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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…


Monday, April 14, 2008

The Hex of the International Dateline

Time has given me perspective; distance altered my outlook. Now, I’d go back in a heartbeat. However, when I was in the Cook Islands, it felt far from easy…

The Cook Islands stint began as my very own Groundhog’s Day, 3/9 repeated, crossing the international dateline from Auckland to Rarotonga. A Kiwi 3/9, a Cook 3/9. By crossing the dateline, I realized I was now closer to American time zones than I was to Australian ones. Sadly, I was en route home. The islands of the South Pacific being extraordinarily expensive go-to destinations to hop around, I had queried the “premier” hotel on each Cook (Rarotonga and Aitutaki) – owned by the same parent company – about the possibility of a discounted rate. I fudged the details, writer, book, blah blah blah, and seeing that the same schtick had worked to magnificent result in other cities, what could it hurt if it worked in the setting of settings? It worked! I was getting a 60% off deal at both locations, and an over-water suite on Aitutaki. I couldn’t wait.

But shuttled under the cover of darkness to the Rarotonga resort, at which I would only stay one night, I foresaw problems on the horizon. I just felt that the Cooks were going to be a let down. The hotel itself was more island kitsch than island fabulous. In my head, I had prepped for island fabulous. It was pouring when I woke the next morning to a soggy dining room breakfast that felt more mess hall with the suspended ceiling canoe. Eggs were extra, so were pancakes. Pooh! Luckily, I was headed to Aitutaki for five days. Hopefully, the rain would abate. When the sole passengers on my charter were the Rarotonga rugby team, my spirits lifted. But, touching down onto a soaked, muddy airstrip, I didn’t think I would get to play cheerleader to the hot, Pacific islanders of my in-flight reality.

From overhead, Aitutaki was a sight to behold; a densely tropical island with a border of the most turquoise blue water I’d ever seen. Situated in a lagoon, Aitutaki looked like the island of my imagination. That was, until I arrived at the hotel. A rickety wooden boat transported guests from Aitutaki proper to my hotel, the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort, which I loved. It felt exclusive, like I was being allowed entry to a secret world. But expectations weren’t met once I reached the other side. I was in sleepaway camp, in the 1970’s. Peeling, red, painted bunks, open volleyball netted sand patches, a rec room, a dining room, an activities desk, and a decrepit pool that suffers from both algae and inattention. I was supposed to have an overwater bungalow, but there were none available. Pouring still, I was shown to my room. A decorating throwback to an earlier time. Lazy, nothing to do, I fell asleep and prayed for a better 3/10.

It was still pouring the next morning. I was hyper-aware of this because I was awakened in alarm over and over again as coconuts fell on the roof of my bungalow. After lunch, I’d watched the same movies on repeat on the three channels I had access to. I’d read a whole book and I was out of options. When the rain let up a little, I headed back over in the rickety boat and rented a scooter. Time to explore. And there, it started to change. On my little scooter, I was back to travel Marie. The main land of Aitutaki was a sparsely populated place with only a few real establishments along the main roads. Tons of churches abounded with bells being run by hand, a few soda shops, and hundreds of little shacks in varying shades of bright colors set against the dewy mountain green or ocean blue backdrops. They all were dilapidated but charming, laundry lines full of moist clothes draping out front, pairs of shoes left next to doors. I was having the time of my life, American biker chic, skirt bunched in between my legs, hair flying, around Aitutaki, Cook Islands. The islanders loved that I was American. This gave them a reference point: Survivor. That was all they wanted to talk about. When the show filmed, ½ of the island was employed by Mark Burnett’s company. Since, the Aitutaki residents had seemed to have fallen on harder times. Only, yep, rain curtailed my exploration… Riding back to the Lagoon Resort in the pelting droplets wasn’t fun, but I decided to rent the bike for the remainder of my stay. It seemed to be my only salvation.

