How To Disappear
We all need to escape our lives and disconnect every now and then. Change the scenery and the pace.
The color blue alone made it all worth it. The Kingdom of Tonga sits far from everything, awash in turquoise lagoons, aquamarine shallows and cobalt reefs care-taken by the bluest eye sky. It is the only monarchy never colonized in the South Pacific, populated by a gentle people, notwithstanding their club-wielding, brain-bashing, cannibal lineage.
One tranquil sunset, in one of my favorite anchorages called Hunga, a local paddled up on an outrigger canoe to our 38-ft cat, Tikiti Boo, and introduced himself. Vaha was 51 and lived tucked away in that corner of the corner of the world. He sat smiling in his craft, which I learned he’d carved from a stout mango tree 15 yrs earlier. I stood painting a piece of cardboard torn from a box used to load our provisions. I painted daily in the soft light of morning or dusk, when the Polynesian sun wouldn’t quick-dry the paint on my paper plate palette. My cozy cabin became a gallery, where just-finished works like Anthony Quinn Looks Like Me stood watch.
Anthony Quinn Looks Like Me, acrylic on cardboard, 16″x13″, 2002, Stuart Sheldon
I got the sense that Vaha had not been aboard too many cruisers nor seen too many painters at work, so I invited him up. He sat beside me, rolled a cigarette in his dark, calloused hands and observed, exuding the silent calm pervasive in these islanders. He asked an occasional intelligent question and told me proudly of his son, a cook on a cargo ship en route to the world’s major ports.
I asked him if I might take his mango canoe for a paddle. The boat was a bit tippier than I expected, but I had no problem touring the tranquil waters surrounding Tikiti Boo. With Vaha’s wooden paddle across my knees, I studied for a long time a particularly electric blue bird sitting motionless in a tall tree.
The scene washed my eyes and stilled my soul.
When I returned to the boat, I went below and found a painting I’d completed a few days earlier. I titled it, Peaceful Hunga, and inscribed, Thank you for letting me try your canoe.
“I’d like you to have this,” I said, handing my friend the piece. He considered it carefully, his smile blending with an air of concentration. Then he honored me by saying, “I will hang this in my home.”
Hunga Beach, acrylic on cardboard, 11″x22.5″, 2002, Stuart Sheldon
Vaha paddled away as quietly as he arrived and the sun gave way to an eruption of southern-hemi stars. I thought of Vaha’s son, coming from this tiny place, perhaps the most remote locale I’d ever visited. What would the young man think seeing Hamburg or Hong Kong or New York? I don’t believe I will ever experience a cultural contrast so great.
A bit later, as I lay in the bow trampoline contemplating the Southern Cross, one of my ship mates announced with great consternation that he could not find his very expensive diving watch. We all searched, and when we failed to find it, there was clear suspicion that Vaha might have taken it. This ate at my guts as I slept, because I felt very strongly that Vaha and I had shared some basic truth.
That epic 2002 journey lasted two months and spanned Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and Tahiti, most of it on a boat, scratching one of my biggies off the bucket list – SAILING THE SOUTH PACIFIC.
There is wisdom one can only gain by leaving.
Mark Twain said it well, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Even so, sometimes our broad and wholesome views of men are wrong.
The morning after Vaha’s visit, I cut papaya into my Weetabix and took a swig of coffee, still dripping from my morning dip into the perfectly temperate water. I’d slept poorly and was contemplating returning to my cabin to read. Suddenly, my mate shouts from below; he found his watch in a cargo hold.
YESSSS … I KNEW my man, Vaha, was one of the good guys!!!
In my journal on that magical boat I wrote the following declaration/wish:
I will sail the world for a long stretch, ideally when I have a family and more skills at the helm. Any special woman interested in joining said trip (and said family) should inquire within. A different world each morning. A world with filed-off edges and no tan lines.
Eleven years after writing the worlds above, I’m most pleased that said woman and family are now by my side. I stand ready to disappear into paradise once again. The only remaining question is:
WHEN DO WE LEAVE?