Friday, October 28, 2011

Culturally misunderstood small talk

"Eh Celeste poria ia 'oe!"

This means "Celeste, you're fat," and I'm frequently greeted this way by female Tahitian friends I haven't seen in awhile.

It's not a compliment. In the past rotundity may have been a sign of beauty for Tahitian women but the Western world has seeped in too deeply and now most people would prefer to be skinny. But the conversation starter has stuck and, unless you look almost sickly thin, or you're a known athlete, people will probably tell you you've put on weight or at least "haven't got any fatter." In a way it's like saying you look healthy and happy even though you're not going to win any beauty pageants.

No one means offence by these comments but I still don't like being told I'm fat. I always get offended -- I can't help it -- but I let it go as a cross-cultural faux pas I'm only aware of on my end.

And this has got me thinking about other similar small talk that Westerners find uncouth.

In Indonesia and Malaysia the classic conversation starter is "Where are you going?"

This question isn't meant to be answered literally although most Westerners don't know that so feel it's invasive.

"Why is it this guy on the street's business where I'm going?" people ask.

It's not, so just answer vaguely with something like the classic "jalan jalan," which means just wandering around.

In the same vein if you asked an Indonesian "How are you?" they'd find it weird. It's a pretty intimate question if you think about it. Why would you casually ask about someone's mental state? It's a big can of worms if you attempt to answer it honestly.

In China common small talk may start with "Have you eaten?" I like this one (perhaps because I'm poria). It insinuates getting invited in for a meal or going to eat somewhere yummy, although it's more of a polite thing to say than attached to any real expectations.

These are just a few and I'm sure there are many more examples of funny conversation starters from around the world. Please leave some in the comments! I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Channel Islands: California's Ocean Sanctuary

When you fly from Tahiti to Los Angeles you pass over very little land mass. If you're lucky you may peer down at a coral atoll in the Tuamotus about 45 minutes after takeoff but after that there's nothing but clouds and lots and lots of ocean. The first dots that come into view on the flight map as you're approaching Los Angeles are the Channel Islands. When the small yellow specks appear, it feels like an event after so much blue, and their names sound so much more exotic than the big stinky city where you're about to land - - think with a Latin accent: Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara Islands. The fact that they're so close to major civilization yet relatively unknown makes them all the more romantic. Ever since I first flew over these islands 20 years ago I've wanted to visit them and I finally got the chance this last Monday.

I went with my mother in law who used to live on a sailboat around the islands in the early 70s when she and my father in law had the first urchin fishing licenses in the region. She hadn't been back since. Her stories of those days involve wild storms, fixing broken rigging while eight months pregnant and plenty of crazy characters. Our day on Santa Cruz Island 40 years later was to be much more mellow.

Instead of a homemade cement-hull sailboat a la 1970, we set out on a modern catamaran complete with snack bar and commentary over the loud speakers. It was cold and foggy at our starting point at Ventura Harbor but the ocean was calm. Pelicans flocked on the rocky breakwater as we puttered out into opaque white nothingness.

A few minutes out we stopped at a red buoy where a group of sea lions rested while others swam around in the blue-brown silky water. The commentator promised we'd see more marine life before we reached the islands, possibly even whales. Then off we went into the mist.

Despite the fact that I get seasick on just about anything and everything, I didn't feel so bad this day. After about 45 minutes of un-eventful cruising a couple at the front of the boat spotted something that looked like whales. I went outside on the bow and soon saw two large fins surfacing and plunging like wheels in the distance. As we came closer the commentator announced that these were Risso's dolphins. Soon a few more swam near the boat, close enough that we could clearly see the black and white speckled markings covering their torpedo-shaped bodies. The adults of this species are easily ten feet long, with a particularly long dorsal fin. After a few minutes of oohing and aahing we motored away again.

Only a few minutes later we came into a massive nursery pod of common dolphins. Mothers, tiny babies, sisters and brothers all swam over to play in our wake. It was like a giant soup of mammals splashing or gliding just under the surface showing off their streamlined bodies. They continued to follow us as the silhouette of Santa Cruz Island started to immerge from the fog. Pelicans glided over us to rest on a white-stained rock. As we approached the dock at Scorpion Cove, the sky cleared just enough that the sun could reflect on the water exposing kelp beds through the pristine, clear bay - this cove is only about 20 miles from the California coast and yet the ocean is nearly as clear as Tahitian waters.

