Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On the Townsville, Chapter Nine: Hawai'i

I like to feel that I've wrapped things up, and since I get on a plane bound for Toronto tonight, now's as good a time as any to end the series.

When I last wrote, I was heading out to Hawaii. I made the mistake of assuming that Tahiti would have a modern, happening airport, with fancy features like toilets and phones. I checked my luggage, emptied my could-be-a-bomb water bottle and headed through the point-of-no-return security check to the big room where all the boarding gates are, which turned out to be under construction. No water (which they didn't mention when they made me dump mine out), NO TOILETS - for a three-hour gate-wait - and no phones, which was the biggest crisis of all, since I had just received bad news from Australia and needed to call. Also, no air conditioning, fans or open windows, but lots of smokers. (Tahiti is French, remember.)

By the time we boarded the plane at midnight, I was so nauseous, dehydrated, shaky and depressed that I had no strength left to fight the meat-freezer cabin temperature and arrived in rainy, five a.m. Honolulu with a cold and some kind of stomach bug. (The cold didn't last long, but the bug wreaked havoc on my sight-seeing.)

The reason I went to Hawaii was to visit my friend Molly, who is in med school there. (It was nice to finally meet in person, having been pen pals since she replaced me as an English teacher in Guadeloupe.) I hijacked most of the first day with my sniffly-sneeziness and an epic nap, but on the second day we kicked off the tourism week and went whale-watching. I got sea-sick and there were no whales, though there was a group of dolphins that jumped along beside the boat and then hung out while everyone took pictures (except me; too sea-sick…)

Molly was probably wondering what kind of a loser she was stuck with for the week, but when we went back out with our try-again voucher, it was beautiful and sunny with not too much choppiness and I felt like a million bucks - and we saw whales. While they were beautiful and it’s moving to think of them just being there in the water, though, the boat wasn’t allowed to get too close so we mostly saw puffs of water, slippery backs and the occasional tail. (The dolphin sighting was actually much more satisfying - unfortunately, neither whale nor dolphin appears in any of my pictures, so you'll have to just use your imagination...)

The really entertaining thing turned out to be the many Japanese tourists on the boat with us, who gasped and clapped at every single water spurt. Now, it’s definitely exciting the first time, the second and maybe – maybe – even the third. After that, it’s nice to watch but it stops being surprising; you can just stand there, scanning quietly for signs of movement and smile at the thought that you’re looking at whales. No need to keep ooh-ing ah-ing, right? Apparently not. Sometimes the gasps were so huge that I thought something really important was happening and tried to spot the whale leaping out of the water or the shark attack, but it was only ever another water puff or a glimpse of a back.

(There was briefly some serious action when two pods met up and started showing off for each other, with some fin-slapping and general broo-ha-ha; interestingly, that’s when the group stopped gasping, many going back inside to sit down because they were apparently over it.)

On one of Molly's full days of class, I took the bus over to Hanauma Bay, which is known for its amazing snorkeling. I didn’t realize that it was the biggest tourist attraction in the area and that there would be a beach entry fee, an mandatory educational video (don’t walk on the reef, don’t pee in the water, etc.) and a gazillion people, but once I had taken so long to get there, I figured I could just find a quiet spot to read my book and go hang out with the fish when the crowd started to dwindle.

The thing about Hawaii tourism, though, is that the crowds never seem to dwindle. There were 140 seats in the video, which played every 15 minutes, and every single one was full; imagine 560 people an hour coming to swim at a beach that is about 500 metres long. I didn’t bother getting snorkel gear and trying to shove my way into the group, since I figured I would mostly have great views of other snorkelers but not so much the fish themselves. (Especially after the near-deserted beaches in Tahiti, it was hard to share my water space; tourism is tough-going when you’ve been spoiled!) The water was also pretty icy, so just going in for the occasional cool-down was more than enough for me.

