Thursday, October 2, 2014

Travel takes away

Travel takes away.

Alisa, excited to hear that some new acquaintances were going to be practicing dance at the church here in Rairua, the village where we're anchored, asks if she can come to watch.  The women who will be dancing seem surprised that she wants to come just to watch, but she explains how much we like seeing Polynesian dance…

So after a quick dinner on Galactic she and Elias head back to the village while I hold down the Eric fort…and they find the women, lined up in the church annex, doing Zumba routines to an instructional video.

Or the baker.  Consider the baker.  He delivers bread to the village in the morning, and you have to order your baguettes the day before.

Sunday at the motu
Alisa went in one morning and returned with two delicious loaves.  She went in the next morning and returned empty-handed after a long wait.  The baker had been too tired to bake.  An even longer wait the next morning saw her again returning empty-handed.  The baker had stopped for coffee with a friend.  Or at least that was the unlikely story that reached her across the gulf of unshared languages.

Taking the dinghy in and waiting fruitlessly on a village street corner at seven in the morning two days in a row was too much for our hero.

"That baker no longer exists for me," is all she would say when she regained the comforts of Galactic.

But, then!  Travel gives back.

Trash fire in paradise
After making a few enquiries, Alisa learned that, yes, it might be possible for the boys to go to school.  Harold, the English-speaking employee at the mairie, the city hall, her ally from three sessions of lunette distribution, offers to call the director of the school, then brings the Mayor in to give our request more substance when it meets with initial resistance.  The nurse at the clinic translates the boys' vaccination records over the weekend so that they will be legit.  Harold wrangles time from work Monday morning, and permission to drive the whole family to school in the commune vehicle so that he can smooth our way with the director and his staff, none of them English speakers.

First day of school
And, like that, it's set.  After this first ride in the car, the boys will start to ride the bus, morning and afternoon.  Lunch is provided.  They need bring nothing.  Alisa doesn't even have to pack a meal the night before. 

She is dumbstruck by the idea.  A whole day to herself?  And then another and another, for a whole week?  No need to cajole reluctant offspring-scholars, or, since this is the Tasmanian school holiday, no need to provide entertainment for endlessly energetic kids?  The ability to do laundry without having to yell at anyone?  The ability to go for a walk, or ride a bike, without being in full mom mode?

It's almost too much to contemplate.


So, we like Raivavae.

We like it to the point that my standing joke is about our next step being application for citizenship.

We like the people and we like the place and we have to search around for something like an unreliable baker to find anything negative to say.

Seasoned traveler that I am, I wonder when the tide will turn.  When will we have stayed too long and suddenly lose our rose-colored glasses and feel the need to pick up the anchor and get somewhere else.

Or, then again, maybe Raivavae is just a complete home run - a Tahanea or Penrhyn or Hobart, somewhere that no matter how long we might have stayed in the past, we would gladly take the chance to visit for another year.

Time will tell...

Thursday, September 25, 2014



I'll explain.

We don't navel-gaze too much about whether we adults are doing the right thing by buggering off on a sailboat for years or decades.  We've largely given up on the idea of the "right" thing to do, after all.  A well-led life, to my generation, means having an adequately funded retirement.

Ahh – but the kids.  When it comes to the kids, there is a little room for introspection.  Is this right for the kids? 

A lot of the ideas about the enriching aspects of life as little voyagers – all that stuff about meeting people from different cultures, being exposed to different places and ideas.  That's true to an extent.  But our kids spend a lot more time cooped up with parents who are grumpy and a little over-tasked than they do being enriched by travel experiences.

So, is that "good" for them?  Or should they be off with their cousins from the contiguous United States who are apparently being enriched day after day, week after week, year after year?  You know – all that stuff about learning to play the violin/piano/guitar or playing hockey/softball/lacrosse or going to Thespian Camp/Auteur Camp/Exotic Financial Instruments Camp?

Or how about friends.  Should our kids have them?  Is this an important part of life?  Will there be a friend quiz at some point that our kids will bomb?

Actually, we on Galactic don't navel-gaze too far in this direction, as the answers that we come up with tend to be negative.

Into the introspective breach strides Jared Diamond, that colossus of Easily Digested Big Ideas for our time.

(I was so happy to finally meet an academic geographer a few years back – shout out to you Ben – and to ask his opinion on Diamond.  I knew it would be negative.  Just like the evolutionary biologists of my acquaintance and Stephen Jay Gould.  The popularizers are popular with everyone but their own tribe.  But I for one unabashedly love Guns, Germs and Steel.)

I'm thinking of Diamond's The World Until Yesterday, his book about the lessons that traditional
societies might offer us – specifically, about his chapter on childhood.

Our kids have been playing this fishing game lately.  If "game" is all-encompassing enough of a word.

Basically they carefully draw various fish from our field guide to reef fish – peacock grouper!  bluefin trevally!  Almaco jack!  They cut them out.  And they catch them.

