It’s two o’clock in the morning, and I am in a bikini, huddled under two wet towels with three other colored American girls. We are on a deserted island, shivering in the cold. Dakar blinks at us across the harbor. We weren’t chased here by terrorists, nor did our airplane crash. We made some choices that day that seemed reasonable at the time, a reasonable day out being tourists. Some day no doubt we will look back on this and laugh. Right now though each of us would give anything to take it all back, or to be able to swim safely across the short half mile of open sea separating us from our warm clean beds. But the waves are too rough and oh boy there is a storm front coming in.
We are nice girls. Smart girls. Really we are. So how did we get trapped on an uninhabited island with no food, water or shelter? And more importantly, how do we get out?
* * * * *
Senegal is a beautiful country and Dakar is a big city a bit like New York, except that it is ringed with fabulous beaches and beautiful islands in its harbor. N’Gor Island is the place where the surfers like to hang out; you take a five minute boat ride from the suburbs out to it. Goree Island is where you go to get your history on; you take an official state ferry out to it and see the pens where the slaves were kept for their final few hours before the Middle Passage. Lovely islands, both. And then there is the mysterious Ile de Madeline, a wild island with no buildings, no hotels, no museums, no electricity, no nothing. Completely undeveloped in all its green glory.
I had been to N’Gor and had a lovely time. I had been to Goree and had a lovely time. But I also wanted to go to Madeline, complete the Dakar island trifecta. The problem is, no one is actually allowed to go to Madeline. It’s kinda sorta officially closed.
My last two weeks in Dakar I got in with an interesting crew; some diplomat & state department types and I had been having a great time living it up expat style in Dakar. They were colored American girls like me and we ran amok in Dakar, trying to find Chinese, Thai or Indian food. The names of these girls have been changed to protect the innocent, and also just because it’s fun. So we’ll call my new Dakar crew Ginger, Mary Ann and Lovey. I’ll play the part of Gilligan.
It’s an open secret around the Dakar expat scene that Ile de Madeline has fabulous unspoiled beaches and that people go there all the time, despite it not being officially open to tourists. In order to reach it, you have to charter a fishing pirogue and the fishermen will take you. The fishermen control the waters and the traffic around Ile de Madeline, and they have made themselves into a quasi-martial force to be reckoned with. A year ago there was a show down between the fisherman, who like many trading professions in Senegal are organized into a tight yet unofficial religiously flavored union of sorts, and the Senegalese Coast Guard. Officially Ile de Madeline and the waters around it are a protected national park and no fishing is allowed there. But unofficially the fishermen go there all the time, getting great catches. One day about a year ago a fishing boat was out and it was spotted by the Senegalese Coast Guard. The Coast Guard officers warned the boat they needed to pull up anchor and get out of there. The boat didn’t, so when the Coast Guard came around and saw them a second time, the officers opened fired on the boat’s engine. Unfortunately, they didn’t just hit the engine. They also hit one of the fishermen and killed him.
This sparked off a confrontation between the Coast Guard and the fishers that culminated in riots and the fisher’s destroying the one building on Ile de Madeline, a Coast Guard outpost. Since then, the Coast Guard has never resumed patrolling the waters near Ile de Madeline. The fishers maintain it as a quasi-independent zone inside Dakar. There’s bad blood and hard feelings to go around on all sides; no doubt the Coast Guard could retake the area but Senegal is a civil place and the military is not going to run that roughshod over a well organized group of citizens. So the stalemate continues. Meanwhile, the fishermen do a brisk business ferrying tourists to the Ile de Madeline for five thousand CFA a pop round trip (about twelve dollars). This is good money as an average middle class person in Dakar probably only earns about fifty thousand CFA a month.
And so our multi-culti American crew charted a fishing boat and set off with cameras, Pringles and bathing suits to enjoy a day of wading at Ile de Madeline. When we got down to the fish market to hire our boat, Ginger recognized a friend from work who was out of the Ambassador’s office. She was a very sporty white lady who was going down to the island with her husband and two toddlers (daughter 5, son 3). We’ll call her Sophie, the husband Saul, and the kids Baby Girl & Baby Boy. Sophie had done this trip many times before and was negotiating her boat prices with the fisherman.
We found a dude for us, a crew actually of a young guy with dreads and an older, wizened gentleman with a blue cap. The four of us got in the pirogue with Dreadlocks and Blue Cap and set off for the ten minute journey to the island. A pirogue is the traditional fishing vessel in Dakar and basically it is a small wooden canoe-like boat about 15 feet long with an outrigger motor off the back. It sits pretty low to the water, but being a small boat it can dock quite easily on beaches.
