Afloat

This is the riverbed where I lost my shoe six months ago. Then it was dry on the weak surface, but a hungry, gelatinous mud-tar beneath that sucked my leg into it, an ambitious first bite. I should have noticed no human foot prints across the ditch just recently an estuary for the Comoro River. I should have noticed other Timorese people making a wide arc around this muddy finger between me and the rocky rise were the tide broke. Ciara sat there waiting for me, gazing out towards the ocean, the deep water between us and Atauro Island.

The first bite startled me, the adrenalin and fear of dying in mud distracted me from the fact that a crowd was gathering — a crowd of skinny shirtless kids, darkened by the sun, and a couple of young men in boot-cut jeans standing with one hand on their hips. My foot was stuck up to the knee. I tried to set backwards with the other foot, which plunged into slightly less wet mud, but once again to the knee. I scanned my brain for sixth grade wisdom or tenth grade emergency training, stop, drop and roll… no… Then it came to me, as if from after-school Scooby Doo episode. Do not move in quicksand. Do not struggle, or I will die like a villan. Some one can help me out of this.

I look up.

Now there are probably 4 fingers pointing at me, and at least half-a-dozen other kids and young men cackling at me. None have any kind of Baywatch look about them, not even a boyscout honor about them. I am a foreigner. I have made a stupid mistake. If there had been a life-saving buoy, it probably would have “Ha ha you stupid Malay” and it would not have been thrown to me, but rather held proudly for me to see as I was sucked deeper into the mud.

It was clear that the stopping altogether theory was only partly correct. Not thrashing about wildly like a soon-to-be extinct mastodon was a useful tip. But I was going to have to take action, and risk getting extremely muddy. I did not allow myself to imagine the worst-case scenario.

Careful pulling out the leg behind, and gripping the Brazilian flip-flop on that foot with all the strength my toes could muster, I was able to place that leg, from knee to foot, long ways on the drier surface of the mud. Would my increased surface area of one leg be able to save me? I slowly began to move my weight from the first extremely bogged foot to the half-leg. Then I truly began to feel the force of the estuary mud. It was not only heavy around my leg, but it seemed to be gripping it, fighting for its floundering prey. I gave it one powerful pull feeling the other white shoe sacrificed for my survival, and was finally able to place it horizontally to the other. I began to slowly crawl back to dry mud, like some tidal-zone pilgrim. I’m not sure this was the ending which the assembled crowd desired, but seeing a foreign woman drag herself hands and knees through the mud was clearly satisfactory.

I walked, in an arc, as everyone else had to begin, on dry mud up to the ridge where Ciara sat down the beach. I arrived, and did not need to tell my story. As I washed off the mud in the ocean, she asked almost rhetorically, “They didn’t help you?”

“Wow, that’s the kind of thing that can really ruin your relationship with a place.”

Now I stand here after three months away, at the end of a long dry season, over a parched field where the river will soon roar again. I am the only Malai on this beach. Atauro Island is invisible in the haze. There is a family down the beach from me in one direction, and a large group playing in the other. No roving young men, no derisive little boys. I throw my sandals down and run into the cool water. It’s not an adversial relationship I have with this place. I have not won. I’ve just kept afloat.

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