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Archive for June, 2010

 

Anchored off one of the many uninhabited islands, we finally tackled the job of scraping and cleaning the hull of Sun Angel, John’s 32-foot cozy, wooden yacht that he called home.  We had to prepare her for the 60-mile crossing of the Gulf Stream and the trip back. 

John looked ashen.  I swam to him, pushing the dive mask up off my face, making sure not to drop the scraper I was holding. “What’s wrong?”  I’d never seen him look like that before and it frightened me.  “Get on the boat, we have to go.”  His shaky but determined voice sent an icy chill through me.

The beginning of our adventure found us slowly sailing down the Intracoastal Waterway, meandering past mangrove islands thick with bird life, massive, rolling manatees near the banks, sleek pods of dolphin, swimming in our wake and other creatures that make their home here.  After two days, we anchored, waiting in Palm Beach at the inlet where the Indian River meets the Atlantic Ocean.  I was born along the shores of the Indian River, named after the Ais Indians.  My homeland is rich in Native American history, and when I hear the names of tribes and chiefs, Cherokee, Osceola, Seminole, Okeechobee, Ocala, and the Blackfoot tribe, of which I descend, I hear an echo of who I am.

It was here at the mouth of the inlet, floating under a cream-colored full moon, that we popped the cork off a bottle of champagne in celebration of our first year anniversary and the beginning of a nice long holiday cruising through the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas.   

Crossing the churning Gulf Stream is risky in bad weather.  Every summer day a storm threatened and we couldn’t take the chance, so we waited.  Unlike some of the powerboats who were able to make it in a few hours, we relied on sails and a 20-horse power engine.  We had to have calm weather.  John taught me what he could in the time we had before leaving, but I was a novice sailor and not very confident. 

Usually, when crossing the Gulf Stream, sailboats leave in the middle of the night, and often together.  They want to be sure to make the entrance to the Bahamas in daylight and have some company along the way in case of emergency.  Grand Bahama Island has a reef that surrounds it called the Bahama Banks.  Although slightly tricky to navigate in daylight, we were told never to attempt the narrow passage at night.

After a few days waiting in Palm Beach for the weather to clear, we head out at 3:00 a.m.  At the mouth of the inlet, we smelled something burning.  Quickly setting the anchor, John went down below to check the engine.  After poking and prodding around, he discovered a slipped belt. Three hours later, we’re on our way.  Other yachts left this day as well, but none as late as we did. 

We are on our own as we leave the shelter of the river and head out to open sea.

The wind is barely a whisper, so we motor-sail.  Soon after heading out, beautiful streaks of hot pink, yellow, orange and purple softly beckon the sunrise.  We call John’s father and let him know about our late start.  He said the weather is supposed to be perfect, no storms in sight.   

The Gulf Stream is a colossal current of ocean water, 100 kilometers wide on average, which cuts through the sea like a monstrous river.  Off the coast of Florida, although warm, it’s the clear blue color of an iceberg.  It churns out an amazing 30 million cubic meters of water a second through the Florida Straights.  You know when you reach it; its strength and power are awesome.  We motor-sail along, then suddenly feel the incredible underwater current of the mighty Gulf Stream.  All my life I’d heard maritime stories about the Gulf Stream, that churning, raging river of ocean, with terribly high seas, but today it’s calm.

I try not to have negative thoughts, for instance, if we lose the engine we’re in serious danger, or, oh, God, we’re within a tip of the Bermuda Triangle, or Devil’s Triangle as some people call it, the nautical area that forms a 500,000 square mile invisible triangle off the coast.

I watched a program on TV about it before we left.  Scientists may now know the reason for dozens of airplanes and possibly hundreds of yachts suddenly disappearing within this triangular area.  Some people say there must be a paranormal reason for it.  Others say it’s a magnetic pull that causes electronics to haywire.  One fact is, statistically, it’s impossible that it’s human error in all these cases.

The program I watched proved that the earth releases huge pockets of gas on the sea floor, which billows up in an underwater ballet of frothy bubbles.  Methane hydrates has the power to cut the engine of an airplane flying overhead.  Spewing streams of methane bubbles create areas in which a boat suddenly cannot stay buoyant, and without warning, sinks.  When friends of mine disappeared while cruising their motorboat through the Bermuda Triangle to the Bahamas, and another couple we knew vanished while flying their Piper twin engine, everyone had the same thought; the Devil’s Triangle. 

