by Ashley Cultra
Winner of the Family Fun Category for the 2009 WanderWomen Write Contest
The view through the single paned window mimics a typical family meal, perhaps a small celebration or birthday party. Steaming, clay dishes and golden logs of crusty bread cluster the table’s center while wine bottles and decanters of chilled juice pass from hand to hand. The women, hair piled high to flaunt shiny necklaces and dripping earrings, sit to the side. They sip cocktails and keep vigilant eyes on the children scampering after kittens in the corner. The gentleman, sporting freshly shaved cheeks and stiff, collared shirts, stand by the table, palming cans of beer and trading boisterous stories from younger years.
Blossoms of every shape and genre, peculiar enough for a Dr. Seuss book, overwhelm every available corner, window box, and water glass. Listen. Hear the guitar? The melody snakes through the air, mixing artfully with aromatic swirls and flickering candlelight, a masterpiece of Van Gogh in the making. Yes, it seems to be a normal family gathering.
Step in the door and take a closer look. Notice the bare toes weaving through the sandy floor? There’s no need for shoes here. Take in the food placed so lovingly around the table. It’s not your standard dinner fare. Tonight the family is having clams, seaweed and parrotfish with oysters, squid and earthen baked pork. Plantains, breadfruit, and papaya drenched in coconut milk are for desert.
Touch the gleaming jewelry. Beach glass, coral and seashells make beautiful souvenirs. They were gifts from the chief’s wife, a welcome memento to express good fortune and safe travels. The group’s clothes are a bit wrinkled and stale from months of storage and damp weather yet, here on the island, they blend perfectly with the surroundings. Flowers on their clothes, flowers in their hair, and flowers delicately tucked behind their ears. See that man standing near the head of the table? He’s making a toast now, raising his glass and calling for everyone’s attention. His eyes are filling with tears and his voice is growing hoarse. Soon, eyes are glistening all around the table. The guitar fades in the background as colorful memories flood forward. Near the end of the speech, all glasses raise in a celebratory salute and they echo the man’s final words, “Life is good.”
My entire family is here in the South Pacific, lost in the pages of a James Michener novel, a place untapped by many but loved by all. We arrived six months ago, flying into French Polynesia to meet my dad on his second world circumnavigation aboard a hand-built, barnyard boat. My mom, my sisters, my brother-in-law, my aunt, and several family friends all donned flip-flops and SPF 30 and agreed to live together in a smaller-than-your-bathroom sized space. Our extreme form of family bonding started in Papeete and brought us over 2,000 miles together to this small island where my father’s lust for adventure bloomed nearly forty years ago. He visited this coconut wonderland during his service in the Marine Corps, returned on his first circumnavigation in the 1960’s and made a promise to the island gods that he would one day bring his family to his special haven in the sea. And here we are now.
Queequeg I, the hero of dad’s first circumnavigation was sold long ago to a recluse in the Florida Keys. Dad wanted a bigger, more comfortable boat on his second go-around, especially with his wife and four daughters in tow. With my mother’s blessing, Queequeg II was born in the middle of an Illinois cornfield, right next to our muddy horse lot and my rickety swing set. There it grew for thirteen years and we grew right alongside of it.
As a little girl, I sat on my wooden swing and watched as Dad measured, cut, sanded, stripped, varnished, nailed, glued, painted, and perfected. When I matured, he taught me how to smooth the varnish, being careful not to leave brush strokes or drips on the beautiful mahogany and teak panels. Years passed, the swing set came down and I was given more responsibilities, working side by side during the cold winter months and humid summer stretches. Life went by and still that great hulk of a boat sat in our backyard, bringing visitors and caravans from all around the country. Word spread quickly about our white monstrosity. We happily gave tours, poured lemonade and explained our plans to one day sail around the world. The reactions were always the same. Eye rolls and expressions of pure bewilderment were soon replaced by looks of admiration, jealousy, and are-you-crazy eyebrow raises. If only they could see us now.
Our family pet wasn’t allowed to sail the high seas immediately upon completion. After the final topcoat was applied in Illinois, she cooled her heals in south Florida while we finished high school, went off to colleges, got married and started our own careers around the world. Queequeg II waited patiently for over a decade, providing us with small sailing opportunities, spring breaks to share with friends, and Christmas holidays away from mid-western snow storms. My sisters and I saved money for the big trip while our parents researched and organized down to every last detail. Due to financial restraints and other responsibilities, none of us could travel with Dad and Queequeg on the entire two year circumnavigation so we chose the best part, the long stretch in the vibrant South Pacific. Here, we would island hop and visit Bora Bora, Tubuai, Fiji, Samoa, Rarotonga, Vava’u, and all the other magnificent places that make the South Pacific such an icon among yesterday’s great writers and today’s honeymoon beach dwellers.
Magnificent it was indeed. Through rain storms and seasickness to high winds and sunburns, we sailed together, learned together and experienced the world that my father had raved about for thirty years. We drifted into great harbors, anchored in magical lagoons and swam in waters blessed by the Polynesian gods. We danced with the natives, drank with the locals and ate with the island chiefs.Â he people were warm and friendly, the food was fresh and tasty and the weather was far from perfect, but tolerable nonetheless. We were sailing in the South Pacific!
