January 24, 2013

Tuvalu to California

Tuvalu to California

A few weeks ago, your humble correspondent was sitting on a modest balcony in a guest house in Tuvalu, a tiny nation in the South Pacific that is now known as country #192 in his mind. The island itself was somewhat depressing, at least for a modern traveler. He walked the entire island—and then back around the other way—in less than one morning.

For lunch at the lone restaurant, downstairs from the lone hotel that welcomed an average of six guests per week, a choice was proffered by an indifferent server: chicken and chips, or chicken or rice.

This particular traveler, being vegetarian and not fond of eating poultry, was left with a compromise: chips and rice. The same menu options were repeated for dinner, and for the sake of mixing it up the traveler chose something different: rice and chips. This diet was supplemented by refills of Nescafé during the day and ample servings of VB beer in the evening, both considered natural resources of the South Pacific region.

The unconventional diet, the warm temperature, and the general sentiments of the island—where business hours at the only bank were posted as “10:00am-11:30am, Monday-Thursday”—contributed to a life of lethargy for the traveler, with bedtime kicking in shortly after sunset along with an extended afternoon nap. What else was there to do on Tuvalu? Not much.

With the best of intentions, as intentions usually go, the traveler’s running shoes were dutifully unpacked and lined up near the door of the guesthouse room. Despite the intentions, the shoes went unused for two days, save for their deployment in swatting the occasional mosquito or in padding downstairs for a top-off of Nescafé.

Yet on the eve of departure, the traveler reflected on the fact that this was effectively his last random country in the world. Sure, there would be Norway in the spring, with the big party in which 180 readers were now scheduled to join him, but Norway would be easy. It offers more dining options than chips and rice, and even though it supposedly costs $9 for a latte, at least they have them in Scandinavia.

Thus on the last night before returning to America, your correspondent would lace up his shoes and decide to go for it. Looking outside, a huge rainstorm was sending sheets of rainwater down from the heavens. Was it safe to run in such an environment?

Asking this question implies the search for a reason not to do what you said you would. But there’s no good excuse, because even though pulsing currents of water are falling from the sky, the occasional islander still rides by on a scooter, getting soaked but not sitting it out. And there on the runway, directly across the street from the lone guesthouse, a group of children are merrily paying soccer, in the middle of the downpour and right on the tarmac where the twice-weekly Air Pacific flight touches down.

Upon making this observation, any traveler with any integrity would accept that there was no other option. If the island kids could play soccer while the sky was falling, your correspondent could pretend once again to be a real traveler. He stepped out into the rain and began to run.

***

Squish, squish went the shoes as he ambled along the runway. No matter where he stepped, it was impossible to avoid the puddles. The kids kept playing soccer the whole time, oblivious to the monsoon that descended all around them.

Much effort is expended on the concentration of one foot in front of the other, but naturally the traveler’s thoughts reflect back on the latest trip to a remote part of the world. And then he realizes what he’s been trying to ignore: this wasn’t just the latest trip. It was, at least in some ways, the last.

This was it.

You know how they say “there was no going back?” Like when you come to a crossroads of which there is no return? This time, it was the opposite: there was only going back. There was no more going. There will be more trips, hopefully many more, but none like this one. It’s back to Fiji and then back to America tomorrow.

This is it. There is only going back.

***

Two weeks later your correspondent is on another journey, driving four hours on Highway 101 headed downstate in California. “It’s fun to be back on tour” is the theme of the week.

Each night produces different challenges, reworking a new talk, trying out different things and seeing what resonates. Less rambling, more to the point, better answers to questions: these are the goals. Some nights will be better than others, but a good effort will be produced regardless of circumstances.

That night is Santa Barbara for another enthusiastic group. Then the hours pass quickly, and then it’s a 4:15am wakeup call to return a rental car and catch a 6:00am commuter flight to LAX. From LAX it’s off to another connection in DFW. When he finally arrives in the destination of Pittsburgh it’s 16 degrees Fahrenheit—“a little chilly” as the driver described it.

The next morning a frozen wonderland appears outside the window of the Hilton Garden Inn. It’s good to be on the road. It’s always good. Onwards.

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Image: Joe