This morning I woke up to the sounds of coconuts hitting the ground from the tall palms in the backyard and children gleefully playing in a language I don’t understand. For the first time in many weeks I woke with a sense of being refreshed and allowed myself to emerge from beneath the mosquito net when I wanted to. Entering the kitchen, I found Emily pouring a freshly macheted coconut into a pot with ice for the group of chattering siblings from next-door. The smallest girl looks up at me and eagerly begins telling me something excitedly in Tetum. My “la kompriende” must be confusing to a 5-year-old who is speaking so clearly and confidently. I’m stoked to be in Timor.
We were up till 3.30am last night sipping Tiger beers and swapping travel stories with Emily, our Australian host and now friend in Dili (Australian though, a local told us today she speaks Tetum so well that the only way they can tell she’s not Timorese is by the colour of her skin). Amongst the amazing discussions (imagine meeting someone who’s living the life you’ve dreamed you’d like to be wearing one day and realising that the values you’d wish to live by are the ones she practices everyday – pretty freaking inspiring!), I realised that this “conscious travel blog/project” thing we’ve started is only going to work if we (or certainly I) write about things when I’m experiencing them. This means one crucial thing, that Wendy Allan can surely see about herself from the time she took so much care staying within the lines of her colouring books: I have to let go of the need for these to be perfect polished pieces of writing. Travelling the way we are means it will never be a good time to spend all day working on an article (especially now we’ve left the shores of airconditioned-wifi-teamed-
We’ve just had what was both an incredible and awful experience, and are now trying to piece together the lessons that come from such events. We successfully left Australian shores by sea and travelled every nautical mile between my home continent to its foreign neighbour of Asia. A very good, inspiring and determined friend of mine (the one to plant the “overland” seed in my head (if you like the idea of travelling this way, you should check out Ben’s blog: http://theoverlanddude.bugs3.com/ He’s a good 6 months and 1000s of kilometers ahead of us (different planned route. I can’t wait to eventually swap stories with him (god knows where or when that will happen!))) was unable to pull off this leg of his journey. And us arriving in Darwin a month earlier into the wet and cyclone season than he (the year before), and within a week of two massive cyclones around the Australian coast, I did not like our chances. I was actually feeling panicked when Jurek posted our plans on the facebook wall – I’m not someone who is use to failure, let alone having my potential failures followed by an audience.
Again and again I asked Jurek to remind me why it was important for us to travel this stretch in this way (the answer encompasses the following: 1) the beautifully theoretical that we are interested to watch how geographical and cultural landscapes change hand-in-hand. 2) after getting so much out of experiencing the huge distances between places in Australia, we want to travel by sea to understand Australia’s place in the region and perhaps gain insight into the isolation that flight-only passenger services may cause the nation. 3) to prove it can be done.) It all sounded great. But after a mammoth hitch-hiking effort, through the outback in the off-season; Darwin is a frustrating (and expensive) city to be endlessly waiting in, whilst hearing discouraging news from any person you breech your dream with. I was impatient to move on to the next phase and next continent.
And then a chance dinner meeting with a couple of couchsurfers had us learn of a Gumtree ad that seemed to have almost have been written by someone who’d overheard us pleading our case to fishermen down the wharf: “Need a couple of people to crew yacht for a one-way journey Darwin to Dili to deliver medical aid”! Within the four days of arriving in Darwin we were meeting with the man who would make our passage possible. I never got to check out the recommended Nightcliff markets, because 6am on the Saturday morning the yacht was hitting the water and heading to be refueled before commencing the journey. What the hell?!! As on many points of our journey, Jurek and I were to shake our heads in disbelief – How can things always work out so well for us?! In this instance, the usual simplistic beauty and goodness in our travel experiences, was not so clear-cut.
From the preparation day, when we moved our things onto the yacht in Darwin, I realised our captain was a difficult person to be around. Graeme Hay has the rasping voice you’d expect from a chain-smoking, Vietnam veteran. Which is exactly what he is. And he uses all the aggression and foul language I’m sure he was exposed to in his army training. The team of young guys were sworn at the whole day long as they repaired the Skye Melody under the beating Darwin heat. Nothing was getting done fast enough or good enough for Graeme’s schedule. We put it down to stress in the lead up to departure: for sure there was a lot to think about. But we assumed things would calm down once we were on the open sea
Our crew of 5 was: Captain Graeme, Kyle (Graeme’s right hand man, a young lad fit to be moulded in his masters image), Steve or PC (a sweet hearted English man, who’d picked up 2 weeks of work with Graeme’s company & decided to take up the adventure offer. Into the journey I enquired what “PC” meant, the name Graeme called him the whole trip, I sarcastically assured him I was sure it would be something highly complimentary. Indeed he replied that it was short for “Pommy cunt”), Jurek & I. Besides the captain, we had little to none sailing experience between us.
Turns out sailing is not what I’d seen in travel brochures. I thought we’d all be having a jolly good time, cruising along, improving our tans. Instead the sea voyage had me more tired than I’ve been in a long time, took feeling dirty to the next level and switched my diet to something to be concerned about.
