3 AM, November, 1965 Malacca Straits, Indian Ocean-100 miles west-south-west of Singapore. Calm sea, clear sky.
The clanging metal woke me up again. The steel bulkheads of the old steamship vibrated in time with the thrumming of the engine. It sounded like a deep rumbling West-Texas oil rig getting ready to gush. I usually sleep along fine with the racket but wish it wouldn’t keep changing pitch every time the ship’s course altered. “... Last leg in to Singapore harbor...” I mumble into my pillow, not really awake. Dim yellow light shows through the open hatch like a pale false dawn, the color of the bulbs they use at sea at night so your eyes lose night vision. Not much sound makes its way into the cabin. The sea’s calm, no crashing waves against the hull. Just the steady deep rattling sounds of the crazy walls and a distant throb of the diesel. Old ‘knife in the gut’ twists slowly, and comes to a gurgling rest in my lower left side. I’ll be ok now for an hour or so, while those intestines gradually numb themselves out... settle into an aching slumber along with my brain - so long as I don’t move. The pain is real but not the “knife”. It’s only amoebic dysentery in its 10th month and in India hadn't seemed especially alarming; just a bit part in the ongoing action movie, accompanied by snake-charmers and phallic companions, oboe-whining reed flutes. The incipient cinnamon sky of the cities, polluted, nauseating; scrumptious, fascinating odors. “ ...dreaming now.” I suppose to myself, and dive back in to floating images: Worshippers and tourists both, in front of the temples, watching the curious symbols painted in purple and black and red on the walls. Eyes, spirals, swastikas... And there was the heat and insane thirst. I couldn't help but slurp water like some dry deranged sponge blown in from the desert. Drinking from another polluted tap every hour or two, each and all 12 months of the trip, accompanied by the knives. ‘Made me feel like a real Hindu... Nowadays it isn’t much. I only feel pain at night. A toke of charas helps me forget as I roll over into a dazed slumber. Rivulets of sweat roll down my face, my neck, chest, finally reaches the swollen belly. But I’m nodded out now. The single bare bulb swinging from a wire tacked to the overhead shows mosquito shadows on the plaster overhead. All is normal.
“I guess it was just too easy to jump on this French tub in Marseilles. Easier than going to Morocco and getting robbed by Arabs trying to buy that cheap dhow to sail along the North African shoreline. That was the first plan... Civilization is approaching!
I chuckle over that oxymoron. ‘Imagine thinking of the neurotic world of hamburger and pizza, billboards and robots, scamming and scarfing and boom boxes a-blasting... as civilization.. The ship’s doctor laid the rap on me good this morning, “...that sort of dysentery, amoebic...better head on home and say good-bye to Mom...quite incurable...” I'd guessed the doc would say something like that, with his cool white silk trousers and polo shirt and white tennies. “This is just part of the trip crazy man, part of being back in the world!” I dream along, loudly, to myself. “Bedside manner!” I mumble to the wall leaving the clinic, wondering if the rust and flaking paint understood pain any better than humans. I made my way back to 3d class. Dreaming again: “... There for a friggin year,” I dream on, envisioning the past 12 months. I think I’m asleep but maybe not: “...living in temples, caves, eating cuisine of the skin-and-bones people...who I was one of then. What did I weigh there on the Bombay dock, 110 lbs? I had to pay some dues I convinced myself. ...so I had to go and check with the damn ship’s doctor knowing he’d upset the shit out of me, some pun, un-intended.”
It was morning. Singapore harbor’s in view off the port bow, the big smokestacks of the ship blowing puffy black-rings that rise to embrace huge equatorial-clouds like giant popcorn gone crazy. Blindingly vivid colors. The heat should melt me and everything down soon. I can taste the day through my pores... "Anyway, the Frenchy sawbones can take a hike. I’ll take care of this one way or another.” I’m thinking to myself. I must be awake now; my anger’s back. I dress, shower, fill up with French rolls and black tea, see the Immigration man in the lounge, pick up my one bag from the deck and walk down the gang-plank in to the city. Hot yellow-white sun laughed down on a mirage. The clean streets of Singapore are a happy shock after India and I walk down the street, around the side of Raffles Hotel, until I find Queen Street. Three blocks more and I’m in front of the Sikh temple and its golden dome perched on high, white-washed walls. Sikh and Hindu temples always have spaces for travelers to sleep and free stuff to eat. They also keep large rooms for dancers and musicians to perform in. 'Nice to get here. I wear all of my only clothes: a dhoti, a wrap-a-round piece of cloth used as a skirt or turban, which I also sleep on, green rubber flip-flops, the soles and straps repaired dozens of times on the streets of the Punjab and in the alleys of Calcutta. An extra turban-cloth, and my only shirt, white with yellow splotches, some buttons left. Everything was mostly white. This was good since that’s the Sikh holy color and the head priest, Ravi Gupta, with large grin and big white beard, probably enjoyed my choice of oufit. He led me to a large private room instead of to the dorm. It had a huge bed with mosquito netting and a ceiling fan. I collapse immediately into my giant mattress, sleep four or five hours, and rouse finally to the sound of pans banging outside in the courtyard. I follow my nose to the fragrance of dal and chapati, lentils and unleavened bread, the afternoon fare. I met the other guests between mouthfuls: All were French junkies except for Roonie, a Cockney on his way to Australia to make his fortune. He was of short stature, not much over 5 foot 3, with a reddish-black bush of a beard. He had quite a glint in his skeptical eyes. Black teddy-boy jeans and a green and faded and patched yellow t-shirt fit like a wet glove over his skinny, wiry frame. A tattoo of a heart with the word ‘Mother’ written underneath jiggled on his upper arm when he’d scoop up a helping of lentils. Slurping noisily; he ate like a thirsty lizard who had come in from deep desert, spying the oasis at last, rushing to it... After a year in Asia I still hadn't run into any Americans. In 1965, it seemed all the foreigners were European junkies, mostly French; it was good to run into Roonie, someone who could gab away in my own language. The Sikh fathers had pegged the other foreigners as rif-raf since they could smell the regular drifting of opium fumes from their dormitory, which was just one room, slightly smaller than my own. No fans, no bug-nets or beds, just flaking drab walls. So I invited Roonie into my classy private room for a chat and we talked about the Orient for awhile and then nodded out...
