I stumbled off the plane into Newark Airport, two-and-a-half movies and a few hours of sleep after Tokyo, a night and 11 hours on the plane after Auckland, which was five hours on a plane and one hotel night from Tahiti.
This is definitely a silly route to take home.
I felt vaguely triumphant as I stood dazed on Terminal C's moving sidewalks, locked inside the enclosed space on the wrong side of passport control, the evening's dramatic sky outside the glass showing off across the departure gates lobby.
I had only a few hours in Tokyo before it was time to head back to the airport.
"What should I do," I thought as I hurried to get my bag packed and down to Reception by the 10 a.m. cut-off.
Last time I did this, in 2003, I'd gone to a temple. Today I decided to go to a temple of a different type—I'd go to a place informally called Fabric Town or Fabric Street.
I knew I couldn't buy anything—I was on a fabric diet, having tons of it at home that I hadn't used yet in my bag-making hobby. Maybe because I'd been so busy making a wooden table and building a robot or baking pie. But that didn't stop me from wanting to look, to see what a fabric district in Tokyo might look like.
And here's how it looked...like a place I wanted to spend days exploring.
I'd booked my overnights in Auckland (both of them) and in Tokyo by strategically using points off my credit card and banking accounts, along with reviews on TripAdvisor.
Here in Japan, I'd nearly gone to a small Asakusa hotel that I'd been to twice before, once in the nineties and last in 2003. But then I found this one, Hotel Yanagibasi, which is right by the train and has free ethernet Internet, and was in the right points range.
My room is teensy here but it's all mine, and the bathroom is bigger than the dorm one on the Aranui (not saying much). I've got a fridge and a single-cup electric kettle, which means I had coffee in my room this morning without having to venture out in the cold.
But it's time now—to put on every long-sleeved item I have and my socks and Pumas (I threw away my worn-out sandals from Bangkok when I left the Auckland airport hotel)—and venture out into the morning chill.
I thought I'd have a hard time getting out of bed at 5:30 this morning in Auckland. I'd flown from Papeete and gotten in just before midnight.
A day later. Which is funny, because Christmas just vanished—POOF—destroyed by the International Date Line.
I wasn't doing anything anyway, since I had to sit on a plane half the day.
I had to be back at the Auckland airport by 7:15 a.m. this morning, so that an Air New Zealand check-in agent named Maria could berate me endlessly for 1) being in the wrong line, though I told her the agent had instructed me to go to this line and that the flight was oddly missing from the signs and 2) for not having a print-out of my itinerary for my onward legs. What, she can't just see it on her computer? It's all one ticket.
Air New Zealand is crap. Every time I've flown with them on this trip, I've had to waiting in a horrible line because apparently they can't work out web check-in, and twice now, someone behind the desk has spent a bit of time aggressive pointing out to me that *I* obviously was mistaken about something. And if I have to watch that Richard Simmons safety video one more time...okay, I'm ranting. Back to the topic at hand.
Which is the sun rising over the Jetpark Hotel in Auckland this morning.
Almost enough to make it worth the detour from Tahiti.
The sun is shining and the birds are chirping here on Christmas morning in Tahiti.
And Santa didn't find me. Was I naughty or does he not read this blog?
Today I travel to Auckland, sleep in a hotel, then proceed on to Tokyo the next morning.
Here is how I'm getting home. I realize it's a ridiculous itinerary, but it's all I could get. Star Alliance doesn't have a partner for the Tahiti-LAX or Tahiti-Honolulu route, so I have to back myself out. And I'm not allowed to backtrack on this ticket, so can't stay more than 24 hours in Auckland or Tokyo.
LAX is so close. But out of reach. I have to shower and pack, and then at 2:30, Beni will take me to the Papeete Airport, so that I can start this long, hideous process of sitting on airplanes and dragging luggage through immigration points.
"Come to the bar tonight." Earlier I'd promised our hakka-dancing, part-Vanuatuan waiter that I'd dance with him tonight, but I'd thought he meant at dinner, when the dance class and ukelele classes performed their final routine.
"Uh, bar?" I didn't want to go to a bar. I wanted to pack.
"Sure, come to the bar."
"Well, if you come to the bar then, I will see you there."
After our long day of activities on Rangiroa, we all were on the ship, heading back to Tahiti. I'm not sure of the time, but I think I started doing my laundry around 4 or 4:30 p.m. and events unfolded shortly thereafter.
