Thursday, October 30, 2014

A New Standard

One of the standard sailing guides to Polynesia refers to Rapa as "the strangest island in the Pacific".

That of course offers a strong allure. But whenever I've read that page I've also heard a rebuttal forming in the back of my mind.

Everyone knows that Tasmania is the strangest island in the Pacific.

But while Rapa is unlikely to gain that title any time soon, it has replaced Tassie as a different sort of superlative.

In the very first week we ever spent in Hobart, we found ourselves socially engaged - either going to someone's house for dinner, or having people to the boat - five of the seven nights. This in spite of the fact that we arrived knowing no one there. That record has forever since stood as our defining standard for a friendly place.

Well, Tassie - move over, you're second best once again. This is our eighth day in Rapa. And we've had social engagements on seven of those days.

It would have been a perfect eight for eight, except for the one night that the person we had invited for dinner saw us driving around in someone else's truck shortly before the appointed hour, and concluded that our plans must have changed.

And that's a twist on top of everything that's been going on - there's this steady back beat of spontaneous events that occur at all hours, courtesy of a very social place where not many adults have a strict 9 to 5 schedule for filling their days.

Finally - truth in advertising - all this frenetic activity has not been solely due to the vivacious nature of the place and our honed skills at getting down with the people. We have very much been riding the coattails of the National Geographic group that is here. They have done a fantastic job of interacting with the people of Rapa, and the community has responded by throwing down some incredible Polynesian hospitality. Like, completely incredible. Like, you could sail the Pacific for years and see nothing like it incredible. And for some reason, everyone has decided that the family on the voilier parked next to the Nat Geo boat should naturally also be treated as honored guests at all of these events.

The Hanse Explorer will be heading off to Tahiti tomorrow, leaving us to our own social devices.

Eric will be at school tomorrow, having matriculated from being a slightly stir-crazy boat kid to being one more problem with which the teacher of the three- and four-year-olds can fill her day.

Alisa, I think, will be learning to make popoi at someone's house.

I think we're ready to fly solo.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


Rapa has no airport, gets fewer than ten yacht visits a year (from what I'm told) and is visited by the supply ship every two months.

This is an off-the-track place. And it offers the promise of a dazzling, off-the-track experience of Polynesia.

Two days at sea from Ra'ivavae put us in the proper frame of mind for seeing Rapa for the first time. Convoluted spires of lava lost in the impossible vastness of the Pacific. A four and a half meter swell.

We pulled into the caldera that forms the harbor within this island - and found an expedition cruise ship at the dock. It was stuffed with people from a "Pristine Seas" project - marine biologists and Pew Charitable Trust people and a National Geographic film crew. They had a Chief Scientist and an Expedition Leader and they were going fishing with the locals and engaging them about community-based fisheries management and Marine Protected Areas and in the evening they were inviting the community to a reception on board - free beer and good food - and showing the locals a film of themselves fishing, shot by said National Geographic film crew.

Before that, our friends on Hera were at the dock for a week or two.

And shortly before THAT, the French Polynesian government ship, the Tahiti Nui, was here with their own film crew AND a helicopter, and they were taking locals out to the very very remote Iles Morotiri (fifty miles away, indifferently charted) to catch lobsters as long as your arm.

Our friend Patrice, who was here a year ago, rhapsodized to us about how everyone in Rapa stopped to shake his hand.

Ain't no one stopped to shake our hand in the first two days we've been here. The arrival of Galactic has not been the biggest event of the year.

But hey - don't matter one bit to us. "We're just happy to be here," is the enduring Galactic motto.

And - presto, it turns out that the Chief Mate of the expedition cruise ship is from Tasmania ("the strangest island in the Pacific"), and is mutual friends to a great mate to Galactic. So she kindly asked her captain for permission for us to raft up to them at the dock, and before we knew it we were scrubbed up and climbing the pilot ladder en famille, bound for the reception for the locals.

Not at all what we expected to be doing in Rapa. But even more fun for all that.

