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Tahiti Revisited

September 28, 2011

August 25, Tahiti

A habit of procrastination and laziness has the advantage of ensuring one is always on the cusp of surprise and wonder. Without a plan you never know what interesting thing is just around the corner.

One month you may be sailing to Hawaii and the next may find you in French Polynesia with the intention of slumming around until hurricanes have stopped booming above the equator. But just as you finally make that jewel, Tahiti, and a mere week before you are to celebrate the passing of three months in the superlative island group, your agent delivers news that a visa extension is not in the cards. It’s something to do with the new Customs Deputy in the capital city, Papeete, who thinks ninety days in the company of an American is ninety days too many. If only you had followed the rules; if only you had applied for an extension six months before departing for the islands, in which case your application would have been routed through Paris, where inexplicably, official feeling flows in a different direction.

But six months before departing for French Polynesia the idea of sailing there hadn’t even occurred, you explain. You’d never even heard of the northern islands until other cruisers in Mexico set their courses south, waving their good byes and shouting “see you in the Marquesas!”

The what? Wait, how’s that spelled?

Helga’s cell phone rings and she takes the call.  The two of you are  seated at a picnic table in the shade of a banyan just up from the dinghy dock at the Tahiti Yacht Club. “Yes, I have the passport,” she says into the phone. “No, the papers won’t be ready until tomorrow.” And you stop listening.

The Meeting Place

By American standards the marina is small. In fact, with thirty boats docked med-style near the wall and another ten on moorings out in the bay (of which Murre was one) it hardly rates as a marina at all. But the private showers have large nozzles that deliver a torrent of hot water and there are two tiny restaurants on property. Each serves Italian espresso and Tahitian beer and French wine and Poisson Cru de Coco and Steak Frites and Creme Brule from seven in the morning until well after sunset. One is fancy and one is not, but in each case the employees are locals who appear always to be laughing, telling stories in a blend of French and Tahitian that makes you smile even though you know nothing of the content.

And the neighborhood is comfortable, in an urban way. The yacht club is located in the commune of Arue on the eastern outskirts of Papeete where the hills are covered with homes and apartments, some fancy and grouped behind steel gates, others ragged and without paint. A large cemetery sits on a promontory overlooking the ocean where each grave is covered with a white roof protecting its resident against the harsh tropical sun. The boulevard rushes with Peugeos and Citroens and Renaults and Fiats and scooters of all kinds and smells strongly of exhaust.  In the mornings it is jammed with work-bound, Papeete-bound drivers, all of whom signal lane changes through the roundabouts, none of whom honk. They politely stop for pedestrians yards back of the intersection–so far back, in fact, that you are unsure your first time crossing that they have stopped for you. Only blocks away is a grocery as large as Walmart and similarly stocked, except that an entire isle is dedicated to cheese, another to bread, and there is a pate counter behind which stands a toothless woman in a blue smock waiting to slice off half a pound of any paste you desire.

Apartments in Papeete

Across from where Murre lays is a large, rundown apartment complex full of families, both Tahitian and French, that flow out into the large yard in the evenings as the day cools. Each afternoon the bay fills with children learning to sail Optimists in twenty knot trades and they are reefed down hard. They only turtle occasionally; often they are upright before the instructor’s speed boat can race to their rescue. That is a thing to respect, you think. And the harbor master has given you a map of Papeete, only four kilometers up the road, and has offered to print some documents you need. His nose is big and red and his ashtray is full of butts before noon, but his smile is genuine and quick to invade his face. And a French couple on RANTAPLAN has given you an electronic chart plotting program to replace the one you lost in the Tuamotus. They sailed here from France sixteen years ago, and stayed. And why not, you think. This is where the real people live. There isn’t another tourist for miles.

Busy Downtown Papeete

You walk to downtown Papeete and it is a mash-up of shops and restaurants, people and cars. Busses exhale dirtily onto sidewalk cafes filled with patrons concluding lunch with cigarettes and espresso. Bars blare American rock and roll. Ferries to Moorea clank in the surge of their docks as they fill with passengers. One cargo ship departs the harbor with a blast of its horn as another makes an approach.  The main market, stall after stall of fresh fish, vegetables, bread and pastries, shells, beads and floral-patterned pareas by the bolt, is as large as a trains station and almost as busy.  Near the edge of the shopping district is a grimy night club called MANHATTAN, and you almost believe it. Papeete is gritty and electric and you like it.

