The busiest islands in French Polynesia

[Jul 3] My today began swimming with stingrays under the boat, ended on
deck collecting bucketloads of fresh rainwater, and in the middle had a
great stomp and a delicious barbeque. It was a Good Day.

Funnily enough though, until this day I have been wondering what to
write. Since the last piece, in mid-June, we spent a week in one of the
largest marinas in this part of the world, next to the only city in
French Polynesia. In short, we saw more people, spent more money, and
caught more germs, than we have collectively since leaving Chile in
January, or intend to between here and New Zealand.

And yet, I had nothing to say about it.

We spent a further ten days on the island of Moorea, next door to Tahiti
(the island on which Papeete is the city) decompressing, recuperating,
and generally becoming nice people again.

Papeete should not rank as one of the great cities of the world, nor one
of the largest, most exotic, or most romantic. At a stretch it might
qualify as one of the ones furthest away from any other biggish towns,
administrative centres, or national capitals. Or one of the ones with
the largest gulf between foreign perception and reality. You can do the
full tour in about three hours, depending how interested you are in
black pearls. If pearls are your thing then the above time estimate
could be out by orders of magnitude.

So that's Papeete. Our best day out involved jumping into Jon and
Jennifer's rental car and doing a grand tour of all the hardware shops,
chandleries, and 'auto centres'. Via the market and a sports bar for
lunch. We were returned to the marina, eight hours after leaving, with
one hundred metres of nylon cord, twenty-seven litres of alcohol (for
cooking on), a fifty litre water drum, five litres of engine oil, four
deck shoes, three grapefruits, two bunches of fresh herbs, and a new
sarong.

Clearly the major merit for visiting Papeete if you're on a boat is
shopping. And shopping is not an activity I have ever enjoyed, except
perhaps for chocolate eclairs in a bakery.

We shopped. We bought a new inverter. We stocked up on cans and dried
food. We each bought new clothes. We bought the things we had forgotten
we needed, like head torches and batteries and varnish and mosquito
repellent and internet minutes and raincatching material and poles to
hold the raincatching material up, and a bucket for the rain to be
caught into, and cables and fuses and extension leads for the new
inverter. And beer and wine. And a clever swivel to attach to the
anchor. And fresh bread and cheese and butter and juice. And a $15 bag
of apples (by mistake). And meals out with friends – generally quite
rubbish meals with exotic price tags.

And… the truth is I don't know what we spent it on, but we spent
literally thousands of pounds , like three, and that's with free
accommodation.

Bewarned.

We also both got sick. A typical cold-with-flu. So we took it in turns
feeling sorry for ourselves, being poor company, and generally resenting
the city.

One evening, when it was Andy's turn to be sociable and mine to stay on
the boat feeling sorry for myself, a filling popped out while I was
flossing my teeth. Two days later I had a new filling. And for those two
days, and a few afterwards, I really appreciated being in a town. And I
was deeply thankful that of all the times from southern Chile to
northern New Zealand when I might have lost that filling, it occurred in
the only place when I could guarantee to see a dentist almost
immediately. And a good one too.

(For the cynics out there, no, teeth flossing wasn't an infrequent
activity catalysed by boredom and sickness and therefore directly
related to my location and proximity to a dentist. Infact, teethflossing
is a regular part of my nightly nightshift ritual – an excellent way to
make fifteen minutes pass by when you're at your absolute most tiredest
and really just want to wake the person taking over. I challenge anyone
to fall asleep during the masochistic act of flossing.)

So, there are good things about cities. Medical support, shops, friends,
amenities, cash machines. And pre-cooked quiches from the petrol station
down the road. And post offices. That's most important. After a six week
saga and as many postal institutions, we collected the most enormous
care package from my sister-in-law, Michelle. All the best goodies in
the world, from fresh music to peanut butter, chocolate, and jam, packed
with love, scrutinized by French Polynesian customs, and enjoyed with
passion. Indeed, I had to scoff one chocolate bar before hiding the rest
to ensure that Andy didn't polish them all off before I had a look-in.

Are these the things that keep most people living in towns and cities?
Not the people who love cities for what they do best – world class
theatre, museums, arty cinemas, bookshops,… or whatever it is that
might be your *thing*. I refer more to the people like me who get so
bogged down by just existing in a city that they forget to go out and
enjoy them. But also become very comfortable within them and worry how
they might live without a supermarket or hospital near by. (Just how
often do you go to a hospital anyway, though I do concur they are a damn
comforting thing to have less than three day journey away.)

I think that's about it for Papeete. Though, ironically and
stomach-twistingly, we might be going back there. Tomorrow. To see some
friends who've just arrived.

