An important part of slow travel, is choosing the right host. The special thing about slow travel is that the experiences are unique. But there’s a reason why hotel consistency is popular. When it’s impersonal, the trip will be less special, but it will probably be pleasant. Being hosted by individual people, on the other hand, comes with the risk of getting a host you don’t get along with.
So far, I’ve been really lucky in the hosts I come across. I rely heavily on comments left by previous guests on booking platforms like Airbnb. This is all the more crucial when you’re a minority in the travel community. I do believe the world, in general, is safe to travel in. That said, you want to pick a host that at least wouldn’t have a problem with you.
I measure the quality of my hosts (and guests, when I’m home), by the quality of our conversations. So I try to find signs of interesting people in profile descriptions. I ignore the things people actually write, to show they’re interesting. Instead, I look at everything else.
On Rapa Nui, I was interested in being hosted by a local teacher. As an Airbnb host myself, I have had wonderful conversations with teachers, a podcaster, and an aid worker. (Funnily enough, the travel influencer was the least interesting.)
But, it was deeply unlikely that I would find a teacher with a yacht in Tahiti.
Getting along with my host in Tahiti
I probably would have stayed with Felix anyway, because his boat was the only affordable one on Airbnb. I know that people use pricing to filter out, shall we say, ‘types of guests’. But that’s all right, because that tells me that these are not the kind of people I’d have good conversations with. Wealth and class matters to them, but I’d rather hide mine if I can help it.
On the other hand, even if he wasn’t the only affordable one, I still would have probably picked him, because he was the only interesting profile. He is anchored in French Polynesia, but he is not French. He has enough downtime to be renting out space on his boat, but he’s a marine engineer. And he seemed nice enough when I sent him a message.
In person, Felix was easy to be around. You can tell he’s a real engineer (not just an engineer because your parents told you to study engineering), because of the way he furnished his boat. Functional and optimal, but low on aesthetics. And the tinkering does not stop.
He seemed to have friends in Asia. It didn’t faze him at all to host a non-Western guest. He also didn’t mind in the least that I was Muslim. He was neither over-solicitous, nor wary. Ergo, he must have been around actual Southeast Asians quite a bit.
It also helped that he was reserved. All of this meant that we would get along well enough to eventually talk about some really interesting things.
Conversations about hypocrisy
It didn’t take me long to ask him what he’s a marine engineer for. It turned out he works on cruise ships, so he gets to pick and choose when he works and when he doesn’t. And he told me something that I’ve already heard from my ex-brother-in-law. And that’s about the hypocritical behaviour of Gulf royalty.
It’s not something that people in my country are familiar with. After all, booze and gambling and worse, are things you tend to keep a lid on, especially to your co-religionists. But if your network is diverse, you get to cross check the news that you hear. Generally, when Muslims want to sin, they hide it from other Muslims, but they don’t hide it from Westerners. I reckon it’s because in Western culture, these things are not sins. I think the assumption is that the Westerner wouldn’t even notice.
But I’ve discovered that they do. Not only do they often notice, it seems to offend many of them (or at least Anglos), whether or not they are aware of it. I think it’s the hypocrisy that’s the issue. That you indulge in things you punish others for.
People remember hypocrisy. And the bigger the gap between image and reality, the more memorable it is. Even sinners would like to see saints live up to their virtues. Perhaps, deep down, we all want to believe that virtue is possible.
Cruise work & self-awareness
I asked Felix if it pays well to be a marine engineer. Apparently the wages are good, as crew wages generally are. Depending on your job, you can enjoy a little bit of the cruise life too.
But he looked disapproving as he recounted the younger staff, for whom the wages were a lot of money. It’s a phenomenon; you start to earn some good money, you’re in close quarters with people who book themselves on cruise lifestyles, and you start to believe that you belong to the same class.
But of course, crew wages – while good – is far below the wealth of the clients. And sometimes, the realisation can be expensive.
I had the sense that Felix was never tempted. I was sure that his grounded, practical engineer’s brain looked at the fancy stuff on the cruise ship, and only saw chores.
Coincidentally, I was reading Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. No novel on earth is more complimentary to the engineer. According to Verne, a proper engineer can re-create civilisation out of a shipwreck with only a little bit of time, and some labour. I showed it to him; he seemed pleased.
