Sunday, April 4, 2010
Letter in a Bottle
This is less a tale of adventure than a tale of disbelief. If it hadn’t happened to me, I would find it extremely difficult to accept it as true. If today I drop the name of ‘Rotuma’ I am sure all of you would dive straight into Google. But I talk of a day when Google did not exist and neither did the internet for common man. I for one had never even heard of the place before I reached there and had not the slightest inkling that this sun-kissed you-will-miss-if-you-blink sized island would wrap up a story of mine that I had thought would never be concluded.
I had first seen the sea at the age of 7 or 8 from Bhubaneswar, Orissa. Life is impressionable and exciting at that age and what I remember, of all the things that my mom had told me about the sea, is that the entire world is linked by sea and if one set sail on this vast expanse of water one could go around the world. The immense and the boundless sea seemed tailor-made for my wandering and wondering spirit. Though I saw the sea and flew atop the oceans on several occasions since then, I only became a proper seafarer when I joined the Navy. Till then my only close encounters with the oceans would be along its beaches covered with sand, people and debris. What I really pined for was the endless horizon all around with nothing and no one in sight. I have always been a dreamer, I still am and what I don’t know or can’t see fascinates me more than what I can. Since the oceans linked my shore to the unknown shores across our planet, I always wanted to dive into the surfs and waves and let them carry me where I couldn’t go otherwise. I would have done it too, but I never could swim far, I still can’t. For all my global gallivanting and adrenalin charged life, I am still a weak swimmer and I had no intention of exploring the sea bottom either without the benefit of a diving set. But then, how to carry my messages across to those distant lands, to tell them that I existed, that I longed for them, that I will come to them one day! And that’s how I got the idea of sending my letters in a bottle.
I started writing to my unknown friends in their unknown lands in the only international language I knew. I never dated the letters, wanted them to be timeless and boundless. I would insert the letter in a bottle and seal it well with cork and wax and then standing as far out into the sea possible, throw it like a discuss as high as I could and then watch it disappear amidst the waves. Even my wonder-filled brain would tell me that it was a futile exercise. There was no way those bottles would reach anywhere far. Several times I would find the bottles back on the same beach from where they had been discharged. But faith and belief is beyond reasoning and I simply liked the idea that if one day even if one of my letters reached somewhere then how amazing that will be. After I joined the Navy my fervor only grew since now I was constantly near or in the sea.
Before every sailing, I would prepare my letter in a bottle and write whatever I felt like and would cork and seal them carefully. My letters were always open, not really addressed to anyone and I only signed them without putting any return address or any such contact details. I had no wish that if at all someone found and read my letters that they should get back to me or contact me. If someone found them and read them and that brought a smile to some unknown friend’s face, it was enough for me and in my own dream world I believed that each of my letters found its place within the heart of an unknown friend. As I sailed around the world in ships, I started throwing my letters in the high seas and in all the oceans. As the ship would race ahead I would keep my eyes riveted on my floating bottle as long as I could. At times I would throw them within the darkness of the night, asking the moon and the stars to take them to someone looking for a reason to smile. And thus my journey and hopefully the journey of my letters in a bottle continued.
Typically a letter in a bottle would be in these lines: -
Dear Friend, I am a little boy from the vast country that we call India. I don’t know who you are or where you stay or which language you speak, but I know that you are my friend and I speak to you through this letter in a bottle. My name is Satya, which in my language means the truth, the absolute truth. What is your name? It doesn’t matter really, I wouldn’t know even if you tell me, so I will call you just ‘friend’. How I wish I could ride my bottle and be with you now talking to you and smiling with you. How is your world, what are the colors you see, what do you do, what do you eat! Tell me your story. I like stories, both hearing and telling. (and the letter would go on with my life story, etc).
Years went by and my stories grew both in volume and deed and I lost count of my letters in a bottle floating around in the seas. Then one day I got selected for the sail boat world circumnavigation crew. Though mountains were my lifeblood and the circumnavigation would keep me away from my snow covered friends for nearly 7 – 8 months I was overjoyed since now I would be able to chuck more letters in a bottle out into the sea.
