Editor’s Note: Everett Redus, 21, of Baytown, Texas, now one of four surviving brothers, has been traveling south to Patagonia, carrying and spreading the ashes of his slain older brother Cameron, a senior honors student at the University of the Incarnate Word who was fatally shot by a campus policeman outside his off-campus apartment on Dec. 6, 2013.
The Rivard Report has invited Everett to publish periodic dispatches as he makes his way south and awaits word on a wrongful death lawsuit filed by his family against UIW and the police officer. Read more about Cameron’s life, death, and the aftermath here. Donate to Everett’s trip via his GoFundMe campaign here.
I woke to the pounding surf a few hours after dawn. The early morning sun had already made it uncomfortable in my small tent. I stumbled over palm fronds and coconut husks in the small band of trees that separated my camp from the beach and walked down to wash my face in the salty water. The first chore each morning was to go out and gather food.
A typical morning’s haul consisted of two good coconuts, a few bananas, a handful of limes, a mango, and a grapefruit. On lucky days there were papaya, starfruit, and melon. In such a simple existence, one’s only responsibility is to stay satisfied. And for me there was no greater joy than that of the wet kiss of a coconut. It is what roused me from slumber each morning, called me back to camp in the heat of the afternoon, and tied the day together beside the fire at night.
It had been a week since I came down the mountain into Anaho Bay, and the pain in my feet was getting worse. I was sure by now that they were infected. But any pain, any sadness could always be expelled by the sheer, simple joy of picking fruit from the trees and placing them in my small, canvas sail bag.
It would have been easy to continue in Anaho, eating fruit and collecting shells, but I needed to start back towards the south of the island. About one month had passed since I abandoned ship, and let the Alabama sail on without me. Upon deciding to stay on the island of Nuku Hiva I was given a 90-day visa for the whole of French Polynesia. I was nearing the end of the first month and needed to find a way towards Tahiti, from where my plane would leave.
But I had grown accustomed to life on the island. I managed to make friends. We may not have shared a common language, but we were friends all the same. It was there that I learned how easily things come to you if you just allow it to happen. At first I kept track of how many free meals I received in a row, but stopped when it became a task to remember. I was invited into homes and shown kindness at every corner.
Anaho Bay offers only two means of exit – by boat, or by foot trail up and over the mountain to the nearest road in Hati-Heu. The trail leads through thick jungle and is kept extremely slippery by the daily rainstorms, and as I persevered the pain was growing worse with each step.
While waiting by the side of the road for a ride to Taipivai I saw a familiar face. The broad band of tattoos wrapping around his jaw and chin was unmistakable. I had met Nui on a previous trip up to the north of the island and we had drunk coffee together in his house. He knew a handful of English words, which was more than my French, and he was very friendly. We exchanged pleasantries, and I told him I was trying to hitch to Taio-Hae by nightfall. He assured me that I had time for a coffee first and I agreed. I was passed the reins to one of the horses he was leading and we entered the jungle trail, crossed the river, and then climbed the hill to his house.
When we had first met, I helped Nui trap five chickens. The island is covered with beautiful, healthy chickens that run free. If you can catch them, you can eat them. The same applies to the goats and wild boars. On some islands there are still wild horses.
Bowl after bowl of coffee was served, in the local style, always accompanied by buttered baguettes. We managed to hold a somewhat intelligible conversation for hours, and before I knew it the sun had set and there would be no more cars leaving town. But that was no matter, because Nui invited me to sleep there.
In the morning, it was arranged for me to help Nui’s cousin, Valentine, to do copra in the jungle. Copra is the process of gathering, shelling, and drying out coconuts to have them sent off and pressed into milk. Copra farming is subsidized by the French government, and seems to be the main source of income for a large portion of the islands’ population.
The entire right side of Valentine’s face was covered in ancient Marquesian symbols. I was used to the sight by now. It was common to see at least a few people throughout the day with full-face tattoos, most of them with the rest of their bodies covered as well.
I was having trouble keeping up with Valentine on his horse. Then as I was crawling over a log that had fallen over the trail I slightly nicked my ankle. Before it had only appeared to be a swollen bug bite, but it opened and started oozing strange colored liquids. I felt my entire leg ignite with pain. Valentine inspected it and said it would be better if I turned back. I didn’t protest.
His form slowly blended into the pattern of trees as he plodded off into the distance. A few seconds later, the report of horse hooves became indiscernible from the jungle melody. I followed our tracks back down the trail, trying my hardest to never apply my full weight to the ground. It never works. Once out of the trees and back at Nui’s house, I thoroughly cleaned and bandaged my feet. I could feel a sickness coming on and tried to find a comfortable place to rest. By midnight I was nearly delirious. In the open-air room, nestled between the cold concrete floor and a furry horse blanket, I writhed and moaned all night.