My favourite moment was when a girl was adjusting her bikini top and it slipped down, exposing a breast for maybe one eighth of a second, before she gasped and pulled it back into place, looking mortified and apologetic. A woman sitting nearby was fully scandalized, huffing indignantly about there being children on the beach, and the family next to her joined in the cause, hoping to god that their children hadn’t seen such filth and there you go, you can’t even go to a public beach anymore without risking exposure to pornography. While they fretted and fussed over the possibility that their eight-year-old may have seen a flash of a human breast and may therefore be scarred for life and turn away from the church to take up prostitution and star in adult movies, I imagined the tan lines that were undoubtedly working their way into my own skin and wistfully remembered the beautiful Tahitian beaches where you can get as naked as you want and get brown all over, just as god intended. (Apparently we aren’t all talking about the same god…)

On Wednesday night, Molly and I took a bus through the mountains to do full moon yoga on Lanikai Beach. We ran into some problems upon our triumphant arrival, having followed the directions of both the bus driver and some friendly locals, when we couldn’t see yoga anywhere and were informed that this was actually such-and-such beach and the one we wanted was way over there, up the road and around the corner. We set off over the sand through the increasing darkness, Molly being convinced that set-backs are good, as they make an event more memorable, and I being highly suspicious of the lack of a full moon – or any moon, really – and wondering if Molly hadn’t confused the dates.

(Incidentally, even before we saw it for ourselves, the full moon-ness of the night was confirmed by the man we encountered in a beach-access alley, just as I was standing up out of a “private moment” squat; he was going to the beach to see the full moon and was disappointed that it wasn’t out yet, though Molly pointed out to me that he did see a full moon of one kind, if not quite the one he expected. I was mortified.)

We ended up finding the beach and the yoga, still in the dark but with the soothing sound of the sea (and the less-soothing sound of a big group of friends having a beach pow-wow about ten feet away from us, apparently not interested in choosing a spot somewhere else on the huge, empty beach). At one point it started to rain, which the yoga instructor called “blessings” and which Molly and I called “a long, wet, cold ride home on a severely air-conditioned bus,” but it didn’t last. Eventually the moon came out and was gorgeous, so low and huge and a warm, cheesy yellow; the only thing missing was muscle tone, and we all know whom I have to blame for that.

Otherwise, we had a nice – and tourist-packed – walk through the forest to Manoa Falls, including an off-the-beaten-track jaunt through some unexpectedly beautiful bamboo, and we spent my last morning at Shangri-La, the fancy-pants estate of a rich, eccentric lady named Doris Duke. This particular house (she owned several) was decorated in an Islamic theme, with gorgeous mosaics and tapestries and all manner of beautiful things. I love mosaic patterns and tile work, so I was pretty much jealous for most of the tour, wondering if I could find a way to recreate some of her fabulous rooms in my own home. It’s never going to happen, but it was a nice way to fantasize the morning away.

We had a rainy stroll around Waikiki-at-night, which is quite chi-chi and pretty much completely out of my league. Even finding stickers for Karine (they don’t have that kind of thing in France and I had confidently assured her that it would be no problem) took two hours of walking around the shopping centre and cost me more than I would have expected to pay for a manicure and skin treatment. You’re not in Kansas anymore…

It was a nice week, a nice break from family life, and now I’m back in Tahiti, having had one storm day, one beach day and one more day at school (giving out Canadian stickers and tattoos made me even more of a superstar on campus than I already was), and tonight at the airport I’m not going into the gate until the very last minute, onward and upward.

Thanks for reading along and… see you soon.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

On the Townsville, Chapter Eight: Tahiti

I’m actually no longer in Australia, but am writing from Papeete, Tahiti. Phone and internet are so slow here, information so difficult to come by and everything so seemingly distant that it’s hard to focus on anything outside of my immediate surroundings. I’ll try, though, so that I can wrap up Townsville and put it all behind me.

