Where we are

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cross-legged: A reflection on the bonding nature of cultural difference

(a version of this essay was published in Takahe 82, August 2014)

Chief Watsoni of Makongai, with lunch

Fiji, 2009. I am sitting cross-legged on a mat woven from voivoi leaves with Watsoni, the village chief of Makogai Island in eastern Fiji, eating a Sunday lunch of crab, cassava and coconut cream. The cream is so good that it's not enough to dip my crab legs and cassava into it. I want more. So I reach for a spoon in the middle of the mat — halfway between the chief's daughter and me — dip it into my bowl and bring the rich white cream to my lips. As soon as I do it, I feel eyes on me. The daughter throws an inquisitive look across the mat.  “I love the coconut cream,” I offer, but it's not an adequate explanation for my breech of luncheon etiquette.  Her eyes grow brighter, and her mouth forms a wide grin, as if to say: “You silly kaivalagi! Why are you using a spoon when it's easier to drink right from your bowl?”
We have lived on our boat for nearly a decade. We’ve been exploring the Pacific for several years, making our way first to Mexico (where our second daughter was born), then to Hawaii, British Columbia, Alaska and finally back down to Mexico again and across the Pacific to New Zealand. This year, we set sail for Fiji, arriving in early June and expecting to spend the whole season exploring this island country. It’s now halfway through the season, and we've spent the last three months in the eastern part of the country. Makogai is the fifth Fijian village we've become acquainted with, and our simple but sumptuous meal with Chief Watsoni is at least my twentieth meal sitting cross-legged on a voivoi mat. By now, I feel somewhat acclimated to life in Fiji. I've become enchanted with the friendly people of these islands. I know how to wrap my sulu modestly around me before entering the village boundaries. I have learned how to grate coconut and make lolo. I am a connoisseur of kava. Even my children have come to crave the taro-leaf-coconut-cream standard meal in these parts. But no matter how much we embrace the culture, I am acutely aware in the moment I bring that spoon to my lips that there's still no getting around the basic fact that we are different.
Kalesi and Louise preparing a meal
I've sat with women on the floors of houses all across the South Pacific and prepared meals. The typical tool is a dull but strong knife which they employ as can opener, carver and shucker. A machete is more common than a butter knife, and more essential. Silverware is non-essential, as I've seen demonstrated time and again. A few weeks ago when three women from Koro Island's Nabuna Village spent a day on our boat fishing, they insisted at lunchtime that they prepare the meal. They had carefully packed taro root and cassava from home, already cooked and ready to eat. The only thing they required for the meal was a large pot, in which they boiled the fish whole with chili pepper and lime. When the meal was ready, I reached for bowls for individual servings, but they shook their heads: No,we don't need those. They fished out the largest specimens from their catch of the day, a dozen or so small reef fish averaging about five inches, placed them carefully into four bowls for us and poured the chili-lime broth over top. I gingerly picked at the paltry specimen looking up at me from my bowl, trying to pull the miniscule bits of meat from the fragile skeleton (with a fork).Meanwhile, my husband and daughters took their cue from our Fijian friends, who settled themselves comfortably into our cockpit and proceeded to devour their share with their hands from one large bowl, sucking and slurping at the bodies, heads, fins, tails and bones till there was nothing left but the juicy broth. This they consumed by passing the bowl around and sipping loudly, each in turn. Clean-up was simple that afternoon.
The Chief visits Momo
On another occasion, a group from Nabuna Village came to our boat to spend an evening. We drank grog and rum and told stories long into the night. They insisted on providing the entertainment, too, in the form of Fijian Music. We were looking forward to this: I had visions of ukuleles and drums and rhythmic handclapping. Instead, one of them produced a CD from a stained, sandy bag and asked me to put it into our player. I could barely tell which side was up, so mutilated was the once shiny disc. In no time, however, our new friends were swaying and beating their hands to the reggae-like music, wholly unaware of the scratches, pauses and skips in the line-up. Our new friends were happily humming along to “their” music — which ranged from UB40 to a local band who had recorded their music in Koro Island's recording studio — and they were proud to be sharing with us.
This led me to reflect on the pragmatism of these islanders. Everything they do is supremely practical. The make grog bowls out of old mooring balls and recycle large squares of wrapping paper for interior wall decorations. They have no use for shoes — Chief Watsoni of Makogai told us that he moved back to his island from the city of Levuka (a town of about 3000 residents) because, among other things, he was tired of wearing shoes (he tossed aside his watch, too). They even reuse old DVDs and CDs, making them into shiny adornments on their trees. Furniture is deemed unnecessary; all major activities happen on the mat, either inside or outside, as evidenced by the permanently bruised, swollen, and calloused talus: a tell-tale sign of a lifetime of sitting cross-legged, and a clear indication that we are from a different world.
Indeed, everything about the way these islanders move sets us apart. They seem deliberately slow in speech and contemplative to a degree that tries even the most patient of souls, but can climb a coconut palm before you can even utter the short syllables, “yes, please.”  We notice that even our children, who have grown up on a boat and are fairly adept at swinging, swimming and scaling vertical things, look ponderous and awkward in the presence of Fijian children.
But I do not mean to paint a single-sided, romantic picture of the “simple island life”, and our typical First World-Third World dichotomy would be misleading. Fijians have whatever 21st century technology they can get their hands on: cell phones, radios, televisions. They eagerly accept any movies we pass along. They rely on diesel-powered generators until 9 o'clock at night, after which the cell phone becomes even more important because of its accessory flashlight. Yet even though we come from a technologically advanced place, it is not our technology that draws them to us. What interests them about us is that we are culturally and socially different. And they welcome us into their lives precisely because of that difference.
