Thursday, December 4, 2008

Boarding the Aranui3

Nov. 1/08
After the trauma of the first day in Papeete, day two was pretty uneventful. I stayed at the pension, ogled the pool, and just took it easy. Sophie went to town, poked around picked up pharmaceuticals for me and instead of going down to the waterfront for dinner at one of the famous restaurant vans and eating by the harbour, we had mediocre deli and ate beside the pool.
Next morning right after breakfast the cab came, and we headed for the Aranui3. The sparkling white freighter was swarming with giant Polynesian tattooed stevedores loading everything from yellow Caterpillar tractors to huge refrigerator containers. They were loading trucks, cars, equipment, food and of course, passengers. Cabs full of passengers slowly trickled up to the ship. People had been arriving since early that morning from France, Germany and LA. I hauled on my rather heavy day pack, and started up the angled, steep gangplank, lost my balance... and promptly tripped!!! I managed to save the injured leg from further injury but incurred some massive bruises on my arm and forehead. Sophie threatened me with dire consequences if I fell one more time. I bravely charged up and into the ship, which much to my relief, had an elevator.

Our stateroom was on the lowest deck, but this was a good thing, as there is less swinging and swaying down there. It was small, but well designed, with twin beds, lots of storage, a desk, and bathroom/shower. We unpacked and went exploring. We checked out the small but lovely swimming pool - which i couldn't use - and the small well stocked shop where you could buy everything from Tahitian designed pareaus and other clothes to Chocolate Tim Tam biscuits from Australia! There was a good selection of books about Tahiti in three languages.

I heard music from the lounge beside the shop, so I peered into the lounge, and there was a group of Polynesians with drums performing and singing. They were terrific, and they turned out to be various members of the crew - purser, wait persons, stevedores, sailors - They all seemed to have dual roles. I did a quick sketch, until I heard we were about to leave port. I rushed (sort of) an upper deck and did a sketch of the harbour in Papeete. There was free welcoming punch, so I had a drink as we left the harbour, headed out to the Marquessas.

The first day at sea was spent familiarizing ourselves with our new environment and checking out what would become '150 of our closest and dearest friends'. It quickly became apparent that English speakers were in the minority- I figure there were about 25. There was an Elderhostel group of ten Americans, who were closely shepherded by their leader, and got 'enriched' lectures and 'special' extra cultural excursions . No great loss as far as i was concerned, since I skipped most of the lectures anyway. I had done extensive reading beforehand, and was happy for the 'alone time' when the others were being talked at.

There was a smattering of Canadians, a couple of independent Americans, a few rich Brits who were all in first class, and a couple of aussies. When it came to our daily program lecture, the Danish three and lone Italian hung out with the English speakers. The few Swiss waffled between the French and German lectures.

However there was one thing that 95% of us had in common! we were all Oldies! This was a geriatric special!! I doubt if there were even a dozen passengers under thirty, and the majority were well over fifty. It soon also became apparent that there was something else we all had in common. This was probably the most well travelled group of people I have ever met. Virtually everyone we met and talked to had travelled extensively. The Aranui trip is not a 'common' type of cruise experience, and it seemed to attract an adventurous, interesting lot of people.

This did not suit the couple from Quebec city. I think they were expecting a more 'cruise' type experience, and this was very casual low key freighter travel. There was a robust and hearty Bavarian Group, sponsored by some Bavarian radio station. Then there was a French Group, that included a coven of skinny, giggling French widows, who seemed to travel together in a pack. One of their members also had injured her leg, so they seemed to have a special affinity for me, often trapping me in the elevator smiling and twittering at me in French, no matter how many times I told them (in my only French sentence) that I did not speak or understand French.

Some of the larger groups had large reserved tables and they always ate together. Other groups of friends attempted to 'reserve' certain tables for every meal. It became our goal in life to confound them by constantly changing tables.... which did bother one rather unpleasant French group of friends who could bepretty obnoxious and rude.

Initially, Sophie and I sat at a table for four, where we were joined by two independent women travellers- not together, but both from Montreal - Pierette and Jacquie. On the second day we decided to invade a table for eight, and picked up Joyce and Connie, from Washington and Oregon. I guess you could say this was our 'posse'. It turned out we had all booked through Eldertreks! I guess like minded people attract each other. We would have different people joining our table for eight every night, and that was great. We did attract the English speakers, but because of the Quebecoise, we met many bilingual couples as well. These independent travellers were the most interesting and friendly people on board.

One of the 'stars' at every meal was 'the Italian woman'. She was an incredibly tanned, attractive woman of indeterminate age who wore a different stunning outfit of floating resort wear and matching jewellery to every meal. She looked Cote D'Azur, but was travelling in 'steerage' in the dorms. Her lipsticked red, large white toothed smile could knock you dead! She caused some consternation amongst some North Americans because of her semi nude sun bathing (no top) She would come (late) to the English meetings and could be counted on to be a bit controversial. It turns out she was a grandmother, and a travel writer -at least that is what she said. She took miles of videos, smoked non stop, hung out with the crew and consistently looked amazing.

The other superstar of every meal was Joel, the maitre d'. We didn't realize he was more than a server till later in the voyage. We did know he worked twice as hard at serving than anyone else, and dressed better and prettier and much flashier than most of the women servers. The women servers were gorgeous. Tall, with long black hair, wearing different pareo outfits at every meal. There wore different fresh flowers in their hair every day, and incredible shell jewellery. But Joel was even more spectacular, with his matching floral shirts and knee length pareaus, necklaces and flowers and flower wreaths on in his head. He had a different outfit, every night for two weeks.

I quickly made friends with the doctor, since I was seeing him every other day. He was great looking, about forty ish, silver haired, retired French army doctor. His English wasn't great, so when I needed complex information, Pierette would accompany me and do the translation. He was travelling with an amazing black African woman who now lives in Paris where she has a small specialty jewellery shop. She is from Ghana, near Burkina Faso, and specializes in Tuareg jewellery. The doctor met her when he was working there. The doctor just travels and does fill in work all over the world, and travels several times a year on the Aranui 3. He had his fair share of injuries to take care of. Me. the French woman, the man with coral infections, the Elderhostel guy who broke a finger, the poor German lady with horrible bronchitis, and various and sundry other ailments.

After a full day at sea, we reached our first island - Faka Rava, a part of the Tuamoto archipelago. Faka Rava is the second largest atoll in the Tuamotus. About five hundred people live here. It has a small recently built air strip, and a few black pearl farms. There is a lagoon for snorkelling and diving.

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