In The Lagoon, At Midnight

The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man …
The trade wind gets into your blood and you are filled with an impatience for the unknown.

– William Somerset Maugham

It was the last place I expected to feel lonely: on a little coral atoll in the South Pacific, home to the Tahitian black pearl farm where I would be volunteering for a month.

And during the day, I didn’t. Mornings were spent on the lagoon, in a long silver jon boat as I helped three men haul in baskets of oysters. The baskets hung deep below the surface on a network of ropes, swaying lightly like shirts on a clothesline, waiting for a breeze. Afternoons found us back on the farm, a rag-tag sort of building that was perched on stilts over the reef. We’d talk, make lunch, play Yahtzee, drink a hundred cups of instant coffee.

Only at night, when the men returned to their rooms and I was left to my own devices in my bungalow for one, did the loneliness creep in, the one ghost I can never quite shake no matter where I am in the world. It was too perfect – this bungalow whose bright blue exterior matched the turquoise lagoon just steps away, this rickety bridge connecting my atoll with the farm, this narrow island called Ahe, where the only thing marking our days was the sun itself, bright, golden, omnipresent. All of it served only to remind me that I had no one to share this with.

One day after lunch, the farm’s manager, an attractive Frenchman named Lucien, asked if I wanted to go to the village with him. I jumped at the thought of movement, at this chance to see more of Ahe beyond the farm.

As we set out across the lagoon, he stood in the back of the boat, one hand on the motor, the other holding a beer. We cut lightly across the water, skipping even, but a bump from a larger wave sent sea spray flying into my face. I turned around. Lucien cocked an eyebrow and bit his lip into the hint of a grin. I wasn’t sure if it was him or another wave that made my stomach do a flip. I leaned back on my arms and stretched my legs out in front of me, feeling lucky to have my own private chauffeur across a crystalline sea.Since I’d arrived on the farm, it had been Lucien that my mind always returned to, like a favorite spot in the sun. He had one gold hoop in each ear and a thin, scruffy beard. His hair was sandy brown, short but with a playful curl up top that he ran his fingers through now and then. A single tattoo, a band of Polynesian design, wrapped around the top of his left arm. Above all else, he was tanned and remarkably so, his skin the shade of well-steeped tea. But what drew me in the most were his eyes, flickers of amber that seemed to hide nothing.

I’d never seen him wear anything but shorts, not even shoes, but I liked to imagine he had a T-shirt or two tucked away in his room, faded and a bit tattered around the neck. He had been living on Ahe for ten years and before that, in the capital of Papeete for another ten. He was born in France, near Paris, but his father’s job led them to leave when he was a young child. They had spent a few years on Martinique before moving to French Polynesia.

Lucien seemed kind, tutting only when the boat’s motor wouldn’t start in the mornings. It wasn’t just how he carried his tall frame or the strength with which he swam up from the line, bearing all those heavy oysters to the surface. It was the way he cradled Mec, the farm’s playful orange cat, in his arms like a child, the way he was the first to leap up from the table when that stupid cat caught his paw in a basket and wailed like the world was ending. It wasn’t Lucien I was falling for, but the idea of him, a man living out his life simply on an island, farming pearls, drinking coffee no matter the time of day. A man without ghosts, whose contentment depended upon nothing more than a full pouch of tobacco and a book of crossword puzzles.

There wasn’t a hint of restlessness about him, and in this he was unlike any man I had ever known.

When a two-storied building appeared on the horizon, with a real roof instead of thatch or tin, I knew we’d reached the village. Children were swimming in the water as we pulled up; Lucien cut the motor and moved past me to the bow, taking a rope in his hands to moor us along the quay. I didn’t know why we’d come, or for how long, but was happy simply to follow him.

We walked through the village down a side street, past a primary school, cemetery, and nurse’s office. “The cycle of life,” Lucien said. He knocked on the door of the house behind the infirmary, home to a French couple named Hélène and Guillaume who had lived on Ahe for three years. Hélène was the village nurse, a petite woman with silky brown hair. Her government salary meant that Guillaume, with his goatee, paunch and thick dark ponytail almost as long as his wife’s, didn’t have to work.

We spent the evening around their kitchen table, beer flowing as always and me the only one not smoking. “Are you okay, Candace?” Lucien kept asking, and I kept assuring him I was fine. Actually, I was more than fine, sitting quietly, blissfully, with a fluffy white cat named Bon Bon on my lap. Lucien told me they were being unfair talking in French, that they all knew some English, but I didn’t mind. As they talked in a language I couldn’t understand, I wondered what it would be like to belong here, to belong to Lucien, who sat tall across from me and seemed almost to be pulling his stomach in, as though to flatten it. I toyed with the idea that he was trying to impress me. It was working.

