Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

July 15-29 2009 / South Pacific: French Polynesia, Cook Islands, and an Eclipse

In Which We see the Ravishing Water-and-Landscapes of Some South Pacific Islands, and Experience Our 8th Total Solar Eclipse
Part 3 - Some Watery Things

Part 3 - Some Watery Things

These days, sea days, passed in something of a haze.  My little body (not so little actually as I have been eating about three times my normal amount, and getting no exercise at all) my little body is very tired from having to stagger and lurch every time I am on my feet.  I don't find much to do on this small ship, and feel vaguely dissatisfied much of the time.  I would never do this trip again.   I am sleeping and napping too much, and staying inside too much.  But the endless wind which blows my thin hair around so that I look like a witch, and the intense heat, just make it too unpleasant to be outside.  

Here is fabled Bora Bora, at which we arrived around midnight and the anchors were let down just next to our cabin apparently, with enormous racket.

It's all so picturesque but I can't seem to take advantage of it.  This afternoon we are  going to do that thing where you wear a big helmet and walk on the sea bottom.  And I guess that will be my experience of Bora Bora.

There has been a good thing though.  There's a young man, called Ethan something, who is a marine biology person, and I have been to his talks and he is such a wonderful thinker.  We invited him to lunch with us one day and I got to tell him my sex and warfare scheme, and he got it right away and said yes, it is the same in his fish stuff.  A pleasure to talk with him.

Oh and also, also: I have now seen the green flash three times!  once the captain (a laconic fellow from  Croatia) came on and said well, you might be able to see the green flash this evening.  I was here in the cabin but roused myself to look out the somewhat cloudy porthole.  I watched and watched carefully as the sun went down, and thought to myself when it had set, well, that last little bit at the top was green...OH! that was IT!  Quite pleased of myself, the next evening I was out on deck with my binoculars and fifty other people looking and looking, and really saw it—a long puddled smear of emerald at the very last arc of the sun, great shouts went up and we all congratulated each other.  Then after learning that people had been seeing it in the mornings at sunrise too, I finally dragged myself out and up one morning a couple of days ago and with my binoculars saw it once more just at the split second before the light arrived—a puddle of brilliant green spreading like water on the horizon.

So we went over to the island of Bora Bora this morning, and John bought me a pearl.  That is the big thing they have here in these islands, these fabulous pearls of so many wonderful colors.  I have never been interested in pearls before seeing the wonderful jewelry they show on the ship—stuff costing many thousands of dollars.  But then it turned out that there are single ones available too, more what I thought would be ok to pay.  So we went to one of the stores, connected with the one on the ship, and I chose a lovely little object, black and green and pink, and I'll have my jeweler at home sell me an elegant short silver chain to put it on.  I will really enjoy wearing this.

We walked around a little but the place seemed opaque to me and I feel constrained in these situations.  Well, though I have traveled all over the world I still carry my personality with me--

This afternoon we did the helmet “dive” thing, run by a couple of golden French boys, great eye candy but not terribly professional.  We went down a ladder about  ten or twelve  feet to the bottom, wearing these great heavy helmets with air gushing into them, and little mesh bags of bread that  the fish know to come to, swarming around us in clouds of color and form.  There were rays too but having “done” rays I would rather have just had time to see the fish.  We snorkel tomorrow afternoon and I hope I will have a good experience. 

This helmet thing was a little scary, mostly because I did not have boundless faith in the two boys, and because there was so much swell that it was very hard to stay upright, and upright you had to stay, lest the sea rush in under the open bottom of your helmet.    I am glad I did it, and especially glad to have done it here in this water, since although it is offered in the Caribbean I don't think the fish are as numerous there.  But there wasn't enough time, everything went too fast and then too slow on the getting out part.  The kids had too much to handle with just two of them. 

There is just an air of hanging on by the fingernails on this ship.  The food  experience is excellent, and our little chambermaid is excellent, but the ship is not as clean as it should be, the crew getting you in and out of tenders is not as alert as it should be (though perfectly ok for me), and the shore excursion stuff is hopelessly muddled.  A classic less here than meets the eye situation. 

Today still at Bora Bora we went in jeeps up a very hairy road, built by GIs in WW2, to haul cannons up to a high place overlooking the water.  The idea was that the Japanese (the hated Japanese…) might be going to eventually try to get here, and the islands needed defense.  So we drove practically straight up this truly dreadful “road,” but I was confident, and mainly just loved looking into the thick growth at the side of the road, being, after all, a land person.  There was a great variety of plants and I loved looking at them since I am tiring of the endless sea.

At the top, indeed there were two enormous long cannons, on complex stands which would have allowed them to rotate.  Our guide said in answer to a question that yes, he had had as clients a few times men who had participated in this work at the time.  The cannons have never been fired and the Japanese had never made it this far.  I guess there were about 5000 GIs here, for quite a while, and some babies resulted.

