Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Five Reasons I Love Being a Petite Traveler

When you're little - OK short - people tend to think it's somehow scarier for you to travel, particularly alone. Well I've found that the benefits of being small far out-weigh looking easy to throw aside. Here's what I remember as I stand tall:

I fit in small spaces

Indonesian buses, third class rail cars and United Airlines seats are far from comfortable but I can contort my legs into several different positions as I try to sleep. My recent favorite is stuffing my feet in the magazine pouch on airline seats so I can have a semi-horizontal position even when there are people sitting on either side of me.

I blend in

It helps having dark hair too, but I can go anywhere and people don't notice me (note: I've never been to Scandinavia), I'm just another dark little head in the crowd. Bag snatchers on the prowl don't see me because I'm behind that well-fed couple in the University T-shirts, border guards are nice because I look so un-offensive, local people want to help me because I'm wide-eyed and little like a forest creature.

I can buy clothes and shoes anywhere

Only pair of pants get lost at the laundry? Flip flop blow out? Fell in love with the local dress? Any store anywhere carries my size.

I don't cost much to feed

When my husband joins me on trips my food expenses don't double, they triple. It's like a Honda Civic versus an SUV, I just don't take much fuel to keep chugging. I can drink two beers and it's party time - just think of the savings.

I rarely bump my head on things

The only time I ever almost got knocked out by a blow to the head was in Nepal when I got up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and hit my head on a door jam. Now that was a short door. I realized then that tall people must have to worry about doors all the time, as well as hanging lights, disco balls, the list goes on.

So I'll take being short, it might not be eye-catching but for my lifestyle that's a good thing. The kind of thrill I felt the first time I sat at the back of an Indonesian bus and could see all the way out the front window, might not happen much in my life but at least I'll get some sleep.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tuna Wrestling & Shark Frenzies in the Tuamotus

Here's a snippet of daily life I wrote over Christmas in the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia:

"Mama, Mama look what Papa caught!" my son pulls me out of my chair and outside.

Josh and Heiarii are just pulling up to the dock in the aluminum skiff. Looking into the boat I can see a three-foot glimmering dogtooth tuna laying atop a good sized black trevally and two lagoon fish. Josh is smiling huge and Heiarii who's driving the boat looks happily entranced.

It's a grey 5:45 in the afternoon and the trade winds are blowing hard creating long rolls of swell that jostle the little boat before crashing as waves onto the coral gravel shore. We're in a house perched on a coral head about 100m out from the beach and the drone of the boat's motor is nearly drowned out by the loud surf and the wind rushing over the tin roof. It's chilly in a tropical sort of way, a way that makes you think about putting a T-shirt on over your swimsuit.

As they haul the fish and spear guns up onto the dock, Josh tells me the story of the hunt:

"It was a team effort. I shot the tuna in the jaw then Heiarri saw it was going to get loose so shot it in the side then grabbed it with both arms while it was thrashing and swam it to the surface. There were raira [grey reef sharks] everywhere!" I can see the adrenalin still pumping through Josh's eyes. Heiarii, always humble has a hard time hiding his stoke as well.

"So I bet you really feel like men now eh?" I say with a smile.

"Oh yeah!" Josh and Heiarii laugh and pound their chests.

The dogtooth tuna is so fresh it's still changing colors, it's iridescent silver and light blue skin sullied only by a black trickle of a line I assume is its own blood. It's beautiful with its eyes shining under the grey clouds, a truly majestic animal.

The guys get busy cleaning it and making fillets that we'll make sashimi and poisson cru from for the next several days. Heiarii saves some of the bones to make jewelry. They throw the guts into the water then my son calls me over quickly to the dock.

There are 20 or more sharks in a frenzy just next to the dock - about three feet down from the edge where we're standing. Never in the 20 years I've been hanging out in Ahe have I seen so many sharks in one place. Not only that they're huge, some over six feet, grey reef and black tips hammering into each other and making the water boil with their thrashing tails as they try to nab bits of tuna. We throw the bones in, more sharks come over from out of nowhere and the frenzy intensifies. We're safe up where we are but it's still instinctually petrifying watching them. Not only that but this is where we swim every day. After about half an hour the tuna carcass is licked clean and the lagoon looks peaceful again.

We make sashimi and, with the same fervor as sharks devour our dinner procured by our own hunters of the sea. I'm glad in a way we got to share the bounty. This is a tuna who's life definitely didn't go to waste.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Navigating Ex-pat No-man's Land

To quickly bring you all up to date, I lived in French Polynesia for over 15 years before moving to Portland, OR in the US this last July. It's been our family tradition to spend Christmas and New Years on our Tahitian pearl farm in the remote Tuamotu Archipelago of French Polynesia pretty much for forever, and this year marked both my husband's 40th birthday (January 4th) and our 20 years of togetherness - so despite being broke, we maxed out the credit card and flew to French Polynesia. I guess that's the American way.

If you read my post Masquerading As Americans, you'll see that we didn't exactly feel like we fit in to the US yet. Yeah the cold was a little offsetting but it was the little things, like all our friends being really busy all the time, having too many choices at the grocery store, people writing thank you and Christmas cards and me feeling disorganized and dumb for not having done the same - these details made and still make me feel like an alien in what's supposed to be my country. I don't understand Americans yet - they are really nice and yet totally unavailable. It's a weird mix of 1950s politeness and 1980s it's-all-about-me.

Being back in Tahiti and the Tuamotus over Christmas made me realize that I'm much more at ease in those cultures than in America. This is a little ironic since one of the reason I wanted to move back to the States was because I was tired of always being the "American" and having an accent in French that instantly gives me away. Well now I see that in Tahiti I'm much more the bomb than in the US where I feel sort of kooky. I make an epic poisson cru (see my recipe), can husk a coconut, know all the plants and how to grow them, am not afraid of swimming with sharks and know how to pick out a good French wine from the dodgy selection at the store. I know everyone everywhere, can live in a bikini and I'm immune to mosquito bites. But I'm still the American, not really a part of either culture, but sort of both floating somewhere out in ex-pat no-man's land.

Does this mean I'm moving back to Tahiti? No, not at all. I've never lived in the US in my adult life so I have to give it a shot. If I'm going to be known as "The American" I at least have to know what that means. Plus it's only been six months. I think it will take a few years to adjust and then, we'll see what we want to do from there. The sun will be beckoning us, I think.


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