02 December 2015

Changes

"As you grow old, you learn more. If you stayed at 22, you'd always be as ignorant as you were at 22.  Aging is not decay, you know. It's growth.  It's more than the negative that you're going to die. It's also the positive that you understand you're going to die and that you live a better life because of it."
-- Mitch Albom [Tuesdays With Morrie]


Panting after walking up a flight of stairs; hangovers that leave you debilitated all day; wrinkles and gray hairs sprouting overnight... when did this happen?  We are all aware that we're aging, but then something that used to be so simple -- like staying up until 03:00 -- occurs & we feel 100 years old.  Typically followed by the abhorrence: my God, I can't believe how terrible I feel.  Next, the little white lie that runs through our mind: "Geez, I've got to do something about this!" knowing full well we won't follow through.

Now that I have been traveling internationally for a decade, the benefits of being older and going abroad are stacking up.  As I grow older I know: 


* IT'S CHARMING TO LOOK BEAUTIFUL, BUT IT'S BETTER TO FEEL COMFORTABLE.

I gave up dressing up for dates a long time ago.  Potential suitors are lucky if I wear shoes other than flip flops.  For a second, I envied that woman in the security line at SYD: hair straightened, smelling sexy, boots with fierce heels, eyelashes elongated by mascara. Did I want the entire, muscular, tan, professional Tongan rugby team to see me oily, in nappy socks, wearing crooked glasses & yoga pants on the airplane? Absolutely not, but that's precisely what happened when the beverage cart trapped me in the back of the cabin for 20 minutes.  Then again, I also did not want to endure a 14-hour flight (from Fiji to the United States of America) with jeans digging into my hips and shoes cutting off circulation.
There's a reason so many mothers are accused of living in yoga pants.  It's not that women don't care how they are viewed; on the contrary, we don't care how we are viewed by complete strangers who know nothing of our personality.  At the end of the day, we understand that the people who matter most don't care what clothes we're sporting.


* YOU MISS OUT ON A LOT, ALWAYS TAKING PHOTOS + VIDEOS

It seems contradictory.  How could you miss anything when you constantly clicked the shutter? On my Arctic adventure, I learned with the polar bears, that the rapid sequential frames didn't differ that greatly.  Furthermore, I felt like an outsider when I was snapping scenes.  It was the work of a martyr.  In order to get the best photo, you often didn't get the same experience as the other bystanders, nor were you ever in the photo.

My first day in Monkey Mia, Western Australia, I played tourist, capturing photographs left & right.  Days 2-6 were the complete opposite, as I stepped into the volunteer role & was charged with choosing a tourist -- out of the hundreds that lined the beach -- to feed a dolphin.  I always tried to pick at least one person obscured by a bulky camera. That person never raised a hand to be chosen nor looked at me with hopeful eyes. No, instead this person remained steadfast to the subject: the dolphins.  However, I selected a gentleman on shore to feed a fish to Puck but he was so engrossed with taking pictures of another irrabuga a.k.a. dolphin he didn't hear me. Stop looking through that eyepiece or at the screen.  It's easy to become so absorbed in the analysis of the perfect photograph: lighting, angle, subject, composition.  In turn you miss out on everything else that's happening simultaneously in the panorama so the picture feels emotionally disconnected from the moment.  Essentially, you are missing out on the tiny snippets that comprise your life!



* MONEY IS WORTH SO MUCH MORE THAN MONEY.

With 2 days left in my trip -- 48 already behind me -- my wad of Fijian dollars was thinning.  Mom & I had two days in Nadi (pronounced "nann-dee") with nothing planned.  Surfing had long been at the apex of my Must Do list, yet I had never been able to cross it off.  I was in Fiji one of the surf capitals of the world.  However, now that the decision was laid in front of me, I was scared to commit. I had been wanting to try surfing for so long & built the hobby up in my head so much, what if I was an obvious failure ten minutes into the lesson?

