Due to one of those time glitches of scheduling travel within travel, Hunter and I spent about three hours in an open air restaurant waiting for the ferry to take us from Tahiti to Moorea. It wasn't the lush view of the mountain or the sun glittering on the lagoon, but at least it had comfortable tables and the breeze was cool. I watched the people passing through, ordering lunch or snacks or Hinano beer. A tall man with sunglasses and a puppy ordered a beer and sat toward the back alone. I might not have noticed him at all if it hadn't been for the puppy. It looked like baby pit bull, its belly resting against the palm of the man's hand, and it observed the world with the stoic gaze from its blue eyes.
I watched other people, birds, played imaginary tetris with containers. At one point Hunter tapped me and indicated that I look at something over my shoulder. It was the same man holding the puppy near the railing as if showing it something below. When I turned back to Hunter he was holding his hand on his chest, his eyes wide with shock. "I only wanted you to see the puppy. If I would have known he was going to hold it over the railing I wouldn't have made you look."
He was mostly joking, the puppy hadn't been dangled, and soon the man went back to his seat, and later he took his empty beer back to the counter and walked away. I was surprised later, at least an hour, that he was still there. I wondered if he was waiting, like us, for the ferry. I'd assumed he was a local and as such he might have known that the ferry had a limited schedule on Sundays. Eventually I lost track of him again, as we purchased our tickets and boarded the ferry with cars and mopeds, families counting suitcases, a group of teenage girls from some kind of sporting event, excited to order the swirls of pale chocolate and vanilla soft serve and french fries from the snack bar in the middle of the ferry. Eventually we escaped the din of the dining section and went to the front where we watched the lush tree covered atoll approach.
We debarked into a chaotic port and waited for mini tractors to unload the pallets of luggage from the yawning belly of the ferry. People around us chatted in French and Polynesian but eventually we found transportation to the Intercontinental Resort: the local bus. It was sparsely crowded, but the seats were small enough that Hunter and I could not sit near each other and keep our luggage, too. I wedged my suitcase into the aisle seat and clamored over it, ready to see what I might see out my bus window.
But as I was settling who did I see sitting opposite me alone on the bus but the same man with the puppy from the ferry restaurant. He did not smile at me or in any way acknowledge my presence, even though we'd sat within a few meters of each other for literally hours and I'd given the puppy plenty of glances. He didn't acknowledge the puppy resting against his chest either, except the occasional brushing whups on its nose as he moved it from one arm to the other. I began to wonder what kind of culture this was, in regard to animals. Everyone I'd met so far had been warm and friendly to...other people. For all I knew this was some kind of dog-fighting initiation. For all I knew the puppy could be this man's lunch.
I turned my attention to the window. Moorea is not a big island and the local bus gave me a chance to see plenty of locals gathering at the beaches and walking from house to house. I could smell the dinners from the ahi ma'a, the way of cooking food long and slow in banana leaves in an underground oven. There were dogs too, untethered and at ease, ears bouncing and tails making slow circles as they maneuvered from yard to yard. It rained softly, and I saw one of those rare sights no camera could justice, a rainbow over the mountain. It put it me in mind of my long dead sister, who had saved pictures of rainbows and painted them.
The bus had stopped and there was movement, but I was lost in my own thoughts and wasn't paying much attention. We were at a village. Outside my window a girl with long black hair straddled a bicycle. I couldn't see her face, but her posture was that of a young person, and she held out her hands in reception. I couldn't tell if she was happy or sad, but I could see the face of the man handing her the puppy.
I knew that face. The man at the ferry restaurant had been a stranger to me, but in his expression now he was as familiar as my own face in the mirror. I didn't know if the girl was his wife or his daughter or girlfriend, but I knew her happiness was reflected in the joy in his face as he held out the puppy to her, and I knew that man's heart, then, like I know my own.
When you travel you think you’re getting away from it all. But you can’t get away, not really, because wherever you go, you take yourself with you, and that includes all your habits and judgments and predisposed states of mind. What you can do though, is see humanity through the lens of another culture, and that alone makes the trip worthwhile.