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Logs & Stories - November 2005
Passage to Pago Pago
November 2, 2005
It's day six of our passage, and we've only gone about a third of the way to Samoa because the wind is so light. My expectation before departing was that we would have gone twice as far at this point. We're sailing at about two and a half knots out in the middle of nowhere, due south of the state of Hawaii (W157-degrees) and at about the same latitude as Samoa.
We had moderate winds the first couple of days, pushing Seafire at about five knots, but since then it's really slowed down. Yesterday we did about 50 miles, an average of two knots. Based on our prior experiences I'd grown to believe the boat would self-steer with the windvane down to about a knot and a half, but with the flat seas and a little tweaking of the gear I've been able to get things to work down to about half a knot -- this is actually really good news; having to hand-steer in light air means you can't sit and read a book as you drift along. We've only had a few brief periods of motionlessness, when the boat completely quits moving and you tend to spin in circles.
This passage is a real contrast with the one from the Marquesas (read below). Slow but calm because the energy in the world around us isn't generating enough power to break anything.
November 3, 2005
Day 7, and the wind has filled in from the east. Not a lot, mind you -- maybe 8-10 knots -- but enough to keep the boat going about four knots in the right direction. We're now just under 662 miles from Samoa, six days at five knots, two weeks at two knots.
At this point we've been on passage long enough to settle into a routine, letting our lives develop something of a rhythm. Here's the typical day:
Karryn takes the early morning watch (2am-6am), and the kids join her in the cockpit around 6am, daybreak. At that point they take over the watchkeeping, looking around and doing occasional radar checks to keep us from running into things like unforeseen squalls or the sides of freighters. Karryn generally does two email sessions a day, one around 6-7am, the other around 6-7pm. As Karryn works on the computer and the kids keep an eye on things in cockpit, I lounge in bed and ponder what it would be like to be fully awake.
Around 7 or 7:30am my body actually starts to move a little, primarily motivated by Karryn's desire to send and receive email and the fact that the transmission coming from the antenna under bunk will zap my ass unless I scrunch myself into the forward end of the bed. This always requires an increase in awakeness due the fact that the motion of the waves could cause me to roll out of bed onto the cabin sole should I fail to pay attention adequately. I lay there, gradually gaining consciousness, constant thoughts of "Am I gonna fall out of bed?", and "Is the tingling I'm feeling coming from the SSB antenna?" running through my head.
After she does email, I climb from the bunk and attend to making coffee, the coffee ritual gradually transitioning into breakfast. Breakfast, in fact, food in general, is becoming more challenging. We'd expected this passage to last no more than a week and a half, and it now looking like it could go twice that long. We have enough food to keep from starving, but we'll definitely run out of the tasty stuff. Conscious of this, we're working at eating the icky things gradually, so that our diet doesn't become entirely repulsive as we get closer to Samoa.
This morning Naomi had cereal (which she likes), Jackson and I had New Zealand corned beef, greasy strands of animal flesh imbedded in globs of fat. Jackson is pretty good about picking out the ickier pieces of goo before Karryn cooks the stuff. We bought this stuff back on Raiatea, and quickly became so disgusted with it that we've left if alone in the bilge. We're eating it gradually now, though, mindful of what it would be like to have to eat the stuff three meals a day,
The day after breakfast has a slow-paced homogeneity to it, the daily tasks getting done when they seem reasonable. Karryn pretty much immediately (around 8am or so) takes a two hour nap, catching up on the sleep she lost over the night, we wash faces and brush teeth. The kids stay on watch in the cockpit, reading and attending to their math homework. I do whatever the hell I want -- set a fishing line (we haven't yet actually caught a fish), snuggle and nap with Karryn, read, set up the watermaker to produce water, pour full jugs into the tank, bathe, adjust the sails and windvane, occasionally gybe (maybe once a day). Sometime in the afternoon, I get out a chart and plot our positions at midnight and noon. There are generally a couple of naps in there somewhere, getting rested for the night to come.
Karryn starts cooking dinner around 5:30pm, and we end up eating around sunset as the light fades from the sky. She and the kids share the first watch of the night, 7-10pm, while I sleep, then I take the 10pm-2am shift.
