Flights of Fancy

Dinner that evening was the same meal as our first lunch on board: fish stew and the sticky pirão. Two red snappers were cut into thick steaks, and the pink flesh turned bone-white in the boiling broth. Lifting a piece from the pot felt like grabbing a slab of hot rubber. But the meat fell apart in my mouth with the slightest pressure, releasing a juice so rich and flavorful, I knew everything I needed to survive was right there in that one bountiful bite. Ummm!

The farinha pan also made its way around and when it came to me I simply pushed it along. Nobody commented on this or encouraged me to take any. Having witnessed firsthand the result of their doing so, the jangadeiros were more than happy to let sleeping dogs lie (along with their wimpy stomachs). By the end of the meal I felt almost normal.

Twilight set in and the pans were washed and stored below. Ze brought up the various lamp parts from the hold and screwed them together. It was a typical propane style lamp with a single mantle housed in a glass chamber. This light, however, stood five feet off the deck, elevated by an extension pipe that screwed directly to the top of a rusty five liter gas tank.

Ze pushed the assembled lamp to the tabernacle and lashed the tank to the back of the frame. He also tied the pipe to the lowered mast so the thing wouldn’t fall over. None of this was necessary. With no wind blowing and the sea almost flat, the lamp wasn’t going anywhere. But fishermen and sailors are creatures of habit (much more than the rest of us). Their lives depend on it. You don’t change something that has worked for so long. You don’t even think about it. You just do it.

No wind meant lighting the lamp was a snap. Ze still cupped his hands after striking the match and quickly poked the flaring head into the hissing chamber.  A loud POP — which never fails to startle me — and the flash of light soon died out, leaving the mantle burning hot-orange like a tiny dwarf star. Ze opened the gas valve and the bulb got brighter, effectively blocking out the night. Once again we were an island of light.

“It’s too early for fishing,” João said from the hatch. “I’m going to sleep a little before starting.” He quickly ducked down and shut the cover over himself. Mamede and Ze were back at the icebox, picking through the spools in the line basket. They briefly stopped to look at each other. Nothing was said but I could tell Mamede wasn’t happy.

For half an hour the two men fished for bait. It still looked like a magic trick to me: tiny hooks lowered bare into black water — pulled up moments later with real live fish — wriggling, wriggling, wriggling. Rolling up his bait line, Mamede turned to me and asked, “So, do you want to fish?”

Again the question caught me off guard, and I paused before responding. Did I really want to fish? Strange as it might seem the trip wasn’t about fishing for me. It was more about sailing on a jangada. I’d dreamed about it ever since I was a kid with that model in my hands. And then when I finally saw a real jangada on the beach and watched as the fishermen rolled it down to the water; watched as they pushed off from shore and made their mad dash through the surf; sat on the sand and watched for hours as that funny little sail grew smaller and smaller until it finally disappeared at the end of the earth, I knew I had to ride one — had to feel that deck moving under my feet. It wasn’t a rational thing. What rational person goes to sea on such a small boat (if they don’t need to do it to survive)?  Go out on that thing?
Any sober person would think you were crackers.

It was more visceral than rational, more immediate than practical, more the high flying boy than the sensible man. The boy who had played for hours and hours with Matchbox cars and toy soldiers, who’d built model boats and balsa wood gliders — the boy who had dreamed of conquering armies, winning races, slaying dragons, and yes—oh, yes—saving the dark haired damsel in distress. (Somebody had to save the dark haired one.) But more than anything, and by a long suburban mile, it was the boy who had loved to ride his bike — his campus-green, Stingray bike. The one with the tall “ape” handlebars, glittery-white banana seat, and that square-walled, slick-tread, fat back tire that could pop the bitchinest wheelies and lay down the longest backpedal coaster brake burning rubber skid marks on the block. It was the kid who had no boundaries, knew no limits, felt as free as free could be — flying down the orchard lined back roads under shady oak trees — pedaling away the hot summer days — those endless California days — feeling on top of the world when he was on that bike.

How deeply we are etched by our youthful fantasies. How strongly we are shaped by those fleeting moments in time — forever . . . There was something about a jangada that tapped right into my private fantasy, like needle to a vein. There was no denying it. I was hooked from the moment I first saw one; hooked like I was when I first saw that bike. They meant the same thing to me, the same exact thing: Freedom and Adventure—capital F—capital A. They were both meant to be ridden. They were meant to fly.  And was it just a coincidence that the sheer of the jangada’s deck had the same swooping lift as the seat on that bike?

So I paused when Mamede asked me if I wanted to fish. I hadn’t gone on the trip to fish — I’d gone for the ride. Besides, I’m a lousy fisherman. I did a lot of fishing when I was a kid. My father and brothers all love to fish. And let me tell you one thing. There is nothing more disheartening for a boy than having a younger brother who consistently catches more and bigger fish. Actually both my younger brothers did.

But I did respond. And when I did, I put on a happy face.
“Sure, Mamede. That would be great.”
What am I getting into now?

Mamede smiled and held up a thick roll of line. “Good!” he exclaimed, waving the spool back and forth. “Come here and I’ll show you how to put on the isca.”

Ah . . . this was going to be a teaching moment.

A campus green Schwinn Stingray bike

Next chapter: I’m Going to Get You