Donning my harness strapped to a cable that ran the length of Sun Angel, I walked to the bow again.  “What are you doing up there?  What are you looking for?”  John asked.   “Just looking.”  Secretly, I was on the lookout for bubbles.

Our cell phones lost reception somewhere in the middle of the Gulf Stream.  Every hour or so I took the binoculars and did a 360.  We were completely alone and without means of contacting anyone; all was blue, blue sea and blue sky, only a few whispy white clouds watched over us.  Once, a huge powerboat passed us and I was happy for the temporary company. 

There is something tranquil and beautiful knowing that you’re alone, floating on a clear sea.  Sparkling light glitters on the surface.  Our skin soaks it up and turns a smooth bronze.  I bath with seawater on the deck. 

For most of the way, we chugged along at no more than 2 knots.  Darkness came, and still no land.  When we finally spotted it on the horizon, we picked up speed.  It was as if Sun Angel saw a resting place and got a bolt of energy.

We reached the Bahama Banks about 9:30 that night.  We relied on the light of the moon as we tacked back and forth, perilously close to the reef.  We radioed in to West End Marina for guidance coming into the harbor.  Entering through the shallow reef is dangerous without help.  Anchoring out to wait until morning wasn’t an option.  It was too deep.  Just beyond the shallow reef that surrounds the islands is the Tongue of the Ocean, a branch of the Bahama Canyon.  We were floating over an underwater abyss where the sea floor plunged to an astonishing three miles, double that of the Grand Canyon.

No one responded.  Finally, there was a voice.  It was from a fellow sailor already safely docked inside who’d heard my pleading on the radio.  He talked us through as I stood on the bow, slowly swinging the huge spotlight from the rocks on one side of the inlet to the rocks on the other.

After a couple of good night’s sleep, and some exploring of Grand Bahama Island, we left and spent the next month sailing from one dreamy spot to another in the Abaco Islands.  We anchored near palm-stuffed shores, usually alone, and awoke every morning to sip hot coffee on the small deck, and dive in the transparent blue-green water for a morning swim.  Afterwards, we’d load Cherub, our dinghy, and explore the quiet beaches.

Nights were more difficult, and found us awake most of the time.  Every movement of the boat woke us… had the anchor come loose, was it dragging us too close to a reef, had the wind changed, swinging us in the wrong direction?  We constantly checked the anchor and were on alert.  One night a tropical storm swept through about 2:00 am.  The lightning terrified me, and we were dragging anchor.  John had to re-set it.  We had promised each other that any time we were at sea and outside of the cabin, we’d wear our harnesses, clipped to Sun Angel.  John grabbed a flashlight, rushed outside and made his way to the bow without taking time to attach his harness.  I squinted and tried to watch him through the pouring rain and the black, black night.  Occasionally I would see the light from his torch, or I had a flash of him when lightning struck, working on the anchor.  Then, I couldn’t see his flashlight.  A bolt of lightning revealed nothing.  Icy fear grabbed me.  If he goes overboard here, I’ll never find him.  The storm clouds concealed any moonlight.  The night was black.  Suddenly, he was in the cabin, wet but safe.  The next day we spoke to a sailor whose yacht had been punctured by a catamaran, dragging anchor.   

One day, we packed Cherub with our empty fuel tanks and headed toward one of the island’s marina’s.  While filling up we saw a huge fishing boat and spoke with her owner.  The name of the yacht was Deborah and she was from my home town of Vero Beach, Florida.  He asked us if we had caught any fish, and when we said no, gave us a tremendous amount of fresh mai mai.  We grilled it with a splash of lemon on our tiny Weber, which was lashed to the deck’s railing.  It was delicious and flaky. 

 

“Hey, let’s take Cherub and see what’s on the other side.”  I said upon arrival at the next island, jumping down below to change and gather some water and a couple of things to take.  We found a footpath that led to an open-air beach shack facing the sea.  It had a thatch roof and stood alone on the edge of a forest of tall palms.

Hanging from the rafters were items that sailors left, each had the name of the owners and their yachts, a single flipper, a broken oar, an old life preserver, even a battery.  We didn’t bring anything that we could leave, so we added our names and the date, next to many others, carved into the worn wood of a table.  We decided that by carving the date and our names there, it bound us to return one day.  We swam in the calm, warm sea, and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by about 30 rays, each a good three feet around.  The water was limpid and clear and I felt an amazing peace wash over me as the rays glided, as in a ballet, slowly around us.

 In time, we started talking about cleaning the hull.  Both of us being procrastinators, we almost didn’t do it, but decided we’d better since we would soon make our way back across the Gulf Stream, and home.