The next morning I went out to see Queen Street: everything on Earth was right there: crazy food, from snakemeat to bacon, hibiscus soup to shredded coconut. Everything. No pro-biotic poverty here-abouts; I wished I knew what some of this stuff was, or at least how it tasted. Plenty of it was alive and wiggling. So it couldn’t be rotten. But I played it safe. I recognize bananas and white bread and know how they taste and they don’t move around. I eat a conservative first breakfast of yellow and white. Right outside the temple the whole show starts: Under plastic tarps or pieces of cardboard or corrugated tin sits the noodle-soup man. And the quick-fix tailor, a sewing lady, hardware and odds and ends guy, and my main man, the cha(tea)and milk dude. His giant espresso machine on wheels has a heating unit that issues forth an endless stream of scalding hot water. He spiggots it in to a cup before adding flavour, tea or condensed milk, super thick, way too sweet... just perfect. Across the street from my stall are flamboyant cubbyholes without geometric features, just brightly colored paper and cloth waving in the breezes. “Probably a front for an opium den” I muse, not recognizing any of the stuff on display. Remembering the gut problem I hustle up Queen Street until I find what I’m looking for. Neighborhood health clinics are found throughout the Orient. In India they’d used the ancient ‘ayurveda’ medicine system. I walk apprehensively through the doorway of my first Chinese Medicine clinic, re-assured by the wrinkled grinning old guy staring at me from an alcove. He wore a silk traditional shirt, pressed, and faded with age, retaining traces of a purple hue. His well worn trousers are a kind of charcoal color splattered with stains. He wore his silvery hair long, tied behind the back of his head in the classic pig-tale style. His face was unusual, floppy, hairy ears, bent, flattened nose. Large sardonic black eyes studied me as he motioned me to a wicker chair along the brown and paint-peeling wall. His expression reminded me of clouds; moving, changing. For awhile he listened to my rambling attempt to explain my problem and finally held up a finger to indicate ‘enough-stop’. He cleared his throat and diagnosed: “You got damn heat to be rid of, come in here.” “Damn heat!!???” I muse... “What the hell’s that?” I sat on his treatment chair, an old wobbling cane affair that creaked even under my 110 pounds. He grabbed my leg with both hands and then quickly inserted 4 fine, hair-sized straight pins just below and above my knee, and then right in to the gut-pain area, near my belly button. I didn’t have time to react, or resist, or jump, but...it hadn’t really hurt and I idly wondered about that. Then he began mixing in his stone pestle some wild-smelling things, “herbs, I think, I hope”... I thought I smelled opium. “Take this all at one time when you get home.” He directed. Hell, it was the size of a baseball. I gagged just thinking about it. I wobbled on the chair-like-thing for a few minutes before staggering to my feet and out the door. 40 minutes went by, returning the same way I’d come, down Queen Street past the vendors and tea shops, to my templic abode. I flopped onto the bed, feeling woozy. And slept.
My eyes opened and I checked a clock. Twenty-six hours had disappeared by and the afternoon had arrived again. Feeling a strange pressure in my gut I raced to the john in time to discover to my happy delirious dismay, instead of the squirting blood I’d become accustomed to, a real turd, brown, hard, reminiscent of the way olden days. My life was back! I felt wonderful! I was fixed! I'd taken a poop! I wanted to hold it in my hand, frame the damn thing... ****************************
'Suitably impressed, I began hanging out with Lee Tong, learning a bit about his past, which he reluctantly spoke of. Chinese, like more than half the people in Singapore, he was originally from Guangzhou in South China, and an illegal in Singapore. “I came by boat...” he explained. He hadn’t bothered to check in with Immigration or get papers but he’d been a well-known Master of Chinese Medicine at the University hospital in his home town. His reputation seemed to pacify or, at least satisfy, local authorities. Lee Tong introduced me to plenty of bizarre stuff, like that ‘damn heat’ deal, which turned out to be “damp heat”, a pathology syndrome in Chinese Medicine roughly, but not precisely, like high temperature and water retention in Western term. The “state of your organs and what surrounds them. Their environment...” he said. I was really buzzed by all the weird new perspectives and language! Every day lunch I'd head up to his office, walk in to the waiting room and raise my voice: "Hey Tong, where are you old dude?" I’d hear his grunt somewhere in the back muffled by the curtains on the doors. As I make my way to the treatment rooms in the back I push aside cobwebs and startle a mouse. He’s got no patients so he sits with me for a few hours and explains obtuse points about protocols. Sometimes he has a patient and then he yells: "Hey Amelican goose, you wanna sweep harrway"? I would. I liked hanging out with him. He was like the father I’d always wanted. My mind spun, trying to digest at least part of what he was revealing to me.
I was enchanted by the Singapore street scene. Every Friday afternoon the Chinese opera troupe would begin setting up their stage right next door to the Sikh temple. We could sit in the center of our courtyard and easily see the stage and all and everything on it. By 9 PM they were ready to ring up the curtain. Shrieking horns and booming giant drums made the stage come alive with crazy colored costumes and emotions. Voices reached pitches unfamiliar and disturbing to my western ear. Disparate sounds of strings, brass and percussion bothered hell out of me. But gradually my brain slowed down long enough to listen closer, and then it became, somehow... musical From our back courtyard there in the Sikh compound we felt really privileged. It was like being in the balcony of a small theatre back in the Midwest. I wondered how much money we were saving by not buying tickets. As strange, whining and weird as the stories and songs were, we were entranced. Sometimes the shrill squeaking voices and horns would carry me off somewhere, and suddenly I'd be brought back with a jolt as the big bass drum got whacked.> What with the operas and daily visits to Tong and the lively street scene of Singapore, the weeks passed along quickly enough. I felt like a moth in a carnival of lamb’s wool... I might still could be there too, but for the appearance of Zephyr, a little sailboat I saw one day bobbing in the straits, all white and bright and sturdy. With the first vision of Zephyr I remembered in a flash my original fantasy plan to sail around Asia, right to Japan, even right up to the Zen monastery door in Kyoto. I didn’t do that though. Instead I did different movie, another saga. Away again from so-called civilization. I was about to say Aloha to big cities...
Backing up a bit a week or so: One afternoon returning to the temple courtyard I came across Roonie sitting cross-legged in the shade, happily picking his nose. He confessed to buying a ticket to Sidney and was on his way early next week. The idea of my only friend up and disappearing was a sobering thought. It made me wonder what in hell I was doing in Singapore anyway. At some point during the conversation I remembered what my plan was supposed to be. The adventure had begun a little over a year before with an apparition in the nocturnal clouds of a late summer Iowa sky. I saw deep purple colors and then a booming voice came from ‘above’ with what I decided later was a message intended for me personally, I probably been dreaming but it seemed real, just like the Peyote I’d just vomited up... "Go East young man!" was what I heard. And the “East!” was capitalized, right there in the clouds. So now here I was. But how much more East was there, I wondered out loud to the rats, spiders, walls, and to Rooney. Of course I couldn’t make things too simple, so ‘had to do the last leg of this ‘quest’ by boat. That was a must. That'd been part of the plan from square one. But I hadn't figured on how to do it. Not that I was an experienced sailor or much of a swimmer, but sea lubber dreams always grabbed me from since my summers of motor-boating and fishing as a kid. I’m the archetypal Iowa kid, with regular fantasies about blue seas and islands. But now with no cows, pigs or dank farm smells, the dream seemed shaky. Hey, Wake up! I’m back in Singapore, stop dreaming and do something!” ‘Time to find a boat...‘seek a ship!
