In Search of the Promised Land Pt. XII

The Cancerous Darkness of Babylon

Previous Post - A Great and Powerful Sea Creature

Life at sea seems to synchronize words like “necessity” with their original meanings.  The belief that we “need” something is largely an illusion of status or a fleeting bliss.  In fact, our possessions and indulgences, left unchecked, become the building blocks of our own prisons.  Too often we abandon our deepest desires in exchange for empty promises and temporary amusement.  In the pursuit of freedom, less becomes more...

The welcome wagon on the small commercial quay in Barahona was considerable.  It seemed after the usual suspects of customs and immigration that anyone with a uniform within fifty miles was alerted to the arrival of one very expensive-looking yacht in the otherwise unvisited corner of the Dominican Republic.  One by one, the parade of blue suits came to visit, extending upturned and empty palms with no intention toward pleasantries.  

By the time the agricultural officer arrived, wearing the uniform of a custodial engineer and asking for fifteen dollars per bag to dispose of our garbage, my patience was spent.  I told him to wait while I found one large bag to hold all of the small ones.  Kerstin overheard the ensuing argument and relieved me of the dispute.  I returned to my work on the mains'l but continued to sneer at the badge-emblazoned janitor as he took the money and garbage to the end of the dock and threw the bags in the dumpster.  

A short while later came another beggar, dressed in shiny clothes and wearing large round sunglasses, looking as though he had just come from a rave.  

"Hello, I'm looking for drugs," he said.

Perched on the boom and working away, I barely looked at him as I responded,

"Yeah, me too."

He pulled off his bug-eye glasses and took a badge from his pocket.

"I'm a narcotics officer.  I'm here to search the vessel."

At this point, I was convinced that there was a line of random people waiting around the corner and that they were all using the same badge.

"I'm pretty sure we finished everything, but you're welcome to have a look around."

He took a casual tour of the interior and collected a ten dollar fee for the inspection before leaving to pass on the Idol to whoever was next in line.   

That evening when the empty palms of Barahona had all been greased and peace fell quiet on the empty harbor, we sat in the belly of the beast discussing the events of the day and our respective thoughts.  My frustration fell away as I listened to Jiorgos' perspective.

Maybe we don’t have money. Maybe we never will, but we have more than they do. When you arrive here on a boat that looks like this, how do you explain that you are not an elephant?

My thoughts drifted to all of the people and cultures we'd visited in the course of our journey.  Although all of our ports of call were Latin-American, the difference in culture from northern Mexico to San Blas was immense.  Even the dialect of the language reflected the diversity of the peoples.  One thing resounded in my mind as a common possession of all of those lovely souls we had encountered.  It was so simple and delicate, and yet so hard to obtain.  No amount of work or money could afford this luxury, yet it was the only thing driving the monsters of wealth for whom we were working.  

All of these simple and impoverished people wore a smile.  Not a fleeting grin or momentary sentiment, but a broad and powerful contagion of true happiness.  The most sought-after commodity on earth cannot be bought.  It is a gift to those who are of little means, who know the value of a hard day's labor and the satisfaction of a simple life.  Happiness is an elusive creature, fickle as the flame of a candle, burning only for those who can appreciate its dim light.

All the while, the cancerous darkness of Babylon spreads steadily, seducing the weak of heart with its delusions of grandeur, thus evoking the acquisitive demons that lurk within humanity.  Tradition gives way to technology, sustainability becomes disposable, and once pure spirits begin a path to suffering.  The American Dream burned long ago and from its ashes arose some grotesque impostor, surrounded by smoke and mirrors, seeking to destroy us all.  Only after we are consumed by the facade, can we begin to see that the dream is cracked and broken. By then, it is already too late.

The following morning, we awoke just before daybreak to the sound of a fist pounding on the hull.  The narcotics officer, fresh from the closing of some nearby night-club, had returned to continue his investigation.  After swaggering through the cabin, he turned to Jiorgos and extended his hand.  

"Ten dollars for the inspection!" he proclaimed.

