On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Different Island, Different Story
Being stranded on a tropical or desert island was such a powerful bit of imagery that, even as a young child, the Footloose Forester thought about islands and about being stranded there. He did not have to wait too many years before it happened.
He had asked permission to take Phil Garlick’s tiny boat out into Lake Musconetcong, close to where we lived in the Lakeland District of New Jersey. His friend Phil gave permission, and the 12-13 year old set out directly toward a small island, the only island in the lake. Perhaps some people had a name for it, but all of our friends simply referred to it as the island. It was the size of a postage stamp; featureless except for two scrawny trees and some shrubby undergrowth.
It was April or early May, warm enough to go adventuring alone, but chilly enough to whip up breezes and small white caps on the water. He got about ¾ of the way out to the island before the water lapping over the sideboards started to swamp the tiny, one person punt. In less than ten seconds he knew that he had to swim for it. The island was a lot closer than Phil Garlick’s dock, so that is where he headed.
Phil Garlick's punt was even smaller than these
There was no panic because the Footloose Forester was a confident swimmer, even in those days. His concern was about not being spotted, thus having to swim back to shore. But out of nowhere, two fishermen in a bigger boat showed up and returned him back to Phil Garlick’s dock. He was stranded on the island for no more than 20 minutes, but long enough to hard wire the memory of capsizing the boat and being stranded on the island. During his lifetime there would be many, many more islands and even a few juicy stories associated with them.
Large islands like Madagascar and Hispaniola were so similar to landlocked places where the Footloose Forester lived, traveled, or worked, that it was easy to forget that you were on an island, once the water was out of sight. The sophistication of the road systems, modern cities, and full range of amenities on the large islands made them indistinguishable from continental land masses. On the other hand, the medium sized and smaller islands were progressively simpler in infrastructural development but far more consciousness-raising as existential entities. That is to say, the smaller the island, the greater the awareness of your existence in an island ecosystem; and the more it focused your thoughts about the limits of your options. Over the years, the Footloose Forester had experiences on 20 or more islands, so making some distinctions was in order.
For example, Madagascar is an island nation with fully developed infrastructure that you take for granted. So is Cyprus, or Malta, or Singapore, or Hong Kong. And while Madagascar is large, the others are progressively smaller. When the ocean is not far away, the lives of residents are tainted accordingly and thoughts of their daily existence are colored in like manner.
There is no discrete lifestyle that can be easily discerned regarding island life and island dwellers, especially on the larger islands where there are many options to choose from. For the moment then, let’s forget the pedestrian aspects of the island status of Madagascar, the Comoros, Malta, Hispaniola, Trinidad; and other places where the Footloose Forester spent time. Instead, let’s explore the exotica of the common links with some of the smaller islands; and even steer toward the vague idea of being stranded on some of them. Looking back, by way of daydream about some 20 islands about which the Footloose Forester might spin a yarn or two; he concluded that the smaller islands produced the most vivid memories.
At any time, one could look out from a rise on Anjuan Island in the Comoros and see the ocean. We were never more than 10-15 minutes from the ocean on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, or Guam; or even from our inland home at San Jorge dos Orgaos on São Tiago Island of the Cape Verde Archipelago. Where we wanted to fish, search for oysters, or collect seaweed; it only depended on which direction we wanted to head. The sea and everything associated with it was all around us.
The tiny island of Gorée, off the coast of Dakar, Senegal was densely populated for being only 40 acres in size; yet it had very livable creature comforts like restaurants and a few shopping stalls. But the water line was less than two minutes away, in any direction. Likewise for the inhabited zones of Pulau Peucang, off the western tip of Java, Indonesia. That remote island of about 100 acres in size was almost all dense forest with nothing but a few trails leading to the water. Fish abounded on all sides and the few residents who lived there on a permanent basis made some trails through the forest to get to the fishing grounds. But unlike Gorée in Senegal, there were no shops or restaurants.
Even smaller and more restrictive than Pulau Peucang was another island off the coast of Java. Pulau Handeuleum was about 10 acres in size but its strategic location at the virtual entrance to Ujung Kulon National Park gave it an importance that far outweighed its minute size. Although it was an island no more than half a mile from shore, Handeuleum held a modest wildlife guard station, with a small research facility and guest quarters. But because of its small size and the unpredictable nature of violent weather during the long rainy season, one could easily become stranded on Handeuleum. The same is true for Pulau Peucang, some 10 miles by water further along into Ujung Kulon National Park. Any visitors entering Ujung Kulon and intending to spend time at the research stations had to pass by Handeuleum. Most often they had to stay, even briefly; to eat a cooked meal, or to refuel the boat that would take them further along.
Pulau Handeuleum was the open water gateway to Ujung Kulon National Park
Only a handful of people live on Handeuleum. All of them were attuned to serving as hosts to visitors. There were no stores, shops, or restaurants; thus everybody who arrived was invited to eat what was available. The kind and friendly locals may have served you fresh shark, seaweed and maybe a plantain or yam that they procured from the mainland during a period of calm water. And to graciously cut open a fresh coconut from the trees growing outside one of the three huts on the island. That was the way it was back in the 1970s.
Perhaps things have changed now, but the Forest Forester has an indelible impression of that small island named Handeuleum where he was stranded for a few brief days; and for longer periods on Pulau Peucang. As a wanna-be adventurer and hopeless romantic, he now looks back and revels about what a kick in the pants those times were. And why he will always believe in the brotherhood of man, and the sisterhood of women.