Most Iowa boys dream of ocean voyages and palm trees before we even see movies about them. Never mind that I hadn't thought any of this through; surrounded by ocean like this, I knew boats were all over the place and ‘mine’ would show up. Next day At the local yacht club I see a cabin cruiser for sale -sign and arrange to meet the owner in an hour. A British Colonel, pleasant chap with a skinny and trimmed moustache, agreed with me about the problem of the peeling paint on the cabin and topsides, but instead of reducing the price says he’ll pay for the paint if I do the work. He also specifies that the color must be white or brown, the only “proper” colors for boats in his British mind. I mumble something at this final caveat but am not about to queer the deal; this soldier has the very thing I think I want. First thing Saturday morning Roonie and I reach the harbor before the early haze burns off, make our way to the paint shed and spend the next half hour concocting and mixing up the wildest shade of exotic purple ever seen in these parts. I was just a beatnik rebel after all, and the Englishman had been too emphatic about “proper” color. The little motorboat became a sort of a cross between Merlot and pink. All day until nearly sunset we stroked and sweated our way across the decks and hull and cabin roof and finally staggered ashore resembling purple carnival creatures, though we figured we’d put at least half of the paint on the boat itself... On the way back to the temple I stopped at a side street stall and bought 4 yards of purple paisley print material to make curtains with. I figured the cruiser could use some shade and privacy inside. Next day, Sunday morning, we went to the boat to put her through a shakedown cruise. The colonel was away on maneuvers until Tuesday so we had all day and the next to cruise around and decide whether I would buy the boat or not. We headed straight out to sea, passing dozens of small islands in the first hour. Roonie wanted me to break out the pipe, but I was afraid of getting confused... or lost. His subtle rebuttal was: "... If we don't want to enjoy our selves what's the bloody reason for being out here, anyway?"... So we got shit-faced. With wind in our hair we sailed until late in the afternoon, did a 180 degree come-about to return to the harbor. At that precise motor the auxiliary engine sputtered, popped, and quit. Great silence ensued. It was even more beautiful out there now but sundown was threatening and we started noticing minor things... like being hungry and exhausted. About 1/2 hour before the final sunset a long white water-spout appeared on the horizon to the North. In another 5 minutes, after seeming larger and brighter, the ‘spout’ turned in to a jet boat skimming over the water at high speed. After zig-zagging back and forth for a few minutes and us frantically waving hats and arms, the crew seemed finally to notice us and it came closer. My eyes watered and felt like they were popping out of my sockets as the lady in the black bikini drew up to the side of our helpless craft. Of course the speedboat and her male companion who was steering were there too, but I only noticed her at first. What an angel! Perfection! With golden proportioned limbs and torso, carrying an ultimate face with honey-brown lips, ivory complexion and perfect Kwan Yin features. She wore the frail black bikini like a proud, miniature flag of ancient China. Finally I noticed her companion who looked like a Chinese James Bond. His piercing glance ripped apart my reverie. My stare unhappily abandoned the lady as he noticed it. I wondered if he was about to pull a gun from under that seat in the boat. "We're plumb out of gas!" I manage to croak. "No sweat, we've got a spare 5 gallon can" replied ‘Bond, James Bond. "And we'll follow you in to get it back, and you’ll reimburse us then." "Right on! Of course! Don't know what we’d a done if you hadn't come by..." So we putted on in to the harbor and that was the end of our motor cruise for today... and for forever. I'd decided on the way in that I'd never reach Japan without an extra 2 thousand gas cans...and tons more money. That took care of the cabin-cruiser purchase, sweet and simple! A kind of melancholy settled over me as we left the “purple blob” on the horizon and rowed back to shore. She actually was blending in to the scenery now that it was sunset; another lavender splotch between the red sky and black water. The Chinese club manager welcomed us back, commiserated with our insufficient-funds predicament, but laughed out loud about what the English major's face would resemble Tuesday morning when he arrived to see his newly purple-ized ship. He also had a suggestion: "Check out that sloop at the end of the pier, she's for sale and for much less than the cruiser...!" I was stunned. For bobbing at the dock was a pretty little white sailboat in mint condition! Its paint was in perfect condition. Its mahogany rails were shining in the receding glow of twilight. A gull flew overhead, leaving his cry behind as if a vote of approval. Of course I'd never sailed in my life but when I saw the gorgeous little boat bobbing in the darkening green waters the moment of madness was on me. “Nothing must keep me from having this..!” Her name was the Zephyr There was a neat little Johnson 3 horse engine in a cuddy cabinet, but I only planned to sail...if I could just figure out how. The imminent problem was that the British Major owed several months back rent on the slip for the Zephyr and planned to pay it up with the proceeds from this sale. That meant, since I couldn’t afford to pay yacht club fees for docking there, I had to move the boat immediately after the transaction. And I had no idea how to do that. I would have liked to hang around the club and watch other people sail around for awhile. Maybe get a tip or two from them. But we had to bug out as it was getting dark...and tomorrow was the day of the sale! Things worked out though, in their usual dicey way: (a): Roonie left, off on his cruise to Queensland, Down-under. (b): I grabbed the wild purple material from the cruiser and had it tailored into a pair of crazy, tight pants, which became my only pair since I’d been only wearing the dhoti rags from India until now. (c): I found a book in a small shop off Queen Street, "How to sail in 10 easy lessons" and brought it back to my room. It didn't seem so easy at first glance. (d): But after a couple of bowls of hash the book started making sense! Next morning, me and a hangover and accompanied by Joe, a Malayan boy I'd met though hardly remembered from my crazy stoned trip the night before, left for the boat. I sort of recall him saying that he knew the Malay Peninsula extremely well and I remember telling him I was an experienced skipper and sailor who needed a crewman. Both of us, the worst liars in the world, arrived at the dock. Carrying bananas and white bread, ‘still not venturing into the more exotic and squirming foodstuffs, we load up, pull the anchor, and head to sea. I had the little sailing-lessons book under my buns so Joe couldn’t see it but I could draw it out in a jiffy if something came up. Fortunately it didn't... that first day. The day was gorgeous! The ocean at a light chop, the breezes mild and caressing and at our backs. Sailing along with the wind, my hand lazily on the tiller (though I didn't know what it was called at the time), not needing to do anything, hardly even to steer since we were heading straight North along the coast, I was having an epiphany if anyone ever had one. That evening, just around sunset, I spied a river mouth and steered towards it, moving the rudder only an inch or so to my left, in order to cruise right up the center. We drifted about 2 city blocks before slowly coming to a stop, where we tied up to overhanging tree branches. We spent a peaceful night munching bananas and bread, which I’m really beginning to get into, dreaming of mermaids and rainforests. Joe didn't snore, thankfully. Next morning getting down the river was easy since the current was going that way. It was another beautiful day: the sunlight filtered its golden rays through the green trees with celestial flair. The sounds were cheerful; cicadas counter-pointing the howler monkeys, then we reached the sea and the all of the easy stuff vanished. We had to turn 'right' in order to head north so I pulled the rudder towards me and hoped. The