Expat Fever

Hello, for the last time this year, from the Big Blue!

Prez and me with Onu the Xmas turtle

On my lifetime “To Do” list, I’m thankful to report, I can now check off “eat pressed turkey roast for Xmas dinner”. My feeling is, and I’m sure others who’ve eaten pressed turkey roast will agree, once you’ve experienced the marvels of a pressed turkey roast, well, you never need to experience them again. Amen.

Here we are, at the close of December, showing 2008 the door like a bad date, thanking it for a lovely time, promising to call it for coffee or something, sometime…maybe. 2009 is waiting in the foyer, hopefully ready to show us a good time. Will the new year make our dreams come true or break our hearts? Impossible to say.

For Prez and me, 2009 will mark the end of our South Pacific adventure. By this time next year, we’ll be in ____________ (fill in blank with city and country of your choosing). Our plans seem to change with the tides. However, while I may not know where, exactly, we will be next December, I do know exactly where we won’t be – for us that’s a huge leap forward in the planning and preparation department. I’m sure it boggles the brain buckets of many, (especially those on the BC coast, who are trapped beneath snow drifts the size of small East European cities right now), that we could be even a little enthused about skipping town when “town” is the kind of place most of the world dreams of skipping to. And some days, when I’m floating in my own personal aquarium, gazing up at a sky so blue it makes you weep, I wonder what the heck is wrong with me, too. Heck, if I can’t be satisfied living here, where on earth can I be satisfied living?

As a child, I never imagined myself growing up to be an expat. Well, I didn’t know what an expat was, to be honest. For those of you who still don’t know, “expat” is short for “expatriate” and means, essentially, “a person who is voluntarily absent from home or country.” I would add that this absence is usually of a lengthy duration. No, you cannot call yourself an expat during your two week Cancun getaway, no matter how hopelessly romantic the word sounds.

As with anything, there are pluses and minuses to running with the expat crowd. Plus: You get to share amusing, sometimes hilarious, anecdotes of your interactions with the native population, which on Aitutaki often revolves around the frowny-faced postal employees or church ministers who kick you off the tennis courts on Sundays. Minus: You tend to cling to each other like white cat fur to black trousers, thus maintaining and strengthening your “outsider” status in the community. But who am I kidding; we haven’t set foot in a foreign country where I could possibly blend in with the local population, in ten years. For this reason alone, I am dying to visit Sweden, where I can pass my days in blissful, blonde anonymity. Trust me, the attention derived from being as white as the dust underneath a Hollywood producer’s nostrils on a Saturday evening wears off pretty darn quick.

This got me to thinking about culture. We hear that word, culture, tossed around a lot, especially when it comes to travel. “Experience the local culture”. Let me fill you in a little my Nutters, in third world countries, there are usually two different cultures – the one put on display for tourists and the one people really live. Fact is, once the ignorant savages (and here I am using that term with a high dose of irony), discover the magic that is TV, internet, cellular phones, and microwavable meat pies, suddenly making plates out of palm fronds and paddling five hours through the surf for a few lousy fish loses any charm they might have once possessed. Sad but true. OK, OK, fragments of the old culture will linger, for whatever reason, but, when it comes to tradition, convenience kills.

We expats and civilized tourists are like culture vampires. We are drawn to these pristine, native places but the minute we begin to partake of them is the minute we begin to drain the life from them. Lamentable, yes, but inevitable also. Humans are curious little beasties, always wanting the new, the novel, the unexplored. We plant our flag in foreign soil, take a deep cleansing breath, enriched by the raw, natural beauty around us, and immediately start figuring ways to make ourselves more comfortable. Air conditioning, satellite TV, high speed internet, washroom facilities that don’t involve the use of leaves, we want to get away from it all and still have “it all” with us. Pardon my paradox, but obviously this logic has more holes in it than Prez’s favorite fishing shirt.

But how hard should we fight the loss of culture? Who decides which bits are worth keeping and which should be tossed in the bin with the eight-track cassettes and flared corduroy pants?

To me, telling Aitutakians that they should abandon their large screen TV’s and scooters is the height of double standardism. The ancient Europeans, from whom I am descended, weren’t all that up on personal hygiene and dental health, does that mean I should stop showering and only brush my teeth with a frayed stick to preserve my “culture”? (She shudders at the thought).

Ah, but here’s the rub: are the people of Aitutaki better off with their large screen TV’s and scooters than they were before the pale faces arrived on their shores? Personally, I’m not sure any of us, in the big picture, are better off with large screen TV’s and scooters. (She says, as she types this Coconut Chronicle up on her flashy lap top). It’s all very well for me to sit here postulating my theory that technology is the devil and that the ancient people of this island lived a more wholesome and satisfying existence, except I’ve never had to weather a cyclone with only a loincloth and some palm leaves for protection, have I?

The problem, really, is not the technology but the speed at which it’s introduced. Us old folks are dealing with the dilemma of high-speed technological advancement less than gracefully. Five year old children know more about computers and the internet than most of the over-forty crowd do. (Now they’re not just opening our child-proof safety caps for us, they’re also responsible for our communication systems – does that scare you as much as it scares me?) Imagine living in a stone-age society one minute and less than two hundred years later being expected to understand Windows Vista. (Bad example. I mean, can anyone understand Vista???) What happens is you end up with a society out of time, a group of individuals who were never allowed to follow their own evolutionary path and end up stuck somewhere between Land of the Lost and 2001: a Space Odyssey.

On Aitutaki, the Island Nights continue – girls seductively swaying their hips and men working their invisible Thigh Master machines – but it’s obvious, to me anyway, that there will come a time when these dances will lose all meaning save for the paycheque they provide. This is the legacy of history. Old ways, like old years, step or are pushed aside, and new ways take their place. Will the new ways make our dreams come true or break our hearts? Impossible to say.

QUESTION: What is your culture?

Best wishes for 2009 everyone. May the year ahead give you at least some of what you want and most of what you need. Thanks for reading! Peace.

Below: The Esteb family, creators of Onu the Xmas turtle and all around nice folks!

Below: Setting out on the Xmas Eve fishing trip. It all started out so well…

How the Xmas Eve fishing trip ended. Welcome to summer in the South Pacific!

Until next year, I hope this finds you healthy, happy & lovin’ life!

The Princess

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