The night brought a traditional Polynesian dance show of grass skirts and lively colored costumes. Passed down from generation to generation, the dancers told stories through their movements. My favorite was the little chubby girl who had no idea of her weight. In Polynesia, it seemed girth was a sign of power and importance. Personally, seeing the lifestyle, I think girth came from laziness, but hey ~ who was I to argue with Polynesian lore. There, I met Uwe, my Viennese savior. Also staying at the Lagoon Resort, we shared four (yes, four!) bottles of wine, closed down the restaurant, and became Aitutaki friends for life. When I woke the next morning to sun, I couldn’t have been happier, minus the hangover. But, the bike beckoned and before I had become sufficiently bronzed, I was back motoring through the bush, waving to stoop-standing locals, and found a dive shop at which to book a scuba day. Had I known that since there are no actual wharfs on Aitutaki to dock boats, that I would have to suffer an hour-long drive at 5 mph with the dive boat attached to a tractor to get both the boat and the dive gear to the water, I might’ve rethought my plans. Yes, things were THAT backwards in the Cook Islands…

Since it rained most of the time, I complained a lot. I know I did. The staff didn’t answer my calls to the front desk quickly enough, room service took hours, their Internet was down, my A/C didn’t work. The topper of all these things was getting stuck alone in the rain on my broken down scooter on a back road. It took about 2 hours for someone to discover me, and old man and his wife. She waited with my bike while we rode back to the shop for assistance. Thank god for them. I think I’d still be there. Finally, as if they had enough, the hotel upgraded me to an over-water bungalow my last night there and I admit it was worth the trouble just to stay one night in that luxury. It’s amazing to be able to dive off your porch into the clearest of water at any given hour. Thinking on it in my new, fancier digs, I couldn’t help but feel that Aitutaki had so much potential. Not that I craved big industry or tourism in any way, just a better level of service and accommodation. The people on the island were super-friendly from afar, but in on interaction, they were distracted and short, as if an imaginary gun was being poked into their back while inside their heads they were saying “fuck you.”

When I got to Rarotonga, it was a lot more of the same. Natural beauty of place with lots of rain and forced interactions amid fake smiles. The people weren’t like that in Fiji. Maybe it was me. Something like the Aitutaki branch phoned the Rarotonga branch and told them to watch out for the bitchy girl and her Viennese counterpart. Maybe I was just getting antsy on going home soon. Who knows? I got my karmic payback, though. After closing down yet another restaurant, Uwe jumped on the back of my bike for a drop-off. Leaving his hotel, my tires fishtailed out, and I was left on the pavement of the empty, dark road with a flat tire. Me and the bikes, right? Only this time, my right toe was throbbing. I couldn’t put my foot down. AT ALL. I pushed a very battered bike back to Uwe’s hotel and prayed my toe wasn’t broken. The next day, I went to the one medical clinic in town -- on my bike -- my hotel couldn’t provide transportation. See what I mean? The clinic, one room behind a drug store that said “clinic” in aqua letters on computer paper, was small and clean. The doctor, “Please call me Herman,” sported the worst toupee I’d ever seen and wrote down my entry in a marble notebook. My entry was simply “Marie” followed by my passport number and “toe.” It might be broken. It might not, said Herman. He taped it up and told me not to put pressure on it.

Uwe met me at my hotel. With a flight out that evening, dinner was supposed to be quick. A gorgeous sunset later, the meal turned into a long, drawn out fight with the staff of first the restaurant, then the hotel. I was vocally refusing payment, when they threatened taking me to the airport in time for my flight. Customs would be called, “this is a small island,” they warned me. Uwe and I looked back and forth at each other. Finally, I shut up. But not before I suspected that they planted drugs in my baggage. I convinced myself that I would be stopped at the airport and deported because of my bad behavior. Terrified, I text messaged my sister to check in on me in 12 hours. If I didn’t respond, she was to call the US Embassy. I gave her my flight number to Tahiti. Hugs to Uwe, I passed through customs without a hitch, called my sister, and let the Cook Islands drift back out into Pacific Ocean obscurity.

Damn that International Dateline. Man, what a week…