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HOT TROPIC

: from grey to blue : 

London-Panama-Galapagos

Chapter 1

Seven in the evening, Heathrow terminal 5, Gate 28, two thousand pounds of emergency cash in my hand luggage, four bikinis and a sarong in my holdall, and a couple of hundred people sitting quietly around me getting into the long-haul flight head-space.  Everyone looked resigned, but confident.  Nobody talks at the airport gate, nobody, it’s a thing.  

   A pang of loneliness passed through me, and I cast my eyes around, trying to find someone who looked even a teeny-weeny bit less sure of themselves.  But, no, even the odd backpacker type, sitting on the floor scribbling in a notebook or listening to something through headphones did not give the appearance of being as shit-scared and unprepared as me.

   Is this still MY life I’m in?  Am I supposed to be here?

   I admitted to myself that it was me, and only me, who had invented this plan, that I had done it voluntarily and willingly.  Being here, on the brink of committing to it by leaving the country, my grasp on the practicalities of what lay ahead looked sinkingly childlike.  The whole thing felt increasingly shaky.

   Is this going to work?  Like, reeeeally??

   Wide-eyed, I peered out onto the tarmac to watch the baggage handlers loading, wondering if I might catch a glimpse of my holdall as it entered the belly of flight BA46 to Bogotá.  If my bag went on the plane, I suppose I was bound to follow.  Gulp!     The plan was that me and my bag would be disgorged in Bogotá then go yet farther into the mysterious unknown on the flight for Panama City, gateway to the South Pacific Ocean.

   I didn’t know if this was the greatest thing I had ever done, or the most stupid, but what I did know was, this feels crazy.  I couldn’t even picture myself getting to Bogotá, never mind Panama.  I conjectured that maybe something fittingly bizarre would happen and I would never make it to my destination.  Just about any wild circumstance could save me from my own madness, and anything felt possible because what was actually, really happening felt pretty impossible anyway.

   With forty minutes still to go before boarding (for those with more expensive tickets than mine, that is), I had plenty of time to think about all the possibilities, but the inevitability of the plan had set in, the cogs were in motion and there was no choice but to go with the flow now.  I had positioned myself on the conveyor belt towards a highly uncertain future in a completely unknown environment, over which I would have very little control.  Now it was all coming true…  I just wasn’t sure what kind of true it would turn out to be.  What have I done?!  This could go very wrong.  

   By the time I was seated in economy, I was thinking, maybe this could go very right?     But it was still a question.  Walking assertively onto the plane had inspired me to give it my best shot, and I began to re-work all the fantasies that had brought me to this point: swimming in crystal clear Pacific water with hosts of brightly-coloured tropical fish, drinking coconuts with islanders with grass skirts and bright smiles, sailing under the southern hemisphere night stars, being capable and practical and and free, far, far away from all the stressful, meaningless bullshit that clogs up life in London… my old life.  I was leaving all that behind and stepping out into the unknown, seeking the final frontier, reaching out to touch the void… sailing across the South Pacific Ocean as crew on a small sailing yacht (believe it or not!  I hardly did).

   Needless to say, there were a couple of potential problems: I really had no idea how to sail a boat, and I was only vaguely hopeful that I wouldn’t get seasick.  Bob, the captain of the (hopefully?) fine vessel that I was joining did not seem entirely put off by my potential unseaworthiness when he approached me through the online agency I had registered with in a moment of spontaneity.  On the contrary, he was more interested in his crew having general enthusiasm for travel and a strong ability to cook.  (I lied a bit on that last one.)  As the only other person aboard, I had to trust that Bob knew what he was doing with the yacht, but I also felt vulnerable in another way, wondering if he would turn out to be a good person who would look after me, or a not good person who… shivers…  Sticking my neck out so far, and such a long, long way from home, felt only marginally sane as flight BA46 to Bogotá rushed away into the blind night.  

In that marginal space could lie the greatest adventure, the greatest learning, the most real life possible, the ‘being here now’ that eluded everyone I had ever met, the scary ‘facing yourself’ that none of my friends was prepared to do.  Maybe I was prepared to face myself… if it did not turn out to be too, too scary?  Here I was, and here was my story, beginning and sweeping me along with it.