Dance class was happening in the video room, which puts what happened next between 5 and 6. Probably closer to 6 as the French meeting about the next day's agenda began happening in the middle.
Let's start with facts, what I saw firsthand, then move on to what witnesses told me.
FACT: I was in the laundry room, which is several flights down from where the dormitory is located on the restaurant deck. I was using the dryer—which takes forever—when something odd happened outside. Water sloshed all over the porthole. Here's a quick video of what the window looked like moments before the water sloshed all over--odd, I thought. The sea was still. Rogue wave? I wasn't sure. I shortly learned that the ship had made a tight, sudden turn to loop back to where we'd just been.
I saw awkwardly on the little desk in the corner of the Aranui 3 dormitory. I couldn't have done this a week ago when my power strip had still been working and the desk had been covered in phones and cameras, but now with the power strip busted, there was plenty of space. I was waiting on someone to show up to repair my locker door, which had fallen off in my hands this morning. My French dorm-mates and I all had a good laugh over it, and now I hoped someone would show up to fix it before the day started.
Today we were all "swarming out" (as German guide Jorg likes to say) to various activities on the Tuamotu atoll of Rangiroa. We were now out of the Marquesas, having spent all yesterday at sea covering the distance from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus. I'd slept for a bit of it (I'd been up late the previous nice doing karaoke, which is not my thing but everyone had been so astonishingly bad at it that I hadn't been uncomfortable, plus I made 15-year-old Martin sing a duet of Summer Lovin' with me—at least I didn't make him do the Olivia Newton-John parts). I'd also sat around bullshitting with others for more hours than I should admit, given that I still have deadlines.
On our last day in the Marquesas, the ship woke up late.
We'd been docked back at Taiohae, Nuku Hiva since last night, and after Polynesian Night's festivities, I'd sat on the starboard side of the ship in the still night, grabbing the pay-ManaSpot hotspot signal that is strong on this quay, singing along quietly with the karaoke I could hear going on late upstairs on the pool deck.
By late, I mean we dragged ourselves out of bed between 7 and 8. My idea of late had changed—the sun is up early here and the day begins between 5 and 6.
Some people walked into town and some caught the bus. I got some work done in the lounge, but lots of others had the same idea and I ended up joking and chatting and did very little in the way of work.
"I'll go to the post office in Ua Pou this afternoon and use their signal," I told someone who asked if they were distracting me. The ship was sailing from Nuku Hiva to Ua Pou over lunch. That's the town where we had seen the bocce game. Kids play on the anchor rope in Ua Pou. It's a friendly place.
How had this happened? How had I ended up standing in front of the whole ship's passengers and crew on the Aranui's "Polynesian Night," ad-libbing into the microphone to introduce our parody of Jingle Bells? I don't even know how to deal with other people, remember? I live alone. I travel alone. I don't even like people most of the time.
But here I was, bullshitting my way through an introduction speech, then jingling my keys along as we sang an Aranui-themed version of a holiday classic.
Everyone on the ship, including the guides, was up and out on deck at six this morning.
We were all dressed and gawking with our cameras—the Aranui was performing a cool party trick this morning and no one wanted to miss it.
On approach to 'Ua Huka's bay of Vaipaee—which is rightly named Invisible Bay since it has a narrow mouth and doesn't really look like a bay until you're right up next to it and can see that there's a narrow passage between the cliffs—is too narrow to navigate the ship through. So the Aranui sits just outside of the inlet and sends cargo and us passengers in on barges. But 1) the ship has to get out of there later and 2) the ship could drift into the cliffs without constant vigilance, so the crew perfoms a fancy 180-degree turn first, effectively reversing into the bay, nose out. Then, to keep the Aranui in place between the cliffs, one of the crane operators wanders up into this cage as two crew members dons safety harnesses and hop into one of the green-and-white whaleboats.
I've surprised myself with my ability to exist in a dorm and interact all day with other people. I'd even taken to joking with one French man about him running around the dorm in his underwear, whereas before I'd just pretended not to see.
The sole limit to my tolerance seemed to be breakfast. I'd choose a table where I could be relatively alone at for my morning meal—picking one where three of the four place settings had already been used, or taking one next to French-speakers that didn't mix with others, of which there were a few though not many—and down a few liters of the ship's weak coffee before pleading with one of the staff for a bit of yogurt. I'd cut up whatever fruit—which would change depending on the output of whichever island we were near—we were given into a bowl on top of granola, and then douse it in yogurt and voila, a decent breakfast. I passed up the eggs and bacon every morning. I'd had quite enough eggs in the earlier part of MariesWorldTour.