John showed me how.  I made my way around the edges of the boat, dipping my face under occasionally to watch the scraped algae and barnacles float away.  I was swimming in a constant cloud of it and I was sure a rush of fish would come soon to partake in the free meal.  Another reason to poke my face under was to be sure there was nothing too big swimming around with me.  John had the harder job, diving down to scrape under the boat.  He probably should have used the scuba tank we had on board, but he preferred to free dive. 

“We have to go.” he said, trying to rush me onto Sun Angel.  The first thing I thought of were sharks, but John isn’t afraid of sharks.  He surfs Sebastian Inlet and sees them all the time, and in South Africa where there are great whites.  I didn’t think anything here could really scare him.  “What is it, sharks?”  I ask, shaken, climbing onboard.  I put my mask and scraper in a corner and quickly took his as he came aboard.  “No, worse, it’s the boat.  There’s a crack in the hull.  There’s no way she’ll make it back to the States.  We have to hurry up and get to Green Turtle Cay. It is a well known island, if anything happens we’ll be safe there.”   “What do you mean?  How much water are we taking on?”  I asked.   I felt safe close to the islands, but I wasn’t happy about being in between where we were in the open sea in a yacht with a hole in it.  “How far away is Green Turtle Cay?”  “About 3 hours, we should be fine.”  He said.  I wasn’t sure he sounded convincing. 

We took all the precautions, putting emergency gear in Cherub just in case and pulled anchor.  I came out of the galley with a knife, which I placed snuggly near the rope tying Cherub to Sun Angel.  If Sun Angel sinks, I want to be able to cut the rope quickly, I don’t want to have to worry about untying knots.  I was scuba diving once and saw a boat sink.  It took all of about one minute.

We made it safely to Green Turtle Cay, then on to Freeport, where we watched as Sun Angel, massive straps around her belly, was hauled to the dry.  My heart skipped a beat when they told us the crack was directly under the mast, and was caused from jackhammer-like constant pressure while sailing through choppy water, and I recalled the days when the sailing was anything but smooth.  They were convinced that if Sun Angel had sailed through even the slightest chop more, the mast would have punched right through the bottom of the boat, leaving a gaping hole, and us to sink.  Since we were on our way home, it would have happened in the middle of the vast, empty Gulf Stream.

We packed what we could carry in pillowcases, and looking like hobos, walked and caught taxis to a hotel.  At dawn, we hopped onboard a massive cruise ship headed for Miami and home, and as we sipped margeritas on the deck with sunburned tourists from the north, I spotted a sailboat on the horizon.  I thought about our holiday.  We’d gone from the bliss of sailing clear, turquoise water to sleepless nights of worry, from the sweet solitude exploring palm-tree stuffed shorelines to the icy fear of the possibility of sinking.  Full of adventure, and wrought with one near disaster after another, our holiday was over.  We were ready to go home.

Two weeks later, a horrendous hurricane ripped through the Bahamas, leaving Sun Angel with an enormous jagged hole, lying on her side alongside other damaged yachts.

Initially, I was upset with Poseidon and the Gods of the four winds, to whom we asked safe passage before leaving.  Our holiday had been magical, but it wasn’t without an enormous amount of stress.  We barely slept.  There were many situations that could have become dangerous, even fatal.    Why was poor Sun Angel smashed to pieces?  However, upon reflection, I reconsidered and thought how incredibly fortuitous we’d been.  We’d crossed the mighty Gulf Stream and the Bermuda Triangle.  We made it safely through the Bahama Banks, and we did it at night.  Seeing the wreckage of those who didn’t make it when we looked the next morning made us realize how lucky we were.  By a miracle, we discovered a worsening crack in the hull, which would have sunk us.  And, we narrowly missed sailing in a hurricane. 

As they’d been throughout so many of my life’s experiences, there they were again, the Gods, Lady Luck, our guardian angels, whoever or whatever it was, I knew once more, they were watching over me.

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PLACE OF THE MEZQUITE

CORDOBA – SPAIN

A 2 000 –year tangle of

Arab – Moor – Christian – Berber –

Andalous – Spanish

            lives

Once greatest city in Europe

Layered history two millennia old

still visible:

Visigoths – Romans – Christians

Arabs – Berbers – Jews –

Muslim Caliphates – Berber destroyers

Christians – Jews – Moors living together

Turn and turn about –

rulers-ruled

One time seat of the Catholic Inquisition

Four centuries of unChrist-like

judgement and torture

CORDOBA – SPAIN

History brings in tourist economics

but

            Spanish food, Spanish horses

            Spanish hats, Spanish tapas

            Spanish beer, Spanish culture

now rule the river trade

Al Andalous music, architecture.