But then today (our second day), it seems to have begun. The completely out of the box Polynesian social experience.

At the reception we ran into the Togolese nurse who Alisa briefly met at Ra'ivavae, and who is now working here. So of course we invited him over to the boat the next night for a feed. ("Togolese" - isn't that the greatest adjective?)

Alisa "I haven't seen a supermarket in five months" Abookire was trying to get dinner ready while the boys were more or less going crazy down below. I wisely chose that moment to be on deck, doin' stuff. A Rapa man stopped by the boat to chat with me - an optimistic verb choice, that, chat, since he and I share about twenty words of mutual vocabulary. Soon he asked to come aboard for a visit. Absolutely, I said. Soon enough after that, we managed to convince his wife to come aboard. Very soon after that, they invited us to come to their house for Sunday dinner.

(Imagine, the next time you come across someone in your home country who does not speak your language, that you react by immediately inviting them and their family to dinner at your home. You can't imagine it, can you?)

Tongi! We replied. Thank you, we would love to.

Alisa handed out pieces of the flat bread that she was making for dinner. Our guests, Lucie and Arnold, nibbled away, and then started making spreading motions over the palm of one hand, saying "confiture" and "framboise".

Ah, yeah, jam, I replied after checking the dictionary. Good stuff, that.

Arnold and Lucie responded by chucking myself, Eric, Elias and four-year-old Arnold Junior into the family truck and driving us to their home. In the truck Lucie continued the steady stream of junk food for the boys that Arnold had begun when he first walked up to the boat. We got to their house and Lucie packed a little care package for us - a couple liters of frozen berries, a jar of jam, a bucket of potatoes and carrots. Arnold went into the garden to pick a different sort of berry for us. They seemed disappointed that we didn't have a freezer on the boat - lord knows what they would have given us if we had.

My instinct is that refusing a gift in Polynesia can be a very rude thing to do. I very cheerfully accepted the lot.

And then we all drove back to the boat. I wondered if they would drop us off or come aboard. That would be the latter.

Arnold Junior went forward with our boys and they all cheerfully went completely apeshit together.

Alisa kept cooking. And Arnold and Lucie and I sat around and had a pleasant visit.

Except, and I cannot stress enough what a surreal element this gave to the whole interaction, we could not speak to each other except in the most rudimentary way.

And, it's all so fun and uncomplicated and different from anything that we are used to. This attitude - there are people here, we don't know them, can't speak to them, but hey, they're people, they probably eat, let's take them home and give them a big feed - it's so Polynesian. And it can be so disorienting. We think we're having a full day of travel that will be capped by a dinner we've planned for a guest, and through the odd gyrations of the day we're keeping family life more or less on schedule. And then suddenly it's all overturned by a very fun, slightly incomprehensible social experience featuring strangers sitting in our living room.

That's the psyche-Rapa-delic part. And it's what has kept us coming back to Polynesia again and again.

We're looking forward to Sunday very much.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

And Gone

The season moves ever on, and the winds are forecast to be favorable starting tomorrow.  So, assuming that the good weather-organized boat Venn diagram comes together, we'll make our departure from Ra'ivavae to Rapa.

We've been lucky enough to visit a lot of islands in Polynesia over the last six years.  Ra'ivavae has been our favorite of the lot so far.

Harold Tamaititahio - our great help in Ra'ivavae
A big part of our delight in the island has to be the absence of a yachtie scrum.  Only one other boat stopped in during the month+ that we've been here.

We love meeting fellow sailors, and I love the way that the common experience of people who go to sea in their own boats is a dependable bridge over national differences.

But, when there are lots of boats around, as there are in most of the South Pacific anchorages, sailors tend to assort by nationality, which I find tends to defeat the whole idea of travel.  Worse still, when you share no common language with the locals, and little in the way of common outlook, a fleet of anchored boats gives you a pool of people who are easy to interact with, and that in turn makes it harder to get down with the locals, as it were.

