THE QUARANTINE BLOG: Chapter I, March 25, 2020


I live in Barcelona, Spain in a neighborhood, a barrio, called El Raval. When I announced to my young banker that I was buying an apartment in El Raval he exclaimed with much distress, “Señora Swenson” (Swenson is not a name that rolls easily off a Spanish tongue) “that is a very bad neighborhood. You can call off the sale immediately.” It is a bad neighborhood because there are Pakistanis, many, Africans, not many, and poor people some of whom live in places that I can’t believe are legal. They are storefronts with no windows, no air, only a door onto the street. Frightening.

However I persisted in my error and live in a two thousand square foot, two hundred year old apartment with views of the roofs and waterspout gargoyles of the 15th century Hospital de Santa Creu. It is the hospital Gaudi died in, unrecognized in his shabby clothes. It was built because of the plague with a sculpture of San Roc at the base of one of the stairs. He was, so to speak, the patron saint of the bubonic. He is posed displaying a plague scar on his leg with the dog who fed him at his feet offering him a bread roll. So it seems appropriate to live here in this time of plague. An alternative way of getting into the spirit of things, a friend in Hong Kong is reading Defoe’s A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR or one might watch THE SEVENTH SEAL.

I have been under lockdown for a bit more than a week. A gift from the, dubiously, benevolent gods before we went into quarantine was a 4 to 6 year old rescue cat, Galata who had been managing on her own on the Costa Brava. She did not feel like a gift in our first weeks together. She peed and pooped indiscriminately, howled both from pain due to crystals in her bladder and because she had received, from some maladroit idiot, a botched hysterectomy which had left her wombless but with other bits that kept her in continual hormonal hell. First we got rid of the crystals with an expensive special diet and then we got rid of the bits. In between there were pills for worms in her intestines and snails in her lungs.


She has two deeply ingrained beliefs. One, she is starving to death and food must be consumed immediately at top speed. Two, the world is a terrible place in which people steal your food and hurt you. The proof of the last is that she has four broken teeth. I was told that the boys in the village she came from would tempt her with food and then kick her. Is that how her teeth were broken, by being kicked in the face?

This relationship may not work, however, because while she no longer howls, she still poops in a corner of the living room, on the tile floor not the rug, from time to time.

The quarantine came upon us in stages. First restaurants and cafés shuttered. Our café on the corner, Mendizábal, also known as Mendiz, run by a couple of hard working, resilient and utterly amiable men assisted by a gaggle of young women, curvaceous with rings in their noses and ears. They all rush about from inside to outside where there are tables under trees in a tiny square with a cat park on one side, and an angular, bronze memorial with Henry Moore holes and a snip of a nose in its middle, to Margarita Xirgu, a Catalan actress who was a friend of Lorca, carrying coffees, pastries, salads and delicious small plates—rabbit ribs, beef stew with mushrooms, tripe in spicy sauce, oxtail—and sandwiches, often exotic—duck confit with poached pears—and some oddities—asparagus tempura. There is also an outside bar on the Junta de Comerce side of the restaurant where people stop for a café solo or un cortado, a beer or a glass of cava. I miss them. I miss passing the coffee and beer drinkers, the people under umbrellas beneath the trees just opening up their tender leaves to the Barcelona sun. I even miss the crazy man who sometimes appears at the edge of the little square by the ancient public water fountain let into the chapel wall to rant and rave and damn us all.

Saturday I went to the supermarket for paper towels and Frit Ravich pumpkin seeds, chicken broth, distilled water for the iron and Conejo, a cleaning fluid. There was toilet paper if you wanted it and though the shelves were a little empty, not seriously so. There were no Frit Ravich pumpkin seeds. But there were a lot of people about, not a crowd, but more than seemed healthy, however, it was the beginning of quarantine and the numbers seemed reasonable.

I also went to the Boqueria to buy vegetables, a couple of fuets, dried sausages, and honey. I shop as little as possible in supermarkets, which I loathe. My vegetable stand wasn’t very busy. I found honey at a counter that has since closed. My favorite purveyor of Serrano and Bellota was open, although they too have since closed. Customers were sparse but the fish circle in the middle of the market had glittering, fresh fish elegantly displayed in silver fans. I bought shrimp shiny in their grey armor lying on an icy bed and on the way home lamb chops from the Pakistani butcher.

My solitary life has become incredibly social, more so than before the arrival of the virus. I have Skype calls, WhatsApp messages and phone calls coming in from Thailand, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, French Polynesia, Vietnam and, of course New York.

I have listened to Lohengrin on YouTube with Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman. Magnificent. And watched it with subtitles with Domingo and Cheryl Struder. Struder is good but can’t compare to the mighty and majestic Norman.

I am reading WARWICK THE KINGMAKER by Paul Murray Kendall, which is a bit out of date but an entertaining biography of a man who thought in terms of Europe rather than England. Incredibly efficient as a warrior, diplomat and ruler, I find him also scary in the intensity of his reach and grasp for power. That reach and grasp, of course, cost him his life.

I keep track of friends in town with phone calls. Two women I know here have had intense fear reactions. In one this resulted in her talking so fast, bullets of words flying by my ears, that I couldn’t talk at all. It was a monologue, not a conversation. But in a day she had adjusted and we did have a conversation. The other is more worrying. I have talked to her twice and decided I will only call her once a week because her fear is so intense that she cannot hear anything I say, or miss-hears it, and gets information twisted. But what is most distressing is that her fear is infectious. I have to detox emotionally after we talk.

And my own fears? I have to confess on Sunday afternoon, out of nowhere, I decided I had the virus, no symptoms, and that I was going to die. That lasted about 3 minutes.

We are quiet on Hospital. Normally a narrow river turbulent with noise from La Rambla to Sant Antoni, it is silent except for the occasional yap of a dog, heels tapping along or the rattle of a shopping cart on its way to the Boqueria.






Sunday in HK and, demonstrations or not, the Philippine maids were out occupying discrete areas of sidewalk, churchyards, underpasses and overpasses. It is sad that their working life allows them no real home but I love their presence; I love passing through them, their alien chatter rising around me an evening cloud of gossipy starlings descending to roost in a tree.

At Sunday dim sum brunch I was introduced to M, with an American accent. We had a long conversation about the Karakorum Highway, aka the Friendship Highway, a conversation I never, ever expected to have. This is one of the most spectacular roads in the world. It’s in Pakistan. I took it from Gilgit to Sust the Pakistani-Chinese border town just after 9/11, still in shock from the incomprehensible news, to go to Kashgar for the Sunday market. I have told many people about those days around the news but I have rarely been able to talk to anyone about that landscape, a harsh, empty, land between cultures with Bactrian camels.

He had made the journey by bicycle for which he gets deep respect from me. I did it by bus with three Czechs I’d met earlier in the trip, a young French woman who hated having another woman about, even though that woman was forty years her senior, and some decidedly dubious Pakistani male companions. We also discussed other mutually known esoteric places. I don’t get to meet, often, someone who has traveled what I egotistically think of as “my” roads.

Monday I went with a friend who was frantically trying to pay the necessary fees to sign up for a race in November. No one wanted to take her money at one bank and we had to go on to the next. It did work and she is set to run.

After lunch we went to one of our favorite shops, small, crammed, and over priced in the Prince’s Building. It used to be run by the father who is gentlemanly and adamant about his prices. Now it is run by his son and daughter-in-law who hold his line about prices but have none of his grace. They are, however, usually knowledgeable. I wanted to show them the bracelet I had bought in Yangshuo whose components baffled me. I recognized the faceted rectangular pieces as rock crystal and thought the orange bead was probably glass but I wasn’t sure about the tiny brown beads or the blue and white ones.

The son was not there but his wife was. She is teeth- grittingly unpleasant, disparaging and condescending by turns. She thought the most valuable part of the bracelet was the rock crystal; that seemed probable. She didn’t think the blue and white beads were Chinese. I was sure she was wrong. The orangey bead she confirmed was glass and she said the little beads were wood. I thought this also wasn’t true.

The real problem with this shop, Tse Antiques and Collectables, is that they have uniquely interesting pieces, which you are not going to find anywhere else. That’s why they can be immovable about price. They had a pair of ceramic toads, covered in turquoise warts that made me laugh every time I looked at them because of their nose-in-the-air hauteur, however, their price did not raise a chuckle. Maybe they will be there next year.

We went on to Miranda’s little store in the Melbourne Plaza   building. She looked at the bracelet, said the tiny beads were coconut, the orange was glass, and the turquoise and white were Beijing Glass made in the late 19th, early 20th century.

The next day we went to see J who has been transferred to an elder home in Kowloon. We brought him food from Marks and Spencer as well as artery-blocking pastries from Deli France. There were six people to a room. It was clean and medium dreadful, meaning depressing. When you are going to die they put you in the bed next to the door so they can whisk you out surreptitiously when you transform into a corpse.

J is in pretty good shape, although he cannot walk, but his brain is fine. He told me how he got his nickname, Gem.

He was living in Paris, hanging out at a zinc bar in the mornings. One day the owner asked his name. When he told him the man said, “Non. Gem.” J explained that in English gem meant bijou. The owner said, “Oui, Monsieur Bijoux.”

A friend and I later in the day were putting away groceries when she felt something on the back of her neck, reached around and found herself with a tiny gecko in her hand. She brought him to show me. He sat in her hand quietly, whether in terror or ignorance, bright-eyed and still but electrically alert.

Lunch at the old Luk Yu Tea House was delicious but limited by what my friend can say in Cantonese. Neither of us can read the menu so we order on the basis of her vocabulary. We had shumai, har gaw and a huge platter of baby bok choy. It is a noisy but loveable old place with excellent food.

At Mountain Folk Craft I bought two meters of hand block printed red and white cotton for trousers. We drove to Michael’s, on Square Street. His store has a grandiose name, which I can’t remember but is something like Gorgeous Antiquities. I bought my son his annual lock. This one isn’t very old but I found it amusing and since he reads the blog I can’t say what it is.

But I felt bad because it was not very expensive and I like supporting Michael’s shop. However my friend took up the slack magnificently by buying four elegant tile panels of the seasons with birds appropriate there to. She’s going to take them to a niece in England. Lucky niece.

The next day we said good-bye as I left for the airport. The best part of the transit from HK to BKK was the young woman in charge of baggage in the BKK airport who followed me into the lady’s room because she had told me the wrong carousel number at which to pick up my luggage.

Saturday I went to the gym and while working out on the elliptical I, and the Thai man next to me, watched a toad, not covered in turquoise warts, but bulbous, pale and frantic in a furious monsoon rain trying to get through the glass. His burrow must have been flooded. My elliptical neighbor was worried the toad would die. I assured him it would be okay once the rain was over and the toad’s hole had had a chance to drain. But I was made happy by his worrying.

Next to the A One Inn there has been for years a Nissan repair garage, against whose fence leans with spreading gnarled roots, an old banyan tree that is given offerings of jasmine leis, candles, food, opened soda cans and ribbons. Nissan has moved to larger quarters and someone has bought the land where they intend to build that commercial entity so lacking in Bangkok, a shopping mall. I have been worrying about the fate of the banyan. When I came home I found that someone had sawn off two large branches that intruded over the wall of the old Nissan garage. May that be all the damage done.

Another day I bought a pair of gold snake sandals. Arriving at the A One I found the landlady with her granddaughter. I showed the sandals to the grandchild who is about 6. She was definitely intrigued but mildly alarmed at so much attention from a foreigner. I was hoping the sandals would keep her mind off me but it didn’t quite work.

The next morning a group, Indonesian or Malaysian I think, wanted to have their picture taken with me over breakfast. Sometimes I can do this but I definitely could not that morning. I said to the six or eight of them, “But we don’t know each other. Why would you want a picture of me? No.”

One of my rituals in BKK is to go for lunch, once during my stay, at the Oriental Hotel. They have moved their Thai restaurant across the river. This means you must walk through the hotel, down to the little pier, get on their boat and cross the river, a pleasant exercise.

