Crowded Planet

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Like an astronaut in space, I float weightless in the saline sea, exhaling warm plumes of air above the surface, capturing all these colourful impressions in my mind as if they were butterflies that may escape my net.
 
Fish drift far below, twisting in and out of the rock. Long yellow trumpet fish poke forward with their snouts; Moorish idols trail their elegant fins. The shelf of Pulau Weh falls sharply into the blue. The dropoff into deeper water seems ominous, like a scene out of the movie The Abyss. I can't help but imagine that maybe a whale shark might swim by, or a bottlenose dolphin. A long line covered in algae disappears into the blue, an anchor for some moon vehicle.
 
Swarms of different colours float in and out of the pockmarked moon rocks, courtesy of the tsunami that dumped them here in the middle of the bay at Iboih Beach. Fingerlings of silvery brown sway together vertically in the current, facing the sand. They're called razorfish, or, in bahasa Indonesia, ikan kayu, wood fish, because they look like twigs. Schooling bannerfish, yellow and round, cluster together like grapes on the vine stirred by a summer breeze.
 
Blue powdered surgeon fish busily excise algae from the rocks, working in twos. They're called surgeon fish because their dorsal fins are so sharp surgeons used them as scalpels before the advent of steel. (I'm gleaning these tidbits of information from the divers here, and from Marine Fishes of Southeast Asia.) Known as Botanang in bahasa Indonesia,they  are round and big as pancakes. I don't know why they're called "blue" surgeon fish because they appear to be the same colours of the LA Lakers basketball team, like the Lakers coat my friend Dan sported in journalism school. On my arrival here in Weh they were the first fish I encountered when I went out wading to cool off from my long journey. I was unaware of the wonders below until a flash of rich purple and yellow swirled around my feet, making me gasp. I looked up to find a group of snorkellers getting a kick out of my excitement, and I gingerly picked my way out of the water , avoiding clusters of spiky sea urchins, to get some snorkelling gear.
 
The current gently sweeps me down to the far side of the bay toward the edge of the slope. It's so steep it looks like a snowboarding run in the Kootenays of British Columbia, a vast expanse of white-scary, exhilarating, not one human around-enticing me to explore further beyond my comfort zone.
 
I pause at the rocks on the other side of the bay, where a school of small, silvery black fish with sparrow tails hang around in a big cloud. Some striped tigery-looking fish (they match the book illustration labelled vagabond butterflyfish but I haven't found the black ones yet) are hanging out nearby in their separate part of the rock. After inspecting them, I realize I have some company-the silvery black ones have surrounded me and are checking me out. Inexperienced at being observed in such a manner by a hundred sets of little eyes, I give an involuntary start, which makes them start too. They scatter off en masse, a short distance away, to suspend once more in the current.
 
***
 
I lie in my hammock of hand-woven fish net, under the Milky Way, groggy from Mamamia and Papa's barbeque meal of fresh-caught tuna, rice and salad with garlic sliced in (garlic repels both mosquitoes and vampires).
 
The more I look, the more the stars pop out until the night sky is so populated with stars that I could never feel alone. Satellites buzz around, seemingly aimless, like tiny red flies, but with a mission-to deliver television to the masses, or to spy on them, or help ships find their way in the night.
 
A shooting star swims across the sky. It reminds me of all those nights spent lying on the sandstone on Hornby Island, my favourite place in the world, watching the Perseids meteor shower on August evenings. The same show, nature's annual fireworks display, has begun here on the other side of the world. My hammock in Pulau Weh is a front-row seat.
 
In the darkness of the sea, tiny sparks alight. I blink my eyes and look again, Yep, there they are: tiny sparks flash in the water, underwater traffic signals from the residents of the Coral Gardens. Before my holiday began, I read The Beach by Alex Garland, and now I remember the part when phosphorescence lights the ocean and they go swimming in it to get the full effect.
 
As a child on Hornby, I was mesmerized by the magic of phosphorescence, swirling my hands in it, watching it curl with each wave as all those little critters, the source of light, went surfing. I haven't seen it since those days at Hornby.   But I don't need to feel nostalgic about it because it is right here. Life is pure magic, especially on nights like this, when it weaves through the sea and sky, like fireflies of silver. Nature is so full of life that in its midst, every last remnant of loneliness disappears, even if for a moment.  
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