Never give up your sandals

By

IN a dream not long ago, I found myself on the top of a towering skyscraper that overlooked a large city. I was wearing thongs, which I took off and left on a small patch of lawn before approaching a man in a suit behind a desk. As we talked, he offered me a job. I hesitated, looking back at my thongs on the grass, unable to walk away from them. They symbolized everything I would be giving up if I accepted.

Give up what? I asked myself upon awaking.

I live in an undeveloped part of Raiatea, a remote island in the Society Islands of French Polynesia. The majority of the island's roads are unpaved and full of potholes, making driving a laborious venture. The farther from town you get, the more life resembles pioneer days or camping out, neither of which have ever appealed to me. Coming from a large United States city where there's instant money, instant info, instant food, I mentally rebelled against instant nothing.

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Many modern conveniences can be had for a price, but most of them are of little use in our area, since there's no electricity. We are one of four houses that share a generator which is turned on only in the evenings. So I wash laundry on the shower floor with a brush and iron it with a coal iron whose temperature cannot be regulated.

Sewing is done on a machine operated by foot pedal, and cooking is over an open fire or on a butane-fueled stove. At the moment, our old oil-run refrigerator is beyond repair, so an ice chest has been dubbed ``the fridge.''

One recent improvement I'm grateful for is a standard toilet and shower (no hot water). The old ones were a homemade outhouse and hose, respectively. None of this is unique to my particular area, but is common throughout Tahiti's islands.

Aside from household chores, fishing and growing taro and other vegetables are my main work.

Growing taro is strictly work. I have not yet found tromping around in mud, digging ditches with a shovel, or spraying weeds by hand to be entertaining. But it helps pay the bills. Copra is even more challenging, the method more primitive, and fortunately we do it only three times a year.

Some of you may think it sounds like a dream; but it's not for everyone, and I'm not always sure it's for me. I like efficiency and cities. I miss football, Mexican food, shopping malls, streetlights, the sound of tires on wet pavement. On the other hand, I don't have to wear nylons and high heels to work every day, or contend with traffic jams; the seafood and produce are fresh, the air clear; and I like fishing.

What is there about Tahiti and the islands that makes them so hard to give up? It's a feeling I can't describe and don't fully understand myself.

Stories about Tahiti are peopled with characters from places far away physically and culturally, as am I. Many of them seem to have the same difficulties living here and the same inability to leave. But none of these have explained it to me, either.

It's like being stuck between cultures. I love my native country, and am still mainly American, but with Tahitian tendencies. While I miss a lot about my old life, much of it now seems to be ``vanity.''

Just getting through a pile of laundry becomes an achievement when there's no machine doing the work for you. And there's a great feeling of satisfaction in eating green beans you grew yourself - the literally direct fruit of your labor, which converting a paycheck into food at a supermarket doesn't give.

And who needs to drive in a rush? There's not a lot of ground to cover on an island of 238 square kilometers. Besides, the scenery is breathtaking. If we drove like gangbusters, we'd miss it all in the blur.

The closest word I've been able to find is ``enchanted,'' not intending any sorcerous connotations of the word - rather, charmed, fascinated, awed, captivated: by the physical beauty of the islands and their lagoons. By the awesomeness of living on specks of land in the vast, blue sea. By a nagging doubt that, like Shangri-La or Brigadoon, I couldn't get it back once I left?

I don't know for sure, but when I look at my mud-laden thongs, I'm not yet ready to give them up.

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