Kupang is not Kupang: it is Tangier, Barcelona, Venice, Castellorizo, Istanbul, Kas rolled into one. Day 500. Day 9 at sea. Nothing is itself anymore. Under the solvent influence of the sea memories and vistas are breaking apart, dissolving. They’ve lost their crystalline objective quality. Physical form is detached from meaning. Signifiers bear no relation to signified. Places have lost their peculiarity. Everything is the same.
To my eyes, vexed and tired as they are, everything is composed of common attributes. Nothing is unique. Even the people I meet are not themselves anymore, they remind me of people I’ve met in other places. I glance about me at the boats, the shops, the cars lining the foreshore of Kupang and I’m confronted by a queer sensation. Places have lost their unique aspect. One is the other. One stands for all. Everything is familiar and strange. I’m neither here nor there.
75 nautical miles northwest of Kupang we pass a village in the Solor Archipelago that, for all appearances, could be my Yiayia’s birthplace on Castellorizo. The Solor village convenes in a crowded fashion around the nucleus of mosque and marina, but substitute mosque for cathedral, coconut palm for plane tree, satay for soutzoukakia, and it could be Castellorizo, could be Istanbul, could be Tangier. The configuration is different but the elements are the same: trees, shops, houses, roads, parks, schools.
The outcrop of rocks on the foreshore of Kupang is to my eyes, Sydney Cove. The sinuous camel-hump profile of Banta Island is the Olgas. 9 days prior , off the East coast of Lombok, we passed the Wallace line, the ‘faunal boundary’ between Asia and Australia, so it’s conceivable that the coastline here was once part of the Kimberley, part of the landmass I call home. None of us are strangers. All of us are kin.
Approaching a city from the water smooths out the differences. Buildings, objects and people come into focus slowly. There’s time to recollect. As Lea steers the boat headlong into the breeze and Keith drops the pick I hold on to Richie, hoping his presence will anchor me to the moment, preventing me from drifting 14,000km to Tangier, where 16 months ago we strolled along a seafront promenade not unlike the one here at Kupang and found ourselves seduced for the first time by the grace of mosques, palms, and the heady piquancy of anonymity.
The way people gather along the waterfront in the evening is the same the world over. In Phnom Penh, in Malaga – so is it here. From the insular comfort of Tientos’s cockpit where we’re observing the tradition of sundowner ‘drinkypoos’, we receive the laden aromatic gift of satay and roasting corn on the wind. Being immured in a floating home, remote from the action on the shore, is a new experience for Richie and me. We cock our heads, longing to be transported to the arena on the foreshore where the drinks carts and folding chairs are laid out in splendour. The sound of laughter attests to good times and teenage pranks.
Tientos is home now. It is our battleground, our saviour, our friend. It is protection and isolation. Every nautical mile it takes us is a mile closer to home for me, and for Richie, a mile further from home. The passage is more sweet than bitter but still I can feel my edges being pushed in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. It’s a new hat we’re wearing – sailors, crew, passengers.
‘It’s funny’, Lea comments as we drop anchor off the island of Banta, ‘you two sit facing land and we [meaning her and Keith] look out to sea.’ It’s true. Liberated from the cockpit Richie and I are leaning against the mast, speculating about the quality of the topsoil on the island, the absence/presence of ‘bush tucker’, the location of keypoints and the makeup of the island’s flora and fauna. We laugh with glee, still ‘tripping’ that we’re on this journey, on this boat, on the sea.
2 days later: As I climb down into the dinghy and join my companions on our first foray into Kupang town I consider that this marine-induced-semiotic-delirium might be a necessary part of the journey – a final annihilation of self and memory before the prodigal daughter returns; a reconfiguration of self in readiness for ‘homecoming’. A metaphorical crossing of the river Styx.
As the base of the dinghy rasps ashore I recognise that the trees here are trees, the houses are houses, the boats are boats, and the people are people. The rocks on the shoreline are the rocks of Sydney cove. The boats at anchor are the junks of Hong Kong. The coconuts are the coconuts of the Andaman Islands. The narrow shopfronts are the mansions of Venice. The voices are the voices of the people of Georgia, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Turkey, France. Kupang is all these things and none of them. It is itself and that in and of itself, in this funny frame of mind, is peculiar to me.
I wipe a patina of sea crystals from the lenses of my sunglasses. I’m not seeing straight. My legs are wobbly and I’m swaying to the rhythm of the sea that rocked us here, 630 nautical miles from our point of embarkation on Lombok.
I’m not sure if 9 days at sea entitles us to the appellation ‘sailors’, we know a few knots and are growing competent at nightwatch, but surely we’re entitled to a glass of fresh juice on the foreshore and a spot under the trees – an opportunity to sport with memories, recalling the singular events and people that made this journey what it is… far from over, full of adventure. The journey of a lifetime.
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