problem was that now the wind, which had played along so beautifully behind us, pushing us all the day before without me needing to do anything with the rudder or sails, wasn't in a good mood today. In fact it was directly in front of us now and frustrated any moves I made to turn in the direction I needed to go. North. Whatever I did, including: drift awhile and then read the second and third chapter of my sailing guide and then pull in sail and crank over rudder...awesomely failed. I discovered big time, that I wasn't a sailor or even a swabbie, but, then, I didn't want Joseph to know that. I keep a cool smile on my face and off-handedly quipped stuff like: "Wind's kickin up pretty good, eh?" and "Nice to be out of the city on a day like this...", or: "...wow, that was a good one!", after getting a 20 gallon wave splashed in our face. Then a sudden wave conspiring with a particular gust of wind jerked the Zephyr a tad to the side and, bingo, I wave my arms frantically, and fell overboard. I would have been totally humiliated but was busy being terrified. I placed that other emotion out of mind. Frantically, I swam with all my strength trying to catch up to the rapidly drifting boat. I thought for an instant that my crewman would come to the rescue: throw me a line, grab the wildly-flapping sail... something. Nope. Not only didn't he do those things, but obviously more panicked then me, there he was, I could see him through soggy wet eyes, crouching on the top of the cabin, wildly clinging with all his might to the mast. So it turned out, and this was a real moment of revelation for the both of us, on several scores, that: 1.> I wasn't a really a captain at all, or even a suitable student-trainee swabbie. 2.>I hadn't read chapter one too well. 3.>Joseph not only had never been out on the water, he was petrified of it; he couldn't swim a stroke. 4.>We didn't like each other any more, in fact, murderous glances were born of that moment though I could hardly make out his eyes for the waves that kept pounding my face. Adrenaline produced by thought of my imminent death was eventually enough to allow me to catch up with the floundering Zephyr. Like a humiliated spaniel I dragged myself up Zephyr's transom and collapse on the back deck, shaking like a leaf and choking up the gallon of salt water I'd swallowed. Joe still desperately clung to the mast with both hands and looked forlornly back towards Singapore harbor, as if it would magically reappear and tele-transport him back to dry land and all that he'd known...and left, behind. I got busy with the instruction book again. Yup, right there on page 15 I found out I'd made a serious error when trying the 'come about' tactic. I'd done it too slowly and cautiously so that the wind would beat us back to sideways before we could pass over to the other side of the blast. “Fine!” At least now I could understand the problem. If I could only manifest this in to the real world we'd be fine. A couple more ragged attempts and I made it around to the other 'tack'. Now we were heading in the right direction at least. North. We began to round a bend where the wind became her old friendly self as she blew from our rear and I only had to hold the rudder steady like before. Like it was supposed to be! Now we made good time. I guess we traveled some 30 miles before the sun began to get low again. All of a sudden I spied a village built up on both sides of a small river. Its brown waters flowed down the sea to meet us. I aimed for the brown streak of flowing water and kept to the middle of the channel, moving more slowly in the face of the onrushing current but not coming to a stop, thank God. Some raggedy boards in the shape of a dock appear and I swung in towards them and tie up the stern while Joe eventually gets a line on it from up on the bow. We flip a coin to see who goes ashore first to reconnoiter. Joe loses. I climb the steep 40 foot embankment into the little town. In all it’s about 2 city blocks along the riverbank, but I can’t see how far it stretches out to each side. Houses and buildings are thatch and boards topped with corrugated aluminum sheet roofs. Colorful pieces of cloth curtain the windows, through which I glimpse family life. Kids shouting and playing. Food cooking. The smells make me hungry. I buy bananas and white bread (still my only and constant dietetic regimen since I never can recognize any of the other things...) from a shop up the block and head back to the ship to fix dinner (well, to get a knife and cut the bread and peel the bananas ...) Singapore Joe wants to go ashore and borrows my sandals; I never saw them or him again. At least he’d waited until I got back. Maybe he felt funny without shoes since he was in Malaysia. Night air brought intriguing sounds and smells. Nearly all were unrecognizable; the insectile buzzing an exception, and the dogs. I felt pretty weird. Being a stranger I suppose that’s normal but then again, there’s something else funny. Finally I get it, there are no human noises. It’s as if the villagers have all cleared out, or are staying dead quiet for some unknown reason. Damn! Maybe it’s me! Could be they’re not used to strangers. Maybe there’s a taboo about crazy white men walking their streets or parking on their river. Hard to say but I’m not feeling comfortable. I grab snatches of sleep but one eye keeps opening through the night, in reaction to the unfamiliar bird-noises, bug noise...”...was that a dog growling...?” Dawn makes it at last, with a deep purple breath that reflects back off the cumulous clouds that had gathered while I slept. I say a quiet prayer for calm weather, untie from the pier and drift slowly down to the sea.
How large is the ocean, how deep the sea? how far do I have to go? Being 22 this is too much thinking for my reality...too much reality for my head. ” I finally had time to think. Without my faithful crewman, the god damn critic, or the need to constantly refer to my little 10-lesson book (now that I had the hang of this stuff!), I was feeling loose and good. I let my thoughts run loose, and good, all over the place...wherever they wanted to go. Like the little Zephyr who was carrying me along, wind and waves taking us, but I gots rudder choices too... now that I know what a rudder is. I knew Japan lay in the opposite direction. I was sailing north, out of Singapore harbor, up the west coast of Malaysia. I’d have to circum-nabulate the whole globe before reaching the ‘Empire of the Sun’ in this direction. But something magnetic was pulling me up this way. I also told myself I needed a ‘shakedown’ cruise to learn more about sailing and the shape of this boat before daring the passage through Vietnamese waters...and Chinese! Besides, the wind was going in this direction! I didn’t want to think fucking facts about the future.
I tasted the morning as I hauled up the main sail. Salt-fresh air and sea spray. The golden eye of the sun winked down at me and at the emerald sea. Green and gold mist teased my eyes and I chose a new course to the north. Panang, in northern Malaya I thought, would be a suitable end-point for the shakedown, then I’d turn around and head for Japan. All the deep thoughts reluctantly melted down in the late morning heat. I took off my last piece of clothing, the purple pants. I’d tailored them from the purple curtains. I wouldn’t be needing curtains; the purple cruiser lay far behind. Naked and sweating but comfortable except for my sun-burned face, I cruised out to sea. I donned the plastic Easter bonnet I’d picked up in the village market yesterday and as I blinked through the sudden shade felt a cool relief. Now this was the way to travel. “Leave the driving to us” yelled the wind and waves... This alone-at-sea and slightly-lost version of life was making my head throb. What the fuck was I doing here? The ‘quest’ aspect confused me. What ever difference did it make to a 22 year-old if I understood life’s meaning or not? What was the rush? I couldn’t decipher most of the thoughts rambling through my sun-drenched mind. I just kept holding the tiller, and sailed towards the horizon... “...we can’t help asking questions about the world to which we can never know the answers.” Who said that...I tried to think, “Kant”, I thought, deciding right there and then with one of my own: “Reality is a tricky dog... every time you think you got him by the tail he turns around and bites you on your ass...”
