Monday, July 11, 2011

What is Missing?

It's a relatively common question -- "What do you miss while cruising?"

In some ways, it's very hard to answer. Arguably, I miss nothing. I have my family, my husband, my health, the biggest and most magnificent backyard in the world, and I don't have to go to work. Ever. Compared to these advantages, it feels rather petty to go on and on about the small things I crave, the medium things I jones for, the big items for which I sometimes think I would literally kill. Out here, missing stuff is very much a part of our way of life. It's the empty wistful next to the full glass of amazing.

Let's first confront head on the mistaken notion that French Polynesia is a third world country. Some of the comments I've seen on this blog and elsewhere suggest that folks might have a concept of the South Pacific islands as impossibly remote and primitive, where people are living an incredibly hard scrabble existence with no modern amenities. There may be islands so remote that this description still holds true. However, on most islands and in all the cases we've had an opportunity to visit, French Polynesians lead a relatively modern lifestyle that would not be terribly unfamiliar to the average American, Kiwi, or Australian. While adopting a very beach casual with flippy floppies attire, they are by no means the palm frond and flower clad naked folk that we see in the dance shows. The islands have established road systems, distributed electrical and communication grids, satellite access to international communication and Internet, and regular supply ships carrying the exact same cheap Chinese plastic crap and friable cotton clothing found literally everywhere.

The one aspect that seems uniquely different from North America is that many Polynesian homesteads include a very robust cottage farm component with established fruit trees, bushes, and vegetable gardens. This is due no doubt largely because ferry supplies are considerably less fresh than local and usually expensive. With the exception of the capital Papeete, French Polynesian towns are incredibly clean. On the smaller islands and all the atolls, there is a high rate of solar power adoption and many of the atolls are investing heavily in water cachement systems. The economy here appears robust and is based on tourism, pearl farming, as well as copra, flower and fruit exports. It will be interesting to witness their transformation over time as they gradually wean their economy from the heavy subsidization of France. At this point, I would bet on the Polynesians as they appear a highly adaptable people. As is frequently the case, we see a deep contrast between the people who live in the well developed areas and those who live below the poverty line. This reminds me strongly of coastal Mexico where educated Mexicans taking part in the modern economy shop at Costco, Home Depot and WalMart, drive their suburbans, and send their children to private school, where the uneducated and extremely poor underclass live in plywood shacks with dirt floors and live largely on fishing while growing their own chickens, beans, and limons.

As a result of the high degree of modernization, there are few commercial goods which are truly unavailable here. If we want it, we could buy it. While availability can be a problem for the average cruiser on the atolls and smaller islands, locals order what they want and it appears on the next supply ship. The problem is cost. Everything here except coconuts, pamplemousse and bokchoy is imported at insane cost. I don't honestly know how the locals afford it. I frankly can not even figure out how they feed their children. But obviously, the economy works for residents as most appear prosperous: well fed, well clothed with cars, cell phones, good medical care, and satellite television. (As a side note, we've had reason to sample the local medical services and -- yet again -- it puts the American medical establishment to shame… quick, reasonable prices, highly professional, no wait.)

So what could we on Don Quixote possibly want? American candy and English language books. Actually, when you travel it is super important to stash a lot of the little sauces, candies, and other treats you favor, because even if they have the same product in another country, it doesn't taste the same. We are now on our fourth Dorito's Nacho Cheese chips, none of which taste like home even though the packaging is identical. I have no idea what the hell they've done to the recipe, but the version in Polynesia is even worse than Mexico and that's saying something. I can't find red vines and the M&Ms don't crunch right. Asian sauces are abundant here so don't worry about packing soy sauce or wasabi or Thai fish sauce, but you can kiss good bye anything even remotely Central or South American. It's as if every taste south of Oklahoma is simply non-existent in the South Pacific -- including NZ and Australia.

Reading material is a bigger problem. At least in Mexico, the cruisers made a point of establishing English language book exchanges. For whatever reason, we have not found any similar, large scale give-one-get-one exchange anywhere in Polynesia. As a result, everyone in the family has pretty much read everything on the boat, and there is just no replacing it. We can't even count on getting new books when we get to New Zealand as for some reason, the cost of a book in New Zealand is only marginally less than the book's weight in gold on the open market. Our electronic devices have not helped as pretty much all of them are either gradually or abruptly failing. The iPad and Aeron's iTouch are down for the count, Jaime's iTouch has a smashed screen, and the entire back of my MacBook is melting in a manner that disturbingly suggests imminent and explosive failure of the lithium battery. So much for ebooks. To delay the inevitable end, I've purchased two children's books and a few adult books in French for Aeron and myself. It's a start.

I think if I had to have a care package mailed to us at incredible expense, it would include the following: iPod headphones, Branch's butter mints, three packages of Costco women's briefs (all dark colours), a replacement sun protection hat from REI (mine finally died), sets of flippers for the kids (and here they cost $40USD/pair), and a replacement iPad or Kindle stuffed to the memory limit with science fiction, non-fiction, and South Pacific tour guides. And Taco Bell. Oh my god, I would kill for lunch at Taco Bell.


judith said...

I think there must be something about going to sea that causes people to crave Taco Bell, happened to my daughter too. Her macbook also died and her phone is on it's last leg.

tux said...

I asked this very question on some forums this past week. There were quite a few responses on stuff that was missed. But mostly it was the stuff they didn't miss about their land life that came across.

Anonymous said...

I can't remember what happened on the Amazon Kindle thing. I have now had one for three years and one for six months (my first is now my son's). I seem to remember that mine worked in Mexico when I downloaded from my computer. It has been pretty trouble free, but then I am not in a salt spray environment.

Andy in Minneapolis.