The restaurant is in a building with enormous windows looking onto the Chao Phraya River. They had a buffet. I started with small things—spicy chicken wings, peas, corn and carrots in crisp, tiny pastry cups with tamarind sauce, a fire breathing mushroom salad, small rice crackers with sweet-hot dipping sauce. Among the main courses were, my absolute favorite, green chicken curry, as well as shrimp and crab curry, and duck curry. I am writing this in Barcelona and may burst into tears at what I am not able to eat here. These were all in small portions. The waiter would dish out the rice onto a plate—brown or white—and spoon the curry into a small bowl while I watched. Then he would carry it to my table. The crab and shrimp curry was superb.

I had arrived around 2:30 so they were now interested in closing and I was the only remaining customer. They brought me a cappuccino and an array of desserts. The mango and sticky rice was the only one I ate. Good, but I have had better. Out the ceiling to floor windows I could watch the river traffic—tiger boats with monstrous V-8 engines, various cross-river vehicles, boat buses going up and down, big, lumbering empty rice barges, empty and high in the water in a train of three or four pulled by a tiny, shiningly enameled tug, fierce as a terrier at its task. It was my private good-bye.

I had made a reservation for N, T, W and N’s daughter, also a T, and me at El Mercado. I was going to get to take them out to lunch for a change. As I had expected, they were delighted with the venue with its variety of places to sit—the wine room, the patio, the tables near the refrigerated fish room which edge the cheese and ham counter. There is also upstairs seating but we wanted to be down.

They had me order; that was fine except but I was unsure about quantity. I know how many Thai dishes we can consume but Western plates and platters come in different capacities. I ordered a shellfish platter, huge, varied and superb. I now cannot remember everything that was on it. Some of it was: a large brown crab, oysters, shrimp, mussels, clams, cockles, razor clams piled on a three-tiered platter. Then we had a half a chicken roasted with potatoes and steamed mussels with pomme frit. There was something else but I cannot remember it.

The chicken was a huge success with W since he complains that chicken is often tasteless now in Bangkok restaurants. It turned out his wife, T, is a mussel-pomme-frit-fan. I was elated when W said he was going to bring his mother A to have the chicken.

When there was nothing left but empty shells and bare bones I sent the two Ts off to choose dessert. They returned with one huge slice of blue berry cheesecake that was heaven.

I was leaving in two days so this was good-bye. There were lots of hugs from my hugging Thai friends.

Before I sign off from this long series of blogs I would like to look back for a moment.

I turned 83 as I crossed the International Date Line. As I had suspected, my fears about Japan were fraudulent. People were kind and helpful, although I find having to have everything arranged months before I arrive too rigid for my temperament. But the answer to the question of being alone on the road at this age is an affirmative. It is also affirmative about being able to adapt to and be open to previously unknown cultures.

On the physical side I now know that Dr. F’s pills work well but of equal importance to successful travel at my age is flying with a good airline particularly on long flights. Finn Air and New Zealand Air are fine but Air China and Air Asia are not since they do not recirculate air with sufficient frequency. It is important to sit as close to the front of the plane as possible, again this has to do with getting enough oxygen. I should also bluntly state that if I could not afford Business Class I doubt very much that I would be traveling.

Although the pneumonia has had a lasting impact on my health and travel abilities—I have to go in a few weeks for yet another test about malingering bacteria in my bronchial tubes—I was able to, with Dr. F’s pills and good airlines, overcome these.

And that shadow in the background, the condescending attitude toward older women, which is hardly restricted to travel? I’ve decided to use it. If stating, “I’m 83,” focuses the attention of the stewardess on a flight, so be it. I will use my age card to my advantage.

I think of standing above Kyoto on the path up Mount Hiei to the Enryaku-ji temple, alone under the pillars of trees listening to the wind. I think of the couple with whom I walked Kobe searching for the Kobe City Museum. I think of A and her big wooden, handmade house on the North Island of New Zealand, the view of mountains and sea from the Dolphin Hostel. I think of the over grown path E and I walked among the green thumbs of mountains beyond Yangshuo. I think of Cooks Bay with its steep mountainsides and fish swarming waters. I have my black pearls as a tactile memory. But most frequently I revisit a green, sun-filtered glade on Hiva Oa where a small figure grins up at me out of earth and fallen leaves.

2019, BLOG XXII: Guilin, China

2019, BLOG XXII: Guilin, China

The next day we flew to Guilin, a pleasant town without skyscrapers. Those are out of town, huge residential complexes. Somehow I forgot to stop at the airport ATM. We asked for a bank at our hotel but none of the ATMs would take a foreign card. This is China.

We received vague directions to a Bank of China, taking us along a street by a tree-lined river that was lovely until it got dark. The Chinese like Americans believe in improving on nature. Once the sun went down the trees were illuminated with green, yellow, blue, purple and red lights. In the old days there was certainly artificiality in China. The Dowager Empress wore cloisonné fingernail protectors but in modern times artificiality tends to be garish.

By asking every fifty feet we found the Bank of China. I successfully withdrew money, but E, who is with Bank of America, could not. It was dark; we were hungry. When E wants something he prefers it now. We came upon a hotpot restaurant immediately after the bank and in we went.

Between various people they managed enough English so E could explain that he was vegetarian. He ordered three different kinds of tofu, and crisp lotus root, radish, and another vegetable I’ve forgotten. It was an excellent meal but spicy. Whatever was boiling in the hotpot was vegetarian and delicious. There was also a tahini dip, which cooled things down. I had beef shashlik, chewy but flavorful.

We found our way back to the hotel without incident.

We met the next morning our guide, Helen, of Manchu descent. Her real name means Rock-in-the-River and she was for us. We, with an international gaggle of tourists from the hotels, descended on the double decker boats lined up on the River Li. We boarded and were swept into the Li, quite shallow at this season, as the sugar loaf mounds of the mountains rose ahead and on either side. Despite the Lonely Planet’s admonition, “Let the cool breeze from the Gulf of Tonkin caress you;” in September it was hotter than the hinges making us happy for air conditioning.

These are, indeed, the mountains of the Chinese scroll paintings, prickly with trees, streaked with grey limestone patches, or black and occasionally red. They appear in groups leaning toward or away from each other, singly like thumbs or index fingers planted in the earth. We passed small boats chugging along with cargo. People fished from rocks or, knee deep in the river, searched for crabs. I had a plate of fried crabs, like crunchy nuts. Delicious.


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You could stand outside on the lower deck or the upper, which was crowded, but the sun got to me even with my hat on; I found I had to retreat to the cool cabin. Passengers in chairs on boats with shade roofs motored up and down the river. Water buffalo grazed at riverside. The vegetation was thick–vines, trees, scrub. It was continuously magnificent.

Seated near us were an American man and his Russian wife. Over our not very good lunch when I said I had been in Japan he responded that he didn’t like the Japanese, too polite. He liked the Russians who had edge. I began to pick up his political odor in part from his aggressive attitude. For some reason the disaster and decay of Detroit was mentioned and when he said, “Well, it was their own fault.” I knew I had been right about his Trumpness. I, with malice, commented that indeed the executives of GM and others had made a number of disastrous decisions, knowing that wasn’t what he meant; I felt him restrain himself. We left it there but I was amazed anyone could think workers, by not being willing to lower their wages and give up benefits, were to blame for the crash of the American motor industry. Apparently in his thinking the working class is there to absorb the errors of the executive class and cushion that class from its mistakes. However, he gets gold stars for being a traveler.

We arrived in Yangshuo in the afternoon, got to our hotel and had dinner next door before going to a show featuring local minority groups, similar to the hill tribe people of Northern Thailand. This is how the Han Chinese like their minorities, singing and dancing and then disappearing. The show takes place in a natural setting around a lake with local fishing boats paddling on it, and mountains, all artificially lit. The “set” is real and everything else is artifice. It is slightly like the Pyongyang, North Korea show where colored pictures of great precision are made by flipping hundreds, maybe thousands of placards in unison and Radio City Music Hall with singing and some dancing but more frequently just a lot of moving in unison. Once, however, there was a “scantily clad” young woman who ran up and down a crescent moon making it rock. That’s Radio City straight up.

The audience didn’t clap much but shouted things. The music was traditionally tribal, some of it lovely, but distorted by amplification through monster speakers, although one children’s chorus was beautiful and delicately faint being performed without amplification. By intent? By accident?

The town of Yangshuo, once undoubtedly a quaint and poverty stricken fishing village, is an amalgam of amplified noise and neon, somewhere on the continuum between Coney Island and Las Vegas. It was so loud signs in our rooms told how to call the police directly. It was, every day, somewhere between 30 and 35 degrees. I don’t think we hit 40. Our rooms were cool with air conditioning and, until E changed rooms, quiet.

He was offered a larger room with balcony and lots of noise for the same price as his old, smaller, quiet room because they needed his room for another customer. Somehow he survived the noise assault. He kept his room at meat locker temperature. I couldn’t stay in it long without goose bumps.

We spent the next day being regulation tourists, going to the Silver Caves—I don’t like caves much being mildly claustrophobic—which was a bit more than an hour of going up and down dark, wet stairs through beautiful formations garishly illuminated in purple, acid green, bile yellow, red, as the river in Guilin had been lighted. One towering rock face looked as though it had a forest of high trees on it with foliage only at the very top of their long trunks.

Helen wasn’t quite sure what to do with an 83 year old. She held my arm through the caves, congratulating me when we emerged. Moon Hill was more difficult. I suspect she didn’t think I could climb it at all. I am decidedly slow up hill, which meant that I had made it a bit more than half way by the time we had to go down. I needed another half an hour to get to the top and our schedule didn’t have that half hour. So E went to the top and we decided to come back without Helen so I could get to the top in my own time.

We took mopeds to Moon Hill driven by women, all nicely dressed and solicitous of their passengers. The mopeds were electric, silent, wonderful in some ways but dangerous since one cannot hear them. Many mopeds are covered with insignia in the form of stickers, the two most noticeable being the British flag on blue mopeds and Hello Kitty decals on pink ones. It was a delight to see a cube of muscular Chinese male hunched over a pink Hello Kitty moped.

We went to see the 1,500-year-old banyan tree with its dependent trunks, well worth a look. The banyan is called the walking tree since it puts down roots from its branches and, therefore, can create its own forest around itself.

We were to go on a raft. I had thought this would be a nice leisurely drift or poling on the river. The rafts were made of plastic bamboo; they were poled up and down a small cul de sac of the Li where there were flotillas of young ducklings. E had worn his swimming trunks and went in. On the rafts there were large water pistols and people squirted each other. I was squirted, to Helen’s alarm, by a young man.

We picked a restaurant at random and hugged Helen goodbye. She has two children. He husband works in a corporation. I’m not sure what that means in China. We felt a bit abandoned with out her.

However, the next morning we found a backpacker restaurant, Lucy’s Place, run by a spirited little Chinese woman with a fair command of English. The food was good. E took to the banana pancakes like a veteran backpacker.

We hired a car to take us up to Shitoucheng, an old stone town. The views of the mountains on the drive were superb. Our driver dropped us at a town of houses strung along a paved road and then pointed vaguely up hill. I took my guidebook pages to two men who didn’t want to look at them but motioned us up the hill adding a gesture to the left.

We started up the path in smothering heat. It was very up, always with views of the Chinese scroll painters’ mountains and valleys with little human interruption. I think we must have been having a good time talking because we missed our turn off which, when we came back, was fairly obvious. We just didn’t see it. We did see mountains sometimes leaning into each other as though conferring or pulling back as though from an offensive smell.

The path was stony with bare patches of firm mud, the heat terrible and exhausting. Sometimes the path disappeared into waist high weeds where crickets leapt and yellow butterflies erupted. It seemed unlikely that this could be the path to the village but the walk was so wildly beautiful we just kept at it until we came to fields and small orchards where we could see a farmer working. He was the first person we had seen since we left the road. E took the pages to show him the name of the town in Chinese. We were far beyond the village.

It was as spectacular going down as going up. I slipped once because my Tevas had acquired a supplementary sole of mud. I asked E if he missed anything in the landscape. He couldn’t identify anything. I pointed out that we had neither heard nor seen a bird in all our walking. In China one does not. Mao was thorough in having them exterminated. There are waterfowl, ducks, egrets and cormorants hanging out their wings to dry but not one sparrow.

