Nicer than I remember

A couple of days from now will mark 4 weeks since the boys and I have been back in California.  It’s gone by fast, and there’s a lot to share.  Like, for example, the time I was in <insert name of giant superstore here> and I stood in awe of an entire row of just ziplock bags.  Or the time we were in <insert name of another giant superstore here> and Brenden pointed out that there were more people in that store than in most of the villages we’ve been to.

However, instead of pulling together a rant about how crowded it is here or how there is just so much excess of, well, everything, I thought I’d start by focusing on something positive that I wasn’t really expecting:

People are a lot nicer than I remember.

I was totally expecting to come back to a land where there are so many people that no one values each other; where most of the time they don’t even notice each other.  But that narrative simply hasn’t played out for me.  I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with total strangers since I’ve been back; probably more during these last four weeks than in my whole life before that!  And imagine my surprise the time I was walking across the grocery store parking lot loaded down with probably one too many bags, and a woman stopped and asked if I’d like some help.  It kind of made me feel bad about writing that whole blog post about how people aren’t as helpful back home as they are in the Pacific Islands (or the cruising community).

Then there was that time I drove my new car up on the curb and then basically ripped the bumper off as I backed off.  Now, I guess that’s a funny story in and of itself considering I was just starting to think I had gotten used to this whole driving thing again, but I really don’t want to talk about that yet.  Still too raw.  The thing is that while I was standing there staring at what I had done, likely with my jaw dropped all the way to the pavement, a woman reached out to me.  After telling me to just go buy some electrical tape and tape it up so I could drive it home (or to the body shop!) she reassured me that this was certainly no big deal in the grand scheme of things.  Really?  Who does this?  A month ago if you had asked me to predict how people would react to something like this I would have said they would either laugh or ignore me or both.  But she was compassionate, and who couldn’t use some compassion while their front bumper is hanging off the front of their car?

But the time that really got to me, that made me really start to think about this, was the time I was running along the coast, and a little girl who was sitting on the sea wall smiled and waved at me as I went by.  Wait a second.  That’s what kids in the islands do.  Kids here don’t do that, right?  Then I realized that I had been running along looking around and smiling and enjoying myself.  Perhaps I was open and receptive and the little girl noticed and she responded with a simple gesture of friendliness.

Maybe people are nicer than I remember, but maybe just a little bit of it is actually about me.  Maybe I’m the one who’s nicer.

Generosity or Arrogance?

This is going to be a very difficult post to write. Social issues like these are inherently very complex, and I’m struggling to write about it in a way that doesn’t oversimplify it to the point of being irrelevant. Additionally, I’m afraid that if I don’t approach it right I will simply come off like an asshole rather than someone who has given genuine thought to some first hand experiences. Given all that, I’d still like to give it a go with the caveat that this is just the result of my personal recent observations and experiences heaped on top of my already solid yet somewhat flexible worldview. Nothing more.

In our travels across the pacific we have had the good fortune to come in contact with many different Polynesian and Melanesian peoples who have rich histories and who are struggling to hang on to their traditional cultures. One of the things I’ve noticed that has been worth pondering on is that it seems that the more exposure a particular village or island has had to westerners (tourists, missionaries, expats, cruisers, etc.) the more likely they are to view us strictly as a source of money and stuff. We have been to villages in the heart of tourist areas, and in those we have been blatantly and shamelessly just asked for stuff. Anything from fish hooks and batteries to snorkel gear and gasoline. And we have been charged outrageous prices for abundant items (like coconuts). These are the places most other westerners are able to get to, and they often walk away from the experience partly feeling sorry for the local people, thinking them so poor they must ask for things, and partly being annoyed by them, simultaneously thinking them lazy and greedy.

In contrast, we have been to remote islands that have no tourism and even very few visiting cruisers, and in those we are treated with generosity, as if we are personal guests of the village. We are invited to share meals with people and offered those things they have in abundance without even hinting at an expectation of something in return. We have had such great experiences in these places, and I’d even go so far as to say we’ve made a few friends. In these places we have found people with their dignity in tact, people who most certainly aren’t looking for handouts. For example, there was an island that was completely out of certain provisions like rice and flour because a supply ship was months overdue, but they weren’t asking us for anything, rather they wanted to trade us things like papaya, pumpkins, and handicrafts.

