Part Two of Two. Please see here for the first part of the story.
So there I was, stranded on the island of Nei’afu, without a ride home. But my friends knew how much I wanted to get back to Mounu and Claudia.
Although the morning’s fish were long sold, people were lined up near the fisherman’s landing. Matiu stopped the van. He and ‘Ana chatted with some of the people waiting. There was a woman in a ta’ovala, an abundant skirt of finely woven mat worn on formal occasions, including mourning. Two death-metal skulls covered her breasts on her black t-shirt. Tongan people going to funerals often wear commemorative t-shirts with portraits of the deceased and sentimental slogans, often wearing black for a year or more. This woman’s memento mori made her look fierce to me. ‘Ana talked to an older woman, white-haired, with a broad friendly face and body. She came back to me in the van. “That was the boat owner,” ‘Ana said. “She says it’s alright for the boat to take you to Mounu after all the other people get to their island.”
After offering a price for the extra fuel, I prepared to climb down into the rocking wooden boat.
Stern to the stony shore, the boat was small but had two engines. It was locally made. A piece of plywood made a floor. The front of the boat was enclosed by a cabin. You could sit on the woven plastic mats on the floor in the front of the boat and keep yourself somewhat dry, but those places were gone by the time I took the younger boatman’s hand and climbed down into the boat. His other arm was in a floral sling. The other boatman was a silver-haired uncle or grandfather. They sat on each side of the stern, operating an engine each.
The boat was weighed down by goods and as many passenger as could comfortably fit, all of us women and children. The older woman who owned the boat had the driest, stable place up in the bow with cardboard boxes of shopping. She was just out of my line of vision — a couple of younger women and two children were also on my side of the boat, also under cover. I was happy to sit on a narrow bench to the side of the stern with a young mother, her wriggly baby girl bouncing on the knee of a sister or cousin opposite me. The woman with the skull shirt sat next to her, looking weary. The boat rocked and a fine mist of rain made the girl with the baby pull the plastic hood of her jacket over her wavy black hair.
The little boat was sunk in the water to its gunwales, the sea a few inches from my resting arm. I smiled up at ‘Ana and Mathiu as a wooden pallet was put onto the roof of the boat. Perhaps there were also a couple of passengers up there. “That’s your life-raft if you need it,” laughed ‘Ana as the pallet passed over my head. I felt happy to be headed home and gave my friends a long wave as the motors started revving.
Besides the goods and almost a tonne of humans. there were two black plastic barrels in the boat. The skull-shirted woman rested her head against one of them. The barrels were inscribed “Salt 170kg”. A thin twelve year old boy sat with his back against the barrel closer to me. I rested my arm on it, bracing the barrel a little as we rocked.
The engines worked hard, sounding like a cheap lawnmower struggling over thick dry grass. We were going slowly, just about at the speed at which I can swim. I am a very slow and buoyant swimmer and would not swim so far. But I’d been in that water many times. I knew it was as benign in the places where it was 300 metres deep as it was near the shore. Claudia and the whales helped me learn that.
When I could find a space to look between the others’ lines of vision, I looked out on the sea and the green covered islands. Other times I looked down through the foamy wake or at the floor of the boat where my immediate neighbour had recently broken one of her thongs and the whiteness of the skin on my shins was fascinating, even to me. I saw a couple of flying fish skip over the water. They always excited me. When I was a child I was convinced that swallows were flying fish because of their fish-shaped bodies. I felt privileged now to see real flying fish, not birds at all.
One of the women handed out lollies generously and people threw the wrappers in the water with an abandon I recognised from my childhood in Australia, when people still acted is if litter were a sophisticated decoration.
My neighbour bit off most of her piece of chewy candy, giving a sliver to her baby. I said, “You’re a good mother to not give her the whole lolly.” She put her head down, smiled a little. “My children eat too many lollies,” she said and showed me healed impetigo sores on the baby’s legs. The infant looked bright and robust. She got more fidgety as she finished her lolly, exercising her mother’s arms vigorously. I put my face close to the baby’s — our foreheads an inch apart — and got that good feeling babies give you when you get close to them.
The air was good and warm despite the fine rain and spray. Perhaps the last time I’d been on a boat like that was thirty years ago when I was in northern Sumatra. I was nineteen and very self-conscious of my fair, rounded appearance. The wiry Batak people had hard work written all over them. I imagined that they thought me very rich and idle. I couldn’t explain to them the months of work and saving I’d done for the trip. My anxiety about who I was tied me in knots then and I held my body tensely in that long-ago boat, concerned that any casual touch could be misconstrued. Thinking about that time I breathed deeply now, enjoying an ease and comfort born of age and reflective experience.
My neighbour handed the baby to a young woman sitting on the floor opposite us. Looking up at me from there, the infant noticed the strangeness of my face and began to cry, frightened. I laughed. The twelve-year-old boy sitting at the base of the salt drum distracted the baby. He wove dried grass in a loop around her ankle and she relaxed, soon falling asleep in her aunty’s arms.
After an hour or two we approached the boat’s home island. It was nicely kept, with a good school and a fine little beach. At the concrete jetty children were jumping and swimming in the turquoise water. The boatmen yelled to the children — the eldest was a girl about ten — instructing them to move another boat out of the way to let our boat in. Several children jumped in and pushed one wooden boat apart from another. A couple of little ones climbed on the thin wooden rails of one boat, looking down to see how it was done. Our boat hove itself, motors up and stern close to the jetty. Everybody (but me) became active. People and boxes were moved out efficiently. I smiled my thanks to the lady boat owner. The boat was suddenly very light in the water, with only me and the younger boatman on it. I moved forward to sit on the woven plastic mat under the boat’s wooden roof. I strove to use my weight, suddenly little, to stabilise the boat, rocking wildly, high in the water. If I’d been with friends I might have laid down to keep my weight low.
It was still another forty minute journey to Mounu. The sky was beginning to darken. I figured the sun would be setting as my boatman returned home and felt very grateful to him. I planned to pay him well. How wonderful to finally have money and be able to pay people what they deserved.
Inside the boat the hand-hewn wooden beams were strikingly irregular, fit together by talented hands. The interior was thickly painted white. The scratched portholes showed waves and sky. Elsewhere in the world, hundreds of people were travelling in such boats in unfamiliar territory, across seas and distances a fisherman’s boat was not built for.
I recalled a patient who survived the sinking of such a boat one terrible night between Australia and Indonesia. Her brother, his wife and their children drowned. Her own son, a two year old, was pulled out of the deep water cold and blue by her fellow traveller, and heaved onto an exposed part of the sinking boat. The good man was able to resuscitate the child. And there that infant sat, on the hospital bed with his mother. He was, born with a heart problem and had the unsettling calm of congenitally sick children. The doctors in their home country were clever and kind, but the family thought the child’s chances of survival were better in a wealthier place. Now the mama cried day and night in grief and loneliness, the toddler her only reason to live in the strange place she found herself far from family and friends. I thought of them now with sadness, wondering if they found safety or still struggled in an Australian detention centre.
I felt grateful for the reliability of the little wooden boat and the people who knew their home waters so well. Grateful, too, to have somewhere I belong wherever I am in the world.
As our boat now approached the little island of Mounu I wondered if the boatman knew the way in to the sandy beach past the grassy shallows where the sardines hatch and the teeth of the beautiful corals. He had no trouble. I climbed out of the boat into warm thigh-deep water, then hiked up the beach to the smiles and embrace of my beloved wife who’d been wondering about me.