“We were young and strong, we were runnin’ against the wind”-Bob Seger
Papeete is sensory overload. I literally don’t know where to look first. It feels like I’ve just stepped inside a casino for the first time and blinking lights and alarm bells are going off all around me. My eyes are spinning like slot machines because all I’ve seen for the past ten days is the gray interior of the MV Cap Capricorn and the dark blue surface of the Pacific Ocean out of the ship’s depressingly small porthole windows.
Tahiti is my oasis, my refuge from the dreary life I’ve been living at sea. Its turquoise water is a relief and it’s sparkling for as far as my eyes can see. I try to focus on a Polynesian outrigger canoe as it gracefully glides by, but I’m immediately distracted by the town center that’s just outside the port’s gates. It’s buzzing with people, which today also feels totally foreign.
I’ve either been alone in my cabin or with the same five or six faces in the dining hall ever since we set sail from Sydney.
When I lock eyes on Papeete’s historic catholic church, the Palace de Norte Dame, with its yellow façade and bright red steeple, I’m reminded of something the Polish cook said to me yesterday, “Tomorrow you will have a chance to wash your eyes.”
When he said that I just kind of nodded along to be nice because I didn’t exactly understand what he meant. But as I look at the lush hillside behind the church that leads to majestic Mont Orohena, which is the extinct volcano that sits smack dab in the middle of tiny Tahiti, what he said begins to make perfect sense.
In short, the past ten days have been hell and I’m dying to get as far away from the Capricorn as possible, even if it’s just for a couple of hours. The Captain promised us six hours of freedom, but the Tahitian customs officers are running late and they’re behind schedule.
Papeete and its nearly florescent green palm trees are so close, but yet so far away. Looking at them from the main deck of the ship, but not being cleared to get off and soak it in quickly turns from excited anticipation into sheer torture.
I know its cliché, but it’s never been so true; the seconds tick by like minutes and minutes feel like they last as long as days. I pace around the deck and look down at the gangway, dreaming of what it will be like to step foot on land again and imagine sinking my teeth into a big fat Tahitian cheeseburger.
My patience, already thin from life onboard, gets even thinner as I ask Devinder, “Where the hell are the customs officers?”
“They’re probably on island time,” he says, meaning that everything moves a little slower here and that there’s absolutely nothing he can do about it.
I don’t really subscribe to island time, never have and probably never will. If anything, I like to be early to things. In fact, I’ve tried to work myself into a productive routine while on board. My goal has been to get up and eat breakfast by 10AM, which sounds easy enough but the ship’s rocking every night makes it nearly impossible to fall asleep until sheer exhaustion takes over in the early hours of the morning. That’s not to mention all the time changes we have to deal with. Every other day we cross through a different time zone and it feels like we’re constantly moving the clocks ahead by one hour so my body clock is completely out of wack.
Just yesterday we crossed the international dateline and instead of turning our clocks forward one hour like we had been doing, we had to turn them back 23 hours, which really took the wind out of my sails because it meant that the day at sea we just lived didn’t count. We actually had to redo the day and live the same Tuesday twice! Let me tell you, a day on the Capricorn is not a day you’d ever want to have to redo.
When I passed the Chinese deckhand in the hallway and asked him about crossing the international dateline, he summed it up perfectly in his broken English accent when he said, “Tomorrow is today again.”
So it was just another chance to repeat the same routine, which meant that after breakfast I went to the tiny gym that houses a few weights that have got be from the Cold War era and tried to work out without sliding and slamming into the walls as the ship bobs its way across the seemingly never calm Pacific. Then I ate lunch and sat down at the desk in my cabin to write until they call us for dinner time. I will say that it’s been nice in the sense that there are no distractions, no television, no Wi-Fi and no one to talk to, so I’ve been able to catch up on my writing because of it.
Normally after dinner I’ll write a little more and hope for a sunset on the other side of my porthole window. Then at night I’ll read about Robinson Crusoe and see how he’s getting along on his deserted island until I’m tired enough to eventually fall asleep. I do my best to avoid Howard at all costs. Every conversation remains about him. When I asked him a few days ago if he was ever interested in learning about anyone else, he said very matter-of-factly, “No. Most people are boring,” and then proceeded to talk more about the sailboat he lives on in New Zealand as though my question wasn’t meant as a clue.
Tom’s been as solemn as ever, but we’ve agreed to partner up today and explore the island (that is if the customs officers ever actually show up). I still haven’t had much more than a one-word conversation with the guy, but I’m hopeful Tahiti will change that. I’ve even started calling him Tahiti Tom in the dining hall as way to get him to warm up. We don’t really have any idea what we’ll do today so we’re just going to wing it and hope for the best. The coffee on board is killing me. It’s instant and awful so I’ve been fantasizing about getting a strong cup of iced-coffee and digging my toes deep into Tahitian sand.
