We pulled into Labuan Bajo at dusk, and by the time the gangplanks were up, it had turned dark. The harbor of the main port for the island of Flores was full of anchored sailboats, their masts like denuded trees against the last light of the sky off to the west, the remains of a sunset that had flamed bright orange behind the clouds as it died.
On the pier in the darkness it was madness, porters bearing huge bundles in repurposed rice sacks down the stairways, families struggling up thru the chaos to try and find a place to lay their sleeping blankets on the deck. I stepped out with my camera into the throng, the cargoes loading and unloading, the light of the moon nearly full in the sky above as silhouettes loomed down from the deck railings. In the crush, a boy stumbled into me and clumsily tried to pick my pocket, only to find it empty.
The moment there felt perfect — the chaos and the bodies, pushing thru the pools of darkness and light, the salt smell of the harbor and the shapes of boats at anchor against the night, the trash all around and the slightest sense of threat.
It was the feeling of a journey, a transit rich with some hidden purpose, revealed in textures the way a blind person reads a sheet of braille. These devout men in their skullcaps, washing before they entered the deck 6 mosque — they were a part of it; so were the shy young couples at the railings, the moon hanging like a pale candle in the sky, the old women napping on the decks amidst their burdens, their legs akimbo and blocking the way.
The night was a flood of textures, rich in information. Each wrinkle was a possibility, and there were stories behind every face. In my cabin I lay in my berth, feeling the engines as a subaudible rumble coming thru the walls and floor, feeling the slight roll of the ship beneath me. In Bima harbor on the island of Sumbawa in the morning, the crowds had crushed thru the hot sun, and boys had swam naked in water amidst the boats and piers.
Now, in the quiet of the evening, the voyage across the Flores sea to Sulawesi seemed blessed with all the good of travel — a sense of movement, a sense of the world as becoming, a sense of amazement at my fellow human beings, my friends Bill and Annelies, pensioners who I met amidst the feral tropical elegance of the diningroom, drinking wine and telling me of a long life of travels — children born while living in Peru, trains taken from Mombasa out into the bush of Kenya, overland journeys across Europe (“Oh, we haven’t driven across Europe in ages…”). There is a sense this night of life as untold beauty, as uncertain as the world will be when tomorrow afternoon we make the shore in the hot sun of a foreign place, but just as rich in hope. Life moves on, and thru it we travel. I go on deck and look out onto the sea, the moon like silver on the water: God is good, it is a beautiful night.