Guillaume showed us pictures on his laptop of a recent fishing trip to a neighboring island. I shifted seats around the table for a better view, placing myself closer to Lucien. When it grew dark, the couple got up to make dinner. “It’s only chicken and pasta,” Guillaume said as though apologizing, but he and Hélène served us warm fresh baguettes and shaved Parmesan, and they felt like delicacies.

Hélène brought out wine, boxes of red Zumuva – “It is great … it is Zumuva!” the cartons read – and a French liqueur that tasted of sambuca. For dessert, Guillaume had baked delectable chocolate soufflés in little bowls, using only sugar, chocolate and eggs. Lucien grew affectionate, kissing my hand, leaning in close. When he spoke to me, I had to work to hear him over Hélène and Guillaume’s banter.

“What?” I would ask.

He’d angle himself even closer, the smell of cigarettes strong on his breath. “I said, ‘Are you okay?’”

It was midnight when Lucien and I tumbled down Hélène and Guillaume’s front porch, talking smack as we walked, drawn to each other like the opposing poles of two magnets. We lowered ourselves into the boat but started drifting from the quay before Lucien could untie us. He crouched over the side and used one hand to paddle towards shore. I made fun of him from the comfort of my seat.

“You won’t be laughing in a minute,” he said.

On the way home, the motor slowed halfway across the lagoon and I turned around, afraid we’d broken down.

“Wanna go for a swim?” Lucien asked.

“I will if you will,” I said, sounding like a kid on the playground.

“Is that a dare?”

The words were barely out of his mouth before he was in the water. My heart rolled its eyes as I pulled my dress over my head and dove in after him.

“Over here,” Lucien said when I surfaced, one hand holding onto the side of the boat, the other extended in my direction. I took it and let myself be pulled towards him. My face looked up into his, full moon silhouetting his head. Suddenly, I saw that there wasn’t any question of a kiss, that the entire day had been leading to this moment, that it was obvious our lips would eventually find each other’s. I opened my eyes, wanting to take in the full moon and the sky incandescent with stars, this solitary lagoon in the middle of the Pacific, this beautiful Frenchman I had my arms wrapped around – easily the most romantic situation I’d ever found myself in, and probably ever would.

Instead, there was only one thing I could think about: I’d never kissed a smoker.

And yet the unmistakable taste of tobacco was nothing compared to the salt water I kept swallowing in what I could only assume were unhealthy amounts. Treading water while making out proved as impossible as patting my head while rubbing my belly. My legs had a way of looping up behind Lucien toward the surface; it felt like slow motion swing dancing. After a few minutes, he pulled me back into the boat and we sat for a few seconds drying off. For the first time on Ahe, I was freezing, shaking even.

“Is it because you are wearing these wet things?” he asked, tugging at the top of my swimsuit. It was an old bikini, one whose neck and back ties had long ago formed unyielding knots.

I laughed, a bit nervously, and laid my dress over my legs as he started the motor. At the farm, I waited on the dock as he went upstairs and came back with a fresh bar of soap. He rinsed the salt from my skin, pouring jarfuls of water along my arms and down my back, while I stood there somewhat helplessly.

“You don’t like it,” he said. It wasn’t a question. He took a long beach towel and wrapped it around my shoulders, pulling me into him. “Let’s go upstairs and get warm.”

But I stayed behind on the dock as he walked in, unable to move any closer. I didn’t know if I liked it or not; I didn’t know if I wanted to. It wasn’t that I couldn’t picture it, falling asleep to him whispering exotic sweet-nothings in my ear, waking up in his tattooed arms with only a tangled sheet to cover us. At least that would be something to do at night. But it was the idea I could picture, not the reality. It was strange to have a wish met so suddenly, for Lucien, whom I had admired so much from afar, to be here now, telling me I was sexy, pronouncing it “sex-zee.”

It seemed too easy, too quick, too convenient a solution to my loneliness here. I’ve moved countries, hiked volcanoes, jumped off bridges with nothing but a bungee cord strapped around my feet, but so often the hardest courage for me to summon is the courage to be alone, to not rush into fighting off the ghosts with whatever temporary fix I can find.

“I should get back,” I said, not sure of how convincing I sounded. But Lucien walked me home anyway, stretching his hands out behind him for me to hold in the darkness, stopping to kiss me on the bridge, on the shore of the island, on the steps of my bungalow. It was all I could do to pull away and say goodnight.

