We sail away from the trash rivers of Alor in search of coral reefs, white sand, and water that won’t give you fungus. Here, I can take a breath and not choke on rotting fish, diesel or fermented fruit.
The last three days, parked in Kalabahi, a “city” with a water catchment functioning as the local garbage service, nappies, bottles, egg cartons, tampons, and enough recyclable material to fund a trip to Mars, floated past. The stop was part of the Sail Indonesia Regatta and a much-needed supply run and refuel. For six hours, three policemen roamed our deck as two tons of fuel was delivered via dingy in five-liter jerry cans. Luckily, we only needed a top-up of the boat’s six-liter tank.
With Kalabahi thankfully behind us, and the boat heavy with fuel and green bananas, we sail towards the promise of clear water and air that doesn’t taste like a passing garbage truck. The kid’s school-day takes up five of the 12-hour sail, their classroom shifting from mountains to volcanoes, to white sand, then back to volcanoes.
Our anchor for the night is just beyond a narrow canal bordered by jagged a reef. On approach, the depth-finder goes from 70 to 14 meters in less than a minute. We pass between coral shelves with no more than a car space on either side and start breathing once the depth-finder pings 20 meters. No longer on reef-watch, I’m hooked on the surrounding islands, some as small as a rodeo ring and others home to volcanoes hatted by clouds.
We anchor beside a reef that shoulders a sandy island visible only at low tide. Smoke, too thick to be locals burning the day’s trash, swirls from distant mountains. Maybe the volcano has spilled its guts.
Captain Jack hails all clear, and I plunge, snorkel and mask in hand, into the bottomless blue. Fins and a favorable current propel me to the reef.
The whole cast of Finding Nemo, minus the sharks, hopefully, flutter between bulbs of reef. I dive down, equalizing every meter, and poke my head under a coral mushroom. An open-mouthed eel as thick as my arm greets me at his doorstep, this is my cave, he says, bugger off. And I do. My fish book, the bible around these parts, has a danger symbol attached to the Green Moray. A chomp from him and I’ll be missing two fingers. I need all ten to count and untangle fishing line and electrical cords.
The water’s visibility sinks with the sun. The wild-fire spotted on arrival has gone from an Unidentified Fiery Object to a whole mountainside alight. I lay on my back and kick towards the boat watching day turn to night and hoping no sharks are eyeing off my backside. For me, dinner is the Spanish mackerel the deckhand caught on the crossing from Darwin to Indonesia. The recipe, however, was taught by a toothless Indonesian woman as half our boat huddled around a saucepan under a thatched roof. The secret ingredients are tamarin pulp and star fruit but don’t forget the chilies, lots of them. Fried onion, and garlic, the recipe’s first step, wafts across the water and I kick harder. By the time I climb the ladder our cook has added tamarin pulp water and diced turmeric root.
Expecting to catch tomorrow night’s dinner, I sit on the back of the boat, fishing rod in one hand, wine in the other. The last step of tonight’s soup, adding cubes of Spanish Mackerel, plops into a deep saucepan and dinner is called.
Seven people sit around a table big enough for ten trying to figure out the source of the fire. Is it volcano magma, locals burning off, lightning, locals testing fireworks for the Independence day celebrations four days away, a phone combusting from too many selfies, friction from feet during cultural dances, a meteor, fireflies mating, and lastly, a UFO. The radio buzzes, and a neighboring boat asks if anyone is interested in 7 a.m. yoga tomorrow, BYO yoga mat.
For the sixth night in a row, I grab my blanket, bug repellent and head to the flybridge to sleep under the stars. In the distance, the fire still rages, and with the moon just a thin-lipped grin, the stars light up like startled fire-flies.
Tap, tap, tap wakes me, and I open my eyes to the sun peeking over the water. Blanket wrapped around my waist, I walk to the back of the boat where a man sits in a hollowed out canoe holding up a bright red fish the size of a drink bottle.
“Selamat pagi,” I say, my good morning yawned.
“Pagi,” he says, thrusting the fish higher.
I shake my head no, “Tidak.”
Every morning, no matter where we are anchored, a man arrives in a splintered boat that’s one storm away from the bottom of the ocean.
He reaches behind his knees and pulls out two coconuts.
“Tidak,” I say, our fruit bowl overflowing.
“Banana,” he says, pulling a bunch out from behind him.
I shake my head.
He digs around and drags out a papaya.
“Tidak.” Surely there can’t be much else lurking behind his shin bones, but no. He reaches down and extracts a seashell as big as his face.
I smile, shake my head, and offer him ice-water.
“Teremakasee,” he says, reaching for the glass. He gulps it in one and hands it back. After three refills, he is on his way. The salesman wake-up means I can fit in a coffee before I paddleboard to the sand-island for yoga.
I drag the board above the high-tide line and run three laps around the island before the first Shavasana. Fingers buried in the sand, I bow into downward dog wondering if I can get any more relaxed?