Tuesday, January 01, 2019

French Polynesia and some thoughts on travel

I capped off 2018 with a spontaneous solo trip to French Polynesia (which you may know as "Tahiti" or "the islands of Tahiti," though Tahiti is the name of one of many islands that make up the country). It's a land I first encountered in the pages of my high school AP Art History textbook and the paintings of French artist (and all-around sordid dude) Paul Gauguin.

Tahitian women on beach, 1891 - Paul Gauguin

Many friends know that I have a complicated relationship with traveling. I did a lot of it, especially as a kid, for speaking engagements at conferences. Airplanes to sleepless nights before speeches, spent in gleaming hotels. I used to love the hotels and remember the name of each one until there were too many and then I didn't anymore. They started to blend together: the same smell (Eau d'Generic Clean Room), the same sounds. Sometimes there'd be a woman's voice when I walked in the room. I'd realize it was the hotel channel on the TV. Have a pleasant stay, on an endless loop. I'd write my speech last-minute, fly out the next day, and try to get what I could out of the city I was in from the ride to the airport. A backseat window view of the world: that was how I saw Newport News, Green Bay, Wichita, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, and some other places I'd have to search in my Google Calendar to recall.

Given all that, maybe it didn't make sense that I decided I would go somewhere by myself for fun--I clearly didn't have the best track record. But travel is cast as introspection and self-discovery and liberation in so many narratives. Wild; Eat, Pray, Love; every Instagram post in a foreign destination by some well-traveled friend. Meanwhile, I religiously maintained a moratorium on going out of town during major holidays. Spending time at home seemed like peak relaxation. Seeing all these people who really liked to travel made me wonder if some mechanism in me was broken.

I reflected on this in fiction and poetry. In 2016, shortly after I got back from spending two months in India doing an internship in corporate social responsibility, I wrote a monologue for a "Creating Character Through Dialogue" workshop. It was from the point of view of a young Asian-American woman complaining about a travel companion named Elli. After a stream of invective, she says,
"OK, I know you think I’m overreacting, but there’s this part of me that just cringes every time she acts like THAT American. You know the type, right? Drinks PSLs, cheer in high school, hundreds of dollars in Lululemon apparel. They make up for their lack of personality with copious drugs and trips to poor-ass countries where they can take pictures of everything and rack up the social media likes while they marvel at how exotic and mystical everything is. Frankly, I can’t do that. I’ve read my Edward Said and the canon of thinkpieces about How to Not be a Basic Bitch in the Third World. But mostly I can’t be Elli because she actually…well, she actually likes to travel. She finds something genuinely magical—no matter how problematic the language she uses to describe it—about everywhere she goes. And like, I dunno, I kind of wish I had that. I don’t think I ever have. Growing up I joked about going to visit relatives in China the same way all our other Asian friends did. Going was not a treat. It was the sort of thing you were condemned to do until you went to college and got to decide where you went during your summers. We didn't get "exotic" and "mystical"; we got pollution, no Facebook or Wikipedia, taxi drivers filling their cars with cigarette smoke, endless diarrhea. Relatives complaining about corruption, how they’d have to pay bribes to get a doctor to do some uncle’s open-heart surgery."
No place is experienced in the same way by every person who visits. The subject position of the traveler--age, gender, class, race, nationality, linguistic ability, disability, sexual orientation, and much more--may all affect the experience, something I thought a great deal about in one of my favorite seminars in college. In "Travels to the Lands of the Indians," we read writing by visitors to South Asia (as well as Indians traveling abroad, as in the case of Amitav Ghosh's In An Antique Land). I remember European writers who marveled at flora and fauna and foreign peoples, writing with a sense of magisterial authority about things they had only just encountered. Those early Orientalists, trying to document, categorize, and catalogue everything they saw, put knowledge production in the service of empire.

The narratives that European armchair adventurers eagerly sought out had in common protagonists who were paragons of normative masculinity—strong, adventurous, and bulwarks of Empire. Men who could, in the Kipling vein, keep their heads, “meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.” These men gallivanted around the subcontinent getting into scrapes and emerging unharmed. It's harder to sell books where narrators speak from a place of permanent vulnerability, easier to promote male heroics and a promontory gaze that makes the narrator “the monarch-of-all-I-survey” (Mary Pratt in Imperial Eyes). Pratt goes on to write that many female travelers “do not spend a lot of time on promontories. Nor are they entitled to. The masculine heroic discourse of discovery is not readily available to women." Mrs. Meer Hassan Ali, writing about her time in India, begins her first letter with a disclaimer: “I must entreat your kind indulgence to the weaknesses of a female pen.”

When I've traveled alone, various people have inadvertently made me aware of "the weaknesses of a female pen." In Atlanta one night I ate at a hotel restaurant with my orange journal in my lap instead of my phone and the waiter said with a half-patronizing, half-pitying expression, glancing at the unused place setting opposite me, "Writing the next great American novel?" In other countries I have heard phrases like "be careful!" and "stay safe" and "don't go out after dark" more than any of my male compatriots, and I am sure that abiding by those well-meaning imperatives means that I am losing out on some stories to tell. The truth is that I don't, and probably never will, gallivant around continents veni, vidi, vici-ing; I am a little woman, no one's stock photo idea of what an American looks like, certainly not a Hemingway or a Gauguin. (Given the former's famous misogyny and the latter's penchant for marrying underage girls, I think that's a good thing; art be damned.)