In the morning I hitchhiked to Taipivai, then on to Taiohae. It was time that I saw a doctor. After making two trips, having forgotten my identification the first time, I was hobbling away with a prescription for antibiotics and certified infections in five different points on both feet and ankles. The pain was worse than before, and I had just been told by the doctor to walk to the pharmacy, located two to three miles away on a winding mountain road above town.
Normally I would have just hitched a ride, but as luck has it a cruise ship had pulled into the bay that morning, and I was just one more white person in a crowd of flashing cameras and visors that read “I Love Tahiti.” Nobody was going to stop. I became intensely angry; angry at the tourists, angry at the cars, angry at the heat, the rain, the infection-carrying nono flies. I was at the point of tears in my anger and pain. I wanted lightning, or an earthquake – anything that would cause other people pain.
Strange that while healing our wounds caused by injustice, we unjustly wish that same pain upon others, thus perpetuating the cycle. In times like these I began to wonder what I was doing stuck on a French-speaking island in the middle of the Pacific when I was supposed to be in South America. The second anniversary of Cameron’s death had just passed and I was geographically further away from my destination than when I started this ramble nine months before. But soon enough I realized that staying angry was just energy misspent. Our most ruthless oppressors are ourselves. There was nothing to blame besides my own questionable decision-making. After all, it was in Cameron’s spirit that I had accepted this adventure to begin with.
I had much time to ponder these thoughts over the next week, as I was largely immobile. I had been living down on the dinghy dock, where all the sailors came in from the anchorage. There was a small kitchen with covered, outdoor seating. The owner, Henri, was a kind man and had offered me a room connected to the back of the kitchen free of charge. The room was mainly used for storage. Wild chickens came in and out at their leisure during the day, and a sizeable population of cockroaches reigned there at night. But aside from all this it was heaven. I had a thin rectangle of foam that I utilized as a mattress, and a floral print sarong for blanket that was only just too small to cover my whole body. I was kept dry from the rain and it was the closest thing to a real bed I had slept in since leaving Guatemala.
It is the nature of the mind to wander away from the present, especially in times of incapacity. I sat and watched the pulsing water of the bay, remembering back to my first days on the island, swimming free with manta rays right off the side of the boat. But at the present I was slowly becoming a wharf rat, eavesdropping on the other sailors’ conversations, collecting gossip on who just came in and where they were going, trying to make valuable friends whenever I could. I sat and carved designs into sea urchin spines until my fingers went numb, waiting to hear that someone would be going where I needed to go.
I had to be in Tahiti in a month and a half, but the cyclone season had already started. Every couple of days a new boat would come in from Tahiti to stay for the season. Nuku Hiva was the safe zone, and nobody would be going the other direction. Plus, it was an El Niño year, meaning rougher seas and less predictable weather.
In a few weeks there would be a festival on Hiva Oa, an island to the south. Boats would be arriving from all over the area. I knew my only chance of finding my way to Tahiti would be on Hiva Oa.
After a week of immobility my feet were nearly healed, and I had information on every boat that would be headed down to the festival. I had narrowed down my options and finally decided on the boat that I would attempt to join. But before I could work up the courage to ask the question, the captain offered me a ride of his own.
His name was Ryan, and he had the sun-bleached hair of a lifetime surfer. His boat, Soul Rebel, a 50 ft. ketch, was one of the most beautiful sailboats I had ever seen. Ryan wasn’t exactly going to Hiva Oa, but to Tahuata, an island just to the south, but that was close enough for me.
I had a friend, Armmand, who also would be joining us. Armmand also needed to get to Tahiti, and as he was a native French speaker with a skipper license, he became a valuable asset to me, as well as a good friend.
The festival was still more than a week away. Ryan suggested we sail up the coast of Nuku Hiva and visit Daniel’s Bay. Only two families inhabit the valley, and apparently it is home to one of the highest waterfalls on earth. It was once the most heavily populated area of the island in ancient times, meaning that ruins are everywhere. We took the trail to the waterfall slowly, stopping to collect papaya, lime, coconut, and other mysterious fruit that we were trying for the first time. I climbed amongst the pai-pai, inspected the Tiki statues, dutifully searching for artifacts.
The valley narrowed into a canyon and the walls seemed continually to rise. We began to swim when we could walk no further, under boulders and around corners until we reached the base of the falls. I was chilled to the bone. The narrowness of the canyon afforded the water only one to two hours of sunlight per day, and so much of the water turns to vapor before reaching the bottom that the air seemed only an extension of the river. The thunderous roar and intensity of the wind were nearly overpowering. It is a place that stimulates all of the senses. We sat without speaking, soaking in the cold energy of seclusion.
