Sunday, February 27, 2005

Moorea cont'd

Now that I'm back in the U.S., enjoying an English keyboard and not enjoying too much else, like cold weather (55 degrees! aaaaahhh!), now's the perfect time to feed my denial by reliving just how friggin' awesome Moorea was.

Moorea's just a half-hour ferry ride from Papeete, and I left on Monday afternoon. It was still raining. So when I landed on Moorea and actually caught a brief glimpse of sunlight, I took it as a good sign. Next challenge: actually getting to my hostel without taking a cab. It was about 15 km from Vaiare, where the ferry lands. It took me close to two hours to get there. Not because I was dumb enough to walk, but because I was dumb enough not to. Public transportation on Moorea and throughout the rest of French Polynesia, if it exists at all, is a sort of bus called le truck. What this appears to consist of is a few guys who happen to own buses and drive around the island for kicks every once in awhile. They let passengers off wherever it is they say they're going and charge them about three bucks each. And that's their income. I had a random sighting of one of them wearing a USC t-shirt.

In my particular case, I was the only one on my ferry who needed a ride on le truck, so I had to wait an hour for the next one, which yielded about 3 more people and a buddy of the driver carrying a case of beer. The buddy got dropped off first, of course, about 10 km from the port. In the opposite direction from where I was staying. So what should have been a 20 minute ride became a 60 minute ride. Super. The thing about it, though, is that I didn't mind. I didn't have anything else to do, and seeing more of this gorgeous island sounded fine. And when I was finally let off, it was at this hostel.

This is where I met two of the most interesting people of my entire trip. One was the proprietor, Herve (add a mental accent to that second e).

Herve's story is as follows: he joined the French military when he was 18 or 19 and was stationed in Tahiti. He loved it, but wanted out of the military, so he just settled there, got a job, married a Tahitian woman, had a couple of kids. Some years into this that got to be too constricting as well, and he answered an ad in the paper looking for a caretaker for a half-built resort on an outlying island. He got the job and moved out there. What this job entailed was living on this tiny island, alone, maintaining the buildings and grounds for the owners, who visited maybe twice a year. The nearest village was 10 km away by boat. He lived mostly on fish and coconuts, and got drinking water by setting out jars and bottles to collect the rainwater. He did this for six years. Now he's been living on Moorea for about 10 years and running this hostel for 3 or 4 years, which he finally started up so he could have some company. He only takes travellers, not tourists. Any emails asking about private bathrooms or for him to translate his response into English or something he automatically deletes, because he doesn't care about keeping the place full, it's really just a hobby. And because of that he takes really good care of the place. There are always fresh flowers out, every evening and morning he sliced up half a pineapple (by the way, the best-tasting pineapple I have ever had) or a coconut for all of us to share. Laundry is free. Everything is kept clean. He's paid a lot of attention to decoration and creating an atmosphere, with curtains for doors, shell necklaces hung up, different-looking bottles lined up in the windows, a collection of coffee table books on the table. I've never stayed anywhere so lovely.

The other person I met there was this Dutch guy named Maarten. You know how people dream of lives where they just travel around, occasionally making money by being a dive instructor or something? This is that guy. He's been a snowboard instructor for a few seasons in the French Alps, a dive instructor in the Mediterranean in northern Spain, a boating instructor running kayak trips, a mountain bike instructor (which is where he met his girlfriend of 5 years). For years he led motorcycle road trips across the U.S. and when I met him was on his way to do one for 3 weeks in New Zealand and then another in Chile and Argentina. He's a professional traveller if I've ever met one. One of those guys who always has a story. We had the same ideas for doing things on the island, so I spent most of my days there with him.

Day 1
I biked around the island with Maarten and a British guy named Nick. Thankfully Nick and I are at about the same level of fitness, which is to say, not, so when we veered off the coastal road and started up a hill and Maarten was for going all the way to the top (which was who knows how far), Nick and I were able to overrule him and go back down. It’s 60 km around the island (which is about 40 miles), and it was a great ride. We paused every once in awhile to take pictures or get food or just take a break to hang out on a beach. We stopped at one and tried to go for a swim before we figured out that we'd have to tramp over half a kilometer of coral before we were in over our knees. We settled for lying down in a foot of water, but I fell and cut my wrist on coral anyway. By the end of it, my ass hurt like a mofo, I had a sunburned stripe across my lower back where my shirt had ridden up, and I didn’t want to even look at a bike (future island transportation needs were taken care of by hitchhiking). However, I’d purchased a six-pack of beer. Cold beer. Hinano will always have a special place in my heart.

