May 13, 2003
Dave Goes Polynesian
And now for something completely different ...
Well ... it has been an exceptionally long week, hasn't it? Truth be told, it has been a full month since I last checked in. And here's the kicker: it is going to be a while longer before I do so again.
The reason? I have no idea what is going on in the world. None whatsoever. I am blissfully ignorant of national and world affairs. I haven't read a newspaper or magazine, nor have I watched a television or listened to a radio, nor have I accessed the Internet, for well over two weeks.
Are we now on Red Alert status? I couldn't tell you. Have we invaded Syria yet? Don't ask me. Is Patriot Act II now the law of the land? I haven't a clue.
I have, you see, just returned from a most enjoyable stay in Fren ... err, Freedom Polynesia. Yes, that is right ... in a flagrant and shameless act of anti-Americanism, I opted to convert my vacation funds to Polynesian French Francs and donate them to the French. It just seemed like the right thing to do. And where else are you going to go on honeymoon?
Yes, dear readers, it is true: throwing caution to the wind, and recklessly disregarding the lessons of history, I have, once again, taken the plunge. Only time will tell which adage proves to be accurate: 'the third time's the charm,' or 'three strikes and you're out' (if my better half happens to read this missive, it could well be the latter).
I have, by the way, a quick observation about the French to share with you: one of the most attractive qualities about the French is the tendency of the women to lounge about the beach and/or pool wearing a skimpy bikini bottom and nothing else; one of the most unattractive qualities about the French is the tendency of the men to lounge about the beach and/or pool wearing a skimpy bikini bottom and nothing else.
Moving on, the main point of this missive is that I have nothing of significance to share with you about the current state of world affairs. The best that I can offer at this time are some observations of my time in French Polynesia, which are largely inconsequential ... but what the hell? Everyone needs a diversion now and then.
We went on quite a few tours during our time on the islands. The operators of these tours, all native Polynesians, were unerringly friendly, polite, attentive and accommodating. One, however, was quite different from the others. "Billy," as he introduced himself, was something of a passive-aggressive type; while he went out of his way to accommodate the demands of tourists, it was clear that he harbored no small amount of bitterness over the fact that his vocation was dependent on catering to those whom he viewed as invaders and occupiers of his ancestral homelands.
Billy explained to me: "When you come here to visit, you are given some papers that tell you the 'history' of these islands." And indeed we had been: we had received literature from our travel agent in anticipation of the trip, and had read material provided on the plane and by the hotels. "But if you take a match," Billy said, pantomiming the action of holding up a sheet of paper and setting it aflame, "that history is gone. But the history of my people remains."
Billy attempted to relate some of that history to me, but our time together was very brief and the language barrier was prohibitive -- though that was more my fault than his. The Polynesian people speak their native tongue, but are also required to speak French, which is spoken throughout the islands and has the status of being one of the two official languages. Many of the native people speak English as well, in order to accommodate tourists from nearby Australia, as well as from these United States. Some native Polynesians speak Japanese as well, to serve the hordes of Japanese tourists visiting the islands. And they speak these languages quite well, in most cases.
This brings up a point that has been repeatedly driven home to me on those occasions in the past when I have had the good fortune to travel abroad: I have noticed that, relative to the rest of the world, Americans are an amazingly ignorant and arrogant bunch. The vast majority of us feel no need to acquaint ourselves with host languages when traveling abroad. To the contrary, we fully expect to be accommodated in our native tongue wherever we go.
It never ceases to amaze me that, in virtually any country that I have ever visited - no matter how far removed it is, culturally or geographically, from the 'Western' world - it is possible to approach a complete stranger with an English language inquiry and receive a polite, accommodating, and understandable response. Indeed, following one such inquiry, I once had a man take time out from his day to not merely direct me, but to actually escort me to my destination, all the while providing insights into his land and his culture.