I find myself reflecting on Robert Dean Frisbie's letters to his friend James Norman Hall, written in the early 1940s.[1]  Frisbie lived during the 1920s as the only white man on the island of Puka-Puka in the Cook Islands for many years, having married an islander and raised a family there. He spoke the native language, swam on the backs of turtles and understood the strange and complicated ceremonies constructed around island beliefs. He was immersed in island culture. And yet he understood that he was not one of them, and that he should not try to be, for the special nature of his relationship to Puka Pukans was defined by his very difference. “A white man in these islands must not go native”, wrote Frisbie:
It is a pleasant thought to dally with in civilization, a disastrous one to put into practice. When a white man goes native, the people brand him as being no better than themselves. Now, probably, he is no better; but if he goes native he will not be as good, and he will soon find that the natives look down on him. Why shouldn't they? He cannot compete with them in their own culture. He cannot catch fish as well as they, climb coconut palms, plant taro, catch a great turtle in the open sea — he can perform none of their tasks as well as they do. If he tries to do these things he makes himself ridiculous. Plainly, he is inferior to the natives.
Kalesi and her fish, about to become lunch
I can relate to that. When it comes to reef fishing, tree climbing or even just hiking around the island, we get sorely beaten every time (even with our rubberized protective footwear). We are not bendy like they are. We have a great big spear gun, but they catch more fish. We feel ridiculous quite often, even in the most modest challenges. We haven't even attempted to ride a great turtle.
 But even as we might feel awkward or ridiculous on their turf, we also sense a mutual respect, something Frisbie observed, too:
Natives want to be proud of “their” white man, as they call an epicurean like myself. They are disappointed if their white man does not live up to expectations. They want to admire him, brag about him, serve him in the grand manner.
Mele at the helm
Now this doesn't mean that we have to flaunt our “western” ways — they are revealed even without us trying. But it's true that islanders are just as curious about our ways as we are about theirs. We “brag” about our encounters to our friends back home, and they do the same. We noticed the gleam in the eye when, one after another, our new friends took turns at the helm when we sailed to a nearby anchorage together. Later during our visit, Mele confided that they usually do not board the visiting yachts in their bay, that we are the first people who stayed long enough to get to know them and invite them to our home. I can understand why this was special for them; just as we like visiting their homes and seeing their lives up close and personal, they were given the chance to peer into ours, too. We opened our home to them, which broke down one barrier between us. But at the same time, I'm sure we nevertheless “lived up to expectations” in our kaivalagi ways.  I liked the reciprocity here, and our extended visits with each other allowed them and us to view the “otherness” of our lives first-hand.
Frisbie chronicled the colourful differences between his own heritage and the native culture he adopted as his own. But he also wrote about the meaning in the exchanges across cultures. He pointed out that islanders' pride in “their” white man is a reflection on their own self-worth:
…it is of the utmost importance that a white man never ridicule the natives; never sneer at them or in any way humiliate them. If he does this, he is lost. He must remember that, in the last analysis, they are not glorifying him but glorifying in themselves.
Jana's new woven sunhat, on another visit to Fiji in 2013
I feel an immense sense of wellbeing from our encounters in South Pacific villages, and I wonder if it's because I sense on a rather basic level that we are each seeing the other culture, extending our respect, while also recognising the good in our own.  Our time in Fiji has been a cultural exchange in the best sense of the word. We are all a little richer from these interactions. Our close proximity to each other has laid open a path to appreciating another culture while at the same time honouring our own.
Frisbie's writing is of course dated, and our brief encounters with island culture do not compare with his nearly native existence. But I like the overall sentiment here, and I think about it every time I crumple myself awkwardly on the floor or instinctively reach for a spoon when I'm meant to drink from the bowl. I feel silly and inwardly admonish myself for my cultural clumsiness. I am constantly aware of my “privileged” heritage and tread lightly on what I perceive to be fragile Fijian turf. I often find the sharing of western wealth around these parts distasteful, dripping in a kind of cultural imperialism and superiority that I try my best not to perpetuate. I even shy away from the typical kaivalagi's predilection for colourful sulus and tattoos and flowers behind the ear — I recognise it's an attractive and easy way to express appreciation for something beautiful, but I also perceive it as a kind of cute fetishisation that makes me wary. I don't want to see island life as a novelty for me to wrap up and take home.
Kids and kava, back in 2009  -- all part of the cultural exchange
But then I think that perhaps what Frisbie was saying was this: that just as these encounters are special to us (and we proudly proclaim it with our flowers and sulus and tattoos), they are special to the islanders too. Because we are different. Because I ask them about their history and they ask me about my family. Because we wonder about the Good Friday Coup and they don’t wonder about leaders beyond their village boundaries. Because we can't remember all their children's names and they say, a little sadly, when they meet our daughters: “only two?” Because we ask to hear Fijian radio and they turn it on and play Michael Jackson. Because my five-year-old asks why they are brown and they in turn want to pinch her soft pink cheeks and stroke her straw-blonde hair. Because they think it's a pity we don't have cassava and taro where we come from, and I realise I favour a life filled with books over all the taro fields in Fiji. Because I regret that I can't climb a coconut tree yet still prefer using a spoon to sip my soup. And because they boil bananas and I fry them. There’s no escaping Louisa's good-natured guffaw as she passes the plate of fried banana fritters on to Manini, and then Kalesi, and then Liti. Each time they pass the plate, they tell about the crazy kaivalagi cooking up the bananas in a pan, and they laugh a little harder.
I don't admit that I eat those with a spoon, too.
[1] All quotations from Robert Dean Frisbie's letters taken from James Norman Hall, The Forgotten One and Other True Tales of the South Seas (1952: Little, Brown).