We left right before the new moon, so the nights have been particularly dark, what little light there is provided by stars, the Milky Way a glowing band across the sky. We're in a section of the ocean that has little commercial traffic (we've only seen three ships on radar, all on the same night; my presumption is that we were crossing the route between Panama and New Zealand), and relatively benign weather, so I do most of my reading at this time.
Right now I'm reading three books: photographer/writer/dancer Erika Langley's "Lusty Lady" an autobiography of her experiences at this downtown Seattle institution, an office romance novel called "Boy Meets Girl", and the New Testament. The first two, being primarily focused on some aspect of sexuality, are pretty easy reads, even at night when it's sometimes hard to stay awake. The New Testament has been slower going.
Karryn comes on deck at 2am, I have a snack and replace her in the bunk. Because her vision, particularly her night vision, isn't as good as mine she spends her watch in contemplation and stargazing rather than reading.
November 5, 2005
It's 3 pm and we're now 58 miles from the island of Suwarrow. For the last two days our speed has popped up to around three knots, about 80 miles a day. Far short of the 120 miles we'd averaged on the transit from Mexico, but an improvement over the 50 miles we were doing a few days back. We might have to slow things down, though. With the distance remaining, if we average more than four knots we'll arrive at night, the island's pass too dangerous to attempt in darkness.
Naomi tells me the GPS says we're doing 4.3 knots. Uh-oh. Might have to take down the jib, even lay ahull without sails if we're still going too fast.
Suwarrow is going to be an interesting stop. It's an atoll, a nearly land-less circular reef with a lagoon in the middle, the remnant of an ancient high island that has since subsided into the ocean floor as the coral reef around it continued growing upward, maintaining itself level with the ocean surface. Our chart shows two-dozen small islets scattered around the reef, the total land area of 0.4 square miles less than 1% of the total area circumscribed by the reef.
Atolls are actually fairly common in the Pacific. The Tuamotus, a band of atolls between the Marquesas and Society islands in French Polynesia, comprise most of the islands in that part of the ocean. Micronesia, where we're likely to be headed next, only has two high islands, Kosrae and Pohnpei, amid a multitude of atolls. This one, though, has been mostly uninhabited, for most of the past half-century housing only one or two people. Tom Neal, a hermetic New Zealander and author of 'An Island to Oneself', lived there from 1952 until his death in 1977; now the island is a Marine Park occupied by one or two caretakers.
Because the lack of human habitation, the island has a pretty pristine ecosystem: "The snorkeling in the lagoon is fantastic, with lots of shark action", claims one of our guidebooks. In one of Bernard Moitessier's books he comments on the multitude of these sharks. When we were snorkeling in Tahiti and Raiatea, I was a little shocked at the lack of marine life, very different from the experiences my brother and I had spearfishing thirty-five years ago, and I'm looking forward to a lagoon chock full of fish. The shark thing has my attention, though -- I'm a lot more comfortable being in water where I'm the only big predator. We'll see if I'm brave enough to take a swim.
I'm ready for a break from sailing. This passage has been pretty easy, light and mostly consistent winds, but longer than we'd planned. (The editor is having to figure out how to cook all the staples that have been stowed aboard for years...) My life's favorite moments are typically at night -- waking up briefly, moving a few inches over in bed and snuggling up to Karryn. Since the boat has been in motion one of us has generally been in the cockpit while the other is in bed and the sensual aspects of my existence, while not gone entirely, are much diminished and tempered by fatigue.
November 12, 2005
We entered Pago Pago's harbor at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning and were stunned. The place was visually spectacular, the bay a deep indentation in a lush, green island, nearly vertical jungled walls rising from the water's edge. I'd expected the place to look like an industrial park. For nearly four decades, I'd heard cruisers refer to Pago Pago as the "Armpit of the Pacific", a place full of canneries, freighters and pollution. I'd read Paul Theroux's 'Happy Isles of Oceania'; he thought of the place as a welfare state and spent his days there worrying about theft and pan handling. I didn't see any of this.
When we arrived, I found instead a lovely bay, on the right about halfway into it a cannery complex, immediately across on the left a typical looking wharf and then a small town. The town was small, 3500 people according to our guide books, made up primarily of one-story wooden structures and having a large field centrally located. It looked something like a typical western town sitting on a flat spot amid the steep slopes of vegetation.
