It probably won’t come as a complete shock that I have always, for as long as I can remember, had a fierce sense of wanderlust. As a young child and well into adulthood, I absorbed anything and everything about foreign cultures and far-flung locales. Instead of pinups, my room as a teenager had random flags of the world and many of the books I read tended to help satiate these feelings to get out there and see the world. Two authors in particular have helped fuel this need to travel, both to the same location. As frustrating as it might be, I still haven’t visited the South Pacific, but it’s an itch I need to scratch.
In 1947 James Michener wrote Tales of the South Pacific. The collection of short stories were based on his World War II service in the Pacific theater and went on to be adapted to the hit musical ‘South Pacific.’ He later wrote a magnum opus about Hawaii, starting literally with the formation of the islands through volcanic eruption. Though technically the North Pacific, Hawaii along with South Pacific are what started my mild obsession.
It’s not what you think either. While alluring for some, the idea of spending my days on a remote beach while at first sounds nice, but I know that I would be bored within an hour. It’s not the sun bathing that captured my attention, it’s a combination of things that may be too hard to explain. More than anything else, I think it’s because like so few other places around the planet, the South Pacific truly is The Escape.
Why do we travel? To see amazing sights, to have fun, to relax – all of these are true and perfectly valid. But it’s mainly an escape. An escape from daycare, voicemail, email, real mail, bosses, employees, bills, responsibilities; travel allows us to slough off the mantle of modern living and, even if just for a few days, to live a different life, to be someone else. No longer are you Joe Smith, mild mannered attorney and father of 3, you are James Bond, driving a convertible down the French Riviera to Monaco for some baccarat and who knows what else. It may not be true, but that’s the allure.
People have always sought this and since Western man first found the South Pacific, this area in particular has served as the ultimate Escape for just about everyone. In 1891, Gauguin left the salons of Paris and sailed to French Polynesia to escape European civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional”. During his time he created some of his most famous works and ended up relocating permanently in French Polynesia. Now that I think of it, he may have been one of the first to bring the images of the South Pacific back to the Western World and to begin the process of inculcating it as The Ultimate Vacation.
Then, a few years ago, I read Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz. Even though some ‘experts’ and critics panned it, I loved it. I loved it for its ability to, like Michener, transport me to the South Pacific and to experience what it means to really be as far away from civilization as you can possibly be. Unlike Michener though, Horwitz paints a much different picture of the islands and the people who call them home. Turns out modernity hasn’t necessarily been kind to these remote scraps of land dotting the Pacific ocean like a watery constellation. Sure, the pristine beaches, bungalows suspended over quiet bays and remoteness still exist, but Horwitz also shares the fact that these places suffer from poverty and neglect. The citizens of Tahiti and Fiji live in paradise, so they should be happy, right? One wonders where their dream Escape destination is.
Whether or not it’s the super rosy Gauguin/Michener image of the South Pacific or the more rough around the edges version shared by Horwitz, I still want to see all aspects of the South Pacific. I think that the real reason for this pining, this fierce desire to see it, to experience it is best described by the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, Southern Cross:
“When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, you understand now why you came this way.”
Even though I know it’s not the answer to the Ultimate Escape and that I’m highly unlikely to sell everything and run a charter yacht business in Papeete, I won’t know what the South Pacific truly has in store for me until I visit for myself. Until then, photos like the ones in this post as shared by NAME will just have to keep me going.
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