I fingered the slim strip of paper with the indecipherable Kenji characters for the umpteenth time. I was about to step into the foreign world of Okinawa armed with nothing but these instructions for a taxi driver to get me to the Yakina village boat docks.
I pushed open the double doors with my B-bag and stepped into the hot August sun and saw long line of yellow taxi cabs. The first cab scooted curbside to a tire squealing stop directly in front of me. The driver bounded out, grabbed my bags, threw them into the trunk and took the paper strip from my outstretched hand. I watched as he fingered the wrinkled sweat stained two inch paper strip. I wondered, “Is the Coast Guard the only service too cheap to provide instructions on a full sheet of paper?”
We drove past business strips with unattractive two to four story block buildings, whitewashed to a eye squinting white. Some had recessed balconies, New Orleans style, with wrought iron fences. Storefronts displayed garish circus-like banners of bright red, yellow and green Kenji characters advertising their wares.
Street lamp poles sprouted from the narrow sidewalks, far enough away from the curb to be pedestrian hazards. Their lights hung in an arc over the streets. Sagging wires stretched across the intersections with horizontally hung traffic lights, green to red, left to right. Odd mini trucks and bantam cars filled the streets, leapfrogging each other with every change of the light as if they were in a frenzied race to get out of town.
My mind was clogged with survival thoughts: How will I ever understand these people? Will anyone from the station be at the boat basin in Yakina? If I miss a scheduled departure, will I have to stay overnight? Where? What kind of shape is the station in? What is Ike village like? The people? God, I miss Carol already! How am I going to make it for a year?
Just then, we capped a rise that revealed a panoramic view of the east coast of Okinawa, exposing a chain of islands on the horizon, a few miles across the small bay, the northernmost being Ikeshima, my ultimate destination.
A thin line of white clouds joined the low islands to separate the blues of sky and bay. It was a scene like a travel brochure that promised an island paradise. A few red roofs and white houses peeked through the green tree clusters as the road curled downhill toward the fishing village of Yakina. The paradise image was soon destroyed by the unwelcome smell of fishing docks. The soaring temperature and stagnant air did not help. High concrete walls squeezed the road. Cement-block houses, with no pretense of architectural design, ugly stains bleeding through their bad whitewash, clustered in protected enclaves.
The docks were busy. Fishing boats, twenty to thirty feet long, were moored the length of the pier. They had low freeboard and open decks. Some had small cockpits on the afterdeck for the engine housing and an open wheel house.
Workers arranged their gear in the shallow well-decks while women, squatting on the pier, knees fully bent, feet flat, repaired damaged nets. They could work in this position with broad brimmed straw hats providing their only shade, for hours on end. One boat was unloading her foul cargo into a miniature truck for transport to market.
The island hopping taxi boat was filling up with passengers and cargo. Men and women in casual kimonos or shorts hauled their shopping trip bounty onto the boat. Children, typically in student uniforms of black pants, white or black shirts, and beanie ball caps, covered the landscape like Maine black flies. Everyone wore rubber flip-flop sandals. Passengers found space among wooden boxes and unattended cargo of chickens and goats in open crates. I found a bench seat near the stern. I was the only non-Asian, wearing a service dress khaki uniform to boot, and I did not turn a single curious head.
The taxi-boat had wooden poles crudely mounted vertically on the sides with a sagging canvas awning stretched between them like a canopy on a four-poster bed. Passengers pushed, shoved, even stepped on each other, as they found space. The Japanese politeness I expected had, apparently, been suspended. Animated motions and raucous high pitched Japanese voices filled the air as everyone squeezed into seats on the deck and cargo boxes. Some even perched atop the rail hanging onto the awning poles to keep from falling overboard.
The taxi-boat captain controlled our departure time based on his estimate of the state of the tide. Neither a clock nor shouted pleas moved him. Shallow reefs and sand bars between the islands lay in wait to punish those who ignored nature’s time. Our captain misjudged it.
We weren’t ten minutes into the trip when a loud scraping sound of the bottom crunching in the sand and coral, brought the boat to an abrupt stop, engine running. Passengers lurched forward, grabbing their flying packages, chicken crates, and each other—we had just run aground.
Arguments ensued, everyone talking, the coxswain shouting directions.
Suddenly, four men passengers jumped over the side into water up to their thighs and began pushing the boat backwards. The captain shifted to full astern, engine whining, the churning propellers now making a frothy, dirty sand and coral backwash swirl around the volunteer salvage-assistants. As we slowly moved off the sand bar, the captain cut the engine, and people settled down, accepting the grounding as just another glitch in their crossing. The men jumped back into the boat, their wet clothes dripping on everyone, and we were on our way again.
As we approached the Ike village pier, my spirits lifted with the sight of a grey Coast Guard jeep and a chief petty officer standing beside it. Chief Armstrong, wearing a tropical khaki short uniform with an overseas cap, saluted smartly. He was tall, and thin with a deeply lined and tanned face that made him look older than his years. He wasted no time hanging around the village. He grabbed my bag threw it into the jeep and said, “Hop in, skipper. You’ll have plenty of time to explore the village. Let’s get you out to the station.”