Idiotically, I flew to Mo’orea, and also flew back, fifteen-minutes on the wing each way. Why not at least go one way by ferry? At the Air Tahiti check–in counter they decided my carryon bag was too heavy. I transferred two books and my MacBook Air to my purse. What difference does this make? I still took the same amount of weight into the cabin.
I doubted that they would serve lunch on a fifteen-minute flight so I had a baguette with chicken, crudités and mayo in the lounge, all fresh and better than anything you could get at JFK. As we assembled for the plane I could see we were 99% vacationers and honeymooners. Locals take the ferry.
Taking off we skimmed the jungled pinnacles of Tahiti, whose main group is The Diadem. I wondered about these formations, sharp as stalagmites. Later I learned the volcanoes forming Tahiti exploded, shredding their walls, an event one is glad one missed. Coming down to Mo’orea there are precipices and walls but not the stalagmites of Pape’ete.
The Mo’orea airport is even simpler than that in Pape’ete. It caused an outbreak of nostalgia in me for small tropical airports—bare floors, a slight odor of disinfectant, windows but little glass, and the lugubrious circling of ceiling fans. In Indonesia, at one time in my life, there were a lot of these.
There were the flower crowns on bare heads or as a hatband that I have already mentioned because part of traditional dress here is a flower behind your ear or in your hair. The crown may be simple, a compact circlet of green and white leaves or it may be flamboyant with spikes or red and yellow flowers of varying lengths. These are worn by both women and men. I love them but am at this point too shy to buy one.
I waited with others as a man, having pulled a cart out to the plane where another man threw bags on it, pulled the cart into the airport and then heaved the bags onto slanted shelves from which we removed them.
Outside people climbed into a large hotel van or a car that awaited them and I could see only one taxi. I thought with resignation, “Well, here’s where I get skinned.” And so it was.
The Fare Tokoau, Fernando, the driver, claimed, was on the other side of the island. This was almost true. He charged 50US, worth it to see Cooks Bay, where Cook did not land but the cartographer thought he did, Opunohu Bay, where he did land, the Hilton, and the Intercontinental as we went around. The scenery is stunning, breathtaking a clutter of clichés—towering rock walls are covered with jungle or turn bare faces to the turquoise to aquamarine water at their bases. Further out the white fringe of the reef sends inland the continuous roar of the ocean’s breakers. Beyond the reef the water is dark blue. This is a new world for me, knowing nothing of reefs. Along the road are public beaches, deteriorating boats, fabulous boats, and towns strewn like broken toys along its verge. In the tropics buildings tend to have an accidental, intimidated appearance.
My new, young landlady, who has a boy age five, a girl age two and a husband who works, as she used to, at the Intercontinental, was furious when she found out what Fernando had charged me. This, while it did not put money in my pocket, was very satisfying.
I had a bungalow with porch and its own enormous bath and small kitchenette. She kindly drove me to two grocery stores where I bought lettuce, tomatoes, carrots—not easy to find in the tropics—cheese—god bless the French—ham—god bless the French again—and yogurt. She also called Dr. Michael Poole for me, arranging a pick up the next morning at 7:40 for a dolphin watch he runs.
I went to bed in my bungalow that seemed vast after my previous room, listening to a strengthening wind and the crash of the surf on the reef.
I woke in my comfortable bed and had hot water to wash my face, something unavailable in Pape’ete. The roof is thatch, the ceilings high, the walls decorated with quite nice paintings behind one of which lives a gecko who makes pleasant chirp-click noises. The bungalows are surrounded by a beautifully made stonewall.
As I prepared my breakfast a small ginger cat appeared on the veranda. He sat up very straight about 4 feet from the door and watched me. He was an extraordinarily courteous ginger gentleman and did not advance until he was sure he was welcome. As I ate breakfast I scratched his ears to which he responded with a refined purr. Something in his stance suggested that he would not have refused a sliver of cheese or ham. However, I did not offer.
After breakfast I went outside to wait for the car to take me to the dolphin watch boat. At 7:40 it occurred to me perhaps they would not drive onto the property but would wait on the road. When I got to the road the van was waiting. I felt less guilty for holding things up when the couples we picked up were invariably late or had to run back for something.
There were 18 of us, mostly French and American, although there were two British women as well. A number of couples had children, including a French couple next to me. They had a beautiful four-year-old boy and a red headed baby girl who treated her mother like an open bar, grabbing her tee shirt with both chubby fists and lifting it up to get what she wanted when she wanted it. She and I communicated throughout the trip but her parents found me invisible.
Dr. Poole, who talked brilliantly through out the cruise on many subjects, runs the branch of the University of California, Berkeley Oceanographic Institute on Mo’orea at the Gump Center. It was he who informed me about the two volcanoes of Tahiti. He told us to look for dolphins in dark blue water, that they surf a ship’s wake to save energy; they can dive 300 to 400 meters; they feed at night when their prey come out. A small dolphin lives 35 years, an orca 100. We hunted assiduously but never saw dolphins, which Dr. Poole says happens only about 5% of the time, but we did go over the side, down a slippery ladder, to swim with rays, some four or five feet across and slimy to the touch, but clean slimy if that makes any sense. I loved watching the slow flap of the rays’ wings; it is such a graceful motion. There also were black tipped reef sharks about. Clutches of terns turned in the wind; there was one brown booby.
