Ten days spent on a freighter not so much threated by rust as held together by it convinced me it was time to pick an island, any island. So I picked Pig. Part travel-agent calendar and part Far-Side cartoon, the flat, Western Pacific island of Pig was a destination so familiar I wondered why I had bothered coming it all. Easy to say in New York City that I wanted to move to a thirty-acre island 4,480 miles southwest of Hawaii, but now I was about to actually do it.
I’d come to Pig, a remote, outer island of Yap, in search of capital-P, Paradise. Not a unique mission, granted, but I wanted to know if Paul Gauguin’s Paradise still existed – the one with the flowering trees glistening with recent rain, the beautiful women carrying baskets of fruit, the smiling tigers. And if it did, why didn’t people just move there? Was it lack of ambition or too much ambition that kept them away? Or was life simply too hard on a place like Pig? Or too easy? I didn’t know. I had a hunch that an ideal life is not something you just back into. You have to make some arrangements.
For me, those arrangements started months earlier but finished here, in a small cabin of the aptly-named Microspirit, with me trying to tie on a thu or loincloth. According to custom, I was supposed to wrap eight-feet of blue cloth in such a way that it covered the right places without making me look like a prom-night carnation. I failed in both respects. Flamboyant hoops of extra material draped off my hips yet I could feel cool air in increasingly funny places. Unsure what else to do, I crammed the extra bits inside an inner loop but that sufficiently loosened things enough to send the whole thing sliding down to my ankles.
As I struggled through a variety of revealing compromises, I glanced out the salt-covered porthole of my tiny cabin. Dozens of people - shirtless men in (perfectly tied) thu’s, topless women in grass skirts, and naked children - had gathered along Pig’s narrow beach, eager to greet the first ship they’d seen in six months. The children splashed in the calm, turquoise-clear water. The adults stood in the shade under palm trees whose trunks were bent permanently backward by the constant breeze. Pig appeared flat enough that were the weather to worsen – not typhoon worsen, just a little windier worsen – waves could wash over the entire island, submerging this little saucer of crushed coral like a dish in a sink slowly filling with water.
That, however, was a problem for another day. My thu was not coming together at all. That is, until, genius stuck…a safety pin! Then genius unstruck: I didn’t have a safety pin. In a humbling moment of desperation akin to looking for a misplaced wallet in the freezer, I scoured under my cabin’s metal bed – perhaps a safety pin had just fallen down there. I was in luck. Sort of. Along with some dust and Pop-Tart crumbs I found a paperclip. Not perfect, but with hope and a little pluck, I managed to bend the paperclip in such a way that it nicely accessorized if not actually fastened my loincloth.
In the distance I heard a chain uncurl, indicating that the dingy that would take passengers to shore was about to leave. I gave my thu a final tug and grabbed a Ziplock bag of Lucky Strikes. My plan: present the cigarrettes to the island’s chiefs, take a look around, and assuming it was the Paradise I pretty much expected it to be, ask if I could stay. Given the Microspirit’s tight schedule as it circuited the outlying islands of Yap, I’d have only an hour to make a good impression, and, hopefully, a decision, before rushing back to the boat to get my bag of clothes and books.
I went out on deck and looked down at the dingy. It rocked in the waves maybe 35 feet below, loaded to the rim with elderly, topless women, a wooden coffin, and a mountain of baskets and Tupperware.
Getting into a small boat is always a tricky proposition. Getting into a rocking boat in the open ocean is even harder. Doing so on a rope ladder in a thu more difficult still. But this was my my Pacific coming-out party. I wanted to wow them.
“Alex, use the ladder,” an enormous man in a snug, white thu advised, as though I might just make a leap for it. A living tongue twister, he’d introduced himself a few days earlier as “Chief Chuck from Chuuk.”
He waited for a wave to raise the dingy closer. “Like this,” he said as he slid down the ladder and flopped heavily into the boat, mushing some tupperare against the side of the coffin in the process. Lying on his back, he waved for me to follow. His satisfied expression suggested his embarkation had gone perfectly. With one hand holding the smokes and the rope and the other firmly holding my thu, I took a few, tentative steps down the ladder.
While in the Pacific, I’d hoped to reduce the number of variables in my life to find out which were the most imporant - take away electricity and friends and see which I miss the most, that kind of thing. Clothes, however, were never supposed to be on the list.
Still fifteen feet up, I discovered why the inventor of the paperclip, Walter Hunt, later built America’s first sewing machine: paperclips bend. My thu covered me in the same way holding up a pair of jeans in front of your privates might cover you; it worked well enough, but, at that moment at least, not all angles were created equal. In need of escape from my escape, I found myself fixating on the physicality of things: the handles on a woven basket, the sun reflecting off the dingy’s small outboard engine, the scar on a woman’s ankle.
Before I slipped into a thu-induced stupor, gravity took over. That, frothing fear, and the basic instinct not to dangle nearly naked in front of twenty elderly women. I slid down the ladder and tumbled into the dingy, successfully holding onto only my Ziploc of Lucky Strikes. Not exactly Fred Astaire, but Chief Chuck from Chuuk was hardly Ginger Rogers. I had arrived, and I was pretty sure I’d wowed them.