Imagine, if you will, that happening on the mean streets of any big city in America. Imagine a foreign traveler, lost and confused, dressed in accordance with their culture of origin, approaching the average big-city American - say a New Yorker, or one of my beloved fellow Angelenos - and making a frantic inquiry in any language other than English. Or even in heavily accented English. The response they would receive would likely be something along the lines of: "If you can't speak English, go back where you came from." I'm leaving out, of course, a number of interchangeable expletives that would accompany this helpful advice.
So, yes, while I have to admit that the French do tend to be a bit arrogant, they really can't hold a candle to their American counterparts in that department.
Anyway, getting back to my interaction with Billy ... it had somehow dawned on me that a working knowledge of the French language could come in handy on the islands. So I was asking Billy the French equivalents of various common English words. And he was generously providing them ... up to a point, when he stopped me to ask: "Why do you want so much to learn to speak French? You are not visiting France. You are visiting Tahiti. You should be learning to speak Tahitian."
And, of course, he was absolutely right.
But the fact of the matter is that the French colonial masters rule the islands and have imposed their language and their culture and their whitewashed version of history on the people who populate them. That history includes vague references to the massive depopulation of the islands that accompanied the French seizure of the tropical paradises that make up what is now French Polynesia. The word genocide is never used, of course, just as it is never used in America to describe the slaughter of native people. And little mention is made of the fact that the French took one of the most naturally beautiful plots of land on the planet and turned it into a nuclear testing ground. If you want some real reasons to be pissed off at the French, those are good places to start ... along with those Speedos.
Speaking of the French language, some of you may not yet be aware that it is a very helpful thing to know when trying to re-enter this country. I myself had no idea. In fact, it is a good idea to bring your own translator along with you when re-entering this fine country. That is, at any rate, the information that the nice lady at the U.S. Customs desk imparted to my new wife and I.
The first thing that you see, when entering the international terminal at LAX after arriving home, is a large greeting reading "Welcome to the United States," along with a large framed portrait of The Smirk. It felt good to know that we were back under George's watchful eye, in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Which isn't to say that we were necessarily ever out from under it. And I have to preface this by noting that I am not, contrary to what a lot of people think, a paranoid sort of guy. I tend to disregard things that others around me eye with great suspicion. You know ... things like strange noises on the telephone, a constant barrage of hang-up calls, and e-mail programs doing things that they shouldn't be doing.
So when the house next-door to me went up for sale some months ago, and my old neighbor was almost immediately offered, sight unseen, a ridiculously attractive offer on the home, I dismissed the warnings of the faint-hearted that the FBI was going to be my new neighbor. And when the anonymous new owners allowed the property to sit vacant and apparently unattended for months after purchasing it for an exorbitant sum of money ... I found it a little odd, but wasn't unduly concerned. And when the owners allegedly rented the place to a young couple who don't appear to have the financial resources to pay the absurdly high rent, don't appear to have any need for a three bedroom home, and who I haven't seen even once since meeting them briefly on the day they moved in, along with a pair of unfriendly dogs and an enormous American flag ... I still was willing to give my new neighbors the benefit of the doubt.
But having said all that, I also have to say that there is something a little disconcerting about journeying 4,000 miles from these hallowed shores, to one of the most geographically isolated places in the world, and finding out that the guy occupying the adjacent room, separated only by the thinnest of walls, is, by his own admission, a former FBI agent. Now I ask you: is this a great country or what? No matter where you go in the world, somebody's got your back.
This guy 'Ron' - whose disembodied head occasionally appeared around the side of my balcony on those occasions when I would venture out for a smoke, as though my balcony contained a portal to The Twilight Zone that enabled me to be transported into a wretched Tim Allen sitcom - had put in his time in Oklahoma City, where he also worked for the Oklahoma City Police Department. Though I didn't bother to ask, I assume that that means my new buddy Ron worked on the investigation of the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. I'm sure he is an upright guy though.
Anyway, before I got distracted, I started to tell you all about the nice lady at the U.S. Customs desk. So as I started to say ... just before being greeted by the creepy Big Brother portrait of Herr George, we had been handed a Customs form to fill out as we disembarked from our plane. Now this is generally a fairly mundane task ... when the form is printed in English.