When my friend first told me about the trip, I was a little nervous about the size of the boat. I had been on small boats like this before, boat taxi-ing around the beaches of the islands of Thailand. I remembered how terrifying they could be. One good wave could capsize these things and send you to a watery grave. But my friend assured me that the waters were calm and that the ride would be short. I said I would see how I felt when I saw the boat. When the boat came in, it was such a nice day and the fishermen seemed so confident as if this was all so routine, so I got on board.
The beach we departed from was filthy, gray sand and grayer water. I was very excited to be going someplace pristine. The first eight minutes of the boat ride were charming and uneventful. We were low to the water but there weren’t really any waves, and I focused ahead on the approaching beautiful island to control my fear. Then we rounded the side out toward the open sea and we were looking into a beautiful narrow cove in the center of an island that split down the middle like a heart shaped box of chocolates. This center channel was the approach to our beautiful, secluded beach.
The only problem was it was a rocky approach with clots of whitewater. I wondered how we were going to get in over that, three foot swells crashing against rocks. It looked like a river rapids, but it was the open sea. We idled in the boat, Blue Cap bringing us up around to the cove so we were parallel to the rapids, waiting. What is he waiting for? I thought. We could feel the motion of the rapids even out where we were, and we were all starting to get a little scared. Suddenly our captain gunned the engine and we were heading straight for a wave. No, we were actually riding that wave, boat surfing it in, the wall of water now behind us and pushing us into the cove. Blue Cap had timed it perfectly. Our boat crested past the rocks at the tail end of a good sized swell. We fist pumped all the way in and crashed into the sand, quickly hopping out. Some teenage boys who had been there camped all night ran out to help drag the boat further in. We applauded our captain as we got out, standing on the shore with shaky adrenaline legs. That had been a little dangerous.
The cove was beautiful. The island curved in on itself like a figure eight, and through a narrow opening sat our rocky beach. On either side of the beach were the low cliffs of the island. At one end was the opening we came through and at the other end was a short wall of rocks that open sea waves gently swelled over as well. In the background was another depression, and every once in a while whitewater would splash up out of it as well. The beach was all smooth black volcanic rock of various sizes, crustacean shells and coral. It was one of the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen, and I had been to a lot of nice beaches on this trip. In the center of this wonderful rock formation was a deep natural pool, perfect for swimming.
Or it would have been perfect, except for the currents. As soon as we got there, we saw a group of Lebanese teens had crossed over the shallow end of the pool near the mouth we came in on to hang out at the tiny sand beach on the other side. We wondered why the weren’t moving to cross back over, until we got down in the water on our side of the pool. Every time a swell came up from either side of the cove, the water in the pool would crest violently. It was like being in a giant toilet that was being flushed as water, rocks and sharp shells would come at you from all sides.
Our friend Sophie’s pirogue made a dramatic entrance. It wasn’t as well piloted, or maybe it was too laden down with two couples, one single white lady, one Senegalese nanny, three toddlers, a man-sized wetbag full of God-Knows-What, and a surf board. In any case, Sophie’s boat seemed to come in on a wave twice the size of ours. The water looked as if it was crashing in over the sides of their boat as the fishermen jumped out as soon as it was shallow enough, trying to pull it in. One lady went all momma bear (from now on we’ll call her Momma Bear) and grabbed her toddler out, holding it above her head as she waded solo around the white water to a safer crossing point. Diesel! Sophie got out to try to help guide the boat in. For a scary second the white water was over her head and it looked like she was being dragged back out to sea. Then a fisher grabbed her by both arms and hauled her back to the side of the boat.
When her party finally made it to the beach they all sat on the shore for a while, not swimming and not talking. My crew was starting to get a bit nervous. But the Lebanese teens were still playing nicely in the water so we decided to chill out a bit.
We took a hike to the top of the island. Tourists call this island the island of Madeline, but the locals call it Snake Mountain, so were were on the lookout for any creepy crawlies in the tall grass. There was an amazing baobab tree, curving out and tumbling along the ground like a strange witch’s hair, and lots of mysterious tall grass. When we got to the top we could see all of Dakar on its peninsula in front of us. It looked so close; yet far enough away to mask its imperfections and to be quite beautiful. There was also another hidden beach down a ravine on this side.
We hiked back to our beach. Down there, the Lebanese Teens looked ready to go home. The rock bridge they had crossed over on was rapidly disappearing. You had to time the swells just right to be able to cross back over it. They looked out at the rising water, debating when and how to cross back over to the side of the cove that the boats could leave on. The rocks looked slippery, sharp and painful.