Monday, September 29, 2014

Wild Phosphorescence (Ko Phaluai, Thailand)

Pinnacle Beach, Ko Phaluai
While anchored in four meters of water in a bay on the north of a small Thai island (Ko Phaluai -- lat: 9.550345; long: 99.69351) the other night (28/29 Sept., 2014), I woke up around 1:00 AM to find the boat rocking a little bit, so I went out to check the direction of the wind. Well, there wasn’t any wind to speak of -- the boat was just moving a little, perhaps due to refracted swell (although it worth noting that we had not noticed any swell the previous day and conditions had been calm, so perhaps the movement was due to other reasons). But when I stuck my head out the hatch, I saw long lines of phosphorescence pulsing into the bay. This was definitely something we all had to see, so I woke up Michelle and the kids and we were soon on the foredeck watching a most amazing and mysterious light show.

The pulsing lines or waves were hundreds of meters long (as far as we could see), widely spaced, and maybe 8 meters wide, moving rapidly at a rate of about 3 pulses per second. These slightly curved waves of light were moderately bright and  "clean" -- that is, without disruptions or anomalies, all the same width, evenly spaced, all with the same uniform, undifferentiated, moderate level of phosphorescent glow. The entire effect was incredibly geometrical. Within the waves (and around them) we could also see an abundance of more “conventional” phosphorescence -- intense isolated flashes of green from individual organisms caused by agitation through wavelets and darting fish.