Our captain was a wise man and he charted our course through such places and shores where in our ordinary lives would be virtually impossible to go to. I was the navigator’s assistant and would shoot the stars with my sextant every dawn and dusk fixing our position on the globe. At night I would also volunteer to climb to the crow’s nest (after all I was the fastest climber in the crew) and look out into the dark horizons with my binoculars. I had to look out for lights, lighthouses and other vessels at sea who might endanger our passage. Amidst all that I also looked for my bottles though I knew it was a futile exercise. After leaving the Indian Shores we headed due east and after Australia headed for the Polynesian Islands. Skimming Fiji Islands, I was told to set sail for Rotuma. I wish we had Google then and it took me a while to get the largest scale chart of the area and locate Rotuma. No one on board including the salt-and-pepper bearded captain knew anything about the island that hangs like a tiny tear drop in the middle of almost nowhere. I checked all our marine manuals on board but couldn’t find any information on the harbor, on the coastal waters or docking situations. We raised the harbor authorities seeking permission to come in and they asked us to anchor around half a nautical mile seaward and they would send us boats to come ashore. The water was deep and we tied ourselves to a docking buoy. Soon enough two motor boats approached us.
Being the navigator’s assistant had its downside as well since while others could jump out and off I had to secure the bridge, the chart house and also plan for the coming days. So I stayed back in the bridge and completed all my chores, and when I finally stepped out into the boat waiting for me, I was sure my colleagues were already in another world. The boatman was of Indian origin and I asked him to take me around the island first and then only beach where I felt like. On an island barely 15 km long at its longest and five km wide at its widest, one can land practically anywhere and still be where one wishes to be. As we sped along the beach, the boatman kept rattling out the names to me of the places. After crossing a place with the impossibly funny name of ‘Ututu’ he pointed out to me a little protrusion of a beach and screamed ‘Sumi’ and the moment his voice reached my ears, I knew that’s where I wished to land. I am not sure even today why did I wished to land at ‘Sumi’ but something from deep within wanted me to, so there I was. We pulled the OBM out of the water and dragged the boat up the smooth sand. In the Polynesian Isles, life is literally about partying and having fun. Dancing and drinking feature in almost every phase of life. Needless to say my guide headed for the nearest bar and asked for a couple of colored drinks with umbrellas.
While I eyed the breathtakingly beautiful beach sparsely populated with few American and Australian tourists, topless girls and the locals, my eyes suddenly caught a familiar scrawl on the wall of the beach bar where we perched. Next to a dart board a simple wooden frame held an old parchment. I blinked several times and went up close to confirm. My eyes literally popped out of my head when it finally sank in – it was one of my letters in a bottle. Without a date I had no way of knowing which of my letters it was but there it was, with my name and my handwriting. Neither could I say where I had thrown it overboard, into which sea or ocean, which coast, from where, but at least one of my letters had been found and read and carefully preserved. I asked the lady serving at the bar about it and she told me that they were the new owners and had bought this place from an old couple who had left around two years back and she had no idea where they could now be found. Everything in the bar came along and she liked the letter so much that she decided to keep it where it was. ‘Funny, don’t you think!’ she asked me as she noticed me reading the letter. ‘Who could it be,’ I muttered. ‘No idea, some crazy guy I guess but it’s nice, always makes me wonder why would someone write a letter like this, could it be something else – a mystery you know, and my clients like it.’ The lady said. I read my own scrawl and nodded my head in agreement, ‘Yeah, seems like a crazy guy alright.’ We had few more drinks and then I left to look for my team. I didn’t have the heart to reveal the origin of the letter. Hanging there in one of the remotest and most difficult places in the world to reach, it seemed to have completed its mission. Its charm lay in its obscurity and mystery.
As I walked away from the beach I felt supremely happy in my heart that of the hundreds of my letters in a bottle at least one had survived its journey of tens of thousands of miles and had washed ashore to someone to whom it shared my story and my smile. The odds of it ever happening and my actually finding one were not only improbable, but simply impossible – yet here it is and here I was. It only strengthened my belief that life has bounties beyond our imagination and everyday treasures much beyond all the wealth of the world. To find happiness and our treasures and our miracles we really do not need to travel far or dig deep, we simply need belief, dream and a little voice within to tell us that it is possible as long as we don’t stop looking.
P.S. The accompanying picture has been borrowed from Common Creative License resources