Saturday, 30 November 2013

Castaways 5

The three-foot packhorse that Dafne brought us back from her swim barely fit in the cannibal pot on the stove. It came out as red as the Milky Way came on white, outside. All the other colors were waiting in our dreams.
As remote as it seemed on any map of the Pacific, the island we awoke to was downtown Southern Sea history and myth and wonder. Robyn and I found the first reason for this in the village cemetery, on a brass plaque with an Iron Cross centre, and a verdigris border.

    ‘In treuer Pflichterfüllung für das Deutsche Vaterland starben den  
     Heldentod: Ing. Asp. Lerche Ober- Matr. Hunger Heizer Reuter...
     S.M.S. Dresden 14 Marz 1945’

In faithful performance of duty for the German Fatherland, died a hero. In 1915, the only German ship to escape the Battle of the Falkland Islands scuttled herself in Cumberland Bay, both a white flag and her war ensign flying in the wind. A third of her crew decided to stay in Chile after the war, and their descendents, and those of an original Swiss San Juan Bautista settler, constitute the predominant human invasive species. Above our heads, in the face of the overhanging cliff, were numerous large British cruiser shell holes, as well as the back of a solitary unexploded eight-incher, still in place.
We continued up a grassy slope, through glades of cypress, conifers and eucalyptus, into a tall lowland forest of unique white-flowered peppery canelos and orange-fruited myrtles. Ferns lined the steep mountain path, small at first, but growing taller and into giant Dicksonia and Thyrsopteris tree ferns, as our trail became steeper, our footing more difficult on the slippery volcanic rock. Our pace was unhurried, slowed further by the peace inside the upper montane rainforest. Robyn and I floated in an exotic landscape of luma, muchay and narajillo, pushing up from the dark, moist forest floor, seeking sunlight. We felt cleansed, decontaminated. There came a sudden loud raspy staccato doppler drone, rising and falling in pitch, motoring by at the speed of sound, a bright red bumblebee on steroids.
“There are less than two hundred left in the world.” I said. “And they’re all here.” It came around for another supersonic pass, five inches long, cinammon-red with slate gray wings, and an iridescent crown of emeralds and rubies and gold.
“He’s beautiful.” Robyn said. And he was. Sephanoides fernandensis. The Juan Fernández Firecrown, the world’s largest hummingbird. The Spanish call them picaflores. Flower pokers.
“He’s also doomed.” I said. “They eat endangered cabbage tree nectar, and nest in myrtles that are disappearing because of habitat loss from human destruction, blackberry invasion, and rabbits and goats. Domestic and feral cats are taking the last of them.” And the red bomber went by one last time.

                            “From scarlet to powdered gold,
                            to blazing yellow,
                            to the rare

                             ashen emerald,
                            to the orange and black velvet
                            of your shimmering corselet,
                            out to the tip
                            that like
                            an amber thorn
begins you,
                            small, superlative being,
                            you are a miracle,
                            and you blaze.”

                                         Pablo Neruda, Ode to the Hummingbird 

Friday, 29 November 2013

Castaways 4

“Ese era su cueva, allí.” Said one of the lobstermen. That was his cave, there. And we rounded the last point from Puerto Inglés, into calmer water, and half-moon Cumberland Bay at the base of the three thousand foot flat-topped fine-misted volcanic peak that towered above it. Clinging precipitously to the tortuous jagged side of El Yangue Mountain, rising abruptly from the sea and almost lost in a sweep of eucalypts, guayabas, and chanta trees, appeared a cluster of wood and tin huts, crowding the narrow shore.
“San Juan Bautista.” Said the lobsterman. “Mi casa.” A few lobster boats nodded on their moorings. The rest of the town didn’t look any more awake.
We landed outside time and space. The refugees had likely forgotten how and why they had come to this frontier of the spirit. The few that roamed the street moved at the pace of the bread rising for them at the bakery. They looked at us indifferently, almost like we weren’t really there, as we reached the rocky beachhead. The dirt roads were as deeply rutted as the faces of the lobstermen, and the only conveyances, other than the mail jeep, were the wheelbarrows. The few hundred inhabitants were neither rich nor poor. Their bungalows were weathered but tidy, with chimney pots and small yards and sparse gardens, and big leafy palm or fruit trees. There was a Catholic and Mormon and Evangelical church, as many shops of similar denominations, a primary school, and a red telephone box, the nerve centre and meeting place for young aspiring escapados. A big round rusted plate hung suspended below the hand painted red and white sign at the top of the two tall metal poles, in front of the town hall. Emergencia. I wondered what they would ever need it for. We were four hundred miles from the nearest medical care, and only way to get there had taken off hours ago.
She was waiting for us at the end of the pier. Dafne owned a small guesthouse at the eastern end of the village, over the water. Her wet suit said she was going diving. She told us she was going diving.
“Quieres una langosta para más tarde?” She asked. Did we want a lobster for later. Robyn’s eyes lit up the answer. We both said goodbye to the Spaniards, and Dafne took us along the shore to our cabaña. It had a kitchen with a gas stove, and a very large pot. Our carton of Santa Rita 120 wine from Santiago took its place alongside a box of custard powder on the only shelf. We were good.