Helga closes her phone conversation and turns, and I am snapped back to reality.

“Have you decided where you are going to go?” she asks, jumping to a conclusion I still wished to argue. Helga is my customs agent, a German who in her past has worked cruise ships all over the tropics. Her business focuses primarily on handling the customs paperwork for Tahiti’s commercial traffic, only last year taking on the task of passing cruising boats through the system. When I inquire why she’s still here in Tahiti, she responds with “Typical story. Met a man. Had a baby. Now I am every day in paradise.” She hands me a pen with which to sign papers laid out on the table. I put it down.

“Seriously, Helga,” I say. “I planned this trip based on information from an older guidebook that said visa extensions in French Polynesia were not a big deal.”

“Ah, those old guide books,” she says, indicating this approach is as novel and surprising as “the dog ate my homework.”

“And now that I’m here,” I continue, undaunted, “I’m stuck. I can’t go back to Hawaii now because its hurricane season above the line. I can’t leave now; its unsafe to do so. I could die.” I say slowly, emphasizing the words “now” and then “die” in a way I hope is meaningful. “And I can’t go west and still get north to Hawaii later. Hawaii is my home; I have to go there. Surely your Customs Director would understand that!”

“No he would not” says Helga flatly, “he’d say you should have planned better.”

There is truth in that, I think, but it’s hardly the point.

“Please allow me to remind you,” I say, “that these are the Society Islands. You’re country isn’t being very sociable, Helga.” But my jab misses.”

They’re called that because they are close together,” says Helga sternly, “Not because we are friendly.” But then she laughs. “I’ll clear you out to the Cooks,” she says. “It’s just a quick hop.”

We move on to other topics, I sign the papers and Helga leaves with my passport, promising to return the next day.

Later that day my wife, Joanna, arrives from San Francisco for a week’s visit. I haven’t seen her since Mexico, since April, and I hold her hand so tightly on the way into town she can barely shift the gears of the rental car.

She is the logical one, the planner. So over our first romantic dinner in months we talk options.

“I have three,” I say. “One is to fly home with you now and return after the northern hurricane season but before the southern.”

“Length of time?” she asks.

“Three months,” I say.

She scowls. “Miss you as I do, that’s kind of a long time to have you moping around the house, besides which it’s not very adventurous. What are my other choices.”

“The second is that I continue west through the Cooks, Tonga and Somoa to Fiji, which has one, maybe two good hurricane refuges.”

“I’m all good with Fiji,” says Jo. “Very pretty. I’ll come visit.”

“Yes, I will admit continuing on is attractive, but Fiji is another sixteen hundred miles west, and I doubt I could return to San Francisco in one season. It’s just too far. Summering in Fiji would extent the cruise into 2013. That would make it three years since I left home.”

“That’s not the deal,” says Jo. “A one year cruise that becomes a two-year cruise is one thing, but a one year cruise that extends to three is quite another. Who’s to say you wouldn’t…

“I know,” I say. “Fiji is close to New Zealand, which is just a short hop to Australia, which puts me in the Indian Ocean from which I can almost see South Africa. Pretty soon you’ve retired and moved to the south of France and I’m still not home.  I get it…”

“I’m not trying to be evil,” says Jo.

“No cruiser I’ve ever met believes I have a wife at home who’s OK with any of this.  Forget about it,” I say.

“So what’s the third option?” she asks.

The waiter delivers our entrees. Joanna is having Mahi Mahi dressed in fresh limes and mango. I am having the lamb.

“Well,” I say slowly, “there are still several islands in French Polynesia Murre and I haven’t visited.” Looking at my dinner I say, “I could go on the…”

“You mean…” says Jo following my eyes. “No way. Go … rogue?”

“Shhh.” I say.

“But what’s the risk?” she whispers.

Helga arrives next day early to deliver my passport, and I hitch a ride with her into Papeete. I have been practicing my questions all morning.

