It all started the day Andrew and I were scheduled to cast off for a twelve day sail from Vanuatu to Papua New Guinea. Our six weeks in Vanuatu had been some of the most interesting, awe inspiring, and enjoyable days of our trip so far. The people and landscape exist in a mysterious dance of what it means to be alive. My heart became full; I fell in love with humans again.
Then, the morning of our cast off, news from the United States reached us that a violent scuffle erupted between Antifa protestors, Black Lives Matters participants, and a group of white men carrying torches in Charlottesville, North Carolina. Some were injured, at least one person ended up dead. This news set off a panic attack for me built on a combination of nerves about heading to sea and my building concern for my own country. As the panic died down, I settled into depression.
I started searching. What do I need to do differently? I spent time thinking and journaling, meditating, I read thought pieces, I read a few books, I spoke with friends. My heart ached for my friends expressing pain from what they perceive to be racism. I, myself, had a visceral reaction to seeing white men, carrying torches and shouting scary things. They seemed threatening. Threats that cause a person to fear for their lives or safety are criminal acts. It is assault. I abhor violence and threats. So, I asked a few of my friends what I can do to help. They said, “Call out racism when you see it.”
“Ok, that seems easy. I can help.” I thought. I typed and re-typed what I wanted to say on my Facebook feed. Each time it fell flat. I had a sense I was missing something important. I didn’t know what it was, but my sense of justice compelled me to act. I found an essay by a man whom I felt spoke some sense and I posted it.
Immediately it felt wrong. I know there is racism at play with these men, but also I felt a nuance missing from what I had done. Time went by. I spent a couple weeks in Papua New Guinea with ample time in front of the internet. Andrew and I had our difficult discussion about my attitude while on passage. Sonrisa mediated our dispute and we came up with a checklist to make cast off better. I had a long discussion with a good friend whose political views usually differ from mine.
With that friend, I expressed my frustration over the President’s slow reaction and tepid comment that there were bad actors on both sides. She responded by railing that Antifa is just as violent and awful as the men who carried torches. If I’m honest, I did not understand much about Antifa. Her reciprocal anger at the Black Lives Contingent helped shake me out of a place of misinformation. I researched it and read about the connection between Antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement. I realized Antifa is filled with criminals and it is a force I should oppose. People with good intentions and raw hearts are included in Black Lives Matter, but in my view, the good message they have is getting lost when it is paired with an anarchist group throwing bricks and rocks at people (Antifa).
My friends said I have to call out all racism when I see it. "It's easy and obvious to spot, Leslie. Just be courageous and do the right thing." I think to myself, but my gut tells me it's not going to be that easy. What is racism, exactly? How do I know if someone is racist or motivated by something else? How do I know if someone is privileged? Is this concept of privilege something tangible or inside our minds? Is privilege something we have to end? If so, how? Aren't there all sorts of privileges and detriments in the world? How can we ever balance out all the privileges and all the detriments? Besides that, will it help anything to point at my friends and say: "You are racist!" "You are privileged, admit it!!!" As a writer, I prefer to show rather than tell. As a lawyer, I know I have to lead a judge to draw his own conclusions. I can never tell anyone how to think. This is what I am left to ponder on our crossing from Papua New Guinea to Indonesia. This is where we left off, two blog posts ago.
Held in our temporary anchorage, Andrew and I have a delicious, deep sleep in calm water. We wake with no alarm, then brew a pot of hot water for coffee. We sit in Sonrisa’s cockpit, relaxing and watching the sun grow higher and smaller in the morning sky. We are in a new country! What surprises will it hold?
But first, we must check in with Quarantine, Customs, Port Control, and Immigration. We had already hoisted our yellow “Q” flag just below Sonrisa’s first spreader fifty miles before reaching the closest point of Kei Islands. Andrew gathers up his Captain’s papers and reviews to ensure that we have everything we need: passports, check out papers from Papua New Guinea, and Sonrisa’s ship’s papers. Indonesia recently changed its procedures to make check in easier for sailboats, but it’s still a new process for them, and we aren’t sure what to expect.
It’s a windless morning, so we motor through the remaining six miles of inner bay to reach the city. We see long, sharp fishing canoes and strange thatch houses built upon outrigger canoes that sail in the current and wind along side us. As we reach port, we must dodge more strange houses with giant nets, triangular wooden structures, and one long horizontal pole. Obviously, these are marks of a wholly new fishing industry.