Castaways 3

Juan Fernández first discovered the archipelago on November 22, 1574, when he strayed on the way from Peru to Valparaíso. The boots of the pirates that first made landfall on Más a Tierra, were unable to find dirt, for the density of Juan Fernández seals underfoot. ‘We were forced to kill them to set our feet on shore.’ The maritime fur trade fixed that problem so perfectly that they, like the aromatic Santalum fernandezianum trees, and the rebellious convicts in the later penal colony that were hunted down after their escape back to mainland Chile, were thought to have become extinct. The colony of two hundred seals that were rediscovered in the mid-20th century, had multiplied back to a thunderous welcoming party, on the rocks near the long ramshackle wooden jetty, at the bottom of the steep switchback trail. The small black pups, with their short ears and stubby flippers and hairy manes and bulbous noses, had no memory of the previous tribal genocide, and approached us with playful curiosity and yelping fish breath, despite their mothers’ raucous warnings.
At uneven intervals, in the troughs between the churning foam swells on Bahía del Padre, we made out the shape of a determined small craft, heading towards us. One moment it was visible, the next submerged. The two crewmen carefully stayed away from crashing directly into the pier, and skillfully timing the rollers, for just the right moment for us to throw our packs, and then ourselves, into the hard bottom of their lobster boat. Once loaded, and deeper in the cauldron, they nudged us out between the two rock pincers of the cove entrance, on the hour-long trip around the massive jagged vertical cliffs of the northern coast, and the foamed chaos dancing at their feet.
Despite the absence of vital signs or vegetation, I could see why this fragile island would have been an ideal pirate hideout- There was fresh water in abundance from waterfalls and streams, seals for meat and lamp oil and clothing, an equitable climate, and no snakes or predators. It was far enough from the Spanish authorities, but close enough to the shipping lanes of their treasure-laden galleons, closer still to the wild goats they had released here.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Castaways 2

Two long hours after the maraschino cherries disappeared, the pilot pointed to a small white cotton bud gradually emerging from over the far horizon.
“Isla Más a Tierra.” He shouted. Closer to Land. We broke through the cloud cover to an island divided precisely in half, a green Amazon out the leeward windows, and a barren golden rusted rugged rocky Atacama moonscape off our port side. I asked the pilot where the airstrip was.
“Justo debajo de nosotros.” He said. Right below us. And he banked high and around for his only shot at the shallow bowl between the two extinct volcanoes. Sheer cliff faces soared a hundred feet straight up off the surf on either side of his attempt. He had a split second after the wheels touched the lunar surface to swing his wings in a tight semicircle, so we wouldn’t go off the grim precipice. He’d done it before. We taxied past the wreck of a Piper Navajo that hadn’t been quite as proficient, lying flat on its belly with its windows and doors blown out. The Spaniards crossed themselves in tandem with the pilot’s own invocation. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. The silence that returned was deafening.
Robyn and I emerged to a red and white striped windsock, waving at us, horizontal against heaven.
“Estamos aquí.” Said the pilot.
“He says we’re here.” Said one of the Spaniards. There was no debate. We had landed on the largest and only inhabited island of the Archipiélago Juan Fernández, but the airstrip was still almost two hours away from Cumberland Bay and the only village of San Juan Bautista, John the Baptist. He was supposed to have pointed the way to Jesus. We looked around for a finger to point us in the direction of Juan Bautista. The pilot indicated the route we were to take to join them.
“Sigue el sonido de las focas.” He said, waving goodbye. Follow the sound of the seals. We all hoisted our packs and began a long hot dusty walk down a track. We could hear it barking at the bottom.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Castaways 1...