We needed to clear in with the authorities, so we looked for the customs wharf. Already against it was a 40-foot sailboat named Sur le Pont. We slowly motored by, and two guys standing on the wharf motioned for us to tie up. We went into motion, pulling fenders out of the amas, dock lines out of the lockers, and slowly drove Seafire over to tie up on the outside of the sailboat. The boat's owner, a macho-looking Kiwi named Mike, called the various authorities -- Customs, Immigration, Agriculture -- and arranged for them to visit.
When we called, the authorities were busy attending to a freighter that had also arrived that morning. About an hour later they showed up to check us in. We were told earlier that because we'd arrived on a weekend, we should expect to have to pay overtime charges; it turned out this amounted to $7.50/hr for the supposed two hours (really 15 minutes) that each official took to check us in, except in the case of the Immigration official. He originally told me I'd need to pay $50 for overtime fees; I grinned and said, "Geez, that sounds a little high."
"Well, how about $25?" he asked.
Hmmm. Well, it wasn't that long until Christmas, and I figured the guy's daughter could use a new Barbie. "Okay."
It turned out Karryn had only three US ones and no fives to go with her roll of twenties.
"Is $23 okay?" "Sure." We settled. Merry Christmas.
By the way, I didn't feel at all bad about this. When we came to Mexico, I recognized that we were leaving the "Land of Lots O' Dough" and going to a place where money was harder to come by. I also recognized that, by virtue of my nationality, race, gender, family background and a whole slew of other things completely not of my own doing, I'd been able to get enough money together to spend middle age doing some traveling with my wife and kids. Quite a spot to land in. I resolved not to chafe at the thought of occasionally sharing my abundance with the local representatives of officialdom. Plus the guy seemed generally decent and I'm sure his daughter, the one who needed the Barbie, was really sweet.
We completed the check-in and then turned our attention to the next task: getting fresh food. The trip from Bora Bora had taken longer than expected, and food that didn't emerge from a can sounded pretty appetizing. We walked into town, looked the place over. Among the more wonderful finds was a Chinese restaurant, very close to the wharf, named 'Famous II'; we quickly resolved to return for dinner.
The name Pago Pago refers to the harbor, and there isn't actually a town by that name. Along the bay's coastline are a series of communities; one of the smaller ones at the bay's innermost end is named Pago, and the largest one, the community of 3500 where the boat was docked, is named Fagatogo.
Here's a note on pronunciation. Due to a mystery beyond my comprehension, any word in Samoan that contains a "g" is missing the "n" that should be immediately before it. Pago Pago is really pronounced 'Pango Pango' and Fagatogo is pronounced 'Fanga-tongo'. These sorts of things confuse the hell out of me; I really can't understand why somebody along the way hasn't fixed the screw-up. But then, I keep wondering the same thing about words like 'knight'.
Our quick tour through town, a lovely, low-key place of happy-looking Samoans and small Chinese stores, found us with our primary objective: fresh fruit and cold drinks. We came back to Seafire to enjoy our abundance and nap, then, that evening, returned to Famous II for a marvelous dinner of take-out Chinese food. Delicious!
November 15, 2005
The next day we got to know Mike better. A Kiwi, he'd come to American Samoa to work as the operations manager for the port facility. Impressive and macho-looking, Mike's appearance was a little scary: stout, muscular build, clean shaven head accompanied by goatee surrounded by a few days stubble, tattoos scattered here and there. A single, unwed father, he'd brought his teenage son to Pago Pago with him, and for the next two years spent his days supervising the movement of containers and his evenings supervising his son. The son had eventually decided he didn't favor high school in Samoa, thought of dropping out, but, after spending a month working aboard a fishing boat at sea, thought that giving a shot at completing school in New Zealand might be a good idea. He returned home to live with his mother, a somewhat uncomfortable situation because she had moved onto another marriage and a new, younger family.
