Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Valentine for the Earth

Only those working the water are out this early. The frigate birds overhead, the rays below, the few boatsmen, and me, balancing, all of us, on this thin seam of a morning in Bora Bora. The day is beginning to wake; its promise rides the sun like a cloak over the horizon.

A ray feeds beneath me on the lagoon floor. I consider slipping into the water for a picture, but the words of Walt McLaughlin come to me, gracefully, like the ray itself. Life is hard enough for wild animals as things are, he wrote. Grateful for McLaughlin's observation, I remain on my paddle board and leave the ray to its purpose.

The salty air cools my lungs; the salty water, my toes. A small fish suddenly lands on my board. Its pursuer, a large trevally, swims below confused by the disappearance of its breakfast. I'm pleased to be the little one's refuge; humored that nature lets me return the favor in this way for the many times it has refuged me.

In his book, The Great Chain of Life, Joseph Wood Krutch suggests that very little of the natural world is necessary for our own survival. We don't need the sting ray or the sea bird. The shark nor whale either. Quite simply, they do very little to benefit our insatiable quest for self-preservation and dominion. Krutch writes that the wild will survive "only if man feels the necessity of sharing the earth with at least some of his fellow creatures to be a privilege rather than an irritation."

But it's more than that, isn't it?

I paddle close to a lagoonarium where fish are kept to entertain the guests with fish feedings twice a week. Also close, is a restaurant that has what's called a "shark park," an enclosed area of the lagoon where blacktip reef sharks are kept for show. We are on the path to a world so domestic that it won't be long before the great barracuda is a fish only our grandfathers will recall. The cougar will become a beast of mythic proportions. Our grandmothers will say, "You had an uncle once who was carried away by the big cat." We will laugh in disbelief as we picture the fat mountain lion in the city zoo who sleeps in the sun and gets his food from a big red bucket, the kind your child plays with at the beach. One day, this fat cat will sit high in a tree, the only one in his exhibit, looking out at the world he once ruled. Only the ghosts of his ancestors will roam the street-lined forests, now subdivisions, all phantoms of what once was.

They need us, these wild and beautiful things. They need us to care, to legislate, to think, act, and consume differently. They need us to love more than ourselves. Only we humans, those of us not quite of the air or the sea, but infinitely and intimately connected to both, can decide if existing, if coexisting, with the natural world is something to protect or plunder. There is no longer any in between. We must consider this better. I know I will as I paddle by another ray moving beneath the waves, majestically, like a sacred secret waiting to be told.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sailing With Dad

My ship sailed away, quite literally, two years ago. Missed opportunity- it's the stuff of legends, isn't it? A tale as ancient as the seas themselves. Equally ancient, however, is a truth that with opportunity, missed or otherwise, it's what you do next that counts.

Two years ago, standing on the beach in Bora Bora, I envied the few people, mostly men, who had enough sailing ability to take the hotel's catamaran out on the lagoon. They skimmed over the water with an ease that's often perceived when watching people do something you don't know how to do. Without knowing how to sail, I was relegated to either the two person peddle boats or the kayaks. "Water toys," I mumbled crankily from the sand. "Take the sailboat out," Kimi encouraged. She tends to think I can do anything I put my mind to, and if I can't, well, we'll deal with that later. I didn't have the courage, however, and instead settled for a kayak. We had fun paddling around our villa looking for rays and parrotfish, but I promised myself if I were to ever return, I would sail that boat. "Of course you will," said Kimi to which I rolled my eyes. I wasn't in the mood for eternal optimism.

Sailing was in my family at one time. When I was young, I sailed with my father on occasion. Mostly, on one occasion. He and my sister and I were invited by family friends to sail with them to an island on Lake Champlain in Northern Vermont. My dad managed to swindle his sister's Sunfish, a small boat with one sail, for the trip. An adventurer at heart, he said good bye to us on the morning of departure. My sister and I, we learned, were to sail with the friends on their boat; he would be taking the Sunfish. He would meet us on the island later in the day. With barely a thought given to the fact that he was about to take a 13 foot sailboat miles away from land in a time before cell phones and GPS devices, we said, "Sure, Dad, bye." He did things like that and we were used to it. Still, later in the day when we were moored in the deep water just off the island, my sister and I kept watch for him and were relieved when his red, white, and blue sail came over the horizon. We watched him with binoculars as he sliced towards us in Lake Champlain's choppy afternoon waters. He had had a good sail, he said giving us each a hug.

