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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Swimming with Sharks

Flying into Tahiti for my transfer to Bora Bora couldn’t have been a more anticipated arrival. The South Pacific was full of gems, but Bora Bora was the crown jewel and I absolutely couldn’t wait to get there. Cook Islands bad luck leftover, my flight arrived into Tahiti at 12:05 AM and my charter to Bora Bora didn’t leave until 6:40 AM. So in the open-air facility, lacking nooks or benches to curl up on, no Internet facilities, and at that hour, people, I remained wide-eyed for six hours in dire wait playing solitaire on the airport floor. A most luxurious entry into the Society Islands... When I finally got to take my place on the left side of the plane, the better vantage point for Taha’a, Huahine, and Moorea flyovers, I couldn’t even keep my eyes open to appreciate the view. But as we started our descent into Bora Bora, I was jarred into semi-consciousness and amazed at the sight below. I had assumed French Polynesia would be Maldive-esque—glorified sand bars boasting high-end accommodations—but the geography of Bora Bora, quite literally, astounded me. Mountains reached up toward the skies, an electric blue border surrounded, the magic of Bora Bora began before we even landed.

It was easy to forget that French Polynesia was, indeed, French. It took a bit of getting used to; there was no black clothing in Bora Bora, there were no baguette carts, no cafes to linger in over long, literature themed lunches; it was all floral button down shirts, colorful ruffle dresses, flip-flops, and leis. Stray dogs roamed the streets, barking and copulating at will, rather than yapping on leather leashes pulled by fabulous designer clad owners. Hawaii with a French accent. It was such a welcome change after Aussie and Kiwi twanged, Fiji and Cook Island inflected English, but at the same time, slightly off. I took a spot on the beach as soon as I arrived at my hotel. The view couldn’t have been better, white sandy beaches, turquoise decorated by over-water huts on the horizon, palm trees and lush tropical plants at the shoreline, sailboats, catamarans, dinghys whizzing to and fro at sea. Immediately, I booked into my dives. Each morning, I’d do two dives. I’d have afternoons to relax. Oui, oui….

My life in Bora Bora was about diving, eating, reading and trying desperately not to think about going home. At 7 AM each morning I boarded my diveboat with Xavier, my hot, French, chain-smoking Speedo-clad divemaster who called me Ma-ree. After assembling my tank and weights, I’d settle in for the stops at each successively nicer hotel than mine—the Intercontinental, Le Meridien, St. Regis—to pick up the other divers. The water was still, our boat making the first disruption of the perfect mountain reflections. Then, we’d dive.

Now, I’ve done dives in a lot of fantastic places. My log book reads like a who’s who of exotic locales, but THESE dives rocked my world. They were one after the other better than the one before. Why? Talk about swimming with sharks. The Pacific is rife with sharks of all varieties—nurse, tiger, hammerhead, white reef-tipped, black reef-tipped, lemon, grey, barracuda—and I’ve seen them all. Just NEVER like THIS. They were all present at once, circling in peaceful lurk, fins slicing the water around the boat. In that surreal Jaws moment, we’d jump in the water (!), fins circling around us. My heart leapt each time. Awesome. As we let the air out of our BCDs (vests) and descended down 20, 30, 40, 50 feet, we sank through schools of them. They just hung out with us, next to us, on top of us, underneath us. 20, 30, 40, 50 of them. If the opportunity presented that we were far enough out of their way, the deck hands threw over some chum and we’d watch them go to town. If not, we’d just peacefully co-exist for the 40-50 minutes we had underwater, visiting their world. I never wanted to surface when my air signaled ascension. I just wanted more bottom time. It was sublime.

The island shut down at around 11 PM, which was fine with me as I had early dives. Being rainy season, taxi service was nil, restaurants transported you to and from in shuttles or boats. There was no nightlife. I was the only person in one restaurant, a sandy shack with coconut shell decoration called Bloody Mary’s that was the prototype for all fresh fish joints in the South Pacific. It came highly recommended; it was just the wrong season; you had to reserve “months ahead in summer.” With natural beauty like this, I couldn’t imagine any season could disappoint but Bora Bora most definitely had an off-season, and regardless of the good weather I was getting, for the expense, most stayed away until the sun was guaranteed to shine. For me, as it was, it was perfection.

I was devastated to leave Bora Bora on my final day, waving madly to Xavier as the diveboat pulled away without me. But, I still had Moorea. Closer to Tahiti, Moorea was more built up—if only by a fraction—than Bora Bora. There were actual shopping enclaves on Moorea, selling, of course, Tahitian black pearls. After taking a crash course in quality (A-D), luster (+/-), size (7mm and up), and shape (R-round, SR-semi-round, O-oval), I settled on a pair for my mom and a pair for me. She would be so relieved; she could ditch her fakes. I was so excited; I'd acquired life jewels. Moorea was more mountainous than Bora Bora, the lagoon surrounding smaller, but I was not at all complaining. Every breath I took in that fabled land was a deep breath, a treasured breath, a forever with me breath.

When I arrived back at the Tahiti airport, in the rain, to another wait -- this time 14 hours -- I opted out of a drenched, solitary second stay in the airport. Seeing a direct flight to JFK boarding, I ditched my return ticket through LAX on Air New Zealand and purchased the last-minute, direct one-way on Tahiti Nui. With minutes to spare, I passed through customs, threw my North Face into the overhead, and called it trip.

Maybe NYC Marie isn’t so far gone, after all…

~M

1 comment:

Jam♥ said...

Lovely adventure~