On Sunday morning, one of the French women called my attention to the dorm's power strip, which was actually my power strip.
"Marie, it isn't working."
I'd bought the power strip in Papeete for five bucks at the local equivalent of a dollar store, and didn't plan on keeping it, but its resignation was five days early, and now eight of us would have to recharge our cameras and phones from a single outlet.
I shrugged, apologized for my feeble piece of electronics, and tossed it in the trash (then hilariously, a few minutes later, a different French women retrieved it to take to Reception to demand a new one—results TBD). I'd wondered why my camera battery had stopped charging early last night after our our afternoon excursion to Vaitahu, Tahuata.
Tahuata, just 4 kilometers away from Hiva Oa, is the smallest populated island in the Marquesas. The main village, which we had anchored next to, is called Vaitahu, and like most places we'd seen, it's a small village set against dramatic craggy hills carpeted in green foliage and trees. This shoreline was dramatic and rocky, and more importantly, this island featured a pig on a leash.
The English and German-speaking guests disembarked by barge at eight this morning for our excursion to the Iipona archeological site above Puamau, Hiva Oa. The French passengers were told to be ready for 8:30. At least Aranui had halved the swarms of people all descending into a small harbor at one time.
SUVs whooshed us up the hill to Iipona (admission 300 francs, pay at Therese Snack Bar, please—included on Aranui trips), where we were left in a mossy clearing in the woods. Five tikis surrounded us, including a frog-like woman tiki and also the largest tiki in Polynesia. The female tiki—Tiki Maki Taua Pepe—is said to represent a woman who died during childbirth, and was carved by her partner as a way to sooth her spirit, so she would protect the community rather than torment it. An animal is carved into the reddish base of the tiki.
"They are not prepared for tourists," groused one of the ship's passengers, an expat from New Caledonia. "They should have this set up for tourists, but they are only doing the dancing for themselves, to show off to other islands. This whole thing is for locals, not for tourists."
"That is why I'm here," I thought, then edged away from her. You can't find the holy grail of non-beaten-paths and then complain that it's not touristy enough.
We were standing under a tree, cowering from the brutal sunlight with 35 other Aranui passengers as we tried to figure out where we were supposed to go to watch the morning's dances here on the second day of the Festival of the Arts of the Marquesas. We'd been told there was a covered place for us, but no one knew where that might be and the ship's guides were still transferring the other passengers by bus from where the barge had dropped them on the beach to the Tohua, the outdoor stage, which was a grassy square surrounded by a couple of lean-tos and one pavilion for VIPs.
Men in traditional dress pounded on drums while each island's delegation walked, shimmied, or hakkaed onto the grassy football field on the edge of Taiohae. This was the Festival of Marquesan Arts, which happens once every four years. Like Leap Year, but with drums.
I cowered under a scarf while a woman from Tahiti explained to me what was going on. "Now that's the Catholic priest doing a prayer. Now they will sing hymns. Now there will be speeches."
At the speeches, a low groan went over the crowd. Half the people left, so I did too, to head downtown to walk around and see what handicrafts were on offer.
In the afternoon, we went to an event that showcased traditional tattooing, basket and hat-weaving, and wood carving.
The Ua Pou delegation was demonstrating the wood carving. One of the Aranui passengers bought an exquisite piece with an ax-head on one end and what looked like a giant tusk on the other (sort of like a huge wooden bottle opener) for 25,000 frances, which is roughly $250.
I'm jealous. I might have to buy a piece too, though the carver told me he couldn't sell them until after the dances tomorrow. The team is using the pieces in their dance.
A French man was documenting the Ua Pou delegations experience here as part of a larger project, and he translated for me as I asked questions to the carver about when I could buy a piece from him.
The ship had pulled into Nuku Hiva's port of Taiohae sometime during the night, but apparently the wifi signal doesn't work until "someone goes into the gas station and turns on the router."
Lots of people desperate for news from home were giving me the hairy eyeball in the the lounge. I'd positioned myself by the window, where I could grab the paid signal with my username and password I'd purchased while in Tahiti. I was starting to fear for my safety when I realized it was time to disembark for our "safari."
We all disembarked by walking down the portable stairs to the dock. There, dozens—maybe 50 or 60—of Land Rover, Toyota Hiluxes, and any 4WD the island of Nuku Hiva could dig up waited for us. Every vehicle came with a driver, decked out in a yellow button-up shirt.