“So, how do you like working with the cruising class?” I begin.

“There’s no money in it and you people are irresponsible,” she says quickly but with a smile. Helga is as naturally friendly as she is blunt. “For example, most cruisers make me wait at the dock. I even have to call them to come in their dinghies sometimes. You I like. You are prompt.”

“That’s it? You don’t like us because we aren’t timely?

“And you don’t care about the rules, especially you Americans.” she replies. “I know a man over in Marina Taina who is a week past his visa. Each time I say he needs to leave he shrugs me off–‘next week’, he says. And there’s another man–this man has no boat or money–who is two weeks overdue. He can’t find anyone who wants crew. Do you need crew?” asks Helga.

“I’m singlehanding,” I say. She looks at me quizzically. “I prefer to sail alone–it’s a small boat.”

“Two months ago a father and son sailed through.” she continues. “The son’s visa expired while they were in Tahiti and the father said the boy had flown home, but they found him on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas last week.  In the Marquesas!”

“They?” I ask.

“The Gendarmes.” says Helga.

“And then what happens?”

“I have to fly him home, immediately, and at my expense. This boy lived in Seattle so I routed him through Los Angeles and Chicago in a middle seat. He wasn’t happy with me, but from him I get a police record. The Gendarmes blame me.”

“But do the Gendarmes actively search out people who over stay their welcome–I mean hypothetically?” I ask. The question is unfortunate, says too much.

Helga gives me a stern look. “Every Wednesday they do a sweep of Tahiti marinas, but you”, she says with emphasis, “are leaving French Polynesia for the Cook Islands.”

“I know that,” I say.

“When?” she asks.

“When does my visa expire?”

“August 23,” she says.

“Then,” I say.

“I’ll meet you the day before with papers,” she says.

On August 22,  Helga and I meet under the banyan tree of the yacht club and I clear out to the Cook Islands via Moorea.

“Here is your passport, and this is your customs paperwork,” says Helga. “Note here it says ‘Cooks via Moorea’. You can show this to the Gendarmes on Moorea if you want, but,” she pauses and says meaningfully, “I don’t think they care.”

September 28, Bora Bora

One looks for omens, signs that this is the right time to depart.  This isn’t superstition so much as an acknowledgement that the imminent undertaking is arduous and one needs all the favor one can get.  Yesterday I was to weigh for Hawaii.  In the morning the sky was low and grey and it rained heavily.  I had a blog to finish.  It had been five days since I’d taken on water.  There was a knot in the pit of my stomach.   It didn’t feel right.

The afternoon broke sunny and I rowed ashore with my water jugs looking for a spigot.  At Bloody Mary’s restaurant I popped into the office, said I’d noticed a hose at the back of the building and could I take water from it.  “I’ll go you one better,” said the owner in clear, American English.  “At the end of our pier near your dinghy is a lock box with a hose in it.  Here’s the key.  And you can dump your trash out back.  Do you need ice?”  That was the first sign.

Gerard and Michele of TARA in Bora Bora

Then in the afternoon TARA of Paris, a lovely aluminum cruiser with a green stripe, pulled in and moored next to me.  Gerard waved.  I waved back.  Gerard was the first man I met in French Polynesia.  I had just anchored in Atuona, Hiva Oa, after a twenty-six day crossing from Cabo San Lucas, and, looking up from my exercise, noticed a lovely aluminum cruiser next to me, its owner putting off in his dinghy for Murre.  Gerard explained that clean as my bow-and-stern, singlehanded anchoring maneuver had been, I had chosen my location poorly.  It was too shallow.  Ground swell would fill in if the wind picked up and I’d likely touch if not pound.  He pointed to a better spot and spent an hour helping me get there.    I was tired; the harbor, tiny and crowded.  And his kindness more appreciated than he knew.   We have not met since then, so this morning I rowed over and thanked him again.  It was fitting that TARA and Gerard would be my last meeting before departing French Polynesia.  That was the second sign. 

The day is clear, wind brisk.  All the other boats that were moored here overnight have departed; even the cruise ship, Paul Gauguin, looks to be raising its anchor.  There are no more signs to be had and looking is just delay.  Time to go.

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