I’m sorry it’s been so long since I’ve written. Life has been especially interesting. While misdemeanors and near-death experiences have been at an all time low for me, several life changing relationships have come and gone, as have a handful of jobs. I’ve been to some unexpected places.
Last summer, I accidentally found myself on the island of Tahiti. How I got there is a story for another day (The ship I had been working on pulled into the port city of Papeete, and I was told she would be leaving again in 3 days. I would not be on it.). So there I was, ashore in a new country. A new continent, technically. I had some money in a bank on the wrong side of the world, and something like 5 bucks of Australian currency, but no local cash. And I speak neither French nor any Reo Tahiti. I did, however, have an assortment of parkas, heavy flannels, thick wool socks and a round dozen pair of thermal underwear. I had an extra large frame pack and a large wheeled suitcase; both full to overflowing with around 150 lbs of winter gear. (I really did end up in the islands accidentally. I had been attempting an expedition to Antarctica. It’s a long story.) Plus, I had a full daypack and camera bag. All of which I now had to carry, single handed, in the equatorial city swelter of Papeete, Tahiti.
But I was in a strange and far-off land, and determined to make the best of it. Such is travel, after all, and I had survived an epic sea voyage and crossed items off my bucket list. I was in a good mood. So I wandered, wheezing and sweating, for several miles of fiery sidewalk, trudging along towards heatstroke and nowhere, trying to make a plan. Where the hell was I going to sleep that night? I had initially planned to sleep on a beach somewhere; under the stars and the shadow of a breadfruit tree, like the beachcombers and stowaways of old. I had discovered entirely too late that Tahiti was no longer that kind of place. It was now a tapestry of poverty and urban sprawl. I knew instinctively I had to leave the city. All problems in life are worse in a city. But where to go? And how to get there? I needed to do some recon. And I needed air conditioning. Ye gods, did I need air conditioning. In short- I needed a rental car.
Another mile of sweat marching and some broken English slipped artfully over a language barrier got me to the rental agency. I managed to buy some bottled water ‘en route with a crumpled and sweat soaked American fiver I had in my boot, for which I received a handful of mysterious local coins in a variety of sizes and colors. I had no idea their value. But I pocketed them and drained the water in one long pull, and dragged my way into the rental car depot.
The lovely agent there didn’t speak English, but she did speak credit card, and I was able to pantomime “air conditioning” well enough that we made it happen.
My problems solved for the moment, I loaded up my new pack mule with parkas, set the air conditioning to 11, and off I went. I had decided it best to see the entire island before I made any plans. If I got right to work, there was probably just enough daylight to see it all. (there is only one road on the island, and it goes all the way around the rim of the island. The interior is extremely steep and mountainous, and not navigable by car or wheel-y suitcase) Tahiti is famously beautiful, right? I was determined to find that part of the island. The city certainly wasn’t it. And so I set off.
I’ll abbreviate that trip for you, dear reader, as it was mostly unremarkable. I’m very sad to tell you that The island of Tahiti itself has been destroyed. The pretty bits have been fenced off for rich folks and club med, and the rest uniformly covered with suburban sprawl. I learned in the following days that the surrounding islands, a short ferry ride away, are spectacular and you should totally go there, but those are also stories for another day.
My pacific cannonball run around the island took me the better part of 5 hours. I stopped frequently to snap pictures and chase wild chickens between the coconut palms. It was a lovely ride. But I began to get hungry.
You should know that Tahiti has an outrageous proliferation of fruit trees, both wild and cultivated. Mangoes, bananas, plantains, durian, breadfruit, coconuts, pomplemousse, and others grow like wildfire there. And so a charming local custom has sprung up. Old people don’t sit on porches or by the sea or whatever. Instead, they pick wild fruit and sit by little roadside fruit stands, to make a bit of money. (Presumably, to buy something that tastes better than wild chickens and durian.) Anyways- I was getting hungrier by the mile. I love the idea of eating local when I travel, but I have a stomach condition which generally forbids culinary adventures, so I almost never get to indulge. But I could, up to this point, eat bananas.
And so I drove, salivating more and more intensely at the fruit trees. I considered stopping to pick some myself, but I wasn’t sure what local customs were pertaining to fruit harvest, and besides- I wanted to meet some tropical old people. I passed several tables that hour, either closed for the evening or selling other fruits I cannot eat. Finally, as the sun set, I found her- Our Lady, the holy matron of bananas. She was sitting on a dusty corner, in a patchwork rocking chair, beside a a rickety folding table missing one leg; that corner of the table propped up on old boxes and scrap wood. It was topped with an old plastic table cloth with a pattern that strangely matched great-grandmother’s flowing tropical dress. It was perfect. I would buy a dinner of bananas from someone’s Yia-yia on the wrong side of the world. A Nanna’s bananas, if you will. Charming and delightful. It would be cheap, and it would be my first fresh food after months at sea. Just what I needed.
So I got out of the car, I smiled at the patron saint of fruit trees, and she smiled back; wrinkles folding on top of wrinkles, closed lips and toothless cheeks. She looked up at the mountainside, presumably so I wouldn’t feel pressured while I perused her fruit. The local bananas are little tiny things, only about 3 inches long and maybe 3/4 inch around. They grow in bunches two feet tall or so, with hundreds of fruits to a bunch. Our Lady of the bunches had millions of them.
