Death in the Afternoon

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January 19th 2009
Published: January 19th 2009
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I don't think I've ever been keen on an exciting life and all the emotions experienced in recent years came circumstantially, while looking for something else.

I've never considered working as something necessary to prove that I exist, and for the same reason I never felt the need to over-commit my spare time (and working the bare minimum I really have lot of it). The mere thought of a prolonged productive working routine loaded with stress tires me, and so it tires me (physically, I mean) only hearing stories of action holidays and travels: "We did paragliding, then we moved inland to do rock climbing, next day we returned to the coast to surf, we hiked along a river up to the waterfalls and finally we spent the last few days diving into the ocean". All this is very modern, admittedly, and is a system as good as any other to keep our mind busy and thus avoid to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions.

My life on the small and lonely island of Ko Chang, instead, is based on a quiet and peaceful everyday life. I do a bit of push-ups and sit-ups, half an hour jogging on the beach in the morning and sometimes I go out on the kayak in the afternoon, but most of my days are a hammock, a book, the soft noise of the ocean breaking on the beach and melodies of hornbills and herons. But...

Less than two kilometers away from the bay where I'm lodged rises the tiny, uninhabited island of Ko Dom, a tuft of palm trees and rocks protruding from the water, about one kilometer of perimeter dominated by a lighthouse belonging to the Thai navy. I often take the kayak, cross the stretch of sea separating the two islands, slowly circumnavigates the atoll, and finally head back to Ko Chang. It's a fascinating place: minute but sparkling with life. There it lies a large colony of flying foxes (a sort of huge bat) that produces a deafening noise. Attracted by these, majestic sea eagle make frequent incursions: they lightly plan above the island and suddently nosedive towards it like spitfires on the skies of World War II. I go willingly. It's a view that frees the mind and a good exercise for arms and shoulders. The crossing takes about forty minutes in calm seas. In rough sea conditions is an experience not to be repeated...

I don't even know why had I ventured out, however, all went smooth in the first leg. But Ko Dom was swept by a strong wind, an unusual silence reigned on it, absent were the eagles. The return journey was a nightmare. Waves were growing and growing: large at first, huge in a second moment, and terrifying at last. I tried to get across them at a 45 degrees angle, but the strong tide I was subjected to was not easy to manage. Waves kept falling on and into the canoe that at that point looked more like a bathtub than a kayak. Incapable of controlling it, I tried to shift my body position backwards to lighten the bow and be so able to ride the waves on the water surface, rather than submarine style. And in that moment a wave capsized the kayak and I was thrown into the ocean. I was under water, I lost the paddle and my boat was overturned. And I was at the mercy of a stormy sea. I was too far from the shore to push the canoe all the way there, nor swimming to the shore abandoning the canoe seemed to be viable in such sea conditions. There was a heavy northern gale, the waves were pushing forcefully toward southwest, that is, towards open sea. They were pushing me into the open sea. So even the option to hang on to the canoe and drift wasn't a valid one (unless I wanted to cross the entire Indian Ocean and reach the Sri Lankan coasts, of course). The only option was to straighten the kayak up and get back on board. An idea easier to think than to be put in practice when you don't have any hold and the waves keep pushing you underwater. I tried many times and as many times I ended up in the water on the opposite side. More exhausted after any new try. In one of the attempts the kayak's corner hit me in the head and opend a bleeding breach on my right temple. No, I wouldn't have managed to and I was drifting towards distant waters.

In those moments the idea of death had stopped being a philosophical concept, and had turned into something tangible, real. And maybe I should have been scared. I always thought that even having always had a "sound" vision of death (I consider it the only real evidence that we really live), in the last instant, when I'd heard Saint Peter calling "Marco D'Aprile" aloud, I would have been scared. But I was not. I had done what was in my power to avoid it, I had nothing to reproach myself and I had no fear.