Day 2
One of our stops the previous day had been to book a couple of dives, and we were picked up at 7:30 that morning by our chosen dive center. They took us to their dock in Cook’s Bay, we got our gear, and were on the boat heading out just past 8. It was a beautiful sunny morning, which I was glad for, but then it got better: there were dolphins. On the way out of the bay we passed a load of dolphins swimming around there just inside the reef, and it was so cool to watch them come up. We spent 10 minutes hanging around there watching them before heading outside the reef, where we were followed by a bunch of flying fish. Also very cool. Then, even before we got in the water at our dive site, we spotted a couple of black tip reef sharks in the water just below the surface. The dive itself was amazing. There were only 4 of us and the dive master, which is what a dive should be (on the Great Barrier Reef, dives had been with groups of 9 or 10, and we came back to a boat full of about 100 people, the noise of whom chased away most of the stuff that we really wanted to see, like reef sharks). We saw tons more reef sharks, and a couple of lemon sharks, which was awesome: they’re about 6 feet long and actually look like they could do some damage. On our second dive we saw 6 of them.

That afternoon I hoped to get lucky with the sun and headed to the beach at the nearby Sheraton Hotel. I wasn’t that lucky, but I liked being on a beach and swimming in water that wasn’t littered with coral. Maarten went snorkeling while we were there and said he saw a manta ray. I never got motivated enough to go out and have a look.

Day 3
Last day. Hung out with Maarten again, because Nick and a couple of others had left the previous afternoon, and we had the same items on our checklist. We left around 9 and hitchhiked to beach by the Sofitel Hotel (one of the guys who gave us a ride was the general manager at the Sheraton--later that day Maarten hitched a ride from a guy who turned out to be the assistant manager there). It was straight out of a brochure. Sun shining, white sand beach, over-water bungalows in the distance, pale blue water at our feet. I’ve been in the ocean lots of times, but this was the first time I’d really been in a lagoon. You haven’t tasted tropical paradise until you’ve been swimming in a lagoon. It really is just as delicious as you’ve imagined it.

It was hard to leave, but we knew time was short for the next activity on our agenda: hiking. This was probably a really dumb idea, given all the rain that had been falling of late, and if I hadn’t been hiking with the ever enthusiastic Maarten, I never would have found the trail in the first place, let alone completed the damn thing. But we wanted to hike, dammit, so I put my jeans and tennis shoes back on and we hitched a ride to Vaiare. We followed the directions in our trusty Lonely Planet and headed into the interior. And started thinking said directions were really inadequate for what we were faced with. Thankfully we ran into a local and he showed us the start of the trail, which was marked by plastic orange ties on trees. Well-marked too, thank God, or we never would have made it to the top of the ridge (actually, given Maarten’s die-hard spirit, we probably would have, but I’d have just been in a worse mood throughout). This was real hiking. None of that pussy-ass walking on sidewalks that happen to be surrounded by trees and nothing else, which is what most tourists (and I used to be one of them) are referring to when they talk about hiking. No, this was climbing up a 40 plus degree incline slippery with mud, ducking or grasping onto tree branches, falling down regularly anyway, and getting attacked by mosquitoes. And sweating more than I have ever. And when we reached the top of the ridge (which was pretty cool… by then the incline was closer to 65 or 70 degrees because it tapered up) we paused for 10 minutes, took a few pictures, and then headed down. At least we were hiking through new mud, but slippery is worse when you’re going downhill and don’t want to go that fast. Anyway, we made it out at last, and enjoyed a nice cold Coke on a dock in Cook’s Bay while dangling our feet in the water. Good times.

We hitched a ride back to the hostel, showered and packed, and because I’m a girl and take forever Maarten left early to head back to the Sofitel to get a tattoo from the tattoo artist there before catching the ferry (honestly, what more appropriate place is there to get a tattoo than Tahiti? I would’ve gotten one if there’d been time or if I could possibly figure out what to get). I left a bit later, in the middle of the pouring rain (I would’ve waited but was already late) and hitched a ride to the ferry. I was mad when cars passed me with no one in them and I was a girl, alone, standing out in the pouring rain with a heavy backpack, but it still only took me about 5 or 10 minutes to get a ride. I later found out it took Maarten 40 minutes to finally get picked up. I lucked out, too: it was a French couple that was only heading a few kilometers down the road, but after talking with them a few minutes they offered to take me all the way to the ferry. My faith in the kindness of strangers was restored. I made the ferry in plenty of time, and it had just arrived when Maarten came running up with his new tattoo (a gecko on his ankle… it was really cool). He was 5 minutes from missing the ferry because of the tattoo, and had really lucked out with timing.

And then I had to leave Moorea for Tahiti and Papeete. Sigh. It was a lovely ride over though, and besides, when I got there, I was met by Herve. A different Herve. A 27 year-old French naval officer who happened to also be named Herve.

Uh, yeah. More on that later.

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