This form, however, was not. It was printed in French. Now I realize that the airline is French owned. That is all well and good. But when you are a U.S. citizen returning to your home turf, you kind of expect that you will be provided with a form written in your native tongue. It just seems like that would be a given.
But we gamely took our incomprehensible form to the first Customs checkpoint, where we explained to the officer that we hadn't filled it out because, strangely enough, we couldn't read it. It was, you see, written in French. "Yes," he said with a knowing smile, "they always do that. If you have nothing to declare, just sign it and move on. It's no big deal."
So we did just that, and he happily waved us on. "Easy enough," we thought. But we weren't through yet. Oh, no. We had just begun.
Our next stop was at the desk of another Customs official, who promptly scolded us: "Your form is not filled out correctly!" We were in big trouble now. We had, judging by her tone, committed some sort of serious felony offense. "Don't you know," she asked of us with more than a hint of condescension, "that you should never sign a legal document without having filled it out completely and accurately?"
"But we only did what your fellow Customs officer at the last stand instructed us to do," we pleaded. But she was having none of that. No ... she proceeded to explain to us that it was our responsibility, as United States citizens re-entering the United States, to obtain the services of a translator to insure that we got our Customs form filled out correctly, and that we should not have followed the instructions given us by the first Customs officer.
It did not occur to me, in my sleep-deprived state, to ask her why, if she was now instructing us to disregard the specific instructions given to us by a U.S. Customs officer, we shouldn't also disregard everything that this one was now telling us.
I have to add here that we were on the tail end of a very long and trying day -- one that had actually begun the day before. Check-out on our last day was at 11:00 AM, and our flight did not leave until midnight that night. Thirteen hours is, needless to say, a long time to wait around for a flight, and eight-and-a-half hours is a long time to sit cramped in an airplane after waiting for thirteen hours to get on that airplane.
The point here is that by the time we got to the nice lady's Customs station, we weren't in a very jovial mood. We were close to home and just wanted to get there. I should also mention here that my lovely new bride, who is very much a lady, is definitely the member of our partnership who, generally speaking, has the greater patience and the cooler head.
But on this particular day, the Customs lady was able to push her past her breaking point, prompting the following words to come from her mouth (and I am quoting here for accuracy although, as regular readers are aware, I do not condone this type of language): "Look, ma'am, I'm really not in the mood for a fucking lecture from you today."
That was, as hard as it may be to fathom, the wrong thing to say.
Following that pleasant encounter, we spent considerably more time getting through the rest of the Customs and Immigration procedures than we had anticipated. There was electronic screening of our luggage. There was a hand search of our luggage. There was an agricultural screening. I'm pretty sure they gave serious consideration to conducting a cavity search. Everyone got in on the action, and, dare I say it? ... a good time was had by all.
I heard, by the way, that I missed a major historical event whilst I was away. Reading about it after the fact, of course, it sounds like just another hopelessly contrived photo-op, but I have received assurances that it was an event of considerable historical significance, on par with, for example, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" proclamation, and Sue Hawk's venomous attack on her fellow Survivor contestants.
And I completely missed it. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see history in the making, and I missed it. It kind of reminds me of the time in college when I organized a viewing party to watch the passing of Haley's Comet, except that I got the date wrong and the comet had actually passed the night before, so I had to slip hits of acid into everyone's drinks so that they would see the comet anyway, but then everyone started seeing comets everywhere and ... oh, nevermind ... I seem to have gotten sidetracked.
The good news is that, while I may have missed George's historic moment, I created one of my own that, in my twisted value system, is roughly comparable: for the benefit of my fellow travelers, I made the drug-addled decision to join in with a troupe of Polynesian dancers. Strange, but true (unlike, for instance, the comet story, and I want to be clear about that in case I ever decide to seek work at the New York Times).
