Sunday, June 08, 2008

How can one describe silence? How can one share solitude? How can a desire for aloneness cure a loneliness of the soul? That is the rub, isn’t it? The paradox of wilderness. We want it , indeed need wilderness to exist, even if we never set foot in it. Many insist that there be places on this earth where no human treads, even lightly. I am one such person. But I am selfish. I also need places where no permanent trace of man exists, and yet I want to be there. To live, even briefly, as man lived before civilisation, before industrialisation, before globalisation. To breathe the silence, to drink in the emptiness, to swell inside with the fullness of a lonely planet, empty of my own kind.

I can only speak for myself. When I leave behind humanity and enter the wild world, it takes about three days before the voice in my head quiets. Suddenly I am truly present in my surroundings, no longer buffered and shielded by the continuous chatter that substitutes for my own thoughts. Thinking, feeling and being, are revealed to be three different processes of mind. It takes continuous silence, not from sound, but from noise,the kind you are trained since birth to notice, to interpret. Voices, street traffic, music, commercials. And noise, which comes in a visual form as well, especially if written in billboards ten feet high, demands your attention even if you don’t realise it. And by grabbing and holding your attention, noise, in all its forms, robs you of your presence of mind; that is, it takes you out of yourself, and prevents your self from being present, in the moment, and connected to all things.

In the bush, in the desert, on the sea, your attention is also needed, but the volume of traffic on your brain is much slower, more manageable, and devoid of any social context. The word peaceful springs to mind. There is a peace in solitude that cannot exist in the presence of another human being. But how can one describe this kind of peace, with the words that shatter it, deny its existence? How can one hope to communicate the feeling of that moment, when all internal communication stops, ceases to exist, and all that is is a state of peaceful emptiness of mind, of a fullness of spirit, a moment of mere, bare , pure existence? Alone, but not lonely, indeed the opposite of lonely, in which the connectedness of all the universe is known without thought, felt without sensation, but just is.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The longest stage of any journey begins when you start to see signs you are almost home.

It is said that “Life is a journey”. We focus too much on the little destinations, the goals that have been set before us, so that we do not live in the moment but are always striving for a distant future. But the destinations are but instants in time: they occupy none of the space of our lives. It is the striving, the journey itself that fills the space between the destinations: this is where we live.
It’s hard to feel that way when you are travelling home. Heading away from home is a form of exploration. Every moment has meaning because travel is the purpose of your life at that moment. But when you set your sights on home you cease to travel, as an activity, as a form of exploration. From then on all the experiences of your travel are an annoyance, something that stands between you and your goal. The goal isn’t to go home: it is to be home.

That was how I felt at the end of my season in Belize this year. Don’t get me wrong: it was a good season for me. I met some very interesting people, and had a great time swimming with the fishies. But once the season was over, I was in a hurry to get home, to be there on my birthday, with Lorena. And a cancelled flight meant I had to get from Dangriga to Cancun overland in a single day. Now I am home, in San Carlos, in late April. The days are warm, the nights are cool and the air is dry. And the sea is chilly. Oh well, I can go a while without snorkelling with no ill effects.

This blog is supposed to be about the Manatee. Well the first one is gone, and the second one is under construction. It has been a great experience working on the new boat this past winter. I had done a little fibreglass work before, but never actually built anything out of fibreglass. This year, with the help of Kerry (aka Bobo), Island Expeditions’ resident fibreglass expert, I have built the decking, the cockpit, bulkheads, hatches and the centreboard trunk, all out of fibreglass. When she is done, she will be all fibreglass except the floor and a folding table attached to the centreboard trunk.

I was planning to photodocument each stage of the process, but I left my camera in San Carlos and took only one photo of the boat with the camera of another guide. So the pictures will have to wait. Now I am home I plan to build the amas (outriggers) and akas (crossbeams between the amas and the main hull) here in San Carlos, and ship them to Belize for the beginning of next season. This gives me plenty of time to work on them. Next season I should be able to assemble the whole boat before I start work and then take her out with me. I will sail her around and find her weaknesses before I set out on my voyage home. This next one will have two amas, so if one fails, I have a backup until I can get it fixed. It will also be very fast as it is longer - 20 ft - and lighter - about 1/3 the weight of the first one. The further I progress, the more excited I become about the voyage home. Sometimes it is an obsession and I have to remind myself to enjoy the anticipation but live my life now. That said, it doesn’t mean I can’t reminisce. So I would like to share some of the moments I experienced this past field season in Belize.