Just as the pace of my pacing picks up, a white car with the words Police painted on its roof pulls alongside the Capricorn and two officers make their way up the gangway. Once we’re cleared to leave, Tom sprints away from the ship like it’s on fire and I hobble along behind him.
My toes are still a crumpled black and blue mess from the steel tip hiking boots I had on last week, so running is out of the question for the foreseeable future.
Port Autonome sits out in the harbor of Nanuu Bay and away from the coastline of Papeete. If you were to draw the letter G, the port would be the last part of the G before you pick your pencil up, so just getting to its exit takes us about twenty minutes. To get to the town center we have to walk around the humped back of the G, which looks to be about another three miles. Everything felt so close from the deck of the ship, but it quickly dawns on us that if we continue on foot were going to waste a precious thirty minutes on a boring and beat up industrial road.
We decide to hitch a ride with the next car that drives by, which happens to be the Tahitian customs officers that just granted us access to their island. They’re driving back to their office, but they only speak French so communicating with them is next to impossible.
Tahiti is the largest of 118 islands that make up French Polynesia. The island itself was originally said to be settled by Polynesians that paddled there in their outrigger canoes from either Indonesia or the Philippines about three thousand years ago. It’s one of the last places to be ever be colonized by Europeans. It wasn’t until 1880 that it became a colony of France, which in turn made the island’s inhabitants become French citizens. Polynesians still make up about seventy percent of the population, but French has remained the official language of the island as Tom and I quickly find out at the tourism office where we were dropped off.
We can’t help but to giggle like schoolboys at our first site of a woman.
She’s sitting behind the information desk and we both stare at her like we’re in a trance. She has long curly brown hair and is wearing a white linen dress, which makes her golden skin glow. I look at Tom and shake my head slowly in disbelief as I say, “I really don’t know how those guys on the ship do it. They live on that thing for 9 months at a time.”
Tom being Tom only nods in agreement.
We ask the woman for advice on where to go and what to see. As she unfolds a colorful tourist map we tell her we only have about five hours and that we’d at least like to get to a nice beach. Tahiti at its widest is 28 miles wide, so I’m assuming that we should be able to find one relatively easy.
She takes a pen and circles a beach on the map that’s just outside Papeete and then says, “20 minutes by taxi.”
Tom and I race across the street in an effort to find Wi-Fi before we venture out of the town center so we can re-connect with the outside world. It immediately becomes apparent what Devinder meant when he said that he’s been many places but has never really seen them. We sit inside a restaurant for nearly two hours eating cheeseburgers, answering emails, texting friends and calling our families. With just over two hours left we still haven’t seen a single thing in Tahiti yet.
While we waited in the information office I happened to grab a brochure, which talked about a Tahitian term called “Mana” inside its cover. It said that the island is immersed in a world of majestic mountain peaks, turquoise waters and white-sand beaches and that visitors to the islands create memories through authentic experiences that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. For centuries, the Tahitian people have referred to this as “Mana”. Mana is a life force and spirit that surrounds and connects all living things. You can see it. Touch it. Taste it. Feel it. And from the moment you arrive, you will understand why they say their islands are embraced by Mana.
Eventually we pry ourselves away from our phones and take a taxi to the beach that was recommended to us hoping to find some Mana of our own.
Tahiti is surrounded by an almost continuous coral reef, which is one of the reasons the ocean water is so clear here. The reef creates a shallow pool of water around the island, which gently flows right up to its white sandy beaches. But unfortunately there’s no Mana to be had because we don’t have much time to enjoy it. All we have time for is a quick dip in its crystal clear ocean water and short walk along the surf before we have to head back to Papeete. I’m constantly checking the time because I’m afraid that we’re not going to make it back in time, which really makes me miss the moment.
I don’t worry about many things while traveling, but for some reason anytime the buses or trains or ships I’ve been on pull over for a rest stop I never stray too far from them and I always like to be the first one back on board.
I’ve grown deathly afraid of being stranded somewhere without my things.
I do think that fear is justified. Let’s say I were to miss the ship and the Capricorn were to set sail without me. My dream would be over just like that. The United States is still 5,000 miles away and there would certainly be no way to get there overland at a moment’s notice. I’d be forced to fly, thus ending my journey and shattering my dream. I honestly don’t even know how I’d pull that off. The Captain has taken all of our passports and we won’t get them back until we arrive in Oakland. All that we have as far as identification goes are the plastic id cards with Hamburg Süd’s logo on them, but that only allows us to get in and out of the Port Autonome while where here.