So this mix, of one other boat with whom we could compare notes and trade stories (the delightful crew of the Dutch yacht Hera), was just right.

Marcelle and Eric
But of course, the real joy of Ra'ivavae was the people of this small island, and the warmth with which they welcomed us.  Ra'ivavae is a place where strangers shake your hand, it's a place where (almost) everyone has a wave and a smile at the ready.  Alisa's efforts of distributing lunettes served as our introduction in this place where we don't speak the language, and once we had gotten to know some people, it was the lunettes that we kept coming back to as our consolation when we considered the overwhelming generosity with which we were treated.

"Thank God for the lunettes," we would say to each other as people pressed gifts on us.  When you consider the work that goes into producing food here, and the easy grace with which it is given to strangers, reciprocation with an old t-shirt doesn't feel up to the mark.  So the lunettes have finally given us a way to feel that we're reciprocating adequately to Polynesian gift-giving.

(The many people who do the work to collect the old reading glasses and get them to us, while Alisa and Elias get all the fun of handing them out - that's another story.)

Alisa and an abandoned marae - a pre-contact chief's house/place for religious
devotion/center of local political power.  (I think.)  There are marae ruins
everywhere in Ra'ivavae.  While the language of the island survived, nearly all
knowledge of pre-contact culture is lost.  The island is small (less than 5 nautical
miles long) and the apocalypse of post-contact epidemics was total. 

So, Ra'ivavae gave us all that we ever hope to find in the sailing life.

But, then, someone from Moorea whom we met here smiled when we said we were going to Rapa and replied, "Rapa?  You'll cry when you leave Rapa."

New places ever await.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Home Run

On one of the first Saturdays of our stay in Ra'ivavae, Elias and I went on a bike ride and stumbled on ruruoa in the village of Anatonu.

Touche! works for tag
For want of a wiki-definition, I might define rururoa as "the Polynesian festival of volleyball".  For three months the Protestant churches in the four villages on Ra'ivavae hold a weekly volleyball/petanque/basketball competition-with-Polynesian feast.  The location rotates among the villages, teams from each village wear different color jerseys, and the volleyball is both good-natured and competitive.  It lasts all day Saturday, tons of families are there, and the music is loud.

Good fun for a traveling family, you might think.
Waiting for the bus

Well, that first Saturday, Elias wanted nothing to do with it.

We were riding our bikes along the road, then suddenly we were in the middle of a crowd, with lots of kids staring at us - mostly staring at him.  Elias didn't share a language with them, and it made him nervous to suddenly be the object of so much attention.  He couldn't get away fast enough.

Cut to - now, three weeks later.

School assembly
Every kid on the island of Ra'ivavae - and I mean every kid - knows his name.  We hear cries of "El-eee-uss!" everywhere we go.  And to Elias, that sound is a call to play.  He might not know
the other kids' names, and he still doesn't share a language with them.  But he knows enough French to play tag and to thumb wrestle.  We can go hours without knowing exactly where Elias is - he's just somewhere in Rairua, the village we're anchored at, having a play.

In the middle of it
The change, of course, is due to the three weeks that he and Eric went to school.  (Whenever a three- or four-year-old on the island sees me, I'm liable to hear, "C'est le papa d'Ereek!")

We weren't sure how it would go when we first put the boys into school, but we've been very impressed by their willingness to throw themselves into a situation where they can't speak to anyone, aren't sure of most peoples' names, and generally have no idea what's going on.  There are kids to play with - it must be said, some of the friendliest kids we've seen anywhere - and that's good enough for our boys.

The little kids' nap room at school
Both of our boys have been traveling for most of their lives, but I think these three weeks, when they've gone off without us into such a foreign setting, and have apparently thrived, have been their first real independent travel experience.  For Eric, they've been the first independent experience of any kind

They weren't in school long enough to get anything "concrete" out of it, like learning French.

But of course that's beside the point.

