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French Polynesia – Blog 7 – End of Trip

The 6th blog ended on Sunday, six days before this one was written, at the end of the trip. From there we traveled bereft of Internet. I sent that 6th one once we landed in Los Angeles on the trip home. This one continues from that point and finishes up the last week of our trip.

The Polynesian Islands adventure occurred because of Isabelle’s childhood dream. In her Paris bedroom as a child, she had a poster of a beach scene from Bora Bora, dreaming of one day walking that beach. We’ve followed in the footsteps of great adventurers, viewed marvelous island vistas from halfway around the world, and met the dark-skinned, black haired people, with only slightly Asian features, who tell tales of their ancestral origin. These people proudly wear tattoos - elegant art work designed in organic intricate geometrical patterns representing their families and the Gods who protect them, that request love, happiness, and protection.

Aranui 5, our cruise ship, took us north to the furthest of the Marquesas Islands, and then turned around, stopping en route on some new spots as well as a few ports we’d already visited. The front half of our ship is devoted to transporting cargo, and at every stop we download supplies and upload goods, such as tropical fruits and hardwoods. Three cattle made part of the trip with us! Other cargo included a brand new Toyota truck, fresh pineapples, and large sacks full of copra (coconut husks and meat left exposed to dry outside in the sun) from Huileries de Tahiti. Huileries de Tahiti then processes the copra to make coconut oil, which, in turn, will be used as itself or as a base for such products as Monoï or an alternative fuel source to run automobiles, trucks, and buses, and to power generators.

To pick up the adventure where we left off, the next day, Monday, our two stops were repeat visits. In the morning our ship docked in the small town of Taiohae on little Nuku Hiva. Typical of the island towns we visited, the ship docked a mile or so down the beach from the actual town, and we walked along that white sand beach, looking out at the crystal clear water, to a series of open air, non-walled, thatch-roofed buildings in hopes of using the Internet. Isabelle shopped, of course, picking up an interesting ox-bone carved ring decorated with a black pearl, while I plugged away futilely at my computer, the Internet unresponsive. Closing up, we walked halfway back down the beach, shucked our clothes down to our swimsuits, donned our masks and snorkels, and, voila, submerged into the garden under the sea. This trip had been woefully lacking in swimming opportunities, and washing out the sweat and sands of the last week reenergizing our souls. I’ll describe the snorkeling more on the Bora Bora paragraph below.

That afternoon the ship let us off on the Ua Pou’s island village of Hakahau. Both Ua Pou and Nuku Hiva are atolls, little islands in the middle of a ring of land created by the decaying of an erupted volcano. Here the ring is less substantial and waves splashed large enough for me to consider body surfing … nixed by the realization each ride would smash me into the rocks. Having snorkeled in Nuku Hiva, this visit we devoted to bobbing in the waves and floating along warm, crystal clear waters, along with a couple dozen of Aranui passengers. The South Pacific water feels thick and luxurious, light blue at depths up to ten feet, and deep royal blue as the ship glides through deeper depths.

Tuesday found us at sea all day, another perfect day for those who like to do nothing but read around the pool. Since I’m not one of those, and without access to Internet, I felt a bit off. Though, perhaps I had finally settled into the spirit of the tropical island mood. Sitting on the balcony at night, the stars speckled the sky like a movie star’s sequined dress. A little wine, a few French kisses from the French girlfriend, and, ah, life doesn’t get much better than this.

Wednesday the ship docked at Rangiroa, another little tropical island. Typical of these atolls, the cruise ship docked inside the ring, and we snorkeled in the unbelievably clear water near there. A hundred yards outward, across the thin land mass, the ocean smashes into the opposite beach, big body-surfing waves with a bit too much undertow to risk. After a voyage significantly lacking in swimming and snorkeling in these magnificent waters, the last couple of days have been thrilling. In the late morning we bussed on the one road that stretches along that thin land mass about a mile to the “Gauguin Pearl Farm.” Everything is Gauguin, right? As if he cared a wit about pearls. Anyway, we enjoyed a twenty-minute presentation on how pearls are farmed. Starting with a 1 mm piece of an oyster shell’s mantle carefully inserted into a specific area, the oyster sits in clean, oxygenated sea water for 18 months, forming a pearl of about 8 mm. Gently removing that pearl, the technician replaces it with a plastic bead of the same size, and the oyster farms for another 18 months, creating a pearl of 14 mm. The procedure can be repeated once more, and sometimes an even larger pearl can be created, rarely as big as 18 mm. Afterwards they eat the oyster. Isn’t that the way it goes? Live your whole life as a slave, creating pearls, and then they eat you. Isabelle bought two pearls for nearly $500. Just two little blue-black spheres you could get in plastic for a couple of bucks made in China, instead, we’re out five hundred bucks. What is it with women and pearls?