We don’t often snorkel the Western Wall at Glover’s Reef, as it is too far to paddle for most groups, and the groups are usually too big to take the skiff. But this year the number of people travelling to Belize was way down, so we had some small groups. One such trip we decided to skiff over to the Western Wall and snorkel along the outside edge of the atoll where the bottom drops vertically to great depths. The wall is actually a series of walls, separated by ledges. We were snorkelling over one such ledge, with about 20 feet between us and the corals below. We saw the usual assortment of reef fishes, and in small sandy clearing lay a dead squirrelfish. We noted the fish and carried on when someone spotted a large green moray eel, swimming along the bottom in broad daylight. This is unusual, so we followed it as it poked its head in and out of various holes in the reef, until it came upon the dead squirrelfish. It must have caught scent of the fish and come looking for it. We watched as the huge eel writhed and struggled to swallow this spiny fish. The whole effort looked painful.

After the show was over, we spread out and continued to drift southward with the current. I was off to the right of the main group, right near the dropoff, when a large shape directly below caught my eye. My breath caught in my throat as a 12 ft. hammerhead shark swam steadily beneath me. This was the first time I had seen a shark that could easily eat me, while I was in the water with it. The long, lithe body and powerful tail contrasted sharply with the more commonly seen nurse shark. I had a feeling, looking at this fellow, that he could easily turn and take a monstrous bite out of me should he decide to. Rationally I knew I had nothing to fear, as shark attacks are almost always on people who are spearfishing, and the shark really just wants the fish. I also quickly surmised that he wasn’t interested in us because he was already past us and swimming determinedly southward. I tried to follow, but even though he wasn’t in a hurry, he was still far too fast to keep up with. But just for the briefest of moments, he was Jaws, and I was one of his hapless victims.

My second shark encounter was much closer and much, much scarier. I was snorkelling a new patch reef, near the edge of the atoll at Lighthouse Reef, with two guests in tow. We had anchored in about 15 ft. of water, and were working our way around this big patch reef. As we got nearer to the edge of the reef, the patch reef broke up into a series of large dead coral mounds. I got an eerie feeling there. There was no live coral, no fish even. As I rounded one mound, I suddenly saw a big, heavy-bodied shark, swimming away from me, scanning back and forth. Usually when you see a shark during the day, they are milling around, killing time. This one looked like it was looking for something. I turned and looked for my friends. Then I stuck my head back in the water. The shark emerged again, a few feet away. This time he had a school of jacks with him. They knew he was hunting. Again he swam away.

I pressed myself against the coral head and looked for my guests again. I called them over and said “Snorkel’s over. I just saw a really big shark.” Read the italics as a kind of breathy speech. “Ok,” I continued, “Let’s swim over to the boats together, like one big fish.” No one argued or questioned me and we more or less did just that. It seemed to take forever for the two of them to get into the boats, as I stayed under, scanning the water. Then we were all in and on our way back. When the fear is over, you are left with a rush of adrenaline, the kind of high that makes you feel truly and sharply alive. You feel like you are charged with electricity, covered in Saint Elmo's fire. There is nothing like it.

It occurred to me that if one of the Belizian guides was with us, I wouldn’t have felt so spooked. These guys know the sea, they live in these waters, and I rely on them for their knowledge and experience. But when it is all up to me, I don’t quite have the same confidence, not when other peoples’ lives are at stake. Later conversations with Alex, the most experienced of the Belizian guides, convinced me it was probably a bull shark, and that it was wise to get out of the water when we did.

I guess that’s a part of life, isn’t it? Knowing when to get out of the water. That’s my cue.

Island Jack

Friday, February 01, 2008

Back in Belize, with high hopes and empty pockets. Came early intending to work on the new Manadi, but can't do any work until I gt some money, so I am enjoying playing tourist. Went camping for ten with a friend from Tucson. Here are some highlights...