To make matters worse, the greedy Fiji Surf Company charged $110 FJD for an observer to simply ride in the car with the group & sit on the beach.  Though my mom wanted to see the omnipotent Pacific Ocean one last time before we returned to Ohio's cornfields, the price was exorbitant.

Mom & I let the idea of surfing at Natadola Beach stew one more night. I reviewed my past.  In 2012 -- without a mobile or internet -- I tried my best to find a surf shop in Puerto Rico, but the address in the guidebook proved inaccurate.  In 2009, I gallivanted around Brisbane, [Australia] famous for its swells, but I just wasn't compelled to pull the trigger.  Now 2015, I was old enough to comprehend the finiteness of life. I outgrew my teenage mind frame of being invincible. I realized I might never again be fit enough to try surfing.  I evolved from my 20s outlook of "I'll do   [insert activity]    the next time I have money" or "I can always try _______ later. It will still be there." Because I had no idea where nor when my next vacation would occur, I consciously chose to try surfing in Fiji.

After I hung up the phone, I felt a great burden lifted off my mind.  The hard part was over. The decision was made & the excursion confirmed, so now I just had to roll out of bed at 05:00, but what about Mom and the $110 FJD? $110 FJD could buy a lot in this country where tourism ruled.  However, that cash equated to a day spent with my mother; our last full day abroad in fact.  It meant she did not have to wait alone or bored in the hotel room.  Plus, deep down I believe she wanted to tag along to witness how I would fare against the roaring waves since she has always referred to me as her "water baby".
Morbidly, I thought if our airplane back to the U.S.A. went down amidst the vast Pacific Ocean, I would want my mother to know how much I loved her and the trips we embarked on together.  Diving toward a watery death below, I would feel comforted knowing that we pursued our dreams.  I still am so grateful for those last 24 hours together because she was my biggest fan & erupted into cheers when I finally rode a wave all the way to shore.
What is money when you can share an experience of that magnitude with your best friend?


* IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE IN PHOTOS

"Oh God, I look so fat!"
"I'm making a funny face, delete that."
"Ewwww."

All phrases I have uttered in regard to holiday a.k.a. vacation photos.  Over my dead body were any of those getting posted on Facebook!  I could find a flaw with myself in almost any picture.

Then, one photo jumped out at me.

Of course I looked plump in that swimsuit at Takalana Bay, but I had been feasting on the local food: Taro (prepared every way), Cassava, "Pancakes" a.k.a. deep fried patties of dough, Eggplant, Pineapple, any type of meat in Lolo a.k.a. Coconut Milk & moist homemade muffins!  Although I looked heavy-set, everyone else in the scene looked great -- no, looked happy -- and I remember in that moment I was too.  That's why my mouth is in that goofy position & my eyes are wonky.  Because I am mid-laugh.  It brings a smile to my face every time I review that photo, more so than any of my pictures where everybody is directly facing the camera and statuesquely posed, with a not-too-much-teeth-but-not-too-much-cheek smile plastered on their face.


* THE BEST VACATION ISN'T A PLACE, BUT A TIME, WHERE YOU CAN LOSE YOURSELF

I loathe being the center of attention. My Filipino cousins, aunts, uncles & dad karaoke from sun up to sun down.  Me?  I hate to even hear my own voice on the answering machine.  I can count on one hand the number of times I have danced at a bar or club.  I feel much more comfortable out of the spotlight, especially in new social settings, & my mother is the same way.

That's why Nacula, Fiji, was such a shocking transformation.  Never in a million years would I have guessed my mother would be shaking her butt like a jive turkey in front of twenty people;  never would I have acted like a total goofball by impersonating a maqe a.k.a. monkey.  However, the crew at Oarsmans' Lodge has that affect on people.  Of course there was the daily ebb & flow of visitors from the mainland, but our group was tight knit.  18 of us were ferried to Oarsmans, bunked, and dined together three times a day.  Although we could choose our individual excursions, everyone chose the same two (snorkeling in the world-famous Blue Lagoon & traveling to the underwater caves of Sawa-i-Lau).
The first night on Nacula, the whole gang participated in the traditional yaqona ceremony, even though I heard my mom swear she didn't want to taste "that stuff."  Yet, we let the culture envelope us and chatted with the locals past midnight.  Soon after, we had learned each other's names and a few of the girls saved me from being left behind in the dark waters running through Sawa-i-Lau.  We were a genuine family of transients.  Our last night at Oarsmans, the marama a.k.a. head hostess pulled out all the stops and put on a Fijian jamboree.