The island was beautiful but it clearly it was time to go home now. Maybe we should have turned right around as soon as we got in. But we were waiting out the tide; the fishers had told us that it was high tide when we got in, and that if we waited a bit the tide should lower and we would be able to time the waves and head easy back out the left entrance we had come in on. A few hours had passed now and it didn’t look any lower to me. The Lebanese Teens clung to each other as they crossed the rocks back to their boat, falling in and struggling to get back up before a new set of waves came down on them. There were these little lulls but you had to time it perfectly. When the teens got over, wet and bedraggled and no longer laughing, they sat in their fully loaded boat for over twenty minutes before their pilot found a break and gunned them out. As soon as they made it out, another wave came cresting in the exit way. The waves were only getting higher.
Everyone was clearing out while they could. The campers took off next. We were now down to just two boats left in the cove, ours and the original one the larger party had come in on. They were clearly overloaded, but had neglected to send some of their party back with earlier boats because they wanted to stay together. This was husband Saul’s decision, we suspected he was a bit nervous about their original pilot and wanted to get in with our more experienced guy. But now there were seventeen of us left on the island (twelve tourists and five fisher dudes), and we would have to try to get out on just two boats. Meanwhile the swells were getting higher, now cresting up and over into the cove at about five feet.
Sophie’s crew looked at us and we looked at them. It was showtime. We were going to try to time it and gun it out. More importantly, we were going to try to leave them. Us four ladies grabbed our vests of rescue (as they are called in French) and stood truculently by our boat, looking tough. Sure enough, as we loaded in, Saul also came over to load in his wife, two kids, nanny and the single white lady into our boat. I guess our menacing countenances weren’t as scary as the thought of getting back out all in their too heavy boat.
Now we weighed a million pounds and change. Blue Cap was silent and grave. No openings big enough yet for our newly heavy traveling party. We sat, tense and stiff in the boat, waiting. The waves just got bigger and bigger. At one point I looked over my shoulder at a wall of water coming fast at us. Should we get out of the boat? I thought, strangely calm. No, the fishermen know what they are doing. Wait for it to pass and we’ll be fine. Then I looked ahead at another wall of water coming toward us from the opposite direction. “Shouldn’t we get out of the boat?” my friend Lovey beside me asked. “No”, I said. “Don’t panic. The fisher guys know what is up. They are just timing it. We have to wait. Don’t even look at the water”.
Then the waves were upon us. The boat was rocking violently. The children were screaming. Water was coming in over the sides. My heart was hammering. Saul was trying to steady the boat from the left side but he was now also up to his chin in the water, looking ready to drown. His wife was screaming at him to get out of the water. The babies were screaming even louder. Surely this was not be a part of the plan. Then Blue Cap was shouting “Descend! Descend! Descend!” which in French means “Get out of the fucking boat, now!” We scrambled for our lives out of the boat and into the fast moving water, wading back toward shore.
Except the shore wasn’t were we left it. Our beach was being erased by the quickly rising water level. We had to scramble up the rocky shore, and then we had to keep scrambling halfway up the hill. Single White Chick screamed. Sophie yelled at her husband Saul, “Get out of the water!” He was still down their with the fishermen who were now just trying to make sure the boats didn’t wash out to sea, but he didn’t have any idea what he was doing. Our boat washed dangerously close to his head.
Meanwhile boat number two, the empty boat that was downstream of us, flew out of control. At first we saw three fishermen trying to drag it back to shore. One was behind it, out in the whitewater, head level with the boat. Then we saw the boat get violently ripped out of the hands of the fishermen on shore and then swept away, hitting the guy in the water on the head.
He sank under the water.
Then we saw him surface, clinging to the banks with both hands as his legs were swept up and away behind him into the rapids. The other two fishermen managed to get him in, carrying him like a wet sack of potatoes by the arms and legs and flopping him up on what was left of the beach. Then they went in back in for the boat. The downed man wasn’t moving. The engine of the other boat had taken in a lot of water. The fisherman got it out of the boat and there it sat up on the hill’s incline next to Man Down, looking like a beached whale.
Things had just gone from kinda scary but kinda funny to absolutely terrifying. We scrambled up the path that led into the interior of the island, shell shocked and waving our phones. Was anyone getting a signal? Ginger’s Blackberry was getting something. She called the emergency line that U.S. government workers with diplomatic passports use when they are in trouble. It was like that. We had a man down and three terrified kids with us, and it was six o’clock. The sun would be down soon. It was time to act like the spoiled American expats we were and call in the cavalry.