Mike started working the problem of following him back to New Zealand. Pago Pago's harbor houses a number of cruising boats, perhaps a dozen, most of them occupied by folks that have settled in and become part of the community. A few are unoccupied, left unattended for years by people who have gone onto other things, sometimes because they found that the traveling lifestyle didn't suit them, sometimes because their health failed, in either case realizing that the long, upwind slog back to the US mainland wasn't in the cards. Mike managed to pick up one of these boats, a solid-looking fiberglass 40-foot sloop, for $10,000. A real steal, for the time being it would make a great home, and he figured he could sell it for $70,000 in New Zealand.
When we arrived, he was getting ready to make the transit: hurricane season was setting in and his visa was about to expire. We stayed moored alongside him as he prepared for the passage. The passage from tropical South Pacific to New Zealand is said to be a challenging one, and for Mike it was likely to be even more so because he planned to make it singlehanded. Boats typically congregate in Tonga, and then, when the weather looks favorable, they make the dash! The trick is, the passage takes ten days and the storms float through every seven.
And Mike, while blessed with good mechanical skills and common sense, was a novice sailor aboard a poorly maintained boat he wasn't yet familiar with. Surely a challenge. I spent as much time with him as possible, talking to him about problems I'd run into and their resolution. Discussing sail trim, the importance of getting the boat to balance so that the self steering was less likely to fail, so that hand steering would be less laborious if it did.
November 18, 2005
While tied to the wharf next Mike's boat, we took advantage of our convenient proximity to land -- no dinghy to launch, no row across the bay -- and made frequent trips into town to explore. We took advantage of the eating opportunities, too. We made another trip to the Chinese restaurant, and then hit another establishment for a dose of Mexican. Within a couple of days, though, the Chinese place was calling to us again, this time with disastrous results.
We'd gotten two dishes, and had each eaten different quantities of them depending up our various tastes and inclinations. It was a great meal: I washed it down with a healthy quantity of red wine. We all went to bed feeling pretty comfortable with the world.
At 12:30 I awoke feeling nauseous. Karryn laughed and teased me: "That's what you get for overindulging in red wine! Ha!" Not one to toy with an upset stomach, I puked into the galley sink in a calm and forthright manner, and then drank a few glasses of water to dilute the concoction in my stomach. It never happens this way for Karryn -- when she pukes, she does so with great emotion, crying and wailing about how painful it is. I have so much more self-control.
** WARNING: Gross experience about to be replayed for your benefit **
(Skip the rest of this web entry if you want to.)
I lay down in bed again, feeling a bit better, but then a short time later started feeling another onset of nausea. Uh, oh! Suddenly, I felt urgency: my stomach was developing great pressure. I twisted my body around, preparing to climb out of our bunk, suddenly aware that I MIGHT NOT MAKE IT. I clamped my mouth shut tight as I scrambled. I could feel it about to happen: as I put my feet on the cabin floor and moved toward the sink, the muscles in my stomach contracted with vigor. I could feel the geyser coming up. I bit hard, but couldn't stop the ugliness. Just as I my face neared the sink it happened: puke the flavor of sweet and sour chicken, red wine and stomach acid shot out my nose.
I finished the act as gracefully as I could, but the experience didn't end there. For the next half day, I had the burning sensation of that awful, potent concoction in my nasal passages.
We didn't return to Famous II for a fourth helping.
Bill started complaining about his stomach sometime after midnight. He'd had a bit of red wine (and beer and tequila) to drink, so I made the erroneous assumption that it was the alcohol. I didn't have too much sympathy as he got up and promptly puked in the galley sink. After he cleaned up and returned to bed, I noticed my stomach didn't feel all that great either, but made another erroneous assumption that it was due to listening to him.
My body doesn't like to relinquish calories, be they in fat cells or merely floating in my stomach. In fact, my mother told me two things about the first memory I have of throwing up (I was in 1st grade): it was the first time I had done so since I was an infant, and I seemed more upset about vomiting than I was at being ill. Now, instead of getting nauseous and then getting the whole thing over with, I lie around for hours, miserably on the edge, struggling to keep it all down, drawing the whole awful experience out by at least a factor of ten.
So the first time I got sick was around 3 am. It was the most awful experience I've ever had emptying the contents of my stomach, and I got to repeat it three more times. The good news was that on subsequent occurrences there was no more stomach acid / Chinese food mixture to sear my throat and mouth; the bad news was there wasn't much of anything else either, but my stomach gave it the good old college try and made sure every last milliliter of fluid was ejected before quitting.
