Archive | June, 2017

My vacation “homes”: Finding your tribe, finding yourself, in the unlikeliest of places

Sometimes I want to go where everybody knows your name. And (if you’re lucky) they’re always glad you came.

My favorite vacation spots are places that somehow manage to feel like home. During my 20s and 30s, I drove to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware whenever possible. My friends Ken and Richard took me under my wing when I was fresh out of college and let me crash at their pad more times than I can count.

Richard grew up in Rehoboth and his family operates the beach concessions, including chairs, umbrellas, and food shacks. This means he knows EVERYONE in town. Ken used to wait tables and now manages the best restaurant in town, where people dine on sweetbreads and tiramisu while perusing the current art exhibit on the walls. (Richard, a fine artist, has a show there every other summer.) Ken knows everyone as well. They are a serious seashore power couple.

I consider Rehoboth my home away from home, and I’ve felt that way ever since my toes touched sand, my teeth sank into a Thrasher’s fry, and I met all the colorful and warm people who live in and visit Rehoboth. Everything just fit into place and it’s now one of the few places where I can truly relax and feel right at home.

Living in the northwest, I’ve come to feel similarly about a handful of places—Whidbey and Orcas islands, in particular. But I never thought I’d feel that way on a tiny island in the South Pacific. For all of my waxing rhapsodic about Rehoboth, I’m not a warm-weather person. I will usually choose the chill of the Northwest to the humid beaches of the tropics. But on Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, I’ve come to feel right at home, even as I swat mosquitos and dart in and out of the sun.

And it’s because of the people. Cook Islanders are Maoris and slip back and forth between their native language and English. But their welcoming nature is constant. Carl and I just returned after almost a whole month on the small island. That much time allowed us to ease into the relaxed pace of the islanders. Rather than overscheduling due to a massive case of FOMO that many vacationers experience, we were able to pick and choose activities, based on how we felt and the invitations that cropped up. We decided on dinner based on what Carl caught when he went out fishing with Black Jack. Usually it was tuna but we had a killer dinner of fish and chips made with fresh wahoo. Black also gifted us a haunch of pork, hoof still attached. The Boat Shed or Tupuna’s didn’t stand a chance in the face of pulled pork.

Black invited us to his home for a barbecue, which we found out was a birthday celebration for his 18-year-old daughter. We were the only Caucasians in attendance but I’ll tell you what, I quickly relaxed because I realized I was experiencing the alternate version of my Midwestern upbringing. It all was comfortingly familiar: the men told tall tales and railed against Trump while knocking back bottles of beer and Black Jack carefully tended to the grill, cooking up marinated fish rather than burgers and hot dogs. The table was laden with what I think of as standard “American” picnic fare: potato salad and cole slaw. Those dishes were joined by ika mata (the island’s signature dish of tuna in lime and coconut milk), bananas, and boiled arrowroot. We said grace and sang happy birthday (that awful song is the same even in the southern hemisphere). It was as if I met a swarthier version of my own family. In a word, lovely.

With Onu, owner of Bubbles Below

A photo of myself I never imagined I’d see

And then there was Onu (the Maori word for “turtle”), a sturdy, good-natured man who owns the diving company on the island. He talked me into a “Discovery Dive,” an idea that would never float in the U.S. because of the liability concerns. But to my surprise, I found myself swimming 13 meters underwater while a sea turtle and manta rays wafted by. It was enchanting.

Not so magical was wiping out on my scooter. But Miles, the manager of our bungalow turned into the driveway right after I managed to park the scooter. He got me a first-aid kit and bent bits and pieces back into the place on the bike. Between my accident and our constant issues with wi-fi, I suspect we were pretty high maintenance but he was always kind and accommodating. Sonja, who owns a café and garden market, added some fresh aloe to my tomatoes, basil and starfruit basket so I could tend to my road rash. Jean, who runs a fresh fruit ice cream stand, took out a giant mud crab from her freezer to show me.

These were all people we can’t wait to spend time with during our next visit. The thing is, when I was on Aitutaki—as in Rehoboth—I’m a person I can’t wait to spend time with. I stop and talk with strangers, I listen to their stories, I’m curious, I’m spunkier. Everyone acknowledges that travel widens your perspective but I’d also add that it helps move you closer to your best self, something that gets lost in our daily schedules and routines. And when you find a tribe at your travel destination, your best self is reflected back at you.

Michelle Obama once said that it bugged her when people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up because that assumed that we arrive at some sort of fixed state when we are actually always becoming. I hope your summer travels take you to a place where you can continue becoming an even more astonishing version of yourself (minus the road rash).