With forty-five minutes left before we have to get back onboard, the taxi drops us off at a tiki bar that’s just outside the port’s entrance. Tom wants to soak up each second of freedom before we have to get back on the ship. Even though I’m nervous about it, I agree and we sit at a table outside on the patio and order a pitcher of Hinano beer, which is brewed locally on the island. It’s a light crisp lager that’s perfect for our palm tree backdrop.
It isn’t long before we order another and then another.
By our third pitcher, making it back on board doesn’t seem quite so important to either of us. I rock back on the edge of my chair and sip blissfully from my glass; it seems to reach every cell of my body like I’ve never had a beer before.
With five minutes to spare, we settle our bill and then a light bulb goes off in my head. What would be better than drinking an ice-cold beer as we sail away from Tahiti tonight? I immediately come to the conclusion that we should get some more beer for the road and at least have a few more drinks back on board. Tom, the most enthusiastic I’ve ever seen him, loves this idea so I run up to the bartender and ask if we could buy a case of beer. She quickly tells me the bad news, that they don’t sell bottles or cans of beer and that they only have their beer on tap.
Disappointed but not totally defeated, I know that we just need something to put the beer in then. I scan the bar for anything that will do the job. I think of dumping flowers out of a vase that’s at the end of the bar, but that’s too disgusting, even for me. Then my eyes settle on a case of San Pellegrino water that I see off in the corner. As I close in on the case I realize that all the bottles are glass and empty. Another light bulb goes off, “Perfect!” I yell out.
I quickly gobble up five 33 ounce bottles and then hand them over to the bartender and ask if she will fill them up with beer.
I watch in amazement as she hold them up to the tap and fills all five of the water bottles to the brim. The second she put the cap on the last one, Tom grabs two and I grab three and we race out the door. We have to hurry because that whole process took way longer than I thought. The bartender had to wait for the foam to settle before she could fully fill each one up. We start running (and hobbling) back through the port.
Just as I’m about to panic and let my mind unravel thinking that I caused us to miss our ship over a few stupid bottles of beer, Devinder calls out our names. I turn around as the bottles clang together in my arms and look in the direction of where I think his voice came from. It’s a relief to see that he’s fifty feet behind us with two other crewmembers. Knowing that the ship would never leave without them, a wry smile spreads across my face and it hits me just how much fun all this is.
When I set out to do travel around the world I’d never imagined I’d be in Tahiti, let alone running to catch a cargo ship while hugging water bottles full of beer in my arms. So I stop and crack open one of the Pellegrino bottles to celebrate and I take a long swig as I wait for them to catch up.
Between the pink Tahitian sunset that’s just begun to shoot across the sky and the buzz from beer, I’m quickly right back to feeling light on my feet. As the five of us walk toward the Capricorn, we pass around the bottle until it’s gone while sharing stories about life that span all corners of the globe. We discussed our favorite music, sports teams and recounted stories of girlfriends gone by.
At one point I lag a few feet behind the group just so I can take it all in. The sky is bright and there’s an Australian, an Indian, a Chinaman and a Filipino, and of course myself, sharing a beer and stories. It’s an eclectic group if I’ve ever seen one and I’ve felt so outside of them since we’d begun our journey. Tom barely speaks to me and the crew is usually too exhausted to care about anything other than their job, but if only for a few minutes we came together in a way that I’d never imagined we would.
I think back to the brochure I picked up earlier in the day. Maybe I didn’t feel the Mana the moment I arrived or at the beach like it promised, but it’s in this walk back to the ship that something feels so special and so unique that it’s almost indefinable. Maybe it’s Mana, but then again maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just as simple as knowing that the simplest things in life are where the real magic lies.
Back on board, Tom and I drag our desk chairs and bottles of beer out onto the deck that’s just below the bridge. The view from that high up is breathtaking, we can almost see the other side of the island. Tom brings out a small speaker and plugs it into his phone and cranks up Bob Seger’s classic song, Against the Wind. As the sun fully sets I hang my legs over the railing of the deck so all that’s below them is the ocean. I take a sip of beer and look down at my toes. They’re covered with blisters and are so black and blue that it looks like they’ve been in a twelve round fight with Mike Tyson in his prime.
As we begin to sail away from Tahiti, all of it feels like a gift to me. The ice-cold beer, the pink hue from sunset, and even the bruises on my feet. As infuriating and frustrating as my journey around the world has been at times, there’s rarely been a single day that’s gone by that hasn’t offered up a moment like this that makes doing anything else with my life seem so utterly impossible.
I could have gone back to my cabin and read more about Robinson Crusoe or tried to fall asleep, but on this night, watching the lights flicker across Tahiti is too magical to turn away from. As I watched the island get smaller and smaller in the distance and eventually disappear, I realize that I’d passed the midpoint of my journey around the world. If all goes as planned, in another twenty days I’ll be stepping foot back in my own country. And although I can’t see the United States, I begin to feel it.