I’m making pretty good time sailing with the wind, again mostly, nearly straight North. I reckoned I should get to Kuala Lampur within the week, then I could decide to turn around and head for Japan...or not. Naked, except for my bonnet, I was comfortable and getting a good tan. I was just munching bread and bananas du jour , whistling, enjoying this stuff...when, off my port bow (damn I was getting good with the ole nautical terminology), a large dark cloud-like thing which had begun as a mere dot and now was a shadowy blob, seemed to get closer. I couldn’t make it out at first. Just a black shape on the horizon, but coming closer by the hour, then by the minute. The apparition seemed to notice me at last too; it altered course slightly, pointing more directly at me, seemingly to intersect my path a little further on. It dawned on me all of a sudden, that I was mainly flaunting a lot of lightly tanned naked skin under this feminine hat of mine and wondered if they could be sex-starved crazies, or even pirates, coming at me. I certainly had no cargo any bandit would be wanting so, what the...? They were definitely coming right for me. My thoughts confused me. What should I do? Obviously I couldn’t outrun that size ship with her huge sails. I tried anyway. Pointing the bow over towards the East, heading for shore which was 6 or 7 miles away. I was scared shitless; “What do they want? What in hell will they do with me if they catch me...?” It was a beautiful day though; the sea was a deep turquoise green and the puffy marshmallow clouds seemed to be racing along with the sea and the Zephyr. And with the shadowy black pirate ship. Then I could see her more clearly; I could discern the shape of a few bodies moving around the deck. It was a junk! “Christ!” A huge Chinese junk in this day and age? It pushed a large bow wave in front of itself, crashing through the green waves, trying to head me off before I could reach that point of land I was aiming for. And gaining too! She definitely could cut me off. I wished I wasn’t here! Not out in the middle of the Straits of Malacca with pirates about to board and capture and...what? Rape, murder? “Shit!”. All I had was some bread and bananas. I figured the pirates were going to get pretty pissed off if THAT was all the treasure they could find... I saw a flash of light reflect from the head of the man on the bow of the junk. I knew he was sighting with binoculars and would now know how alone and easy this prey was going to be. Then I had a sudden inspiration. I stood up by the tiller, turned towards the pirates, held my arms in the air, and began a happy welcoming, crazy dance, hopping from one foot to the other and shaking my booty and my hands to an unheard melody. My balls were flopping in the wind along with my waist-length hair. That must have worked. The huge craft suddenly came about. It was resuming its southerly course... Several crewmen had joined the others on deck and a few waved at me. I guessed they were most likely heterosexual and that I was safe, again, now, at least, or until a real homosexual crew came upon me in this same stupid situation. But what were the odds of that? I was feeling better. I decided to stick a bit closer to shore, though that made for a longer sail since I now had to follow more closely the contour of the Malayan coast. But what was my hurry? I found my purple pants in the cabin and put them where I could grab 'em if my latest homo-phobe paranoia came true. “Gay pirates? Improbable, I finally admit to myself, and re-stashed the pants below and resumed sailing and sun-tanning...my subsequent sigh laden with ennui. Well, enough fun for one day...
The wind went “hooo” in the rigging and the day cruised by more swiftly then past ones. Almost before I knew it the sun began its scarlet plunge. I looked towards shore, some 6 miles distant, and knew I wouldn’t reach it before the black of night. The sunset was looking so good that I just wanted to stop right there and enjoy it. Of course, my anchor rope would never reach bottom and I couldn’t just drift all night. I could end up anywhere by morning. And then, as if right on cue, I noticed the first stick rising its skinny nose up from the surface. “Hello, what’s this?” I mumbled aloud to myself and the sea. “Over 5 miles out and this stick sticking up out of the water here...!” As I pulled the tiller over, coming up on the stick to see it better I noticed another one some twenty yards further on. Then another about the same distance away but at an easterly angle. All three, and then a fourth appeared at the limit of my eyesight, formed a rough but straight line in the sea! After a couple of minutes I realized they were part of a fishing operation, apparently out here to string very long nets from. The nets were obviously not there at the moment. I thought: “Boy, if they WERE there the fishing would be great around here!” But they solved my immediate problem beautifully. Now I had something to tie up to. Five miles out and I had my own docking, at least a stable something, affixed to the planet itself and that would keep me in position during the night. I tied up to one of the middle poles. Then I just leaned back to enjoy the flaming purple that was spread out before me in the west, tranquilizing my brain “just like a martini would...” I thought... In the morning I merely loosened my square-knot from the pole. I came to realize I was going to have to learn another knot eventually as that one always took a long while to undo after a night of tightening itself up. I loosened sail and moved smoothly again towards the North...
Three weeks passed by. Then one afternoon as I was tacking away from the sun which was over the coastline I spied my first islands. “Now this was what it was all about” I said to myself. Certainly there was no one else about to say it to; I was beginning to talk a lot to my Easter bonnet these days. “Islands!” They were what I really had dreamed about, year after year. Why, I wasn’t sure, but I felt they meant something or other in some archetypal way. “Maybe they symbolized man amidst the universe”, ‘sounded good. I’m musing again, wondering if my mind was going. “...great mystery surrounding a tiny piece of the known...” I couldn’t help myself, these were the first dramatic events on the horizon I’d seen since the pirates had passed by. They seemed to be out off-shore maybe some ten or fifteen miles. I wanted...I really needed to get out to them. But I was out of bananas and bread. And water. I needed to provision badly and couldn’t just assume there was water and food way out there. Then I began noticing signs of there being a good-sized town approaching me along the shore, more accurately I was moving towards IT, seeing an occasional large European-styled home along the shore and a couple of large radio or TV towers in the near distance. Obviously this wasn’t another native village or fishing camp. Then I knew it for a city for sure as I saw the golf-course stretching along the shore-line with little dots of brightly colored men carrying their clubs over shoulders, making way towards their supreme goals, the little flapping-in-the-wind red flags. So I knew I was going to be able to get supplies here at least. Then I was for sure gonna head for those enticing little islands...
It was late in the afternoon when I rounded the last point of land creating the large bay and harbor mouth of the city. I could see from my map that its name was Muar. Since I didn’t want to be caught in the dark I postponed my shopping trip in favor of tying up to one of the middle stanchions of the large bridge which crossed the bay. It apparently connected the city with the northern part of Malaysia. Supping on my last bit of bread and bananas I watched the fiery sunset and settled in to a peaceful thru-the-night slumber. A hot, bright sunny day woke me and also made my stomach growl; I’d finished off the last banana the night before. So I didn’t fool around any more, just untied and made my way to the only visible dock in sight, seemingly close to the center of town, tall buildings around it nearby. Tying to the large pier I made my way up the street, trying for a market area somewhere not too far off. As I walked the early morning streets of Muar someone yelled at me from across the street. Since I really looked out of place around most parts of Asia I was used to it. Usually the refrain was either “hey Santa Claus...” (I had a huge sun-bleached blonde beard and very long hair) or “hey Elvis Presley”; he was the most popular American at the time in the Far East though I couldn’t figure how they saw me in him. There were no European types visible on the streets, just brown Malay men and women. Not even Chinese were in sight. That made an impression on me since most of the people on Singapore streets had been Chinese.
“Hey Abraham Lincoln!” The guy cried, walking towards me, hoping for conversation with a bizarre-looking guest from a foreign land. “Why Lincoln?” I ask of the guy, turning around. Unfortunately he’d taxed most of his English vocabulary and couldn’t come up with an answer. I continue down the boulevard, wondering where he’d come up with that. After all I’m five-feet six, blond, no top hat...I was glad I hadn’t worn my bonnet, which could’ve made me “Mrs. Lincoln”...or worse I find a decent and recognizable dish of chicken and something-or-other in a tent-restaurant near the market and chow down heartily for the first time in weeks. A cup of coffee to wash it down perked me up nicely and I amble over to the market. After studying the available fare for more than a half an hour I decide on, you guessed it, a big bunch of bananas and several loaves of white bread. With a vision of those islands burning in my brain I returned to the dock toting my supplies. I wasted no time hoisting sail and heading out, this time towards my special dream...deserted islands, all just for me, myself...alone. The tropical wind was still southerly, blowing two-foot long strands of hair into my mouth and eyes. One of these days I’d need a haircut, I decided. Blowing wind whitened the tops of the cobalt waves as I continued north on some distant mission. A rendezvous? Like a planet whirling through space it payed no attention to the flotsam and fragments it was passing by. Seaweed, foam... and me. Munching a banana and seeing the Zephyr chew through the choppy surface of the Straits seemed just right and nice. Well-fed and energized I aimed for the little dots on the horizon...