We were almost all the way down when E notice a path to the right that ascended stone stairs. This was surely the path to the village. We walked up it a bit but had neither the time nor energy to get even within sight of the village.

We came the rest of the way down to the road where there were ruins of stone houses of the variety we would have seen if we had made it to Shitoucheng. Ethan ordered eggs in the form of a gigantic pancake covered in chopped scallions at a little restaurant. It was, I think, a four-egg pancake.

That consumed we continued down and found the car waiting for us. Once back in Yangshuo I tried to get my outer sole of mud off my Tevas before entering the hotel. I scraped off some and later, after dinner, I washed them off throwing great gouts of mud into the wastepaper basket.

The next day, although E had decided to read and laze, he walked me to the main road. I had not listened carefully and thought I was to catch the bus to the Dragon Bridge from this road. E returned to his meat locker temperature room and I wait for the right bus that never seemed to come. A Chinese woman standing near me with her husband asked, “Do you speak English?” I then asked her where she had learned English. She told me she lived in Virginia. They got their bus and left.

I started showing my Xeroxed guidebook pages to bus drivers. Then I discovered I had to go to the bus station. I had been told that earlier but somehow it had slipped out of my mind. The next bus driver took me some blocks, then told me to walk ahead. Using my technique of stopping and asking every fifty feet I made my way. The last person I asked, a woman, lead me to the entrance. Never would I have known it was a bus station.

Once in the station, having put my daypack through the x-ray machine, I showed my guidebook extract and was pointed onto a bus where I was loaned a fan until the air con went on. As always in Asia there was a lot of waiting as the bus filled. We took off but stopped for more people in Yangshuo, started again and didn’t stop until we came to a small, ugly town where the Yangshuo passengers left and an entirely new genre of passenger got on board. They were country folk with town purchases. The woman beside me had peppers, vegetables and fruit. She gave me an Asian pear, a high priced fruit in New York City. It was crisp and refreshing. The woman next to her had a rooster in a plastic bag between her knees. He complained in a low mutter. Across from her was a man with a red plastic bag from which protruded the feet of a dead and plucked chicken.

Sheep and chickens, unlike horses and dogs, are structured so that they don’t notice the fates of their fellows. You can shoot a sheep and none of the other sheep in the meadow will notice the death. Chickens are limited in the same way. Therefore, while complaining constantly, the rooster never reacted to the plucked legs across the aisle.

I showed my neighbors my guidebook pages with the name of the bridge, Dragon Bridge, in Chinese. They nodded. When the bus stopped and the driver motioned me off, they all waved goodbye to me from the windows. I felt as though I had left my family behind.

Standing on the roadside looking about, I located the river, looked up and down it, but saw no bridge. There was a big concession for rafts by the river. I walked around it but saw no one I felt I could ask about the bridge. Coming back to the parking area I saw a young man, all in white, with an engaging smile in a big straw hat. After a great deal of linguistic fumbling, and after I had left him to go to some mopeds thinking perhaps I could hire one to take me to the bridge, he took his phone out and we began to talk using a translation app. What a wonder it is.

He prefaced everything with “Hello”. “Hello. There are two bridges.” “Hello. You want to go to them?” I asked to be taken to the Dragon Bridge first; then I would make up my mind about Fulin Bridge, the second. He had a white van; surely he rents this by the day. He ceremoniously seated me in the back. The Dragon Bridge was not far. Its shape was the Chinese high arch with little steps up to its top where the views along the river were of umbrellas in front of rafts waiting to be hired. The ripening rice fields spread their patchwork out on either side, a soft pale green.

Having seen one I could not resist another. We went to Fulin Bridge, even better, among swaying willows, little steps mounted to its high arch, mountains and fields spread out up and down river. Its stone was splotched, stained with age and lichens; it was missing stones; its steps were warped and broken. Coming down from its arch’s crest I walked beside the river to see a mountain perfectly framed in its stone reach.

We stopped at his favorite view for a photo before driving back to Yangshuo. I tried to hire him for the next day’s trip to Moon Hill but there was something about traffic police. However, it was grand having him in my life for the afternoon.

E and I breakfasted at Lucy’s and then set off for the main road and the bus to the bus station. The 801 came fairly quickly and let us off at a stop beyond the bus station. I kept thinking the bus would deliver me to my destination and I was always wrong. They immediately put us on the right bus and we left. Again we were let off not at the entrance to Moon Hill but a half a kilometer away on an unshaded dirt road. But we found our way, bought our ticket. There is a big billboard showing Nixon and Pat, who looks totally, wretchedly unhappy in a fabulous mink coat, at the start of the stairs. It tells how Nixon didn’t believe the arch was a natural phenomenon. He thought it had been made by a missile punching through a mountain. Once paranoid always paranoid.

I was totally unenthused about the climb with the temperature at 30 to 35. E recognized the path at the beginning and I recognized it further on. An Indian man, when we were beginning, told us there was an old woman at the top selling cold drinks. Beyond the place where I had turned back, it became very steep. It was all stairs. We were surrounded by bamboo forest—no birds—that closed the heat in around us. As we climbed steeper and steeper stairs, some of which had been built a little high, people coming behind us caught up. They were from Andalucía. You would think I was Spanish born given the enthusiastic reunion we had. The man in the lead, maybe fifty, told us there 800 steps and that we were close to the end. After another flight we could see the inside of the arch of the moon.

We came to the woman, indeed elderly, from whom I bought my annual Coke. The Andalucians were already ahead. The wife of the lead man, when I told her about my annual Coke, confessed she had done the same.

There were also four young Spaniards, shirts off, pants below their pale, young jelly-bellies. The Andalucians were a delight. These were not. They tried to bait me about being Catalan. I immediately became unable to understand Spanish.

We walked down. I do this slowly too. I started asking for a taxi. An older woman—she could have been fifty—who sold the usual purses, magnets and so on, intervened. I wasn’t having any luck with the ticket seller and other official types. She said she could get us a “tasi” for “eighteen yuan,” which I correctly interpreted as a taxi for eighty yuan. She had one there in ten minutes—I tipped her causing her total confusion—and we were home in twenty minutes.

The next day, after a long ride to Guilin in a car too small for E’s six feet four we flew back to Hong Kong. He left the next morning. I went to the train to the plane with him and the Apple Store for earphones. The American two-week vacation is ridiculously short. I went to Great Food on my way back and comforted myself with some excellent, expensive Camembert.

2019, BLOG XXI: HK

2019, BLOG XXI: HK

Despite my worries about demonstrations all was calm at HK airport and there was no excessive police presence. However, one stop on the train had been temporarily eliminated because of previous protest activity.

To my astonishment, I had a taxi driver who knew the Helena May and knew how to get there through St. Joseph’s back yard. In some twenty-five years of visiting HK I have never had a driver who knew the name Helena May. However, the passage to St. Joseph’s backyard was chained off because previous police-demonstrator clashes had injured the pavement. My driver was not only knowledgeable but kind. He pulled over on Garden Road just above the Helena May and got my bags and me onto the sidewalk, a not legal operation. I tipped. I didn’t have to brake going down the hill for as far as I otherwise would have. You brake because the hill is extremely steep. I have a recurrent nightmare in which my suitcases somehow elude my grasp and go hurtling down ending up crashing into Chater Garden or fouling traffic on Queensway.

My second astonishment was that not only were they expecting me at the HM but Ah Ling had stayed on to greet me. She takes care of the women on the second floor. She is a superb person and disapproves of my going barefoot in the corridor and bathrooms, providing me with hotel slippers to ensure my respectability. I gave her a big hug.

The Helena May was the mansion of the Governor of Hong Kong. His wife, Helena May, in her will, dedicated the building to be a hotel for women. That was about 1900. The women’s quarters are two floors of good-sized, nicely decorated rooms with elegant shared bathrooms. Men stay in small, but not for HK expensive, plain rooms tucked under the highway. They have their own baths.

Sorting things in my room, I noticed Garden Road was exceptionally quiet. I went out on the balcony to see below a police van, car and motorcycle. Further down there seemed to be a mass of people.

An elderly Chinese man walked down the hill swinging a blue plastic bag. When he came to the vehicles, the police were standing outside of them, he began shouting and punching the air. It didn’t require a knowledge of Cantonese to know he was cursing them.

The police outside the Helena May.

I went out an hour later intending to go to Great Food in Pacific Place but when I passed through the Helena May’s front door I could see that the mass I had noticed was composed of police in battle costume, shields, rubber bullet guns and other equipment. I went back into the Helena May.

Later my neighbor came out on the balcony to look too and when I told her about my food-shopping dilemma she suggested I go up hill to a grocery named Fusion. I did.

Coming back down again I encountered a woman telling people it was all right to walk down. They were hesitant because of the line of police across the road at the St. Johns Building. I walked past the van, car and motorcycle and just as I was reaching into my purse for my notebook with the door code in it a man’s head popped out of the door. He laughed when he saw my notebook saying, “Yes. I had to do that in my first weeks.” He let me in both doors.

That was the extent of my contact with demonstrations in Hong Kong.

Sunday, a friend picked me up with a car full of people for lunch at a dim sum place. Both company and food were good. She and I went off on a full stomach to the Chinese Emporium. This is a government store that sells all kinds of Chinese things from jade carvings to silk lingerie. They are cheaper than other venues and are always busy. My best buy was when the store was Kowloon side, around the corner from the Peninsula Hotel. I bought on sale, for 100US, a handsome leather jacket. The size was XXL, which is why it fitted me. I was, however, this time, buying Chinese style children’s clothes. I bought enough to qualify for a free stuffed panda.

We took receipts and chits to the right counter but when we saw the panda on offer we recoiled in consumer horror. He had a curly black moustache, like a melodrama villain, but his cheeks were rouged like his virginal victim.

We took the metro back to HK side. People gave us seats; there was more friendly contact than I remember in former years. When there is the stress and fear that HK is going through now, people are often more open and eager for contact. A feeling of community, “We’re in this together,” is prevalent. I also felt people were subdued. Hongkongers are an ebullient crowd and they seemed hushed.

When I had my manicure and pedicure with Kitty next morning I learned that her son, a tuba player who has performed in Europe as well as HK, had participated in some demonstrations. Pushing back my cuticles, Kitty said, “I prayed. My God told me, ‘Shut up. Leave him alone.’” I could stand a god like that in my life. Her son has decided not to go to the demonstrations since the violence has escalated.

Talking to friends, I had a moment’s aperçu of the complexity of the situation. Their families are fractured by the demonstrations, but not quarreling. One friend’s father-in-law and son-in-law refer to demonstrators as rioters. His daughter, wife and he are pro demonstrators.

My grandson E came into HK, after being delayed in Beijing for twenty-four hours because demonstrators had been trying to close down the road to the HK airport. The Chinese weren’t going to let flights in until they were sure people would be able to get out of the airport.

The next few days were a blur of activity. We needed Chinese visas to go to Guilin where we were headed in three days. That wasn’t difficult. I have a good travel agent in HK and he sent a man to the HM who took our pictures. The Chinese are particular about these—no smiling– and he tried to get my hair to lie down as officially required but it would not. He went to the necessary offices, delivering the visas to the HM two days later.

Friends and I got E to some of HK. He took himself for walks on his own familiarizing himself with glittering Central.

We took him to Mountain Folk Craft, a favorite store of ours run by two bent over ladies, who sell bits of china, carvings, old children’s hats—now very expensive—puppets from Indonesia and China, block printed fabric, paintings on glass and jewelry. We mailed the Chinese children’s clothes to Albany, going on to the Star Ferry because you cannot say you have been to HK if you haven’t been on the Star Ferry. Getting out Kowloon side we walked to the Peninsula for a cappuccino in the upstairs’ lounge. We didn’t have time for the tea downstairs, unfortunately.

