Reacquainting Myself with Paradise
Thanks to my long ago solo sail around the world, I visited many countries and cultures, and so, one of the questions most frequently asked of me has been, "What was your favorite place?" As much as people have loved to ask this question, I have dreaded it, feeling that declaring any one place the best would, by default, dismiss every other place. In my memory, a special spot is reserved for each place I visited in my small boat, and for different reasons. Engine repairs, underwater wonders, mountainous scenery, tropical jungle life, pristine waters, and human kindnesses and cultures everywhere are just some of the cues that trigger certain feelings, moods and impressions that I associate with each landfall. But, even though it seems traitorous and unfair to declare any one better than the others, evasive answers to this sort of question are never popular, and I've ended up pronouncing French Polynesia as "best."
I now make my apologies to Panama, Samoa, Vanuatu, Bali, Djibouti, Egypt, and Malta, to name a few of the places I remember fondly. I've had to choose and the guilt of playing favorites hastens me to justify that the scales were tipped because time is on French Polynesia's side. My longest layover in two-and-a-half years of sailing was the five months spent between a couple Marquesan islands, Tahiti and Moorea, a place of friends, foods, sights, sounds and smells that I happily and thoroughly absorbed. Everything about the exotic blend of French and Polynesian cultures created by nature, the natives, and the people who have chosen these remote islands over continental life seemed fabulously cool to my maturing sense of aesthetics. French Polynesia, in my 19-year-old New Yorker's opinion, was a sensory and visual treat like no other and what's more, I had time to savor it all. Hiva Oa, Tahuata, and Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas offered incredible displays of fantastic scenery—misty, rocky and irregularly jagged peaks jutting above dense greenery tumbling down hillsides. Sandy beaches, waterfalls, grapefruit the size of basketballs, over-ripe mangoes littering forest paths and flavoring the rivers, ancient stone structures, beautiful and friendly people––all created a South Pacific vision beyond anything my dreams could have ever conjured up. There were no marinas, no yacht facilities to speak of, and I could only call home from the post office phone on Hiva Oa, an element of remoteness that made the undeveloped coconut palm-lined anchorages seem even more tropically magic.
My time there was followed by four months on Tahiti and her neighboring island of Moorea where I spent the hurricane season that year so long ago. Along with a small collection of other cruisers, my boat was based out of an anchorage in a lagoon off the Tahitian village of Arue, a couple of miles from Papeete, the commercial nerve center of the archipelago. There was a soccer field ashore, where local school children would hold matches, abutting an open air shed that housed pirogues when they weren't being raced across the lagoon. The Arue Yacht Club, consisting of a fleet of sailing dinghies and a few larger daysailers provided water faucets for laundry, a shower stall, and a lunch counter for sandwiches and drinks. An open-air "le truck," the Tahitian public transportation system, stopped on the nearby main road for easy access to town, the market, supplies, and everything else I needed to feel like I could live there forever. If it weren't for a commitment to a relatively speedy circumnavigation, I might be there still.
Alas, I had to leave the simple life I had carved out for myself in Arue. I had to make my reluctant farewells to the familiar faces on other boats, in the stores, the market, to everyone who didn't have to leave. Knowing I had seen the smallest fraction of what this part of the world had to offer, I bid au revoir to French Polynesia with every intention to return one day and see all I had missed.
What I had yet to learn as I last sailed away from Moorea and longingly watched the silhouettes of Bora Bora, Huahine, and Raiatea disappear over the horizon as I passed them by is that we can never go back to the place that resides in our memories. One needs to age and to visit disappointment to learn this life lesson and over the years, I have read articles, seen ads, and heard about how commerce, tourism, capitalism and population growth make certain that the only stable thing is change, even in the most remote corners of the world. I read about marinas being built in the Marquesas, that cruise ships were facilitating mass tourism on many of the islands, which, of course, would bring more stores, restaurants and e-mail cafes to every motu. In the meantime, I continued to sail and travel elsewhere, reserving a special place for the French Polynesia I remembered, knowing full well it wouldn't be the same if and when I ever returned.
Fifteen years later, I did just that. Last month, my job of leading flotillas took me back, specifically to Raiatea, Taha'a, Bora Bora, and Huahine, the cluster of islands directly downwind from Tahiti and Moorea that I had missed on the first pass. For 10 days, our group sailed and motored between the islands and the most used word of the trip was "perfect." There was nothing wrong with the place. The people, the food, the lagoons, the jagged mountain scenery overlooking beautiful coconut palm-lined beaches, the sparkling white waves crashing on fringing reefs, the explosion of smells and color from roads and paths lined with hibiscus, frangipani, Tahiti tiare, and bougainvilleas, once again, took my more jaded breath away. As this was the first time I was seeing all this, there were no comparative memories to disappoint me. Most of the resorts, stores, restaurants and even the charter base weren't very old, so they weren't there 15 years ago, but I was still preoccupied by the element of change as I gazed ashore from one spectacular anchorage after another.Tahiti was another story altogether, as I learned during a six-hour layover on the way home. Instead of lounging poolside at a hotel near the airport with the others, a friend and I took a taxi to my old stomping grounds in Arue and walked the several miles back to Papeete. There is a bona fide mall in Arue now where we found some last-minute gifts and it is only a couple hundred meters away from the soccer green and yacht club with lots of new impassable fencing. The open-air pirogue shed has turned into a fortified steel building and instead of sailboats anchored in the lagoon, all I could see in the dark were some fishing boats. The Chinese take-out on the two-lane main road lined by dirt paths where I used to get lo mein has turned into a full-scale, sit-down restaurant on a four-lane road with traffic lights and sidewalks. Urban and suburban sprawl have altered the once rural landscape, complete with plenty of chain-link fencing and all-night gas stations with hip hop Tahitian attendants and homeboy attitude. My friend and I walked the several miles back to town and reminisced while following a telltale halo of light gleaming in the distance. What I exclaimed when we finally reached downtown Papeete's main drag and saw the fountain of shooting, multi-colored, electric lights that simulated a huge coconut palm in front of a floating city (cruise ship) docked on the waterfront is better left unwritten. Yikes!
I never thought life in Tahiti would stop just because I had left, but I wish somebody would give all that unattractive fencing a bit more thought. We had both changed, especially on the surface. I have new lines, gray hair and more girth and Tahiti has aged, too, with more people and the increase in everything that comes with the westernized tourist economy. Underlying it all, though, the smells of burning vegetation, frangipani, and the ocean breeze blowing over so many shades of blue water, are constant companions to the evolving tropical island life that dwells at the feet of the majestic and unchanging peaks. Draped in green, they continue to jut stubbornly upward, true to my memory, reaching for the same endless blue sky that watched over me so many years ago. It is comforting to know that some things take longer to change than others, and while one may never go back to things that once were, something about French Polynesia still calls me to the things that just are.