Halfway between the Canaries and Barbados, Arek, one of the Polish boys on our crew, asked what the main difference was between childhood on a boat in St. John and childhood on land in Oregon. I thought harder than I usually do before answering questions about our unique childhood. Honestly, we left that lifestyle so long ago that I’m not sure if my memories are even genuine anymore or refined by time and nostalgia.
“I think the biggest thing for me was freedom in my body,” I finally said.
Imagine, a child who doesn’t have to wait for a parent or a car or a beach bag before launching themselves into the ocean. Who is free to navigate their island by foot, or by sticking out their thumb. Who can pick a bunch of guineps or guavas off a tree when they need a snack. Who is never restricted indoors by cold, who can walk barefoot and bare chested year round. Independence, movement, nature. We humans need these things. It’s a requirement of our biology.
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
There was talk of an approaching north swell as we moved south from Port St. Charles to Bridgetown. A stiff breeze came over the land and hit forward of our beam, reminding me how fun upwind sailing could be. The boat did not agree. A flat bottomed charter design, she slammed and tremored through the waves, spitting sheets of water onto the windward cabinside. Occasional gusts crept up near thirty knots and send us healing and hooting as we rushed to reef the jib. The mainsail hid furled in the boom. We stuck around six knots of speed. Galeb is a careful boat.
Two hours down past the tankers and cruise ships at Bridgetown we stopped at the far end of Carlisle Bay, where a fragmented old cement jetty separated the long yellow beach of the bay from a short rocky point at it’s end. We anchored up next to Proxima Vida in twelve meters of water and a sandy bottom. The tight wavelets and gusty east wind rocked us around as we settled in for the night.
Sometime around midnight a rainstorm chased me out of my cockpit nest to sleep on the salon bench, wedged against the table. So when I woke in the morning, I meditated right there in the salon, and didn’t step above deck until an hour or so later. I stretched, yawned, looked towards shore, and gaped at an ocean transformed. In the night, the tight waves had stretched and grown into mature swells, lifting us high as they passed under, then hiding Proxima Vida’s hull as they passed between, then lifting her high, before cresting and breaking just beyond, where the bay bottom bumped up shallow.
Between the jetty and the point were sharp, quick, thundering peaks, scattered over a rocky shallow bottom. (The spot known as “Thunders”.) To the left of the jetty were gentle, three to four foot waves, a sandy break that had opened overnight for business. (“Pebbles”, it was called.) It was eerie to be anchored so close to breaking waves. I watched for a while, as the biggest sets swept under us, marching towards shore, and assured me that they reserved their crashing for the shallows by the pier. My nervousness faded into excitement, and I scrambled through my morning routine, chewing breakfast impatiently, digging out my surf gear.
I unstrapped my board-bag from the rail where it had sat for a month, pulled out my lonely red board, screwed in fins, strapped on the leash, squeezed myself into neoprene surf suit, smeared zinc on my face and legs, and jumped in, paddled right from the boat. Less than ten minutes, over the backs of the waves and into the break. Hours later I was hot, sun-baked, sore, and stoked. I turned out to sea and paddled home for food and water. The simplest commute imaginable.
Sitting in the water that day, waiting for sets of swells, I chatted with a kind Canadian on a longboard, who spends his grueling winters here. He told me that just around the point is a consistently breaking surf spot called “Brandon’s”.
“Can I walk there?” My criteria.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “it’s just around the point.”
So the next day I loaded up my “dry bag” and swam in to investigate.
Now, the tricky part about freedom is that everyone has their own definition. I might want to be free of cars, while another wants to be free to drive as much and as fast as they want. They find pleasure in speed, I find pleasure in silence. Our freedoms will ram head on. So it goes.
On a personal level, I idealize about freedom from needs, but inevitably fall into a spiral of consumption. I arrive in a new place, with its fresh set of possibilities, and I think, for example, ‘Well, now I need a surfboard perhaps so I can be free to surf when I want.’
My list quickly grew as I adjusted back to life on a boat in the Caribbean. I would need protection from the sun. A sun shirt for swimming perhaps. And a new hat. The one I have is a camouflage print thrift store find with OBEY embroidered in white. We are learning that camouflage is basically illegal on Caribbean islands, especially Barbados. Lukas, our giant Polish crew member, decided to test the limits of this custom by wearing a camouflage shirt to shore and was told by a helpful local, “People think you gonna shoot dem up!” So you can imagine how inconsiderate I feel as a gringo wearing a camouflage hat that screams OBEY!
OK, a hat, perhaps a surf hat. And now some sort of mask, or goggles, to dive on the anchor, practice holding my breath, play with turtles. Shoes that can get wet, sandals that don’t hurt my feet, and a way to carry dry clothes for my swim to shore. If I’m gonna be free to move when I want, I can’t rely on our small dinghy taxi to get ashore all the time.
Then there’s this other factor. Freedom chips. I’ve spoke of them before. A term coined by my father. Those points you gain by selling things or time to others, and which you trade back for other things or services. Money, that is. And usually, as in now, I’ve traded most of mine for experiences. Something I don’t regret. Just means I’d have to get creative with my new slew of desires, give my problem solving and creativity a little stretch. I’ll gain some accomplishment points and pride in the process. A win win, really.