I stayed close to the boat, which, unfortunately put me in the vicinity of a ridiculous American woman who kept squealing, “I don’t want them to touch me. I hate them. I don’t want them to touch me. They’re disgusting.” This was aimed at no one in particular. Regrettably the daughter was beginning to imitate her mother’s behavior. Her husband had sensibly disappeared. As a friend later suggested in an email, if you don’t want to be touched by rays, get out of their element. Why don’t I think of these responses?
Poole passed around pieces of baleen from a whale’s mouth. I had never seen this before except in illustrations, pictures of dolphins’ fins and whales’ tails, which are unique to the individual and used for identification. He also showed us a dolphin and a whale’s tooth. They are conical. Age is told by the layers of enamel laid down year by year, like tree rings. I asked why there were no gulls. He told me that gulls are costal and this is an island. I don’t understand this answer. Don’t islands have coasts?
I had brought a bathing suit I haven’t had on for at least 12 years. I discovered that the elastic was totally gone and I had to knot up the straps at the shoulders. I felt self-conscious but also had to laugh. Buying a bathing suit in your eighties is a big psychological hurdle.
Despite disappointment it was a good day.
The next day I went walking, eight kilometers, noticing along the way the small white boxes by the side of the road that are the electrical and internet connection for each house. When Fernando-the-over-charger pointed these out to me I realized for the first time that there were no wires overhead.
In typhoon territory that’s a good idea.
On one side the green, hills lush with banana, coconut palm, other trees or just thick grass go almost straight up while on the other is the brilliant blue of the sea. Often the houses are invisible behind gates and walls. Those that are visible may be neat and planted with trim flowers and bushes or disheveled habitations with bits of machinery and furniture half hidden by long grass in the front yard. Often I walked through a haze of smoke. People were burning off leaves and other forest leavings.
I came to Tiki Village, a place where dances are performed for tourists, turned back to the Tokoau, and then went on to the tiny village of Hauru where I found a French restaurant that served duck and took credit cards.
The next morning, word having got around, I had two breakfast visitors, but what different personalities. The Ginger Gentleman was his usual restrained, courteous self; the new guest was multicolored without manners or any sense of decorum. She climbed on the table. She climbed on my lap. Her one objective, to eat my breakfast. However, it was obvious she was in a panic, convinced she was in imminent danger of death by starvation.
I left the Fare T, where the ambiance of kindness and warmth is comfortable as a hug, for the Kaveka, more up scale but situated on Cooks Bay. My landlady, who has grey eyes, a color I have read of in English novels but never seen before, walked me up to the road where she had arranged for the local bus to pick me up. As we walked I looked behind me and saw the Ginger Gentleman was sitting at a distance, a restrained good-bye quite in character. He got up, arched his back and walked off into some bushes.
My landlady’s son came with us and we hung out on the edge of the road talking while he broke dead branches into short lengths of sticks a good five-year-old activity. She talked about her not very good mother manipulating everyone to be on her side against their father now that they were separated, about her much younger brother, about her uncle, my age, who still plants his vegetables each year, until the bus arrived, half an hour late and totally empty. On the trip to the Kaveka only one man got on. I liked the bus. It was old, the driver was a bit surly; it creaked but felt right. If I came back to Mo’orea I would do all my traveling by bus.
At the Kaveka I had a neat little cottage, not as large as at the Fare T and without kitchenette, but with woven bamboo walls and stained glass in the smaller bathroom. The dinning room is on a wharf over the water and as you eat you can look down and watch the fish or feed them bits of your baguette. There are striped black and white fish, colored fish, but I was struck by some greenish greys traveling in what looked like family groups—a large fish and several small—with their eyes above water and their round mouths agape.
I wandered the property. As the sun went down a small, white cruise ship with sails glided from the bay trailing music behind it with all of us on shore taking pictures.
Being on Cook’s Bay is heaven. Great walls of rock, broken here and there, form a rough amphitheater around part of the bay, which is a small horseshoe.
Sunday, I walked toward the Bank of Tahiti, not expecting much to be open. In the morning the big supermarket was and in the afternoon a few dress and pareu shops flaunted their wares on clotheslines. Passing two churches, through open, unglazed windows, I saw the congregation all in white in the pews, and heard them sing, heavenly eaves dropping.
I found the Bank of Tahiti but it wouldn’t give me money. However, another bank that had never given me money except at the airport in Pape’ete delivered.
There are white sand inlets, crossed by small bridges, tree shaded and full of the clearest water. A few houses perch high on the hill on dirt roads but most cling to the circle road or the shore. Any road off the circle road is unpaved.
I passed a derelict hotel, two stories with colonnaded verandas fringed with Victorian gingerbread. I was told the French company that owned it went bankrupt through mismanagement. It is now in the hands of the government who would sell it for nothing but you would need a lot of money to fix it up. It’s been empty for 20 years. I wish I had the money and the years to invest. What fun that would be.
Coming back I stopped at the Kaveka, discovering that in twenty minutes lunch would be over. I ate before going back to walk half way round Cooks Bay. This is a gorgeous, indescribable walk either looking up at the volcano’s old, rock walls or out to sailboats nodding on the sea.
The next day I flew back to Pape’ete.