Part One: Good-bye, Townsville

After our hot and tropical Christmas, the rain started - it hadn’t stopped when I left and it hasn’t stopped now, as a cyclone hit Queensland yesterday (no details yet on the outcome.) Mark and I headed up to a holiday apartment in Trinity Beach over New Year’s, a Christmas gift from his parents. Our pre-departure plans consisted of exploring the area, enjoying the pool and lying on the beautiful beach, baking in the summer sun - but that was before the rain.

The reality was that we spent five out of the seven days stuck indoors, watching movies and doing jigsaw puzzles while the storms raged around us. (Though, to be fair, we were also very excited about having a couch for a week, so at least that wasn’t wasted by our actually leaving the apartment on a regular basis.) Every once in a while there would be a patch of clear sky and we’d run down to the beach, but it was closed every time because when any North Queensland beach finds a stinger in the stinger net, all the beaches close for the rest of the day. Apparently that was a bad week for stinger nets. (We did spend as much time as possible in the pool, though, not least because it featured a very exciting - if hygienically suspicious – sauna option.)

We did have one sunny morning that we spent on a crocodile-sighting tour of the Daintree River and one fully sunny day of snorkeling at Green Island. We had a rough start, including not being able to find the boat departure, getting severely sunburned on the ferry (you know when you find yourself pulling thick, dead flakes of skin out of your hair for the next week?) and battling the epic crowds on this tiny little tourist trap island.

Ultimately, though, we had a beautiful, calm day of snorkeling, which ended abruptly when I saw a shark swim past me, about three feet from my face - a shark, you understand - and booked it out of the water with the speed of an Olympic swimmer (or Olympic scaredy-cat), only to stand anxiously on the shore, shouting at Mark to get out of the water but unable to break through his fuzzy snorkeling sound shell and too much of a coward to go back in and pull him out. (He eventually surfaced to de-fog his mask and bore unfortunate witness to my frantic near-hysteria. “A shark?” he said, “where? I want to see it.”) As for the shark, it obviously couldn’t care less about our presence in the water, being either very well-fed or simply one of those sharks that isn’t into people, which is something I would have liked to know ahead of time.

Back in Townsville, I had a good long stretch of not working: it’s hard enough to find office-type work in a blue collar town at the best of times, so during the panicky beginning of a recession, it wasn’t happening. I did a few more promotions and worked the bar at some basketball games, as well as having some more hours with Angus just before I left, including going on-site with him and doing construction work. Go figure.

Mostly, though, I endlessly re-created the Trinity Beach week, only alone. I read, I watched movies, I did puzzles, I baked. I couldn’t leave the house most days because of the rain (most of you probably saw footage of the horrible fires in the South of the country, but I don’t know if you were up on the flooding situation; this has broken all records for being the wettest, most flooded year in Australian history.) It was bad enough in a car - though I was always grateful for even a ride to the grocery store, just for a change of scenery - but on foot or by bike it was obviously out of the question. When I was working, we organized elaborate carpool plans; the rest of the time, I sat in our moldy apartment in my moldy clothes and watched my skin turn pale.

(After two weeks of not having a day of work or sunshine, Angus called and I went in three days in a row, all three of which were hot, glorious, sunny days. The fourth day, the rain started as I was packing my beach bag and didn’t stop until the next time I went in for work. I know that a lot of people had real problems and I had nothing to complain about, but doesn’t that sound a bit unfair?)

The lack of work was frustrating, but it did give me time to sort out my teacher registration stuff, take care of paper work like bank accounts and taxes, sell my stuff and spend lots of time with Mark while I still could. (Especially when he couldn’t go to work because of the floods, so we got to read, watch movies, do puzzles and bake - together!) And if anyone’s going to be stuck in the house for weeks at a time, it’s probably best that it be me; I can do absolutely nothing for a lot longer than most people before I start to get depressed.