A city of cool shady patios

shrouded in flowering plants

and the sound of water running

through mosaic fountains

CORDOBA – SPAIN

Place of the beautiful HAMMAM

Potent in memory for healing

Everything changes

At 21 euros and upmarket tourist costs –

I pass, with regret

CORDOBA – SPAIN

Place of La Mezquite

Greatest structure in the Islamic world

Where 1 300 red and white brick arches

impregnated with the presence of

as many years –

stand spectacularly silent

as the everyday life of twenty-first century Spain

overlays the past

CORDOBA – SPAIN

I salute you great, silent, powerful MEZQUITE

as I sit in your cool shaded

orangerie

High up there in blue sky

pigeons and swallows

fly

Wings outstretched

flap – flap – glide

tilt – turn – plummet

swoop – bank – spiral

High up there in blue sky

taller than the towers

of the Mezquite

Umbrella palm fronds sway

and bless

Catholicism’s procession

spilling out from

the great bronze Islamic doors

of the re-named

Christabel Cathedral Mezquite

High up there in the 1 300 year old tower

bells peal wildly

and I wonder:

How many changes

have these palm trees seen?

And the orange grove ?

The smooth pebbles of the garden?

The water circulating in

the Caliph’s fountain?

CORDOBA – SPAIN

I salute you great, silent, powerful MEZQUITE

as I sit in your cool shaded

orangerie

Perhaps we do not come this way again

to offer you honour

June 10 , 2007

FAIR TRADE – TO THE EDGE AND BACK AGAIN

KNIFEPOINT and AL ANDALUS HAMMAM

The river Gualdalquivir

runs deep, wide, strong.

East crosses over to west

under an ancient roman bridge

and guardian stone forts.

Down below river banks, cows

wander, ruminating..

browsing upriver and down

Down flights of red-brick steps

I retreat from city traffic

to the quietness of grass and water,

silence and shade.

Cross-legged on warm grass,

blissfully  resting tired and weary feet.

Eyes closed, I’m drifting …

Reaching behind to brush away a singular stinging bee,

turning to slap it away –

–         NO, not a bee –  but the cold tip

of a menacing steel knifeblade

pressed into my waist.

Disbelieving, my eyes travel from steel

to hardened fingers, tattered blue shirt

to look into the hard eyes of

a lone foreign man, squatting my-side.

Shifty, muttering incomprehensible words,

an insistent knife thrust puncturing my skin.

Inner panic! My bodybag holds all I possess –

euros, travel cheques, passport, credit cards, air ticket ..

The lone ranger jabs a hand at my purse

Jostling the knife, and himself closer, menacing.

We two are unseen from the human promenade five metres above.

I pretend ‘no comprehendo’, shake my head,

unobtrusively  reach behind to the bodybag at my waist.

One hand slow, very slow, in full view,

starts unzipping the front pocket

My other hand, hidden, reaches stealthily into the behind pocket,

fingers closing quickly, silently,

grasping vital documents and money

All this drawn-out instant , I’m infinitely slowly, keeping eye contact.

Unbuckling.

Instantaneously, I jump up.

Throw the bag high and away.

And I run for my life,

chasing the 4-minute milers,

up the long, long, stone stairs

to the safety of the street promenade, and people.

My precious existence –money and documents – grasped tightly

in one hand.

Breathless, I dare not look back until

I reach safety and call out to an elderly man.

He leans over the parapet, pats me, takes my arm.

We sight Mac the Knife running far off and away…

Dangerous? Could have been – but wasn’t.

Terrifying? For sure!

I wobble into my Youth Hostel dorm

shake and cry .

My angel dorm companion

sees the panic, comforts by leading me on a spiral walk

through Cordoba’s streets for a cup of strong arabic coffee.

A loss?

Not really. For, magically, someone picks up an empty bag,

divested of all but my Youth Hostel receipt –

and it is waiting for me on the desk as we return.

So .. summer simmers down, and I recover mySelf,

travelling a short, cobbled way

into one of my most beautiful travel experiences.

Comforting and pampering was required –  and gained.