Phosphorescent pulses were emanating from a couple of points within the bay as well, not far from the boat.  They seemed to spin out like scythes from these points -- not points, really, but central areas that were perhaps 4 meters across.  Whenever pulses from different sources met, they flashed together and the train of pulses stopped. That is to say, the pulsing patterns never overlapped or extended beyond the line of contact with other pulsing patterns. It was as if their energies cancelled each other out. Meanwhile, the whole arrangement of pulsing light was slowly moving and shifting the entire time.

Then, around 2:00 AM -- we had been watching for approximately one hour -- the display abruptly ceased; the bay went dark first, while beyond the bay an indistinct glow persisted for a few minutes longer.

It is worth pointing out that we had noticed earlier that the water was very phosphorescently charged, so to speak.

Many years ago we saw something similar while sailing near Hawaii. In that case, we didn’t see waves or pulses of light but rather large (many meters across) sharply delineated angular patches of flashing phosphorescent that lit up the ocean surface.

These large patterned displays of phosphorescence seem almost other worldly. They are impossible for me to comprehend and very difficult describe.

Update:check out the following article "Phosphorescent Wheels: Fact or Fiction" by Peter Herring and Paul Horsman, which examines other accounts of such phenomena (thanks Nancy).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Beyond first impressions: Ambon, Indonesia (Dec. 2013)

Had we let our first impressions guide us, we'd never have stayed nearly three weeks in Ambon City. Nestled a good ten nautical miles up the inlet that runs into the center of Ambon Island, Ambon City is the capital of the Maluku province of Indonesia and historically served as the regional center of the Dutch colonial administration. It's a relatively large city in eastern Indonesia, with a gubernatorial office, bustling streets, varied and imposing architecture, a university, military parade grounds and a large shopping mall (where we discovered, among other things, Indonesian donuts that rival Krispy Kremes).

The first thing we knew about Ambon, however -- even before we arrived -- was that it was the center of Christian-Muslim violence as recently as just over a decade ago. We learned of this first-hand from a Muslim English teacher in Banda (our last port of call before Ambon), Mr. Cinta, who told us he'd fled to Banda when the violence got really intense. Mr. Cinta met us on a Banda street one day, stopping his moped and smiling a hello. We struck up a conversation and the next thing we knew, he was inviting us to 'tour' Banda Neira with his school group. His students, he told us, would enjoy the English practice -- and they'd show us around the historical sites. They took us from the central museum to the canoe sheds, where carvers were hard at work preparing their crafts for the upcoming annual island races, to the wide waterfront streets where Dutch plantation owners built large homes with sprawling verandas, now overgrown and unoccupied (their plantations occupying the nearby, and larger, Lontar island).

Mr. Cinta and his students, with Lola and Jana
We learned many things that day in Banda, but Mr. Cinta's brief account of his abrupt departure from his home town of Ambon impacted us as much as anything else. He summed up the circumstances of his departure from Ambon succinctly: "If I stayed, I would be killed. So I left." Cause for caution, we thought, though Ambon has enjoyed relative peace in recent years.

The second impression came when left the Banda Sea, turning into  Ambon Bay between the two main peninsulas that comprise Ambon Island and seeking the protected port of Ambon City.

Trash along the shore of Ambon City -- with plenty floating
in the river, too, posing navigational hazards
Instantly we were surrounded by trash, forcing us to carefully navigate in and out of garbage; never before had we seen so many bits of wood crates, plastic, netting, styrofoam, ramen wrappers, yoghurt containers, soda bottles. Some pieces of trash floated as isolated bits, while others were caught by eddies and currents and strung together over time: swirling masses of putrid waste. We crept up the inlet ever closer to Ambon City, wondering: What have we got ourselves into?

Ambon River 
But we dropped our anchor in the midst of this filthy harbor and made ready for shore -- where we were confronted with more garbage: along the inner harbor, by waterfront homes, up riverbanks. We soon discovered that discarding our own trash ashore simply meant finding a pile (any old pile) and heaving our plastic onto it. Not something we ever became comfortable with -- but, with no other option, something we did. We sought out large rubbish containers, only to discover later that they were dumped on the side of the road (right next to the bins) by city-dwellers searching for useful items -- only to be refilled again. What use the receptacles were, we never did figure out.