In the morning, there was no mention of what had happened. As I arrived at the farm for breakfast, Lucien walked past me to the sink.

“Sleep okay?” he asked with the slightest glint in his eye, a single flash and it was gone.

Gone like Ahe’s rainstorms that came quick and poured down hard, gone like what never would be, or maybe never was.

[Photo credit: Flickr user SF Brit]

Overseas France: Or Where You Can Find France Outside Of France

The days of colonial empires may be long over, though the United States, United Kingdom, France, Netherlands and Denmark continue each to administer a smattering of overseas territories.

Among these, France has arguably the most interesting and wide-ranging set of territories. Overseas France includes tiny St. Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland (population around 6,000), the Caribbean overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, the smaller Caribbean “overseas collectivities” of St. Martin and St. Barts, the South American overseas department of French Guiana, the Indian Ocean overseas departments of Réunion and Mayotte, and French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Wallis & Futuna in the South Pacific.

Officially, overseas France is divided into “overseas departments” (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, and Réunion), “overseas collectivities” (French Polynesia, St. Barts, St. Martin, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and Wallis and Futuna), and New Caledonia, which has a special status unto itself.

There are also two uninhabited French territories – a vast, noncontiguous territory with the grand name of Territory of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, inhabited only by researchers, and, most curious of all, the uninhabited island of Clipperton, which sits off Mexico and is administered directly by the Minister of Overseas France.

Tourism is a huge economic driver in many of these territories. St. Martin, St. Barts, and French Polynesia are particularly well known to Americans. Francophone tourists are also familiar with the islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, New Caledonia, and Réunion.

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[Flickr image via Rayced]

Fishing in the French Polynesian waters

Fakarava Atoll, the Tuamotus, French Polynesia – Maru’s 16-foot, plywood fishing boat, steered by one metal rod coming straight out of the floorboards in his left hand and accelerated by another rod held tightly in his right hand, hugs the eastern edge of Passe Garuae. One of only two passes accessing the atoll’s thirty-six-by-twenty-one mile lagoon, twice day big water rushes either in or out and navigation requires years of experience.

As we try to edge our way out onto the South Pacific for a day of fishing, currents at the heart of the pass are running out at about seven knots, creating what appear to be standing riptides. If we were anywhere near the center, we’d most likely be cart wheeled by the fast-moving water and big waves.

Maru, a 46-year-old native of Fakarava – the Tuamotus’ second-largest atoll – has driven boats through here thousands of time, so far without incident. I’m hoping his luck stays.

Despite a population of about 700 on this remote atoll 150 miles north and east of Tahiti, there are surprisingly few people making a living off fishing. It’s not because there aren’t fish, but because the big industry here – black pearls-has become more lucrative and in some respects easier. Though the boom in the growing of black pearls has weakened the industry a bit in recent years by flooding the market – every Polynesian with access to the ocean wants in on the business – it doesn’t require risking life and limb on the open ocean everyday.

Maru tells me he prefers this life than the more intensive routine of seeding oysters and monitoring them for more than a year and a half, hoping they’ll produce pearls. His days are routine, leaving from the docks of Fakarava’s one town around six and returning by two or three in the afternoon. His catch provides the bulk of the fresh fish for the atoll’s residents. This day he’ll take a dozen big mahi-mahi, spearing them from his boat while simultaneously steering and accelerating. He surveys for signs of a small school – watching for the big fish to break the surface – and then chases them down, tiring them. It requires a skill-set few Westerners can imagine: Steering, accelerating, scouting and spearing, all with only two hands.He is a man of few words, especially when intent on the catch. But after he pulls in his last fish of the morning he admits that he feels “more alive” when he’s out on the sea. Today the ocean is nearly glassy-calm, though there are days when it is not quite so paradise-like. Gray skies and big winds do visit this corner of French Polynesia, though he admits they are rare.

Fishing for jacks or sharks inside the big lagoon is an option, but for the big, wild fish – bonito, yellow-fin tuna, mahi-mahi, barracuda or paru, a large red perch – the ocean is the place.

My real curiosity with Maru is if there are plenty of fish here in this part of the Pacific or if numbers are decreasing. Since he fishes six days a week, he’s the best source on the atoll and assures me there are plenty of fish in his ocean and that he catches as much as he wants, on any day.