For once, I didn't wake up frozen in place by the knowledge that 7 people were bustling about right where I had to perform acrobatic moves to descent from my bunk via a small ladder.
That's because we were due to have a wifi signal in the lounge this morning and it was only five a.m. I was determined to get online and send my outgoing mails before the signal rush.
I spider-shuffled my way down the berth—ouch, hell, what was that? Oh, so THAT's why the sprinkler head at forehead-level was duct-taped with padding—and flopped down the ladder. I pulled on my clothes in the one large bathroom, grabbed my laptop, and headed upstairs to the lounge.
Where the wifi signal was slow but reliable until too many people joined the network. It slowed down, but was still working until one couple came in and sat down.
I didn't notice it was off at first, but then Judy's MacBook Air wouldn't go online. It wasn't her. See if you can identify the culprits here.
I peeked out of the curtain on my top bunk in the dorm on the Aranui combination freighter/passenger vessel. We were almost to Fatu Hiva, and I had to find my way out of bed. More importantly, I had to pee.
But the other dorm residents were standing under my bed in the tiny corridor, shuffling back and forth to begin their days.
Again I was faced with the issue of crawling out of the top bunk while avoiding the sprinkler hub with the ladder being by my feet, people just below, and no way to get out gracefully due to the shallow depth of the berth. My feet had to go first and I'd been scooting/shuffling out for a few days.
I awoke in my top bunk and stared at the ceiling for a while.
What the hell am I doing, I thought. 15 days in a dorm, stuck in a shallow top bunk with no privacy retreat on the whole ship! I live alone. What made me think I could do this? I didn't even want to go to breakfast. There would be other people at breakfast, all crowding around the buffet table for dibs on salami, weak coffee, and cheese.
Eventually, my body rebelled against lying prone in the top bunk—I'd taken my Kindle to bed early last night, coincidentally reading the first of Jack London's South Sea Tales the night we'd gone to Fakarava, setting for his hurricane and pearl story, and there's only so much time you can lie down in a confined space—and made me scrunch my way to the bottom of the bed where the ladder lives.
I peeked out of the curtain, waiting for a moment when I wouldn't stick my foot in someone's face in the aisle.
There, now's my chance.
I stuck one foot on the ladder. My other foot was curled up underneath me and wasn't going to be able to swing around to get on the ladder. I couldn't lift my body to move my head due to being hindered by something immoveable above me. I pushed it—oh, the ceiling. I needed a new plan.
Pulling my foot back in, I tried again, this time catching on to leverage my weight against my locker to lift my body out of the bunk and onto the ladder.
Breakfast was at six, since we were leaving the ship at 7:30 for a two-hour quick trip to the atoll of Fakarava.
I'd read about atolls in the book "Sex Lives of Cannibals," but I didn't really understand what one was until I was looking at the Lonely Planet map of Fakarava. It's a doughnut-shaped bit of land with water in the middle-hole. Only the doughnut is really, really skinny in comparison to the hole, which is really the inside of an extinct, underwater volcano full of sea water instead of lava. Now imagine people living on the rim, as if it were an island with a doughnut hole in the middle of it. The people are sprinkles. And not all of the doughnut is visible—some of it is below the water, and is called a pass.
"Yoyo," said the man in authority to the bartender. "Her drinks are on the house."
I could get used to this, I thought, sipping my mango juice that chased the Nespresso coffee. I'm not a fan of instant, even gourmet instant, but it beat the free stuff in the lounge, and I'm a fan of "on the house."
The man in authority, who might even be ship's captain, or maybe chief engineer or consultant or manager, of even chef, had sat down at my table at lunch.
"Blah blah blah chef blah," said the server who placed the chef at the center of our table.
"Chef," I thought. "Maybe I can tell him I'm allergic to seafood." But of course he wasn't the chef, he was the chief of something—though I'm not sure exactly what. This was all done in French, so I had to catch on that chef didn't mean head cook before I realized someone important had taken me to Yoyo's bar and given me free coffee and juice.
He's Romanian by birth but fluent in English and French as well as Romanian. I think he's more the ship's mascot than anything else. Eventually, I asked if he'd been on-board when my friend Amanda (who we last saw in Sydney, where she was visiting en route to a New Zealand cruise on a work assignment) was on the Aranui.
I woke up at four and checked the clock in my Tahiti guesthouse. Was I late? I had so many things to do before getting on the ship for the two week journey to the Marquesas.