Because my father never acted with bravado, I never considered if he were brave. He just did things, sometimes crazy things, and didn't protect my sister and I from doing the same. Once, when I was perhaps ten, my sister eight, he took us camping on that same lake- Lake Champlain. He brought a two or three person blow up boat and some plastic yellow oars. You know the ones. He helped us get the thing inflated and down to the beach. Told us to have fun. He then lit a cigarette, watched us for awhile, and eventually returned to the tent for a nap.

Let me pause here to give you a few facts about Lake Champlain: it's big; it may be home to a lochness monster; and its most distant shores reach New York State.

When my sister and I got back to camp tired because the wind had picked up and pushed us further from the beach than we thought, he said, "Yeah, it looked like you guys were out there pretty far." That night, he read us bedtime stories until we fell asleep.

Another time we had the same blow up boat in one of Vermont's perfect backwoods swimming holes. This swimming hole had a waterfall. Unfortunately, we got a little too close when paddling around and ended up going over it. My sister and I, mind you, not our father. He was up on the rocks talking with his buddies. Although he asked us not to tell our mother about this particular event, there was something in his voice that said, "That's life, kids. Some days it takes you over a waterfall, some days it doesn't. Nothing to worry about." And so, we didn't. He was raising his daughters to take chances; an upbringing I'm forever thankful for.

That weekend, the one on the island, he tried to teach me to sail, but I didn't want to learn. Swimming and exploring the island were much more interesting to this 12 year old than knowing the direction of the wind. I didn't mind being out on the boat; I just didn't want to run it, which is how I came to stand on a beach in Bora Bora some twenty-odd years later having to decide between the peddle boats or the kayaks, and promising myself that next time the sailboat would be an option too.

Funny how life listens. This past summer, a Groupon came across my email advertising a three hour introductory sailing class for 50 dollars. I jumped on it. The fact that there was no wind the day we went out, and instead of instruction, received a motorized tour of the Willamette River seemed like minor details. After all, the captain passed out a sailing cheat sheet and when he wasn't sharing his vast knowledge of the Portland bridge system, he told us something about sailing. He explained how to tack and how to prevent uncontrolled gybes. He explained the purpose of the jib sail and how to read the direction of the wind (were there any). Of course, we couldn't practice any of this, but again, that seemed more nuisance than necessary. I took notes which I promptly stuffed in a drawer when I got home. Bora Bora was still six months away and there was a college football season to follow. One thing at a time, right?

A couple of nights before leaving for the trip, I pulled out my notes and watched a few youtube videos. I can't say I was confident in my ability to keep the boat from capsizing or even mildly controlled, but I was confident in my decision to give it a try. And yesterday, I was sure, was the day. I reviewed my sailing notes before breakfast and talked to my dad as I biked to the restaurant.

"I need you to help me with this today, Dad. Help me stay calm and remember how to tack. Let me know the direction of the wind, and if you could keep me from the irons and any uncontrolled gybes, that would be great too." A lot to ask before 9 am, but now you know something of my father's and my relationship, and maybe you understand that time, the hour on the clock, meant little. If we wanted to talk, we talked. All these years later, that still hasn't changed.

After breakfast, I asked the guy at the beach if I could take the sailboat out and told him I had very little, mostly no, experience. "Oui, madame" he said, and explained some things about the boat in French. I quickly regretted paying so little attention in high school French class. Sorry, Madame, I thought. I hope I wasn't too annoying, but before I could think too much more about my 11th grade curriculum, I was sailing. Slowly and without much propulsion, but I was moving. And mostly in a forward direction.

Kimi and I had talked earlier about me staying near the beach within the buoys. We agreed that was probably a good idea for my first time out, but good ideas aren't always fun ideas, so I pointed the bow of the boat beyond the buoys and sailed out past the beach and general swimming area. Nothing to worry about.

I tacked. I gybed, but with control. I sailed upwind, downwind, and across wind (there's probably a more technical term for that). I noticed the breeze at my back and on my shoulder, and steered the boat accordingly. I called hello to my father, thanked him, but sensed he wasn't with me. Maybe he knew I would be okay or perhaps there was too little wind, I thought later. Who knows the ways of the dead?