The dots became fuzzy as we got a bit closer. Surely trees or brush. At least it wasn’t just coral reef and rock. “Jungle islands!” I amuse myself with fantasies bubbling up from past movies and dreams and books. I remember lots of books; I didn’t want to think about the Conrad ones, no sad-bad thoughts. I was pointed directly at the seemingly largest one of the group of three islands off my starboard bow. The one most upwind; the one most southerly on the map. I figured that if it wasn’t suitable for exploration I’d merely run with the wind to the North and then be able to check on the second and third one. I estimated we were out about 15-18 miles from Muar, the City I left behind this morning; the mainland was visible only as a trace of shadow on the horizon. It was about noon so the heat was up but nicely mollified by cool breeze and waves. As I began to make out individual trees in the green scene ahead I also noticed that below me I could see the bottom. The pure greenish-blue had mutated. Large brown spots appeared that got bigger as I went along. Then, like a sudden nightmare, the brown monster below grabbed the rudder. I’d only scraped bottom but it was so noisy and sudden I jumped to my feet to see what had happened. We were in about 3 feet of water and the bottom seemed to be right there. Coral heads and seaweed and rocks and sand seemed to form a huge jungle there underneath. I pulled the rudder up to half position and pivoted towards the motor locker where, finally, after only a couple of minutes that seemed hours, I was able to wrestle out the little Johnson outboard from its cabinet and manage to get it bolted on to the transom. Ah, this was great; for the first time in two weeks I’d turned on the power. Just steer now, here we go, right straight in... “Clunk, groan....WHAM! Five minutes after getting going, chugging gracefully towards the mystery island, the sudden nasty noise nearly stopped my heart... the rocks below had just stopped my engine. Pulling the shaft from the water I saw right away what had happened; I’d broken half of the propeller right off. There was just one blade left and would barely move the boat along... I could see that the water from here on in towards the shore was the same depth or even less; I turned the bow over, back out to sea. Then I hauled up the main sail and pointed the Zephyr to the next island of the chain. Hopefully I could find a deeper water approach over there. It seemed to be about three miles over to there. I decided to approach the second island from the West because I thought I’d seen most of the eastern and northern parts of it while cruising around the shallow tide-flats of the first one. This was fun! Even though I’d ruined my motor on that rocky shelf I was having a mini-epiphany sailing around these islands. Fantasy islands. As if I’d dreamed them up and then there they were... Science can’t ask the real interesting questions... As I neared the new island I was wondering why the deep turquoise lagoons I saw over there should so strongly affect my emotions. The deep indigo changed, mutated, and reverted, again, below me, to aquamarine. Then to greenish turquoise again. Thoughts splashed all over my mental movie screen: “What is this? ... A religious experience? I felt better than I ever had in my life! The wind went ‘wheee’ in the rigging!” Rounding the westerly point of that green jewel was a moment indeed. From sapphire depths the Zephyr and I now moved into shallower sea, greener, to turquoise again, as we approached the shore and a lagoon made in heaven. Pearly white sands glistened in front of the palm trees that were doing the hula to the fresh breezes. The bottom of the sea also became white with the same snowy powder. I came about, bow pointing outward to sea now. ‘Dropped the anchor. A seagull flew over and cried about his life in the wind. I took a deep breath...exhaled. My subsequent sigh laden with ennui...
Hours later I still sat in the stern, feeling the quietness and beauty. The only sounds were the rustling of the nearby palms ashore, an occasional tiny splash of wave against the hull, and a barely perceptible hum from my rigging. Colors flooded and teased my eyes. The lone smell was of salt and fresh ocean. The sun began its surreal drama of disappearance into purple passion. Crimson patterns. I felt at home. Or maybe more like in a womb. Incipient warm and pleasant feelings in my guts replaced the tension and annoyance in my mind. I thought I’d probably go ashore in the morning; surely there was even more charm to be discovered here. When night descended I waited for the blackness, which never arrived; the stars were so many and so bright I could have read by them maybe, if I’d brought something along... I don’t know when I actually fell asleep. One moment I was sitting there, mouth open, staring at stars, the next, in some requisite dream. Then, at some point, my eyes snapped open. The darkness was less intense than before. I stretched and lifted my head enough to see out of the port hole...and thought I was still dreaming. The glistening stars in the skies now had a mystical mirror below. The dark sea was ripe with moving stars of its own. Trails of fire and fluorescence moved below me like miniature Comets or giant fire-flies. Somewhere back in my mind I knew these were natural events; planktonic phosphorescence or something. Otherwise, mostly, I was bedazzled by the light show down there. I just stared. ‘Couldn’t do anything else... All of us were frozen in motion. Zephyr, me, the stars, ocean, the plankton; juxtaposed in a deep dark blue background somewhere in time. Then without warning a sudden flash of white lightning streaked across the sky. Twenty seconds later it was followed by the thunder-voice of Poseidon himself. About ten miles away I figured; Iowa farm boys always keep track of weather wherever they are, counting off the distance to the storm by the intervals of thunder and lightning; “One thousand one, one thousand two...” The whole host of moon, stars and clouds gradually disappeared above, replaced by a deep black emptiness. Then another blinding flash stretched its way across the expanse. Eight miles! Distance between flash and sound. ‘Closer now! A great dark beast coming for me... The boat was rocking now. After eight hours of calm I could feel it. I should do something, I remember thinking. But what could I do? The anchor was on the bottom, but in sand! That wouldn’t hold if the wind and waves became any stronger. It was pitch black now except for the phosphorescence in the water. Thunder and lightning became more frequent and with the flashes I thought I could see the palm trees coming closer! “Shit!” I was dragging anchor for sure now. But it was still too dark to see or do anything. So I just lay on the bunk watching the play of light and feeling the rocking grow more intense. I’d been protected in this bay from the main winds up to now but I began to feel them move around from the south to the west. Now they howled in the rigging. In the palms. Louder and louder. The big black animal was coming now.
It hit. Another way of saying the wind and waves had finally rounded the bend and were now blowing directly at me. Straight towards the boat, and shore. Twilight, another false dawn, came along with the tempest. Squinting mightily I could now see the palms. And they were closer than before. So I WAS dragging anchor! Unwanted images from a hundred sea-wreck movies soaked my spongy brain. Another fifty yards would see me on the beach, crushed and stranded. The day lightened up a little more and I wished it hadn’t; now I could tell there wasn’t a hell of a lot of time left. I could see the bottom clearly now. The sand was swirling and the sea-weed a-dancing. It all seemed to move slowly but certainly past the starboard gunnels where I sat. I made a quick decision. I leaped overboard into the clear warm sea, grabbing the side, hoping to hold the whole boat back from the shore, but thinking in that second that it’d be hours or days before the storm abated. But that didn’t happen. Suddenly, as my legs sunk under the waves, in just that one second, I was flying upwards again out of the water and back into the boat as I felt a hundred electric jellyfish shooting currents of blue static voltage through my body. My hair stood on end, all two feet of it, as I stood shakily there on deck realizing what’d gone on. I couldn’t try that again The anchor kept dragging. The shore was now only a few yards away. I could only stand there on deck and watch. When the bow end of the bottom first struck the shore I leaped clear, thinking I might still be able to hold her off. It wasn’t gonna happen. The waves here on shore were good-sized breakers and I took a couple in the lungs before my final surrender. The waves lifted the boat from the beach and slammed her down again with each cresting swell. I couldn’t bear to watch; here was everything I owned being crunched, soaked and spread out to sea by the moment. Teary-eyed, I spun around and barefooted it quickly into the nearby clump of green jungle.
