Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Comoros: Getting Hungry?

     It started out the way all mornings do on the Comoros: with fried bread, a bowl of rice and a cup of the worst coffee in the world. The taste of charred Eucalyptus lingered stubbornly despite diluting it one to one to one with sugar and condensed milk. I’m not exactly sure why I kept choking down their terrible attempts at coffee. Some part of me, it seems, needed to believe there was one cafe in this country that knew it’s java; one dusty market where the coffee poured out black and smooth and perfectly roasted. I never gave up hope of finding this Shangri-La and I never found it.
     My friends and I left our cups (practically untouched) on the table and strolled towards the shoreline. We’d negotiated a good price for the journey out to the famed Emerald bay, to sail, snorkel, fish and dine. It was almost the best thing we did in the Comoros. Almost.

     A small swell sent long lines of tiny waves into the sun-bleached sand. On the three day car ride up to the northernmost tip of the island, we’d doled out Dramamine like candy. Now, on the brink of an all-day ocean adventure, we felt bold; we felt strong. We laughed as we tossed the untouched pills overboard. We didn’t feel stupid yet, but we would soon. 

Mark and me, pre-voyage. The idiots have no idea what's in store for them.

     Above us, the sun smiled down while the crew passed out raincoats. We examined them curiously, checking above to make sure the sunshine was not an illusion. A hole ran down the length of my coat; my friend’s had lost its waterproof layer.

     We cast our slickers carelessly aside and lounged beneath the tropical sun. The boat glided across the ocean. Pushing past us with a bucket in his hand, one of the crew members moved to aft: ready position. 
Getting his bucket ready.

     When we neared the eyelet through which we would sail out into the Indian Ocean, we discovered the reasoning behind the jackets and the man with the bucket. He began to bail, pouring the ocean back onto its side of the hull. Defiant, the water continued to invade. It rose to our ankles. We cowered beneath ineffective raingear and discussed our odds for survival. We found them slim.

     The post cards had lied. There were no sparkling emerald green waters that morning. The sea growled gray and white and the wind blew the waves back against themselves and into our raincoats. By the time we made landfall, three fourths of us were as green as we’d hoped the bay would be. We stumbled ashore, rejoicing in the way that sand does not surge when you walk across it.

     Then, the bad news. Lunch would be served only after we’d caught it. The boat crew tried to wave us back aboard. We rustled up a sacrifice; pushed our friend, Mark, back onto the arms of the sailors. Catch us some lunch, Mark. Keep your eyes on the horizon. The rest of us flopped into the sand and rested our uneasy stomachs.
I sunned on that log. Bye, Mark, catch us food!

     I lay on the beach, terribly seasick, asking my friend what would happen if they didn’t catch any fish. I’ve inherited this quirk from my aunt: I’m always wondering what my next meal will be. Even if I’m still eating the previous meal, I can’t help but worry when I’ll see food again and what it will look like when we are reunited once more.
     “I’m sure they have a backup plan in case they don’t catch any.”

     “But what? What will it be? What if I get hungry? I’m scared.”

     My fears were unwarranted. Mark and the crew returned with an octopus and a boat full of snapper. The fish we ate for lunch that day were so fresh they were still alive. I watched the cooks who slapped the still-gasping fish up onto the grill and ran their knives down the sides, pouring olive oil and garlic in through the holes.

     A feast appeared. We sat at a rickety picnic table, our glasses full of rum and coconut milk. A dozen snapper for the six of us. Carrot salad, crab, pommes frites and gallon of coconut rice. We ate until we could not think of eating any more, filling our stomachs until they stretched.

     Just when we’d tackled the meal before us, a parrotfish materialized. We gaped at him in disbelief (him, I knew, because I could see how blue he was, even cooked and covered in crispy garlic). A quote from my journal: “Holy shit. Best meal ever.” Somehow, we managed to stuff the parrot fish into our bulging stomachs. Finished at last, we leaned back as much as one can on a bench, patting our third-trimester food babies.

     Satisfied as we were, the knowledge that we were stranded in the Indian Ocean did not stray far from our minds. We frowned at the sea and it was clear we were all wondering the same thing. Was there any way to avoid returning the way we came? Could we just stay?
We have to go back to the ocean in this boat. Yes, this one.

     With feet of stone, we marched across the sand towards our unseaworthy vessel. In the boat, the crew instructed us to sit backwards.  My friends sat on the bench closest to the bow, so they didn’t see it coming, but I did. Straddled across my bench, I watched as one of the crew members snuck up from behind, a tarp in his hands. He tarped my friends, covered their heads with blue plastic (which alarmed us all) and then returned to his job as the constant bailer.

     “This can’t be good,” I said and tunneled my way under the tarp with them.

     While we’d snorkeled and feasted, napped and made merry, the sea had grown restless. The swells towered to ten feet above us. We rode parallel to them and though I’m not exactly a sailor, I’m pretty sure that’s the wrong way to tackle water that’s taller than your mast. Wave after wave pummeled the boat. We wondered where the life vests were.

     Drenched, Mark crawled out from under the tarp and turned to see where we were going.

     “Okay, get ready,” he told us.

     “I’m so happy I ate all that fish.”

     “Three, two, one.”

     The wave washed over us and spilled out the sides. For a moment, we went underwater.

     And then we were back in the bay, returned to a quiet sea that we drifted over, glad to be alive and well fed.

All photos courtesy of Corey Pargee, 2010.

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