Then everything changed. I spotted a fishing vessel, it was coming towards me. It was coming towards me and maybe it would have rescued me. And only then -paradoxically- I was scared that maybe I might die. Not before. Not when the sea around me was a desert and I had no hopes, but only now that I saw the bow of a ship approaching and I was terrified at the idea of being missed by it.

In retrospect, in cool head and with my heart beat back to normal, I thought about this apparent contradiction. I kept seeing me calmly resigned clinging on my overturned kayak and then prey on terror, unable even to grasp the rope that had been thrown to me from the vessel. Everything was very irrational. I mean, when I was alone and adrift death was rather a real hypotesis that did not produce fear. When I was near the rescue vessel, with four sailors providing aid, death was not closer to me than it is in any of our daily activities on land. Even if -for absurd- I decided to give up both the canoe and the rope and stop swimming, someone would have dived into the water and I would have been brought to surface again. But fear, all fears, is basically irrational, and this was produced by my survival instinct, dormant until it had been offered a hope on which to bloom.

Once got hold of the rope, I tried in vain to climb the side of the vessel. The ship was unloaded and the hull, emerging from the water in its full height, seemed an insurmountable bastion. A wall that I couldn't have climbed in a hundred years. Three of the four crew members then hoisted me on board full weight, by force of arms, with me offering as much cooperation as a tuna would have.

Once on board, solid metal under my feet, it felt like having returned from a very long trip. I sat on the ground, soaked, exhausted. I leaned over the bulkhead to throw up, my stomach was full of seawater, yet I couldn't. The drainage of energies, both physical and mental, was such that I was not even able to throw up!

The crew was great, God bless them. They were seafarers and I do believe that what they were seeing then was nothing they hadn't seen before. They offered me water, food (declined) and cigarettes (declined), they pulled my canoe onboard and even found my paddle, far away, leading the way to Sri Lanka, and than thay brought me "home".

Supine, I lied on the Ko Chang's beach. Empty, both me and the beach itself. Then I sat down and stared at the horizon, at the open sea from where I had just returned. I wanted to see other vessels passing by and say to myself that it was impossible that no other boat would have saved me, had I missed the one that had actually saved me. But I didn't see any other ship. I stayed on the beach until sunset and I did not see any other fishing boat!

As soon as I felt able to communicate in a consistent and coherent way, I went to look for Ya (the bungalows' keeper), I needed to talk to someone. He immediately asked me what had happened, pointing at the wound on my temple of which I had completely forgotten about. I told him everything and I know that had I told such a story to a Westerner he would have tried to convince me to go to hospital or at least to seek psychological help or some other similar bullshit. Ya listened to the whole story and then calmly said: "You've been lucky. Very, very lucky. If no fishing boat coming, big problem. Big, big problem". Eastern philosophy. Nothing is eternal. Simplicity.

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Link: Morte nel Pomeriggio


19th January 2009

lucky you!
wow! that sounds quite scary! I am glad you made it back "home" sound and safe...
19th January 2009

Just wanted to say
Came across your blog tonight, very well written with some excellent insights. I'm happy your alive.
19th January 2009

You've been lucky. Very, very lucky
Glad you're alive and well Marco!
19th January 2009

It´s good you have an angel or whatever watching over you. Congratulations!! I´m glad you keep on writing
19th January 2009

Hello my favorite world traveler, I'm glad those fishermen came by. Enjoy the rest of your stay there in paradise.
19th January 2009

Thanks Marco, I was thinking about doing a canoe trip next year... But you scared me now... I'm very glad you are still around to write the story. My little world would miss your stories from another world. Just got back from an amazing bicycle trip through Marocco! Did 1000 kilometres and crossed the high atlas.... I feel proud of myself, very much alive and happy! Lot's of love from Belgium, your friend, Vanetsa
20th January 2009

Ya was right... "if no boat, BIG problem"... we're happy you're alive!!!!...
21st January 2009

oh marco, what kind of scary things you do!!!! im glad you didnt drown

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