Visiting scholar
And, I should add that we owe an immense debt of gratitude to the people of Ra'ivavae for welcoming our kids into the school so graciously.  Among other things, providing food for the kids is a communal effort - the commune pays for the lunches, but my understanding is that parents bring in food for the kids' very substantial snacks.  So the four villages have been feeding our kids for these three weeks, in a sense, and we are very aware of that kindness, although no one here would ever draw our attention to it.

Alisa has been baking banana cake at a semi-industrial scale as we try to at least make a gesture towards reciprocating.


I'll end by referencing the picture on the right.

Elias might not have been in school long enough to learn French.

But what did he learn in school in Polynesia?

How to make armpit farts!

How could you not love that...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Ever since we left New Zealand, we've been keeping the water tanks full with rain that we catch on board, supplemented by the occasional hauling session with jerry cans.

We last bought diesel fuel in New Zealand, but we carry a lot - 900 or 1000 liters - and I'm hoping that we won't have to buy more until we reach Chile.

Butane for cooking we can get at any village in French Polynesia, though is is a bit of an event to get the 13 kg tank out to Galactic and then back to the magasin empty after I've hung it on the stern arch and decanted the fuel into our own tanks.

All of which sets me up to mention an email I sent to a friend from the Tuamotus a while back.  I mentioned that our water, diesel and butane tanks were all full, and we were feeling pretty flush as a result.

I didn't think much about it, but the recipient grabbed on it as evidence that we were living the Good and Simple Life.  A, "mate, if that's what your'e worried about, I reckon you're doing alright" sort of sentiment.
Papaya and pamplemousse for breakfast, every day
His comment made me think about it more.  And I kind of agree.  We have our larger ambitions and our thoughts for the future.  But while we're traveling on the boat, most of our concerns are concrete and in the present.  That's a luxury, I suppose, in this day and age.

And it's a luxury we're not taking for granted - we are very satisfied at how easy it is to satisfy us right now, if you follow me.

Here in Raivavae, meanwhile, our satisfied-with-the-simple-things phase is taking on a new dimension - the dimension of fruit.

People grow a lot of fruit in Raivavae, just as they do on every volcanic island in Polynesia.  You can't buy any of it in the store.  But people here are phenomenally generous, and have given us so much that we have been replete with fruit throughout our stay.

Alisa has kept count - we've got our 8th stalk of bananas hanging from the stern arch right now.

After the fruit desert of the Tuamotus, all these tropical delights - the bananas and pamplemousse and korosole and vi and papayas and oranges and pomegranates and that weird purple sphere that we didn't get the name of - they are all a delight.  And, thanks to the kindness of people here, we have all that we could possibly want, and more.

What could be better than that?

Meanwhile, here, and below - there are so many more stories than I could ever get down!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

An Appreciation

[Don't tell Alisa about this post.  She still doesn't know that we have a blog.]

Let me tell you, friends…it's not always the easiest thing to be hanging in foreign parts.

Once you get far out of America, you're likely to find that folks start talking funny…eating funny things…and making funny faces when you try to explain the simplest concepts.

It takes moral fortitude to keep putting yourself forward amidst all these strangers who can't even tell you where the bathroom is.

(Which may explain one of the enduring mysteries of the life afloat - what's the allure of "cruising rallies", anyway?  Is it that they let you sail around the world while limiting your interaction with foreigners?)

Lately, I'm in to the whole travel experience, but only when I'm into it, if you get me.  Like, not all the time.  I've got this science career that I'm keeping on simmer and it appears that I'm only going to get book #2 off my mind by writing the darn thing.  All of which can leave me a little short on the energy that is required for extended conversations with people to whom I can only say, "hello", "what is your name?" and "how many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris?"

Luckily, into the breach strides Alisa.

She has been rampaging into the uncertain territory of Alaskan-Raivavaean communication lately.

That guy who lives in the house with the tiki in the backyard, was playing some boomin' Tahiti-dub when we stopped to commit tourism one afternoon, and sports a 'fro reminiscent of early-days Cypress Hill?  She tracked him down outside the mairie yesterday and, with the help of our French-English dictionary, arranged a Galactic to tiki dude music swap.  He got the Skatalites, The Internet, Burning Spear and Ethiopiques from us.  Lord knows what we'll get from him.