All the same, traveling by myself helped me realize that I was stronger in ways I didn't know, that I could be really scrappy when I needed to be, and that things would work themselves out. My first day in the country I jumped off the plane and onto a ferry, walked about 15 miles on the island of Mo'orea in my sandals, accepted rides from kindly women who screeched to a halt by the side of the road when they saw me, and accidentally swam with stonefish (the beach had a sign with a warning, but I figured whatever stonefish were, they couldn't be too bad if local families were swimming with their kids. Then Google told me I could die if I stepped on one). Back on Tahiti I accepted a ride on the handlebars of someone's bike and then had to extricate myself from an extremely uncomfortable situation when he persistently hit on me. It was scary and I found myself wondering if this whole going-to-Tahiti-by-myself idea had been a bit stupid, but then I learned how to say "Je veux être seule," or "I want to be alone"; the next morning when he wheeled up beside me, I looked him in the eyes and said it out loud. 

I learned that traveling alone doesn't have to mean traveling lonely. I met two guys at my hostel who grilled up swordfish filets and made salad and lent me a biography (of Paul Gauguin, whose ghost really followed me around this whole trip) to read by the pool as the day grew dark. On my last day in French Polynesia I tagged along with two Nebraskans who let me join them in a rental car adventure around Tahiti Nui and Iti. We blasted Polynesian tunes from the radio of a jank little Fiat and shared taro chips and caramel M&Ms. We took a boat out into the Pacific and watched surfers catch waves, then watched the sunset from a black sand beach. 

Like the blind men with the elephant I piece together impressions of a place in fragments. Here are a few: people blasting music from boomboxes on the street and dancing by food trucks in downtown Pape'ete. A tour guide mentioning as we jounced along in his Jeep that the country had a high unemployment rate. Brightly painted murals on buildings in the capital, the gleaming windows of the National Assembly, pineapples looking prim and fully-formed sitting on their plants. My favorite image: seeing land crabs scuttling into their holes, the way moles do here. The sand coming alive with claws that disappeared in an instant, quick as a wink. These dueling twins of ripeness and rot--mangoes sunset orange and soft to the touch, little crabs' translucent shells smashed by the side of the road, verdancy spilling out over mountaintops, piers rusting into the ocean. 

As I was leaving Tahiti, I saw an exhibit of Polynesian art in the airport. I stopped to look. Under all but one of the approximately seven figurines displayed were notes like "Original at the British Museum" or "Original at Museé d'Orsay" or "Original in Wellington, NZ." It made me recall how I first saw French Polynesia through the paintings of Paul Gauguin, and how so often the first--sometimes only--view that we get of a far-flung place and its people is refracted through a colonial prism. Travel and travel literature by Westerners have often done little to challenge those views. I hope to get better at it--undoubtedly, a work in progress. I'm grateful that I had the means to visit Tahiti and Mo'orea, meet incredibly kind people, eat tropical fruits and bask in the shallow waters of the Pacific in the middle of winter. Most of all, I'm glad that Gauguin didn't get the last word on what I thought the islands might be like. There are wonders out there, both near and far, that beggar illustration. May we all have chances to get closer to them in this new year.
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1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed your very different perspective on travel. I enjoyed it because in some ways I am exactly like the woman you describe - I do find something magical about every place I go to, and it's never occurred to me that it could be different (although I'm Indian, so of course my perspective is different). Of course, I've rarely travelled on work, and never in the hectic way it must have been for you, and travelling was definitely a luxury that happened once, maybe a few times a year if I was lucky (especially out-of-the-country). That's why went I went to Europe during my 8th grade summer break with family, I was in 7th heaven, and that's why I so loved the glorious, gorgeous musical production Siam Niramit in Thailand. Maybe the wonder comes from how delighted I am to be seeing something new, something different, something unfamiliar. I don't know. I do know that I find being too long in one place constricting and a little suffocating - but I don't lead as busy a life as you, perhaps. :)

    Anyway, reading about the hotels blurring together and seeing the city from your cab window on the way to the airport made me sad. Maybe I'm an idealist with a romanticized notion of travel but the idea gives me so much joy that was rooting for you to find that too, so I was quite pleased by the end of your description of your time in Tahiti. Funny thing, I had a similar experience in Jaipur last year, where I foolishly accepted a bike ride from a tour guide who then proceeded to creep me out by trying to touch me too often and just generally giving off a slimy air. I was shaken and then ended up missing my flight back home, which was a sad end to what had been a great trip till then (Jaipur Lit Fest!)

    I apologize for the long comment :) I enjoy reading your work and love your writing style. I think I've only seen a few writers (of those who could perhaps be considered my peers) who have discovered how to make their writing entirely their own - I mean that their voice is unmistakably theirs. Looking forward to reading your fiction as well - I loved the dialogue!

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