The biggest pressure here is not what the locals take from the sea though; it is the pressure of illegal fishing by big boats from China, Japan, Europe and even South America. A 200-mile EEZ protects all of French Polynesia’s 130 islands and the territory has agreements with some fishing fleets to allow quotas on yellow-fin tuna catches. But last year a Spanish trawler with motor trouble was towed into the Marquesan island of Nuka Hiva, loaded with illegally caught fish. A Venezuelan boat was fined $635,000 and its captain jailed for a month recently for taking at least 80 tons of tuna over a few weeks in the same waters.

The beautiful, seemingly trouble-free waters that surround us this day are emblematic of a global ocean dilemma. While there are plenty of international and local laws on the books to protect against poaching and illegal fishing, enforcement is very difficult. The 130 islands of Polynesia cover just 1,622 square miles of land but the territory includes nearly 1 million square miles of ocean. With a small Navy, supported by tax-dollars from France, surveying all that blue is a difficult task.

To Maru, such concerns seem to come from another world. His focus is pretty narrow, mostly on tomorrow, maybe the end of the week. He says he rarely sees signs of international fishermen – though they are out there, all around – and brags that on any given day he can fill his bright-red boat with big, colorful fish. The trickier challenge for him is that the market is not what it used to be.

“It used to be that everything I caught was sold in Fakarava,” he says, after successfully navigating against still-outgoing currents in the pass and into the lagoon. “Now, because we get so much food flown in or by cargo boat from Tahiti, there are less people buying.” He often ends up freezing part of his catch and selling it to bigger boats heading back to Tahiti.

“It’s easier when I sell everything to my neighbors,” he says. “But wherever the fish sell, I’m happy.”

The coral reefs of Bora Bora

Bora Bora, Society Islands, French Polynesia – I dove in the beautiful lagoon that surrounds the tall island to have a first hand look at how the coral reef is doing in this South Pacific resort island. The report is not good.

Descending to ninety feet it was immediately clear that the reef has been hammered in the past few years. I’ve come here every year for the past decade and have seen incredible change.

I spent most of the morning observing the still-growing reef system just ten to thirty feet below the surface. Although the waters are warm and magnificently clear an invasive predators and natural disaster have both taken big tolls.

Populations of acanthaster — more popularly known as the Crown of Thorns starfish – mysteriously arrived in Polynesia in 2006. No one is sure exactly how they got here or where they originated, though invasive species are well known for hitching rides on cargo ships and jumping off far from home. Here in the shallows surrounding Bora Bora – as they have done to reefs on nearby Moorea, Raiatea-Tahaa, Huahine and Maupiti – the predatory starfish have eaten, thus killed, hundreds of acres of coral.

The natural disaster occurred in February 2010, when Cyclone Oli whipped the nearby seas to a froth of eighteen to twenty-one feet, pouring over the protective reef and across the lagoon. The impact on the corals was devastating, as deep as 100 feet below the surface.

At twenty feet below, the coral was ripped off at its base and forever destroyed. Rather than coral, today much of the shallows of the lagoon floor are covered instead of by a fine pale yellow algae mat. The deeper you dive, the less destruction you see, but the powerful storm – the first cyclone to hit here in fourteen years — still managed to break, mangle and kill coral. The only slight upside is that it was also hard on the starfish population.My dive corresponded with having just read a new report from the D.C.-based World Resource Institute – “Reefs at Risk Revisited” – which suggests that 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs are currently threatened by local and global pressures. It blames climate change, including warming seas and ocean acidification, but points fingers primarily at human pressures, primarily overfishing, coastal development and pollution. Hurricanes and invasive starfish are not mentioned.

Around the globe more than 275 million people live in the direct vicinity (within 18 miles) of coral reefs. In more than 100 countries and territories reefs protect over 93,000 miles of shoreline, helping defend coastal communities and infrastructure against storms and erosion.

The reef encircling Bora Bora helps protect the island from typical weather and seas. Human pressure on the reef and lagoon come from development: Thirteen big hotels are built either on the mainland or one of its several big motus. In the past decade the human population has swelled to 9,000, thanks to tourism. But the twin pressures of more building and more people is having a direct impact on the very thing – its amazing natural beauty – that attracts visitors in the first place.

My morning dive led me to a conversation in the late afternoon with French-German marine biologist Denis Schneider. Despite his mainland birth, Schneider has been an island-rat most of his adult life. He guesses he spend 30 hours a week – five hours a day, six days a week – in the ocean. He only occasionally wears shoes. His company – Espcae Bleu – works to rebuild reefs in Indonesia, the Maldives and Bora Bora.