The last few days were sad the way that last few days are wont to be, but a definite highlight was my first trip to a real live casino. After watching the movie “21” and wondering how the whole card-counting thing works, Mark and I started playing Blackjack and decided that since we were just so good at it, we should head over to the casino sometime. In our game, though, the non-dealer’s hand was not out in plain view, so there was some bluffing involved. I like to think of myself as having a particularly excellent poker face (Mark, misguided as he is, claims that this is untrue), at least for the first few minutes of the game, before I get the giggles. I figured that I could quickly make a couple of hundred and take off as soon as I felt my focus starting to slip.

It turns out, however, that it’s all open on the table! Dammit! You can’t bluff, you have no control over the situation, you can just sit there and watch them take your money away. I watched a few people laying down chip after chip and losing it all and was too intimidated to play, but after sitting in on Mark’s game for a few rounds, I decided that you only live once and I traded in my twenty dollars for some chips. I was a very responsible gambler, putting aside whatever I won and only ever playing my original bet, so that at the very least I would walk out with my original twenty dollars, except that… wait for it… I ended up with eighty dollars! Sixty dollars profit! My casual plan to make hundreds of dollars was maybe aiming a bit too high, but within my own comfort level I’m actually a hot mama at the Blackjack table. I can’t wait for round two, for which I intend to wear extravagantly high heels and possibly draw a dark beauty mark just under my lip.

Part Two: French Polynesia

My trip home is all international flights, where you’re allowed two bags at 23kg each. After spending over a year in Townsville, I culled through everything I owned, made some hard decisions, gave eight bags to good will, packed only what I really loved or needed and got it down to about 50kg total. At the Townsville airport, though, they informed me that no, in fact, for domestic flights (Townsville to Sydney) I’m only allowed to have 23kg. If I tried to bring everything I had, it would be about $250 in overweight charges.

Now, a tearful morning at the airport is never fun, so finding out that I had to go through my “bare minimum” and get rid of half of it was unsettling, to say the least. Even I, who love a good cull, was pretty weepy about having to ruthlessly abandon anything that wasn’t immediately necessary in my life. (You know that great Chinese bathrobe? And the sexy cleavage top with the lace along the straps? Gone. Feel my pain.)

Mark got some bags out of the car and we filled them up with all of the discards, all the shirts and bras and shoes that were lying on the floor of the airport, and I got my overweight charge down to my casino winnings. And we agreed that having that kind of situation to deal with was a good distraction from the sadness of saying good-bye.

My night in Sydney was uneventful, in a Formule 1 hotel (where the bathroom is so tiny that they ask you to close the door while the shower is on, lest you flood the whole room) at which I paid $7 for the “continental breakfast” that turned out to be a selection of white bread, jam, coffee and tea. And not even nice tea, just tea.

Air Tahiti was very exciting because the flight attendants changed outfits three times, so that we were greeted by shoulder pads and heels, then served by traditional flower dresses, then sent off by cute little enjoy-the-breeze dresses. And they gave us those yummy-smelling flowers during the flight, then blasted Tahitian music as soon as we landed, so we were all in full tourist mode before even setting foot in the place.

What would you most want to know about Tahiti? It’s not necessarily as you picture it, for one. Papeete is full of people and noise and litter, though there is definitely a stunning mountain backdrop and once you go up the coast in either direction it gets a lot calmer.

There are hens everywhere. And chickens and roosters and all manner of loud, freakish farm birds.

Those beautiful Tahitians, all slender and curvy with coconut boobs and a long, black braid? Fictional. People here are quite big, kind of a sumo vibe. The official reason for this is apparently that they went from having zero money to lots and lots of it when France set up the military. So they suddenly have lots of money, which means that every third car (not an exaggeration) is an SUV, they eat horribly and they don’t get any exercise. At this point, sixty per cent of the 18-35 population suffers from diabetes/heart problems/cholesterol type health problems, to the point where they can’t work past 40 years old. SIXTY per cent! The implications on the health system and the economy are really scary, but they aren’t doing the kinds of health-and-fitness education initiatives that everyone else is. Pretty scary.