We got our embassy officer on the phone. Ginger took charge of the situation and explained the relevant details. The nanny and the other two mothers and the single white chick were down the hill a ways comforting the kids with the other husband. Saul was back to being useless, on the beach trying to help with the boats. I thought back over those waves again. This wasn’t the tide coming in; too strong to be that. This had to be the tail end or beginning of some sort of storm system. Maybe no boat would be able to get out in this.
I said to Ginger “Well, if we have to spend the night on this island, we’ll survive it.”
“No,” she said reasonably. “The embassy will help us. We’ll probably be home in a few hours.”
I shivered in my wet bikini. Supposing the zombie apocalypse went down in Dakar right now and we were the only survivors because we were stranded out on this island? Would we have the human capital necessary to rebuild society? We were a motley crew, to be sure. Sophie & Saul and their white lady friend and the black nanny taking care of their kids. Blue Cap & Dreadlocks, another random two fishermen from Sophie’s boat who we’ll call Random & Tighty (we’ll explain that name in a moment), and the Man Down. Mama Bear from the daring earlier beach rescue, her strangely silent husband and their little Baby Bear. A corpse-sized wetbag filled with God-Knows-What. A surfboard. This was what would be left of the human race?
I needed a role. I started to walk back and forth between Ginger who was on high ground trying to get reception, and the other two girls in my party who were down the path somewhat, away from the parents and kids.
Ginger got off the phone with Embassy Dude and relayed the news. He would have to check with his contacts within the Senegalese government, but it looked like they would either send a helicopter or a boat to come get us tonight. He would call back soon and let us know the plan. Great. We all breathed sighs of relief. It paid to have friends in high places. Maybe we would get off this island safely tonight after all. In style, even. But the fishermen had another plan.
On the eve of our imminent rescue by the U.S. Embassy, Single White Chick came running up the hill toward us. “Guess what?” she said. “The fishermen are still trying to get a boat out of the cove!” We went down to see what was going on, curious as to whether or not this time we would really see someone die.
Blue Cap was attempting to leave the harbor in the one remaining working boat, alone. The waves coming in on both sides of the cove were almost seven feet now. Ginger took out her camera. There was nothing for us to do but video tape this. Blue Cap was calm, waiting for his moment. A wave crested, and there was a momentary pause in the whitewater. It couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds, but it was a window. Blue Cap gun the engined and shot out of the cove at high speed, only the back end of his boat actually in the water. As he got to the mouth, he caught air and bounded over the rocky entrance out into the open sea. We cheered. He made it! Then we realized that he would never have been able to do that with anyone else in there weighing down the boat. As long as these waves held, there was no way anyone else was getting in or out of that cove.
We walked back up the path to the crest of the island. Mary Ann was up there now, having gotten some signal on her phone. She was on the phone with the Senegalese Fire Department. We needed to work all the angles, and her French was the best out of the bunch. Joe at the Fire Department was coordinating with Embassy Dude. The Fire Department (and not the Coast Guard) was going to send a boat.
We just stood there for a minute. The sun is pretty low; probably would be down in about an hour. If we’re leaving, we’ll be leaving in the dark. How would a boat find us? And someone should probably go back down to the beach and check on Man Down.
In general, Senegalese men are large, handsome and well built, all sable jet black skin and sinewy muscles (simmer down now, straight ladies and gay men reading this). I think they realize how much better looking they are then most of the men around the world. One of our fisherman party in particular had spent the entire day in his black tighty whities instead of in swimming shorts, leaving very little to the imagination.
I suppose Tighty and his crew, like men everywhere, do not like to admit defeat, especially in front of a group of women and children. Just then, Tighty, the big strapping man that he was, came past us carrying the two hundred pound outrigger engine of the downed pirogue over his shoulder. He was followed by Man Down, who was up and walking on his bloodied leg, dizzy looking and barefoot, a huge knot forming above his right eye. Dreadlocks brought up the rear. “Cmon”, he says in French. This whole thing is mostly going down in French at this point. “Where are we going?” we ask. “To the other side of the island. There is another beach. We’re going to get everyone out that way.”
So our motley crew made the short trip over the tall grasses and baobab trees to the other side of the island. The family of four struggled along with their kids and that huge damn wetbag and that surfboard. I carried the little girl over some tree branches that were too big for her. She was a tiny, delicate version of her strapping blonde athletic mom. It was a rough day for a five year old, but she was a trooper. Little Baby Bear was getting a ride on his dad’s shoulders, laughing and singing kumbaya. As we moved along, the sun set behind us. It was beautiful. But now we would soon be in the dark.