Two gentlemen parked in their canoe next to one of the strange houses. They reach both arms above their head and wave wildly. For a moment we are concerned they are gesturing for help. (For us, waving two straight arms above your head is a physical gesture for “come over here, I need help.”) In that same instance, we near a second funny house on the other side with two more men on a canoe begin waving, then a line of men on top of a tanker join suit. It's an enthusiastic greeting. We wave in return and call out, “Hallo!” which the only Bahasa Indonesian word we know.
As we near the “Big Smoke,” (as we sailors like to call cities) the skyline is different from anywhere I have ever been before. Everything is painted in bright colors: sky blue, bright red, Kelly green, there is even an entire village painted rainbow. Mosques are nestled into the mix like roses tucked into a flower arrangement. Dug out log canoes putter by, propelled by strange motors that look like a heavy and unmanageable weed-wackers. They are filled with families holding brightly colored umbrellas for shade; some wear the head scarves I know are associated with the mosques. To my disappointment, I feel a little tingle in the back of my neck in the place where instinct tells you to feel fear. I can feel the presence of the mosques, headscarves, people of the Muslim faith - current American bugaboos. I feel the presence of Sonrisa’s American ship flag; I fear how they will treat us. And for the first time, I fear the man who called me out as "Racist-Lite" when I first started penning this blog might be correct.
I ask you to trust me and give me the benefit of the doubt here: I do not want to be racist. I do not want to treat other people with disrespect. Yet, our national dialogue about the muslim faith, the US reaction to 9/11, wars in the middle east, ISIS, immigration and other issues have wormed their way into my brain. This is not correct or wise, but I am human. It is an error both of logic and of compassion to feel fear of these Indonesian people I have never met. Yet, my instinct felt fear. Realizing this, I commit to letting these people show me their beauty, warmth and welcome if they offer it. Just like with passage making, I feel fear, I acknowledge my fear, and then I will go ahead and act as best I can in the face of my fear.
After some awkward attempts to arrange ourselves with three other sailboats in a small anchorage we escape to the open bay and anchor alone. We begin what becomes a three day process to clear in with quarantine, customs, and immigration. Both quarantine and customs fish through Sonrisa’s stores, searching for anything they need to deal with: presumably illegal drugs.
They separate Andrew and I, asking me to take them through the stores while Andrew fills out paperwork. They ask me a myriad of questions designed to figure out if we are drug runners or tourists. After we have already completed the thorough search and analysis of the medical kit, he asks me “Do you have any drugs on board?” As an American, we refer to medicinal substances as a ‘drug’. It’s a quirk of the English language; the word ‘medicine’ and ‘drug’ can be used interchangeably and ‘drug’ can refer to either legal or illegal substances. But, we had just rifled through the medicine cabinet, so I figured he was asking me if we have any illicit drugs aboard. “No, no drugs.” I answered. I file away the local distinction between ‘medicine’ for medical purposes and ‘drug’ for illegal substances. During the search and the interrogation, I am nervous. I feel as though I have to answer well so they do not lump me into a category I don't want to be in: "evil, dangerous drug smuggler." Which of course, I am not. Yet, I feel fear someone might think that I am. Throughout the process, the Indonesians are thorough but kind. They smile, they speak gently, they removed their shoes so as to not scrape up Sonrisa’s beautiful hardwood floors, they complimented Sonrisa.
We are doing great until they reach Sonrisa’s tea cupboard. I swing open the door and they spy the ten vacuum packed bags of our favorite loose leaf tea from Teavana, the kind they discontinued selling in 2014, “To Life Tea”.
Why does Sonrisa carry ten vacuum bags of loose leaf tea?
In the year 2004, Andrew and I found a tea we enjoyed quite a lot. We sipped it while decompressing after law study and work. We carried it on backpacking trips. We sipped it together from two different locations while he worked in Utah and I completed my internship in Las Vegas; it made us feel closer. We would brew a pot and play Cribbage like two old people on a calm fall evening. I drank a mug sitting in a hammock the morning Andrew asked me to marry him. In short, it’s one of those flavors that bring memories and good feelings. When Teavana stopped selling it, we were crestfallen.
About a year later, I happened to be wandering through Teavana when I spied a bag labeled “To Life” sitting behind the counter.
“TO LIFE!” I exclaim with my trademark crazy eye. The sales guy behind the counter jumped back to avoid being poked by my pointing finger. “TO LIFE!”
He looks behind himself at the bag, and then says “Oh, yeah. We discontinued that tea. That’s all we have left.”
In a snap, I say: “Can I buy some?” He tells me he cannot open the bag. If I want to buy the full five pound bag, I can have it. I immediately agree. I pay a fortune because five pounds is an incredible amount of loose leaf tea. Then, I tuck the bag under my arm and carry it home like a football.
