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Part 3

From Manila it was another one and a half hour flight in a tiny little plane to Zamboanga, the “City of Flowers”. Well, I sure didn’t see any flowers, just a dusty medium sized airport and a bunch of over eager cab drivers who wanted to take advantage of the fact I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours.

I didn’t have time to stop though, I had only twenty minutes to get to the dock to catch the mail boat which was going to take my on the 14 hour trip out to Suluanda Island. At least I could sleep on the boat, I hoped. I don’t remember seeing much of anything on the short cab ride, I was holding on for dear life as the insane Filipino cabbie raced me to the dock. He needn’t have bothered, the captain hadn’t turned up yet, the departure was delayed by around half an hour.

I took my last opportunity to look around at what passed for me as civilisation. I breathed in the gas fumes, I kicked empty soda cans and I watched the garish flickering colours from a plasma TV screen in a nearby shop window. No TV where I was going, not even regular electricity. Suddenly I felt very nervous, or was it anticipated sea sickness? Maybe jet lag? Whatever it was, I didn’t like it. I walked across the dock to look out at the open ocean beyond. As I got to the edge of the dock I was suddenly and violently sick, a day’s worth of airline food quickly dispersing in the swirling dark waters below me.

I took several deep breaths of diesel smoke laden air and looked behind me to see a short grinning man in a sweaty beige uniform walking quickly towards me.

“A bit soon to be sea sick isn’t it buddy? You must be Mr. Williams from the UN I guess. Well, never mind, a few shots of good whisky and you will have your sea legs!”

The man slapped me on the back and offered me a small paper towel. I smiled weakly at him and wiped my mouth.

“I am Sonny Esposito, captain of the glorious vessel that now stands before you. It will be my pleasure to be your mail delivery provider on this journey. Come on aboard, Ten will bring your pack.”

The captain barked an order to one of the men standing on the dock behind him. The middle aged man spat out his toothpick and hurried to pick up my pack and took it on board with a deft leap across the variable gap between the dock and the deck of the mail boat.

“Come Mr. Williams, the time has come for us to leave this fair city.”

“Please, call me Jim” I croaked.

“Certainly Mr Jim Williams, you are the parcel!”

Espisito winked and slapped me hard on the back again and we walked to the gang plank and boarded the boat. No sooner had I stepped aboard than the gang way was raised and we had cast off. This was it, no turning back now.

Strangely enough, after taking the couple of recommended shots of rough whisky, not that I was a big drinker back then, and having some plain boiled rice, my stomach settled down. I started to feel a lot better, but the lack of sleep was really hitting hard now. The captain, who seemed to me at the time to be the only one aboard who could speak English, approached me about an hour into the trip.

“Well Mr. Jim, Mr UN man, you look like you are going to fall over soon. You should sleep. There are not cabins, but there are some blankets here you can use as a bed. You should take off your shirt and lie down to sleep. It will be dark in less than an hour and the heat will not go away. You need your shirt off to stay cool.”

I wasn’t about to argue. I lay the blankets out on the deck in an area where I wouldn’t be in the way of the crew, and I imagined it would be fairly safe in the event of rough seas. Thankfully, the ocean was as flat as a lake and I didn’t feel there was any risk of sea sickness, let alone being tossed out by giant waves. I took off my shirt as suggested, used it balled up as a pillow and within about three minutes of lying down, I was snoring.

When I woke it was pitch dark. I could see the running lights of the boat, but nothing else anywhere on any horizon. There was a thick layer of cloud which obviously obscured all stars and whatever moon there was only gave a very faint gray tinge to the cloud. It was hot too. It felt like a really heavy humid July night at home, but hotter, if that was possible. I had been sweating in my sleep and was feeling very dehydrated. I stood up shakily and walked carefully forward towards the cabin. There I found the whole crew playing cards by the light of a dim red lamp. Obviously I looked puzzled.

“Good morning Mr. Jim! Ahh, the red light is so we can still see pirates in the night.”

The captain looked at me seriously for a few moments, then the whole crew burst out laughing and the captain once more slapped me on the back. I smiled weakly.

“No, just joking with you! No pirates in these waters for at least ten years!”

The frightening thing was that he wasn’t joking about that part. Soon I had finished off half a bucket of water and was asking directions to the bathroom. More laughter from the crew. Shortly after that, I had my first experience of crapping off the back of a moving ship directly into the water. The first of many such firsts I was to experience in the next few weeks and months. All in all, the boat trip was probably the most pleasant part of the traveling I had to do. At least I got a lot of sleep in. Ten hours apparently. That made the whole thing a lot more bearable.

It was not long after the first lights of dawn that we saw the approaching shadow of Suluanda on the horizon. From a distance it looked to me like a slight raised mole on the skin of the earth, with a particularly lumpy section at one end. In fact the island is the remains of an ancient volcano, almost worn flat in most places, with a few crater wall remnants on one side all of which seemed to be covered in lush tropical rain forest. The whole island is surrounded by a shallow submerged shelf which is bordered by a coral wall, creating a giant lagoon which surrounds the entire island apart from two narrow channels where the water flows in and out. It was one of those narrow channels that the mail boat approached on its way in to port.


The mail stop at Suluanda, as always, was a very quick and efficient affair. As the mail boat docked, a small swarm of locals jumped aboard and were directed to appropriate boxes and bags to collect by the mail boat crew. Within two minutes all items for the island were offloaded, including me. Then a mail bag was tossed from shore as the boat powered up and swung away from the dock, the captain giving the islanders and myself a quick wave. As soon as the boat was on its way out, I found myself surrounded by smiling chatty men, several of whom took my pack and knapsack in strong hands and lead me inland towards a small collection of low ramshackle buildings.