I pointed to a particularly succulent bunch of bananas. The most dignified and dinner-like of the bananas on offer. I smiled and turned back to Yia-yia and asked “…How much for these?” circling them with a gesture, knowing neither of us spoke a common language. She let out a kindly grunt, and nodded while she raised a trembling, weathered hand, spreading all five fingers. “Great!” I said, having no concept of local currency units or fruit values, but knowing I had a handful of island coins in my pocket from earlier.
Quick as lightning, She produced an ancient plastic shopping bag, from somewhere I tried not to think of in her dress. She was on her feet now, and started placing bananas inside the bag. I plunged into my pocket for coins, and became suddenly aware that I had no idea how to count the coins. Yia-yia bustled about while I focused on my palm, trying to decipher denominations. I had coins marked in random increments of god knows what units; tiny round coins that said 10, 30, and a sad little aluminum penny that said 5, along with some big lunkers marked 250, 300, 400, and so on, some with scalloped edges, some round, and some faceted. A whole pocketful, and no two the same. Yia-Yia said she wanted five of something. Five what? Surely not my little penny. That couldn’t be enough. She must’ve meant 500. so I started adding clumsily, poking about, and suddenly became aware that I was taking a very long time, and it might be rude.
“I’m sorry…” I began, not looking up
“Eh,” she said, tisking her tongue, and waiving her hand in kindly dismissal at me as she toddled away from the back of my rental car, grinning ear to ear and looking wholly satisfied with herself. She limped and waddled her way to me, holding her back, and held out her hand. I looked back at my open palm, and realized for the first time that the rather large table, previously rounded over with fruit, was now entirely bare. I did a double take, looking back to my car, and saw the tiny euro hatchback COMPLETELY FULL of bananas. Comically full. Full to overflowing. Full to the point of not being able to close the rear hatch without smooshing them. Full like a tiny sedan carrying an industrial, holy-fuck-where-did-she-get-all-those, metric shit load of bananas.
I gaped. Open mouthed. Wide eyed. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a stunning amount of bananas, but there it was, staring at me like a crime scene from the car. I looked at Yia-yia. I looked at the car. I made fish faces, grasping for words that wouldn’t come. Surely I couldn’t afford them all.
Yia-yia’s smile started to wilt, her hand, still outstretched for coins, sagged dejectedly, and she began to look as though she had disappointed her ancestors.
“Oh- no!” I stammered immediately. “Thank you! Yes! I mean- That perfect! I love bananas! ALL the bananas. Exactly! Right!” And I tipped all the coins I had into her ancient hands. She smiled warmly again, as though all were suddenly right with the world again. “Thanks again.” I said, as sincerely as I could. I smiled and cupped her hands in mine to say goodbye, and made my way back to my car. I opened my door, scooped up all the bananas that fell out, tucked them gingerly into the banana mountain flowing out of the back seat, and climbed in.
What the fuck do you do with half a ton of bananas? Well… I wasn’t sure either. I’m still not, to be honest, but I can tell you that my initial solution was not the correct one. You do not- ever, dear reader, under any circumstances- turn towards an entire island’s worth of bananas, rub your belly and say fuck it, and endeavor to eat every last one of them.
How many 3 inch bananas does it take to make a satisfying dinner on the road? I have no idea. I didn’t stop there. I couldn’t. I had too many bananas to get rid of. I hadn’t even cleared the passenger seat yet. And so I munched on as I ground out the miles, wending my way merrily around a tropical island by sunset, singing “the banana boat song” at the top of my lungs, and furiously peeling and eating tiny bananas as fast as I could stuff them down.
How many 3 inch bananas does it take to poison a jolly fat man? That’s a question I can answer. (It’s a passenger foot-well and half a rear seat, stacked to the ceiling’s worth of them, for the record.) I don’t remember that night’s hotel. It passed in a wretched haze of acute banana toxicity and destroyed plumbing. But God, I have seldom been so sick. And when I came to, a filthy mess, the morning after, I swear they’d multiplied in the car overnight. What the fuck would I do with them!? I couldn’t bear to throw away food, especially in a poverty stricken area. And so I decided I would give them away.
How do you distribute several thousand pounds of yesterday’s bananas? I tried giving them away to locals. They just wanted to sell me more of them. So I tried giving them to tourists, instead, but a pair of newlywed Germans nearly maced me for my efforts. So I resorted to subterfuge. I started carrying them around, one bunch at a time, and then I’d “accidentally” forget a bunch everywhere I went. In hotel lobbies, in tour company waiting areas. I fruited several bus stops. I even sneaked back aboard my former ship and left a few hundred pounds as a good-will/fuck you present for the crew. And still I had more bananas. I finally resorted to leaving a bunch at the foot of every hotel room door, as a gift to all the other patrons. It was mid afternoon on day 3 before I had gotten rid of them all. Perfect timing, as they were finally getting too brown. That night, a very angry hotel cleaning lady knocked on my door. She waived her finger at me furiously, and told me in her heavy french accent- “No. More. Bananas! Yes? You understand me, Sir? No More Bananas.”
I looked her straight in the eyes. “What? Me? I don’t have any bananas…”
I smiled. Thank god it was finally true.