Thursday, October 29, 2015

Big Guys In Skirts
By Michael

Windy and the girls bathing in rainwater
collected in the Pudgy. We've had several
extended deluges that make this possible.
It's heaven for dirty cruisers.
We’ve been hanging out and exploring the island of Tutuila in American Samoa for a month. The capital is Pago Pago (pronounced “pango pango”), but we’ve not spent much of our time there, but in the larger, surrounding communities. It’s rained almost constantly, we’ve hardly seen the sun, the wind has blown relentlessly, and the harbor water is too dirty to swim in. We have been absolutely charmed by American Samoa.

I’m not being facetious. The steep sides of the remnants of a volcano crater that form the protected harbor in which we’re moored and the serendipitous encounters we’ve had with the American Samoans, have made it clear how misinformed we were prior to arriving. Based on all we heard, we anticipated a cesspool of Americana in the South Pacific. This place is beautiful and the people are warm and utterly foreign to us.

“Excuse me…”

I got up from the bus stop bench and approached the car window.

“I just saw you guys sitting here twenty minutes ago, you still haven’t caught a bus. Where are you going?”


“Ahh,” she nodded. “Okay, you’re gonna have trouble catching a bus at this time, get in, all of you.” She waved and motioned to Windy and the girls behind me. “I’ll take you.”

“You sure? We could pay for your gas, thank you very much.”

She opened the back and I began loading some of our bags. It was getting dark and we’d pushed the bus schedule too close and lost. We were gonna do our time here on the bench to be absolutely certain though, before we paid $20 for a 20-minute cab ride back to Pago Pago.

White caps in the anchorage. For most
of our time here, it's been blowing hard and
there's been lots of rain. The nearby peak is
called The Rainmaker.
On the way, she tried repeatedly to get ahold of her sister on the phone, to let her know she’d be home late, going 40 minutes out of her way to help some random palogis (foreigner, pronounced “palongi”). En route she answered all of our questions about Samoan culture, helping us make sense of so much we’d observed and didn’t understand. Despite the name of this place and that everyone speaks American English and the two McDonalds restaurants and U.S. post office, it had become obvious to us that this clearly wasn’t an extension of the U.S., not even close. The men here wear skirts (lava lavas), Samoan music and ‘80s ballads pound from the speakers in the colorful homemade buses, the teenagers are disarmingly friendly, and nearly every home features a grave next to the front door.

When we arrived in Pago where we’d left the dinghy, we thanked our new friend profusely and I insisted she take $5 for gas money and the girls turned over a small bag of homemade cookies we’d packaged up to give someone else who’d been kind to us, but whom we’d not run across.

Then, without missing a beat, she reciprocated—as if she’d not already—by giving Windy the lava lava she’d been wearing that Windy had casually admired. Just another piece of the Pacific Island culture we learned, that people are very quick to gift when they’ve been gifted and there is a tendency to give those things that have been admired by others.

In short, we got a ride from a stranger who went significantly out of her way, and then she drove off leaving us the clothes off her back.

I could share three other such stories from American Samoa, of strangers extending warmth and kindness beyond what I’d ever expect. It’s been a treat—not simply to have been a beneficiary of this kindness, but to travel through places like this with my girls and to have them experience this kindness in a more natural way. For them this is normal, it’s largely what they’ve come to know over the past five years living as a traveling family. Because while I know the American Samoa culture (not distinct from the Samoan culture, from what we’ve learned, or from Pacific Island culture in general) is kind and open in a way we are not used to,* I also know that as travelers, we are often vulnerable to acts of kindness, because we are always the outsider, always on the street and looking out, asking outsider questions. For five years, my kids have been immersed in a world that is perhaps more kind than they could have known in a more conventional context. They expect kindness from strangers and they offer kindness without reservation. It’s shaping who they are. I can see it.


* I also know these cultures have serious problems, I don’t want to idealize them, they’re not all peaches and cream. But as travelers, those are not the aspects we are exposed to.
Windy and the girls walking ahead along the waterfront. Samoans are
big people. Note the high school kids in front of me. Note the guy is
wearing a lava lava--totally normal. I bought one, almost wore it
out and about. My nerve was intact, but I went back to shorts at the last
minute because I panicked that I'd wrapped it around me the
feminine way. Pics to come. Note the regular house-type
pane widows that make up the bus windshield. This is normal too.
No, not the same water--it's a new day. Despite the crowded
harbor and homes and businesses all around, some of us
still bathe au natural.