I walked Eva to her junior high and was completely intimidated by the aggressive stares of the kids sitting outside, smoking: not only are they huge, but they also aren’t the soft, gentle people they are stereotyped to be; they’re pretty tough and very hostile. And they walk around with ghetto blasters, ‘80s style.

Lots of tattoos, thick and usually full-arm or -leg, usually symbolic. They look really good.

Here’s an interesting one: there are boys who are raised as girls, called “les rérés.” My hosts claimed that it was just at random, like Catholic families who decide that the first son will be a priest, but a local guy I met told me that it’s only boys who are a bit effeminate in the first place, raised to be women so that nobody will give them a hard time about it. Some of them are like drag queens, tall and gorgeous and much more womanly than your average woman, plus with great legs. But most of them are dumpy and heavy with moustaches and sailors’ muscles. Isn’t that an interesting societal decision?

The accent is lovely, with a rolled “r” instead of the throaty French one. And they only say “tu,” never “vous,” which is VERY hard to get used to. Imagine talking to an old man for the first time and saying “est-ce que tu sais quand le prochain ferry arrive?”

Pretty nosy. I pay my bus fare, she says “voilà, madame. Or is it mademoiselle?” A few people (as in, total strangers, on the bus or handing me the drink I just bought) have asked me my religion.

As for my own situation here, I have found it a bit exhausting to fit into a family routine that is not mine. The teenage hormones, for one. The very specific way of doing things, for another, so that when I try to help I’m actually not helping, but what am I supposed to do, sit around and not help?

And then there’s just the Frenchness of it all, which I miss when I’m away but which drives me a bit crazy when I’m in it. The way that women flutter around their men, with their voices going up really high and full of baby talk; the way the men explain things to you (even things that you know a lot about, like, say, the country you’re from) as if you were a child, indeed a moronic child; the stress about good grades and this one getting .25 less than his school rival, so maybe he should be studying harder…

Here’s my least favourite word in French: allez. It means “oh, come on” and can be “mais, allez” or “allez, Kathryn” or any other variation, but you have to say it a certain way. “Mais, allez” is pronounced “meh ah-leh,” except that you really drag out the “leh,” with your lips pursed and the tone of someone who is speaking to the biggest asshole they’ve ever encountered.
Katy: “I don’t like mountain biking; it makes me anxious and afraid.”
French person: “Mais al-LEZ, Kathryn,” meaning “oh, come on, of course you want to come to the race we’re running in and mountain bike behind us. Why would anyone not like to do the things that we like to do? If you don’t like to do what we like to do, then you are obviously wrong.”

Once at the race, on the mountain bike, I certainly felt smug when all these die-hard runners came gasping along the trail, hot and exhausted and looking like they were about to throw up. They made comments about the heat and looked at me for sympathy - forget it! What kind of idiot runs in a mountain race in the middle of the summer in Tahiti? Of course it’s hot! Get yourself to a water source like anyone with half a brain, or suck it up; just don’t live your life pretending that you’re still in Bordeaux and then look at me for support when the sun starts to burn.

I went into school with Karine a few times to speak English with the kids, most of whom do languages through a computer program and were just off their tits excited to have a real, live English person in the classroom with them. When I took them outside for games they looked at me like I was the Messiah and when I brought out the guitar they practically passed out with joy. It was very worthwhile, not least because it reminded me of what the French school system is like and how much I would never want to put my kids in it, so it might make my future life decisions easier for everyone involved. We may not have their delicious food, but at least we don’t make our six-year-olds sob all over their workbooks because they didn’t underline the date with the right pen.

