eef! Whoa! Stop!"
The boat came to an abrupt halt as the captain reversed the engines and backed off the reef, just a few meters away.
"That was a close call," said David Blackmore, my 61-year-old British travel companion and part-time Central Oregon resident. "It could have been disastrous. Boats capsize on a regular basis in Indonesia, and lots of people die. This boat journey is my absolute worst nightmare."
We were packed onto a small fishing boat, making our way to Indonesia's Togian Islands, 50 miles from Central Sulawesi Island. We had passed up the option to take an overnight passenger ferry, because a member of our international eclipse-chasing crew had arranged for three speed boats to take 45 of us to Malenge—one of the smaller, inhabited islands in the Togian chain. Alas, the three speed boats turned out to be two slow fishing boats, stretching an anticipated three-hour crossing to more than seven. David and I had climbed aboard the smaller vessel with a dozen fellow travelers, along with a crew of four Indonesian sailors. Another 30+ umbraphiles (the name given to eclipse chasers) crowded onto the larger boat. Neither vessel had a radio, GPS, life jackets or a crew member who had been to Malenge. But we were all determined to watch the total solar eclipse on March 9, 2015, from an island almost directly on the line of totality.
By the time we "found" the reef, long after sunset, we hadn't seen the other boat for at least two hours. Crew members were searching the water with flashlights for the narrow passage, but it was proving elusive. The captain motored back and forth slowly for more than an hour before finding the opening, slipping through and making our way to Sera Beach Resort.
The tide was too low for the boat's deep keel, so we hopped into the surf and waded ashore, backpacks hoisted overhead. A dozen more eclipse chasers welcomed us from the beach.
An hour later, the bigger boat arrived, and the rest of our motley crew waded ashore. They seemed surprisingly unperturbed that their captain had taken them to a different island, where his brother ran a resort, insisting they'd have to stay there or find their own way to Malenge. A mini-mutiny ensued and the captain relented.
Too tired to function after five days of travel by air, land and sea, I collapsed onto a mattress under a mosquito net in a clapboard shack with squat toilets.
I awoke the next morning to sunshine and tropical bird calls. Shimmering blue water stretched across the horizon, and palm trees swayed in the breeze above a white, sandy beach. David and I waded out to a hand-made outrigger with an outboard motor and caught a half-hour ride around the island to Lestari Resort, where we had reservations for the week.
I settled into a sparse wooden cabin with a mosquito-netted bed. The indoor bathroom sported a shower head that spit out frigid water in the morning and scorching, sun-heated water in the afternoon. A 5-gallon bucket sat next to a Western-style commode, beneath a sign reminding guests to flush the toilet with seawater collected in the bucket.
As the afternoon call for prayer rang out over the village's loudspeaker, I heard footsteps on the deck.
"Want to go for a snorkel?" David asked.
"Great idea! Just let me grab my gear."
As I reached for my mask, something moved. I jerked my hand back and a skinny green snake lifted its head, poised to strike. It seemed just as startled as I was.D
avid and I whiled away the day in the water, trying to stay cool in the sweltering tropical heat, and speculating about the safety situation for the next day's boat journey to an even more remote destination. Veteran eclipse chasers Simon Macara (British) and Greg "Brownie" Brown (Australian) had "discovered" an uninhabited island on the far eastern edge of the Togian Islands two years earlier. After several hours of searching, they located the soccer-field-sized "Pleasure Island," where we could enjoy approximately two minutes and 30 seconds of eclipse totality.
I awoke the next morning excited and itching to go. Unfortunately, the middle finger of my left hand was also itching. In addition, it was pink and puffy, and it felt tight when I made a fist.
"You probably shouldn't do that," David warned, "If it's some kind of infection, flexing your hand like that might cause it to spread."
I assumed it was an insect bite, though I couldn't find any evidence of one.
We packed our bags for a night of beach camping and took an outrigger back to Sera Beach Resort.
Macara had arranged for three boats to take us to Pleasure Island, but two never showed up, and the third arrived without diesel fuel before motoring away. Fortunately, a nearby fisherman stepped up, offering to take us all in his 50-foot trawler. Around 3 pm, five dozen folks from 15 countries climbed aboard with backpacks, bottled water and styrofoam coolers of ice and Bintang beer.D
angerously overloaded, the boat took more than five hours to reach the island, once again after dark. We repeated the near crash into the reef and the long search for a safe passage with borrowed flashlights. Once we arrived, a hand-made motorized outrigger served as a dinghy, ferrying five people at a time to shore. David and I slept beneath a mosquito net he strung from a tree, woken repeatedly by a crab who ripped a hole in the net, scrambled across our feet, and tore open a bag of dried peas.
"Oh my god. I can't believe how perfect the weather is," I said upon waking.
"Oh my god! What happened to your hand?" said David.
My entire left hand was bright red and shiny, with purple tentacles spreading across the back of my hand and fat blisters spreading across my knuckles. I wondered if it might be a spider bite, and showed it to Brownie, an expert in snakes and other creepy creatures. "I don't see anything that looks like a spider bite," he said.
Someone strolling by suggested it looked like a jellyfish sting, but I felt confident that I would have noticed being stung by a jellyfish. He offered me a Benadryl and a bit of advice: "Pee on your hand." I took him up on both. Neither seemed to offer much relief.
