TO THE SOUTH SEAS
Theo was set for the journey when he stepped down from the train in Marseille, dressed in his white cotton suit and solar topee. Lucas, who was a head taller than Theo, and as thin as a rail, rallied in a bright, flowered sports shirt and straw sombrero. Theo laughed at him calling him a tourist. Nevertheless, they were both ready for the tropics. They were as happy as anyone could be as they readied to board SS Astrolabe moored to the quay at the waterfront. She wasn’t a pretty ship, with her hull streaked with rust from bow to stern and the upper superstructure in bad need of paint. But that didn’t matter to the two young adventurers. Theo waited on the dock until Lucas scampered up the gangplank, and then in a shout that could be heard clear across the waterfront, he waved above his head a bottle of cheap cognac in one hand and his solar topee in the other. Lucas waved back from the deck, and now Theo turned and as though embracing the world he shouted, “Salute.” He then staggered aboard shouting, saluting all the way.
SS Astrolabe, the oldest ship in the Messageries Maritimes fleet, was a rickety steamer that was home for Theo and Lucas for the next twenty-seven days. The old ship was due for the breaker’s yards after completing the voyage. The captain, too, was completing his final turn of duty before retirement, and he was not much better off that the rickety ship. He was the picture of a Joseph Conrad sea captain, his white uniform grimy and soiled. He had the face that always looked like it needed a shave, even after he shaved. He was badly in need of a haircut. But looks can be deceiving. He was in good spirits, a jovial Frenchman with a red nose and enormous eyebrows. By his nature, a Frenchman, he didn’t like Germans, and when Theo and Lucas appeared on deck speaking German he was not too cordial, that was until Theo announced they were Swiss and not German and they spoke German, Italian, French and their English wasn’t bad either.
Captain Varva invited Theo and Lucas to share his hospitality at dinner, together with the one other passenger, a doctor bound for a two-year stint in the New Hebrides. As long as the ice lasted, which was ten days, they had cold champagne to drink. Then it was warm gin with bitter lemon. The doctor and the captain talked enthusiastically about the beautiful vahines of Tahiti, a subject that never grew tiresome. The more the two men talked about Tahiti the more impatient Theo and Lucas grew. The anticipation of their arriving was almost more than they could bear. But then, before the Panama Canal and Tahiti, came Guadeloupe, Theo’s first sight of the tropics. It was a sight so powerful, so beautiful, it left upon Theo an impression that would last in his memory forever. Such first sights, like seeing a very beautiful woman, last in most men forever. This happened to Theo. It came at the crack of dawn one morning when he caught a glimpse of the island through his porthole. He grabbed his sketchpad, and while looking through the porthole, drew a hastily outline and then with a charcoal pencil he jotted down the colors, ochre, cyan, magnesia. Before he could finish he rushed on deck. He marveled at the sight of coconut palms aligning themselves against the bluish-grey of dawn’s first light, as though they were performing a dance for him alone and no one else, and these colors he too jotted down. Finally, like a defeated prize fighter, it was all too much, the myriad of colors, and he put away his pad and feasted his eyes on the sight: a curve of beach with sand so white it dazzled the eyes as it came into view, and around the next bend a cove appeared where a cliff with heavy foliage clinging to its rock face dropped into the water’s edge below, and there were jagged peaks in the far distance that looked like prehistoric dragons. Then, a bit farther at the next cove, verdant cliffs rose from the water’s edge to the sky above. Banana plantations appeared in patches; there were trees bearing melon-like papayas: and more trees, the flame-of-the-forest with their glaring red flowers. Captain Varva now stood at the three passengers’ side-the doctor had joined Theo and Lucas and pointed out the ornamental breadfruit trees and ironwood trees and the banyan trees. The sight of the verdant, rich vegetation awakened all Theo’s senses and became, to him, as exhilarating as the most powerful drug. He thrilled at everything he saw. These were scenes that would, of course, repeat themselves again and again wherever he went in the tropics, but they were scenes for Theo that would never lose their charm or excitement. Each new place that Theo visited became better than the last one, if that was ever possible, and this certainly held true for their next stop, Martinique. Theo lost control of himself when he saw the island, and from the experience he feared he would never be able to recover. At the moment, the very moment, his eyes fell upon Martinique, he knew he could never be happy anywhere else in the world except in the tropics.