The sun shirt came the easiest. I thought it and I found it. Walking to town our first day, I spotted a crumpled once-white pile in the street. ‘I recognize that fabric,’ I thought, and picked it up between two fingers, delighted to find a perfectly intact, if not slightly road-rashed, surf shirt, complete with Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax logo. Neoprene to boot. A bit big for me, but turned out to be comfy. Just a few days soaking in salt water and soap, and hanging to disinfect in the powerful rays of the sun. Shirt, check.
The swim goggles I paid $12 for…and then quickly destroyed by trying to remove the slimy lens covering with baking soda…bad idea. Baking soda is not a gentle abrasive. Then tried to fix by painting with clear nail polish ($4 as none of us wear nail polish)…also a bad idea. (This is not an instructional on how to get scratches out of goggle lenses.) So now, instead of goggles that see clearly underwater, they are goggles to give the impression that you’re underwater when you’re not. Like virtual reality, if anyone is needing that.
I returned to the surf rental/dive shop beach shack where I bought my once fine goggles and asked the owner if he had any used rental masks he might sell cheap. He studied me from under his visor, tilted his head a bit, one of his eyes traveled independent of the other. “You want a used mask?”
“Yeah, maybe one you’ll sell for cheap.”
He smiled and walked to the back of the shack, dug around in piles. “I’ll give you one,” he pulled out a nice white mask. “The rubber is wasted, and it might give you pink eye,” he joked as he cleaned it with soap. I took it from him, excited as a child. Nothing a little salt water and sunshine can’t clean up.
On to some shoes. This is an instructional…one of my experiments that has actually worked rather well. Arak found a new pair of comfortable flip-flops abandoned and cob-webbed on the beach, freeing up his old busted pair. His beach score trickled down to me, and I worked out how I might turn his size ten trash into my size eight treasure. First, cut them down to size. Simple, scissors to rubber. Next, glue the straps in place, as the most common problem with these cheap sandals is that the thong pulls through the sole. Crazy glue all over the place, all over my fingers…solved.
Now, how to make a heal strap. Flip flops tweak my gate as I walk, radiating mis-alignment and pain up from my feet to my knees to my hips. I gotta make these more secure, to hug and follow the natural movement of my foot. I doubled a strand of p-cord and looped it around the thongs, over the top of my foot, and back around my ankle. With some square knots at the ends to give it a little fancy macrame feel. Secure, simple, slip on and off, just a little chafing from the tough cord, but nothing my skin won’t get used to. As an added bonus, the wide, size ten thongs were pulled in tighter to fit.
The dry bag is an idea I encountered years ago. While living in Maui I watched a documentary about a 1960s Kauai hippy commune called Taylor Camp (for the brother of Liz Taylor who owned the property). One of the community members would swim down the Nepali coast (six miles or so) to town, naked except for a mask. She would stuff a sarong and some macadamia nuts in a water jug which she then tied to her ankle and set off swimming. She’d absorb into the rhythm of her strokes, set into a trance, (probably stoned) and snap back to reality whenever she’d see a shark pass by. Then she would jump out at town, wrap herself in her sarong, and hitchhike back to Taylor Camp. I was impressed by her bravery and ingenuity, enchanted by such a sense of freedom. I filed away her water jug technique for future use.
The future is now! I commandeered an empty five-liter water jug, looped a length of string through its plastic handle, and selected a skirt, shirt, and cloth bag which would stuff through the small opening, as well as a few colorful Barbados money bills. I slid my new sandals over the string, attached a second smaller bottle of fresh water, and swam with goggles and swimsuit, my swim bladder looped around my shoulder. Not quite as minimalist or naked as the hippy from Taylor Camp…but this is Bridgetown, Barbados after all, not Kauai in the 60s.
I landed on the beach by the pier, pulled my clothes from the bottle and got dressed. In an attempt to avoid walking on roads, I headed towards the rocky point to find Brandon’s beach. The tall Hilton hotel stood sentry on the little spit of land, with a dark green chain link fence guarding it’s perimeter. Outside the fence was a two-hundred foot wide strip of land, with tropical almond and manchineel trees lining tiny sandy beaches. It felt like a beautiful little park. A plank of wood spanned two manchineel trunks, making a bench in front of a fire pit littered with empty rum bottles and tin cans.
Trash stuck out from between tree roots and stones of the sea wall. I imagined how beautiful this little park would be without trash, and the next day I spent two hours digging bits of styrofoam packaging and plastic cocktail cups, straws and utensils from between plants and stones. Most of it blown over from the hotel and from touristy bars in town, the plight of tourism. When we visit a new place we have little connection to it’s preservation, little sentiment, and so we don’t feel as inclined to take care of it as our own back yard. Picking up trash has become a meditation for me, a little act of gratitude to the beautiful places I get to experience. As calming as collecting shells, and more rewarding…even though realistically the trash has nowhere to go and might just be burned. The problem is bigger, of course.