After the marama, Oni, taught us a popular Fijian song, the malarkey ensued.  We, tourists & the staff sat in a circle and sang a tune along the premises of Old McDonald's Farm.  The first few singers portrayed typical farm critters which were easy to mimic.  On Nacula -- the last stop for travelers up the Yasawa chain & an eight hour boat ride from Viti Levu -- we had to make our own fun.  Full from another divine meal and comfortable with this hodgepodge of people from various countries, I wanted to liven up the evening, so I chose a monkey.  Oni chortled and commented that no one had ever chosen that animal before.  Towards the end, the fauna became more and more creative: an elemante a.k.a. elephant (chosen by my mother), an emu and a shark!  Acting like an absolute idiot meant the entire crowd burst into riotous laughter.  I loved seeing the Oarsmans staff double over in explosive amusement or dab their watering eyes.  The video still causes me to laugh aloud as I watch everyone's body convulse from the hilarity of the awful animal impersonations.




* HOW TO PRIORITIZE.

The first time I visited Puerto Rico I was 23 years old.  There were 5 of us, but within the group I only knew my ex-boyfriend. The robust pilot who snagged us the complimentary tickets from Miami to SJU showed us all of San Juan's hot spots: La Plazita on the weekend, a beachfront bar in Santurce and a rooftop club.  It was a long weekend filled with more mixed drinks than sleep & it took its toll on my body.  Since I did not eat the night we arrived & started boozing immediately the next day, I was a mess. The only thing I ate during those three days was a single grilled cheese sandwich because my stomach was so upset.  This lead to me getting progressively more drunk each night my clan went out partying.
Now 32, not only does my trip to Puerto Rico sound awful, but also downright senseless.  I didn't need to approach South America to act like a heathen with strangers, nor did I need to spend all my cash for that.  Don't get me wrong, I do not regret the holiday in any way, but now when I go somewhere I want to go for the architecture, scenery, wildlife, and cultural experience. The uniqueness of it all. If you remember, that's why I returned to Puerto Rico at 28 to redo the experience correctly & travel to the sites that exist nowhere else in the world (like the planet's brightest bioluminescent bay)!

To the horror of a lot of fellow travelers I've met in the past 10 years, I rarely drink [alcohol].  I just cannot afford nor justify losing one precious day because I'm not feeling well.  Not to mention, I don't exactly possess the best health.

So when a few shipmates invited Sophie (one of the vollies) & myself to a beach bonfire, we politely declined.  Secretly, I was relieved that Sophie shared my same view on the matter of getting hammered into the wee hours.  Would it have been a blast?  No doubt.  Would I have persisted through the next day volunteering at Monkey Mia?  Probably.  However, I vowed to the ladies -- Nicky, Puck, Shock, but mostly Surprise & Piccolo -- that I would arrive at sunrise to defrost their Yellowtail & that was practically a sacred arrangement.  I needed to keep it.  My experiences with the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins were certainly more important and fulfilling  than the company of guys or imbibing.


* THE IMPORTANCE OF SIMPLE PLEASURES.

The first full day in the northeast of Viti Levu a.k.a. many [sticks] to break, Fiji's main & largest island, left Mom & me exhausted.  The humidity and heat were arduous to adjust to.  Clothes that were wet never dried, and dry clothes became saturated from the moisture in the air.  Basically, we were always sticky.

To thwart the midday heat, an Australian family from Suva (pronounced "Soo-vuh") and the two of us hiked to a local watering hole not far from Takalana Bay.  Peeta, a quiet, older man with deep lateral lines in his forehead, guided us.  Jojo -- an adorable boy with unruly hair -- and Racule -- a lanky teenager -- tagged along for the trek inland.

