MO­TOR­CY­CLE IS­LAND

Tracks - - Contents - STORY BY WILL BENDIX. ALL PHO­TOS BY GREG EWING.

An ancient ceil­ing fan creaks slowly over­head, chop­ping into the thick air with mo­not­o­nous fu­til­ity. Sweat is bead­ing down my face, carv­ing long rivers down the back of my drenched shirt, yet the man be­hind the counter looks im­pec­ca­ble. Dark hair neatly combed, a striped tie knot­ted el­e­gantly around his col­lar. His white long-sleeve shirt re­mains im­mac­u­late de­spite the hu­mid­ity that feels like you could wring it, wet and drip­ping, from the air. “Not pos­si­ble,” he says, un­blink­ing. “We’ll pay ex­tra,” we plead des­per­ately. “We’ll stand.” “Not pos­si­ble,” he replies blankly. “Maybe Sun­day.”

Sun­day. Three days from now. A swell is march­ing across the ocean to­wards a tiny speck of jun­gle that lies 12 hours away. We have al­ready tra­versed thou­sands upon thou­sands of kilo­me­tres, days melt­ing into de­par­ture lounges and taxis, bro­ken by fit­ful sleep on streets out­side air­ports. A boat ride is all that stands in our way, one fi­nal ob­sta­cle. But the is­land we are try­ing to reach is tightly con­trolled by the mil­i­tary. No other ves­sel be­sides the govern­ment-owned ferry is al­lowed to trans­port pas­sen­gers there.

The ferry used to run daily, we’re told, un­til it cap­sized a few years ago, swal­low­ing hun­dreds of pas­sen­gers. Now the sched­ule is er­ratic and no­body seems to know with cer­tainty when it will ar­rive. That morn­ing we’d joined a large crowd gath­ered out­side the har­bour gates, push­ing up against each other in the hope that there would be an open space on the ship that had ar­rived unan­nounced overnight, hop­ing that some­one with a ticket wouldn’t show up. An hour of shout­ing and con­fu­sion en­sued, sticky bod­ies pressed to­gether, be­fore we were all turned away. The boat was full. There wouldn’t be an­other for days. In des­per­a­tion we tried the ticket of­fice again.

“Please, we’ll do any­thing, we have to get on the boat,” we beg.

The clerk looks at us im­pa­tiently, ad­just his glasses and sighs. “Maybe Sun­day,” he says again, bob­bing his head from side to side with fi­nal­ity.

In­dia has over 1000 is­lands, small jewels tossed loosely across the ocean, con­nected to the main­land through in­vis­i­ble lines span­ning cen­turies of trade 046 and con­quest. These is­lands are not known for waves. Swells have to creep thou­sands of kilo­me­tres fur­ther to make land­fall here, a fi­nal death run as they push past the Mal­dives, be­yond Sri Lanka, across the im­per­cep­ti­ble line where the In­dian Ocean melts into the Ara­bian Sea.

We all knew it was a gam­ble, the vague hope of a swell that would travel far enough to co­in­cide with our jour­ney. But Tim Wil­liams, his prodigy son Se­bas­tian and Jor­dan Alexan­der had all signed on will­ingly. Now we were watch­ing help­lessly as that un­likely swell pre­pared to pass us by.

Out­side the har­bour a ca­coph­ony of hoot­ers fill the tan­gled streets. A cow saun­ters across an in­ter­sec­tion, swat­ting flies with its tail. The end­less roar of cars and mo­tor­bikes in­stinc­tively changes course and flows around the holy di­ver­sion. Crum­bling pave­ments and build­ings over­flow with peo­ple, who spill onto the road. A teenager pushes past us in the crowd. On his shirt is a psy­che­delic mar­i­juana leaf em­bla­zoned with the words “Wel­come To Hell.”

We need to think, to come up with a plan, so we fol­low the scent of the ocean through the maze of hills and streets to a beach where a crum­pled re­sort book­ends the sand. The wa­ter is grey and warm. Swim­mers frolic in­side a chain-link en­clo­sure that ex­tends like a gi­ant U into the list­less sea. There is a life­guard perched on a bro­ken sea­wall and we ask him what the en­clo­sure is for.

“This is for the croc­o­diles,” he says, as he

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