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Tuesday, September 23, 2003

September 24, 2003-Tony the Greek


We first ran into Tony when he stuck his face out the pilot house door of an ancient islander trader in Gizo, Solomon Islands. We were sitting alongside his vessel in our dingy giving one of his crewmen a ration about dumping oil in the bay.

"What'sa problem?" he asked disdainfully.

"You're dumping oil into the harbor!" I said, as I eyed the slick leading out from his boat towards Wings, anchored across the bay.

"So whats'sa matter, we're pumping dah bilge, you always get a little diesel when'a you pumpa dah bilge. It'sa only diesel! What's you wanta me to do?"

This exchange went nowhere for another minute or so and then we motored off in our dingy, convinced that "Tony" would pump his bilges as long as he felt like it, and would, in fact, pump the whole Arabian peninsula into the sea if he could, and never worry a smidgen about the consequences.

Two nights later I saw him in the bar at the Gizo Hotel ordering a couple of beers and I decided to make peace with the man. I went up to him, introduced myself, shook his hand and said I hoped there weren't any hard feelings about what I said the previous occasion.

"No, I no giva it another thought." He said.

We talked for a while and I observed the man. Old and deeply wrinkled, he had a face full of warts and beady blue eyes buried deep under a thick brow. He had a big WC Fields nose, and a mop of unruly white hair. Wearing a dirty red short sleeve shirt which stretched over a small round stomach and dirty white shorts, he was altogether an unpleasant looking fellow, quite intimidating when I'd been looking up at him on the deck of his ship, not so intimidating now in the bar at the Gizo Hotel. But he was an interesting man, a white man in a black country, the kind of mysterious expatriate you meet on a dusty street in a remote part of the world, where most other people you meet talk pigeon and call you "boss", and you wonder how he got there.

I decided Tony was a loner, an expat who's gone bush long ago, working on native boats with native crews for native owners, driving old rotting wooden ships around the islands for as long as anyone can remember. Maybe no one around here knows his story, I sure don't, but he has one you can be sure, something in his past or personal make-up that resulted in his choice of a life on the edge of the world.

As we talked Tony warned me about the natives, said never to trust them, they'd steal you blind, and told me not to leave our boat un-attended. I guessed Tony had learned these lessons the hard way. I wondered about his background and I asked him if he was Italian and he said, "No, Greek." I asked him if he was the captain of the ship and he said, "No", and indicated a Solomon Islander sitting alone at a table nearby, saying he was the captain.

Then he said, "Don'ta look, He'sa gonna think we're talking about him."

We walked over to the table and there was a lot of shaking of hands and I sat down and talked to both men, but I didn't understand much of what they said, and less of what was really going on, and I never figured out exactly what their relationship was, but it definitely included some rivalry and mutual suspicion. Maybe Tony was there to keep the ship from being wrecked, but the other man, for political reasons, was officially the captain, but that was never clear. They each cornered me alone however and said they'd come to WINGS the next day to explain the whole situation, to tell me the real story; but the next morning their boat was gone from the harbor, and both of them with it.

I don't know when I'll meet Tony the Greek again, but somehow I know I will. I'll see his ship, and there he will be, in some other hot, dusty, remote town in this forgotten part of the world. Meanwhile, I know he's out here, doing his thing, and he will be until he dies, probably some moldy jungle hospital somewhere, alone.

Fred & Judy, SV WINGS, Solomon Islands

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