The boat stops for no man! Skye Melody was a 25m yacht. We took shifts at the wheel to keep us on course. The pleasure yacht looked more like a freighter, packed to the rafters with supplies, mostly donated medical goods that Timor-Leste is desperately in short supply of. But the cargo also included building supplies and kitchen equipment to help Graeme set up his resort in Dili, to make sure high-end tourists are catered for (vomit). Steve’s cabin was so filled with boxes that he had a pile to climb over before reaching his top bunk. So heavy was the boat that top speed was still less than bicycle pace. It was a 4 day journey
The first night we were woken from our much needed sleep. “The engine’s broken down”. I was sent to the deck to keep an eye out for passing ships, whilst the men carried tools up and down to the engine room. I wasn’t told much about what was going on, as I stood for hours and hours rocking with the waves on the deck in the moonlight. I wondered if I was looking for boats to hail down, like you would if your car broke down on the highway, and realised that drifting on the ocean is about as remote as you can get – probably no one will pass (later I found out I was rather to make sure we wouldn’t be hit by other boats). I was extremely tired after an exhausting and stressful (thanks to Graeme’s unpredictable moods) day in the sun and also suffering sea sickness, which Captain Graeme had told us is purely psychological (like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Boarderline Personality Disorder, I joked to myself as I considered the diagnosis of our highly anti-social captain). To keep myself awake and mind off feeling ill, I decided to sing myself songs to which I knew the words – a highly effective technique, should you ever find yourself in such a situation. I was holding myself together pretty well, until Jurek & Steve came out for petrol. They were feebly using a piece of hose to run petrol out of the 44 gallon drum into a small container. The hopeless process had to be repeated 6 times, and each time they spilled more and more petrol everywhere (the boat was rocking so much that petrol was pouring out of the drum). Everything was soaking with petrol. I was providing light with my head torch. The smell was nauseating and soon enough I was vomiting over the side, in between reciting the words to ‘Hey Jude’. Later, Jurek told me things were worse in the engine room: the stuffy little room still hot with the heat coming off the engine, petrol everywhere (his job was to soak rags in the petrol then wring them out into a bucket.. I won’t tell you where the bucket was emptied) and Graeme smoking cigarettes as he tinkered and swore at the engine. But eventually the thing fired back to life. Thankfully I was sent to bed. Jurek remained up for driving (how he was functioning the next day, I do not know.)
From then on, Jurek & I found ourselves on the midnight-6am steering shift. Steering at night was difficult, with only the partially working navigation system to keep us on course. A couple of times we had to take a detour around an approaching storm (luckily steering was one of the few things Graeme complimented Jurek on! Actually he said Jurek was the second best person he’d seen steer Skye Melody – guess it’s something some people just have!). We kept each other awake through the long nights having dance parties to The Greatest Hits of Boney M (Skye’s cd collection)
Being the only female crew member was interesting. Certainly I wasn’t asked to do as much as the guys. But the practicalities are not so easy for women of the sea. While the men piss off the stern, I had to flick a switch to turn the water pump on every time I needed to wee. The toilet/shower was a horrible tiny hot room in which everything was always wet. I could never manage to get the door to shut, so usually just took my chances on unlikely passing traffic (the crew). The flush was a pump on the floor, that had varying effectiveness. No toilet paper, which is cool, as you prepare yourself for Asia, until you get your period, then it’s logistically very complicated. Showers had to be as quick as possible, due to limited water supply on board. Drying yourself with a travel towel in that incubator was almost impossible, so I took to showering after the others went to bed, for the liberating experience of air drying as you move along the ocean – pretty special!
Graeme’s ways did not improve at sea. And Jurek became his favourite verbal punching bag. Graeme created a totally false image of what he believed Jurek to be. It was totally irrational. He accused Jurek of stealing his cigarettes, of coming to Timor to exploit it, and told me that Jurek was coming with only $500 in the bank (neither I nor Jurek know where he pulled this number from). He continued to punish Jurek for being all of these things that he is not and undermining our relationship. Jurek wrote a short piece about it here. On the ship there was no escaping the abuse and we were so tired from the physical work and interrupted sleep patterns, that we were really quite vulnerable. We are both grateful that through this experience we’ve been able to prove to ourselves both our inner strength as individuals as well as together as a couple. I feel really sad that this is the way Graeme has learnt to interact with people, and certainly grateful that I have been part of projects that are proving dominance and aggression are not the way to success.
Arriving to a new country by sea is very different to arrival by air. The yacht and us needed to be cleared by customs before we were allowed ashore. We docked 500m from Dili’s beach. Graeme and Kyle went to shore with our passports and Steve, Jurek and I were left to wait. For hours and hours (our first lesson of ‘Timor time’). Very weird having so much time to sit and observe the place from afar before being able to enter. We used binoculars to get a closer view. Very weird eating instant noodles, knowing amazing food is so close! Eventually we were allowed to land (which seemed to keep rocking like a boat for the next 2 days) and eventually we were released from Graeme’s ‘care’.
Despite being very tired, dirty and psychologically fragile upon my return to land, sea travel is an incredible experience. My favourite time of day on the boat was sunset; I’d stand on deck, rocking with the rhythm of the waves and looking out at the endless water. The feeling I’d get is bliss. That’s the memory I hope to hold.