*

I’m Ella, and I was driven to do this, all of the craziness and mistakes and far-out adventures that this story contains.  Only eight years out of university and I was already at my wits’ end.  University had taught me little more than mistrust of aged academic men whilst drunk (me and/or them) and how to party myself into debt.  My degree in English Literature apparently only qualified me to be a demoralised receptionist in a tatty solicitors’ office for most of the hours in the week, choosing my depressing ‘office wear’ from the wardrobe each morning.  

   My divorced parents were a rich source of well-meaning but out-dated, conventional wisdom, and they had celebrated my (non-)achievements that led nowhere that I was interested in being.  Short of dying (which I truly hoped they wouldn’t in any hurry) and leaving me a stack, they did not seem to have anything meaningful or pertinent to contribute to shaping my life.  

   My sense of my own identity was a chaos of fragmented impressions, none of which I was sure I owned.  Maybe I was an artist (Sculpture? Installation? Performance? Who knew?), a bohemian (it was just a feeling, an attraction to headwraps and sunflowers), a poet (sadly associated with angst-driven iambic pentameter that I had encountered on my degree course), an entrepreneur who could scale economic heights and be somebody (really, really, really unlikely, but I dreamed hard about being somebody).  Would I fall in love with an exotic foreigner and become exotic myself through him?  Women seemed nicer than men, so perhaps I could work myself up to being lesbian?  Could I unwittingly shoot to fame during some sort of climate disaster or terrorist attack, caught on someone’s phone selflessly rushing into danger to save an injured person, only to go viral later?  A lottery winner?  A circumnavigating cyclist?  An activist for social and environmental justice?  A scientist who studies whales and dolphins?  What?  Most importantly, what was I prepared to actually stick my neck out to try?

   The daftest things seemed equally as likely as anything else… anything, that is, apart from the huge, immovable and ever-present likelihood of the continuing weight of the daily grind at my job, which was so very, very possible it made me feel like weeping.  There was no ‘sign’ to guide me this way or that, but whatever kind of marvellous life I decided that I wanted seemed unlikely to be found on the Northern Line of London’s underground or the number 35 bus, both of which I was obliged to ride ten times a week. 

   Just shy of 30 years old, I was jaded, had lost faith that I would be ‘discovered’, that my champion would sweep me into the spotlight I deserved, just for being me.  The identity of my true, amazing self was shrouded in a very thick, swirling fog and I was 110% sure that the amazing, real Ella lost in there was not a depressed office worker at Fladgate And Clarke Associates (specialists in commercial property law), she was somebody much more interesting.  

   Nor was the true, interesting, exciting, fog-bound Ella the girlfriend of Tyler Rowe, Senior Compliance Officer at Templetons Ltd and wannabe mortgage-holder for a microscopic terraced brick house south of the river.  Steady and likeable as he was, Tyler’s curly hair had lost its novelty, his fascination with dark beer and Warhammer shared with his mates on Sundays seemed to obstruct life rather than be life, and what had seemed like risky-frisky bedroom antics once upon a time had become spectacularly predictable, bordering on depressing.  We were still both young.  Had excitement peaked already?  Was passion and excitement all downhill from here?  Could a mid-life crisis in 20 years’ time be the next event of note in my life?  Shudders...

   I was beginning to really get it though: nobody was going to make my life happen for me, it was up to me.  This thought defeated and inspired me at the same time, it was scary and thrilling.  What should I do with it?  All those creepy university lecturers and their flaccid body parts which were still, somehow, unforgettable; the staff at my bank with their superiority complexes; Tyler’s and my lazy landlady who never fixed anything at all; my tweed-smothered parents in front of the television; Tyler, who would surely make someone less interesting very happy; every politician who had ever cut any kind of tax or other allowance which could possibly better the life of office staff in tatty solicitors’ offices; Mr Clarke and Mr Fladgate and all their associates and all their clients and all my colleagues; every single grey-faced commuter on the tube every morning… they were all driving me towards this question, if not this, then what should I do?, and making me enact the answer.  The pressure of it was multiplying, mushrooming, overtaking me and I didn’t know how to work it out, prepare, be sensible about it, get ready for whatever it was I would be breaking into.