For our tenth and final island, we landed in Bora-bora early Thursday. Ah, Bora-bora! The name creates a romantic image of grass-skirted women and tourists sipping pineapple daiquiris on the beach. We opened our day’s adventure with a dozen other cruisers on a long-benched, roofed motorboat. The captain, a chubby laughing Polynesian named Frenchie, or some such, took us to the shallows where we snorkeled over an hour around the coral reefs. I’ve snorkeled in Israel, Africa, Peru, Belize, and Hawaii – this was the best snorkeling of my life! Schools of six-inch needle fish hovered a few inches from the surface, squadrons of bright blue dart fish darted among the brain corals. Yellow angel fish came up to kiss us, whiskered catfish sucked up bottom debris, and striped zebra fish clustered in whirlwinds. Frenchie dove deep to tease out an eight-foot moray eel that nipped back at him. I could have hovered there all day. We loaded up for our second stop of the morning tour, the “Swim with the rays and sharks” adventure. Here we got off the boat and immediately a dozen three-foot nurse sharks began circling me. Umm. “You sure this is safe, Frenchie?” He assured me the sharks had been doing this for over twenty-years and weren’t going to bite the hands that fed them. It seemed like a lot of trust for a fat guy. Two huge rays hugged all over him as he fed them little fishes, and we rubbed their slimy skin. Fun. As we climbed on board for the final bit, a trip to the other side of the island where the expensive hotels sit, one of our cruisers, our friend Barbara, slipped on a step, jamming her leg. She had to be forcibly extracted and flown to the hospital on Tahiti. Ouch! We joined the rest of the cruisers for a picnic lunch. Following which, Isabelle and I took a walk on the beach directly from the poster on Isabelle’s childhood wall. Oh, what a happy little French girl! Back at the ship we tried to find out about Barbara from the nurse, but she was too busy to give us more than a few words. I may have mentioned in a previous blog that I’m applying to be a ship doctor. These two, the nurse and doctor, were working like crazy with 5 cruiser falls and a run of patients with respiratory illness, including Isabelle. Gives one pause. bohemian wedding gown

We docked back in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, the next morning. It took only a few minutes to offload, including arranging for the shipment home of our six-foot tall Tiki. Our driver, Gino, picked us up for a day adventure around the island, shopping for Isabelle and museums for me. Our first stop was the hospital, to visit Barbara of course, but I always like visiting hospitals. Barbara had a room in the Emergency Department, sort of a holding wing I guess, equipped like one from America’s 1980s. Not bad, not too special. The hospital itself stretched for hundreds of yards, built with the concept of being a major medical center for the entire South Pacific. It never actually succeed in that ambition over Australia. From there Gino drove us the 10 miles south to the Museum of Tahiti and its Islands. This museum offers four distinct sections: the first focuses on geography and natural history, the second on pre-European culture, the third on the effects of colonization, and the fourth on natural wonders. The exhibits include a large collection of tikis of various ages, old dugouts, and many story boards, mostly in French. It’s a wonderful museum that clearly would benefit from an infusion of monetary support. An accompanying special exhibit documented the history of aviation across French Polynesia.

For our final day we added our eleventh island to our collection, Moorea, a small island within sight of Tahiti, an easy forty-five-minute ferry ride. The boat docks on the southwest corner of the island, with all tourist destinations on the far northeast side. No tourist souvenirs! Isabelle was sorely disappointed. We took a bus a couple of miles up the road to where Isabelle had read about the only “public” beach on the island. Really? We had to hike 15 minutes from the road to the beach, picked up about halfway by some friendly locals, and we swam, making friends with locals who shared mangos with us. Isabelle kept a close eye on our backpacks due to stories about youths stealing tourists’ stuff, and, sure enough, two teenage boys wandered by and Isabelle yelled at them, chasing them away. After our swim we wandered down the beach to a resort hotel, enjoying a $27 pizza and a $10 pineapple drink. I’m not saying everything is grossly overpriced on the islands, after all, almost everything is imported … but really … $10 for a glass of fresh pineapple juice? I mean, they grow pineapples right there! The Sofitel crowd was quite a contrast from the Polynesian family gatherings we had encountered on the beach, where everyone wore either bathing suits or flowery paréos, going from the sea to the bbq, back to the sea, to cutting open coconuts or sipping on a chilled Hinano Beer, the beer with the pretty Tahitian lady logo. Here at the postcard Sofitel Polynesian resort were American and French ladies finely dressed in Prada and Michael Kor’s, delicately savoring tropical cocktails of fresh pineapple, mango, mint and local honey rum as their male partners seemed to thoroughly enjoy an Hinano, smiling as they tilted the beer bottle and discovered the beautiful Tahitian vahine which graces every Hinano products. Hinano products include a brand of clothing, Isabelle bought two beautiful Hinano beach towels. How can one resist to own beauty for $30 EACH!?

As we walked along the shore of Moorea, we realized we were walking to the end of our trip. Back on to the ferry, across to Papeete, we sat at a sidewalk café, listening to jazz music and drinking local beer, sharing a plate of tapas. Gino picked us up, took us to the airport, and at one AM Sunday, we took off for the States. Eighteen hours later we were home.o

French Polynesia lies further away from Earth’s continents than any other land mass. We experienced one of the last vestiges of a simple, natural life, a culture still proud of its traditions of fragrant flowers, bright clothing, fresh fruit and fish, tattoos, cleanliness, hospitality, and restful lifestyle. Even here, though, crime, overbuilding, electrical dependency, and drugs have begun the ravaging of morality. Isabelle yearns to return, drawn to the natural beauty and easy lifestyle that has drawn so many others, including Melville, Gauguin, Hall, and Brel. For me … it was a great vacation, but I don’t plan to return.