My wife turned 39 again a few weeks ago and wanted a bit of adventure for her birthday, so we decided to get off-the-grid for a few weeks to see what life was like at the end of the world — the remote Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia — 3,500 nautical miles from home.
To get there you fly three hours past Hawaii to Tahiti, jump on a cargo/passenger ship, the Aranui 5 — which also brings supplies to the six islands every two weeks — and sail the Pacific for another day and a half to find the heart of Polynesian history and culture.
It’s a rare glimpse into the past and present of these proud, warrior people who Americans too often meet only when they’re being served dinner or having their room cleaned. Tourism in Hawaii and Tahiti pays their bills, but it’s in the remote islands, like the Marquesas, where you find what makes them tick.
Our plan was to go cold turkey. No Internet, TV, smart phones, or Yahoo News letting us know how hot Demi Moore looks in a bikini at 60. You know, the essentials of life.
I made it to day six before cracking and sneaking off to a little internet café — the Mango Bar — on the tiny island of Hiva Oa to see how the Dodgers were doing, and if anyone noticed I was gone. What’s the use of dropping off the grid if no one notices?
The Wi-Fi costs $3, the beer $6. I logged on to breaking news that Steve Bannon had been indicted. The Irish couple I was with — Billy and Dorothy Lutton from Dublin — bought a round for the house.
The Aranui 5, billed as a “freighter to paradise,” was a floating United Nations of countries. There were 14 represented on board: 56 French citizens, 30 French Polynesians traveling between islands, eight Germans, seven New Zealanders, five Spaniards, four Aussies, one couple each from Ireland, Canada and the Netherlands, and one Austrian, Belgian and Romanian.
And us, the ugly Americans.
Most Americans go to the Caribbean or Hawaii, and don’t fly the extra three hours to visit the Tahitian Islands, which is a shame because they have their own unique beauty and archeological sites, and the Polynesians tend to like Americans.
It’s the French many of them can’t stand, for taking Tahiti as one of its colonies back in 1880, said Polynesian historian Keao Nesmitt, a lecturer on the trip who grew up in the Marquesas. It was a pretty gutsy comment considering almost half the passengers were French citizens.
“Overall, I hear much more complimentary things about Americans than French, though there is confusion now,” he said. “The ideal of the American dream versus the gun violence and chaos is a big head-scratcher for the Polynesian people.”
It’s a big head-scratcher all over the world, said a young Romanian woman who traveled a lot for business. “When I was growing up your country was the American dream. We all wanted to live and work there.
“Today, nobody in Romania grows up dreaming of coming to America. It’s sad. You were Disneyland to us.”
I asked the Germans what they thought, but they said they didn’t know any English, and ignored the question, like most of the French did, too. I shouldn’t read too much into that, said our English-speaking guide, Frank Macken, who also doubled as a French guide.
“Ah, the French,” he said, taking a drag off his Pall Mall. “You tell them to go there and they won’t go there. You tell them not to go there, and they go there. They are free spirits.”
Which brings me to the Irish, Aussies and New Zealanders we shared tables with at dinner, and jockeyed for that last glass of free wine. They also thought the situation in America right now is a real head-scratcher.
“So, what do you think, Billy?” I asked my new Irish friend, a true free spirit.
“Well, I don’t know,” he said. “Buy me a pint and I might remember.”
Oh, the Irish. I’m thinking about doing a cultural, archeological pub tour in Ireland with Billy for my next birthday.
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.