Give Em an Inch, They Take a Foot

I had been kidnapped, I thought, as the old truck bounced along the deserted road. My captors, or my newfound friends (depending on how you looked at it), gave furtive smiles at each other, communicating in some kind of Dutch-Creole, of which I understood nothing. It wasn’t the foreign language that made me uneasy, it was the bursts of laughter in between their bantering gibberish combined with their sidelong glances down at my lower legs. The joke, it seemed, was at my expense. How do I get myself into these things?

Thirty minutes before I had been sitting in the Mona Lisa bar on the main promenade of a tiny Dutch island called Bonaire, situated about fifty miles off the coast of Venezuela. It is a desolate jewel of a sleepy South Caribbean seaport ringed with coral reef in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by electric blue waters. I had stepped out that afternoon after about a week of non-stop scuba diving in order to sample some of the local culture, which, because I am only interested in a certain, very specific type of culture, namely the kind that gets me drunk, consisted of Amstel beer and a harsh Venezuelan rum called Cacique (pronounced ka-CEE-kay). The only other people sitting around me were Dutch natives, as was the barkeep, a thin, ruddy-faced chainsmoker named Hans who probably had to flee the Netherlands after his underground slave chamber was discovered in his otherwise unassuming cottage outside of Rotterdam. I don’t know for sure. Something about Hans suggested he had plenty of secrets. That’s okay. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “We are all killers on land and on sea, man and shark alike.”

And anyway I appreciated the fresh air. I had been underwater for twenty hours, and, contrary to what most people might think, it is very boring underwater. Not much happens. The sea creatures have developed complex camouflaging techniques because, like most humans, they don’t particularly care for humans. On top of that a marine predator can eat a foolish diver in under forty-five seconds, which means you really have to be paying attention to see some carnage. By the time the blood clears, and you are wondering what happened to your dive buddy as a tooth-marked snorkel and a half-eaten mask float by, the engorged Makos and White Tips will be miles away. Being a hundred feet underwater is a lot like war. Long stretches of nothing punctuated by moments of sheer, fascinating terror.

At the Mona Lisa bar the Dutch folks warmed up to me, dumb American, and told me they were on their way to the greatest bar ever, the bar at the edge of the world, they called it. They suggested I tag along. I said, “Sure.”

But then things got weird. The driver was careening like a torpedo down a street about as wide as a sidewalk and there was nothing to see except for a gaggle of pink flamingoes and a range of fifty-foot piles of salt next to an old processing pier. As we hooked around to the windward side of the island, I noticed some rather primitive rock piles at the edge of the shore, man-made, and beyond that a vast and unforgiving blue sea, and not a person or building in sight. Certainly no saloon. Then it dawned on me. This part of the world was the same murderous stomping ground of Joran Van Der Sloot for many years, and although he was rotting in some South American prison, it didn’t mean there weren’t others from his crew carrying on his tradition of killing tourists. Like Natalee Holloway I believed in the inherent decency of people, and this could’ve been both our undoing. As we cruised along my fellow passengers had been telling me, in broken English, about the legend of Captain Don Stewart, a feisty swashbuckler who had come to the island of Bonaire and had risen to prominence as a reef expert and diamond-eyed Lothario. He was highly revered, Captain Don was, even after losing his foot after it had become pinned under an old wooden boat wreck. They had amputated his dead foot and buried it in the Kralendijk Cemetery with all the pomp and circumstance of a National Hero. Old Don himself went to his glory a few years later, and my new Dutch friends insisted, while eyeing my own two feet, that his ghost still haunted these coral landscapes in search of his missing foot. Beware of praising famous men, I cautioned, as my right foot started to tingle. It would be entirely customary for these ruddy Europeans to drag me out of the truck, weak as I was from a bellyful of Cacique, to a stone altar where these wild acolytes would cut my foot off in deference to Captain Don, their messiah, and then toss my body into the boundless blue ocean for the moray eels and whatever else. Resistance was out of the question. I awaited my fate.
Out of nowhere a little oasis materialized. Our driver parked the truck and we went walking (I suddenly appreciated my feet more than I had in a while) into a little row of cabanas shrouded by palm trees. At the end of the path we stepped through a tiny garden and emerged at a wooden bar called Sorobon at the edge of an immaculate, baby blue beach shelf that ran five hundred feet out to the darker cobalt of the first reef drop.
The bartender was Edwin, a gray-haired and bronzed sage who spent most of his time staring out at the horizon, cracking a knowing smile.
“This is always this,” he said, motioning toward the sun and the sky and the sea. “It never grows up.”
I knew what he meant. Most of us who are cramped on the continent feel the years passing because of all the change. Days, weeks, months, lines in the face. Hot, hotter, cold, colder, rain, snow, clouds, bad news, traffic, other people’s business, the same succession of holidays, tragedies both minor and major, the struggle for whatever it is we are fighting for—no grand epic battles but trivial, almost meaningless ones. Existential malaise piled up high, the failure of the system to deliver what it has promised, and all of that everything so far away and here is Edwin, surrounded by his old wooden bar, with the sun overhead and 80 degrees Fahrenheit year-round and the simple understanding that this was it, and it was no secret. If you couldn’t figure it out you didn’t belong there and if you did there wasn’t any reason to explain it. I told Edwin and my Dutch friends I’d be back. They shrugged. If they saw me when I returned they’d know that I had. And that was it.
More Alembics to come.

