THE RELUCTANT CRUISER
On the second day of sailing in the big blue
passengers line up to descend into the whaleboats by rope ladder. If I had known I would’ve stayed home in . Most are older than I am; some are frail and
sick. But no one complains. I step down gingerly. The ladder bobs and sways, and I shriek as I
jump into the boat hoping not to miss it.
It’s hot and humid. My left ankle
is swollen and the migraines have returned.
My stomach somersaults. I’m a
wreck. Can it get any worse? Chicago
We are on the merchant ship The Aranui “cruising” the
Marquesas Islands. The Marquesas - a remote archipelago two
day-sail from its closest neighbor: Tahiti. We’ve come here because David – my husband -
read a book when he was a young man.
Thor Heyerdahl’s Fatu Hiva to
be exact. Heyerdahl was born in a coastal
in 1914. In 1936 he traveled with his new wife to the
remote village of Norway island of Fatu
Hiva, one of the Marquesas Islands
in the South Pacific, and spent a year there.
Ever since David read this book he’s longed to see these islands. And the Aranui is the only way one can travel
to them. It carries automobiles, horses,
television sets, barrels of oil, foodstuffs, mail, and us: 87 human beings
from, mostly, France and the
with a sprinkling of Australians and British.
The heat/humidity combo coupled with the ordeal of disembarking and embarking makes life very uncomfortable for fourteen days. Most islands have small harbors, not large enough to accommodate huge ships like the Aranui, hence, the whaleboats. Once in a while a large Marquesan ship worker picks me up with his muscular tattooed arms and deposits me into the boat. It’s embarrassing but I don’t care. Better safe than drowned.
Earlier today we had a long orientation on what we're going to do on each island. By the time Vai – one of the Marquesan tour guides - finished explaining everything, I was already exhausted. If only I didn't have to get out of the ship I would be happy. Besides Vai, there is Sylvie and Pascal – both French. After dinner we watch The Mutiny on the Bounty. Not what you want to watch aboard a ship.
The sun is out after a morning of rain. The French are the quintessential sun-worshippers. There is a French couple who sells ice cream half a year and the other half they travel. They are brown and shiny. Another Frenchman - a dermatologist - claims there is no such thing as skin cancer. We engage in a long discussion but he’s not swayed. The French also smoke a lot. Of course, it’s ok because they claim there is no such thing as lung cancer from smoking. They are rude, self-involved and very, very tanned. They act as if they owned the ship and the crew is there to serve them. One evening, right before dinner, one of them comes over our table and takes our wine bottle. Just like that. David flies into a rage but peace is soon restored when the server brings us another bottle.
At our table we have Willy, from Germany who had an aneurysm a few months ago and walks hesitantly; his tongue wags when he talks but he travels all over the world by himself. Some days he’s too sick to come out and stays in his cabin but when he’s out, he keeps up with the climbing and hiking better than I, which isn’t saying much since everyone can keep up better than I can. Ruth and Cecile – 80 year old women from
– are more intrepid than people half their age.
David spends a great deal of time talking to them about his
hometown. And there is Bill from Milwaukee who walks with a
cane. His girlfriend Marisa - from Carmel –
delights in stories of their adventures around the world. After this cruise they’re flying to Italy
to teach English for six months. One
evening they invite us to a cocktail party.
We squeeze in their hot cabin and drink wine and eat peanuts along with
Duke and Jeannie from China . Cabins are small. There is a double bed, a small desk with a
chair, a tiny closet, a miniature refrigerator, and a microscopic bathroom. With hardly any room to walk around we have
to jump over suitcases, shoes, the chair.
This is not a luxury cruiser. Washington
Of all the meals breakfast is the best. Watermelon, papaya, mango, orange, pamplemousse, banana. Great pancakes! French croissants, breads, ham, cheese. You can have eggs too, any way you want them. Lunch is not bad. We delight in avocado stuffed with seafood, duck with peas and carrots and onions, mangoes for dessert, or palm hearts with salami, fish with rice, pineapple. But sometimes even lunch tries our palate. On one of the island tours we go to Tahuata and endure the omnipresent welcome by dancing children and lunch. David doesn't like the food because his fish is raw. I try to enjoy mine despite the flies. Another day we ride up to a mountain spot for a picnic where it’s cool and even sprinkles some rain. As I sit on a rock to eat, a rooster hops over and eats my muffin.
My left ankle continues to be swollen. I see the doctor on board who only speaks French. With my limited knowledge of the language I explain that the foot hurts when I step on it, that the ankle is obviously swollen. He bandages it really tight and gives me pilulles, then asks Sylvie – one of the guides – to take me to the hospital the next day when we land at Ua Po for x-rays and blood tests. The next morning I tell Sylvie I don’t want to have x-rays and blood tests. The doctor makes me sign a form, absolving him of any wrongdoing in case my foot falls off or worse.
Dinners are the biggest problem. We have fish often, which is understandable. But I don’t like how they cook fish. It might be pae-pae: raw fish with breadfruit, coconut milk and something like mayonnaise. Or it might be poisson cru: the Tahitian version of ceviche. But unlike ceviche, which marinates long enough for the lime juice to permeate the fish and “cook” it through, poisson cru is prepared and eaten quickly. The lime juice only turns the surface of the fish opaque, but the inside stays raw. Sometimes we have goat in coconut milk or breadfruit or smoked chicken and rice. One evening they serve us canned fruit cocktail. Everyone is appalled! With all the wonderful fruits around…We even get canned peas and corn. The dining room is small and hot: as I sit trying to eat, I grow drowsy, then lethargic. After a while I can’t even talk.
When we go to the island stores, the shelves are full of canned goods, packaged,
frozen: chips, cookies, salty foods, high-fat content foods - American or French.
The Marquesans’ favorite snack is cheese curls. In the last hundred years they
have become addicted to fast and processed foods and their health suffers. They eat
a lot of pork, goat, and sweets. One of the guides said that there is a 50% incidence
of diabetes. People are generally overweight. They don’t move much because they
don’t have to work. The French government subsidizes everything: housing, food,
Fatu Hiva has jagged peaks that sink straight down into the ocean. It is the greenest, most traditional island. The hottest. The most isolated. The most rainfall. And the reason we are on this cruise: the book by Thor Heyerdahl that D. read a long time ago and set his imagination on fire about coming to the Marquesas. Oh well…could be worse. But of course, could be better. Could be the Paul Gauguin cruise in style. Not a freighter with 500 barrels of oil, a fork lift, two cars, two boats, a horse, and who knows what else that we carry back and forth. The swimming pool leaves a lot to be desired. The bar and lounge are simple and not too clean. There isn't a lot of space to move around. No big salons nor pools nor courts nor restaurants. Everything is small and practical.
In the distance I can see tiny figures with hats walking down the dock to jump into the whaleboats. I better get going.