Later that day I step through the narrow streets

to knock at the stone door

of Cordoba’s El Andalus Arabic Hammam

Stepping inside an ancient , exquisitely tiled, peaceful, aristocratic home,

with fountains of musical water playing gently,

sweet hostesses,

soft white towels from petalled baskets,

I’m shepherded into a low-ceilinged spa.

Dim and shimmering with the flickering lights of candles, candles, candles

Glistening, decoratively tiled surface and walls and floors

Of intricate Arabic geometric patterns.

Fragrance – soft candlelight – incense burning, quiet, soothing music.

Each of three temperature pools : hot, lukewarm, cold

is framed within magnificent red-white Mezquite arches.

Architecturally exquisite.

Soul richness.

I sink, and soak and sift.

Move idly and idyllicly between

the pools and a young, fragrant masseuse.

For a timeless, transformative, hour.

Absolutely , absolutely and entirely the most beautiful, feminine experience of my life.

A fair exchange, thank you!

And though I have returned to Cordoba twice –

For honouring of the Mezquite, the Patio Los Naranjos, and Al Andalus Hammam

sits deep in my soul memory and dreambody –

I have not been fortunate enough to enter again

the wondrous ambience and embrace of my Al Andalus Hammam.

Do I want to see Paris again before I die?

No, oh no. Perhaps, while still in young spirit, I may have the good fortune

To experience once again the triumvirate of Cordoba:

That magnificent Mezquite, the Patio Los Naranjos and Al Andalus Hammam.

You ask for a dangerous incident  – this was

more threatening than dangerous in outcome.

Hardly dangerous to one trapped  by herds of elephants,

treed by rhinos,

farms traversed by terrorists,

hearing the sound of a single gunshot to the temple,

witnessing times of the massacre of children,

rape of nuns

and other inhumanities perpetrated by the violent and vengeful

against the innocent and unwary.

ANDSOITIS. This and every life. This and every Age.

The mystery of the soft and the hard. The love and the violence.

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It all started quite unexpectedly, shortly after they were married on a hot summer’s day in the little village church.  It was no secret she had married him for his pension, and of course for the shop he had recently inherited from his father.  She was very straightforward about things like that and he didn’t seem to mind a bit.  The thing is, she had the ideas.

When they returned from the ceremony, excited to claim the shop as theirs at last, she kicked off her high heel shoes and put on a pair of sneakers from her traveling bag.  She said she was dying for a cup of tea.  ‘Would you make me one, darling?’

 ‘It’s a bit tricky,’ said Joe.  ‘My father never got used to making tea for one… he didn’t bother fixing the kettle again… after my mother passed away.’

  ‘Oh well, never mind!  We can drink the champagne instead!’ she replied, picking up the bottle off the shelf that housed the books on vintage cars.

 She was about to pop the cork when he stopped her.  ‘Hold on.  I’ll see if I can find some glasses.’

 He made his way past an Austin Healy his father had been working on, towards a pile of trunks at the back of the workshop.  The ‘Union Castle Liner’ stickers that splashed across them were well worn and reminded him of the long forgotten trips to England and all the car boot sales and fairs he’d gone to with his mother.

‘I haven’t seen those yet! What’s in them, Joe?’ Her voice hooked his stomach and he was back at school, facing Mrs Norris, his pockets bulging with the day’s takings of marbles.

 ‘Nothing much… Mostly china… It’s just old junk, really,’ said Joe.

 She helped him remove the top case and together they placed it on the floor. She then nudged him aside and bent down on the cold concrete floor, to open the latches.  ‘Mhhhhmmmmmm,’ she said, ‘yes, there is some old china in here, very good old china, in fact.’  And then she examined one piece after another, turning each item carefully over so as to check the individual stamps and markings on the back.  Her eyes began to sparkle in the dim light of the shop.

 ‘Do you see any glasses?’ urged Joe.

 ‘Oh Darling! Can’t you see I’m busy right now?’

 He stood there for a long while, his hands deep in his pockets, ‘What about the champagne?’ he asked.

 ‘Never mind, never mind! I need you to do something else for me, would you bring the sign in from the front of the shop?  And I’d love some brushes and paints.  Bring whatever you can find.”

 She ripped off the turquoise scarf she’d worn to the ceremony and started dusting the china with it.

 Joe scuttled in with his arms full.  ‘Have you got the sign?’ she asked from behind several piles of china plates stacked up high upon the teak desk.

 ‘I am getting there!’ he replied.  ‘What are you going to do with it?  My father was always very proud of that sign, you know!’

 ‘That’s too bad, Joe.  Life has got to move on.  And besides, I have a marvelous idea!  Do pass me the paint, dear!’