So, the obvious question is, why the difference?

Like I said, I’m sure it’s a very complex issue, but I can’t help but draw a somewhat obvious conclusion based on my observations of how some of our fellow cruisers tend to behave with the locals. Basically, we tend to show up at island villages and walk around with stuff to give away. Candy and balloons for the kids… Eyeglasses, needles, fish hooks, t-shirts, sugar, coffee, etc. for the adults. We actually stock our boats with items to give away to the people that we’ve judged to obviously be in need. We do it out of the goodness of our hearts, because we are good, generous people and we want to make a difference in people’s lives and give them some help. But the thing is, if you step away from your own life context and all the “stuff” that even we cruisers seem to fill our lives with, you might realize that these people aren’t really needy and they don’t really need your charity.

Now, don’t get me wrong, charity definitely has a place in this world. Obviously we shouldn’t stand by while someone is suffering or starving, but in my opinion charity should be of a much narrower scope than it’s often applied. Just because someone isn’t living a life consistent with our western material standards doesn’t mean that they are needy. And I think that by treating them like they are we help to create the culture that we then grow to despise. Helping someone who needs help is a good thing, but helping them when they don’t isn’t good for anyone.

I think we need to support others in keeping their dignity. People are much better off when their dignity is whole, and we don’t need to try to take it by assuming that we are better off than them just because we have more or better *stuff*. The people in the more remote places we’ve been to haven’t yet been informed that they are needy, that they need the stuff we have for them, so they treat us normally, like equals, offering to trade if there’s something they want, and giving to us things they think we might like. And although from our perspective they have a lower standard of living than we do, I’m convinced that we lower their “satisfaction with life” level when we turn them into charity cases.

I was with some fellow cruisers once while they were walking around a village giving things away, and they gave a woman some reading glasses. She was so happy to be able to see up close again and she was so thankful, but she clearly hadn’t gotten to the point of understanding that she’s in need of charity, because she was offering something in return… coconuts, pandanas fruit, taro…all was declined by her benefactors, I mean, what do they need those things for when they have a boat stocked to the brim with provisions? I was watching her closely and I could see the dejection on her face. Of course she wanted the glasses, but everything she offered in return was declined, so she resigned herself to just accepting the hand-out. I decided to speak up, and I told her I’d love to try some pandanas fruit, but that I’d never had it before and could she show me how to cut it and eat it and all that. I was rewarded with a huge smile and we ended up sharing a moment together as she showed me all about pandanas and we talked for just a little while. That day was an ‘a-ha’ moment for me when I started to see this behavior of playing Santa Clause to the local villagers as actually a bit of subconscious arrogance simply cloaked as selfless generosity.

We westerners tend to judge ourselves superior with all of our money, modern conveniences, and stuff. However, through our travels we have come to see the people of the islands as very rich indeed, when you realize material wealth isn’t what makes you rich.

Apia, Samoa

Apia is now my favorite place for a run in the whole South Pacific (excepting obviously New Zealand, since it’s not so hot there). There is a walkway around the edge of the harbor which is perfect for running, and the best part is that there are locals out running too, men and women. So, instead of the strange looks I usually get when I’m out for a run, I’m getting smiles and greetings from all my fellow Samoan runners.

Apia is the capital of the island nation of Samoa, formerly known as Western Samoan, and today proudly referred to by the locals as “Independent Samoa.” While it’s sister Samoan nation of American Samoa remains a U.S. territory, Western Samoa achieved independence from New Zealand back in 1962. At a cultural show we went to here in Apia the host proudly stated that Samoa was the first of the Pacific Islands to achieve independence and that they helped pave the way for other island nations to follow. I didn’t have the heart to point out that since Tonga was never colonized and they were always independent that technically they should be considered first. Anyway, Western Samoa was first colonized by Germany but during WWI it was occupied by New Zealand without German resistance. After the war it stayed in the hands of New Zealand until eventual independence. The superficial differences between American Samoa and Western Samoa are easily spotted in that one has an American influence (so they drive on the right side and write their dates month/day/year) and the other has a Commonwealth influence (so they use A4 size paper and call trash cans rubbish bins). However, there are deeper differences, of course, due to the divergence of their histories and the way they are being governed today. American Samoa has become basically a welfare state while the people of Western Samoa must work harder for what they have, but I think there’s something to be said for hard work and independence, no? Of course things like infant mortality rates are much better in American Samoa, and it’s hard to complain about something like that.