Santa Cruz is the largest of the Channel Islands with 96 square miles of near-treeless grassy hills (the highest peak is 2,000 ft), rocky coves, streams, beaches and sea caves. Now it's a protected area but it was once a cattle ranch and Scorpion Cove is strewn with rusted old farming vehicles and equipment that look like modern art pieces. Before Europeans arrived, the island was inhabited by the Chumash Native American Indians for some 9000 years and you're constantly reminded of this my the shell midden in the trails running all over the island.

We only had two hours which is far too short to get anywhere on this big island. Like the Galapagos Islands the Channel Islands' isolation means that there are 145 species of plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world. I can't say I saw any of these, but we did get a good hike up to the top of a dry, grassy hill where the fog cleared letting us see the steep coastline and some of the old farming buildings in the valleys. Down near the dock we picked figs and dodged cawing black crows, mad that we were stealing their fruit. Then reluctantly we got back on the boat.

A day trip is lovely but doesn't do these islands justice. Now I want to go back with camping and diving equipment, a kayak and at least a few days to explore. In many ways these islands are what California would have looked like without the effects of development and as an ex-native, this landscape feels like home. Only 250,000 people make it out to the entire park per year making this one of the least visited national parks in the US.

Despite twenty years of dreaming, my expectations of the Channel Islands were met. With their complex history, natural beauty and a near-mystical allure, how could they not?

Our round-trip boat ride to Santa Cruz cost $56 on Island Packers ( For more information about the park go to

Monday, October 10, 2011

How I Became a Lonely Planet Author

The question I get after "what's it like being a Lonely Planet author" is "how did you get your job?" My response is usually, "long story," because it is. People don't like this answer for obvious reasons so, in continuation of last week's low down on what it's like on the road as guide book author, here's how I got my job and some thoughts on how you can get a job like mine. Spoiler: it's not easy.

For me it started in 1998 when I lived on Ahe Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. All we had for communication was a short wave radio and a satellite telephone (that cost $10 per minute) that we used mostly as a fax machine in emergencies. Just to put where I was in perspective, this atoll had no roads, no plumbing and only one little store selling canned food. When you see those cartoons of a stranded guy sitting under a coconut tree surrounded by shark-infested waters, that's pretty much where I was. I also had a two year old and a newborn baby. So, imagine my surprise when I got a fax from an old school friend asking if I'd be interested in writing the French Polynesia guidebook for Lonely Planet.

But it wasn't in the cards that time. My friend (unknown to me) was working as Lonely Planet's publicity manager and when she heard they were looking for Tahiti writers she thought of me. I faxed her back to let her know I was interested but by the time the communication had gone back and forth, Lonely Planet had found someone else. A few months later I got offered Tonga from the Australian office but this time the communications seemed to just dissolve somewhere between my remote atoll and the satellite, so once again, I lost the job. Looking back this was for the best since there's no way I could have done what was needed to be done from my remote location and with two very small kids.

Fast-forward to 2001 and the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference in Corte Madera, California. My family and I had recently moved to the much bigger island of Tahiti and I had started travel writing. I'd had a few things published and decided to attend the conference while visiting friends and family in the US. I had no idea Lonely Planet was going to be there and my school friend no longer worked there but I had had the seed put in my head that this was my dream job. Lonely Planet offered a workshop and I decided to take it.

On the last morning they told us all to wear good shoes and a sun hat and to get there at around 7am - the reason was a surprise. They drove us all into San Francisco and dropped us all off for about an hour to update a guidebook section. We had that night to write it all up and whoever did the best job would win two tickets to Europe and a chance to become an author; I think there were about 30 of us. I'll skip the details here, but I won.

We decided to go to Spain and Morocco that fall with the tickets. Unfortunately, a day before we were supposed to take the ferry from Spain to Tangiers, 9/11 happened. We were frozen, stuck in Spain with our two young kids, not knowing what to do. Instead of going to Morocco we got the first flight we could back to Tahiti. My husband's pearl business was severely effected by the plummeting economy and I suddenly had to work full time for him to try and save the business. Meanwhile, Lonely Planet's book sales dropped so dramatically that they closed the Oakland office where I'd just theoretically got a job, and everyone I'd just met was laid off. My chances of becoming an author again became just a dream.