So, on reflection, that must be the major merit of a town or city, for
me at least: the people it attracts. It's therefore a problem that, said
in the same breath, I don't much like being around so many people. Lots
of people I don't know doesn't make me a nice person. Though lots of
people I like is fab.

And there's the other thing. In a quiet anchorage with only a handful of
boats we make many friends, quickly. Wonderful people with colourful
stories. In places where often we'd be happy to meet no-one. But in a
city, or major marina, there are so many people that the only way you
can meet ones you like is by already knowing them. Now that's fkd up.
That's almost up there with the irony of internet dating. There's just
so many of us that we all stop talking to each other.

We did meet one couple who we had no prior connection with. But only
because they're Canuks and spied our Canadian flag. Sadly for them we're
both British but they were nice to us anyway.

Everyone else we spent time with there we had either met in Chile, Iles
Gambiers, or down the road in Port du Phaeton. And as much as I enjoyed
seeing them all , it was just too much. At the end of the day, this
journey wasn't ever about seeing people. If that was the case I'd have
stayed at home where my friends are.

So to Moorea.

Moorea is the island next door. To the west. 'The Jewel of Polynesia.'
The place where the Princess of Sweden is currently honeymooning.

Every evening in Papeete I would watch the sun set behind the two
mountains of Moorea, and sigh. It looked so beautiful. From our angle
the profile made the shape of a giant M. Directly behind me, to the
east, were the ever shining golden arches of McDonalds. I was sandwiched
between glowing M's, one lit up by hamburgers and neon, the other by
sunset and waterfalls.

And so we left.

Twenty miles, and many more years.

For three weeks Andy had been increasingly frustrated trying to find a
sailmaker who could tailor a second-hand genoa we have recently
acquired. Everyone was too busy. No time. Not even to think about having
time. The day after we left, in a quiet and beautiful anchorage on the
south side of Moorea, he and a fellow sailor cut and sewed the sail on
our new friend's boat, and paid him half the Papeete rate. And so it
goes. And we have a new sail.

Moorea is great. It's lush, it's green, it's mountainous. It was good to
have moved onwards.

It also has some of the best waves for surfing and kite-surfing in the
world. Wonderful watching these athletes. Wonderful listening to the
roar of the waves, thundering down, weirdly close but safely on the
other side of the reef. This is 'reef- surfing', apparrantly a whole
world apart from beach- surfing.

Waves that approach a reef are part of an enormous and deep ocean and
have been building momentum for thousands of miles. Then, immediately
and with no warning, they are smashed onto a Very Shallow Coral Reef.
Boom. An magnificent, reliably reproducible, and ruthless, surf break
results.

On the non-ocean side of a reef there is usually still sea, and then
land. That's where we anchor: between the reef and the land, where the
seawater is weirdly calm despite the roar of waves less than a mile
away. I believe this is called a lagoon. The calming effect and
protection provided by underwater coral is astounding.

After a few days at the surf place, Haapiti, we went round the corner in
search of a TV showing the England – Germany World Cup game replay (the
live match had been at 4am), and also to meet up with some friends.
Here, again, we met loads of boats. Many of them had arrived two weeks
earlier as part of the 'Pacific Puddlejumpers' raleigh. That's loose
group of boats all heading across the Pacific at around the same time.
Membership is also a useful way for non- Europeans to not have to pay a
'bond' during their stay in French Polynesia. I think. Anyway, they'd
had an informal race from Tahiti to Moorea, ending with local dancing
and a barbeque on the beach in Opunohu Bay.

Everyone said they'd had a great time. Kids, in particular, seemed happy
to have made new playmates living a similarly nomadic lifestyle.
Friendships were made, stories swapped. We arrived at the end of what
must have been a very social fortnight. And everyone was welcoming.

And yet, again, it made us become unsociable. Grumpy. Bad company.
Massive sweeping statements were made. Small talk introductions were
required. Bundling up of six months personal journeying into a series of
places visited and boxes ticked. An assumption that if we'd visited the
same place then we must have had the same experience. Or that if we were
sailing at all then we must be enjoying the ride.

As it turns out, Andy and I shared no past locations with the other
boats, and have experienced wildly different weather. And were the only
people on our first passage. Am I enjoying it? Only once did I answer
with a truthful account of the journey so far… realising only as the
words unravelled how miserable it sounded, dominated by storms,
tsunamis, torrential rain, and rats.

But they were a captive audience. And I didn't embellish, much.

Too easy.

"A wise man always learns more from a fool than a fool from a wise man",
our friend Lauri quoted to me
the next day. I felt a little sheepish, he was right, there was much I
could learn from these people, all of whom have years more experience on
the sea than I.