Rubbish is an inescapable rudeness and affront in Indonesia -- and Ambon was, well, ugly.


Thus, stories of religious strife and the vast amount of trash we encountered first-hand shaped our early impressions of this city.

But we stayed long enough to look closer and soon discovered many things to enjoy in this crowded city of nearly 400,000 souls. The food was spectacular. The wireless worked. And the people were remarkably friendly -- despite our youngest having to endure far too many women pinching her soft white cheeks.

We dinghied ashore the first day and walked through a gritty, dark and downright stinky alleyway to arrive on a streetcorner bustling with more noise and traffic and smells than any place we'd been in a long, long while. Mango carts, bicycle guides (becaks), motorbikes, mopoed taxis (ojek), automobiles, pedestrians, taxis, bicyclists... all crowding together, many of them bucking the trend of the local (and sometimes, to us, indiscernible) traffic patterns.

Even now, after nearly a year since we arrived in SE Asia, I'm mesmerized by mopeds and other vehicles crowding the streets in this part of the world. Tual and Ambon introduced me to the frenzied driving (by the time we arrived in Bali, we were brave enough to enter the fray ourselves) -- and I still  stop on the sidewalk just to watch the traffic, a striking shift in scenery, compared to sailing in a ten-knot breeze.


Ambon streetside care
Our first mission upon arrival in Ambon was sorting our Internet connection. We were sent to the Telkom offices but arrived around 4pm to discover them closed. Sullen and hot, we started down the street, only to hear a man chasing after us: Internet? Come! I show you Internet. Bernie was skeptical and did not want to follow him, sure that we were being led to an Internet cafe -- which was not what we needed. But we really had no choice except to follow this enthusiastic individual, so we did.

He led us only a little way down the street to a red van. Two women emerged with their Telkom-mobile shop. I marvelled at the efficiency of this small troupe, watching as the Seussian thingamabob unfolded before our eyes: front doors and side doors opened, then out popped a display counter, and next came the folding table and chairs: - voila! --  Thing One and Thing Two had set up an Internet street-side access provider, just for us. Within twenty minutes we were up and running. And smiling.

Coast Guard vessels, right, in the evening light
When we went ashore the second day, we passed a Coast Guard ship with men waving vigorously -- and motioning for us to come. We hesitated, wanting to avoid an official scolding for any potential offense or violation of an unnamed rule that we had no way of knowing in this part of the world. We even tried to ignore them. But they kept hollering and waving -- and so we reluctantly motored closer and slowed near their boat. With very little English, they indicated we should come aboard. We hesitated again. But after a few more words in our very limited Bahasa and their very limited English -- and a lot of gesticulating -- it was established that we should come aboard and tie up our dinghy there, alongside their boat -- because it's safer. That part was easy to understand: they wanted to be sure we felt secure, and insisted we use their boat as our floating dock while in Ambon. We felt quite safe in this city so far, and we had no fears of leaving our dinghy at the nearby fishing dock, but we followed their friendly suggestion nonetheless.

On our first day aboard the Akelamo, Captain Djufri and his crew also insisted they help bring our washing to the laundromat, and soon they had lined up four mopeds streetside, inviting us to hop on. In the end, Jana declined the offer to board the back of a motorcycle and race through an unfamiliar city with a man she'd only just met (despite her parents' urging: go on, it'll be fun! -- sometimes it's good to have one sane person among the four of us), and instead she and I got a becak, the local cycle rickshaw, while Bernie and Lola happily sped off on motorbikes en route to the landromat.

View to Ambon houses from the Commonwealth War Cemetery
From that day forward, we went ashore many times, and we always tied up to the Coast Guard -- there were actually two vessels tied side-by-side, the Akelamo alongside a larger ship which we traversed each time. And we were always greeted by crew members who helped us carry our laundry, rubbish and groceries across their decks, and who courteously raised and lowered a long boarding ladder each time they saw us coming. We grew comfortable with the smiles and limited dialogue with Kiki, Dudi, Enjiel and Huong (who had the greatest smile of all).

During our stay, the Coasties also insisted on filling our water tanks, even urging us repeatedly to tie Momo alongside Akelamo for convenience, but we declined the generous offer because the angular curve of their considerable steel hull would damage our rigging (something we finally communicated via a pencil-on-napkin drawing).