The moon and sun made first contact around 7:30 am. We gathered on the beach, staring at the slowly diminishing sun through cardboard eclipse glasses, custom-made viewing spectacles, and #14 welding glass. For nearly an hour, the moon devoured its own light source, bit by bit, until the sun disappeared altogether with a final, brilliant flash of light.D
avid and I placed our welding glasses on the sand, rose to our feet, and stared directly at the sun, awestruck and silent, for 150 seconds. I'm pretty sure that's what everyone else was doing as well, but to be honest, I wasn't paying attention to them. I couldn't tear myself away from the black hole in the sky, brimming with a glowing white circle of light.
Another bright flash signaled the end of totality, and we began to bask in the afterglow. We high-fived. We hugged. We frolicked in the gentle surf. We packed up our belongings.
I found a beer cooler and dunked my throbbing hand into the melted ice water.
The sun rose higher in the sky, and people started ferrying their belongings back to the fishing boat via the outrigger. As noon approached and the heat became unbearable, the final half-dozen of us swam across the reef to reach the fishing boat.
Thanks to the cooperation of the ocean currents, the return trip to Malenge took only four hours. By the time we arrived back at Lestari resort, my left hand was swollen to twice its normal size, and a purplish-brown line had started snaking its way down my forearm.
One of the newly-arrived guests was a nurse named Peter who had experience working in Aboriginal communities in the Australian outback. "You've got a nasty blood infection," he announced, matter-of-factly. "If you walked into my clinic like this, we'd start you on IV antibiotics immediately. You don't happen to have any drugs on you, do you?"H
e was pleased to learn that I had 12 Cipro tablets and suggested I start taking four a day. "It will likely get worse over the next 24 hours, but then it should stop progressing, If it doesn't, we'll figure out what to do next. But in the meantime, if you come across any other antibiotics, take them. There's no hospital on the island, and the next ferry to the mainland doesn't leave for another four days, so we need to get on top of this, fast."
By the next morning, the entire back of my hand was covered in blisters and the angry purple line had slithered down to my elbow. Peter didn't seem overly alarmed, but David was worried sick, convinced I would die of sepsis.
For the next few days, I basically laid in my hammock, reading a ridiculously thick book and napping. When a new crew of guests arrived, one of the women offered me a dozen Amoxicillin pills.
One afternoon, David and I stumbled across a medical clinic. They had a vial of Tetracycline on hand, so I asked the nurse on duty to give me an injection. Fifteen minutes later, I felt light-headed while walking back to Lestari. We found a shady spot, and I laid on my back in the road while David fretted.
"We've got to get you to a hospital!" he said.
"I'll be fine in a few minutes," I insisted. "I'm just a fainter. I promise."
By the time we boarded the eight-hour ferry to Sulawesi Island, the skin on the back of my hand was peeling off in sheets, and red splotches had started appearing on my left thigh. David insisted we visit the hospital in Ampana, our first touchpoint on the Sulawesi mainland.
Several motorcycle taxi drivers offered to take us to the hospital. David refused, having sworn off motorcycles decades before as too dangerous. The only other option was a donkey cart, so we wedged ourselves into a tiny, two-wheeled carriage and clip-clopped our way to the hospital.
A dashing young man behind the desk said, "Halo?"
I pointed to my mangled hand and asked, "Antibiotika?"
He took one look and furrowed his brow. He returned with Dr. Shirley, a soft-spoken medical professional in her mid-30s who spoke English. She took my hand in hers, turned it over and over again. She traced the visible vein—beginning to turn brown—to my elbow, and looked at the splotches on my thigh, which had increased in size and number and turned a putrid shade of purple.
"Have you seen this before?" asked David. "Do you know how to treat it?"
"Yes," she replied, with a smile. "I have seen this before, mostly in children, and we can fix it. I will write a prescription for an anti-inflammatory and 10 days of antibiotics."J
ust as she put pen to prescription pad, a pick-up truck squealed into the parking lot, honking the horn. Dr. Shirley and the rest of the hospital staff rushed out to find a middle-aged woman stretched out in the bed of the truck. The medical team transferred her to a gurney, checked for a pulse, then placed an oxygen bag mask over her face. Dr. Shirley started CPR, stopping after a few minutes to place her stethoscope over the woman's heart. She shook her head and commenced compressions again, repeating the cycle a few more times before allowing the dashing guy from the front desk to take over.
The call to prayer rang out from a loudspeaker, and I felt the tears welling up as Dr. Shirley and her team threw in the towel, after a long battle.
"What happened?" I managed to choke out, between sobs.
"She was in the market, alone, shopping. She probably had a heart attack," explained Dr. Shirley.
"You have a very difficult job," I said.
She straightened up in her chair and looked me directly in the eye. "Yes, I do. But I love my work."
"How much is my bill?" I asked. "How do I pay you?"
"There is no fee," she said. "This is a free service for anyone."T
he drugs Dr. Shirley prescribed did the trick, and David and I continued traveling around Sulawesi Island for another two weeks while the remaining flesh on my left hand sloughed off.
We spent the final day of our trip in a police station, after my cash and iPhone were stolen from my backpack during an overnight bus ride.
Was two minutes and 30 seconds of totality worth several days of travel, two near-collisions with a coral reef, a life-threatening blood infection, and a burglary?
In fact, I'd do it all over again.
After all, sometimes a good story is better than a good time.