* * * * *
We make a steep descent onto the other beach. Only it’s not much of a beach, more like a collection of small boulders that end abruptly at the sea. The fishers must come here a lot, though, because there is a small cleared area of sand with a low wall of rocks built up around it. Baby Bear wanders into it, playful and in good spirits. Dreadlocks follows him in to pull him out. “Don’t go in there”, he says. “This area is our mosque. It is sacred”. But to me it just looks like our only shelter right now. We’re not pigs though, so we steer clear of it.
Although there is no narrow cove on this side, the water is just as choppy. The sky is now overcast and we conclude that these waves aren’t tide but evidence of impending storm activity. But Blue Cap is here! He hasn’t left us after all, just circled the island to try to get us out on the other side. We are down to his one boat for seventeen people. Blue Cap is trying to get his pirogue up close to the beach. It’s twilight now. He can’t get in, he has to stop about fifty meters from the edge of the beach, his boat bouncing up and down in the waves. The water between him and beach roils.
Dreadlocks keeps motioning us over to the edge of the water.
“Come on,” he says. “Time to get in the boat.”
“Get in what boat?” I ask.
“You just have to swim out to it,” he says. “It’s short. You can swim for it.”
So this is their plan? Have us swim out toward a boat in choppy water with the night rapidly drawing down on us? Obviously these black people did not know that black people can’t swim. We haven’t heard back from our guy at the embassy in a while, so there is no ETA on our other boat, but a bigger boat that can get closer to us seems like the only sane option.
On this side of the island we are facing Dakar and it is tantalizingly close. If it were land between us and not water, we could walk to Dakar from here in twenty minutes.
Sophie joins the conversation. “There are so many of us. Why don’t you guys just take that one and we’ll wait for the other boat.” She says it like she’s doing us some favor, but now I am convinced she is insane. Earlier in the day she was floating her toddler along on top of their surfboard in that crazy killer toilet bowl of a tidal pool on the other side of the island. Clearly she has no natural fear of death.
Some of my internal monologue must have made it out because Sophie responds with “I’m a strong swimmer.” That’s great for her.
The next thing I know Sophie is down there at the edge of the water with her husband and the two babies. They are going to try to swim out to the boat.
We watch, frozen. Surely someone is finally going to die now. Sophie jumps into the water and swims out to the boat, grappling on. She is indeed a very strong swimmer. Once again Blue Cap is waiting for his moment, timing it. He gets a little closer. Saul is there on the shore with the two kids. There’s no time to think. This is Sophie’s big Choice, and she motions for her daughter. Saul practically tosses the child into the boat and then Blue Cap takes off, narrowly avoiding a crash into the rocky beach. It all goes down in thirty seconds while we hold our breath. Now their boat is back out there about a hundred meters from the beach, bobbing up and down in the water on three or four foot waves, looking for a new opening to sidle back up and grab the rest of the family. The last light is dwindling fast.
Ginger gets a call from Embassy Guy. It goes something like this:
“When do you think we will be evacuated?” she asks calmly.
“Well, soon, we are sending a boat; the Dakar fire department will be sending a boat, that is.”
“Okay, yes but we are on the other side of the island now and it is dark. Will they be able to see us?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Okay, we’ll sit tight here on the beach, then.”
“Okay, I will call back soon with an update.”
Blue Cap and Sophie wait a few more minutes and then leave. There are no lights on the pirogue so who knows how they will make it to the other side. Ten minutes pass and Blue Cap is back this time, alone in his boat. What happened? He had Sophie and Baby Girl change boats in the middle(!) so he could come back and try to get more of us out. He stays until it is pitch black, which is just a few more minutes really. There’s no way he can really see us now and he can’t get any closer. Finally, he takes off for the last time.
We are down to no boats and fourteen people. Mary Ann calls the fire department to check on our boat. A rapid exchange goes down in French and Mary Ann hangs up quickly, angry. It goes down something like this:
“Just calling to inquire on the status of our fire department boat.”
“I don’t have any information about that because the boat has already been sent down to the beach and they are on their way.”
“Can you call them to find out where they are?”
“They don’t have a phone on the boat.”
“Okay well can you tell us what kind of boat to look out for?”
“It will be a pirogue.”
WTF? Another pirogue?
“Do they have a light?” Mary Ann asks.
“I don’t know. Probably not because it is a pirogue.”
“Okay, well, how are they supposed to find us?”
“I don’t know. It’s late and it’s dark. What do you expect me to do now? I heard there was a pirogue already there. Why didn’t you get on the boat?”
Whoa. Whoa. Call ends. Cursing and violence ensue. Why didn’t we get on the boat, indeed.
The fire department boat never shows up. We get a call later from Sophie. She and Baby Girl have made it, after a rough trip and not one but two open water boat changes later. When they arrived at the shore they saw the Senegalese fire department rescue boat. It was an ordinary fisherman pirogue, to which they had tethered an engine-less row boat; no lights on either of them. It made it out a few meters and then had to turn right back around, unable to manage the waves.