Three years later, once the economy had settled a little bit, my family and I traveled to Mexico. Again, I'll skip the details of the trip but we ended up in this little coastal village called Chacahua on the Oaxaca coast. There were maybe four other foreigners in town and we became friends with an American woman at our guesthouse. Her name was Carolyn and, randomly, she was a managing editor for Lonely Planet. She also remembered me from the contest. We hung out for a few days and at the end she told me that, especially with my history with the company, that there was no reason I shouldn't be an author. Things had changed a bit by this time though so, via Carolyn writing a letter of introduction, I had to be accepted to write a sample chapter that would be reviewed by the recruiter. I was given the OK and then the sample took about two weeks to write (I did it once we were back home in Tahiti); after a few months of review and interview, I was accepted into the author pool.

Great, you think, but no. Getting accepted into the author pool doesn't guarantee work. A publishing schedule is sent out once a month and authors have to pitch for each individual title. Luckily for me, Tahiti was on the list and I secured my first gig within a few months. And the rest is history. Once the books I'm currently working on are out I will have contributed to over 30 Lonely Planet titles.

So how can you get a job? Honestly, it's harder today than it ever has been. The company hires very few new authors and only those who specialize in regions where they need people. To check the list go to - there were no listings when I wrote this post. This is your only hope.

I was lucky to have had connection, be in the right place at the right time and specialize in a region Lonely Planet needed but ultimately I can't imagine what I would be doing if I hadn't got this job. I kept the goal strongly in my head for years. You may not agree, but I'm a strong believer in the power of will mixed with gratitude to make things happen. I think anyone who wants this job badly enough and has the skills and work ethic to go after it, will eventually succeed. It just might take a long time.

Of course if you read my prior post about the realities of life on the road you might decide to keep your day job. For me though, through the hard pillows, blistered feet and days tied to my computer at home it's still what I love to do and what I hope to continue doing it for a long, long time.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Life On the Road For a Lonely Planet Author

It sounds like a dream job. Many people seem to imagine that Lonely Planet writers spend days on the beach with giant cocktails in carved out pineapples; nights involve lavish dinners, more cocktails and everywhere they go people are doing everything they can to make their stay in the country perfect. Often I hear hotels and restaurant I've visited complaining that I never even came through. This always makes me snicker because they must think I show up with a name tag, giant camera and a clipboard or something. Or maybe they just assume I'd introduce myself - that would be nice but honestly I don't have time to chat at length with dozens of hotels and restaurants everyday.

The reality of how authors research varies from author to author but, in my case, most places I go to never know I came through. I probably stayed in their cheapest room and I can't eat everywhere so usually I'll just stop in to a restaurant for a juice or maybe just ask to see their menu. They probably saw me and felt bad that I was on my own and wondered what would lead a woman my age to stray so far from home. They may not have noticed me at all. Other travelers never guess who I am either.

I often get asked "what it's like" and what I do on an ordinary day. So here goes. I'm going to write this as an average day in Southeast Asia since that's where I spend the most time. Warning: It's long and a lot less exciting than you think it will be.

7:15 I wake up in a hard bed with a really bad pillow, wash-up in the hostel's shared bathroom, and put on clothes I washed in the sink the day before that have been drying draped over chairs and whatnot. I turn off the fan and get out the door in 15 minutes.

7:30 Breakfast at my favorite local joint. This will often be a place I've put in the book for years. It's busy and I'm hardly able to get a table but I'm the only Westerner there. So much for Lonely Planet ruining places. If it doesn't serve banana pancakes and looks too foreign, people won't go there. I enjoy an amazing meal, check my email on my phone, read a local paper and map out my day on the back of a map I picked up at my hostel. I take a moment to enjoy the exoticness of where I'm sitting and I'm thankful of my situation; I pay then go.

8:15 Nothing is open yet which frustrates me because I'm in a hurry to get stuff done. I walk around town to see which Western style breakfast places are open so I can recommend them for people who like to eat before 10am.

9:00 I start looking at hotels. I have a list of new places I've found on the Internet, by traveler's recommendations, at tourist offices or through local friend's suggestions. I've mapped them all out as I heard of them. As I'm on my way to a place on my list, I pass another place I've never heard of, pop in and ask to see a room. The people don't ask who I am or why I'm there and enthusiastically show me around. I ask them a million questions and they tell me all sorts of fun stories about the place and give me their business card. It ends up being the coolest place I find all day. I sneak into a hidden corner once I'm back outside and jot messy notes in my notebook.

10:30 After an hour and a half of wandering around, looking at hotels and seeing what's new I start to see other travelers eating their Western breakfasts around town. I note which places are the busiest, check the menus and get a table at the one that looks the best. I order a cup of tea, catch up writing notes in my notebook about everything I've seen that morning then text a local friend to see if they can meet for lunch. Meanwhile, I chat with a nice English couple at the table next to me who give me a great detailed, review of a bike tour I won't have time to go on myself. They of course have no idea that they just gave their input to Lonely Planet.