I will probably never eat sweet and sour chicken again.
The third time we got food from the Famous II restaurant across the street, the sweet and sour chicken gave us food poisoning. I woke up in the early morning to Mom crying and puking. Since I ate only one piece of the chicken, I didn't get sick. Naomi puked and dry heaved several times in the morning, because she ate a great deal more than I did. Mom and Dad (and especially Dad) had eaten platefuls, so they spent most of the day lying in bed.
I ate some canned fruit about mid-morning, and spent most of the afternoon playing on the computer in the forward cabin. Around sunset Mom and Dad were feeling a little better, and Naomi was feeling fine, so I heated up some of the canned Armor stew. We each had a bowlful. I don't really remember what happened after that but I think Mom and Dad ate some food and then we all went to sleep.
We only ordered two dishes, which were chicken chow mein and sweet & sour chicken. The first part of the night was fine, but that morning it was AWFUL. I believe that I threw up four times.
I will NEVER be able to eat sweet and sour chicken again in my life.
November 20, 2005
After being tied alongside 'Sur le Pont' for a week, we wanted to move out into the bay. Pago Pago is famous for dragging anchors -- based on the surrounding terrain, it seems that the bottom should be covered in heavy mud, but we've been told that above the mud are layers of plastic bags, recently deposited bags that foul the flukes of even the best anchors and cause them to slide smoothly over the more ancient bags lying beneath them. As it turned out, though, Mike's boat had occupied one of the few government-owned moorings, and, since he no longer had plans to tie to it, he suggested we could for the duration of our stay.
We tied to the mooring but each day we'd stop by the wharf, visit with Mike and find out how his departure plans were progressing. After six days the wharf was empty, and Mike was on his way home.
When we were in French Polynesia, I'd been wanting to go to church; I'd remembered doing this when I was ten and visiting on Soceress, and had images of a bright, white church interior, of beautiful Polynesian singing.
Now, mind you, I have just about no religious background and probably haven't been in churches more than a dozen Sundays in my life, but I'd just finished a passage that had been slow enough that I'd been able to read 300 pages of the New Testament, up through 'Philemon'. Maybe this time I'd have a clue about what they were talking about.
I dressed up in a white, short-sleeved shirt, and a clean pair of khaki shorts, grabbed my hiking stick and set off in the dinghy. I'd tried to get Karryn to go with me, but you know how rigid ex-Catholics can be. [The Editor says the service was too damn early in the morning to get up, dress up and then get all sweaty rowing into the beach...]
I'd picked my church earlier -- the one with the most impressive architecture, a big white building with a tall spire on either side of the large main door. Very inspiring. I went in and sat down in the back. It was a warm humid day; I had sweat dripping off my forehead. I looked across the pews and saw my friend from Immigration among the men's portion of the choir. I wondered: has he bought that Barbie yet?
A lovely young Samoan woman walked up, teased me about violating the dress code -- I had brown shorts rather than a blue lava lava like the other men present (a lava lava is traditional Samoan garb; the formal men's lava lava looks a bit like a cross between a man's skirt and chinos) -- then said something like, "I'll bet you really miss snow." This was a smart-ass reference to the fluid flowing down my face, drenching my shirt. She had in her hand a fan, and kindly waved it in my face. I became her friend for life.
As the church was filling, I was sitting in a mostly empty pew. When a large family came in looking for a place to congregate, I got up, offered them my space and then looked for another more appropriate for a single body. I found it on the other side of the church. I sat down, and within a few minutes who should show up but my newfound friend with the fan. She sat down immediately behind me and started fanning. I liked this church. It inspired an idea: replace the symbol of the cross, the electric chair of the first century, with the fan. Held by a lovely Samoan vahine. Now, there's something to worship.
Much of the sermon was in Samoan, and I had my normal experience: I had no idea what they were talking about. Because I'd just read some of the Good Book, though, the English portion sounded more familiar. Actually, the minister read two sections of Mark's Gospel that I remembered, one because I thought I understood it, the other because it baffled me.
The first section dealt with a storm that blew up when Jesus and the disciples were crossing a lake. Christ calmed the storm. I know how he did it, most good sailors do: he quit going against the waves, turned the boat downwind and went scooting along with the flow of things. I've done this a few times, too.