Sailing a double kayak in a lovely NE breeze, we spy a dolphin clearing the water about 100m ahead. So I scratch the hull of the kayak to get his attention. and soon he appears below us in the clear green water. He swims alongside, underneath us for a few seconds, then crosses under us and disappears. We take this as an auspicious start to our trip.

Day 3 Tobacco Range. A cold front has come in and strong NW winds are keeping us on the beach. A fishing boat from the north coast is using our island as shelter from the wind, so the crew come ashore. The Skipper teaches me how to weave a net. We use his net needle and I make a net bag. This is a great skill to have. Later we get some bamboo and carve net needles. Several of us are at work carving these needles, and one suggests a contest to see who can make the nicest one. I have the sharpest knife and so win the contest, not by any skill of my own.

Day 6: We are entering Sittee River after crossing several miles from Billyhawk Cay. Right at the mouth are three manatees, which we watch only briefly before they spot us and disappear. We enter the river, and about a mile in there is a narrow side channel which connects to a lagoon. We pass into the channel and are swallowed up by the forest. The scene about us is magical. We are surrounding by tall tangles of mangrove roots, and enclosed by the forest. Tiny birds flit by so swiftly we can't identify them, and all is still and silent. The silence rings in our ears after so many days of constant wind and waves. We drift with the current and marvel at our surroundings before we burst forth into a large round lagoon and the spell is broken.

Day 7: We are camped on a beautiful sandy beach, with our own dock and picnic area. Through the sparse woods behind us is a lagoon, and a new-built road. In the bush we find a pair of narrow-gauge locomotive wheels, and there is evidence of dredging in the lagoon. We later discover that there is a big marina and housing devlopment planned for this area, but for now we have it to ourselves. Ourselves and millions of nasty biting sandflies. For now the breeze is blowing and we are content to hang our hammocks and make our dinner in peace. But in the morning, after a rain followed by a windless day, we are driven away as fast as we can flee.

Day 9: We are on the Sittee River, at the Riverview Lodge, which for now is just a restaurant and dock, but we are very pleased with the people and the location. We have slung our hammocks under a big thatch, and we have a place to cook our meals and hang our clothes, along with a shower and toilets. This place is perfect for us. The owners are friendly and helpful and plan to build some cabins on the grounds. And camping is only $10 BZE ($5US) per night.

From the dock we watch tiger herons and little blue herons stalk the shoreline. A small black opossum steals by in the night. He is headed to a small channel to drink where he is reasonably safe from crocodiles. Later we see one glide by, about a 10-footer.

In the trees around our campsite we see and hear oropendulas, melodious blackbirds, red-lored parrots, a huge, orange and black iguana, and two keel-billed toucans. The toucans are a real highlight, being such an unusual bird and are a big attraction to the Sittee River area.

We get a couple of bikes and ride up the road, looking for the old sugar mill. A Salvadorian citrus worker helps us find it, and we discover huge wheels and gears buried in the jungle vegetation. By the size of the trees that have grown up in this site, it has been abandoned for a long time. We later learn it was the first sugar mill in Belize, built in the 1830's. We also learn that from here was built a railway to take the sugar to the sea, where it was loaded on schooners. The point of loading was that very beach where we had camped among the locomotive wheels and sandflies. Another mystery solved and a trip worth the effort.

A word about campsites. Much of the coast of this tiny country is privately owned, but we found welcoming people and affordable sites. One such place is Billyhawk Cay, which has a small fledgling resort. For $10bze a night you can camp there and live among Garifuna fishermen. If you don't catch any fish, they will sell you some, and there are nice coral reefs nearby to explore. They also have small rooms available and a bar.

Another spot we found was Castillo's Beach, on the north end of Hopkins. Mr. Castillo let us stay on his beach for $10 bze for the both of us. The beach is very nice for swimming, there is a picnic table and flat ground for a tent or some nice tres to sling a jungle hammock. He also let us use his shower and toilet, in an outbuilding near his house. Right beside his house is Sew Much Hemp, where you can buy natural insect repellent and a variety of hemp-based clothing and other products (not weed). I didn't try the insect repellent, but it sure smells better than DEET.

The last day was a 14 mile paddle from Sittee River to Dangriga against the wind. It was a long day but we enjoyed the challenge and certainly felt we had earned a cold Belikin beer at the end of that day.

See you soon. Cheers