On our way back to the ferry E saw the teashop I have never entered but whose windows I have gazed into for years. I admire their tiny teapots and diminutive cups knowing I need none of these. E, who is fantastic about language, never cowed by it, dove in and tried out his Mandarin on Vivian who, with her mother, runs the little shop. They conversed back and forth between languages discussing tea. Often on this trip when he would say something in Mandarin people would just stare at him puzzled, then laugh, not at him but at the situation of incomprehension.

The next day S and E and I lunched with a friends at the Helena May before one drove us to the zoo entrance saving us a grand up hill slog. I love the HK zoo. Unfortunately my favorite orang was napping on a high platform where his amazing face could not be seen. He has great flanges, a sort of face decoration orangs grow but not until they are around 20 years old. Females prefer orangs with flanges.

We walked down through the caged birds looking at flamingos and a good-looking kookaburra, plump and white, pleased with himself. We crossed the road going up hill to the enormous netted aviary, one of my favorite places. It started to rain gently as we walked with unfamiliar birds all around us, on branches over head, on branches below us and a magnificent, white pheasant taking a stroll by the side of the palm lined stream at the bottom. Some had long green tails; others were chubby and blue sitting together, a tea party on a branch over head. They were unfamiliar but as fabulous in their colors as rare gems. Since you are not a threat they let you get close.

We went up to a second set of cages in further rain but after the aviary caged birds did not enthrall, although there were a lot of hornbills. It must have been mating season because they were making incredible squeak-squawk noises while lifting their heads and stretching out their necks. We were the only people among the cages.

It rained off and on all the way home to the HM where we finished our packing for China.


Although thrilled with my black pearl necklace, my eighty-third birthday present to self, I was not happy with the clasp. Therefore, I took the necklace, after my morning workout at the gym, to my expensive jeweler on Sukhumvit. I suppose it sounds decidedly recherché, or haut something or other, to have an expensive and an inexpensive jeweler but, in truth, in the culture of Bangkok, it seems quite natural.

Jewelry is not for special occasions in a Thai woman’s life. I knew a woman arms dealer who wore to her office jewelry an American woman would have been hesitant to wear to a ball. At the opposite end of the spectrum in the U.S., when I wore earrings, a short gold chain and a ring, not a wedding ring, to a job interview, a man commented, sorry I cannot reproduce his diphthong heavy accent, “You sure do carry a lot of hardware.” Needless to say I didn’t get the job.

While Pom, the daughter of the owner, and I were leaning intently over drawings she was making for the clasp, agonizing between a pair of cats holding a ball or a pair of frogs clasping a water lily, Khun Rani came in looking perfect—a delicate, elderly, Thai but with the daintiness of a Dresden figure. We kissed on each cheek warmly. I had forgotten she does this. In the middle of various enquiries, she asked if I’d had lunch.  When I said I had not, she asked me to lunch.

I was stunned. Thais do not do this with Westerners. She took me to Baan Khanita, an elegant, wood paneled restaurant with whimsical Thai prints on the walls.

She ordered three appetizers, which were her lunch.  Little pork patties with sweet or sour sauce, leaves on which one deposited dried shrimp, peanuts, tiny lemon dice, chili and onion, little crisp pastry cups full of vegetables with thick, yummy tamarind sauce. I ordered roast duck in red curry. It was exquisite with tiny eggplants that go crunch between your teeth and are slightly bitter. I begged off on dessert and we had cappuccino instead.

Eating with Khun Rani is distracting because of the flash of her rings; there are many. There is a pinky ring, platinum with pave diamonds, a large ring with three oval stones—a ruby, a sapphire of great clarity and an orange-brown stone set in a pave of diamonds—finally a simple ring of silver or platinum that curves around her thumb. There were more but she also had bare fingers.

She has six grandchildren. The eldest is studying medicine and complaining about his workload. Her husband has had Parkinson’s for the last five years but is not yet trembling. She claims we have known each other for 40 years, which can’t be true. I think it is about 36. We were introduced by an Irish friend of mine, the most charming man on earth, who bought rings for his daughters from her when they were young, intending them to be gifts for their late teens.  Happily he was able to give them the rings before he died.

It had never occurred to me that for Khun Rani I am a source of nostalgia. I buy from her only occasionally and am certainly not a big customer but it was definitely flattering to be in that position.

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The next day I had lunch with my friend C with whom, many years ago, I trekked in Sikkim with mutual friends. We have stayed in contact and always have lunch when I am in Bangkok.  Over excellent Japanese sushi he told me his partner, Sekun, once personal florist to the Queen of Thailand, had started a horticultural museum where they were planning a big party later in the week. He invited me. How exciting. Ultra Thai to have a Museum of Floral Culture.

My next lunch was with N, my former dentist at the BNH Hospital, during which I caught up on her children, one traveling in the US, the other beginning to work as a doctor in a Bangkok hospital. That’s a thrill for her as she has been tired of the unreality of medical books in recent months. Her other news was that after telling me last year that the old Dusitani Hotel was coming down, she has now heard it is not. This is a hotel that is not an architectural gem, just a locus of nostalgia.

I took a taxi to the floral party. It was in Dusit, the royal area of Bangkok where the King’s palace is. No tall buildings are allowed here, which makes it a little cooler than other parts of Bangkok. There was a two or maybe three story house with grounds, a pool and more orchids than seemed rational. The guests impressed me because many people, although not all, were wearing what pleased them. This was equally true of men and women. In the case of the men it often meant wearing loose, baggy trousers, their heads wrapped in scarves or pieces of embroidery. Many looked as though they had just emerged from a desert in Uzbekistan. Sekun was in baggy short trousers of Northern Thai blue with a top of tribal embroidery and applique work. He played a Thai stringed instrument, which I never identified. C wore a Chinese outfit in brilliant yellow, the Imperial Chinese color, with a long straight skirt under a long tunic. He could have come straight out of Dowager Empress Cixi’s court. One woman had draped herself with about twenty necklaces of varying lengths and designs that swung and sparkled as she moved.  Another was in a deep emerald Issey Miyake Pleats Please top, superb with her shining dark hair.

The food was heaven, the best Pad Thai ever, with dried shrimp, not desiccated but plumped up with the sauce they were in. There were a few Westerners but it was largely a young Thai event.

A man, large for a Thai with a shaved head and excellent English, made me an exquisite necklace of jasmine buds ending in tassels of purple flowers.

The next day I flew up to Chaingmai to see my friend M who has Parkinson’s. He was considerably worse than last year, unable to walk around the temples we had enjoyed in earlier years. We did get to an exhibition at the Chaingmai University Arts Centre called, “Never Again”. It is called a “celebration” of the fifth year of military rule and gives a detailed history of the arrests of protesters of all varieties, and displays objects—tee shirts, banners etc. I was amazed that it was allowed.

There were photos, one of a formation of military that managed to be both chilling and beautiful. Other photos were so Thai I had to smile. Where else would one go out to protest with one’s hair in pink spikes?

The exhibit was organized by the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

I returned to Bangkok feeling worried and helpless about M. On the Sky Train coming back from seeing my less pricey jeweler, Rudi, about purchases for friends from her collection, a strikingly vivacious woman, of Indian ancestry, tall, slender with long black hair, suddenly appeared before me saying, “I saw you at the floral party but I didn’t get to talk to you.” So we talked on the train and agreed to meet again to have coffee at Paul’s at the Paragon where we talked for over two hours.

She works for an NGO on malaria extermination. There are only a few places left on the borders with Burma and Cambodia, jungley, inaccessible areas, where the disease persists.

She was raised in LA but went to Georgetown where she was shocked by the Catholic culture and the muffling effect it had on the lives of women in her class—an experience of micro-cultures in the U.S.

Kai, my couturier friend, took me to an interesting Western restaurant called El Mercado, run by a Dutchman married to a Catalan. Part of it is open, part enclosed with a chalkboard menu and an adjacent delicatessen selling hams, sausages and cheese. Kai took me into a cold room where they had their fish on display—cockles, whelks, shrimp, crab, fish, river prawns and lobsters. I had a Lamb Navarin, which was excellent, so it was a surprise to find that the owner is a vegetarian.  There were also killer desserts with shiny strawberries under which lurked exquisite yellow custard.

The restaurant is in Klong Toey, a slightly slummy area where it presents a green, flowery, face both modern and comfortably relaxed.  It was fun chatting with the owner about Barcelona.

I picked up the jewelry for friends from Rudi at the DD Mall, which she is thinking of leaving.  I do hope so since it takes me forty-five minutes to an hour underground and above ground each way from the A One Inn.  She is considering the Amerin Plaza, which is two Sky Train stops from me.

Rudi is 88 and will be off to a jewelry fair in Singapore in a few days. She nursed her husband, whom she says treated her like a princess, for fifteen years through various illnesses. When we parted she said, looking at me sternly, “Try to stay alive until next year.” I suggested she do the same.


I arrived much later than I had expected, six instead of four, but I had no difficulty with the taxi getting to Maison Paofai, which has a wonderful location in the middle of Pape’ete, a few blocks from the market. The person in charge had left. An elderly couple staying on the second floor told me I had the room in the front and helped me up with my bag.

The room, while good sized with a little terrace and its own bath, had not been swept; the towel in the bathroom was wet from the previous tenant’s ablutions; his glass of water was still on the bedside table; I viewed the rumpled sheets with alarm. Slowly I realized there was an odd smell and those black, flat flies that are associated with damp, decay and a lack of cleanliness were in the bathroom. I was too tired to put 1 and 1 together. I turned on the air conditioning, decided the smell was coming from the bathroom, closed the door to the bathroom and went to bed.

Hours later, drugged with sleep, I was roused by knocking on the door. It was the young man, maybe twenty years old, who was in charge. He told me I was in the wrong room but that I shouldn’t change. Unfortunately in my groggy state I went along with this. I did get a clean towel out of him but it took some arm-twisting. I went back to sleep.

Almost as soon as I woke up in the morning I realized the smell was from damp and was emanating from the shower floor, which was broken and missing tiles. I opened the terrace door. I talked to the boy, who I realized now that I was fully awake, really was a teenager and again tried to change rooms. He would not have it. I told him about the smell. He opened the bathroom door as well as the terrace door and claimed it would be fine. When I asked him to clean the room he flatly stated, “We don’t clean.” When I suggested the sheets had been slept in he was sufficiently offended that I thought the sheets might be okay. His standards of cleanliness were quite typical of his sex and age group. The male adolescent, up to his ear lobes in manure, considers himself in a sterile situation.

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I went out and found an excellent place for breakfast, a teahouse. They made a fine omelet; their coffee was good and there was the eternal baguette. I then doubled back on the road the teahouse was on, asking a woman about bus stops. We walked together until I recognized the stop. Amazingly a bus came and climbing on I asked the driver for the town, Punaauia, where there was a museum of Polynesian art.  The bus was in a bad state, seats broken and unusable. The driver told me where to get off.

I descended and started asking my way. There were no signs. One man said I shouldn’t bother going because the museum was closed. Thank God, I paid him no mind. I walked toward the sea and suddenly a sign told me to turn right. In a few blocks I was at the museum.

It is in the process of renovation and, therefore, the exhibition was small. That was fine. Most of the objects—clubs, head decorations, spears, mortars and pestles, tikis—were still so alien to me that I was better off looking at a few rather than trying to understand a hundred. Oddly, most of the tikis were from Hiva Oa. The young woman who was both guard and commentator was excited to learn I had been to Hiva Oa. She had not been. What was interesting was that none of these tikis were smiling whether of wood or stone.

I walked back to the road, waited in scorching sun for a bus, deciding I wouldn’t stick out my thumb for fifteen minutes. Before that happened a woman in a van with her mother, her little dog and her son stopped to pick me up. They took me into Pape’ete to the market where I had lunch before walking home to my room, which smelled better.

I decided to decrease the odor of dampness by leaving the terrace door open all night with the air conditioner on. It also served as petty revenge on my landlord or lady. Since I was paying 200US a night for my quarters, I didn’t feel great wads of remorse. Value for money is not a Tahitian concept.