“The three biggest problems for the reef here – before the starfish arrived – were people, especially fishermen and their motors, the Red tide which warms the water and kills the coral, and hurricanes.” He and his team have taken on the unenviable attempt to clear out the venomous starfish. “Touch a sea urchin and the sting will last for a few minutes,” he says. “Brush your skin against a Crown of Thorns and it will sting for months.” The solution to ridding the lagoon of the starfish is injecting them one by one, using giant hypodermic needles, with a chemical solution that kills them. (He changes the subject when I ask what impact the chemicals may have on the lagoon ….)

To try and resuscitate reefs, especially near the hotels, Schneider and compatriots from the Maryland-based Global Coral Reef Alliance, build unique domes out of rebar which they flip over and sink to the lagoon floor. The metal rusts very quickly and the chicken-wire mesh covering it is soon grown over by calcium-rich marine life. Coral is transplanted onto the faux reef and within a year it is nearly completely covered with colorful, living coral. They’ve dubbed the patented system Biorock and its trick to growing coral on the super-structure fast is that the underwater structure is “electrified.” To encourage fast-growing coral a low voltage current courses through the metal structure, usually created from solar, wind or tidal sources. .

“What we are building are really ‘boosters’ for the reefs, growing three to five times faster than normal coral,” says Schneider. “In some cases 20 times faster. “

The Biorock system is just one of a variety of man-made attempts being made around the world to encourage new coral growth, including concrete forms and, around the coast of the U.S., purposely dumped buses, tanks and aging military boats.

“The reality in Bora Bora is that the island, like all in Polynesia, is sinking. Slowly, very slowly. But in 70,000 years the island will be gone and all that will remain will be the reef surrounding the lagoon. I wish we could come back then and see how the coral has done.”

Summer vacation in Tahiti: 5 reasons to visit French Polynesia’s Tuamotu Atolls

French PolynesiaIf you’ve had enough with the recent onslaught of wintertime blizzards, you’re probably ready to start your summer vacation planning. How about jetting off to a part of French Polynesia that few travelers ever visit?

Considered to offer a number of the best diving sites in the world, the Tuamotu Atolls are some of Tahiti’s lesser known islands. These remote atolls, most specifically Rangiroa and Fakarava, possess all the exotic charm of Tahiti and Bora Bora, but they have the distinction of featuring a few activities the others don’t. Since summertime in the northern hemisphere is the dry season in French Polynesia, June through August is the perfect time to plan your visit.

If you aren’t enticed just yet, then consider these five reasons to visit the Tuamotus when finalizing your summer vacation plans this year.

Visit a Winery

How about sipping wine from a winery located in the midst of a coconut grove, flanked on one side by turquoise lagoons and the deep blue ocean on the other? Rangiroa is home to Vin de Tahiti, one of the world’s most scenic wineries. While these wines may not be on par with your favorite Chateau in Bordeaux just yet, they are well-crafted and the views are unsurpassed.

Try a Drift Dive (or Snorkel)

It may surprise you to learn French Polynesia’s seemingly tranquil waters can also pull some hefty currents. Just outside the reefs await extraordinary underwater adventures. Jump in and let the currents take you on a magical journey immersed with vibrant colored corals, thousands of schooling fish, and if you’re lucky, perhaps even a hammerhead shark. And don’t worry, the boat is right there to pick you up once your adventure ends.

Learn about Tahitian Pearls

Interested in Tahitian Pearls? Take a tour of one of French Polynesia’s best known Pearl farms — Gauguin’s Pearl. After the tour, visit the store to purchase loose or set pearls to take home with you.

Rest assured, this is not your typical tourist trap — there’s no obligation to even set foot in the store. However, if you’re interested, they have competitive prices, and most importantly, the pearls come certified. Don’t fall for the scam of buying uncertified loose pearls — they will be confiscated if you try to leave French Polynesia with them.

Visit a Coral Church

Fakarava is home to the first island church built entirely out of coral back in 1862. Today, the outer structure still remains and is quite a sight to behold.

Go Fishing

If drift diving didn’t satiate your craving for adventure, the Tuamotus also offer world-class fishing. While you cannot fish within Fakarava’s UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the surrounding waters are rich with options — try deep sea or spear fishing, jigging, and more.

Rangiroa and Fakarava are both easily reached from Papeete, Tahiti, by either a one hour flight or as part of a cruise itinerary. Check Air Tahiti Nui for airfare specials from Los Angeles (main US airport servicing Tahiti) or visit Paul Gauguin Cruises for upcoming summer discounts.