                                                                      Juan Fernández

                              “We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown.”
                                                                                                        Arthur Eddington

“Jamon y queso?” Asked the pilot, handing a sandwich back from his cockpit. He had five sandwiches. They were all ham and cheese.
“Gracias.” I said, taking another for Robyn, impressed with the bloodstains of the maraschino cherries embedded in the white bread.
“De dónde vienes?” Asked one of the other three passengers sitting across from us, in the back of the old Cessna. Where are you from.
“Canadá.” I said. “Y Ustedes?” And you.
“Somos Españoles.” Said another. Spaniards.
“Están muy lejos de España y Canadá, muchachos.” The pilot said. And he was right. We were a long way from home.
The morning had started early, on the tarmac of Santiago’s Aeropuerto Los Cerillos. An old Cessna 206 sat under the company’s logo. ‘Cuando pasa el tiempo no hay lugar demasiado.’ When time flies there’s no place too far.
“It might be too far.” Said Robyn. “It’s only got one engine.” When the pilot arrived with the sandwiches, he made a quick circuit around the plane, and motioned for us to find seats.
“Vamos.” He said, taking his own. An erupting cloud of blue smoke from the cowling filed the flight plan. “Tres horas. Seiscientos kilómetros. Tal vez.” Three hours. Six hundred kilometers. Maybe.
The twice-weekly flight sometimes located the island, sometimes didn’t, if the weather even allowed it to get that far. We climbed out across the frigid Humboldt Current, six thousand feet over the jagged spine of the Andes. It occurred to me that we were only the second generation to have seen clouds from above, as well as from below. If the droning engine noise hadn’t made conversation futile, the white faces and knuckles of the Spaniards wouldn’t have produced much anyway. 

Let us begin...

                                               For David Green

These are the Stories of the Southern Sea.

                                                       Stories of the Southern Sea



                                  Juan Fernández- Castaways
                                  Chiloé - Tide Table


                                  Sulawesi- Headhunting in Kansas


                                  Fiji- Fiji Bitter
                                  Vanuatu- The Most Beautiful Beach in the World
                                  Solomons- The Prow of the Canoe
                                  New Caledonia- Alice in Wonderland


                                  Palau- Storyboarded
                                  Yap- Big Money
                                  Pohnpei- Pepper, Palisades and Pearls
                                  Marshalls- Happy Lucky Welcome Fun
                                  Koshrae- Mysterious Paradise of Mud


                                  Tonga- Aground in the Abode of Love
                                  Rotuma- Fara Way
                                  Samoa- A Proud and Caring People
                                  Cook Islands- One Foot
                                  Tahiti- Luxury Link                  
                                  Easter Island- Birdman
                                  Niue- Ghosts of The Rock


                                  Tasmania- The Blood in Wineglass Bay
                                  Norfolk Island- A Speck under the Forefinger of God
                                  New Zealand- White Villa Blues

Monday, 25 November 2013

So, here's where Robyn and I are going tomorrow.

Introduction to my new book, Stories of the Southern Sea, to be released soon:


                                               The Southern Sea

      ‘Ocean: A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made
       for man- who has no gills.’
                                                                                        Ambrose Bierce

It lives in the hole where the moon used to be. And for most of the worst part of the northern winter, over the last two decades, so have we.
I started off to write an idyll, but that didn’t work out. Robyn and I remembered only the Southern Sea bliss that filled our nets, oblivious to the centuries of salt water that had run through them without sticking, like the lesson of the patriarchal fish.

   ‘There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to
    meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and
    says “Morning, boys. How's the water?” And the two young fish swim
    on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other
    and goes “What the hell is water?”’

Memory travels in the opposite direction of the water that got us here, and the water that got us here was less than utopian. The Pacific hadn’t been very pacific at all. Instead of Rascals in Paradise among the Happy Isles of Oceania, I found myself shipwrecked on a catalogue of crime and calamity.
The Stories of the Southern Sea are the stories of migrations, traders and whalers, headhunters and cannibals, blackbirders and pirates, beach bums, and of misfits and missionaries and mercenaries. The primus inter pares of misfit missionary mercenaries was its European discoverer. Vasco Núñez de Balboa was a bankrupt Hispaniolan planter and pig farmer, who stowed away in a barrel with his dog, Leoncico, on Fernández de Enciso’s expedition to what would eventually become Cartegena, in what would eventually become Colombia. Balboa was discovered, and spared long enough, to suggest that the settlement be moved to found the new colony of Santa María la Antigua del Darién. He went on, through ambition and subterfuge, to become the governor of Veragua, and was known for, among other things, his intolerance of homosexuality. Balboa had fifty native men torn apart by his fighting dogs.