“The sun's coming up today,” I mused as I tried to work my way through vegetation that obviously hadn’t been worked through before. And it did, for about 5 minutes before ducking back behind the totally clouded sky. It had been beautiful there for a minute or two.“God damn Jungle!!” The cloudy sky just held enough light to allow me to see the foliage as I stumbled through the first fifty yards of it from the beach. Then it began not to. The shadows grew darker around me. I watched real close to detect if any of them were moving. I Hoped I was alone. There wasn’t any breeze at all back here so moving shadows would have put me right over the edge; I hate dark surprises. Already I couldn’t put any definite shape to my thinking but the combination shipwreck and being lost in a jungle wasn’t an appealing cocktail this early in the morning. Of course it got darker the further I went in to the bush. Finally I could barely make out my feet scrambling forward and over creeping vines and fallen branches. It got very creepy; I thought I heard something every few seconds. But the silence was total, apart from my staggering and swishing through this hellish weed patch in the middle of the ocean... I expected at least a bird, or a snake, “No! Please no snakes God...”, but no life forms besides the greenery appeared, and the green was fast becoming black as I crept forward more and more slowly. At last it became too dark and spooky to go on. A palpable blackness. Without a mirror I wondered what I must look like now. And the voice in my head wouldn’t let up: “My only clothes are these damn sun-faded purple paisley tight pants, the Easter bonnet blew away some time last night...who’s gonna see me though?” My dirty and long blonde hair hung limply and this bushy beard seemed to be full of salt and seaweed which I taste when I’m not jumping at shadows. I keep flinching at the crunching noises of my own feet stumbling through brambles. Rotting jungle smells creep into my nostrils. Fecundating life from dead palm trees. No sounds. “Anything...anybody alive anywhere around here?” I’m mumbling to myself again, “...gotta stop this.” Boy was it dark now! I spun around, not hearing the sea or anything else. No wind. I start to panic, begin running back the way I’d come...I hoped at least. Half an hour. Maybe an hour. Can’t tell how far I’ve come but finally I see some light between the trees and brush. Hear the waves. See a life-form. A seagull, then another, sitting on driftwood staring out to sea thinking sea-gull thoughts. I didn’t want to go any further because to see little Zephyr all crunched up and in pieces was more than I could bear. But what could I do? The jungle hadn’t been that friendly. “I almost got lost back there...then what? Maybe get eaten by something.” I stepped through the last palms before the beach. And there she was all right. In one piece too. But buried, a few inches or so of freeboard left in sight. Split seams on the starboard and aft hull. Boy I’m getting great with these nautical terms now that... The storm was long past and the sea was calm. I picked up the little outboard from where I’d left it on the beach and carried it up to the tree line; maybe it’d survive more waves if they came, even if it did have only one blade on the prop and was effectively useless... I went back and stood next to my mutilated little boat and tried not to weep. I wasn’t going anywhere in her again; she’s become part of this island forever... Then, looking around the swirling waters near the beach my eye caught a glimpse of something floating. Wow! My passport! I thought that was lucky, but what good was it anyway? There aren’t any immigration authorities on this island...or much anything else unless you called a bit of sand and jungle something... but ‘luck’ was what I really needed and so grasped at this as a good omen. Out of bananas, no bread, no water, standing there in my purple pants with a waterlogged passport in my grip. I decide to get the hell out of there and try to find sustenance of some kind before it was too late. Maybe some raw crab meat; I didn’t want to think about the ‘what’ too much though... I wasn’t going back in to that shadowy heart of darkness for anything, so with a quick eenie-meanie-minie I chose left, and started walking along the edge of the beach around the island. It wasn’t easy going. Sharp rock and coral started cutting up my feet right away. Combined with the bruising I got with every slip and tumble I began to feel pretty beat up. I didn’t have the nerve to bite into any of the small crabs I sometimes noticed. “Yuk” I’d find myself blurting out, “My kingdom for a banana...” The day got hot, then hotter, and I still slipped, slided and stumbled around the rocky moss-covered coral that surrounded the island. My feet bled and I grinned down at them, chuckling smugly because sharks couldn’t get this close to shore to smell them. They were probably out further, smelling remnants of my journey and grumbling to themselves. Then it began to cool off a tad so I knew it was afternoon, maybe late, five or six I figured. I kept hoping I wouldn’t round a bend to suddenly see the Zephyr buried on the beach, meaning I had made the full circumambulation. That’d mean I was in deep doo-doo. Finally there were some dry bits of shoreline and I washed some of the blood from my legs and hands, climbed onto the dry area and went on. It seemed sort of like a path but I couldn’t believe that. It sure was easy going though, like the difference between a ploughed field and a freeway. And then a footprint...! “Oh God!” “What the fuck does this mean...?” I sort of knew the answer to that one. Somebody was, or had been, on this same island. But what did that mean? I mean what did that mean for me? Food? I didn’t want to go there. Getting food or being food... “Feet, will you move? Do your thing!” I started forward again. Slower. My haste, hunger and hubris all seemed to have disappeared in a second. I crept along the path, trying to listen..., smell, see something besides bush...To see something before it sees me...
Then as if on cue by the invisible director in the sky, the walking space in front of me widened out and became a real path, complete with several more footprints. What should I do? Keep moving I tell myself. Deciding I’m nearly all the way around the island now, and, if that point of land in front of me is what I think it is I’ll come upon my shipwreck when, and if, I pass around it. But before I reached quite that far, the wide walkway at my feet opened out suddenly to a large clearing, complete with thatched huts and smoke; “soup’s on...” I mumble to myself ironically, slowing to a stand-still. A dragonfly buzzed near my head. A cool breeze clattered the palm leaves around me. A couple of birds chuckled overhead somewhere. I smelled the smoke. I was sweating. There were three nicely built round, high-pointed, more like the Tahitian type, palm-leafed huts on the far side of the clearing. To my right was a more ram-shackling construction, also thatched but more amorphous in shape, thrown up in a more utilitarian, haphazard design. Then, out of the smoke came a figure. She was old, I couldn’t determine how old. A corn-cob-type pipe was clenched in her teeth, yellow, inside the big grin spreading across her face. “Chinese,” I thought... maybe. And from around back of her long red skirt peeped a three or four year-old boy with a surprised expression on his small brown face, his little black eyes wide. Wondering... I stumbled towards them, relief and joy to find anyone at all around. It was probably written all over my face. They also broke out in large grins; maybe, too, relishing company on a semi-deserted island that normally didn’t have much social life... We all were bowing to each other, giggling, motioning with our hands and nearly touching but that wasn’t part of Oriental protocol around here. I could see that they wondered how and why I was even there, so I was down on my knees, drawing pictures in the sand, showing lightning, waves, and a stick-figure semblance of myself and boat being crunched by the storm and washing up around the bend of their island home. That really broke them up. Now they could understand what this weird-looking white man was doing here on their island. An old wrinkled and white-haired man came out of the amorphous hut and joined us, breaking out in loud guffaws as soon as his wife explained about me...