Conversations about life on land
He griped about Tahitian bureaucracy one afternoon. His friend told him that to start a company in Tahiti takes a year. On the one hand, I could empathise. I am as impatient with red tape as anyone. But on the other hand, I also work in a corporation, and I work globally. As far as bureaucracy goes, whether it should take that long or not, it’s not that unusual that it does.
I suppose the slow pace of land bureaucracy feels especially annoying, when most of the time you deal with a much smaller decision-making group at sea.
But Felix did have to deal with land, in order to complete his many boat improvement projects. Whenever there was a data signal in the lagoon, he would be doing his shopping online. I learned that there’s a whole category of construction products, just for seagoing homes.
He asked my opinion about deck mats. He wanted some of it to be green, because greenery was one thing that boat living doesn’t have. I suppose I would miss it too, if we weren’t anchored so close to Tahiti’s green hills. Felix thought he might install a garden on the boat, which I thought was the most English thing ever (even though he was a New Zealander, not English).
Sometimes, he said, he thought of selling the catamaran, and moving back on land where he could have a garden. I couldn’t imagine something so daft. But I guess it’s not easy to find like-minded peers who are not land dwellers. Even on Tahiti, I saw that local Polynesians don’t seem to really sail anymore.
Conversations about New Age-y things
Our conversations turned occasionally to cooking, ever since Felix spied my jar of tom yum paste. It was difficult to find in French Polynesia. I began travelling with it ever since my Chile trip. It was my longest continuous travel, and I began pining for chilli in the middle of it. Since then I vowed to always have something Asian and spicy, so that I can travel for longer across foreign cuisine. It just requires the occasional chilli fried dish; tom yum paste is just more versatile.
I decided to leave the jar on the boat, since I had obtained a bottle of chilli in oil in Vaira’o. It would last me the rest of my time in French Polynesia, after which I would be in Australia where it would no longer be needed. Felix looked pleased.
And that’s when I confirmed that indeed, my host had travelled in Southeast Asia. In fact, he has friends who have settled in Bali. One of those friends had even converted to Islam, and married an Indonesian woman.
You might assume that an engineer wouldn’t be into new age-y hippy stuff, but I guess you can’t have friends in Bali and not be exposed to it. I get the sense that he was a bit self-conscious about it, unsure about whether he really believes. But he’s open to considering things, and that makes for interesting conversations on kombucha and spirituality.
Conversations about religion
There’s one thing I noticed after I started to travel unconventionally. I end up meeting people who have wondered many things about Islam, but there were no Muslims to ask. I had already had some thought-provoking conversations in Pape’ete with Jon, and after a few days, Felix asked.
His friend was a convert, and didn’t know very much, he offered as an explanation. The wife was a sweet woman, but otherwise not particularly intellectual. So they couldn’t answer the questions that he had. But perhaps I could.
I can’t now remember exactly what the questions were. Theology, for sure. Fortunately for him, despite appearances, I’m actually quite learned. More fortunately, I enjoy such conversations, when they aren’t reduced to debates. So, even though I don’t remember what we talked about, I remember enjoying it very much.
Embracing the wise woman persona
It’s certainly a trend that I’ve noticed of late. I seem to be sent to men who want to know, rather than women. For some reason, they readily bare their souls.
Perhaps it’s because there are no more oracles in this world, no wizened crones to consult about the truths. Especially so for men; we have cultivated a culture in which a woman’s role towards an unrelated man is constrained to maidenhood, or a mating partner. A beauty culture only valuing youth in females have all but silenced the wise women.
But I am an odd duck, both maiden and crone. Among the last of the women who are seekers of insight. So they tell me their doubts and the questions of their souls, and they do not know why they break their silence.
But it is a thing of nature, for the masculine to seek all of the feminine. It knows when something is missing, even if the man himself is unaware.
Carbon offsetting information to Tahiti
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Fa’a’a via Auckland produces carbon emissions of approximately 10,280 lbs CO2e. It costs about $51 to offset this.
Do you enjoy the conversations on the road? Do you aim for them, or does it just happen?