The other one, immediately following in Mark, was the story of a man possessed by legion of demons, which Jesus pulled out of him, cast into a herd of pigs and sent them running into a lake to drown. The meaning of this one completely eludes me.
I thought about discussing the stories with the minister, but then thought it better to remain quiet. Besides, I was enjoying the fanning.
After we had been in Pago Pago about a week it started raining. Constantly. The big mountain to the east of the bay is called Rainmaker Mountain. It rained at least once a day. I think we ran the engine a lot for power because of the lack of wind and sunlight. More than once, there were downpours when it rained so hard that the wind waves were pounded flat and the breeze was rendered ineffective.
Yeah, it kinda worked that way: as soon as we pulled away from the convenient-access-to-shore wharf and went onto the mooring, it started to rain like hell. Every day. Several times a day. We started looking at the other boats, the ones that had been in the bay for some time, and noticed the mold growing on their sides in interesting hues of purple and green. Being at anchor brought on some challenges in this regard -- by surveying the weather at appropriately-named Rainmaker Mountain, located at the windward end of the harbor, you could time your departure from Seafire via dinghy so that you remained dry until you arrived at the beach.
Returning dry wasn't so easy. Once you left a shop or got off the bus, there simply weren't that many places to duck out of the weather, and, once you were in the dinghy, the only strategy you had was to row as hard and fast as possible. One time, when Karryn came home with over 700 dollars' worth of groceries, we'd finished loading the dinghies just as a squall hit, with the inevitable sopping result.
Other than the rain, though, our stay on the mooring was quite pleasant. Sure, you were generally aware of the community's power plant churning away, but you also heard frogs and birds. Generally, you weren't aware of the canneries -- only occasionally did the wind shift and place us downwind of them; then, though, you were briefly treated to the scent of ten thousand tuna dying angrily. Those brief miseries were more than offset by seeing sea turtles and large schools of fish swimming in the bay.
We kept running into wonderfully pleasant locals. Many Samoans have served in the US Army, and as a result are familiar with the Pacific Northwest, having spent time living at Fort Lewis and Tacoma. One veteran told us he thought of western Washington as being his second home, and told us about a post-cricket tournament party in Seattle that was attended by hundreds of Samoans. We had a similarly pleasant conversation with the Harbormaster about his time in the Army served at Fort Lewis.
We also had inspiring interactions with folks that had never been to Washington, too. AJ and Alex, the two guys who worked at the local gas station where we went for diesel, propane and ice, greeted us enthusiastically whether we were seeing them at work or as they were watching a rugby game at the town's central grassy field. At the local Internet café, Don't Drink the Water, the owner gave us a basil plant when we were getting to depart for parts unknown, and his daughter shared her Sunday newspaper with us. When we visited the Pago Pago Yacht Club, with its incredible view of the coast and its plentitude of cold beverages, we were greeted warmly. When we took Karryn to the hospital for a medical check-up, we were treated well and the personnel made extra efforts to accommodate us and the oddities of departure-induced needs.
Nobody ever hassled us or hit us up for money. Except once: a ten year old kid I'd met on Mike's boat asked me for a quarter.
November 26, 2005
On the functional side, when we came to American Samoa we were expecting to depart for western Micronesia, the Marshall and Caroline Islands, and had a bit of an agenda. For starters, we were getting a bit low on food, and found an inexpensive source at CostULess, a local warehouse wholesaler started by locals who had at one time been CostCo employees. Also, our life raft was nearly five years old and in need of an inspection and we found a company to do it -- Safety Offshore Systems or SOS -- for $375 including flare replacements, about a third of what Nautisport in Papeete wanted. Another big point: SOS did pick up and delivery with the life raft and gave us a firm price beforehand; relatively uninterested Nautisport wanted us to lug the huge case in by bus and wasn't really sure what the cost would ultimately be. We needed some new clothes, particularly for our growing kids, and found them in Fagatogo. We'd been collecting books we didn't want to part with, and managed to mail 75 lbs. of them back to our storage unit on the mainland for only $28, thanks to the US Post Office.