The next day I picked up the black pearls I had bought as a birthday present for myself, they had been restrung, and arranged a taxi to the airport for the next day. At the Maeva Café I lunched on fried shrimp and salmon. Talking to the young man who had frequently served me, I learned he had gone to the University of Boulder in Colorado. It seemed exactly the right place for him; certainly it explained his English.

I found myself locked out on my return. The teenager had told me I didn’t need the combination since it was never locked but someone came along quickly. I went up to my only slightly smelly room to finish packing.

Having passed through immigration and customs, I sat in the Business Class Lounge next to a young man who was heavily tattooed. We watched as some Japanese near us cheered and applauded. He told me that their flight had been delayed twenty-four hours, a portent. We began to talk in a choppy, on and off way. I realized he was Maori from New Zealand.

Next it was announced that our flight was delayed. In an hour our flight was canceled. Rumor had it that our plane had been given to the Japanese group. I suspected Air Tahiti was playing a game of musical airplanes.

There was the usual uproar. People with small children roaring the loudest; that seemed appropriate. The young Maori and I were among the last to be dealt with. We were told to go to the Airport Motel across the highway. I knew it because when I walked from the Fare Hau I took a short cut down their drive. We were given chits for taxis, and meals.

After a thoroughly repulsive lunch at the airport restaurant, we picked up our bags and took a taxi to the Airport Motel where we were told we had no reservations. I began to simmer. When we asked the driver of a van parked in the motel drive to take us back to the airport he refused because we were English speakers. I came to a rolling boil.

The woman cab driver who picked us up twenty minutes later was charming. She eyed my pearls, I was wearing them, and wanted to know if I’d bought them at the Pearl Market in the market where she said they would cost about 700US. Well, yes, if you spent six months to a year going every day and looking through bins to pick out one or two pearls.

When we got to the airline desk I had some crisp words about Air Tahiti’s abilities in the area of customer service.  We waited some more and then were told to go to the Sofitel Resort. This was two cuts above the Airport Motel. At this point my Maori companion, who had been passive through most of these exchanges, took charge. He found a taxi and off we went to the resort.

I don’t think I had been to a resort before. It seemed the purpose of this variety of lodging was to isolate you from the culture you are in. It is a sort of subculture in which you are taken care of but are separated from the outside world. My room was large, comfortable, if a little the worse for wear, with a view of the swimming pool and the ocean beyond. The meals were okay; only breakfast was interesting.

My Maori companion had all the chits so we had breakfast, lunch and dinner together. I learned over meals that he taught Maori and Maori history at one of the more recherché private schools in Auckland, had been raised by his grandparents, was presently living with his grandmother, had just come from visiting her relatives in the Austral Islands, owned a small boat and had a large tattoo of a ray on his back. This came out in bits and pieces. We never had a smoothly engaged conversation. It may have been his youthfulness. But I learned from him about the linguistic linkages between the islands and was fascinated to learn that all people on the Polynesian Islands, Hawaii to Tahiti, can understand each other.

When we parted company, we were awkward with each other. I thought we would shake hands. The relationship still felt formal to me but when I put out my hand I could see he was upset and immediately leaned over for an embrace.

The morning of July 29th, my Maori friend on his way to Auckland, I received a welcome call from my grandson singing Happy Birthday off key. I hung about the lobby, walked around the hotel, talked to an American man and his wife, also canceled passengers. They, and some friends were trying to get to Sydney for a reunion with high school friends they had not seen in 30 years. We discussed politics, a dangerous subject these days. He believed the increase in dictatorships around the world is due to the lack of democratic leadership in America. He may well be right.

That afternoon I went to the airport and flew six hours to Auckland. I was a bit limp but had much to accomplish in the four hours before boarding my eleven-hour flight to HK.

I had left the Samurai in Auckland, not wanting to carry him around French Polynesia, with L and K, but they had left. They spend the winter on Fiji where they have a guesthouse. This year they are putting in an above ground pool made from a container.

A was meeting me with the Samurai. This had been simpler with my original flight, which had given me twenty hours between flights. Now I had four. I had to pick up my bag, get through Immigration and Customs including sniffer dogs, confess to my honey possession, get out, meet A, pick up the Samurai, go to the departure floor and check in again.

I got through immigration without difficulty, told the Custom’s woman I had contraband and got on that line which moved with amazing swiftness. I was relieved of my honey and told with mild severity to not ever try to bring honey into New Zealand.

I headed for the green line exit with my two cases and there, just outside the doors, was wonderful A with the Samurai in his case. We hugged frantically as she handed him over telling me she had named him Mura, a Maori name. I like that name. It fits him. We went to departures and found the Air New Zealand check in. Another hug, a good bye one.

A young woman, with a mouth like a zipper, at the New Zealand check in was as obstructive as she could manage without putting herself in danger of being accused of discourtesy. She told me I needed a ticket for a destination beyond Thailand. I have never, in thirty-five years of going to Thailand, been asked for this. I showed her my tickets to HK and my Barcelona return. She wanted to know if I had a visa for HK. I pointed out I would only be there for a week. Did I have a visa for Thailand? Luckily at this point the woman next to her broke in to say I didn’t need a visa.

I then went over to check in my bag. Usually people look at me and immediately help me with my bag. This woman stood and stared at me finally saying, “Put the bag on the conveyor.” I said, and it was now true, “I am 83. Can you help me?” With great reluctance she did.

In New Zealand I found that if someone was rude, they were my color. Anyone browner than I was invariably helpful and polite. I have no explanation.

The flight was smooth, the food excellent, the service helpful and kind. Most important, the air was recirculated frequently. I was putting Dr. F’s pills to the test again. The flight Pape’ete to Auckland was over 6 hours, to HK 11 and the final flight to BKK 3. I was not taking the full dosage because I didn’t have it but I had the basic amount. I came through it well. Having a good airline, New Zealand Air, that recirculates air frequently, makes a huge difference. I feel I know my traveling situation, what to watch out for, what conditions are dangerous. In other words perhaps I now understand my 83-year-old body and its needs.

But still I was/am missing the Marquesas.

2019, BLOG XVIII: Walks on Hiva Oa

I walked almost into the town of Taaoa and back, looking up at the mountain, then down to the sea or at roots climbing out of a cliff face, then going back in. It was a beautiful walk of ten kilometers. At one point there was a spasm of rain but I quickly dried.

The next day my goal was the Calvary Cemetery where Jacques Brel and Paul Gauguin are buried. I stopped along the way to pass time with horses tethered by the road. They are often terribly lonely and are grateful for a scratch and a little conversation. The walk up was so steep my iPhone recorded parts of it as stairs. The views were over ridges with an occasional house, coconut palms, mangoes terracing down to the white breaking of the sea. People stopped to offer me a ride but I needed the exercise particularly since I had discovered a drink cum dessert that Georges makes with coffee, ice cream, chocolate and whipped cream or something else invented for the purpose of clotting arteries.

The cemetery was a series of terraced steps. On the first terrace was Brel. He had a tall, narrow, professionally cut stone bearing a bronze bas relief with his face and the face of his companion on it. Before the stone was a shallow rectangular depression in which people left stones they had written messages on in magic marker.

A terrace or two further up I found Gauguin. He had a small, local volcanic stone, not artificially cut, with his name and dates painted on it in white paint. He had one message written on a scrap of paper slipped into a plastic cover by a Parisian sculptor. Next to the grave is a reproduction of his sculpture of a girl, The Wild One.

I continued walking up among the less famous. Many graves had pictures of the dead on them. There were a few large, fancy—decorated with wrought iron—tombs of Catholic prelates.  At the top I found a dog curled up in the rectangular depression before a small grave. We let each other be.

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There was also, inexplicably, dead on another grave, a small bird. I returned to the road continuing to walk up and found on the road a white chicken not inexplicably dead. Its neck had been broken, I’m sure, by the dog with the smug, but wary expression lurking just down a driveway.

I could see a large building a little further up and decided to walk to it and then go back down. It turned out to be a Seventh Day Adventist church. As I came down a truck came up. I automatically waved; the car stopped; it was Pifa, his wife, who always has on the most outrageous earrings, and his two boys, one of whom has an eye that doesn’t move as it should. They were all dressed for church in jackets and ties. Pifa was amazed that I’d made it up the hills.

As I walked down I moved from one area of perfume to the next—jasmine, a citrus odor and finally the ocean. There was a sign out in front of a house advertising carvings.

The carver sat under a shade roof with his tools, surrounded by his work. I looked at his carvings and sat with him for a while. When I asked about the Tevitete Cemetery Ancien, he made motions suggesting that not only was it far up hill but a long way away. Neither was true.

I came back down into town and stood on the sea wall watching the surfers and once home talked to the French couple in the room next to me who had just married for the second time. They had been taken to the Cemetery Ancien by someone they had met on the plane. They also said it was far and difficult to get to.

In the morning I asked Georges to call Pifa about going there. This was unfortunate because Georges decided that it was dangerous for me to go alone, although Pifa told me I could do it easily asking my way at houses along the road. But Georges insisted Pifa drive me saying there were dangerous dogs on the road. So we agreed to a half-day. He arrived, a little late, in an immaculate four-wheel drive whose doors opened and shut without difficulty.

The cemetery is up a narrow dirt road edged by large, shallow, rectangular containers under roofs, full of drying coconut, copra. One, when we went up, was also full of the little mourning doves feasting. On the way back it was full of pigeons from France, another introduced species.

The cemetery is small, arranged in terraces of black volcanic rock, densely overgrown, climbing the mountain. Some inhabitants have been dug up and transferred to the new graveyard. But at the top, where a Christian chief is buried, is a small charming tiki, smiling out from under a sort of roof. Many of the graves are marked by fancy bits of wrought iron that must have been imported from France. There was another grave with a roof? Was there once a tiki sheltering here? As is true in the other cemetery the views are spectacular down over the ridges of the mountain to the sea.

Back in the four-wheel drive we headed onto narrow mud tracks coming upon people on horseback. I realized to my annoyance that I had forgotten about doing that. Pifa, of course, knew all these people.  The horses came in an interesting variety from small ones, to one very handsome chestnut of normal European height. It would be the perfect way to get off the roads and into the jungle. We crossed a stream. Pifa showed me where, when it rains, there are waterfalls coming down into the valley. Unfortunately we at this point could see an enormous rock in the road. That killed our drive. We did stop at a carver’s —tikis, doors with tikis on them, nose flutes covered with designs adapted from tattoos. He showed me on his iPod a picture of a small pendant, finely carved, that is in a museum in New York, probably the Metropolitan if someone would like to check it out—a pig ivory pendant from the Marquesa Islands. I intend to look next time I am there.

My last day in Hiva Oa I walked in the other direction, to the left, to the harbor where we took the boat to Tahuatu. I decided to take the lower road to the harbor, Moto Anakee, that passed a beauty salon, there are a number of these in Atuona, behind a bamboo gate covered with signs advertising various services, and then more surprisingly past a vegetable stand selling cucumbers, salad leaves and some fruit the length of a banana that is orange-brown-black. I ran into the people who a few days earlier had been mowing the verge of the road in front of the Relais Moehau now cropping grass and weeds further along. I wondered if they circle the island keeping the road edge trimmed, an occupation not unlike the moss tenders in Japan.

As I came to the harbor I could see through the leaves down to the beach, where a man was scrubbing his big, handsome horse. He enjoyed his bath. A dog was dancing in and out of the water encouraging this. They came up from the beach and walked ahead of me for a while before turning off, as I continued on to the harbor where nothing much was going on and sailboats bobbed on the swells in the heat.

It was a good walk but the day was dangerously hot on a route with little shade. On my way back to the Relais Moehau I talked briefly to a woman going in the opposite direction who was carrying ice in her daypack to stay cool.  The heat, indeed, made walking risky.

The next day I thought I was leaving at 9 but the plane was at 11. Georges gave me a baguette with ham and chicken, a bottle of water and a banana. He also gave me a bottle of honey. I was fairly sure I would never make it to Bangkok with the honey, that the sniffer dogs in Auckland would find it and slaver all over me at the airport. Since I was carrying other contraband through the airport, the oil I had bought in Atuona, some ginger lemon grass tea, a packet of leaves A had given me to boil up as a remedy for lung congestion, I decided to sacrifice the honey.