In any case, they are all Samoans, and even though they are politically divided they still share a kinship and rich history and culture.

We spent two weeks in Apia and one thing that really stood out to me was this: The Samoans have got to be the friendliest of all the Polynesians! And we’ve been to Hawaii, French Polynesia, Tonga, Atearoa (New Zealand), and Tuvalu. Seriously, they rival the Fijians for their friendliness!

Samoa has a developing tourism industry, and it would make a great alternative to the standard Hawaiian holiday for anyone looking for a bit more ruggedness and a bit more access to traditional culture.

Taking a break from “real life”

When we embarked on this cruising adventure we thought we’d be able to stay out 2 or 3 years. Well, we’re just about at our 3 year anniversary, and we will be wrapping things up later this year. It’s time for us to take a break from “real life” to go earn some money for awhile.

Some might think I have that backwards. Shouldn’t I be saying that we are going back to real life?  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it phrased that way, both when we were getting ready to leave and now that we are getting ready to come back. The general consensus seems to be that what we left three years ago was “real life” and what we’re doing now is, well, I don’t know, a break? an extended holiday? an escape?

Perhaps I saw it a bit like that too, back before we left, back before I knew what we were really getting ourselves into. But from where I sit now with the perspective of having three years on the water, I would argue strongly that this, this life out here, this is real life.

Consider the following…

If you value…
teamwork over coexistence
human connections over “likes” and “shares”
simple things over lots of stuff
family time over television
a steady pace over rushing and stressing
flexibility over rigidity
resourcefulness over wastefulness

If you value…
getting outside of your comfort zone
diversity, knowing people from cultures so vastly different than your own
being part of a community
facing a new challenge every day
complex problem solving AND manual labor
our natural world

If you value all of these things then you won’t take much convincing that this what we’re doing is the really real life. Although, some might argue that you don’t have to live on a boat and sail halfway around the world to have these values, and of course that’s right. It’s possible to have “real life” as I’ve defined it wherever you are. But back home, so many of us don’t. We get sucked into the rat race and the consumer culture and we forget what’s important.  We forget what real life is.

We will try really hard not to do that this time, we will try very hard *not* to take a break from real life even though we leave the cruising life behind.


Real Life


Real Life


Real Life

It Takes a Village

A few weeks ago, we rescued some fishermen. We were on passage within the island nation of Kiribati, and out of nowhere three guys in a small boat approached us from the stern. I suppose there are some areas of the world where this would be cause for concern, but here in Kiribati, our first reaction was to greet them warmly and gesture for them to come near. And soon we could see their distress. They didn’t speak much English, and we still don’t speak but four words of Kiribati, but we gathered that they were lost and that they needed fuel. We were able to point them in the direction of their island, but since we didn’t have the right fuel to give them (they have a 2-stroke outboard and we don’t carry “premix”), we invited them on board, rigged a tow line for their boat, fed them dinner, and brought them back to their island.

So, after I got over thinking about what might have happened to them if we hadn’t crossed paths, I started to think about helping others and being helped by others, and how I’ve had a huge culture shift of thought about this since we left home three years ago. Perhaps it’s an oversimplified generalization, but I just don’t think we had a culture of helpfulness back home. There are lots of people, so many people, and they are all very busy and distracted. And for some, there’s also a thick layer of cynicism on top that makes it hard to help someone out of lack of trust or fear of being swindled. Even more, it goes both ways. I’m not just talking about willingness to help others but also the willingness to accept help, and sometimes this can be even harder. Let me give a very simple example to illustrate my point. The other day I was clearly struggling with a very large bag of wet laundry, and a young man in his late teens or early twenties came over and offered to help. Right away I told him that would be great and how much I would appreciate it, and he helped me, and I thanked him, and he walked away. Simple enough, right? But reflecting on it a bit, I’m pretty sure that in a similar situation back home, if anyone had even offered to help me, I would have politely declined, telling him I was fine and I could manage, but thanks anyway. And I could manage and I would be fine, but that’s not the point. And asking for help? Forget about it. I had a core group of friends that I would ask for help if I really, really, really needed it, but that’s it. I guess I was fully invested in the idea that I was independent and capable and that asking for or accepting help was somehow a sign of weakness. So, either I’ve grown up a bit or the community I’ve found out here has caused the culture shift.