Finally, we wanted to get several packages including our mail and parts from Fisheries Supply and West Marine. The US Post Office would have been reasonable for doing this, but had a time limit regarding how long they would hold things. Instead, we found a local charitable organization, the Seafarer's Center, currently being run by an English couple, Judy and Chris, and assisted by Jim, one of the local cruisers who had made Pago Pago his home. We visited a number of times to pick up our packages, and always had wonderfully pleasant interactions. While we were there, a boatload of Chinese sailors had been deposited on the beach, without English-language skills and a means to get home, and the folks at the Seafarer's Center came to their aid. With each visit we heard of their progress in solving the sailors' dilemma.
In order to accomplish all this, we needed to get familiar with the bus system, set up a bit differently than we'd been used to in the US mainland. For starters, the vehicles were family owned, and rather than school or city busses, they were trucks with wooden coverings built atop them, decorated with whatever the owners deemed appropriate -- family photos, pictures of Jesus, one even had a Bob Marley shrine. Almost always they had music playing, not soothing Polynesian tunes, mind you; instead, blaringly loud rap music, syntho-rock, and modern, base-heavy remakes of Christmas tunes.
The most amazing thing about the busses were the seats, though. Samoans are generally big people. These seats, wooden bench units perhaps 30 inches wide were barely wide enough to accommodate Karryn and I side by side, sitting closely; me alongside a large Samoan male was an experience in overwhelming intimacy.
November 28, 2005
As I write this we're sitting in Pago Pago harbor in American Samoa, making final preparations for the 1800-mile passage to Majuro in the Marshall Islands. The Marshalls, where the US did quite a bit of nuclear testing in the middle of the last century, are actually the last islands along a ridge of atolls that runs quite a distance, starting with the Tuvalu Islands at the southern end, transitioning into the Gilbert Islands, then into the Marshalls. My interest at this point is primarily in the Marshalls, in part because the charts I have of that group are far better than the others (coral heads still deeply frighten me), in part because the most of the Marshall Islands have about 500 people on them, versus about 5000 in Tuvalu and the Gilberts. Even so, it's possible that we could make an intermediate stop depending on weather and other circumstances.
Our planned ultimate destinations before returning to the US are Kosrae and Pohnpei, the only two high islands in the widely spread Caroline group, now organized into the nation of the Federated States of Micronesia. For some time now, I've had the desire to spend a year living on an island to get a sense of what this is like. When I was ten we spent nearly a year living on Oahu in the Hawai'ian Islands; I'd like to have this experience with the mind of an adult.
Kosrae is the smaller of the two islands, about 40 square miles (similar in size to the islands that we are now on), and having only about 8000 people. Pohnpei, I think, has more potential for us -- it's nearly 140 square miles, surrounded by an enormous reef structure, and has 35,000 people, a college and the central government for the FSM.
I'm going to apologize in advance for what I'm about to do: I'm going to send all of the text I've written since leaving Moorea. I'd intended to send things in bits steadily over time, but the transmission rates over on-board email are slow, and we've only recently found a land-based Internet cafe with reasonable speed. Since we're about to lose access to that cafe, I'm going to deluge you with verbiage, broken up in to a series of email segments. I hope it isn't too much.
Simple Pleasures came in a couple of days after we got out on the mooring. Simple Pleasures was a fifty-seven foot monohull with a family of four on board (Brett, Donna, Rhys, and Kendall). We met Rhys (pronounced like Reese's peanut butter cups) first, when he came over when Mom and Dad were gone for a couple of hours ashore. He came over in their inflatable (looking for other kids, apparently; we heard later that he goes around looking for kids every time they come into a anchorage). I told him that Mom and Dad were gone, and he went back.
That evening Naomi and I were sent over to socialize. We had a great time playing video games (they have a Playstation). Rhys turned one of the games into a (sick) comedy, with the main character shooting people randomly, hijacking police cars, and mooning angry police. The day after Rhys got banned from the Playstation for a week, so Rhys and I stayed over on our boat most of the time. We mostly played violent computer games and laughed at the funnier things that happened in them (other people might have called them sick and disgusting things). Naomi and Kendall stayed at Simple Pleasures most of the time. I don't want to know what they did. It probably had something to do with dolls or makeup.