Our arrival. The port captain had us side-tie to this tug and wait for
these lava lava-clad health inspectors to board. Then it was off to see
the port captain, customs, immigration, and another harbor

Friday, October 23, 2015

Dengue Woman Blues
By Michael

Windy's 45th birthday cake, October 14 in Pago Pago.
About all I could do was hold this camera. Frances made
the cake. 24 hours after this shot, Frances was down.
Any sickness with the word Fever in the name sounds especially ominous to my ear. Scarlet Fever, Cat Scratch Fever, Fever Seizures, and…Dengue Fever.

We got the latter. It was bound to happen. We were warned in Mexico. There were warning signs up everywhere in French Polynesia. We saw them when we arrived in Pago Pago, America Samoa.

I was wiped out for days—prostrate is the medical term. My brain didn’t want to function. The muscles in my legs and around my eyes ached so badly that sleep was difficult.

Then Frances got it. Her case was textbook—all of my symptoms plus a rash over her entire body. She got the fever, had 24 hours of remission, then descended back into it. Windy checked off all the diagnostic boxes in the Merck Manual we keep aboard.

“She’s definitely got Dengue.”

“Do we take her in?”

“There really isn’t anything they can do for her unless it turns into a hemorrhagic fever, then we have to get her in immediately.”

“How will we know?”

“Any bleeding or bruising.”

We watched Frances for a couple anxious days. We put off our departure to Tonga. Today is the day Windy finally gave her a clean bill of health, and Frances is finally ashore hunting frogs (no, not in the killing them sense) like she’s been pining to do.

The good thing about acquiring a tropical, mosquito-borne illness in a place where they are common, is that the local medical infrastructure is totally prepared for dealing with it. Had Frances deteriorated and acquired the hemorrhagic fever version that can present in Dengue patients, we’d have been in a good place to seek care.

So how was your week? Still eager to go cruising in the tropics?

I want to make light of it. We are so lucky health-wise. We’re all well and we rarely get sick. Above all else, our good health is the reason we are able to choose and pursue this cruising life. We do not take it for granted.


Michael at Ditching Suburbia sent this to us when he heard we were under the weather, perfect. This is Stevie Ray's brother, by the way.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Suwarrow, Force 10
By Michael

And no internet.
Suwarrow is a remote atoll in the northern Cook Islands. It’s where Tom Neale, author of the classic An Island to Oneself, lived alone, off and on, for twenty-five years before his death in 1977. Since 1986, Suwarrow’s been a protected area, Suwarrow National Park. About 60 cruising boats stopped at Suwarrow this year; I don’t think anyone else visits. A caretaking couple, Harry and Huahine, lives on the atoll from May-November. During the cyclone season, Suwarrow is deserted. Upon checking in, Harry (officially the warden, and also in charge of customs and immigration) told us we could not land on any island (motu) other than Anchorage Island, we couldn’t fish, we couldn’t burn or dispose of trash ashore, and we mustn’t throw any food scraps overboard.

“So where are the remains of Neale’s home?”

“You were standing on what’s left of his front porch, now the book exchange.” Harry said in his kiwi-accented English.

I turned to look back at where Windy and the girls were still browsing the mostly-French and Dutch titles left by other cruisers. I could see the old clapboard siding that defined the boundaries of the original building.

“Here, I’ll show you.”

Except for the caretakers, we were always
the only ones ashore on Anchorage Island,
measuring about a mile by a few hundred feet.
Harry and I walked from his two-story residence down to the book exchange where he pulled the bolt from the hasp that secured a door signed, DO NOT ENTER.

Inside the tiny room were Tom Neale’s quarters. A small, wood-framed bed occupied the far corner and in the near corner was a shiny, late-model Force 10 marine range. It was just like our ailing stove, but newer. Right away I noticed the grill was not broken like ours was. The burner caps looked new, not like our cast-iron caps that are corroding away at a rapid rate. I forgot all about Tom Neale.

“What’s with the stove?”

“Ah, yes. A cruiser donated that to us, for cooking. We don’t use it much, the wife prefers the half-barrel out back.”

“Hmm. We would sure love to swap some parts off that—ours is just like it.”

“Mmm-hmm. So that’s where Mr. Neale lived. His family maintains the memorial outside.”
             * * * * * *

“We’ve been here a week, I don’t think he’s interested in letting you cannibalize it.”

It says, "1952-1977 Tom Neale lived his
dream on this island"
“Maybe he didn’t understand, wouldn’t hurt to ask.” I paused, “Would you mind calling him?”

“What? We’re leaving, we’ve already checked out. Why me?”

“I just think we’ll regret not asking, and you just did the checkout, I think he’d be more receptive to you asking.”

