Saturday, July 24, 2010

More on the Robinson Crusoe experience

One of the problems with my beautiful Pirate Island* is that there is really no way to get there or back. Of course, this is also one of the advantages, as it's the reason it has kind of escaped academic notice and also why it has managed to remain mostly uninfluenced by tourists or the rest of the world.

If you want to go to Pirate Island, here's what you do. You call up the one and only shipping company that is responsible for delivering supplies (a couple of times a year, on a totally irregular basis.) You have this conversation:
"So, when do you think the next boat will be going to Pirate Island?"
"Um, maybe later this year."
"So, June, July, August?"
"Yeah, probably. Sometime then."
"Okay, I'll call back in June."

Then in June: "Hi, when will the boat be going?"
"Maybe next week? Maybe next month?"
"When do you think you'll know?"
"Maybe next week? Maybe next month?"
"I would like to get a lift with the boat. Can you call me when it's going?"
"We probably won't know until the day before." (Note: it would be very difficult to get a flight out to where the boat leaves from with less than 24 hours notice.)

A week later: "So, how's it going with that boat?"
"Oh, we just left. But there'll probably be another one in December. Or maybe February."

So then you resort to Plan B. Plan B is that you book a flight to the closest island (still 600 km away), and then go and hang out at the docks every day, hassling the private yachts moored there until someone agrees to do a little detour (of about 200 km) and drop you off on Pirate Island on their way elsewhere. This option only applies from July to September, as that's the only time the wind and currents cooperate enough for a sailboat to approach the island. Fortunately, it takes about 10 days to find a boat willing to take you, so you have ten days of enforced cocktail drinking on the beach
busy preparation for fieldwork:
Unfortunately, what nobody told me until AFTER I landed on Pirate Island, is that there's a little conspiracy which might stop you getting off again. First, yachts kind of depend on currents and winds, which only let them go in one direction past the Island. This means you aren't going to get a hitch-hiking opportunity to go back to your original departure point. Secondly, the only place yachts are going when they leave Pirate Island is to another country. And as Pirate Island isn't an official point of departure for the country it belongs to, it's actually illegal for you to hitchhike off it with one of those yachts. Now, I did kind of know about this, but all the yachties I spoke to before I left said, "Yeah yeah, but no one really cares about that. If it was me, I'd be happy to take you anyway."

Turns out, tiny islands full of people who get little opportunity to exercise their authority over people outside of their own family LOVE bureaucracy. Oh yeah. And there is NO WAY they are letting you depart without the proper paperwork.

One of the locals, inspecting my research for compliance with government regulations

Once I discovered all this, I realised I was going to be stuck on Pirate Island for the rest of my life.

Fortunately for me, for the first time in about 30 years, a government boat was doing a tour of all the islands in order to audit them and make sure they were complying with all government regulations. (Like, Dude, really: use life-jackets. And maybe your kids should actually attend school sometimes. And when did you last have a pap smear? What? No doctor? That's no excuse.) They were on a boat with an engine, and they were going back to the main island. And they had room for a stray linguist. Well, not really: they were licensed to carry 6 people, but ended up taking 11.
The one point of connection with the outside world, and how I found out about the incoming government boat

On the one hand it was probably lucky that I had visions of having to stay on the island forever. The seasickness on the outward trip was so horrific (five solid days of throwing up every time I opened my eyes), that it took a lot to convince me to ever set foot on a boat again. The only thing worse than that would have been... well, staying. It wasn't until about two weeks before I left that I heard about the government boat that would be coming through, and by then my only reaction was a heart-felt hallelujah! Unfortunately, what I heard was, "Government boat coming. You can get a lift home. Maybe on Wednesday." Then, "Boat maybe not coming Wednesday. Maybe Friday." Then, "I saw the boat this morning! Nah, just joking you. Ha ha!" Then, "There's a boat coming in! Probably your boat, eh! You can go home! No, wait, wrong boat. Just some French tourist."

Anyway, all of this is background to the real point of this post, which is that I've just been looking back through the diary I kept during the trip, and re-discovered my journal entries for the final few days on the island. This is how they began:

The government boat** is supposed to arrive today. No sign yet.

The yachts all had to leave last night because the wind changed to the North. Does this mean more delay for the S.C.? Besides missing my flight and imperiling my job, I'll go mad if I'm trapped here much longer.

Where is my boat?

[At this point, I seem to have given up keeping the diary, and instead have started writing personal stuff directly into my fieldwork notebook. (I told you I'd go mad.)]

[Scrawled underneath a description of accent differences between women and men]
Still no freaking boat.

[Next to a set of examples of question formation]
The boat arrived last night but has engine trouble and has torn its sail. The one person with mechanical skills is refusing to help repair it because the boat owner did something to piss them off three years ago. I'm never going to get out of here.

[Under a description of passive constructions]
I want to go home.

And then, it appears, I did.
Waving goodbye as the dinghy moves away from the shore, carrying me to the boat which would carry me to the main island, which had a taxi which would carry me to the airport, where an aeroplane would carry me (six days later, without any sleep, shower or change of clothes—sorry, fellow passengers!) HOME.

The most beautiful sight I saw all month

* Yes, this is a pseudonym, but it's what people in my department generally refer to it as.
**the initials of which are S.C.


Grace Dalley said...

You really were very intrepid, Styley! Glad to see your wonderful Pirate Island anecdotes and pics surfacing here. I get quite the vicarious thrill. :-)

StyleyGeek said...

I'm glad :) I felt a bit bad for people who know me in real life, since they've heard it all before, and probably seen all the photos too. But it's good to hear you still get the vicarious thrill anyway!

Bardiac said...

Wow, what an amazing experience! No wonder you were off-line for a while! I'm jealous, except of the difficulty getting on and off.

Tell us more, please!

Queen of West Procrastination said...

Wow wow wow. I had no idea this was such a Robinson Crusoe experience. More stories please?

liz said...

Holy guacamole!!!

Kelly said...

This is an amazing story, and I want to hear more!

This makes me wish I had *any* opportunity to do fieldwork. :)

Addy N. said...

Very cool! So how long were you actually on the island?

StyleyGeek said...

Only about six weeks. But it felt like longer!