October 19, 2014

Sailing the Seven Seas

Whoever wants to go into the world must cross seven seas, each one with its own colour and wind and fish and breeze, completely unlike the sea that lies beside it.

We've sailed out of the Arafura Sea, through the Timor Sea into the Savu Sea. Soon we'll be in the Flores Sea. In the early days of sailing, these seas were part of the seven seas; those enchanting waters on the other side of the world where spice was in the wind. To sail them meant you had sailed as far from staid grey Europe as you could. You'd reached the mystical land of dragons.

For the record, there are more than seven seas; there's more like 100. But these waters do feel different. And it's not just the fire scented breeze that set off our smoke detector, the long slow swells, or the colourful high-bowed fishing boats that swoop close to look at us. Maybe if we'd flown into Jakarta by plane that sense of the exotic would have been more subdued. But we sailed into a port where the numbers of foreign ships each year only numbers in the hundreds (we were yacht # 675) and these numbers make up a good part of Kupang's foreign visitors.

We stand out in the streets. Everywhere we go: getting sim cards for our mobiles, waiting for bemos take us from place to place, shopping in the market, we're surrounded by a crowd. People touch our arms and stroke our hair. Maia is pulled into photos. They offer us help in bargaining for our dinner and laugh when we clearly paid too much. They follow us using a few English words, "Hello madam!" "Ausralie?" "You speak Indo?" We offer back our small bits of Indonesian, "Selamat pagi." "Terima Kasih."

Arriving by boat is an older way to travel. Everything is harder and takes longer. On our first morning we decided to check in using an agent. Stories of three and four day check ins (Maia and I would need to stay on the boat while Evan visited office after office) convinced us that help wouldn't go amiss. Our faith (and $60) in Api wasn't misplaced. After having the customs agent aboard (we served cold juice and lemon squares and he looked for alcohol in our olive oil bottle) Evan made record time visiting four offices (one twice) and making dozens of photo copies. By the end of the day we were officially in. But in the process Evan lost a credit card.

Our second day was spent trying to reconnect to the world-especially with the credit card company. Setting up phones in a foreign place is rarely simple. It took three tries. Midway through we ran out of steam-touched out and wrung out we found a restaurant and had lunch. Lunch brought us good fortune. We met a Canadian expat who offered us a scooter ride and we were off to see monkeys.

seems we found the only polite monkeys in Asia...

It's this: the forgotten slowness of travel that feels uncertain and foreign, that draws us to sailing. To cruise you need to go more deeply into a place, moving beyond restaurants, hotels and tourist highlights. You need to find out how to buy a chicken and how to eat that fruit. You listen as the call to an unknown prayer echoes through the anchorage in the setting sun. You puzzle over your clothes; wondering if it's better to cover chest, knees or shoulders (no one dress seems to tackle all three). And you realize that no matter what you learn today, it won't be the same tomorrow when you enter a new sea that's completely unlike the sea that lies beside it.

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