The magasin owner who spent a year in Birmingham, England - the one who gave Elias a ukulele lesson that devolved into a ukulele lesson for me when our boy was too tired?  Alisa arranged all that.

Alisa is the one who has given us the contacts to learn which of the four villages on the island supports the tradition dog-eating, to learn the derivation of "Raivavae", and what maitai means when you're not ordering a drink in Oahu.

Alisa is the one who knows people's parents' names.  She's the one who has met with the mayor two or
three times, learned that he is the one who controls the budget for the school canteen that has been feeding our boys for these two weeks, and got his OK for our boys to continue attending school, and eating there, while we're waiting for the right wind to blow us to Rapa.

I, quite frankly, have been riding her coattails while here.

And I suppose that's how has to work, partnership-wise, when you find yourself sailing circles around the Pacific Ocean for years.

Both of us can't be on the top of our game all the time.  If our enthusiasms can wax and wane out of phase, we can even each other out.  We can take turns showing each other the magic.

When we get to Chile, and I am back to traveling in a language in which I am at least sub-conversational, perhaps it will be my turn.


Oh, and - when we returned to the boat yesterday after the celebration welcoming the new gendarme to
the island (Alisa found out about it for us), we found that the anchorage had gone rolly, so that open doors were snatching back and forth at their latches, and round stuff was liable to roll around on counter.  Alisa says, "I like it better this way.  Reminds you that you're living on a boat."

Sailing dudes of the world, eat your hearts out.

You could sail the world without my wife.
But I wouldn't recommend it.

Monday, October 6, 2014

First Day Of School

Ecole Hataitararoa
For a long time there has been loose talk about putting Elias in school during this season in French Polynesia.

For one reason or another, the situation was never quite right.  But then, here in Raivavae, the situation was suddenly so right that we found ourselves driving to the local primary school one Monday morning to drop off both Elias and Eric.

The setup is that Eric, who is four, has never been to school of any kind.  Elias has been to both pre-
Here, and below: first-day jitters.
school and primary school in Hobart, but he tends to get nervous around groups of kids when we're traveling.  It's easy to be shy when you don't speck the language, after all.

Neither of the boys speak French, and we expected there to be no English speakers on the staff of the school.

Clearly, we were throwing them into the deep end.  And we didn't know what to expect. 
After we met with the director of the school and he assigned the boys to classes, we dropped them off
Eric warms up pretty quickly
and made tracks.

(Eric, on being settled into his new class: "Mom, you're staying, right?")

That first day, Alisa and I reveled in the hours of kid-free time that separated us from the return of the kids on the school bus.  Every fifteen minutes or so, throughout the day, we wondered aloud just what the hell might be going on.
And…when they got home, all reports were glowing.  Both boys loved it unreservedly.

So that's our routine for the short time we remain here - the boys take the bus at 0730 and come back at 1530, tired and full of stories.  Whenever we press too hard for details of their day, Elias says, "Mom, Dad.  I DON'T SPEAK FRENCH.  And they DON'T SPEAK ENGLISH.  I dunno what's going on."

Telling stories at the end of the day
There was one fairly wicked twist.  

Both boys brought home colds on Tuesday, and Eric had an episode of croup Wednesday night.  It was the full one in the morning croup-y drama - he was in obvious distress and asking for help, but we couldn't get him to a doctor - there is none on the island.  

So we played our ace in the hole in the shape of a satphone call to my sis the pediatrician (mad thanks, Jenny!) and she talked us through the steps of albuterol/predisone/get the epi-pen ready.

All was quickly well.  

But we'd be happy not to have any more scenes like that in the relative middle of nowhere.

The next day, when both boys were judged to be too sick to go to school, the bus drove all the way out on the quai, looking for them.

How could you not love that?

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...