Given the environment & physical exertion, every one of us poured sweat and was relieved to have finally arrived at the watering hole. Truthfully, my mother's face was as red as the fruit punch I chugged.  Before embarking on the hike I had no plans of swimming. I merely wanted to explore nature, but now drenched and smelly, I could not wait to jump in.
While Jojo sat coyly on the fringe of the group, I unpacked my Sony Action Cam & secured it in the waterproof case.  Peeta & Racule (pronounced "Rah-thoo-leh") were intrigued with the small, white device in my hand.  Racule seemed especially riveted that something electronic was going to take the plunge with us.  The three of us stood atop the ledge and hurled ourselves away from the rock wall.  Despite the melee of body parts flailing through the air & the elbow I took to the head, emerging from the depths, stoic Peeta, Racule & I were beaming.
Cooled off & already wet I figured I might as well jump in again.  I waved for Racule to join me. Since his English was not-so-great & my Fijian even worse, I tried to convey that we should leap on the count of 3.  As Racule and I inched closer to the edge, he put his arm around my waist.  Briefly taken aback by his expressiveness, I reciprocated.  "Dua" a.k.a. one, "rua" a.k.a. two, "tolu" a.k.a. three and we splashed into the clear water again.  For the remainder of the outing, Racule and one of the Australian boys were hams for the Action Cam.
Hiking back to the lodge through the imposing jungle, Racule & I conversed with some difficulty.  When I asked if he had ever seen Fiji's only indigenous animal (a bat), he responded "io" a.k.a. yes.  In my curiosity, I pushed him for more details.  He told me it was blue!?  He also complimented me on my tattoos & pointed out the inconspicuous one on his hand by the base of his thumb.
Back at the lodge, everyone fawned over the videos from earlier and I asked Racule whether he had drank yaqona a.k.a. kava yet?  He giggled at the thought of doing something illegal and replied "sega" a.k.a. no, but listened to me retell my experience drinking it with great interest. Later, he asked my mother if she had a wife. This day would be my favorite of the trip to Fiji.

Throughout my time at Takalana Bay, Racule would pop in and be the smiling, chuckling adolescent lost in the fast-talking Westerners' conversations (Mom, two Australian brothers & myself).  Probably spurred by his boredom in this secluded region, he appeared to enjoy our company.  Despite the language barrier, the vibe between our gang was always inviting and convivial.  Nathan -- one of the Aussies -- was also a rock climber so we swapped stories.  Stafford -- the other Aussie -- liked to get into heavy philosophical and political debates with my mother. One night after dinner, Mom suggested we teach the three guys how to play the card game Go Fish.  It was quite a waggery when all our accents combined, but it helped Racule brush up on his English, we brushed up on our Fijian, and the brothers relived their childhood.

At a bonfire on our last night, Mom sketched a simple map of her city in Ohio and handed it to Racule.  It contained her contact information and directions to her house from the nearest airport. I wanted to make a contribution as well to this innocent, malleable teenager so -- after showing Racule how to spot counterfeit currency -- I bequeathed my American coins and dollars to inspire him to travel.  Souvenirs from a far, far away land.

My mother writes to Racule quarterly.  As a Christmas gift, she mailed him still-frames from the footage along with money.  Certainly my mom hopes to one day receive a letter from Racule, but she will continue to send her love out into the world, desiring nothing in return.  At Takalana Bay, Racule's grandmother had voiced that she was raising him since his father lived on another island and his mother wanted nothing to do with him.  Of the 7 billion people inhabiting the planet, in the corner of Viti Levu -- an island smaller than Connecticut -- 45 minutes down a muddy, rutted, dirt road, sleeping in a bure, is an adolescent, forgotten by his parents but adored by many others.  Although having money is one of the pinnacles of success no matter where you live, it does not mean humans have to place such a high value on it. The best investment anyone could make with his/her time & money is in a young man's future.

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