It’s eleven p.m. when it starts to sink in. We are spending the night on this island. It’s getting cold. This is Snake Mountain, after all, so there is no way we are heading up into the interior to search the tall grass for a hatch. This is it. We are going to spend the night sitting up on this exposed beach, with no food, water, clothing or shelter; praying the storm doesn’t come all the way in. Where did it all go wrong? A three hour tour . . .
Lovey has us finish off the Pringles and then we divide a miniature sized packet of Peanut M&Ms that she finds in her purse. It’s about four M&Ms per person. They taste so good. We don’t even think of sharing with the other party, now huddled a few meters down the beach. Let them eat their young.
Ginger gets a call from Embassy Dude.
“You guys still on the island?” he asks.
What is the appropriate response to that?
“Yes,” Ginger says.
“Well, it’s getting pretty windy. Is there any shelter?”
“Do you guys have any jackets you can put on?”
Jackets? It’s equatorial Africa in August. No we don’t have any jackets.
“No,” Ginger says.
“You guys are going to have to be a little more patient, we’re still figuring out the boat thing.”
“We heard it wasn’t coming at all.”
“Oh you heard about that? Oh well, let me talk to the wounded guy.”
We put him on the phone. After a brief exchange, Embassy Dude gets back on.
“Well, as you know the boat thing didn’t work out, and since that guy doesn’t sound so bad and this situation is not life threatening, we have decided to let you guys spend the night on the island. We will send the helicopter in the morning.”
“Why can’t it come tonight?”
“It can’t land at night, but in the morning there will be a doctor on it and we’ll get you guys out first thing after sunrise at six fifteen. So just hang tight, and if anything worsens you just give me a call.”
I always thought military helicopters could land at night, but oh well. We had all accepted at this point that we were going to be spending the night on the island; even optimist Ginger. Now the question was what was our strategy? With the cold and the wind and the lack of horizontal surfaces, it would be impossible to sleep. Tide is unpredictable and there is not much beach, plus no flat surface to lay down in besides that off limits little mosque. It was most practical to stay awake. We resolve to stay up the whole night. We would play games and keep ourselves entertained, staying close for body heat.
For seven hours we alternate between warm fun games and cold sad silence. We play the movie game, where you have to name a movie that begins with the letter my movie ended with. We make fun of our rescuers and crack each other up. We discuss the plot of Glee and what might happen next season. We try not to think about the flashes of light illuminating the sky on the right horizon every few seconds.
“You know, we’ll probably look back on this in eight short hours and laugh. Remember that time we got stuck on that deserted island? LOL.”
As if to mock our sentiment, an icy cold front of wind blows in. We drape the wet towels over ourselves and huddled close in a circle, making a sad little tent. It is so humid I can feel the gritty skin trying to peel off from my salty legs and arms. Everything touching me is sticky and cold. I consider crying.
Embassy Dude had said to call if anything changed and something had changed. We were now freezing and there were even sporadic drops of rain. Surely hypothermia was life threatening. Might that change their minds about sending a helicopter out tonight?
Embassy Dude: “Hello? Oh good. You must have found shelter now because I don’t hear wind.”
Ginger: “No we are just under some wet towels.”
Embassy Dude: “Oh.”
Ginger: “Well, listen we’re calling because there are a lot of bright flashes in the sky but no thunder, and it just got super cold. Also, we felt raindrops.”
Embassy Dude: “Well, don’t worry about the bright lights, that’s just heat lightening, not real lightening. The weather report says it’s not supposed to rain. We’ll have some hot beverages for you guys when we pick you up in the morning.”
It seems everyone is intent on clowning us tonight, and I suppose we kind of deserve it.
It’s two a.m. and when you are up at 2 a.m. with friends and trapped on an island, it often turns to the serious topics. Now we were playing a dating game of sorts. We were asking each other those deep getting to know you questions. What can’t you live without? Who is your best friend? What’s the most important trait you look for in a lover? Ginger asks: “What’s the one thing you are afraid for anyone to know about you?” We all answer in turn. Mary Ann says “my sometimes low self esteem”. This is surprising as she is the smartest, prettiest and toughest amongst us. I say I am afraid of being alone. I guess it took me a year of being mostly alone to figure that one out.
But right now are not alone, and we are not exactly miserable either. In one sense, we are kind of having a good time. We aren’t in real danger (except for Man Down, who probably has a concussion) anymore. We are just uncomfortable. We are in a whole lot of moderate discomfort. But we are also in one of the most beautiful places in the country. We focus on the glittery skyline of Dakar across the water.
