Monday, 10 February 2014

The Authentic Traveler: A Voyage on a Wine-Dark Sea

Written by Douglas Arvidson


“Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going.” ~ Paul Theroux
                                                                                                             
“Take the long way home.” Supertramp, 1979

Paul Theroux, the novelist and travel writer, is sometimes a curmudgeon, sometimes a cranky realist, and is always impatient with so-called travelers who insist on getting where they are going the easy way. I’m one of those travelers who would rather take that easy way and so Theroux is a dubious hero of mine. I don’t really want to travel as fearlessly as he does: living, somehow, out of one small bag without bathing for days on end, and enduring, without complaint, any of the many varieties of sickness travelers can suffer from. But neither do I want to be a mere tourist; I, too, want to be an authentic traveler.
Final preparations for leaving Guam
So, I will travel Paul Theroux style if I must—if it is worth it. Last year a friend of mine—we had been long-time neighbors living on our sail boats on the island of Guam—invited me to help sail his boat from Guam to Cebu, an island set back deep in the vast Philippine archipelago. We would leave in the middle of April, after the trade winds had died down a bit. It would take maybe ten or eleven days. There would be six of us, so watches would be relatively short and there would long periods to relax—to read, fish, to sleep, to contemplate the sea.
After ten days at sea, a sunrise arrival in Leyte Gulf
As a long-time sailor, I knew, though, that to travel a long distance in a small sailboat, one must face certain realities. You cannot take long, hot showers every day, or any day for that matter. You can wash off with sea water whenever you feel like it, but that nice fresh water rinse at the end of the day, if there is one, must be quick and use a minimum of the water that trickles out of a bag hung on the mast.  You won’t have an air conditioned cabin, so, sleeping on a boat in the tropics involves a lot of sweating. And you will be sharing your sweaty sleeping space with five other men, squeezing yourself in any place you can find among sea bags and equipment. You will be standing regular watches, often at night, and during that time you must stay awake and alert because you are responsible for the safety of boat and crew. You will be eating food prepared by men who maybe don’t know how to boil an egg. You may experience strong winds and storms and you may well be sea sick.
We had to keep a sharp lookout for local fishermen
On the other hand, if you are a lucky sailor on a lucky boat, you will spend your days enjoying a fresh breeze on a wide blue sea while riding down the backs of big ocean swells. You will experience the thrill of catching large, oceanic fish and enjoy drinking an evening cocktail with boon companions. You will be far away from, and out of reach of, bosses and work and the mundane responsibilities of daily life. You can take naps, read books, or daydream.  And as for those night watches, there are few things more wonderful than being at sea under a starry sky. But, maybe best of all, later on you get to brag about your adventures.

Fresh fish and a stalk of bananas round out our diet
And so, that’s how things went for us, lucky sailors in a lucky boat: We set sail on a fine day with a moderate wind, weather that was to stay with us for the entire trip. Friends followed us out of the harbor in their boats to bid us a good voyage. Within an hour, we had caught two big mahi-mahi, a fine tasting fish. We settled into sailing: watch keeping, adjusting sails, and mostly just sitting and reading, talking, or napping. We had long and glorious nights sailing on a sea glowing from the light of billion stars. I must confess, though, that this is often not the way is at sea; for this voyage, at least, the gods smiled on us.
At sea
Early one morning, ten days later, with the sun rising up out of a smooth-running swell, we were all on deck to be the first to sight land. After some false claims there it was, the first of the islands of Leyte Gulf. We spent the next two days and one memorable night, working our way through the archipelago to Port Carmen on Cebu Island. That night, while sailing through narrow passages, we passed through the edge of a violent thunderstorm and we often found ourselves caught up in powerful tidal currents, sometimes moving us sideways through the dark water at ten knots. And we had to keep a sharp watch for fisherman out at night in their small outrigger canoes. When they saw the loom of our sails coming at them, they would light a blue light, start up their small engines, and scatter out of our path. After a final long, hot, windless day, we arrived at Port Carmen.

Later that afternoon, as we sat a a local watering hole drinking gin tonics and reliving the voyage, I took some pride in thinking that we had followed in Paul Theroux's footsteps; we had had taken risks, we had used our skills as sailors, we had had a true adventure: We were authentic travelers. 

Author's Bio
Douglas is an American writer and traveller whose international prize-winning short stories have been published in Paris, Prague, and in literary magazines in the UnitedStates. His fourth published novel, Brothers of the Fire Star, is the recipient of four literary awards including a Finalist award in the prestigious ForeWord Reviews 2012 Book-of-the-Year competition. You may find him on Twitter and @ofthefirestar