Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Smoke Break

This is the second place story in the 2012 Winnipeg Free Press/ Writers Collective Non-Fiction Writing Contest

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It was two in the afternoon. I knew that because, suddenly, the skies opened and Noah's rain issued forth. The plan always seemed to be: dump 40 days and 40 nights worth in about five minutes then slow down to a mere downpour for another quarter hour then stop, abruptly. The tropical sun would reappear, everything would quickly dry off, and life, as we knew it, would begin again.

We were in Kucing, a small city a tick north of the equator, in Sarawak, on the northwestern corner of the island of Borneo.

I was with Jack, an American, a good ol' country boy from Moline, Illinois, the "Barbed Wire Capital of the World." Jack himself was wiry, small and lean, his twang was lean, and nasal. He had a limp, from polio I think, and a big pair of horn-rimmed glasses. A small gold earring, not at all usual in 1969, gleamed in his right ear. He thought the Vietnam War was a great idea.

We'd met in Hong Kong, and had been travelling together, hard backpack travelling, for several months through the Philippines and Malaysian Borneo.

Now he was in a foul mood, gloomy and bored. The doctor in Sabah had put him on a regimen of antibiotics and told him to leave the girls alone for three months. We hadn't spoken to each other for a long while. What was there to say at this point? We sat morosely, drinking tea, and waiting for something to happen, for the rain to stop.

I pulled out another cigarette, my umpteenth, and lit it up.

"Jeez, whyntcha quit that damn fool habit?" he grumbled. "Betcha can't. Betcha five bucks ya can't."

I was bored, too. "Yeah, I can quit. I quit lots of times. I can quit now no problem. When's the bet go to?"

"When we get to Darwin. Five bucks American. Bet?"

"Bet."

Three weeks later, we were in Palembang, a large port city in south Sumatra, Indonesia, boarding a boat to take us north to Jambi. It was a grungy-looking wooden tub, about 40 feet long. A flat roof ran for most of its length providing a canopy low enough that neither Jack nor I could stand up straight, although the locals could. But there wasn't much point in standing up, there wasn't anywhere to go. There must have been 50 of us jammed into that thing. Our stuff had to go under the floor boards while our carcasses were jammed right up to each other, and we sat, cheek to cheek, on the hard wooden boards.

It was not comfortable, but it was cheap, really cheap. Even better, it was there, and the roads weren't. Well, they were, but they were quite impassable, quagmires, it being the rainy season, and hardly anything went on them.

It had been a blow to discover that there were no buses going north out of Palembang, and thus it had been a relief to find this boat, as lovely as it wasn't.

We understood that the journey would take the better part of three days, along a forest river. I was well prepared. I had my canteen full of tea, and a half-dozen bananas.

We left Palembang late in the afternoon and followed the coast up to the mouth of the Musy River, into which we turned just as darkness fell.

Once we were inland, on the river and in the forest, it was as black as a hole. We had a strong headlamp aimed forward, but all else was ink black. The jungle pressed in, you could feel it. And breathe it, too, through the diesel fumes and the smell of cloves from the kretek cigarettes -- the smell of decaying things, of growing things, of the river.

The engine pounded out its constant belch, an unending pum ... pum ... pum ... pum.

At the stern, where the low canopy ended, sat a platform cantilevered out over the water, with a hole in the floor, so you could pee into the river. I could stand up straight while I waited my turn, and that felt wonderful.

I stood idly staring off into nowhere when, winking out of the darkness, there appeared cluster after cluster of tiny white fairy lights; each cluster spaced a few feet from its neighbour; each made up of hundreds of miniature lights; each twinkling on and off to its own instinctive pattern, forming a syncopated symphony of silvery sparkles against the black. It was absolutely magical.

They were, I assumed, some kind of flying insect, like our fireflies, blinking out their short lives, their message: We are here. We are here. I see you, I said. I see you. They were in view for a few moments only, until we chugged around a bend, and I never saw them, or anything like them, again. I was thrilled by their appearance, though, that vision alone worth a whole lot of discomfort. Nobody else seemed to notice them.

Pum ... Pum ... Pum ... We continued into the night. Sleep consisted of a few moments nodding off, then coming to with a start. Periodically, I would struggle up, standing with my shoulders hunched, my head bent, and move my legs around, trying to restore circulation.

Pum ... Pum ... Pum.

All of a sudden the inside of our boat lit up. Another river boat was heading towards us as we approached a turn, its headlamp blinding us. Our driver pulled over to the left, the other boat passed to our right with a couple of feet to spare, and disappeared around the bend.

But we had gone too close to the bank of the river. There was a muffled whump and the boat shuddered and stopped. We had run aground. The engine stilled, and an animated babble of conversation arose. This quickly became a babble of cries as the boat started listing left, and water came gushing up through the floor boards. We were sinking!

Everyone started climbing up over the edge, and sliding into the water, abandoning ship. If they were doing it, I was doing it. Holding my shoulder bag as high in one hand as I could, I let myself fall into the water feet first, hoping the bag would not get soaked. The water wasn't cold, and my feet touched the oozy bottom with the water at eye level. With one hand in the air, I swam with the other, and tip-toe hopped toward the bank. A hand grabbed my wrist, I was pulled from the water, then I turned and helped the fellow just behind me, and so on, until we were all off. Nobody was missing, nobody was hurt.

The boat was now sitting at an acute angle, but not sinking further, as we could see in the beam of someone's flash light. On the roof lay the long board used as a gangplank. It was untied and run over the side to the bank. We formed a chain, and hand-bombed all the baggage to "firm" ground.

Some guys had machetes. Soon a small clearing was made, big enough for our bedraggled crowd and our gear, all soaking wet. I stood there in the middle of it all, uncertain, staring into the night.

This is different, I thought. This is an adventure! I have just been shipwrecked in the middle of a jungle in Sumatra. How about that!

I was trying to get my head around it when I felt a tap on my arm. An older fellow, a total stranger to me, offered me a cigarette.

I was covered with river muck, we all were, and soaked to the skin. The act of clearing the jungle had infuriated the millions of bugs that made their home in that patch of mangrove. They swarmed us fiercely, and their collective moan against the stillness was louder than the engine had been. A long night stretched ahead... and then what?

But I was elated. I was here, now, and glad of it indeed. I knew that adventures were not bound to be pleasant things, or fun things. This, too, was good.

The man smiled as he extended his pack of smokes towards me. I smiled, too. I pulled a smoke out of his pack, as did he. Then he struck a match -- How on earth had he kept them dry? -- and shielded it as I leaned in to light my cigarette.

He and I, two strangers, stood together in the muck, in silent brotherhood, and smoked.

Yes, to be sure, now I owed Jack that five bucks, but I did not care. This cigarette was a gift.

The whole night was a gift.

It was the best cigarette I have ever had.

Then it started raining.

This is the fifth of six winning entries in the 2012 non-fiction contest. Stories published earlier can be found at winnipegfreepress.com

TOMORROW: THE DEAL

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2012 A1

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