   Then one day I saw this meme from an ageing actor on facebook.  The quote was something like this: 

   ‘I think it’s a terrible thing in life to wait until you are ready.  Nobody is ever ready to do anything.  Ready pretty much doesn’t exist, there is only the present, and you might as well do whatever it is you want to do right now.  Now is as good a time as any time ever was or will be.’

   That was the last straw, mostly because I couldn’t pretend to myself that it wasn’t true: it was definitely true.  I could feel it in my churning stomach.  If I didn’t need to be ready to do anything, there was just no excuse for procrastination any longer, I must act right away.  

   I wrote out the quote in big fancy script and coloured it in with my highlighter pens and stuck it on the wall in the sitting room.  (Tyler didn’t comment.  Maybe he didn’t notice.)  I let my eyes flicker to it while I ate dinner at night.  I wrote it out on a sheet of paper from the printer at work folded in half and taped it in my office booth to the right of my computer screen and above my in-tray.  My eyes wandered over those words regularly while I searched for clients’ details during the day.  I muttered it when I was alone and woke up from dreams of its words in the mornings.  I thought it loudly in my head while pretending to be another grey commuter gazing with a glazed expression at whatever greyness was passing the window.  The loudness of it got louder.  At first it became louder than the train, but pretty soon it was deafening.  It was draining me: I had to do something.

   So I did.  I started doing whatever came to mind.  I signed up for adult ed life drawing classes in case I really was an artist.  I wasn’t.  I ate lunch at this boho cafe down the road from the office most lunchtimes that sold floaty dresses and incense in the back, wondering if I could become part of some bohemian community.  There was no community, it was all just products, like everything else.  I paid money to enter several of my angst-y poems in competitions and sent fifty of them off to a publisher as a potential collection but never heard back from any of them.  I did an online quiz which promised it would identify what sort of business I would be suited to.  It suggested ‘rare book dealer’ or ‘tropical diving instructor’ depending upon my mood when I filled it in.  I became one of those desperate people, looking at potential lovers who spoke a different language and lived in a faraway country with their skin so beautiful and brown, and not commuter-grey at all.  I looked at the women on the dating sites.  I visualised scenarios in my head of going down on several of them, just how I would have liked it done for me (but Tyler never did… sigh...), feeling their soft breasts and lively nipples that weren’t hairy and gnarly like Tyler’s.  The thoughts didn’t get very elaborate because they just didn’t turn me on much.  

   I read blogs, I signed up, I joined mailing lists, I became a member, I cast about for anything that turned my head, anything at all, just waiting to see what would come back to me, what bizarre thing was out there waiting to call me to itself once I made myself available.    

   Then, all of a sudden, there was Bob, captain and owner of a sailing yacht, contacting me, wanting to know all about me, making me an offer to be volunteer crew on his sailing yacht, a boat barely bigger than a large motorhome, sailing through the tropics.  He was being serious, holding out his hand and even ‘needing’ me… so he said.  He was a divorced former university lecturer and, since retiring two years before, he had found a string of voluntary crew on the same online agency where he had found me to help him sail his boat around the Caribbean and live his retirement dream.  

‘Had great sailing through the Caribbean and now waiting on the Pacific side of the canal to go onward from Panama, through French Poly, the Cook Islands, Fiji, maybe Tonga…’ he had written to me rather vaguely regarding his proposed itinerary. ‘About nine months or so to cross, if you want to go all the way.’     

   My mind boggled, wondering what ‘to cross’ meant.  To cross the whole South Pacific Ocean?  It was enormous, errr.... wasn't it?  I could hardly comprehend it.  I had barely heard of these places, and certainly had no idea where they were on the globe, but the whole idea seemed as plausible/implausible as anything I had come across, so I said ‘yes’.  

   There it is, I was driven to this craziness by the whole world conspiring, a world that just would not let me do anything else.

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