Of course, we had our adventures both on and offshore. We survived a sleepless eighty-two hour gale off the Tongan coast, navigating Queequeg through hail, cyclone strength winds and the most confused seas that Poseidon could summon. Everyone was seasick and ate little but saltine crackers and soggy bread crusts. The boat leaked, hatches broke, sails ripped, and the toilet overflowed. It was pure misery. When the sun finally appeared on the fourth day, we cut the engines and made an enormous pot of macaroni and cheese to eat in the sunshine. It took three days to dry our clothes, bedding, cushions, and carpets and another week to repair Queequeg’s outer damages while we anchored in port. My stomach still hasn’t fully recovered but we can now joke about the seemingly dreadful experience.
We endured weeks in the doldrums when Queequeg drifted for hundreds of miles through bored and cloudless skies. There wasn’t a breath of wind and we were low on gasoline. My sisters and I perfected the arts of sunbathing, spying falling stars and plotting navigation courses. We wrote stories, recited poetry and held each other’s hair when spells of seasickness hit un-expectantly. We labored for hours over Queequeg’s one burner stove, baking cookies, biscuits and cakes and inventing curious one-pot meals from our immense store of canned goods. As sisters, we had our disagreements. However, as a sailing crew we had to work together at a moment’s notice and not question one another’s authority. Our father’s rule led us to solve our differences rather quickly and, for the benefit of Queequeg, we never stayed mad for long.
We sat for long, frustrating hours in dozens of sweltering customs offices, filling out stacks of yacht clearance forms and paying more fees than seemed necessary for such a small boat. We waited patiently as officials searched Queequeg from top to bottom and spent a whole afternoon hitchhiking across Port Villa in order to buy a paltry, but necessary, five-cent entry stamp. My temper ran high but Dad always smiled and said it was part of the journey.
Time with Dad
My father and I had a special relationship. It grew stronger aboard Queequeg as we cruised through the South Pacific and shared our passion for traveling together. We spent days combing hardware stores, searching for one-inch stainless steel bolts and drill bits when our sack of extras was “accidentally” tipped overboard. We sat together during midnight navigation watches, keeping each other awake and trading travel stories, mine from Asia and India, his from Germany and Japan. We shared ice cream and beer at every port, never failing to toast to our family’s motto, “life is good.”
We had days, weeks, and months of pure, uninterrupted family time with no distractions from televisions, MP3 players, or cell phones. Instead, during free time, my family focused on exploring cultures and developing friendships wherever we went. We sang karaoke in Samoa, made tapa cloth in Fiji and hiked mountains in Taha. We perfected the art of market bartering, discovering obscure book exchange sheds and washing our laundry using a single bucket of fresh water.
Offshore, we watched porpoise and whales jump off Queequeg’s bow and witnessed nature’s precious gift of spectacular sunsets over and over again.Â We laughed and drank rum across the entire Pacific and learned to love one another for our differences, our faults and those wonderful peculiarities that made each of us so special.
Across all the miles under wind-filled sails, our captain watched with shining eyes and a satisfied smile. His main ambitions, to experience a life far from ordinary and away from the fast-paced routines that we accepted as normal, were finally shared with those he loved.Â After six months at sea, we finished our journey on the island where it all started so many years ago. Here we would part ways as Queequeg continued her voyage around the world and the rest of us flew back to the States. We invited the entire island to our final dinner and purchased four pigs to roast for the occasion. The best island rum and plumpest chickens were brought to the table while an entire church choir sang and swayed in the corner. It was a fiesta to remember.
If only we knew how important our island family dinner would be to us today. What seemed to be a regular family gathering turned out to be far from normal. My father died exactly eight months after our South Pacific dinner party. On the third leg of his circumnavigation, Queequeg was overcome and flipped during a ferocious hurricane. Dad was lost at sea. He was almost home.
I reflect often on our South Pacific memories, at the days of seasickness, the long nights battling storms and those exciting moments sailing into new ports. All of the memories are special. However, the one that I hold dearest and treasure the most is from that night on the island as we listened to a man with a dream. All eyes were on my father as he stood and gazed back at us.Â His wish of sailing aboard Queequeg to the most perfect place he could imagine, his island in the sun, finally came true. This was the best gift he could ever offer to any of us.
Dad expressed these sentiments as he stood at the head of the table that night with tears pouring down his cheeks and his glass raised high to celebrate those blue ocean miles. Looking flushed, tanned and vibrant, he laughed and shouted, “Life is good.” Yes, it certainly is Dad.
Photo Credit: Orchid – orchidgalore
Photo Credit: Tonga Waves – sarahjrose
Photo Credit: Boats at sunset – JRFoto
Photo Credit: Storm and Boat – Robert Thompson
Photo Credit: Single Boat, Family Shot – The Author
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After graduating from university and working in Chicago’s hectic advertising industry, Ashley Cultra happily left her high heels behind andÂ welcomed the life of a wandering vagabond in flip flops.Â She’s traveled through thirty countries, captained a sailboat around Cape Horn, South America and embraced a passion for writing and sharing her love of travel with others.Â She is currently living and working in Brisbane, Australia and planning a future trip through India, Nepal and Tibet.