Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

The full moon’s reflection splintered into bronze ripples on the surface of the Mae Ping River. On the shore, worshipers lit tea candles and launched them into the river on handmade boats known as krathong. Like thousands of glittering sparks cast off from the moon itself, they floated down the gently undulating river. On this final day of the Loy Krathong Festival in Chiang Mai, I had joined thousands of Thais to pay my respects to the river goddess. The event is named for the Thai word “loy,” which means to float, and “krathong,” a type of boat made from folded banana leaves. But while the name of the festival is easy to explain, its origins remain shrouded in mystery.

Offering prayers before setting krathongs afloat on the river

Offering prayers before setting krathongs afloat on the river

Some claim it can be traced to a footprint that Buddha is said to have left on the beach of the Namada River in India. Krathongs were believed to atone for the sin of riverboats passing over his footprint throughout the year. In rural Thai villages, elders launch krathongs to ask forgiveness from the river goddess, Phra Mae Kongkha, for having polluted the waterways. Interestingly, the word Khongkha in Thai translates to “Ganga” in Hindu, the word for India’s Holy Ganges River. Read More

My bed said it all. Using pieces carved from dried palm leaves, the housekeepers at Tahiti Pearl Beach Resort and Spa had meticulously spelled out “Ia ora na” across my king-size mattress. They added a dash of color with fresh flowers plucked from the garden and sweetened the offering with two bars of exfoliating soap made especially for the resort, using sand from its black beach. “Ia ora na” was a phrase I would hear repeatedly during my visit to Tahiti. Though technically it means “good morning” in Tahitian, I was greeted with it all hours of the day.

"Ia ora na" - the word that Tahitians use to greet one another - was spelled out on my king size bed

“Ia ora na” – the word that Tahitians use to greet one another – was spelled out on my king size bed

The rest of my deluxe ocean view suite was equally impressive. Fresh flowers and plush towels were scattered around my luxurious bathroom, which featured an enormous soaking tub. The spacious living room, which was divided into separate areas for relaxing and working, was decorated with murals based on indigenous Tiki designs. Details included two flat screen TV’s, a custom pod coffee maker, a large safe, cotton robes and slippers, iron and ironing board, and super fast wifi. Read More

The seaman was a shock at first. I’d stepped through the bulkhead door and into a dim interior passageway on board the Aranui 5 cruise ship. When my eyes finally adjusted from the brilliant sunshine outside, I found myself staring into the face of a sailor who was tattooed from head to foot. After my initial shock, I gathered my wits and asked permission to take his photo. He stared back, perhaps as curious about me as I was about him, but then nodded once. Over the next two weeks, I would learn that tattoos in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia are not only accepted but cherished.

Seaman aboard the Aranui 5 cruise ship is covered from head to toe in tattoos in the Marquesas Islands

Seaman aboard the Aranui 5 cruise ship is covered from head to toe in tattoos

Tattooing was practiced at least as far back at Neolithic times. The mummified body of Ötzi the Iceman, discovered on the border between Italy and Austria in 1991, has been dated to between 3370 and 3100 B.C. The Iceman had 61 tattoos. Over the centuries, tattooing has been practiced for a variety of spiritual and protective purposes, but perhaps nowhere has it been more strongly ingrained than in the culture of the Marquesas Islands. Read More

Perhaps the best way to see French Polynesia is to take a cruise on the Aranui 5, a combination cruise ship and freighter. The ship visits three of the island groups in the French territory and delivers freight to all six of the inhabited islands in the Marquesas Archipelago. In this video, I interview Tino, head of freight operations for Aranui, who has been with the company for 35 years. He reminisces about the early days aboard Aranui 1 and 2, when many of the islands did not have docks and everything – sacks of cement, bags of flour, and even vehicles – had to offloaded by hand.

The best way to see French Polynesia is a aboard the Aranui 5, a combination cruise ship and freighter

The best way to see French Polynesia is a aboard the Aranui 5, a combination cruise ship and freighter

Not only do most of the villages now have dock facilities, the Aranui 5 is equipped with two massive cranes that makes this vital lifeline to the remote Marquesas much easier. One afternoon, rather than go ashore, I stayed behind and watched the entire freight operation from the Sky Lounge. From telephone poles to frozen foods to boats and ships, there seemed to be no limits to what the ship could carry. The biggest surprise? When they loaded a Read More

I sometimes wonder what makes a trip memorable. I’ve traveled around 97 countries and six territories and, honestly, there are times when I can’t remember what country I am in, much less which city. My memories of destinations are sometimes indistinct. I can see the houses, the streets, the people, and even recall specific situations, but for the life of me, I can’t remember where they occurred. On the other hand, some places are indelibly etched into my psyche. The ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu blazing gold under a setting sun. Holding hands with the Dalai Lama in Washington D.C. My very first sighting of wild elephants, zebras, and giraffes on safari in Tanzania. But most often, it’s a simple act of kindness or generosity that makes a place memorable. This is precisely what happened in the Marquesas Islands.

Mama Sara, head crafter on the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia, demonstrates how to make a floral headdress known as an "umu hei"

Mama Sara, head crafter on the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia, demonstrates how to make a floral headdress known as an “umu hei”

Flowers are an important part of the culture and history of French Polynesia. Passengers arriving in Tahiti are presented with handmade floral leis as they disembark planes. The air is heavily scented by trees and bushes that bloom year-round. However, it is in the remote Marquesas Islands where flowers are inextricably woven into the fabric of everyday life. Here the women wear elaborate handmade floral headdresses. Though often referred to as simply “hei,” the formal name for these headdresses is “umu hei.” A contraction of two Polynesian words, “umu” means aphrodisiac or inflamed, and “hei” is the Polynesian word for wreath. Women believe that wearing a crown of flowers heightens their sensuality and makes them more attractive to the opposite sex. Read More

One thing I know for sure. Not all cruises are created equal. I have long eschewed voyages on behemoth cruise ships that carry up to 6,000 passengers and offer on-board amenities like water slides, rock-climbing walls, and miniature golf. Likewise, I have no interest in glitzy ports where the focus is on shopping, or on shore excursions that offer bungee jumping or zip lining. As a traveler who thrives on cultural immersion, I want to learn about the history of a destination, sample authentic cuisine, and talk to locals who can share their beliefs, traditions, hopes, and aspirations. After my two-week French Polynesia cruise, I can honestly say that nobody does that better than Aranui.

The Aranui 5, a combination passenger ship and freighter, offers a French Polynesia cruise around the Marquesa Islands in the South Pacific

The Aranui 5, a combination passenger ship and freighter, offers a French Polynesia cruise around the Marquesa Islands in the South Pacific

The Aranui 5 is operated by Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime (C.P.T.M.), a third-generation maritime company that was founded as a freight service in 1954 by the patriarch of the Wong family from Tahiti. The firm’s original ship, Aranui I, supplied and conducted trade between Tahiti (located in the Society Island group) and the Tuamotu and Gambiers Archipelagos, three of the five island groups that comprise French Polynesia. In 1978, the company added a commercial line that served the Marquesas Archipelago and in 1984 the Aranui began to offer cruises. Half of the ship was converted into 108 passenger cabins and common areas, while the other half was reserved for freight operations. Today the company’s fourth vessel, the Aranui 5, still delivers supplies to all six of the inhabited islands in the Marquesas. Over the past 34 years, it has helped revitalize the long forgotten Marquesan culture and contributed to the local economy by introducing these islands to more than 45,000 travelers. Read More