While we are all looking, it begins to rain.  We make our way back down but the discussion among the drivers is that it is too rainy and therefore too slippery for us to continue on the rest of the “land” part of the trip.  We do try it though, driving to what appears to be somebody’s back yard and the first vehicle tries to haul itself up the hill, but slides slowly down again.  So that is enough of that. 

Instead, we head along the narrow paved road to some access to the snorkeling place, which seems to be a small resort.  Here we get into our snorking clothes.  A tiny calico kitty helps by playing with strings and oddments underneath the table and chair where we are, and then into a boat with all of us but not the kitty, a lot of people in a small boat.  We motor out to the chosen place, but I already don’t like the big swells. 

I finally get all suited up, even with my mask and all, but watching the people in the water struggling with the current which seems to make it hard for them to avoid bumping into the boat, I chicken out and just sit in the boat.  I am so very disappointed—this thing that I love so much, but I just freeze and don’t do it.  Well shit.

As people are coming back in one of the guides, fatty and gleaming, tattooed, entertains us by standing on the outrigger of our little boat and then crashing into the sea.  It is beautifully clear how at home people here are in the water.  Sometimes when our tender is churning from shore toward the ship, a couple of kids in the small plastic outrigger canoes lurk just offshore, and paddle fiercely into the wake of the tender to catch a ride.  I guess they hang there all day as the tenders go back and forth.

So that is the end of the shore excursion, which didn’t really amount to much and which cost us $300. 

There was supposed to be star-gazing on the “private motu” (a motu is one of the tiny islands in the reef) tonight, but since it is a wet landing and the swells are large, it’s canceled.  I am feeling restless and irritable.  It is hard to find things to do on the little boat, and I seem unable to stay up even until 9:30 for the evening shows.  And, of course, the less I do the worse I feel!

Things look up today; we go kayaking.  It’s those plastic sit-on kind, and the paddles are feathered enough to make it harder for me than I would like, but the day is beautiful, the sky blue and the strange abrupt mountains, volcanic, are exciting to see.  Our guide is truly competent and charming, and best of all, in addition to the short kayaking time, he gets us out of the boats and off for a little walk through some flower and fruit plantations.  I take lots of pictures and love everything I see.  Yes, yes, a land person, a land person.   I love seeing plant adaptations here that I see at home.

We have bought tickets for another try at star-gazing tonight.  We get ourselves together and tender over and stand in the dark, 120 of us, waiting for a big bus that will take us, one group at a time, over to the airport where we are to use some space there that supposedly will be dark.  I love star-parties in the true dark and am excited about this.  But we don’t make the first busload, so we are still waiting, there at the pier in the dark.  When the bus finally comes back for a second load, I am just about to get in when I realize I am being bitten, inside my pants up by my crotch!  Extremely painful, like sharp hot acid-filled needles!   Frantically I try to squash whatever it is—I send John on into the bus and tell him I will take the tender right back to the ship—OUCH!!  OW!!  Dammit—

Fortunately the tender comes right away, I get on, still in pain, a brief conversation with a crew member who is soothing and friendly, I get right to my room to look, nervously.  No creatures or even creaturely remains in or on the pants, and two red dots and swellings.  The pain has lessened a bit.  A surprise call from the front desk (how do they know??  A little creepy), do I want to see the doctor?  Oh, well, I suppose I should.  We are right down the corridor from the medical area, I go down there.  The doctor (now I recognize him from seeing him around the shop), is a dark, furtive-looking fellow who does not speak English, but the nurse helps him (he doesn’t even know the word “sore”).  By now things are better, but I ask for something to put on these bites, and eventually get a cortisone cream.  What could have bitten me?  He suggest centipede, but I know it wasn’t that big.  I think ants, like fire-ants.  Neither of them knows.

As soon as I am back in the cabin, John comes rushing in as I knew he would.  Berating himself for having gone off—but I sent him off, and that was fine.  Anyhow, by about an hour later, the swellings have receded and all is well.  Later, on Moorea, I check with a local guide and we agree: ants. 

This was the day that we went in a boat to visit a “black pearl farm.”  The “farm” begins with dark shapes under the water at the edge of the boat, and those are the hangers where the oysters, the domesticated oysters, hang in their wire cages, slowly producing pearls.  We all disembark at the edge of a large wooden platform building in the water, and the main “farmer” skillfully shows us how it’s all done. 

There are at least half a dozen, or more, men working around him, sweat-shop style, at endlessly repetitive tasks: opening oysters and propping them open with sort of clothes-pin like structures; opening oysters and taking out their meat; hauling them up from the water, inserting the tiny bits of mantle and starter shell (this latter from Mississippi River animals!); and finally opening the oyster and extracting, and judging, at least for starters, the pearl within.  It is very hot and the work is mostly stultifyingly boring, but at least they have jobs, I think. 