We went out for dinner with them one night. We walked a half-mile to the restaurant to discover it was closed. Then we walked a half-mile back and a bit further to a different restaurant. For a while after we got there the grownups weren't sure we were going to stay, so Mom and Donna kept us from eating. Eventually they let up, and we (the kids) gorged ourselves. There were a couple of candles on the table, and Rhys and I had a good time creating a fire hazard. At some point after finishing the food, when the grownups were still talking, we went outside to prevent ourselves from dying of hypothermia due to the air conditioning. It was raining, and Rhys and I had good time shoving the girls (especially Naomi) out to get wet in the rain. After a while it stopped raining, and we alternated playing tag and stealing Naomi's shoes until we left. Once we got to the dock it became apparent it was about to rain again. The rain was faster than we were. When we got back we dried off and went to bed.
[Editor's note: On our return from our evening out, we were all in Simple Pleasure's fairly large inflatable equipped with a fairly large outboard, being lightly rained on. However, we could hear the deluge upwind of us and coming closer. Brett did his best to keep us ahead of it, but the last half of the return to the boat was in the mother of all downpours. We were as wet as if we'd all been swimming.]
Thanksgiving we had a chunk of ham (fried until properly juicy), potatoes, and potato chips. Naomi and Kendall put on enough makeup to look like some of those people in movies who were stuck in tubes full of toxic chemicals for a couple of weeks. Dad told us about Donna's story later. Apparently before she met Brett she had been run over by a car, breaking both her legs (this was the night before her wedding). Assuming she would be crippled for life, her company fired her and her fiancé dumped her while she was in the hospital. She then recovered, and when we saw her, didn't need any assistance walking (but it had been around a decade and a half since it had happened).
All of the folks on Simple Pleasures were wonderful, and I found Donna, the family's mother, particularly inspiring.
As Jackson said, when she was younger, around twenty, she was crossing a street in a crosswalk and was hit dead-on by a woman in a car making a turn and watching for other automobiles rather than pedestrians. It shattered her legs.
She had a job, but apparently her employers weren't willing to wait for her to mend to return to her duties, so they fired her, rationalizing that she'd become rich on the insurance settlement. After years of haggling, she was awarded a reimbursement for medical expenses, no more.
She was about to be married to her boyfriend of five years, the wedding to be two days after the accident. He quickly changed his mind, rationalizing that he didn't want to spend his life married to a cripple; instead he started dating her best friend.
Pretty shitty stuff -- it's hard to get your mind completely around how she must have felt, but it couldn't have been good.
There was a bit of a lesson for me buried in her experiences, though. At this point, I think I'm reasonably well qualified to complain about a few unpleasant life events -- my bother's suicide, my father's way-too-early diagnosis with cancer and ultimate death, my broken back, and so on. During a few of these experiences I was treated to less than kindly behavior by a few folks around me. I always assumed it was because I'm an ugly, cloddish, bad mannered guy.
Donna, by contrast, is elegant and gorgeous. A blond Australian, tall and lithe, she looks like a combination of Olivia Newton John and Donna Mills, both lovely women. She carries herself with incredible grace and poise, beauty and balance. As she told her story, I couldn't imagine the minds of the people who'd let her down when she needed their help.
In my own misadventures -- and they haven't been as bad as hers: my best friend and lover never abandoned me -- I'd generally assumed that the people who let me down or turned on me when I needed their help did so because of something I did. After hearing her story I've changed my impression of humanity a little: it's hard for me to imagine Donna inspiring anything other than devotion.
While most people would choose the supportive path, there are circumstances when folks can rationalize doing some pretty cruddy stuff either because it makes them feel empowered to jab somebody, or because they don't want to feel the burden of helping. Let's hope we can minimize the impact those responses, either in ourselves or others, have on the world.
Oh, by the way, Donna's story has a happy ending. A number of months after all this happened, she met Brett, an absolute gem of a human being, strong, vibrant, intelligent and -- get this -- reliable, and they got on with life. Her legs mended, she learned to walk again, and even runs marathons. She and Brett now have two marvelous kids, and the whole family is sailing an awesome yacht through the South Pacific. Oh, and the old boyfriend? After she was walking again, he approached her and asked her if she wanted to restart their relationship.
Looks like the answer was "No."