no escape from the merciless, burning sun. The cool, mischievous ocean surrounds you, and the only way to take a bath in it is holding on to a rope and being dragged along through the water. We came to call this the “sailor’s shower”. Nice and refreshing, but being such a tiny little thing on the surface of the deep ocean can make you feel very uncomfortable, if you think about some of the creatures that are watching you from down there.
It’s hard to describe the time I spent on those boats, partly because even more time has passed since then and -to be honest- I really can’t believe that this was the life I had for half a year. Some memories remain quite vivid though:
One of the first nights I was on watch the wind picked up just after I had taken over the steering wheel (that always happened!). Holding the wheel became more and more difficult and everyone else was sleeping, I wasn’t sure what to do and just decided to spend the following 3 hours trying my best to hold on to the steering wheel (I just put my whole bodyweight on it) and to keep on course while the boat was racing over or into huge waves at 9 knots, leaning over almost 45 degrees while I was standing on the sidewall rather than on the floor and constantly got soaked from the splashing water. When Dave woke up (How had he been able to sleep???) he rushed up on deck, didn’t believe his eyes, then shouted some swearwords over to me and gave me shit for almost killing us all. I told him he should be glad, since on my shift we had made more miles than any other time before…
When I got better at steering, sometimes I could balance the boat and leave alone the steering wheel, just watching the compass every now and then, which was very practical since in those situations I was able to spend my time reading or didn’t have to control my bladder for 3 hours. But this could also result in hectic moments. Imagine relieving yourself at the stern, holding on to the lifeline, when suddenly the mainsail and the boom threaten to whoosh over to the other side and the boat makes a 90 degree turn, leaning over so much that you almost fall over board.
A few days before we reached Australia, I was feeling very sick with some sort of viral infection (maybe dengue), which made me cough blood and feel like dying, when we got into a storm. Big waves were pounding the boat, there was a freezing Southern wind, it was leaking everywhere and I got soaking wet trying to sleep down in the cabin. Those were some of the most miserable days of my life.
Those miserable days were more than compensated by the amazing experience that I got to share with people who became my friends and were nothing compared to the horror that one of those friends faced when the boat she sailed on sunk over a reef in Fiji. (Hey Liz, I hope you stay safe in future!)
One of the reasons why I never became a good sailor was my reluctance to socialize much with the sailing community that we met in every major harbor or anchorage. There were some exceptions but most boat owners seemed to be either too posh, too arrogant, too obsessed with sailing or a combination of those. At first I always preferred to stay with locals instead and when I got a little depressed from missing Latin America and being isolated on the ocean, I preferred to get completely wasted with the same group of young people who I sailed with or kept running into. (Marcelo, Nick, Christian, John, Liz, Tom, Jan, Jeff, Austen, Paul, Esther, I really miss you guys!)
This last period of consuming excessive amounts of cheap alcohol (Do you guys remember “Woodstock”? or the dirt-cheap Tongan homebrew Rum in fresh coconut?) is largely responsible for wide gaps in my memory of those days and I will therefore not mention any of the absolutely crazy stories that allegedly occurred at the time (If I there are any inquiries I will refer to you, Marcelo!).
Besides making me lose my memory, alcohol also made me lose my money. This was –obviously- because I had to pay for the stuff (most of the time) but also because my permanent state of drunkenness made me more susceptible to theft and one morning I woke up on the floor of a 7th day Adventist church somewhere in a rural part of Viti Levu, Fiji and the people that were just having a religious celebration when I became conscious told me that I had been hitchhiking at 3 o’clock in the morning, and the guys who had picked me up robbed me and threw me out of the car in front of that church.
In Fiji things seemed “realer” in many ways. Representing the only Melanesian country I visited, Fiji has been struggling since the ethnic conflicts between Fijians and Indians about landownership, economic- and political power escalated after independence and caused several military coups (most recently in 2006) as well as the county being expelled from the Commonwealth once and suspended from it several times (as happened last year).
I start winding. Now Marcelo is there and takes over the rod, Nick and I are waiting on the stern. When the fish appears on the surface Nick grabs it by its tail, takes off the hook and kills the fish, pushing his knife through its skull.
It’s a yellow-fin-tuna. I just finished scaling, skinning and filleting it and the delicious smell from the galley is telling me that when Marcelo has done his magic to it once again it will taste just as beautiful as every time.
Maybe we would have enjoyed it even more if we had known that it was going to be our last catch of tuna. The week after we fought with a real monster of a fish that turned out to taste awful, so we decided to just get rid of it and when I threw the leftovers over board, I said goodbye to the ocean and in my mind I turned a page, because on the horizon I could already see the continent that would be the setting for the next chapter: Australia.