I anxiously awoke at four in the morning and checked the clock in my Tahiti guesthouse. Was it time to get up yet? Was I late?
I had so many things to do before getting on the Aranui 3 freighter for the two-week journey around the Marquesas Islands.
No, I wasn't late. I was early. But then, I reasoned, I might as well get up. I had a long list of outstanding items to finish up during my last few hours of Internet access. And anyway, who can sleep when they're worried about spending two weeks in a dorm on a ship, with no private refuge, with shared showers and toilets?
I’d finished up some virtual errands yesterday, and now I paid for more phone credit, some French Polynesian wifi credit, and extra SMS-to-email credits. I figured I'd have more chances to use my phone than my computer over the next two weeks. My Kuwaiti comic book job would have to wait – I wasn't getting it done in the next three hours.
After the sun rose, I carried my luggage upstairs to the reception area of Papeete's Fare Suisse lodge in stages. First, the bag that was going into storage. Second, my backpack, streamlined and slimmed down to fit in the luggage locker in the ship's dorms. Third, my breakfast to make in the kitchen and my daypack.
Upstairs, I got my first look at some of my fellow Aranui passengers. I wasn't sure what to make of them.
A stocky older woman with white hair and a Polynesian tattoo across her calf spoke to me.
"You know, I saw you on Rapa Nui," continued the woman.
"Yes, you were walking down the street."
She then proceeded to tell me about how I'd really messed up by missing all the best restaurants on Rapa Nui.
"Yeah, what do I know?”
I wasn't off to the best start in the playing-well-with-others department, but I really didn’t know how to respond to that. She looked a little confused as I headed back into the kitchen to sort out my breakfast dishes.
"Beni," I said as I piled my backpack into the guesthouse owner’s little car for the lift to the freighter port, "is this going to suck?"
"No... no. It will be great,” he said, looking at me with surprise. “Anyway,” he added mischievously, “you can't get out of it now."
Oh no, I thought. It does suck and he doesn’t want to tell me.
But then, he dropped me off at the ship, and I felt a thrill as I climbed the narrow stairs to board. I was back on a freighter! I’d been on several of these on my first trip around the world, when I’d tried to go a year without flying in 2001. But then I’d had my own cabin, and sometimes been the sole passenger.
A ship employee led me to a top bunk in a dark ten-bed dorm (the other dorm has eight berths), which was cosy. Meaning small. I opened up my locker – uh-oh, the latch didn't stick – and then closed it to let a French woman by as she headed from the toilets to her own locker. I turned around to open the drawer under the bunks and then closed it as a French doctor who lives in Moorea ducked by to pick up his socks.
"Mmmm," I said again. I'm notoriously bad at sharing space after having lived alone for umpteen years, aside from a few years of nesting, once with my Aussie ex and once in Uganda with the German development worker I’d met in Sudan.
The ship's whistle emitted seven short bursts followed by one long, and we all grabbed our life jackets and headed up to the pool deck muster point for our "abandon ship" drill.
"Can you hack it?," I asked myself.
I didn't know the answer to that.
A few hours later, I headed to the bar with the ship’s electrician, or passenger liaison, or whatever he was. The man who seemed to be in a position of authority. He had been pals with a friend of mine who had travelled on the ship recently as a reporter for TravelGirl magazine in the US. He knew I was a writer.
"Yoyo," said the man-of-authority to the bartender. "Her drinks are on the house."
I could get used to this, I thought, sipping my mango juice that chased the Nespresso coffee. I'm not a fan of instant, even gourmet instant, but it beat the free stuff in the lounge, and I'm a fan of "on the house."
The man in authority, or chef, had sat down at my table at lunch.
"Something, something, chef, something," said the server who placed the chef at the centre of our table.
"Chef," I thought. "Maybe I can tell him I'm allergic to seafood." But of course he wasn't the chef, he was the chief of something – though I wasn’t sure exactly what. This was all done in French, so I had to catch on that chef didn't mean head cook before I realised someone important had taken me to Yoyo's bar and given me free coffee and juice.
The “chef” was Romanian by birth but fluent in English and French as well as Romanian. I started to suspect he was more the ship's mascot than anything else.
A local kid ran into a bar with his friend, and Yoyo instructed the kid to go fetch him some drinking water for the coffee machine. The kid and his friend diligently ran off.
"This is home for everyone," explained the man in authority. "I am godfather to this boy, and his mother works on the Aranui also."
The ship's crew works two weeks on, one week off, so they are at sea more often than they are at home. The kids trotted back with the drinking water and then were sent off to get more. Kids are welcome on-board during holidays when they aren't at school.
I liked this, that the ship was a family endeavour.
"And Yoyo, he is never in his shirt after we leave the port."
That was true. Yoyo was stripped down to just his red-and-white floral-print Polynesian wrap around the waist.
"And that's our owner there," said the man in authority, pointing to a Chinese-American from California. "The owners work also, they come on-board and make sure everything is going smoothly. When it goes smoothly, I know everyone is doing their job."
The Aranui was winning me over.
Later, I had dinner with three Americans, one from San Francisco, another from Dallas, and a third – who was an expert on tiki-pop-culture – from Washington DC. We sat at the table near the door and were served first this time, unlike lunch when I'd been at the last table and lunch had taken two hours.
I thought I'd work a bit in the lounge the first night, but getting up at 4am had taken its toll. I went back to the dorm, where I opened my locker, then had to close it to let a French woman by, then opened it again and managed to change clothes without being too vulgar in public. Half-naked French people were all around me. Like the movie Starship Troopers locker room scene but in French and without the giant bugs.
Precariously, I climbed the ladder into my tiny cubbyhole bunk. I carefully avoided the sprinkler directly over my head, and noted it was covered in cotton gauze. I obviously wasn’t the first one to spot the sprinkler head, though I was glad not to be the cause of it being covered.
No one was out late – this had been a long day. Ten passengers fell asleep as one.
And no one snored.
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