The young, gay waiter, with big brown eyes, who had decided I was someone he wanted to know, drove me to the airport. I think what he really wanted was to learn English. We had a lesson going to the airport on tree and fruit names.

I ate my baguette in the airport. The plane did not arrive until 2pm, presaging events to come. I was very happy to have that baguette.

A girl of perhaps three, blonde with delicate, elfin features, had been racing, twirling and jumping for joy around the airport with her slightly older, more brunette sister while they waited for another flight. She had not understood what circumstance was about to occur. When she saw her sister and mother climb the stair onto the plane, she had a split second of astonishment, followed swiftly by a sodden collapse into inconsolable tears in her father’s arms.

The father comforted her with kisses and a sympathetic smile. I had watched him earlier in the day brushing his wife’s hair. Thai men don’t zip up their wives’ dresses. An American man would never brush out his wife’s long midnight hair in an airport. Here it caused not a glance of interest as he, with enjoyment in the sensuality of the task, took her luxuriant hair down, brushed it out to its full length and helped her twist it up again and pin it.

I hated leaving Hiva Oa. I felt cranky and had a bad attitude that lasted through a fair amount of my stay in Pape’ete where conditions and events systematically worked to frustrate and irritate but the real problem was not Pape’ete; it was Hiva Oa. I have fallen in a depth charge of love with a South Pacific island.

2019, BLOG XVII: More Hiva Oa

It was Sunday. I was writing when I heard, maybe around ten am, the sound of a drum. Looking over the edge of the verandah I saw horses and people going toward the soccer field. I asked the chambermaid, who is what in Thailand one would call a boy-girl, with magnificent, black hair right down to her bottom, what was going on. Her English is not fluent but by now women in scarlet dresses had joined the parade. I grabbed my phone and hurried down into town.

I need to digress for a moment. In French Polynesia the spectrum of sexuality is startling to a Westerner, as is the fact that no one seems to pay much attention. Perhaps there is murmuring around the family hearth about “those people,” but there seems to the outsider to be little attention paid to behavior and dressing that would certainly be noted in Europe.  Besides this a friend told me about a Mahu. This is a man who lives and dresses as a woman, although he may be married with children or he may be gay. Usually a Mahu is a second son in a family of high status but inadequate income and property. Only one son can inherit and continue the family line. By becoming female the Mahu can stay within the family but he cannot inherit, nor can his children, from the principle family line. It is a way of coping with too many sons and to little resources.

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The Tibetan way of dealing with a similar problem of inheritance is polyandry. When a family of substance has no son, the eldest daughter marries all the brothers in a family who take her family name and become through her the inheritor, if they are married to her at the time of her father’s death, the head of the family. If the eldest son dies, the next son takes his place as her husband.


Phone in hand I took the long way down to town because I wasn’t sure whether their destination was the soccer field or the big dance field. It was the soccer field. A crowd had gathered, a man in a suit, no tie, was speaking in French. When he finished the drums started; two lines of dancers, one women and girls, the other men came out dancing and singing in costumes and hair ornaments of leaves and grasses. It was not the Rockettes but it was fun. Next were the ladies in scarlet with some little girls, some dark some blond who shimmied with happy suggestiveness. A small brunette danced glancing over her shoulder to stay in sync with the older women in scarlet. But this developed into a dilemma whether to dance or turn her back on the audience and watch the older dancers. It was a difficult choice since she found her fellow dancers enthralling.

Next came the police trainees in camouflage workout uniforms, they waved every morning passing the verandah on their morning run, to do a haka type dance, incredibly sexy with spread knees, shouts and grunts. Not a spare ounce on any of them, all grinning with the joy of dancing.

The drums of different heights, some were just good drums, but others had that deep tone that makes a fist in your abdominal cavity. Some were four feet or more, close to shoulder height, carved, painted and carefully tended.

Monday Jonathan was to pick me up at 8:30 to go to the petroglyph. A little after 8:30, Pifa showed. It had rained all night; the paths would be slippery. We did some errands in town—bank, post office and the airline office to ask about my address book. Things were not looking good in that area. Then Pifa drove me to the airport, a fools errand, but I was in a “no stone unturned” mood.

While we drove, I asked Pifa to tell me story about the Prince, the Princess and the giant boar or pig. It is interesting that Jonathan felt it necessary to dress this story up in European royal clothes. Is this another lick of the colonial brush, did he feel we would understand the story only if people had the rank we were used to? There is no Princess, nor Prince. It’s about a warrior and his forty-meter pig, kept in a stone walled enclosure a kilometer in circumference on Hiva Oa.

There was a feast on ‘Ua Pou to which people from all the islands came bringing food. A warrior from Hiva Oa went with his people. After days of feasting the food ran out; people were hungry. The warrior said he would call his pig but would have to chant all night to get him to come.  He did.

The people on Hiva Oa watched the pig become more and more restless, until he leapt over the wall, diving into the sea. Arriving at ‘Ua Pou he lumbered on shore, fainting from exhaustion. Fish were trapped in his hair. People ate those right away. The warrior came to the pig at the edge of the sea, explained that the people were starving, that he had called the pig so they could eat him. The pig immediately collapsed and died. The people ate him and finished their festival.

The warrior taught them the pig haka, and asked that they perform it on the anniversary of the feast.  He went home to Hiva Oa sad, missing his pig.

The idea that an animal, human or otherwise, would give up its life for the community’s benefit is a recurrent motif. I was told that people who were sacrificed to the gods willingly agreed to be killed for the future good of the community. Whether true or not this means the ideal of the society was not the life of the individual but the survival of the community. Near annihilation by Europeans has reinforced that ideal

Back in Atuona I insisted on paying Pifa, pointing out that there was no oil well in the center of Hiva Oa and all gas was imported. He accepted the equivalent of 20US.

He dropped me off at the Gauguin Museum, one of the odder and more unlikely museums in this world. It is filled with reproductions of Gauguin’s paintings, not just the Polynesian ones, by local artists. It is totally bizarre. There is also a narrative of Gauguin’s life in French, Tahitian and English. Outside is a gently rotting canoe with nice carving on it under a tree, next door to the Jacque Brel Space that was closed by the time I got to it.

The next day a grey curtain of rain draped sea and mountains the entire day. No one was going anywhere if they didn’t have to. My address book was delivered. Joy on a grey day. I had a date, however, for the following day to go to the island just below Hiva Oa, Tahuatu.

At 8:30 the next morning, when Pifa didn’t show, I was used to his being on time, I had Georges call him.  He was there in five minutes.

We drove to the next harbor to the left of Atuona with the same amazing topography of hills rising right up from the water to get on some kind of motorboat driven by a hefty man in a tee shirt liberally decorated with holes front and back.  His assistant was a young man in his early teens, agile and obviously in love with boat and sea. The other passengers were a French family. Maman was quite lovely to look at, Papa nice enough, Grandpa, age seventy-five, not bad and the two kids—a girl, in her teens, standardly pretty with a new upper arm bracelet tattoo, a boy, younger, with his hair in a fashion-statement, bleached topknot.

The man in the holed tee shirt brought us out of the harbor into the ocean, someone has commented that Pacific is a serious misnomer for this ocean, where we crossed swells. At first it was fun to bounce off a crest of one and slam into the trough of the next. But the slams got harder and harder until we did one that hurled me up from my seat. Some years ago In Tibet I broke a vertebrae by going over a potholed road at speed so I spoke up sharply and we slowed down.

Once we slowed, small dolphins surrounded us. They did not leap up, but swam beside us companionably. There was cove after cove with pretty beaches along the shore of Hiva Oa and in the cliffs shallow caves dug by the sea. We stopped in one of these coves for the French to snorkel. Only the parents went. Apparently, because there is no reef, the unprotected water is turbulent making visibility short.

We crossed the little strait to Tahuatu stopping at a village where we visited an ascetically severe church; a long, plain crucifix is its only ornament. There are four hundred people in the village that has terraces but no tikis. Living on this island you would have to want what you have to be happy.

The next village was further along the coast, Vaitahu. I think there are 700 people in this town. There is a handsome stone church with a mother and child above the porch. Inside it has a ceiling with a series of arches. Both ceiling and arches are made from strips of wood a little wider than lath in blond and reddish brown tones.  It is beautiful. The stained glass above the altar is of a Madonna and child, not Caucasian. Near the altar there is a large sculpture with many entwined and overlaid forms. The one I could make out was a turtle. Above the Madonna’s head in the window Pifa pointed out another turtle. This is a local symbol of longevity, virility and endurance. There was also a large drum at the back of the church that Pifa caressed as we left.

It seems that sometime in the 1970’s or 80’s, after more than a century of censoring the local iconography and forbidding ancient customs, the Catholic Church relented and sent out a sensible priest who said there could be drums in churches and tattoos were acceptable.

Both these churches were built with sea mumbled stones whose soft roundness enhanced the texture of the walls.

We went to lunch at Jimmy’s Restaurant run by a woman—age difficult to tell—maybe in her 50’s in a flower decorated hat.  It was an excellent lunch—poisson cru au lait coco, some kind of meat, maybe goat with coconut milk, sashimi with spicy sauce, another dish with fish and breadfruit that we had seen on trees around town cooked two different ways. I am not a breadfruit fan.

To go to the bathroom you walked around the house where a man was lounging under a tree on a circular stone bench with his pig, and her piglets, almost a dozen, in shades of black with white splotches and ginger with freckles. Although a bit shy of strangers, once you scratched them they lay down and, closed their eyes in ecstasy. Mama, snorting, was busy making herself a good muddy wallow. She seemed pleased with her fecundity; the man, sitting and talking to the multicolored litter, scratching the little ones, seemed proud of her abilities as well. I could hardly help but connect this relationship to the warrior and his forty-meter pig. I scratched the piglets too. Their hair is coarse and stiff; you get exceedingly dirty fingernails scratching them.

The bathroom was an existential statement of pipes and faucets. There was a toilet of the usual Western variety with a tank. However, there was no lid on the tank and a faucet arched up and over the edge of the tank wall. You flushed by reaching into the tank mechanism and pulling a wire. You filled the tank up again by turning on the faucet.  It all worked perfectly well.

When we came back to harbor on Hiva Oa I drove with Pifa and the French to where they are staying, up hill and out of town. They had sensibly rented a house; there were five of them. They were quite indifferent in their goodbyes, which was disappointing. Although it unfortunately backed up what Pifa had said about his experience with the French whom he believes, “have hearts of stone.”

The next day, wiped out by the sea air, I did nothing but write, eat George’s exquisite shrimp curry and nap.

I expected the following morning that Jonathan, about whom I was okay but not enthusiastic since he muddled his stories, would pick me up. Instead, at 8 am Pifa showed to say that his brother would come at 8:30 to take me to the petroglyph.

At 8:30 a vision of masculine virility appeared on the verandah in the form of Bly, baptismal name Brian. He resembles Pifa but Ireland is not as pronounced in his face and he is younger, in his thirties. He is full of humor, and fiercely curious about everything.

At a supermarket that was new to me, we bought ham, lettuce and tomato baguettes and water for lunch, and, by heaven, fifteen postcards, the first I had seen in town.  If you received a postcard from Hiva Oa of Hiva Oa it was from this store, unless it was the weird postcard of the nymphs around the waterfall.  That was from Pape’ete.

Bly’s car was a four-wheel drive Land Rover, of beyond a certain age. My seatbelt was broken but I tucked it around me because Bly is training for the police and it wouldn’t due for him to be seen with an unbelted passenger. A small lamp on the left front fender was broken and about to fall off.  A drawer on the dash kept opening. I had to hold onto a cloth strap to keep the door from swinging open—it only did this once—and I had to give my door a blow with elbow or a kick with foot to get it open. The car worked well on the muddy roads we traveled.

We went off tarmac and onto a track where one could see the prints of cows and pigs. I hadn’t been able to do this trip because the rains had made the area too muddy. The road was badly over grown; branches came in the window from time to time. A horse was tethered alone in the forest, plenty to eat but lonely.