Some people expected that our cruising lifestyle would be isolating, that we’d be an island unto ourselves out here. And yes, there are times that we are far off, alone, in a remote place, so it’s important that we can be self-sufficient when we need to be. “When we need to be.” However, much of the time we are anchored off a village or we are with other cruisers, and during those times, we are not an island unto ourselves, we are part of community, a community that easily and naturally gives and takes. Out here, people offer help, accept help, and even ask for help with ease and comfort, and counting up all the times we’ve given help and all the times we’ve needed help, I’ve come to realize that it really does “take a village” out here. And I hope that I will keep that village culture with me when we return home because I have no desire to return to isolation.


Part of our “village”

(It’s been awhile since I’ve posted, because, to be honest I haven’t been running much, and it’s hard not to feel like a fraud when my blog is called cruising”runner.”  But I went for a short, painful run this morning here in Majuro, and the run inspired me to finish this post which has been rattling around in my brain for about a month. )

Running on the Runway

No, the title of this blog post isn’t some clever metaphor, because literally, I went running on an airport runway. We recently spent almost two weeks in Funafuti, the main atoll of the country of Tuvalu, where they have an airstrip that was originally built by the U.S. during World War II. Apparently, the Americans used Funafuti as a staging area for preparation for the Battle of Tarawa in the neigboring island nation of Kiribati (where we are headed next, by the way). The airstrip today is used as the only aiport in Tuvalu, therefore by definition it’s an international aiport, with twice weekly flights to/from Fiji. The island is not very big, and it’s long and narrow, so the airstrip runs right down the middle of town taking up much of the usable land.

But the airstrip is much more than a runway. In the early morning and early evening it’s a hub of community activity. There are walkers and joggers, rugby games and soccer games, kids riding bicycles and, of course, tons of motor bikes zipping along. During the heat of the day, mostly all that remains are the motor bikes and an occasional car or truck. There are no fences or security barriers, but one of the local women told me that all of this activity is technically “illegal” that you aren’t actually allowed to be on the runway. Clearly this law isn’t enforced in any way.

When it’s time for a plane to land, there still isn’t much in the way of security. The fire engine comes out and gives three warning sirens spaced about 5-10 minutes apart, although I don’t remember the exact timing. After the first and second warning you still see a few motorbikes crossing the runway, but by the third siren, it’s mostly clear. We were able to stand basically right on the side of the runway as the plane touched down. Seriously, it would have been harder to get any closer without standing right ont he runway itself. When it’s plane time, the entire airport vicinity becomes buzzing with activity. Women set up handicraft displays and there’s tons of people just milling about. Taxis are in the parking lot and the duty free truck shows up for last minute purchases by the departing passengers. After the plane takes off again, the activity gradually dissipates and everything goes back to normal.

So, after were were a few days there in Funafuti, I joined the evening crowd on the runway and went for a slow, hot run. Unfortunately, I went just a little too early, and the sun was still a bit too high in the sky, so I pretty much overheated after 10 minutes. But I was stubborn about it, and didn’t quit until I completed a full lap, up and back, of the runway.

We are now at the island of Nanumea without internet access, but I look forward to posting some photos of all the airstrip activity at first opportunity.

The Buck Doesn’t Stop With Me

Sometimes it’s hard, because consensus simply isn’t possible when partners have different risk tolerances. We discuss, persuade, argue, each of us convinced that we are correct in our position. Just to give you an idea of the kinds of things I’m talking about, here are a few examples: anchoring locations relative to land/reefs, entering an anchorage or port at night or in low visibility, and reefing the sails. I am more conservative with a tendency to follow the old salt rules of thumb, and my husband is, well, less conservative, with a tendency to make in the moment decisions. Don’t worry, this post isn’t going to be your typical cruising wife husband bashing diatribe, so stick with me.

Usually, when we have one of these “discussions” it’s my husband who gets his way, because he is supremely confident, and I generally back down first. But, of course, I don’t back down quietly. I make my dissension evident; sometimes loudly and sometimes passive aggressively. It’s easy to devolve into fluctuation between irritation with him and despair at my situation, having felt like I’ve lost my voice.