Eventually it gets super dark and we all stand up and several of us get our cameras ready. This is the dark before the dawn. We made it. The sun is coming up. And it is going to be stunning.
* * * * *
After the dawn we eagerly awaited our helicopter, but the first thing to actually come in was another damned pirogue. It spend up to us like Hawaii Five-O, stopped a few meters from the shore, and a handsome, strapping Senegalese man jumped out and swam up to shore in confident, professional strokes like he was some sort of Olympic athlete. What’s this? I thought. Hope he has breakfast hidden somewhere in that wet suit.
Swimmer Dude was chipper. Okay guys, he said. We have a few boats on the other side in the cove. Time to go! Are you with the Embassy we ask? No he says, I am with the fire department. Are you a firefighter? No, I am a fisherman (!) but the fire marshal is on the other side waiting for us. The helicopter is not coming for you. You are supposed to take the boat. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!
The fisherman immediately fall in line behind this leader that has emerged from the sea (they spent the night sleeping in that sacred mosque, the surf board pulled over them for a roof while the women, children and their concussed comrade shivered outside it). But my party hung back. I have a fear of heights and there was nothing I wanted more than to take a calm boat ride out of there. But the water was still pretty rough, not to mention we had activated the whole diplomatic apparatus and we would risk their wrath and embarrassment if we weren’t even there when the helicopter showed up. The head fisherman guy was probably trying a last ditch effort to avoid any military inroads into fisherman territory, not wanting to give them any excuse to wrest back control of the island. He was lying to us. I thought this was obvious to all.
Except it wasn’t obvious to Saul, even though his wife Sophie worked in the ambassador’s office.
“I’m just going to go down and check out the boats”, he said. “If it looks okay, I might just leave that way.”
Say what? The Senegalese Air Force is coming for us and your wife works for State. The water is still kind of rough and you have a small child, two young women and a ton of shit with you. There’s an injured person in our party. If we don’t get on the helicopter it will be an international incident. Why do these guys want us to get on the boat so bad anyway? We all paid them last night, right? So there wouldn’t be any pressure or conflict of interest?
“Well, actually we haven’t paid them yet,” Saul said.
It was then that I lost my mind. “You haven’t paid them yet?” I yelled. “What the hell are you waiting for? They are probably sticking around all this time and sending extra boats this morning, trying to make sure they get their money.” It would be a small fortune in Senegalese terms, almost a month’s normal salary.
“Well, I don’t know if Sophie paid them or not last night when she got in,” Saul said.
“Then get your wife on the phone and ask her. You’ve been talking to her all night.”
“Well, what did you guys pay?”, Saul asked.
What I wanted to say was: “You mean you didn’t negotiate a rate before you left? First rule of Fight Club Africa: never get in any motorized vehicle before negotiating the fee up front. Figure it out, handle your shit, and get your ass on the helicopter. Matter of fact, give us the baby and we will safely take him back to your wife aboard the helicopter, and you and that huge wetbag and the surfboard can do whatever the hell you like.”
But instead all I got around to saying was, “We paid five thousand CFA a person.” The rest of the potential conversation was drowned out by the noisy din of the approaching helicopter. Saved! Praise Jesus!
The rescue goes by in a blur. As the 1970’s M*A*S*H style military cargo helicopter lands and we realize why they couldn’t come get us last night. Scores of Senegalese Air Force personnel stream out endlessly, like clowns out of a circus car. A medic. Several soldiers with large rifles. Two photographers. A videographer. More soldiers. Finally, a man in a tricolored red, green and yellow jumpsuit, very good posture and a jaunty black beret. He is the head general in charge and he is here to rescue us, goddamit!
Stunned, sleep deprived, deeply embarrassed and now also a little amused, we are herded on to the helicopter like a grimy rock band entourage. Cameras snap in our faces. The Medic looks around for Man Down but he is long gone – left with the fisherman on their morning boat. The head fisherman and very good swimmer comes with us, however; no doubt to fairly represent his side’s interests in whatever negotiation and fault finding exercise will take place when we land at the air force base. I write my name several times over in the less than official looking notebooks being handed to me by various military officials. I’m trying to take pictures and so is Ginger, but apparently that is strictly prohibited. Then what are their cameras for? Just for official military records, we are told. (The next day our pictures and a video will appear in the Senegalese press.)
It’s not the dirtiest or tiredest I’ve been on this trip. My terror over low flying planes melts away at the beauty of the panoramic view of Dakar out of the window. It’s truly in a magnificent location on its triangle shaped peninsula, the farthest point west on the whole African continent. This island is the farthest point west I have come in a whole trip of moving steadily west to get back to the east coast of America. This is my last stop, and I’m suddenly sad to leave it.
