July 23, 2008

Dispatch: On a traditional junk

Black Travels community member, Claire Garcia is currently traveling through China and Vietnam, and has been sending us dispatches along the way.

Our boat was a traditional 19th century junk, a replica of a pirate ship cleverly designed to look like a small commercial boat. I will send a photo in a separate e-mail. It had three feather-shaped sails and was made completely of wood~ even the sail mechanisms. There were 8 passengers (two couples of the Hong Kong variety of gilded youth, and a loud and enthusiastic Australian couple, in addition to Mateo and me), our guide and translator, and a crew of about half a dozen, in gold-braided brown uniforms and bare feet.

Ha Long Bay gets its name from a legend that a magic dragon spewed up a belly of jewels (the thousands of abrupt, weirdly shaped islands in the bay) to stop the ever-land-grabbing Chinese from making another assault on Vietnamese territory. As of a few years ago, it is now illegal to go on to most of these islands, as they are environmentally protected. But even in COnrad's time, landing on most of them would have been impossible, as they are sheer mountains and cliffs rising up directly from the sea. The sea itself is so placid that our guide says that it is referred to as "the world's largest swimming pool."

Here, from the opening of The Secret Sharer, are some of Conrad's words, which are more beautiful than my own. The young captain is leaning over his taffrail, waiting to embark on his first command:

"To the left a group of barren islets, suggesting ruins of stone walls, towers, and blockhouses, had its foundations set in a blue sea that itself looked solid, so still and stable did it lie below my feet; even the track of light from the westering, sun shone smoothly, without that animated glitter which tells of an imperceptible ripple."

"On my right hand there were lines of fishing stakes resembling a mysterious system of half-submerged bamboo fences, incomprehensible in its division of the domain of tropical fishes, and crazy of aspect as if abandoned for ever by some nomad tribe of fishermen now gone to the other end of the ocean; for there was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could reach. And when I turned my head to take a parting glance at the tug which had just left us anchored outside the bar, I saw the straight line of the flat shore joined to the stable sea, edge to edge, with a perfect and unmarked closeness, in one leveled floor half brown, half blue under the enormous dome of the sky."

However, we at the dawn of the following century, on our replica tourist ship, put up for the night in a cove where a water village of houseboaters live as they have done for generations, fishing and not going to school. Their voices and music came to us across the dark water as we sat on the deck in the evening, and finally the captain moved our ship a little farther off, as there was a very agitated baby who was ruining the atmosphere for the westerners.

Most of our hours on the first day were spent eating wonderful fresh seafood dishes and swimming off of the side of the boat. The young men went off in sea kayaks (and of course, as young men do, went farther than they intended, so a search party was sent out just before dusk. As the sun slipped below the horizon and the beautiful golden 3/4 moon became more prominent, I tried to quell my anxiety about three young men with no map, no guide, in a sea of a thousand unlandable islands. I later told Mateo, who has also read the Secret Sharer, that I thought he, as the Sharer does at the end of the novel, had disappeared toward one of the many "towering black mass[es] like the very gateway of Erebus" -- and become "a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny" in the South China Sea. But they did all return safe and sound. While Mateo and Hong Kong princes kayaked, I went with the guide for a closer look at the water villages.

The next day, we heaved ho (is that the past tense of this expression) and sailed to one of the many spectacular caves that have formed around the bay. And, after more hours of fresh fruit (I kept trying to identify breadfruit, which figures large in the nautical tales of the South Pacific that I read, but that I have never seen or tasted) and fresh fish and swimming, we returned to port, and the harrowing ride back to Ha Noi.

1 comment:

PerfectlyPatois said...

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