Now this isn't something that I would ordinarily do. For all of my life, I have steadfastly abided by the unwritten code of conduct that says that Caucasians should never so much as cross a dance floor. But this was, as I said, an historic occasion. And it was our last night on the islands. And my wife had just turned down an invitation to join the dancers, so it was left to me, and me alone, to represent my 'hood, as my homeboys like to say. And also, it suddenly dawned on me that you can do pretty much anything without feeling embarrassment if you are doing it in front of a bunch of pasty white guys who have just spent the entire day lying around the pool with the marble bag slung in a spandex pouch.
I'm sure you are all wondering by now exactly what sort of dance moves I pulled from my repertoire. To be honest, the style of dance that I employed is difficult to describe in words. You can kind of visualize it if you think about what sort of motions you would make, and what kind of vocal utterances would accompany those movements, if you were to suddenly realize that someone had liberally coated the inside of your Speedo with Extra Strength Ben Gay.
But that's not what I really wanted to talk about, and I am becoming concerned that if I toss one more Speedo joke into this diatribe I will be at serious risk of exposing my homophobia.
Let's move on then, shall we? What I really want to talk about are cruise ships. There are two reasons for this: first, to advise anyone that might be planning on visiting French Polynesia that a cruise is the way to go. Unless, that is, one prefers to shell out more for one night in an over-water bungalow on Bora Bora than Bill Bennett drops in Vegas in an average month ... uh oh ... I didn't want to mention it the first time it happened, but I see that as this newsletter drags on, "the news" is beginning to creep in.
Anyway, the point is that a certain cruise line that I won't mention here began service to the islands in December of last year, and offers a way to see French Polynesia for a fraction of what it would otherwise cost. Of course, they are able to do this by adopting predatory business practices that include a wanton disregard for labor standards. But, then again, the price that you, as an American consumer, pay for anything that you purchase from a major Western corporation is artificially lowered through criminal business practices, so don't go getting all high and mighty on me.
As I mentioned before, an added benefit of taking a cruise is that the FBI will apparently arrange to have an agent ride shotgun with you, ensuring that you have a safe and enjoyable trip. So that is my travel tip for the month, which is strange because, as near as I can recall, I've never offered travel tips of the month before.
What I really wanted to say about the cruise industry is that it has, I couldn't help but notice, created a perfect little microcosm of the fully controlled police state. Cruises have always been, of course, pretentious ... wait a minute, that's not what I wanted to say ... what I meant to say is that cruises have always offered a totally artificial, controlled environment. But now, through the wonders of technology, they have added something new to the mix: cruise cards.
Your cruise card is issued to you at time of boarding, and you can pretty much throw everything else away at that time. Wallet? Identification? Credit cards? Money? Keys? Passport? You won't be needing any of that. Your cruise card is everything. It is your ID, your credit card, your room key, your gangway pass. If you were to fall overboard, you could probably use it as a floatation device. You don't go anywhere without it. You can't even get into your own room without it. And the whole time that you are carrying it - and this is the best part - it is creating a paper trail of everywhere you have been, everything that you have done, everything you have purchased, every time you have left the ship and, for all I know, the date, time and volume of all bodily wastes flushed into the ships holding tanks.
By the end of your cruise, your card will have created a printed record of your time on the ship that will, when you least expect it, suddenly appear under your door. It will remind you of everything that you have done on your vacation, including things that you perhaps don't want to be reminded of, and including things that you perhaps don't want your significant other informed or reminded of.
If, for example, you spent a few early morning hours slamming Mai Tais and pumping silver dollars into a slot machine while loudly singing "Margaritaville," your cruise card will faithfully report that fact, leaving you, ever the optimist, eternally grateful that cruise ships don't employ the services of hookers.
In completely unrelated news, one point was really driven home by my lengthy break from the computer: spam has gotten completely out of control. It occurs to me that this isn't likely an accident. Voices are being raised demanding that spam be brought under control before it brings the whole system down ... which sounds good in theory.
The problem, however, is that the current spam problem could well be, and very likely is, an artificially created one designed to necessitate the implementation of controls on 'spam' that will really be intended to control other types of mass mailings, and e-mail communications in general.