The man who plucks out the pearl, with a long poker at the end of which is an open metal circle, is Caucasian, I think a Kiwi.  He has a basket of rejects and a basket of keepers.  The keepers are fantastic—there’s one truly enormous blue one, navy blue, about the size of a really big blueberry.  There are silver ones and gray ones and green ones and pink ones.  Some are quite round and others are a bit pointy at the ends, like my pearl.  The rejects are more “baroque” and may or may not be kept.

There is some buying after the explanation, but I already have mine.

After this the boat takes us to a remarkably shallow place to snorkel, and John and I go around.  There are gigantic sea urchins bristling fearsomely at each coral head, but there are also some fish, and especially some of the wavy-edged clams, which when they are open can be seen to be brilliantly, fluorescently colored inside.  I discover that if you dart your hand at them, they close, and that if you do that several times in a row to one clam, his response is extinguished at least for a while.  Love it.  Love seeing behavior even in a, well, clam, you know.

John is happy because his snorkel experience this time goes okay, and I am happy because he is happy and because I am snorkeling one more time.

Then we’re dropped off at the “private” island or motu, which is a fantasy place of bar, lounge chairs, palm trees, barbecue, etc. etc., and it is nice but we are ready to go back to the ship.  I want a shower and hair bath after my snorking, and I want, I have to say, air conditioning.  Still, I would like to have explored this little place further, to see what I might see…  ‘cause I will never be here again.

Here and there, in here, at dinner we have either eaten by ourselves or been seated with others.  A couple of these group things have been very nice indeed, and a couple have not.  Once we were invited to eat with the astronomer Alex Filippenko, with whom we traveled in Mongolia and who actually greeted us by name when we arrived on the ship.  That was a pleasant evening and we were flattered to be asked.  Another evening we were invited to eat with a young woman officer whose title escapes me now—but it was kind of funny because everybody at the table except her was an amateur astronomer and we spent the whole evening talking astronomy, and she was pretty much out of it.  So we have had some lively evenings, and some quiet ones.  We have learned who to avoid!  One evening they did a nice thing that Holland America could do—a hall block party.  When the horn sounds you all come out of your cabins with your wine glass and a steward is there with bottles of wine and you all have a little social time before dinner. 

Moorea   Our last port of call—

It was a fine time.  We went with a lively Texas family and a very good, very edgy and energetic and funny Frenchman, came here 11 years ago and never went back, for a drive around, looking at a pineapple plantation, its grayed-green plants bristling in the heat, a man walking slowly among them with a sack on his back, harvesting the fruit, dumping it into a truck piled high with yellow and green owl-eyed pineapples. 

We drove up a twisted mountain road to the very summit of one of the improbably pointy peaks, and looked down on our ship and the absurdly blue sea.  We stopped at a distillery and were given so many tastes, each of higher octane than the last, that everybody got silly and made fun of the stodgy, staid group next to us.  We went to another tasting place where we saw vanilla and ate little dabs of sweet fruit jams, and even a sort of essence of gardenia, for heaven’s sake, and ate ice cream and petted the resident calico cat.

All very fun.

And this evening, the captain’s farewell party on deck, and the silly piece of work that is the “cruise director” was trying to do her formulaic end-of-trip thing, but all of us astronomy people were looking the other way, with our binoculars and cameras, waiting to catch the final green flash.  She hadn’t a clue, stupid woman (former “schoolteacher”, surprise).  She says, Well, I guess we’re being upstaged by the sunset.  Miraculously, I saw not only the green flash, BUT THE BLUE FLASH ON TOP OF IT!!  Shocking neon blue!   Now that I know what to look for, I will see all this at other times, I know.

We left a good tip for our charming cabin stewardess, Erlinda, who should replace some of these unpleasant French women in a front-of-the-house position.  We had one more exquisite meal.  We said goodbye to a few people we had made friends with.  We packed.

Papeete, Tahiti
It’s a tour around the island (while our day-rooms are being made ready, and then the flight tonight--).  The tour woman came from California years ago and is still here.  A strange thing, she was very negative about all kinds of stuff and I got pretty tired of her.  But we visited a place where the marae have been restored, and the stone was very black, and there were a few discreet flower offerings as on Hawaii, and I made some pictures and was happy about that.

The day-room was at one of these rape-the-landscape-and-plant-replacement-palms resorts, very European and strange.  I would have maybe enjoyed it if I hadn’t felt irritable and tired.  We both slept a small amount—plenty of beds and bathrooms in the unit, all very arty—and then just barely managed to snag a sullen waitress to bring us a gin and tonic, and then it was off to the airport.

And back over the ocean, and back over our own landscape, and to our home.

I feel I missed so much, on this trip.  Gauguin asked, Where Do We Come From?  What Are We?  Where Are We Going?   I feel I know only the most superficial things about these lonely, paradisiacal islands, so extravagantly beautiful and yet so diminished.  If I ever were to go again, I would do much better.  At least I would try. 

Or, perhaps, I can never see what is there, it would never be visible to me.

I will look at my lovely images though, and remember the bright water, and the white line of waves on reef, and the lavishness of flowers.