From the decks of Astrolabe they watched Martinique come into view. They were awed by the dark conical shape of Mt. Pelee volcano rising out of the ocean, looming higher and higher the closer they sailed. Here, for the first time, Theo saw the landscapes that Gauguin had painted in all its natural splendor. Gauguin too had arrived in Martinique before going to Tahiti and it was here that he painted his first lush tropical scenes: bluish-black mountains, sunny landscapes, dark-skinned women garishly dressed with heavy loads on their heads. When Theo went ashore he discovered some women were black and others brown, and every shade in between. They were alive, breathing, no images in picture books or paintings hanging on walls. They were just as Gauguin painted them.
Never had Theo seen a town with such frenzy: battered automobiles, their doors held in place with bailing wire; buses and coal-burning lorries, all with drivers with their hands heavy on the horns. There were bicycles and carts, horse and carriages, bleating goats pulling carts, mule trains straining under loads and occasionally there came into sight sleek roadsters of the rich. The whole town was very much alive, as if ready to explode at the lighting of a match. Yes, it was vibrant. In the open front bars that lined the plaza, customers sat drinking rum punches. And it was only the middle of the day. Here, certainly, was Theo’s world. He felt it through every pore in his body, down to the very tips of his fingers. Here was the world that had existed only in dreams. He was so much alive he felt he could leap up on the tables and dance, but first he needed a drink, and that night he did get up on tables and dance.
It so happened, before they had disembarked, Captain Varva announced that Astrolabe would be in port but two days and one night loading and unloading cargo. Upon hearing this Theo gathered up his painting kit and easel and said he would find a hotel room in town where he could paint. Lucas followed him, offering to carry his easel but Theo refused to give it up, fearing perhaps that they might get separated. Theo found what he was looking for at the first place he stopped, a short-time room for hookers in a small hotel in the center of town. It didn’t have much of a view but it was well lighted, and just what Theo needed.
“I still don’t know why do you need a room?” Lucas asked when they unloaded Theo’s kit and easel in the room. “You can paint in the street.”
“Not what I intend to paint,” Theo said with a mischievous smile. “Come, help me find a subject.”
Out in the streets Theo was dazzled by the colors. He went wild, sometimes even walking backwards looking up at the balconied buildings that hung out over the walkways. He led Lucas from one bar to another, swilling down tumblers of rum in each place. It was all Lucas could do to restrain him.
Theo couldn’t be still, and like a child at Christmas, opening one present after the other, unable to wait to see what was in the next package, he jumped from one place to another, from cabaret to cabaret, from bar to bar. The seedier the place was, the more disreputable, the more Theo liked it. He delighted in walking across floors strewn with sawdust, unlike the septic, clean establishments back home with their polished floors and shiny brass rails. Even the brass spittoons in Berne sparkled. Theo liked wiping his brow with a bright bandana he wore around the neck and he enjoyed calling out to the bartenders in Spanish, “Uno mas, uno mas.” He became drunk not merely from the strong, raw rum but from the wild and untamed atmosphere as well. He relished in the swirl of booze and music.
What thrilled Theo as much as the colors were the women, the marvelous Creole women with their coffee eyes and dark skin. He wanted to paint them all. Each woman he saw he studied, her facial features, the fineness of her skin, the shape of her breasts. He was fascinated with their flawless skin, a wonderful mixture of colors, the descendants of slaves brought over from Africa during the colonial period. Running through their veins flowed the spirited blood of the Spanish and Portuguese. The men were jolly, filled with humor and ready to laugh, and ready to fight; the women were unassuming and untamed, and ready to drink with anyone who asked them. They did as they pleased and accepted lightheartedly the taunts the men lashed out at them. It was all fun to Theo and he reveled in it, but Lucas, was more circumspect. While Theo lunged forth like a jockey riding the lead horse, Lucas held back. It wasn’t that he lacked the spirit that Theo had, for that would have been rare if he had; he just did not have Theo’s fortitude. Theo loved fun at all costs. For the first time in his life he was able and ready to tear loose. Perhaps to Lucas it was a bit frightening but nevertheless he liked watching his friend enjoy himself as he did. It could be that he envied him. But finally Lucas gave up. “You’re on our own,” he shouted at Theo and left him sitting on a three-legged barstool in a bar with bullfight posters plastered on all the walls. “I give you something for your notebook,” Theo shouted as Lucas left but he didn’t hear him. A mariachi band had begun thumping out wild Mexican music in the street outside the bar.