Back on the beach, Kimi asked how it was. "Great," I said, "but next time I could use more wind."

My uncle asked me recently if I dreamed of my father. No, I said feeling disappointed. I know he's had dreams of my dad that have helped him sort things out or understand things differently. I thought about it a little more. No, I said, I don't dream of him.

My father finds me when I'm awake, and maybe if the wind picks up, I will sail with the old man once again. This time, finally, his daughter at the helm, still taking chances and making the most of life.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, February 8, 2013

Lost (And Found) In Translation


The coconuts are swaying, just slightly, to the south indicating that the internet may once again be up and running. Figure I better use the occasion to get a bit of writing up before the winds turn direction and the worldwide web is left to fend for itself like everything else on a 500 ft wide motu located deep in the Pacific Ocean. Well, everything not associated with the St. Regis anyway. The only thing us folks at the St. Regis have to fend off for ourselves, it seems, is sunburn.


En route to Tahiti, and more specifically to Bora Bora, one is reminded that to be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is to be in the middle of nowhere.

I suppose that's why we come here- to get away, to slow down, to effectively become the sea cucumber who's done nothing but lay on the lagoon floor for the past ten thousand years while the world goes on around her.

We soon learned we had slightly more going on than the sea cucumber and upon arrival, found ourselves promptly at the hotel bar. The sun was ready for us, but our room was not. To help, the St. Regis offered to buy us a drink. To help with what exactly, I wasn't sure. Although we had just gotten off our third airplane, and had flown overnight "alongside of" (I'm not entirely convinced it wasn't through) a massive storm over the Pacific that caused our flight to be, um, quite turbulent for four and a half hours, we were now in paradise, our Shangri La, and would be for the next two and a half weeks. Help? Who needed help?

Clearly us, thought the server as he brought the drink menu over straightaway. His was the fastest movement that would be observed for the next quarter hour. Finally, after watching Kimi stare with glazed eyes at the menu, out to the lagoon, and back to the menu again, I asked if she wouldn't mind making a drink decision sometime soon. After all, sea levels are rising and we're on a motu that is no more than two feet above sea level. We don't have all day.

"I'm thinking," she responded.

"Thinking?" I asked. "Didn't we come here to leave that kind of nonsense behind?"

"Yes, but I'm thinking. I'm thinking, do I want vodka, gin, or maybe some rum?"

Ah, yes. These decisions take time, but please, do hurry. I think the lagoon just lapped at my toes.


We settle into life on the motu. Time and clouds pass. Magazines are read; destinies pondered. "I wish I could stop eating the bacon with breakfast," I mumble. My big challenge of the day.


Upon learning our stay at the St. Regis would include two complimentary massages at the uber-chic spa with private pools and beaches for each guest, we handle ourselves with exquisite composure and refinement reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. "Huh?" we sputter. "What?"

Well, I'll be darned if it isn't true. The lovely staff member who delivered this news stated that the St. Regis would like to relieve us of our daily routine when we are ready.

Well, thank you very much, I think. The daily routine of Oprah magazines, afternoon cocktails, and floating in the lagoon certainly does require a bit of relief, and I appreciate you recognizing this.


The staff at the St. Regis must be the most friendly, helpful, and professional staff in all of the South Pacific, and I'm not just saying that because of the free drinks and massages. The employees are detailed and conscientious, often considering the needs of their guests before said guests even realize a need exists. It's that kind of place.

So, when our server at dinner the other night, a slight Asian man born in the South of France, asked if we wanted any advice, I didn't hesitate.

"Yes, please. About what?" I asked. I would not miss this opportunity.

"Region, varietal, vintage....," he responded. I was confused.

Then, Kimi flashed the wine list she was holding letting me know he wasn't offering to teach me the path to inner peace or how to find my true passions in life. Wow, I thought. I need to lay off the Oprah magazines.

So, life continues on this funny little motu. Each day, the wind blows across the lagoon, whispering, "This is the life, this is the life, this is the life." As if I need a reminder. Or relief.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, February 1, 2013

Mora Mora of Bora Bora

Returning to the big blue tomorrow.
                                     Off the grid,
                                and on the sun.