No, I wasn't late. I was early. But then, I reasoned, I might as well get up. I had a long list of outstanding items to finish up during my last few hours of decent wifi. And anyway, who can sleep when they're worried about spending two weeks in a dorm on a ship, with no refuge, shared showers and toilets, no way out?
I'd finished my Christmas shopping yesterday, ordering presents to my mother's house for late Christmas when I arrived home at the end of December. Now I paid for more phone credit, more French Polynesian wifi credit, and extra SMS-to-email credits. I figured I'd have more chances to use my phone than my computer over the next two weeks in the Marquesas. My job would have to wait—I wasn't getting it done in the next three hours.
I headed back to Tahiti on the once-weekly flight from Easter Island/Rapa Nui. Leaving felt a little weird, like I'd just started to figure out this little-town-turned-tourist-attraction and then it was time to leave.
My adorable French-Rapa Nui family left me at the airport with some kind of feather charm that mean I was destined to return.
"Je vais rentrer," I said clumsily. They smiled politely. Maybe they understood.
And now I am back in Tahiti, about to board the Aranui 3 freighter for two weeks sailing the Marquesas. I'll have internet intermittently. Like *really* intermittently, and slow at that. In fact, it may seem like I'm dead. But I'll post when I can, and I can post from my phone if I can find a signal.
Check the Twitter feed at the middle right of this page to get my most current status.
Which is probably "miserable," given that this is a ship full of other people, and we all know I don't play well with groups. ;)
I dragged myself out of bed at 5:30 this morning and headed up to the far end of the island for sunrise...
...and got a hazy, overcast day.
But the clouds parted just enough for the sun to peek through for a few minutes after I waited a while, so yes, it was worth it. (Though nothing is open at eight in the morning in Hanga Roa, so I went to a cave until nine when I could get a cortado at one of the two town coffee shops.)
I spent Monday in a rental car, driving around and looking at the sights on Easter Island (Rapa Nui).
The shore is rough, rocky, and stunning, but with the occasional swimming hole and a sandy white beach at the far end. Moai are here and there, some having been re-erected by various teams experimenting with different ways that the original inhabitants might have raised the massive granite figures. Most of the Moai are lying on the ground or partially buried, but those that stand are imposing. They aren't so mysterious—they don't seem to come to life out of the corner of your eye or seem likely to have walked themselves from the quarry. They're solid rock, firmly in place unless an earthquake or tsunami happens along to dislodge them.
My host had given me a map and numbered the sights I should see, so that I could arrive at the quarry, with the dozens of half-buried heads visible above the grass, at the best time for photographing.
I spent my first few days on Easter Island being completely disoriented. How could it be the same time as in New York? How had I been jerked back to real-time exchanges with my own world when I knew damn well I was west of there? And if I hadn't had a map, I had the sun. Time is wrong on Rapa Nui, simply put.
And that just adds to the quirks of this enigmatic enclave, part-worldly tourist hotspot and part family-oriented small town.
Which just happens to be in the middle of the world's largest ocean.
Breakfast with the family that owned my guesthouse happened every morning at 8:45 a.m. Accommodations (and everything, really) are almost all homegrown here, with the hotels being family projects and the guesthouses being in small cabins behind the family home. There is also a hostel/backpackers/campground, but I'd run some calculations and quickly realized that a charming family with a fantastic little room and terrace with included airport transfers, free wifi, and breakfast for $50 a night beat all other options, even though I did get tired of people asking me what I'd done today.
That's like having a normal family back home, isn't it? I've been living alone too long.
Here's a few photos for you. I'm on Rapa Nui, utterly confused about the time and date as somehow, I'm in my home time zone, but the time isn't really that. I can't even sleep at night because my body knows it's not really the time the clock says it is--Chile has arbitrarily put Rapa Nui on its own time for convenience but the sunrise and sunset are just so WRONG in when they happen, according to my internal clock.
On the plus side, I can stay out really late looking at giant stone heads. I just can't sleep once I finish.
I spent the day alternating between working on my laptop and being savaged by mosquitoes while waiting for my evening flight from Tahiti to Rapa Nui (Easter Island).
Ever since I took that anti-parasite medication in Bangkok, mosquitoes have been biting me, though they didn't like me at all before this. The two items probably aren't related but it's tough to fight off the inclination to draw a connection.
Finally, just before my host drove me to the airport, I went into the hotel bathroom.
Where I noticed a big zit right on the tip of my nose.
And here's me with a date with giant stone heads. The horror.