Is that enough negative? Let’s talk about the good times, too: the best days have been when I’ve gone out on my own schedule and done things alone, so that I had a better feeling of the local lifestyle. After a few creepy encounters at the beach, for example, I met Matahi (which sounds more like Mat-HAY-ee, as they’re quite percussive with their “h”s), an interesting, curious, funny guy who took me around to see different beaches and local sites and was just a lot of fun.

I had some hilarious (and sometimes surreal) conversations on buses and while hitch-hiking, and when I’m not with a whole group of white people, the locals seem less resentful of me and are willing to take a chance. Maybe because when I’m alone I look more like a tourist, rather than with grocery bags and a family of four.

I went over on the ferry to neighbouring island Moorea, which is much smaller and more authentically Polynesian, hardly any French people (other than the hotels) and, of course, so beautiful. (The water here is unbelievable, to the point where you can just stand there and watch all these amazing, colourful fish swim around you and you don’t even need a snorkeling mask.)

On the ferry ride over to Moorea I got quite boat sick, to the point where I got off and puked my guts out into the nearest garbage can, thereby missing the one bus that leaves for every ferry arrival. I would have to wait two hours for the next one but luckily was able to hitch-hike (which isn’t really done here, apparently) with this little old man who insisted on taking me all the way to my destination, way past his house, so that he could keep giving me a tour of his beloved island.

The destination was the Intercontinental hotel, where they have dolphins. I couldn’t justify paying for the swim-with-dolphins package, but even sitting beside them was awesome. (Really awe-some, for those of you - ahem, Papa - who think I overuse the word!) I stayed almost two hours, occasionally chatting with the concierge who kept coming around to hang out with me, before finally tearing myself away, with the promise that someday - preferably when I’m not by myself - I’ll swim with them.

(Hopefully as a guest of the Intercontinental, which is just beautiful and has those little huts on the water so that you wake up, accept the fruit that someone has kayaked up to your door, then step out into the turquoise sea and watch the dolphins play as the sun rises. Sigh.)

I walked to the Tipannier public beach, but the access to it is private. Right. Feeling very devious, I snuck around the back, slicing my leg open on some kind of scary vine, and made it through to the beach, only to discover that the boat that takes you across to the tiny snorkeling islands wasn’t running because the guy wasn’t there that day. His dad was, though, and offered for me to take a kayak across for the same price. Great!

Off I went, a pretty hard row but that’s okay, because apparently there are rays that swim up over you and beautiful fish. I got the kayak up on shore and got into the water, then when I tried to stand still to put my mask on, the current dragged me away. It was so strong that I couldn’t get anywhere and had to hold on to the big rocks in the water if I wanted to stay still, but why bother because the current was too strong for the fish - of which I saw literally two in half an hour. I eventually gave up and tried kayaking around the mini islands, which wasn’t a go, tried walking through the islands, but they were full of brambles and painful, scratchy things, so I got back into the kayak and headed back to the beach. In a windstorm. Where did it come from? The twenty-minute ride took me over an hour on the way back, as I was constantly tossed up on the shore (at people’s houses) and couldn’t get back to the beach. Very exciting stuff.

(Moral of the story: choose your own activities, rather than doing what someone told you was great, because they were there in a different season and under different circumstances and when you do it, it kind of sucks.)

I had a really long chat with the dad, who is from Pays-Basque and definitely one of my new favourite people, then missed the bus, hitch-hiked back to the ferry and got sick again on the way home. Moorea: check.

So that’s where I’m at. It’s really quite beautiful here, I’ve loved my beach days, I feel sunned and soothed and will be sad to leave, I’ve had a warm welcome from my hosts and although it’s rained half the time I’ve been here (which meant lots of frustrating games of Scrabble in French), it’s been a really nice holiday so far. Lots to see and do and think about, lots of interesting conversations and unexpected discoveries, AND they have my beloved Milka chocolate. It will take a lot of will power not to pack eight kilos of it into my suitcase.

Tonight I leave for a week in Hawai’i. This is the life!