Obviously, we are still alive and our boat hasn’t sunk, so my husband can’t be doing all that bad. But there *have* been times when non-ideal corrective action has had to be taken, like having to re-anchor in the middle of the night because we ended up too close to a shallow pinnacle or having to reef the sails in strong winds *after* a squall has engulfed us. When this happens, I always want to take the high road, I really do, but I usually cannot contain the smug little look and the occasional blatant verbal, “I told you so.”

The thing is that my attitude, my behavior, simply isn’t fair. First of all, it needs to be said that there’s nothing my husband has done that has been dangerous. He has never made a decision that has put our family at risk, rather it’s risk of damage to our boat that I sometimes question, not risk to any of our lives. But second of all, and the point I really want to make, is that at the end of the day, at the end of the discussions and the arguing and the I told you so’s, the buck doesn’t stop with me.

It stops with him.

And that’s a lot of responsibility, quite a burden, if you think about it. Even still, he carries it willingly and, yes, confidently, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. So, I judge from a very comfortable position, indeed. Would it kill me to be part of his team and support him every once in awhile instead of second guessing him all of the time? Maybe. But perhaps I can at least pick my battles for the *really* crazy stuff he comes up with.

Koro Island

After being spoiled in Savusavu with easy running opportunities, we spent almost a week moored in Dere Bay on the northwest side of Koro Island. Koro is about 25 miles south of Savusavu and we had an easy day sail with light NE winds. When we arrived, we found Koro to be an enjoyable yet strange kind of place. It’s an intersection of traditional Fijian village life with western culture, but the western part does not dominate in such an offensive way as it does over on the dry side of Fiji in places like Port Denarau, Musket Cove, and even up into the Yasawa Islands. There are 14 villages on Koro, and our first afternoon we walked to the village closest to the anchorage, called Nabasovi, in order to present sevusevu to the chief. As we got to the village, the first people we encountered were a man, his wife, and their grown son, who were all sitting on a large woven mat in the shade. They motioned to us to come and sit with them and we chatted a bit while the wife bounced their young grandson to sleep on her knee. They didn’t automatically assume we were from a boat, and they seemed just a bit surprised when we said we wanted present sevusevu. The son went to put on a sulu and he acted as our spokesman with the chief, and after the brief sevusevu ceremony we had a nice visit with the chief and his wife.

It turns out that the likely reason they didn’t automatically assume we were from the yacht is that in addition to the two resorts at Dere Bay there is a small expat community who also live on the island. So, there are always white people about. And new white people are not always there to do sevusevu, as it is in some of the villages we’ve been to on other islands where the majority of their white visitors are from yachts. As an aside, the Fijians call white people “Palagi” but we aren’t sure if it’s just a label or if it’s somewhat derogatory. Tim always refers to us a Palagis with them, and they always laugh, but I can’t tell if they are laughing because they think it’s funny just because he knows the word or because he’s actually saying it. I should have just asked by now, and if we come back to Fiji, I think I will.

Anyway, back to the expat community… there are western style houses, some quite luxurious in size, dotting all the hillsides around the bay. Tim and I took a walk and the place is partitioned into at least a couple hundred lots, some with complete homes, some in various stages of construction, and some totally empty except for the wooden sign with the lot number. We met a few of the people who live there: A woman from Brazil, a man from British Columbia, and a family of 5 from Colorado. They were all very low key, down to earth people who enjoy the slow lifestyle and natural surroundings. And they seem to get on well with the locals. The Colorado family’s eldest son (9 years old, I’d guess), even attends the Fijian school and sometimes stays in the village. He has a “village family” that he stays with. As I mentioned, many of the lots are empty and a lot of the construction is halted, so it’s not like the expats have totally overrun the place. They seem to coexist there in more inconspicuous way than perhaps my cynical self was expecting.