Jiorgos walked over to the chart table and pulled the green portrait of Jackson from his tattered wallet, handing it over as he gently swayed the man up the companionway steps and saw him safely off of the vessel.  A sudden beep and grumble brought the engine to life, and Jiorgos' face appeared in the companionway as he called down to us,

"We need to get the fuck out of here."

The severity of his tone and the look on his face spoke volumes, emphasizing the sentiment of his simple words.  Kerstin and I glanced at each another and sprung into action.  Dock lines disintegrated as we all worked in a silent and efficient unison.  A moment later, our bow faced seaward and the distance between the quay and our stern was too great to understand whether the cries from the tribe of zombies ashore were of a friendly farewell or those of an angry mob.  

The slog to windward across the Mona pass was ugly but short-lived in comparison with our ten-day ordeal from Panama.  When the sea finally eased and the darkest hour of night was punctuated by a pale light in the east, I woke Kerstin and retired to my bunk, caked in salt and too exhausted to care.  Alas, my peaceful slumber in the lee of Puerto Rico was short-lived and I was hauled out of my sea-dream by the VHF at full volume.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sitkiniak was a quarter mile off our starboard beam and apparently had some concerns about our voyage. Answering their questions over the radio as precisely and professionally as possible did little to expedite the interaction.  The voice on the other end, coming through loud and clear, stated that there must be a problem with our radio and that they would be launching a boarding party to facilitate a clear line of communication.  

A moment later, an orange rib emerged from the leeward side of the cutter.  Seven armed crew approached our starboard quarter at high speed, with the helmsman shouting maneuvering instructions at Jiorgos.  He followed the orders masterfully and to the letter, though I could see that he disagreed with the maneuver and the helmsman was forced to make multiple approaches to disembark all of his crew.  Kerstin and I could do nothing to assist after being told to stand clear.  

Once aboard, the officer in charge sat down with Jiorgos to review the vessel documentation and transit logs.  His second asked me to accompany him and another officer in searching the vessel's interior.  This inspection was slightly more thorough than the ones conducted by our shiny Dominican friend.  We began with the main bilge and engine room and then moved all the way forward, methodically opening every locker and panel as we worked our way aft to the master cabin.

In the tight space of one of the forward cabins, as my primary escort stood up from inspecting one of the bilges, the snap of his holster caught on my pants and opened.  He spun toward me and placed his hand on the pistol in one swift motion.  As he moved, my hands took it upon themselves to proclaim my innocence and stood erect in the space on either side of my head.  His counterpart was watching all the while and quickly asserted that it was an accident and that his partner stand down.  

By the time we reached the final compartments, the tension between us had eased and we began to laugh over small things.  They noted that our safety equipment was of superior quality and in better order than their government issue gear, and asked how to find a job like mine when their service was complete.  

The three of us emerged to the cockpit to find the rest of our respective crews roaring with laughter around the table.  Apparently, once it was deemed that all of our documents were in order, Jiorgos took to recounting some of our adventures and mishaps.  The commander stamped a carbon copy of his report and slid it across the table to Jiorgos as he said,

"That should spare you any further inconveniences from the U.S. Coast Guard for at least a year.  Thank you for your time and cooperation. It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Captain."

The two stood up, shook hands, and we all exchanged a respectful salutation as their chariot came to collect them.  When they were all clear, we resumed our course and Jiorgos threw the hammer down a little harder than usual, asking,

"Three times in three days?  We need to find a place to go and sleep without getting searched for a couple of nights."

"Denis, go and write a log entry for this."

"What do you want me to write?" I asked.

"Write ‘Attacked by U.S. Coast Guard’ and staple this paper to the page."

I laughed and took the report from him, heading below to carry out the order he had bestowed upon me.  

I suppose in the hierarchy of life, all of us are searching for something.  Society has come to adopt so many prerequisites to our individual quests that we are intrinsically distracted from the fulfillment of our purpose.  In our collective and unbending course for the Promised Land,  we all find unexpected detours.  Even if our waking intention for a given day is the pure and honest pursuit of that greater goal,  the story can easily be retitled,

"In Search of a Parking Spot."

To be continued...