Captain Djufri and his crew helped us with fuel as well -- taking us to a waterfront alleyway in Ambon lined with vendors whose shops are stocked with large barrels of diesel and petrol, and filling our jerry cans at Kiki's shop in an unusual hands-on funnel fashion. The shops were filled with containers -- full ones lined up on the ground, empty ones hanging from the ceilings --  plus small counters of candies on the side and family members emerging from various doors and hallways to say hello and check us out.

We have now come to realize that we're as much a curiosity to the locals as they are to us -- and we've grown accustomed to having our photo taken quite often by locals capturing the family in the dinghy, or the family walking down the street, or the family visiting the Islamic Theme Park (more on that forthcoming -- in the Malaysia tales).

But back in November 2013, having only arrived in Indonesia, we were still taking it all in and found ourselves marvelling at thecoordinated family operation for delivering fuel into our jerry cans, which involved a woman we assumed was Kiki's wife sharing the workload, squatting in her sarong and controlling the transfer of fuel from their large vats into our small cans. Meanwhile, there was a child relaxing on the counter, a parrot overseeing the whole process, other family members popping in and out to check on the curious strangers and smile at our children, various other small transactions happening in the corners of the shops, chickens wandering the alleyway, goats in nearby pens. And, of all things, a codger smoking cigarettes.

We had several exchanges over tea and biscuits, too -- some more successful than others. And near the end of our stay in Ambon, our new benefactors came to Momo for a visit, too, marveling, we think, at our cramped quarters and what my children decided was our underappreciated tea. Both Lola and Jana observed how our guests gingerly sipped small quantities and feigned that their thirst had been quenched, while Captain Djufri kept encouraging the one reluctant drinker to finish his cuppa -- which he promptly did, though all of them adamantly refused seconds.


Happy fruit vendor
We ate well in Ambon. We went back to the same two restaurants several times. We ate at Dedes because it's where we arrived on our first night out. When we asked our becak drivers (two passengers per vehicle) for a good restaurant, emphasizing we'd like to eat local ayam goreng (fried chicken), they drove us through a long stretch of the city outskirts and finally stopped at the palatial three-storied Kentucky Fried Chicken -- and, realizing our mistake, exclaimed, "No, no, we would like local food! Indonesian! Tidak American!" We were grateful when our drivers finally dropped us on the doorstep of Dedes, where we discovered delightful fish curry, squid barbecue and, yes, local fried chicken. The second restaurant became a favorite because they had the best nasi ayam goreng (essentially chicken fried rice) that we'd ever had. Lola always ordered two portions there, and when we told them it was our last visit after two weeks of frequenting their shop, they gave her a free watch from the counter at the entrance. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with smiles and generosity. And people who wanted to have their photos taken.


Jana pets an eel
Other highlights in Ambon included the day drive up the coast with the family on S/V Morning Glory, who also anchored in the harbor with us for a few days. On that excursion, we stopped at the Tulehu hot springs (we didn't swim) and the sacred eel pools at Waai (Jana got up close and personal with them, along with the kids from Morning Glory -- but she jumped back quite a bit when one became a little too friendly). We also stretched our legs at the very tidy Commonwealth War Cemetery, its manicured lawns and pruned gardens immaculately clean and in stark contrast to the rest of Ambon City.

Also, we'll not soon forget the jam-packed and bistering hot waterfront market, fireworks every night off our stern and the pre-dawn call to prayer, which, in the spirit of the Christmas season, was always answered, loud and garbled, by a nearby church. I've grown accustomed to the call to prayer. But I never expected to travel this far from home and be accosted by canned Christmas music.

4:30 AM in Ambon.


Other photos from our visit to Ambon below.
Ambon waterfront market

Locals gather at dusk at the city waterfront

Fuel shop in Ambon alley -- and the fuel was even clean! (photo by Lola Elvy)

Part diesel depot, part kiddie daycare -- fueling up in Ambon (photo by Lola Elvy)

Fuel alley, Ambon (photo by Lola Elvy)

Family fuel operations /vendors (photo by Lola Elvy)

Parrot overseeing the fuel op (photo by Lola Elvy)
All smiles in Ambon alley (photo by Lola Elvy)