I was ushered into one of the nearby huts and the man with me indicated that I should sit on the mat to the side of the small wood burning stove in the centre of the single roomed building, he then left me alone. I sat with my legs crossed and waited nervously for something to happen. Several minutes later a taller man, probably around 45, stooped under the door frame and strode into the room. I began to stand and he motioned for me to stay seated. The man then eased himself down onto the mat in front of my and offered me his outstretched hand with a smile. He spoke to me in perfect, if slightly accented, English.

“Mr. Williams I presume? Good to meet you at last, my name is Sonny Roak. I’m what passes for the political leadership around here. Anyway, welcome to Suluanda!”

“Thank you very much Mr. Row-ak. It’s a pleasure to be here, and a relief to know I’m expected too!”

“Oh, you are more than expected, your arrival has been awaited with great anticipation by the young men of the island! Now, allow me to bring you up to speed with the real reason you were invited here.”

I looked at the man sitting cross legged in front of me with a little suspicion, my heart began to pound and I felt trickles of cold sweat running under my shirt.

“Oh, it’s not bad, don’t worry! It’s just that ostensibly you were invited here to help the whole community learn conversational English. Well, that’s not quite the truth. The reality is that most of us speak English reasonably well, there was a large US influence around here during and after the second world war. Having said that though, what is needed is an opportunity for our people to speak with you and learn correct American English pronunciation and idiom.

“You see, our people are very isolated, as you will have already noticed! The only way for us to progress as a fledgling state is to trade internationally, and to do that we have to be able to communicate effectively. Now, the real subterfuge here is that we need you to focus your efforts almost entirely with the young men of the island and I’m afraid that will be to the detriment of the women and girls, but that’s what the island elders have decided.

“I know this is not the way it is supposed to work on this program, but the reality is, that’s what we need. So I hope you will accept that and still work with us in that manner.”

“Well,” I said slowly, “I don’t see that that is a major problem really. One of the things I have been told to do is work within the wishes of the community I’m working in, so really it’s not going to be a problem for me.”

“Oh, that is good to hear! Wonderful. Now then, a few details for you. You may or may not know that within our culture unmarried men who have left the home at the conclusion of their childhood live in semi-communal groups somewhat isolated from the rest of the community. This is because traditionally this group are the ones who can be most disruptive and, quite frankly, obnoxious. So, we make a habit of having these young men live together so that we can contain their noise, smell, and everything else annoying about them in one place!”

Roak laughed and slapped his bare knees as he told me this. I smiled back at him and nodded saying that I was aware of this custom.

“Very good, well, you may also have heard that traditionally young men of the Suluanda are not to wear clothing when in these areas set aside for them. Well, this is certainly the case, I see you nodding that you have heard this. Well, so that you do not feel uncomfortable, I have required the young men you will be living with to wear at least shorts while you are here. I hope this will help you feel more comfortable.”

“Umm, I really wouldn’t want you to change a cultural custom just for me, if it’s OK with you, I’d really prefer you didn’t require that.”

I smiled weakly and a large beaming smile broke out on Roak’s face.

“Oh, they will be relieved to hear that! Of course you don’t need to join them, unless of course you want to, and I’m sure they would welcome that also.”

“I really think I will make a final decision on that when the time comes – I’m still not sure if I’ll be able to.”

Roak smiled at me and nodded.

“I quite understand young man, I really do. Now, lastly, you of course will not need to farm or fish, your job after all is to speak with the other young men. You will be shown a place, or more likely places, to sleep, you will eat with the other young men and they will certainly help you get settled and comfortable. I have asked Tean who is one of the ‘old hands’ in the local ‘camp’ to take you there this morning. Tean is twenty two and will probably be marrying within the next two to three years. He is a very intelligent young man and will help you out in any way you may want. He’s waiting outside now if you are ready. Do you have any other questions?”

I told Roak that I was fine for now and he helped me to my feet from my cross legged position that was rather uncomfortable for me. We walked out of the dim hut into the ragingly bright sunlight of the early tropical morning. I blinked several times until I could see the amazingly beautiful guy standing in front of me smiling broadly and offering me his hand. Tean was nearly six foot tall, he was slim but had beautifully toned muscles in all the right places. His hair was jet black and straight, falling long enough to brush the edge of his shoulders when he moved his head. He had deep bronze skin, a combination of his Asian heritage as well as incessant days in the tropical sun. But it was his deep and soulful dark eyes that captured me. They were fantastic and they cut deeply into the most hidden part of me. Being with this guy when he stripped off was going to be torture!

I took the hand that was offered to me and Tean shook it firmly then with his left hand he grasped my shoulder and pulled me close to hug me.

“Sorry, but that is a traditional ways to greet a long unseen community member. I am sorry if I frightened you.”

“Oh, no problem! Great to meet you Tean.”

I smiled as I stood back awkwardly from the very tight hug. I must say that it certainly wasn’t what I had expected, but I was sure willing to have more of it! Mr. Roak spoke quickly in a language I couldn’t begin to comprehend. Tean’s face beamed broadly as a fantastic smile appeared, showing his perfectly white teeth. Tean immediately pulled off his T shirt and quickly shucked his basketball style shorts and stood in front of me stark naked and smiling. Roak turned to me offering his hand once again.

“Mr Williams, you can probably guess that I just told Tean of your request that the men of the camp continue their custom! Well, I shall no doubt see you again in a few days or so, in the mean time, please don’t hesitate to go to Tean for anything you might need, and again, welcome to our island!”

With that Roak strode off towards a group of elderly looking men who were standing with a few young mothers holding babies. I was alone with a naked tropical Adonis who was reaching for my bags and beckoning me to follow him.

Continue to part 4


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