Speaking of e-mail, I received a few real e-mails along with the 600 or so spam mailings, so I thought I would share a few of them with you. First up is a piece of hate mail, which I really don't get enough of anymore, so I am honored to present it here:I was fortunate to stumble upon your site dedicated to feeding the delusions of the profoundly paranoid...had some great laughs and will share it with all my buds! While we consider ourselves fully armed against the harm of such memes and apreciate the assuredly unintentional humour in your delusions, we're concerned about the general public's famously poor "immune system" (skepticism) against such lunatic fringe "sneezes." We presume your psychotic episodes involve the channelling of Special Agent Mulder, and urge you to resume your regimen of medication.In keeping with my usual policy of providing anonymity to my readers, I will mention here only that this came from reader "Mark Deshaw" at MarkD@city.victoria.bc.ca. I mention this only because I presume that Mark will appreciate the shout-out and will, in the eyes of his "buds," be unapproachably cool after they read this.
But here is the thing that gets me about people like our friend Mark: he apparently failed to notice that the hit counter on my website registers merely hundreds of visitors a day, as opposed to the millions of hits a day that mainstream news sites get. That, you see, makes a big difference.
Voices like mine are, quite literally, voices in the wilderness. The average American is inundated constantly with voices of authority - from the media, from the political establishment, from a veritable army of paid 'professional' analysts, from opinion-shaping 'think tanks,' from Hollywood, from academia, from the church, from all directions - all assuring them that the status quo, while it may be flawed to some extent (with the nature and severity of those flaws varying somewhat based on whether the voice of authority is coming from the 'left' or the 'right'), is the only possible reality.
And yet if a few rebels stand apart, wielding only the powers of the Internet to offer a different reality to a limited audience, then that somehow constitutes a threat to the beloved status quo that our friend Mark wants so desperately to protect. Apparently, a few muzzled voices, straining desperately to be heard over the deafening barrage, pose a threat to the rock-solid U.S. ship of state, leaving poor Mark fretting over the possible dire consequences of having actual voices of dissent in the crowd, no matter how obscure and how few in number those voices may be.
And if I understand this correctly, it is we, meaning the readers of this newsletter other then Mark and his buds, who are the "profoundly paranoid." Do I have that about right, Mark?
Here's another thing that I noticed about Mark: he has that wonderfully elitist attitude that I frequently find among my hate mailers. Mark and his buds, you see, are, like, all smart and stuff, so they're like "fully armed against the harm," which kind of rhymes and sounds really cool, and they can even get some good laughs at my expense, from my "unintentional humour," which is how Mark spelled it, but that isn't really his fault as he apparently is Canadian, and Canadians tend to use the British spelling of words, rather than the correct American spellings. Because if we are going to be at all honest here, we have to acknowledge that the English do some seriously weird shit with the English language. They don't appear to know how to use it at all. They are forever throwing in extra vowels, adding a second alongside of one that is doing perfectly fine on its own. They'll use an "s" where any rational person would use a "z" or even a "c." What is up with that? You would think that if they are going to use our language, they would use it correctly.
But no. They like to do things their own way. Just like the French. And I'm not just talking about language here. They also measure distances in something called "kilometers." What the fuck is that? "The beach is just a few kilometers down the road." Well, thanks a lot, Pierre, but can you give me something I can use here? Don't give me your entirely logical, consistent and integrated units of measurement! Give me some random, arbitrary, and downright silly figures that I can make some sense of! Give me some feet, some yards, some miles ... something! Give me a bushel and a fucking peck!
Here's something else I noticed: they use 24 hour time! If you can't quite get your head around that, it is what we refer to as "military time." The military likes to use it because they are real sticklers for accuracy. But the rest of us realize that the bizarre, error-prone AM and PM system is better because everything that we do is better.