Windy gave me a look as she picked up the radio mic. She asked Harry directly whether he was interested in allowing us to swap out some stove parts—we were willing to pay.

“We don’t want to sell parts off the stove, we’d like to see the whole thing gone.”

“How much do you want for it?”

“What are you willing to pay?”

“One hundred dollars, US? I know it’s not much, but…”


I waved to Windy, “Tell him I’m going to come ashore real quick to measure it, just to be sure it’s the same—and see if he’ll let us bring it out here in his boat.”

An hour later, we were waving goodbye to Harry, an entire second range now sitting in our cockpit.

I don't care if you're Julia Childs, nobody needs two of
these on a 40-foot boat.
“This is awesome. We just saved a bundle spending this $100.”

“Will it fit through our companionway? Where are we going to stow it for the passage to Samoa?”

“I think so, I’ll lash it underneath the v-berth.”

Now we’re in Pago Pago and I’m trying to find a way to get rid of this thing we sailed with for four days. It’s a newer version of our ailing stove—it’s even got a window on the oven door and the snazzy bowed handle is varnished nicely. But only one single piece could be swapped out (the burner grate—and even that required some hacking). Everything else is unusable, either because it is just completely different, or because it’s riveted. Even the plastic knobs—in much better shape than ours—can’t be swapped because the flat side of the shaft it rides on is positioned 180 degrees opposite. Why in the world?

I would swap the entire thing out, but the oven is configured differently on this newer model. It’s smaller and the burner is less shrouded.

Sometimes fortune mocks the bold.


Windy took this from our deck. He's about 2 feet underwater
and those bommies are at 75 feet.

Cruising kids look for any opportunity to make
This coral-based landing was heavily damaged in a recent hurricane.

Checking into the Cook Islands in Del Viento's cockpit.

An island to themselves.

The two-story building is where the caretakers live. The white-
painted clapboard siding above the bush on the left, is a sliver
of the remnants of Neale's home.

Oh the time I spent lying here to get this shot.

Neale's bed frame. This space is smaller than it appears.

The girls and I cooling off.

Heading ashore with Harry.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Too Fast
By Michael

Kids riding the top of the bimini after school.
Traveling, we wind up in a lot of places that excite us. We also wind up in a few places that aren’t our cup of tea (though this is a difficult assessment because invariably these same places offer experiences or stories, rooted in the aspects we liked least, that prove interesting and memorable and make us happy we went after all). And we also wind up in a very few places in which we toy with the idea of living there someday.

In the Society Islands of French Polynesia, the smaller islands excited us, almost to the point of toying with the idea of living on one someday. They're each surrounded by a South Pacific lagoon like you’d see on the cover of Cruising World and separate from the Tahiti-Bora Bora-Moorea tourist hotspots

Our visits were short (as we were feeling the pressure of having overstayed a French welcome that ends abruptly at 90 days). So we'd tour around on bikes, play in the water, enjoy the bar and the company of our cruising friends, buy fresh veggies from local farmers, send the girls off on play dates with locals, hit a bommie pretty hard, provision, Skype family, take on water, and then set sail.

Which is all awesome, and we're all grateful for having been able to spend more time than most people ever get in places like these, but I want to acknowledge that we barely scratched the surface. Every place we've been fortunate enough to travel to, our visits have been long enough to realize how much more there is to experience—we need a dozen lifetimes. And that’s perhaps the most important life lesson, realizing how short one life is.


Here the surf breaks on the fringing reef of Huahine as we sailed abeam the island.
A photo can't do justice to how beautiful this was. The waves curled up, the turquoise
water showed through the backs, and the wind blew the spray over the tops
like smoke over an airfoil in a wind tunnel.

A rare family photo.

On our way to find blue-eyed eels.

Yep, blue eyes. never in my life have I seen an animal move faster than
these slow-looking creatures. Dangle food in front of them
and you'll never see them grab it. We all learned after watching
Frances get bit. Her finger bled for a while. These guys are
huge too, up to 6- feet long.
The girls trying to get counsel from a
local boy, in French. How close can we get?

While this big guy rubs against Eleanor's leg, Frances dares to pet his

Frances with some of the kids who live near
the eels.

Frances looking across the lagoon. Still didn't have my polarizing filter at this
point, or I could share how stunning that turquoise water was.

Eleanor and her new friend at the start of getting towed.

This is Paul. He can't speak, not at all, but he lives on-island and paddles
great distances to get visitors to sign his guest book. A big-hearted
guy who I can't imagine without a smile on his face.

Wow, two family portraits in one post.

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