We stopped at a barbed wire fence to start walking. Bly unwrapped some strands of barbed wire and then hefted up two of the posts. Now we were on an overgrown mud road shuffling through weeds, pushing away scrub. Bly had his machete out and was swiping at beginning trees. We passed big banyans dripping roots, coming to a clearing where I could see the dark volcanic stones of a terrace with more climbing the mountainside into the darkness of the jungle.

The terraces are built of big rocks rammed into place with smaller stones to wedge them. The upper surface of the top row of stones is flat. At the base of the terrace that rose four or five feet above me, I was balancing on stones that had fallen from the terrace, slippery with moss and lichens. Bly went ahead to see if he could remember the location of the boulder with the petroglyphs. I could see the grey tiki and his grin between two of the rocks. I climbed up to walk around the tiki as Bly came back. He is my second favorite. He also has a smile.

We lunched on our ham baguettes below the tiki. Bly talked about his family—three brothers, four sisters—growing up without toys. A stick was a spear, a telescope, a gun, a wand. As a child he thought he was invincible, immortal. He thought it fun to be chased by steers or wild pigs. In his teens he intended to go into the army to be a sniper. He was big on single-handed glory. His mother worried a lot. He went to the University of Hawaii intending to become a doctor in order to return and help his people but he could not afford the tuition and did not qualify for the scholarship. He didn’t want to get into debt so he gave that up.

Back in Tahiti he applied to be a nurse but the woman psychologist on his panel said, ironically, that he was too much like a doctor to be a nurse. He is now a fireman and training to be a policeman as well. He has three children. He has been to France, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the U. S. He commented that the French are the biggest complainers in the world. What is impressive about these men is that they are traveled people. They know the world and they want to live in their part of it.

Bly showed me candlenuts looking like stone walnuts. Cut open they have a waxy, yellow interior, which burned gives a faint light.

I told him about trekking in Nepal, dealing with leeches, about circumambulating Mount Kailash with Tibetans saying their prayers on their beads or muttering mantras as we all climbed to the pass at 18,600 feet where the wind chased the colors of the prayer flags wrapped around huge rocks.

Our baguettes eaten we left the tiki to the jungle’s green silence—big eyes and grey grin—to walk down toward where we had left the venerable Rover. Bly thought he had remembered where we should turn. He went to investigate. He returned triumphant. He hacked at the scrub when it made the path obscure, down hill and there, beside a dry stream-bed well, as dry as anything is here—was a great boulder green with moss. Lines were deeply incised into it.  What I could make out looked to me like three figures swimming. There were other things, other lines, but I could not make sense of them. Bly said there are legends about men with lizard tails. Maybe there were tails on these figures.

We walked back to the car, replacing the barbed wire and the fence, out of the green land of myth and legend.

As we drove and walked I asked him about tattoos. He told me that they have to do with identity and achievement. You start getting them when you are fifteen if you are a boy. They are symbolic, as for instance the turtle. But if you become skilled at something, as a fisherman, a hunter, a drum maker or warrior, that will be part of your tattoos. The idea of the warrior is strong here as strong as the memory of coming close to annihilation by massacre and disease.

My life sang inside me this day. Walking in the jungle, not really difficult, climbing up to the tiki’s terrace, a mild physical effort, being alone with a guide and what he had to show me that I don’t understand, that’s new intellectually, emotionally, an adventure beyond myself makes me joyous. To be confronted by the alien and then to have to find my way to its universal human center, that is the most fascinating maze in this world.

As we said goodbye at the Relais Moehau Bly said to me, “I am going there some day. To the mountain.” I don’t doubt it.

2019, BLOG XVI: The Marquesa Islands, Hiva Oa

I was at the airport by 6:30am, which was good because there was an enormous line. Just behind me was an American woman, her totally silent, happy husband playing with a spherical version of the Rubik’s Cube, and her two daughters. I am impressed by these men who stay out of the delusional force field around their wives, like the husband of the ray-hater on Mo’orea. She was consumed with worry about making their flight to Mo’orea. She almost rammed me with her cart several times in her eagerness to get to the check in counter. When she wondered if she was on the right line I suggested she ask. It turned out she was where she was supposed to be. But the flow of, “What will happen if we don’t make this flight?” “We might not get there today and they would cancel our reservations,” angst went on in its self-important delusional clamor. Her girls not yet in their teens began to worry. I said to them, “These people know what they are doing.  You will get to your flight.” They did.

We were an interesting mix—Europeans from expensive hotels wearing leis, Tahitians wearing scented flower crowns. One little girl was in a halo of red flowered spikes striking out from a green leafed circlet around her dark hair.

It was a three-hour and a bit flight over the Pacific. The Atlantic is sizable  the Pacific is enormous and very, very different. An hour out of Pape’ete I looked down with wonderment on an almost rectangular space of reef, atolls dotting its serene center. I saw clutches of houses at wide points of the reef. I didn’t see a runway. Were these people only approachable by ship? What do they do for water? Are they dependent on rain? This must be one of those places I have read about that will be destroyed by submersion with climate change. It struck me that this was as remote, as dangerous, a location as a mountain village in the Himalayas.

I learned this is Rangiroa, a reef with uninhabited atolls, its 2,000 to 2,500 people dependent on rain and desalinization. There is a runway. Rangiroa means Cloud in the Sky. Just the right name, isn’t it.

When I deplaned at the airport in Hiva Oa no one met me. Flocks of people were herded to a van by a French hotel owner. Wistfully I approached and asked if anyone was there from the Relais Moehau. He called them, saying, “No one is left at the airport.” They said they were on their way, which I doubted, but a woman came and put me into the cab and my bags into the rear of a flatbed truck.

I left my bags in my Spartan, clean room with windows on two sides to go to an excellent lunch of salad with cheese and a shrimp curry that was perfection. After a post flight nap I went into the tiny town of Atuona to investigate supermarkets selling everything from yogurt to brake fluid.

I came to a little woven bamboo house labeled TOURIST INFORMATION and entered. A comfortable looking woman, dark hair pulled into a loose bun, flower behind her ear discussed with me archeological sites and options. She said the petroglyphs were hard to get to. This isn’t really true. The cost of a driver to just one site was posted as 250US. I gulped. She suggested joining another hotel group. Then she remembered a guide was taking a group the next day. She called Robert, whose local name is Pifa. He must have been curious because he came down to the little tourist house.

By the time he arrived I had bought a shell bracelet and a bottle of Monoi Kekaa oil my landlady on Mo’orea had recommended as body oil.

Pifa is a strapping man of 40, large in the way the islanders often are, but also tall, with a face not of this island, but of Ireland. He speaks English with an American accent.

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In minutes I was on a tour for the next day with nine others to several archeological sites. Monday was also scheduled. I would go with his sister to see one of the petroglyphs.

Back at the hotel George, the owner, French married to Marie-Joseph who is local, told me of a dance that night. I went into town, hung out until after six but nothing was happening so I went home to bed. After nine I heard drums, exciting. But I slept and woke through them. What I missed was a regional contest of male dancers. I was sorry but I could not have stayed up until one am watching them and gone out to see tikis the next day. I had to give up something.

The only bad thing all day was I left my address book, my entire international social life, on the airplane. George called the airline, listened to my explanation in a French, as lumpy as my mother’s oatmeal, of the book’s appearance, and translated it into a French of béchamel smoothness.

I woke to a grey haze of rain and breakfasted on pomello, papaya, banana, and a baguette slathered with, what I thought, due to its color, was strawberry compote, mango juice and good coffee. I discovered the compote, made by George, is bananas marinated in vanilla and sugar. The vanilla, for which Tahiti is famous, turns them a pinkish red.

At 8:30 Pifa showed with two cars and a red truck. Everyone was, of course, French speaking except me and an Australian, young, with blond streaked hair, who had been traveling around the world by boat, which they, she and her boyfriend, had picked up in South Africa. They traveled on to Namibia, which she recommended, journeying in stages to Tahiti.

In Pape’ete, a predatory woman slipped him out from under her. He moved the new woman on the boat and she left. This had happened a week before; understandably she was talking about it to try to figure out what to do next. As we drove from site to site that day she decided to at least delay her return to Sydney and hopefully cancel it. She had friends in Polynesia and New Zealand who were putting their hands out. I thought she would recover more quickly, with a stronger sense of self, if she continued to travel on her own.

With us in the car was an English speaking French woman, also young, very thin, who had been here for a few years working, indeed, on Rangiroa. She had loved it. She was flatly demanding and usually got what she demanded, although she did not get liked.

In the red truck, were local people who wanted to hear about their own culture. Spending time in Hiva Oa I became aware of three qualities of the people. First, they have something that has almost disappeared from the face of the earth, community. They help each other. They don’t wait or ask. They give what is needed. The second, which may have initiated the first, is a powerful awareness of having almost been eradicated. Between Spanish massacres, disease from sailors of all nations, alcoholism, massacres by various passing European powers, there were 2,096 Marquesans left in 1926. They have survived near annihilation with a vigorous sense of identity and vehement attachment to their islands. The third, apparent throughout what I saw of French Polynesia, is a defensiveness resulting, perhaps, from the assault upon their collective psyche by French colonialism. All, colonial powers—French, English, American—tell the subject population they are inferior; the only people who know how to do things, are the colonizers.

I think I witnessed this when the postcard seller in Pape’ete market said to me, “You are not in charge, Madame.”

Pifa guided the French. The Australian, the French and I were guided by Jonathan who had good English but was angry, angry with the French specifically. He was not as adept at stories as Pifa, a real Irish taleteller with a flare for the emotional context of a narrative.

Jonathan told the Marquesan creation story, which to his disappointment I knew. Two gods flew about the South Pacific enjoying sea and fish. One day the female god said, “I’m tired of drifting. I want to belong some place.” They created the Marquesas. As they were a home, each island is named for a part of a house. Hiva Oa means long ridgepole.

Three volcanoes formed the island. We could see the remains of the calderas, the youngest dead volcanoes on the earth. With no reef, Hiva Oa is exposed to the sea’s unimpeded force against the vertical walls of its volcanoes.

Jonathan told another story which I could not follow at all, about a pig.  When I was out with Pifa another day I asked him to tell me this pig story that is, I think, an explanation of how a particular chant came into existence. Later for that.

I am fascinated by Pifa’s great grandfather who came to Hiva Oa in the late 19th century from Ireland during the potato famine. Was he a sailor? Is that how he got to Polynesia? Was he just a man of exceptional imagination? He seems to have been on his own. Ninety-nine and nine tenths of those leaving Ireland headed for the US. Why did this man go in the other direction? He married a local woman, over years acquired land on which he planted a copra plantation and, in the mountains, more to graze sheep, cows and horses.

Circling the island we saw the family plantation covering both sides of a valley with coconut palms, the house snug in the bottom of the valley near the sea, a huge place.

Red chickens, more roosters it seemed than hens, scattered before our wheels. Hiva Oa chickens fly. I grew up with chickens. None of ours could get above four feet and couldn’t stay at that height for over two. Here I saw a rooster in panic rise to eight feet and flap for twenty. Amazing if you are used to flightless chickens. There are wild goats, which is not good. We saw many. Jonathan said there were wild sheep too, although we saw none. There are occasional steers and cows. Frequently horses were tethered near the road.

A billionaire bought a large tract on the island. He died but his son comes. He has hired a Marquesan couple whose silence and secrecy he has bought. No one knows what he looks like. Anyone approaching his property is shot at.

Invasive species, mostly mynahs and little mourning doves have reduced the local bird population but the monarchs, who come in different colors on different islands, are increasing. There is also a small, indigenous bird that can be seen in gregarious flocks in trees near the road.

We had lunch at a seaside place that was okay. Having had poisson cru en lait de coco, I tried the Chinese spiced poisson cru. Okay, but I prefer the coconut.

In the restaurant, gathered around a table, was a group of teenaged boys, a bit glassy eyed but elated and bonded to each other. Outside under a tarpaulin roof was a group of older men, glassy eyed, but from what they’d been drinking. Jonathan said the first group was the young men who had won the dance competition I’d missed the night before in Atuona. They hadn’t been to bed yet, explaining both elation and glassiness. The men outside were their fathers who had tutored them; it was their triumph too.