My secret beach park ended at the rocky point, and I set out across the sharp coral boulders, splashed by waves, under three black cannons which sat on the Hilton’s stone terrace. The boulders fell away further around the point and I scrambled along the edge of the stone wall, plopping down in the sand on the other side, among the bright blue hotel umbrellas and beach chairs and tourists. I walked awkwardly past, questioning my courage to offer massages to lounging guests. Another scheme in the pursuit of those freedom chips.
On to the public beach, past a stilted yellow lifeguard shack, and towards a few surfers bobbing in the water. The waves were smaller today, longboards only. I turned off the shore into the sandy wooded world behind. Almond trees all around, sunlight dampened and soothed by their broad tear-shaped red and green leaves. And coconut palms, of varying ages and heights. I was on the hunt for a palm frond. Another scheme, to make myself a hat and maybe some woven trinkets to sell. The shaded sand in the trees was firm and cool and dimpled by burrowed holes, maybe tarantulas? I wandered until I spotted a broken palm frond, snapped and ant-eaten at the trunk, just at chest height. I pulled and twisted until it broke free, and dragged it back to the beach to find someone with a knife.
Only a few people sat on this beach, a locals spot it seemed. The first woman I asked apologized and said no. I walked on to a man I’d seen earlier, seated by a little encampment with a screened bug tent, a wooden plank bench, a couple of beach chairs, and a surf board rack with one old board sitting alone. The man lounged in a chair holding a steel cup of cocktail, wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap covering his blond hair. When I asked for a knife he ran off to his truck, refilling his rum drink on the same trip.
He watched me trim my palm frond into manageable chunks and asked what I was doing, offering me advice and tricks. He spoke with a mellow Bajan accent and told me he had grown up here in a beach bar, his mother from Canada and his father’s family Caribbean for generations. His name was Nick. Once I had my frond all sorted, I joined him under the almond tree, on the wooden bench, and we chatted and watched the surfers.
“I used to live just there down the beach,” he said. “Just wake up before school and surf, beach fires, roasting breadfruit, fishing.” I smiled at the nostalgia of island life. I asked him about local food, my obsession. Which trees were edible. Are there any wild vegetables.
He didn’t know of many. He plucked me up an almond and showed me how to smash it open with a rock, holding the pointy end with two fingers. Fruit, a typical island boy offering. “We would smash up our fingers, though,” he said, and I teased that surely they island boys could find a safer solution. He showed me that the older, dryer almonds were easier to open, but the younger, green ones had an edible skin. I shaved off the layer with my teeth, pleased with the pear-ish flavor. I’d seen the green almonds nibbled along the trail. The monkeys, perhaps.
“Generally you can eat what the monkeys eat,” said Nick. He talked about his dream to plant food trees throughout this park, a national beach. Avocados, breadfruit along the car park, that anyone can come and get. I asked why food was so expensive here. Why the farm stands tried to charge me $1 per plantain. He explained that the island is generally very expensive. That a lot of the land is being given to development and so most food is imported.
I thought of the market vendor who explained that young people don’t want to farm, don’t want to work, that her expensive bananas were from St. Vincent. Bananas for which she was charging $.75 a piece. “You gotta buy the box, and you gotta buy the boat,” she reasoned. We left her booth without bananas.
“Most people here work a few jobs,” said Nick. “But,” he leaned back and smiled, “that is the price you pay for living in paradise. I’m not complainin’.”
He took a phone call and the sun was setting so I collected my palm fronds and headed back along the water. A vine creeping out from the trees sported a deep purple pea-shaped flower, and long thick pods. I studied the seeds inside and plucked a leaf. Nick had told me they used to make jewelry out of the old seeds, but he didn’t know if you could eat it. I wanted to find out.
From the University of the West Indies website I sorted through their list of shore-side plants until I found the name Sea Bean, Canavalia Rosea. That sounded right. Wikipedia offered an affirming photo and a short description. “Thought to contain L-betonicine.” What is that? Poisonous? I kept searching. “Used in certain cultures as entheogen.” A what? “Produces altered mental states, used in ritual.” Oooo, interesting. “Mildly euphoric, marijuana enhancer or substitute.” I smirked that the one plant I’d picked turns out to be psychoactive. ‘Does this mean it called out to me?’ I muse.
Likely we will never smoke it, I’m just not sure enough. A local friend suggests making a tea first and drinking a little. Either way, I returned the next day later for a few more sprigs of leaves, which are drying now in the sun. Even beyond the exciting euphoric potential, however, the useful properties continued over several websites. Topically antibacterial, good for soreness, pain, burns, puncture wounds. Bush medicine.
As for the beans, some cultures are reported to eat them, some people claim they are delicious, but studies have found cyanide levels higher than recommended, similar to other foods like bitter almonds and yucca. Soaking and cooking is a requirement. “In an emergency, and in low quantities,” concludes one site. Either way, I am pleased to learn a new plant in my new habitat. I’m not sure if I’m quite qualified to be eating off the land just yet, but that eventual freedom excites me.
I walked around the backside of the Hilton, finding the return to the boat simple and quiet, just a short stretch of public beach road, and a short sidewalk along the hotel drive. Two days later another swell hit and I returned with my surfboard, just a swim and a shady stroll to wonderful waves. Freedom