We sailed south though the night. Over the next week we explored the west coast of Tahuata. We befriended the inmates of another boat, Silent Sun, and pulled up anchor together every couple of days to move to different bay. We chased down pods of dolphins in the dinghy, went out on paddle boards, snorkeled along the rocks, or sat and fished with hand-lines off the side.
We had been enjoying ourselves so much that we nearly forgot about our predicament. Tahiti was still 800 miles away and we had no idea how or when we would get there. Ryan needed to return to Nuku Hiva and would not be going to the festival, but as it was only a few hours out of his way he offered to drop us off.
After one last short sail on Soul Rebel, and a final goodbye, we arrived at Hiva Oa, in the bay of Atuona. Our first priority was to find accommodation. Nico, Armmand and I hiked into the woods outside town. In a clearing in the trees we erected a shelter of logs and covered it with palm fronds.
Our anticipation of finding passage to Tahiti was higher than our hopes that night as we shared coffee around the fire. The distant boom of tribal drums and the shrill cry of women dancers came intermittently through the patter of rain on the frond roof of our shelter, all seemingly working together to bring an ominous tension to my gut. The orange glow of the dying embers refracted through falling raindrops and painted mutating pictures on the wooden ribs that formed the ceiling of our hut, drawing me into a trance, then into sleep.
I burned wet wood to make my coffee at sunrise. The sun’s horizontal rays pierced the thick, billowing smoke, and the light seemed like a tangible object, more present than usual. It filled our small clearing and expelled the chill of the night before. I had risen in high spirits, feeling optimistic that we would find a boat.
Having heard rumor of the only boat, a French catamaran running to Tahiti at this time, Armmand and I went down to the dock. We boarded a dinghy and were taken out to the catamaran where the captain sat smoking a cigarette. He stood to welcome us aboard and I immediately noticed his bandaged leg and the limp in his step. Benji, the captain, was inflicted with the same infections that I had just recently recovered from, and was not fully capable of performing all the duties required on a weeklong sail. Fate had smiled upon us. Armmand’s skipper license came in just where it was needed.
I was welcome to come as well, as long as I slept in the galley since there were no more bunks, and took an equal share in all watches and duties. I was immediately ready to accept, but then Benji said we would be leaving first thing in the morning, and would not be staying for the three-day festival.
That final piece of information crushed me. The Marquesian festival takes place only once every four years. Each inhabited island sends its most accomplished singers, dancers, and wood and bone carvers to participate in competitions of strength and skill. During the month I spent on Nuku Hiva I had watched nearly every night as the dancers rehearsed; the men with their war clubs and boar tooth necklaces, the women swaying sensually and in unison to the beat of the goatskin drums.
I’ve been a percussionist my whole life but have never seen anyone play with as much power or passion as the Marquesian drummers. Each song was ingrained into my mind. The rhythm resonated through my whole body until I felt the beat in my very bones themselves. These drums are the heartbeat of the islands, the pulse of that ancient warrior people.
The opening ceremony was that afternoon. Armmand and I hitched into town, and to the field where it would be held. I watched distractedly as each island’s dance group paraded into the arena. Dress was minimal. Some groups wore feathers, others grass reeds, others banana leaves, and all covered in mystic tattoos. As darkness fell so did the rain. The crowd was soon reduced by half. Rain came with more intensity and the dancers moved more vigorously. One by one the spectators ran for cover until it was enough for me, too. I watched solemnly from the shelter of a tree on the edge of a field. Men’s voices boomed as they laughed and spun fire mockingly toward the sky. It was the best performance I’d ever seen. The dancers didn’t care that they had no crowd. They danced for themselves, and there is victory in that.
Their voices still rung in my ears as we hitched back to the dock. Armmand knew from the beginning that he would be taking the boat, but I was still undecided. The thought of missing the rest of the festival made me sick, but I knew that sailing with the catamaran might be my only chance of reaching Tahiti.
The prevailing winds for that season were all wrong for sailing SW, but they had swung around to the North, making it possible, and no one knew how long the window would last.
We stood on the edge of the bay in the pouring rain, Armmand and another crew member looking at me for an answer. “Give me five minutes” I said, and started to run. I ran through the mud in the dark, rain stinging my eyes. I didn’t stop until I reached the shelter. I rested for a few seconds and grabbed my bag. Nico was there and he bade me a sincere farewell. I ran all the way back to the bay, and nobody said a word to me when I arrived. Armmand just gave me a smile. We rode out to the boat and climbed aboard.
Among our greatest hindrances to moving forward and finding true enjoyment is the incessant questioning of whether or not we have made the right decision. The futility of this becomes apparent once we realize that no amount of analyzing can make a decision any more right or wrong. Dwelling on the past is a uniquely human emotion, and perhaps something that should be let go of.
Our only hope of positive development lies in living in the moment, working with what is before us, and letting that which cannot be changed simply fade away.
Top image: Some of the female dancers during rehearsal. Photo by Everett Redus.