    ‘The Great Nations of Europe had gathered on the shore
     they'd conquered what was behind them and now they wanted more
     so they looked to the mighty ocean and took to the Western sea
     The great nations of Europe in the 16th century

     Hide your wives and daughters, hide the groceries too
     The great nations of Europe comin' through...

     Balboa found the Pacific and on the trail one day
     he met some friendly Indians whom he was told were gay
     he had them torn apart by dogs on religious grounds they say
     the great nations of Europe were quite holy in their way...’
                                Randy Newman, The Great Nations of Europe

A true conquistador, Balboa attacked some tribes and befriended others, explored rivers and mountains and miasmic swamps, searching for treasure and slaves, and enlarging his territory. He collected a fortune in gold, from the ornaments worn by the native women, but he wanted more.
In the lands of cacique Comagre, he heard of more. Comagre's eldest son, Panquiaco, angered by the Spaniards' avarice, knocked over the scales they used to measure gold. ‘If you are so hungry for gold that you leave your lands to cause strife in those of others, I shall show you a province where you can quell this hunger.’ He told Balboa of a kingdom to the south, where people were so rich that they ate and drank from gold plates and goblets, but that he would need at least a thousand men to defeat the tribes living inland and those on the coast of ‘the other sea.’
Balboa started his journey across the Isthmus of Panama on September 1, 1513, together with 190 Spaniards, a few native guides, and a pack of his dogs. For the next three weeks he would fight tribal battles and dense jungle. At noon on September 25th, he reached Pechito Parado, the summit of the mountain range along the Chucunaque River. Far away on the horizon he saw a shimmering and, four days later Balboa raised his hands, his sword in one and a standard with the image of the Virgin Mary in the other, walked knee-deep into it, and claimed possession of the new breakers and all adjoining lands, in the name of the Spanish sovereigns. He named the ocean Mar del Sur, the Southern Sea, since he had traveled south to reach it.
On January 19, 1514, Balboa arrived back in Santa María with a treasure in cotton goods, more than a thousand pounds of gold, and as much in pearls. Five years later, Balboa was arrested on trumped-up charges by another conquistador named Francisco Pizarro (but he’s another story). He was placed on trial by his father-in-law, Pedro Arias Dávila, and beheaded in a clumsy effort requiring three axe strokes, on January 15, 1519. A year after Balboa’s head went on display in Panama, Ferdinand Magellan renamed his Southern Sea the Pacific Ocean because of its calm waters. A year after that, a bamboo spear in the Philippines would discredit the choice of appellation. Balboa would have a lunar crater named after him; Magellan would have two. But the San Diego park named after Balboa would slowly evolve in flamboyant irony, to host the largest gay pride festival on the west coast of the New World.
The Southern Sea has been promising paradise and delivering dismemberment since Tahitian temptation gave Captain Sam Wallis and his Dolphin crew a full bare-breasted welcome in 1767. The overactive Western imagination mutinied and ran off with Rousseau’s pretty Noble Savages, until our gifts of whiskey and guns and venereal disease and Christianity caught up with the palm frond perfection in their blue lagoons. Melville and Stevenson and Somerset Maugham and Michener spun us the great yarns of this ocean. And now it’s my turn, to spin you a tapestry of tales.
Two hundred years after Pandora’s box discharged its tortured contents into the Pacific, the frangipanis that once adorned their ears have morphed into mobile phones. Tattoos have become tacky. Dancing is done in the clubs, rather than with them.
The romance of the Southern Sea runs as deep as its trenches, but after years away from and behind it, an old man’s subtropical mind can become torpid. We develop an amnesia of the alluring, in the same way and for the same reason that untold numbers of us travelled to the Pacific in the first place- to forget.
This is what I still remember of the islands, now so far in space and time. It is not a travelogue or a travel guide. It is in no way exhaustive or complete. I haven’t been to all the islands, not even some of the bigger ones you’d think I should have visited. You won’t find any stories of Hawaii or New Guinea or the Marquesas. I haven’t so much written you an inventory, as a book of saline psalms. This is water.
It is what it is.

            “Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time.”
                                                                                            Steven Wright


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