When the Moon Hits Your Eye

If the first day at sea is disorienting, the first night on the water is downright disturbing. It is hard to appreciate the relative comfort of seeing waves that might sink you, until it’s nighttime and you can only hear and feel those waves. Your mind can play funny tricks in the dark. Even the mildest white-cap can grow into a crashing monster. And it is worse when you are alone at sea — even more a pawn to your psyche.

Jangadeiros are not without their superstitions regarding the ocean.
The Brazilian scholar, Luís da Cȃmara Cascudo, described it best in his book, Tradição, Ciência do Povo:

“Fishermen [in Brazil] believe in the existence of an autonomous ocean, independent of that which lives in it, aware of our actions, preferences, dislikes, and hatreds. The stubbornly unhappy in their trips and their fishing are victims of this supernatural power. It loves the colors blue, red, green and white. The sinister things that appear on the sea’s surface at night will invariably have one of these shades, dispersed or joined. Boats must have at least one of them painted in clear view. The sea demands human respect and will take revenge on those who insult its majesty.”

Mamede’s jangada was painted sky blue, so I had no reason to fear the creatures of the night. (But you never know.) It helped to be standing between Ze and João. They were so relaxed on top of the rail, so completely in tune with the motion of their raft, I couldn’t help but be affected by their calm. It was, after all,  just a commute for them: a necessary trek they had to endure to get to their place of work. Yes, the ride was longer than your average daily grind, a lot more bumpy and quite a bit wetter, but at least the traffic wasn’t so heavy. And with four of us on board we had the commuter lane all to ourselves.

Any anxiety I was feeling quickly vanished as soon the stars came out to shine. Oh my! . . . I’d been living in the city too long, had forgotten how beautiful the night sky can be on the ocean — how magical. In the city all the breath-taking detail is washed out by a haze of electric light. Not so on the deck of our jangada where every square inch of the sky was filled with brilliant, sparkling light.

In that confusion of stars it was hard to orient myself. And from my new perspective at 3½ degrees south latitude, even the things I recognized appeared different. Orion was there with his bright belt of stars, but closer to the horizon and tilted on his side. Tipped over like that, his shield facing down, he looked more like a kid doing cartwheels in the sky. Following his belt line it was easy to spot Sirius in the Big Dog. But even this dog looked less serious, with his hind leg up as if taking a leak!

These two constellations lay beside a dense band of light that stretched across the heavens. Gazing up at this I knew what I was seeing; it was still hard to fathom its true meaning. How could all those stars be in only one galaxy — our galaxy — the Milky Way? And to think of all the other galaxies that were out there, billions and billions, as many as those stars.

The light-show soon paled with the rise of the full moon directly at our bow, larger and clearer than I’d ever seen it. Because we were also rising and falling in waves that blocked the horizon, the moon didn’t appear as it normally does — slowly,  just below the boundary of perceived motion. It came up instead in a series of snapshots, each wave top we mounted bringing a new image slightly larger than the last. This time-lapse display created the illusion of movement, as if we were thumbing through an astronomical flip-book titled, The Rising Full Moon. The effect didn’t last long—five waves and it was over. But during that time we stood silent on deck, spellbound by the image unfolding before us.

And when the moon finally broke free from earth’s edge and hung low and heavy in the sky, it was no less impressive. Then, and this points to my growing hunger at the time, the glowing amber disk looked like the biggest lemon drop cookie I’d ever seen, with vast crunchy craters, sugary high-lands, and broad seas of the creamiest butter. Oh lord!  how I wanted a bite. And that cookie seemed so close, I could almost reach out and grab it.

Next chapter: Strangers in the Night