Each group celebrated, not together as fathers and sons but separately: adults—children. It thought this meant the hierarchy of age was more important than the father-son relationship, emphasizing the exclusivity of the elder. I did not have a sense of the bond between father and son but of the bonding of the young group among themselves and of the elders in their unity.

We walked on the volcanic, black sand beach, waded in the water and watched white, coral sand drift its pale veil over the black to be pulled away by the withdrawing sea. Not having walked in the sea for years I had forgotten that sensation as the sea pulls sand from under my feet, lovely to relive that sensual memory.

A plastic bag tumbled in the breakers; Jonathan fished it out; a woman from the restaurant watched with astonished eyes.

Jonathan, who had a triangular scar on his hand from a childhood lobster bite, told us there are lobsters here. Lobster traps, considered unfair, are unlawful. You catch your lobster by hand, grabbing it behind the head so it cannot reach you with its claws.

At lunch the Australian and I discussed the under-table no-seeums that where troubling us as we ate. Australians call them midges. She told me, I had forgotten, they are not biting but, as she demurely put it, “weeing” on you. If you scratch the “wee” gets under your skin, exacerbating the itch. If you don’t, the itch stops. However, this leaves the question of what benefit do they get out of “weeing” on you.

We went to two archeological sites. Our first was, Lipona, a series of platforms climbing the hill—for ordinary people, for the elite, and for the chief, not large. They were places of assembly. The village would have been around the platforms built from bamboo and leaves, presumably.

There were a number of tikis, one large, missing his penis, with his arm repaired. It broke when he was moved. He is large, forceful, carved from red stone that was covered with moss until recently—pretty but not good for preservation. I could not connect with him. He was just a hunk of stone to me as were two tiki heads in grey stone with huge eyes, reminding me of microscope pictures I have seen of flies eyes. Inexplicably, and there’s a lot that’s inexplicable in this site, there is a human sized statue that stood above the chief’s platform. There is no explanation for this breach of hierarchy. Another statue, also in red stone, is of a man without legs. No explanation. There is a woman tiki in grey stone lying on her stomach, arms extended, teeth either grit or in a wide grin. Experts think she is giving birth. I doubt this, not lying on your stomach. But what is she doing? At this site and others are large flat stones, cupules, with shallow bowls scooped out of them to mix herbs for medicines. Another female figure is traditionally called Fau Poe, Takau’s wife. No other information was given to me.

The smoke from the fire on the chief’s platform was used to prophesy. Besides this a slab of standing stone, perhaps five feet high, was the chief’s mirror. He looked in this mirror each morning to see what the day would bring. Jonathan was eloquent about how people would have dreaded the chief’s visions, expressing powerfully the fear of a leader whose actions could be directed by incomprehensible forces.

The site was sacred, imbued with mana, power, where rituals, including human sacrifice took place. There was also some cannibalism. Since you acquired the mana of the person you ate, a high-ranking person was in more danger than a lower person. This reminded me of the discovery that earthworms when fed fellow earthworms that had mastered certain mazes learned more quickly how to do those mazes.

Tikis are the incarnations of important people or deified ancestors. I found most of this confusing and alien. I was not taken with the tikis, except for the legless man who touched me. It is difficult to find your way into art unconnected to your tradition. But I was unhappy in my lack of rapport.

Driving to the next location, another tiki, we passed a horse tethered by the road. Jonathan told us when boys want horses their fathers get together to take them to the area in the center of the island where there are wild horses. The boys climb into trees with lassoes. The fathers drive the horses under the trees for the boys to lasso them. They are brought home, not easily I imagine. A horse is broken by driving it into the sea, slowing its movements so it is more easily mounted. Once you are able to ride it, it is your horse.

We pulled off the road at a dirt track with barbed wire across stakes barring the way. Pifa lifted a stake ushering us through. The dirt road was muddy, slippery, covered with dead leaves. There was scrubby jungle on both sides of the road. Pifa had us taste a plant with small blue flowers on an arched stem. Supposedly it tastes like mushrooms. I didn’t think so. We turned off the road onto a steep, muddy path through jungle; the light was green, shifting as leaves overhead moved in a desultory breeze. I was concentrating on my feet so I did not glimpse him, if he is a he, there is some question about this, until we were on top of him.

On his platform, he is small, mossy, columned by tree trunks, arched by branches, corbeled by leaves in the subaqueous light of his cathedral. He may be enshrined in the jungle but there is nothing solemn about him. He grins jauntily out from his sanctuary in what appear to be aviator glasses, delighted to make your acquaintance. He enchants partly because you feel you discovered him on your own, because he isn’t cleaned up, but mostly I suspect because he is happy.



NB: A friend thought that the cats in the previous blog were going hungry. They were well fed by the owners of the Fare Tokoau; both slept in their bed at night. The Multi-colored Miss lost her mother as a kitten and had to be bottle fed by them, resulting in a food neurosis, a problem not unusual among mammals.

Rising in my airless room at the Fare Hau. I went out to look at the view of Mo’orea regretting that I wasn’t there. Out the kitchen window I saw someone had hung leis of flowers on the bushes by the side of the drive and couldn’t imagine why. I decided it must be something my landlady had done.

But it turned out the leis belonged to a family—mother, rather European looking, father handsome Tahitian, a boy of fourteen and a girl of twelve, both wearing glasses. They had hung them there over night to preserve them rather than bringing them into the house. The leis had a significance, but what I’ve no idea, because the parents took pictures of the children in their leis. I ran into them with their backpacks in the market, later in the afternoon. I thought myself stupid, and insensitive because I suggested the restaurant upstairs to them. I thought these were people who could not afford that. However, when I ran into them some weeks later they no longer looked like backpackers but very middle class tourists. However, it seemed to me that the children were being led by their father through some rite of passage on this backpacking trip.

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That morning waiting for the bus, I had no difficulty walking down to the stop, I was joined by an elderly, toothless Chinese man who stood with his mouth agape. He talked to me, in French, while touching my arm, my shoulder, my back, as I moved away from him but not far because I was trying to keep my feet in his shadow so they wouldn’t get sunburned. We kept performing this dance—he trying to touch some part of me, me trying to judge the distance of his arm reach while keeping my feet in his shadow—until the bus arrived, quite full. It was a funny, ludicrous dance.

Getting off the bus I walked to the post office. It was closed. No one had an explanation as to why; no one knew when it would open. It was only later that someone told me, “They are on strike.” Of course, this is FRENCH Polynesia.

Every nation has its indigenous curse–the English their cast system, the Americans bizarre religions, the French strikes.

I went to talk to a woman in a shop I had made friends with about tourist things, which she didn’t know of course.  She sensibly steered me to the Tourist Information office.

But she also told me the story of how she came to Tahiti. Although French she had lived in New York City for many years working with jazz musicians and in the jazz world. Friends had been asking her to visit them in Tahiti but she didn’t come until a potential job in Dakar with a jazz festival did not materialize; she decided it would be rude to keep putting off her Tahitian friends. She came out, this is forty years ago–no electricity, no cars—and in two week, in her words, “I had a job, an apartment and a boy friend.” The boy friend is no surprise as this is a sparkling, attractive woman.

I found a substitute bathing suit in the form of garish shorts with matching shirt. My thought was that if I wore these into the sea a couple of times they would fade. I also found Pape’ete’s premier chocolate shop but managed not to buy.

I ate in the upstairs restaurant in the market, the Cafe Maeva, raw fish in a mango sauce that was a revelation. There was a further sauce that was piquant besides a salad dressing with curry in it. All of this made me happy. I had a praline pastry that looked like a hotdog and was superb.

I bought stamps from a tourist shop upstairs that displayed a most extraordinary object–an open bowl made of pieces of nacre carved into fish shapes and somehow connected. With a light inside and hung from a ceiling, the room’s walls would swim with fish. It was, thank heaven, not for sale.

Down the street at the tourism office I made a date for another dolphin watch with a young man, not entirely bright, but very sweet through whom I discovered that if I want to see The Diadem in the center of Tahiti I am going to do it by helicopter since there is no four-wheel drive trip there and the hike is eight hours in each direction.

I started walking toward the airport through the garden bordering the sea on Boulevard Pomare, asking people about the bus. No one knew and the police didn’t speak any English. At last a woman told me that the bus was running on the street two back from the sea from Boulevard Pomare. I walked back and another woman, in front of her shop, told me to wait there for the bus. I did, paid my 200, got off at the right stop, slogged up hill past the airport motel but somewhere after that I took a wrong turn and was lost.

I approached an elderly man and woman at the gate of their house and said “Fare Hau?”  She, under her bird’s nest of white hair, became immediately frightened and, if she had been alone, would have closed the gate on me. Instead she stood inside. Neither of them had heard of my guesthouse.

I went waved at a car to stop. I showed the young man at the wheel the Fare Hau card; he drove to his apartment, a short way, to get his phone, and called them. I saw as we drove how I had gone wrong. I was extremely grateful to the young man for saving me and also for speaking English. He confessed he too had no sense of direction.

Maman at the Fare Hau was all in a dither and wanted Rani to drive me to town the next day. I pointed out I had no difficulty going down. Coming back was the problem. However, as I had cancelled my dolphin trip, Rani drove me to town in the morning.

Maman is a bit of a nut. She would have me writing in the dark, she is so obsessed about turning off lights. Since I complained about the temperature of the water in the shower, I have had much hotter water. She is fixated on money, although for all I know they might be over their heads in debt. But it was annoying to be driven since it meant I didn’t get to walk as much as I wanted.

A friend in Flagstaff emailed me about murals in Pape’ete, spray-painted street art. I saw these as I walked around town, more and more of them. Most are interesting, although some are abstract, geometrical things. In 2018 they had a contest for spray painted murals; artists from all over the world came. Some are moving. Some are subtle protest art.

A little girl, wrapped in a red and white patterned pareu, lies in fetal position, on a pareu of the same design, her long, black hair streaming out behind her. If you look closely at the patterns on her pareu and the one that is a backdrop you see the symbol for radiation and an atomic cloud.

I went into the cathedral without expectations but was surprised by the stained glass windows. At the back is a large, complex abstract window in blue and red. A small arched window above the altar, in jewel hues, of the Madonna and Child is obviously European. I was and am puzzled, because it did not strike me as being French. The Child is represented as a little king with an elaborate crown. I associate this with Czech or Polish iconography. The other windows, however, are local, some to my eye quite idiosyncratic. Doubting Thomas is shown with his head almost completely upside down, a symbol of wrong thinking? There are drums, a guitar, a man blowing a conch. A woman in a rich blue and white pareu, long black hair over one shoulder, kneels in prayer. But my favorite is a small figure of St. Joseph planning a board while about his bent figure dance curls of wood.

Intimidated by Maman I took a taxi home. When we approached the car I asked the young driver if he could do it for 20 rather than 25. He smiled and said, “I would get in trouble with my boss.” He was right.  I know her. She has driven me and has a grim mouth.

He and I talked about the cost of living in places around the world. He wanted to know if prices were as high as they are here. I pointed out that Tahiti is an island and everything has to be brought in from a long way away. He hadn’t thought about that. I also pointed out that people want things. When Tahiti had no electricity, no phones, no cars, no TV it was probably cheaper to live. We talked about Barcelona. I don’t think he had any idea where it is. Finally he asked, “Do they have good sunsets there?”

He won my heart. How superb to come from a culture where the sunset is of such importance that you would not move away from it for economic reasons.

I washed, ironed and packed the next day, preparing to leave for the Marquesa Islands. During the afternoon we had a sudden storm, the rain coming straight down for five minutes in shinning tinsel strands. Then it stopped.

Late in the evening three Canadians arrived. I talked to the young woman, glimpsed the man but never saw his daughter. The woman, however, was a treat and confirmed all my prejudices about Canadians. They had started some months ago in South Africa and had moved about a number of countries there.  She recommended Botswana. She works by computer contacts, which gives her mobility but also means she has to be up at four am. It is always a joy to meet a real traveler. She is one.