They catch them with nets (old bits of hammock).  They catch them with rod and reel (generally drinking-straw based).  They catch them with spear guns (ditto).  They test them with their ciguatera testers. 

Odd things happen – piranhas get in their net and Wolfie the stuffed timber wolf is called in to deal with them.  There are exhortations.  There are boat journeys.  There is an orgy of fish clubbing and fish bleeding and fish gutting.  The boys have their chant for hauling the nets, just like the chants that sailors and fishermen have always used when working under muscle power – heave-and-haul-and-heave-and-haul-and.  There is a whole side game that seems to involve fish smuggling.  It goes on for much of the day (not without a steady backbeat of sibling conflict) and continues into the night.  Elias has been complaining that Eric's exuberant invitations to post-bedtime story "night fishing" are too tempting to forego and have been depriving him of sleep.

We have one ream of paper on board, which is serving for my various science and writing needs, as well as for Alisa's production of school materials.  When the boys get a twice-printed-upon sheet of paper for their use they are ecstatic.  It is treasure.  Every horizontal space in the yacht collects drifts of realistically depicted paper fish.

And – we have never had anything to do with it.  No adult has ever suggested the game, encouraged the game, or helped with the game.  I limit my involvement to occasionally yelling at them when there are too many fish and hooks and nets lying around the very limited sole in the saloon.

Without a copy of The World Until Yesterday at hand, I cannot refresh myself on Diamond's argument about children's play in Western and traditional societies.  But my memory is that he sees the "educational" toys of the West as creativity-stifling lessons in following directions, while he sees the elaborate toys that kids from traditional societies make from scrap materials, without any adult involvement, as opportunities to play at being human in the world. 

So, it's not much, but that's what our kids seem to have going for them lately.  I would crow about how all of this opportunity for an old-fashioned childhood that is time-rich and free of adult-directed play might give our kids some "advantage" relative to their cohort back in the U.S.  Except that I can see the fad, just over the horizon, as land-bound parents attempt to give their kids the only advantage that we seem to be giving ours - Unstructured Time Camp!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


What we left behind
One of the things that life on a traveling boat does very well is transitions.

You get used to atolls, say, but then the season is turning and it's time to light out for the mountainous islands to the south.  And the four days that it takes to sail to the next place give you all the time that you need to reflect on what you've seen, and to let the anticipation for the next place build.

The pass, and the village, astern

The passage to Raivavae was a mixed bag.  A booming run with the jib poled out for the first time in months.  Headwinds.  Calms.  Squalls and blue skies.

Passagemaking.  The ineffable peace of the sea.  Really, it's always just like this
Landfall at Raivavae

And then, this place, so different from anywhere we've ever been.

Raivavae is in the Australs, the southernmost archipelago in French Polynesia.  They are well off the beaten path for yachts, and thus offer the promise of a certain degree of time travel - the chance to go back to a time before locals' expectations had been colored by  hundreds and hundreds of boat visits each year.

The physical contrasts with the Tuamotus are everywhere.
First look

The wind sets up a profound silence here that you don't get in the Tuamotus, where the boom of surf on the reef colors every moment, day and night.  Here the wind whispers and sighs in the trees, familiar sounds that are the backdrop for a profound silence.  So different from the endless slatting of atoll coconut fronds in the tradewinds.

Mountain and mist
Here the rain just drops from the sky, miraculous gentle rain released from the mountain slopes without all the sturm-und-drang of squalls in the Tuamotus.

And, here there are mountains.

The boys, sighting a pig.   Poor fellows, we put them
into a lot of unfamiliar situations
A mountain gives the landscape some mystery, a suggestion of some place that can't be immediately known.

And mountains give people a place to run to, in times of need.  The Tuamotus, by contrast, are so exposed, such naked and vulnerable little bits of land.  Very foreign terrain for those of us who come from landmasses that cannot be seen across.

Revitalized, we find ourselves re-engaging with the travel life.  We are consciously putting ourselves forward.  The whole family sets out to hitch-hike to a village where dance might or might not be going on.  We ask permission to view the tiki in a stranger's backyard.  Alisa has met with the mayor, just as she meets with the mayor in every village where she will distribute lunettes.

There have been moments when finally arriving at this place that I have dreamed of for so many years has me thinking of the big picture.

Is there something important going on, something obvious that we are missing because our days are so full of the mundane details of keeping everything going?

Is there some song that all these people and all these places are singing, a song we could start to hear if we just stood still to listen?

It's always a dangerous moment when travelers start to seek something larger from their travels, when they start to look for the information that only wandering could reveal, the lesson that their stay-at-home friends will find invaluable upon their return.

It's not a mistake that one of the finest travel books of all time, The Songlines, was a novel.

You don't give up looking, of course.  Or at least being curious.  But the lessons are contingent.  They are personal.  We are who we are.  The world is what it is.  We go to sleep without the big questions being answered.

Meanwhile, we have this place to explore.