 Joe stood by as “Village Service Centre” was drowned in red and “Martha’s Fabulous China Shoppe” was painted, in British Racing Green, instead.

 ‘There!’ she said as she placed the bright new sign against the wall and stepped back to look at it. ‘Now we can celebrate, darling! It’s time to drink some of that bubbly!’

 ‘Straight out of the bottle?’

 ‘Straight out of the bottle, you old fool!’

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I sat on a baraza watching the sun come up. A group of people disembarked from a ferry carrying a body on a carved deathbed wrapped in white sheets. The mourners had brought the corpse on the roof of a bus from Nairobi before sailing between the mainland and Lamu Island. They passed me in silence.

Men prayed in mosques huddled between alleyways and doorways and donkeys stung the silence with sharp braying. I drifted away from Lamu in my hired dhow as the Kusi monsoon filled its sails. Captain Rafeeq and his crew were descendents of sailors who had been part of the trade routes between Arabia and India for centuries. They carried cargo’s of grain, sugar, oil, ghee and cotton to be exchanged for francansense, cinnamon, palm-oil, fragrant gums, tortoise shell and ivory.

Black mangrove sea horses floated under the clear water while a sweet fragrance of mangrove flowers daubed the air. I scanned the green canopy for birds. A small flock of carmine bee-eaters headed towards the mainland. They skipped over the water towards the northern acacia-lined beach. A fish eagle stretched its neck, pelicans waded in swampy grasslands. We passed women shrouded in printed Kangas, bright in the morning light. Elephants crossed the channel between Manda and the mainland to eat tamarind seeds. A Kenyan Wildlife Service plane took off – the rangers were on their early reconnaissance flight for poachers between the Lamu district and Tsavo East. Another half an hour and we were out of the channel back in the open sea. Our boat ploughed through the waves as we approached what the Islanders call ‘the sea road’ – a narrow channel only navigable during high tide. It reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s  ‘Heart of Darkness’ The mangrove swamps on either side of us were silent – the only sounds were splashes of water being bailed out of our boat. That too had a rhythm of its own. The birds were still as a humid heat enveloped us.

Pate was different from the other Islands I had sailed to – so remote that visitors are infrequent and a curiosity to the local people. Shards of ancient porcelain lay on the shoreline. I lost myself in Chinese designs and symbols stepping over crabapple, peonies, spring lotus petals, autumn chrysanhemums, birds, butterflies, crickets, benevolent dragons, immortal cranes. Women scrubbed Swahili beds in the sea while small children hid behind Kanga skirts. Occasionally one was brave enough to peep at me for a second before darting back under the safety of fabrics flapping in the breeze.

The oldest known settlement  is at Shanga dating back to the 9th Century after which Pate built a rich history around a Nabahani Sultante, Omani rulers, Persian and Chinese traders, Portuguese protectrates, shipwrecks, oddities such as noodle making presses, a shieks head preserved in salt, the birthplace of Swahili poetry. A later poem describes the town’s rapid decline after the loss of a battle in Shela in 1812.

“The lighted mansions are uninhabited,

The young bats cling above,

You hear no whispering nor shouting,

Spiders crawl over the beds.

The wall niches for porcelain in the houses,

Are now the resting-place for nestlings,

Owls hoot within the house,

mannikin birds and ducks dwell within.”

Porters unloaded large baskets of food and cooking utensils for our lunch. Captain Rafeeq had the use of a Makuti hut on the Island. The crew chopped vegetables, ground garlic, grated ginger and squeezed limes while I was taken through narrow alleys past monumental tombs – the ‘dwelling place of spirits.’My guide arranged to take me into several houses where pieces of antique jewelry and pottery were traded between the local people who sold them to the tourists on Lamu and Manda Islands. We entered the houses through carved doors leading into courtyards. Arches were flanked on each side by a matching pair of carved chairs facing each other –some inlaid with ivory. Women wore rows of gold pierced earrings on their upper ears and large round wooden, carved gold or horn circles through their stretched earlobes. They disappeared into dark interiors to get their heirlooms. Girls grated coconuts – children gathered outside, fascinated by a msungu woman in a bui bui with a camera around her neck. The women returned holding bits and pieces that had been stored in chests for generations. Silver and brass items so tarnished you couldn’t see the patterns on them and porcelain bowls had networks of fine spider vein cracks under their glaze. They survived the eons of time by being set in the bottom of stone cisterns in pit latrines as a means of controlling mosquitoes. When the cisterns were emptied the bowls always had enough water in them  to keep fish alive that ate the mosquito lavae.