They may have noticed my gut tremors or the saliva trickling down my jaw but for whatever reason their hospitality turned magical; there was before me some kind of soup and rice which seemed to disappear incredibly fast and then was there again, fulled up, before my blinking eyes could believe it. I was ecstatic. Happier than a pearl in a clam... Before the meal was over the old couple managed to convey to me the story of the other three huts: they belonged to ‘hermits’, or ‘holy’ men, who spent their entire lives on this island in states of meditation, “keeping the world in balance...” is what I understood of the tale before collapsing on the palm leaf ‘couch’ the folks led me to. I crashed. And dreamed I think: Clouds rolled before my eyes. Thunder and lightning were all that I could sense. Strange rainbow-colored lightning patterns flashed and glowed across the sky. They seemed alive. Staying in the heavens when I’d think they should be gone. Colors and fractal patterns that just wouldn’t quit. “Live lightning!” was the only phrase I remember whispering in that moment. Then a palpable darkness... Then, three voices that blended in to one: “Here, out here...come to the clearing.” Nothing reminded me of anything... And then there they were, the three old hermits. Long, long white beards. Long braided white-white hair. They were like triplets. No differences between that I could see; all three wore long yellowish-in-the-moonlight robes, some kind of designs woven into them. Eyes glowing. There were shadows about their faces and I could only see their eyes...They stood in full moonlight in front of their huts in the clearing between their shacks and those of the old man and woman, who must have been sleeping. We were alone in the moon beams. I did as I was ‘told’. Got up from my palm leaf cot and walked out into the moonlight. Like an automaton. I couldn’t tell if my legs were even moving. My arms were gone. And then I felt them, held out in front of me with the palms grasping each other like in prayer.
“What’s going on?” I wondered loudly into my skull, “Why and how...?” I guess I meant getting to this clearing, bright in the full moonlight reflecting off the white powdery sand below. Shadows from the palm trees made grotesque shapes and patterns all over the sand. Our four forms mingled with them, dancing slightly with movement from barely perceptible breezes. “Did they speak to me just now? Say come out here? What in hell do they want?” But by now the questions began disappearing and I began to sense a familiarity about all of this. These guys started to smell like the granddaddies of some of the real yogis, Gurus like I’d run across in India. Like those I’d studied with for that whole year there. Quiet, phlegmatic... but tough-sounding enough when they ordered me out here. I was almost right in front of them then. “Festina lente, hasten slowly!” I thought. I could hardly remember getting over there from my bunk. I thought I’d been moving like a caterpillar but here I was already. “Now what...?” I murmured. I was staring at the one in the middle, his dark eyes were pools. His robes hung limply in the still air. Not smiling. He raised a finger, pointing, at what? Maybe at the moon, floating white and cool over us, framed by palm leaves. His outline remained but his face and body seemed to fill with stars and comets and supernovas... he looked like the ceiling of some star-projection movie at Palomar observatory. Thinking “Wow, outer-space stuff...” my mind abruptly switched off. The cosmos, comets, the stars inside his outline were moving around, like fireflies in an Iowa summer’s night. Insect-sounds and flower smells were all around. For the first time in my life I wasn’t thinking anything at all. Just stunned is about all I can remember... Nothing reminded me of anything. We were just there, standing. Staring at each other. Then I was just staring. And I really didn’t know what at. The air was redolent of something electric and exotic that reminded me of orchids. Except I’d never smelled orchids, ‘wouldn’t know one from a dandelion. Something touched the inside of my head. A purple tingling sensation. A message but not a voice. “A lesson, stupid.” the feeling came to me. Not quite words though. The staring into nothingness became more vivid. Reminded me of something. Everything was reminding me of something now. I was crying, tears running down my face. Not sad or anything similar. Just emoting, and wondering why. But not really concerned. “Cleaning your mind out.” The message was just there. No words, just an oblique perception. “Meditation.” Another whisper in my head. “How to...in ten easy lessons, like sailing. But we don’t need words. That’s what’s confused and bent man’s mind up. Kept from reality for a million years. Try to forget and then you might remember...” No words or voices... Just sort of a whine in the air around me...then the meaning would arrive from somewhere. Suddenly I was just aware of the message... on and on. How long the tableau on the sand lasted I’ll never know. I was seeing all kinds of shit. They were full of color, swirling and swishing rainbows. Patterns. Effervescent forms shown out from our position as far as the eye could see, through the palms and out to sea forever, out past distant galaxies even, maybe. I felt a part of everything. As if my fingers and toes were stars. My eyes were the Milky Way. It seemed to happen for a long time... months, or years, at least...!? Or was this just that storm, and I was still in it...or dead maybe.
CHAPTER 8 Somebody was shaking me. “For Christ’s sake! Wait...stop that!” But it went on. The sun was in my eyes now, blinding my feeble effort to wake up and encouraging the sweat rivulets running down my face. The old woman was next to my cot, still poking my stiff body. Electric tingling like when a foot’s asleep coursed through my arms and legs. She was murmuring in Chinese or Malay or something and my eyes opened for a moment to maybe see what she was going on about. She pointed through the trees towards the sea. Gradually focusing through sticky eyeballs I saw a white shape, up the beach about a hundred yards away. Maybe it was a whale. Then I focused again and saw that it was a ship... “A fucking ship!!?” How long had I been out? The woman said 3 days with her fingers but I didn't get it right then. It looked like a regular US Coast Guard cruiser but of course it was a Malaysian one, same species though. It WAS the Coast Guard and they were doing a survey. First one in 7 years. And they find a white, scraggly faced castaway one of their islands. The Vietnam War was raging not too far off so I was suspected of some espionage or other and the Captain insisted on “rescuing” me as he put it, but the other officers kept saying “arrested” when I asked. We said farewell to the old couple and boarded the cruiser. Sailing around to the bay where I’d wrecked the ‘Zephyr’ I finished my ‘castaway’ tale for the Captain. The messy twisted remains of the wreck in the sand was confirmation of my story and the crew began treating me more like a guest than a prisoner of war. One of the sailors decided to buy my little outboard motor which was waiting patiently there in the palm trees where I’d dragged it. We left the island and cruised towards the port city of Malacca, on the mainland. I thought about the other night: I’d been out for three days and nights, the Captain said, translating from the old woman on the island. “What a fucking dream! Was that what it was...? Jesus...” It would be 1966 in less than a week. I sailed to Hong Kong and then Japan on the old French line that had brought me so far already, from Marseille to India, Singapore. I had to go home for a reality check. There’s some new thing going on, according to ‘Time’ magazine’s international edition: “Hippies.” Summer of Love...blah blah.” The men and women in the photos sort of reminded me of me. I was staring into the mirror of my hotel room. The 'hippies' are supposed to be interested in yoga and Far Eastern mysticism...!? “Why would they be? How’d they get to that?” I’m thinking... “I’ll probably be redundant back there, and bored...” But I wasn’t; I spent 2 'groovy' (a new vernacular had appeared too!) months in Japan, hanging out with some crazy acupuncturists and herbalists (called Kanpo in Japan)and grabbed an airplane ride back to the States. I arrived in San Francisco just in time to feel a part of something huge. That summer us 'hippies' began talking about the “revolution...”