It's just weird when you meet loads of people doing the same thing as
you. It makes it feel so, um, normal. And unadventurous. And for some
reason each person truly believes that they're having a bigger and more
interesting adventure than anyone else. Myself, of course, included. So
then the storytelling begins… and before you know it there's a
competition in terms of fear or wonder or adventurousness or blogging or
photographing or weather-watching or or… and doing this doesn't makes
any of us feel good about ourselves, and we don't learn anything from
anyone else either.

So I once again conclude that this journey is not, for me at least, a
community activity. And infact, the more people we spend time with who
are doing the same as us, the less we see of the place we're actually
trying to visit. If that is indeed what we're trying to do.

We toured the island by thumb and by scooter. We visited the local
Hilton hotel bar a couple of times. We joined fellow cruisers for drinks
on the beach. We went snorkelling near the boat. I saw dolphins and rays
and little blue fish and anenomes and Andy saw a two metre long shark.
It was holiday. Pure sand – beach – sun holiday. Coconut palm trees,
cocktails, and snorkelling.

I've been having a lovely time. I'm on holiday. Not one I feel I deserve
or need, or have been counting down the days to for the past fortnight
while sat in an office without air conditioning. But I am on holiday. It
has all the markings, and lovely it is too. Nothing to report on the
voyaging front, but a lovely, easy, time. And I didn't even know that
this was what we were heading for.

But there's got to be more to it than this. Where are the people, what's
within those hills, where is the fresh fish, what gossip is being spoken
in the local shops? We have landed in tourism central, a place where
everyone local is friendly enough but no-one really cares, why should
they, there is a constant stream of tourists throughout this season, and
tourism is why people come here.

Moorea has wonderful huge mountains covered in lush green. We want to go
inside there but no-one can tell us how this is done. To go into the
interior we need a guide, we are told, otherwise we'll get lost. The
paths are treacherous. It's jungle out there. Snakes will bite and
you'll twist your ankle.

The entire island is eight miles across at it's widest point, and sixty
kilometres around the coastal road. It would be hard to get too lost
without popping out the other side.

So today we hitched to the highest point accessible by road, and from
there followed a footpath. As it turned out, the path was wide and
well-marked. Only ten minutes from the roadhead we were transported to
elsewhere, to a wild and isolated place. It's true – you never have to
look far off the beaten track to find something new. We discovered a
huge waterfall with a natural bath underneath and soaked, showered, and
drank in that fantastic outpouring of fresh water. Then we climbed to a
ridge between the peaks and looked across the hills, bays, and reefs
falling away steeply below us. Beyond the ridge we stumbled through a
bamboo forest, over tree trunks, across rivers, underneath towering
strangler figs, and past massive ferns. Lushous tropical jungle. Green,
wet, fresh. And this is the dry season!

Talking of dry season, the weather is one thing we have been surprised
by. The last week has been really windy – several boats in this bay
dragged on their anchors. And now the rain, incessant rain. So much so
that this evening we both were out on deck filling buckets with rain
pouring out of the sides. It was wonderful. First Andy was out there
rigging up a raincatcher and I was safe and dry inside. But something in
me wanted to be outside. Outside in the rain. Big fat raindrops falling
in a huge quantity. The kind of rain where there's no point even trying
to stay dry, and not much point wearing clothes. And it was dark except
in the lightning.

Buckets of water, we filled all our jugs and the new 50L tub in about 45
minutes. That's almost 300L of water and no fancy collecting devices.
Just two people, four buckets, and a medium sized tarpaulin. And a lot
of rain.

So the highlight of my time here has been today. It ended collecting
rain, had a great stomp in the middle, and started by swimming with
sting rays. Right under the boat. Andy called me out of bed- Rhian get
out here now! (Bikini? Sarong? Emergency radio? Ah, rays. That would be
bikini then.) Bikini on, mask in hand, jump over the side, and there
they were. Large and beautiful, majestic in motion.

I've never seen a stingray before. It's a beautiful thing. It flies
underwater like the dreams of a kid dressing up in a superman cape. This
great magical polka-dotted square cape. And has a long long spike out
the back with a few feathers around it's base. That bit looks like a
bird. And at the other end is this great bulbous head that looks a bit
like a penguin, or platypus, burrowing in the sand searching for food.
But penguins and platypae have beaks, and this had more of a soft snout.
(Andy's description – like one of those squashed bell peppers you take
out of a tin.) I was surprised by how three-dimensional the head was,
especially considering how two-dimensional the rest of the creature is.
So, part snout, penguin, superman cape, eagle, and porcupine. And
beautifully graceful. So also part dancer.

Yes, swimming with stingrays. That's an amazing thing. And you know,
even if every person I meet for the next six months has swum with
stingrays, it makes it no less amazing. Lucky them, lucky me. Just as
long as we're all swimming at different times, in different places, with
different rays. So that in that very moment, that magical observing
moment, it's just the one person, and the one ray. Enjoying the
experience, in their own unique way.

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