The Inner Dialogue of a Coward on the Java Sea

I'm no expert when it comes to things nautical, but from my vantage point in the tiny fishing boat—which was more like a canoe though it had a motor, sail, and outrigger—we were about to die. The swells? Yes, they're called swells, rose up before us like gelatinous mountains...dark, menacing, and ravenous. I wonder if this is normal. It doesn’t seem normal, although the hotel man who’d helped me arrange this trip assured me this unofficial passage from Bali to Lombok was generally safe, and definitely OK today. I’m sure the fisherman piloting this boat won’t understand me if I ask him... If only I spoke Balinese and he spoke more English. I know it's three hours to the island of Gili Air—he tells me that every time I present him with a question. "Is this normal?" I asked. "Three hours to Gili Air," he replied. I realized I'd been clenching the sides of the boat since we left the beach in Lipah. My fingers were starting to cramp and my knuckles were the color of the white foam capping the waves. The waves are white on top! That means the sea is rough or choppy or something like that. From my little experience with the sea—which has mostly come in the form of novels and movies—I know enough to fear the dreaded whitecap. When people look out to the sea and see waves with foamy crests like these, they always say something like, "Boy, it sure does look nasty out there," and then decide not to do whatever it was they were going to. WOOSH! At least the water is warm, but I wish it would stop coming into the boat. What's that noise? It must be some drainage system used to prevent us from sinking—boats usually have some sort of plug or something, don't they? I turned to locate this plug, the salvation that would keep our sea-going vessel from becoming a scuba diver's wreckage dream. It wasn't an easy maneuver. The boat was only as wide as my hips—which are, granted, rather wide. But when it comes to boats, my hips are usually quite small in comparison. It's something I've always taken comfort in. Oh. He's bailing the boat with a bucket. He’s bailing the boat with a bucket! And we're on the ocean! How many gallons of water are there in the ocean? Let's covers almost the entire planet Earth, so there should be no problem: a bucket against the rest of the planet. Seems like a good match to me. Like pitting a fruit fly against an orangutan in a battle. It wouldn't be so alarming if the bucket were a proper bucket—that is, larger than my coffee mug. The fisherman smiled at me. “Three hours to Gili Air," he announced, as if for the first time. Well, there's one thing I can count on. It's three hours to Gili Air. Make that two things: the fisherman will keep reminding me. I looked out to the horizon. I don't see any land in front of us. THERE IS NO LAND IN FRONT OF US. I wonder if I should check in with the fisherman. "Excuse me, but are we going the right way? When I said 'California', I was only telling you where I'm from—we're not headed there, are we? It's just that THERE IS NO LAND IN FRONT OF US and the ocean looks like it would like to eat us for lunch." Speaking of lunch, I wonder what kind of animals are swimming below us. Sharks, that's what kind. WOOSH! With the amount of water coming into the boat, I bet one of those sharks will come right in with it. It will come into the boat, eat me whole (which is the best­, because it’s probably the most painless way to be eaten by a shark), and disappear back into the sea as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. "It's three hou-," "Yes, I know." I shouldn't have cut him off like that, but he was disrupting my composition of a quote—the kind that people come up with to make a bad situation seem worth the pain, like, "When life deals you tomatoes, make Bloody Marys." I can't stop thinking about the one that people use in times of defeat to make themselves feel better that goes, "I guess it wasn't meant to be." I hate those platitudes and besides, they weren’t very comforting when about to die on the sea while in a tiny boat that I could wear as underwear with an angry sea full of hungry sharks below. My quote, before I was interrupted, went like this, "If you don't do something because it seems scary, then you're not living life, you're hiding from it." This was in complete contrast to the other thing I was screaming at myself, "You idiot! You could die out here, and all for a little convenience!" Yes, I’d put myself in a life-threatening situation for a little convenience. It's an 8-hour voyage from Bali's Padangbai Harbor to Lombok's Gili Air. However, I was on Lipah Beach, on the East Coast and several hours away from Padangbai, adding more time and mileage to a trip that was already an irritating journey of bus, boat, bus, boat. From Lipah, I could jump in a fishing boat and go there direct in less than three hours. The choice seemed clear at the time: risk my life to save some time or spend a day in languor, with the uncomfortable throttle of a crowd being escorted from here to there and there to here. But that's how brilliant ideas are. They make sense when you think them, but seem ridiculous when you're in the process of acting on them. I figured I could save a lot of time and a transportation headache by taking a shortcut. But supposing I died in the process—saving time is kind of pointless if you die doing it. And what soul taken before her time wouldn't trade the afterlife for a piddling headache? You are dumb, dumb, dumb! Scratch that pearl of wisdom you came up with earlier. Here's a better one, "Living life is all about avoiding death." At least for most of us it is, save Australian TV personalities who wrangle crocodiles, people who get joy from jumping over a parking lot full of cars on a motorcycle, and American postal agents. Suddenly, the waters calmed and the faint outline of land appeared on the horizon. "Lombok!" I cried excitedly, pointing at the smudge as if I'd just witnessed the second coming of Christ. "Now less than three hours," the fisherman replied with a smile. ••• Honorable Mention —Traveler's Tales 4th annual Solas Awards (2010) •••