At Air Force Headquarters our rescue team quickly morphs into a team of captors. We broke the law, sort of. When we called the parks department and they told us the island was recently back open for visitors (which we actually did do), they gave us bad information. We should have called the forest department, they are the ones in charge. And they would have had to give us an escort for us to legally be allowed to go there. We are not allowed to leave the base for hours. They want statements. They want our passports (which we don’t have). They want our cameras. They want our flash drive camera memory cards (there goes Ginger’s video footage). But what they probably really want is a bribe.
Sophie is there, with croissants for us and with Baby Girl. Baby Girl is in a cute dress, looking no worse for wear. Sophie and Embassy Dude are busy being diplomatic, saving our asses. The rest of us gulp water and keep our mouths shut, too tired to be able to properly grovel as is required right now. Eventually we make it out of there. After showering for most of a day we reconvene that evening and have hummus and pita, Xanax and wine. We apply cream to the mosquito bites and sit with our other friends who were wise enough not to come out that day. Already the pain is fading and all we can do is sit around and joke and laugh about it. “You must have found shelter.” “Why didn’t you get on the boat?” Sophie’s Choice. These and other funny-in-retrospect oneliners carry the evening.
Not even the extensive Senegalese press coverage the next day can kill the buzz. According to the Senegalese press, our pitiful group of half drowned American tourists was abandoned by the fisherman to their fate, and then rescued by the timely, heroic and well coordinated efforts of the Senegalese Air Force and Dakar Fire Department. They even fed us a nice breakfast. A local injured man was taken to a nice hospital. The online comments from the locals are fittingly caustic. “They never would have bothered if those had been Senegalese trapped over there.” “This is a ridiculous and wasteful use of our military.” “Should have let those spoiled brats stay over there, or drown.” I’m glad I learned enough French to be able to read how much these people hate me. If it had been anybody else besides me they were talking about, I would have been inclined to agree. The Associated Press writes a more balanced story, but unfortunately it’s picked up by about two dozen papers. I think we even appeared in the Seattle Washington Times.
* * * * *
A day later I drove past that island on my way to the airport for the final flight of my round the world trip, back to New York City. Remember that time we got stuck overnight on that deserted island? I didn’t know whether or not to laugh or shake my fist at the island in triumph. I’ll never look at an episode of Lost the same way again.
Now as I sit in Harlem trying to recreate in words what this trip has meant to me, I feel the same way about all of it as I did the evening after we got off the island. All the bad, difficult parts have faded away. I’m sure I was uncomfortable, scared, cold, hungry, sick, hot and exhausted much of the time on this trip. I was in some pretty gnarly places. But all I can seem to remember is the fun I had. Setting paper lanterns adrift on New Year’s Eve on the beach in Thailand with Jee. Gorging on vegetarian food in Mysore with Julia. Crunching Cardamon seeds in Coorg on that organic forest farm with Cody. Drinking coffee from seeds pooped out of a rodent’s butt in Bali, again with Cody. Ducking low hanging branches trying to decapitate us on the hop on, hop off bus in Nice with Ivy. Riding the tram without paying on the way to the mall to see X-Men: First Class in French in Montpellier. Cheap Turkish food and great British TV in Hackney with Kayla. Getting drunk with that Danish guy on desert wine in that bar in Bordeaux. John’s daughter’s bunny pooping all over me in Casablanca. Thunder and lightening cutting the power on us, and sitting momentarily in a dark bar full of whores on a Friday night in Dakar during Ramadan. A million other things like that I never wrote about that now pop up in weird moments as fond memories, like old friends calling.
I want to stay on my trip and I think I found a way. Many things annoy me about New York, but I know I will look back on this time right now too and I’m only going to remember the good times. Glee night with my gay boy crew. Beautiful fall walks in Central Park with my friend’s cute little pit bull. Seeing my mom again after ten whole months (the longest I’ve ever gone). Finally getting to eat some organic tofu. Taking the train out to see friends in God foresaken places like Philly, Mt. Claire & Hoboken. Finally getting to drink water straight from the tap.
If ultimately I wasn’t going to remember any of the annoying parts of my life, why not forget about them right now while they are happening? Why not only focus instead only on the things that are going to be a pleasure to remember? Instead of being nostalgic for my trip, I could be pre-stalgic for the present moment. That way, I would never have to come down from this high of being one crazy ass adventure.
Hey! Remember that time we spent the fall in New York City job hunting and couch surfing and museum hopping, sweating through Bikhram yoga while stranded on the island of Manhattan? Those were good times.