Half Moon Caye
by Dan Gardiner
Genre: Autobiography, Inspirational, Memoir, True Adventure
Sentence: A man goes to a tiny, isolated, and uninhabited island, contemplates his life of extreme peril, adventure, and personal devastation, and contemplates suicide.
Blurb: Faced with the black and white decision of ending his life, a man rethinks his existence in the solitude of a small island in the Caribbean, finding both good and bad, both exhaltation and mistake in a boisterous and daring past and, at 'the moment of truth' finds that his will to live triumphs biologically over his psychological desire to exorcise himself of his own history.
Synopsis: I graduated from Harvard as a senior honors student and All-American athlete and then won a traveling post-graduate fellowship, which I accepted even though I had already been drafted to fight in Viet Nam. Two years later I was returned to the U.S. by the State Dept, sent to trial, and sentenced to prison.
In prison I met drugs for the first time and became alligned with the forces opposing the direction of my native culture.
With the woman I married in college as partner, I became a marijuana and hashish smuggler for the next decade and amassed a fortune. I was trapped inside Afghanistan during the Russian invasion and shot in the arm, losing over half a ton of hashish as a result. My wife had an affair and I caught her lying about it and left her, which broke both our hearts.
In the aftermath of divorce I stumbled, became a heroin addict, spent all my money, became homeless, and eventually got busted for trying to sell cocaine. After this second stretch in prison I revived myself in the arms of a life-long comrade in Australia and returned to the U.S. clean of drugs and headed strongly in a positive direction.
My ex-wife and I ran into each other coincidentally after a decade apart and re-united. Half a year later, as had many members of her family, she contracted cancer and died, after which I left for an uninhabited island in the Caribbean, where I had traveled previously over a dozen times for the superb diving. There I attempted and failed to end my life in the bosom of the sea.
September 14, 1991
It was twenty-two years ago when I first came to this island. Back then I was a young man filled with piss and the lust for adventure. Over the years of my crazed life this island became my retreat from the modern world, a place where I could survive in the wild without any external connections, a place where I could experience my lifetime in a different medium, a place where I could step out of time.
But this time I'm not looking for a 'retreat.' For the remainder of my days, this island will be my home. It will be my grave.
Some might tell you that I have “dropped out” before, that my life has been a continuing series of dropouts, but this is not true.
For me this tiny sliver of land on which I am standing is a paradise. The island is barely two and a half miles long and, at its thickest, a half mile across. Depending on whom you ask, it is between seventy and a hundred miles from the closest land mass. It lies at the outer edge of the second largest barrier reef in the world, the reef off Latin America in the Caribbean Sea. Looking north, the reef runs in an unbroken line for some forty miles, a straight, foaming line of white bubbles that divides the ocean into two worlds. On the inside of the reef the translucent lime-green waters are but ten to forty feet deep, but, on the outside, the ocean floor tilts steadily downward into the depths (the natives call it 'da deep') and the water is a dark, rich blue. On the inside, the water lays flat like the waters of a lake. On the outside, heavy swells slap continuously against the reef in the steady cadence of the sea.
The waters here are more abundant than any I have ever seen. My first trip to this island by sailboat, in 1969, was my first exposure to the coral seas of this planet, and I wrongly assumed all the waters surrounding coral reefs would be as abundant. And so I traveled in search of other areas as pristine and alive as this one: The Red Sea, The Great Barrier Reef off Australia, the Andaman Islands off Thailand, and the archipelagos of Micronesia. I'm sure other such perfect places exist, but I simply didn't have the experience or good fortune to find them. So I kept coming back here.
A few miles past the southwestern tip of this island the reef comes to a sudden and orgasmic end, and the ocean floor drops precipitously into 'da deep.' And from these depths come swarms and hordes of sea creatures to feed on the inhabitants of the reef. At twilight and at the first light of day, hammerheads rise like herds of elephants. Eagle rays, giant manta rays, hundred-pound groupers called 'jewfish', schools of crevalle jack and yellowtail, twenty-pound red snappers, sierras, turtles, and squid, they all drift up to the reef like endless columns of famished souls.
Among the edible occupants living within the reef itself are parrotfish, hogfish, octopus, whelk snails the size of baseballs, conch, lobster, barracuda and crab. An experienced diver with a good spear gun and a 'lobster stick' can eat like a king and never worry about the refrigerator going empty.
Due west of the southwestern tip is another partial body of land called Long Caye. It is ninety percent mangrove and has never been cleared or inhabited. Not even coconut trees grow there.
The crucial element that makes Half Moon Caye not only a paradise but suitable to be a perfect home for my final days is a fresh water spring. Yup, here so many, many miles from land, out in the rarely-traveled waters of the Caribbean Sea, there is a fresh water spring. Some years before I ever got here, 'longliners' (the native fisherman who fish 'da deep' with baited hooks on hundreds of feet of line) pounded a steel, fifty-five gallon drum down into the sands around the mouth of the spring. The water seeps from the sand and now has a place to collect in the bottom of the drum so you can scoop it out with a tin can on a string.
The spring water is thick with sediment and one of my first projects will be to set up a filtration system. I have a dozen five-gallon plastic buckets. Six of these have appropriate holes drilled in the bottom with a piece of screen mesh to cover them. I'll fill these buckets with clean, white sand and let the spring water leech through the sand a few times into collection buckets. Then I'll use purification tablets before I use it for drinking.
The natives drink the spring water without filtration and, in the past, I have too. It always gave me a few days of diarrhea, but nothing more troublesome than that. I have twenty gallons of clean spring water from the mainland to hold me over until my filtration system is up and running.
