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The Time of our Lives

June 22, 2011

June 14, 2011

My wife and I lead different lives. And while this remark may seem beyond obvious to any married couple, consider the following:

On the morning of my audience with William and our co-creation of the “nice Marquesan dictionaire,” my wife left our San Francisco home on the 6 A.M. flight for Chicago. As she sped across country at an altitude of 39,000 feet, I explored a trail on the east side of Hanaiapa Bay that led up into the mountains toward those rocks too large to be boulders and the waterfall I’d spied on entering. Joanna ordered a club soda and wondered if she’d seen the in-flight movie as I walked a broad, rock-lined path free of over growth that, true to type, dwindled as it proceeded toward ridge top. For a time it became a clear single-track trail, then a goat track where droppings replaced bread crumbs. Then for long stretches it was nothing at all. I got to the base of the boulders on all fours, the largest of which were overhung and scrawled with the word TAPU in large capital letters (“tabu” in Marquesan), before stopping for lunch and then turning back.

While my wife snoozed over the Rocky Mountains, I wandered lost on the side of a nearly vertical gorge covered in wild cardamom where goat trails intertwined but always found ways to lead out onto scrabbley cliff edges whose only advantage was that if I slipped, I would not bounce before being swallowed by the surf. By this time the rock and low scrub had scraped most of the skin off my shins. My left knee was swollen, the result of a bee sting.

That evening Murre’s cabin temperature held steady at 80 degrees, as it had been now for months, while Joanna dashed into buildings to get out of the cold. I prepared a dinner of lentils with rice and ate standing over the galley sink; my wife dined at a sushi restaurant.

While she slept, I weighed anchor. Murre and I departed for the next Marquesan island to the north, round Ua Pou, at midnight. The forecasted trades to twenty knots did not develop beyond five knots dead astern, so we motored the 65 miles to Hakahau Bay and saw nothing but stars. My wife rode in taxis to meet with clients in the high rises of Chicago and led conference calls for her staff in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, while I slowly approached an island only ten miles wide but four thousand feet high and whose population struggles toward 2,000. Here the airport receives five flights a week from a twin-engine plane holding up to fifteen passengers; the supply ship comes once in three. It is the very definition of rural, except that its mountains of gray granite spire above the jungle and into the cloud like ancient, fossilized sky scrapers, a metropolis of rock whose penthouses are reserved for the tropic birds.

Murre moved gently above the milky water of this tiny bay and a full moon rose through the acacias on the hill as Joanna boarded another plane, this one for New York. She fastened her seat belt, turned off her cell phone, and, as if by reflex, tuned out the litany of flight attendant warnings while I watched women on the beach practice hula and men return their canoes to the rack after a late evening row.

Next day was eventful in Ua Pou–the copra steamer, Aranui 3, arrived. From the harbor mouth it off-loaded two work boats on the fly that sped about the bay ensuring that Aranui had enough room to maneuver between the anchored sailboats on one side and the concrete riprap on the other. Slowly the white, twin craned ship rolled up channel and then spun while the work boats ran lines to shore easing its 300 feet of steel and tons of cargo into place with such a slow grace it was as though the wharf were magnetic. Immediately the gangway lowered, disembarking its French passengers before the safety net could be rigged. They filed up the pier to the palapa on the beach where locals had, hours and hours earlier, set up tables stacked with bone and seed necklaces, carved stones, dark wooden tikis with polished shells for eyes. Three men with ukuleles jammed away in the corner, smiling so broadly as they played they could barely keep their mouths singing.

Back at the ship the real work got underway. The cranes rose and lowered forklifts to the pier that began to shift within reach of the ship the crates of oranges, limes, bananas, noni, copra, and case upon case of empty Hinano beer bottles being returned to the Tahiti brewery for recycling. As if by way of exchange, a large racing canoe was lowered onto the dock, as was a small fishing boat, an old dump truck, two pallets of lumber, two white refrigeration containers.

All the dock work was done by the ship’s crew and all the crew members were Polynesian. A local sitting next to me pointed out the captain, a casually dressed man indistinguishable from the other workers except for the large briefcase he carried–cash, I was told, to pay villagers for the goods taken onboard. The crew, he said, was mostly Tahitian, except for the men running the forklifts and manning the chain hooks for the crane. These men were always from the Austral Islands because “they like the heavy work.” Those locals not selling wares in the palapa or meeting friends or receiving goods lined the rocks and the beach watching as if this routine delivery was a parade.

But Ua Pou wasn’t the only happening place. In New York my wife rose early and caught a cab from her Union Square hotel down to Wall Street. Many from her company were already there, and all were gathering to participate in a rare and historic event for any company–its initial public offering. The street pounded with automobiles–the sound of horns, the screech of brakes, and that low, throbbing white noise that is the unsleeping voice of the city. Sidewalks were so crowded with people on their way to work that stopping outside the stock exchange risked a pile up. Joanna had her picture taken there at the epicenter of world commerce.

Early the next morning I sipped coffee from Murre’s cockpit as my wife boarded a plane for San Francisco. I admired mount Putetainui, a gray column rising straight up out of the earth, sheer all the way to its summit at 3,200 feet. Up and into the clouds it pushed with a purpose and poise not unlike the Empire State Building. I wondered if the ridge to its base had a goat trail.

Joanna’s friends roll their eyes when she describes what her husband is up to–“How can you let him do that? Aren’t you scared? Aren’t you lonely?”–and likewise, cruisers I meet are deeply suspicious that a couple can be happy when one of its constituents is still a “wage slave in the big city.” But adventure’s definition is no more uniform than normality’s. Each is subject to context and perspective in equal measure. My wife speaks of my time in “paradise” with envy, and I miss her and our neat, little home near Golden Gate Park more than I can tell. But the truth is that we’re both having the time of our lives.

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One Comment
  1. June 22, 2011 9:45 pm

    I miss you too baby. 🙂

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