I mentioned that there were two resorts in the bay, but let me explain. I’m not sure what the business model is for these places, but they can’t be making much of a profit since we never saw any guests! Dere Bay Resort has a long wooden dock that extends all the way out over the coral and at the end is a floating dock where we could tie up the dinghy. Once you’ve made your way up the dock to the resort you see the small pool and the shady, welcoming restaurant/bar area. Except that there was never anyone there. Often not even any staff. It was $10/night for our mooring ball and in the end I was having trouble finding someone to pay, because the staff was so scarce. Our last afternoon there, some of the expats were using the pool and they told us the resort does dinner on Saturdays, and since that day was Saturday, we tried to put in a reservation. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that someone showed up, but they very graciously accommodated us. So, we had dinner at an almost completely empty restaurant, but the company was good and the view was stunning. There was one other table of expats having dinner as well, and I think if it weren’t for their reservation the restaurant would have been dark that evening just like every other evening. Clearly, this resort does not exist strictly to make money.

If I were told about a beautiful coral lined bay with a lush green hillside that has two resorts and a resident expat community, I would naturally envision a bustling, thriving atmosphere, with happy hours at the bar and dive boats taking the tourists out to the reefs a few times a day. But that’s just it. This place was empty. Still. Quiet. Sometimes it was quiet the way an uninhabited island is quiet. So, in the end, we quite enjoyed Koro for its beauty and for the unique culture “clash” we observed. Unique because it didn’t seem much of a clash at all.

The opportunities for running on Koro weren’t great, but at least they existed. There’s a network of cement and dirt roads, but some of the hills are quite steep, so in the end I opted for running along the trail that we took to get to the village. The small muscles around my ankles were sore the next day from stepping carefully over roots and crab holes. I was also careful not to get too close to the village because I was wearing short running shorts and a tank top, not my usual village attire covered from my shoulders to my knees. It is getting hot now in Fiji, because summer is just about here, so I had to go somewhat early in the morning before the heat was too stifling. It was a Saturday morning, and I met two girls from the village walking down the beach to collect shells. They seemed curious about what I was doing and laughed because when I stopped to talk to them I was out of breath. I guess none of the expats are runners.

Arrival Euphoria

Arrival Euphoria is a very real condition experienced by cruisers when they arrive somewhere after a long or difficult passage and especially when the arrival marks a bit of a milestone along the cruising journey. The main symptom of the euphoria is that no matter how tired you are or what things are thrown your way, you just can’t shake an overwhelming sense of joy and relief. Smells are sweeter, drinks are tastier, and people are nicer. Arrival Euphoria is why I didn’t freak out when the Tsunami Alarm started going off within hours of us setting our anchors in Atuona and it’s also why I gave all of the meat, vegetables, dried beans, etc. that I had left on board to the officials in New Zealand with a smile on my face, thanking them like THEY were doing ME some sort of favor. You are just so happy to be where you are, nothing can get you down.

In all, I think I have experienced this Arrival Euphoria five times:
1) Ensenada, Mexico. For obvious reasons: it was our very first foreign port.
2) San Felipe, Mexico. After a night on passage in 45 knot winds, San Felipe was the city of my dreams.
3) Atuona, The Marquesas, French Polynesia. Twenty-two days at sea from Mexico to The Marquesas. Huge milestone getting to The South Pacific.
4) Opua, New Zealand. Daunting passage from the tropics to the temperate latitudes without even a hint of drama. Another huge milestone.

5) And most recently, Savusavu, Fiji. The sights and the smells were so reminiscent of our arrival in Atuona it felt like we’d been here before. It was lush, green, and HOT. We basked in the success of making it to AND from New Zealand without getting “hammered.” We enjoyed the feeling of being in a totally a new place again, totally different than where we’d spent the previous six months. We looked forward with tempered excitement to the months we would get to explore Fiji. We were grateful for our decision to save Fiji until this year so we could spend maximum time in both Tonga and Fiji, and we couldn’t wait to say our first, “Bula!” The whole season was in front of us and the safe arrival drinks couldn’t have been sweeter.

I’m not sure where we will get to experience our next euphoric moment. The Marshall Islands? Perhaps.

Ensenada, Mexico (March 2013)

Ensenada, Mexico (March 2013)

San Felipe, Mexico (Oct 2013)

San Felipe, Mexico (Oct 2013)

Atuona, The Marquesas, French Polynesia (April 2014)

Atuona, The Marquesas, French Polynesia (April 2014)

Opua, New Zealand (Nov 2014)

Opua, New Zealand (Nov 2014)

Savusavu, Fiji (May 2015)

Savusavu, Fiji (May 2015)