My main source of hydration will, of course, be coconuts, and there are so many coconuts here I'll be able to harvest them by age to my own particular tastes. I like the young ones that fizz with effervescence when you open them and where the meat is soft like pudding. I'll use the shells of the older coconuts to make bowls and vessels. The meat from these more mature coconuts I'll grate to make coconut oil.
One has to be careful to maintain a balance with coconuts. If you drink too much juice, you become constipated and, if you eat too much meat, you get diarrhea. But, if you balance the amount of meat and juice properly, you remain regular.
I have so much to do and yet here I sit amongst my equipment and duffel bags watching the skiffs that brought me disappear into the distance. I have always done this, watching the skiffs leave; it’s my superstition, a good-luck omen for my stay here. And it's also a manipulative device, a perspective to fortify my strength for what lies ahead. I convince myself that, for as long as I can see the skiffs, I 'could,' if I wanted, change my mind and call them back, that I still have contact with them. But I never allow myself this avenue of thought. Instead, I happily watch them go and wish them a safe journey home. That way, once they have vanished, I am optimistically committed to my decision. I slip off my sandals and wiggle my toes in the sand.
I have probably made twelve or thirteen or maybe even fourteen trips to this island. I've come mostly with other men but, occasionally, with men and women. Once I came alone and stayed for over two months. There was a stretch at the height of my smuggling career when, for seven straight years, I came every May and June. I would bring whoever of my top lieutenants wanted to come, and we would stay here between a month and six weeks. I paid for the entire trip, and we called it our 'company picnic.'
We never needed more than two eighteen-foot skiffs, even the one time when we came with nine people. This time, coming alone, I filled two skiffs to the brim just to haul the supplies, equipment, and paraphernalia with which I plan to make my home here.
Over all these years, brothers from the same huge family have been the ones to bring me out here in the skiffs. There are seventeen children in this family and twelve of them are boys. Long ago I saved the life of the eldest son when he was diving for conch and hit his head on the hull of the boat as he surfaced. Having finished diving, I was napping on the forward deck of the skiff but heard the clunk. I simply rolled off the boat and hauled him back up by the hair. He was briefly unconscious, and I had only to pump a little water out of his lungs to revive him.
It was no act of heroism; I simply happened to be in the right place at the right time. But, because of this occurrence, I have never had to worry about my safety and protection when I am in the hands of this family. They treat me better than they treat their own, in fact, much better than they treat their own.
The father of this huge family is named Basillio Pou. He is all types of mestizo, part Indian, part Chinese, part Hispanic, and part Caribe. It was Basillio who first brought me here on his sailboat in 1969. We trolled for barracuda the entire trip across 'da deep' and here on this island cleaned the fish and stacked them in his ice chest. It was Basillio who taught me to hunt with a spear, Basillio who taught me each species of fish must be hunted differently.
If you intend to hunt the yellowtail, the jack, the sierra, and the other 'open water' fish, you must first study the daily habits of their schools and then lay motionless in their path like a log. These fish are naturally curious and, if you don't move, they will swim right up to you to have a look. But only once each day. The first opportunity is the only chance you’ll get until another tide.
The 'boquinete' or hogfish are chameleons and you can approach them directly because they will take cover among the sea fans or fire corral, in plain sight but thinking they are invisible. The grouper and red snapper, especially the big ones, you must stalk with care. These fish like to hide in holes and caves. You must spot them first and then follow after them, staying careful neither to chase them nor to lose sight of them. They will watch you following them and, after a while, tire of your presence and hide themselves beneath the ledges and mounds of coral where you need only to gather your breath, dive down, and approach their hiding spot stealthily.
Belize was a much happier place back in the Sixties and Seventies when it was still British Honduras. The people were just about as piss poor as they are now but they were proud and joyful. Up and down the coast it was all Bob Marley, dreadlocks, the Rastafarian spirit, and red-tinted weed. Those were the days before the inner islands were developed for rich-man tourism, the days before cocaine trafficking, the days before the native peoples became greedy for White-man dollars and desperate for White-man drugs.
Belize City itself hasn’t changed much over the twenty-two years I’ve been familiar with the place, except to get worse. It is crowded, dirty, ugly, and smelly. It’s more a ‘shanty-town’ than a city. Sewage canals edge most of the streets, canals constructed to carry raw sewage from the city to the sea. The problem with this design, aside from dumping masses of raw sewage directly into the ocean, is that Belize City is several feet below sea level. The sewage, even with the aid of the tides, has a rough time making it to its intended destination. During high tides much of the sewage is swept in reverse, back up into the neighborhoods closest to the shoreline.
I was in Belize City one time, in from Half Moon Caye and on my way home, when the city caught fire. The fire spread like liquid through the old, dilapidated wooden structures and flashed across half the city in less than an hour. The old relics that served as fire trucks soon ran out of water. The tide was high, and the firefighters had no choice but to pump water from the filled sewage canals to control the blaze. The stench was nauseating, a stench I could still detect for years afterwards.
There is only one other man who lives on this island, the lighthouse keeper, who takes pride in calling himself: 'Mr. John William.' I haven't even gone to say 'hello' yet, even though he knows full well I am here and exactly who I am. It will be my first order of business after the skiffs have disappeared from sight and I have hidden my moneyboxes.
Additional: I am a prolific writer. I now have the bug. I will write and write and write no matter what happens. I have the humor, clarity, education and intellect. I will be successful.
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