“Andrew!” I say as I launch through the door, “I found TO LIFE!”
“You did!? That’s great.” He says, and then he sees the bag under my arm, almost the same size as my bed pillow. “Is that it?” When I explain they wouldn’t sell it to me in any other portion, his eyes close and he sighs thinking about the several hundred dollars I just impulse spent on tea.
Furthermore, this occurred in or about November of 2015. Thus, we had only three months to drink what is easily ten years worth of tea at our current rate of consumption before we set sail. When Andrew mentions the supply relative to our limited time on land, I shrug. It's okay, we have a vacuum sealer for the boat. I will just seal the tea in separate one year supply bags and open them as we go. Hazzah! It never occurred to me that this tea is very much in appearance like other “herbal substances” that might cause concern in areas of the world where the possession of illegal drugs is punished by death.
Fast forward almost two full years later, I am standing in Sonrisa’s galley with her tea cupboard open to the Indonesian customs official who had been so accommodating just minutes before. He points to the tea: “What is that?” He asks.
“Tea.” I respond.
He pokes through the rest of the cupboard. If you think I’m going to live on one type of tea alone for the remainder of my trip - no matter how much I love To Life - you would be wrong. So, in addition to ten vacuum sealed bags of To Life tea, we have green tea, black tea, various floral teas, fruity teas, herbal health teas…you would think I’m British. “What’s that?” He asks, pointing to another type of tea.
“Tea.” I respond.
“Tea.” He raises his eyebrow at me with suspicion.
“All of this in this cupboard is tea.” I say, uncomfortable and a little scared now. He pulls out the ten vacuum sealed bags and inspects them. He pushes the white tea leaves here and there so he can more closely inspect the pearl sized green jasmine tea balls inside the mix. He looks at the little flower leaves and the red rooibos particles, he holds the bag to his nose and tries to sniff through the vacuum seal. I find my “in use” canister and open it so he can see the same tea outside of a vacuum sealed bag. He sniffs and pokes. I offer to brew him a cup. He begins taking photos from every angle of all the bags of tea, the open canister.
He scowls, “Why do you have so much tea?”
This, sir, is a very good question I am asking myself right now as well. How exactly do I explain the “To Life” incident to a man who speaks only a little English, when I speak nothing of his language except: “Hallo!”
So, I answer him as honestly as I can. “I don’t know! It just seems to stack up.” At this, he scowls again, but goes about his business.
When we are finished, everyone turns all smiles and pauses to consider. “Photo? Photo?” Are they asking us if we can take photos together? All customs and immigration officials have been nice so far, but we have never been asked by an official to let them take a picture with us.
“Sure!” We say. They take turns each having their photo taken with us in various combinations. Even then, we aren’t done yet.
“Selfie?” Now, they want selfies. We snuggle in together to get just the right angle. We take many selfies on their cameras, and then I got in on the action, too. Selfie with this camera, that camera, this other person, that other person. Showing Sonrisa. With the American Flag. Up close. Peace sign. Thumbs up. Looking tough. We all laugh and smile, now we are friends. They immediately post their pictures on their personal Facebook pages. “Americans just arrived in Indonesia!” Likes, hearts, “WOWs” pour in. Soon, we are getting friend requests from Indonesians we don’t know.
When I reflect on my experience with these particular customs officials, I realized this is the way I should be treating my own friends and neighbors. I am impressed by the Tual officials' wise acts. They had a job to do. They have to protect themselves, their nation, and their people from drug smugglers, and they were committed to serving this purpose well. In doing so, they remained kind, gentle and respectful to Andrew and I, and Sonrisa. They searched thoroughly, and when they found something that raised a concern for them, they still did not jump to the assumption that we are drug smugglers. They examined the question carefully. They dug into the question of whether my tea is tea or my tea is an illegal substance, but they used kind, open questions to suss this out. They did not draw a conclusion until they examined each of their concerns. They gave us the benefit of the doubt that even our suspicious amount of tea was not an evil, illegal act, but could be explained by good intentions. I.e. we really like tea.
I realize now (a full three weeks later) what an impact their actions had on me. They helped me to see that if my job is to "call out racism when I see it," I can do that, but first I must sort through my friends and neighbors' "boat" (i.e. mind/hearts) with my own mind open to other possible explanations. I should ask questions in an open manner to allow them to explain themselves, give them the opportunity to help me build my own opinions. If I do this well, I will build a warmer and closer relationship (one that will inspire the art of many selfies!) with my friends. But, this realization dawned on me only as of the writing of this blog post, not the day it actually happened. I had many more mountains to climb first.