11:00 There are a few places I have to see that are way out of town. I hop on a bus then walk about 10 minutes to find the first place, which has great reviews on Trip Advisor. From the mildewed outside and depressing, hard-to-get-to location I can tell it's a dud. I wake up a TV-hypnotized receptionist and she takes me to a stinky room with a stained carpet and a lint-filled air-con vent. A few confused looking older Americans are dining on white toast, jam and coffee in the cafe downstairs. I thank the receptionist but don't bother to get the price because there's no way I'm putting this place in the book.

12:00 I walk high-speed back to the bus stop. The bus never shows. It's about 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 100 percent humidity, my face is bright red and I feel awful. It starts to rain. I walk about ten minutes in my plastic-bag-like emergency rain poncho while cars whiz past and I'm sure they're all laughing at me in my silly poncho that makes me look like an orange balloon. A big truck sprays muddy water all over me. I finally hail a taxi.

12:40 I meet my friend who I haven't seen in two years at a new hole-in-the-wall she says is really good. She says I look like hell and laughs at my wet, muddy legs and plastic bag poncho. We talk about her love life, my love life then she orders all the stuff that's supposed to be so good. It's fabulous so I take extensive notes about it. We stuff ourselves while chatting about what's new around town. After lunch I decide to throw my ugly poncho away and buy an umbrella.

1:40 It's raining and my friend has the afternoon off so she asks me where I need to go. I've been to most of the museums etc in town before and from asking around I've found nothing has changed, but there's a new shopping mall in a district I don't know well that I'd like to check out. We go but on the way stop at a temple I've never heard of where they do some sort of ritual that people come from all over the country to take part in for good luck. We go in and do the ritual, I talk to the abbot who tells me the fascinating history of the place. I take notes but once in the car I realize I'll never have the space to put this awesome place in the book - plus it's out of the way and a little spooky so, like my breakfast joint, hardly anyone would go there anyway. I consider returning to this place one day for one of the hundreds of non-fiction travel books I've thought about writing.

3:00 We get to the mall and it looks like every other mall in Southeast Asia. I jot down the names of some of the stores, we get an ice cream then head back to town.

3:45 My friend drives me to all the other out of the way hotels I need to go to. They are all really boring. She also helps me find a cheap umbrella. Meanwhile I get a text from another friend who wants to know if I want to go out to dinner with a bunch of couch surfers. I say OK.

6:00 I go back to my hotel, shower and write a few emails. What I'd really like to do is take a nap but I'm afraid I'd sleep through dinner.

7:30 I meet my local friends, three couch surfers and a random expat Kiwi English teacher at a food stall area. My friend has told them all about me so they all ask me about my job. They of course want to know how much money I make and assume I have to save all my receipts that I'll send back to Lonely Planet who will reimburse me for any and all expenses. I tell them that I actually work from a lump sum and if I spend more I earn less. No one seems to really care so I try and change the subject. I excuse myself during dinner and take notes on the new stalls that have opened since the last time I was here.

8:30 I've managed to pick the brains of every person at dinner and have a few good suggestions for the next town I'm going to and another review of the bike tour I can't go on. I suggest we get dessert at a place I want to try.

9:00 We go get dessert then check out a local night market. Then everyone but my local friend and the Kiwi guy goes home. The rest of us decide to go check out a new bar.

9:30 It's sort of dead but we all sit and have a beer. By 10pm more people show up and by 11pm it's rocking.

11:30 We move on to a club down the road that has a surprisingly decent cover band from the Philippines. I go up to dance, get hit on by a 50+ year-old Australian military dude and a Nigerian gigolo then decide this is more depressing than fun and I'd better go home. A drunk Asian girl I was dancing next to hugs me like we're best friends and tells me I can stay at her house next time I'm in town. I thank her but know I'll never see her again. My friends walk me home.

1:30am Back to my board-like bed with the too-tall pillow of rocks. I set my alarm for 8am so I can catch the 9am bus out of town. I toss and turn for about half an hour recapping my day, turn on the light briefly to check for bed bugs then fall asleep.

After each research trip comes the write-up which, in general, equals the time spent on the road. My fellow author Leif Pettersen has captured this type of day on video better than I ever could in words. To see it click here. Enjoy!


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