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Captain Fatty And Polynesian Hospitality

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. This summer, we've been receiving communiques from Captain Fatty Goodlander, the editor-at-large of Cruising World Magazine. He's continuing to sail his boat, The Wild Card, across the seas. This weekend, he sent this message in a bottle.

Captain FATTY GOODLANDER (Editor-At-Large, Cruising World Magazine): My wife, Carolyn, and I are currently cruising the South Pacific and it's increasingly obvious to us it's almost impossible to "outgift" a Polynesian. No matter how much we give them, clever people that they are, they always manage to give us back more and more and more. You know, it's kind of embarrassing. They have almost nothing and yet they can consistently outgift us. It is as if social encounters are a contest, and the person who leaves with the most stuff loses.

Take the pearl carver we recently met in the Tuamotos in French Polynesia, for example. I gave his kids a tiny stuffed rabbit and he immediately gifted us back with an intricate good-luck carving he wore around his neck. I couldn't believe it. It was a beautiful, lovely piece. I attempted to refuse, but I quickly realized I was now obliged to accept. So accept I did with lavish, heartfelt praise. Thinking quick, Carolyn handed me a copy of one of my books, "Chasing The Horizon," I think, and I autographed it to him with a flourish. Anyway, the pearl carver held the book with trembling hands and then he dashed home and spent all that evening straight through to dawn carving me a pearl.

I have never, ever received such a lovely gift. Just the pearl alone itself was huge. But the carving, as intricate and as personal as it was, was absolute magic. Now this pearl carver's big dream was to wear a Harley-Davidson T-shirt. I know - I know that sounds might tacky to us, but no culture can judge another culture without the prism of their own. So we eventually sent that carver various Harley-Davidson ticky-tac from New Zealand, Australia, India, South Africa. We even sent Carolyn's 78-year-old mother into a Harley dealership in Chicago where she bought half the store.

Thus, in the end, we gave him more stuff that he gave us. Ha, ha! We won. Isn't that a marvelous way to do business?

More recently, in the Hapai Group of Tonga, we were invited ashore for dinner by the Lopolo(ph) family. Dirt poor, literally, their tiny beach hut was made of palm fronds and sticks, hard-packed dirt floor, goats and pigs wandered about. There was absolutely no metal anywhere, save for their centrally displayed symbols of wealth. Eight unwashed tin cans, food cans nailed proudly to the wall, proof of the generosity of their Yaddi(ph) friends over the years.

They did not have a single penny to their names, but they were great and gracious hosts with finer manners than most Westerners I know. We ate taro and breadfruit and yams, fish, octopus, shellfish and an unlimited supply of fresh coconuts to wash it all down with. The midday meal lasted all day and stretched into the night. I played my guitar. They played their ukulele. It was heaven on earth, a precious moment lost in time.

We were ancient sailing explorers. They, the generous Polynesian hosts. The following day we left, but not before gifting them with a fillet knife and some fish hooks and two cans of corned beef. But somehow, I feel as if we've shortchanged them. They were so loving and childlike with their affection, so pure and in the moment. I have nothing to teach them and everything to learn from them. Thus, I sail and sail and sail.

HANSEN: Captain Fatty Goodlander. You can track his progress on The Wild Card and hear more essays at our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.