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Deep State

I’ve been underwater for the better part of a month. At first I submerged, on a lark, in a Florida river for what was supposed to be an hour-long dive. I went under to get away from the constant surveillance, the ceaseless wiretaps, the enormous broad net that catches all my secrets, ensnares all my communication, traps all my intentions. Whether it is Russia, Iran, or our own highly technical American spy tactics, apparently everyone is listening all the time to everyone else in order to uncover the true malice in the hearts of men. They are fleshing out the guilty, identifying the dangerous, cornering the evil. They are seeking out and destroying that subversive citizenry who plot and scheme, and rebel against freedom, and plan the collapse of the entire sovereign way of life. And if they don’t find them, it just means they aren’t looking hard enough. Even the president is a victim.

I wanted no part of it. 

I was tired of being anonymously preyed upon by satellites, hackers, nosy neighbors, encryption experts and that Julian Assange fellow, living in some musty closet in an embassy mansion in London and yet somehow controlling every country’s sensitive secrets right there in plain sight. The whole setup seemed like something out of a Monty Python sketch.

“Come out of there at once!” yells John Cleese, dressed as an English bobby.

“No!” screams Eric Idle, dressed as Julian Assange.

“Damn. What do we do now?” mutters John Cleese.

“We wait,” says Michael Palin, also dressed as an English bobby. 

“Quite right,” says Cleese. “Um, for how long?”

“He’ll get bored and surrender. Give it about five years or so. Maybe ten.”

“That sounds like a bloody long time.”

“It is.”

“Can’t we just go get him? I mean he is standing right there!”

“Actually,” says Palin, “it’s the Ecuadorian embassy. Right there is technically Ecuador. And we can’t just go to Ecuador because if my wife finds out I went to Ecuador without her she might bloody well divorce me! I mean she has been bugging me for a vacation for months, and then to find out I just went to Ecuador without her, and didn’t even bring her back a bloody seashell would be grounds for a ruddy divorce.”

“Well then,” says Cleese, “blast it all. Call your wife down here and we can bring her along on the raid.”

“No can do,” says Palin. “She hates the tropics.”

*

So I went underwater. I started out in the shallows. Here is a picture:

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I’m the cluster of bubbles on the right. Life becomes very simplistic underwater. You feel like you are trapped in Darth Vader’s helmet. The only sound you hear is your own breathing. You move in slow motion weightlessness, like a dream. The fish and other denizen of the deep treat you like the geek at a party of cool kids. Even so, there is a certain freedom to the practice. This is the life for me, I thought. I waved off the rest of my scuba team, found a decent looking school of fish and followed along. Thirty feet. Fifty feet. A hundred feet. Two hundred feet. I kept checking my dive computer, waiting for the alarm that warns I am running out of air. Mysteriously, my cylinder remained at 2,000 psi. What the hell, I figured, I might as well keep going. The pressure above me was fantastic. I felt myself getting light-headed. A little gas narcosis is a fun and easy way to get high. Best of all, the land side news could not reach me. For weeks on end I remained in blissful animation, coasting along like a dolphin. I ate fish, I guess, and drank water, I guess. When I was tired I huddled at the ocean floor like a sea cow. There is no argument underwater. No bombast. No bragging. No emotionally potent outrage. No mendacity. Inhale. Exhale. Eat or get eaten. The bubbles escaped from my regulator. I imagined intelligence operatives somewhere above at the surface of the water, trying to capture these tiny air pockets, looking for subversive molecules. Freedom through scrutiny is a funny concept. The idea is that when everyone knows what everyone else is doing we will all be more free. Which is a complete fuck-around. We don’t really need to know what everybody thinks and does. Most people are as boring as a stale doughnut, and about as predictable as the shape of that doughnut. The fish around me, going out of their way to ignore me, were all too aware of this fact. I was a big, dopey tag-along. I created too many bubbles. Which, in the end, is probably the only real legacy. Fugacious pockets of nothing. Better examine them, just in case.

More Alembics to come.