Sunday, March 21, 2010

More Surprises

On our second night at Shuma Island, in that moment after the golden globe sinks beneath the horizon and the sky turns deep blue before the curtain of night falls we heard voices. Loud unmistakably foreign human voices. They were disturbingly close. The two tourist boats had departed in the morning and we thought we had Shuma Island to ourselves. Peering out our galley porthole we could see a big wooden dhow, heavy with passengers. The battered boat putted close to DK and men yelled, leaving us with nothing to do but respond. Gar, quickly, removed his sarong (almost like a skirt) and changed into some shorts (perhaps trying to puff up into a more manly specimen).

Our practice is to welcome strangers with greetings and friendly waves. Tonight was no different even though we were sorely and uncomfortably out numbered. As I pressed slunk into the corner of the galley and peered through the porthole between Gar's legs I counted about thirty men. We had heard about gun smuggling and human trafficking between Eritrea and Yemen and this definitely was no fishing boat. The guys waved back and shouted in Arabic. It is in these times I wish I was fluent in every language of every region we travel through. We resorted to charades and they wasted no time in clearly making the universal sign asking for food. Being outnumbered, we got some of our best stores to bring them. I threw a bag of rice, some mangoes, three rolls of biscuits (cookies for you Americans), and a box of cigarettes in a plastic bag for good measure. Gar handed over the delivery to the guys who were clearly in charge. They looked over the stores and asked for salsa, (universal language here too, tomatoes with something hot). Not wanting trouble and feeling it much easier to give them food and hopefully make them happy I threw together a second bag of goodies. Three big tomatoes, two onions, 5 limes, a head of garlic and spicy canned chipolte chilis. With this one, they were what seemed like happily satisfied and one of the guys who spoke a handful of English explained they were going to Yemen tomorrow at 6am. He also invited Gar to visit them on the beach.

When they swung their boat towards shore , I waved from the cockpit. Smiling, I was met with thirty reciprocal waves and smiling faces. We heaved a sigh of relief as they putted to the beach where we assumed they would spend the night. Our hearts were beating loudly in our chests, but it was dark, there was no where nearby we could sail to and they seemed friendly. So... we settled back into our evening and crunched on nachos, with an ear out for the return of our new friends. Surprisingly, as the stars were blinking across the sky and we began to relax we heard the unmistakable put put of the dhow's smoky engine, very close yet again. Little lights blinked on and off as the men spoke to one another rapidly in Arabic. "At least they aren't trying to be sneaky," we whispered to each other as we again stood post at the galley porthole. Shockingly, they dropped anchor less than a boat length away. Way too close.

It was an easy swim to our boat from theirs and we had a stern line out. We talked in hurried whispers the strain in our voices rising when we realized there was no choice but to ask them to move. They were bedding down for the night but at least we had an excuse, the stern line. Gar again slipped on his shorts and armed with a spotlight and a smile yelled across the narrow space between us. "Hello my friends, hello. You must move." No response. "Please my friends go go." Shit, we wish we could speak Arabic. And then he remembered the stern line, "You see anchor, we have an anchor" and he shined the spotlight on our stern anchor. "Anchor, anchor," they replied and slowly turned on their engine. We sighed with relief as they put put putted three boat lengths away and dropped their anchor again.

In reflection it is really pretty cute. We think they just wanted to anchor close to us. We've heard stories of trucks camped in a huge desert and then more vehicles will come and camp beside them even though there is an entire desert for the taking. Perhaps it was the same with our lagoon. We fell asleep last night secure in our safety. We woke only once, at 6am to wave our friends goodbye.

Again we were alone. The morning looked promising, shades of baby blue hinted at a clear day as the morning layer burned off. The wind died and for the first time we could see the sandy bottom below. By 10 am the sun was high and we were ready for another adventure. We squeezed into our neoprene tops and plunged into the shallow water. Cruising slowly with the current we were shocked to see relatively healthy coral gardens in 1-4 meters of water with a little algal growth and some crown of thorns damage, but mostly intact reef. Immediately upon entering the water Gar spotted two giant barracuda 1-1.5 meters long. Their tails waved back and forth. Three giant trevally came in for a look. A turtle spooked beneath us and a huge spotted eagle ray flew by. The reef fish exploded with color. We were seeing so many new species of fish, we spit our snorkels out every few minutes to ask if each had seen the angle fish with the yellow band or the sweet lips with the butter yellow body and brownish freckles, what about the brown parrot fish with blue lipstick? We swam over a huge stingray and were gratefully surprised to see two juvenile 1 meter black tipped sharks cruising by. What a happy surprise, we weren't even in waters renowned for their healthy reefs.

At 7am this morning (March 21) we bade farewell to Shuma Island and the two cruising boats that pulled in yesterday and headed to our current anchorage Sheikh al Abu, 45 miles to the north. It was a little eerie out here as the sky was heavy with clouds, so thick we couldn't tell what time it was. We spotted low flat, sandy islands specking the horizon in strange random looking patterns. The wind came from the North to North East and then shifted directly north on our nose. Hundreds of small tuna leapt out of the water, feasting on small fish. Flocks of terns and boobies followed the schools of fish, feasting themselves along the way.

Our game is on again. We caught three fish today. A small barracuda and small skip jack both of which we returned to live another day. Sadly, our last fish was no so lucky. It looked to be a good sized tuna. But when we reeled in the handline we were shocked to see merely a head and a third of its tattered body. The rest had been chomped off within minutes by a shark. We scrambled to get the tuna off the lure before the shark took it as well as our precious lure. Surprisingly the fish was still alive. We returned what was left of its wounded self to the deep as an offering to the sharks that we are so grateful still reside in these waters.

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