Here's yet another observation: the standard unit of currency, the Polynesian French Franc, is equal to one penny. One penny! All prices, therefore, are given as the number of pennies that it will cost you to make that particular purchase. Bizarre, isn't it? So if you were to, say, attempt to make a dinner reservation, you might have a conversation that goes something like this:
Hotel: "Okay, so I have two for dinner at 19h00. Is that right?"
You: "Uhh ... yeah ... I guess so ... but can we make it for sometime before 12:00? My watch only goes up to 12. I'm looking, but I don't see a 19 here anywhere."
Hotel: "Before 12h00? Okay, sir. So will that be for breakfast or lunch?"
You: "Well, I was hoping for dinner."
Hotel: "We don't serve dinner before 18h00, sir."
You: "Okay ... whatever ... I just want to eat."
Hotel: "Okay, sir, we have a Polynesian seafood buffet tonight for 7,500 francs. Would you like to try the buffet?"
You: "Uhmm ... I guess so ... how much for two?"
You: "Uhh ... yeah ... I guess that will be okay ... but I'm going to have to phone home to see if I can take out a second on my house."
Hotel: "That's fine, sir. You can use the phone in your room. That will be 500 for the first three minutes and 100 per minute thereafter. So we'll see you at 19h00? The restaurant is just about a quarter kilometer south of the pool."
You: "Uhh ... nevermind ... I think we'll just call room service. Thanks anyway."
Hotel: "Thank you, sir. And remember, we're having a special today in the hotel's boutique -- Speedos for just 7,000 francs."
But all of that is really beside the point, which is that Mark and his buds clearly view the general public with a considerable amount of contempt. The public has a "famously poor 'immune system'" against "lunatics" such as myself. But if the public is as gullible as Mark suggests, as vulnerable to even fringe voices, then how thoroughly could they be fooled by a criminal Washington establishment with a vast media empire at its disposal? How hard would it be, with an endless array of tools at hand, to pull the wool over the nation's eyes, and how great would be the temptation to do so?
But enough about that. I have another piece of hate mail here from Gagadew@aol.com. Mr. Dew is brief and to the point. He requires only two words to convey his response to my literary efforts: "Fuck You." I'm not sure how to respond to that. The wife suggested "Yo' mama." I have no idea what that means, but it's all I've got.
I have one last piece of mail here, from reader "Tim" in Ireland. Tim asks: "I presume Dave McGowan is a nom de plume, ie an identity used for your writings. May I ask what was your original name?"
Now this is, I suppose, a reasonable question in some respects. The name "McGowan" is, in Ireland, quite common. "Gowan" is actually the Gaelic equivalent of Smith, and the "Mc" (or an "O'") merely denotes "son of." So "McGowan" translates as "son of a Smith." I know this because I once visited Ireland and while taking a walk in a fairly remote wooded area along the western coast of the lush and beautiful island, I happened to cross paths with a local who informed me, quite excitedly and after I had introduced myself, that "I too am a McGowan!" He then explained to me the origins of our common surname. So if my information is incorrect, blame that other McGowan guy, not me.
So I guess the point is that if I were going to choose a pseudonym, "McGowan" would be a pretty good generic one. But if it were a pseudonym, wouldn't the purpose of using it be to conceal my true identity? And if I felt the need to use a pseudonym, wouldn't revealing my true name kind of defeat the entire elaborate ruse of adopting a pseudonym?
Anyway, the point is largely moot because the name I write under is the name that I was born with. I know this because it is also the name that was imprinted on my cruise card.
In related matters, some readers seem to be curious as to what I look like. I can understand that because I myself tend to create a mental image to go along with the words of writers whose appearance I know nothing about. And when reality meets those mental constructs, they never quite match up ... but enough about chat rooms.
In the interest then of providing an accurate mental picture for readers, I will just say two words here: Kevin Bacon. That is what I hear all the time, anyway. It is the name that some of my new in-laws know me by. It was the name that a couple of my fellow cruise passengers adopted for me. So there you have it. When you peruse these newsletters, think of Kevin Bacon. Except that I'm pretty sure that I look better in a Speedo than he does.