I noticed a young boy wearing what looked like an elaborate wooden bangle covering his arm from wrist to elbow. He told me that it was a splint made by the bone healers of Pate. This was the first time I had heard about the bone people and after extensive research I have not been able to find any documentation about them.

Lunch consisted of a Swahili feast served on a brightly printed tablecloth. Cats clawed at the remains of fish on a hot grate while a cockrel with a featherless neck pecked at crumbs under the table. I ate my meal felling like a colonial Memsaab. The men did not join me, nor did the women of the home. They sat indoors – scarves covering their faces. It puzzled me and stimulated thoughts of early European attitudes towards Africa that evolved into myths representing their own fears and indoctrinated psyche’s. Their racist opinions in literary works shaped the imperialistic mindset making colonialism possible . I felt guilty sitting there on my own, eating fish from their sea, spices, vegetables and tropical fruits from their shambas without sharing their words or their laughter.

We could not leave for a good few hours yet as the tide was out. By five o’clock we packed up and waited on the beach sitting on the ‘rib bones’ of a dilapidated fishing boat with a group of small boys and men mending nets. This seemed to be the early evening meeting place. Rafeeq organized a flat-bottomed fishing boat to take us to our dhow. An Islander poled us through the shallow incoming tide. It began to get dark, White egrets skimmed the surface of the sea as they winged their way homewards. Captain Rafeeq’s face had a worried look. We headed straight for the open sea – sail down with only a small engine to propel us. I looked into the water and saw the deep blue glow of firefly squid pulsing in unison below the spray. At first I thought they were the stars reflected in the water.

The air had a sharp bite to it and the wind drew goose bumps over my flesh.  Rafeeq gave me a plastic sheet to fold around myself – I sat under it, soaked and shivering. It felt worse than the Malaria I had just recovered from. We were approaching the ‘sea road,’ too dark to see where we were going. We could feel the rocks scraping the bottom of the boat – the tide still not high enough for us to pass through. The crew used poles to push us forward using a pocket torch to guide them; the beam spread a thin light through the mangroves. Our mast hit treetops, bringing branches down as though they were giant fruit bats. Alarmed birds took flight as we crawled through the passage like smugglers.  Time passed slowly – the poling was in harmony with the sound of water being baled out of the boat. A half moon became visible, Venus shone bright, leading the stars into the arena above us. Our sky theatre did not last long as clouds drew curtains around it. We passed through the ‘searoad’ back into a vast mass of swirling water. Our old dhow zigzagged through the roughening sea, the small engine straining to keep us from being blown backwards. What should have been a two and a half hour trip had already taken four and we were only half way.

The engine cut out. Rafeeq steered the boat this way and that to stop the boat from capsizing. We sat in silence, each with our own fears and predictions. We had no water, no food and two lifejackets to share among seven of us  – we were being swept further and further out. I listened to the cord of the engine being pulled and each time held my breath in hope of a splutter of life. Eventually the engine started, we had enough fuel to get us to the next channel between Manda and Pate, out of the wind. Our Captain, anxious to get back, took a short cut. He crossed from the middle of the channel towards Manda, ignoring the navigation lights that had been erected along the length of the channel to help fishermen find their way home at night. Within minutes we hit a bank of coral. Shelley’s death at sea came to mind, his cremation on a beach in Italy  – the pagan ceremony with libations of wine, oil and spices, his marble tomb draped like a fallen angel across a sacrificial alter with a weeping sea myth below the plinth,  Fournier’s painting “The Cremation of Shelley” showing his corpse offered up to heaven on a martyr’s pyre with Byron reciting poetry and Mary Shelley kneeling on the wind-swept beach.

My Shelleyian swamped mind was jostled by our dhow being pushed off the hard coral After doing a full circle to get back into the middle of the channel we were out of danger and thoughts of my body being draped in white sheets covered in frangipani flowers and set on a funeral pyre were abandoned. The lights of Lamu  illuminated the sea in front of us. Our spirits lifted and what seemed a nightmare became an adventure. We relayed things as we had experienced them, each in our own way. It was easy to be brave now – Lamu was only a short distance away.

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Imagine waking up from your own murder. Would this be possible. Is it not possible for a murdered person to be dead but awake in another reality recalling every aspect of such a demise.
This I know is true but I cannot write it, cannot send a message to anyone to let them know that I am murdered but not dead. As my dismembered body lies, washed up amongst the translucent sargassum strands which I always fondly referred to as the mermaids with the secret sea hair, I am dead and already decomposing. Lifted by the ebb and embraced by the creatures I have long admired, many of them which I used to photograph in meticulous detail, always in awe of some or another aspect of the subject that would grasp the shutter. Dead as drowned but hovering with an unknown breath and as such not quite dead. I feel nothing thank God but I sure as hell don’t recognize myself, one side of my face is a mucilage of purple blood, missing a left eye, the right eye is fixated upwards to the infinite sky but I seem to be unable to spot any birds. My hands are gone, most of my stomach, already fed away by amphipods, shore crabs and shy sharks, in fact a lot of excess has been cleaned up so that there is a certain clarity in my new deformed condition. I Have become what used to intrigue me: the detritus rotting away on the beach at which I could stare for hours, the maggots inside skulls, the cleaned out bones of wild animals in the veld, the curious vigour inside the compost heap and all its steaming disintegration; here I am it. Floating with an illustrious array of fish that the anglers would indeed kill for: zebras, red steenbras, poenskop, dageraad and pangas. That’s it, it was a blade that sliced me clean and articulate like a rhyming couplet. But who held it? There is a smell I recall because my sense of smell was always very good. It was a pleasant smell, similar to the smell of the visiting academic from Qatar whom we took out for lunch in the autumn of 2010. It was the smell of privilege, of crisp clean clothes, of someone who is always immaculate, no flatulence around the body, no bad breath, age and its infirmities does not touch this kind of person for some or another reason. Maybe they are vegetarians or they never stress or something like that.

Who wanted me dead?
Quite a few people actually .The Dutchman wanted me dead almost a year after we moved here. He often envisaged it, I felt it in the way he looked at me with contempt and malevolence for what he perceived as a disruption of his unchallenged existence in the area. He was deluded into believing that the entire Blesberg area was an extention of the farm he once owned in Zimbabwe. A pig farm I think, it makes sense anyway. First he was our friend of sorts having poked his nose into our building affairs right from the beginning, then he used to pitch at our house on a daily basis, always uninvited and then through various unpleasant fits and starts we ended up having disagreements until these became quite severe with the final straw when he sided with the loony tune across the road Jose Rodriguez. His Dutch hypocricy excelled in the company of his fellow colonial wash-out. The two of them a sight to behold: the one unruly with way too much hair, a face that Roger Ballen would want to photograph with his eyes closed, and then the slender uptight looking man from Madeira who actually walks as if he is pinching an apple between his inner thighs. The real crux came when the Dutchman’s dog continued repeated sojourns up into Blesberg, chasing buck and baboons and wild birds and after numerous requests to curb his dog, he simply remained insolent and indifferent. Eventually we contacted law enforcement and the fines started coming his way. But after all the ill will and hard feelings he was not sufficiently moved to follow me down to the deserted beach, and slice me. Neither was the man from Madeira who just isn’t man enough.

Someone else who wanted me dead was the lady with three cats who drove her husband to suicide nearly two years ago. It was me who got rid of all three her cats and she must have known it. First I harassed her by throwing all the dead birds, mice and lizards caught by her cats over her wall, then I used to leave flyers under her door: my favourite was the one about the extinction of the Stephens Island wrens – a rare bird species all killed by the lightkeepers cat.With my Revlon animal instinct lipstick I drew hanging cats on her car windows. To no avail. Then I snapped. One day I simply picked up the black cat and drove it all the way to the animal welfare in Grassy park. The white one was caught in a trap and disposed of by Lester the nature conservation man. Number three I simply ran over with my car one night. It was an accident.
It’s my own fault that I evoked this sense of hatred in other people. I Should have gone to tai chi or yoga or something where meditative skills could be invoked in order not to lash out at individuals whom I have come to believe to be infringements on the environment. My new mission, my long lost sense of activism gained a certain degree of militancy and it started turning on me. Often at night when I was outside in the dark, perched on a ladder underneath a local resident’s outside light which was left burning for days and nights, there I was – complete with a kit of gloves, headlight and a sassy screwdriver. My heart would pound with excitement and once back home, under the critical gaze of Reuben, who has given up on these bisar excursions, I would actually feel quite ridiculous – until the next time.

So who killed me?
The fact is I don’t know. I never saw the face, only the hands with long articulate fingers like that of a pianist, and I remember thinking that a murderer could not possible have hands like this. Killing me softly to the touch of music and then I was dead.

Lien Botha

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